The Concept of Digital Capitalism

The Concept of Digital Capitalism Abstract In this article, I develop a dialectical, historical account of digital capitalism that moves beyond nominalist and structuralist approaches. I proceed in three parts. First, I provide an overview of the topical literature, focusing on the exemplary work of D. Schiller (1999) and C. Fuchs (2013). Second, I define capitalism in its dual capacity as an abstract system with core features and a nominal series of historical developments. Third, I reformulate the concept of digital capitalism and sketch the relation between digital media and capitalism as a point of departure for future research. I conclude with a discussion of structuralism and nominalism in contemporary media theory. Introduction Digital capitalism is an ambiguous concept in contemporary media theory. Topical studies are either excessively nominalist, detailing particular processes without recourse to conceptual structures, or excessively structuralist, positing systemic transformations without grounding them in specific developments. Consequently, digital capitalism now signifies several phenomena at once: transformations in technologies of production (Fuchs, 2013), in objects of production (Nachtwey & Staab, 2015), in property regimes of ownership (Schiller, 1999), in work styles of laborers (Betancourt, 2010; Qiu, 2014), and in managerial styles of firms (Wajcman, 2015). The concept is effectively working overtime, generating more confusion than clarity and forestalling a sophisticated answer to the paramount question: what is the relation between digital media and capitalism? My objective in this article is to develop a dialectical, historical account of digital capitalism that moves beyond nominalist and structuralist approaches. I proceed in three parts. First, I provide an overview of the topical literature, focusing on the exemplary work of Schiller (1999) and Fuchs (2013). I elaborate the nominalist and the structuralist character of their respective projects and underscore the conceptual inadequacy of their methodological orientations. Second, I define capitalism in its dual capacity as an abstract system with core features and a nominal series of historical developments. I draw on the work of Marx ([1867] 1976) and economic historians, the latter of whom are often overlooked in studies of digital economy. Third, I reformulate the concept of digital capitalism and sketch the relation between digital media and capitalism as a point of departure for future research. This reformulation is meant to illustrate the conceptual level at which analysis should proceed, not to provide a definitive account of digital capitalism that would end critical debate. I conclude with a discussion of structuralism and nominalism in contemporary media theory. Nominalism and structuralism Schiller (1999) and Fuchs (2013), writing on either side of Web 2.0, offer preliminary accounts of capitalism after digital media. Their work is well researched and rigorously argued. This is precisely what makes it worthy of robust critique, as conceptual problems in superlative works are prone to both oversight and reproduction. The following criticism emerges out of deep respect for their projects, which remain essential resources for those interested in digital media and capitalism. That said, Schiller and Fuchs respectively exemplify the nominalist and the structuralist trends in studies of digital capitalism. Schiller maps out recent developments in production, ownership, and management, but he lacks a conceptual structure within which those developments might cohere. Fuchs charts a structural framework, but he neglects the nuances of the developments thereby framed. Neither offers a robust definition of digital capitalism nor explains precisely how digital technology is related to capitalism’s core structure. Before elaborating my own account of digital capitalism, I outline the arguments of Schiller and Fuchs, in order to highlight the shortcomings of their respective orientations. In his foundational work on the concept, Schiller (1999) offers three distinct definitions of digital capitalism. First, he defines digital capitalism as a historical period or “epoch” (p. xvi), in which digital media constitutes “the central production and control apparatus of an increasingly supranational market system” (p. xiv). For Schiller, digital media is not itself the central productive technology of contemporary capitalism but, rather, the central apparatus by which workers control productive technologies.1 Remote access, for instance, constitutes a digital production apparatus: digitized machines may be operated from anywhere in the world, making possible the transnational production chains that have come to be associated with post-Fordism. In this first definition, capitalism is digital, insofar as contemporary production processes require digital technologies for their integrity and efficacy. Second, Schiller defines digital capitalism as a property regime, marked by the private ownership of digital networks. The privatization of digital infrastructure in the United States occurred through the neoliberalization of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) telecommunications law in the 1990s. This was made possible by extensive corporate lobbying efforts, “animated by a shared political axiom: that corporate capital’s ownership and control of networks should be put beyond dispute, even beyond discussion” (p. 1). Because Schiller dedicates the bulk of his work to detailing these neoliberal reforms, and because the political economy of communication traditionally foregrounds media ownership, this particular definition remains the salient one in the topical literature.2 This is also the definition that Schiller purveys in his later work on the topic, which centers on information as a commodity (2007) and the ownership of global information systems (2011). In this second definition, capitalism is digital, because digital networks are privately owned and utilized for the generation of commercial profit. Third, Schiller defines digital capitalism as a management style organized around digital networks. He details the growing importance of digital media for the internal operation of contemporary firms: By the mid-1960s, manufacturers, banks, insurance companies, utilities, and retailers were operating two-thirds of a greatly enlarged base—some 35,000 installations—of computer facilities. Many computer applications sought to rely increasingly heavily on telecommunications to make data-processing power available more broadly to business organizations. Originating as discrete islands of computer functionality (as different classes of service, or discrete applications, are sometimes called) in payroll, accounting, inventory, and other administrative areas, disparate networks soon began to unfurl into other fields: sales, credit authorization, customer service, production scheduling, and research and development. (1999, pp. 2–3) Both productive technologies and in-house operations are interlaced with digital media.3 In this third definition, capitalism is digital, because major companies employ digital networks for an expanding host of intra-firm activities. In Schiller’s work, then, digital capitalism alternately signifies a historical period, in which digital technology makes possible transnational production chains; a property regime, in which digital infrastructure is privately owned; and a management style, in which digital media permeates major capitalist enterprises. Schiller neither defines capitalism as such nor explains how these particular processes—production chains, network ownership, and firm management—are related to capitalism’s core structure. It remains to be seen why the concept of capitalism is invoked at all. Why not simply refer to digital production, digital ownership, and digital management? The elaboration of particular processes without recourse to a conceptual structure leads Schiller into a nominalist dead-end: the specific developments are abundantly clear, but their relation to the broader system remains uncertain. Conversely, Fuchs sketches the broader system but neglects the particular processes embedded therein. In “Capitalism or Information Society?” (2013), Fuchs directly addresses the question of how to define our current political-economic structure. This piece is unique in its singular focus on the conceptual framework of informational capitalism—a framework that, elsewhere, serves as the analytic mise-en-scène of Fuchs’ theorization of digital labor (see, in particular, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016a, 2016b). Drawing on Marx and Hegel, he argues that three elements comprise the forces of production under capitalism: the means or technologies of production, the objects of production, and the work of laborers (2013, p. 423). Digital technology, Fuchs argues, transforms each of these, leading to what he calls transnational informational capitalism: The search by capital for new strategies and forms of capital accumulation transforms labour in such a way that cognitive, communicative, and co-operative labour forms a significant amount of overall labour time (a development enforced by the rise of the ideology of self-discipline of “participatory management”), but at the same time this labour is heavily mediated by information technologies and produces to a certain extent tangible informational goods (as well as intangible informational services). The notion of transnational informational capitalism grasps this subject–object dialectic, it conceptualizes contemporary capitalism based on the rise of cognitive, communicative, and co-operative labour that is interconnected with the rise of technologies and goods that objectify human cognition, communication, and co-operation. (2013, p. 419) For Fuchs, knowledge and information technology “transform the means of production” (2013, p. 419), because they “have become important means for producing commodities” (2013, p. 425). Those commodities are themselves “to a certain extent” informational, and the labor through which they are produced is “heavily mediated by information technologies” (2013, p. 419). Capitalism is informational, because its productive machinery, its manufactured commodities, and its work styles have become intertwined with information technology. When he turns to the economic data for confirmation, however, Fuchs notes that information technology constitutes a relatively small share of total capital assets worldwide. Rather than resolve the contradiction between his structural claim and these processual developments, Fuchs backtracks on his thesis in order to preserve it: Therefore, the notion of information capitalism does not make sense as a category of totality. It only makes sense when describing the degree, to which the capitalist mode of production is using informational productive forces to accumulate capital in class relations, i.e., by exploiting surplus value. (2013, p. 427) Fuchs arrives at the same logical quagmire as Schiller, albeit through a different route. If information technology has not transformed the forces of production, why purvey the structural concept of informational capitalism at all? Why not simply refer to informational production, informational commodities, and informational labor? Further, if informational capitalism and industrial capitalism overlap, on what theoretical grounds can there be partial systems? Are not systems, by their very nature, total? The employment of a conceptual structure without grounding in particular processes leads Fuchs into a structuralist fallacy: the specific developments do not “add up” to a shift in the broader system. Where the nominalist approach of Schiller leads to a conceptual dead-end, the structuralist approach of Fuchs leads to a conceptual fallacy. There is evidently a problem with the concept of digital capitalism itself—or, more precisely, with its conceptual operationalization in theory. If particular digital processes are the exclusive objects of study, then capitalism as an economic structure enters the analysis as an indeterminate backdrop. If capitalism as an economic structure is the exclusive object of study, then particular digital processes enter the analysis as retroactive evidentiary support. How might one circumvent these conceptual-cum-methodological quagmires? What is required, I argue, is a dialectical approach that mediates process and structure. Capitalism is an abstract system with formal features and a concrete series of historical developments. In other words, capitalism is a conceptual structure that transcends its specific manifestations in history, as well as those historical manifestations themselves. Capitalism as a structural concept and capitalism as a processual history are connected in practice (the history informs the concept) but distinct in theory (the concept exceeds the history). A great deal of intellectual confusion has resulted from a failure to distinguish between these dual capacities, for substantive historical changes do not imply substantive structural changes. Dialectical logic furnishes a sophisticated conceptual and methodological approach to capitalism in its dual capacities. Hegel ([1812] 1991) characterizes dialectical logic as that which mediates the universal and the particular but does not collapse the latter into the former: “a universal which embraces within itself the wealth of the particular” (p. 38). Capitalism does not develop in a historical vaccum (it is not purely universal), but it cannot be reduced to its concrete instances either (it is not purely particular). Capitalism must be understood as the mediated unity between conceptual structure and empirical history.4 Accordingly, studies of digital capitalism require a dialectical mediation between abstract system and concrete process. In what follows, I define capitalism in its dual capacity as an abstract system and a concrete history, before developing a preliminary list of digital processes within contemporary capitalism. Capitalism as abstract system and concrete history There are numerous theorists of capitalism, each of whom offers a unique definition of capitalism’s structure and history. These include classical political economists (Smith, Ricardo, Mills, Marshall), 20th-century economists (Keynes, von Mises, Friedman, Stigler, Hayek), Marxist economists (Mandel, Kalecki, Baran, Sweezy), heterodox economic thinkers (Schumpeter, Polanyi, Wallerstein), and various historians of capitalism, whose work has recently undergone a well-deserved intellectual renaissance.5 A longer essay would tease out these bodies of work, consider their differences and similarities, and contextualize them within intellectual and sociopolitical history. Space constraints and the need for focus, however, suggest a singular figure to guide us through the complexities of this topic. I have chosen Marx as this figure, mainly because he develops an understanding of the economy as a composite system of production, circulation, and consumption. Distinguishing between these three spheres will help in clarifying the structure of capitalism, its internal dynamics, and its historical variations. It is worth noting a lacuna in Marx’s work that will reappear in my analysis: the role of the state in capitalism. This topic has been a thorn in the side of Marxist thought for several decades, as Marx’s promised volume on the state was never written (Hall, 1977). Some theorists, such Althusser and Poulantzas, have suggested that capitalism cannot be understood without the apparatus of the state. I agree that the state is important to the maintenance of capitalism, but I also maintain that capitalism is a discrete economic system that warrants its own analysis. In other words, before we can understand the relation between capitalism and the state, we must first understand capitalism on its own terms. In Capital, Volume I, Marx ([1867] 1976) defines capitalism as an abstract system, composed three relational forms: production relations of private ownership, labor relations of wage labor, and exchange relations of commodity markets. These relational forms are conceptual schemas that encompass but exceed their historical manifestations. Private ownership, for instance, is the abstract relational form of historical types of property, such as land or machinery. Likewise, capitalism as an abstract system is a conceptual structure that encompasses but exceeds its historical manifestations, such as industrial capitalism in 19th-century England or financial capitalism in 20th-century Japan. To unpack capitalism as an abstract system, I elaborate its constitutive relational forms in turn. Understood principally as a mode of production, capitalism is marked by executive ownership of the production process. Workers own neither the technologies by which goods are produced (the means of production) nor the finished objects of manufacture (the commodities). Accordingly, a central precondition for capitalist production is the “historical process of divorcing the producer [i.e., the worker] from the means of production” ([1867] 1976, p. 874). Where, for instance, agricultural workers under feudalism supplied their own means of subsistence by working on common land, agricultural workers under capitalism obtain their means of subsistence by working on another’s privately owned land and receiving a wage (p. 928). This ownership arrangement, which Marx refers to as “the social relations of production” (p. 677) or simply as “the capital-relation” (p. 875), becomes a point of departure for the generation of private profit: the owner of productive technologies can orchestrate the manufacture of a commodity that is subsequently sold at a higher value than its original production cost.6 The entire production process becomes accordingly organized around the generation of profit through the manufacture of commodities to be sold on the market. Wage labor directly underwrites the generation of commercial profit under capitalism. Marx argues that labor is the source of value ([1867] 1976, pp. 133–137) and that wage laborers under capitalism produce value in excess of their compensation (pp. 282–306). Marx refers to this excess as “surplus-value” (p. 325). The historical specificity of wage labor consists not only in its contractual form, as opposed to the coercive form of slavery or the tributary form of serfdom, but also in its blurring or “mingling” of compensated and non-compensated labor.7 In other words, the wage laborer does not know at which point the value of her work begins to exceed her compensation (p. 346). Studies of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, then, are accounts of how workers lose direct ownership over their means of production and enter into relations of wage labor (Aston & Philpin, 1985; Dobb, 1946; Hilton et al., 1976). Commodity markets are likewise central to the regular generation of commercial profit under capitalism. The value of a commodity, created through labor in the sphere of production, can only be realized as money in the sphere of exchange (Marx, [1867] 1976, p. 302). That money is not only the source of revenue for the executive but also the means by which the production process begins anew, with fresh labor, materials, and machinery. Manufactured goods must be sold on the market if the cycle of production and circulation is to continue. Furthermore, the production process is itself oriented toward the commodity market, insofar as goods are only produced if they can be sold at a profit. Consequently, a lack of consumer demand on the market leads to a crisis of the capitalist circuit: no consumer demand, no commodity sale; no commodity sale, no renewed production. These abstract relational forms furnish the basic coordinates within which the history of capitalism unfolds. They are the foundations for the structural tendencies of capitalism, often referred to as “the general laws of motion of capital” or “the contradictions of capital” (Harvey, 2014). Wage rates provide a clear-cut example of these laws in operation. When production technologies are privately owned, executives are compelled to minimize wages in order to maximize profit. Without maximal profit, they are unable to effectively compete with other enterprises, and they risk going out of business. The structure of private ownership (and its corrollary of inter-firm competition) accordingly incentivizes executives to depress wages. Yet executives also require adequate levels of consumer spending from the working public in order to sell goods on the market. Hence, in a structural contradiction, each executive requires her workers to be paid minimally and other workers to be paid maximally. Historically specific solutions, such as a state-mandated minimum wage, may then emerge to soften this structural contradiction. Capitalism as a series of concrete historical developments may be divided into six areas: property type, work type, market type, production style, accumulation style, and management style. These six areas belong not to capitalism’s conceptual structure but to capitalism’s processual history. In other words, they vary according to time, place, and circumstance, but this variation does not alter the central operating procedures of capitalism.8 Changes in these areas do not constitute structural transformations but historical variations. I consider them in turn. Property type, sometimes known as capital assets, refers to tangible and intangible objects of private ownership: land and tenancy rights, machinery and trademarks, gold and precious metals, shares and securities, and so forth. These vary in prevalence and importance across historical circumstance. Agricultural capitalism featured land, livestock, and farm equipment as central property types (Aston & Philpin, 1985). Luxury goods, precious metals, and means of travel were among the most lucrative assets during merchant capitalism (Braudel, 1982). Industrial capitalism was marked by the rise of machinery and raw materials as dominant property types (Hobsbawm, 1999; Licht, 1995). Today, financial capitalism is distinguished by the growing importance of monetary property, including bonds, stocks, and futures (Lapavitsas, 2014). The circumstantial development of property type belongs to capitalism’s concrete history rather than its conceptual structure. Private ownership as a system of legal rights remains unaffected by the empirical range of capital assets. Work type concerns the varieties of wage labor employed in the production of profit: agricultural, factory, intellectual, and so on. Agricultural capitalism heavily featured agrarian labor (Wallerstein, [1974] 2011), just as merchant capitalism saw the flourishing of private financiers and wholesale traders (Braudel, 1982). Factory work was endemic to industrial capitalism, as recorded in Engels’ famous account ([1845] 2009). High-speed, intellectual labor is a cornerstone of financial capitalism (Lapavitsas, 2014). As with private ownership, the abstract relational form of wage labor encompasses the historical array of work types and remains unchanged by their development. So-called immaterial labor, for instance, may indeed “force us to question the classic definitions of work and workforce” (Lazzarato, 1996, p. 136.7), but it does not alter the abstract relational form of capitalist wage labor. Market type refers to the diverse spaces of commodity exchange: community and neighborhood, arcade and bazaar, stock market and securities market, etc. Local markets flourished during agricultural capitalism, when expropriated peasants could no longer furnish their own means of subsistence (Dobb, 1946). Merchant capitalism relied on thriving intercontinental trading routes (Braudel, 1982). Markets in labor, land, and money were important preconditions to industrial capitalism (Polanyi, 1944). Today, stock exchanges are central to the procedures of financial capitalism (Lapavitsas, 2014). Although these markets differ vastly in size, scope, speed, and stability, they are nonetheless functions of the abstract relational form of the commodity market. Even contemporary stock exchanges, which make possible “profit without production” (Lapavitsas, 2014, p. 143), follow the logic of surplus-value, albeit without the mediation of a material commodity. Production style refers to the technological arrangements through which goods and services are manufactured or provided.9 This includes the production machineries, raw materials, power sources, technical methods, and finished objects of production. Agricultural capitalism featured agronomic production methods, namely the tilling of soil, the growing of crops, and the raising of livestock (Dobb, 1946). Merchant capitalism witnessed minor advancements in manufacture (Braudel, 1982), but it was not until the industrial revolution that a radical transformation of production style occurred. Industrial capitalism reaped the rewards of this technological paradigm shift, over which much ink has been spilled. Yet industrial technology did not alter the abstract relation form of capitalist production, still organized around the generation of executive profit through wage labor. This assertion is not meant to undermine industrial technology’s historical significance but, rather, to distinguish between the concrete development of technology and the abstract relational form of private ownership.10 Relatedly, accumulation style is the set of production strategies designed to maximize profit. These strategies concern the scale, scope, and temporality of the production process. Seasons and acreage governed the yield of crop during agricultural capitalism (Singh, 1997), and merchants could turn over goods only as quickly as they could travel over land or sea (Braudel, 1982). Industrial capitalism witnessed a massive acceleration and expansion of production (Hobsbawm, [1962] 1996; Wallerstein, [1989] 2011). In financial capitalism, money moves around the globe 24 hours a day, with high-frequency trading occuring by the second or the millisecond (Crary, 2013; Lapavitsas, 2014). This heightened temporality finds its counterpart in the shift from mass production to flexible production, another subject of extensive research.11 Where mass production is geographically centralized and based on economies of scale (massive investments in a high volume of goods), flexible production is geographically scattered and based on economies of scope (customized investments tailored to level of demand). These “networked transformations” (Castells, 2000), though historically substantive, do not modify the abstract relational forms of private ownership and commodity markets. Management style denotes the internal organization of firms: their work arrangements, job hierarchies, administrative operations, and department structures. Major transformations in management style belong to relatively recent history. The 19th century witnessed the advent of corporate management techniques in the American railroad industry (Chandler, 1965). There, the hierarchical command chains of factory work gave way to the decentralized command structures of administrative work (Licht, 1986). Major firms went from decentralized to distributed in the latter half of the 20th century, delegating assignments to project-driven teams of semi-autonomous workers (Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999). The abstract relational form of wage labor remains impervious to such developments, despite the latter’s significance in processes of capitalist work. Digital capitalism: a dialectical, historical approach I can now reformulate the concept of digital capitalism and sketch the relation between digital technology and capitalist economy. Digital capitalism is the collection of processes, sites, and moments in which digital technology mediates the structural tendencies of capitalism. Digital capitalism is neither a structural totality nor a historical period. It is capitalism’s complex actualization in digital processes—a local phenomenon that should function as the starting point of inquiry rather than the conclusion. Digital capitalism is not the structural cause of certain developments but those nominal developments themselves insofar as they emerge from the intersection of digital process and capitalist structure. When Schiller (2011) writes that “digital capitalism gave fresh impulse to accumulation” (p. 930), he mistakenly construes digital capitalism as a structural cause of accumulation, rather than as the historical interaction or mediation between digital process and capitalist structure. A more nuanced claim would be that the private accumulation of capital (a structural tendency) occurs through investment in digital infrastructure (a processual development) and confronts historically specific obstacles and possibilities in the process (a dialectical mediation). Digital capitalism is the modus operandi by which the structural needs of capital are tailored to digital conditions. Through dialectical logic and historical comparison, studies of digital capitalism should clarify how structure and process interact in historically specific ways. In what follows, I return to my opening concern—the relation between digital media and capitalism—and suggest how a dialectical, historical mode of analysis would proceed in response. Because capitalism is an abstract system and a concrete history, the originary question of this piece must be divided into two. First, how does digital technology influence capitalism as an abstract system? Put simply, it does not. Digital media does not alter the abstract relational forms of capitalism in any substantive sense. Private ownership remains firmly in place. Wage labor still dominates the field of work. Commodity markets continue to operate. Enduring are the abstract relational forms of capitalist production, labor, and exchange.12 Second, how does digital technology influence capitalism as a concrete series of historical developments? Let me count the ways. Digital infrastructure is now an important property type. Digital networks form a relatively significant portion of total capital assets worldwide, although financial and industrial capital remain the major property types (Fuchs, 2013). Proprietary data, including meta-data collected through internet platforms; digital currencies, including virtual currencies and cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin; and financial technologies in the banking and insurance sectors are now important property types, as well. A dialectical account of digital capitalism would relate investment in digital infrastructure to the structural tendencies of private ownership, including the maximization of returns. As a point of contrast, how does tenure of digital infrastructure differ from proprietorship of agricultural livestock or industrial factories? In the realm of market type, digital technology functions as a circulation infrastructure for the interchange of goods, services, and money. This is notably the case in the financial sector, where elaborate computational systems, digital wallets, and peer-to-peer payment systems underwrite global trade networks. This is also the case with online exchange platforms—not only corporate sites like Amazon and Alibaba but also community sites like Craigslist and Silk Road (Pace, 2017). A dialectical account of digital capitalism would connect the operation of these exchange processes to the structural tendencies of commodity markets, such as the minimization of transaction costs. How does the movement of money through digitized stock markets differ from the movement of currency through merchant trade routes? Concerning work type, digital technology serves as a labor tool by which workers complete variegated tasks. This includes work directly oriented around information technology, such as computer programming and software design, as well work loosely involving digital technology, such as corporate accounting and risk management. Additionally, digital technology functions as a labor infrastructure for the storing of records and the tracking of worker performance, as with blockchains for financial reports and digitized time clocks, respectively.13 A dialectical account of digital capitalism would connect digital media in the workplace to the structural tendencies of wage labor, including the maximization of labor time. How does the incorporation of digital media into work processes differ from the implementation of mechanized tools and time clocks in industrial settings, as famously described by Thompson (1967)? Digital technology plays a significant role in certain production styles. Digital media may serve directly as a productive technology. Computer processors that create software, online platforms that generate data, and digital cameras that record film footage are clear examples of digital productive technologies. Digital media may furthermore function as a production method that indirectly underwrites the production process. Central here is robotic automated control of industrial machinery, from automotive manufacture to fossil fuel extraction. Conspicuously, digital media serves as a commodity, in the case of hardware, software, and digital consumer goods sold on the market. More extensively, digital media functions as a commodity infrastructure for the operation of consumer goods, ranging from microwaves and washing machines to the emergent internet of things. A dialectical account of digital capitalism would consider how the structural tendencies of private ownership and commodity markets, such the declining rate of profit, mediate the development of digital technology in production and exchange. How does digital automation today differ from industrial mechanization in the 19th century? How does the circulation of consumer electronics contrast with the circulation of tobacco, tea, sugar, or cloth in late modern Europe? Finally, digital media today influences management style and accumulation style. Digital technology often serves as a managerial tool within firms, as evidenced in the widespread adopton of email communications, corporate intranets, and video conferencing services. Moreover, digital media functions as an accumulation infrastructure: flexible production strategies, in particular, rely on digital technology to deliver real-time market information that informs the pace and scope of manufacture. A dialectical account of digital capitalism would connect the structural tendencies of wage labor to the adoption of digital media within firms, as well as the structural tendencies of commodity markets to the range of digital accumulation strategies. How does the adoption of email vary from the use of telephone as the predominant mode of intra-firm communication? How does the digital circulation of market information diverge from its postal predecessor? Dialectics as logic and method The literature on digital capitalism is representative of broader trends in contemporary media theory. On the one hand, there is a disconcerting tendency to allege systemic transformations where none have transpired. When Fuchs (2013) argues that digital technologies “transform the means of production and the relations of production” (p. 419), he vastly overstates his case: industrial technology still dominates the field of production, and private property remains the rule of the day. Analogously, in his now-famous essay on immaterial labor, Lazzarato (1996) boldly contends, “Waged labor and direct subordination (to organization) no longer constitute the principal form of the contractual relationship between capitalist and worker” (p. 140.0). Not only is the empirical support for this broad claim conspicuously absent, but the argument itself conceals the vast range of waged and formally subordinated work that remains the sine qua non of capitalist labor relations. Benkler (2006) makes a comparable error when he argues that “the material conditions of production in the networked information economy have changed in ways that increase the relative salience of social sharing and exchange” (p. 92). Digital markets certainly exhibit anomalous economic tendencies, but Benkler’s argument elides the pervasive rejection of sharing throughout the capitalist marketplace. In these three cases, historical changes in production style, work type, and market type are conflated with structural changes in private ownership, wage labor, and commodity markets. Sweeping claims about structural transformation should generally be avoided, unless the empirical evidence occasions such claims. Structural transformations are intellectually seductive, as evinced by recent theorizations of economic, social, and cultural paradigm shifts. Part of the difficulty of understanding capitalism today is understanding its relation to contemporaneous structures: information and network society, knowledge and post-industrial society, and hypermodernity and postmodernity. The desire for cognitive mapping in complex times is understandable, but an abundance of maps can have the adverse effect of disorientation. By remaining on the mezzo level of analysis, theorists today can base their claims of structural transformation on concrete processual grounds. Otherwise, one risks a backlash against structural theorization as such. This leads to my next point. There is an equally disconcerting tendency in contemporary media theory to avoid structural perspectives altogether, as in Latour’s (2005) influential actor–network approach. Latour is justifiably concerned that structural explanations, including those associated with capitalism, are undermining attention to processual developments. I agree that capitalism, in itself, is an inadequate explanation for the diversity of contemporary economic processes. Yet the solution to an entrenched, monocausal structuralism is not a dynamic, multidimensional nominalism. Inverting a problem is rarely the route to solving it. The superlative solution is a dialectical mediation of structuralism and nominalism: the structure’s complex actualization in particular and contingent processes. Dialectical logic and historical comparison make possible those flexible, nuanced, and process-oriented elaborations of structural tendencies. Foucault (1997), generally unfriendly toward dialectics, offers similar advice in his remarks on method. I close with his words: Not that all-encompassing and global theories haven’t, in fairly constant fashion, provided—and don’t continue to provide—tools that can be used at the local level; Marxism and psychoanalysis are living proof that they can. But they have provided tools that can be used at the local level only when the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalized, and so on. (p. 6) Footnotes 1 Castells (2000) likewise distinguishes between digital productive technology and productive technology controlled by a digital apparatus (p. 100). 2 On the centrality of media ownership in the political economy of communication, see McChesney (2008). 3 Castells (2000) explicitly connects these two developments in his discussion of the network enterprise, which employs digital media to control the production process (p. 187). 4 Such was Marx’s foundational problematic in theorizing capitalism (Mandel, 1972). 5 For an excellent bibliography on the history of capitalism, see Peacock (2012). 6 The generation of profit is what distinguishes capitalist commodity production from simple commodity production (Marx, [1885] 1978, p. 155). 7 There has been a good deal of debate over whether or not slave labor is properly capitalist. For an affirmative argument, see Wallerstein ([1974] 2011). For a dissenting argument, see Genovese (1989). 8 In the interest of brevity, I must bracket the question of how best to periodize capitalism. I have chosen what I hope is the least controversial course by dividing Western capitalism into four periods: agricultural, merchant, industrial, and financial. 9 I prefer “production style” over “forces of production”, because the latter connotes an emphasis on power sources, proper to the historical circumstances of Marx’s writing. Further, I prefer “style” over “process”, because style implies variability (even if it risks implying superficiality), and because “process” functions as a methodological term in this piece. 10 Marx ([1867] 1976) makes a similar point when characterizing industrial technology. Wary that his contemporaries would attribute the wealth of industrial England to machines rather than to workers, he explained, “If we look at the creation and the alteration of value for themselves, i.e., in their pure form, then the means of production, the physical shape taken on by constant capital, provides only the material in which fluid, value-creating labour-power has to be incorporated. Neither the nature nor the value of this material is of any importance” (p. 323). 11 See, for instance, Piore and Sabel (1984), Coriat (1990), and Boltanski and Chiapello (1999). 12 Garnham ([1998] 2004) makes a similar argument in discounting the concept of information society. 13 Upchurch (2016) argues that the tracking of worker performance constitutes the fundamental influence of digital technology on contemporary capitalism. References Aston, T. H., & Philpin, C. H. E. (Eds.). ( 1985). The Brenner debate: Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe . Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Benkler, Y. ( 2006). The wealth of networks . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Betancourt, M. ( 2010). Immaterial value and scarcity in digital capitalism. Ctheory, October, no pagination. Retrieved from: http://ctheory.net/ctheory_wp/immaterial-value-and-scarcity-in-digital-capitalism/ Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. ( 1999). The new spirit of capitalism.  (trans., G. Elliott). London: Verso. Braudel, F. ( 1982). The wheels of commerce . Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. Castells, M. ( 2000). The rise of the network society . Chichester: Blackwell Publishing. Chandler, A. ( 1965). The railroads: Pioneers in modern corporate management. Business History Review , 39( 1), 16– 40. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3112463 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Coriat, B. ( 1990). L’Atelier et le robot . Paris: Christian Bourgois Editeur. Crary, J. ( 2013). 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep . London: Verso. Dobb, M. ( 1946). Studies in the development of capitalism . New York: International Publishers. Engels, F. ([ 1845] 2009). The condition of the working class in England . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Foucault, M. ( 1997). “Society must be defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 . (trans., D. Macey). New York: Picador. Fuchs, C. ( 2009a). A contribution of the critique of the political economy of transnational informational capitalism. Rethinking Marxism , 21( 3), 387– 402. doi:10.1080/08935690902955104 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fuchs, C. ( 2009b). Information and communication technologies and society: A contribution to the critique of the political economy of the Internet. European Journal of Communication , 24( 1), 69– 87. doi:10.1177/0267323108098947 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fuchs, C. ( 2010). Labor in informational capitalism and on the Internet. The Information Society , 26( 3), 176– 196. doi:10.1080/01972241003712215 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fuchs, C. ( 2013). Capitalism or information society? The fundamental question of the present structure of society. European Journal of Social Theory , 16( 4), 413– 434. doi:10.1177/1368431012461432 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fuchs, C. ( 2014). Digital labour and Karl Marx . New York: Routledge. Fuchs, C. ( 2015). Culture and economy in the age of social media . New York: Routledge. Fuchs, C. ( 2016a). Reading Marx in the information age: A media and communication studies perspective on Capital, Volume 1 . New York: Routledge. Fuchs, C. ( 2016b). Critical theory of communication: New readings of Lukács, Adorno, Marcuse, Honneth, and Habermas in the age of the Internet . London: University of Westminster Press. Garnham, N. ([ 1998] 2004). Information society theory as ideology. In F. Webster (Ed.), The information society reader  (pp. 165– 185). New York: Routledge. Genovese, E. ( 1989). The political economy of slavery: Studies in the economy and society of the Slave South . Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Hall, S. ( 1977). Re-thinking the “base-and-superstructure” metaphor. In J. Bloomsfield (Ed.), Papers on class, hegemony, and party  (pp. 43– 72). London: Lawrence and Wishart. Harvey, D. ( 2014). Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism . London: Profile Books. Hegel, G. W. ([ 1812] 1991). Science of logic.  (trans., A. V. Miller). New York: Prometheus. Hilton, R., Sweezy, P., Dobb, M., Takahashi, K., Hill, C., Lefebvre, G., ... Merrington, J. ( 1976). The transition from feudalism to capitalism . London: Verso. Hobsbawm, E. J. ([ 1962] 1996). The age of revolution, 1789–1848 . New York: Vintage Books. Hobsbawm, E. J. ( 1999). Industry and empire: The birth of the industrial revolution . London: The New Press. Lapavitsas, C. ( 2014). Profiting without producing: How finance exploits us all . London: Verso. Latour, B. ( 2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor–network theory . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Lazzarato, M. ( 1996). Immaterial labor. In P. Virno & M. Hardt (Eds.), Radical thought in Italy  (pp. 132.3– 146.7). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Licht, W. ( 1986). The dialectics of bureaucratization: The case of nineteenth-century American railway workers. In C. Stephenson & R. Asher (Eds.), Life and labor: Dimensions of American working-class history  (pp. 92–114). New York: SUNY Press. Licht, W. ( 1995). Industrializing America: The nineteenth century . Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. Mandel, E. ( 1972). Late capitalism . London: Verso. Marx, K. ([ 1867] 1976). Capital, Volume I.  (trans., D. Fernbach). London: Pengiun Books. Marx, K. ([ 1885] 1978). Capital, Volume II.  (trans., D. Fernbach). London: Pengiun Books. McChesney, R. W. ( 2008). The political economy of media: Enduring issues, emerging dilemmas . New York: Monthly Review Press. Nachtwey, O., & Staab, P. ( 2015). Die Avantgarde des digitalen Kapitalismus. Mittelweg , 36( 6), 59– 84. Retrieved from: http://www.his-online.de/zeitschrift/mw36-archiv/1225/62015 Pace, J. ( 2017). Exchange relations on the dark web. Critical Studies in Media Communication , 34( 1). doi: 10.1080/15295036.2016.1243240 Peacock, K. ( 2012). History of capitalism reading list. Retrieved from: https://networks.h-net.org/node/GROUP_NID/blog/81875/history-capitalism-reading-list Piore, M., & Sabel, C. ( 1984). The second industrial divide: Possibilities for prosperity . New York, NY: Basic Books. Polanyi, K. ( 1944). The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time . Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Qiu, J. L. ( 2014). Goodbye iSlave: Foxconn, Digital Capitalism, and Networked Labor Resistance. Chinese Journal of Sociology , 34( 4), 119– 137. doi:10.15992/j.cnki.31-1123/c.2014.04.010 Schiller, D. ( 1999). Digital capitalism: Networking the global market system . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Schiller, D. ( 2007). How to think about information . Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. Schiller, D. ( 2011). Power under pressure: Digital capitalism in crisis. International Journal of Communication , 5, 924– 941. Retrieved from: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=a79c257b-6306-4b0a-be72-6b7d63d7300a%40sessionmgr102&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=97317270&db=cms Singh, M. ( 1997). The political economy of agrarian capitalism. Social Scientist , 25, 31– 47. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3517592 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Thompson, E. P. ( 1967). Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism. Past and Present , 38, 56– 97. Retrieved from: www.jstor.org/stable/649749 Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Upchurch, M. ( 2016). Into the digital void? International Socialism, 152, no pagination. Retrieved from: http://isj.org.uk/into-the-digital-void Wajcman, J. ( 2015). Pressed for time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism . Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Wallerstein, I. ([ 1974] 2011). Capitalist agriculture and the origins of the European world-economy in the sixteenth century . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Wallerstein, I. ([ 1989] 2011). The second era of great expansion of the capitalist world-system, 1730s-1840s . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Communication Theory Oxford University Press

The Concept of Digital Capitalism

Communication Theory , Volume Advance Article – Apr 18, 2018

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Abstract

Abstract In this article, I develop a dialectical, historical account of digital capitalism that moves beyond nominalist and structuralist approaches. I proceed in three parts. First, I provide an overview of the topical literature, focusing on the exemplary work of D. Schiller (1999) and C. Fuchs (2013). Second, I define capitalism in its dual capacity as an abstract system with core features and a nominal series of historical developments. Third, I reformulate the concept of digital capitalism and sketch the relation between digital media and capitalism as a point of departure for future research. I conclude with a discussion of structuralism and nominalism in contemporary media theory. Introduction Digital capitalism is an ambiguous concept in contemporary media theory. Topical studies are either excessively nominalist, detailing particular processes without recourse to conceptual structures, or excessively structuralist, positing systemic transformations without grounding them in specific developments. Consequently, digital capitalism now signifies several phenomena at once: transformations in technologies of production (Fuchs, 2013), in objects of production (Nachtwey & Staab, 2015), in property regimes of ownership (Schiller, 1999), in work styles of laborers (Betancourt, 2010; Qiu, 2014), and in managerial styles of firms (Wajcman, 2015). The concept is effectively working overtime, generating more confusion than clarity and forestalling a sophisticated answer to the paramount question: what is the relation between digital media and capitalism? My objective in this article is to develop a dialectical, historical account of digital capitalism that moves beyond nominalist and structuralist approaches. I proceed in three parts. First, I provide an overview of the topical literature, focusing on the exemplary work of Schiller (1999) and Fuchs (2013). I elaborate the nominalist and the structuralist character of their respective projects and underscore the conceptual inadequacy of their methodological orientations. Second, I define capitalism in its dual capacity as an abstract system with core features and a nominal series of historical developments. I draw on the work of Marx ([1867] 1976) and economic historians, the latter of whom are often overlooked in studies of digital economy. Third, I reformulate the concept of digital capitalism and sketch the relation between digital media and capitalism as a point of departure for future research. This reformulation is meant to illustrate the conceptual level at which analysis should proceed, not to provide a definitive account of digital capitalism that would end critical debate. I conclude with a discussion of structuralism and nominalism in contemporary media theory. Nominalism and structuralism Schiller (1999) and Fuchs (2013), writing on either side of Web 2.0, offer preliminary accounts of capitalism after digital media. Their work is well researched and rigorously argued. This is precisely what makes it worthy of robust critique, as conceptual problems in superlative works are prone to both oversight and reproduction. The following criticism emerges out of deep respect for their projects, which remain essential resources for those interested in digital media and capitalism. That said, Schiller and Fuchs respectively exemplify the nominalist and the structuralist trends in studies of digital capitalism. Schiller maps out recent developments in production, ownership, and management, but he lacks a conceptual structure within which those developments might cohere. Fuchs charts a structural framework, but he neglects the nuances of the developments thereby framed. Neither offers a robust definition of digital capitalism nor explains precisely how digital technology is related to capitalism’s core structure. Before elaborating my own account of digital capitalism, I outline the arguments of Schiller and Fuchs, in order to highlight the shortcomings of their respective orientations. In his foundational work on the concept, Schiller (1999) offers three distinct definitions of digital capitalism. First, he defines digital capitalism as a historical period or “epoch” (p. xvi), in which digital media constitutes “the central production and control apparatus of an increasingly supranational market system” (p. xiv). For Schiller, digital media is not itself the central productive technology of contemporary capitalism but, rather, the central apparatus by which workers control productive technologies.1 Remote access, for instance, constitutes a digital production apparatus: digitized machines may be operated from anywhere in the world, making possible the transnational production chains that have come to be associated with post-Fordism. In this first definition, capitalism is digital, insofar as contemporary production processes require digital technologies for their integrity and efficacy. Second, Schiller defines digital capitalism as a property regime, marked by the private ownership of digital networks. The privatization of digital infrastructure in the United States occurred through the neoliberalization of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) telecommunications law in the 1990s. This was made possible by extensive corporate lobbying efforts, “animated by a shared political axiom: that corporate capital’s ownership and control of networks should be put beyond dispute, even beyond discussion” (p. 1). Because Schiller dedicates the bulk of his work to detailing these neoliberal reforms, and because the political economy of communication traditionally foregrounds media ownership, this particular definition remains the salient one in the topical literature.2 This is also the definition that Schiller purveys in his later work on the topic, which centers on information as a commodity (2007) and the ownership of global information systems (2011). In this second definition, capitalism is digital, because digital networks are privately owned and utilized for the generation of commercial profit. Third, Schiller defines digital capitalism as a management style organized around digital networks. He details the growing importance of digital media for the internal operation of contemporary firms: By the mid-1960s, manufacturers, banks, insurance companies, utilities, and retailers were operating two-thirds of a greatly enlarged base—some 35,000 installations—of computer facilities. Many computer applications sought to rely increasingly heavily on telecommunications to make data-processing power available more broadly to business organizations. Originating as discrete islands of computer functionality (as different classes of service, or discrete applications, are sometimes called) in payroll, accounting, inventory, and other administrative areas, disparate networks soon began to unfurl into other fields: sales, credit authorization, customer service, production scheduling, and research and development. (1999, pp. 2–3) Both productive technologies and in-house operations are interlaced with digital media.3 In this third definition, capitalism is digital, because major companies employ digital networks for an expanding host of intra-firm activities. In Schiller’s work, then, digital capitalism alternately signifies a historical period, in which digital technology makes possible transnational production chains; a property regime, in which digital infrastructure is privately owned; and a management style, in which digital media permeates major capitalist enterprises. Schiller neither defines capitalism as such nor explains how these particular processes—production chains, network ownership, and firm management—are related to capitalism’s core structure. It remains to be seen why the concept of capitalism is invoked at all. Why not simply refer to digital production, digital ownership, and digital management? The elaboration of particular processes without recourse to a conceptual structure leads Schiller into a nominalist dead-end: the specific developments are abundantly clear, but their relation to the broader system remains uncertain. Conversely, Fuchs sketches the broader system but neglects the particular processes embedded therein. In “Capitalism or Information Society?” (2013), Fuchs directly addresses the question of how to define our current political-economic structure. This piece is unique in its singular focus on the conceptual framework of informational capitalism—a framework that, elsewhere, serves as the analytic mise-en-scène of Fuchs’ theorization of digital labor (see, in particular, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016a, 2016b). Drawing on Marx and Hegel, he argues that three elements comprise the forces of production under capitalism: the means or technologies of production, the objects of production, and the work of laborers (2013, p. 423). Digital technology, Fuchs argues, transforms each of these, leading to what he calls transnational informational capitalism: The search by capital for new strategies and forms of capital accumulation transforms labour in such a way that cognitive, communicative, and co-operative labour forms a significant amount of overall labour time (a development enforced by the rise of the ideology of self-discipline of “participatory management”), but at the same time this labour is heavily mediated by information technologies and produces to a certain extent tangible informational goods (as well as intangible informational services). The notion of transnational informational capitalism grasps this subject–object dialectic, it conceptualizes contemporary capitalism based on the rise of cognitive, communicative, and co-operative labour that is interconnected with the rise of technologies and goods that objectify human cognition, communication, and co-operation. (2013, p. 419) For Fuchs, knowledge and information technology “transform the means of production” (2013, p. 419), because they “have become important means for producing commodities” (2013, p. 425). Those commodities are themselves “to a certain extent” informational, and the labor through which they are produced is “heavily mediated by information technologies” (2013, p. 419). Capitalism is informational, because its productive machinery, its manufactured commodities, and its work styles have become intertwined with information technology. When he turns to the economic data for confirmation, however, Fuchs notes that information technology constitutes a relatively small share of total capital assets worldwide. Rather than resolve the contradiction between his structural claim and these processual developments, Fuchs backtracks on his thesis in order to preserve it: Therefore, the notion of information capitalism does not make sense as a category of totality. It only makes sense when describing the degree, to which the capitalist mode of production is using informational productive forces to accumulate capital in class relations, i.e., by exploiting surplus value. (2013, p. 427) Fuchs arrives at the same logical quagmire as Schiller, albeit through a different route. If information technology has not transformed the forces of production, why purvey the structural concept of informational capitalism at all? Why not simply refer to informational production, informational commodities, and informational labor? Further, if informational capitalism and industrial capitalism overlap, on what theoretical grounds can there be partial systems? Are not systems, by their very nature, total? The employment of a conceptual structure without grounding in particular processes leads Fuchs into a structuralist fallacy: the specific developments do not “add up” to a shift in the broader system. Where the nominalist approach of Schiller leads to a conceptual dead-end, the structuralist approach of Fuchs leads to a conceptual fallacy. There is evidently a problem with the concept of digital capitalism itself—or, more precisely, with its conceptual operationalization in theory. If particular digital processes are the exclusive objects of study, then capitalism as an economic structure enters the analysis as an indeterminate backdrop. If capitalism as an economic structure is the exclusive object of study, then particular digital processes enter the analysis as retroactive evidentiary support. How might one circumvent these conceptual-cum-methodological quagmires? What is required, I argue, is a dialectical approach that mediates process and structure. Capitalism is an abstract system with formal features and a concrete series of historical developments. In other words, capitalism is a conceptual structure that transcends its specific manifestations in history, as well as those historical manifestations themselves. Capitalism as a structural concept and capitalism as a processual history are connected in practice (the history informs the concept) but distinct in theory (the concept exceeds the history). A great deal of intellectual confusion has resulted from a failure to distinguish between these dual capacities, for substantive historical changes do not imply substantive structural changes. Dialectical logic furnishes a sophisticated conceptual and methodological approach to capitalism in its dual capacities. Hegel ([1812] 1991) characterizes dialectical logic as that which mediates the universal and the particular but does not collapse the latter into the former: “a universal which embraces within itself the wealth of the particular” (p. 38). Capitalism does not develop in a historical vaccum (it is not purely universal), but it cannot be reduced to its concrete instances either (it is not purely particular). Capitalism must be understood as the mediated unity between conceptual structure and empirical history.4 Accordingly, studies of digital capitalism require a dialectical mediation between abstract system and concrete process. In what follows, I define capitalism in its dual capacity as an abstract system and a concrete history, before developing a preliminary list of digital processes within contemporary capitalism. Capitalism as abstract system and concrete history There are numerous theorists of capitalism, each of whom offers a unique definition of capitalism’s structure and history. These include classical political economists (Smith, Ricardo, Mills, Marshall), 20th-century economists (Keynes, von Mises, Friedman, Stigler, Hayek), Marxist economists (Mandel, Kalecki, Baran, Sweezy), heterodox economic thinkers (Schumpeter, Polanyi, Wallerstein), and various historians of capitalism, whose work has recently undergone a well-deserved intellectual renaissance.5 A longer essay would tease out these bodies of work, consider their differences and similarities, and contextualize them within intellectual and sociopolitical history. Space constraints and the need for focus, however, suggest a singular figure to guide us through the complexities of this topic. I have chosen Marx as this figure, mainly because he develops an understanding of the economy as a composite system of production, circulation, and consumption. Distinguishing between these three spheres will help in clarifying the structure of capitalism, its internal dynamics, and its historical variations. It is worth noting a lacuna in Marx’s work that will reappear in my analysis: the role of the state in capitalism. This topic has been a thorn in the side of Marxist thought for several decades, as Marx’s promised volume on the state was never written (Hall, 1977). Some theorists, such Althusser and Poulantzas, have suggested that capitalism cannot be understood without the apparatus of the state. I agree that the state is important to the maintenance of capitalism, but I also maintain that capitalism is a discrete economic system that warrants its own analysis. In other words, before we can understand the relation between capitalism and the state, we must first understand capitalism on its own terms. In Capital, Volume I, Marx ([1867] 1976) defines capitalism as an abstract system, composed three relational forms: production relations of private ownership, labor relations of wage labor, and exchange relations of commodity markets. These relational forms are conceptual schemas that encompass but exceed their historical manifestations. Private ownership, for instance, is the abstract relational form of historical types of property, such as land or machinery. Likewise, capitalism as an abstract system is a conceptual structure that encompasses but exceeds its historical manifestations, such as industrial capitalism in 19th-century England or financial capitalism in 20th-century Japan. To unpack capitalism as an abstract system, I elaborate its constitutive relational forms in turn. Understood principally as a mode of production, capitalism is marked by executive ownership of the production process. Workers own neither the technologies by which goods are produced (the means of production) nor the finished objects of manufacture (the commodities). Accordingly, a central precondition for capitalist production is the “historical process of divorcing the producer [i.e., the worker] from the means of production” ([1867] 1976, p. 874). Where, for instance, agricultural workers under feudalism supplied their own means of subsistence by working on common land, agricultural workers under capitalism obtain their means of subsistence by working on another’s privately owned land and receiving a wage (p. 928). This ownership arrangement, which Marx refers to as “the social relations of production” (p. 677) or simply as “the capital-relation” (p. 875), becomes a point of departure for the generation of private profit: the owner of productive technologies can orchestrate the manufacture of a commodity that is subsequently sold at a higher value than its original production cost.6 The entire production process becomes accordingly organized around the generation of profit through the manufacture of commodities to be sold on the market. Wage labor directly underwrites the generation of commercial profit under capitalism. Marx argues that labor is the source of value ([1867] 1976, pp. 133–137) and that wage laborers under capitalism produce value in excess of their compensation (pp. 282–306). Marx refers to this excess as “surplus-value” (p. 325). The historical specificity of wage labor consists not only in its contractual form, as opposed to the coercive form of slavery or the tributary form of serfdom, but also in its blurring or “mingling” of compensated and non-compensated labor.7 In other words, the wage laborer does not know at which point the value of her work begins to exceed her compensation (p. 346). Studies of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, then, are accounts of how workers lose direct ownership over their means of production and enter into relations of wage labor (Aston & Philpin, 1985; Dobb, 1946; Hilton et al., 1976). Commodity markets are likewise central to the regular generation of commercial profit under capitalism. The value of a commodity, created through labor in the sphere of production, can only be realized as money in the sphere of exchange (Marx, [1867] 1976, p. 302). That money is not only the source of revenue for the executive but also the means by which the production process begins anew, with fresh labor, materials, and machinery. Manufactured goods must be sold on the market if the cycle of production and circulation is to continue. Furthermore, the production process is itself oriented toward the commodity market, insofar as goods are only produced if they can be sold at a profit. Consequently, a lack of consumer demand on the market leads to a crisis of the capitalist circuit: no consumer demand, no commodity sale; no commodity sale, no renewed production. These abstract relational forms furnish the basic coordinates within which the history of capitalism unfolds. They are the foundations for the structural tendencies of capitalism, often referred to as “the general laws of motion of capital” or “the contradictions of capital” (Harvey, 2014). Wage rates provide a clear-cut example of these laws in operation. When production technologies are privately owned, executives are compelled to minimize wages in order to maximize profit. Without maximal profit, they are unable to effectively compete with other enterprises, and they risk going out of business. The structure of private ownership (and its corrollary of inter-firm competition) accordingly incentivizes executives to depress wages. Yet executives also require adequate levels of consumer spending from the working public in order to sell goods on the market. Hence, in a structural contradiction, each executive requires her workers to be paid minimally and other workers to be paid maximally. Historically specific solutions, such as a state-mandated minimum wage, may then emerge to soften this structural contradiction. Capitalism as a series of concrete historical developments may be divided into six areas: property type, work type, market type, production style, accumulation style, and management style. These six areas belong not to capitalism’s conceptual structure but to capitalism’s processual history. In other words, they vary according to time, place, and circumstance, but this variation does not alter the central operating procedures of capitalism.8 Changes in these areas do not constitute structural transformations but historical variations. I consider them in turn. Property type, sometimes known as capital assets, refers to tangible and intangible objects of private ownership: land and tenancy rights, machinery and trademarks, gold and precious metals, shares and securities, and so forth. These vary in prevalence and importance across historical circumstance. Agricultural capitalism featured land, livestock, and farm equipment as central property types (Aston & Philpin, 1985). Luxury goods, precious metals, and means of travel were among the most lucrative assets during merchant capitalism (Braudel, 1982). Industrial capitalism was marked by the rise of machinery and raw materials as dominant property types (Hobsbawm, 1999; Licht, 1995). Today, financial capitalism is distinguished by the growing importance of monetary property, including bonds, stocks, and futures (Lapavitsas, 2014). The circumstantial development of property type belongs to capitalism’s concrete history rather than its conceptual structure. Private ownership as a system of legal rights remains unaffected by the empirical range of capital assets. Work type concerns the varieties of wage labor employed in the production of profit: agricultural, factory, intellectual, and so on. Agricultural capitalism heavily featured agrarian labor (Wallerstein, [1974] 2011), just as merchant capitalism saw the flourishing of private financiers and wholesale traders (Braudel, 1982). Factory work was endemic to industrial capitalism, as recorded in Engels’ famous account ([1845] 2009). High-speed, intellectual labor is a cornerstone of financial capitalism (Lapavitsas, 2014). As with private ownership, the abstract relational form of wage labor encompasses the historical array of work types and remains unchanged by their development. So-called immaterial labor, for instance, may indeed “force us to question the classic definitions of work and workforce” (Lazzarato, 1996, p. 136.7), but it does not alter the abstract relational form of capitalist wage labor. Market type refers to the diverse spaces of commodity exchange: community and neighborhood, arcade and bazaar, stock market and securities market, etc. Local markets flourished during agricultural capitalism, when expropriated peasants could no longer furnish their own means of subsistence (Dobb, 1946). Merchant capitalism relied on thriving intercontinental trading routes (Braudel, 1982). Markets in labor, land, and money were important preconditions to industrial capitalism (Polanyi, 1944). Today, stock exchanges are central to the procedures of financial capitalism (Lapavitsas, 2014). Although these markets differ vastly in size, scope, speed, and stability, they are nonetheless functions of the abstract relational form of the commodity market. Even contemporary stock exchanges, which make possible “profit without production” (Lapavitsas, 2014, p. 143), follow the logic of surplus-value, albeit without the mediation of a material commodity. Production style refers to the technological arrangements through which goods and services are manufactured or provided.9 This includes the production machineries, raw materials, power sources, technical methods, and finished objects of production. Agricultural capitalism featured agronomic production methods, namely the tilling of soil, the growing of crops, and the raising of livestock (Dobb, 1946). Merchant capitalism witnessed minor advancements in manufacture (Braudel, 1982), but it was not until the industrial revolution that a radical transformation of production style occurred. Industrial capitalism reaped the rewards of this technological paradigm shift, over which much ink has been spilled. Yet industrial technology did not alter the abstract relation form of capitalist production, still organized around the generation of executive profit through wage labor. This assertion is not meant to undermine industrial technology’s historical significance but, rather, to distinguish between the concrete development of technology and the abstract relational form of private ownership.10 Relatedly, accumulation style is the set of production strategies designed to maximize profit. These strategies concern the scale, scope, and temporality of the production process. Seasons and acreage governed the yield of crop during agricultural capitalism (Singh, 1997), and merchants could turn over goods only as quickly as they could travel over land or sea (Braudel, 1982). Industrial capitalism witnessed a massive acceleration and expansion of production (Hobsbawm, [1962] 1996; Wallerstein, [1989] 2011). In financial capitalism, money moves around the globe 24 hours a day, with high-frequency trading occuring by the second or the millisecond (Crary, 2013; Lapavitsas, 2014). This heightened temporality finds its counterpart in the shift from mass production to flexible production, another subject of extensive research.11 Where mass production is geographically centralized and based on economies of scale (massive investments in a high volume of goods), flexible production is geographically scattered and based on economies of scope (customized investments tailored to level of demand). These “networked transformations” (Castells, 2000), though historically substantive, do not modify the abstract relational forms of private ownership and commodity markets. Management style denotes the internal organization of firms: their work arrangements, job hierarchies, administrative operations, and department structures. Major transformations in management style belong to relatively recent history. The 19th century witnessed the advent of corporate management techniques in the American railroad industry (Chandler, 1965). There, the hierarchical command chains of factory work gave way to the decentralized command structures of administrative work (Licht, 1986). Major firms went from decentralized to distributed in the latter half of the 20th century, delegating assignments to project-driven teams of semi-autonomous workers (Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999). The abstract relational form of wage labor remains impervious to such developments, despite the latter’s significance in processes of capitalist work. Digital capitalism: a dialectical, historical approach I can now reformulate the concept of digital capitalism and sketch the relation between digital technology and capitalist economy. Digital capitalism is the collection of processes, sites, and moments in which digital technology mediates the structural tendencies of capitalism. Digital capitalism is neither a structural totality nor a historical period. It is capitalism’s complex actualization in digital processes—a local phenomenon that should function as the starting point of inquiry rather than the conclusion. Digital capitalism is not the structural cause of certain developments but those nominal developments themselves insofar as they emerge from the intersection of digital process and capitalist structure. When Schiller (2011) writes that “digital capitalism gave fresh impulse to accumulation” (p. 930), he mistakenly construes digital capitalism as a structural cause of accumulation, rather than as the historical interaction or mediation between digital process and capitalist structure. A more nuanced claim would be that the private accumulation of capital (a structural tendency) occurs through investment in digital infrastructure (a processual development) and confronts historically specific obstacles and possibilities in the process (a dialectical mediation). Digital capitalism is the modus operandi by which the structural needs of capital are tailored to digital conditions. Through dialectical logic and historical comparison, studies of digital capitalism should clarify how structure and process interact in historically specific ways. In what follows, I return to my opening concern—the relation between digital media and capitalism—and suggest how a dialectical, historical mode of analysis would proceed in response. Because capitalism is an abstract system and a concrete history, the originary question of this piece must be divided into two. First, how does digital technology influence capitalism as an abstract system? Put simply, it does not. Digital media does not alter the abstract relational forms of capitalism in any substantive sense. Private ownership remains firmly in place. Wage labor still dominates the field of work. Commodity markets continue to operate. Enduring are the abstract relational forms of capitalist production, labor, and exchange.12 Second, how does digital technology influence capitalism as a concrete series of historical developments? Let me count the ways. Digital infrastructure is now an important property type. Digital networks form a relatively significant portion of total capital assets worldwide, although financial and industrial capital remain the major property types (Fuchs, 2013). Proprietary data, including meta-data collected through internet platforms; digital currencies, including virtual currencies and cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin; and financial technologies in the banking and insurance sectors are now important property types, as well. A dialectical account of digital capitalism would relate investment in digital infrastructure to the structural tendencies of private ownership, including the maximization of returns. As a point of contrast, how does tenure of digital infrastructure differ from proprietorship of agricultural livestock or industrial factories? In the realm of market type, digital technology functions as a circulation infrastructure for the interchange of goods, services, and money. This is notably the case in the financial sector, where elaborate computational systems, digital wallets, and peer-to-peer payment systems underwrite global trade networks. This is also the case with online exchange platforms—not only corporate sites like Amazon and Alibaba but also community sites like Craigslist and Silk Road (Pace, 2017). A dialectical account of digital capitalism would connect the operation of these exchange processes to the structural tendencies of commodity markets, such as the minimization of transaction costs. How does the movement of money through digitized stock markets differ from the movement of currency through merchant trade routes? Concerning work type, digital technology serves as a labor tool by which workers complete variegated tasks. This includes work directly oriented around information technology, such as computer programming and software design, as well work loosely involving digital technology, such as corporate accounting and risk management. Additionally, digital technology functions as a labor infrastructure for the storing of records and the tracking of worker performance, as with blockchains for financial reports and digitized time clocks, respectively.13 A dialectical account of digital capitalism would connect digital media in the workplace to the structural tendencies of wage labor, including the maximization of labor time. How does the incorporation of digital media into work processes differ from the implementation of mechanized tools and time clocks in industrial settings, as famously described by Thompson (1967)? Digital technology plays a significant role in certain production styles. Digital media may serve directly as a productive technology. Computer processors that create software, online platforms that generate data, and digital cameras that record film footage are clear examples of digital productive technologies. Digital media may furthermore function as a production method that indirectly underwrites the production process. Central here is robotic automated control of industrial machinery, from automotive manufacture to fossil fuel extraction. Conspicuously, digital media serves as a commodity, in the case of hardware, software, and digital consumer goods sold on the market. More extensively, digital media functions as a commodity infrastructure for the operation of consumer goods, ranging from microwaves and washing machines to the emergent internet of things. A dialectical account of digital capitalism would consider how the structural tendencies of private ownership and commodity markets, such the declining rate of profit, mediate the development of digital technology in production and exchange. How does digital automation today differ from industrial mechanization in the 19th century? How does the circulation of consumer electronics contrast with the circulation of tobacco, tea, sugar, or cloth in late modern Europe? Finally, digital media today influences management style and accumulation style. Digital technology often serves as a managerial tool within firms, as evidenced in the widespread adopton of email communications, corporate intranets, and video conferencing services. Moreover, digital media functions as an accumulation infrastructure: flexible production strategies, in particular, rely on digital technology to deliver real-time market information that informs the pace and scope of manufacture. A dialectical account of digital capitalism would connect the structural tendencies of wage labor to the adoption of digital media within firms, as well as the structural tendencies of commodity markets to the range of digital accumulation strategies. How does the adoption of email vary from the use of telephone as the predominant mode of intra-firm communication? How does the digital circulation of market information diverge from its postal predecessor? Dialectics as logic and method The literature on digital capitalism is representative of broader trends in contemporary media theory. On the one hand, there is a disconcerting tendency to allege systemic transformations where none have transpired. When Fuchs (2013) argues that digital technologies “transform the means of production and the relations of production” (p. 419), he vastly overstates his case: industrial technology still dominates the field of production, and private property remains the rule of the day. Analogously, in his now-famous essay on immaterial labor, Lazzarato (1996) boldly contends, “Waged labor and direct subordination (to organization) no longer constitute the principal form of the contractual relationship between capitalist and worker” (p. 140.0). Not only is the empirical support for this broad claim conspicuously absent, but the argument itself conceals the vast range of waged and formally subordinated work that remains the sine qua non of capitalist labor relations. Benkler (2006) makes a comparable error when he argues that “the material conditions of production in the networked information economy have changed in ways that increase the relative salience of social sharing and exchange” (p. 92). Digital markets certainly exhibit anomalous economic tendencies, but Benkler’s argument elides the pervasive rejection of sharing throughout the capitalist marketplace. In these three cases, historical changes in production style, work type, and market type are conflated with structural changes in private ownership, wage labor, and commodity markets. Sweeping claims about structural transformation should generally be avoided, unless the empirical evidence occasions such claims. Structural transformations are intellectually seductive, as evinced by recent theorizations of economic, social, and cultural paradigm shifts. Part of the difficulty of understanding capitalism today is understanding its relation to contemporaneous structures: information and network society, knowledge and post-industrial society, and hypermodernity and postmodernity. The desire for cognitive mapping in complex times is understandable, but an abundance of maps can have the adverse effect of disorientation. By remaining on the mezzo level of analysis, theorists today can base their claims of structural transformation on concrete processual grounds. Otherwise, one risks a backlash against structural theorization as such. This leads to my next point. There is an equally disconcerting tendency in contemporary media theory to avoid structural perspectives altogether, as in Latour’s (2005) influential actor–network approach. Latour is justifiably concerned that structural explanations, including those associated with capitalism, are undermining attention to processual developments. I agree that capitalism, in itself, is an inadequate explanation for the diversity of contemporary economic processes. Yet the solution to an entrenched, monocausal structuralism is not a dynamic, multidimensional nominalism. Inverting a problem is rarely the route to solving it. The superlative solution is a dialectical mediation of structuralism and nominalism: the structure’s complex actualization in particular and contingent processes. Dialectical logic and historical comparison make possible those flexible, nuanced, and process-oriented elaborations of structural tendencies. Foucault (1997), generally unfriendly toward dialectics, offers similar advice in his remarks on method. I close with his words: Not that all-encompassing and global theories haven’t, in fairly constant fashion, provided—and don’t continue to provide—tools that can be used at the local level; Marxism and psychoanalysis are living proof that they can. But they have provided tools that can be used at the local level only when the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalized, and so on. (p. 6) Footnotes 1 Castells (2000) likewise distinguishes between digital productive technology and productive technology controlled by a digital apparatus (p. 100). 2 On the centrality of media ownership in the political economy of communication, see McChesney (2008). 3 Castells (2000) explicitly connects these two developments in his discussion of the network enterprise, which employs digital media to control the production process (p. 187). 4 Such was Marx’s foundational problematic in theorizing capitalism (Mandel, 1972). 5 For an excellent bibliography on the history of capitalism, see Peacock (2012). 6 The generation of profit is what distinguishes capitalist commodity production from simple commodity production (Marx, [1885] 1978, p. 155). 7 There has been a good deal of debate over whether or not slave labor is properly capitalist. For an affirmative argument, see Wallerstein ([1974] 2011). For a dissenting argument, see Genovese (1989). 8 In the interest of brevity, I must bracket the question of how best to periodize capitalism. I have chosen what I hope is the least controversial course by dividing Western capitalism into four periods: agricultural, merchant, industrial, and financial. 9 I prefer “production style” over “forces of production”, because the latter connotes an emphasis on power sources, proper to the historical circumstances of Marx’s writing. Further, I prefer “style” over “process”, because style implies variability (even if it risks implying superficiality), and because “process” functions as a methodological term in this piece. 10 Marx ([1867] 1976) makes a similar point when characterizing industrial technology. Wary that his contemporaries would attribute the wealth of industrial England to machines rather than to workers, he explained, “If we look at the creation and the alteration of value for themselves, i.e., in their pure form, then the means of production, the physical shape taken on by constant capital, provides only the material in which fluid, value-creating labour-power has to be incorporated. Neither the nature nor the value of this material is of any importance” (p. 323). 11 See, for instance, Piore and Sabel (1984), Coriat (1990), and Boltanski and Chiapello (1999). 12 Garnham ([1998] 2004) makes a similar argument in discounting the concept of information society. 13 Upchurch (2016) argues that the tracking of worker performance constitutes the fundamental influence of digital technology on contemporary capitalism. References Aston, T. H., & Philpin, C. H. E. (Eds.). ( 1985). The Brenner debate: Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe . 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Communication TheoryOxford University Press

Published: Apr 18, 2018

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