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.
What emerged was the technical basis of a new class composition –that of a global proletariat, or perhaps a set of global proletariats, sliced, diced and dispersed along the supply chains that give capital a worldwide supply of labour even as its need for labour was diminished by automation. Of course, capitalism has always drawn on world-wide labours: the slave trade, super-exploited colonial workers, and peasantry of the periphery. But today this labour is systematically organised in systems of production and circulation of a scope, flexibility and granularity that would have been impossible without cybernetic technologies.
This proletariat is feminised, racialised, migrant, and precarious – in a very contingent and intermittent relation to the wage. As the classic mass worker declined, capital’s labour force not only spread out across the world, but also bifurcated, like some amoeba splitting into segments, a vast sea of chronically insecure labour, a diminishing group of protected workers with full time wages and benefits, and a growing intermediate strata of professionals and technicians, who are nonetheless undermined by new forms of free online labour, and vulnerable to crisis fluctuations.
I use proletariat, rather than working class, to acknowledge the fact that today, as the weak joke has it, “capitalism isn’t working”; that a large proportion of the working class is workless. Now, as in Marx’s era, proletariat denotes the incessant phasing in and out of work and workless-ness, the precarity, of the class that lives by labour. This proletariat is segmented, stacked and stepped across a hierarchy of border segregated wage zones from Bangladesh to Baltimore. It is also networked, connected, though with varying intensity, to capital, to commodities, and to itself by over two billion internet connections and seven billion mobile phones. In that sense, it is a cyber-proletariat.
The rise of the digital is part of the shift from the era of the mass worker to the global proletariat, but it has its own micro-cycles of struggle, moving at net speed even as net scope expands. Like all struggles these involve attack, defense, and incessant recuperations and counter-recuperations, from the hackers’ liberation of Internet from the Pentagon, recapture by the dot.coms, the parallel growth of dot.communist initiatives. In the mid-1990s the emergence of the anti- or alter-globalization movement coincided with growing access to the Internet, indie-media centres open source software and creative commons production, weaving what Harry Cleaver famously termed ”an electronic fabric of struggle”.
But after 9/11 the tide of alter-globalization ebbed, and the speedy cyber-tactics that had jump-started it seemed also to contribute to its sudden evaporation. As oppositional energies declined, capital reabsorbed radical commons in a commodified Web 2.0, fuelled by users’ free cultural labour and surveilled self-revelation– Jodi Dean’s “communicative capitalism”, able to assimilate everything digital militants threw at it.
The financial crisis of 2008, however, brought a new twist. This was not a crisis produced by global working class strength, but by global working class weakness – a consequence of the victory of capital’s cybernetic offensive. A low-wage global economy resulted in globally insufficient consumption, prompting money to flee from production to speculation, leading to a massive crash, and, in the Global North, a huge re-proletarianisation of young people aspiring to intermediate strata jobs, as labour markets flat-lined. Paradoxically, this provoked the first major political recomposition of a global proletariat, in the cascade of struggles of 2011, from Cairo to New York and Shenzen to Gezi Park.
Strikes, work stoppages and workplace seizures were all parts of the new cycle—especially in China; but so too were riots in streets and occupation of “squares” so prominent in North Africa, Europe and North America. These are the sites of choice for movements whose participants have been evicted from work, or are never invited to enter it, or who are overmatched in the workplace by capital’s automata and agile networks.
The movements of 2011 both refused and recapture cybernetics. They refuse cybernetics in that strikes, riots and occupations are moments in which people detach from capital’s virtualities, and from its incessant round of commodity clicking, congregate corporeally, confront the police directly and often violently, and in doing so, experiment with being something other than part of capital.
The second feature of the new struggle-cycle, its re-appropriation of the cybernetic, is difficult to discuss, because it is has been so thoroughly misrepresented in media reporting of so-called “Facebook Revolutions” – as if, for example social media, not unemployment, caused revolt, or no uprisings had been possible, ever, anywhere, pre-Twitter. This is of course nonsense. Nonetheless, these struggles did occur within populations for whom the cybernetic commonplace, even if access continued to stratify by class, fraction and zone, in contexts where, as Jack Qui puts it in his discussion of a new Chinese networked working class connected by mobile phones and text messaging services, division of digital-haves and have-nots is giving way to gradations of digital “haves” and “have-lesses.”
In the pacified political climate of a US preoccupied with housing booms and infinite credit card debt, social media and cell phones seemed to colonise digital commons with consumerist subjectivities. What became apparent in 2011, however, into more volatile political contexts, such as Egypt, these platforms, even in the hands of a relatively small number of activists, alongside other media and organisational efforts recovered their subversive charge. These radical recoveries were then relayed back up capital’s hierarchy of wage zones to Europe and North America.
In the 1970s, the theorists of worker autonomy contrasted the circulation of capital, realising value in exchange, to a circulation of struggles, connecting resistances. In 2011 however, the electronic relay of grievances, inspiration and tactics was, in this context, not so much a smooth circulation as an uneven cascade in “real-time” across uneven proletarian segments sometimes pooling and going nowhere, sometimes combining in a torrential force only then to apparently exhaust and evaporate. This cascade not only relayed examples of subversion, but in the hacker exploits of Wikileaks, Anonymous and Redhack made information itself an active front of disruption.
This cascade of struggles has resulted in many tumults, but no anti-capitalist breakthroughs, and in many cases produced reactionary victories and worse, civil wars. Global proletarians have not yet found a method of progressive political composition. And this difficulty relates to the ambivalence of the cybernetic. Proletarian movements against capital must make use of cybernetic communication, because they are in a profound way inside such systems, and indeed of them, formed under conditions of technological subsumption that have for generations shaped workplaces, subjectivities, and cultures: it would be difficult to riot, organise, or occupy without using networks. At the same time cybernetics, perhaps to a greater degree than any other technological system, has been imprinted with and implemented for capital’s dynamic of abstract value, to accelerate, amplify and intensify the circulation of commodities.
Cybernetics circulates news quicker than solidarities can form; enables the start-up of struggles, but also ephemeral fragmentation; gives brilliant visibility to militancy, but subjects it to omnipresent surveillance. Wide in scope, weak in ties; fast but evanescent; unstoppably viral but ubiquitously surveilled; these properties mean proletarian movements can and must use such systems even while working against their bias to develop the longer term strategies, solidarities and security.
Today, in the aftermath of the crisis, the digital vortex intensifies with new waves of military-derived robotisation, Uber-style networked outsourcing, continuing algorithmic financialisation, high levels of state and corporate surveillance, and big data aggregation as a means of prediction and profiling. The deployment of cyber-war techniques against internal and external national enemies becomes increasingly important as the very changes in the global division of labour facilitated by cybernetics systems that originated in war generate more conflicts, whether as reactionary revolts by those consigned to the abyss of surplus of populations, or between blocs of capital competing to command the top of the digital supply chain.
In the context of heightened surveillance, social media so important to the movements in 2011 are likely to become less and less friendly for activists. There will, however, be attempts to find organisational forms that combine persistence of vertical organisation with the horizontal fluidity of networks; not, perhaps, vanguard parties and top-down unions but distributed parties and meshwork unions. Refusal and re-appropriation will both become intensified, refusal by groups that conduct themselves off the grid to surprise capital with blockade, occupation and disruption, recapture both by yet more militant and focused hacking, and by movements learning to familiarise themselves with encryption, anonymisation and authentication techniques.
We are now in and of capital’s digital vortex. New struggles, more and less cybernetic, may open a path beyond it. A first step down that yellow brick road is to acknowledge the changed cybernetic conditions of global class composition: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”’
Nick Dyer-Witheford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at University of Western Ontario. He is author of Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex and Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism.
Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex is available to buy from Pluto Press here.