Contributors to Socialist Register 2021, on digital capitalism, show that the system hasn’t changed its essential nature, and scepticism is needed, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (eds.), Socialist Register 2021. Beyond Digital Capitalism. New Ways of Living (The Merlin Press 2020), xiii, 330pp.

There is currently no shortage of claims that the development of digital capitalism will entail fundamental changes to our society. Whether this is the prospect of mass unemployment as huge swathes of industries and jobs are displaced by AI, or the view that technological developments will render capitalism itself obsolete, the apparent consensus is that digital technology has brought us to the brink of a major shift.

As Larry Lohman points out here, this is what has been called the ‘new automation discourse’, which, whether propounded by Left or Right, maintains that ‘“we are on the verge of achieving a largely automated society, in which nearly all work will be performed by self-moving machines and intelligent computers” and humans can be put out to pasture while capitalism (or fully automated communism) rolls on’ (p.51). It is a discourse that seems to get everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be examined.

It is necessary, as Bryan Palmer demonstrates in his essay here on work and capitalist temporality, to be sceptical about claims that we are about to see the development of genuine artificial intelligence. What we are seeing, rather, is the development of interpretation machines; something which capitalist businesses have done since the Industrial Revolution, albeit on a smaller scale. While this represents a huge effort to mechanise living labour into dead labour, it does not overcome any of the contradictions of capitalism.

Nor, Palmer argues, will it remove the necessity for living labour: ‘so-called artificial intelligence isn’t any closer to making living labour obsolete than nineteenth century industrial machines were’ (p.64). Human interpretative labour, he points out, is considerably cheaper for capital than the yet-to-exist genuine AI. Platforms supposed to rely solely on algorithms, like Facebook or Uber, are in fact dependent on the availability of a considerable human labour pool, without which they would quickly fall over.

Time, work-discipline and digital capitalism

While AI may not be about to take all our jobs, there are plenty of examples here of the malign effects of digital technologies across different sectors. In care homes, for example, as Pat and Huw Armstrong discuss, standardisation impelled by developments in technology and the accompanying capacity for surveillance of the often poorly paid workforce has not only had an impact on working conditions. It has also created a culture where what counts is only what can be counted, and the impact of decisions on individual care home residents has been lost. This is also seen in medicine, as Pritha and Pratyush Chandra describe how digital technology has enabled an increasing focus on discrete ailments or body parts rather than on patients as entire people.

Both of these examples demonstrate how digital technologies are part of a new age of Taylorism, reducing jobs to discrete, repetitive tasks for which output can be measured. This is, as Cole, Radice and Umney point out here, not so much replacing human labour with robots as it is finding ways to make workers behave more like robots (p.91). Digital technologies can clearly allow capitalist business owners to make serious threats to working conditions. As Marx identified, technological developments in capitalism do not necessarily reduce the time demands that work makes on workers but can prolong it, by decreasing the time needed for the reproduction of labour (cooking, cleaning, travelling etc).

The important question here is whether and how these developments can be resisted. There are arguments that the fragmentation of the workforce as a result of the gig economy makes organisation much more difficult. In some senses, of course, this is true, but it is important to note that such new work patterns also provide new opportunities for workers to connect with each other. Cole et al point out that the modern phenomenon of delivery drivers congregating outside fast food restaurants is an example of how the new working patterns can help overcome atomisation as well as causing it. Indeed, organisation among Deliveroo and Uber drivers has shown the possibilities here, as have the struggles by Amazon workers against Amazon’s digital technology-driven Taylorism.

New capitalism, old exploitation

An important aspect of the way that companies like this present themselves is that they are inherently new and that working for them would therefore not be subject to the same concerns as ‘old-fashioned’ work. Part of the point of this is clearly to conceal how they actually operate and make it more difficult to oppose their methods. As Lohman points out, despite the reliance of platforms like Facebook and Twitter on human labour, considerable effort is expanded in keeping that labour as invisible as possible, as part of ‘the capitalist mission of keeping uncompensated living work out of sight while burnishing the fetish of the self-running machine and the “full automation” ideology that claims that machines are on an asymptotic approach toward ‘replacing’ humans in capital accumulation’ (p.68). Resistance to the effects of digital technology on workers can therefore be cast as anti-modern, unprogressive or Luddite. The fact that this is a term of abuse rather than a term for a worker standing up to capital is telling.

Beneath the froth of excitement about shiny new technology, gig economy companies like Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo and the like are in many ways throwbacks to early capitalism. They may claim that their workers are empowered free agents, particularly when they are trying to deny that they actually are workers for tax purposes. In reality, however, working for these platforms resembles nothing so much as the putting-out system, in which workers would bear the costs of supplying their tools in return for pay by the task. As Palmer argues, the gig economy thus represents a fusion of old and new; a demonstration of capitalism’s ability to ‘subordinate time in ways that are new at the same time as it revives older patterns of coercion’ (p.36).

For some on the Left, digital capitalism contains in its technology the seeds of its own destruction, as the technological developments we are currently seeing will themselves usher in post-capitalism. The argument of writers like Paul Mason or Eric Olin Wright is that digital technologies of different types enable co-operative development for community benefit, as for example on Wikipedia, and can therefore enable us to create pockets of non-capitalist society within capitalism. These will eventually take over and leave the capitalist rump to wither away.

As Greg Albo points out here, there is a yawning gap between examples of platform co-operatives or open-source software and taking over or superseding the state. The techno-economic determinism that these visions of the future represent is, he argues convincingly, ‘always a flawed political mapping’ for socialists, ‘a displacement of the primacy of politics that must be at the centre of socialist strategy and calculation’ (p.325). If digital technology does not remove the necessity for socialist organising, however, it still does pose the question of how far we can make use of its platforms to do it.

Socialist organising on and off-line

It is of course the case, as Tanner Mirrlees comments here, that ‘socialists always have tried to harness each new communications technology into a new means for producing, distributing and consuming socialist media and cultural works’ (p.117). This was as true when the Communist League published the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which Marx edited, as it is today. While it is possible, as Mirrlees is here, to be sceptical of overheated claims that social media or smartphones on their own ‘made’ the uprisings of the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement, it is undeniable that platforms like Facebook and Twitter give socialists a reach that was previously hard to achieve. In making use of this, however, we cannot be blind to the contradictions between our aims and those of the platforms themselves.

As Derek Hrynyshyn points out here, algorithms which determine which content is promoted and which doomed to obscurity are designed to make money, not to promote socialism. This means that ‘the conditions under which we communicate with each other on these platforms … are shaped to meet the needs of advertisers’ (p.143). The practical effects of this can be a matter of debate, since Facebook and Twitter can cite commercial confidentiality to avoid having to reveal any details of how decisions on content and users are made. It is not possible to use either platform however without coming across examples of particular views, like support for Palestine, being censored by platform moderators and of certain users being singled out for unjust bans. The difficulty of appealing against these decisions, or even finding out the justification for them, is itself an indication of the dangers of relying on platforms like these.

For Hrynyshyn, the answer is non-profit alternative platforms, but while this sounds like a good idea in theory, it is difficult to see how any new, publicly owned Facebook alternative would overcome the network effect from which Facebook benefits to be able to get going. There is, after all, no point in being on a social media platform unless there are also other people on there.

The reality is that for socialist organisations, being on Facebook is less like having the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at our disposal than it is like having a column in The Guardian. It enables us to reach many people that we would otherwise struggle to get to see what we have to say, but if we think we can control the editorial policy, or guarantee that our column won’t be pulled at a moment’s notice, we’re kidding ourselves. When as socialists we use social platforms, we are using the instruments of capitalist exploitation to build organisations and movements to free us from that exploitation. This is not an argument for ceasing to do so, but for preparation for the possibility of more concerted attempts to remove us and our content than we have seen up until now.

In considering this prospect, it is important to remember that while the methods of communication change, the aim of socialist organising remains the same. The peasants organising the English Rising in 1381 faced the same essential job as we do when organising demonstrations 640 years later: have the political arguments for why people should take action, then get them to show up at the right place and at the right time. The peasants managed it on foot and by word of mouth; currently we do it on Facebook and WhatsApp; tomorrow we may be back to phoning people up. The means differ; the task of socialism continues.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.