Class, Labor and the "Cyber": A Red Critique of the "Post-Work" Ideology

Rob Wilkie


Orthodox Marxism and the Contemporary

What is Orthodox Marxism?
Stephen Tumino

(D)evolutionary Socialism
Deborah Kelsh

Corporate Transnationalism and Red Internationalism
Amrohini Sahay

Eclipsing Exploitation: Transnational Feminism, Sex Work and the State
Jennifer Cotter

Haven't you realized that workers have it pretty good today
Brian Ganter

Revolution as Seduction, Pedagogy as Therapy and The Subject is Always Me
The Red Collective

Marxist Interventions


Technological determinism—an idealist theory of capitalist development presupposing the complete automation of production as the means to overcoming the core antagonism between capital and labor—has emerged in the discourses of the left and the right as an attempt to reconcile the heightened contradictions of capitalism today between the forces and relations of production, more commonly recognized and discussed in mainstream presses as the crisis of "globalization." Taking recent developments in communication technologies—the development of the internet and other "global" information networks required for the organizing of profit production on a transnational scale—as evidence of the first signs of the coming of a "post-work" epoch of "cyber-machines," the dominant presupposition of the "end of work" declarations by such theorists as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Ulrich Beck, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is that the development of "cyber" technologies transforms the primary means of profit production from the exploitation of labor to the "harvesting" of information, thus providing the means for the liberation of labor from within the limits of capitalist production. This theory of a "cyber-capitalism" beyond the exploitation of labor—which, as I will argue, is more in line with the "spectral values" of a Weberian theory of capitalism—far from representing the avant-garde of a new stage of capitalism is, in actuality, an attempt to legitimate the capitalist mode of production by presenting production, 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).

That technological determinism has become the dominant manner for understanding advances in the forces of production can be seen in the way in which such developments are represented in mainstream newspapers. For example, a recent New York Times article entitled "Aping Biology: Computer Guides Automated Evolution of a Robot," hailed the creation of a machine that produces other machines as the first sign of a future in which robots will entirely replace human labor. The author states, "In the future this technique could be used to design robots that assemble parts in factories, clean up chemical spills, or vacuum a home" (online); that is to say, that in the future there will be no form of "work" that cannot be replaced by that of a machine. However, what is obscured in this and other celebrations of self-producing technology is that, as Marx and Engels explain in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, as the forces of production develop under capitalism, technology replaces—not simply a particular kind of labor ("manual" or "simple" labor, as the New York Times suggests)—but living labor in general: "The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as the machinery obliterates all distinctions of labor and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level" (492). What is occulted in the presentation of the replacing of workers with machinery is while that the revolutionizing of the means of production is central to capitalist development in order to secure higher and higher profits, the substitution of machinery for labor-power inevitably leads to a crisis of production in the conflict between the development of the forces of production and the hindering of the relations of production. As Ernest Mandel argues, it is ridiculous to assume the emancipation of labor from the automation of capital: "The conclusion is obvious: with increasing automation, increasing organic composition of capital and the onset of a fall in the total man-hours worked by productive laborers, it is impossible in the long run seriously to continue to increase real wages and at the same time maintain a constant mass of surplus value" (210).

In suggesting that the contradiction between capital and labor is one of a "residual" dominance of "simple" labor that can be eliminated by the automation of production, the article "Aping Biology" substitutes the division of labor between "simple" and "complex" labor that capitalism produces for the cause of exploitation itself, thus proposing that freeing "simple" labor through the automation of production will eliminate the binary class division by elevating all workers to the level of "complex" laborers. Leaving aside that such a de-hierarchicalization of the division of labor is not possible under capitalism, this argument ignores that it is capitalism that simplifies and increasing eliminates laborers in the drive to reduce socially necessary labor time in order to intensify exploitation and increase the rate of profit. In other words, the automation of production is not outside of, but rather is firmly within the capitalist mode of production. The substitution of the secondary antagonism between simple and complex labor for that of the fundamental antagonism between capital and labor is an attempt to manufacture in the interests of the ruling class resignation among workers to the ideology that the automation of production somehow will liberate them from the chains of wage-labor when, in fact, as long as technological advancement is harnessed to the interests of capitalism, it only further heightens the contradictions between capital and labor. While advancements in technology make possible the meeting of the needs of all, the subjection of such advancements to the production of profit means that what disappears is not "work" (in the abstract), but rather the means by which millions of workers can meet their basic needs. The contradiction of the systematic immiseration of the working class from technological advancement is thus ideologically transformed in dominant discussions of technology into a "liberatory" potentiality from within the capitalist relations of production.

It is such that the technological determinism that informs dominant discourses today is thus not simply the "invention" of bourgeois theorists—it is not the effect of "self-generating" ideas—but reflects the real material conditions in which the class struggle is being waged. While technological advances in the means of production have created the potential to meet the needs of the world's population, the concentration of capital in the hands of the ruling class means that rather than having their needs met, workers today are subjected to the most brutal, and intensified, division of labor in which they become, as Marx and Engels argue, "an appendage of the machine" (491). It is only a revolutionary theory—one that can explain how the drive of capitalism for increasing profits hinders the development of the relations of production by turning the development of the forces of production into means for escalating exploitation and not for meeting needs—that can enable the proletariat to understand that it is not "technology" that is at issue, but the capitalist who uses technology to increase exploitation and, in turn, what is necessary is the seizing of the means of production and transforming them from the production of profit to the meeting of needs.

The substitution of the fundamental antagonism between capital and labor with that of the relation between "humans" and "machines" and, as such, as an ahistorical antagonism that exceeds the capitalist mode of production is evident in what has become one of the most canonical texts on monopoly capitalism in postmodern theory, Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. This text characterizes transnationalism as an "automated" capitalism premised not on the production of commodities as much as the circulation of "spectral values" in which the development of the "cyber" transverses the antagonism between capital and labor such that "there is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines, everywhere schizophrenic machines" (2). Such a "hybrid" theory, which posits the ability of technological development in itself to transcend social antagonisms, represents wage-labor as a spontaneous "coupling" fueled by the mutual desires of both participants. Just as in "Aping Biology's" substitution of the division of labor between "simple" and "complex" labor for the central antagonism of capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari's articulation of capitalist production, in which the social division of labor is rearticulated as a "machine" of production and consumption, collapses the class division between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat into a circular theory of class-as-lifestyle—without the economic compulsion of necessity that results from the private ownership of the means of production—and thus substitutes exploitation in production with the liberation of consumption.

In The Manifesto of the Communist Party, on the contrary, Marx and Engels argue, "the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production" (476); that is, without developing the technology of production to correspond with the necessity of lowering the costs of production in order to increase the rate of profit. Marx continues this analysis in Capital where he states, "like every other increase in the productiveness of labor, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities" including the commodity of labor-power (403). The "machine," in other words, is an index both of the level of development of production as well as the social relations under which that labor is carried out. Under capitalism, the developments in production which enable the meeting of the needs of all, but which through private ownership are used only to meet the needs of the few, thus come to serve as the objective basis for social revolution:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. (critique 21)

In an attempt to escape Marx's critique of the bourgeois ideologues who substitute the revolutions in the means of production for a social revolution, Deleuze and Guattari rewrite history as the drive towards post-human labor, and thus posit that the "true" historical conflict is between "human" and "nature," now effaced by the development of the "machine". In doing so, however, their "post-human" reading of capitalism, which erases the fundamental class conflict over the means of production, cannot explain the relation between the revolutionizing of the means of production, the increasing contradictions between the forces and relations of production, and the current crisis of a falling rate of profit and can therefore move no further than into a description of the tendency of capitalism to replace living with dead labor. Their technologist theory of capitalism, in other words, in which wage-labor is replaced by the coupling of desiring-machines, discursively rehearses the actual capitalist tyranny of dead over living labor.

The technological determinism that informs almost all of the dominant discussions of capitalism today is the ideological reflection of the fact that as capitalism develops it invests increasing amounts of capital in revolutionizing the means of production over and against the relations of living labor as a means of maximizing profit. While it can thus be objectively recognized that recent technological developments increasingly point to the objective possibility of the end of wage-labor, under capitalism this is impossible as the development of the forces of production is tied to the interests of profit. As such, rather than the priority of social necessity, technological advancements are judged on their ability to valorize capital. It is in the interests of profit that the possibility of "emancipation" from wage-labor, which increases as capitalism develops, becomes the image of "liberation" from "work" in the discourses of the ruling class. However as Engels makes clear, despite whatever technological advancements there can be no escape from the contradictions of capitalism and thus no emancipation from wage-labor without a socialist revolution, because the fundamental antagonism between capital and labor is intensified, not transcended, by automation: "During the first period of machinery, when it possess a monopoly character, profits are enormous, and hence the thirst for more, for boundless lengthening of the working day. With the general introduction of machinery this monopoly profit vanishes, and the law asserts itself that surplus-value arises, not from the labor supplanted by the machine, but from the labor employed by it" (90).

The dominance of the "technological" in contemporary social theory is an index, then, of the reality that advances in the means of production have made the class struggle over whether developments in the forces of production will be used for the production of profit or for meeting the needs of all an issue impossible to ignore. That is to say—as the recent, massive layoffs of the workers in the "dot-com" sector have demonstrated—it is through the development of the forces of production that the laborer comes face to face with the objective fact that their means of survival rests solely on their ability to sell their labor power. While the development of industry lowers the socially necessary labor time, enabling more commodities to be produced, and creates the potential for meeting the needs of all, under the capitalist system the impetus of new machinery contradicts this possibility and, in the words of Marx, "dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the laborer…constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labor, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence…and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy…turns every economic progress into a social calamity" (490).

As I have begun to show, contrary to the objective contradictions of capitalist relations, the dominant readings of cyber-capitalism in both popular media as well as "avant-garde" theory represent the process of increasing productivity through the intensification of the production process—in which capitalists accumulate tremendous profits while workers are subjected either to increased domination by machinery or to the poverty of the industrial reserve army—as the transformation from a system based upon the exploitation of labor to a network of social relations in which work has been "liberated" through the introduction of technology: a "post-capitalist," post-production era of endless "free time."

For example, in a recent article entitled "Goodbye to all that wage slavery" "Risk-Society" theorist Ulrich Beck argues that we have entered a "cyber" age of production in which the introduction of new information technologies that enable the expansion of capitalism across the globe have, in turn, brought about a social "revolution" that questions the very foundations of the contemporary life. In response, he calls for the realization that work, for all, is coming to an end. He states, "Has work always had the monopoly of inclusiveness? No…The value system that proclaims the centrality of work and only work in building and controlling an inclusive society is a modern invention of capitalism and the welfare state. We need to see that there is a life beyond the alternatives of unemployment and stress at work" (online).

If "full employment" has become, according to Beck, a "zombie concept" (online) it is not because workers refuse to accept that "work" has become an ideological fetter in the "New Economy," but because "employment" is an objective index of the contradictions of class society. To put it simply, under capitalism the only means that workers have to meet their needs is to sell their labor-power. The working class interests of "full employment"—which would mean, in practice, a society of labor built on the principle from each according to her ability to each according to her need—is in direct contrast to the ruling classes use of the unemployment of the industrial reserve army to drive down the cost of labor-power in an attempt to increase profits. That is to say, it is not "ideas" that hold capitalism back—in this case, as Beck argues, an outdated puritan work ethic—but rather capitalism that creates ideas that cannot be met. For example, as Lenin argues, monopoly capitalism transforms democracy into an "illusion" ("Reply" 24). While capitalism engenders democratic aspirations and creates democratic institutions, the division of labor between those who own the means of production and those who own nothing but their labor power, a division which imperialism sharpens to its most brutal contradictions, means that for the majority of the worlds' population democracy is an impossibility. Thus, while capitalism "cannot be overthrown by democratic transformations, no matter how ideal" socialism can be implemented only "with [the] full development of democracy, i.e. the genuinely equal and genuinely universal participation of the entire mass of the population in all state affairs and in all the complex problems of abolishing capitalism" ("Reply" 25). In other words, contrary to Beck, it is not that the ideal form of "work" has not been thought, but rather that the social system necessary for the realization of the end of wage-labor must be produced.

The transformation of the concept of labor from an abstraction that refers to a definite form of organizing production at a definite historical moment (i.e. "wage-labor") to that of an abstraction that exceeds the historicity of social progress (i.e. "work") is symptomatic of the general turn towards a sociological theory of "labor," and of Weberian sociology in particular, in order to address the expanding contradictions of the capitalist system. Replacing the exploitation of labor, which is the specific characteristic of class societies, with the concept of "work," a transhistorical concept that conceals the historicity of the relations in which "work" takes place, is an attempt to naturalize the system of wage-labor.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, for example, Weber argues that the desire for profit production is "common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth" (17) and that "capitalism and capitalistic enterprises, even with a considerable rationalization of capitalistic calculation, have existed in all civilized countries of the earth" (19). This is because, for Weber, the "capitalist enterprise" is nothing more than the unequal exchange of commodities on the market. He states "a capitalist economic action is one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange" (17). Weber's capitalism is thus not based upon the exploitation of labor (in production), but rather, like Proudhon's theory of "constituted value," on the level of exchange price (in consumption). By situating the circulation of commodities as the source of surplus value and in representing the development of exchange values as a transhistorical concept, Weber eternalizes "wage labor," extending bourgeoisie relations into all corners of history. Like all good social-democrats, what is at issue is a theory of capitalism in which "exchange" and "consumption" come to dominate over production. However, as Marx argues, "whether production and consumption are viewed as the activity of one or many individuals, they appear as moments of one process, in which production is the predominant moment. Consumption as urgency, as need, is itself an intrinsic moment of productive activity" (Gründrisse 94). By locating the problem of capitalist production in "consumption," Weberian theory naturalizes the exploitation of wage-labor that occurs in the production of the commodity, privileging "distribution" and individual consumption practices as the focus of analysis. Marxism, on the contrary, by locating the fundamental basis of society in production, thus makes clear that issues of "distribution" cannot be solved solely through the "redistribution" of commodities because the cause of the initial inequality has not gone away. Without transforming the system that produces inequality, no amount of redistribution of social wealth will prevent inequality from returning.

It is such that, drawing on the Weberian notion that the "spirit of capitalism" is the lingering after-effect of an idealist "ethic," social democrats like Beck in their articulation of a "life beyond work" spectralize labor, substituting the notion that "work" is an effect of a cultural ritual gone wrong for the objective fact that labor is the necessary condition for the production of social life and that it is in the transformation into "wage-labor" under capitalism that labor becomes an exploited practice. The "spectralization" of labor and its rhetorical transformation into "work" represents, in other words, not an actual shift from capitalism to a "post-capitalist" social system, in which the capitalist system "withers away" because of the automation of production, but rather is the ideology of the ruling class whose profit comes not from "work" but from exploiting the labor of the proletariat.

Perhaps the best representatives of the technological determinist avant-garde, whose theories of capitalist automation are at the forefront of the ruling classes assault on the knowledges necessary for producing the class consciousness of the proletariat, are "juridical" or "autonomous" communists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In their Labor of Dionysus, Hardt and Negri propose a renewed social movement, one that breaks with the fundamental teachings of Marx while still claiming the mantle of communism: "we are convinced that communism is definable not only in Marxist terms…when we say communism here we refer primarily to the materialist method. Materialism too, of course is not only Marxian" (16). Their disagreement with Marx comes, like all of the anti-Marxists today, over the labor theory of value. Like Beck and Deleuze and Guattari, they take issue with the fact that "Labor is too often defined narrowly in the realm of a capitalist work ethic that denies pleasures and desires" (7). Instead, they argue, "labor in our societies is tending towards immaterial labor—intellectual, affective, and techno-scientific labor, the labor of the cyborg" (10). According to Hardt and Negri, this shift towards a "post-productive" capitalism, in which "simple" labor is replaced by "complex" labor and commodity production is replaced with the accumulation of information, discredits the Marxist labor theory of value because while Marxism tries to "make sense of our history in the name of the centrality of proletarian labor," the new regime of "immaterial" labor renders the concept of the labor theory of value, and with it the necessity of a socialist revolution by the proletariat, "completely bankrupt" (10). Instead they propose that to effectively understand the "New Economy" of intellectual labor, what is necessary is "overturning" the base-superstructure model, declaring "if labor is the basis of value then value is the basis of labor" (9).

At the core of Hardt and Negri's theory of "juridical communism" and its "value theory of labor" is a warmed over utopian socialism in which it is presumed that because technological advancements have made possible the realization of the meeting of the needs of all, regardless of whether such a society is ever actualized, such developments have brought to an end the antagonistic relationship between capital and labor, such that the class struggle can no longer be reduced to the question of control over the means of production, but rather has become a matter of an ideological struggle over who will control the means of representation. That is to say, in defining labor as a "social analytic" that "interprets the production of value…equally in economic and cultural terms" (7) what is at stake in their analysis is the occulting of the concept of production by erasing that the fundamental lever of capitalist production is not "cultural capital," but the production of profit that can only be realized through the exploitation of labor. Progress, in this case, comes to be understood as something that can outstrip the relations of production without fundamentally transforming the conditions of that progress. It becomes a "progress" without contradiction, struggle, or revolution.

As Marx argues in The Poverty of Philosophy "nothing is more absurd than to see in machinery the antithesis of the division of labor" (186). In other words, far from a new stage of capitalist relations in which technology "liberates" wage-labor from exploitative constraints, in actuality, capitalism in its monopoly phase becomes a hindrance to progress, with numerous examples of innovations and advancements that were not introduced because of a possible negative effect on the rate of profit. To posit technological development as in itself transforming the relations of production, as existing somehow beyond the class struggle over the means of production, is to invert the relationship between technology and labor in order to provide an ideological alibi for exploitation. As Marx argues, under capitalism, "almost all the new inventions were the result of collisions between the worker and the employer who sought at all costs to depreciate the worker's specialized ability…in short, with the introduction of machinery the division of labor inside society has increased, the task of the worker inside the workshop has been simplified, capital has been concentrated, the human being has been further dismembered" (188).

Capitalism will not end because its relations of production have been "wished" away in rhetorical flourish. In response to the increasing abstraction of labor, the primary role played by the variant tendencies of bourgeois ideology today is to legitimate exploitation through the production of knowledges that erase the fundamental antagonism between capital and labor. In opposition to "post-production" ideologies wherein, in the words of Lenin, "the sellers of labour-power learn...[merely] to sell their commodity on better terms" ("What is to be Done?" 400) what is necessary for the revolutionary transformation of social relations is cadres of socialist theoreticians guided by scientific knowledge of the objective basis of class in the exploitation of labor. As Engels arges:

Communism stems from big industry and its consequences, from the emergence of the world market and the resultant unrestricted competition, from the ever more violent and universal commercial crises that have already developed into world market crises, from the inception of the proletariat and the concentration of capital, and from the resultant class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. As a theory, communism is the expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle and the summation of the conditions necessary for [its] emancipation. (38)

Works Cited

Beck, Ulrich. "Goodbye to all that wage-slavery." The New Statesman. 5 March 1999. Online.

Chang, Kenneth. "Aping Biology, Computer Guides Automated Evolution of a Robot." New York Times. 31 August 2000. Online.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Engels, Frederick. Frederick Engels on Capital. Trans. Leonard E. Mins. New York: International Publishers, 1974.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Lenin, V.I. "Reply to P. Kievsky (Y. Pyatakov)." Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 23. 1964. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977. 22-27.

_____. What is to be Done? Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964. 347-529.

Mandel, Ernest. Late Capitalism. Trans. Joris De Bres. 1978. London: Verso, 1987.

Marx, Karl. Gründrisse. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

_____. Capital: Volume One. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 35. New York: International Publishers, 1996.

_____. Poverty of Philosophy. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 6. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 105- 212.

_____. "Preface." A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Ed. Maurice Dobb. Trans. S.W. Ryazanskaya. International Publishers, 1970.

Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. "Manifesto of the Communist Party." Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 6. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 476-519.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. 1930. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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