Christian Fuchs: Internet and Class Struggle

Interviewed by Benjamin Bürbaumer

Picachu

A French version of this interview was originally published at http://revueperiode.net/internet-et-lutte-des-classes/

  • Your book Digital Labour and Karl Marx offers an inspiring analysis of things we daily do, such as browsing on the internet, using social media... What motivated you to develop a Marxist theory of communication?

 

Marx had lots of things to say about the means of communication. But this dimension is often underestimated and treated as being merely superstructural and secondary. There is largely a neglect of communication(s) in Marxist theory. In the past decade, David Harvey has brought about a turn towards the spatial and economic geography in Marxist theory. This has also resulted to a certain degree on less focus on aspects of time in critical political economy. My point is that all social space is not just organised in time, but also constituted in and through communicative practices. Labour also requires communication for being organised as social activity. So I argue for a communication(s) turn in Marxist theory. This is also the point of my new follow-up book to Digital Labour and Karl Marx (2014) and Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media (2015). This new volume is titled Reading Marx in the Information Age: A Media and Communication Studies Perspective on Marx’ “Capital Volume I” (2016). It is a kind of Lire le Capital in the communication age, but it is anti-Althusserian and it is systematic, Hegelian, dialectical and grounded in humanist Marxism.

  • In Culture and Society Raymond Williams put forward the necessity of a "Marxist theory of culture", something that Marx “outlined” but “never fully developed”. Where do current cultural and media studies stand regarding Marxism1?

 

Media and communication studies originated in public relations, which is also today its dominant field. So, overall, it is a very administrative and ideological field. However, over the decades also the field of critical political economy of communication has developed, especially in the UK, the USA and Canada. And this field has been interested in Marxist and other critical political economy approaches. Important representatives have for example been Dallas Smythe, Herbert Schiller, Dan Schiller, Graham Murdock, Peter Golding, Vincent Mosco, Janet Wasko, James Curran, Colin Sparks, Eileen Meehan, and others. In the French context, Armand Mattelart could be considered to be the main representative because he edited this two volume collection Communication and Class Struggle. Critical political economy of communication(s) as a sub-field of media and communication studies has however lacked a systematic understanding and integration of Marx’s writings. Critical media and communication studies suffered a drawback in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s because of the rise of neo-liberalism, postmodernism and identity politics. Since the start of the new crisis of capitalism in 2008, the renewed interest in Marx has also had impact in media and communication studies. The journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique (http://www.triple-c.at) that I edit together with Marisol Sandoval has become the major journal of Marxist media and communication research. In 2012, we published a huge special issue titled “Marx Is Back: The Importance of Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today”, co-edited by me and Vincent Mosco. Last year updated versions of these articles were published as two books by Brill. They are called Marx and the Political Economy of the Media and Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism. Paperback editions will be published this autumn.

  • In order to discuss digital labour Marx's conceptualization of the labour theory of value seems insightful. To what extent do the current debates on the Neue Marx Lektüre help us to understand digital labour?

 

You can understand new readings of Marx in a general and in a specific sense. In general, re-reading Marx is a very important endeavour and we should be heterodox about it and foster reading Marx everywhere. New interpretations will emerge when younger generations engage with Marx. In a specific sense, the Neue Marx Lektüre is a German school of engagement with Marx. It goes back to the works of Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus. Today, Michael Heinrich is the main representative. There are many problems in this approach, one of them being its very Germanic take on Marx and that one should only read specific texts of Marx in German, rendering all international non-German interpretations invalid. The other problem becomes evident if you look into one of the books of Heinrich, Reichelt or Backhaus: communication(s) are not discussed at all. You should not misunderstand me: I am not arguing for a Habermasian critical theory. Of course, any critical and Marxist theory of communication must engage with Habermas. But Habermas went too far away from Marx. I am arguing for a Marxist theory of communication(s) and capitalism that is dialectical and materialist. My main starting points are Hegel, Marx, Marcuse, Dallas Smythe and Raymond Williams.

  • You hold that after the dot.com crisis in 2000 there was a need to establish new capital accumulation strategies for the capitalist internet economy. Today the Internet is often presented as a space for participatory culture and new democracy. What strategy has been developed?

 

The emergence of so-called web 2.0 and social media was both an ideology and a capital accumulation strategy: it promised huge new profits, which was a strategy to attract financial investors. It promised a participatory Internet of prosumers, which disguised the strategy of targeted advertising and the crowdsourced exploitation of digital labour that became prominent in the so-called “new web”. So there were new strategies of capital accumulation and ideology aimed at reproducing the old structures of exploitation and capital accumulation. Google and Facebook are not communication companies, but the world’s largest advertising agencies. “Social media” is all about targeted advertising.

  • While opposing the notion of immaterial labour you argue that on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all consumption time is commodity production time. Could you explain the notion of the prosumer?

 

This idea goes back to Alvin Toffler’s bourgeois theory of the third wave. He saw major economic and democratic potentials in prosumption. My interpretation is not based on Toffler, but on Dallas Smythe’s theory of the audience commodity and audience labour: audiences of advertising-funded media produce their own attention as commodity that is sold to advertisers as commodity. So they are audience workers. On social media, we can say that users are producers of value objectified in data that is sold as commodity to targeted advertising clients of Google, Facebook, Weibo, Baidu, etc. They are digital workers in a social media-context. Immaterial labour is not a theoretical precise concept because in a materialist theory of society there is nothing immaterial. To speak of immateriality is dualistic and has quite religious implications, namely that matter and “spirit” are the two substances the world is made of. I prefer to speak of mental/informational/cultural labour. In a materialist theory of culture, information is produced by cultural work and so is economic and material. At the same time, culture and information are not limited to the economy, but sublate the economy and take effect all over society. In the book Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media (2015), I ground the Marxist study of communication and digital media in Raymond Williams’ cultural materialism for reconceptualising the relationship of culture and economy or of “base” and “superstructure”.

  • How does audience labour function on social media?

 

I point out how this can be understood based on Marxist theory in chapters 4 and 12 of Digital Labour and Karl Marx and chapter 5 of Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media. It has become a quite sophisticated theory debate that goes into many details of Marx’s labour theory of value. So, for a full understanding I can only refer you to studying these chapters. Here, I can only point out the most rudimentary foundations because Marx’s labour theory of value in the Internet age is not something that you can explain in two minutes, you need hours and days for it. We find “audiences” on classical mass media. On social media, we are partly audiences when watching videos on YouTube, reading postings on Facebook and Twitter, etc. Of course, that is audience labour giving attention to advertisements and thereby producing value. But we also turn at some points of time from audiences into productive users who create social use-values that is objectified in “user-generated content” that includes textual postings, videos, images, comments, images, etc. These use-values have value and exchange-value if we create it on targeted advertising-based platforms: these platforms sell these data to advertising clients who are enabled to present targeted ads on our social media profiles. The more time we spend on such targeted ad platforms, the more data we produce that is commodified, the more targeted ads are presented to us, and the more likely we are to click on these ads. That is the core of the law of value on social media platforms. At the same time this value does not automatically translate into profits because on average people only click on one out for 1000 presented targeted ads. So, the transformation of exploited labour that produces value on social media into profit is highly insecure. This insecurity is at the heart of the financialisation of social media. So corporate, targeted advertising-based social media at the same time advance the exploitation of labour – which means they deepen class division – and advance the insecurities and crisis-proneness of capitalism. That’s the antagonistic structural dialectic that capital accumulation in the capitalist social media age finds itself in.

  • How do notions like “unpaid labour” (Silvia Federici) and “social factory” (Mario Tronti) allow connecting Marxist political economy of the media and communication to feminism and studies of race and postcolonialism?

 

For me, the common denominator is Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of ongoing primitive accumulation: capitalism needs milieux of ongoing primitive accumulation that it exploits in order to continue to exist. Unpaid, precarious, crowdsourced, informal, casual, etc. forms of labour are such milieus of ongoing primitive accumulation that feature high levels of exploitation. Of course, there are important social differences between colonial exploitation, the exploitation of houseworkers and the exploitation of users. But all of them conduct low-paid or unpaid labour and are therefore a necessary constituent of the reproduction of contemporary capitalism and parts of the contemporary working class. There is a tendency that some observers separate class relations and say different economic relations are completely incomparable. That is nonsense and ideologically dangerous because only if the exploited of the world unite, will we be able to abolish capitalism.

  • Since the 1980 there is an increasing interest in the concept of information society. How can Marx's distinction between productive forces and relations of production help us to understand the debates concerning the information society?

 

I have written a chapter in Digital Labour and Karl Marx that grounds the question of the relationship between capitalism and the information society in Adorno’s 1968 essay and lecture “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? The Fundamental Question of the Present Structure of Society”. Bourgeois information society theory tends to claim that the information/knowledge/network/digital/post-industrial etc. society has substituted capitalism. Marxists tend to react by dismissing this discourse as ideology and stressing we live in an unchanged capitalist society. Both positions are one-dimensional. Capitalism needs to constantly change in order to remain the same. It develops in phases. The relations of production are capitalist class relations and constitute a capitalist economy. The information economy is one specific mode of organisation of the productive forces. But the capitalist information economy is not the only dimension of the productive forces. We not just live in informational capitalism, but simultaneously also in financial capitalism, hyperindustrial capitalism, mobilities capitalism, etc. There are diverse modes of the productive forces and interconnected class relations constituting many capitalisms that are dynamic and diverse and thereby constitute a unity of exploitation and one global capitalism. For details it is worth reading chapter 5 in Digital Labour and Karl Marx.

  • In Capital Volume One Marx stated that “we suffer not only from the living, but from the dead”2. In this perspective, scholars such as Jairus Banaji and Harry Harootunian hold that, in contrast to Stalinism and vulgar Marxism, there isn't only one historical form of labour and surplus appropriation for a given mode of production. In fact, „surviving practices from prior modes of production were not remnants”, they now act “in a different historical environment serving the pursuit of surplus value”3. What do the particular value chains and the new international division of digital labour, on which ICT work is based, look like?

 

Stalin and orthodox Marxism got the concept of the mode of production wrong and turned it into a political terroristic and logically deterministic interpretation of history.

In class societies, one mode of production does not eliminate another one, but there is a dialectical sublation. So, feudalism, patriarchy, slavery, etc. continue to exist in capitalism. The international division of digital labour that is the mode of the organisation of the production of digital media features diverse forms of exploitation, including slave-labour in the Congo, Taylorist assembly workers at Foxcon, precarious information workers, highly paid play-workers at Google etc. that form a digital labour aristocracy, unpaid digital prosumers, precarious crowdworkers, etc. At the end, the few benefit from the exploitation of the many in the international division of digital labour.

  • Recent uprisings have often been described as “Twitter revolutions” or “Facebook rebellions”. What is the social media's strategic role in social struggles?

 

On the one hand, there are techno-euphoric authors who say social media cause revolutions and uprisings. This is a one-dimensional and techno-deterministic argumentation. On the other hand, radical theorists such as David Harvey, Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Žižek completely dismiss the role of digital media in revolutions and say that it is bodies on the streets that matter. All of this is speculative. We need Marxist empirical sociology to answer the question what the role of digital and social media is in social movements. My book OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism is such a study. There are dialectics of online/offline, traditional/new media, face-to-face/mediation, etc. The problem is that the main digital media are corporate and bureaucratic in character, which poses the problem of the exploitation of social movement activists’ digital labour as well as the problem of state surveillance.

  • Evgeny Morozov suggested to "socialize the data centers"4. You insist on the necessity of a commons-based Internet. What could a commons-based social networking platform look like?

 

Evgeny Morozov is one of the sceptics of digital media euphoria. But before he turned into a sceptic, he was a techno-deterministic optimist. So, he radically changed his position. He is a good journalistic writer. His short pieces are very good and provocative. But at book length it is horrible to read him because he has no idea of Marxist theory and of social theory in general. For me he is a critical journalist. Paul Mason is a similar example. When such journalists write books, the outcome tends to be theoretically superficial. The point to socialise the data centres is certainly an important one. But it is more than this: We need to overcome commodification in general and struggle for a democratic-commonist and socialist society, commonism as a new socialism. Political economic changes of society are the precondition for alternative media and alternative Internet platforms. Alternative media and Internet platforms within capitalism face the problem of precarious, self-exploited labour, lack of resources and competition with capitalist monopolies. There is also the problem that commons-based projects in capitalism such as free software turn into the unpaid idiots of capital and benefit corporations’ capital accumulation in various ways. Therefore they need political support. My suggestions include to tax advertising and corporations and to create a participatory media fee that supports alternative platforms. See http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/661/670 for details. The participatory media fee is a combination of civil society politics and state politics. But we also need public service Internet platforms. A network of public service broadcasters could for example develop a public service YouTube alternative that is non-profit and advertising-free and makes the entire programme archives of these channels available in digital format using Creative Commons licences so that users can re-use and transform all this content. Public universities could as networks develop alternative search engines and other alternative online projects. The Internet started in universities, it is time that its control partly returns to it. And other parts should be controlled by civil society and public service media organisations.

In the end, it is politically all about alternatives to neoliberalism and capitalism. In the context of capitalism, a capitalist Internet will develop. The Internet is contradictory and various political economies collide on it. Only the social struggle for alternatives to capitalism can create a fair society and a fair Internet. Both do not-yet exist. And at the moment we face the danger of the rise of new fascism, new nationalism, new racisms, etc., which could result in a new world war. The world is not in a good state. Today it is again about Engels’ and Luxemburg’s alternative: Either we will have socialism or barbarism… The latter is more likely, except if massive social struggles for socialism can prevent it.

1 https://ia802708.us.archive.org/32/items/culturesociety17001850mbp/culturesociety17001850mbp.pdf, pp. 283-287

2 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p1.htm

3 HAROOTUNIAN, Marx after Marx, p. 11.

4 https://newleftreview.org/II/91/evgeny-morozov-socialize-the-data-centres