A Marxian Analysis of Information Technology



Guest post by Steven Miller and Satish Musunuru

 (Part 4 of a five-part series on the corporatization of Internet surveillance.)

Relations of Production

Since Bill Gates raised the question, what do communists have to say about turning the Internet into private property? Karl Marx showed how, in every society up to this point in time, the relations of production ultimately strangle the development of the means of production. This, he explained, must lead to a period of social revolution.

The means of production, or productive forces, refers to the tools and technology of human society, up to and including the human mind. The relations of production means the legally established social relations between people – how they interact and work together – that are ultimately determined by forms of property. For example, Americans consider Freedom of Speech perhaps their most important right – guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, freedom of speech vanishes once you are on corporate property. Try telling the boss what you really think of him and you will see how far this right really goes.

That’s a relation of production. So are the minimum wage and the fact that women earn around 75% of what men do for the same job. All forms of discrimination and oppression pay off at the corporate bottom line.

Before the bourgeois revolution swept Europe in 1848, deposing almost all monarchies in its wake, a factory owner could hardly send his commodities down the river to market. Every minor princeling and self-proclaimed royal demanded the right to tax trade crossing their territory. This relation of production strangled the ability to sell products in order to realize capital and make private profit. Suddenly armies everywhere abolished this relation of production. In the same way, private property in digital technology deforms and shrivels the possibilities of the Internet.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production….  At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”  (12)

Marx’s point is that the relations of production, fixed and frozen as private property by law, ultimately become antagonistic to the development of a technology that is highly fluid and increasingly more productive. This is an objective process, outside of our control, one that informs any subjective acts of insurrection. The relations of production under capitalism take myriad forms, but they ultimately come down to essential principles:

If you own the technology, you can appropriate all the production that people produce socially, today in an increasingly global system, by working with/for the technology. As private property, this production is yours to sell on the market for private profit. The necessities of life are distributed based on individual ability to pay for them. If you own little or nothing, you must sell your labor power to the owners of the technology in order to get money to survive.

None of these things have to be. We can imagine a different way to live. It was this basic human impulse that created the Internet.

A child can see the vast potential in digital technology. However, the “architecture of the system”, imposed by the outmoded relations of production of capitalism is definitely “in antagonism to” what a really developed Internet could be. These relations constantly “fetter” the development of computers and the Internet. If it doesn’t produce private property, it is discarded. Hence private Intranets determine how the code is configured. God doesn’t put all those ads on your screen, nor does he demand a tollbooth between you and the information you seek. Marx was prescient on this one.

Information objectively demands to be free. It is a social act, an activity; as communication, it demands consensus to establish meaning. This is a social relationship that is strangled by capitalist relations of production. Information is easy to collectivize and relatively hard to privatize.

Information is not the same thing as a tangible, material product, such as the latest Jordans or even an orange. I can transmit information to you without lessening my ability to control or use it. In Marxist terms, information has use value – you can use it how you will. With shoes, if I give them to you, I lose control. This objective nature of information constantly struggles against the capitalist demand that it become private property that they can sell for a profit. That is a fetter on technology.

Everyone knows that microelectronics constantly reduces exchange value – what you can sell it for. This flows from Moore’s Law – that the capacity of a computer chip doubles every 18 months, even as its value decreases. Exchange value tends toward zero to the extent that labor-less production is employed. This is because ever-decreasing amounts of human labor are involved. Long before Marx, Adam Smith, supposedly the high priest of capitalism, identified human labor power as the basis of all value. Labor-less production, the fastest growing type of production in the world today, is coming to pass with a vengeance. Production without labor necessarily demands distribution without money.

Attacks on net neutrality, filling your screen with commercial ads, various forms of corporate censorship, the domination of private search engines, the “Cloud” – all reflect the relations of production of capitalism. All serve to deform digital technology and subordinate it to the commercial interests of private corporations and the market.

Back in the Roman Empire, the hot new technology was the mule, the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse. It was bigger and stronger than the donkey, and had far more stamina than the horse. The relations of production of slavery strangled this high tech development. Slaves could not personally sell the product of the mule, so when they took it out into the field, they beat it to death, “Hey Boss, you know how stubborn they are!”

But the thinking person, in antagonism to the relations of production of slavery, also understood that they could steal the mule, move three valleys away, and use this powerful new technology to feed their family and grow rich. Thus “begins the era of social revolution”. Since information and its technology objectively cannot be contained within the proscribed and narrow limits of private property, social revolution is already objectively going on. Today it is struggling into pass to our common subjective comprehension. The impulse to free information from corporate control gave birth to the Internet, open-source programming, Napster, jail-breaking your phone and the constant efforts to free digital technology for the 99%.

Background and Notes

12)  Karl Marx. Preface to The Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. 1859

To be continued.

Reposted from Daily Censored

photo credit: Felix42 contra la censura via photopin cc


Steven Miller has taught science for 25 years in Oakland’s Flatland high schools. He has been actively engaged in public school reform since the early 1990s. When the state seized control of Oakland public schools in 2003, they immediately implemented policies of corporatization and privatization that are advocated by the Broad Institute. Since that time Steve has written extensively against the privatization of public education, water and other public resources. You can email him at nanodog2@hotmail.com


Satish Musunuru draws upon his training as an engineer and his experience as a professional in Silicon Valley to understand the relationship between technology and corporate capitalism and how it has brought us to the ecological and societal crisis we find ourselves in. You can email him at guruji323@hotmail.com

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