Saturday, August 04, 2007

mmmm... Marx!

Rough Theory has a tasty recent post on Marx, technology, and the labor theory of value. The post begins:

I’ve read several works recently that argue that Marx’s labour theory of value, while appropriate for the period in which it was written, now needs to be updated to account for the role of technology in the production of wealth. I have no problem with the general notion that, in significant respects, Marx’s argument remains bound to the 19th century, but I can’t help but find this particular notion of what is outdated in Marx’s argument somewhat odd.
I share this sense of oddity and I'm often disturbed when I see discussions of the internet and of digital commodity production used as examples of a new mode of production that exceeds the bounds of the labor theory of value described by Marx. I touched on this recently in the exchange on The Labor Theory of Blogging arguing that blogging could be viewed as another form of unwaged labor, like housework or schoolwork, and so still functions as labor for capital.

Marx devotes the longest chapter in Capital, Volume I to the topic of "Machinery" precisely in order to explain capitalism's enthusiasm for large-scale mechanization in terms other than the highly suspect utopian notions of labor-saving devices being used to free workers from the need to toil. 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.

That work resulting in the production of digital commodities strikes us as so different from work that produces other sorts of commodities is perhaps simply the latest version of the ability of the commodity form to dazzle us that Marx describes as the "fetishism of commodities."
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.
Digital commodities seem even more clever than wooden tables, and evolve out of their computerized brains ideas yet more grotesque. They seem to take on a life of their own -- they move, grow, replicate, spawn, and evolve -- and so hide and obscure the human labor they embody.

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