Over the past few years, platform firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Uber (and their global counterparts and competitors such as Alibaba and Tencent in China) have emerged at the vanguard of international business. These firms represent revolutionary forms of oligopolistic capital and may hold major implications for industry organization, market structure and perhaps even the future of the corporate organizational form. However, despite their ubiquity, understanding the rise of these firms is anything but straightforward. On the one hand, their rapid growth is predicated on new disruptive technologies that generate market value through machine learning algorithms and big data. Yet, on the other hand, the success of their business models is fundamentally predicated on the now-familiar structural and institutional transformations of the global economy that have occurred during the past few decades of neoliberal globalization. These include changes in trade, investment, and labor laws and policies that have facilitated global capital flows and rendered workers vulnerable in countries around the world.
Indeed, a core feature of platform firm strategy has been to leverage the material power of their large size to take advantage of high levels of global liquidity to capture surplus finance and rapidly capitalize much more quickly than conventional multinational corporations in manufacturing and extractive industries. Further, unlike conventional firms, multisided platforms deploy novel techniques of aggregating and deploying labor on demand while leveraging the power of network effects to rapidly grow their consumer base and build scale. This may have allowed these firms to generate technical efficiencies, but it also enabled them to amass significant political power through both large size and pervasive presence across markets. Platforms have also developed mechanisms for co-opting and directly deploying their consumers as resources in aggressive efforts to challenge conventional regulation at the urban, national and global scale. These dynamics challenge simple narratives of innovation-led growth in platform firms in favor of explanations that are informed by the political economy. In other words, the technological and political are deeply intertwined. This essay seeks to critically assess the growth of platform firms and markets in this latest development in global capitalism.