In this piece for Pluto Press, Nick-Dyer Witheford discusses the digitization of both labour and capital, and their manifestations, as an introduction to his new book Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex.
‘It is seven years since the financial meltdown of 2008 and four since rebellion erupted from Tunis to Cairo, from Madrid to Wall Street and beyond. Now we are officially in the recovery from a crisis that, at its height, rocked the foundations of global capitalism. Yet despite the apparent return to neoliberal normalcy—of which the recent Tory UK election victory is just one depressing symptom— the global system continues to seethe with discontent and contestation.
In Canada, where I live, university “edu-factories” are awash in strikes and protests by precarious, low-paid teaching assistants and contract faculty. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement reverberates from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond. And in Europe, Syriza and Podemos raise the challenge to rule-by-debt. All these movements confront the contradictions and paradoxes of organizing in a world where computers and networks have, over the life of a generation, reworked global class composition. They are learning to struggle in the middle of a digital whirlwind.
Cybernetics—i.e. computers and networks–have been a weapon wielded by capital against the proletariat, the class that must live by labour. Two counter-tendencies exist—first, the auto-destructive effects of cybernetics on capital itself, and second, proletarian resistance, which in turn bifurcates as refusal and recapture. The crash of 2008, caused by capital’s auto-destructive cybernetic practices generated a surge of resistances combining both rejection and adoption of the digital in new configurations which continue to morph to this moment.
It is well known that the cybernetic revolution developed in the military-industrial complex of Cold War. The new technologies it created were also, almost from their inception, but especially from the 1970s on, deployed on advanced capital’s home front, to breakdown an industrial working class whose strike power drove wage and welfare gains. This involved:
- Automating factories and offices - the classic mechanical liquidation of labour pursued at a higher level by self-guiding tools.
- Relocating industrial production via supply chains dependent on telecommunications infrastructures, modularized interfaces, bar codes and RFIDs – the logistical aspect of cybernetic, which rather than replacing labour, expands it globally, but at the lowest wage, and with maximum disposability in a savage arbitrage.
- Financialisation – developing instruments such as derivatives and futures initially to defensively hedge foreign investments, which then morph into high risk speculative activities dependent on computer modeling and high-speed trading.
Over some forty years, this cybernetic offensive decomposed the factory bases of the classic working class, the stereotypically male, mainly white, eventually relatively well-waged mass worker of the planetary north-west.