Lumpenprofessoriat has tugged on some of the threads from my recent post on Devaluing Labour. Lumpenprof raises explicitly one of the issues that was in the back of my mind when I wrote the original post – the common perception that the rise of information and communications technologies has entailed a fundamental transformation in the nature of capitalism – and then provides more robust references to Marx’s discussions of technology in Capital:
Marx devotes the longest chapter in Capital, Volume I to the topic of “Machinery” precisely in order to explain capitalism’s enthusiasm for large-scale mechanization in terms other than the highly suspect utopian notions of labor-saving devices being used to free workers from the need to toil. For Marx, machinery as used by capital is one of its most ingenious and devious strategies for extracting ever greater quantities of surplus-labor from workers. Digital machines are no different. Capital loves computers because they make workers more productive, cheapening commodities in general, and cheapening the commodity of labor-power in particular. Thus, allowing workers to donate an ever greater share of their labor time to capital for free.
That work resulting in the production of digital commodities strikes us as so different from work that produces other sorts of commodities is perhaps simply the latest version of the ability of the commodity form to dazzle us that Marx describes as the “fetishism of commodities.”
I did have one quick question, on the concluding passage:
Digital commodities seem even more clever than wooden tables, and evolve out of their computerized brains ideas yet more grotesque. They seem to take on a life of their own — they move, grow, replicate, spawn, and evolve — and so hide and obscure the human labor they embody.
I agree with the main point here – I see nothing in digital commodities that is different in terms of the role they play within capitalist reproduction to other sorts of commodities (this doesn’t of course mean that new technologies can’t introduce novel potentials for the development of new forms of subjectivity, embodied relationships, etc., but it does mean that there is nothing intrinsically non-capitalist about the new technologies). I tend, though, to describe Marx’s strategic intention slightly differently (and this may just be a matter of phrasing and emphasis). The emphasis in the passage above seems to be on the fetish as something that hides or obscures – and therefore as something Marx’s critique is trying to strip away, in order to reveal the underlying reality beneath – in this case, the reality that, in spite of the growth of technological potentials, human labour remains central.
I tend – and this difference is somewhat slight, but has some important implications – instead to present Marx’s argument about the fetish as part of an attempt to pose the question of why human labour should remain important, given the hypertrophic development of new technologies and the increases in productivity that are structural tendencies within capitalist development. Rather than simply trying to reveal the centrality of labour, Marx is, I think, trying to foreground precisely how irrational it is that human labour should remain central – trying to nudge us in the direction of realising that there is no material reason for this centrality – that material production could quite comfortably shift to something ever-more technologically mediated, and ever-less dependent on the expenditure of human labour. So: yes, on one level he is drawing attention to the human labour that continues to be required – but with the strategic intent of suggesting that this requirement is essentially bizarre – that it is “social”, that it is arbitrary – and, therefore, that it can be transformed without a regression back to premodern levels of material wealth.
Apologies if this is very unclear – and I’ll stress that I take this to be more a presentational issue, than a substantive one. Writing on the run this morning, with no time to edit… Sorry!