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An interview with Nick Dyer-Witheford

Management once used technology to regulate the division between work and the workers themselves. On the one hand, this still seems to apply in the case of, for example, today’s Uber drivers. On the other hand, however, control, surveillance, and monitoring are discussed today in the context of how digital society as a whole seeks to target the user. Does it make sense to relate these two phenomena, do you see a connection? Has control of the capitalist production process invaded social life entirely?

It is true that today capital subsumes not only the workplace, but all aspects of life. This was well-recognized within the school of Marxism that shaped my thought, often known as “autonomist Marxism”, all the way from Mario Tronti’s concept of the “social factory” to more recent formulations of a Marxist “biopolitics” by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

However, I think that for such an analysis to be useful we also have to emphasize the particularity of different moments within this comprehensive process. Yes, capital occupies production, circulation, financialization and even the sphere of social reproduction, but it does so in different ways at different points. Perhaps a clear, or at least current, example would be the question of surveillance: as is now widely discussed, digital surveillance by both corporations as well as state security services is ubiquitous: all of our Facebook posts (that is, if we still use Facebook) are monitored and used to bolster advertising revenues. In that sense, we perform unwaged labour for Facebook.

This process is both related to and distinct from the experience of a worker in, say, an Amazon warehouse, who is subject to digital monitoring of her every move, measuring productivity in a way that can result in being fired for inadequate performance. We should be able to connect these two aspects of capitalist surveillance without collapsing them.

The industrial revolution created the proletariat, flattening out what was once a heterogeneous and wild bunch, and ultimately brought forth a working class with its own organizations, lifestyle and culture. What’s left of this class? Has it developed into a patchwork of classes? That is to say, does it still make sense to use the term in its singular form?

First-world Marxists have always tended to overstate the homogeneity of the working class, even in the period of industrial Fordism in which the shared conditions of a large number of workers in semi-automated, routinized factory and office settings did form a certain basis for solidarity. Thanks to the work of feminists and non-Eurocentric thinkers, as well Marxist (or Marxist-influenced) analysts such as Karl Heinz Roth, Marcel van der Linden and others, we now understand that even in this period the working class was not so smooth or unified.

Today, the global restructuring of capital has brought increased attention to the heterogeneity of this (at least potentially!) “wild bunch” of diverse labourers. But this simply means that what has always been the real issue – namely, the building of class unity across segmentation and stratification – is now more widely recognized.

Nick Dyer-Witheford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. In 1999 he published an influential book providing an analysis of information-age capitalism entitled Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism. In his 2015 follow-up, Cyber-Proletariat. Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, Dyer-Witheford reveals how technology facilitatesgrowing polarisation between wealthy elites and precarious workers. The interview was conducted by Timo Daum, a university professor whose research focuses on the internet, media and the digital economy. He is also the author of «Das Auto im digitalen Kapitalismus».

If class is defined through one’s relation to the means of production, aren’t all of us, as users, part of the digital proletariat working for the siren servers of digital capitalism?

As I suggested earlier: yes and no. “Yes” insofar as it is difficult to find any point in life that is now not linked to, or even immersed in, the commodification process. “No” insofar as all these moments possess their own specificity both in terms of their place within the circuits of capital as well as in the circulation of living energies which capital parasitizes. If all of our positions and experiences within the totality of capital were the same, organizing resistance would be very simple. But this isn’t the case – the totality we inhabit is complex.

If we accept that there is a growing global population of the unemployed no longer needed by capital, how can we describe this new global caste of the surplus precariat? And moreover, is universal basic income a project that digital capital might favour in order to pacify this new social layer?

The renewed attention now given to the issue of “surplus populations” is very important, as is the emergence, out of the struggles of workers subject to many kinds of insecurity, of the concept of “precarity”. That said, I am opposed to defining the “precariat” as a distinct class, or of seeing “surplus populations” as some new magic bullet for revolutionary projects. Precarity and (from capital’s point of view) superfluity has usually been a feature of proletarian existence. And yes, I agree with you that a UBI, instituted merely in such a way as to marginally ameliorate the instability and hazard of the wage relation, could very well be deployed as a pacifying measure by capital if faced with a surge of uprisings like we saw in 2011 in the near future.

Two phases in Marxist crisis theory can be identified. The cyclical crises of overproduction of the 19th century, heavily discussed by Marx, seemed to have been tamed through finance, state control, improved communications, etc. After capital brought these under control, Marxist crisis theory turned more and more to the notion of the “final” crisis, the tendency of the profit rate to fall, etc. Would you agree with this observation, and has capital managed to tame the latter as well?

I reject the premise of the question. The Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and subsequent economic recession showed that capital has not escaped its crisis tendencies, many dimensions of which – including both over-production and problems relating to the rate of profit– were involved in the flight to finance that ultimately triggered that catastrophe. Yes, capital survived, but only through heroic measures of state intervention, and even now, a decade later, the knock-on effects of that intervention remain uncertain. All the crisis dynamics Marx identified continue to be in play, in addition to others—notably, ecological disasters. There will be more crises. We just don’t know when.

Since the publication of your 1999 book Cyber-Marx, has the discourse around cyber or digital capitalism evolved, and in which direction? Which direction should it take in the future?

Cyber-Marx was written at a time when the Internet was entering wide-scale popular use, after having expanded beyond its initial military purposes. Capital was not entirely sure how to assimilate the digital, as demonstrated by the dot-com crash in 2000.  Thus, for a while, dot-com and dot-communist possibilities coexisted in these networks, and the latter possibilities were activated by the altermondialiste movement with some success. My book emerged from that context and that optimism.

However, this window closed. The rise of Google and Facebook in the mid-2000s signalled the arrival of a highly sophisticated model of network commodification, which Nick Srnicek has neatly dubbed “platform capitalism”. What we saw in 2011 was that, even within this new model – a model built on social media, search engines and mobile phones – some real insurgent possibilities remained, as demonstrated by the outbreak of so-called “Facebook revolutions”. But it also demonstrated the problems of such attempts, which occurred at a speed which outpaced political coherence, and with a visibility that was both strength and weakness at the same time.

My more recent Cyber-Proletariat, written immediately after the collapse of the Occupy movement and the disastrous outcomes in Egypt, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, provides a quite sombre analysis of those difficulties. Perhaps even too sombre. Since then, I have been encouraged, largely through the research of colleagues and comrades, by some signs of a new wave of workplace organizing using digital networks by various types of “platform labour”. This may provide the story with a new twist.

Having gone from excessive optimism about the radical possibilities of digital technologies in 1999 to perhaps excessive pessimism about the same topic in 2015, I needless to say now regard myself as at a point of perfectly balanced realism.  With regard to technology, class struggle is asymmetrical: capital possesses the upper hand, but is by no means omnipotent. Moreover, the ways it exercises its digital ascendancy – notably through the renewed military dynamic of cyber-wars (a topic I explore in a forthcoming book with my colleague Svitlana Matviyenko) – are likely to produce chaotic outcomes which are both extremely dangerous but also have the potential to generate social revolutions. It is for such conditions that we should prepare.