Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation
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[The original version of this essay was published on Giap  on 26 September 2011, which means several days before Steve Jobs died. The French version was published on Article XI  on the eve of Jobs' death. The piece had already received a lot of attention, backlinks and comments when the news arrived. However, it obviously sky-rocketed to the status of "crucial" text as soon as the media landscape was filled with iGrief, and it kept attracting people when anonymous cultural activists "displaced" the discussion on iGrief by creating the "Steve Workers " persona. The present English translation was done collectively on a Wiki page on Mauro Vanetti 's website. Many thanks to Mauro, SandorKrasna and all the guys who gave a hand. This version retains some additional mini-explanations Wu Ming 1 wrote for the French readers. We also inserted a few additional links that weren't in the original text but came up during the discussion.]
Last week a Pennsylvanian daily newspaper, The Morning Call, published a long and detailed inquiry – entitled Inside Amazon’s Warehouse  – on the appalling work conditions at Amazon warehouses in the Lehigh Valley. The article, resulting from months of interviews and direct checks, is being spread around the world and has gotten coverage from the New York Times and other mainstream media. The picture is grim:
- extreme job insecurity, a mood of perpetual blackmailing and lack of rights;
- inhuman work routine, with a pace that can be doubled overnight (from 250 to 500 units per day, with no advance notice), at an internal temperature beyond 40 Celsius that at least in one case reached 45 °C (114 °F);
- disciplinary actions against workers who slow down the pace, or simply faint (a report of the 2nd of June mention the fainting of 15 workers due to heat);
- “exemplary” immediate sacking, with the guilty escorted outside before the eyes of co-workers.
And there is more. Read the whole piece, it is worth it. The key sentence was said by a former Amazon warehouseman: “They’re kiling people mentally and physically“.
Judging by online comments, many people were taken by surprise, finding out for the first time that Amazon is a mega-corporation and Jeff Bezos is a boss who – as bosses customarily do – seeks profits at the expenses of any consideration for dignity, justice, and safety.
As should have been suspected, Amazon’s “miracle” (super-discounts, ultra-quick shipping, “Long Tail”, a seemingly infinite catalogue) is based on the exploitation of workforce under vexatious, dangerous, humiliating conditions. Just like the Walmart “miracle”, Sergio Marchionne’s FIAT “miracle” or any other corporate “miracle” the media have dished up to us in recent years.
What I just wrote should be obvious, but it is not. These revelations are not about a company whatsoever: they are about Amazon, a sort of Big Friendly Giant always portrayed in uncritical, praising and populistic ways —- also in Italy.
The Morning Call broke a charm. Until a few days ago, with a few exceptions, the media (and the customers themselves) took Amazon’s propaganda at face value, without the hint of a doubt. From now on, perhaps there will be more fact-checking, assertions will be properly verified, potential bluffs will be called. With the crisis getting worse and worse, the ranks of skeptics seem to increase.
The problem of multinational corporations being perceived as “less corporate”, “cooler” and ethically — almost spiritually — better than others regards especially companies that are so tightly associated with the Internet, as to be identified with the net itself. Another typical case is Apple.
iPhone, iPad, youDie
Foxconn is a corporation in whose Chinese plants many digital devices are assembled, including iPads, iPhones and iPods. Last year, a wave of suicides among Foxconn workers caused a brief sensation all over the world, before being silenced and covered up. Actually, suicides started in 2007, and the phenomenon is not over (the last confirmed suicide dates to last May; another worker allegedly killed himself in July). On the whole, about twenty employees have committed suicide. Various inquiries and reports cited as likely causes the unbearable work pace, lack of human relationships in the workplace and psychological pressure from the management.
Sometimes things went beyond psychological pressure: on July 16th, 2009, a 25-year-old employee called Sun Danyong  was beaten up by a company security squad [not an exceptional situation, judging by this video ] and threw himself from a roof right after. He was suspected of the loss or theft of an iPhone prototype.
What kind of solutions did Foxconn implement to prevent further tragic events? Well, they installed anti-suicide nets , for example .
[To dig deeper into this subject, I recommend SACOM's report Workers as Machines: Military Management at Foxconn , the links collected in the Wikipedia page  and the video Deconstructing Foxconn ].
Such behind-the-scenes of the Apple world do not receive much attention, compared to news on Steve Jobs’ health, or pseudo-events like the opening on via Rizzoli, downtown Bologna, of the biggest Apple Store in Italy . In that circumstance, many people spent the night in front of the store, in order to be admitted among the first into the Temple. Those people ignore the entanglement of work and death lying upstream of the brand they worship. Putting the largest possible distance between upstreamand downstream is the quintessential ideological operation under capitalism.
Fetishism, Subjugation, Liberation
Whenever we talk about the Internet, the “mythological machine” in our discourses — powered by the ideology that we breathe every day, whether we like it or not — reproduces a myth: the idea of technology as an autonomous force, a subject with its own spirit, a reality that evolves on its own, spontaneously and teleologically. Somebody even had the great idea of nominating the internet (which, just like any other infrastructure and network, can be used for every purpose, including war) for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
This rhetoric conceals class, property, and production relations: we can only see their fetishes. Here’s why the pages Karl Marx devoted to commodity fetishism are still useful (my italics):
«There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.»
“Fantastic form of a relation between things”. Like the computers interconnected to form the web. Behind the phantasmagory of the Internet lies a set of definite social relations, and Marx means production relations, exploitation relations.
The net rhetoric hides these relations. It is indeed possible to talk about the Internet for hours, days, months, touching only marginally the issue of who owns it, who is really in control of the nodes, the infrastructure, the hardware. The pyramid of labour — including slave-like labour — incorporated into the devices we use (computers, smartphones, ereaders etc.) and as a consequence into the Internet itself, is even less discussed.
Eveyday, corporations expropriate social wealth on the net, and oppress the working class at each corner of the Earth behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they are considered less “corporate” than others.
Until we realize that Apple is like Monsanto, that Google is like Novartis, that praising a corporation is the most toxic narrative we can choose, whether we are dealing with Google, Fiat, Facebook, Disney or Nestlé—-until we realize all this, we will stay in the net like fish.
[Let me put things clear: I do have a Mac, and I work well with it. I also own an iPod, a smartphone with Android, and a Kindle. My job requires me to know and investigate the ways in which culture is shared and the net is used. As I will explain later, this essay does not focus on the behaviour of the individual consumer -- on which a diverting rhetoric has been built in the latest years -- nor it implies any accusation of moral "incoherence" against him or her. What I am discussing here is the necessity of connecting online activism to the struggles that are taking place upstream, during the material production phase.]
Because of net-fetishism, the spotlight is always on the practices of liberation pervading the Internet — ie the kind of practices we Wu Ming have put time and effort into for twenty years —, which are customarily described as the rule. In this way, people dismiss as exceptions all the practices of subjugation , eg using the net to exploit or underpay intellectual work, to control and arrest people (see what happened after the recent UK riots ), to impose new idols and fetishes, to spread the dominant ideology, to enforce the same financial capitalism that’s destroying us.
On the net, the practices of subjugation are the rule as much as the others. In fact, if we want to nitpick, we should consider them the rule more than the others, if we take into account the genesis of the internet, which evolved from ARPAnet, a military computer network.
The question is not whether the net produces liberation or subjugation: since its creation, it has always been producing both things. That’s the net’s dialectics, one aspect is always together with the other, because the net is the form capitalism has taken nowadays, and capitalism itself is the contradiction in process. Capitalism developed itself by setting individuals free from the old feudal bonds, and at the same time by imposing new kinds of subjugation (to the controlled time of the factory, to the production of surplus value etc.) Under capitalism, everything works like this: consumption sets free and enslaves, it brings about liberation that is also new subjugation, and the cycle starts over on a higher level.
Therefore, the struggle should consist in fostering practices of liberation to be played against the practices of subjugation. This can be done only if we stop considering technology as an autonomous force and realize that it is moulded and driven by property relations, power relations, and production relations.
If technology could develop outside of these relations, thanks only to its being innovative, the steam engine would have been adopted in the 1st century AD, when Heron of Alexandria invented the aeolipile —-but the antique mode of production did not need machines, since all the necessary workforce was provided by slaves, and nobody could or wanted to imagine any concrete development of that invention.
By fetishising technology as an autonomous force, we remain trapped within the old conceptual frame “Apocalyptic vs. Integrated”. If you make the slightest critical remark about the net, the “Integrated” will mistake you for an “Apocalyptic”, and will accuse you of incoherence and/or obscurantism. The former accusation resounds in such phrases as: ‘Aren’t you using a computer right now?’, ‘Don’t you buy books on Amazon too?’, ‘You own a smartphone too!’, and so on. The latter is expressed in the form of such useless preaches as: ‘Try to picture a world without the Internet…’
On the other hand, any argument about the positive aspects of the net will be welcomed by the “Apocalyptic” as a piece of servile, “Integrated” propaganda.
Let us always remember Heron of Alexandria. His story teaches us that, whenever we talk about technology (and about the Internet in particular), we are actually talking about something else, ie social relations.
Let us ask again then: who are the bosses of the net? And who are the exploited of the Net, and by the Net?
It is not that difficult to find out: it suffices to read the “Terms of service” of the social media you’re using, read the licenses of the software you keep on your computer, digit“Net Neutrality”  on a search engine—-and, dulcis in fundo, keep in mind stories like those of Amazon’s warehouses and Foxconn’s factories.
Only in this way, I believe, we will avoid such bullshit as the “Internet for peace” campaign or the horrible, “softly” totalitarian scenario prefigured in Casaleggio & Associati‘s infamous video Gaia: The Future of Politics .
Let us not deceive ourselves: only violent conflicts will decide whether the evolution of the net will impose the supremacy of the practices of liberation over those of subjugation, or the other way around.
All the (shitty) work embodied in a tablet
Recently, those who consider Marx’s labour theory of value to be outdated in contemporary capitalism, have been referring to the iPad as an example: the physical work performed by factory workers to assemble a tablet, they explain, is not a big deal, and the tablet’s value depends mainly on the software and apps running on it, therefore on the mental, cognitive work of invention and development. Such work is elusive, unmeasurable in terms hours of work.
This is supposed to question Marx’s idea that — to put it very roughly — the value of a commodity is given by the amount of labour it embodies, or, more accurately, by the work time that is socially necessary to produce it. (By “socially necessary time” Marx means the average time used by the producers of a particular commodity at a given stage of capitalist development).
I’m not a expert of political economy, but they look like two co-existent levels to me. Maybe the labour theory of value is liquidated too hurriedly. I believe that the core of its meaning (its “philosophical” and very concrete kernel) persists even through changing conditions.
Nowadays, work is much more socialised than at Marx’s times and the productive process is far more complex (and capitalism is more conditioned by external, environmental constraints). And yet, those who give this example shorten the cycle and single out the act of assembling an individual iPad. It sounds like a serious methodological mistake to me.
We should take into account the mass of work along the whole productive cycle of an entire batch of tablets (or laptop computers, smartphones, e-readers, whatever). As Tuco correctly said  in the discussion thread in which this essay started to take shape:
«One of the essential points is that the whole contraption could never be set to motion to produce one hundred iPads. You’ve got to make one hundred million at least. At first glance it could look like the intellectual work needed to develop the iPad software generates value by itself, irrespective of the rest of the productive cycle. But this would imply that the value generated by this intellectual work is independent from the number of iPads being produced. Actually it’s not like that. Were it not part of a cycle that involves the production with Fordist methods of a hundred million iPads, this intellectual work would generate virtually no value at all.»
Once this point is clarified, in considering how much labour gets embodied in a tablet one can:
1. Start from the retrieval of raw materials like lithium. Without lithium there would be no rechargeable batteries in our gadgets. It does not exist in nature in a “pure” form, and the process to derive it is costly and impacts on the environment. (By the way, 70% of the world reserves of lithium is at the bottom of Bolivian salt lakes, and the Bolivian government has no intention to sell it off. Apart from geopolitical issues, even earthquakes contribute to the mess . This primary stage of the cycle is bound to get more complicated and require more and more labour);
2. Take into account the work (and the harm suffered) by those who work in the petrochemical industry producing the necessary polymers;
3. Take into account the work lacking any safeguard of the toilers assembling the devices (we’ve mentioned above the work conditions at Foxconn);
4. Finally, take into account the (undignified, noxious, almost inhuman) work of those who “dispose” of the laptop’s or tablet’s carcass in some African dump . Being these rapidly obsolescent commodities, and particularly, commodities whose obsolescence is planned, this work is already embodied in them since the beginning of the cycle.
Taking all this into consideration, we will notice that a batch of iPads does indeed embody a large amount of labour (shitty, exploited, underpaid, toxic toil), and a large quantity of working time. Without a doubt, the latter is socially necessary working time: nowadays this is the only way iPads are produced.
Without this work, the applied general intellect that creates and updates software just could not exist. Therefore, it could not produce any value. It takes a tree to make a table, and it takes a factory worker to make a tablet —-and a miner before him, etc. Without factory workers and their labour, no valorisation of digital commodities, no Apple stock quote would be possible. Shareholders and investors trust Apple because it develops, enhances, and sells hardware and gadgets, and sometimes hits big by placing a new cool “jewel” on the market—-and who makes the jewel?
Whether a precise counting in terms of working hours is still possible, I cannot tell. Let me repeat myself: I am not a political economist. What I do know is that when we trash a perfectly working cell phone because a new model can do more things, we’re trashing a good portion of life and toil of a large mass of workers, who are often underpaid and booted in their butt into the bargain.
Collective Intelligence, Invisible Work and Social Media
What I am trying to explain has already been tackled by Marx in the Unpublished Sixth Chapter  of the Capital. The excerpt is particularly dense, since it was never edited for publication (my italics and underlining):
«The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes, technology, etc., as well as by working on a large scale, which corresponds to all these advances [...]. This development of the productive power of socialised labour, as opposed to the more or less isolated labour of the individual, etc., and, alongside it, the application of science, that general product of social development, to the direct production process, has the appearance of a productive power of capital, not of labour, or it only appears as a productive power of labour in so far as the latter is identical with capital, and in any case it does not appear as the productive power either of the individual worker or of the workers combined together in the production process.
The mystification which lies in the capital-relation in general is now much more developed than it was, or could be, in the case of the merely formal subsumption of labour under capital.»
In a nutshell, Marx is saying that:
1) the collective, cooperative nature of labour is really subdued (the term is sometimes translated as “subsumed”) under capital—-which means that it’s a specific collective nature that did not exist before capitalism.
The “real submission” of labour under capital is set by Marx against the “formal subsumption”, which was typical of the dawn of capitalism, when the capital used to subdue pre-existent kinds of labour: hand weaving, the processes of agricultural labour, etc.
“Real submission” (or “subsumption”) means that the capital turns into productive force a social cooperation that did not pre-exist it, because workers, salaried labour, machines and new ways of transportation and distribution did not exist before capitalism;
2) the more advanced the productive process (thanks to the application of science and technology), the more mystified the representation of productive cooperation.
Let us look now for some current examples of this formulation: the production of sense and relations on the internet is not considered as productive force of cooperating workers; nor does the dominant ideology allow to recognize the work of a single person. All this production is fraudulently, mythologically attributed to the capital itself, to “entrepreneurial spirit”, to the supposed genius of the capitalist, etc. For instance, it is often said that Facebook exists thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s “insight” blah blah blah.
Such production of sense is often considered, as Marx says, “productive power of labour in so far as [it] is identical with capital”. Let’s translate and apply this principle: the exploitation is hidden behind the appearance of an autonomous, non-subordinate work that relies on independent entrepreneurship and free agreements — even if a significant chunk of web content is produced by the subordinate piecework of several “ghostwriters”, hired by such companies as Odesk.com .
Does what Marx called the “Gemeinwesen” – ie the tendency of human beings to cooperate and be part of a community – really exist? Yes, indeed. It is always risky to use such terms, but if there is an “anthropological universal”, it is definitely that. “Companionable animal” (“Compagnevole animale“) is how Dante translates Aristotle’s “zoon politikon” (“Ζῷον πολιτικὸν“)—-and neurosciences are proving that we are wired for the “Gemeinwesen” (the discovery of mirror neurons, etc.).
No mode of production has “subsumed” and “made productive” the human tendency to cooperation with the same strength of capitalism.
The best example of this subdued cooperation — and at the same time of an invisible work that is nor perceived as such — is offered by social media.
I am going to use Facebook as an example. This does not imply that other social media are “less evil”. The reason I’m focusing on Facebook lies in its being the largest, the most yielding and (as illustrated by the latest wave of new options and add-ons ) the most enveloping, persuading, and expansionist social networking site on the web. It looks like Facebook wants to engulf the whole net to replace it. It is the social networking site par excellence, and therefore it offers us the clearest example.
Are you one of the 700-and-something million Facebook users? Well, it means that you produce contents for the network every day: any kind of contents, including emotions and relations. You are part of Facebook’s general intellect. To put it short, Facebook exists and works thanks to all the people like you. What is Facebook if not a mass of collective intelligence that is not produced by Zuckerberg & Company, but by users?
In fact, you actually work on Facebook. You do not notice it, but you’re working. You work and do not earn—-others are making money with your work.
What turns out to be useful here is the Marxian concept of “surplus labour”. It is not an abstruse concept: it is the part of work that, albeit producing value, is not converted into salary but in profit for the capitalist, since the latter owns the means of production.
If there is profit, it means that there has been surplus labour. Otherwise, if all the labour were paid according to the value it creates—-well, that would be communism, a society with no classes. It is obvious that the capitalist must pay the workers less than the sum he earns with the sale of commodities. This is what “profit” means—-it means paying workers less than the actual value of their labour.
For several reasons, the capitalist may not be able to sell those commodities and make profits. But this does not mean that the workers have not provided surplus labour. The whole capitalist society is based on surplus value and surplus labour.
Your whole work is surplus work on Facebook, because you are not paid. Everyday Zuckerberg sells your surplus work—-that is to say, he sells your life (your sensitive data, your navigation patterns, etc.) and your relations. He makes several million dollars each day, because he is the owner of the mean of production, and you are not.
Information is a commodity. Knowledge is a commodity. In fact, it is the quintessential commodity in Post-Fordism (or whatever you want to call it). It is a productive force and a commodity at the same time, just like workforce. The Facebook community produces pieces of information (on individual tastes, consumption habits, market trends) that are wrapped up in form of statistics and sold to others and/or used for customising ads and any other kind of offer .
Moreover, as a representation of the most extended network of relations on the planet, Facebook itself is a commodity. The company is able to sell information only if, at the same time and incessantly, it keeps selling that particular representation of itself. That representation too is generated by users, but Zuckerberg is the one who pockets the cheque.
Of course, the kind of “work” described above is not comparable for toil and exploitation to the labour mentioned in the early paragraphs. In addition, Facebook users do not form a social class. The point is that we must always consider both the toil at the base of hardware production and the continuous, predatory embezzlement of collective intelligence taking place on the internet. As I wrote above, they are two “co-existent levels”. The production of value depends on both activities, and they should be pictured and analysed together.
There is no “Outside” vs. “Inside”
At this point, should somebody ask me, “Do I have to stay outside social media?”, or “Can I solve the problem by using only free software?”, or even “Should I avoid this or that device?”, I would reply that the question is ill-framed.
Of course, it is a good and right idea to create different, grassroots social media running on free software and not based upon the trade of sensitive data and relations—-but so is also holding a critical, informative presence where the majority of people live and communicate, perhaps trying to devise conflictual ways of using the existing networks.
We’ve suffered for too long the hegemony of an apparatus that “individualises” revolts and struggles, focusing mainly on what is or can be done by the single consumer (a subject who is continuously reproduced by specific social technologies): boycott, critical consumption, radical personal choices, and so on.
Personal choices are important, but:
1. Too often this way of thinking brings to a competiton on who is “purer” and more “coherent”. There will always be someone boasting choices that are more radical than mine: the vegan bashes the vegetarian, the raw fruitarian bashes the vegan, etc. Each one claims to be “further outside”, more “independent” from capital —-a picture that is completely delusional;
2. The consumer is the last ring of the distribution chain, and his or her choices are made at the estuary, not at the source. Perhaps we should recommend more often the reading of a “lesser” text by Marx, the Critique of the Gotha Program, in which he criticised the “vulgar socialism” focused on distribution instead of production.
I have being trying for a while  to explain that, in my opinion, spacial metaphors (such as “Inside” and “Outside”) are inadequate, because if the question is, “Where is the outside?”, the answer — or lack thereof — cannot but be paralysing, since the question itself is already paralysing.
It could be more useful to employ, and reason in terms of, temporal images. Focus on time, not space.
It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.
There is nothing new in what I’m saying: once it was customarily called “class struggle”. In a nutshell: the worker’s and the employer’s interests are different and irreconcilable. Any ideology (whether corporatist, nationalistic, or racist) concealing this difference must be fought against.
Think of the dawn of the labour movement. Proletarians work 12 to 14 hours per day in brutish conditions, and the same conditions are shared by children who hardly see the sun’s light. What will they do? They will struggle. They will struggle until they wring eight-hour working days, pay for the overtime, health assistance, right of organization and strike, laws against child labour… They’ll take back part of their time and claim their dignity, until these achievements will be questioned again and a new struggle will be needed.
To realize that our relation with things is neither neutral nor innocent, to find ideology therein, to acknowledge commodity fetishism—-these are all achievements in themselves: we may still be injured and insulted, but at least we are not “injured, insulted, and loving it“. The injury is still there, but not the mockery of believing to be free within frameworks whereas we’re actually exploited. We should always find the dispositifs that subjugate us, and describe them while finding ways to put them in crisis.
The digital devices we use incorporate exploitation—-let us realise it. The Internet stands upon gigantic pillars of invisible labour—-let’s show it, and let’s show the struggles and the strikes. Although still little debated in the Western world, there are indeed strikes in China , and there will be more and more .
Whenever a loser becomes a tycoon, we should go and check how many heads he stepped on to get where he is, what work he exploited, how much surplus work he did not reward.
When I talk about “defetishising the Net”, I mean the acquisition of this awareness, which is the requirement to stay “inside and against”, inside in a conflictual way.
If we stay “inside and against” the Net, we may find the way to enter into an alliance with those who are exploited upstream. A worldwide alliance between “digital activists”, cognitive workers, and electronic-industry workers would be the most frightening thing for the bosses of the Internet.
The forms of this alliance, of course, are all to be discovered.