Digital Labor

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1. From the Wikipedia:

"Digital labor or digital labour is a term for a schema of ideas focusing on exploring and understanding the high levels of cognitive and cultural labor associated with the replacement of jobs in the increasingly automated industrial sector, into globalized production systems embedded in high-technology, and into a knowledge economy. Digital labor also describes a series of affective and social activities within capitalist modes of production not typically viewed as work, including the increasing participation on social media websites, and the effect of social media on social patterns and communication and the collapse of work and play.

The notion of digital labor has evolved from the traditions of workerist/Operaismo, Autonomism, and Post-Fordist theory that grew during the workers' struggles in Italy, which included a substantial feminist movement in the Wages for housework campaign.

Digital labor as a field also includes consideration of the affect and the axiomatization of the body, collective intelligences, and the hive mind, semiotics and postmodernism, artificial intelligence, science fiction, gaming culture, hyper-reality, disappearance of the commodity, contested definitions of the "knowledge worker" in capitalistic society."

2. Trebor Scholz:

“I still have not really defined digital labor.

Here are a few statements to that end:

1. 21st century work has become more intensive, denser. Amazon’s inactivity reports showed that much. Time has become more central as an instrument of oppression.

2. The definition of digital labor has to reflect an intricate understanding of both paid and unpaid forms. Generalizing one emerging trend, be that uncompensated emotional labor or paid crowd work, as the sole tenor that has overtaken the entire economy fails to capture the reality of many other modes of digital work. It fails to account for the far crueler treatment of workers in the industrial sector that produces the hardware, all along its supply chains.

3. Thinking about digital labor means contemplating global patterns of connection and accumulation that facilitate and promote such production. This means that all related processes need to be included in this definition; everything from the assembly of iPhones, the Xbox, cables, wireless installations, Foxconn’s factories in the Longhua Science and Technology Park in ShenZhen, China (which bring us Apple, HP, Dell, and Sony products), and the mining of rare earth minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and China’s Nancheng County, without which you could not boot up our laptops and mobile devices. The supposedly “weightless economy” would sink to the bottom of the ocean would not it be for all the workers in Foxconn’s suicide mills.

4. A definition of digital labor needs to divorce itself from the rhetoric of flexibility, choice, and autonomy. Remember Ryan Bingham’s pitch to the soon-to-be-unemployed in Up in the Air? Another one of Ryan Bingham’s favorite lines is: “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it is because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

So, it is the ideology of forced entrepreneurship, the channeling your inner “micro-entrepreneur,” the inner freedom-loving artist who wants to cut loose, that I’m questioning.

Digital labor needs to be discussed at the fold of intensified forms of exploitation online and older economies of unpaid and invisible work — think of Silvia Federici, Selma James, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “Wages for Housework” campaign and, in the 1980s, cultural theorist Donna Haraway discussing ways in which emerging communication technologies allowed for “home work” to be disseminated throughout society.

Digital labor is also marked by an ever more pronounced power asymmetry between the class of owners, what I call the digital economic surveillance complex — crowdsourcing firms and services like CrowdFlower and Amazon Mechanical Turk — that hold all four aces, and the abundantly available workers that hold none, as David Graeber put it.

The word “labor” has an image problem. Over and over, authors have disavowed the term because it’s just not adequate anymore given the blur of leisure and labor. In contrast, I argue that giving up on the language of labor means losing the connection to the history of labor — the fight for the eight-hour work day, employer-paid health insurance, sick leave, and pensions.” (


* Book: Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Edited by Trebor Scholz. Routledge, 2012.


"Digital Labor asks whether life on the internet is mostly work, or play. We tweet, we tag photos, we link, we review books, we comment on blogs, we remix media, and we upload video to create much of the content that makes up the web. And large corporations profit on our online activity by tracking our interests, affiliations, and habitsâand then collecting and selling the data. What is the nature of this interactive âlaborâ and the new forms of digital sociality that it brings into being?

The international, interdisciplinary contributors to Digital Labor suggest that there is no longer a clear divide between the personal and work, as every aspect of life drives the digital economy: sexual desire, boredom, friendship and all become fodder for speculative profit. They argue that we are living in a total labor society and the way in which we are commoditized, racialized, and engendered is profoundly and disturbingly normalized by the dominant discourse of digital culture.

Digital Labor poses a series of questions about our digital present:

How is the global crisis of capitalism linked to the hidden labor of the digital economy?

How do we address that most online interaction, whether work or play, for profit or not, is taking place on corporate platforms?

How can we acknowledge moments of exploitation while not eradicating optimism, inspiration, and the many instances of individual financial and political empowerment?

In response to these questions, this collection offers new definitions of digital labor that address and challenge the complex, hybrid realities of the digital economy."


Introduction: Trebor Scholz Why Does Digital Labor Matter Now?

I. The Shifting Sites of Labor Markets

1. Andrew Ross On the Digital Labor Question

2. Tiziana Terranova Free Labor

3. Sean Cubitt The Political Economy of Cosmopolis

4. McKenzie Wark Considerations on A Hacker Manifesto

II. Interrogating Modes of Digital Labor

5. Ayhan Aytes Return of The Crowds: Mechanical Turk and Neoliberal States of Exception

6. Abigail De Kosnik Fandom as Free Labor

7. Patricia Clough The Digital, Labor and Measure Beyond Biopolitics

8. Jodi Dean Whatever Blogging

III. The Violence of Participation

9. Mark Andrejevic Estranged Free Labor

10. Jonathan Beller Digitality and The Media of Dispossession

11. Lisa Nakamura Donât Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft

IV. Organizing Networks in an Age of Vulnerable Publics

12. Michel Bauwens Thesis on Digital Labor in an Emerging P2P Economy

13. Christian Fuchs Class and Exploitation on the Internet

14. Ned Rossitter and Soenke Zehle Acts of Translation: Organizing Networks as Algorithmic Technologies of the Common


1. Trebor Scholz:

“Digital labor, I suggest, is the shiny, sharp tip of a gargantuan neoliberal spear that is made up of de-regulation, increasing inequality, the shift from employment to low-wage temporary contracts, and union busting.

Along with exploding financial products and the construct of student loans, digital labor companies like Uber and Mechanical Turk are among America’s most harmful exports.

Many researchers have focused on optimizing this little spaceship, these platform ecosystems: trying to make them run more efficiently, more frictionless and with a better understanding of the motivations of the workers. I’d add the building of alternatives, outrage, conflict, and worker organization to the list of options. We can’t leave society to platform owners and developers: to Microsoft, CrowdFlower, or Google, and most definitely not to Amazon.

But before we are talking about alternatives, let’s take one step back.

Since the late 1970s, the productivity of American workers steadily increased while their real wages stagnated. More and more Americans went to college but despite their skills, their pay remained low. The overall burden of the debt crisis and changed work regimes meant that a regular paycheck is increasingly unlikely to include legal protections, decent pay, or benefits.

The overall burden of changed regimes of work and the debt crisis meant that a regular paycheck is increasingly unlikely to include legal protections, decent pay, or benefits. Today, 76% of Americans have no savings. In the case of an emergency, they don’t have any financial fall back.

Young people are increasingly asked to “pay their dues” by working for free as interns. Seventy-five percent of unpaid interns are women and, no, that is not a victory for feminism. According to NYU professor Ross Perlin, unpaid internships contribute 2 billion dollars to corporate profits every year. Sometimes, the “carrot is just the stick by other means,” as anarchist Bob Black would have it.

Anything that becomes digital can eventually get exploited. Developments like self-driving cars, apps-based taxi companies, and crowdsourcing systems can be beneficial but are also introducing new vulnerabilities for workers. Digitization allows for new business models, novel chains of value extraction and forms of division of labor —  most of which are obstructing its emancipatory and humanizing potential while undermining social security.

Digital labor is a child of the low-wage crisis. Ever larger parts of the economy are being reengineered to move away from the employment relationship and closer to freelancing and independent contract work. Online platforms, built on the affordances of cloud computing, are key to the reorganization of work. These platforms become digital labor bottle necks: to get a gig you need to go through one of them.

Growing numbers of workers no longer pursue a career path, a job for life. “Whereas traditional employment was like marriage,” legal scholar Frank Pasquale writes, “with both parties committed to some longer-term mutual project, the digitized workforce seeks a series of hookups.” In this labor market of one-nighters, people are working short–term or just casual hours. A closer look at templates of 21st century work that are currently put in place reveals a trajectory of workers now taking on many gigs at once. For some, this is a choice but most are forced into such “atypical work” by economic circumstance. A few weeks ago, I met with my tax accountant and the guy before me handed in fifteen 1099 forms. Welcome to the 1099 economy. Demands for qualifications are getting ever higher and anxiety, the fear of unemployment, and poverty have become central life themes for many young people today. They are moving down the one-way street from unpaid internship to underpaid creative work.

Such a start into work life then, leads to a lifelong “precarious career,” which also makes life planning impossible and old-age poverty a certainty. A 2010 study by the American software company Intuit found that 80% of large American corporations are planning to increase their use of flexible workers substantially in coming years.

We are living in what the German/South Korean author Byung-Chul Han called a Fatigue Society. This is no longer a disciplinary society, Han writes; instead, we are living in an achievement-oriented society that is allegedly free, determined by the call of “yes we can.” Initially, this creates a feeling of freedom, but soon that freedom is accompanied by anxiety, self-exploitation, and depression. Han writes that depression, exhaustion, attention deficits, and burnout are not caused by negativity but by an excess of positivity, which can bypass all immunological defenses. Too much positivity about 21st century work leads to anxiety, depression, and exhaustion.” (

2. By Mark Graham, Isis Hjorth, Vili Lehdonvirta:

"The rise of digital labour has come about at a confluence of two trends. First, in much of the world, un- and under-employment is a major social and economic concern for policy-makers, for people with jobs, and for people looking for jobs (ILO, 2015). The International Labour Organisation (2014) estimates that between 2014 and 2019 there will be 213 million new labour market entrants.

Secondly, much of the world is increasingly characterised by rapidly changing connectivity. We have gone from a world, only 10 years ago, where less than 15 per cent of humanity was connected to the Internet, to one today where over 40 per cent of the world’s population is connected. There are now over three billion connected people on the planet. Furthermore, 10 years ago, less than 8 per cent of people in low-income countries were connected. Today, the figure is over a third (ITU, 2016).

In response to this confluence of a need for more jobs in places where they do not currently exist, and the spreading of digital connectivity across billions of the world’s population, millions of people have turned to outsourced digitally mediated work as a way to transcend some of the constraints of their local labour markets. The first wave of outsourcing, three decades ago, originally moved work to lower-wage areas within national economies (Bain and Taylor, 2008), but by the early 1990s the spread of digital connectivity made it possible for destinations like India and the Philippines to capture large amounts of outsourced work (Bryson, 2007; Dicken, 2015; Lambregts et al., 2016).

In the nascent days of business process outsourcing (BPO) there were very few locations that could offer a sufficient amount of connectivity to support transnational workflows (UNCTAD, 2009), but as ever more people in low-income countries connect to the Internet, another fundamentally different type of outsourcing has emerged: digital labour platforms1 in which clients post jobs and workers bid on them. In contrast to BPO work, digital labour platforms represent a fundamentally new model because they allow business processes to be outsourced without the mediation of formal BPO organisations (and their associated overheads). Work is turned into a commodity in which workers are transformed into a ‘computation service’ (Irani, 2015). In this context, workers can transcend some of the constraints of their local labour markets, and tasks such as translations, transcriptions, lead generation, marketing, and personal assistance can now all, in theory, be done by workers from anywhere for clients based anywhere. Much has been said about the ways that technologies of globalisation have widened the global reach of capital at the cost of place-bound labour (see Herod, 2001; Peck, 2002; Swyngedouw, 1997). But the rise of digital work perhaps means that not just capital, but also labour can compete in a global market. Chew Kuek et al. (2015) estimate that the market for digital work was US$4.4bn in 2016, and that it is growing rapidly. An index measuring the utilisation of digital labour platforms suggests that their use is growing globally at a rate equivalent to 25 per cent a year (Kässi and Lehdonvirta, 2016).

Yet there are some preliminary indications that not everyone can compete equally in digital platforms. Beerepoot and Lambregts (2014), for instance, have argued that non-Western workers could be poorly rewarded on such sites. While the empirical evidence about the livelihood effects of digital work are still thin on the ground (a notable exception is Scholz, 2013), there is already a rich body of work pointing to challenges associated with the growth of precarious work more broadly in the wider economy (Kalleberg, 2009; Neff, 2012).

However, many governments, third-sector organisations, and private sector actors continue to see a significant developmental potential in digital labour: jobs can be created for some of the world’s poorest by taking advantage of connectivity and the willingness of an increasing number of firms to outsource business processes. Examples include the Rockefeller Foundation’s 7-year Digital Jobs Africa initiative and the Malaysian government’s Digital Malaysia strategy. In Malaysia, the idea of pursuing digital jobs manifested as a key policy priority with the 2012 launch of the strategic programme ‘Digital Malaysia’, described as ‘the nation’s vision to forge ahead in embracing the global digital revolution […] that will propel the nation into high-income status with digital technology as its critical enabler’ (Digital Malaysia, 2013: 58).2 One of the five pillars of ‘Digital Malaysia’ is the programme ‘Microsourcing for the B40s’ intended to enable the bottom 40 per cent income earners to leverage microwork and online freelancing for sustaining a living. The official target is to enable 340,000 microworkers to generate a contribution to the Malaysian economy of MYR 2.23bn (about US$0.5bn) yearly by 2020.

Similarly, Nigeria’s Ministry of Communications Technology launched the initiative ‘Microwork for Job Creation – Naijacloud’ in the spring of 2013. The explicit aim was to ‘reduce unemployment and create wealth through Microwork and Elancing’.3 Backed by the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, the government arranged workshops introducing thousands of individuals to five of the major global online platforms and microwork intermediaries: Samasource, CrowdFlower, Mobile Works, oDesk and Elance. These and other large-scale interventions demonstrate the high hopes that many have for digital labour in the contexts of development. Underpinning them all is an idea that, in a global market for labour, the actual locations of workers are irrelevant. Anyone can, in theory, do any work from anywhere. An idea that, if true, could bring significant economic benefits to workers in parts of the world where good jobs are hard to come by." (

Amazon Mechanical Turk as Digital Black Box Labor

Trebor Scholz:

“Amazon describes AMT as an “artificial artificial intelligence” service. One of the most striking illustrations of the different ways in which workers can be embedded in software is Soylent, “a Word Processor with a crowd inside.” In short, this MIT project, which has stalled in its Beta stage, is an add-in for Microsoft Word that “embeds” Turkers in a Word document. For the characteristically low fee, they will proofread or shorten your text — just highlight text and specify what you want to get done. Senior Microsoft Research scholar Mary L. Gray refers to this as “crowds as code.”

Going beyond the examples of Soylent and Mechanical Turk, expert and UCSD labor scholar Lilly Irani analyzes the importance of digital black box labor: the hiding of very real workers when it comes to attracting venture capital:

- By hiding the labor and rendering it manageable through computing code, human computation platforms have generated an industry of startups claiming to be the future of data. … Hiding the labor is key to how these startups are valued by investors, and thus key to the speculative but real winnings of entrepreneurs. Micro-work companies attract more generous investment terms when investors perceive them as technology companies rather than labor companies.

The cheaper and better hidden a workforce promises to be, the higher the speculative fortunes of these companies will rise. The digital infrastructure that Amazon has put in place, the code in tandem with its terms of use, choreographs rote, often repetitive, potentially exploitative interactions — what I call crowd fleecing.

The term digital black box labor works well to describe this disguise of workers. The metaphor makes sense here. In his book Blackbox Society, Frank Pasquale reflects on the cultural meaning of the black box:

The term “black box” … can refer to a recording device, like the data-monitoring systems in planes, trains, and cars. Or it can mean a system whose workings are mysterious; we can observe its inputs and outputs, but we cannot tell how one becomes the other.

In online systems like Amazon Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower, it is mysterious where the labor is coming from, who is requesting it, and what they are intending to do with it. The workers are tucked away. The concealed workforce is not reflected in their business plans; they only show direct employment. Thanks to this concealed labor pool, it is now possible to build a large company while keeping the number of salaried employees to a bare minimum.

If this work would really be exploitative, nobody would do it, I heard consultant and net critic Clay Shirky argue at one point. But for some workers, there simply is no other option than toiling on this crowd working platform. The necessity to take up a low-wage gig is like “Zugzwang” when playing chess: no matter the next move, the player will always be worse off than before. Here is what one Turker said about what free choice meant for them. I don’t know about where you live, but around here even McDonald’s and Walmart are NOT hiring. I have a degree in accounting and cannot find a real job, so to keep myself off of the street I work 60 hours or more a week here on mTurk just to make $150-$200. That is far below minimum wage, but it makes the difference between making my rent and living in a tent. — (Posted on the Turker Nation Forum and sourced from Felstiner, Working the Crowd.) On the surface, it appears as if Turkers have flexibility when it comes to the days and even hours of the day that they wish to work. At the same time, however — just like TaskRabbits — they need to be glued to their computers all day long to catch higher paying tasks and respond to them immediately. But they could pass up such opportunities without losing the ability to continue to work on Mechanical Turk.

The global climate change of labor that we are witnessing right now is alarming, but the future is on fire. Inequality will increase ever more and paths of resistance are uncertain. I can’t make myself sign on with the Accelerationists who urge us “that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, critique, or détourne it, but to accelerate and exacerbate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.” (

Digital Work and Digital Labour

Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:

"The realm of digital media is a specific subsystem of the cultural industries and of cultural labour. Digital labour is a specific form of cultural labour that has to do with the production and productive consumption of digital media. There are other forms of cultural labour that are non-digital. Think for example of a classical music or rock concert. But these forms of live entertainment that are specific types of cultural labour also do not exist independently from the digital realm: Artists publish their recordings in digital format on iTunes, Spotify, and similar online platforms. Fans bring their mobile phones for taking pictures and recording concert excerpts that they share on social media platforms. There is little cultural labour that is fully independent from the digital realm today. The notion of digital work and digital labour wants to signify those forms of cultural labour that contribute to the existence of digital technologies and digital content. It is a specific form of cultural labour.

If culture were merely symbolic, mind, spirit, “immaterial”, superstructural, informational, a world of ideas, then digital labour as expression of culture clearly would exclude the concrete works of mining and hardware assemblage that are required for producing digital media. Williams’ Cultural Materialism, contrary to the position of Cultural Idealism, makes it possible to argue that digital labour includes both the creation of physical products and information that are required for the production and usage of digital technologies. Some digital workers create hardware, others hardware components, minerals, software or content that are all objectified in or the outcome of the application of digital technologies. Some workers, e.g. miners, not just contribute to the emergence of digital media, but to different products. If one knows the mines’ sales, then it is possible to determine to which extent the performed labour is digital or other labour.

In order to illustrate this point that culture is material, we now want return in greater detail to a passage where Marx reflects about the work of making and playing the piano. Marx wrote:

Productive labour is only that which produces capital. Is it not crazy, asks e.g. (or at least something similar) Mr Senior, that the piano maker is a productive worker, but not the piano player, although obviously the piano would be absurd without the piano player? But this is exactly the case. The piano maker reproduces capital; the pianist only exchanges his labour for revenue. But doesn't the pianist produce music and satisfy our musical ear, does he not even to a certain extent produce the latter? He does indeed: his labour produces something; but that does not make it productive labour in the economic sense; no more than the labour of the madman who produces delusions is productive. Labour becomes productive only by producing its own opposite (Marx 1857/58, 305).

Williams remarks that today, other than in Marx’s time, “the production of music (and not just its instruments) is an important branch of capitalist production” (Williams 1977, 93).

If the economy and culture are two separate realms, then building the piano is work and part of the economy and playing it is not work, but culture. Marx leaves however no doubt that playing the piano produces a use-value that satisfies human ears and is therefore a form of work. As a consequence, the production of music must just like the production of the piano be an economic activity. Williams (1977, 94) stresses that cultural materialism means to see the material character of art, ideas, aesthetics and ideology and that when considering piano making and piano playing it is important to discover and describe “relations between all these practices” and to not assume “that only some of them are material”.

Apart from the piano maker and the piano player there is also the composer of music. All three forms of work are needed and necessarily related in order to guarantee the existence of piano music. Fixing one of these three productive activities categorically as culture and excluding the others from it limits the concept of culture and does not see that one cannot exist without the other. Along with this separation come political assessments of the separated entities. A frequent procedure is to include the work of the composer and player and to exclude the work of the piano maker. Cultural elitists then argue that only the composer and player are truly creative, whereas vulgar materialists hold that only the piano maker can be a productive worker because he works with his hands and produces an artefact. Both judgments are isolationist and politically problematic.

Taking the example of piano music and transferring it to digital media, we find correspondences: Just like we find piano makers, music composers and piano players in the music industry, we find labour involved in hardware production (makers), content and software production (composers) and productive users (prosumers, players, play labour) in the world of digital labour. In the realm of digital labour, we have to emphasize that practices are “from the beginning social and material” (Williams 1989, 206).

There is a difference if piano makers, players and music composers do so just as a hobby or for creating commodities that are sold on the market. This distinction can be explored based on Marx’s distinction between work (Werktätigkeit) and labour (Arbeit): Brigitte Weingart (1997) describes the origins of the terms work in English and Arbeit and Werk in German: In German, the word Arbeit comes from the Germanic term arba, which meant slave. The English term work comes from the Middle English term weorc. It was a fusion of the Old English terms wyrcan (creating) and wircan (to affect something). So to work means to create something that brings about some changes in society. Weorc is related to the German terms Werk and werken. Both work in English and Werk in German were derived from the Indo-European term uerg (doing, acting). Werken in German is a term still used today for creating something. Its origins are quite opposed to the origins of the term Arbeit. The result of the process of werken is called Werk. Both werken and Werk have the connotative meaning of being creative. Both terms have an inherent connotation of artistic creation. Arendt (1958, 80f) confirms the etymological distinction between ergazesthai (Greek)/facere, fabricari (Latin)/work (English)/werken (German)/ouvrer (French) and ponein (Greek)/laborare (Latin)/labour (English)/arbeiten (German)/travailler (French).

Raymond Williams (1983, 176–179) argues that the word “labour” comes from the French word labor and the Latin term laborem and appeared in the English language first around 1300. It was associated with hard work, pain and trouble. In the 18th century, it would have attained the meaning of work under capitalist conditions that stands in a class relationship with capital. The term “work” comes from the Old English word weorc and is the “most general word for doing something” (ibid, 334). In capitalism the term on the one hand has, according to Williams (ibid, 334–337), acquired the same meaning as labour—a paid job—but would have in contrast also kept its original broader meaning. In order to be able to differentiate the dual historical and essential character of work, it is feasible to make a semantic differentiation between labour and work.

The meaning and usage of words develops historically and may reflect the structures and changes of society, culture and the economy. Given that we find an etymological distinction between the general aspects of productive human activities and the specific characteristics that reflect the realities of class societies, it makes sense to categorically distinguish between the anthropological dimension of human creative and productive activities that result in use-values that satisfy human needs and the historical dimension that describes how these activities are embedded into class relations (Fuchs 2014a).

Human subjects have labour power. Their labour in the work process interacts with the means of production (object). The means of production consist of the object of labour (resources, raw materials) and the instruments of labour (technology). In the work process, humans transform an object (nature, culture) by making use of their labour power with the help of instruments of labour. The result is a product that unites the objectified labour of the subject with the objective materials s/he works on. Work becomes objectified in a product and the object is as a result transformed into a use value that serves human needs. The productive forces are a system, in which subjective productive forces (human labour power) make use of technical productive forces (part of the objective productive forces) in order to transform parts of the nature/culture so that a product emerges.

The general work process is an anthropological model of work under all historical conditions. The connection of the human subject to other subjects in figure 4 indicates that work is normally not conducted individually, but in relations with others. A society could hardly exist based on isolated people trying to sustain themselves independently. It requires economic relations in the form of co-operation and a social organization of production, distribution and consumption. This means that work takes place under specific historical social relations of production. There are different possibilities for the organization of the relations of production. In general the term labour points towards the organization of labour under class relations, i.e. power relationships that determine that any or some of the elements in the work process are not controlled by the workers themselves, but by a group of economic controllers. Labour designates specific organization forms of work, in which the human subject does not control his/her labour power (she is compelled to work for others) and/or there is a lack of control of the objects of labour and/or the instruments of labour and/or the products of labour.

Karl Marx pinpoints this lack of control by the term alienation and understands the unity of these forms of alienation as exploitation of labour: “The material on which it [labour] works is alien material; the instrument is likewise an alien instrument; its labour appears as a mere accessory to their substance and hence objectifies itself in things not belonging to it. Indeed, living labour itself appears as alien vis-à-vis living labour capacity, whose labour it is, whose own life’s expression it is, for it has been surrendered to capital in exchange for objectified labour, for the product of labour itself. […] labour capacity’s own labour is as alien to it – and it really is, as regards its direction etc.—as are material and instrument. Which is why the product then appears to it as a combination of alien material, alien instrument and alien labour—as alien property” (Marx 1857/58, 462).

Given these preliminary assumptions about the work-labour distinction and cultural materialism, one can provide a definition of digital work and digital labour:

Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media” (Fuchs 2014a, 352).

Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents. This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers” (Fuchs 2014a, 351f).

Work and labour are not isolated individual activities, but take place as part of social relations and larger modes of how the economy is organised. The concepts of digital work and digital labour need therefore to be related to a concept that can describe the organisational structure of the economy. One such concept is Marx’s notion of the mode of production." (

Digital Labour and Modes of Production

Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:

"Michael Porter (1985) introduced the notion of the value chain that he defined as “a collection of activities that are performed to design, produce, market, deliver and support its product” (Porter 1985, 36). The term value chain has become a popular category for analysing the organisation of capital, which is indicated by the circumstance that 11 682 articles indexed in the academic database Business Source Premier use the term in their abstract (accessed on May 21, 2013). The term has also been used in mainstream media economics for analysing the value chains of traditional media and ICTs (see Zerdick et al. 2000, 126-135). The problem of the mainstream use of the concept of the value chain is that it focuses on the stages in commodity production and tends to neglect aspects of working conditions and class relations. Also critical scholars have used the notion of the global value chain (see for example: Huws 2008, Huws and Dahlmann 2010).

An alternative concept that was introduced by critical studies is the notion of the new international division of labour (NIDL):

The development of the world economy has increasingly created conditions (forcing the development of the new international division of labour) in which the survival of more and more companies can only be assured through the relocation of production to new industrial sites, where labour-power is cheap to buy, abundant and well-disciplined; in short, through the transnational reorganization of production (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 15).

A further development is that “commodity production is being increasingly subdivided into fragments which can be assigned to whichever part of the world can provide the most profitable combination of capital and labour” (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 14). In critical media and cultural studies, Miller et al. (2004) have used this concept for explaining the international division of cultural labour (NICL). The concept of the NIDL has the advantage that it stresses the class relationship between capital and labour and how in processes of class struggle capital tries to increase profits by decreasing its overall wage costs via the global diffusion of the production process. It is also a concept that encompasses workers’ struggles against the negative effects of capitalist restructuring.

The approach taken in this paper stands in the Marxist tradition that stresses class contradictions in the analysis of globalisation. It explores how the notion of the mode of production can be connected to the concept of the new international division of labour. The notion of the mode of production stresses a dialectical interconnection of on the one hand class relationships (relations of production) and on the other hand the forms of organisation of capital, labour and technology (productive forces). The class relationship is a social relationship that determines who owns private property and has the power to make others produce surplus-value that they do not own and that is appropriated by private property owners. Class relationships involve an owning class and a non-owing class: the non-owning class is compelled to produce surplus value that is appropriated by the owning class.

The relations of production determine the property relations (who owns which share (full, some, none) of labour power, the means of production, products of labour), the mode of allocation and distribution of goods, the mode of coercion used for defending property relations and the division of labour. Class relationships are forms of organization of the relations of production, in which a dominant class controls the modes of ownership, distribution and coercion for exploiting a subordinated class. In a classless society human control ownership and distribution in common.

Every economy produces a certain amount of goods per year. Specific resources are invested and there is a specific output. If there is no contraction of the economy due to a crisis, then a surplus product is created, i.e. an excess over the initial resources. The property relations determine who owns the economy’s initial resources and surplus. Table 2 (see further below) distinguishes modes of production (patriarchy, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, communism) based on various modes of ownership, i.e. property relations.

The mode of allocation and distribution defines how products are distributed and allocated: In a communist society, each person gets whatever s/he requires to survive and satisfy human needs. In class societies, distribution is organized in the form of exchange: exchange means that one product is exchanged for another. If you have nothing to exchange because you own nothing, then you cannot get hold of other goods and services, except those that are not exchanged, but provided for free. There are different forms how exchange can be organized: general exchange, exchange for exchange-value (x commodity A = y commodity B), exchange for maximum exchange-value, exchange for capital accumulation.

The mode of coercion takes on the form of physical violence (overseers, security forces, military), structural violence (markets, institutionalised wage labour contracts, legal protection of private property, etc) and cultural violence (ideologies that present the existing order as the best possible or only possible order and try to defer the causes of societal problems by scapegoating). In a free society no mode of coercion is needed.

The division of labour defines who conducts which activities in the household, the economy, politics and culture. Historically there has been a gender division of labour, a division between mental and physical work, a division into many different functions conducted by specialists and an international division of labour that is due to the globalization of production. Marx in contrast imagined a society of generalists that overcomes the divisions of labour so that society is based on well-rounded universally active humans (Marx 1867, 334-335). Marx (1857/58, 238) says that in class society “labour will create alien property and property will command alien labour”. The historical alternative is a communist society and mode of production, in which class relationships are dissolved and the surplus product and private property are owned and controlled in common.

The relations of production are dialectically connected to the system of the productive forces (see figure 3 in section 1 of this paper): human subjects have labour power that in the labour process interacts with the means of production (object). The means of production consist of the object of labour (natural resources, raw materials) and the instruments of labour (technology). In the labour process, humans transform the object of labour (nature, culture) by making use of their labour power with the help of instruments of labour. The result is a product of labour, which is a Hegelian subject-object, or, as Marx says, a product, in which labour has become bound up in its object: labour is objectified in the product and the object is as a result transformed into a use value that serves human needs. The productive forces are a system, in which subjective productive forces (human labour power) make use of technical productive forces (part of the objective productive forces) in order to transform parts of the natural productive forces (which are also part of the objective productive forces) so that a labour product emerges. One goal of the development of the system of productive forces is to increase the productivity of labour, i.e. the output (amount of products) that labour generates per unit of time. Marx (1867, 431) spoke in this context of the development of the productive forces. Another goal of the development of the productive forces can be the enhancement of human self-development by reducing necessary labour time and hard work (toil).

In Capital, Marx (1867) makes a threefold distinction between labour-power, the object of labour and the instruments of labour: “The simple elements of the labour process are (1) purposeful activity, (2) the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that work” (284). Marx’s discussion of the production process can be presented in a systematic way by using Hegel’s concept of the dialectic of subject and object. Hegel (1991) has spoken of a dialectical relation of subject and object: the existence of a producing subject is based on an external objective environment that enables and constrains (i.e. conditions) human existence. Human activities can transform the external (social, cultural, economic, political, natural) environment. As a result of the interaction of subject and object, new reality is created—Hegel terms the result of this interaction “subject-object”. Figure 5 shows that Hegel’s notion of subject, object, and subject-object form a dialectical triangle.

Hegel (1991) characterizes the “subjective concept” as formal notion (§162), a finite determination of understanding a general notion (§162), “altogether concrete” (§164). He defines “the subject” as “the posited unseparatedness of the moments in their distinction” (§164). Hegel characterizes objectivity as totality (§193),“external objectivity”(§208),“external to an other” (§193),“the objective world in general” that “falls apart inwardly into [an] undetermined manifoldness” (§193), “immediate being” (§194), “indifference vis-à-vis the distinction” (§194), “realisation of purpose” (§194), “purposive activity” (§206) and “the means” (§206).The Idea is “the Subject-Object” (§162), absolute Truth (§162), the unity of the subjective and the objective (§212), “the absolute unity of Concept and objectivity” (§213), “the Subject-Object” understood as “the unity of the ideal and the real, of the finite and the infinite, of the soul and the body” (§214). Hegel also says that the “Idea is essentially process” (§215). Marx applied Hegel’s dialectic of subject and object on a more concrete level to the economy in order to explain how the process of economic production works as an interconnection of a subject (labour power) and an object (objects and instruments) so that a subject-object (product) emerges (see figure 6).

The instruments of work can be the human brain and body, mechanical tools and complex machine systems. They also include specific organizations of space-time, i.e. locations of production that are operated at specific time periods. The most important aspect of time is the necessary work time that depends on the level of productivity. It is the work time that is needed per year for guaranteeing the survival of a society. The objects and products of work can be natural, industrial or informational resources or a combination thereof.

The productive forces are a system of production that creates use-values. There are different modes of organization of the productive forces, such as agricultural productive forces, industrial productive forces and informational productive forces.

Classical slavery, serfdom and wage labour are three important historical forms of class relations that are at the heart of specific modes of production (Engels 1884). Marx and Engels argue that private property and slavery have their origin in the family: The first historical form of private property can be found in the patriarchal family (Marx and Engels 1845/46, 52). The family is a mode of production, in which labour power is no commodity, but organised by personal and emotional relationships that result in commitment that includes family work that is unremunerated and produces affects, social relations and the reproduction of the human mind and body. It can therefore also be called reproductive work.

A wage worker’s labour power has a price, its wage, whereas a slave’s labour power does not have a price—it is not a commodity. However, the slave him-/herself has a price, which means that its entire human body and mind can be sold as a commodity from one slave owner to another, who then commands the entire life time of the slave (Marx, 1857/58: 288–289). The slave in both ancient slavery and feudalism is treated like a thing and has the status of a thing (Marx 1857/58, 464–465).

In the Grundrisse’s section “Forms which precede capitalist production“ (Marx 1857/58, 471–514) as well as in the German Ideology’s section “Feuerbach: Opposition of the materialist and idealist outlooks“ (Marx and Engels 1845/46), Marx discusses the following modes of production:

- The tribal community based on the patriarchal family;

- Ancient communal property in cities (Rome, Greece);

- Feudal production in the countryside;

- Capitalism.

But how are modes of production related to each other? In a historical way, where they supersede each other, or in a historical-logical way within a specific social formation that sublates older formations but encompasses older modes of production into itself? Jairus Banaji (2011) argues that Stalinism and vulgar Marxism have conceptualised the notion of the mode of production based on the assumption that a specific mode contains only one specific historical form of labour and surplus-value appropriation and eliminates previous modes so that history develops in the form of a linear evolution: slavery à feudalism à capitalism à communism. So for example Althusser and Balibar (1970) argue that the historical development of society is non-dialectical and does not involve sublations, but rather transitions “from one mode of production to another” (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 307) so that one mode succeeds the other. This concept of history is one of the reasons why E.P. Thompson (1978, 131) has characterized Althusser’s approach as “Stalinism at the level of theory”. The Stalinist “metaphysical-scholastic formalism” (Banaji 2011, 61) has been reproduced in liberal theory’s assumption that there is an evolutionary historical development from the agricultural society to the industrial society to the information society so that each stage eliminates the previous one (as argued by: Bell 1974; Toffler 1980), which shows that in the realm of theory some liberals of today share in their theory elements of Stalinism. According to Banaji, capitalism often intensified feudal or semi feudal production relations. In parts of Europe and outside, feudalism would have only developed as a “commodity-producing enterprise” (Banaji 2011, 88). In the Islamic world capitalism would have developed without slavery and feudalism (Banaji 2011, 6).

Banaji advances in contrast to formalist interpretations a complex reading of Marx’s theory, in which a mode of production is “capable of subsuming often much earlier forms” (Banaji 2011, 1), “similar forms of labour-use can be found in very different modes of production” (6), capitalism is “working through a multiplicity of forms of exploitation” (145) and is a combined form of development (358) that integrates “diverse forms of exploitation and ways of organising labour in its drive to produce surplus value” (359).

A mode of production is a unity of productive forces and relations of production (Marx and Engels 1845/46, 91). If these modes are based on classes as their relations of production, then they have specific contradictions that can via class struggles result in the sublation (Aufhebung) of one mode of production and the emergence of a new one. The emergence of a new mode of production does not necessarily abolish, but rather sublate (aufheben) older modes of production. This means that history is for Marx a dialectical process precisely in Hegel’s threefold meaning of the term Aufhebung (sublation): 1) uplifting, 2) elimination, 3) preservation: 1) There are new qualities of the economy, 2) the dominance of an older mode of production vanishes, 3) but this older mode continues to exist in the new mode in a specific form and relation to the new mode. The rise of e.g. capitalism however did not bring an end to patriarchy, but the latter continued to exist in such a way that a specific household economy emerged that fulfils the role of the reproduction of modern labour power. A sublation can be more or less fundamental. A transition from capitalism to communism requires a fundamental elimination of capitalism, the question is however if this is immediately possible. Elimination and preservation can take place to differing degrees. A sublation is also no linear progression. It is always possible that relations that resemble earlier modes of organization are created.

Capitalism is at the level of the relations of production organised around relations between capital owners on the one side and paid/unpaid labour and the unemployed on the other side. On the level of the productive forces, it has developed from industrial to informational productive forces. The informational productive forces do not eliminate, but sublate (aufheben) other productive forces (Adorno 1968/2003, Fuchs 2014a, chapter 5): in order for informational products to exist a lot of physical production is needed, which includes agricultural production, mining and industrial production. The emergence of informational capitalism has not virtualised production or made it weightless or immaterial, but is grounded in physical production (Huws 1999, Maxwell and Miller 2012). Whereas capitalism is a mode of production, the terms agricultural society, industrial society and information society characterise specific forms of the organisation of the productive forces (Adorno 1968/2003; Fuchs 2014a, chapter 5).

The new international division of labour (NIDL) organises the labour process in space and time in such a way that specific components of the overall commodity are produced in specific spaces in the global economy and are reassembled in order to form a coherent whole that is sold as a commodity. It thereby can command labour on the whole globe and during the whole day. The approach taken by the authors of this paper advocates a broad understanding of digital labour based on an industry rather than an occupation definition in order to stress the commonality of exploitation, capital as the common enemy of a broad range of workers and the need to globalize and network struggles in order to overcome the rule of capitalism. Some of the workers described in this article are not just exploited by digital media capital, but also and sometimes simultaneously by other forms of capital. It is then a matter of degree to which extent these forms of labour are digital labour and simultaneously other forms of labour. If we imagine a company with job rotation so that each worker on average assembles laptops for 50% of his/her work time and cars for the other half of the time, a worker in this factory is a digital worker for 50%. S/he is however an industrial worker for 100% because the content of both manufacturing activities is the industrial assemblage of components into commodities. The different forms of digital labour are connected in an international division of digital labour (IDDL), in which all labour necessary for the existence, usage and application of digital media is “disconnected, isolated […], carried on side by side” and ossified “into a systematic division” (Marx 1867, 456).

Given a model of the mode of production, the question arises how one can best analyze the working conditions in a specific company, industry or sector of the economy when conducting a labour process and class analysis. Which dimensions of labour have to be taken into account in such an analysis?" (