“[…] labour, is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. And this life-activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of subsistence” (Marx 204)
On April 7th, 2014, a group of anarchists positioned themselves outside of the home of Kevin Rose, a partner at Google Ventures. Their demands? 3 billion dollars. Why? Because venture capitalists like Kevin Rose “literally design and implement [an] entire exploitive system”. The anarchists expressed grievances of being part of the situation of dehumanizing menial labour that techies and other entrepreneurs have created in the Bay Area through gentrification. “Tech is now about creating and selling the new indispensable commodity that everyone must have in order to be less bored, less lost, less ridden with anxiety.”
It should come as no surprise that economic relations like those mentioned by Karl Marx are part of this inescapable reality and commands the daily lives of ordinary working people. Furthermore, it can be argued that such relations are so profoundly rooted within a capitalist society such as ours that they account for the foundation of class struggle, and penetrate into our political realm. Who is to blame for the state of relations between different social classes? How is the value of the labor produced by the worker determined?
Karl Marx formulates an ideology about society, economics, and politics with the wage laborer (proletariat) at the focus undergoing class struggle with the capitalist class (bourgeoisie). Marxism, as it is known, asserts that all history has been a history of the struggle between the exploited and exploiting; only by overthrowing the capitalist class and giving power to the proletariat will the world be freed from their exploitation (Marx 472). Until then, the worker “works in order to live,” and sees labor not “as part of his life, […] [but] rather a sacrifice of his life” (Marx 204). The capitalist class will continue to “buy their labour with money” and the proletariat will sell to the capitalist “their labor for money” at the price that is “required for maintaining the worker as a worker and of developing him into a worker” (Marx 204-6).
Marx wrote “Wage Labor and Capital,” and “The Communist Manifesto” during the mid and late-19th century, respectively, in a time where the worker accumulated wages through physical labor. Since then, there have been vast transformations of industries, including that of the technological. We have been introduced to a new economy – the digital economy – whereby new types of workers and technologies have emerged and reimagined our means of communication, as well as the means of capital accumulation through knowledge production. The question by the capitalists then becomes, how can we extract value from the collective intelligence? And from that, can Marxist theory tell us anything about the new work that is being performed by technology workers? According to authors such as Soren Mork Petersen in “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation,” while Web 2.0 has fostered “democracy, participation, joy, [and] creativity,” it has also enabled companies to “piggyback on user generated content” (Petersen). Free labor by the users comes in the form of the social relations that they publicly establish by way of social media platforms. “We need to acknowledge that relations of subjectivity, everyday life, technology, media and publics also are related to dimensions of capitalism” (Petersen). Arvidsson and Colleoni grapple with recent application of Marxism’s theory of value in examining online prosumer practices in their article, “Value in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet”. They argue that the theory is difficult to apply to these practices due to its poor relation to time and the differentiation between accumulated value of social media in financial markets rather than direct commodity exchange (Arvidsson and Colleoni 135). Anyone who produces content online becomes part of a common exploited class by companies such as Google or Facebook, which depend highly on the activity of their users; “value creation in informational capitalism builds ever more on the ability of corporations to appropriate […] common resources. (Arvidsson and Colleoni 136). While the authors disagree that the labor theory of value is completely applicable to their argument, they drew on some of it’s elements that could be incorporated. Tiziana Terranova, in her article “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” argues that the notion of “free labor” relies on external actors that will not be paid for what they do such as create content on social media sites. Of free labor, Marx similarly wrote, “Labour was not always wage labour, that is, free labour. The slave did not sell his labour power any more to the slave owner, any more than the ox sells its services to the peasant” (Marx 205). While all of these authors provide some reference to Marxian concepts with regards to wage/free labor, they acknowledge that particular factors prevent an overall application of the theory into their arguments.
Marx does a thorough job of creating a worker-centered theory that critically examines the world through the perspective of the proletariat. While it provides an effective alternative understanding to political and economic relations between social classes, like the other authors we read for this week, there are certainly exceptions to Marxist theory on the value of wage labor.