The Metaverse Does not Solve Capitalism

Amidst widespread public criticism, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, renamed his company, Meta. The purported goal of this change is to better align with and represent the goals of the so-called “Metaverse” project.

The concept of the Metaverse is not new. The term was coined back in 1992 by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Many tech companies have worked around the concept for years, creating virtual world platforms such as Second Life and popular video games like Fornite and GTA Online. These metaverses, or virtual worlds, have their own virtual spaces and even virtual economies writ small.

The real reason for Zuckerberg’s move is not hard to see. The new name evokes a futuristic, even visionary, image for the troubled tech giant. More importantly, it gets Zuckerberg’s company in the news for something besides data mining.

Nonetheless, the Metaverse project itself should not be written off entirely merely due to cynical maneuvering by tech capitalists. In his announcement, Zuckerberg enthusiastically declared his intention to build a virtual universe on a grander scale than any of its predecessors. With his flagship product increasingly stale, he and his shareholders are desperate to find the next big thing. Furthermore, while it may appear to be just another product to sell, some more fanciful sections of the bourgeoisie see virtual reality as a potential escape—not only from boredom—but from the contradictions of capitalism itself.

When stripped of its grandiose and hyperbolic rhetoric, the Metaverse essentially boils down to a virtual social media platform. A virtual space that the tech-intoxicated hope can support a virtual economy. Zuckerberg’s keynote showcased virtual work meetings, concerts, virtual games with friends, and, most importantly, a wide range of virtual products for sale, from outfits to furniture.

The Metaverse would hypothetically allow the user to take real-world physical objects and translate them into the virtual world. Can’t afford to buy a home in the real world? Don’t worry; you can afford a penthouse apartment in the Metaverse if you hustle!

Conversely, the Metaverse would also allow users to take virtual objects and bring them into the real world. Or at least project them into the real world á la Pokemon Go or certain smartphone filters. The potential commercial implications of the Metaverse are obvious. Advertisers would be able to weave ads into consumers’ daily lives in ways not possible before.

But Meta could also profit from their new platform in more inventive ways. Physical goods can easily be paired with virtual rewards. Once a platform like the Metaverse is widespread, virtual products could constitute an “economy” of their own.

Digital commodities are extremely appealing from the capitalist’s perspective. Although workers still need to design and develop the products in question, a virtual commodity could be copied more or less ad infinitum without a proportional increase in human labor.

Of course, the virtual world does not exist as a purely abstract realm. Like the rest of the internet, the infrastructure required to support the Metaverse has an inescapably physical quality. Still, virtual goods behave like other software. Once designed and developed, each subsequent iteration of the product can potentially lead to an ever-greater proportion of surplus value for the capitalist.

Even if we were to assume that the design and development of a block of office buildings required an equal amount of labor in both the physical world and the Metaverse, in the latter, this office building is repeatedly and easily reproducible. However, the Metaverse cannot escape the real world. It is still workers who would produce and the capitalists who would appropriate the surplus as profit.

Broader ruling class interests are being expressed in the Metaverse as well. Some Silicon Valley executives see virtual reality as a magical means of escaping the contradictions of capitalism.

John Carmack, a former executive at Meta’s VR subsidiary, has made it clear that he views this technology as a means of smoothing over popular outrage against wealth inequality. According to Carmack, “The promise of VR is to make the world you wanted. It is not possible, on Earth, to give everyone all that they would want … People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.”

In other words, the capitalist class has no intention of surrendering even a fraction of their material wealth. The working class must learn to be satisfied with digital replacements for the luxuries perpetually out of their reach in the physical world. When asked what to do when the masses have no bread, the ruling class gives the same answer they always have: “Let them eat (virtual) cake!”

 

Unfortunately for tech billionaires like Zuckerberg, capitalism cannot overcome its organic contradictions through technological solutions. We all live in a material reality, where even virtual goods require a foundation of physical labor to deliver them. Virtual groceries can’t feed your kids and virtual money can’t help you cover your rent.

Today, only a small fraction of the population has VR equipment. And no matter how elaborate and enticing Meta makes their digital theme park, it will be worthless to everyone without such gear. Making such equipment widely accessible will require intensive extraction of minerals, manufacture of intricate components, assembly, delivery to consumers, maintenance, and of course, replacement. After all, most tech products have a deliberately short lifespan.

This tendency towards constant replacement—whether driven by planned obsolescence or competition among producers—requires a staggering amount of human labor—particularly when one factors in the demands of increasingly unstable global supply chains.

The fundamental contradiction of capitalism is that to produce a profit, capitalists must pay the working class as a whole less than the values it creates. Even if the technology tends to get cheaper, as Moore’s so-called law suggests, many workers will never be able to afford VR devices.

This contradiction of capitalism throws a wet towel on the fundamental problem that Carmack imagines VR could solve: the unequal distribution of wealth. Under capitalism, the gap between the wealth of the workers and that of the capitalists gets wider and wider. This means that workers have less and less money to spend on these devices, to say nothing of all the digital clothing, art, and buildings that Zuckerberg and co. want to sell them!

There are also time and space considerations. For many workers, the workday is getting longer even as real wages decline, leaving hypothetical Metaverse customers less time to enjoy Meta’s virtual utopia. Many workers are forced to live in extremely cramped quarters, where VR is not particularly viable. Few people will want to pay for a spacious virtual palace when they cannot take two steps without bumping into their real-world walls, furniture, and roommates. Of course, such mundane, material concerns are beneath the notice of the ruling class, which has time to spare for exploring digital landscapes from the comfort of their real-world mansions.

The capitalists’ obsession with virtual reality is nothing new. Idealism and the promise of a happier existence in the afterlife have long been the last refuge of a declining ruling class. The belief that we can collectively retreat into an entirely artificial world is only the latest iteration of this “pie in the sky” theme. In return for investing in his new scheme, Zuckerberg promises to realize our rulers’ most absurd yet persistent fantasy: the idea that they can survive without us.

But the capitalists are trapped in an insoluble contradiction: the need to pay their workers as little as possible while getting people to keep buying their goods. There can be no technological solution to that problem. Only a social revolution that abolishes the profit altogether will allow us to truly escape the miseries of our current reality.


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