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Capitalism has used new technologies to fuel an intensified wave of commodification, but faces contradictions too, argues Mike Quille, reviewing Huws, Labour in the Global Digital Economy

Labour in the global digital economy

Ursula Huws, Labour in the Global Digital Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2014), 208pp.

You are almost certainly reading this review on a computer screen, on a mobile device, tablet, laptop or PC. It's probably one of many, many things you’ll read onscreen today. Some of your uses of new technology will be for leisure, recreation and education, and some will be work-related. The information, communication and technology industry (ICT) is all around us, almost like air or water.

The impact of the ICT industry on our daily lives has been sudden, massive and unprecedented. In a similar way to coal, oil, and electricity, the ICT industry is not only huge itself, but impacts on all other industries and services. And this impact on the world of work and life generally, which is less than fifty years old, arguably has been far more sudden and profound and far reaching than previous technological revolutions. It raises urgent questions of how we apply Marxist concepts to understanding what is happening, so that we can envision liberating alternatives and work towards them. What is work like in digital economies? How has capitalism adapted to and shaped the new technologies? How do we think about work, consumption and class in the digital age?

In her new book, Ursula Huws seeks to equip us to think through some of the implications of the digitization of labour, so as to help us shape answers to these questions. It builds on a previous book of hers called The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World (Monthly Review Press, 2003), which like this book is a collection of essays prefaced by an introduction setting out the central thesis.

This thesis is that capitalism’s ability to generate new commodities has historically enabled it to survive crises of market saturation and profitability. Fresh areas of life are periodically brought into its scope, generating new industries, new goods and new services, for which new markets can be created. So, for example, the spread of electricity in the early twentieth century stimulated new commodity development based on domestic labour, such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and fridges, and on entertainment, such as radios and TV, telephones, film cameras and projectors.

These new industries help shore up the rate of return for capital’s unending search for profit, and they increase workers’ dependence on the new products, and hence their dependence on selling their labour in the capitalist labour market in order to earn an income to pay for them.

In the latest book, Huws develops and extends this thesis. She argues that we are entering a new period of the application of this process of commodification to everyday life. She identifies four specific ‘fields of accumulation’ which have emerged recently, including biology, art and culture, public services, and sociality.

Biological developments include the way plants and animals are exploited to produce new drugs, and new forms of genetically modified food. She does not develop this example any further, however, due to the lack of research in this area.

In the commodification of art and culture, Huws points to the growth of giant transnational corporations, which combine many different forms of cultural production, including newspapers, films, games, television, music and book publishing. These companies redefine creative workers as ‘content producers’ and, through loosening their grip on intellectual property rights, lessen their bargaining power, thereby driving down the earnings of all but a few highly paid ‘stars’.

The commodification of public services refers to the dismantling and privatisation of large areas of the economy which for much of the twentieth century, in many areas of the world, were in public ownership. In those countries referred to as socialist, public services were the normative model throughout the economy. In developed capitalist economies, public services became the norm in health, education, criminal justice and social care. This was partly functional to a capitalist economy in terms of re-producing a healthy, educated workforce, but also represented a partial victory for workers’ demands for a ‘social wage’, for a return of some of the surplus value extracted from their labour.

Over the last few years, all this has changed. In the former socialist bloc, public services have simply been grabbed by kleptocratic oligarchies, with dire impacts on workers’ health, life expectancy and incomes. In the West, the process has been slower but equally pernicious, as utilities, railways, prisons, probation services, housing, care provision, education and health services are gradually, quietly transferred to the ownership of giant transnational corporations. Workers suffer redundancies, lower incomes, and harsher terms of employment, and consumers find services more and more expensive, unsatisfactory and difficult to access. (For a more detailed analysis of this particular phenomenon, the Orwell prize-winning book by James Meek called Private Island is highly recommended).

Finally, in one of the most provocative and original sections of the book, Huws points to the commodification of sociality. She argues that capitalism is now invading personal relationships, and turning the human need to keep in touch, chat, flirt and communicate with friends and family, into a new source of corporate profit-making. She gives examples from personal observation of groups of children, adults in a restaurant, bus passengers and conference participants, all seemingly wrapped up in private e-worlds of phones, tablets and laptops rather than collective conversation.

As she points out, all these activities are profit-producing. The companies manufacturing the hardware (Apple, Amazon, Samsung etc.), those providing the infrastructure (BT, O2, Vodafone etc.), and those providing the service (Google, Facebook etc.), all generate streams of income from these activities. In effect, anyone with a mobile phone and internet connection, which is an increasingly large proportion of the global population, as workers and/or as consumers, are paying a tithe to huge transnational corporations. Vast profits are made not only directly in the ICT industry, but in other industries, as a consequence, for example, of the more intense and targeted advertising which ICTs enable.

All four of these new areas of commodification have thus resulted in the growth of vast and powerful global corporations. And Huws contends that the balance of power between capital and labour has been reshaped by these developments, as well as the actual, lived experience of working and consuming in our contemporary, digital age.

The remaining chapters of the book are all essays, written between 2006 and 2013, which expand on these themes in more detail. There are particularly interesting and useful detailed analyses of creative work, and of the commodification of public services. And finally there is a chapter called ‘The Underpinnings of Class in the Digital Age’ which begins to map out the various issues which we need to take account of in order to identify points of production and consumption where we can learn how the system is working, begin to imagine alternatives, and act collectively to bring about change.

There are some weaknesses in the book. On a theoretical level, apart from the acknowledged incompleteness in the analysis of the commodification of new areas, there is insufficient attention paid to the contradictory nature of some of those developments. For example, the visible absorption of many people, on buses, trains, pubs and the street, not to mention the family living room, can be interpreted as regrettable atomisation and asociality. Nonetheless, there are surely positives in terms of more satisfying and efficient time management, less boredom and loneliness, more entertainment, and arguably a greater sense of connection with other people which may result (and has done on several occasions in the last few years) in collective, radical, anti-capitalist action.

Also, the individual chapters do not rigorously develop all of the themes outlined in the introduction, or hang together very coherently. This is perhaps not surprising given they were all written in different contexts, for different purposes.

Overall, though, it is a very well written, forcefully argued and convincing critique of our contemporary situation, which illuminates some of the entrenched mechanisms of exploitation and control which continue to characterise modern capitalism.

Like her first book, it is particularly sensitive to issues which affect women disproportionately. The privatisation of public services, for example, impacts hugely on women’s lives, as workers and as consumers. The overall theoretical framework is more than strong enough to give us many valuable insights into our contemporary situation, to point us to areas for further reading and research, and to guide us in posing the kind of questions we need to ask and the answers we need to develop, in order to continue the struggle for human liberation from the fetters of capital.

Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille had a long career in the Probation Service and is now a poet, freelance journalist and political activist living on Tyneside.

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