Is technology capitalist? (Part II of II)

Last week, I asked if advances in technology – when they render human labor obsolete – will always be bad for workers in modern economies. I shared with you some of what Marx has to say concerning technology: Basically, for Marx, while capital profits by replacing workers with robots, there’s nothing about technology as such that requires it to benefit capital.

The real agent of production in advanced capitalism isn’t the worker, but the automated machine – to be exact, it’s the “general intellect” (the collective mind of society) embodied in the machine. The general intellect applies its knowledge/skill to the development of more efficient (and therefore more profitable) technologies.

As more and more of society’s productive forces go towards producing the means of production (as opposed to the “immediate” production of products themselves), the very notion of labor shifts from one centered on material production to one in which the production of ideas plays an ever-greater role. The development of the general intellect introduces a new notion of collective – not individual – production, production by society as a collective agent.

By itself, the tendency of the general intellect is to reduce necessary labor to a minimum, which means that it takes less work to produce a certain amount of something. This has the potential to afford workers unprecedented free time, time in which they could pursue their interests, live rich and stable lives, and contribute to heretofore unrealized ways of organizing social life and exercising the collective will of the people. 

But capital has another tendency: namely, to take that potentially “free” time and, instead of being satisfied with the same products in less time, demand more products in the same (or more) time. “The most advanced machinery,” Marx observes, “forces the worker to work longer today than the savage does or he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.” Of course, it’s not really the machinery that’s doing the forcing, but rather, capitalist property relations and capital’s insatiable need to circulate.

In capitalism, Marx writes, there’s a chain of measurement linking wealth to the market value of a product, and that market value (“exchange-value”) with the time it takes a human worker to make it.

But in the course of the historical movement Marx describes, as more and more of the production process requires little or no input from workers, wealth loses its basis in labor-time. The rich get richer because they own the means of production, while workers’ minimal contribution to the production process serves as an excuse for permanent job security and downward pressure on wages.

Marx identifies this as a contradiction of capitalism, and suggests that it will ultimately lead to capitalism’s breakdown. In socialism, the reduction of necessary labor afforded by technological advancement would, unhampered by capital’s demand to convert free time into surplus labor, actually let us keep our “free” time free, to do with as we please.

But technology does nothing on its own – technology will cease to be a weapon of the bourgeoisie only if we make it so through active class struggle in the sphere of social relations (in other words, the “who-owns-what” of the economy). 

So was Marx wrong? Some contemporary theorists, among them Jodi Dean and Slavoj Žižek, have argued that in the neoliberal era, the means of production most suitable from capital’s perspective is information and communication technology (ICT, i.e. computers, telecommunications).

Marx saw in the general intellect the promise of capitalism’s breakdown and a new collectivity, but as these theorists claim, in a world of global finance and social media, it’s precisely the general intellect that serves capital more than ever.

The “force of knowledge” that Marx saw would increasingly replace the exploitation of immediate labor as the primary generator of wealth is now the site of a radically different, basically unrecognizable form of exploitation, whose effects are as real and devastating as they are virtual and intangible.

“How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America?” Žižek asks. Certainly not through exploitation of labor in the traditional sense: Microsoft can hardly be said to have bested its competitors by offering the lowest prices, and its programmers and software engineers are paid relatively well.

Rather, Gates made his fortune from monopoly patents, copyrights, and trademarks, charging rent for software that practically everyone uses: “Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich from appropriating the rent that followed. The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisioned in his writings about capitalism”.

Remember: Marx is aware that in the process he’s analyzing, “the accumulation of knowledge and skill, the general productive forces of the mind of society, is absorbed into capital”. But Marx specifies that the general intellect is absorbed into fixed capital, that is, into the making of more automated and efficient machinery.

If we are to make sense of Žižek’s claim that Marx failed to anticipate the general intellect’s privatization, we have to look at the other side of the “difference within capital itself”, namely at circulating capital. In the so-called information economy that’s come to define “post-industrial” capitalism, information is absorbed into capital not only as fixed capital, but also as circulating capital.

Of course, the term “post-industrial” is potentially misleading: Humans beings will, for the foreseeable future, continue to rely on industrial production of some kind or another for the goods we need (or don’t need, as the case may be).

But Žižek, following Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, emphasizes that contemporary capitalism’s “post-industrial” character isn’t due to the absence of industry. It’s because industrial production has been subordinated to “immaterial production”, the production of things other than physical objects. More and more, it’s not just the means of production but products themselves that are part of the general intellect, from commodity futures markets to dating websites.

The hegemony of immaterial production finds its concrete expression in the so-called financialization of the economy, a process that has driven capitalism’s globalization under the auspices of neoliberal financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The global financial system affects virtually every sphere of economic activity in every country on earth: Globalization of agriculture, for example, has meant that food prices are now due less to “supply and demand” than to speculation in commodity futures markets – investors profit when prices go up and millions in the global South can no longer afford food.

Is there a more chilling confirmation that the breakdown of wealth’s relation to immediate production has meant everything but collapse for capitalism?

Dean mostly concurs with Žižek’s analysis, arguing that what we call “post-industrial” capitalism (marked by shrinking welfare states and growing wealth inequality) is best described as “communicative capitalism”. In The Communist Horizon, she develops a theory of communicative capitalism as the ideal form of capitalism from the point of view of neoliberal class domination (e.g., austerity“free trade”, privatization, deregulation, financialization, and so on).

Dean defines communicative capitalism as

an ideological formation wherein capitalism and democracy converge in networked communication technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation take material form in the expansion and intensification of global telecommunications. Changes in information networks associated with digitalization, speed, storage capacity accelerate and intensify elements of capitalism and democracy, consolidating the two into a single ideological formation.

True to Marx’s rejection of technological determinism, Dean acknowledges nothing about ICT necessarily entails neoliberal economic policies: The ideology of communicative capitalism could, in theory, have accompanied Keynesian or social-democratic policies as well.

But as economist Richard Wolff points out, it’s precisely the development of computer systems and modern telecommunications that empowered capitalists in the industrialized West to relocate their production.

Beginning in the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration kicked off the present era of deregulated capital flows, ICT made it easier and easier for Western corporations to become “multinational”: to get up and leave those industrialized countries where labor had achieved modest welfare state protections (unionization, full employment, corporate taxes, safety regulations, etc.).

Recall Paul Krugman’s graph showing the stagnation of real wages starting in 1970: What has produced communicative capitalism, then, is the latest stage of the relationship described by Marx, between the most advanced means of production—ICT—and the existing relations of production—the accumulation private property (and increasingly, the privatized general intellect) in the hands of an elite intent on rolling back already meager concessions on the part of capital.

Dean is very clear that communicative capitalism is the ideological convergence of capitalism and democracy. I claim that democracy’s essential role in justifying/perpetuating capitalism can help explain why the general intellect’s emancipatory potential has so far failed to come to fruition.

Dean observes that, reflecting the traces of anti-establishment protest in the cultural politics of neoliberalism, ICT in communicative capitalism is “celebrated for making work fun, inspiring creativity, and opening up entrepreneurial opportunities,” contributing “to the production of new knowledge-based enterprises.”

Taken at face value, this techno-utopianism, which presents capitalism as capitalism without exploitation, conformity, or drudgery, appears to be the ideology of communicative capitalism.

But if we take ideology to refer not only to what we consciously think, but also to what we do (and do “without thinking”), then the function of such techno-utopian rhetoric is to mask the ideological truth of communicative capitalism. “Its more pronounced legacy,” Dean notes, “has been widespread de-skilling, surveillance, and the acceleration and intensification of work and culture: the freedom of ‘telecommuting’ quickly morphed into the tether of 24/7 availability, permanent work.”

The notion of democracy works to suppress this second level of meaning, because our engagement with the internet and other communications comes to define what it means to participate in the general intellect.

It’s hard to find a discussion of the impact of social media on our lives that doesn’t make some reference to the new sense of connection/collectivity/connectivity made possible by this virtual social space.

In mainstream media, Facebook and Twitter are credited with sparking uprisings that toppled dictators, struggles that involved masses of people marching and sometimes dying in the streets. Our communities have, according to this narrative, been displaced into an online realm, a displacement that enriches us all by connecting us to people, products, and ideas we may never have even known existed. The general intellect finds its most literal expression in the wealth of information available “at the click of a button”.

In an era of permanent job insecurity, if we as individuals want to be competitive professionally and connected socially, we have little choice but to integrate into the virtual collective made possible by ICT. Communicative capitalism casts this forced integration as the very essence of democratic participation.

This concept finds its logical extreme in the almost comical demand of the short-lived Pirate Parties of Sweden and Germany for “liquid democracy”, a politically neutral model in which citizens vote directly on referendums over the internet.

The general intellect has indeed been privatized, and it appears – for the moment – that capitalism has put off the contradiction between the free time potentially created by advanced technology and the role of labor-time in measuring wealth.

When Dean refers to communicative capitalism’s “tether of 24/7 availability, permanent work”, she’s pointing to the resolution of the problem of free time. When work is play and “free” time is treated as an extension of the workday, there is no free time. It doesn’t exist.

Marx argues that class struggle in the sphere of social relations can claim and reshape society’s productive forces in the service of a radically egalitarian society; yet today our participation in that sphere is confined to the work of posting on Facebook, circulating petitions, planning actions and events, reading and replying to emails, and so on.

This, too, is work – work for which we aren’t paid, but which turns a tiny elite of capitalists like Mark Zuckerberg into mega-billionaires. We (“the rest of us”) are the new proletariat, because we’re all subject to an exploitation that is as undeniable as it is unrecognizable.

Our social space has itself been displaced from physical reality onto a collective consciousness that, by allowing us to pursue our desire for community and professional success while sitting at home, appears to rule out the very possibility – to say nothing of the necessity – of genuinely revolutionary, collective struggle.

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