Karl Marx

A Market in Cambodia. Via Wikimedia Commons
A Market in Cambodia. Via Wikimedia Commons

In the first chapters of every Economics 101 textbook there’s a misleading hypothetical about the origins of money. David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years calls it “the founding myth of our system of economic relations.” This myth is so pervasive that even people who have never taken an Economics 101 class know, and believe in, this myth. We tend to assume that before money there was this awkward barter system where you had to keep all your chickens and yams with you when you went to market to buy a calf. If the person selling the calf didn’t want chicken or yams, no transaction would take place. Money seems to fill a very important need: it lets us compare and exchange a wide variety of goods by establishing a common metric of value. The problem with this construction—of simple barter being replaced with cash economies—is that it never happened. That’s what makes Bondsy, an app that let’s you effortlessly barter with a private set of friends, so interesting: It takes a modern myth and turns it into everyday reality. more...

“The primacy of contemplation over activity rests on the conviction that no work of human hands can equal in beauty and truth the physical kosmos, which swings in itself in changeless eternity without nay interference or assistance from outside, from man or god.” –Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition

Praxis Exploding, Image c/o Paramount Pictures
Praxis Exploding, Image c/o Paramount Pictures

I’ve been thinking a lot about methods lately. I want to spend a few paragraphs considering the current state of affairs for social scientists interested in science and technology as their objects of analysis. What kind of work is impossible in our current universities? What kinds of new institutions are necessary for breaking new ground in method as well as theory? Think of this post as an exercise in McLuhan-style probing of institutions of higher learning. I’m going to play with a lot of “what-ifs” and “for instances.” None of this is particularly actionable, nor am I even interested in proposing anything that would be recognized as “realistic” or even “pragmatic.” Mainly, I’m interested in stepping back, considering the state of our technosociety, and asking what kinds of questions need asking and what kinds of science is being systematically left undone. more...

Obama Victory Speech at the Romney Headquarters. Image c/o White People Mourning Romney

In the aftermath of what both sides agree was the most substanceless presidential election in our nation’s history, some variation of the phrase “post-truth politics” has begun haunting the pages of op-eds and news show roundtables (Seriously, its everywhere. Here’s the first five that I found: one, two, three, four, five.).  To say that we live in an age of “post-truth politics” isn’t totally inaccurate, nor is it unworthy of the attention it is getting, but the discussion has yet to truly wrestle with the characeristics of commodified information. Information can be true, and it can be false, but how that information is disseminated, used, and ignored is what truly matters. Information doesn’t (just) want to be free, it also wants to be exploited. more...

The Organizations, Occupations, and Work blog (associated with the American Sociological Association) organized an interesting panel discussion between Chris Prener, Christopher Land, Steffen Böehm and myself. I’ll summarize/critique the positions here and provide links for further reading.

Chris Prener initiated the conversation by asking “Is Facebook “Using” Its Members?” Prener claims that, though the company gives users “access to networks of friends and other individuals as well as social organizations and associations,” Facebook—with it’s advertising revenue “somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.2 billion”—” benefits far more in this somewhat symbiotic relationship.” He concludes that Facebook, and social media more broadly, represent “a [new] space where even unpaid, voluntary leisure activities can be exploited for the commercial gain of the entities within which those activities occur.” more...

This piece is posted in cooperation with the Organization, Occupations, and Work Blog.

Facebook’s IPO announcement has stirred much debate over the question of whether Facebook is exploiting/using/taking advantage of its users. The main problem with the recent discussion of this subject is that no one really seems to have taken the time to actually define what exploitation is. Let me start by reviewing this concept before proceeding to examine its relevance to Facebook.

Defining exploitation. The concept of exploitation came to prominence about a century and a half ago through the writings of Karl Marx, and he gave it a specific, objectively calculable definition—though, I’ll spare you the mathematical expressions. Marx starts from the assumption that value is created though labor (most people today acknowledge that value is contingent on other factors as well, but we need merely to accept that labor is one source of value for Marx’s argument to work). According to Marx, humans have an important natural relationship to the fruits of our labor, and our work is a definitive part of who we are. Modern capitalist society is unique from other periods in history because workers sell their labor time in exchange for wages (as opposed to, say, creating objects and bartering them for other objects). Capitalists accumulate money by skimming off some of the value created by worker’s labor and, so that the wages a worker receives is only a fraction of the total value he or she has created. The portion of the value created by a worker that is not returned back to that worker (after operating costs are covered) is called the rate of exploitation. more...

The Google Matrix

Originally posted on PopMatters.

On Twitter, PJ Rey resurrected this August 2010 op-ed by William Gibson that has new currency given the hullaballoo about Google’s privacy-policy changes. Gibson argues that Google is an unanticipated form of artificial intelligence, “a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.” But this description sounds less like artificial intelligence and more like Marx’s notion of the general intellect. Anticipating the intensification of technology, Marx claimed that machines would eventually subsume “the process of social life” and integrate it as a form of productivity.

The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, 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. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

This is pretty obscure even by Marx’s standards, but autonomist Marxists (Negri, Lazzaurato, Virno) have extrapolated from this a definition of general intellect that embraces, as Virno puts it, “formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’.” Because of the membranous nature of the general intellect, when harnessed and integrated with capital, it can recuperate all social behavior as “immaterial” production — enriching the valence of signs, producing affects, etc. — it means that “even the greater ‘power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into labouring task.” That is, our consumption, especially of information, is a mode of production. The general intellect is the sum of all that information circulation. more...

Editor’s Note: This post was written in response to PJ Rey‘s “Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media” and the text is reposted from mrteacup.org.

PJ Rey has a very interesting post up at Cyborgology about issues of production and labor on social networking sites that has some connections with things that I have been thinking about.

The point seems to be a partial critique of the social factory thesis – that social networks exploit the social interactions of their users, turning it into a kind of labor. This critique turns on the idea of “incidental productivity.” Rey claims that some activity on a social network does not fall into the category of labor as defined by Marx; or to put it another way, the Marx-influenced theory of labor is not conceptually broad enough to cover every type of activity that occurs. Rey proposes the concept of incidental productivity, which seems to mean value that is silently produced as a side effect of some other activity that the user is engaged in. The important point is that users are not aware of the value that they are creating, so this is not labor.

So far, I agree with this. There is only one very small point of disagreement, which is where Rey says in the final paragraph, “A quintessentially Marxian question remains: Who should control the means of incidental production?” I claim that this concept of incidental production is ultimately the liberal-capitalist problem of consumer rights and protections. more...

For nearly two centuries, the term “production” has conjured an image of a worker physically laboring in the factory. Arguably, this image has been supplanted, in recent decades, by office worker typing away on a keyboard; however, both images share certain commonalities. Office work and factory work are both conspicuous—i.e., the worker sees what she is making, be it a physical object or a document. Office work and factory work are also active—i.e., they require the workers’ energy and attention and come at the expense of other possible activities.

The nature of production has undergone a radical change in a ballooning sector of the economy. The paradigmatic images of active workers producing conspicuous objects in the factory and the office have been replaced by the image of Facebook users, leisurely interacting with one another. But before we delve into this new form of productivity we must take a moment to define production itself.

Following Marx, we can say that any activity that results in the creation of value is production of one sort or another. Labor is a form of production specific to humans because human are capable of imagination and intentionality. more...

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The recently released film In Time, staring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, depicts a dystopian future where time, rather than money, acts as the currency. This film gives a Marxist critique of capitalism with a technological twist. In doing so, it reflects the cultural fear associated with life-prolonging technologies. At the same time, the film falls victim to the overly structural depictions common in popular Marxist tropes, and overly individualist claims about human nature—failing to make a connection between the two. more...

On September 18th, 2011, Barry Wellman, the early and rather prescient scholar of the Internet, posed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question to the Communication and Information Technology Section of the American Sociology Association (CITASA): “‘Critical’ – aren’t we all?”  This post was precipitated by a call for papers for special issue of tripleC entitled Marx is Back: The Importance of Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today (no affiliation with the author).  Specifically, the call invited papers that address (my emphasis):

what it means to ask Marx’s questions in 21st century informational capitalism, how Marxian theory can be used for critically analyzing and transforming media and communication today, and what the implications of the revival of the interest in Marx are for the field of Media and Communication Studies.

Shortly after it was sent, Wellman responded to the call, saying:

Not meant personally, but the use of the word “critical” by a subset of scholars always bothers me as leading to unconscious smugness? If I’m “critical”, your lot isn’t? Who, except flacks and twerps, isn’t critical? Can we criticize the criticalists?

This sparked a debate over the utility and appropriateness of the phrase “critical theory.”  Critics of the phrase raise the following objections: more...