From Tiziana Terranova, “Red stack attack! Algorithms, capital and the automation of the common”
What interested Marx (and what makes his work still relevant to those who strive for a post-capitalist mode of existence) is the way in which he claims that the tendency of capital to invest in technology to automate and hence reduce its labor costs to a minimum potentially frees up a ‘surplus’ of time and energy (labor) or an exceeding of the capacity to produce with relation to the basic, important and necessary labor of reproduction (a global economy for example should first of all produce enough wealth for all members of a planetary population to be adequately fed, clothed, cured and sheltered). However, what characterizes a capitalist economy is that this surplus of time and energy is not simply released, but must be constantly reabsorbed in the cycle of production of exchange value leading to increasing accumulation of wealth by the few (the collective capitalist) at the expense of the many (the multitudes).
Automation, then, when seen from the point of view of capital, must always be balanced with new ways to control, that is absorb and exhaust, the time and energy thus released. It must produce poverty and stress when there should be wealth and leisure. It must make direct labour the measure of value even when it is apparent that science, technology and social cooperation constitute the source of the wealth produced. It thus inevitably leads to periodic and widespread destruction of the wealth accumulated in the form of psychic burnout, physical destruction of the wealth created or environmental catastrophe. It creates hunger where there should be satiety, it puts food banks next to the opulence of the super-rich.
This is a good reminder that automation can be put in the service of capitalism or anticapitalism; like technology in general, it’s not inherently progressive or exploitive.
Also, it sheds some light on the question of what happens to the labor saved by automation, which hinges on the distinction between “wealth” (the useful things a society produces) and “value” (what a capitalist economy uses to measure and distribute wealth). My understanding of this distinction stems from Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination. Capitalism creates the concept of “value” through capital’s appropriation of labor — what has value is what allows for capitalist accumulation, what allows capitalists to ultimately get control over society’s wealth. Postone argues that “overcoming value and the abstract social relations associated with it are inseparable from overcoming value-creating labor.”
Automation has the potential to do this, but only if it disrupts social relations and not merely the nature of work. As it stands now, automation “releases” human effort without collapsing “value” into “wealth.” The “liberated” effort is social wealth, but capitalism redirects it toward competitive private accumulation. The effort gets indexed to commodities and is translated into “value” up for grabs.
Capitalist interests have succeeded in channelling the “released energy” from automation into the individualized “labor” of consumerism and not the collective/common social consumption of wealth. The fruits of automation are redistributed unevenly because they are capable of being appropriated by individuals, whereas the liberatory potential of the “general intellect” (to use Marx’s term for the technological potential embedded in a society’s development of machinery) is in the way it can unify the social as a subject, posits the social as both the producer and consumer of technologically driven wealth. How can the implicit collective intentionality inherent in technology be made explicit?
I think that is what Terranova is talking about in the essay linked above; automation can potentially generate a different sort of transindividual subjectivity, but only if the infrastructure for it is developed, disseminated, and reproduced. Such a subjectivity is posited by the “general intellect” but negated by the individualism and status-seeking sustained by competitive consumerism. The open question is whether algorithms can be deployed in such a way that they produce collective subjects (dissolving the unitary individual into ad hoc ant-colony-like flows, maybe, as Bernard Stiegler describes?) rather than atomized ones (through personalization and filtering, etc.)