Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval on Digital Labour and Modes of Production

Excerpted from Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:

(text without the associated graphs)

“Michael Porter (1985) introduced the notion of the value chain that he defined as “a collection of activities that are performed to design, produce, market, deliver and support its product” (Porter 1985, 36). The term value chain has become a popular category for analysing the organisation of capital, which is indicated by the circumstance that 11 682 articles indexed in the academic database Business Source Premier use the term in their abstract (accessed on May 21, 2013). The term has also been used in mainstream media economics for analysing the value chains of traditional media and ICTs (see Zerdick et al. 2000, 126-135). The problem of the mainstream use of the concept of the value chain is that it focuses on the stages in commodity production and tends to neglect aspects of working conditions and class relations. Also critical scholars have used the notion of the global value chain (see for example: Huws 2008, Huws and Dahlmann 2010).

An alternative concept that was introduced by critical studies is the notion of the new international division of labour (NIDL):

The development of the world economy has increasingly created conditions (forcing the development of the new international division of labour) in which the survival of more and more companies can only be assured through the relocation of production to new industrial sites, where labour-power is cheap to buy, abundant and well-disciplined; in short, through the transnational reorganization of production (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 15).

A further development is that “commodity production is being increasingly subdivided into fragments which can be assigned to whichever part of the world can provide the most profitable combination of capital and labour” (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 14). In critical media and cultural studies, Miller et al. (2004) have used this concept for explaining the international division of cultural labour (NICL). The concept of the NIDL has the advantage that it stresses the class relationship between capital and labour and how in processes of class struggle capital tries to increase profits by decreasing its overall wage costs via the global diffusion of the production process. It is also a concept that encompasses workers’ struggles against the negative effects of capitalist restructuring.

The approach taken in this paper stands in the Marxist tradition that stresses class contradictions in the analysis of globalisation. It explores how the notion of the mode of production can be connected to the concept of the new international division of labour. The notion of the mode of production stresses a dialectical interconnection of on the one hand class relationships (relations of production) and on the other hand the forms of organisation of capital, labour and technology (productive forces). The class relationship is a social relationship that determines who owns private property and has the power to make others produce surplus-value that they do not own and that is appropriated by private property owners. Class relationships involve an owning class and a non-owing class: the non-owning class is compelled to produce surplus value that is appropriated by the owning class.

The relations of production determine the property relations (who owns which share (full, some, none) of labour power, the means of production, products of labour), the mode of allocation and distribution of goods, the mode of coercion used for defending property relations and the division of labour. Class relationships are forms of organization of the relations of production, in which a dominant class controls the modes of ownership, distribution and coercion for exploiting a subordinated class. In a classless society human control ownership and distribution in common.
Every economy produces a certain amount of goods per year. Specific resources are invested and there is a specific output. If there is no contraction of the economy due to a crisis, then a surplus product is created, i.e. an excess over the initial resources. The property relations determine who owns the economy’s initial resources and surplus. Table 2 (see further below) distinguishes modes of production (patriarchy, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, communism) based on various modes of ownership, i.e. property relations.

The mode of allocation and distribution defines how products are distributed and allocated: In a communist society, each person gets whatever s/he requires to survive and satisfy human needs. In class societies, distribution is organized in the form of exchange: exchange means that one product is exchanged for another. If you have nothing to exchange because you own nothing, then you cannot get hold of other goods and services, except those that are not exchanged, but provided for free. There are different forms how exchange can be organized: general exchange, exchange for exchange-value (x commodity A = y commodity B), exchange for maximum exchange-value, exchange for capital accumulation.

The mode of coercion takes on the form of physical violence (overseers, security forces, military), structural violence (markets, institutionalised wage labour contracts, legal protection of private property, etc) and cultural violence (ideologies that present the existing order as the best possible or only possible order and try to defer the causes of societal problems by scapegoating). In a free society no mode of coercion is needed.

The division of labour defines who conducts which activities in the household, the economy, politics and culture. Historically there has been a gender division of labour, a division between mental and physical work, a division into many different functions conducted by specialists and an international division of labour that is due to the globalization of production. Marx in contrast imagined a society of generalists that overcomes the divisions of labour so that society is based on well-rounded universally active humans (Marx 1867, 334-335). Marx (1857/58, 238) says that in class society “labour will create alien property and property will command alien labour”. The historical alternative is a communist society and mode of production, in which class relationships are dissolved and the surplus product and private property are owned and controlled in common.
The relations of production are dialectically connected to the system of the productive forces (see figure 3 in section 1 of this paper): human subjects have labour power that in the labour process interacts with the means of production (object). The means of production consist of the object of labour (natural resources, raw materials) and the instruments of labour (technology). In the labour process, humans transform the object of labour (nature, culture) by making use of their labour power with the help of instruments of labour. The result is a product of labour, which is a Hegelian subject-object, or, as Marx says, a product, in which labour has become bound up in its object: labour is objectified in the product and the object is as a result transformed into a use value that serves human needs. The productive forces are a system, in which subjective productive forces (human labour power) make use of technical productive forces (part of the objective productive forces) in order to transform parts of the natural productive forces (which are also part of the objective productive forces) so that a labour product emerges. One goal of the development of the system of productive forces is to increase the productivity of labour, i.e. the output (amount of products) that labour generates per unit of time. Marx (1867, 431) spoke in this context of the development of the productive forces. Another goal of the development of the productive forces can be the enhancement of human self-development by reducing necessary labour time and hard work (toil).

In Capital, Marx (1867) makes a threefold distinction between labour-power, the object of labour and the instruments of labour: “The simple elements of the labour process are (1) purposeful activity, (2) the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that work” (284). Marx’s discussion of the production process can be presented in a systematic way by using Hegel’s concept of the dialectic of subject and object. Hegel (1991) has spoken of a dialectical relation of subject and object: the existence of a producing subject is based on an external objective environment that enables and constrains (i.e. conditions) human existence. Human activities can transform the external (social, cultural, economic, political, natural) environment. As a result of the interaction of subject and object, new reality is created—Hegel terms the result of this interaction “subject-object”. Figure 5 shows that Hegel’s notion of subject, object, and subject-object form a dialectical triangle.

Hegel (1991) characterizes the “subjective concept” as formal notion (§162), a finite determination of understanding a general notion (§162), “altogether concrete” (§164). He defines “the subject” as “the posited unseparatedness of the moments in their distinction” (§164). Hegel characterizes objectivity as totality (§193),“external objectivity”(§208),“external to an other” (§193),“the objective world in general” that “falls apart inwardly into [an] undetermined manifoldness” (§193), “immediate being” (§194), “indifference vis-à-vis the distinction” (§194), “realisation of purpose” (§194), “purposive activity” (§206) and “the means” (§206).The Idea is “the Subject-Object” (§162), absolute Truth (§162), the unity of the subjective and the objective (§212), “the absolute unity of Concept and objectivity” (§213), “the Subject-Object” understood as “the unity of the ideal and the real, of the finite and the infinite, of the soul and the body” (§214). Hegel also says that the “Idea is essentially process” (§215). Marx applied Hegel’s dialectic of subject and object on a more concrete level to the economy in order to explain how the process of economic production works as an interconnection of a subject (labour power) and an object (objects and instruments) so that a subject-object (product) emerges (see figure 6).
The instruments of work can be the human brain and body, mechanical tools and complex machine systems. They also include specific organizations of space-time, i.e. locations of production that are operated at specific time periods. The most important aspect of time is the necessary work time that depends on the level of productivity. It is the work time that is needed per year for guaranteeing the survival of a society. The objects and products of work can be natural, industrial or informational resources or a combination thereof.

The productive forces are a system of production that creates use-values. There are different modes of organization of the productive forces, such as agricultural productive forces, industrial productive forces and informational productive forces.

Classical slavery, serfdom and wage labour are three important historical forms of class relations that are at the heart of specific modes of production (Engels 1884). Marx and Engels argue that private property and slavery have their origin in the family: The first historical form of private property can be found in the patriarchal family (Marx and Engels 1845/46, 52). The family is a mode of production, in which labour power is no commodity, but organised by personal and emotional relationships that result in commitment that includes family work that is unremunerated and produces affects, social relations and the reproduction of the human mind and body. It can therefore also be called reproductive work.

A wage worker’s labour power has a price, its wage, whereas a slave’s labour power does not have a price—it is not a commodity. However, the slave him-/herself has a price, which means that its entire human body and mind can be sold as a commodity from one slave owner to another, who then commands the entire life time of the slave (Marx, 1857/58: 288–289). The slave in both ancient slavery and feudalism is treated like a thing and has the status of a thing (Marx 1857/58, 464–465).

In the Grundrisse’s section “Forms which precede capitalist production“ (Marx 1857/58, 471–514) as well as in the German Ideology’s section “Feuerbach: Opposition of the materialist and idealist outlooks“ (Marx and Engels 1845/46), Marx discusses the following modes of production:

– The tribal community based on the patriarchal family;

– Ancient communal property in cities (Rome, Greece);

– Feudal production in the countryside;

– Capitalism.

But how are modes of production related to each other? In a historical way, where they supersede each other, or in a historical-logical way within a specific social formation that sublates older formations but encompasses older modes of production into itself? Jairus Banaji (2011) argues that Stalinism and vulgar Marxism have conceptualised the notion of the mode of production based on the assumption that a specific mode contains only one specific historical form of labour and surplus-value appropriation and eliminates previous modes so that history develops in the form of a linear evolution: slavery à feudalism à capitalism à communism. So for example Althusser and Balibar (1970) argue that the historical development of society is non-dialectical and does not involve sublations, but rather transitions “from one mode of production to another” (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 307) so that one mode succeeds the other. This concept of history is one of the reasons why E.P. Thompson (1978, 131) has characterized Althusser’s approach as “Stalinism at the level of theory”. The Stalinist “metaphysical-scholastic formalism” (Banaji 2011, 61) has been reproduced in liberal theory’s assumption that there is an evolutionary historical development from the agricultural society to the industrial society to the information society so that each stage eliminates the previous one (as argued by: Bell 1974; Toffler 1980), which shows that in the realm of theory some liberals of today share in their theory elements of Stalinism. According to Banaji, capitalism often intensified feudal or semi feudal production relations. In parts of Europe and outside, feudalism would have only developed as a “commodity-producing enterprise” (Banaji 2011, 88). In the Islamic world capitalism would have developed without slavery and feudalism (Banaji 2011, 6).

Banaji advances in contrast to formalist interpretations a complex reading of Marx’s theory, in which a mode of production is “capable of subsuming often much earlier forms” (Banaji 2011, 1), “similar forms of labour-use can be found in very different modes of production” (6), capitalism is “working through a multiplicity of forms of exploitation” (145) and is a combined form of development (358) that integrates “diverse forms of exploitation and ways of organising labour in its drive to produce surplus value” (359).

A mode of production is a unity of productive forces and relations of production (Marx and Engels 1845/46, 91). If these modes are based on classes as their relations of production, then they have specific contradictions that can via class struggles result in the sublation (Aufhebung) of one mode of production and the emergence of a new one. The emergence of a new mode of production does not necessarily abolish, but rather sublate (aufheben) older modes of production.

This means that history is for Marx a dialectical process precisely in Hegel’s threefold meaning of the term Aufhebung (sublation): 1) uplifting, 2) elimination, 3) preservation:

1) There are new qualities of the economy,

2) the dominance of an older mode of production vanishes,

3) but this older mode continues to exist in the new mode in a specific form and relation to the new mode.

The rise of e.g. capitalism however did not bring an end to patriarchy, but the latter continued to exist in such a way that a specific household economy emerged that fulfils the role of the reproduction of modern labour power. A sublation can be more or less fundamental. A transition from capitalism to communism requires a fundamental elimination of capitalism, the question is however if this is immediately possible. Elimination and preservation can take place to differing degrees. A sublation is also no linear progression. It is always possible that relations that resemble earlier modes of organization are created.

Capitalism is at the level of the relations of production organised around relations between capital owners on the one side and paid/unpaid labour and the unemployed on the other side. On the level of the productive forces, it has developed from industrial to informational productive forces. The informational productive forces do not eliminate, but sublate (aufheben) other productive forces (Adorno 1968/2003, Fuchs 2014a, chapter 5): in order for informational products to exist a lot of physical production is needed, which includes agricultural production, mining and industrial production. The emergence of informational capitalism has not virtualised production or made it weightless or immaterial, but is grounded in physical production (Huws 1999, Maxwell and Miller 2012). Whereas capitalism is a mode of production, the terms agricultural society, industrial society and information society characterise specific forms of the organisation of the productive forces (Adorno 1968/2003; Fuchs 2014a, chapter 5).

The new international division of labour (NIDL) organises the labour process in space and time in such a way that specific components of the overall commodity are produced in specific spaces in the global economy and are reassembled in order to form a coherent whole that is sold as a commodity. It thereby can command labour on the whole globe and during the whole day. The approach taken by the authors of this paper advocates a broad understanding of digital labour based on an industry rather than an occupation definition in order to stress the commonality of exploitation, capital as the common enemy of a broad range of workers and the need to globalize and network struggles in order to overcome the rule of capitalism. Some of the workers described in this article are not just exploited by digital media capital, but also and sometimes simultaneously by other forms of capital. It is then a matter of degree to which extent these forms of labour are digital labour and simultaneously other forms of labour. If we imagine a company with job rotation so that each worker on average assembles laptops for 50% of his/her work time and cars for the other half of the time, a worker in this factory is a digital worker for 50%. S/he is however an industrial worker for 100% because the content of both manufacturing activities is the industrial assemblage of components into commodities. The different forms of digital labour are connected in an international division of digital labour (IDDL), in which all labour necessary for the existence, usage and application of digital media is “disconnected, isolated […], carried on side by side” and ossified “into a systematic division” (Marx 1867, 456).

Given a model of the mode of production, the question arises how one can best analyze the working conditions in a specific company, industry or sector of the economy when conducting a labour process and class analysis. Which dimensions of labour have to be taken into account in such an analysis?”