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

Christian Fuchs christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at
Sat Oct 17 01:15:29 UTC 2009

Dear Michael,

I do not think that what you and others term the attention economy 
brings about a post-capitalist society or post-capitalist class system.

I agree that attention is an important resource that can be accumulated 
on the Internet. With "web 2.0" technologies, it is easy, cheap, and 
quick to produce information today and to make it available on the 
Internet. But it is far more difficult to draw the attention of others 
towards that information.

But the attention economy is subsumed under the capitalist economy. An 
empirical validation of this assumption is the fact that attention is 
mainly controlled by corporations and other powerful actors on the 
Internet. If you take a look at web access statistics, then you see that 
the platforms with the most hits/accesses per day/month/year are owned 
by large corporations. Certainly there are exceptions, but it remains a 
fact that alternative platforms such as Indymedia or Alternet or 
relatively unimportant in comparison to corporate players such as Yahoo, 
MSN, CNN.com, etc.  Users are  to a certain extent allowed to post 
user-generated content on mainstream platforms. But the overall aim here 
is that attention by many users is reached on one platform and that this 
attention and the audience can be commodified and sold to advertising 
clients. Capital accumulation in the last instance is the dominant end 
of large parts of the contemporary Internet. I am not saying that 
alternatives and a non-corporate Internet are impossible, I am just 
saying that such initiatives or projects today remain precarious. There 
just is no guarantee that resistance, alternatives, etc can emerge and 
if struggles emerge and can be successful. What I am questioning is 
uncritical techno-optimism about the contemporary Internet.

Is capitalism all dominant? This means: Is there an outside to 
capitalism? Capitalism is a totality, so everything we do is somehow 
directly or indirectly shaped by and related to capital. But capitalism 
certainly is, as you say, contradictory, so the productive forces tend 
to come in conflict with the relations of production. But this does not 
produce automatically an outside of capitalism. It produces potentials 
for alternatives, but these potentials are not automatically realized, 
they can only be realized in hard and difficult struggles. There are 
contradictory potentials on the economic inside of capitalism that 
through class struggle could transmute and rise to the outside and 
produce a socialist alternative. But today, these are mere potentials, 
there is not much class struggle going on. So I agree with Mark 
Andrjevic that free Internet services do "not necessarily challenge 
capitalist relations of production and capitalist modes of valorization".

We can observe the contradictory character of the Internet every day, 
but do we have reasons to assume that we are on the way towards a 
socialist Internet and a socialist society? I do not think so. What are 
the concrete phenomena that fuel your optimism? Phenomena such as the 
Pirate Party? But are these phenomena socialist phenomena or just a new 
form of liberalism? And even if we want to contend a certain socialist 
potential, then the fact remains that for example in Europe the new 
economic crisis has thus far brought about a strong shift towards the 
political right (just see the recent European elections or the recent 
elections in Germany). In my opinion these developments do not give much 
ground to hope or optimism. Many everyday people think that 
conservatives have a strategic economic competence (although they drove 
the financial economy into the gutter, which makes such consciousness 
truly one-dimensional and paradox), their consciousness is so far away 
from any thought about the reasonableness of a new socialism.

> 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.
I think there is a difference between reproductive labour today and in 
former times. Reproductive labour, as maintained by Marxist feminists 
since the 1970s, contributes indirectly to surplus value creation by 
reproducing labour power. In Fordist captialism, there was a distinction 
between labour time and spare time. Play was part of spare time and 
therefore play indirectly contributed to surplus value production. What 
is happening now with the emergence of "play labour" is that on the 
Internet etc. play and free time directly produce surplus value, so play 
becomes a new form of direct exploitation. It is not only reproductive 
labour that produces surplus value indirectly, it now produces surplus 
value directly. Therefore my conclusion is that the proletariat has 
become generalized, we are all proletarians today (except for 
capitalists), we are all exploited.  There is no unproductive work today.

I do not think, as you do, that the factory is not a good metaphor for 
the contemporary Internet. The factory is not static, it evolves 
historically, it is no longer the Fordist assembly line that shapes the 
factory. Deleuze says that the mole was characteristic for Fordist 
labour and the serpent is characteristic for post-Fordist labour and the 
post-Fordist factory. Both the factory and labour today have to be 
agile, flexible, co-operative, etc in order to survive. You are right 
that labour today is not homogenous, but very dynamic and heterogenous. 
But through this diversity, plurality, and flexibility of labour, one 
characteristic of labour is reproduced: its alienated and exploited 
character. Exploitation and alienation only works through diversity, 
dynamics, agility, etc. today. But what remains unchanged is the 
exploitative character of labour. Therefore all participatory management 
strategies are pure ideology.

I agree with you that much of Soviet Marxism was techno-deterministic 
and assumed that technologies automatically bring about communism. But I 
do not agree with you when you say "Marxism was reduced to little more 
than technological determinism“ because within Marxism there was always 
also a very dialectical philosophy of technology. For me, this is 
examplified especially by Marx himself and by Marcuse's philosophy of 

Marx for example wrote in Capital about the dialectical character of 
technology and spoke of the "contradictions and antagonisms inseparable 
from the capitalist application  of machinery". It technologies such as 
the Internet are in capitalism contradictory, then we cannot assume that 
due to their development capitalism will automatically break down and we 
cannot assume that resistance arises automatically out of technology. 
Both are techno-deterministic logics that lack dialectial reasoning.

So what I think we can today still learn much about undeterministic 
thinking, dialectical logic, and class theory.  I am not sure if what 
you want to say is that Marx's works are outdated and not so important 
today. I only know that I myself am deeply convinced that for academic 
and political reasons I find it the central task for critical academics 
today that they teach Marx, read Marx with their students (it is hard 
work, but possible and very frutifull to for example read and discuss 
Capital, Volume 1, with students in one semester), re-interpret Marx, 
etc. And that should not stop at Marx, what we need is also a renewal, 
re-reading, and re-interpretation of the progressive parts of 20th 
century Marxist theory. I am not convinced that this will happen and am 
far from optimistic that there will be a Marx-revival or a revival of 
critical theories in academia. Only thing I can do is to try to 
contribute to such a renewal and re-loading of Marx by my own work. I am 
not arguing for an orthodox reading of Marx (although the term orthodox 
Marxism can be understood in different ways, as Lukács has shown, but I 
do not agree with his usage of the term), we need to go back to Marx in 
order to go with Marx beyond Marx and beyond capitalism.

I am sorry for this long reply, I personally find it cumbersome to read 
very long e-mails in mailing lists because the struggles of everyday 
life many of us are experiencing make it hard to follow extensive 
mailing list discussions in detail because many are lacking the time for 
doing so. But I felt that I had to reply in some detail to your 
important comments.


- - -
Priv.-Doz. Dr. Christian Fuchs
Associate Professor
Unified Theory of Information Research Group
ICT&S Center
University of Salzburg
Sigmund Haffner Gasse 18
5020 Salzburg
christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at
Phone +43 662 8044 4823
Personal Website: http://fuchs.uti.at
Research Group: http;//www.uti.at
Editor of 
tripleC - Cognition, Communication, Co-Operation | Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society
Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge. 

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