Capital is Dead: Is this Something Worse?

Autumn 2020 #31
written by
McKenzie Wark with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Matthew Brazier

Just a few weeks after the August riots in London in 2011, I interviewed McKenzie Wark in the basement of Housmans’ Bookshop, exploring Wark’s new book – The Beach Beneath the Streets – that revisits the Situationists, their legacy, and a history of riots. In 2015, Wark published Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, primarily reviving the work of Russian philosopher and novelist Alexander Bognadov, a rival to Lenin, exploring early 20th Century Soviet literature on science fiction and climate change. With her new book, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, we take a detour through the history of class, outline new modes of the production, and ask is this still capitalism? 

In Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? you argue that information has empowered a new kind of ruling class, one you call the ‘vectoralist class’. Instead of adding endless ‘modifiers’ to capitalism – such as ‘neoliberal’ or ‘post-industrial’ or ‘platform’ – you suggest that we should consider this new economic relation as not just a ‘simple variation’ of capitalism but as an entirely new mode of production. Can you define this new mode of production and describe the features and conflicts of these emergent classes? 

I think I can start with a point about method, which is that rather than take an existing set of concepts and try to see how what’s going on in the world can be interpreted through those – because you can always make something, some idea – what if we started with those experiences of what happened to labour and what happened to forms of domination and control, and came up with a theory based on those. I think if you do it that way, starting from the end of what one’s actual experiences are then they don’t all fit a classic model of capitalism. So the caveat here is that a lot of the social formation is probably still accurately described as capitalism; it didn’t go away, it just stays nested inside parts of previous modes of production. The modes of production are always multiple and articulated to each other.
So maybe there’s a new one, like so much of the classic Marxist literature is about the articulation of capitalism to a kind of agrarian commodity economy that’s actually not capitalist, and generates different classes. Landlords and peasants are not capitalist workers; the political economy of land works differently to that of fungible goods. So what if there’s a new piece, and the kind of technical and material piece of it that’s different has to do with the way information works. We’ve reached a point where there’s a technics that’s made information incredibly easy to copy and share; it doesn’t function as a rivalrous good; the labour that produces it is organised in a really strange way and today a lot of it can’t quite yet be subject to the kind of mechanisation and controls of the factory floor, though obviously we see that coming.

So what is this political economy of information? Is there a new set of class relations that emerges out of that? What does it mean to be a digital worker as opposed to, let’s say, an analogue worker? It’s not like I can shove you on an assembly line. When a digital worker’s object is to come up with a new idea, it doesn’t quite work that way. And is there a new kind of ruling class articulated to the previous ones that really just tries to control the whole value chain through the stocks and flows, through intellectual property, through brands and trademarks, through logistics, through supply chains, through embedding and harvesting of information, out of everyday devices. Alright, so you want to argue that Apple is capitalist? They don’t actually make a damn phone at all, the company’s value doesn’t rest on the ownership of the means of production, but mostly on a portfolio of intellectual property. Maybe that’s a new kind of political economy, with its own weird rules. I say new, though it’s really 60 years old, but new in terms of our conceptual language.

[In terms of giving some examples of the ‘vectorialist class’], it’s easier for me to start with American companies but you can see it at work globally, by looking at the top ten companies in the Fortune 500 list every year. It’s striking that a lot of these candidates are tech companies who are trying to use control over particular platforms as a means to accumulate monopoly power, but you’ll also find a bunch of drug companies. They don’t make the drugs, what they do is control the intellectual property on which the making of the drugs will rest – very crucial at this moment of Covid-19, right, if you think about this as a moment of power. But then you also find that the Ford Motor Company, as was discovered during the last recession, to be making more money out of car loans than it did out of selling cars; it’s basically a financial firm that has access to unique data because it’s the one selling the cars, and its business model became something else. And on and on it goes. Giant retailers that are essentially logistics chains built on branding and on ways to harvest data about longtime democratic moves, like at Walmart, for example. Walmart’s data centres are as big as their physical distribution centres that send out products to the stores and there’s roughly an equal number of them. If you look at any company now, you think what proportion of that is actually the ownership and control of information, and where you’re treating the capitalist in the strict sense of [...] means of production that make products as a subsidiary class that you may compete for contracts to put your IP in the product and your brand on the outside so that you harvest derivative value out of that process, and the profit is the measly bit that they get to keep.

That it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has become a cultural meme to represent the idea that there are no alternatives beyond capitalism. While it’s obvious that now is not a ‘game changing’ moment – in Erik Olin Wright’s phrase – in terms of capitalism being replaced by something better, most have failed to predict and still overlook that it’s being challenged by something even worse. In terms of political theory, why has it failed to unsnag itself from what you call ‘bad poetry’ – quoting ideas ‘from another time’ – and not created new concepts for us to understand these changes – this ‘something worse’ – in our own time? 

I mean it’s kind of wonderful that people all over the place seem to be reading Marx again, but sort of forgetting that there’s a 150-year tradition after Marx of other people who wrote in other circumstances, and very crucially in the wake of the series of defeats of the labour movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. So I don’t think we really quite processed that this is what defeat looks like. It’s why I have no interest in those little factional struggles of what kind of leftist you are. All of these factions were defeated, such as Leninism. There are caveats with that argument in the sense that China is essentially run by a Leninist party, so defeat takes a very different order there. But that didn’t work, communism didn’t work, anarchism didn’t work, social democracy didn’t work. So I have so little interest in the ‘you have to be this type or that type’. The whole history is one of defeat. And you had to think again, you had to start with the struggles in the present with the forms of labour process, including those that are novel, and including those that control through information has reorganised, often in quite spectacular ways, so we can still do all the forms of labour needed to do to make products, but the way we control these processes is not the same. You can automate the form, that’s one of the weird things that has happened. 

So that’s where I’d start to come at that, as someone who is a card-carrying member of two of the defeated strands. We have to truly start again, from that premise that this is what defeat looks like. 

Marx fundamentally changes language, at a point where communism is this quasi-religious discourse of an artisan class, and Marx created something completely different, that’s connected to the rights of industrial labour and forges a new language, which is partly borrowed from the old language; you don’t make something new out of whole cloth. In his era the idea that there could be scientific specialism, that this wasn’t a religious movement based on ancient rights, there are rights we have lost that need to be recovered. Marx is saying no, all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profane – including Marxism! To treat it as a hagiography or a sacred text just seems to me to be a betrayal of the spirit of it. And something foisted on us by the search for the true method – a sort of Leninist deviation – that has its merits but ultimately was disabling. 

It’s striking to me that there’s so much theory that claims to be Marxist but through means of production and the most orthodox forms imaginable, and no-one sees that as a contradiction, such as Perry Anderson who started to just openly talk about academic Marxism as if there was no internal tension or contradiction. And that seemed appropriate to an era when there were massive public universities that were funded, but now universities are just like any other workplace, in terms of the control of labour that produces information. So maybe there’s a whole other non-academic – not quite traditions – but a set of non-Marxist political theoretical practices, that have other relations to the past and other ways of processing language, other ways of trying to grapple with the limits of language in dealing with new struggles and new situations. 

So I wrote about the Situationists and how to really approach that, and the theory of détournement, that treats all culture always as a commons, as collectively produced, where property and culture is an aberration; to abolish it and restore this common production in de jure [by right] as well as de facto [in fact], is one of the struggles. That struck me as very relevant to a digital age. But in Capitalism is Dead I wanted to look at some other traditions, so I wrote about Pier Paolo Pasolini and his understanding of how what he was already calling neo-capitalism was manufacturing subjects in the same way as capitalism manufactured objects, and we needed a new theoretical apparatus to explain what that was, and the class relations it was creating.
I wrote about Angela Davis and her work on Blues singers and how there are forms of non-written technics that nevertheless can accord forms of vernacular affect and struggle and culture, and it’s important to look at those because that’s where you’ll find, in this case, the voices of black women, which are not a huge presence in the Marxist theory of that period of late-19th century-early 20th century. You can find that voice, that struggle, and that affect. So it strikes me that there’s a whole series of para-academic discourses that one might think of as a kind of alternative field, and it’s tactically important to do that at a time when we’re losing the ability to use universities as spaces where you could develop intellectual practice, but at the price of having it conform to a set of conventions that are depoliticised.

Your history of class struggle goes back to Marx, Durkheim and Weber, and more recently to Guy Standing, exploring how exploitation and domination has changed over time. Can you offer a detour through this history of class into the present?

There’s a whole part of the book that’s a tribute to Erik Olin Wright, who I regret never getting to meet before he passed. Wright’s approach is to place Marxist theories of class in relation to ones in sociology that derived from Weber and Durkheim, and showing that you can actually use all three, but for him the Marxist ones are the dominant form. We do often use class in a Durkheimian sense in terms of professions, like groups of people who feel like what they do is the same thing. So it’s very much based on the internal mindset of the people who think they form that class. Marxist theories of class are at the opposite end of the spectrum, arguing that it’s actually irrelevant what you think about it – it’s a location in a series of productive relations. The Weberians are a little bit in-between, they’re actually interested in a more fine-grained approach to class than Marxists are, usually, and I think giving it some real key ways of thinking about things have happened through class, like opportunity hoarding, and working class resentment of a middle class that is able to reproduce itself at working class expense, and also how it’s weaponised by Tory or Republican power, is really key to understand. And actually the Weberian way of doing that makes a lot of sense relative to the Marxist one. 

For Wright, Marxist theories of class are the ones you want to return to. But then where does class come from in the Marxist scheme of things? The bifurcation of relations of production out of who produces something as opposed to who gets to own it. And my question for Wright is, are there new forces of production that generate new productive relations that create bifurcation on a new basis? So how is information separated from the direct producer of it, people like myself. I end up not owning what it is that I produce. Or, for a brief period of time, but in a subordinate fashion. So there’s a kind of petit-bourgeoisification of the tech worker that happened for a while. 

So then we can ask how is that mirrored in changes in the superstructure, how are new legal, political, and cultural forms evolving to make that so? And the one I paid attention to back in A Hacker Manifesto was intellectual property. It’s a vastly different thing to what it was half a century ago, different to what it even was 20 years ago; the way in which information became private property is one of those stunning stories of the 20th century that rarely gets told. And it’s one of the drivers changing universities into engines for the production of private property, of intellectual property that can be privatised, that’s what the university is and everything else is subordinate to that function. So thinking about a detour through the academic literature of class is useful, even if one wants to go to more political traditions that try to think through the complexities of class for reasons of trying to do tactics. 

They’re thinking about how a class alliance might be possible between analogue and digital labour, where you don’t just assume we are all workers and then wonder why that doesn’t work. It’s relevant that I live here in the 14th congressional district in New York City which is represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – whose fame may have spread elsewhere – and whose hold on the seat rests on that class coalition of mostly migrant service workers, many of whom have family members who are undocumented and are subject to a whole series of other things, with privileged information workers who are in massive amounts of debt because that’s the only way can get into that class anymore. 

So you’re constructing a class alliance but thinking of these classes as actually a little different, in the Durkheimian sense culturally, different in the Weberian sense, than all those middle-class people you could hold accountable for opportunity-hoarding, but also different in the Marxist sense that they’re embedded in different relations of production. Where class alliance is possible – and that’s counter- hegemony – it’s about finding those threads.

While the old strategies of labour – such as strikes – are still relevant to parts of the economy, they will and have become increasingly ineffective, prompting many to argue that ‘class is dead’. How can a new class – what you call the ‘hacker class’ – assert their agency? And how does it create tensions and potential solidarities with organised labour? 

First we have to backtrack to what was organised labour’s power. I’m from a steel and coal port town, so my childhood was spent with people who were working at the port, on the railways, or in the mines. If you shut down any of those aspects of the production process and the value chain you could shut it all down. The thing was, in the old days, a good strike affected the ruling class more than anybody else. Obviously people starved for this, people got thrown out of their homes in a long strike, it was hard. But the aim was to put pressure on the ruling class. The problem is, that labour is not even there anymore, it’s elsewhere in the world, what’s in my hometown is a bunch of service industries literally on the waterfront in tower blocks. If you throw a strike, what actually stops happening? The pitch for the new ad campaign didn’t happen? They’ll just send it to another firm in another part of the world. 

The other thing that happened particularly in the 1970s was that unionised labour tended to be in the public sector, so strikes disadvantaged the public not the ruling class and they became immensely unpopular. Historians like Eric Hobsbawm were pointing this out in the 70s against the Trotskyist militants who were trying to use it as leverage. Strikes are only effective firstly if you shut down the ruling class, but secondly if you have some significant class solidarity with that action, and when you are actually making everyone else’s lives miserable you start to lose that, it’s not a good strategy.

So there’s ways in which in this over- developed world where you and I live, there are still kinds of strikes that are effective, but they’re rare. So shutting down the ports at Oakland, that’s effective, but a strike becomes a different thing, it becomes more gestural when you’re really slowing down activity rather than putting the brake on the value chain as a whole. So you might want to think about other tactics, and to what extent is the kind of refusal to be governed the more interesting strategy that emerged as a response to that, is that it moves into the public realm out of the factory into the street, so shut that down and shut down activity as a whole. It takes a massively larger number of people to actually do it. 

So, obviously, the strike is an important tool but you can’t rely on it in general anymore. It really warmed my heart at the time of Occupy Wall Street activists that were using the term ‘general strike’ and thinking in that syndicalist way. There are parts of the world where that would work, we just don’t happen to live there at the moment. And particularly because one of the reasons we have – what I call the ‘vectoralist class’ – is the capitalist class’ attempt to develop techniques to reach around those kinds of blockages. There was a militancy of labour in the late 60s, early 70s that was outstripping movements and productivity; the ruling classes went – what if we moved the factories, but then we need a communication to run our businesses, not knowing that that would then hand power over to a new kind of ruling class that owns exactly that, that owns the mediation.

So we need different tactics, particularly if one is a digital worker. I’ve also called that the ‘hacker class’ but it never really quite stuck, as [with the term hacker] we think of the evil Russians now. So now instead I've been talking about digital labour versus analogue labour as a not-very-accurate but shorthand way of saying that it’s a little different if you’re having to come up with a new idea for something than if you're stamping out units of the same thing: there's a difference between work that produces difference and work that produces sameness; that’s what's really novel about this economic relation. You don’t really have a lot of agency in terms of something like a strike. You refuse to work there, and we've seen organising among tech industry and digital labour that is effective to that degree, by putting pressure on your company by saying, “You can take that evil military contract or that make-life-miserable-for-the-undocumented contract, but we might just all go choose to work elsewhere, where one has value.” It reminds me of the technical workers at Boeing a long time ago – their slogan was “No Nerds No Birds”. The hard part is in seeing that as connected to other forms of labour and access to different strategies and tactics and tools.

One response to what you call the ‘increasingly abstract relations of production’ – questioning the viability of approaches based on ‘geographic rootedness’, i.e. localism – is Platform Cooperativism. Apart from ‘organised tech workers’, what might it mean to democratise the vector?

When I was a kid we shopped at a co-operative because that was still a thing. In that case that co-operative got shut down because it couldn't compete with the big chain department stores and grocery stores when they came along. So there are questions of scale with the co-operative tradition, but why not? If we pursue all of the past strategies of all of the wings of the labour movements and social movements then you have to include co-operatives. Whether or not it will scale I don't know, but to struggle for that so that you can create the vector that organises your labour with others, without the ruling class necessarily intervening, strikes me as key. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, mutual aid has played an important role, and a lot of that has to be organised through those kinds of tools. It’s about detaching that from the existing ruling class platforms and creating your own, so that you’re sort of reweaving the possibility of community. That’s one of the other bases of being able to organise. Factories were organisable because everybody was together. Communities likewise are only organisable when everybody's together – you don't have to like each other, you just have to know each other, and know each other's language and emotional appetite.

The whole of human existence back to the Stone Age is interwoven with technics – the stone tool and the hand evolved together; technics is part of our species’ being. Asking if technology is good or bad is like asking if humans are good or bad because we don't exist without it and never have; if you want to argue that technics are bad, well, then so is the human. It then becomes a metaphysical proposition. So I think it's less interesting to try to think about an essence to technics, and more about tactics – how are technics shaped by forms of power that want them to be forms of domination and control and could maybe be something else. We can leave that as an open question and view it as a matter of praxis, as to whether we can develop technics that do something else, that make long-term life on the planet actually sustainable, because at the moment we’ve not. 

So there is this tendency to make technics the bad object, but in a way that draws heavily on romanticism, it draws a lot on the petit-bourgeois desire for the small and quiet life. It’s not very realistic to be anti-technological if you're really committed to the survival of the seven billion of us on the planet, not to mention the other species we interact with. So I think that it’s kind of fundamental to figure out what we can actually do with technics, to be struggling with that and working away on that. It's kind of curious to me, this tendency to think that technics is all bad. People say, “what we need is politics”, and I’m like, have you looked at actually existing politics? The Tory party are politics and they say, “I don’t mean that politics, I mean another politics”, that’s mostly actually imaginary and doesn't really quite yet exist. So what if we thought of technology the same way we think of politics? Yes, there is the technological equivalent of the Tory party, and it sucks, but maybe there are other possible ones. People always want to say that technics is really political, but the other side to that thought is that politics is always technical.

Another aspect of the decline of class has been new social movements’ – gay liberation, feminist – refusal to ‘settle for secondary class struggle’. With recent debates over identity politics how do you see the interactions between class and racial, queer, and gender struggles? 

Identity politics has meant a few too many things to be a useful thing to even discuss. It had a specific origin in the Combahee Collective's manifesto, but that’s usually not what people mean by it at all. It's usually used disparagingly as some kind of bourgeois-liberal, rights-seeking set of claims that form equality. And that’s not unimportant if you're one of those people that that affects, and to be not paying attention to that and not treating it as a class demand at the same time, that strikes me as very unhelpful. And one can, without even knowing it, be defaulting to some imaginary idea of the working class that is ‘white man with hammer’; the socialist-realist art of the heroic man, or heroic heterosexual couple with their hammers, is your image of what working class is. And treating everything else as secondary without thinking that half of the working class in the United States are women, and nearly half are not white. So there's a way in which all these other issues are class issues; it’s really not that hard to stick all those things together. If you’re a working class queer person or trans person, it’s not at the top of your agenda: homelessness, over-policing, mass incarceration – that's at the top of the agenda, not representation, not marriage equality, not the formal right to not get fired. Those seemed to me to be pretty congruent with labour movement demands, these things touch working people much more than anybody else, particularly when race is a factor. So you have to do all this work to unpick this pseudo-leftwing commentary that's actually just piggybacking on a right-wing instrumentalisation of these things as a way to break up and prevent class alliance. 

In my old sort of paranoid self, [I thought] are these leftist podcasters really just paid agents of the CIA? Because otherwise there's no explanation whatsoever why they act in such a divisive way and unhelpful way.

I'm a self-described vulgar Marxist, in fact more vulgar than the vulgarians in a sense, but one has to understand the ‘vulgar’ in its full range of meanings. So it means the Marxist theory that the force of production is the thing to pay attention to, in relation to production and the superstructure; but the vulgar is also the common and the everyday and the ordinary. It’s how ordinary people’s lives enmesh in a whole series of forms of exploitation and domination day-to-day, and that's the thing to pay attention to. And that's not only in the workplace, it's also at home, it's also when you're trying to walk up the street or have some leisure time: you're under control and surveillance and you're being kind of victimised or bullied or trying to struggle for your own corner in all of those domains. So to me that's the vulgar, and I'm such a rarity as a white trans woman in secure full-time employment. What could be more class-oriented than doing politics around transness? Our sisters don't get to have jobs; the leading demand of black trans women whose organising I pay attention to, is the right to not die. This is not some addition onto questions about working class life, it's part of it, and if you want to think dialectically it’s by understanding the lives and struggles of the most depressed as not something specific, it's what's most universal, because the thing that will touch the lives of say black trans women will touch everyone else's life at some point. All systems of domination and exploitation that they suffer, everyone else is in some sub-section of those, where they concatenate. And you can think of other examples of the subject if you touch on disability where it combines with those things – it’s the same story.

Finally, and to return to your 2015 book Molecular Red; Theory for the Anthropocene, you argue that ‘labour has resolved its relationship to capital, but not to nature.’ 

That's my reading of Alexander Bogdanov, who was Lenin's rival for the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. The point of view was that with labour, the main thing about it is the struggle in and against nature, it’s always in danger of undermining its ability. And the struggle against the ruling class is the first struggle on the way to the larger one, to think what is this form of co-operative, social, technical extraction of the means of subsistence on this planet that we could all collaboratively do that won’t destroy it? He wrote it in a science fiction novel where the Russians choose Socialism but we're on the verge of ecological collapse – that was a profound thought to be having in the early 20th century; as was the notion that socialism is not the answer to everything, it’s just seen negatively that if we abolish capitalism everything will be fine, but it’s not. What’s the outcome for a planet of seven billion people and rising, where we’ll already have to deal with the damage that's been done. There’s a way in which we lost; we didn't intervene with that ruling class and it’s spawned maybe a worse one. But it's clear that this civilisation is kind of over, that we’re in the ruins of it already, so we have to think about what it is that we want to build into the ruins as it collapses around us. Not to be apocalyptic about it, because that's maybe not a helpful feeling or language, but with the ruins or the pieces of it that are lying about, let's build something else.

It does look like the more conservative predictions about the effects of climate change [were inaccurate] and it could be worse than it's been anticipated. California has been on fire for weeks, Australia was on fire last summer; these are all completely unprecedented, and these forests are not coming back. These things become irreversible: the hurricane seasons are worse, and there are ones happening elsewhere around the world in places much more vulnerable than the Gulf Coast here. So yes, [the situation is] not good and we're going to have to be adapting on the fly to a kind of unpredictable geological era. Most of the knowledge and certainly all of the knowledge that most of us in the West have about how to do anything is from a geological era that doesn't exist anymore. There are exceptions to that: Australian indigenous knowledge in some parts of the continent stretch back to the late Pleistocene, so it’s a pre-Holocene geology that people were able to process and comprehend and sustain knowledge about. So f*** modernity, let's learn from that, but let's combine it with what else we know we can do.

Mckenzie Wark is an Australian-born writer and scholar. Wark is known for her writings on media theory, critical theory, new media, and the Situationist International. Her best known works are A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory. She is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at The New School in New York City.

Autumn 2020 #31

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