What the 19th-century thinker did not anticipate.
The global financial crisis has opened up a nostalgia industry in Marxist critiques of capitalism worldwide. While they are no doubt entertaining, what’s really needed is a reinvention of Karl Marx’s positive vision suited to our times.
Marx did more than bemoan rising income inequalities and worker exploitation. He identified a mode of production – capitalism – with the potential to radically transform the social order for the better. In Marx’s mind, socialism was more about completing than eliminating capitalism.
But Marx did not anticipate that the raw material of capitalism would shift from natural resources to information. In many respects, this shift amounts to talking about the same things under different descriptions, as in the case of living things being understood nowadays in terms of their “genetic code”.
Indeed, human thought itself is increasingly commodified in ways that Marx never imagined. This process began in the early 20th century with political polling and commercial advertising. Over the past century it has become more concentrated in its focus, less obtrusive in its operation – but no less disruptive in its consequences.
A vivid case in point is the apparently easy trade in intelligence between Silicon Valley and the U.S. National Security Agency. Nowadays Google is allowed to operate freely in the marketplace of ideas because it produces a wealth of information from spontaneously generated online responses that can then be mined for intelligence purposes, subject to the ad hoc constraints that the state places on Google’s operations.
Marx had noticed something similar about the mutually favourable relations between the political and business classes in the 19th century. Back then the state granted business a license to expand its markets, which resulted in an increased flow of capital, which in turn benefitted the state in the form of taxes. The cost, of course, was that most of the workers who were attracted to these novel arrangements were not protected from their worst consequences.
Put bluntly, “privacy invasion” has become the new “worker exploitation” in our era of informational capitalism. To be sure, Marx was critical of the original 19th century arrangements. But unlike the anarchists, he did not rush to a blanket condemnation. Instead, he envisaged how this development might be turned to everyone’s advantage. It required a shift in power relations but not in the mode of production itself.
The Marx-sized problem posed by informational capitalism is not that you know something about me that I don’t want you to know. Rather, it is that this knowledge might disadvantage me, especially if I am unable to derive benefit from the fact myself. Indeed, we data donors rarely even realize that our data is being mined and, in any case, we have no natural way of acquiring access to the information gathered about us.
Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly took a first step in the right direction when he introduced the concept of “coveillance”, or reciprocal observation of information and activities. The idea is that you would know what others do with what they know about you. The legal innovation required to make such a principle operative is formidable: it amounts to deconstructing the “property” side of “intellectual property”.
The larger lesson here is that Marx 2.0 needs to treat Silicon Valley and its European counterparts not simply as the endgame of the Manchester-style capitalism that originally animated Marx, but as a second coming of capitalism, which demands the sort of sympathetically critical understanding that Marx gave to its predecessor.
A column by Steve Fuller