Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015).
The possibility that the vast pool of workers was surplus to capital’s requirements was partially hidden by precarity and informality. When the consequences of a low-wage global economy became apparent in terms of inadequate consumption and stalled investment opportunities, the slack was taken up by financialization and credit at individual and national levels, so that debt, personal or collective, becomes a feature of proletarian existence. Once the bubble bursts, however, unleashing a torrent of global unrests, the automation option reappared. Everywhere cheapened labour has revolted the option of technologically eliminating it returns to the table, enhanced by new generations of robots emerging from early twentieth-century wars, and increasingly directed not just against manual work, but at the white-collar jobs of intermediate positions once imagined as secure.
Cyber-Proletariat is a follow-up to Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Marx (1999) a more theoretical work which looks at how Marx and certain strains of Marxism have remained relevant in the new world of “high-technology capitalism”. What to call the kind of capitalism we currently live in remains contentious - in the later book “high-technology capitalism” becomes “the digital vortex” - with various other options on the table: post-industrial society (Bell, Toffler), information society, late-capitalism (Mandel and - with reservations - Jameson), and not the least value in reading Dyer-Witheford is recognizing that the platitudes and certainties offered up in first-year LIS courses are anything but as sure and certain as we are led to believe.
Cyber-Proletariat looks at the effects on labour of the global, digital production and exchange network that has arisen as a consequence of the focus on automation and networks developed in the transition to… whatever kind of capitalism this is, since about 1975. Politically, this is the period of neoliberalism and austerity; culturally it is - as Jameson has shown - the period of postmodernism; economically, we’re talking about the end of the Fordist post-war settlement that saw the rise not only of assembly-line industrialism, but also the welfare state and the New Deal. In the current, post-Fordist dispensation, wages have fallen, the welfare state has been dismantled, and a working class based on a homogeneous “mass worker” has been decomposed. At the same time the technologies of information capitalism - automated and networked - have spread across the globe and have embedded themselves in areas of work previously considered either too “immaterial” to allow for automation (many library functions, for example) or which - prior to neoliberal deregulation - required oversight, such as the heavily automated and networked financial systems whose lack of human oversight and the speed of its connections and transactions led to the financial crisis of 2008. The global vortex is complex and anything but monolithic.
In the global north and west, the latest capitalism has given us a culture of iPhones, smart houses, the internet of things, and driver-less cars, but it has also given us zero-hour contracts, fake news, algorithmic bias, the automated tyranny of Amazon workers, and Donald Trump. Workers in the global south and east, at the end of vast, high-speed networks of just-in-time supply chains and free trade zones, have been given mass suicides (at the Shenzhen Foxconn plant), sickness, disease, and death. But they have also been given cellphones, and the networks of capitalism have profited on that too, for example meeting the needs of informally employed African migrants who use the phones as banking, communication, and cash transfer systems.
Dyer-Witheford characterizes our period of capitalism as a “digital vortex” not unlike the tornado that whisked Dorothy off to Oz. The increasingly rapid cycles of capitalis accumulation sweep into people’s lives, in rare cases raising them to great heights, but most often sweeping their lives into ruin.
The cycles of accumulation, however, churn alongside cycles of struggle, resistance, and repurposing of the technologies themselves. Drawing on autonomous Marxism and communisation theory, Dyer-Witheford identifies spaces within the struggles of the proletariat itself which allow for resistance to capitalist totalization, as hopeless as that might often seem.
Dyer-Witheford offers a properly dialectical view of a hugely complex, vast, interconnected, and opaque system of production, circulation, and exploitation. His insistence on “proletariat” rather than working class, also offers up an interesting new perspective. For Marx, “proletariat” included those who were voluntarily or involuntarily unemployed, broading out from the concept of a working working class. This allows us to consider precarious labourers, the incarcerated, students, and many other classes of people who are just as - if not more - oppressed by capitalism, but who are left out of many twentieth-century accounts of class struggle. For example, Dyer-Witheford draws on the “autonomist” tradition of operaismo (workerism), a strain of Marxism that developed in Italy in the 1960s, and which included early theorists of unwaged labour performed primarily by women in the name of the reproduction of labour-power.
This critical view of the technologies of “late capitalism” is of vital importance to librarians right now. Gone are the days when we could uncritically look at our automation systems and think solely of the efficiencies they would introduce to our workflows and the benefits to our users through unmediated access to systems and the consistency offered by automated and networked metadata systems (e.g. MARC). We have to be aware of how these technologies are contributing to a reproletarianzation of library workers and our user constituencies, but also how the technologies we rely on are themselves reliant on criminally exploitated labourers in cheap labour zones at the end of networked supply chains. We can no longer subscribe to the optimistic view of “the information society” with the liberating effect of its technology, as I was taught in library school. We have to recognize our – complicit – place in a global “vortex” of high-speed, high-tech, forces and relations of production.