Just Do It: The Manufacturing of the Neoliberal Subject


This paper uses recent extensions into the digital economy of Marx’s labor theory of value—as analyzed in Grundrisse and Capital—as a foundation for ideological critique. Theorists such as Christian Fuchs and Tiziana Terranova have applied Marx’s original contribution to thinking about human labor, i.e., that it has a dual character in capitalism: both concrete and abstract, to the emerging digital economy, specifically Web 2.0 platforms, like blogs, forums, and social media. These theorists and others have contributed to what could be called a ‘digital theory of value,’ representing perhaps a synthesis of the Italian autonomist theory of immaterial labor and Dallas Smythe’s notion of the audience commodity. The paper outlines the contours of the ‘digital labor theory of value’ as a foundation for an ideological critique of the ways in which labor is represented, specifically in the U.S., and specifically by dominant U.S. tech companies, i.e., Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter.

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A blog posted last year on the website of NextSpace—a company that rents space and an internet connection to “freelancers, entrepreneurs, and creative class professionals”[1. Rachman Blake: “Why Funny Follow Up is Effective,” NextSpace.us, 12/11/2014, http://nextspace.us/2014/12/11/why-funny-follow-up-is-effective, Page accessed 12/18/2014.] —offers a proud dispatch from a customer moonlighting, as he puts it, on a “Thursday night—technically, Friday morning.” He’s working from the space in San Francisco’s Portrero Hill neighborhood, and the conference he’s marketing for has no advertising budget, so he’s up late sending emails and friending potential guests on social media. “As I shamelessly load up on late night/morning carbs I begin reading a draft of my e-mail to one of the largest tech meet-up groups in the Bay Area.” He’s on his 4th all-nighter, during which he’s befriended NextSpace’s late-night cleaning staff. Friendship may always have been about being there for a friend no matter what, but it has never been so ambiguous.

Neither has work, if we are to believe the hype. NextSpace was started to advance a “revolution in the nature of work,” and similar collaborative spaces are opening up in major cities across the country.

In The Assembly Line, sociologist Robert Linhart reflects on leaving his university post to join workers at a Citroën car factory just after the 1968 French strikes and occupations. He can’t sleep either after his first day of work soldering the doors of small cars called ‘2 CV’s, but his dispatch carries a different tone than our blogger’s: “Night. I can’t sleep. As soon as I close my eyes I see piles of 2 CVs, a sinister procession of gray car bodies. I see again [a coworker’s] porn magazine among the sandwiches and the oil drums and the metal. Everything’s ugly. And those 2 CVs, that interminable string of 2 CVs… The alarm clock goes off. Six o’clock already? I ache all over, I’m just as worn out as I was last evening. What have I done with my night?”[2. Robert Linhart: The Assembly Line (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), pg. 27.]

Linhart would go on to strike along with other workers with demands for better hours and working conditions. But one hears a dissonance in the NextSpace post: is our blogger complaining about the late nights or proud of his fatigue? Is he a worker or a manager, or both? Is it just the difference between office and manual labor that allows our blogger to boast about the late-night intensity of his work, and the factory worker to dread that same intensity? This elision of work is abound in the rhetoric of telecommuting, freelancing, crowdsourcing, and the so-called ‘sharing economy’ touted by emerging companies like Uber and GrubHub. Not only class but all evidence of the organization of economic production is occluded in the sharing economy. The cofounder and “(R)evolutionary-in-Chief” of NextSpace says, “It may seem like a tug of war between companies and workers, but in fact they share common goals: using technology and mobility to maximize productivity, innovation, and well-being.” [3. Jeremy Neuner: “40% of America’s Workforce Will Be Freelancer’s by 2020,” Quartz, 3/20/2013, http://qz.com/65279/40-of-americas-workforce-will-be-freelancers-by-2020/, Page accessed 12/18/2014.]Yet, class conflict is boiling below the surface. Avi Asher-Schapiro has reported that while Uber claims it offers its drivers a chance to run their small business in a sharing economy, at its core, because drivers have no leverage with their bosses, this economy is “a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labor organizing, and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs.[4. Avi Asher-Schapiro: “Against Sharing,” Jacobin, 9/9/14, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/against-sharing/, page accessed 12/18/2014.]

If there is a nature of work, whatever it is must be changing. In November 2014, research performed by a union representing freelancers found that—based on a limited survey—34% of the U.S. workforce had “engaged in supplemental, temporary, or project- or contract-based work” in the past year. [5. Sara Horowitz and Fabio Rosati: “Freelancing in America: A National Survey of the New Workforce,” 9/4/2014, https://fu-web-storage-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/content/filer_public/c2/06/c2065a8a-7f00-46db-915a-2122965df7d9/fu_freelancinginamericareport_v3-rgb.pdf, page accessed 12/18/2014.] A recent report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) concluded that the number of U.S. workers in temporary help jobs has reached an all-time high.[6. Rebecca Smith and Claire McKenna: “Temped Out,” 9/2/2014, http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Reports/Temped-Out.pdf?nocdn=1, page accessed 12/18/2014.]

Sociologist Tiziana Terranova has connected these material trends to digital technology’s production of new online spaces and social relations: “The expansion of the Internet has given ideological and material support to contemporary trends toward increased flexibility of the workforce, continuous reskilling, freelance work, and the diffusion of practices such as ‘supplementing’ (bringing supplementary work home from the conventional office).” [7. Tiziana Terranova: “Free Labor,” in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013), pg. 34.] In the case of, say, Uber, it is easy to blame the technology itself (i.e., the app’s speed and convenience) for the company’s exploitation of drivers. But a technological determinist Terranova is not. Technology like smart phones and cloud storage aren’t magically appearing or naturally unfolding from prior innovation. For Terranova, online labor is an innovative development of the familiar logic of capitalist exploitation. [8. Ibid., pg. 33.] She calls the “complex relation to labor” taken on by freelancers and temp workers: ‘free labor.'[9. Ibid., pg. 32.] This concept of ‘free labor’ contributes to what appears to be a revival of Marxist and historical materialist orientations to technology and human labor. On the surface, it’s strange that a materialist point of view would reveal anything about the digital realm. But, paradoxically, human labor is conspicuous in online value creation. As Terranova writes, “The Internet foregrounds the extraction of value out of continuous, updatable work, and it is extremely labor intensive. It is not enough to provide a good website; you need to update it continuously to maintain interest in it and fight off obsolescence.”[10. Ibid., pg. 32.] Thinkers are turning towards materialism not in a reactionary way but because of a dialectical affordance of digital technology: in the Internet’s frictionless void, all that is human is more visible.

Marx’s original critique of political economy presents a framework to hold together at once in the mind the outbreak of ‘free labor’ in the mainstream of work; the sudden proliferation of devices into our public and private spaces; the igniting labor conflict in Southeast Asian factories; the specter of surveillance that haunts Silicon Valley cafes and Yemeni streets; and the increasing volatility of the financial system and instability of the U.S. working class. Defined broadly, this is the critique of the logic used by capitalism’s sympathizers and their insistence that the class relationships that define this mode are either natural and inevitable to humanity, or simply don’t exist. This critique will be ever more important as we enter the era of wearables, the Internet of Things, and nanobiotechnology, and it is not a ‘luddite’ skepticism or fear of robots.

A growing number of thinkers are becoming skeptical of the stories that are told in capitalist societies about technology and are interested in how technology can contribute to more egalitarian, humane, and liberating social relationships. We’ve known since Marx that technology is never neutral but a historically specific instance of particular social relations given material form. As we will see, one particular social relation, that of capital to labor, can be traced from Chinese factories producing electronics to late night cubicles in San Francisco, and even to iPhones under dinner tables as users check Facebook. This paper aims to strip digital technology of its hype and spirituality by grounding it in the Marxist theory of value creation. This is not to ignore the Internet’s radical dimension. If we are to stay honest to a dialectical analysis, we must see at the edge of our eye the indisputable reality that the Internet—specifically in its early peer-to-peer (P2P) form—offers us a way to dissolve our identity as a consumer subject, which is all a capitalist Internet offers us.

Marx’s Capital gifts us a phrase that spins the particular yarn of our time: “Thanks to the elasticity of labour-power, the domain of accumulation has extended without any prior increase in the size of the constant capital.” [11. Karl Marx: Capital Volume 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), pg. 752, emphasis mine.] By ‘elasticity of labour-power’ Marx is referring to the ability of a human to work harder or more efficiently within a given time and thus to produce more output. At this point in his critique of bourgeois political economy, he is deep into an analysis of how surplus-value—or profit—is transformed by a capitalist into capital, i.e., wealth that grows through the process of circulation. This analysis relies on a ‘law of value’ outlined in Capital’s first chapter. This law of value, though expounded in the age of factories, still rings clear in our digital age.

Theorist Ernest Mandel considered the law Marx’s version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor[12. Ernest Mandel: Karl Marx (London: John Eatwell, Murray Milgate & Peter Newman, 1990), pg. 14.], a contrast that illuminates the critical difference between a Marxist and a bourgeois analysis of political economy. The law both humanizes and socializes value, which has profound implications in a discourse (economics) constantly defining value with things other than human labor. Marx put forth that conflicting social relationships, not some unseen, ahistorical force, set the course of human history, and that “human labour in the abstract,[13. Karl Marx: Capital Volume 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), pg. 128.]” not consumer demand, is the essence of value, which relatively determines prices of commodities, in the capitalist mode of production. This labor can be measured in time, and because it’s abstract, it can be averaged out across the entire world economy to produce a ‘socially necessary labor time’ necessary to produce any particular commodity. In other words, just because a lazy worker takes double the average time to make her commodity than other workers, she doesn’t automatically get double the price for her work. The market wouldn’t allow her double the time, as she’d be out of a job fast, i.e., the market averages by definition.

Professor of Social Media Christian Fuchs has applied Marx’s original perception of human labor, i.e., that it has a dual character in capitalism: both concrete and abstract, to the digital economy, specifically Web 2.0 platforms like blogs, forums, and social media. Fuchs calls upon the work of communications theorist Dallas Smythe for a historical analog to the political economy of dominant, corporate-owned social media. In a radical break from communication theory, including Marxist takes, Smythe boldly claimed that the commodity produced in television and radio was what he called ‘audience power,’ not the television or radio content itself. While watching the tube, audiences contribute unpaid work time and receive programs and advertisements in return.[14. Dallas Smythe: “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” in Cultural Studies Key Works (Malden, MA: M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner, 1981), pg. 238.] Therefore the purpose of mass media is to produce audiences to sell to advertisers.

If that’s too conspiratorial to your ears, we can say that, based on Smythe’s research and theory, producing audiences as commodities to sell to advertisers is at least the dominant purpose of mass media among others, like informing the public, entertainment, or even serving as state propaganda. Smythe goes as far as writing that television audiences in his time were “marketing consumer goods and services to themselves.” [15. Ibid., pg. 239.]For Smythe, the act of turning on the television is the commencement of the work; televisions don’t turn themselves on. As we watch a commercial, think through it, laugh at it, or ignore it with a blank stare, we are marketing to ourselves because in that moment who else is working? The ad has already been cut. We are the labor as we sit passively in front of the set. Smythe: “The work which audience members perform for the advertiser to whom they have been sold is learning to buy goods and to spend their income accordingly.”[16. Dallas Smythe: “Communication: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” in Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, Fall 1977.]

Fuchs updates Smythe’s theory of audience power to make a convincing argument that dominant social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which generate much of their revenue via the sale of user data to advertisers, aren’t providing a free technology for social relations. Instead, they are contractually organized capital that have enclosed technology and social relations that were prior in the commons. They don’t innovate in order to find new ways to connect society, but, as Terranova writes, to expand their “unilateral appropriation and hence accumulation of the wealth generated by users’ interactions.” [17. Tiziana Terranova: “Free Labor,” in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013), pg. 53.] In social media we see a hyper version of the attention industry that Smythe first analyzed as structured to produce audience power, an industry of endless bargaining and prices fluctuating as on a stock market.[18. Dallas Smythe quoting Erik Barnouw: “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” in Cultural Studies Key Works (Malden, MA: M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner, 1981), pg. 237.] Thus for all their social utopian trappings, dominant social media are digital-material networks within property regimes that are centralized and controlled by one node, and hence, undemocratic. Leveraging Smythe, Fuch’s work is grounded in the law of value: “If Internet users become productive Web 2.0 prosumers, then, in terms of Marxian class theory, this means that they become productive laborers who produce surplus value and are exploited by capital, because, for Marx, productive labor generates surplus value.”[19. Christian Fuchs, “Class and Exploitation on the Internet,” in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013), pg. 218.] Every bit of user data we produce by posting and liking on Facebook or Twitter is a commodity that can be sold, just not by us.

It is crucial to note that both Fuchs and Terranova count on updated analyses of labor from second-wave Marxist-feminists and Italian autonomism, both from the late 1960s and 1970s. Both of these movements made the political and rhetorical claim that in a capitalist society all labor is not wage-labor. In “Wages Against Housework,” Silvia Federici wrote that a housewife’s work isn’t done out of love for the family; it’s un-waged work that contributes to the reproduction of capitalist society. [20. Silvia Federici: Wages Against Housework (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1975).] In autonomism, not just work in the traditional sense but “defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion”—altogether, called immaterial labor—becomes available for capitalist accumulation. [21. Tiziana Terranova: “Free Labor,” in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013), pg. 25.] The autonomists derived this notion of labor from Marx’s claim of a ‘general intellect’ in capitalist societies, which he laid out in Grundrisse. Terranova, again, comments on the dialectical relationship of technology to un-waged work and society, “The Internet highlights the existence of networks of immaterial labor and speeds up their accretion into a collective entity.”[22. Ibid., pg. 42.] Therefore, the Internet did not in itself expand the horizon of ‘free labor;’ it amplified already-existing material trends.

These recent contributions by Terranova and Fuchs, among others, to the growing chorus of voices critiquing rather than cheering the material trends of the early twenty-first century could be thought of as a ‘digital law of value.’ I am not claiming that these thinkers have charted a new logic for capitalism in the emerging information or knowledge economy; attaching ‘digital’ to the front only captures the slight changes that digital technology has afforded Marx’s original contribution. The digital law of value applies to Terranova’s ‘free labor’ of blogging, moderating chat rooms, and open-source development; to Fuchs’s ‘digital labor’ of producing audience power; and, though less clearly, to the instability of work in modern capitalist societies. The latter applies because the law of value in the first two rely on a rejection of the ‘common sense’ that labor and employment are synonymous, i.e., that not all labor is wage-labor in the capitalist mode of production. So in a strange inversion, capitalism is not ‘all about the money’ as they say but about both maintaining money’s legitimacy as the variable in the middle of the exchange and avoiding the topic altogether when distribution of it is concerned. Money is therefore a fetish: its particular character is elevated above its relative character. And the digital law of value is therefore an extension of what historian Ellen Meiksins Wood claims as capitalism’s original sin: the complete dispossession of direct producers who are dispossessed but free to sell their labor. [23. Ellen Meiksins Wood: The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verson, 2002), pg. 96.]

But in both ‘free labor’ and social media use there is no monetary wage, which is the variable of exchange, so how do workers reproduce the conditions of their life? And if we are to take the digital law of value to be valid, how is the productive labor concealed in the use of social media? It strikes me that the answers to these questions will have something to do with the increasing elasticity of actual wage-labor. But to start get at these answers we’ll need to leave the material world behind and enter the realm of ideology.

In 1988, Nike debuted a soon-to-be iconic advertising campaign, telling us to ‘JUST DO IT.’ The phrase was accepted into the American ethos as a ‘git-r-done’ empowerment of the individual. An advertisement isn’t exactly state propaganda, but when laid beside the domination of the U.S. labor movement started the decade before, Nike’s slogan can be read as a message straight from capital to the shop floor: stop demanding better working conditions, just do the work. By the end of the 1980s, political anxiety about the ebbing position of the working class in American society had to be managed in extraordinary ways. From a peak approaching 35% of the nonagricultural workforce in the mid-1950s, unionization fell rapidly from the late 1970s onward. [24. Alejandro Reuss: “That ’70s Crisis,” Dollars & Sense, 11/09/2009, http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2009/1109reuss.html/, page access 12/18/2014.] Under President Reagan, the balance of power between capital and labor unhinged: the marginal tax rate on the highest personal incomes was cut from 70% to 34%, and corporate tax income rates were slashed. [25. Ibid.]The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of American capitalism, which saw both macroeconomic growth and rising wages, albeit mostly for white men, was over. Between 1949-1973, the real average hourly earnings (which includes wages and benefits) of U.S. workers increased at an average of over 2% per year. [26. Ibid.] From 1973- 2011, that figure rose just 10.7% total. [27. Lawrence Mishel: “Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages,” Economic Policy Institute, 9/29/2012, http://www.epi.org/publication/ib342-unions-inequality-faltering-middle-class/, page accessed 12/18/2014.]

The Reagan presidency, along with Margaret Thatcher’s in the UK, kicked off what is known as the ‘neoliberal’ era of capitalism, a “historically specific phase of capitalist class strategy, one which itself developed in the context of the particular form of welfare capitalism and class compromise that arose in the mid-20th Century.” [28. Peter Frase: “Beyond the Welfare State,” Peter Frase, 12/10/2014, http://www.peterfrase.com/2014/12/beyond-the-welfare-state/, page access 12/18/2014.] This period, which we appear to remain in today, even after the 2008 financial crisis , is the reaffirmation of bourgeois political economy after the Golden Age economic gains of the majority white and male working class and the political gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The term ‘neoliberalism’ is ubiquitous in anti-capitalist discourse at the moment, and has been used for a number of purposes. But its most relevant feature to the task at hand is that capitalists no longer consider the state an enemy but a tool to thwart political and workplace democracy, those which achieved gains for parts of the working class during the Golden Age. And to justify thwarting representative democracy and class consciousness at the workplace, neoliberalism rhetorically elevates individual freedom in the market.

Nike still offers t-shirts with ‘JUST DO IT’ and other phrases inspiring labor productivity—’Know No Limits,’ ‘Excuses Suck’—but there’s a new note in their chord. Recent messages sound like capital talking to other capital: ‘Rise Up,’ ‘Get Some,’ ‘Best Doesn’t Rest,’ ‘Just Dominate.’ In these expressions—which I think are distinctly neoliberal—the socializing force of markets has entered. This marked shift from obedience to what ostensibly sounds like individual empowerment maps not simply to capital’s real material orientation to labor—as that was all but established by Reagan’s breaking of the 1981 PATCO strike—but rather to the shift in ideological rhetoric that defines capitalism’s neoliberal period.

But workers haven’t become a bunch of entrepreneurs in the mold of corporations, they’ve become commodities personified! As the law of value makes clear, within a mode of production in which human labor power is the substance of value, whether acknowledged or not, commodities that require (or are purported to have required) more human labor to produce tend to cost more. We see this today in artisan production (Restoration Hardware vs. IKEA), gourmet food, and so on. Thus, it would behoove a worker, with only her labor power as a valuable commodity to sell, to inflate the perceived value of her labor power in order to compete in the labor market. The important word here is compete, as this skilling isn’t directed towards commanding more value from bosses—that can only be done collectively in class struggle—it’s directed towards competing against other workers for a shrinking pool of aggregate value. Workers constantly re-adjust their image (LinkedIn, resumes, etc.) and add to their packaging to make themselves seem less like a commodity, more like a human. It is then in the interest of capital that workers are fed (demand, even) a set of beliefs and narratives that convince them that they are entrepreneurs and not sellers of the only commodity they possess: their labor power.

This entrepreneurial framing is in the interest of capital because it in the first degree erodes solidarity between workers, and in the second degree erodes democracy. Through the frame, any conflict is assumed to be only answerable via competition (or compromise) rather than by democratically achieved consensus. Thus, this ideological dimension of neoliberal erodes objective class consciousness and democratic thinking. The entrepreneurial ethos elevates precisely one half of freedom at the expense of the other, of freedom in exchange over that in production, of the worker to sell their labor by obscuring the worker’s freedom from the means of the production. Capitalists are, in the liberal utopia, free to buy and sell as they wish with as low barriers to trade as possible. Neoliberalism collapses this freedom exclusive to capital with the worker’s first freedom—that of being able to sell their labor as a commodity—resulting in the ludicrous idea that society is but a collection of separate individuals each compensated by how hard they’ve worked and how smart they’ve invested. In the neoliberal era, freedom is distributed by the market and thus continues to be uneven.

What to make of this shifting nexus of the Internet, the state, and neoliberalism’s redefinition of human labor? The New Deal welfare state oriented itself towards a particular notion of labor that it for various historical and political reasons considered deserving of a wage. This labor, as the Marxist-feminists and autonomists established, is only a portion of the labor immanent to the reproduction of a capitalist society. New Deal welfare programs, in an unprecedented way, shielded vulnerable parts of the population from capitalism’s violence. As Daniel Zamora puts it, drawing on Karl Polyani, institutions like social security aim to withdraw the individual out of the laws of the market. These institutions and common sense about wage-labor like the eight-hour workday resulted from the strength of workers’ movements in the first half of the twentieth century. [29. Daniel Zamura: “Can We Criticize Foucault?” Jacobin, 12/10/2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/foucault-interview/, page access 12/18/2014.] Thus, the ontology of ‘work’ itself, i.e., what constitutes work in the eyes of the state in capitalist societies, is a contested space of class struggle.

A peculiar, dialectical frame has emerged across this space: the material reality of a passive, flexible workforce is being mediated through an active entrepreneurial frame, an aesthetization of the ownership of capital. The entrepreneurial ideology abound in American society since the turn of the century is the mask worn by the material push for pliancy in the labor market. We see this contradiction in the digital labor of social media use: advertising simultaneously determines the logic of the way social media works and reproduces the user as a consumer subject, but this subject is also a producer subject, i.e., a personal brand marketing themselves. Whether we need a new analyses and thus new categories for the political economy of contemporary labor or not, the material reality exists in which the twentieth century organization of employment codified by the New Deal state is eroding towards disappearance, and yet workers still need wages to obtain food and shelter.

Is it possible that a particular technology, the Internet, has allowed for a new category of labor, one which suspends the producer in a boundless digital void as one node separate from all others in the always-connected network? And that this organization of production contains the dialectical tension of being a worker and entrepreneur at once? If we are to stay true to the Marxist critique of bourgeois political economy, we must toss these questions aside as mere technological determinism. Because no matter how much one innovates in a centralized network controlled by someone else, the social value that her mere presence creates is being appropriated. All the while, she feels as though she’s an entrepreneur because of the lack of materiality in digital space, like capitalism’s quintessential philosopher, John Locke, when he dreamed about exploiting the vast unimproved acres of American soil.


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