Nick Dyer-Witheford: Cyber-Marx

Interviewed by Marc-Antoine Pencolé

Hand on anti-static foil

A French version of this interview was originally published at http://revueperiode.net/cyber-marx-entretien-avec-nick-dyer-witheford/

We often say with some emphasis that information and communication technologies will soon bring the end of work, and therefore the disappearance of proletariat. Nick Dyer-Witheford adresses that new illusion, intrinsic to actual capitalism, by accounting for the generation of “surplus population” on a scale unseen before. There is no substitution of immaterial labour (or cognitive capitalism) to its traditional, material form, but polarisation : technology doesn’t lead to the aboliton of class composition but to its reconfiguration. The goal becomes then to determine how the different forms of exploitation are interacting, and how that will shape the future of cyber-proletarian struggles. (Période magazine)

  • Every two months now, a new bestseller announces another disruption or even revolution of work and production elicited by technological progress: Richard Florida’s rise of the « creative class », Jeremy Rifkin’s « end of work » and « eclipse of capitalism », Martin Ford’s « jobless future », the « fourth industrial revolution » promoted by Klaus Schwab and the German government, etc... And yet, following authors like Ursula Huws1, you chose to name your last book Cyber-proletariat2, claiming that there still is a working class. Why would it still be relevant?

 

“Proletariat” continues to be relevant because it names the antagonist against which capital continuously hurls these technological disruptions and so-called revolutions of work and production. Not just trade unions and the welfare state, not just the requirement to provide a living wage for labour but ultimately the very form of the human is the barrier that capital is attempting to overcome by means of what Tiqqun has rightly termed an ongoing “cybernetic offensive.” This offensive takes a triple direction—the outright elimination of human labour by automation; the cheapening of human labour via the electronic supply chains of globalization; and the evasion of human labour by financialization, transposing capital’s transformation of money into more money  into a realm now almost entirely taken over by  computerized risk modelling and algorithmic trading. To understand this situation we need to recover the  concept of the proletariat that Marx articulated in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts  of 1844 when he describes as the class whose mode of being is condemned to oscillation between the “full void” of exploitative employment and the “empty void” of exclusionary unemployment, and this is the proletariat, that, across the spectrum of employment, precarity and unemployment, waged and unwaged labour, that confronts successive waves of assault by high-technology capital. But the proletariat does not go away, not even when its work is deskilled to tasks of the most mind-numbing boredom or fragmented in the hustle of the gig-economy, not even when the ugliness of its existence is off-shored and rendered invisible to the developed world, only to reappear in factories of China or India, and not even when it is completely by-passed or automated, because even then it continues to exist as the “surplus populations” that in their migrations and insurrections are today a mounting source of ruling-class anxiety.

  • On the other side, hasn’t critical theory considered enough information technology? And isn’t such a perspective, that stresses the significance of new technologies to understand the undergoing transformations of class composition, implicitly reductionist or techno-determinist?

 

I would be delighted to cease considering information technology. However, it is because capital itself “stresses the significance of new technologies” in its attack on the proletariat, and ultimately on human species being itself, that militant theory must repeatedly return to the issue. So, for example, even since the publication of Cyber-Proletariat, machine learning and other recent forms of artificial intelligence, offering new intensities of automation and surveillance, have become a major components of the research agenda of the giant information corporations, and this is a development that requires analysis in terms of its de-compositionary and re-compositionary class potentials. And no, such analysis is not implicitly reductionist or techno-determinist, because the aim is not only to understand the significance of new technologies for class composition, but also and simultaneously to understand the importance of class composition to the development of information technologies. That is to say, it is to understand computers and networks as a manifestation of the compulsion of capital to intensify its organic composition — crudely, the ratio of machines to humans in production — a compulsion that derives from its surplus value seeking requirement to shatter proletarian class composition, which is to say, to destroy every trace of worker organization and human solidarity.

  • Today, the popular use of « cyber » evokes mainly online virtual worlds, but originally it relates to the early XXth century’s cybernetics, an encompassing theoretical project built on the notion of information. What is the meaning of the determination of the concept of proletariat by that prefix?

 

The project of early twentieth century cybernetics was the flattening of ontological distinctions between the human (or indeed animal) and machine, not just in a philosophic but also in an operational sense. It posited the practical equivalence of what cybernetics founder, Norbert Wiener, termed “automata, whether in the metal or in the flesh”. This project, although eminently materialist, has a fatal self-reflexive blind-spot, for it is species-suicidal, in as much as it drives towards the extinction of the all-too human position from which its observations are made.  Wiener himself eventually recoiled from these implications, but other cybernetic pioneers, such as John von Neumann pressed on towards the logical horizon of envisaging systems constituted entirely of self-replicating robots. To talk about a cyber-proletariat is therefore to talk about a proletariat increasing involved in the production of networks and robots, robot networks and networked robot, a proletariat that is thus involved in working itself out of a job—a trajectory that may lead (as Marx proposed in the Grundrisse) towards the end of capitalism, but might also terminate in liquidation of the human.

  • Your study of a decade of struggle and social turmoil draws heavily on the Marxian concept of surplus population. Yet, the existence of an industrial reserve army has always been a defining feature of capitalism. To what extent do you think it is useful to describe or explain today’s technological situation of the working class?

 

“Surplus populations” is a concept developed by EndNotes and other strands of communization theory on the basis of a careful re-reading of Marx’s writings in Capital about unemployment. It identifies the possibility of an “industrial reserve army” that is may never be ‘called to the front’, and constitutes a growing pool of un- and under-employed proletarians that tends to ratchet upwards, even through fluctuations in the business cycle, as a result of the deepening organic composition of capital. It could be said that surplus populations are the logical outcome of a capitalism that deploys information technologies to reduce its need for labour (automation) while simultaneously expanding the scope of the world-labour market (globalization) and disassociating itself from the production process (financialization). There is an echo of this idea in the idea of a global “labour glut” put forward by some bourgeois commentators (such as Ryan Avant in his The Wealth of Humans3). The theory of “surplus populations” was put forward by EndNotes4 in the depth of the recent recession, when spiking unemployment rates gave it immediate credibility. It remains to be seen if it can be verified during the subsequent period of so-called recovery, and in light of the changing demographics of advanced capitalist zones (i.e. ageing populations). In North America, while the official employment rate has returned to pre-crash levels, it may be that the existence of surplus populations is refracted and disguised by the growth of various forms of precarious labour and the gig-economy.

  • Italian and French thinkers of post-operaism and cognitive capitalism theory5 became very influent in addressing the actual relations of capitalism and ICTs, claiming that a new hegemonic mode of accumulation is now emerging, and proposing a shift in Marx’s theory of exploitation and value: that accumulation would rely more and more on the exploitation of immaterial labour – knowledge production and creativity, or even affects –, hence partially disconnecting labour time and value. After having at first embraced Negri and Hardt’s theoretical framework through their notions of immaterial labour, empire and multitude, you became increasingly skeptical. Are their claims and presuppositions irremediably flawed, or could we still salvage some precious insights out of it?

 

Yes, there are important elements in “immaterial labour” and “cognitive capitalism” theses, despite now evident problems in the original formulations. The problems are the over-extension of the “immaterial labour” category, to cover everything from computer programming to pole dancing; a failure to look far enough down the supply chains of cognitive capital to acknowledge the large quantities of manual labour (e. Foxconn assembly workers, coltan6 miners in the Congo) it requires; and an overestimate of the empowering consequences for class struggle of experiments such as open-source7 programming and digital creative commons8, now significantly subsumed by information capital. Nevertheless, it remains true that certain prototypical forms of “immaterial labour”—notably computer coding—are becoming increasingly important to and widespread in contemporary capital. If one looks at the US Bureau of Labour predictions of changes in the occupational structure of the US economy out to 2024, computer systems design and related services, and in particular “software and applications developers” are amongst  the fastest growing (and best paid) occupational categories. There is an expanding layer of digitally adept wage labour, and its  knowledge is also increasingly diffused in unwaged forms, through hacking9, modding10, the marginal app-economy and so on However, it is very important to realize that—to return to those statistics—the growth in this sector is predicted to be significantly outstripped,  both in absolute numbers and often in the rate of growth, by far more mundane, and far, far less well-paid jobs, such as home and residential healthcare,  food preparation and serving, retail sales and so on, whose conditions cannot be included under the heading of immaterial labour without  extreme intellectual gymnastics. Rather than a new unification under the banner of immaterial labour, what appears is more of a bifurcation of labour, which also entails very predictable gender and racialized divisions. The question of if, how, when and where this bifurcation can be overcome in political struggles therefore becomes a central issue of proletarian recomposition.

  • Since 2011 and the uprisings in Tunisia, we heard a lot about what has been called – in a slightly techno-deterministic way – «Facebook revolutions». You had the opportunity to investigate directly in Ukraine, where the massive Maïdan square protests occurred between 2013 and 2014, organized at first through social networks. Do you think information technology had been a direct key factor in enabling such protests? More generally, how does it shape actual class struggle and emancipatory potentials?

 

Such nonsense has been written about Facebook Revolutions that one might wonder how the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace could have happened without the assistance of Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are certainly not the “direct key factor” in recent uprisings. But when they met with economic crisis, precarity, and inequality, social media and mobile phones were part of the overdetermined causal nexus out of which the occupations and riots of 2011-14 exploded. However, these struggles show that information technologies do not necessarily realize the potential for left insurgency some of us once anticipated: I would fault my 1999 Cyber-Marx11 on that count. While the use of social media and mobile phones allow rapid, viral mobilizations this very speed outran strategic organization by the anti-capitalist elements of these very heterogeneous revolts. This in part accounts for the “up like a rocket down like a stick” quality of assembly and occupations such as Occupy Wall Street. It also contributed politically void populisms which were then hegemonized by reactionary forces appealing to ‘default’ religious and nationalist identities (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or the ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist right in Ukraine). The success of both the networked alt.right in the recent US elections and of jihadist recruitment and propaganda in the virtual sphere demonstrates both the power of social media and that it has no necessary emancipatory valence. Because cybernetic capital has made social media an integral part of everyday life, they will continue to be part of future left organizing: the fight for the meme12 dominance is critical. However, as militants learn the lessons of recent uprisings, this re-appropriation of digital technologies will probably unfold in a more carefully selective way than over the last decade. There is now, post-Snowden,  a widening awareness of the dangers of ubiquitous state and corporate surveillance, and of the importance in certain contexts of encryption, anonymization and off-the-grid organizing, as well as of mass anti-surveillance campaigns. Perhaps we will also create new organizational approaches that in various ways synthesize both fast and slow, and horizontal and vertical forms. While revival of the vanguard party seems to me unlikely nor desirable, the creation of some new networked machine of struggle that combines shared strategic directions with considerable autonomy for its constituent nodes -let us call it a distributed party- may be possible.

  • You are actually writing a book about cyber-war, accounting for the strong interest states had recently in tightening digital security as well as developing mass-surveillance and offensive systems. Should we expect social struggles to be raging online soon, in any way more significant than harmless click-activism and video sharing?

 

No need to expect this; it is happening now. To give only one example, members of the hacker collective Anonymous are either still serving or only recently discharged from prison sentences for their participation in hacking attacks against the corporate websites that colluded with the US government in its attempt to extinguish WikiLeaks. However, the directions and intensity of such actions, the effectiveness of state and corporate countermeasures (including infiltration), and how far they will be compromised by entanglement with inter-state cyber-wars or nullified by epistemological problems of attribution that are endemic to hacking exploits, remain to be seen. These are some of the questions I and my colleague Svitlana Matviyenko are, with a combined Marxist-Lacanian optic, researching for a book provisionally titled Cyberwar and Revolution. Speaking for the moment strictly in my own voice, it seems foolish to think of social struggles becoming completely virtualized. Even in the present phase of capitalism’s intelligent machines the weapons of workplace strike and occupation, though weakened, are not exhausted. At the same time, as we saw in 2011, there is a tendency of proletarians (including a downwardly mobile middle strata) who are excluded from or overmatched by capital at the site of production, to take struggles to the streets and squares, where they come into direct conflict with the state apparatus: this is well described by Joshua Clover in his recent Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. Alongside all this, however, we should also consider the explosion of cyber-crime, currently costing corporations billions. Most of this is indeed criminal, not political; but I wonder if at some point strains of militant hacking capable of disabling financial and corporate networks in support of social uprisings — a sort of “dark” version of the earlier “radiant” thesis of immaterial labour empowerment — will emerge.  If so, then the future of cyber-proletarian struggle may yet link the strike, the riot and the hack in the context of mass movements inspired by the meme of a new communism.

 

1. Ursula Huws is a sociologist, author of The making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real world, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2003.

2. Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat : Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, Toronto, Pluto Press, 2015.

3. Ryan Avant, The Wealth of Humans :Work and its Absence in the Twenty-First Century, Penguin Books, 2017.

4. Accessible on https://endnotes.org.uk

5. Meaning, despite all their differences: Negri and Hardt, Yann Moulier-Boutang, and the group of Carlo Vercellone, Andrea Fumagalli, Bernard Paulré, Patrick Dieuaide, among others.

6. Coltan (short name for colombite-tantalite) is a rare mineral, and an essential component of mobile phones and laptops, whose extraction, organized indirectly by German, Belgian and American multinational companies, is partly responsible for the deepening of the bloody conflicts in the african Great Lakes region, in the past 15 years.

7. Free/open-source technologies – originally softwares but also potentially every kind of material inventions – are not enclosed by intellectual property rights : a technology is free if its source code or blueprint or specifications can be accessed freely, but also executed or used, modified and shared (with or without modifications). The Linux operating system – the favorite exemple of Free software advocates –, that has been developped by volunteers, during an ongoing open process, ended up being so efficient that the majority of servers in the world are now running on it. “Open-source”, in the strict sense, denotes such an open technological production, but reduced to a business model rid of the values of horizontality and sharing intrinsic to the Free movement. To keep it simple, we don’t always make the distinction.

8. The various Creative Commons licenses are legal tools allowing producers of intellectual works to anchor their production in the Free domain while setting the terms : for instance, modifications of the work could be authorized, but the commercial use of such derivatives forbidden.

9. It means every practice of hijacking and reclaiming technology.

10. Modding is the activity of developping mods, modifications of existing video games realized by the community of its users.

11. Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx : Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

12. A “meme” is a cultural element that massively spreads via social medias.