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).

is a graduate student in Washington, DC.