Review: Cyber-Proletariat by Nick Dyer-Witheford
After reading about this book on a comrade’s blog, I quickly procured a copy and read through it within two days. One of the reasons I set other readings aside to focus on this book is that it tantalized me with a “harder” analysis of the impact of high technology on global capitalism. Though my primary research area these days is Japanese history, it’s obvious to me that a deeper knowledge of the general principles guiding high-tech development and how it transforms the global systems is essential to understanding more specific areas of knowledge. I was not at all familiar with Dyer-Witheford’s work, so when I began I had no preconceptions beyond the snippets of text that Bombard the Headquarters published. What I found was a book that, correctly I believe, embeds its discussions about information technology in the actual labour process, and in particular areas of production like mineral extraction and silicon processing that I find both fascinating and more immediately helpful in a political sense.
The basic argument of the book is encapsulated in the image of the vortex. It argues that the capitalist world system can be represented as a storm that draws in and expels labour power and means of production, constantly revolutionizing and destroying itself while maintaining a chaotic cohesion. He introduces the concept this way:
“The capitalist vortex is self-expanding value: money making money. The entities and activities hurtling around in the vortex, including the activities of human beings, take the form of commodities, ex-changed into money, then re-coalescing as new objects and actions to be in turn volatilized into yet more money.”
Early chapters use the image of a vortex to explain the basic elements of the Marxist theory of capitalist production, circulation, and realization as elaborated in Capital. From there, Dyer-Witheford elaborates on this metaphor and applies it to several more concrete processes he finds in the current world. A theme in these more specific investigations is the coexistence and connection between high-tech––automation, robotics, algorithms, smartphones, networks, etc.––and the brute fact of “antediluvian” mining and manufacturing conditions in Southern and Northern countries alike. Drawing all of this together is an emphasis on the ways in which capital and the proletariat struggle over the implementation of technology (means of production).
Struggles can take myriad forms, though at the moment it appears that capital is ascendant. Some of the more poignant case studies the author uses are those where intensifying labour struggles in places like China and Brazil trigger the mass deployment of automation technologies to disrupt workers’ aspirations for better conditions and wages. Chapter 3, “Cybernetic,” ties these narratives to an older story of Norbert Wiener, a pioneer of cybernetics, delivering an urgent warning to American auto union leader Walter Reuther, saying that it was imperative for labour organizations to buy up the rights to new information technologies before corporations could use them to reduce their workforces and discipline the workers who remained. The American labour movement’s failure to heed the threat of automation, and the endless onslaught of technological change that both disrupts and empowers capital’s expansion processes, helped assure its defeat in the neoliberal period. Such is Dyer-Witheford’s analysis.
What’s notable is that the author’s study carries this story from the institutions behind the massive de-industrialization of cities like Detroit to the social and environmental consequences of those processes. Urban decay and the decimation of neighbourhoods in Michigan is another dark consequence of the same high-technology initiatives that fuelled the growth of plutocracy in Silicon Valley. Social entropy, spatially intertwined with the production of new productive spaces for capital, is an inevitable product of an exploitative and polarized mode of production like capitalism.
Later parts of the book cover the connections between the working classes in China and the United States––subsidizing the living standards of the latter at the expense of the former––and the global ideology around cellular phone infrastructure in the Global South, which is supposed by some to empower people where it actually becomes another way for employers to exploit proletarians in their power. Without a phone, one can’t get a job, in other words, which makes their rapid adoption in places like Sub-Saharan Africa more troubling than hopeful.
The entire book handles the nuances and contradictions inherent in these dynamic processes rather well. I also appreciate its more ideological critiques of “left” modes of political strategy like accelerationism, which advocates a full-on, nihilistic embrace of capital’s vortex-like qualities. However, I do differ with Dyer-Witheford’s rough allegiance to operaismo and autonomist Marxism, which preclude strong, unified party organizations as strategic necessities. I could also take issue with the relative absence of a theory of state power and the importance of the capitalist state in enabling and reproducing both the material and ideological components of high-tech capitalism. As a scholar of Japan, which is among the most obviously interventionist and bureaucratic of capitalist states, this is a key omission and one that also precludes getting more valuable insights for organizing not just in workplaces or neighbourhoods but explicitly against the state.
I do take heed, however, to some of Dyer-Witheford’s more dramatic warnings about the fact that capitalism may have found a way to automate itself out of the need for a workforce. The production of vast “surplus populations” outside of regular work and marginalized from urban areas (though the consequences of such populations on urban development is not explored in depth in this book) has grave implications for proletarian health and well-being throughout the world, and makes it all the more urgent for communists and other leftists to think through these ongoing processes. Cyber-Proletariat does hold out hope that the vortex is prey to objective weaknesses and snag points, but I would be willing to bet that it will continue to deform and expand itself throughout the world until destroyed through attrition. One of the book’s most perceptive passages comes at the end, though it deals in fairly broad generalities:
“To counter [capitalism’s destructive dynamics], new, cross-segmentary struggle organizations are urgently needed: without invoking too much left-historical baggage, let us call these ‘syndicates’. Some principles that should inform such organizations are: a) alliances of the working, workless, and precariously employed; b) taking responsibility for the social reproduction of the destitute and crisis-struck, without becoming a voluntarist substitute for a destroyed social safety net, but instead maintaining a fighting front; c) adopting a stance of ‘raising from the bottom up’, prioritizing the needs of the most precarious and pauperized workers in a racialized and feminized workforce.”
Without a doubt, the vigorous organization and concentration of the masses in democratic and socialist struggles is critical. And, despite what I would describe as an untenable commitment to “horizontal” strategies, Dyer-Witheford’s book is a useful study that I found quite enlightening, especially in its discussion of specific struggles going on in parts of the world that are often hidden by information tech’s dazzling glint. The book reminds us that, despite the virtual face of information technology, real bodies and production cycles are still going on behind the screen.
- Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 22.
- Ibid, 201-202.