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Digital Laborers and Marx

Our discussion of “Digital Laborers” drew on works by Ursula Huws and Richard Sennett. In my paper, I would like to record two parts of our class discussion that I found to be both challenging and especially helpful. The first was our effort to better describe what Huws refers to as “commodification” using concepts culled from Marx’s writing in the Grundrisse. Sumanth helpfully provided me with a link to a translation of one section of that work, Part 3) Relative Surplus Value i) Formal and Real Subsumption of Labour under Capital (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/economic/ch37.htm). All quotations of Marx to follow are taken from this site. The second part of our discussion I would like to briefly address concerns Sennett’s concept of meritocracy.

Ursula Huws’ book The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World deals with “new technology” (or information technology) and the changes in labor relations it effects. For Huws “the commodification process is a central concept in understanding change,” (Huws, 17) and she emphasizes the impact of this process on women especially. She suggests that the new commodities being produced grow out of the socialization of domestic (unpaid) labor and shows how those commodities not only fail to reduce housework (real hours have actually gone up for a variety of reasons), but also how those commodities increase dependence on an outside expert and strip away the value of what were formerly a “woman’s skills,” or “mysteries” (Huws, 40). She then argues that the atomization of the work force leaves people isolated, discouraged from organizing, dependent on a diminishing wage, and under the control of capitalist owners. These basic themes are developed in greater detail throughout the book. As we discussed, Huws’ understanding of commodification is not the same as Marx’s, and some of her ideas related to this concept can be better described in another way.

According to Huws there is,

“a tendency for activities taking place outside the money economy for use or exchange to move into the money economy and be replaced by craft production or consumer services that . . . become the basis of new manufacturing industries which in turn give rise to new service industries. These in turn generate new forms of consumption activities that can then form the basis of new consumer service industries and new products, and so the wheel of development keeps turning, generating in the process a multiplication of new commodities and an ever more complex social division of labor.” (Huws, 17)

The new commodities, Huws argues, do not really save time because they require more consumption work, they require travel and storage, they appear with changes in ideology which demand higher standards and therefore more work, and they are also accompanied by a greater pressure on women to create a division between public (work) and private (home) spaces. As Marx observed, as these products “enter into the consumption of the worker as necessary means of subsistence” they decrease the value of the “labour capacity.” Workers use their wages to pay for products whose production generated wealth for the capitalist.

One problem with Huws’ description is that not all of these commodifications represent transformations of “activities taking place outside the money economy.” In Sumanth’s example, the cars that are used to travel to supermarkets are replacing earlier travel enabling technologies. These commodities were already situated within the money economy, and are now being replaced by other, more advanced technologies which also exist within the money economy.

Moreover, describing this process as commodification is not as helpful as the description we developed in class. Commodification is simply taking something that was previously done without payment, and turning it into something that is paid for. What Huws’ refers to as commodification is described as a two-step process. In the first step, activities from outside the money economy are taken over by paid labor in the form of “services.” In the second, these services are replaced by products that require the unpaid labor of the consumer (a consumer who, according to Huws, is typically a woman), thereby replacing the paid labor of the service worker. Probably because she calls these products “commodities,” she refers to this second step as “commodification.” But commodification had already taken place in the first step; an activity of unpaid labor was replaced by an activity of paid labor. What are the forces that take this new money economy activity and shift it back onto unpaid labor?

Firstly, Huws could distinguish between what Marx calls the formal and real modes of subsumption. Formal subsumption involves taking a process from outside of the money economy and having it performed in its entirety by many paid individuals. The unpaid process is now being performed by a wage labor. Marx says,

“I call the form which rests on absolute surplus value the formal subsumption of labour under capital. It is distinguished only formally from other modes of production, in which the actual producers provide a surplus produce, a surplus value. i.e. work more than the necessary, labour time, but for others rather than for themselves. . . As yet there is no difference in the mode of production itself. The labour process continues exactly as it did before—from the technological point of view—only as a labour process now subordinated to capital.”

This is what happens in Huws’ first step. Moreover, of the particular types of labor being subsumed by capitalism, Marx says,

“The difference in the relation of domination and subordination, when the mode of production is not yet affected, is at its greatest where rural or in general domestic subsidiary trades, or side occupations carried on just for the needs of the family, are transformed into separate branches of labour carried on in a capitalist way.”

Real subsumption is the next step. It depends upon formal subsumption, but a fundamental shift occurs. Marx writes,

“With the real subsumption of labour under capital, all the changes we have discussed take place in the technological process, the labour process, and at the same time there are changes in the relation of the worker to his own production and to capital—and finally, the development of the productive power of labour takes place, in that the productive forces of social labour are developed, and only at that point does the application of natural forces on a large scale, of science and of machinery, to direct production become possible. Here, therefore, there is change not only in the formal relation but in the labour process itself.”

In real subsumption, the process can be broken down into many component parts, as in an assembly line. The process is no longer carried out in its entirety by many individuals; rather, each individual performs one part of the total process. In this step, says Marx,

“The capitalist must be the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale, and the extent of their value, in one man’s concentrated possession, stands increasingly outside all relation with the amount an individual person or an individual family could accumulate over generations by their own hoarding.”

In Huws’ second step the (already commodified) process is broken down by the use of new materials and technologies, and the unpaid labor of consumers is required for the accomplishment of a given task (as in Jennifer’s example of IKEA in the blog postings). Marx’s comments in this section of the Grundrisse are quite relevant to Huws’ analysis:

“With the real subsumption of labour under capital a complete revolution takes place in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour, and in the relation—within production—between the capitalist and the worker, as also in the social relation between them. . . The relation of dependence worsens here through the introduction of female and child labour, so that it again approximates to the slave relation.”

These processes are part of the changes in the relations and forces of production. Relations of production are the contracts and arrangements that dictate the processes of production. Forces of production refer to the technical powers: individual labor power, machinery, and materials. When in Huws’ first step unpaid services are replaced by work done by paid service workers, the relations of production have been commodified. In the new arrangement, laborers are paid for the activity that was once unpaid for. But in Huws’ second step new forces are introduced. New technologies are introduced. Consumers purchase new machines and materials that they will need to use without payment (that they will in fact need to pay in order to use at all). The already commodified processes are not somehow re-commodified by virtue of the introduction of new material products. On the contrary, while new “commodities” are introduced in the form of machines and materials, the forces have decommodified the relations. Paid labor is replaced by unpaid labor.

One of the results of these processes is that workers are deskilled. Another is that skills are rapidly rendered obsolete. This brings me to Sennett’s discussion of meritocracy. Sennett uses ideal types to construct abstract pictures of sociological circumstances. Craftsmanship, he says, is producing something for its own sake. But this “sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism.” (Sennett, 105) Meritocracy arose out of an idea that individuals should be measured by their achievement, not by their class background. But what flexible capitalism seeks to measure is “potential ability.” In this way, the costly task of retraining older workers can be avoided, and those workers can be replaced with fresh talent. Older workers find their skills obsolete, and they are replaced by younger workers.

The managerial professional class is ostensibly based upon a meritocracy. Unlike the elite, children from this class must work at reproducing the skills necessary to stay in that class. They face the very real danger of downward mobility. But as structures collapse, everything becomes meritocratic, and people with more capital to invest are more capable of advancing. What matters is not actual achievement, but the potential of a given worker. Getting a job done “on time” is valued more than getting the job done well. This results in the “disempowering of the mass of workers.” (Sennett, 127)

As can be seen in both Huws and Sennett, the atomizing of the workforce is creating grave challenges to the organization of laborers. They are separated from one another. As Huws helpfully points out in her tenth chapter, even the issue of describing the class of these new digital workers is a difficult process, and trying to provide those workers with symbols around which they can organize seems almost impossible. Sennett shows how meritocracies inevitably force out older workers. The special skills of the craftsman that are regarded with suspicion by consultants, and the “mysteries” of the domestic laborer that have been replaced by easy to use domestic products, once gave their practitioners pride and power. This pride and power is being dismantled. Workers are left without work, or with the obligation to perform unpaid consumption labor. The question at hand is how will digital laborers gain control?