Cyber-Proletariat: an Interview with Nick Dyer-Witheford


Gavin Mueller: Your 1999 book Cyber-Marx is an excel­lent sum­ma­ry of auton­o­mist Marx­ism and post-operais­mo as well as an argu­ment for its rel­e­vance for strug­gles against a cap­i­tal­ism increas­ing­ly suf­fused with infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy. With Cyber-Pro­le­tari­at, you are less san­guine about post-operaismo’s embrace of cyber­net­ic tech­nolo­gies. Can you explain your shift in posi­tion? What has made infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy appear as a big­ger threat for the glob­al work­ing class?

Nick Dyer-With­e­ford: My change in posi­tion reflects involve­ment in two moments of strug­gle – that of alter-glob­al­iza­tion from the late 1990s through the ear­ly 2000s; and then, from 2008 on, the new social antag­o­nisms and strug­gles that emerge in the wake of the finan­cial melt­down. Both strug­gles have revealed new pos­si­bil­i­ties and new prob­lems for anti-cap­i­tal­ist move­ments attempt­ing to use cyber­net­ic tech­nolo­gies. On the one hand, there was the evi­dent and much-dis­cussed use of social media and cell phone net­works in what we might call the 2011 revolts – the riots, the strikes, the occu­pa­tions. At the same time, and on the oth­er hand, all those events reveal the dif­fi­cul­ties that can attend using those tech­nolo­gies as an orga­ni­za­tion­al matrix—for exam­ple, what we can call the “up like a rock­et,  down like a stick” syn­drome that char­ac­ter­ized some of the 2011 move­ments. Also dur­ing that cycle, and par­tic­u­lar­ly com­ing with the Snow­den rev­e­la­tions in North Amer­i­ca, was revealed the scope and inten­si­ty of the sur­veil­lance to which mil­i­tants are like­ly to be sub­ject­ed with­in the cyber­net­ic milieu.

Under­ly­ing those points – which we might call tac­ti­cal points about the usage of cyber­net­ic tech­nolo­gies by rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments – is anoth­er larg­er, more strate­gic point: the changes in class com­po­si­tion which have been effect­ed by cap­i­tal in terms of its restruc­tur­ing of the glob­al work­force using automa­ta and net­works and, in the finan­cial sys­tem, net­works of automa­ta. Cyber-Pro­le­tari­at starts with the ques­tion of the valid­i­ty and sig­nif­i­cance of the “Face­book rev­o­lu­tion” trope, but then moves from that into an attempt at analy­sis of the deep­er effect of cyber­net­ics on the restruc­tur­ing of labor with­in advanced cap­i­tal­ism.

GM: That brings me to my next ques­tion. This is pri­mar­i­ly a book about class com­po­si­tion in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Almost every chap­ter is a weav­ing of the var­i­ous forms of labor mak­ing up the glob­al sup­ply chains of cyber­net­ic objects such as cell phones and social media sites – min­ers in the Ama­zon, con­tent mod­er­a­tors in the Philip­pines, app devel­op­ers in San Fran­cis­co. Are there poten­tials for such far-flung vari­eties of labor, “inter­nal­ly stri­at­ed and frac­tioned,” as you put it, to unite polit­i­cal­ly? Can there be shared inter­ests with such diver­gences in “sub­jec­tiv­i­ty” – a word you use sev­er­al times – among these work­ers?

NDW: The path of glob­al class restruc­tur­ing that cap­i­tal has tak­en over the past 40 years has been one of inten­si­fied dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and inequal­i­ty. This has tak­en a form of the bifur­ca­tion of the labor force between upward­ly mobile sec­tor of pro­fes­sion­als, and on the oth­er hand, a vast sea of inse­cure, pre­car­i­ous low-wage pro­le­tar­i­an­ized labor. This has been a strik­ing split with­in what was for­mer­ly con­ceived of – even if some­what myth­i­cal­ly – as the poten­tial sol­i­dar­i­ty of the indus­tri­al mass labor force. This split is now also inten­si­fied by its dis­tri­b­u­tion across the mul­ti­ple wage zones tra­versed by the sup­ply chains of glob­al cap­i­tal.  At the same time, while there are grow­ing inequal­i­ties between these two stra­ta – the pro­fes­sion­al inter­me­di­ate class­es and the pro­le­tar­i­an­ized labor forces – the even greater inequal­i­ty is, of course, between plu­to­crat­ic cap­i­tal and both those seg­ments.

Hence, there are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly issues of real antag­o­nism between these dif­fer­ent frac­tions of capital’s labor, but also pos­si­bil­i­ties for forms of coop­er­a­tion. All the more so because what we are see­ing emerge increas­ing­ly is a range of var­i­ous re-pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tions of the pro­fes­sion­al stra­ta – all too vis­i­ble with­in the uni­ver­si­ty set­ting, in which peo­ple with aspi­ra­tions towards pro­fes­sion­al careers find them­selves trapped in the ghet­tos of pre­car­i­ous work; the famous sit­u­a­tion of the grad­u­ate stu­dent with­out a future, cit­ed  by Paul Mason as a crit­i­cal dynam­ic in 2011.

So what we saw dur­ing the 2011 cycle was the sur­fac­ing both of the poten­tial alliances and the poten­tial antag­o­nisms with­in this glob­al labor force. There were undoubt­ed­ly points in the great occu­pa­tions, such as Tahrir Square, where the mobi­liza­tion cre­at­ed large sol­i­dar­i­ties of dif­fer­ent stra­ta against a klep­to­crat­ic author­i­tar­i­an regime. In oth­er places, like Britain in 2011, one saw strands of strug­gle run­ning par­al­lel but with­out meet­ing. You have the erup­tion of pow­er­ful cam­pus revolts among stu­dents, and then riots in the cities amongst the most exclud­ed and dis­pos­sessed sec­tors. Both have strong res­o­nances as protests against aus­ter­i­ty regimes, but also exist almost in worlds apart, and some­times with great sus­pi­cion and hos­til­i­ty between them. And then in yet oth­er set­tings one sees sit­u­a­tions in which some of the tac­tics of the 2011 occu­pa­tions are adopt­ed by mid­dle class stra­ta strug­gling to pre­serve ele­ments of their priv­i­lege, for exam­ple in Thai­land and Venezuela.

This is a long way of say­ing that we’re look­ing at an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry set of class for­ma­tions that pose very seri­ous orga­ni­za­tion­al ques­tions for com­mu­nist-ori­ent­ed move­ments, ques­tions which I do not think were suc­cess­ful­ly answered in the 2011 move­ments, although those move­ments have posed the ques­tions in the most acute form.

GM: You tem­per some of your pre­vi­ous work in auton­o­mist Marx­ist the­o­ry with an engage­ment with com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry as pre­sent­ed in jour­nals such as Tiqqun, SIC, and End­notes. How does this body of work sup­ple­ment or mod­i­fy auton­o­mist the­o­ry?

NDW: Autonomism and com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry are undoubt­ed­ly the most inter­est­ing strands of com­mu­nist move­ment the­o­riza­tion today and are large­ly crit­i­cal of each oth­er. Autonomism empha­sizes work­ers’ antag­o­nism to cap­i­tal. Com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry insists that we must under­stand that work­ers are also part of cap­i­tal. Autonomism has always empha­sized and cel­e­brat­ed the cir­cu­la­tion of strug­gles amongst dif­fer­ent groups of work­ers. Com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry reminds us that, as we were just dis­cussing, these seg­ments of the work­ing class can often be antag­o­nis­tic to each oth­er.

I’ll say that both these strands of the­o­ry have their char­ac­ter­is­tic prob­lems. Autonomism is chron­i­cal­ly opti­mistic, always keen to see one swal­low mak­ing a spring. Com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry has a very stud­ied melan­cho­lia. In some way, this book is an attempt to set in play a con­ver­sa­tion that I found myself hav­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly in my read­ing, a con­ver­sa­tion between these twin faces of ultra-left­ism in order to see what emerged from that.

GM: Could you say a bit more about how you see this melan­cho­lia as a weak­ness of com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry?

NDW: The ele­ment in com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry that I’m most crit­i­cal of is actu­al­ly one that it shares to some degree with autonomism: its rejec­tion of what it calls pro­gram­ma­tism and its scrupu­lous refusal to describe any path to a com­mu­nist sit­u­a­tion short of the imme­di­ate abo­li­tion of the com­mod­i­ty form. I believe that it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to per­suade peo­ple, includ­ing one­self, to embark on the time-con­sum­ing, demand­ing, and, in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, dan­ger­ous task of attempt­ing to cre­ate a new soci­ety with­out hav­ing any pro­vi­sion­al ideas of what that path might look like.

Indeed, I would say that what we saw recent­ly in Greece, which can be tak­en on the one hand as a fail­ure of clas­sic social demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­toral strate­gies, also real­ly seri­ous­ly shows the prob­lems that can arise when there is a rejec­tion of any attempt to think tran­si­tion­al­ly about var­i­ous stages and phas­es in the move­ment of anti-cap­i­tal­ist strug­gle. So I don’t com­plete­ly buy that part of com­mu­niza­tion the­o­ry, where par­tic­i­pants whose work I oth­er­wise admire, rather exempt them­selves from doing some hard work.

I’m much more sym­pa­thet­ic on that front to groups like Plan C in the Unit­ed King­dom, who rec­og­nize that we do need to col­lec­tive­ly as a move­ment think about issues of tran­si­tion, but in a non-dog­mat­ic and explo­rative way that will have to admit the huge degree of uncer­tain­ty that would attend any cri­sis which could result in major trans­for­ma­tions.

GM: It has become some­what com­mon for ris­ing pre­car­i­ty and tech­no­log­i­cal unem­ploy­ment to be viewed in a some­what pos­i­tive light. Most recent­ly British jour­nal­ist Paul Mason wrote a long essay in The Guardian pre­dict­ing that a post-work, post-cap­i­tal­ist future is being cre­at­ed before our eyes. In a dif­fer­ent vein, accel­er­a­tionist the­o­ry embraces advanc­ing sub­sump­tion of social rela­tions to cap­i­tal­ism and its tech­nolo­gies. How does your work respond to these kinds of argu­ments?

NDW: They point to a real­i­ty which many oth­er rad­i­cal thinkers have point­ed to: it’s clear that cap­i­tal­ism is cre­at­ing poten­tials – not just tech­no­log­i­cal, but orga­ni­za­tion­al poten­tials – which could be adapt­ed in a trans­formed man­ner to cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent type of soci­ety. The evi­dent exam­ple is the huge pos­si­bil­i­ties for free­ing up time by automa­tion of cer­tain types of work. For me, the prob­lem both with Paul’s work, which I respect, and with the accel­er­a­tionists, is there is a fail­ure to acknowl­edge  that the pas­sage from the poten­tial to the actu­al­iza­tion of such com­mu­nist pos­si­bil­i­ties involves cross­ing what William Mor­ris describes as a “riv­er of fire.” I don’t find in their work a great deal about that riv­er of fire. I think it would be rea­son­able to assume there would be a peri­od of mas­sive and pro­tract­ed social cri­sis that would attend the emer­gence of these new forms. And as we know from his­tor­i­cal attempts in the 20th Cen­tu­ry to cross that riv­er of fire, a lot depends on what hap­pens dur­ing that pas­sage. So there is, if one could put it that way, a cer­tain automa­tism about the pre­dic­tion of the real­iza­tion of a new order in both these schools, which we should be very care­ful about.

GM: Your final chap­ter dis­cuss­es the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­le­tar­i­an strug­gles. These strug­gles, you argue, must adapt them­selve to wartime, to this evoca­tive metaphor of the riv­er of fire. You also envi­sion a net­worked, rather than hier­ar­chi­cal, form of orga­ni­za­tion. Can you say more about the future of orga­ni­za­tion? Are there exam­ples of these kinds of emer­gent forms you can point to?

NDW: You’ve named some of the provo­ca­tions I sug­gest in terms of think­ing about new orga­ni­za­tion­al forms, provo­ca­tions elicit­ed by the dilem­mas of  the 2011 strug­gles. Amongst these, one that I put very close to the top of the list is the need for the emer­gence of new forms of labor orga­ni­za­tion, which can take bet­ter account of the real­i­ties of pre­car­i­ous work and unem­ploy­ment. These are already under way in a vari­ety of forms, both in attempts – and here I’ll speak from my Cana­di­an van­tage point – I’m aware of some major trades unions which, if only for rea­sons of self-preser­va­tion, are attempt­ing to open them­selves more to the pre­car­i­ty of increas­ing num­bers of their mem­bers. But there are also ini­tia­tives com­ing from out­side the estab­lished trades unions, from pre­car­i­ous work­ers them­selves. to find new forms. So, first, there is a huge chal­lenge around work­place – or unplaced work – orga­ni­za­tion.

The sec­ond thing I sug­gest is the need for a reassess­ment of dig­i­tal orga­niz­ing tac­tics: a clear­er recog­ni­tion of the neces­si­ty of such orga­niz­ing, because we do live in a form of cap­i­tal­ism in which social life has become cyber­net­i­cal­ly sub­sumed, but also for an appre­ci­a­tion of the lim­i­ta­tions and risks of those forms of orga­ni­za­tion.

I also sug­gest that this seems to be a moment to think very seri­ous­ly about new orga­ni­za­tion­al syn­the­ses that could over­come the ver­ti­cal­ist-hor­i­zon­tal­ist split, which of course is a cen­turies-long divi­sion, but now seems par­tic­u­lar­ly nec­es­sary to get beyond. With­out get­ting all bub­bly about things, I’m encour­aged by what I see in terms of exper­i­ments with var­i­ous forms of com­mon front orga­ni­za­tions, some of which are active here in Ontario, which are bring­ing togeth­er in ten­ta­tive, pro­vi­sion­al, and exper­i­men­tal ways, peo­ple from the Occu­py move­ment, labor move­ment, and a range of oth­er social move­ments.

We’ve already men­tioned a fourth point, the impor­tance of devel­op­ing a new non-dog­mat­ic approach to envis­ag­ing what one could frankly call tran­si­tion­al strate­gies – Plan Cs. The fifth, final point,  which real­ly is what you start­ed with, wartime, is sim­ply a sug­ges­tion there is a need to be bet­ter pre­pared for tru­ly major crises and for the sorts of risks and open­ings that these entail. My obser­va­tion is that, cer­tain­ly with­in North Amer­i­ca, what calls itself “the left” was tak­en com­plete­ly by sur­prise by what hap­pened in 2008. We had a mas­sive cri­sis of cap­i­tal. But orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly, large­ly due to the wear-down by neolib­er­al­iza­tion, there was a real inabil­i­ty to seize the his­tor­i­cal moment. It seems high­ly like­ly that there will be fur­ther his­tor­i­cal moments of cri­sis, pos­si­bly soon. There’s a lot to be learned from the expe­ri­ences of com­rades in such places as Syr­ia, Turkey, Ukraine: places where, inso­far as pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions can even still func­tion in the polar­iz­ing fatal­i­ties of civ­il war sit­u­a­tions, they have to come to grips in a dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment with issues of poten­tial­ly fatal sur­veil­lance, encryp­tion, ver­i­fi­ca­tion, authen­ti­ca­tion in order to oper­ate in these very extreme cir­cum­stances. I think we need to think very seri­ous­ly about that, and pre­pare seri­ous­ly.

GM: I has­ten to add that, while our con­ver­sa­tion has been quite the­o­ret­i­cal, your book is a won­der­ful cat­a­log of a vari­ety of strug­gles, and packed with empir­i­cal details that are of inter­est to any­one who has been fol­low­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing in strug­gles, espe­cial­ly since 2008.

NDW: The book is an attempt to sort out some of these strug­gles and dilem­mas that have arisen par­tic­u­lar­ly over the past sev­en years, and more broad­ly over the past 15 years, from the posi­tion of an aca­d­e­m­ic par­tic­i­pant in some of the events that I’m describ­ing. It’s a book that’s very much in motion, and it wears its con­tra­dic­tions on its sleeves, because we need to be able to talk about con­tra­dic­tions and con­flicts with­in the move­ment in order to be able to move past what, for the moment, seems like an impasse.

Authors of the article

is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1999) and Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

lives in Washington, D.C.