The underpinnings of class in the digital age: living, labour and value

Ursula Huws

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As Marxism has segued in and out of vogue, there is hardly a Marxian concept that has not at some time been questioned as anachronistic, in the light of the transformations in economic and political conditions that have occurred over the last century and a half. The current renewal of interest in Marx’s ideas is no exception. One current idea that has attracted considerable support, especially among the young, is the notion that the idea of a working class defined by its direct relationship to production is outmoded. Since all aspects of life, such arguments go, have been drawn into the scope of the capitalist cash nexus in some way, all those who are not actually part of the capitalist class must be regarded as part of an undifferentiated ‘multitude’.
In these debates particular attention has been paid to the value created online by ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ labour. In the field which is becoming known as ‘Internet studies’, there have recently been energetic discussions about ‘digital labour’ and how it should be conceptualised. These debates have addressed the increasingly blurred boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘play’ (encapsulated in the term ‘playbour’) and between production and consumption (‘prosumption’ and ‘co-creation’); discussed the problematic category of ‘free labour’ and questioned whether such labour, paid or unpaid, can be regarded as producing surplus value and whether it is ‘exploitative’ or ‘alienated’. With the exception of Andrew Ross, few of these authors have drawn parallels with other forms of labour carried out offline. Yet, many of the questions they raise apply much more generally to labour under capitalism. These debates thus provide a useful starting point for investigating the labour theory of value itself, and how – or, some would wonder, even if – it can be applied in twenty-first century conditions.
This essay argues that it is still possible to apply Marx’s theory in current conditions, to define what is, or is not, a commodity, to identify the point of production of such commodities, whether material or immaterial, and to define the global working class in relation to these production processes. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to re-examine the labour theory of value in all its dimensions. I pay particular attention to ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ labour not only because it is currently attracting so much attention, but also because online labour is particularly difficult to conceptualise. It is thus a fertile source of cases against which to test more general hypotheses. If a theory can apply here, then it should be more generally applicable. The aim of doing this is to enable a mapping of the working class across the whole economy by applying the theory more broadly (as Marx did). This is an important task, in my view, because without a clear sense of which workers are engaged directly in the antagonistic relation to capital that characterises commodity production, and without identifying where that point of production is located, it is impossible to identify strategies that will enable labour to confront capital where it is possible to exercise some power to shape the future in its own interests
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocialist Register
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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