[iDC] Marx, "Reproduction, " Play, the Steam Mill, and the Internet

Michael H Goldhaber michael at goldhaber.org
Thu Oct 15 07:38:04 UTC 2009

Dear All,

Christian Fuchs tangentially brought up Marx's theory that wages = the  
cost to the laborer of “reproducing” him or herself, so as to be able  
to keep working for the capitalist. This would include not only  
obtaining sufficient food, clothing and shelter, but procreation (the  
raising of the next generation of workers — who in Marx’s day would  
be  child laborers) and whatever recreation, which would include play,  
to permit the worker to come to work sufficiently mentally rested and  
physically exercised to keep doing assigned tasks as efficiently as  
possible. Thus this play is a sort of work, done for the needs of the  
capitalist rather than the  worker. (Play — and reproduction in Marx's  
sense in general — is still different from labor in that worker has  
some and generally  a large range of choices and inventive  
possibilities in how it is carried out.) There is no difficulty  
stretching this concept to include all forms of relaxation and  
amusement, from on-the-job bantering, to coffee-breaks to vacations,  
and even to the time after  retirement, the promise of which would  
presumably give the worker the motive to keep  working efficiently  
until that date arrives. That is, there is no trouble stretching the  
concept if one believes capitalism is (still) absolutely dominant. In  
that case, all play would be “playbor,” and no real distinction could  
be drawn between what happens on the Internet and what happens  
everywhere else.

Therefore, what is really of interest in this context is the extent to  
and the ways in which capitalism is less than totally dominant.   
First, labor has struggled with some success against at least the  
worst tendencies of capitalism. Second,individual workers do not lose  
all connection to other possibilities than being an instrument for  
capital. Third, capitalists  are not all seeing and all knowing; they  
cannot arrange things just as they would want; they often have only  
the shortest range of plans, thinking little about long-term  
consequences, and they don’t all want the same things  — which is  
related to Marx’s view that capitalism remains full of contradictions.  
Fourth, just as European  feudalism gave way (over hundreds of years)  
to capitalism, a case can be made that capitalism is now giving way  
(considerably faster) to a post-capitalist class society, which has  
different kinds of class relations and offers new sorts of openings,  
as well as some new negatives;  this is what I mean and have meant by  
the attention(-centered) economy. In this transitional period, a  
variety of alliances, resistances, self-identifications ,etc., take  
place between the two new classes (net attention receivers, or stars,  
to be brief, and net attention payers or fans, again to be brief) and  
the two old classes of capitalists and workers.  Fifth, It is also far  
from  impossible that through new connections via the Internet we  
might have a chance to move towards some sort of humane socialism.

To take it for granted that despite quite new kinds of interaction,  
whatever happens is still “capitalism” at work is just extending a  
term in a way that leads to great analytic confusion and little else.  
Instead each of the above aspects has different implications for the  
analysis of the relationship between work (and, certainly, wage labor)  
and play, on the Internet as well as elsewhere. One is that when  
capitalist firms or individual consultants make claims to other firms  
about how their services such as data collection and/or analysis would  
aid sales,  etc.,  these claims should never be taken at face value.  
The target firms usually know this, but a surprising number of  
comments on this list seem to me not to take such skepticism  
adequately into account. For example, firms that try to develop  
advertising gimmicks for use on Facebook, are now bemoaning a  
declining “click-through rate”, which is the main measure of success.   
[In the interest of full disclosure: As a result of a gift, I may have  
a small financial interest in one such firm.]

As to the possibility of socialism, technology matters. The title of  
the conference, “The Internet as Playground and Factory” is certainly  
a wonderful trope, but how seriously should we take it as a simile —  
especially the factory part?  While much work now relies at least  
partly on the Internet, or is done in connection with it (as does much  
recreation) very little of that work has the routine character of  
factory labor. To see just how different, consider the experience of   
someone I know who worked for several years on a Ford assembly line.  
During that entire time his sole job was to sand a paint undercoat on  
the right rear fender of white Ford Mustangs — in all, an eighth of a  
million of them! I doubt that anyone actually on the Internet must  
engage in anything like this routine, nor in anything so constantly  
and repetitively physically demanding.

To expand on the importance of this distinction, I will now quote few  
passages of some earlier work of mine that is probably not familiar to  
most conference participants.

Years ago, and well before widespread use of the Internet, I wrote  
that “The Marxist tradition has produced diametrically opposed  
theories of technology. Social-democratic and Soviet Marxism have  
tended to see technological innovation as essentially independent of  
social relations and as leading inevitably toward further social  
transformation— to culminate in socialism or communism. Apart from  
‘deviant’ exceptions, technological progress was linear, and entirely  
to be encouraged. In this view the search for the ‘motor of history’  
became the history of motors: Marxism was reduced to little more than  
technological determinism.

  “The failings of orthodox Marxist theory and the obvious miseries of  
both capitalist and socialist industrialization led to the second  
view. Technology came to be seen as shaped by the dominant social  
class primarily to perpetuate its domination. Both in production and  
consumption, technology reduces contradictions, at the extreme  
bringing about a "one-dimensional" society. Technology robs workers  
and others of creative roles, of critical consciousness, and of  
sensuous relationships with nature or fellow humans. Socialism will  
somehow have to build an entirely different science and technology.”

“If the first view retains the nineteenth-century bourgeois faith that  
new technology promises everything, the second view looks back with  
nostalgia to nineteenth-century life as lived under bourgeois  
domination. Both draw sustenance from the very attitudes and realities  
Marx was opposing. Yet neither view is completely without validity. A  
theory of technology must re-capture, in the light of concrete  
historical analysis, what is correct in both these views, and clarify  
the tension between them.

“ While necessary to the advance of capitalist societies, technology  
has not developed exactly as capitalists might wish. Far from  
submerging contradictions, technology has played an increasingly  
contradictory role. And this is ‘inevitable’ in the sense that  
contradictions arise from the very features that render this form of  
mental labor desirable to capital in the first place. Thus a theory of  
technology must be a theory of contradictions, because such a notion  
is indispensable for making sense of current developments.”
[“Politics and Technology” Socialist Review, No. 52, July-August,  
1980, pp. 9-32]

More recently, I wrote the following, headed by this quote from Marx:
" ‘Society with the handmill gives you the feudal lord, society with  
the steam mill gives you the industrial capitalist.’

- Karl Marx in “The Poverty of Philosophy”


“Despite having remarked that the factory [steam mill} ‘gives you the  
industrial capitalist’ Marx ignored the implications of this. Most of  
his successors, certainly including Lenin and Stalin, later completely  
lost sight of the issue. In fact the industrial factory came to be  
seen as the necessary incubator of socialism, while it was the market  
that was to be scrapped. This was a fatal mistake. Nineteenth-century  
industrial capitalists, whenever possible, could be utterly ruthless  
in their suppression of worker independence or sovereignty within  
their factories, but in general their actions were restrained by the  
larger society. The Soviet Union, run in essence as one single,  
monopolistic [one seller] and monopsonistic [one buyer] industrial  
corporation, unrestrained by any external force, extended this very  
same ruthlessness to the larger society. As long as they were trying  
to ground socialism on the industrial (in essence, capitalistic)  
factory it couldn’t have been otherwise.

“The factory model also requires an attitude towards dedicated work.  
To live, in a factory-dominated society, one must have an income, and  
that generally means a job (or at least a worker in the household). To  
lack a job is to be on the margins, unemployed, looked down upon. The  
more oppressive conditions in the factory become, the higher the  
pressure required to force people into factory work, the worse the  
conditions and attitudes that must face the unemployed. Equally, the  
worse it is to be unemployed the easier it becomes to move people into  
oppressive factory jobs. If socialism is to be based on the factory  
model, yet distinguished from capitalism by everyone having work, the  
most obvious way to achieve this is to create more and more factories  
and factory-like settings (e.g., collective farms), but not to make  
any factory too efficient, since that might lead to its needing fewer  
workers, and thus to its managers having less power. The end of  
oppressive work remains an entirely unimaginable and unrealizable goal  
in such a system. So does a really pleasant life for everyone outside  

“So three seeming paradoxes stymie socialists who favor wide-scale  
social equality, a sense of community and concern for the common good,  
and a substantial degree of both democracy and individual self- 
determination. (1)To create socialism, some completely new kind of  
technological order would have to be established, presumably in  
advance of the adoption of the new social system. (2) Even if this new  
technology can be envisioned, standard capitalism would seem utterly  
unsuited to bringing it forth, since capitalism’s values should still  
be expected to dominate. (3) Further, if socialism is predicated on  
some degree of material abundance, so that everyone may live without  
crushing want, the kinds of efficiencies provided by the factory would  
apparently remain essential, thus assuring that the conditions for  
socialism can never really obtain.

“These paradoxes seem to imply that the best that can be hoped for is  
an ameliorated capitalism as provided by Western European-style Social  
Democracy. There, capitalism holds sway but is constrained from its  
worst excesses by an active state, while at the same time basic  
necessities such as housing, health care and education are provided to  
everyone, and human rights also are carefully protected. Social  
democracy thus ameliorates considerably, but still basically leaves in  
place the oppressive monotony of most people’s typical work life,  
while leaving those who are not so employed to [a} kind of shadow  

“Until quite recently, that would have been pretty much the end of my  
story. Not anymore. For the first time, with the Internet the  
technological climate looks fairly propitious for the emergence of  
genuine socialism. I must hasten to add this is not the socialism  
Marxists have envisaged, precisely because the latter view was so  
closely tied to romances of worker control of factory production. This  
new socialism instead extends and enlarges the freedom of the market,  
turning the factory inside out.”

[Values, Technology, the Internet, and a New Opening for Humane  
Socialism (unpublished draft, 2003) http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/Technosocialism.html 

In subsequent sections of that paper, I use a theory of how values are  
incorporated into technology that I had previously elaborated in my  
book “Reinventing Technology” (Routlege, 1986 ). In the paper, I  
explore in some detail how the antecedents of the Internet   
significantly turned out to be compatible with those of humane  
socialism, and strikingly different from the factory.

While the understanding of our society as basically capitalist, and  
therefore profit driven retains wide sway, and is thus taken  
uncritically by many to apply to the Internet, in any careful analysis  
this should not be taken for granted as correct.  The  very  
substantial difference between Internet and factory, even  
metaphorically, I believe, should always be borne in mind.

Michael H. Goldhaber

michael at goldhaber.org
mgoldh at well.com
blog www.goldhaber.org
older site, www.well.com/user/mgoldh

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