A Review of Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex by Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, edited by Christian Fuchs and Vincent Mosco
Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
The two books, Cyber-Proletariat by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, edited by Christian Fuchs and Vincent Mosco, both attempt to address the changes wrought by digital labour. Dyer-Witheford combines insights from the Marxist theories of autonomism and communisation in a rich, if somewhat dense, analysis. This is compared to Fuchs and Mosco’s book, focusing on Fuchs’s arguments and Brown and Quan-Hasse’s attempt at a social-media users’ inquiry. The problematic analysis of unpaid labour and the audience commodity is subjected to critique in the review. However, both are considered as making important contributions to ongoing debates in Marxism. In particular, the review argues that these debates are most useful when considered in relation to practice, whether organisational or empirical. These questions of worker resistance, the reorganisation of capital, and the implications for contemporary Marxism, can potentially be explored further through an updated method of the workers’ inquiry.
Marxism – digital labour – Autonomism – social media
Nick Dyer-Witheford, (2015) Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, London: Pluto Press.
Christian Fuchs and Vincent Mosco (eds.), (2015) Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, Leiden: Brill.
The concept of digital labour presents three interrelated questions. The first is how workers are resisting and organising in new conditions, which also involves a debate about who now fits into this category. The second is the need to develop a new understanding of how capital is organised. The third is how critical theorists in general, and Marxists in particular, can apply and develop their analysis in relation to both of these changes. These two books, Cyber-Proletariat by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, edited by Christian Fuchs and Vincent Mosco, both attempt to address the changes wrought by digital labour/capitalism. Nick Dyer-Witheford is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario. Christian Fuchs is a Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster and also the editor of tripleC, an open-access journal, while Vincent Mosco is an Emeritus Professor at Queen’s University in Canada. Although they share common research interests in media, the focus of each book is different, and there are important arguments to draw out that have a significance for the project of revitalising a critical Marxism.
Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat is a detailed and wide-ranging analysis. The book is focused on two concepts: cybernetics and the proletariat, the combination of which forms the title, similar to ‘cybertariat’, as used by Ursula Huws. The choice of focusing on these two specific terms confers the book a distinctive analysis. Cybernetics is explained as having two meanings: the first is that rooted in military research that began during the Second World War, with the second relating to computer systems. These two definitions are considered together, ‘taking the ideas of cybernetic thinkers as a guide to how computers in general have altered the technological processes of capital’. This entails seeing machines ‘as entities governed by information control’. The choice of the term ‘proletariat’ – as opposed to workers, working class, and so on – may initially bring to mind the rose-tinted nostalgia of productivist Marxism, yet Dyer-Witheford deploys it to much greater effect. By drawing on Marx’s notion of workers as ‘free in the double sense’, and the etymological roots of the term in ancient Rome to describe the urban poor possessing nothing but the ability to reproduce themselves, the analytical scope is broadened. Building on Marcel van der Linden’s recent work, there is a reminder that globally ‘a large proportion of the working class is workless’. While the book covers electronics workers, call-centre operators, and peasants drawn into the factories, there is also a recognition that ‘now, as in Marx’s era, proletariat denotes the incessant phasing in and out of work and workless-ness, the inherent precarity, of the class that must live by labour, a condition raised to a new peak by global cybernetics.’
The argument unfolds through the meteorological metaphor of a vortex, emphasising the turbulence of changes taking place across the world. Marx and Engels’s evocation of ‘all that is solid melts into air’ is brought to life in a way that reflects the chaos that this involves. For Dyer-Witheford, this is comprised of three processes: ‘production, circulation and financialization’. The dynamics of these are explored through the composition of two factors: capital and the proletariat. This focus on composition signals the influence of autonomist Marxism on the book, with attention paid to ‘the relation between the technical conditions of the work (or worklessness) and the forms of political organization to which it gives rise’. This composition is considered globally, taking in the ruins of Detroit, Silicon Valley, rare-mineral mines in the global South, and the high-tech factories of China, to name but a few. Yet what is notable is the focus on the financial crash of 2008 and the wave of uprisings dating from 2011, which takes the form of a ‘post-post-operaismo’ analysis. This somewhat-awkward term signals a departure from Dyer-Witheford’s previous perspectives in Cyber-Marx and Games of Empire, entailing a more critical autonomist position. As he has argued recently, this is a result of involvement in the alter-globalisation movement and the post-2008 struggles. It therefore starts with ‘the “Facebook revolution” trope’ before moving on to the analysis of ‘the deeper effect of cybernetics on the restructuring of labor within advanced capitalism’. The latest book also takes a less optimistic view of technology, involving a rejection of Hardt and Negri’s later work by starting not with ‘multitude’ as before, but rather the ‘proletariat’.
This ‘post-post-operaismo’ perspective found in Dyer-Witheford’s latest book involves a conversation between autonomism and communisation theory. While autonomism ‘emphasizes workers’ antagonism to capital’, communisation theory ‘insists that we must understand that workers are also part of capital’. The latter, for example, is found in the work of Cunningham and Noys. The combination of the two, Dyer-Witheford argues, stems from the ‘characteristic problems’ of each: autonomism ‘is chronically optimistic’, while communisation theory ‘has a very studied melancholia’. This promises the possibility of finding a theoretically-productive meeting point. The question of linking this debate to some kind of practice is far from straightforward. Both in the book and elsewhere, he explains that he is ‘sympathetic’ to groups like Plan C in the UK, ‘who recognize that we do need to collectively as a movement think about issues of transition’. This orientation towards practice comes first from the use of inquiries by Wildcat, Kolinko, and Asia Monitor Resource Centre. It is then reinforced with the reminder that ‘Cybernetics was from its start the creation of war’ and ‘future proletarian struggles should adequate themselves to wartime’.
The book is an exciting reapplication of Marxism to the pressing questions of digital labour. It is at its sharpest when these questions are considered in relation to concrete examples. Although these examples are not based on primary research, they often involve a new and nuanced take. At other points the dense nature of the text can become challenging, potentially limiting the readership to those engaged in academia. This would be a shame, as there is much that can be taken from the book. In particular, the discussion of workers’ inquiries – a point that will be returned to later in the review – is important, but it also signals that many of these new attempts at analysing digital capitalism could benefit from pushing the questions into empirical or organisational projects.
Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism
This book is the first of a two-part collection, which also includes Marx and the Political Economy of the Media. As Fuchs and Mosco explain, the aim of both ‘is to contribute to overcoming’ what they see as a ‘lack of [a] systematic reading of Marx on communication and media’. This is an admirable aim, although more limited in scope than Dyer-Witheford’s. The relevance of the topic is reiterated with a reminder of the importance of media for Marx, particularly given that ‘in addition to his work as a theorist and activist’ he ‘was a practicing journalist throughout his career’. While there is not the space to discuss each of the chapters separately in the review, it is worth noting that Miriyam Aouragh’s chapter on ‘Social Media, Mediation and the Arab Revolutions’ is particularly useful, considering the discussion of the topic in Dyer-Witheford’s book. This section of the review will instead focus on the Introduction, Fuchs’s chapter, and the study taking inspiration from this approach by Brown and Quan-Haase.
The first chapter begins with the declaration from the head of a Berlin publishing house that ‘Marx is fashionable again’, something echoed by the Labour shadow-chancellor. Although moments like this are no doubt exciting for Marxists – particularly when thinking back to how unlikely it would have been to hear such things before the 2008 crisis – it is also necessary to be sober about how reflective they are of broader changes. The Introduction articulates how a Marxist theory of communication should, drawing on Mosco’s earlier work, ‘foreground the analysis of capitalism, including the development of the forces and relations of production, commodification and the production of surplus value, social class divisions and struggles, contradictions and oppositional movements’. This is an exciting prospect, but one held back by their use of Dallas Smythe’s concept of the audience commodity. Fuchs and Mosco describe this as the way in which ‘capital is accumulated by selling the audience, at a rate determined by its demographic characteristics, as a commodity to advertising clients’.
The position on the audience commodity is restated and developed in Fuchs’s chapter, along with a survey of the literature in media studies. This involves a schematic application of ‘Marxian categories’ that ‘Critical Internet Studies to a certain degree already makes use of … and should therefore acknowledge its own Marxian roots’. While the eleven items listed are all things that Marxists should be concerned with, simply encountering the use of these concepts does not prove the utility of Marxism by default. Unfortunately there are no short-cuts for overcoming the theoretical, practical, and organisational challenges that face Marxists today. The chapter continues with Fuchs’s argument for a ‘digital labour theory of value’ that stems from ‘the value of a commodity measured as the average number of hours it takes to produce it’. This update of the labour theory of value hinges on what Fuchs’s claims is a ‘crucial question’, whether ‘the users of commercial social media are generating value and are exploited’.
This conceptual problem is also found in Fuchs’s earlier book Digital Labour and Karl Marx. It is an argument that starts with the blurring of work and play in contemporary capitalism, but takes it to the extreme by arguing that users are actually working for companies like Google and Facebook. The first, and perhaps most obvious, critique of this position is that Facebook users are not ‘free in the double sense’ Marx described. Fuchs’s response is that it involves ‘a social form of coercion that threatens the user with isolation and social disadvantages’. The audience-commodity claim is justified by Fuchs’s position that ‘profit … is the outcome of unpaid labour time’, whether from the part of the working day when the worker is producing a surplus above their wage, or outside of paid employment. This is justified with reference to the debates over unpaid domestic labour, for example in Dalla Costa and James. However, As Chris Land has pointed out, ‘in one sense Fuchs is correct and provides quotes from Marx to back up his claims about unpaid labour being the source of value, but he also performs a theoretical sleight of hand.’ In doing so, Fuchs ‘misrepresents Marx’s main point about exploitation and waged labour’. In Capital, Marx notes how the exchange of the commodity labour-power between the buyer (the capitalist) and the seller (the worker) appears straightforward. Yet, once this transaction is followed ‘into the hidden abode of production’, it is here that ‘the secret of profit-making’ can be found. The transaction that has taken place is different to that of other commodities because the buyer purchases a potential that can only be realised once it is put to work. This indeterminacy of labour-power is crucial for understanding the workplace and value. Once a capitalist has ‘purchased a given quantity of labour power’, they ‘must now “stride ahead” and strive to extract actual labour from the labour power’ they ‘now legally own’.
This indeterminacy of labour-power is the secret found in the ‘hidden abode of production’, in contrast to the claim that it is only unpaid labour that creates value. The argument that ‘there is not an equivalence between the value produced by labour and its remuneration is not the same as saying that unpaid labour is the source of all surplus value.’ This provides the basis for Fuchs’s argument regarding social-media users, leading to a calculation like the following:
What is the value of the single ad presented to a user? It is the average labour=usage time needed for the production of the ad presentation. Let’s assume these 27 172 420 million users are on average 60 minutes per day on Facebook and in these 60 minutes 60 ads are presented to them on average. All the time they spend online is used for generating targeted ads. It is labour time that generates targeted ad presentations. We can therefore say that the value of a single ad presented to a user is in the presented example 1 minute of labour/usage/prosumption time.
On this basis, Fuchs declares Facebook usage to be labour, and even productive labour (so long as ad-blockers are not used, and presumably the user also watches or pays attention to the adverts). Thus users browsing on Facebook are the ‘21st century equivalents of what Marx considered as transport workers in classical industry’. The process of looking at funny pictures of cats, for example, becomes one of the activities ‘necessary for “transporting” use-value promises from companies to potential customers’. As Michael A. Lebowitz has pointed out, ‘however much Marxian verbiage may subsequently enter into the discussion’ of the audience commodity, ‘it cannot alter the fact that what is produced is an entirely un-Marxian argument with un-Marxian conclusions which follow from the initial premise.’
Fuchs’s theorisation entails the wholesale rejection of any alternative ways to understand this. It means failing to engage with the idea of rent: ‘if we want to understand the expropriation of value from forms of unpaid labour like Facebook, then an updated, but still Marxist, conception of rent seems to fit very well.’ Companies like Facebook could be understood as acting like a landlord, as the users’ ‘“labour” makes the site more productive, and they can charge advertisers a rent to access this digital territory.’ This would still involve the claim that users are exploited, but in a different way to that detailed by Marx. While the broadening out of the analysis from traditional wage-work is important – and indeed is dealt with by Dyer-Witheford, as discussed above – the consequences of not agreeing with Fuchs’s analysis do not necessarily mean ‘Facebook users are seen as unproductive and unexploited’, nor do they have ‘patriarchal and racist implications’. If anything, the attempt to attribute equivalency between social-media users and other forms of unpaid work – housework or slavery, for example – is itself deeply problematic.
A Workers’ Inquiry 2.0?
The problematic analysis of the audience commodity overshadows what could have been an interesting chapter on an updated workers’ inquiry. Brown and Quan-Hasse take Fuchs’s analysis and Bruns’s notion of ‘produsage’ to study the users of Flickr, an online picture gallery incorporating social networking. They argue that ‘users’ is, in fact, a ‘complete misnomer’, because these are ‘produsers … willing to produce content at no cost to the owners of these domains at the same time as these sites generate massive profits’. The ‘Workers’ Inquiry 2.0’ is therefore positioned as a study of these ‘produsers’, ostensibly updating both Marx and the ‘methods of the Italian autonomists’. This comes after a recent burst of interest in the workers’ inquiry as a method and practice, seen in the special issues of Ephemera and Viewpoint, neither of which are discussed in this chapter. There has also been a range of interesting attempts to update the workers’ inquiry method, seen, for example, with the Kolinko call-centre inquiry discussed by Dyer-Witheford.
The analysis involves a comparison of industrial-factory labour to social-media ‘produsage’, and finds both similarities and differences. Drawing on Fuchs’s digital labour theory of value, Brown and Quan-Hasse argue that ‘the mode of produsage should be considered hyper-exploitative because it does not even offer its legions of workers a wage in exchange for their labour power and time’. While it is true that no wage is offered to the ‘produser’, neither are they coerced into working on the platform, nor do they rely on the activity to reproduce their own labour-power. Despite this, the prospect of finding struggle on the Flickr platform is interesting, even if it is in user communities. In an optimistic part of the chapter, Brown and Quan-Hasse argue that there is ‘nascent evidence that this hyper-exploitative relationship is causing produsers to organize struggles against it’. Unfortunately this is focused around what they call the ‘frequent uproars occurring on social networking sites regarding the violation of one’s privacy [which] have time and again resulted in controversy’. They continue to argue that ‘the near-exclusive focus on the violation of one’s privacy as the cause of these uproars is a mischaracterization and a mistake’, and quote Brown’s earlier research. However, given the recent revelations about privacy and surveillance – particularly as related to WikiLeaks and discussed by Dyer-Witheford – it does seem to retain some importance.
There is a defence of the analysis of super-exploitation of ‘produsers’, taking a similar line to Fuchs, that again attempts to connect it with the struggle of domestic labour. However, Dyer-Witheford addressed this in a much more nuanced way, rejecting
a direct equivalence between the experience of, say, the dagongmei and Facebook users. But vampire bites come in many ways. Facebook posting is a form of exploitation, which, without explicit violence, is nonetheless parasitic. It does not replace the ‘normal’ structures of daily class exploitation at work and home, but is added to and superimposed upon them, to constitute a regime in which the user is habituated, on pain of exclusion from social worlds, to surrendering the elements of their personality – identity, creativity, sociality – to enhance the circulation of capital. This submission is not the same as the brutal bodily discipline inflicted on the dagongmei, but it is a form of subjectification that is both infiltrative and extroversive in the abject submission to the commodity form it elicits.
This analytical position does not require a rejection of all non-waged labour and it allows for an understanding of how these activities fit together with existing forms of paid and unpaid labour.
The idea of Web 2.0 entailed the rise of websites involving user-generated content. These questions have been complicated with the growth of crowdsourcing or so-called sharing-economy platforms, whether that be the astronomic valuations of Uber (a cab company that owns no cars) or Airbnb (an accommodation company that owns no beds). In the case of crowdsourcing in particular, the mixture of paid and unpaid labour is an interesting phenomenon. For example, the Zooniverse – a crowdsourcing platform for citizen science that has involved over 1.3 million users – allows individual users to contribute to the categorisation of large-scale scientific data. In this case the tensions between citizen scientists, professional scientists, and paid software developers highlight the complexity of understanding the processes involved.
In the context of academic work, writing articles is a good example of the complexities involved. The wage paid to academics does not necessarily cover specific times, with many contracts now stipulating that the employment has no fixed hours and there is an expectation to work the hours necessary to complete the necessary duties. The journal articles that are the result of research (leaving aside the questions of teaching and marking) often end up behind paywalls, with publishers charging for individual or institutional access. Many academics now share articles on websites that are organised along the Web 2.0 model. Across these three cases there is a mixture of exploitative relationships taking place. To use Dyer-Witheford’s phrase, the ‘vampire bites come in many ways’, but is the relationship more or less exploitative when it is not connected to the wage? This fixation draws a false separation between the overlapping processes taking place, the correction to focusing solely on waged-work resulting in the opposite, rather than engaging with the contradictions and complexities.
It is clear that in order to answer these questions – or indeed to ensure that the right questions are being posed – further empirical work should be undertaken both online and offline. As Trebor Scholz has argued, many of these platforms involve ‘digital black box labor’, obfuscating the processes taking place behind the front page of the website. However, it is important to clarify what Marx originally intended with the workers’ inquiry and how this was elaborated in further attempts. Brown and Quan-Hasse argue that the ‘method was to provide workers with the intellectual and emotional tools required to struggle against their own exploitation’. However, for Marx, the ‘practice of disseminating the inquiry also represented a step towards organizing this project, by establishing direct links with workers’. In the context of online activity, Irani and Silberman’s ‘Turkopticon’ project points towards how this could be achieved. They launched an inquiry through the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform to reach people engaging on that paid micro-work platform. Following this, an activist system was created that combined a forum and a browser plug-in. This allowed workers to collect and share information on the requesters, something which is particularly important given that the ownership of completed tasks switches over immediately, while payment can be refused with no justification. This formed the beginning of an organisational project on a platform where workers are at a significant structural disadvantage.
The Implications of the Arguments
Both of these books make important interventions in the debates on digital labour and capitalism. Dyer-Witheford’s book opens up a number of important questions and combines insights from two contemporary critical strains of Marxism. Fuchs and Mosco’s book is more limited in its focus on communication and media, although that would also likely make the book appealing to those studying or researching in that discipline. The topics involved have the potential to lead to a number of fruitful debates, many of which are crucial for updating and reinvigorating Marxism. Arguably, Dyer-Witheford’s contribution is more of a conversation with the left, while Fuchs and Mosco’s is broader – to the right of this, rather than with the right. The questions posed by both are best considered in relation to practice, both in terms of organising and empirical interventions. This is highlighted by Dyer-Witheford, who explains, as part of an argument against the accelerationists, that ‘there is a failure to acknowledge that the passage from the potential to the actualization of such communist possibilities involves crossing what William Morris describes as a “river of fire.”’ The debate about the audience commodity and the unpaid labour of social-media users would be much more interesting if the implications were considered in these terms. The key is to open up the three questions discussed at the beginning: how are workers (and who would this include?) resisting and organising, how has capital reorganised, and what does this mean for contemporary Marxism? The method of workers’ inquiry, which emerges in different forms across the two books, has the potential to be one important way to do this.
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 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 15.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 12.
 Dyer-Witheford 1999.
 Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015b.
 Hardt and Negri 2001.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 12.
 Cunningham 2009.
 Noys (ed.) 2011.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015b.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 15.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 204.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 15.
 Fuchs and Mosco (eds.) 2015b.
 Fuchs and Mosco 2015, p. 5.
 Fuchs and Mosco 2015, p. 6.
 Aouragh 2015.
 Fuchs 2015.
 Brown and Quan-Haase 2015.
 Fuchs and Mosco 2015, p. 1.
 Dathan 2015.
 Mosco 2009, p. 94.
 Smythe 1977.
 Fuchs and Mosco 2015, p. 11.
 Fuchs 2015.
 Fuchs 2015, p. 36.
 Fuchs 2015, p. 44.
 Fuchs 2015, p. 45.
 Fuchs 2014.
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 Fuchs 2014, p. 255.
 Fuchs 2014, p. 6.
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 Land 2015, p. 881.
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 Fuchs 2015, p. 53.
 Fuchs 2015, p. 54.
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 Fuchs 2015, p. 46.
 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015.
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 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015, p. 447.
 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015, p. 449.
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 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015, p. 457.
 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015, p. 458.
 Brown 2013.
 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015, p. 459.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 93.
 Woodcock, Greenhill, Holmes, Graham, Cox, Oh and Masters 2017.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015a, p. 93.
 Scholz 2015.
 Brown and Quan-Hasse 2015, p. 475.
 Haider and Mohandesi 2013.
 Irani and Silberman 2013.
 Dyer-Witheford 2015b.