Cyber Marx

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Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism. Nick Dyer-Whiteford (1999)


Provides an analysis of information-age capitalism and the movements currently dissolving it,

Available in full-text online at http://www.fims.uwo.ca/people/faculty/dyerwitheford/


Summary

Below is a set of selected extracts compiled by Francois Rey and to be read as a summary.


Chapter 1: Differences

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In what follows, I propose a Marxism for the Marx of The Difference Engine. That is to say, I analyse how the information age, far from transcending the historic conflict between capital and its labouring subjects, constitutes the latest battleground in their encounter; how the new high technologies--computers, telecommunications, and genetic engineering--are shaped and deployed as instruments of an unprecedented, world wide order ofgeneral commodification; and how, paradoxically, arising out of this process appear forces which could produce a different future based on the common sharing of wealth--a twenty-first century communism.

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Chapter 4 : Cycles

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At the heart of autonomist analysis lies Marx's familiar analysis of the relation between labour and capital: a relation of exploitation in which workers, separated from the means of production, are compelled to sell the living labour power from which the capitalist extracts surplus value. In elaborating this account, however, most Western Marxisms have tended to emphasise only the dominant and inexorable logic of capital, to a degree such that its accumulative logic, unfolding according to ineluctable (even if finally self-destructive) laws, figures as the unilateral force shaping the contemporary world. The autonomists' re-discovery--startling enough that Yves Moulier terms it a "Copernican inversion" in post-war Marxism--was that Marx's analysis affirms the power, not of capital, but of the creative human energy Marx called "labour"--"the living, form-giving flame" constitutive of society.

As Tronti put it:

"We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and that beginning is the class struggle of the working class"".

Far from being a passive object of capitalist designs, it is in fact the worker who is the active subject of production, the wellspring of the skills, innovation and Cupertino on which capital depends. Capital attempts to incorporate labour as an object, a component in its cycle of value extraction, so much labour power. But this inclusion is always partial, never fully achieved. Labouring subjects resist capital's reduction. Labour is for capital always a problematic `other’ that must constantly be controlled and subdued, and that as persistently, circumvents or challenges this command. Insofar as workers, rather than being organised by capital, struggle against it, they constitute the working class. This distinction between labour power and working class was originally Marx's. But by reviving it, the autonomists opened a way beyond the sterility of much subsequent Marxist class analysis. For by saying that "the working class is defined by its struggle against capital," they shrugged off elaborate taxonomies circumscribing the `real workers' as some (usually diminishing) fraction of collective labour--manual, industrial, or `blue collar'. Rather, they opened a perspective which could see tendencies to incorporation within capital (as labour power) and independence from capital (as working class) as opposite polarities or contending potentialities that permeate the entirety of capital's labour force, understood in its broadest scope. In this view, working class struggles are the insurgencies of subjects capital `classes' only as human resources against that categorisation--what Cleaver has recently termed "struggles to cease being defined as either a class or as a working class." To analyse such struggles autonomists use the concept of class composition. As Cleaver points out, this is a striking instance of their "inversion" of classical Marxist categories. Marx had referred to the way technological change results in a change in the "composition of the collective labourer." But his original account of the "organic composition" of capital focused on the power of capital to direct production through the accumulation of machines. In autonomist theory, however, this emphasis is reversed: the analysis of class composition is aimed at assessing the capacity of living labour to wrest control away from capital. It starts from workers' struggles: how they arise, how they are connected or divided, their relation or lack of relation to `official' workers' organisations, and their capacity to subvert capitalist command. It measures the "level of needs and desires"--expressed in political, cultural and social organisation--which constitute the working class as what Negri terms a "dynamic subject, an antagonistic force tending toward its own independent identity." Class composition is in constant change. If workers resisting capital compose themselves as a collectivity, capital must strive to decompose or break up this threatening cohesion. It does this by constant revolutionising of the means of production--by recurrent restructurings, involving organisational changes and technological innovation that divide, deskill or eliminate dangerous groups of workers. But since capital is a system that depends on its power to organise labour through the wage, it cannot entirely destroy its antagonist. Each capitalist restructuring must recruit new and different types of labour, and thus yield the possibility of working class recomposition involving different strata of workers with fresh capacities of resistance and counter-initiative. The process of composition/decomposition/recomposition constitutes a cycle of struggle. This concept is important because it permits recognition that from one cycle to another the leading role of certain sectors of labour (say, the industrial proletariat), of particular organisational strategies (say, the vanguard party), or specific cultural forms (say, singing the Internationale) may decline, become archaic and be surpassed, without equating such changes, as is so fashionable today, with the disappearance of class conflict. Rather than being made once-over, the working class is, as Negri puts it, perpetually "remaking" itself again and again in a movement of constant transformation. Indeed, in a crucial autonomist formulation, Tronti suggested that it is actually workers' struggles that provide the dynamic of capitalist development. In Capital Marx had observed that the initial impetus for capital's intensifying use of industrial machinery came from proletarian movements demanding the shortening of the working day. Building on this, the autonomists argued that capital does not unfold according to a self-contained logic, spinning new technologies and organisations out of its own body. Rather, it is driven by the need to forestall, coopt and defeat the `other' that is simultaneously indispensable and inimical to its existence, fleeing forward into the future in what Tronti termed "successive attempts of the capitalist class to emancipate itself from the working class."

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By extending the analysis of class composition to include reproductive as well as productive labour, and unwaged as well as waged work, autonomists opened up Marxism to radically new theoretical and organisational horizons. For, unlike the Frankfurt School theorists, they did not find the scope of the social factory grounds for despair. If capitalist production now requires an entire network of social relations, these constitute so many more points where its operations can be ruptured. However, autonomists recognised that all of these involved different subjects (factory workers, students, housewives) with specific demands and organisational forms. No longer was the undermining of capitalism the operation of Marx's singular "mole" --the industrial proletariat--but rather of what Sergio Bologna termed a "tribe of moles." The `autonomy' of autonomist Marxism thus came to affirm both labour's fundamental otherness from capital, and also the recognition of variety within labour. This in turn leads away from vanguardist, centralised organisation, directed from above, toward lateral, polycentric concept of anti-capitalist alliances-indiversity, connecting a plurality of agencies in a circulation of struggles.

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Negri suggests that the complexity and scope of the factory without walls creates for capital "a specific social constitution--that of co-operation, or, rather, of intellectual co-operation i.e. communication--a basis without which society is no longer conceivable.

"Advanced capitalism directly expropriates labouring co-operation. Capital has penetrated the entire society by means of technological and political instruments (the weapons of its daily pillage of value) in order, not only to follow and to be kept informed about, but to anticipate, organise and subsume each of the forms of labouring co-operation which are established in society in order to generate a higher level of productivity. Capital has insinuated itself everywhere, and everywhere attempts to acquire the power to co-ordinate, commandeer and recuperate value. But the raw material on which the very high level of productivity is based--the only raw material we know of which is suitable for an intellectual and inventive labour force -- is science, communication and the communication of knowledge."

To secure this co-operation, capital must appropriate the communicative capacity of the labour force, making it flow within the stipulated technological and administrative channels:

"Capital must ... appropriate communication. It must expropriate the Community and superimpose itself on the autonomous capability of manufacturing knowledge, reducing such knowledge to a mere means of every undertaking of the socialised worker. This is the form which expropriation takes in advanced capitalism--or rather, in the world economy of the socialised worker. However, to accomplish this expropriation, capital has to surround the socialised worker with a dense web of communicative channels and devices. Indeed in a rich, if cryptic, passage Negri claims that "communication is tothe socialised worker what the wage relationship was to the mass worker."

This does not mean that TV programs replace pay. Rather, Negri is suggesting that communicational resources now constitute part of the bundle of goods and services capital must deliver to workers to ensure its own continuing development. Just as in the era of the mass worker Keynesian capital institutionalised wage increases as the motor of economic growth and generalised the norms of mass consumption, so today, post-Keynesian capital institutionalises the information infrastructure by which it hopes to rejuvenate itself, `plugging in' its socialised workforce, multiplying points of contact with the networks, furnishing and familiarising labour with a `wired' habitat through which instructions can be streamed and feedback channelled.

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Chapter 5: Circuits

The previous chapter traced the history that led class war onto the terrain of the information revolution. This one makes a map of the contemporary battleground. To do so, it uses one of Marx's central concepts, that of the circuit of capital. Put simply, this shows how capital depends for its operations not just on exploitation in the immediate workplace, but on the continuous integration of a whole series of social sites and activities--sites and activities which, however, may also become scenes of subversion and insurgency. Today, this circuit of accumulation and resistance passes through robotised factories, interactive media, virtual classrooms, biotechnological laboratories, in vitro fertilisation clinics, hazardous waste sites and out into the global networks of cyberspace.

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Taking account of the insights won not just by workers' struggles but also by feminist and environmental movements this chapter posits a modified version of Marx’s circuit of capital, constituted by four moments--production, the reproduction of labour power (which is in turn examined under three sub-headings dealing with welfare, schooling and medical services respectively), the reproduction of nature and, finally, circulation. At each point we will see how capital uses high-technologies to enforce command, by imposing increased levels of workplace exploitation, expanding its subsumption of various social domains, deepening its penetration of the environment, intensifying market relations, and establishing an overarching, panoptic system of measurement, surveillance and control through digital networks. However--and this is crucial--the cartography of capital’s circuit maps not just its strengths but also its weaknesses. In plotting the nodes and links necessary to capital's flow, it also charts the points where those continuities can be ruptured. At every moment we will see how people oppose capital's technological discipline by refusal or reappropriation; how these struggles multiply throughout capital's orbit; how conflicts at one point precipitate crises in another; and how activists are using the very machines with which capital integrates its operations to connect their diverse rebellions. In particular, I argue that the development of new means of communication vital for the smooth flow of capital’s circuit--fax, video, cable television, new broadcast technologies and especially computer networks--also create the opportunity for otherwise isolated and dispersed points of insurgency to connect and combine with one another. The circuit of high technology capital thus also provides the pathways for the circulation of struggles. I draw examples primarily from a North American context, perhaps one of the most inauspicious of current contexts for class struggle and, consequently, an acid test for the contention that such conflict has not vanished from the horizons of the information era.

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Capital has not, however, succeeded in technologically terminating the cycle of struggles. Our travels along capital's data highways have discovered rebellions at every point: people fighting for freedom from dependence on the wage, creating a "communication commons," experimenting with new forms of self-organisation, and new relations to the natural world. Such movements are incipient and embattled, yet undeniable. Indeed, without in any way diminishing the magnitude of the defeats and disarrays suffered by counter-movements over the last twenty years, I suggest that there are now visible across the siliconised, bioengineered, post-Fordist landscape the signs of a strange new class recomposition. This is proceeding on a much wider basis than that traditionally conceived by Marxism. In virtual capitalism, the immediate point of production cannot be considered the `privileged' site of struggle. Rather, the whole of society becomes a wired workplace--but also a potential site for the interruption of capital's integrated circuit. There is no need to emphasise the present fragility and uncertainty of the various reappropriations, counter-plans and alternative logics whose sinuous course we have traced. In their isolation, each provides only a minor problem to corporate power. But in their proliferation and interconnection they constitute a challenge to its dominion. It is precisely the breadth and variety of such subversions that makes the fields of information and communication so crucial today. For it is by a process of mutual discovery, recognition and reinforcement--by an accelerating circulation of struggles--that such insurgencies could attain a strength capable of prising apart the coils with which capital now encircles society. However, an assessment of such possibilities cannot limit itself to the most technologically-advanced sectors of development, but must rather take a perspective embracing the truly global scope of information capital--a window that is opened in the next chapter.

Chapter 6: Planets

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Today the net of the world market is made of fibre optic cables and satellite links. Yet few see in its weaving the dialectical possibilities Marx perceived. Mainstream theorists of ` globalisation’ of course simply celebrate the market-driven march of what they call “civilisation” across of the face the planet. But while there have recently been several important critical analyses from a broadly Marxian perspective, nearly all see the recent intensifications in the transnational organisation of production, exchange and finance, and the accompanying developments in new media and communications technologies, only as massively enhancing the power of transnational corporations. This chapter takes a different tack. It proposes that globalisation, rather than simply representing an inexorable deepening of capitalist control, constitutes a defensive corporate response to series of interweaving challenges that in the 1960s and 70s plunged the international structure of accumulation into crisis. Moreover, while the immediate impact of this riposte was to profoundly disarray oppositional forces, it has also opened unforeseen opportunities for their new co-operation and alliance. Not the least of these is the use of global capital's own means of communication and transport to connect a proliferating array of counter-movements whose own world-encircling activities of resistance and reconstruction I term `the other globalisation.'

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The famous tripartite division of First, Second and Third World describes the success of this international order in segregating the global proletariat into zones of differential control. For the inhabitants of the First World, there was an historic experiment in welfare state reformism. For the populace of the socialist bloc, the Second World, there was Cold War encirclement and forced industrialisation. And for the Third World, there was a transition from colonial subordination to European capital to neocolonial penetration by US based multinationals, with modernisation programs courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation, counter-insurgency from the CIA, and ongoing mass immiseration. The workers of the world were in effect segregated and exiled to three separate planets with drastically different levels of development and radically incommensurable experiences of work, exploitation, and struggle. Over the next twenty-five years, however, the stability of this international order was shaken by rebellions converging from different directions. In the Third World, the arrangement was in trouble from the start, as successive revolutionary movements--in China, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam --fought and won against the sentence of dependency. Ironically, at the same time as Third World movements were establishing state socialist regimes, in the Soviet-bloc Second World the initial rapid growth produced by forced labour stagnated, leading to bread riots and rebellion against police control. Finally, in the First World metropolis, the Keynesian deal started to come apart in the 1960s and 70s. Supposedly affluent workers, instead of being pacified by higher living standards, used these as resources to pursue new levels of struggle, that rolled from inner city ghettos to industrial shop floors to university campuses setting off a sequence of mutually reinforcing reverberations.

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By the early 1970s, it became clear that, from capital's point of view, the old `triplanetary' division of the world wasn't working. With profit rates in the old centres of accumulation tumbling, the search for a reorganisation of capital's global circuits that would allow it to escape world-wide pressures of social unrest was on, both in the probes and experiments of individual corporations and banks, and in the consultations of highlevel capitalist planning agencies such as the Trilateral Commission. The US government's abrogation of the Bretton Woods currency agreement in 1971 was a first signal of the abandonment of the post-war international settlement, a departure deepened a few years later with the dramatic redirection of finances and investment occasioned by the first oil shock. In 1975, Mario Montano argued that what was taking shape was a restructuring that would render previous theories of `development' and `underdevelopment' obsolete. As general capitalist strategies, both underdevelopment and development had failed. For multinational capital, the question now was “ how to directly oppose development and underdevelopment against each other, how to make underdevelopment work completely inside development.” What was unfolding, Montano suggested, was an undoing of the traditional demarcations by "two opposing dynamics": on the one hand, the "underdevelopment of development "--with the "Latin Americanisation" of the US and Europe--and, on the other a "development of underdevelopment," with the industrialisation of portions of the former Third World. The aim of this restructuring was to pit "the starvation of underdevelopment . . . against the living standards of the working class of the metropolis." While Montana’s analysis was necessarily preliminary, it accurately defines the main thrust of the process that is today known as ` globalisation.' To destroy the multiplying threats to its international command, capital has broken out from its old entrenchments, overrun the previous divisions of its world system, and, empowered by its new digital technologies, opened up the whole planet as a field for manoeuvre. In doing so, it has imploded the Three Worlds into one another. Corporate flight from the demands of the mass worker in Europe and North America has led to the partially Third-Worlding of the First World--deindustrialising manufacturing centres, cancelling the Keynesian deal, inaugurating mass unemployment, lowering wages, intensifying work.

This has introduced into the metropolis levels of insecurity and destitution previously thought of as relegated to the peripheries of capitalist world economy. The other side of this coin, the selective First-Worlding of the Third World, has equally taken its impetus from the urgent need--mediated through a variety of authoritarian local regimes—to modernise out of existence the threat of revolutionary insurgency. Thus the turbulent energies of immiserated labour of the periphery have been harnessed to the creation of various growth sites--the Newly Industrialising Countries and other development zones--whose appearance controverts cruder models of perpetual dependency. The drive to eliminate the twin nemesis of the industrial wildcatter and the peasant guerrilla links the deindustrialised rustbelts of the North and the new shantytowns of the South in a complementary logic. At the same time the one supposed alternative to capitalist development and underdevelopment --the Second World of state socialism--has blown apart and its residues been allocated between the two poles. Retrospectively, it is clear that the capitalist restructuring of the 1970s sounded a death knell for the command economies of the Soviet bloc. The rigidities of their internal controls proved altogether unable to adapt to the flexibilities requisite for microelectronic, post-Fordist production. When these converging pressures exploded in a series of popular uprisings across Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989, neoliberalism's market managers rode the wave, channelling movements characterised by an immense diversity of aspirations into marketisation and economic shock therapy. Where state socialist regimes have survived, as in China, it is only by bringing to bloom their already present tendencies to act simply as versions of authoritarian capitalism.

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As I discussed in the previous chapter, the scope of contemporary capitalist subsumption means that such movements of opposition will no longer be found concentrated at the immediate point of production but spill across society as a whole. Battles against corporate globalisation involve waged workers, but also unwaged labour: women's organisations resisting the deconstruction of welfare services, students opposing the slashing of public spending, movements of indigenous and peasant people fighting eviction from the land, rural and urban communities refusing the ecological devastation of hazardous waste dumps and hydro-electric development projects. The very diversity of these resistances, and the real nature of the contradictions that often divide them, makes the problems of their co-operation and co-ordination enormous, even on the scale of a neighbourhood, city or region; when viewed internationally, these obstacles might appear insuperable. And yet the new counter-movements are making trans-sectoral and transnational interconnections. In part, this is happening because capital's very success in creating for itself a worldwide latitude of action is dissolving some of the barriers that previously separated oppositional movements geographically. In collapsing the Three Worlds into a single plane of accumulation, capital has introduced from one to the other forms of work, dispossession and struggle that were previously segregated. Thus the spread of large-scale manufacturing into Korea, Brazil or South Africa results in the emergence of mass-worker struggles of a sort that were once distinctively metropolitan while the deindustrialisation of the United States and Europe is in turn accompanied by social movements resembling those of the `underdeveloped' world; many authors have noted the similarities between the 1992 Los Angeles riots and Latin American urban insurrections. More generally, the global imposition of neoliberal policies has created commonalties of experience for waged and unwaged labour from Warsaw to Cairo, as the destruction of public services and the subjugation of government to supranational financial flows, increasingly come to constitute a shared lexicon of proletarian existence.

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Moreover--and this is the point to which the remainder of our analysis will be devoted--capital's own diffusion of the means of communication has inadvertently assisted this connective process. In creating the pathways for its own transnational circuit, it has unintentionally opened the routes for a global contraflow of news, dialogue, controversy and support between movements in different parts of the planet. To a degree, the very communication channels that circulate commodities also circulate struggles. Despite all the well-known filtering and censorship mechanisms, corporate and state media do carry abbreviated scenes and news of class conflicts across the world. Sometimes--as in the case of the Israeli invasion of Beirut, or the Indonesian genocide in East Timor--shots of a riot, bombing, or a massacre have been crucial in mobilising transnational support for resistances that, in a purely national context, face overwhelming odds. However, to a large extent connections and dialogue between globally distant resistant movements depends on the construction of counter-networks, that while drawing on the technologies and expertise diffused by the world market, reconstruct them into radically new configurations.

Chapter 7: Postmodernists

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To situate the autonomists within the Marxist /postmodernist debate, some historical perspective is again useful. As we saw earlier, the autonomia movement emerged from the wave of struggles that swept Italy during the 1960s and 1970s, starting in industrial plants but rapidly involving universities, schools, homes, urban squats, radio stations, transportation networks, cultural organisations and every facet of their society-- struggles similar to, but more protracted than, the French student-worker revolts that provided the seedbed of postmodern theory. However, unlike both the official French and Italian communist parties, the Marxists of autonomia did not reject the widespread uprisings outside the factory as marginal and incorrect, but rather embraced them and tried to adapt their theoretical perspective to encompass these new points of conflict. Many postmodern theorists--such as Michel Foucault, Paul Virilio, and, most especially Felix Guattari, who was actively involved with dissident radio in Italy--had sympathies with autonomia. When the movement was repressed and its leaders were put on trial, they joined in the international campaign against persecution. Negri, fleeing Italy, found refuge in France through the assistance of Guattari, with whom he has subsequently worked collaboratively. Negri has in fact referred to his own work as a theory of "class antagonism in the postmodern world." From what we have already seen of his work, it is perhaps not hard to understand why. For while Negri reaffirms the Marxist analysis of the war between capital and labour, he reinterprets this antagonism within a horizon which emphasises both the diverse sites over which this conflict is fought, and the importance to it of communicational practices. It will be remembered that Negri, like other autonomists, traces class conflict through a series of cycles of struggle--from the "professional" or craft worker at the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century "mass," industrial factory worker. Each of these cycles of conflict has driven capital to adopt successively more highly organised and technologically intense forms. This trajectory has today led to a situation where "the factory spreads throughout the whole of society . . . production is social and all activities are productive." However, according to Negri, such a development only inaugurates a new cycle of struggle--that of the "socialised worker." For, says Negri, capital's self-enlarging subsumption of society also multiplies the potential points of resistance. When the locus of production shifts from the factory to society as a whole, anti-capitalist antagonism is no longer concentrated in the mass factory, but radiates out to manifest in households, schools, hospitals, universities, media, and so on. Struggles at each site manifest their own specificity, yet all encounter a barrier in capitalism's subordination of every use value to the universal logic of exchange. Thus, unlike the relatively homogenised, factory-based "mass worker," the "socialised worker" arises from a pluralistic, variegated form of labour power whose ranks include not only diverse forms of wage worker (in the service as well as industrial sector) but also the unwaged workers (homemakers, students) whose activities are indispensable for the operations of the social factory. As Negri puts it, in a formulation that clearly shows his convergence with characteristically postmodern themes of heterogeneity and diversity,

"The specific form of existence of the socialised worker is not something unitary, but something manifold. The paradigm is not solitary, but polyvalent. The productive nucleus of the antagonism consists in multiplicity."

Moreover, Negri argues, the social expansion of capital gives both its operations and the struggles against them an increasingly communicational nature. Avoiding the base/superstructure metaphor, whose baggage of mechanical materialism has so plagued Marxism, Negri's rests instead on Marx's observations about the importance of "labouring co-operation."

For Marx, a central feature of capital's enlarging organisation was its attempt to impose despotic managerial control over a workforce whose activities depended on "collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour." Developing this theme, Negri says that the advent of the "social factory" produces a specific social constitution -- that of co-operation, or, rather, of intellectual co-operation i.e. communication -- a basis without which society is no longer conceivable.

To co-ordinate its diffused operation, business must interlink computers, telecommunications and media in ever-more convergent systems, automating labour, monitoring production cycles, streamlining turnover times, tracking financial exchanges, scanning and stimulating consumption in the attempt to synchronise and smooth the flow of value through its expanded circuits. It is only through the elaboration of this vast information-system that "advanced capitalism directly expropriates labouring cooperation;"

Capital has penetrated the entire society by means of technological and political instruments (the weapons of its daily pillage of value) in order, not only to follow and to be kept informed about, but to anticipate, organise and subsume each of the forms of labouring co-operation which are established in society in order to generate a higher level of productivity. Capital has insinuated itself everywhere, and everywhere attempts to acquire the power to co-ordinate, commandeer and recuperate value. But the raw material on which the very high level of productivity is based--the only raw material we know of which is suitable for an intellectual and inventive labour force -- is science, communication and the communication of knowledge.

The pre-eminence of "communication" as a category in postmodern theory, Negri claims, registers this process.

In the Grundrisse Marx explains that the discovery of "labour" was an historical event. Although the category "labour in general" represents an "immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society," nevertheless it had to await formulation until capital's forcible "abstraction" of labour power--technologically reducing craft skills, homogenising the workforce, stripping workers of all attributes other than as a factory `hands'--gave it "practical truth." Today, Negri suggests, the incorporation of a variety of informational flows and interaction into production is imposing a similar "abstraction" on the concrete variety of communicative practice. This is perhaps most readily recognised in the creation of a universal digitalised idiom into which all forms of communication can be coded and transcoded as `information'--a quantifiable flow of bits and bytes which can be measured and monitored as the stuff of workplace productivity and pay-per services.

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Chapter 8: Alternatives

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Describing alternatives to capitalism has always troubled Marxists. Marx's early writings contain lyrical evocations of post-capitalist possibilities. But he and Engels were highly critical of "utopian socialisms"--many of them technocratic ancestors of today's information society theory--that drew-up elaborate pictures of ideal societies without recognising the need for struggle and conflict to attain them. Rejecting these "Comtist cookbooks about the future," they held that communism is "not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself" but rather "the real movement which abolishes the present state of things."

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It is in the spirit of De Angelis’ proposal that I offer a sketch of an alternative future. I propose a series of measures--the institution of a guaranteed annual income, the creation of universal communications networks, the use of these networks in decentralised, participatory counter-planning, and the democratic control of decisions about technoscientific development. These elements would, in their full implementation and synergistic interaction, go a long way towards constituting a viable alternative to capitalism. Moreover, each of the separate elements proposed here, and each of the various gradients and steps in their realisation, can be seen as delineating fronts of struggle. They are conceived of as invading beachheads that can be established on the shoreline of capital and advanced, up to the point where their combined effect overwhelms the logic of the entire system. The final section of the chapter briefly reflects on some conditions under which this might occur.

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I think of this sketch as a proposal for `communism’--a continuation of the red thread which Marx and so many others have spun across centuries. But I also know that this name, `communism,’ has become so heavy, so sodden with blood and weighted with nightmarish history, and carries with it such a burden of explanation, repudiation and qualification, that many regard it as unspeakable, at least for this generation and probably several more. What word might be used instead? I do not want to talk of `socialism,' a concept profoundly tainted--in its authoritarian forms, by terror; and in its social democratic variants, by failed compromise. I might follow the lead of Cornelius Castioradis, who now speaks of an "autonomous society"--but this phrase also is freighted with its author's changing allegiances, and too rhetorically ponderous to be attractive. Therefore, sometimes use another term: commonwealth. Some of the connotations of this word, too, are unappealing. But others are very appropriate. It designates quite exactly what I have in mind-a common-wealth of collectively shared resources. It derives from a root around which clusters other concepts important to this study --like communism, communication, and commons. Common-wealth also recalls the energy of 17th-century revolutionary republicanism: if this proposal seems like a 21st century version of the visions of Diggers and Ranters seeking a "world turned upside down," so be it.

(...)

I have pointed to various ingredients for the creation of a social order different from capital. The elements for this alternative are to hand, but not combined. They exist, here-and-now, but only here-and-there, just as at certain point in the pre-history of capital its various ingredients--wage labour, market exchange, new machinery--all existed in scattered form but had not cohered--or been violently welded--into a new order. Under what conditions, and through what pressures, the new ensemble might come into being is uncertain. I do not believe its emergence is inevitable. It is, however, obvious that capitalism is experiencing serious difficulties in managing the world-transforming technologies it has itself bought into being. The problems of sustaining employment in the face of blisteringly-fast automation; the consequent contrast between restricted consumption power and endlessly expanding production; the tendencies of social spending cuts to erode the very public infrastructures on which technological development depends; the repeated failures to restrain the depredation of the planet’s ecology; and the manifest instabilities introduced by the lightening-fast transactions of global financial markets (recently dramatically revealed by the melt-down of the South East Asian economies) all suggest that maintenance of the existing order may be a project no less utopian (in the negative sense of inviting incredulity) than the creation of an alternative. What is offered here is not so much a blueprint as a battlefield map. It does not identify an agenda to be implemented `after the revolution,' but a series of initiatives whose advancement would contaminate and overload the circuitry of capital with demands and requirements contradictory to the imperatives of profit. Pursuit of these interrelated measures would cumulatively undermine the logic that binds society around market exchange, and increasingly require the reassembly of everyday activities into a new configuration. The actualisation of such an alternative will, however, be contested. While the recent disintegration of Soviet state-socialism presents the historically unusual case of a system so demoralised and undermined that it collapsed without major exercise of force, a repetition of this pattern should not be assumed: "present policies are not accidental: capital will put up a fight." Insurrectionary concepts of revolution--the storming of the Winter Palace--are today a dead letter. But capital’s capacity to unleash violence against any serious challenge is undiminished. To agitate for social change while ignoring this would be to act in bad faith. I can imagine a commonwealth born in extreme tumult. It could come out of mounting civil disorder arising from intensifying unemployment and social disintegration, accompanied by increased activity of proto-fascist militias and extreme-right parties, and resistance against them. A social democratic government elected to implement part of the commonwealth program--say, a guaranteed annual income—might face a reactionary coup, whose defeat in turn propels deeper social transformation. A region or nation attempting to secede from the world-market by debt-repudiation might actualise some parts of the program, at the risk of invasion or intervention. At worst, the alternative may emerge in the wake of ecological catastrophe or the devastation of inter-capitalist war. Whatever path their actualisation might take, the measures suggested here, combined in some concerted society-wide ensemble, would make up a world very different from that which we today accept as normal. It would be a world where wagework would have a steadily decreasing importance or vanish entirely; where, although there would be labour to be done, livelihood would not be dependent on a job; where, consequently, people would have more time to think about and participate in decisions about organising life in association with others; where they would have access to a very wide variety of communication channels, with a very wide diversity of representations and images about different possibilities of being; where these channels served also as routes for a flow of participatory decision making about the production and distribution of goods- -and also about the directions taken and not taken in technological development. Distant as these prospects may seem, they are potentialities germinating in the soil of our everyday lives, today.

Chapter 9: Intellects

At the beginning of this work I described class conflicts within high technology capitalism as a "contest for general intellect." This final chapter returns to that phrase. After describing Marx's original use of the term "general intellect," I examine the recent reworking of his concept by a group of theorists clustered around the French journal Futur Antérieur, and suggest how their perspective helps frame some of the issues discussed in the preceding pages. I then conclude with some reflections on the implications of this analysis of “general intellect” for those who teach and study in universities. Marx introduces the concept of "general intellect" in a passage of the Grundrisse known as the "Fragment on Machines." In these pages he departs from his customary emphasis on the role of work in creating in the surpluses needed for social progress. Rather, he suggests that at a certain point in the development of capital the creation of real wealth will come to depend not on the direct expenditure of labour time in production, but on two interrelated factors: technological expertise--"scientific labour"--and organisation-- "social combination." The crucial factor in production will become the "development of the general powers of the human head"; "general social knowledge"; "social intellect"; or, in a striking metaphor, "the general productive forces of the social brain." The main expression of the power of "general intellect" is the increasing importance of machinery --"fixed capital"--in social organisation: Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry: natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand: the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. Marx introduces the concept of "general intellect" in a passage of the Grundrisse known as the "Fragment on Machines." In these pages he departs from his customary emphasis on the role of work in creating in the surpluses needed for social progress. Rather, he suggests that at a certain point in the development of capital the creation of real wealth will come to depend not on the direct expenditure of labour time in production, but on two interrelated factors: technological expertise--"scientific labour"--and organisation-- "social combination." The crucial factor in production will become the "development of the general powers of the human head"; "general social knowledge"; "social intellect"; or, in a striking metaphor, "the general productive forces of the social brain."

The main expression of the power of "general intellect" is the increasing importance of machinery --"fixed capital"--in social organisation:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry: natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand: the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.

There are two forms of technology Marx particularly notes as signaling capitalism's mobilisation of "general intellect." One is the development of production systems based on "an automatic system of machinery . . . consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages." The other, to which his allusions are more scattered but equally persistent, are the networks of transport and communication integrating "the world market." The development of these human-eliminating, globe-spanning machines indicates the degree to which "general intellect" has been successfully mobilised and mastered by business, and "the accumulation of knowledge and skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain . . . absorbed into capital."

However -- and this is the whole point of Marx's analysis--such a level of technological advance, which seems at first a capitalist utopia, contains within itself the seeds of a capitalist nightmare. By setting in motion the powers of scientific knowledge and social co-operation, capital ultimately undermines itself. This occurs for two reasons. First, as advances in machinery and organisation reduce the requirement for direct labour in production, the need for people to sell their labour power--the very basis of capitalism's social order--is systematically eroded. There arises a "monstrous disproportion" between individual labour time and the forces set in motion by organised science. This is reinforced by a second tendency, the increasingly social nature of activity required for technoscientific development, which unfolds not on the basis of individual effort but as a vast co-operative endeavor. As this becomes more and more apparent, highlighted by the diffusion and integration of communication and transport networks, both private ownership and payment for isolated quanta of work-time appear increasingly as irrelevant impediments to the full use of social resources. Automation and socialisation together create the possibility of--and necessity for--dispensing with wage labour and private ownership. In the era of general intellect "Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production." Today, "The Fragment on Machines" seems simultaneously astoundingly prescient and sadly anachronistic. In its extrapolation of capital's technoscientific trajectory it is surely prophetic. What Marx describes is eminently recognisable as a portrait of what is now commonly termed an `information society' or `knowledge economy,' in which the entire intellectual resources of society, from shopfloor production teams, to universityindustry partnerships, to the regional `innovation milieux' of microelectronic and biotechnology companies, is mobilised to produce the technological wonders of robotic factories, gene splicing and global computer networks. Yet any suggestion that this development of the productive forces leads automatically to the advent of socialism appears definitively refuted. Instead, we seem to be witnessing a triumphant reorganisation of capitalism that is deploying the new technological innovations to solidify an unprecedented level of global domination. What --if anything--can now be made of the revolutionary optimism of Marx's account of "general intellect"?

Futur Antérieur

It is this question that is addressed by the recent work of a group of theorists associated with the French journal, Futur Antérieur. This group includes veterans of the Italian autonomia movement whose earlier course was charted in Chapter 4, such as Toni Negri and Paolo Virno, younger scholars making new departures within this tradition, such as Michael Hardt and Maurizio Lazzarato, and others with roots in different lines of Marxism, such as Jean-Marie Vincent. The central points of their analysis can be summarised as follows. The "mass worker" struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and the consequent crisis of Fordism compelled capital towards extraordinary levels of high-technology automation and global mobility. These post-Fordist experiments have now brought capital to a point corresponding to Marx's account of "general intellect." However, rather than generating the ordained demise of capitalism, these developments are resulting in something much more ambiguous. Paradoxically, the revolutionary tendencies Marx identified--the erosion of wage labour, the increasingly 'social' nature of production--are occurring, but in forms prescribed by an order that continues to organise itself on the basis of the wage and private ownership. As Virno remarks, these processes remind one of what Marx wrote about jointstock companies; that in such institutions "one witnesses the disappearance of private property on the very ground of private property." Today post-Fordist capital displays a similar transformation of communist potentialities into capitalist actualities. As Virno puts it, . . . the displacement is real, but the ground on which it is accomplished is no less real. To think these two aspects jointly, without reducing the first to a mere virtuality and the second to an external "rind": such is the difficulty that cannot be avoided. In this situation it is not enough to focus, as Marx did, on the objectification of social knowledge in new technologies. Rather, the critical issue is that of the nature of the human activity required to create, support and enable this technoscientific apparatus. Here, Futur Antérieur suggests we encounter another paradox. While capital has developed machines to subordinate and reduce labour at the point of production, this development itself demands the emergence a new range of social competencies and co-operations--the cultivation of "general social knowledge." This subjective component of general intellect Futur Antérieur group explore under the label of "mass intellectuality" ("intellectualité de masse").

(...)

The crucial question thus becomes how far capital can contain what Vincente terms "this plural, multiform constantly mutating intelligence" of mass intellect within its structures. As he observes, it "appears to domesticate general intellect without too much difficulty." But this absorption in fact demands an extraordinary exercise of "supervision and surveillance," involving "complex procedures of attributing rights to know and/or rights of access to knowledge which are at the same time procedures of exclusion":

Good `management' of the processes of knowledge consists of polarising them, of producing success and failure, of integrating legitimating knowledges and disqualifying illegitimate knowledges, that is, ones contrary to the reproduction of capital. It needs individuals who know what they are doing, but only up to a certain point. Capitalist `management'and a whole series of institutions (particularly of education) are trying to limit the usage of knowledges produced and transmitted.

In the name of profitability and immediate results, they are prohibiting connections and relationships that could profoundly modify the structure of the field of knowledge.

The Futur Antérieur group suggests that these structures of exclusion and limitation can become the occasion for new forms of social conflict.


(...)

The other field where Futur Antérieur has investigated the contradictions of "general intellect" is that of media and communication. As Vincente puts it, "general intellect" is in fact “a labour of networks and communicative discourse";

In effect, it is not possible to have a "general intellect" without a great variety of polymorphous communications, sequences of communication in the teams and collectivities work, communications to use in a creative fashion the knowledges already accumulated, communications to elaborate and record new knowledges.

Capital has developed technologies of information--mass media, telecommunications, and computer networks--to consolidate markets and ideological control. But here too it has been unable to develop the objective, fixed, machine side of "general intellect" without also involving the subjective, variable, human aspect. Negri specifically rejects media critiques framed only in terms of "manipulation." Although we now inhabit a world where corporate media seem to constitute a vast "machine" which dominates society, there are, he says, spaces on the “inside” of this machine within which new individual and collective subjectivities can emerge.

(...)

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the field of computer-mediated communications. As we have seen, in the development of this extraordinarily powerful technology capital has in fact depended on a mass of informal, innovatory, intellectual activity--'hacking'--on whose creativity commerce constantly draws even as it criminalises it. It was precisely out of capital's inability to contain such activity that there emerged the astounding growth of the Internet. This is surely the quintessential institution of "general intellect." For, despite all the admitted banalities and exclusivities of Internet practice, one at moments glimpses in its global exchanges what seems like the formation of a polycentric, communicatively-connected, collective intelligence. Today, of course capital is trying to recuperate this collective intelligence by channeling it along the information highway, forcing its traffic into the commodified pathways of video-on-demand, teleshopping, tele-gambling, and personalised advertising. It is funneling network interactions into a commercial "interactivity."

(...)

This account of the cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism was written in an academic context. It is therefore only appropriate to end by considering what the analysis of “general intellect” might mean for those specifically and particularly intellectual labourers who teach and study at universities. For no site could be more vital to capital’s harnessing of collective intelligence than academia. Over the last twenty-five years, it has been reshaped by an inexorable dialectic. Capitalist industry, mutating into its informational phase, has become more intellectual; Microsoft calls its central production facilities a `campus.' Simultaneously, universities have become more industrial, acting as ancillary research and training facilities for capital's overall project of high-technology development: Academia, Inc.

This advancement of “corporate-university partnership” has as its aim what David Noble, North America’s most trenchant critic of this union, terms “the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital, and, hence, intellectual property.” As Noble points out, this process has passed through a series of phases. In the first stage, unfolding through the 1970s and 1980s, the research activities of the university were effectively commercialised. This was accomplished partly through the fostering of industry sponsored or targeted programs at the expense of basic research; partly through the installation of research parks and other entrepreneurial experiments on campus sites; and partly by legal changes that give post-secondary institutions an interest in merchandising patents resulting from faculty research. The second stage in the university-corporate merger, however, has only appeared during the 1990s, with the drive towards the `virtual university,' based on large-scale, computer-assisted, tele-learning -- a development which, Noble says, has as its aim nothing less than the commodification of the university’s teaching function.

(...)

Those who have followed the cycle of capitalist restructuring and class recomposition outlined in this book will not be surprised to hear that the “virtualising” of universities has already provoked resistance. At both the University of California Los Angeles, and at the University of British Columbia, students have opposed the additional fees that universities impose to implement such high-tech schemes. And at Canadian universities, such as York and Arcadia, faculty have struck to maintain control over teaching methods in the face of mounting administrative attempts to technologically control their work. These resistances should be supported and extended. But it is also important to ask whether there are any aspects of the “virtual university” agenda, and the larger process of academic-corporate fusion of which it is part, which offer not just threats, but opportunities. Writing in a European context, Negri and Lazzarato suggest that this might be the case. In the era of the `ivory-tower,' they say, when universities were only partially integrated into capitalism, or marginal to its central functions, academics appeared (however much this actually mystified real interconnections) to be removed from industrial activity and its attendant class-conflicts. It was from this position of apparent exteriority that the intellectual could commit or engage himself with political movements. From the end of the Second World War, however, this distance began to rapidly diminish. Today, when the distance separating the university from business has sunk to virtually zero, university teachers find themselves unequivocally involved in capital’s appropriation of “general intellect.”

(...)

Conclusion

In academia, as elsewhere, labour power is never completely controllable. To the degree that capital uses the university to harness general intellect, insisting its workforce engage in life-long learning as the price of employability, it runs the risk that people will teach and learn something other than what it intends. In my own practice, a crucial aspect of teaching that “something other” is to address critically the utopian promises of information revolution examined at the beginning of this book. It is both very important, and relatively easy, to demonstrate how hollow these promises have proven over the last three decades: how they have brought the majority of people in Europe and North America not new technologically-generated wealth, but declining or stagnant real wages; how the mirage of increased, enriched leisure has evaporated into rates of unemployment and poverty unimaginable twenty years ago; how the `knowledge class' that was to humanise capital has found itself pink-slipped by its corporate masters, sharing the welfare line with millions of others; how the high-skill, high-tech service jobs are fractional compared to the burgeoning mass of poorly paid and precarious `McJobs'; how the `co-operative' workplace is terrorised by downsizing, closures and concessionary roll-backs; how the heralded multiplication of media channels masks an intensifying concentration of ownership; how promises of `all information everywhere' translates into a vast extension of property rights and corporate power. From this point of view, the utopian announced by information revolutionaries is mere fraud. However, to teach this, unalloyed, can simply reinforce despair and cynicism. Demystification, practiced alone, leads to a dead end--to the assertion of monolithic and unbreakable capitalist power that characterises so much of what passes for Marxism today. The more difficult task is to identify the possibilities of things being other than they are. As Raymond Williams wrote, the crucial challenge is "making hope practical, rather than despair convincing." For this purpose, I have found the analysis offered by of autonomist Marxism, with its emphasis on the constantly changing and renewed cycle of struggles between capital and labour, particularly valuablel. This perspective shows how the information revolution came into being as a result of a social contest, as part of a vast restructuring by capital intended to evade and suppress working class opposition. More importantly, it suggests that this informational restructuring has failed. Rather than pacifying class conflict, digitalisation and genetic engineering only displace capital’s constant internal war--so that the lines of contestation now run along the inside of the very technological systems deployed to overcome them. To contain crisis, capital has been compelled to set in play agents and subjects whose capacities outrun its control. Now, more than ever before, it has "conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange" that it becomes like "a sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world which he has called up by his spells." If workers' refusal of work has resulted in extraordinary levels of automation, the new machine-systems now threaten the viability of the wage economy itself. If local militancies have provoked capital to seek global mobility, the very communication and transportation networks down which it flees provide the threads of new, transnational solidarities. If people's desires for education and self-development have been made the stuff of a knowledge-for-profit market, collective intelligence turns to criticise the human and environmental costs of this trajectory--and to devise alternatives. At its present very high level of technoscientific development, corporate power finds itself dependent on levels of co-operative activity, unimpeded communication, and free circulation of knowledge that, far from being easily integrated into its hierarchies, exist in persistent tension with its command. Thus the possibilities that information revolutionaries speak of cannot just be written off as false promises. Rather, they are a refracted and distorted version of real potentialities for a new social order, liberated from the despotic constraints of constant work, denied wealth and destructive accumulation. However, the actualisation of these hopes demands breaking-through the limits capital currently imposes on human development. I have argued that there are now visible signs of an emergent collectivity refusing the logic of commodification, uprising at the very moment that the world market seems to have swallowed the entire planet. Deepening and expanding this process of recomposition depends on interconnection between many and disparate movements at different points along capitalism’s circuits. Ironically, the conversations necessary for creation of the new combination are now being conducted across the world-spanning communication networks that information-age capital has itself created. It is as a contribution to that circulation of struggles that this book is offered.