Digital labour: Enter the mind slaves

Hindustan Times | BySankar Ray, New Delhi
Mar 28, 2015 12:40 PM IST

An incisive book on digital labour looks at the IT boom through a sharply Marxian lens

The concept of labour has been undergoing a profound change during the epoch of the internet when Google and social media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have climbed to dominating heights in the global economy and in human life. However, it all remains very inadequately researched. Dr Christian Fuchs's Digital Labour and Karl Marx is a comprehensive theoretical work in this area.


A professor of Social Media at the Centre for Social Media Research, University of Westminster, Fuchs defines digital labour as digital work that is alienated from the instruments, objects and products of labour. This concept of alienation confirms Marx's formulations in The Paris Manuscripts (1844): "The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object." Fuchs avoids the use of the apparently derogatory term 'techno-coolies'. Nevertheless, it is true that so-called 'knowledge workers' are subordinated to 'transnational informational imperialism', or digital capitalism.

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Fuchs' treatise refutes Daniel Bell's 1970s' conceptualisation of 'post-industrial society.' Bell's power structures are 'centred on newer elites and bourgeois culture'. Terms such as 'knowledge economy', knowledge worker, post-modern society, 'network society' are all derivatives of Bell's theories. Fuchs blasts these as "discontinuous subjective concepts."

Digital work and digital labour are obviously linked to the production of digital media technologies and content. The exploitative feature, Fuchs states, is manifested as: "The higher the rate of exploitation, the more work time is unpaid in ICT (Information and Communications Technology)." He points out that apologists of digital capitalism ignore that "the users of commercial social media platforms have no wages and none of their usage time is remunerated to fund their subsistence."

The 408-plus page book divided into four parts explains digital capitalism in a disaggregated way. It narrates multiple aspects of digital imperialism and crafts a systematic and critical theorisation of labour. Fuchs, who negates the apologists of neo-liberal finance capital, sets out the theoretical foundations of digital labour with a crisp introduction of Marx's theory of work and labour in capitalist society. He then refutes the positive aspects of the 'Information Society' through an in-depth analysis of the digital slavery in-built in ICT. Digital workers are "mind slaves" amidst the division of labour under "the new imperialism" that is explicitly evident in the Indian software industry. Fuchs' chapter on the Occupy Movement is also thoughtful. He calls it an 'internet rebellion' against technological determinism finally focussing on social constructivism in the conflict evolving under the hegemonistic aims of digital labour. Interestingly, the book also focusses on a new class differentiation emanating from the mega-exploitative nature of digital capital in the fast-growing economies of China and India. In China, 40 million peasants became landless under appropriation laws between 2001-05, causing large-scale migration to cities. The beneficiaries were "techno-nationalists, military-industrial interests" converging with interests of domestic, bureaucratic and international corporate capital, and also the priorities of China's urban middle class.

Fuchs points out that what is happening to Chinese peasants is exactly what Marx had described as the process of primitive accumulation in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Sadly, India's official communist parties like the CPI(M), CPI and CPI(M-L) lack the guts to say this about China. India, which is yet to feel the Chinese pinch, became attractive to international software giants for its "high amount of university-educated engineers, relatively good English skills" and low-wage workers. But in 2012, the global capitalist crisis "negatively affected capital exports in the software industry."

Marx's distinction between necessary labour time and surplus labour time is a clue to understand digital imperialism. Indeed, the theory of communication in the Marxian sense, helps explain "how labour and language are mutually constituted, and how communication and information are dialectical instances of the same social activity, the social construction of meaning". Clearly, Marx's economic theories are still valid in the 21st century.

(Sankar Ray is an analyst on Left politics and the environment. He lives in Kolkata)

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