The automatic Revolution

Digital capitalism produces knowledge as a commodity. Machines and
algorithms manage the value chain, concrete human labour is less and
less necessary – allegedly. According to Karl Marx, the system would be on the brink of collapse. Is that correct?

In: Special Issue of Capital & Class, Machines & Measure. 

In the United States, technology giants like Amazon are celebrated as fonts of technical innovation and new jobs. However, Europe shows a different picture. The years 2017 and 2018 saw various protests and strikes against Amazon, especially in Poland, Germany, Italy and France. Thousands of Amazon employees went on strike on the so-called Black Friday in November 2017, where over half of permanent staff at Amazon’s largest distribution centre in Italy laid down their tools for the first time. On the same day, large numbers of employees in Poland and Germany stayed home from work to attempt to win concessions from their employer. Germany is Amazon’s second biggest market after North America, accounting for 14% of total company revenue. In Germany, the strike was organised by the powerful service workers union ver.di, which has about 2.3 million members across the country and a sizable war chest to pay the striking workers. The social democratic trade union was supported by different groups of the radical left like the German-wide alliance ‘Make Amazon Pay (2017)’ which sees Amazon as an example for current transformation of production conditions – and also resistance against it.

Digitalisation and automation

Why is there such a broad political coalition against the tech giant in Europe? Why is Amazon perceived so negatively? Amazon sets the tone for a new production model that uses information technology, automation and real-time tracking to increase productivity and economic growth. All of this is done on the backs of workers, where spoon-feeding in the workplace and automated human control through surveillance and datacisation are examples of an intensified employment relationship in today’s world of work. All of this affects workers’ physical health well as psyche. A process of increasing productivity and physical long-term damages shape the working condition in the Amazon factories and lead to ‘a significant rise in the risks of psychosocial and physical violence and harassment in the digitalized world of work’ (Moore 2018: v).

However, Amazon’s monopoly position as the world’s biggest online retailer allows the company to dictate working standards like unsocial working hours (for instance, evening and night work), working alone or in relative isolation or in remote locations or working in situations that are not (or not properly) covered or protected by labour law and social protection. A report of the International Labour Organization (ILO 2016) puts emphasis on the importance of focusing on those working conditions that create risks of psychological, psychosocial and physical violence and lists them (p. 40).

Simultaneously (international) resistance grows, as the series of strikes in Amazon factories shows. As the campaign ‘Make Amazon Pay (2017)’ writes in an open letter,

We think that we can only improve our working conditions if we organise across borders. We need the exchange about the daily work, about the tricks Amazon uses to increase the work pressure, and about effective means and forms of our collective actions.

For the workers, it is no longer just a matter of fighting for a few more euros in their pay packets, but about morbid working conditions, degrading control and management disrespect.

All these ongoing escalations of work conditions and production conditions are discussed under the two main terms used across Europe and the rest of the world: digitalisation and automation. The ‘Big Four’ tech giants Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook are the driving forces of this process. In addition, platform delivery and taxi driving enterprises such as Uber and Deliveroo also feature in this process of spiralling working conditions (see Moore 2018: 4 et seq.).

The structure of ownership of the new megalithic is completely different to ‘classical’ companies. These platforms do not sell goods themselves; they do not even own anything. Uber, the biggest taxi company worldwide, possesses no cars of its own. Alibaba, the huge e-commerce company, has no warehouses. Airbnb, the biggest housing provider, does not own houses. These platforms only connect clients to workers or buyers with products and sell access. Just as with the ‘Big Four’, the added value arises without a clear transfer of ownership and the boundaries between producers and consumers dissolve in collaborative production and consumption processes. If I share something on Facebook or Twitter, it will be utilised. Without ‘real’ concrete work, the company – through advertising – gains profit. Nothing is produced concretely, but the companies make cash.

Digital capitalism, according to the assumption, is primarily based on creativity. Knowledge replaces physical work. More and more goods can be produced in less and less time by fewer and fewer people. This goes along with the fear of employees losing their jobs, or be replaced by an algorithm or a machine (Frey & Osborne 2013). Robots work faster, cheaper and more effectively than human beings – and they do not go on strike and demand no Christmas bonus. The whole production process, from development to recycling, should be optimised through the use of modern communication technologies. In this development, humans are just a potential source of error. If one believes all that, we are in another industrial revolution: Revolution 4.0.

Marx on the Smartphone

It requires all our historical and theoretical capacity to understand and criticise these developments. If the changes are that fundamental, it seems useful to get fundamental as well: let us go back to Karl Marx. 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of Marx’s masterpiece Capital, 2018 was his 200th birthday. Countless publications and conferences show a Marx renaissance.

However, is his analysis still useful in the digital age? Not just Marx’s general considerations of the capitalist logic, set out in Capital (Marx 1990 [1867]), deserve attention, but also his explicit thoughts on the role of knowledge and technology. The Fragment on Machines in the Grundrisse (1857/1858) seems to help understand the present with Marx (1974 [1858]).

The competition principle constantly forces entrepreneurs to try to be better than others, to invest and to replace faulty people with seemingly flawless machines and algorithms. In this process, the proportion of concrete labour in the production process continues to decline. The proportion of machines is increasing. Therefore, on one hand, it is easier for the capitalists to gain more control over workers and break their power. On the other hand, more machines need specific know-how. Knowledge is increasingly needed to develop and control the highly specialised machinery. Knowledge becomes a prerequisite and the dominant component of production: algorithms seem to produce independently, information becomes a commodity and data translate to currency. In the Fragment on Machines (Marx 1974 [1858]: 690–712), Marx thinks this through – like a mathematician leading a curve to zero: What happens when concrete labour continues to decrease, and the share of knowledge and machines continues to increase? The final point would be a completely automated world with a super robot that only needs one remaining worker to operate the on–off button. 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’, as Marx (1974 [1858]) writes in the Fragment on Machines (p. 706).

Capitalism would face a fundamental problem. There would be no one left to exploit for capital. Following Marx, added value and profit needs concrete human labour. The added value arises from the capability of the commodity labour force (Arbeitskraft) to produce more value than it needs for its own reproduction. This difference between labour (Arbeit) and the labour force (Arbeitskraft) is essential and the main distinction between Marx and ‘classical’ national economists like Ricardo. Without the exploitation of the commodity labour force, capitalism would come to an end. Likewise, in this scenario, if the machines produce everything and the capitalists do not have to pay their workers, there would be no longer any consumers who could afford the goods. If this form of production based on human labour ceases, this system will fall away, as Marx (1974 [1858]: 709) states. The capital eliminates itself by its own development of knowledge.

This is the base for Paul Mason’s (2015) argumentation in his much discussed book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. For the British journalist and writer Mason, the scenario of the Fragment on Machines is already a reality. ‘Capitalism’, he says, ‘is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt’. Capitalism is near to its destruction. Information and networks are freely available for everybody. There is no shortage of them, which makes it impossible for the free market to set a price. Through this internal development, capitalism vanishes by itself – without a revolution or actions of the working class.

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2016) argue likewise in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. They maintain that the emancipatory and future-oriented possibilities of our society can be reclaimed. They demand a postcapitalist economy capable of advancing standards, liberating humanity from work and developing technologies that expand our freedoms.

Michael Krätke, Professor of Political Economy at the ‘Faculty of the Arts and Social Sciences’ of the University of Lancaster, is more sceptical: ‘Marx’s analyses of the technological development of his time certainly have value to understand the present development’, he says in an interview with the author of this article. However, as Krätke says, the exaggeration of this passage

is actually grotesque. What Marx absolutely does not claim is all that is put into the text: that knowledge takes the place of work, or that the conditions of the market are blown up. Paul Mason read more into the text then there actually is. All the developments Mason is talking about are actually nowhere in Marx’s text. Mason is not an economist, and he does not understand anything about IT.

So, is the deserted factory or the deserted office, where machines have replaced the workforce and men will be, as Marx (1974 [1858]) says in the Grundrisse, only ‘watchmen and regulators’ (p. 705) a fiction?

Liberation or suppression?

Taking a global perspective, the observer can see that advances in digitalisation are neither abolishing factory work, nor providing good jobs for all. On one hand, digital capitalism brings new forms of precarious, monotonous and physically and psychologically onerous drudgery. On the other hand, new, quite progressive forms of life and work accompany it. The millennials, the generation born after 1980, do not know a world without smartphones or Wikipedia. They are actively involved in worldwide projects enabled by Internet connections. Knowledge is available freely everywhere and all the time online. These are resources that Marx could only have dreamed of. Marx himself would have been, as a proven friend of technical progress, probably a proponent of digitalisation. Indeed, if he were to sit in the British Library today to write Capital, he most likely would use Google and a smartphone.

So, do machines and algorithms now bring more freedom or are they a new form of suppression?

Technology is always embedded in the social system, but it also has the potential to change it. Under capitalist conditions, technical progress does not necessarily mean social progress – it can even switch completely. That was also the main question Adorno and Horkheimer (1997 [1947]) faced in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment: Why and how does progress turn in its own opposite? With regard to digitalisation and automation, one cannot easily say that machines under capitalist condition do humans’ jobs, so let us use them for a liberated society. This form of technological optimism falls too short. An assembly line, for example, will never be used for a communist or need-oriented economy because the capitalist means of production is so deeply embedded in its form. But maybe there are some relieving moments to be found in algorithms and new technology, which can be used and reprogrammed.

To understand all this, it is still worth reading Marx. His meticulous analyses may protect us from following premature doom scenarios, like Mason’s. The fact remains that digitalisation, which in many cases has improved people’s living conditions, is necessarily bound up with criticism of capitalist competition and an exploitation logic.

The striking Amazon workers and their supporters within the radical left seem to understand that. To oppose the capitalist forms of digitalisation and automation, transnational coordination is necessary, since the political space of our neoliberal present is both transnational and segmented. Or as one can read on the website of the Transnational Social Strike Platform (2017), an international union of precarious workers, migrants and political groups,

Local specificities are in fact produced and reproduced by the new logistics of capital in order to increase valorization and to prevent political communication among those who, in a multitude of different ways, both experience and refuse the social regime of exploitation and oppression. (. . .) if we want to create the conditions for struggles where we act to become stronger, and for new struggles to emerge and connect, we need to step beyond our local realities in order to grasp what connects our everyday experience with the global power we face.

The striking Amazon workers know that not the technology itself is the problem but the capitalistic exploitation of work and matter. According to Marx, technology could be used in such a way that socially necessary work is reduced to a minimum. In a postcapitalist society, technology would be a helper to people, which does not make them redundant, but gives them free time and the opportunity to pursue neglected activities such as caring. The means for satisfying the needs of all are already there. With digitalisation, it would be possible to reasonably plan the production and distribution of goods. However, digital communism must be fought for and shaped – by people who take their history into their own hands.


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Author biographies

Christopher Wimmer is an independent journalist and is working his PhD-project about the class continuousness of the marginalized class in Germany. His research focus lies in (feminist) sociology of work, social structure analysis and digitalisation.