How "New" is the New Labor and (some notes on) its Relation with Cyberculture


Rob Wilkie


"So much of the company propaganda is convincing you that you're not workers, that it's something else, that you're not working class… " ­– Borders' Employee on the "New Economy" [1]

The "cyber" is the ideology of transnational capital in which the cultural imaginary outraces production and all social determinations of class, race, gender and sexuality are undone with the development of a "weightless" economy of symbolic exchanges. The primacy of culture in the new cyber-economy of signs means the end of determinate structures of meaning which presupposed as the condition of explanation the existence of an "outside" to discourse, and substitutes in its place fluid networks of desire which resist interpretation through the endless play of indeterminacy. The cyber, the argument goes, renders culture and its study a permanent "problem" by introducing new modes of social organization that "fit badly with earlier complexities of domination, putting them into question and thereby opening the field […] to new spaces of politics" (Poster 1-20).

Culture, according to this logic, having been freed from any material base through the multiplication of sites of cultural production in "cyberspace", operates as an autonomous zone of contingencies, acting simultaneously as a site of overwhelming power and subversive resistance that blurs the boundaries of all social distinctions and renders all concepts forever "fuzzy". The social, in turn, is put forth as a site of myriad interests and contesting "negotiations" that "oscillate wildly" from one side to the next and that cannot be reduced to any single determination without the charge of totalitarianism (Hitchcock 2). This new ephemeral capitalism and its "virtual" culture is defined by an over media-tion that subverts any singular attempt to define it. As a result, the study of culture is transformed from any materialist interrogation of the complexity of determinations by the systemic class interests that underlie specific manifestations of social "power" to the speculative documentation of the multiplicity of possible outcomes of technological development. It is to move cultural studies from the "outside" of class struggle to the "middle" of political negotiations and overdetermined oscillations from within and to strip from cultural studies, as Aronowitz and Menser advocate, all "first principles, fixed means, or established ends" (17).

This essay is a critique of the "new" logic of the cyber, in which the developments of technoscience in advancing global communications and accelerating the globalization of production are theorized in terms of an epochal shift that transforms the structures of capital from production, wage-labor and profit to consumption, immaterial labor and power. Instead, through an analysis of some exemplary texts of the new "cyber" theory, I will attempt to demonstrate that what is at stake is the obscuring of the fact that not only are the fundamental laws of capitalism not eclipsed by the development of the cyber, but that the increased pace of technological advancement is an indication of the heightened crisis of capitalism and the necessity of social transformation from a system based on the production of private profit to a system based upon the meeting of the needs of all. In other words, against the cultural theory of the autonomy of the "cyber" in which both "Lenin and capitalism [lie] in ruins" (Kroker 175), I will argue that contemporary culture, regardless of the "form" that it takes, is determined by the laws of motion of capital and that the theory of imperialism and monopoly capital developed by Marx and Lenin, which foregrounds the primacy of production in the study of culture, remains the most effective means for understanding the development of the "new" economy of cybercapitalism.  


Declared by its publisher to be a "highly readable and thought provoking work" and by reviewers as a "welcome and timely contribution to discussions about the future of globalization and communication systems" (Downes), Nick Dyer-Witheford's Cyber-Marx: Cycles of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism is a prime example of the post-al left writing [2] that has caught the attention of big business because of the way it translates corporate interests into popular rhetoric for easier consumption. Like Michael Hardt's and Antonio Negri's Empire—which is declared by The New York Times to be "The Next Big Idea"—and Naomi Klein's No Logo—which The Guardian (U.K.) proclaims is "The Das Kapital of the growing anti-corporate movement"—Dyer-Witheford's Cyber-Marx is part of a new ideological assault on the working class from the left. In the name of addressing the "complexity" and "nuance" of cyber-capitalism this post-al left writing attempts to disarm the oppressed and exploited people around the world by convincing them that in the "New Economy" they no longer have any power to resist the workings of capitalism, and that such futility is ultimately O.K. because it is only a matter of time before the fundamental social contradiction between capital and labor, which has the effect of putting to work tremendous technological advances solely for the purposes of producing huge profits for a few while millions live in utter misery, will simply work itself out.

The issue of the "readability" of Dyer-Witheford's text is particularly acute given that many of the assertions the text advances, in particular that capitalism as a result of the influx of new technologies is in an "obvious" "crisis" requiring deep changes and a return to the concept of "class struggle" (217), would have just a few years ago rendered this argument "unintelligible" to the mainstream publications that now praise it. This "shift" in mainstream thinking, which has led to the corporate embrace of the post-al left writers, is indicative of the fact that the "cyber" is in actuality a regime of class struggle in which the technological developments that in the hands of the working class could be used to meet the needs of the world's population are used instead at the expense of the world's majority to create increasing amounts of wealth for a few. As a response to the crisis of overproduction that emerges in the 1970's, the transnational restructuring of production that has come to be known as the "cyber" and is often characterized by concepts such as "post-industrial", "post-fordism", "flexible accumulation", and the expansion of global telecommunications, marks the necessary introduction of new means of increasing and concentrating production on a world scale in order to maintain the rate of profit previously available after the destruction and rebuilding of the global markets following WWII. While the dominant arguments have claimed that the expansion of technoscience and the increasing innovation of industry would represent a new mode of accumulation that radically breaks with the capitalist cycles of "boom and bust", ushering in a post-capitalist mode of production that no longer relies on labor as the source of value and profit, the current crisis of overproduction has pressured, for the capitalist, the "sunny time of this his first love" (Marx Capital I 409) and, in turn, the argument that capitalism as structured by the conflict between capital and labor no longer exists. As capitalism enters a global crisis of overproduction in which the Washington Post now admits that the "unprecedented overbuilding" of the 1990's has "created a vicious downward cycle in which price wars beget bankruptcy and bankruptcies beget more price wars, dragging down weak and strong companies alike" (Pearlstein A01), previously celebratory remarks by the financial czars of transnational capital such as Alan Greenspan about the "New Economy" moving beyond the business of the "old" capitalism and that economic crisis and class struggle were a thing of the past appear—in light of the onset of a "double-dip" recession in the United States, the monetary crises sweeping across South America, and the daily corporate accounting scandals both in the US as well as in Europe that fundamentally threaten "democratic capitalism" (Gore)—to be hopelessly out of touch with social reality today. Even billionaire financier George Soros, who has made hundreds of millions of dollars speculating on the misery of people in the former Soviet Union and in the South, now declares "Globalization has been lopsided" and "The disparity in the treatment of labor and capital is an essential feature of the global capitalist system as it is currently organized" (39).

In this climate of capitalism's crisis of profitability what has made the work of the post-al left writers like Dyer-Witheford so "welcome" is that, unlike the claims of postmodernism which now appear as blatantly advancing a pro-corporate agenda, it speaks to workers in the language of the more "hip" and "savvy" transnational capitalism that recognizes the contradictions of capitalist production and purports to assure the anxieties of an atomized working class while continuing to advance the (corporate) agenda of deregulation and decentralization. Whereas postmodernism echoed capitalism's attack on barriers to capital circulation by proclaiming the textual deconstruction of social binaries as the realm of freedom from determinations such as class inequality, as Dyer-Witheford writes, at this moment of a global contraction of the market "post-Marxism seems, a decade after its first enunciation, strangely dated" (189) and "Contrary to the post-Marxist belief that different kinds of domination politely arrange themselves in a nonhierarchical, pluralistic way the better not to offend anyone's political sensibilities, capitalism is a domination that really dominates" (10). It is as an intervention into postmodernism's "intelligibility crisis" that Dyer-Witheford situates his project as part of the need for constructing a "heretic" Marxism (63) to respond to the social contradictions that have rendered postmodernism a dead language and to address the concerns of the "knowledge workers" who now find themselves facing the economic cycles that supposedly their labor had overcome. What Dyer-Witheford's Cyber-Marx attempts to achieve is the re-securing of the ideological barriers to the questioning of the contradictions of capitalism. By distancing cyber-theory from the more overtly corporate postmodernist de-materialization of culture, while continuing to isolate "culture" (subjective) and the "economic" (objective), the post-al left writing opens a space for the post-politics of transnational capitalism to find legitimacy. It speaks to a crisis of profitability by transforming the anger of the working class into market-friendly "ethical" consumerism that leaves intact the fundamental structures of class inequality.

This is because for Dyer-Witheford while capitalism remains nominally about the struggle between capital and labor (2), he argues that it has undergone a radical transformation from the system based upon production to a system based upon consumption and circulation. He writes that cyber-capitalism, characterized by the imposition of technoscience directly into the production process and the development of "lighter-than-air" means of production (143), has meant a restructuring of "work" from material to immaterial labor such that "the most radical aspect of this socialization of labor is the blurring of wage and nonwaged time. The activities of people not just as workers but as students, consumers, shoppers, and television viewers are now directly integrated into the production process" (80). The inclusion of moments of commodity consumption and the "blurring" of wage and non-wage labor is, according to Dyer-Witheford, necessary if we are to fully understand the impact of cyber-relations wherein "The demarcation between production, circulation and reproduction of capital is dissolved" (81). That Dyer-Witheford's theory of "new" capitalism in which the "world of virtual finance has become both increasingly detached from and superordinate over material production" (139) and "the immediate point of production cannot be considered the 'privileged' point of struggle" (129) reflects the dominant cultural position on the "New Economy" and cyber-capitalism can be seen by the way in which the left so now closely imitates the right in declaring the "end" of capitalism and along with it the necessity of an organized working class resistance as to become almost imperceptible in their differences. For example, corporate guru Peter Drucker also claims that we have entered the "Post-Capitalist Age" in which "The basic economic resource—'the means of production' to use the economist's term—is no longer capital, nor natural resources […] nor 'labor'. It is and will be knowledge […] The leading social groups of the knowledge society will be 'knowledge' workers […and] unlike the employees under Capitalism, they will own both the 'means of production' and the 'tools of production'" (8).

Despite their rhetorical differences, what unites the arguments of the post-al left writers like Dyer-Witheford and corporate flunkies like Peter Drucker is the primary assumption that capitalism has entered a new mode of accumulation, one that is not based upon the exploitation of labor, but instead is based upon the harvesting of knowledge. Capitalism, according to these arguments, is structured by a specific "industrial" relation between capital and labor that is subverted by the introduction of various new "cyber" technologies. What we are witnessing, in other words, in the development of the global economy is a fundamental break from the past in which the boundaries between worker and owner, production and consumption no longer can explain an economic system based upon the circulation of ideas. As, for example, Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics, declares, with the advent of the "information" economy, there has been "a wholesale reinvention of the cultural perception of business and capitalism" in which "even the poor resist being poor" (vii-xi) because of the way in which, in a knowledge economy, anyone can come up with a new idea and following this logic go from being the janitor to becoming the CEO.

According to these arguments, what differentiates the "New Economy" from the old capitalism is the superseding of production by consumption as the locus of profit; both Drucker's "knowledge workers" and Dyer-Witheford's "students, consumers, shoppers and television watchers" are in the end consumers of ideas. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not capitalism has entered a new mode of accumulation in which "knowledge has become the principle force of production over the last few decades" (Lyotard 5), what remains are in fact a constitutive set of social relations that structure all social practices. This is because capitalism, at its root, is about the extraction of surplus value from the surplus labor of workers by owners. As many "dot-com" workers have unfortunately learned during the current economic recession, even if we accept for the moment the dominant argument that the primary concern of capital is the production of "knowledge commodities" such as software applications and commercial media, this does not change the class relation between those who own the means of production—the code, the computers, and the networks in the case of the software industry—and those who own nothing but their labor. As Marx argues, what differentiates labor-power, defined as "the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being" (Capital I 177), from all other commodities, is that it "not only produces its own value, but produces value over and above it" (Capital I 219). Unlike other commodities, in other words, it is only labor-power that produces more value than it contains and thus contains the potential for producing surplus value. In a system in which the primary drive is the accumulation of profit, it is the purchasing of labor-power by the owners from the workers who have nothing else to sell that drives the system and it is this relationship that is not changed by the change in the mode of accumulation.

Capitalism is a dynamic system that is based on increasing profit at all costs and, as Marx argues in Capital, the drive to accumulate increasing amount of profit means the necessity of constantly driving down of the costs of production: "The starting point of Modern Industry is, as we have shown, the revolution in the instruments of labor" (397). The role of technological advancement in capitalism is to lower the costs of production by reducing the time it takes to produce a commodity while simultaneously driving down the cost of labor-power both by expelling workers from the production process and by increasing the competition between workers through the introduction of "redundancy".  It is this relationship of exploitation that from the beginning makes capitalism a "revolutionary" system:

Modern Industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all previous modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the laborer, and in the social combinations of the labor-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labor within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another (Capital 1 489).  

What is at stake, however, in the constant revolutionizing of the means of production is that although at certain moments in the business cycle capitalists are forced to introduce technological innovation as a means of securing market position, in so far as capital relies on the exploitation of labor-power to increase surplus value there emerges a contradiction between on the one hand, the need to introduce new technological advances that drive workers out of production and increase the rate of commodity production and, on the other, the ability of the capitalist to accumulate higher rates of profit. In other words, in so far as surplus value represents the stolen labor-power of workers, capital cannot replace labor with machinery without driving down the rate of profit. It is this relationship between capital and labor, for example, that is ultimately at the base of transnational trade treaties such as NAFTA, MAI and the recently passed "Fast Track" trade legislation in the United States as well as the dramatic movement of industry from North to South in the post-WWII period. The fact is that cheaper labor in the South is still more profitable to the capitalist than an "automatic" factory in the North. This is because it is the exploitation of human labor-power—not machinery, no matter how "automatic"—that is the sole source of corporate profits.

It is this same process of technological innovation and accumulation that leads to a crisis of overproduction.  As a result of the fact that productivity under capital is driven by profit and not by need, technological innovations that expand the productive force of industry result in the production of millions of commodities that cannot be sold.  As the weight of unsold commodities grows, it causes a crisis not in one industry, but across the entire system as the need for raw materials, for investment, for new machinery, for… all grinds to a halt. In other words, it is the very process by which capitalism replaces living with dead labor in order to increase the mass of profits accumulated that simultaneously drives down the general rate of profit as a whole, culminating in a crisis of overproduction (Marx Capital III 209-233). With the current crisis of overproduction, capital has again entered a "vicious downward cycle". That such a crisis can occur, in which the massive "overproduction" of goods happens alongside the fact that almost 3 billion people are forced to try to survive on less than $2.00 per day, is indicative of the absurd anarchy of the production for profit that drives the capitalist system.

What a materialist theory of technology enables is the ability to understand why this crisis of overproduction is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. As Marx writes, "The enormous power, inherent in the factory system, of expanding by jumps, and the dependence of that system on the markets of the world, necessarily beget feverish production, followed by the over-filling of the markets, whereupon contraction of the markets brings crippling of production. The life of modern industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation" (Capital 1 455). What we are witnessing in the development of the cyber-economy, contrary to the arguments of the post-al left and the corporate right, is not the superseding of production, but rather the effect of the tremendous advances in production that have enabled massive amounts of productive force to be concentrated and centralized such that millions of commodities can be produced in an increasingly short amount of time and that these developments have rendered hundreds of thousands of workers "redundant". In terms, for example, of the telecommunications market, what began as a "new" industry, with high profit margins and low production costs leading to monopoly profits, becomes a developed industry with increasing competition that drives down costs, eliminates labor and turns a high profit return into a falling rate. As long as the determining factor in developing new technologies remains the production of private profits, this "vicious downward cycle" that sees the wasted production of millions of commodities while at the same time millions of people lack access to adequate food, housing, health care, education and clean water will inevitably continue.

In fact, developing Marx's argument that as the level of production increases "the law that surplus-value does not arise from the labour-power that has been replaced by machinery but from the labour-power actually employed in working with the machinery asserts itself" (Capital 1 409), Ernest Mandel argues that it is this law of value which results in the crisis of a falling rate of profit that has led, in part, to the centrality of "knowledge" in the new economy.  Mandel argues that what we are witnessing in the globalization of production is not the replacement of labor by "knowledge", but rather the expansion of the role of technoscience, research and development which is necessary to increase the exploitation of labor and maintain the accumulation of profit. He argues that one of the contradictions of contemporary capitalism is the fact that even monopolized transnational corporations, which have developed and concentrated productive forces at the cost of billions of dollars, are

never completely shielded from competition and hence always have an interest in perfecting and bringing a new product onto the market earlier and more massively than their competitors. In this sense, they are undoubtedly interested in expanding the research and development under their control. At the same time, however, in considering each expensive research project they must take into account the inherent risk not only that it may fail to result in any new marketable product at all, but also that a simultaneous innovation by a competitor may make it impossible to realize the anticipated super-profits […which] compels them both to differentiate their research and, at the same time, for pure reasons of valorization of capital, to narrow their development (257).

The consequence, in other words, is that the monopolization of industry requires huge amounts of resources in research and development not as a substitution for labor, but as a supplement to ensure the expansion of production and the reduction of the costs of that production. In fact, contrary to the arguments of the post-capitalists, periods of increased technological development which result in the growth of the productive forces leads not to new development and growth, but rather to stagnation and decay precisely, as Mandel argues, because of the possible negative effects on profit.  It is this stagnation of the "cyber" economy that we are witnessing in, for example, the collapse of the monopoly profits of the telecommunications industry, which has seen massive failures of profitability and layoffs in such giant firms as WorldCom Inc., Lucent Technologies Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd., AT&T Corp. and Qwest Communications International Inc.

The "cyber", however, not only represents the objective developments at the level of production. As a theory of social relations, it is also part of the ideological superstructure that reflects these developments in the attempt to erase and re-write in the cultural imaginary the growing contradiction of capitalist production. Against the increasing crisis of overproduction of commodities the cyber elevates consumption to a revolutionary practice and thus trains a future labor force not to oppose capitalism from the "outside" of class struggle at the point of production, but from within—at the point of consumption. It is, in other words, an attempt to "solve" the crisis of capitalism by increasing consumption in a moment of overproduction. This reading of (post)capitalism that Dyer-Witheford follows in the wake of the writings by "autonomist marxists" in Italy—most commonly known in the United States in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—has become the theoretical guide for the post-al left in the North. According to autonomist marxism, capitalism is less a system of objective laws and economic exploitation than it is a fluid system of power. Drawing from Foucault's theory of society as the contestation of the "will to power" of competing forces in which power is theorized as "the endlessly repeated play of dominations" (377) above and superceding the capital/labor relation, according to autonomist social theory the relationship between capital and labor has ceased in the "cyber"-age to be an exploitative one, in which capital extracts surplus-value from the surplus-labor of workers, and has become instead a political one, a reciprocal relation in which capital tenuously "dominates" labor for the sake of maintaining social privilege. So, while Dyer-Witheford declares that it is "clearly false to suggest that cybernetic systems entirely eliminate capital's need for labor" (94), he also argues that we cannot understand the concepts of "capital", "labor", "production" and "consumption" as advanced in the "old" Marxist theory. He writes, "without sacrificing the Marxist emphasis on class struggle [we must] admit important postmodern insights into the variegated and technologically mediated aspects such conflict assumes today" (166).  

The "variegated and technological mediated aspects" that Dyer-Witheford is here referring to are the fracturing and multiplying of the anti-capitalist forces that, according to autonomist marxists, emerge in the technoscientific era of capital.  Maurizio Lazzarato, in his essay "Immaterial Labor", clarifies the basic premise of the autonomist theory of capitalism.  Defining immaterial labor as "the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity" (132), he writes, "Immaterial labor finds itself at the crossroads (or rather it is the interface) of a new relationship between production and consumption" (138). This "new relationship" is that of the new, post-material, technoscientific capital in which "Consumption is no longer only the 'realization' of a product, but a real and proper social process" (141).  More specifically, Lazzarato argues:

I do not believe that this new labor-power is merely functional to a new historical phase of capitalism and its processes of accumulation and reproduction. This labor-power is the product of a "silent revolution" taking place within the anthropological realities of work and within the reconfigurations of its meanings. Waged labor and the direct subjugation (to organization) no longer constitute the primary form of the contractual relationship between capitalist and worker. A polymorphous self-employed autonomous work has emerged as the dominant form, a kind of "intellectual worker" who is him- or herself an entrepreneur, inserted within a market that is constantly shifting and within networks that are changeable in time and space (140).

This movement, from a "material" theory of production to what Lazzarato calls an "aesthetic" theory of consumption (144) is echoed by Antonio Negri, in his now foundational "autonomist" text Marx Beyond Marx. Negri argues "the law of value" in which Marx theorized that profits produced by capitalism represent the stolen surplus-labor of workers during production, is "an operation which is now only pure command, empty of any appearance, even minimal, of 'economic rationality'" (16). In other words, that far from representing a system based upon exploitation, capitalism has now superceded profits and become a system of flows of "power", and as such open, fluid and reversible. He goes on to argue that in terms of capitalism's development, "A break has been made, there is no denying it. The theory of value is worn to threads, as far as our struggles are concerned" (17). The core of this "aesthetic" theory of labor is the claim that the globalization of production and the expansive telecommunications and service industries that have necessarily developed in response to the needs of global capital calls into existence a regime of social relations no longer based upon production and exploitation, but rather on consumption. The claim of Lazzarato and Negri is that immaterial labor represents the superceding of wage-labor from within capitalism as an effect of capitalism's own drive to eliminate labor through the automating of production, turning both bourgeoisie and proletariat into contesting consumers. What emerges from the "autonomist" theory of the social as a series of reversible and fluid acts of consumption that defy the homogeneity of global capital is the idea that it is no longer possible to challenge the central logic of capitalism. Instead, workers are instructed to find and to celebrate the rare moments of "discontinuity", in which the ideology of capital and its interests seem to collide, as the only possibility for overcoming the alienation of commodity production.  As Dyer-Witheford argues, "By informating production, capital seems to augment its powers of control. But it simultaneously stimulates capacities that threaten to escape its command and overspill into rivulets irrelevant to, or even subversive of, profit" (85).

The attempt to rearticulate the basic relation of capitalism into one of consumption and knowledge is to obscure the antagonistic relation between owners and workers and, instead, to replace it with a "fuzzy" concept of new capitalism in which all become consumers, regardless of their class position. Dyer-Witheford's more "complex" theory of capitalism, in which "non-productive" actions such as the time spent as "students, consumers, shoppers, and television viewers" (80) are included as equal to the relations of production between owners and workers erases the fact that the meaning of each of these actions differs depending upon the class position of the person undertaking them. It ignores that logging onto the internet, shopping in the mall, or watching television are actions whose meaning is determined by relations fixed at the point of production. Each of the acts of consumption outlined by Dyer-Witheford as just as integral to production obscures the fact that going to school, to the store, on the internet…all require the prior production of commodities to be purchased and thus necessarily include as "integral" and "natural" to such actions the exploitation of labor that occurs prior to consumption. The fact that both Bill Gates and the numerous outsourced workers who build and write the code Microsoft sells both watch television or shop on the internet does not erase the exploitative relationship of private ownership that exists between them.

Of course, as the crisis of overproduction shows, the line between the owners and the workers has not disappeared, but rather is brought to a heightened conflict. The effect of the theory of "immaterial labor"—the "kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion" (Lazzarato 132)—is to elevate moments of consumption over production, thereby presenting as "natural" the exploitative conditions in which production and consumption occur. By focusing on consumption, the theory of "immaterial labor" thus limits the usefulness of technological advances to the narrow boundaries of capitalist production. In other words, the theory of immaterial labor produces a theory of capitalism in which the struggle between capital and labor over control of the social resources is replaced with the negotiation of disparate forces that exceed class boundaries over the control of the means of representation. In this, the fundamental role of production in determining social relations and the revolutionizing of the means of production (i.e. technological advancement) for the sole purposes of advancing corporate profits is eclipsed and thus presented as without question. Having occluded the materiality of class struggle, what remains is a de-politicized struggle amongst consumers within an already "de-hierarchicalized" capitalism without classes. Thus Dyer-Witheford's declaration that developments in technology which have lead to the universality of immaterial labor mean the "Overflowing and surpassing [of] previous Marxist distinctions between base and superstructure, economics and culture" (222) and the possibility of developing a new "fifth international" in which "a transnational connection of oppositional groupings that does not, like the four previous socialist Internationals, rest on the hierarchical directives of a centralized vanguard party, but rather arises from the transverse communications of multiplicitous movements" (153) is, in the guise of a radical theory of resistant consumerism, in actuality to construct a cross-class alliance that erases the antagonism between capital and labor.  

Much of what is termed in autonomist social theories the "new labor" of knowledge and service work in actuality comprises work in the commercial sector—namely, the unproductive labor necessary for capital to reproduce the conditions of production and thus the conditions of exploiting the productive labor of other workers in the division of labor. By elevating the segment of the workforce that emerges for the purposes of selling commodities and managing the services necessary to prepare the workforce for another working day, autonomist social theories erase the fact that the existence of "knowledge" work is predicated on a social division of labor in which the primary intension is the production of commodities for exchange. As such, not only do autonomist theories of "new labor" obscure the exploitative relation of capital to labor, but such theories of new labor also act to politically divide the working class by strengthening the ideological antagonisms between workers.  As Marx argues, the development of the "service" or "knowledge" industry does not supersede the antagonism between capital and labor that is at the core of capitalism because the role of this segment of the division of labor is to sell the products that are already produced in order to valorize the surplus-labor of the producers as profit. Marx writes, "The commercial worker produces no surplus value directly…but adds to the capitalist's income by helping him to reduce the cost of realizing surplus value, in as much as he performs unpaid labor. The commercial worker, in the strict sense of the term, belongs to the better-paid class of wage-workers—to those whose labor is classed as skilled and stands above the average worker. Yet the wage tends to fall, even in relation to average labor, with the advance of capitalist production" (Capital III 299). In other words, the purpose of the "commercial" industry is to come up with new ways to sell the products the capitalist owns and thus is an integral part of the process of commodity exchange. It cannot supersede production because, in the end, it has no role outside of the production of commodities. The media industry, for example, whose "knowledge" production upon which so much of the theory of the "post-industrial" economy resides, is necessary not in itself, but as a means to sell the televisions, computers, radios, palm pilots, cd players, etc. that are produced elsewhere. The emergence of an entire transnational "commercial" industry points then not to the end of capitalism, but to the tremendous productive forces that are now shackled to the profit motive and which increasingly require newer ways to sell the commodities it produces. In fact, the level of cross-ownership of transnational corporations, which not only own the factories that produce the technology but the media that plays on it, demonstrates the structure of this relationship. And, as Marx points out, just as the stagnation of the global economy effects for example the computer industry, thus it necessarily effects those in the "service" industry like telecommunications whose sole existence rests upon it.

What is at the core of the autonomist theory of "immaterial labor" is the essential de-linking of the logic of capitalist accumulation of profits and the forms in which this accumulation is accomplished. As I have argued, this de-linking of capital accumulation and its forms operates on two levels: on one level, autonomist marxism posits the possibility of technological advances leading to new forms of global accumulation that fundamentally transform the underlying structure of capitalism from production to consumption; on another level, it maintains the possibility of resisting capital from within as a result of the aforementioned technological development, thus constructing the "usefulness" of machines solely in the terms of the market and reducing all possible modes of resistance to exploitation to those sanctioned by capital. In other words, by reducing social antagonisms to the realm of consumption, while erasing the fact that modes of consumption are always determined by the mode of production, bourgeois society is represented, as Marx argues, "as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded" (Gründrisse 87). To argue that "production" is primary, to be clear, does not deny that "consumption" has an essential role in the production process. The sale of commodities produced is necessary to ensure both the continuation of production as well as the realization of surplus-value in the form of profit, and a crisis of overproduction, in which commodities remain unsold, is a direct threat to future corporate profits. However, consumption always comes after production and is determined by it. As Marx writes, if the commodity is not sold, or sold at a loss, "the laborer has indeed been exploited, but his exploitation is not realized as such for the capitalist" (Capital III 243). The failure or success in selling the commodity, in other words, does not change the primary relation between capital and labor. It is only by separating consumption from production, and thus by obscuring the basic fact that whole economic structure of capitalism is build upon the exploitation of labor for the purpose of producing profits, that consumption can be considered more important than production and a "new" capitalism which supersedes all previous social boundaries can be posited as emerging.

Contrary to the corporate theory of autonomist marxism advanced by Dyer-Witheford, Negri, and Lazzarato, the revolutionary understanding of technology is further explained by Lenin. Lenin writes that technology is determined by the social contradiction between labor and capital:

The effectiveness of labor is increased manifold by the use of machines; but the capitalist turns all this benefit against the worker: taking advantage of the fact that machines require less physical labor, he assigns women and children to them, and pays them less. Taking advantage of the fact that where machines are used far fewer workers are wanted, he throws them out of the factory in masses and then takes advantage of this unemployment to enslave the worker still further, to increase the working day, to deprive the worker of his night's rest and to turn him into a simple appendage to the machine. Unemployment, created by machinery and constantly on the increase, now makes the worker utterly defenseless. His skill loses worth, he is easily replaced by a plain unskilled laborer, who quickly becomes accustomed to the machine and gladly takes the job for lower wages. Any attempt to resist increased oppression by the capitalist leads to dismissal. On his own the worker is quite helpless against capital, and the machine threatens to crush him ("Draft" 102).

Lenin marks the tremendous potential of technology to transform the lives of working people: the reduction of necessary labor time, the increase in productivity, the expansion in scope and depth of social knowledges… However, he makes clear that under capitalism technology cannot develop an "autonomous" existence from capitalism's fundamental laws because the development of technology is integral to increasing private profits and that, contrary to "freeing" labor from the drudgery of work, these developments are used to isolate and atomize workers and, in the end, reduce them to a "simple appendage to the machine".

Dyer-Witheford's concluding "third way" proposal of a post-capitalist "commonwealth" based upon a guaranteed income, the "democratization" of the media and the "decentralization" of communication technologies (193-210), while appearing to be a "radical" mode of resistance to the extreme commodification of contemporary life is ultimately a code for the reformation of transnational capital from within, leaving its essential structures intact. It is this declaration of "radical" shopping that has made the post-al left writing so popular to the corporate presses. In fact, Dyer-Witheford openly sides with movements that do not seek to transform the global structures of class exploitation, but instead operate as a "fine mist of international activism, composed of innumerable droplets of contact and communication, condensing in greater or lesser densities and accumulations, dispersing again, swirling into unexpected formations and filaments, blowing over and around the barriers dividing global workers" (157).  This "fine mist" activism, based upon Guattari's call for "more individual, more singular, more dissensual forms of social activism" (183), positions the possibility of reorganizing production on the basis of need and not profit as the same as the homogenizing logic of capitalism. Socialism, according to Dyer-Witheford, is a "catastrophic evolutionary detour" (12) in which "centralized state planning has been the alternative to the market" (206) while consumption, albeit in "ethical" ways, has emerged as the "authentic" mode of realizing individuality and freedom. As such, the working class is given an empty theory of resistance that denies the necessity of transforming the fundamental relations of production and abolishing the conditions of exploitation that would mean, for example, the end of the world-wide epidemics of poverty, hunger and disease. By removing class struggle, resistance is re-written as a "spontaneous" theory of individual self-fashioning through consumption that mirrors the very logic of wage-labor in which the worker is forced to come to the market as a "free" and "autonomous" individual to "freely" sell her labor-power. "Autonomy", in other words, is merely the code word for the absence of control over the means of production. This "fine mist" is thus the reproduction of the alienation of labor by capital in theory. It speaks the language of transnational capital, which wants to tear down state barriers to trade, to the circulation of labor and to the global flows of capital in the interests of consolidating a world market and expanding profits, while atomizing and isolating workers as a means of dividing any and all resistance. In contrast to the "autonomist" theory of spontaneous action by singular individuals which denies the possibility for a united, global agency based upon the collectivity of labor, Lenin marks that as long as workers are subject to capital by the fact that they must sell their only commodity, their labor-power, in order to survive, the only mode of effective resistance is the organization of the working class across all national, racial, ethnic, gender and sexual barriers and boundaries.

Lenin writes that while "on his own the worker is helpless and defenseless against the capitalist who introduces machines. The worker has at all costs to seek means of resisting the capitalist, in order to defend himself. And he finds such means in organization. Helpless on his own, the worker becomes a force when organized with his comrades, and is enabled to fight the capitalist and resist his onslaught" ("Draft" 103). In other words, in opposition to the autonomist theory of consumption, which posits a new relationship between capital and labor that exceeds exploitation, there can be no reconciliation between capital and labor regardless of the form the private accumulation of profit takes. The complete emancipation of labor can be achieved only when private ownership of the instruments of labor is abolished and technology and other collectively produced social resources are used in the interests of all.

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[1] From Naomi Klein's No Logo. New York: Picador USA, 2002 

[2] "Post-ality" is Mas'ud Zavarzadeh's revolutionary concept for those theorizations that posit a fundamental shift in capitalist relations such that capitalism has entered a "post-production, post-labor, post-ideology, post-white" and ultimately "post-capitalist" stage of symbolic exchange (1).

THE RED CRITIQUE 5 (July/August 2002)