In a nutshell, Marx is saying that:
1) the collective, cooperative nature of labour is really subdued (the term is sometimes translated as “subsumed”) under capital—-which means that it’s a specific collective nature that did not exist before capitalism.
The “real submission” of labour under capital is set by Marx against the “formal subsumption”, which was typical of the dawn of capitalism, when the capital used to subdue pre-existent kinds of labour: hand weaving, the processes of agricultural labour, etc.
“Real submission” (or “subsumption”) means that the capital turns into productive force a social cooperation that did not pre-exist it, because workers, salaried labour, machines and new ways of transportation and distribution did not exist before capitalism;
2) the more advanced the productive process (thanks to the application of science and technology), the more mystified the representation of productive cooperation.
Let us look now for some current examples of this formulation: the production of sense and relations on the internet is not considered as productive force of cooperating workers; nor does the dominant ideology allow to recognize the work of a single person. All this production is fraudulently, mythologically attributed to the capital itself, to “entrepreneurial spirit”, to the supposed genius of the capitalist, etc. For instance, it is often said that Facebook exists thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s “insight” blah blah blah.
Such production of sense is often considered, as Marx says, “productive power of labour in so far as [it] is identical with capital”. Let’s translate and apply this principle: the exploitation is hidden behind the appearance of an autonomous, non-subordinate work that relies on independent entrepreneurship and free agreements — even if a significant chunk of web content is produced by the subordinate piecework of several “ghostwriters”, hired by such companies as Odesk.com.
Does what Marx called the “Gemeinwesen” – ie the tendency of human beings to cooperate and be part of a community – really exist? Yes, indeed. It is always risky to use such terms, but if there is an “anthropological universal”, it is definitely that. “Companionable animal” (“Compagnevole animale“) is how Dante translates Aristotle’s “zoon politikon” (“Ζῷον πολιτικὸν“)—-and neurosciences are proving that we are wired for the “Gemeinwesen” (the discovery of mirror neurons, etc.).
No mode of production has “subsumed” and “made productive” the human tendency to cooperation with the same strength of capitalism.
The best example of this subdued cooperation — and at the same time of an invisible work that is nor perceived as such — is offered by social media.
I am going to use Facebook as an example. This does not imply that other social media are “less evil”. The reason I’m focusing on Facebook lies in its being the largest, the most yielding and (as illustrated by the latest wave of new options and add-ons) the most enveloping, persuading, and expansionist social networking site on the web. It looks like Facebook wants to engulf the whole net to replace it. It is the social networking site par excellence, and therefore it offers us the clearest example.
Are you one of the 700-and-something million Facebook users? Well, it means that you produce
contents for the network every day: any kind of contents, including emotions and relations. You are part of Facebook’s general intellect. To put it short, Facebook exists and works thanks to all the people like you. What is Facebook if not a mass of collective intelligence that is not produced by Zuckerberg & Company, but by users?
In fact, you actually work on Facebook. You do not notice it, but you’re working. You work and do not earn—-others are making money with your work.
What turns out to be useful here is the Marxian concept of “surplus labour”. It is not an abstruse concept: it is the part of work that, albeit producing value, is not converted into salary but in profit for the capitalist, since the latter owns the means of production.
If there is profit, it means that there has been surplus labour. Otherwise, if all the labour were paid according to the value it creates—-well, that would be communism, a society with no classes. It is obvious that the capitalist must pay the workers less than the sum he earns with the sale of commodities. This is what “profit” means—-it means paying workers less than the actual value of their labour.
For several reasons, the capitalist may not be able to sell those commodities and make profits. But this does not mean that the workers have not provided surplus labour. The whole capitalist society is based on surplus value and surplus labour.
Your whole work is surplus work on Facebook, because you are not paid. Everyday Zuckerberg sells your surplus work—-that is to say, he sells your life (your sensitive data, your navigation patterns, etc.) and your relations. He makes several million dollars each day, because he is the owner of the mean of production, and you are not.
Information is a commodity. Knowledge is a commodity. In fact, it is the quintessential commodity in Post-Fordism (or whatever you want to call it). It is a productive force and a commodity at the same time, just like workforce. The Facebook community produces pieces of information (on individual tastes, consumption habits, market trends) that are wrapped up in form of statistics and sold to others and/or used for customising ads and any other kind of offer.
Moreover, as a representation of the most extended network of relations on the planet, Facebook itself is a commodity. The company is able to sell information only if, at the same time and incessantly, it keeps selling that particular representation of itself. That representation too is generated by users, but Zuckerberg is the one who pockets the cheque.
Of course, the kind of “work” described above is not comparable for toil and exploitation to the labour mentioned in the early paragraphs. In addition, Facebook users do not form a social class. The point is that we must always consider both the toil at the base of hardware production and the continuous, predatory embezzlement of collective intelligence taking place on the internet. As I wrote above, they are two “co-existent levels”. The production of value depends on both activities, and they should be pictured and analysed together.
There is no “Outside” vs. “Inside”
At this point, should somebody ask me, “Do I have to stay outside social media?”, or “Can I solve the problem by using only free software?”, or even “Should I avoid this or that device?”, I would reply that the question is ill-framed.
Of course, it is a good and right idea to create different, grassroots social media running on free software and not based upon the trade of sensitive data and relations—-but so is also holding a critical, informative presence where the majority of people live and communicate, perhaps trying to devise conflictualways of using the existing networks.
We’ve suffered for too long the hegemony of an apparatus that “individualises” revolts and struggles, focusing mainly on what is or can be done by the single consumer (a subject who is continuously reproduced by specific social technologies): boycott, critical consumption, radical personal choices, and so on.
Personal choices are important, but:
1. Too often this way of thinking brings to a competiton on who is “purer” and more “coherent”. There will always be someone boasting choices that are more radical than mine: the vegan bashes the vegetarian, the raw fruitarian bashes the vegan, etc. Each one claims to be “further outside”, more “independent” from capital —-a picture that is completely delusional;
2. The consumer is the last ring of the distribution chain, and his or her choices are made at the estuary, not at the source. Perhaps we should recommend more often the reading of a “lesser” text by Marx, the Critique of the Gotha Program, in which he criticised the “vulgar socialism” focused on distribution instead of production.
I have being trying for a while to explain that, in my opinion, spacial metaphors (such as “Inside” and “Outside”) are inadequate, because if the question is, “Where is the outside?”, the answer — or lack thereof — cannot but be paralysing, since the question itself is already paralysing.
It could be more useful to employ, and reason in terms of, temporal images. Focus on time, not space.
It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.
There is nothing new in what I’m saying: once it was customarily called “class struggle”. In a nutshell: the worker’s and the employer’s interests are different and irreconcilable. Any ideology (whether corporatist, nationalistic, or racist) concealing this difference must be fought against.