Written by Sophie van der Linden
With the global financial crisis of 2008, a call to return to the work of Karl Marx seems appropriate, as in 1848 he predicted the downfall of the capitalist economical system. If this reality was predicted over 150 years ago, what from the work of Marx is applicable to the power forces dominant today? Theorists Christian Fuchs and Sebastian Sevignani analyze Marx's critique of capitalism relating to today's Information Age, using the example of the structural workings of internet giant, Facebook and the implications it has on human nature.
Although often misunderstood and overlooked, the work of Marx has been of upmost importance since his time, as he opened up possibilities for change and emancipation of the working class. He rigorously and thoroughly studied the workings of the world he found himself in, discovering and exposing core problems for everyday people. He devised a scathing critique of capitalism, exposing the structural failings of a flawed system that had definite negative effects on the social, personal and political lives of everyday people. Although not intended as a prescriptive theory as such, Marx thoroughly stressed the problems in the capitalist ideology, analyzing and presenting them in a clear, understandable manner - allowing recognition of these problems, in turn opening up future possibilities for emancipatory change and the betterment of working conditions.
Marx saw the universal humanizing feature of all societies as regarding how man acts to ensure his own survival. He established that man will combine his powers of thought, rationality and understanding with his ability to act – taking from nature what he needs to survive. Man confirmed himself in his work, in turn shaping the world to one that suits his needs, a world where his individuality and power of creation and innovation was constantly surrounding him, allowing him to build on successes and develop more and more advanced ways of life. Marx observed that social, political and economic systems emerged secondarily from this base, the base of man's relations to material and this is how history progressed. This tendency to arrange nature lead to the arising of a class system, the capitalist system we find ourselves in today. Historical change occurred through the tensions and conflicts between these two opposing classes over the ownership of the means of production. Human action was therefore anthropological and historical for Marx. It was the essence of what it meant to be human and also the central feature of how history progressed.
This type of natural, authentic action Marx called "work" or conscious labor. This kind of work created things and situations with "use-value"- appropriate directly to human needs. Marx argued that the freedom of work constituted actual freedom as the purpose of work was understood and one directly benefited from it. Through this, one could achieve a meaningful existence. He highly valued human existence, prioritizing individual freedom, meaningful experiences and relationships and the ability to progress, develop and become what he called "rich human beings".
Under the Capitalist ideology of the Industrial Age he saw that man's freedom of action had been taken away from him. In a rapidly advancing and production obsessed society, the action of man becomes objectified. Workers are arranged in accordance with those who own the ‘means of production', everything involved in the process of production - the materials, land, machinery etc. Man becomes a part of the means of production. Marx referred to this as abstract work, or "labor". Instead of use value it generates ‘exchange-value' meaning its target isn't adherence to specific human needs, but the generation of money. Marx saw this kind of work as having huge detrimental effect to the social lives of human beings.
Abstracting from human nature the worker is reduced to a bare commodity, seen in terms of what he can do. His skill-set, abilities and knowledge is packaged up and brought to the market place, which he can sell to the Capitalist for a wage, something he must do to earn money. Individual freedom within this ideology is cheapened to freedom to sell ones labor. Coerced labor possesses a dialectic of wealth and poverty, making it problematic. Labor is absolute poverty, as man must commit a given amount of hours in a day for bare sustenance, but the very application and availability of his labor is almost solely responsible for the economic wealth of the capitalist class. This dependency and coercion Marx argues is a system of exploitation. The main problem for Marx was that this system demanded the socially necessary labor time of people, man is trapped and forced into operating within a system that in the Industrial Age was difficult to live outside of. This meant for Marx that modern man is alienated. Alienated from the process of his own action, from his human nature, from other human beings and the things he produces. It was just reality, with people believing that this kind of freedom is freedom, the American dream, work hard and become rich. But the reality is for Marx, that capitalism in this time depended on concentrated wealth in the hands of the few and the dependency of the masses.
So what would Marx say about today? How are we spending our social time and how are we organizing our social and working lives? What kind of work and/or labor are we invested in? Theorists Fuchs and Sebastian Sevignani, in their paper, ‘What is Digital Labor? What is Digital Work? What's Their Difference?' investigate Marx's labor theory and its implications in the Information Age. They isolate digital labor and digital work, as forms of our activity online today. They use Facebook as a model and example of how Marxist relations are still prelevant in the way we spend our time today. Does our work belong to us yet? Fuchs and Sevignani claim that ‘social-media' is not truly ‘social' and will not be until it is not a means for economic ends.
Thought is always an artefact of the conditions in which it arises. For Marx, money and capital were the defining features of his existence and everything was mediated through them. Online today we live in society where the ‘haves' and ‘have-nots' are separated through ownership of data. Capitalists are infatuated with the collection of personal data as it is richly valuable, allowing them to monitor the social and subjective lives of human beings for the purpose of targeted advertising. Those who possess the most information, generally have the most power. In Marx's time, the collection of money, invested into products, was only done so in the collection of more money. So the more money one had, the more he could make. In the age of Facebook, the more information collected, the more precisely advertising can be targeted.
Facebook operates and generates revenue from user-generated content. It thrives upon the reception of information lifted from the material world, our actually existing lives. Through selling data, Facebook's worth is around 134 billion USD. Fuchs and Sevignani announce that its object of labor is human experience. It imposes a framework over social and personal relations, removing them from the having of the user and placing an objectification over otherwise wholly transient experiences. It is constantly asking us to fill in its preset boxes, logging multitudes of intimate social and personal information, from the books we read, the people we know, private conversations we have, the movies we watch, the places we go, even the thoughts we have. Every click we make while logged into Facebook is recorded and becomes constituent of our online aliases. Even when we log out of Facebook on our computers, we are presented with a message asking us to ‘stay connected' by logging in and using the site on our mobile phones.
When one signs up to Facebook, the user agrees that Facebook can use the data generated by their activity on the site for economic ends. This activity amounts to statistics, is added to demographics, packaged up and sold to data-brokers and advertisers for a large profit. The ads we see while on the internet are carefully targeted to us by our online activity. It's essentially a database of society, a self-inflicted surveillance system.
Since advertising space is so demanded and profitable, it shows the dominance and presence of Capitalism and consumerism that still dominates our society today. What is important for advertising is the circulation of products and the accumulation of money.
Fuchs and Sevignani argue that Facebook exploits and alienates its users, mirroring Marx's argument about the exploitation of the worker in the Industrial Age. This is because Facebook depends on active users who use the site for free. Digital labor, like wage labor possesses dialectic of poverty and wealth. The labor of the users is productive and unpaid, while its very constitution become objectified and profited upon. Social relations are mediated through the logic of capital, opposed to genuine free social interaction. The commercial interests of Facebook are initially obscured through the interactions the user can have while using the website. They argue that Facebook's exchange value and profit interests are hidden behind its use-value. The commercial relations are only made profitable by the social relations. So, Fuchs and Sevignani argue that Facebook usage is ‘digital-labor', opposed to digital work.
Like Marx's argument of the Industrial Age, Facebook has a class system of wealth and poverty, the data rich and data poor – with this translating into monetary wealth. Fuchs and Sevignani argue that the user is alienated and exploited as they lack the freedom to enter online social media relations that aren't mediated and controlled by the profit generation of the owners. They lack ownership over the control of the online platform. They lack control over sharing their experiences independent from capital. They also resign the rights to their own data, designed created and shared by them and objectified by Facebook. When one is prompted to share a story with friends, one also gives this story to Facebook to sell. The productive and exploitative labor undergone by its users is obscured by the social "advantages" it offers. It seeks to make us dependent upon its services. Altering data or deleting friends or your profile on Facebook is extremely difficult, and the processes on how to do so change all the time. The privacy settings also automatically regenerate to ‘public' all the time. When you try to delete your profile, you are presented with little thumbnails of your most contacted friend's faces, saying how they will miss you. Also when you choose to continue, your profile is not deleted, all it takes is typing in your password and username and it opens up again. The data also remains in the archives.
The methods of coercion used by Facebook are more complicated. It seems given by the amount of time spent on it, one enjoys the use of Facebook. Not using it will not make them suffer biologically it will not hinder their means to basic sustenance like Marx argues coerced wage-labor might. Coercion within the information age, Fuchs argues is rather that of a social system of forced use that threatens individuals with isolation and potential detrimental effects to one's social life. It is presented as being ‘for the user' as socially advantageous to mankind. It approaches us with the promise of being more ‘connected', more social, more in touch with our nature, arguably more human.
It seeks to be the prime location for human interactions, making its users dependent on it for their social lives. Various groups have been given an online presence and enhanced sense of togetherness and community with the ‘ease' and accessibility of Facebook. Many institutions in the real world will assume each member is a Facebook user, using its group platforms for the ease of mass-communication. I have worked at places that use Facebook to distribute rosters and alert staff of important information, sports teams use it to discuss the times/dates place changes and university papers set up pages to discuss the course. One could argue that if we don't have Facebook, we are socially disadvantaged, missing out on social experiences that those around us are having.
The concern lays in the fact that Facebook is not ‘truly social', as it turns social relations into money. Work done by the users of Facebook is productive it generates money, none of which is seen by those who actually do work. The exponential growth of the social dependency upon Facebook is the core of its economic growth. Marx would probably argue that we are still not yet "rich human beings", a life that required freedom of work and social relations for their own ends. One of the reasons being the amount of time we spend online willingly donating to the schemes of advertising and consumerism, a disease of Capitalism which he so abhorred.
Fuchs, Christian and Sevignani, Sebastian, ‘What is Digital Labor? What is Digital Work? What is the Difference? And why do these Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?'. Published in Triple C Journal Vol 11 no.2 2013 237-293. www.triple-c.at