Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Digital Fetishism

Rough Theory has continued the thread on Marx and digital commodities with a response to my previous post and writes:

I agree with the main point here - I see nothing in digital commodities that is different in terms of the role they play within capitalist reproduction to other sorts of commodities (this doesn’t of course mean that new technologies can’t introduce novel potentials for the development of new forms of subjectivity, embodied relationships, etc., but it does mean that there is nothing intrinsically non-capitalist about the new technologies). I tend, though, to describe Marx’s strategic intention slightly differently (and this may just be a matter of phrasing and emphasis). The emphasis in the passage above seems to be on the fetish as something that hides or obscures - and therefore as something Marx’s critique is trying to strip away, in order to reveal the underlying reality beneath - in this case, the reality that, in spite of the growth of technological potentials, human labour remains central.

I tend - and this difference is somewhat slight, but has some important implications - instead to present Marx’s argument about the fetish as part of an attempt to pose the question of why human labour should remain important, given the hypertrophic development of new technologies and the increases in productivity that are structural tendencies within capitalist development. Rather than simply trying to reveal the centrality of labour, Marx is, I think, trying to foreground precisely how irrational it is that human labour should remain central - trying to nudge us in the direction of realising that there is no material reason for this centrality - that material production could quite comfortably shift to something ever-more technologically mediated, and ever-less dependent on the expenditure of human labour. So: yes, on one level he is drawing attention to the human labour that continues to be required - but with the strategic intent of suggesting that this requirement is essentially bizarre - that it is “social”, that it is arbitrary - and, therefore, that it can be transformed without a regression back to premodern levels of material wealth.

I'm also never very satisfied with pitching the fetishism riff as one of concealment, although that strand is certainly present in Marx. Here's yet another way to shift that emphasis that may be more compatible with the point being pursued above by Rough Theory.

Under capitalism, value takes the form of a single, homogenous, social substance: labor. It is quite literally the only thing that capital can value. Capital lives on a monotonous diet of dead labor unlevened by any other supplemental concerns or desires. And for capital more is always better, so the more dead labor capital can accumulate in the form of either commodities or money the better for capital. However, it is only within capitalism that value takes on such a limited form.

We can imagine a splendid array of things to value: beauty, social justice, clean air, happy children, dance music, baseball, rowdy sex, tasty food, great literature, good booze. For capital, these are only every use-values that become interesting only in so far as they may also be bearers of value. Baseball and booze have been successfully shaped into commodities that have value for capital -- clean air and social justice ... not so much. For Marx, the end of capital would also mean the end of labor as the sole value that trumps all other values.

Marx is certainly a fan of technology as something which sets the stage for capital's end through creating the ability to meet our material needs with ever less necessary labor. This could certainly include digital technologies which currently produce such an embarrassing abundance of music and videos that capital has to try to recreate scarcity through legal and electronic counter-measures. However, this is where our current difficulty lies. Simply because we find many things to value online other than the efficiency of labor, this doesn't mean that capital shares our enthusiasms.


  1. HI,

    Isn't there a point that continues on from here: as technology makes it easier to meet our individual needs with less labor, technology drives capital to require ever increasing amounts of labor to produce itself? And not just in a kind of drive to accumulate more labor, but as a structural necessity?

    As always, I am really fuzzy on the details, but I was thinking about my own frustrations with technology: as it becomes ever easier to produce my labor, the things I make become ever more worthless in terms of labor.

    I have a lot of ideas backwards, so I beg your patience, but one thing I have been wondering about is this passage you wrote:

    "For Marx, machinery as used by capital is one of its most ingenious and devious strategies for extracting ever greater quantities of surplus-labor from workers. Digital machines are no different. Capital loves computers because they make workers more productive, cheapening commodities in general, and cheapening the commodity of labor-power in particular. Thus, allowing workers to donate an ever greater share of their labor time to capital for free."

    My understanding that things like baseball and brands (of booze) begin to accrue exchange value because of the labor of spectators: the most clever and grotesque idea to yet crawl out of that wooden, computerized brain is the recuperation of the free time of laborers so that even the mediated events which they use to maintain their sanity and fragmented community become recuperated labor.

    I know this is true of music: what makes it possible to sell a song is not the inherent goodness of the song itself, which is as you point out a value other than labor. Rather, the ability to sell a song has very much to do with the labor of getting a song in front of an audience so often that the audience is trained to buy it, and this labor is very much provided by the audience itself on its supposedly free time.

    So to me, discussing digital technologies as potentially liberating often seems quite strange: the different quality of digital products is that since they are so much more fluidly, cleverly distributed and operate even on the free time of those laboring to produce them, digital commodities are the latest and most capitalistic of technologies.

    I can see the possibilities for these technologies; much in the same way that I don't care much about labor value except in the meaningless facts about how much I personally can produce, capitalism produces technologies I find quite valuable outside of labor savings.

    I exercise these possibilities, though it leaves me conflicted: I have appropriated a lot of software -both production machinery like video editors and training materials as well as texts for study (such as the Leon Redbone I'm studying for an album I am producing or the horror films I take for the dissertation I am writing). But this is always uneasy for me, because I always end up wondering if being just a little better at photoshop or knowing just a little more about writing vocal harmony will make it not only more fun for me to work, but fun because of some kind of viral valuation of labor.

    Anyhow, if you are still interested, I will send you a link to the song with the banjo on it when the song is completed. Also, I have just compiled a DVD of my video texts, I and I am looking for commentary. If you would like, I could mail you one, as I really enjoy your blog; if you could provide some critique, I would send it for free.... just email me at


  2. There's so much good stuff in your comment, I'll save my response for another post. But please send me the link to the banjo tune and a copy of the dvd would be wonderful too. I'll email you about that.

  3. Hello - Just a profuse thank you for continuing this conversation, and an apology that, when I was trying to write a response over at my site, I inadvertently made the post live while I was still heavily editing the thing. (I have this annoying cold, and am barely aware of the world at this point - I'll probably wake up tomorrow to realise that this was the least of the problems with the post... ;-P) In any event, I just wanted to apologise if you or anyone else was subject to a post-in-motion - I generally only figure out what I'm trying to say by... trying to say it - so watching my early drafts when I'm under the impression the post is "private" wouldn't be a pretty thing... ;-)

    Take care...