My latest for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology

I spent much of winter break working on an analysis of the UAW 2865 BDS vote, where the movement in the US stands today, and how it’s already succeeded in shifting the terms of debate on Israel-Palestine – that article is now up on the Berkeley Journal of Sociology website!


Some thoughts on the UAW BDS result for the Intifada podcast

I checked back in with Nora Barrows-Friedman the morning after the UAW 2865 BDS resolution passed by an overwhelming 65%-35%. That interview is now up on the Electronic Intifada podcast.

I’d recommend listening to the whole podcast – it’s not just about activism; Nora and the rest of the EI crew consistently amplify the voices of solidarity activists while never decentering what’s going on in Israel-Palestine. They do amazing work.

I debate the UAW 2865 BDS resolution on KPFA

Tomorrow, members of UAW 2865 (the union for 13,000 graduate student workers in the University of California system) will vote on a resolution calling on UAW International and the UC to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.

I debated the opposition to the resolution yesterday on KPFA – listen here!

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.

Is technology capitalist? (Part I of II)

Today, you don’t have to be a Marxist to notice that the increasing automation of labor has radical implications for workers in advanced capitalist economies. In his December 8, 2012 New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman explains the phenomenon of “reshoring” – the return of manufacturing to the industrialized nations it once fled.

As robots replace workers, Krugman argues, the labor costs of manufacturing in the United States go down relative to labor costs in, say, Indonesia or Bangladesh. The US also provides the added benefit of bigger markets and better infrastructure. But the jobs that left with the manufacturing industry aren’t coming back with it.

The phenomenon of reshoring is made possible by something Krugman calls “capital-biased technological change”: technological development driven by and in the interest of capital. He illustrates this point by presenting data showing the downward trajectory of US labor’s share of income between 1970 and 2010.

As automated technology becomes more and more sophisticated and efficient, it’s more and more profitable for so-called middle class manufacturing jobs to be performed by robots.

Those jobs have, over the last several decades, been steadily replaced by low-wage service sector jobs that make up a growing trend towards chronic underemployment, permanent job insecurity, deskilling, and de-unionization of the US workforce. All of those factors contribute to downward pressure on wages, producing the stagnation of real wages shown in the data.

Krugman is quick to shoot down the standard liberal line about the need for better education: “Better education,” he writes, “won’t do much to reduce inequality if the rewards simply go to those with the most assets.” What he’s pointing to is a contradiction of capitalism—between the interests of capital and the interests of labor.

He himself isn’t quite sure what to do with this analysis, and admits as much, concluding that, “the capital/labor dimension of inequality…has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism—which shouldn’t be a reason to avoid facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.”

If politics in the liberal-democratic frame has proven incapable of resolving this contradiction—as Krugman acknowledges—then maybe that “old-fashioned Marxism” is worth revisiting and updating. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that there’s a problem with who owns and benefits from the means of production—but it doesn’t hurt.

Marx himself doesn’t see anything inherently capitalist about technology or automation. In the passage from his Grundrisse known as the “Fragment on Machines”, Marx lays out a pretty intricate argument that the driver of technological change isn’t technology itself, or even the natural sciences—what really points technological development in this or that direction is society’s relations of production, the “who-owns-what” of the economy.

Marx begins the story of “capital-biased technological change” with a schema of the production process capitalism inherited from mercantilism. Its elements are raw material (what is worked on), living labor (who works on it), and the means of production (what they use to work on it).

Each of these has its own specific use-value, the value that is created by its use: Raw material is consumed insofar as it’s made into a product; living labor is consumed in the work process itself, requiring rest and sustenance between work days; and the consumption of the means of production, which can be as simple as a hand tool, uses it up at a far slower rate.

Together, these three elements have to produce more value for the enterprise than the capitalist invested in them. The capitalist takes this excess value (which Marx calls the surplus value) for themselves, and the cycle begins anew. The business must create surplus value in order to grow; the more efficient production becomes, the more surplus value it creates.

But human skill and energy is limited, and capital cannot abide that limit—so it’s the means of production that must constantly be improved and replaced. In the process, the distinction between living labor and the means of production is eroded—for the first time in economic history.

The initial, pre-capitalist schema gives way to a new schema: Instead of raw material, living labor, and means of production, we have circulating capital (not just raw material, but also product) and fixed capital (means of production).

“The relationship of the factors to each other,” Marx writes, now appears as a “difference within capital itself”, so that the elements are just two different kinds of capital. This transformation sounds abstract, but bear with me. What’s Marx really saying?

The three elements are based on the notion of labor inherited from mercantilism, where each is particular element is indispensable. You can no sooner have production without living labor than production without, well, the means of production. But over time, this relation of the elements to each other is absorbed by capital, and changed to fit capital’s insatiable demand to circulate.

Workers, no longer a distinct element from the means of production, are instead subsumed under the category of fixed capital: Living labor is now just another means of production. The “difference within capital itself” is the difference between circulating capital and fixed capital, between what the enterprise circulates and what it keeps.

Capital has an incentive to rely less and less on the strength and skill of human workers in favor of more efficient means of production. This process culminates in the machine. In the form of the machine, and above all the automated machine, “the means of production is transformed into a form of existence most suitable to fixed capital and capital as a whole”.

What’s notable here is that when Marx talks about capital, he describes it not as a passive object, but as an active subject, independent of any individual human’s consciousness. Capital turns the means of production into a part of itself, imbued with capital’s drive to circulate—capitalism’s development is due to an inner logic of capital that’s at work whether we’re aware of it or not.

The most “primitive” means of production are hand tools, which allow/require their wielder to do work requiring skill or strength. By the time Marx wrote the fragment in 1857, technology had already developed so far in the direction of efficiency and automated self-sufficiency that an individual worker’s contribution to the process was often minimal.

The machine, by contrast, is never just a tool, but part of an entire automated system, the monstrous organ of some unfathomable beast. The workings of the system are too intricate and opaque for the ordinary worker to exercise any agency in its use: Rather, the machine dictates what and how to produce, leaving the worker no choice but to observe, maybe press a button or two, mostly just keep the machine running smoothly—in the only manner it was built to run.

No longer skilled creators of the product, workers are instead made increasingly redundant. Some lose their jobs, while others keep working but are relegated to the status of an observer or operator, a status that serves to justify permanent job insecurity and downward pressure on wages.

We can now begin to recognize what Marx’s analysis can tell us about the problem of “capital-biased technological change”: Anxieties about our powerlessness in the face of technological change are really anxieties about capital as a subject, as something not entirely within our control as humans. After all, capital is the agent that drives “technology” to make possible ever greater levels of productivity.

In order to do that—to continually revolutionize the means of production—capital needs something from humans that can’t be replaced by automated machines: Knowledge. “The accumulation of knowledge and skill, the general productive force of the mind of society, is absorbed into capital,” Marx says, “and thus appears as a characteristic of capital, more precisely as a characteristic of fixed capital.”

The knowledge/skill in question isn’t that of the individual worker, whose job it is to supervise the machines. It’s the knowledge/skill accumulated by society as a whole, a sort of collective societal consciousness Marx calls the “general intellect”.

That means the physical and chemical laws we glean from science are applied to the improvement of machines, resulting in more automation and efficiency. Conversely, it also means that “invention becomes a business”, so that the application of scientific knowledge to production actually becomes a driving force of scientific research itself.

Since this kind of knowledge is manifest in the workings of the machine, and not in the worker, the worker is no longer the primary agent of labor. The primary agent is, in fact, the machine—to be precise, it’s the general intellect embodied in the machine.

What’s important for Marx is that the machine, as a means of production, creates value for the capitalist by increasing the ratio of “surplus labor” to “necessary labor”. Necessary labor is the amount of labor the capitalist needs to recoup the cost of buying labor to begin with; surplus labor is that little (or not so little) bit extra beyond the “cost of doing business”.

So the greater the ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor, the more surplus value the capitalist takes for themselves. In effect, technological advancement lets an enterprise produce a lot, quickly, without much input from workers. “[C]apital here—completely unintentionally—reduces human labor, the expenditure of energy, to a minimum,” Marx writes.

But capital also has a tendency to convert potential “free time” into surplus labor. It’s not enough to produce the same amount of products in less time—on the contrary, capital demands growth, which means it demands more products in the same amount of time.

Since the primary source of wealth is no longer labor “in its immediate form” (labor performed by a worker, using the means of production, on raw material), the relationship between wealth and human labor loses all proportion.

This is because, according to the so-called labor theory of value, a product’s exchange-value (its market value) is measured in terms of the time it takes the worker to produce it. Exchange-value, in turn, is the measure of use-value; particular use-values, taken together, constitute wealth.

On one hand, the foundation of value in capitalism remains labor-time; on the other hand, the direction of technological change undermines that very foundation. When this chain of measurement connecting wealth with labor-time breaks down completely, Marx says, the chains of wage slavery will be broken with it.

So at the same time as technology in the hands of the bourgeoisie is a weapon in the class war, it also contains, within very idea, the seeds of capitalism’s collapse. A socialist use of technology would have, as its goal,

The free development of individualities and, hence, not the reduction of necessary labor in order to get surplus labor, but rather, the reduction of the necessary labor of society to a minimum, which contains the promise of the artistic, scientific, etc. development of individuals through the time and resources that have been made free to all.

Not only does technology itself have no agency in Marx’s story, but capital, too, doesn’t have a monopoly on subjectivity. Society’s productive forces don’t exist in a vacuum—they are connected with the social relations that determine how they’re used, what they’re used for, and who benefits from their use.

The distinction between the “reduction of necessary labor” in the interest of extracting surplus labor and the “reduction of the necessary labor of society” is key, because it points to not only the possibility, but in fact the necessity of continuing the development of the means of production in socialism.

It would be wrong to construe this argument as some kind of techno-utopianism: The potential for society’s productive forces to create more “free time” for everyone is just that, a potential. Since subjectivity resides not in the means of production but in capital, the time saved by technology will never be “free” until people liberate society from capital’s tendency to maximize the ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor.

Today, 150 years after Marx wrote the Grundrisse, capital has proven itself to be nothing if not an adaptable subject. In its current neoliberal form, capitalism’s hegemony is global. Does that necessarily mean Marx’s prognosis was wrong? Check back next week for a couple of the answers I find most convincing.