Below the Surface: Workers and "the New Capitalism"

In 2010, eighteen workers in the Foxconn factory in China, who worked producing products that would eventually be sold to Apple, attempted suicide. Fourteen of them were successful. Global outrage ensued, not just on the part of socialists but also in the mainstream media [1]. I bring this up because, even in this mainstream media, this issue was discussed as part of the relationship between labor and capital. This is evidence that an antagonistic relationship still exists between these two things Here, I want to argue this point further. The working class still exists, and has not been replaced, as some would argue, by a vague “multitude.” Recent events such as the aforementioned suicides underscore the need for a Marxist approach to class, even in an era of “new” neoliberal capitalism.

These days, technological determinism and techno-Utopianism are present almost everywhere, both on the mainstream and on the Left. Even venture capitalists, such as Marc Andreessen, are jumping on the bandwagon of what Aaron Bastani called “fully automated luxury communism” [2]. Andreessen writes, “posit a world in which all material needs are provided free by robots and material synthesizers. Imagine six or ten billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences. What a world that would be.”

Of course, this refrain is much more common on the Left. Bastani, as I said, has popularized the notion of “fully automated luxury communism” which should be self-explanatory. Paul Mason argued in the Guardian that socialists should focus on the sharing economy of Airbnb and Uber in their efforts to bring about communism [3].

Michael Hart and Antonio Negri, who consider themselves Marxists, proclaim a new relationship between capital and labor in the digital age. They posit a new stage of capitalism, producing the theory of “immaterial labor,” arguing that the service economy is not connected to production. Further, they argue that cyberspace has created a “new human condition.” This is a very fundamental argument they’re making about the relationship between capital and labor in the digital age. The idea is that we are not all working class people who work for capitalists for a wage, but rather a precarious “multitude” performing new labor under new conditions [4].

The adoption of this way of thinking by members of the capitalist class (such as Andreessen) suggests that it is not revolutionary, despite what Paul Mason, Hart and Negri, or Bastani would have us believe.

In addition to not having a revolutionary character, this concept of labor is not based on material reality. Hart and Negri argue that the traditional notion of factory production has disappeared from the United States. I have already written about why this is false, but there is a further flaw in the argument that I want to address here.

Hart and Negri claim that factory production-and with it the proletariat-has left the United States. But they never talk about where it went. It would be nonsense to argue that production has disappeared altogether. Capitalism-and indeed any other system-could not survive if this were the case. No, it must be that the factories have gone to other places. If we look around, they are still there. The Foxconn suicides made that very clear.  Hart and Negri, however, are blind to this. This ignorance of the way that capital has globalized (shifted production to other places) is astounding. There are very clearly antagonistic, “classical” relationships between labor and capital in these places, and this is lost on the techno-utopians.

I want to argue that technology has not reshaped everything about life under capitalism. Labor in the digital age resembles what socialists since Marx have fought against. Very fundamental things about the exploitative relationship between labor and capital remain. I want to apply the Marxist analysis of this relationship to labor in the digital age, with emphasis on non-US locales.

It is worth noting that the working class is growing globally, not declining. Globally, there were 2.2 billion people at work and producing value back in 1991.  Now there are 3.2 billion.  The global workforce has risen by 1bn in the last 20 years.  But there has been no de-industrialisation globally.  De-industrialisation is a phenomenon of the mature capitalist economies.  It is not one of the ‘emerging’ less developed capitalist economies.

Using the figures provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) we can see what is happening globally, with the caveat that there is a serious underestimate of industrial workers in these figures and such transport, communication and many hi-tech workers are put in the services sector.

Globally, the industrial workforce has risen by 46% since 1991 from 490 million to 715 million in 2012 and will reach well over 800 million before the end of the decade.  Indeed, the industrial workforce has grown by 1.8% a year since 1991 and since 2004 by 2.7% a year (up to 2012), which is now a faster rate of growth than the services sector (2.6% a year). Globally, the share of industrial workers in the total workforce has risen slightly from 22% to 23%.

The big fall has not been in industrial workers globally, but in agricultural workers.  The process of capitalism sucking up peasants and agricultural laborers from the rural areas and turning them into industrial workers in the cities (what Marx called primitive accumulation) is not over.  The share of agricultural labour force in the total global workforce has fallen from 44% to 32%. Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation (what we might refer to as de-ruralization) is the great global phenomenon of the last 150 years.

There is no denying that the digital economy is huge, a very fast-growing sector of capitalism today. The global value of ICTs (information and communications technology industries) has grown from $800,000 in 1990 to $2.8 trillion today [5]. Since the late 1990s, over one third of all private investment has been into ICTs [6]. Along with the investment, the digital technologies that are produced are increasingly used as infrastructure, as “sub-commodities” in all sorts of places. Cars, machine tools, cell phones, and so on are involved with this digital labor process in some way. In a sense, the traditional means of production found in factories is being used to produce new means of production, which are then sold to the wider population. Certainly this is not something Marx factored into his analysis of capitalism in the 1800s.

This enables larger restructuring of the labor process. The introduction of automation and the ability of bosses to use ICTs in communication across the world instantaneously allows new things to happen for both capital and labor. The question for us then is what this restructuring looks like and whether it invalidates the Marxist analysis of the capital-labor relationship. Obviously, my answer to this question is a resounding no. My aim is to bring the labor-capital relationship back into the discussion amid a techno-utopian monopolization of discourse.

Many techno-utopians will tell you that workers are no longer workers because they carry the means of production in their hands. If you have a cell phone, you can write code and produce things without selling your labor to a boss. This is true, but I would argue that this does not fundamentally change the relationship between labor and capital. Many tech workers are still forced to sell their labor to survive. The fact that almost anyone with Internet access can become become a small entrepreneur means that the market is oversaturated. Many tech workers are crowded out by this, and thus forced to work for a corporation like Apple. This is in line with what Marx called proletarianization. This process can be seen occurring today, even across sectors of the economy that did not exist when Marx formulated his analysis.

Many tech workers are an asset that capital tries to use for its own end. This necessitates a certain amount of ideological control. One example of this can be found in the orientation card that Apple employees receive on their first day. It reads, “there’s work, and there’s your life’s work. The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work you’d never compromise on, that you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple.” The fact that the corporation dedicates this effort to indoctrinating the tech workers into believing that selling their labor is a noble action is evidence that capital is still reliant on labor. Apple puts so much effort into hooking their software engineers because the company could not survive without them. In this sense, tech workers have the same relationship to capital as productive workers, or the traditional proletariat.

There is much more to go into about US digital labor, which I attempted to do in my previous post, linked above. The thing to keep in mind is the increasing globalization of production under capitalism. Once we leave the United States, we have to adjust our conversation about the living standards of all workers, and thus their relationship to capital. This includes software engineers. In India, the pay ratio of a software engineer compared to the United States is somewhere around 1:10. Depending on where you are and who you are talking to, it could be 1:100 [7]. Thus, Global South workers, even those in non-producing fields, feel the antagonisms of capital much more deeply than first world workers of any kind.

There is a lot of propaganda about India as a shining IT center. Call center workers there are vilified in the United States, but many Indians consider this job a worthy aspiration. Despite this, the working conditions are often deplorable. Many workers work for ten to twelve hours through the night. Further, call centers train their workers in a very specific set of skills which are only useful in call centers. This means that the longer a worker spends there, the harder it is to get out. The style of work is very repetitive, and the bosses exercise extensive control over not only what workers say while on the job, but oftentimes how they simply move their arms. Further, there is a very small chance of promotion, and shift patterns make it much more difficult to unionize since workers are not often in contact with one another [8]. These characteristics were very common in the old Fordist factories that Marx focused his attention on. Hart and Negri posit the idea of “immaterial labor” without realizing that it bares a striking resemblance to the kind of labor Marxists seek to combat.

In this case also, there are many perks given to call center workers, though they usually amount to little more than meager scraps. There is a real attempt to make workers feel as though they are fulfilled, as though their job matters. There is a continuity here between call center workers in India and tech workers in America, in the sense that capital relies on the labor of both.

It is worth keeping in mind that the economic restructuring which gave birth to this dynamic of working for twelve hours through the night is responsible for many problems that are treated in Western media as being simply social in character. The victim of the infamous 2012 gang rape in New Delhi actually worked in a call center [9]. She had a life that involved staying out through the night, working, that contributed to her being put in this position. The Marxist idea that economics help determine all other aspects of life seems to hold true in this case as well as others. We live in a climate in which many activists have rightly chosen to focus on sexual assault and the oppression of women. As Marxists, we should embrace these struggles and connect them to the labor process.

Many would argue that doing so is useless because automation will simply replace the labor process entirely. Automation is often treated as a thing that just happens. Workers go on strike and so the bosses bring in machines, whether to dissuade them from striking or replacing them after the fact. There are certainly elements of truth to this, in that bosses do often use the threat of automation to declaw workers’ militancy. But this is not the whole picture. Machines have to be built. They come from somewhere. There are workers who do the job of creating those machines. These are often the tech workers mentioned above, but they are also workers in Foxconn and other factories. Rather than thinking of automation as a tool that the bosses can effortlessly insert into a politically contentious situation,  we have to see this as an extension of capital exploiting labor in order to achieve its political and economic ends. Automation is produced and it is something that labor is integral to. Automation is not the savior of humanity. It does not free us from the labor process, it merely obscures it. This has some serious implications, especially when we examine the changing class formation of places like India and China. There have been multiple strikes by software engineers in India over the questions of working conditions, payment, and so on. Bosses have often relented, signaling that software engineers do in fact have power over capital [10]. These workers who build machines to automate production cannot yet be automated themselves. If this were possible, the bosses would have already done it. We should not jump the gun and claim that the labor process is irrelevant.

I want to spend the rest of this essay discussing the other side of labor in the digital age. That is, the production of digital labor instruments. Why did eighteen workers attempt to kill themselves in 2010, and why has this continued? I will argue that this has everything to do with the exploitative relationship between labor and capital. Despite what Hart, Negri, and others believe, someone who works at a factory producing iPhones is performing labor in the digital age. This fact alone means that analysis of the labor process continues to be relevant. It is the Marxist analysis which is most applicable.

Following the Foxconn factory suicides, NPR did a series in which they interviewed workers about their reaction to them. One 30-year-old migrant described what his plans were for continuing work. He says, “Karl Marx was right. We should struggle like he said in 19th century Europe. Chinese factories now are just like factories in 19th century Europe. And just like Karl Marx said, only through struggle with the capitalists can we gain our rights” [11]. There is certainly a subjective awareness of the exploitative labor-capital relationship and the relevance of Marxism among the working class in China and elsewhere.

Let’s examine this more deeply. How does this perception of labor-capital antagonism stack up to reality? In the course of the global supply chain of digital labor, there are many different stages we can examine. There is the final stage of software engineering and programing I talked about above, but there is also the middle stage of assembly and manufacturing. This is the stage I would like to focus on now. We are all aware of the basic health issues associated with long hours and repetitive motion, but many are not aware of precisely how bad it is.  According to an article in China Labor Watch, “Right now, in Shanghai, China, a factory owned by the Taiwanese Pegatron Group is pushing out millions of units of the iPhone 6s for Apple. There, its young production workers toil six days a week in 12-hour shifts. Each day they are paid for 10 and half hours of work, not counting 15 minutes of unpaid meetings. The mandatory overtime shift runs from 5:30 pm until 8:00 pm. Most workers will not eat dinner before doing overtime because the 30-break given for a meal is not enough time. Before overtime pay, workers making the iPhone earn only the local minimum wage of $318 per month, or about $1.85 per hour. This is not a living wage. Even if the factory did not mandate overtime as it does, workers would still depend on their 60-hour workweeks to get by” [12]. This is an incredibly naked form of exploitation, a central part of the Marxist critique of capitalism.

These hellish working conditions have routinely given rise to intense class struggle. Strikes and protests increased almost twenty percent (20%) in 2016 [13]. This is a process that Marx and Engels wrote about extensively, in texts like The Condition of the Working Class In England [14]. The parallels here are striking, attesting to the continuing relevance of the Marxist analysis. According to the ILO report, in 16 developed economies, labour took a 75% share of national income in the mid-1970s, but this dropped to 65% in the years just before the economic crisis. It rose in 2008 and 2009 – but only because national income itself shrank in those years – before resuming its downward course. Even in China, where wages have tripled over the past decade, workers’ share of the national income has gone down. Indeed, this is exactly what Marx meant by the ‘immiseration of the working class.’

What is more important to understand is the way precarity functions here. In the US, precarity is often used to disarm workers, through methods like just-in-time production and short-term contracts. Similar, though much more severe, relations are at work here. In China, Foxconn built a campus of eight factory buildings in just seventy-six days in order to meet expected demand from Apple [15]. At various points, factories have closed, putting hundreds of thousands of workers out of a job in the span of a week. As an example, during the dot-com crisis, 12,000 Malaysian contract manufacturing workers were out of work within a month [16]. Entire cities are built as part of creating this section of the supply chain. In 2012, a FoxConn worker was quoted as saying, “the demand from Apple determines our lives” [17]. This notion of work overtaking life is a central part of the Marxist theory of alienation, meaning that this aspect of the analysis is also relevant.

In addition to manufacturing, there are the outer stages of the supply chain. One is mining, which tends to occur in conflict-ridden areas and is carried out by companies that the general public, especially in the West, has little or no knowledge of. Minerals like Coltan, gold, and platinum are mined for use in cell phones in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here, child labor is used, often taking the form of slavery [18]. These are two of the most base forms of exploitation that Marx talked about. Despite the horrifying conditions these workers face, they still have economic power. In 2000, Sony’s Playstation 2 gaming console came out late. A press investigation found that this was due to a strike in the DRC by Coltan miners that Sony was using. This delay caused the company to lose millions of dollars in profits [19]. In South Africa in 2012, 34 strikers in the Marikana mine were shot dead by police [20]. That mine produced platinum. One third of the world’s platinum is used for hard disk drives [21]. The fact that the police were called to break the strike is evidence enough to prove that the capitalists were afraid of the worker’s exercising their power. These workers were connected to the production of digital commodities. As such, it is false to claim that the digital age has made the labor process, and with it the working class, irrelevant.

On the other end of the supply chain, we get to disposal. When iPhones go out of style, they are thrown away. They often end up being converted into what is called e-waste, which is the fastest-growing stream of pollution in the world [22]. On average, the United States produces thirty kilograms of e-waste annually, per head. That is a staggering statistic. The amount of e-waste varies from place to place, but it remains a problem. As one journalist describes it in Ghana, “everything is stained with hues of mucky brown and sooty black. Huge plumes of foul-smelling smoke rise from large fires where the dismantled items are burned to remove traces of plastic, leaving the metal behind” [23]. This is the final stage of the production process. Disposal is a vital part of reproducing the working class, as it is very difficult to live in filth and still engage in labor. Those who rely on scavenging for e-waste can attest to that.

It is clear that none of this labor is immaterial in any sense. Hart and Negri’s idea of “immaterial labor” crumbles when confronted with this. We even see an increase in the huge “factory cities” that they claim have disappeared. Despite the efforts of many so-called “radicals” to convince us otherwise, the labor process remains an area worthy of focus. Revolutionaries must stress the continuity between proletarians of all nations and treat the working class as the true agent of change in society.

 

  1. Guo, Lei, et al. “A case study of the Foxconn suicides: An international perspective to framing the sweatshop issue.” International Communication Gazette 74.5 (2012): 484-503.
  2. Merchant, Brian, . “Fully automated luxury communism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Mar. 2015,
  3. Mason, Paul. “Airbnb and Uber’s sharing economy is one route to dotcommunism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 June 2015
  4. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire. New York, The Penguin Press, 2004.
  5. Shapiro, Robert J., and Aparna Mathur. “The Contributions of Information and Communication Technologies To American Growth, Productivity, Jobs and Prosperity.” Sonecon, September (2011).
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Software Engineer Salary,” Payscale.com
  8. Walker, Morgan Hartley and Chris. “The Culture Shock of India’s Call Centers.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 20 Dec. 2012,
  9. “Delhi call centre worker gang rape: Five convicted.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Oct. 2014,
  10. “Inshoring is our New Outsourcing” In These Times, 7 June 2016
  11. Gifford, Rob. “Momentum Builds Behind Chinese Workers’ Protests.” NPR. NPR, 24 Sept. 2010.
  12. Watch, China Labor. “Something’s not right here: Poor working conditions persist at Apple Supplier Pegatron.” (2015).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Engels, Freidrich. “The condition of the working class in England.” The Sociology and Politics of Health (1969): 8.
  15. Duhigg, Charles, and David Barboza. “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2012.
  16. Eric Loomis, In the Global Apparel Industry, Abusive and Deadly Working Conditions Are Still the Norm – Working In These Times.
  17. Chan, Jenny, Ngai Pun, and Mark Selden. “The politics of global production: Apple, Foxconn and China’s new working class.” New Technology, Work and Employment 28.2 (2013): 100-115.
  18. Stan Cox / AlterNet. “War, Murder, Rape… All for Your Cell Phone.” Alternet.
  19. “The PlayStation War As the West’s insatiable appetite for personal electronics continues, so do Africa’s resource wars.” The Columbus Free Press
  20. Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: The rise and fall of apartheid. Routledge, 2016.
  21. Spiegel, Ronald J. “Platinum and fuel cells.” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 9.5 (2004): 357-371.
  22. Widmer, Rolf, et al. “Global perspectives on e-waste.” Environmental impact assessment review 25.5 (2005): 436-458.
  23. Hirsch, Afua. “‘This is not a good place to live’: inside Ghana’s dump for electronic waste.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 14 Dec. 2013.

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