Marxism 2.0: New commodities, new workers?

Issue: 154

Xanthe Rose

A review of Ursula Huws, Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age (Monthly Review Press, 2014), £15 and Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (Pluto Press, 2015), £15.99

If Karl Marx were writing Capital today and had paid attention when Friedrich Engels and his publisher implored him to make the first chapters of volume one less abstract and more accessible, rather than dismissing their suggestions with declarations about a royal road, he might well have chosen a specific commodity from which he could unravel capital. And, if he wanted to choose a commodity in which the relations of the contemporary political economy had been crystallised, he might well have chosen an iPhone. In following the social relations that sit behind the iPhone, Marx would have observed children mining for cassiterite in the Congo; followed the global production chains from the neo-futurist Apple Campus in Cupertino, California, to the production lines of the Foxconn factories in China which have seen suicides and now the robotisation of 60,000 jobs;1 he would have travelled through warehouses and call centres; found crowdworkers completing Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for Amazon Mechanical Turk or the social care workers who wait each day for a text that tells them whether or not they will have work; and he would have had something to say about the dispute between Apple and the EU over Apple’s tax arrangements in Ireland.2 But would new digital commodities such as the iPhone have caused Marx to critique the workings of capitalist political economy differently?

Digital, or cybernetic, technology has been identified by many theorists and commentators as facilitating a major reorganising of the economy and of work.3 The concepts of the digital economy and digital work have been used to draw together a number of features of contemporary capitalism. One such feature is globalisation; digital technologies and networks have provided the links for multinationals and global production networks, making it possible to shift production across organisational and national boundaries, creating new global divisions of labour and removing work from nationally-constituted regulatory frameworks. Digital technologies are also seen as central to temporal shifts in the dynamics of capitalism—where the internet has enabled instantaneous global communication as well as increasing the speed with which financial capital circulates through world markets. Mainstream and heterodox economists have attempted to deal with the problem of why the introduction of productivity-enhancing digital technologies has coincided with low rates of growth. And these technologies have been discussed in terms of dematerialisation—shifts towards immaterial labour4—and the production of services and knowledge.

In the past two years a number of political economists have theorised transformations in contemporary work in terms of digitalisation.5 Digital labour has been used as a concept which could link rising levels of unemployment in the Global North with hyper-exploitation in the Global South. This review examines two important contributions to this discussion—Ursula Huws’s Labour in the Global Digital Economy and Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyberproletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex.

Both books grapple with the re-emergence of questions of class, politics and power in the context of economic crisis, as well as new forms of resistance that are emerging, or might emerge, from the reconfiguration of work. Both take as their starting point that capitalism is the problem and that it is necessary to understand the relationship between work and class in order to understand how we might undermine or dismantle it as a system. And both conclude that changes to contemporary capitalism and to work require a reworking of Marx—in the case of Huws, it requires a rethinking of the Marxist concepts of labour, commodity and value; for Dyer-Witheford, a new consideration of class and class relations. Beyond these similarities, their analyses and conclusions differ. While it’s not possible to review either book in depth, this review highlights some key arguments each makes about work.

Huws’s work has been pivotal in framing discussions about digital technology and labour and this latest book is a collection of her essays written since 2006. As the title suggests, Huws (who does not use what she views as the “nebulous” term “digital labour”) examines how shifts in the global economy have transformed work, arguing that “a series of mutually reinforcing economic, political and technological factors have brought about a sea change in the character of work”.6 She has been cautious about theories of dematerialisation—the idea that the production of material goods has given way to the production of information, communication and affect through immaterial labour processes—or pronouncements about the end of Fordist production.7 While recognising that outsourcing, offshoring and migration have resulted in a new global division of labour, she also focuses on how new technologies have standardised, or “modularised” work in Fordist fashion, making it easier to divide labour processes and relocate work. Huws also rejects the dematerialisation thesis on the basis that digitalisation has led to the creation of new technology commodities and the commodification of previously un-commodified areas of life. As she points out, the strategy of the major digital players (Amazon, Apple) has been to produce and sell new material goods (Kindles, iPhones).

Huws is right to highlight the way in which capital expands through the commodification of ever-greater areas of our lives. But she also argues that cycles of commodification both drive the dynamics of the system and wrest it out of crisis.8 This commodification theory of crisis is limited—partly, because it does not acknowledge or account for the long-term decline of the rate of profit9 or the resulting fierce competition between capitals for the redistribution of value in the sphere of circulation—the financialisation that characterises the global economy.10 But Huws’s emphasis on commodification and the production of goods acknowledges what many theorists of the information age or knowledge economy deny: the persistence and centrality of a model of production and, consequently of work, much closer to that which Marx theorised than ­dematerialisation would suggest.

It has been popular in theories of how information and digital technologies transform labour to focus on the collapse of boundaries between consumption and production. Alvin Toffler introduced the idea of the “prosumer” in 1970.11 Recent studies of digital media discuss the “produser”,12 “gamification” and the incorporation of free or unpaid labour into digital production and value creation.13 Since the 1970s Huws’s feminism has led her to consider how Marxist political economy might explain unpaid labour, initially in order to incorporate the gendered labour of housework and, more recently, to theorise the use of unpaid or “free labour” into capitalist production processes generally. One of her key theoretical contributions is discussed in chapter seven—a chapter well worth reading—where she examines labour, value and what she terms “consumption work”, by which she means the labour we do as consumers: bagging our own shopping, assembling flatpack furniture or booking our holidays online. Consumption work, Huws argues, is labour which is both unpaid and productive for capitalism and a concept which she insists can help to explain some of the complexity of contemporary capitalism.

However, the problem with this particular formulation is that Huws views consumption work as creating value. Because she does not embed her argument more tightly in the distinction between use value and exchange value, she ends up seeing the transformation of use values outside the labour process as value-producing for the capitalist. It is not. If I buy an IKEA flatpack, that is the end of the transaction for IKEA; it matters not to the company whether I construct my shelves in three hours or one, or (as is actually the case) whether they sit in the corner of a cupboard collecting dust and are forever only a potential set of shelves. Rather, IKEA has distilled the knowledge and technology of construction into the design of the shelves, allowing them to be assembled with an Allen key and very little skill (but maybe a lot of swearing). Pushing the labour from a paid worker onto the consumer and outside the labour process does not shift the locus of value creation; it removes it; what the consumer produces is a use value, not an exchange value. This shifting of work results in a lowering of the cost of the product and of its production—a process that retailers are competitively caught in, but which simultaneously undermines the capitalist’s ability to create new value or surplus value from that part of the process.14

But why do these distinctions matter? The argument that the digital economy is built on the exploitation of consumer or user value is widespread in discussions of digital labour. But this focus obscures all of the low-paid workers contributing to tasks throughout digital production, as well as the technical workers designing algorithms that turn clicks and likes into meaningful information. But mostly it obscures the competitive pressures created for capital as this transfer of activities from production to consumption requires the development of technology that can streamline and simplify tasks so that consumers can perform them. The extent to which this represents a replacement of work with technology points to the importance of theories like that of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall in order to understand crisis, poverty and low paid work.15 Rather than requiring new categories or concepts like consumption work, it requires a more rigorous application of theory that already exists.

Dyer-Witheford’s book borrows its title from Huws’s concept of a cybertariat, but his inquiries into the digital workforce have a different focus; he is concerned with examining the “composition of class” and “cycles of struggle”, old workerist/autonomist preoccupations which try to identify parallels between the changing “technical composition” of the working class (the organisation of the working class by capital) and resistance. He combines this with an attention to what he sees as the fragmentation and divided interests within the working class brought about by its interdependent relationship with capital and which he takes from communisation theory.16

Dyer-Witheford’s first study of the digital economy was Cyber-Marx. Written in the late 1990s, during the height of utopian visions for cyberspace and at a time when it was still the tendency among theorists to create a binary between online and off-line worlds, Dyer-Witheford insisted upon the class nature of the online world, placing capital accumulation and class relations at the centre of the development of the internet.17 In Cyber-proletariat he argues that “digitisation reworks both the organisation of the home and the geopolitical organisation of labour”18 and wants to use his analysis to identify the kinds of resistance that emerge from “cybernetic capital”.

In order to place class at the centre of his analysis, Dyer-Witheford argues in his opening chapter that the proletariat includes all people who must rely on the sale of their labour to survive, whether they are able to sell it or not and whether they perform waged work for a boss or unwaged work in the home. While it is important to recognise that the working class is more inclusive than just workers in organised, paid work, to use the need to sell labour as a criterion to determine class is inadequate—for example, managers and wealthy, middle class consultants have to sell their labour power, yet they have very different functions in relation to capital than workers. Within the International Socialist tradition we have tended to define people as proletarian by their shared interest with the wider working class.

Dyer-Witheford goes on to identify seven main currents within the digital economy that lead to an expansion of the proletariat, broadly: the dispossession of the global peasantry; new routes of economic migration; the growth of self-employment and informal work; the transnational reorganisation of industrial work; the expansion of service work, which is often digitally mediated; the entrance of greater proportions of women into paid work, and the growth of education and the oversupply of educated workers. He emphasises that a large proportion of the proletariat is workless, wageless or precarious, while also acknowledging the way in which new technologies have expanded the reaches of capital and of waged work, drawing greater numbers of people into a global working class as automation simultaneously pushes others out.

While Dyer-Witheford’s focus on precarity and on the creation of “surplus populations”19 supports the autonomist argument that there has been a shift from the “mass worker” of Fordist production towards a working class that is “more segmented and fluid than that envisaged by Marx and Engels”,20 this underplays the significant trend, which is that a rising proportion of the world’s population is being drawn into capitalist wage relations.21 Further, he argues that the global economy is dependent upon these forms of shadow work, informal, bonded or slave labour,22 whereas it might be more accurate to say, as Huws does, that digital and communications technology enable more extensive use of these forms of work, rather than the system being fundamentally restructured around them. And even this ignores the countervailing tendencies that limit the expansion of these forms of work and the way the tendencies and counter-tendencies play out very differently in particular contexts.

But it is when Dyer-Witheford traces the protest movements and resistance of 2011—from the revolution that started in Tunisia after the suicide of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, to the indignados movement in Spain, to the worldwide Occupy movement—that the idea of class composition and his stress on the segmentation of the working class loses its explanatory purchase. The reorganisation of global capitalism has placed certain groups of workers in structurally powerful positions—for example, just-in-time production combined with complex global production networks has created key stress or “choke” points, particularly in logistics, where, if workers strike, they can bring whole production chains to a halt. But this doesn’t always explain or predict where and how struggle might break out. It doesn’t explain the relationship between political and economic struggle or the shared interests and close connections that each of those movements found with one another as they developed and grew. The problem with theories of class recomposition is that they confuse forces and relations of production—they fail to examine the mediating factors that are necessary to translate technological change into broader social transformations and so identify general capacities and interests with particular historical configurations of the working class.

Working class consciousness and organisation tend to be uneven; and grasping the relationship between crisis, or capital restructure, and resistance is more of an art than a science. The divisions within the working class that Dyer-Witheford emphasises—be they structural divisions because of people’s sectoral locations within the working class or divisions of race and gender—start to break down when there is struggle and the necessity of solidarity. And sometimes those struggles leave the seeds of, or the organisational forms for, future struggles. For example, Anne Alexander discusses in this journal the way in which the emergence of independent workers’ organisation during the Egyptian Revolution grew out of strikes and protests demanding higher wages, improved working conditions and job security as well as democratic demands against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime.23 It is not possible to understand the revolutionary process in Egypt without analysing both neoliberalism and authoritarianism; both economics and politics, and the way struggle grew out of and was interlaced with both.

These differences aside, both books are beautifully written, making complex theoretical arguments accessible and giving a good sense of the contours of the debates around technology and the restructuring of the global economy and work.


1 Wakefield, 2016.

2 Oliver, Bradshaw and Jopson, 2016.

3 For a detailed discussion see Upchurch, 2016.

4 Lazzarato, 1996; Hardt and Negri, 2000. For a critique see Callinicos, 2001.

5 For example, Fuchs, 2014; Scholz, 2012.

6 Huws, 2014, p17.

7 See, for example, Huws, 2003.

8 Huws, 2014, p7.

9 For a discussion of the current great recession in the context of long-term decline of profitability see Roberts, 2015.

10 For a good overview of the discussions of financialisation and the crisis see Hardy, 2016.

11 Toffler, 1970.

12 Bruns, 2008; Fuchs, 2014.

13 Terranova, 2004; Fuchs, 2014.

14 A longer version of this argument can be found in Carchedi, 2014.

15 For an overview see Harman, 2007.

16 Dyer-Witheford is influenced principally by the communisation theory of French group Théorie Communiste, which emphasises the way in which workers both make capital and have the potential to unmake it, and how, they argue, workers’ revolutionary potential is complicated by the divisions and conflicts created through its intermeshing with capital.

17 Dyer-Witheford, 1999.

18 Dyer-Witheford, 2015, p14.

19 Populations surplus to the requirements of capital—see Davis, 2006.

20 Dyer-Witheford, 2015, p145.

21 According to the International Labour Organisation—cited in Choonara, 2015.

22 Dyer-Witheford, 2015, p13.

23 Alexander, 2012.


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