In 1999, Howard Zinn published the sensation Marx in Soho: A Play on History. The story began with Karl Marx petitioning Heaven to come back to Earth for a short while so that he could “clear his name.” A bureaucratic mishap sent Marx to Soho, New York, instead of Soho, London, where he spent his later years. In this one-man play, Zinn portrayed Marx as a colorful personality with grand ideas and deep passion, whilst also troubled by personal and family strife. The story ended with Marx’s deeply humanist narration:
Let’s not speak anymore about capitalism, socialism. Let’s just speak of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings. Give people what they need: food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, some hours of work, more hours of leisure. Don’t ask who deserves it. Every human being deserves it.1
The curtain then fell in Zinn’s imagination. But such a beautiful story could not end in mine; I was in the audience inspired by Marx’s monologue, typing down questions on my phone, looking for a chance to talk to Marx. What were my questions? I never doubted Marx as one of the most cogent social theorists, nor questioned the necessity for a socialist revolution. What I wanted was some clarification about technology.
On stage, Marx inquired, “you have technological marvels, you have sent men into the stratosphere, but what of the people left on earth?” I agreed, but these marvels did in fact change human society, for better or worse, didn’t they? I also wondered—does Marx’s analysis of 19th century capitalism still apply today, with our 21st century technology? So the story goes…
x x x
[Light dims on stage as the curtain closes. Sporadic applause sounds off around the theater. Someone in the audience jumps up from an aisle seat and runs towards the backstage.]
Calvin. [Trips over stage equipment and panting] Wait up, Herr Marx! Don’t go yet! I have questions…
Marx. [Turns as he is about to leave] Sorry kid. The curtain already fell, and I long ago exited the stage.
Calvin. [Takes out two cans of beer from the pockets] But I brought beer.
Marx. [Sighs and smiles widely] Fine, you got me! What’s your name? Call me Karl. [Reaches over to grab the beer] I know your question. You want to know whether my philosophy is still relevant in your age of fancy smartphones and what not. This has happened before.
Calvin. [Cracks the beers open and hands one to Marx] I mean, yes, with these technologies like the Internet connecting us through information, making our life so much easier, do we not live in an entirely different era?
Marx. [Takes a big gulp] It depends on what you mean by “different.” Let’s see… [Looks up and down at Calvin] so you own a smartphone? That means phones are not for luxury consumption! I can tell. For you to afford this commodity, its production process must be quite exploitative, with high productivity, or possibly both. The former presumes a sharp division of unskilled labor under systemic coercion. The latter points to rapid technological innovation in the means of production, driven by fierce competition, resulting in instability of exchange value. Tell me, how long does it take for your phone to become completely worthless on the market?
Calvin. [Holding his untouched beer looking at Marx with awe]. Holy.. Karl, how did you…
Marx. In a society of human beings that must first of all eat, drink [Pauses to sip beer], find shelter and clothing, there are patterns.2 The same laws of capitalist production apply to your society as to mine. This is why I questioned you calling it a “different era.” Sure, it’s different in that some of you enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. [Wraps hands around the cold beer as if marveling at refrigeration] But did you ever grasp the root of the matter?3 For example, what even is the Internet? Is it like the market where the state sets the rules of its operation and interferes when called upon? Is it private property protected by contract rights of ownership and the rule of law? Is it the commonwealth like air and water?
Calvin. Actually, today, water is commodified…
Marx. [Palm to forehead] Oy, so the Internet is not a free good! If data can be owned by individuals like the enclosure of lands, I hate to think what kind of alienating effect it has. If automation in factories turns men into fragments on machines, does the Internet turn men into figments of imagination?4
Calvin. [Drops the phone on the table as he sits back] Woah this is too deep for me! I only know that we’re constantly blasted with disinformation, propaganda, and distractions from our material reality.
Marx. Well, it seems to me your Internet is just another sphere where capital penetrates. You see, contrary to popular mischaracterization, capital is not just some sum of money, but a process. Capital is the perpetual motion of value that shapes our social relations. I wrote the whole three volumes on it, so bear with me! [Sips beer] Capital appears and moves by transforming its many forms—money, to commodity in production, back to money, and back again to commodity for consumption. This never runs smooth.5 Any stoppage or slow-down carries the risk of depreciation.6 Capital is no longer capital if the motion breaks down.
Calvin. Ah! So capital is like the bus in that movie; it has to keep moving above 50 mph or it explodes.
Marx. [Raises an eyebrow] Um, sure, why not… If you insist on that analogy, this bus actually has to always accelerate as well, so it’s going to crash regardless! Anyway, your instant communication? That’s good for chatting with your friends, but even better for business! With time and space compressed through information and communication technology, bumps within the capital circulation process are evened out.7 With an increased amount of accessible data arise sophisticated credit systems to facilitate the circulation of capital.8 Likewise, more workers and more arrangements in the division of labor within and across industrial sectors can be coordinated during production. And what about the Internet itself? Commodification does not just mean buying and selling: it means somebody is producing surplus value that is expropriated.
Calvin. I get it! We— the users—are the producers working throughout the Internet! Our online interactions produce surplus value for Google, in the form of content and data. Capital is circulating through us.
Marx. What is a google? Nevermind. Yes, that’s just how capitalism works, in the factory or on the Internet. Capital goes everywhere labor produces; this is the raison d’etre of technological innovation under capitalism. [Leans forward] Calvin, do you know the real reason I toiled to write theory? It’s the people. Technology under capitalism has not been kind to the masses; for example, let’s say a piece of technology… [Looks at the logo of Calvin’s phone] Apple… juicer, right? So, a juicer increases worker’s productivity in making apple juice. Labor time in production, thus value, is reduced; the capitalist can then sell more juice and at a lower price to gain a profit margin, for as long as they hold the edge over their competitors in technology. This is why technological innovation has become such a fetish in capitalism.9 Also, cheaper apple juice for subsistence could potentially increase the worker’s standard of living—just like your phone. But, what happens if the juicer technology replaces juicing jobs entirely? I mentioned that it is the laborers who produce surplus value: no worker means no surplus! Capitalism is irrational and full of contradictions; automation can cause average rates of profit to decline—which can eventually lead to crisis—but at the same time, it perpetuates the industrial reserve army. Your bourgeois economists always talk of lowering unemployment. But have you ever seen 0% unemployment? I didn’t think so; unattached (i.e., “free”) workers are features, not bugs of the system. Similar to the fact that capital must always be in motion, it also must always expand. Poverty thus grows at an even faster rate than the rapid population increase; capital demands it.
Calvin. Damn! We are controlled in all ways—supply, demand, wages, even reproduction!
Marx. Don’t forget during production. You see, workers have minds of their own and don’t always follow orders; back in my day, they’re called hands because capitalists wished those were all workers had—no minds to think, no hearts to feel, no mouths to feed, just hands to work . So, capitalists love technologies that either take you out of the equation or maximize your labor time during production—remember, value is time, so time is money!—they let the machine operate you instead of you operating the machine.10
Calvin. No wonder modernity is so mechanical.11
Marx. And destructive. Accumulation of capital follows a path towards infinity. But neither nature nor labor are limitless. Why has there been constant military buildup even as your politicians keep preaching the gospel of peace and prosperity? New markets, new raw materials, and cheap labor are to be violently subjugated through technology.
Calvin. [Dejected] Karl, in your day, the police rode horses carrying batons, maybe a musket here and there, and your militaries used bayonets and canons. Paris fell, Catalonia fell, Havana is barely hanging on.12 What chances do the workers of the world have today?
Marx. My dear naive Calvin, you seem to think technology exists in a vacuum, separate from humans. You forget that it is the workers who continuously produce, be it weapons for destruction, automatons in production, or magic information boxes for communication. Without laborers generating value, capital stops. My optimism comes from the fact that real power lies in human labor, not fancy machines. If all of our exploited class (the absolute majority of the world population) decided and acted upon this decision—OK, we don’t like being expropriated as individuals, instead, we will collectively produce for human needs—that is it. Sooner rather than later, the bourgeois society will fall, and the victory of the proletariat is equally inevitable.13
Calvin. [Shakes the beer can to make sure it’s empty] Karl, can you really call it optimism if this much is determined?
Marx. [Laughs out loud] Clever. I know I’ve been portrayed as a rigid, unscientific determinist. Or that my analysis of capitalism is teleological—as if capitalism will just collapse all on its own. These vulgar reactionaries will accuse me whenever they can because I expose their cognitive dissonance. They presented their subpar vision of an idealized bourgeois society. Revealing their contradictions and latent conflicts, how am I the one with the grand narrative? My theory does not determine, but delineates the dynamic boundary between historical materialism and historical contingency. Within the realm of class struggle, there is tremendous potential for human agency—our creativity, ingenuity, perseverance and courage. I’ve described how capitalists regulate the labor market with predictable patterns and devastating results, right? What happens when workers go on strike to demand higher wages or shorter working days? Where’s the law or tendency then? [Raises voice] There is nothing teleological about class struggle! The motion of capital swerves off balance through collective action; in it, everything is possible! [Lowers voice] Here’s the secret—we can only solve problems to which a solution already exists materially.14 You cannot regress to a romanticist vision that rejects modernity, seeing technology as evil and idolizing a pre-capitalist social order. History moves in one direction. An increasingly technologically complex production process requires more and more educated workers; an ever-expanding market requires more and more open information. You never know, with the Internet and all, what workers might read; maybe one day they’ll get tired of constant Marx-baiting and decide to check out the Communist Manifesto…
Calvin. [Starts to recite] The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles… [Pauses] And the future of this society will be our class struggle!
Marx. [Grins] See? Now you’re an optimist!
Calvin. Towards this future, I wonder what revolutionary technology would entail.15 I think modern telecommunication helps us tremendously in building movements across the globe, but I see that we must transcend its current form—from one that commodifies, propagandizes, and distracts, to one that facilitates genuine human bonds, provides radical education, and promotes collective information access. We must analyze technologies to understand how each of them affects the motion of capital and vice versa. Let us seize the ones that have the potential to support our revolutionary fight and to emancipate workers—means of producing food, housing, medicine that all of us to enjoy, enriching the commons—and destroy others that harm the human spirit—means of narcissistic overconsumption, commodification of culture, and weapons of destruction.
Marx. [Nods in approval] Good. Go tell others, and get to work!
- ↩ Howard Zinn, Marx in Soho: A Play on History (South End Press, 1999).
- ↩ “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” Friedrich Engels, “Engels’ Burial Speech,” accessed April 14, 2021, www.marxists.org
- ↩ “To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.” Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. Andy Blunden (North Charleston, SC: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).
- ↩ This is a word-play. In Capital: Volume One, Marx wrote that machines turned the worker into a “mere fragment of a man.” Fragment also refers to a coherent piece of Marx’s writing in his fragmented notebook. Fragment on machines typically refers to the segment in Grundrisse where Marx discussed machinery and modern industry.
- ↩ “We see then, commodities are in love with money, but ‘the course of true love never did run smooth.’” Karl Marx, “Economic Manuscripts: Capital: Volume One,” accessed April 14, 2021, www.marxists.org
- ↩ “The more frequent turnover of capital in a given period of time resembles the more frequent harvests during the natural year…Just as grain when it is put in the soil as seed loses its immediate use value, is devalued as immediate use value, so is capital devalued from the completion of the production process until its retransformation into money and from there into capital again.” Karl Marx, “Grundrisse.”
- ↩ “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange–of the means of communication and transport–the annihilation of space by time–becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Karl Marx, “Grundrisse.”
- ↩ “[The] velocity of the money flowing as medium of circulation…depends entirely upon the flow of purchases and sales, and on the chain of payments, insofar as they occur successively in money. But credit effects and thereby increases the velocity of circulation.” Karl Marx, “Economic Manuscripts: Capital: Volume Three,” accessed May 3, 2021, www.marxists.org
- ↩ Here, “fetish” is used similarly as in “commodity fetishism.” Fetish arises when something is attributed power and meaning not intrinsic to it. Fetish of technology arises in a multitude of ways. For example, increased productivity through technology generates relative surplus value, and as such, capitalists develop a fetish that mistakes technological advancement as intrinsically valorizing. See David Harvey, “The Fetish of Technology: Causes and Consequences,” Macalester International 13, no. 1 (2003): 7.
- ↩ “[It] is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc…just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.” Marx, “Grundrisse.”
- ↩ “This economic relation…develops more purely and adequately in proportion as labour loses all the characteristics of art; as its particular skill becomes something more and more abstract and irrelevant, and as it becomes more and more a purely abstract activity, a purely mechanical activity…” Marx, “Grundrisse.”
- ↩ The Paris Commune, the first worker’s democratic self-government, survived for two months in 1871. Revolutionary Catalonia, a worker unionist/syndicalist state, fought against Franco’s fascist regime for three years before losing the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). The legacy of the Cuban Revolution survived against the backdrop of the constant threat of U.S. imperialism (as well as neoliberalism today), with progress towards a genuine worker’s democracy stalling since its founding in 1953.
- ↩ “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party: The Communist Manifesto (Classic Books Publishing, 2009).
- ↩ “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” Karl Marx, “Economic Manuscripts: Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” accessed April 16, 2021, www.marxists.org
- ↩ “In a communistic society there would be a very different scope for the employment of machinery than there can be in a bourgeois society.” Marx, “Economic Manuscripts: Capital: Volume One.”