Capital is Dead! A discussion with McKenzie Wark | Yannis Siglidis
Translation/Interview: Yannis Siglidis
Capital is a relation, an organism that interacts and gets internalized in the world, which has reached the point, as McKenzie Wark puts it bluntly, to “smash like a steam-hammer not only the social but also the natural conditions of its existence”. Its characteristics are development, control, domination and the constant revolutionizing of the means of production. Key moments of the latter are seen historically as stages in the form of an essence that remains intact. But, can such a transformation reach the point of bringing to life a new mode of production, qualitatively different and dominant to all the previous ones?
In Capital is Dead (Verso 2018) which I translated for Topovoros Books, McKenzie Wark challenges us to think that such a story may have already taken place. There is a new ruling class, the vectorialists, who maintain the property and control of information, which is accumulated, structured and enclosedas the vector (intellectual property, patents, copyrights, brands, logistics systems and more). Information is a specific material quality that was developed by (and can be valorized through) new forces of production that were first introduced in the midst of the second world-war and which were further developed during the postwar era. Capitalists used them for the first time during the 70s to bypass the labor strikes that were accompanying a productivity slowdown inside Western factories – allowing them to outsource important parts of the production chain to wherever they could organize cheap labor around the world, practices which we commonly refer to as “neoliberalism”. In turn, these new forces of production brought to life two new antagonistic classes: the vectorialists (those who own the vector) and the hackers (those who create new information).
McKenzie Wark’s book, except from a splendid introduction to Marxism, to its challenges and to its histories, providing an accessible, pedagogical and always cool way of writing – in contrast to other types of theory where esotericism and boredomness seem to be their core values – challenges the counter-revolutionary narrative of the eternal capital, inviting us to think that the current mode of production is not capitalism but something worse. The world changes and critical theory and action can only survive as genteel theory if they don’t accept to descend to the vulgarity of the real, to attend it, to make mistakes, to deform. Instead of quoting dead people as authority we may as well détourn them, adapt them to our historical moment (and its struggles).
Now, the planetary scale in which information lies and the spatial reach of the vector forces us to think in turn, in planetary terms. Google is a geopolitical agent, often more powerful than states themselves and amazon is the global synonym of asymmetries in the distribution of desires and needs throughout the world. In parallel though, to the meme-like 3D-CAD accelerationist imaginary of a futuristic capitalism, lies a material reality of a global catastrophe: climate crisis and the anthropocene/capitalocene. Our present is being wiped out by our future, like a flame that dies out from smoke.
If capitalism is the pre-history of human society, McKenzie Wark reminds us that its history should protect its natural conditions of existence. With that comes the obstacle of inertia of the world, as well as alternatives for different ways of life and praxis of other species and civilizations, that we may extrapolate to different futures.
Below follows the interview with the author.
In the beginning of your book, you often repeat that posing the question “Is this Capitalism or something Worse?” finds major resistance and is not given significant consideration inside both the political and the academic discourse. After the core outbreak of Covid-19, I hear more and more ideas similar to your approach, becoming popularized in leftist circles. Do you feel that this resistance you have been experiencing will weigh off, as vectorialism becomes more and more profound? Or is the ideology of eternal capital, the one which always casts a shadow to any new interpretation of the existing situation? What is your current feeling – has the reception of your ideas been facilitated over the course of this period, followed also by the publication of your book?
MW: Capital is Dead reworks and revises an analysis from an earlier book, A Hacker Manifesto which came out in 2004 (and is also translated into Greek). In some ways I think people are now more ready for the thought experiment that the dominant kind of ruling class is no longer capitalist. There is still a capitalist class and still an exploited working class, of course. But there’s a ruling class over and above capital whose power is derived from asymmetries of information—the vectorialist class. For instance, it became very clear during the Covid pandemic that ownership of patents on vaccines would make the pharmaceutical wing of the vectorialist class very rich, at the expense of quickly producing the maximum number of vaccines to inoculate a planetary population.
There are still people on the left who seem to accept a central idea of the right that we live in eternal, ahistorical capitalism. On the left, the mysteries of eternal capitalism are to be understood through the antiquarian practice of analyzing the sacred texts of Marx, generating interpretations to be applied in practice, but not modified in turn by practice as a source of understanding.
Maybe these days there’s a few more people willing to revise those concepts through the praxis of encountering, in our daily lives, the power of control through information that typifies this historical stage. Even the more backward-looking currents might be catching up. The owls of Hegelian Marxism fly at dusk.
You finish the main part of the book by discussing the absence of vulgarity in recent Marxism. This was a difficult word to translate in Greek in a way that it would allow all the proper meanings to resonate. In its translation I decided to comply with the way the term is translated in the term “vulgar political economy”, which corresponds however, to an almost century old language. Thus, I would like to ask you to describe this term further, for a culture not necessarily familiar with its English interpretation.
MW: To call other Marxists vulgar was a popular insult across a century of Marxist polemics. Karl Korsh and George Lukacs used it to attack the Marxism of the German social democrats that they thought was too economic reductionist, mechanist, historical-determinist and gradualist. The term has since acquired different meanings in different contexts across the century, as I show in the book.
I thought it might be time to ask what the opposite of vulgar Marxism actually is, rather than what it thinks it is. Maybe it wasn’t more revolutionary or more theoretically pure. Maybe it was just genteel Marxism, importing or imposing values on Marxism that are not those organic to the working class at all.
Vulgar is a word with a Latin root, meaning common, ordinary, base, lacking refinement, maybe also crude in a sexual sense. Why wouldn’t Marxists want to participate in those qualities, if it really is the point of view of the exploited and oppressed classes? And particularly a Marxism open to the experiences and histories of liberation movements, fort example around sexuality and gender, which deal with vulgar, base and very materialist questions about sex, the body and all that.
Maybe also its time for a Marxism that is really interested in the details of the forces of production, of how information technology works, at the technical-economic ‘base’ of the social formation. Rather than just talking about economic abstractions, let’s find out how tech actually works. So, in a few different senses I think a vulgar Marxism, rather than being a bad thing, might now be the thing to attempt.
You define those new forces of production and this new mode of production, as one based in the creation, accumulation and valorization of new information. So allow me to pose a sample of clarifying questions that were raised by either me or friends when we were introduced to this important concept.
To begin with, we could state that creating difference was always part of having a company. It is the best way to escape falling rates of profit. Something new is always scarce and hard to reproduce. It requires both equipment and knowledge. If knowledge can be embodied in equipment, then it becomes reproducible, increasing marginally the organic composition of capital, something that could be avoided by introducing even more novelty. Further than implying that parts of product-design are outsourced to the workers, how is novelty a new thing by itself? Additionally even products that we traditionally think of as equivalent, don’t actually hold this status in the market: is a potato produced from Perou the same as a potato produced from France? Or is a car made by Renault the same as a car made by Toyota? Aren’t after all most successful businesses monopolies?
MW: as it says in the Communist Manifesto: the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production. I simply follow that concept to its logical conclusion: what if the revolutionizing of the means of production made not just old means of production obsolete, but the bourgeoisie itself? It’s what Pasolini thought of as the internal revolution. The external revolution, in which labor negated and overthrew capital, did not happen. He knew that already in the 60s. What happened was an internal revolution, in which one ruling class superceded and displaced the old one.
Which is pretty much the way capitalists as a class superceded and displaced the landlord class. Farmers as an exploited class did not overthrow their landlords, outside of passing situations of revolt. Nor did slaves overthrow their slave-owners in the Americas, despite the creation of maroon societies beyond the reach of the masters, and despite the Haitian revolution. Modern history has plenty of examples of one ruling class succeeding another, rather than being overthrown from below.
And so: capitalist was not overthrown in an external revolution by labor, but superceded at the apex by another ruling class. The development of information as a technics enabled the control of the whole value chain without the need to own the means of production at all. The drug companies do no actually make the vaccines, just as Apple does not make iPhones. Nike does not make shoes.
Both agricultural and manufacturing become industries where pretty much everyone produces the same thing in the same way, all of them interchangeable, where very little competitive advantage is to be found anymore, other than by looking everywhere for labor that can be exploited more cheaply. And yet presiding over both the exploited farmer and worker, and presiding over even the landlord and capitalist class, is a vectorialist class that owns and controls the patents, trademarks, copyrights and logistical systems.
The vectorialist class depends only indirectly on exploited farmers and workers. It depends directly on exploiting another class. I called them the hacker class. Producers not of standardized primary or secondary products, be it cars or corn. It is rather a subordinate class that produces new information. A hacker class, or “digital labor” if you like, different to the traditional working classes of “analog labor.”
Ok, but how is this labor of producing new information different from the familiar concept of “immaterial labor”? For example in Chapter 5, the touchstone for whether an enterprise is vectorialist or not is if it actually “makes” stuff. However, from my humble experience, Marxists are comfortable with the fact that both material and immaterial types of labor and enterprise fall under the same framework of analysis.
MW: The only thing that is immaterial is God. Immaterial labor is an absurd concept, uncritical and ideological. It takes the apologists for this ruling class at their word. That your information is safely tucked away in a cloud, as if it wasn’t in a vast and relatively new global infrastructure, consuming enough energy to run a mid-sized country.
Information is a very strange thing. It’s the product of a series of advances in information science and technics that date from the 1940s. Information is not immaterial, although it may appear so to the obsolete materialism of Marx’s time, and from which he is not exempt.
Information is entirely a property of the material world, but now we have a technics that makes the relation between information as a kind of materiality and the materialities upon which it depends as a substrate—arbitrary. You can transfer information from one material substrate to another very cheaply and easily without loss of definition, or loss that can be measured and corrected.
Of course, “most marxists” just assume its business as usual because they spend so little time actually investigating the forces of production, and the actual dynamism that has historically changed them. They don’t want to be vulgar and really look at the forces of production. To do so means acknowledging that one’s theory that one got from books isn’t sovereign over everything, that one needs to learn from advanced forms of praxis within the realm of information science itself.
The forces of production that came to dominate the global economy allow the automation of systems of control through information. Superstructures such as law have evolved whole new categories of property out of this thing which escapes any particular material substrate, and yet which is material, even though it can be copied so easily and cheaply. Patent, trademark and copyright are old forms of law that rapidly evolved from the late twentieth century to make whole new categories of materiality over into private property. Thus, what one finds at the commanding heights of global political economy is that forces of production are different, the classes that produce and own it are different, the forms of property that capture it are different.
A more interesting question is: why the relentless desire to pay so little attention to all that and pretend it’s still the nineteenth century? Why do alleged Marxists love sameness and ahistorical thought? It’s those who want to live in the past, to just recycle the old concepts forever who need to be questioned. Marxism’s other name is historical materialism. Materialism itself is historical. What can be matter in the world is not defined by an unchanging essence, as it is in merely contemplative philosophical materialism.
Then yet another, sort of common, remark would be: How does information differ from the nowadays familiar concept of ‘data’ and why aren’t these instead, the central element of this new mode of production?
M: Yes, it’s useful to think about both data and information. Data one could think of as potential information, what appears as a raw material and is often treated as such. From Wendy Chun and other media studies scholars, one can learn that data is never a mere empirical given, but shaped in advance by information, by the technics as well as the assumptions and prejudices of those who use the data to generate a given outcome. Jackie Wang interestingly discovers in her work on supposedly data-driven policing, that racist assumptions about crime are built into how the data is collected in the first place. One can think of this from analogy to how colonial regimes treated minerals or timber as a raw material, rather than as already existing within the field of agency of indigenous people. So I make information the shorthand to highlight the non-neutrality and non-primacy of data.
What is different nowadays is (as you discuss) the replicability and thus the tendency of abundance of information. But why isn’t information itself yet another “thing”;
MW: Information is as material as anything else, but material in a distinctive and different way. A difference produced within the history of applied science and its application to both military and economic conflict and competition. Information as technics produced a mutation in the mode of production.
It’s not the first time this has happened. Land was once regarded, by the Physiocrats for example, as the source of all real wealth. Land was property, owned by a landlord class, worked by farmers who, since the end of feudalism, did not own or even have rights to land. The development of the factory system, the setting to work of a proletariat pushed off ‘their’ land by enclosures—became a whole new mode of production, what we call capitalism. Commodity production existed before, but it took off as capitalism, as a dominant mode, in part because the development of the forces of production provided the means for its generalization. This more abstract mode of commodified production, armed with the forces of production of iron and steel and steam, superceded and subordinated to itself agricultural production. Profit rather than rent became the form in which a surplus was extracted. A rising capitalist class either deposed or merged with what became a subordinate ruling class, the landlord class. All of which is captured theoretically by the move from the Physiocrats to Smith and particularly Ricardo.
Just as capitalists succeeded landlords, the vectorialist class succeeds capital as the dominant ruling class, enabled by further developments in the forces of production, which burst out of the old relations of production, reshaping the property form. Surplus is now extracted, not in the form of rent or profit, but via asymmetries of information.
However, the problem arises, once again, as to how to maintain scarcity. Applying technics to land, manufacturing and information production, one after the other, has produced the possibility of freedom from necessity and an end to scarcity. A possibility seized upon by radical popular movements, one after the other, of farmers, workers and hackers. The history of successive modes of production can be read as the history of the imposition, by force or persuasion, of ever more abstract forms of artificial scarcity, to maintain a transfer of control over the surplus, of agricultural, manufacturing and now informational collective labor.
Oh, and something that I cannot avoid asking. The way you use the word information in your work reminded me in some passages (but not everywhere) of the way that Situationists use their own term “spectacle”. E.g. in chapter 4 you write:
As Cardi B. raps, “I’m a boss you a worker bitch.” What it means to be a boss is now
modeled on the vectorialist rather than the capitalist class. It’s about accumulating
asymmetric relations of information. It is about commanding and monopolizing attention.
And so, looking back at Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle after translating your book, I found a lot of passages and ideas that reminded me of it. From a study group of Debord’s book, I remember the amazing idea that the image of moving capital affects the movement of capital, before capital itself. Thus the spectacle in Debord comes to dominate capital. I’m not sure however whether Debord succeeded in escaping the concept of eternal capital, but if I recall correctly, he never defined the Spectacle as a central element of a new mode of production, as you do with information.
Would you say that your approach is post-situationist or at least a détournement of the situationist approach? What is it that strongly differentiates you from the Situationists?
MW: It’s a détournement of, among other things, the Situationists. One has to treat the past even of critical theory and practice as a commons, as belonging to all of us, not as the intellectual property of proper names. One has to appropriate and modify the wealth of theory that belongs to all of us, as the situation requires. All my main books have formal, if you like, poetic tactics, in and against the dominant practices of writing. Those have changed, as tactics must. “Theories are made to die in the war of time,” as Debord put it.
Now, I’ve written two books on the Situationist International. I think they were trying to come up with theories and practices adequate to their situation, that of late-stage industrial capitalism in the over-developed world. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and some of his marvelous later writings, have the merit of being, in both form and content, contemporary with their time.
Society of the Spectacle is still a book about eternal capital, which can only be superceded as an historical stage when overthrown in its totality by total, spontaneous revolution. But within that essentially theological concept of history, Debord understood how the forms in which both production and consumption are mediated by spectacle pass through historical stages.
Even the spectacle itself has stages. In the 60s Debord thought it had two forms: the diffuse spectacle of the capitalist west and the concentrated spectacle of the bureaucratic-socialist east. Both are products of the defeat of the revolutionary worker’s movement in the 1920s. By the 70s, Debord thought both had coalesced into the integrated spectacle, which combined elements of both, in both east and west.
In my second book on the situationists, The Spectacle of Disintegration, I proposed a subsequent historical era of the spectacle, the disintegrating spectacle, in which the ruling class and its state apparatus had succumbed to their own illusions and lost all sense of domination as a world-historical project.
In any case though, our situation is not his, so the tactics will be different where need be.
My introduction to Marxism had (fortunately) bypassed theories like dialectic materialism and had primarily focused on Das Capital as a groundbreaking and unfinished scientific project of political economy. I recall that I was deeply intrigued by the concept and the study of value that sprawls from Marx’s work and whatever it determines (e.g. prices, wages), something however that can lead you into having endless nerdy discussions in the university’s restaurant.
And so, I was puzzled when in chapter 2, you describe as a characteristic of this new mode of production that:
There’s no relation between the units of labor time and the units of value produced.
But isn’t the concept of abstract labor time that Marx introduces in Capital, one of his most important contributions to Political Economy, and a rapture to or an expansion of Ricardo’s theoretical work?
MW: Capitalism quantifies labor in units of time. The worker is paid by the hour. The capitalist tries to extract the maximum value out of each unit of labor-time. The worker resists. Resists speed-ups in factory work, for example.
Viewed as a totality, each specific act of concrete labor is conceptually part of abstract labor time. It is subject to surveillance and control within the factory system. Capital brought labor together partly because bigger machines can be more efficient, and partly to put labor under surveillance. If the boss or boss’s lackey sees the workers sweat while they do their job, the capitalist is extracting value from them.
The work these workers do is standardized and produces units of a given commodity reduced as near as possible to sameness. But: what if what you, as a member of the owning class need is not sameness, but difference? Competitive pressure drove capital to substitute technics for labor. But eventually, the dominant class dispenses with owning the factory and associated forces of production at all. The vectorialist class is in the business of owning patents, copyrights, brands, logistical systems, data harvesting systems, and so on: information. This kind of business employs very little labor. It employs scientists and artists, so-called creatives. Now: how do you extract maximum value from them? It’s not going to work the same way as in the factory system. What the vectorialist class needs the hacker class to make is genuine difference, of a kind intellectual property can capture and make valuable. But that never quite happens within the rhythm of factory time. A subordinate class producing difference is not the same as one producing sameness.
At the dawn of big science in the 1930s, science was an intentional engine of new materialities for new forces of production—Marxist-scientists of such as J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham and J. B. S, Haldane—worked this out through re-reading Marx through their own praxis as scientists. I haven’t written much about the Marxists of Hollywood, but—same thing. Marxists in what you could call big culture, Dalton Trumbo comes to mind, developed their own theoretical understanding out of thinking about their day jobs and Marx together—and the results are rather more useful than what Theodor Adorno saw from the sidelines.
One could give other examples. The Situationists, whose innovations were in media production—advanced Marxist theory and practice as détournement. Or the radical Lucas aerospace engineers of the seventies, and so on. Both the means of incentive and control, on the one hand; and of resistance and bargaining, on the other—change over time, and one has to come up with concepts adequate to such situations, even if it means moving on from the treasured literature of the Marxist past. For the one thing one can say about the Marxist theory of the past is that the tactics from which all of it came have been defeated.
The theoretical significance of this concern is based on the following paradox. In the theory of value of Ricardo, that Marx critiques, we have that: value is produced by labor. Then the question comes to mind: Whereis this labor that increases a product’s value when a parmesan cheese or a wine bottle that sits in a cellar somewhere can be sold for more and more, as time goes by? Of course there is significant work going on there, but it is the one of the mucus or the one of chemical processes, but this work can’t produce value, because value is a social relation, that is intimately linked with prices and wages.
MW: as a mutant, heretical Marxist, I’d want to ask: why limit labor to humans? Why not think of the microorganisms in the cheese as exploited labor? Or rather that labor is always hybrid, always cyborg, always made up of the flesh of many species interwoven with technics. And humans might not be the only species that resists exploitation. Fahim Amir’s delightful book Being and Swine makes the case for this.
I also don’t see Capital as the summit of Marx’s work, but rather as a case study. Capital is Dead as a title means among other things to step away from that. That’s why I start it by stepping back from Marx’s case study of capitalism, the then-dominant mode of production, to his methodological statement in The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy about modes of production in general.
It is true that in the theoretical framework of Capital with which I’m familiar with, property and unpaid (exploited) labor are those that form the conditions through which both value and surplus-value are produced, extracted and signified, but they are not the ones that produce value per-se (and surplus value) – rather it is produced through them – and in the end on their expense. However, even for this framework, I feel that your book has something important to offer as it lets us realize Capital as something nested inside a hierarchy of property relations, on the top of which we now locate the information.
MW: In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels say that the forces for radical change are those who ask the property question. I’m a law school drop out, but I learned enough to pay attention to the evolution of property as a legal form which is the key superstructure through which to decode changes in the relations of production. It tells you more than politics, culture or ideology as it’s a lot more applied. Hence the way information became not just a technical thing in the world but a new kind of legal thing, and thing in every sense—is key.
What is your take on the theory of value? Would you be interested in formulating your theory as part of the scientific project of Capital, or do you find this language to be either a genteel one or one of the past?
MW: This comes down to what one centers as Marxism. To me Marxism is the knowledge produced by cooperative means by the exploited classes in alliance, aimed at the overthrow of their exploiters (whoever they may be) and the organization of the world in the absence of any existing or future ruling class, within the constraints of ongoingness imposed by the physical limitations of the earth.
From that point of view: value theory might have its uses, but also its limitations. It might also depend too much on Marx’s immersion in a scientific worldview that is outdated. Later in life Marx thought in thermodynamic terms. He moved a bit beyond the Hegelian worldview he both thought in and against. He adopted and critiqued some of the new thinking from post-1848 German scientific materialism. Marx thinks labor as energy and capital as a thermodynamic machine that will blow like a steam engine—someday. There’s no concept of information in that. There can’t be. It’s not known in its modern form until the forces of production advance to enable it to be thought. Remember: this is historical materialism. Information in its modern sense starts to happen with Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, when both military and corporate organization gets so big, so distributed, that it needs to think about how thermodynamic power can be designed, organized, deployed or unleashed by modeling it in advance. Maybe someone could write a magisterial treatise called Vector to replace Capital, a critique of information economy. But that is beyond my powers!
Following my above line of thought, I believe that the users who do the work of posting things on facebook or searching things on google could not be the ones that produce value itself. The word mining (as in data mining) that we use in my field is terribly accurate: there is a natural process that we shape in order to extract from it the crude petrol or diamonds it produces, which we can then further process.
MW: As with any metaphor, thinking of it as mining illuminates some things and obscures others. Kate Crawford and others think of an extractivism: more a colonial project of treating anything as a resource that can be extracted from—and abstracted from—the web of social, cultural, technical, ecological relations in which it occurs. One can connect that to Jason Moore’s concept of the successive regimes of commodified extraction getting going through a primary process of privatizing a resource in cheap and non-renewable ways. Cutting down the forests, ripping a people out of life to exploit and exhaust them as labor, stealing all the information produced out of scholarship or culture or science, and moving on when it’s exhausted.
Another way to think about it is that one thing that’s distinctive here is that while the capitalist class exploits our labor, the vectorialist class exploits our communism. It generates asymmetries of information, among other things out of what Trebor Scholz calls non-labor. We’re all putting information—good and bad—out there on the internet for each other, without pay. Meanwhile the vectorialist class harvests it all as data from which to generate the information that allows it to go on owning and controlling information as private property.
But what does it mean to belong in the hacker class or to be a hacker? Briefly, you define this class as the ones whose role inside the production process is the creation of new information (which can be legally protected as private property). If I get it right, from the moment that both classes co-exist, one person can be both a hacker and a worker. And so for example, a person that works in Amazon’s warehouses, can be on the one hand a worker of the most accelerated company in the world, but they can be at the same time a hacker if information is extracted by their moves to potentially train a system which may one day take over a part of their job that they are now paid for. But would you call such a person a hacker? It is straightforward to think of hackers as creatives, but given your definition, I understand that the Bangladeshi employes of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or of Microworkers,who find the 2$ per hour salariescompetitive and whose job is among other things to perform manual image annotation (with the goal of creating datasets to train machine learning models) should fall under the same category.
Do you agree?
MW: our class locations can be contradictory, as Erik Olin Wright pointed out a long time ago. The Marxist version of class does not define groups of people like a sociological category, it defines antagonistic relations. I might be a worker, a hacker, or petit-bourgeois at different moments on the same day.
As a worker I might work with information. That’s not the same as the moment when I am a hacker, producing new information, which can be captured as some form or other of property, such as a patent, or as a trade secret that my employer will use for competitive advantage as its difference from its competitors. Or: maybe I’m a private contractor, hired because I do actually own the intellectual property I produced and trade on it, making more of a petit-bourgeois in that situation.
The vectorialist class will do its best to control and to drive down the cost of producing difference, just as capitalists drove by building the kind of producing sameness. The tech sector in the United States used its influence to get a special visa category to enable it to import engineers rather than pay taxes which might be invested in training them. The design of large-scale software systems sometimes has a modular, object-oriented architecture which allows for a lot of middling-skilled coders to work on black box components without having much interaction with each other and without them having any capacity to disrupt much of the overall functioning. A lot of simple tasks can be contracted out globally.
Start-up culture is a way to get the hacker class to think like petit-bourgeois, as owners, and also to outsource risk. They take the risk, until the difference they produce either fails or gets bought out. Universities still do the high-risk research, and become the research and development engine, but where the state subsidizes the real science and real risk. And so on.
I’m again trying to understand however whether this has to do with information or with novelty, as both novelty and patents were always part of capitalism. For example my engineering degree has after all to do with novelties and patents and such a role exists since a long time. Are both engineers and microworkers stratified inside the same class?
MW: Information is “the difference that makes the difference,” as Gregory Bateson put it. Those who produce information, which is always a pattern of difference and repetition, but where that difference can take the form of intellectual property—that’s the hacker class. There are layers within that, as with any class, and there are also very different kinds of difference that are produced, which are not all technical. Producing cultural difference is also a thing the hacker class does. And of course many produce differences whose value isn’t even recognized. Think of the way that workers come up with better ways of work, or oppressed people create a new cultural form—but where someone else gets to claim it as property. Difference is always socially produced; intellectual property assigns it to ownership.
Concerning the vectorialist class, you discuss in passing what is known as proprietary code (in a section where you also refer to the work of Richard Stallman). I quote the following passage from Chapter 4:
This is what we might call the technical dimension of class antagonism, where it is built into the form of the information vector itself. This has many aspects, from the design of algorithms determining credit to the development of object-oriented programming environments, which allow for the rationalization of the production of component parts of programming by a dispersed and disempowered hacker class while preserving central control of proprietary code,
Although this is true, it’s part of what is really going on: open source software (i.e. freely distributed software with legal licenses that allow or forbid it’s commercial usage) have been the driving force of the modern software industry, at the same level as proprietary code has.
MW: The sources of creative difference and development are always communal. That creates a contradiction for the vectorialist class: how to privatize something so intensely collaborative? As a ruling class it has tried a number of strategies. Sometimes it has learned that putting too much emphasis on ownership and keeping things proprietary interrupts the development and augmentation of control through the value chain. So you have packets of decommodified production of difference, which sometimes function as bases of resistance to the vectorialist class. But also sometimes as a source of free labor that the vectorialist class can commodify at a more abstract level. That’s what changed between when I wrote A Hacker Manifesto and Capital is Dead. The vectorialist class moved to owning the platform and scooping up the free labor and surplus information from the commons rather than trying to own everything all the time. Although there’s a big chunk of vectorialist business that still insists on the latter. Your laptop could have more spyware than the North Koreans could ever dream of on it, just at the behest of owners of intellectual property who insist that creation is never communal.
We could even support that commercial software or intellectual property in general, have already been quite trespassed: e.g. piratebay, libgen, sci-hub and also monoskop or ubuweb. Thus although states and institutions go after these counter-platforms, the ontological characteristic of abundant and easy to reproduce information affects the moral weight of such legal violations and thus how law itself is exercised.
But something that in my opinion seems essentially enclosed is the infrastructures of storage and compute and the expertise that drives platform monopolies like youtube, facebook, amazon and google, but also the infinite amount of raw data, to which a generator of Marxist terminology could give a new name following those of the constant and variable capital: abstract capital. What it actually is, is an almighty cyber-terrestrial living organism, the evolution of what the banal Marxists of the previous century referred to as “the Vampire”.
MW: the vampire image, which is in Marx too, can have an anti-Semitic reading. And as Donna Haraway, Susan Stryker and others have pointed out: what’s so bad about monsters? As a transsexual, I’m widely regarded as a monster. So, it’s not an image I’d want to toy with. The bigger picture though is a transformation of planetary infrastructure—what Benjamin Bratton calls the stack—which generates a particular kind of geopolitics, of vectors rather than states and trade routes. States still matter a lot, but they’re sort of hollowed out by supply chain logistics, internet backbones, privatized securing of surplus information. Amazon, Facebook et al are just the consumer-facing part of this. Look for example at the annual Fortune 500 list of top American companies: most of them are in the information business, even if most of them are not consumer-facing.
A last thought I would like to discuss on this subject is the following: if hackers are assigned with the task of creating difference that can be legally protected, then I think I see a new tendency. From my experience in the field of Artificial Intelligence, these new “machines” that we design and train are expected to produce or to react to new or at least previously-unseen realities. From medical advice (IBM Watson) to the production of content (Stable Diffusion), more and more parts of creative labor will be outsourced to machines.
I feel that in the following years we will see an industrial shift from construction to synthesis. A commodity will be literally created when sold. In the long run, even the production of theory itself can end up being produced in a similar manner.
So can producing difference in the way you define it be AI-fied and what does that imply for the hacker class which it in turn defines?
MW: I’d love to experiment more with automating my own writing with the new text-generating AI. Feed it my past texts and let it find the differences. I think I’d still have to edit it. AI is also AS: artificial stupidity. I have an ebooks bot on Twitter which sometimes generates lines I’ve incorporated into my texts.
I don’t think humans and technics as separate, any more than bees and hives are separate. We co-evolved with technics from the beginnings of our species-being. The stone tool and the hand evolved together. Already I see theory being generated in the interactions of humans and the social media vector. Through memes, for example. I try to write theory within the context of the contemporary technics of its production.
I think the epistemological problem there is thinking the technics is separate from the human and somehow runs itself. It doesn’t. Information technologies change the human-technics relation, however. Both the jazz musician and the DJ make music with technics, but the relation between the human and the technics changes. John Coltrane has to breathe and play every note. Juan Atkins could set the machines running and go have a cigarette. They were both hackers, in my sense. They both made difference, capturable in the information property form, but not the same way. But overall I think the main thing is that the hacker class is in a continual struggle to retain its autonomy from control, from complete subordination to those who end up owning the value of what they produce. It’s a kind of fetishism to think the problem is some abstract, ahistorical thing called ‘technology’ when the enemy is a particular, historical ruling class that owns and shapes it in its interests.
The need to create difference that can be legally protected, makes labor more precarious as the amount of effort that is needed to complete a given task becomes vague (something that also amplifies the need of a more complex CV in order to prove efficacy). As you write:
Being exempt from routine work is not really all that glamorous in either story, as it just brings uncertainty, frustration, pressure, and (for some) madness.
Even Yuval Noah Harari, an extremely popular, liberal progressive with a highly mainstream audience, poses the immediate problem of the creation of a class of useless people, something that reminds us of the concept of the lumpenproletariat. The concern he expresses is whether the humans of today (workers) will survive the multiple rapid social changes that are brought by an accelerating capitalist society. Changes that however, seem unavoidable: this mode of production reminds us of this prototype interstellar drive that compresses space-time (i.e. its natural limits) to move faster than light.
In parallel to that, as you write in your book, anti-capitalism in the form of communism is dead:
We’re free to desire another project for what might come after capitalism. It
won’t be Communism; as it turns out, the exit from Capital through external revolution was an off-ramp not taken. God is dead; Communism is dead.
In this new reality of the vectorialist mode of production, what are the new terrains of political struggle and what should we call the political form associated with it? (real google suggestion: vectorealism)
MW: I love vectorealism. I could do something with that, lol. What’s commonly called neoliberalism I think can be better understood as a superstructural development driven by the new informational forces of production over the last fifty years or so. What was merely economic theory became possible to implement. The vectorialist class disorganized labor, subsumed the periphery into its matrix of exploitable resources, created a new kind of subjectivity, that of the user, who confronts the world through an interface.
The massive transfer of wealth upwards produced forms of dissatisfaction channeled through an interface in which users were addressed with solutions to collective problems as if they were individual problems, or, alternately, as always, forms of fascism retooled for the age of the meme. The usual cast of marginal figures then get scapegoated, as if that would secure ways of life that are rapidly eroding under the full blast of the vector. The refugee, the migrant, the queer. Anti-Semitism reappears for a generation with no contact with anyone who survived the Shoah. And, as it the 30s, transsexuals are demonized. There’s a certain desperation to these deflections.
For me, it’s crucial to see the labor movement as having been defeated, and many times over, in the 20th century. All versions of it failed, from council communism to social democracy. That’s why I’m not interested in the factional disputes that get endlessly replayed. It’s a matter of doing what Marx did, looking for the leading edge of subaltern experience, how it organizes, and what can be learned from it. That might no longer be the figure of the factory worker.
Now, not many read to the end of any book, so I hid the more heretical stuff there. The Niezschian riff on the death of Communism, not in the banal cold war sense in which the right thinks it is victorious. Clearly the right is as confused and blinded by the death of Communism as the left. My tactical retreat to an acommunism, in the way one is an atheist. The position defined still by that in which it has lost faith. Lately I’ve been toying with turning a meme into a concept: the meme shows a human figure, probably a woman, from the back, holding aloft a sickle cross with a Hitachi vibrator, under the heading: femmunism. Like vectorealism I could make something of that, as a way to think out of the impasses of communism and feminism, where the latter has not really managed to think through class, race, trans-ness.
Your book seems as an ideal primer to Marxism. In it you address all the fundamental issues of Marxism, in different levels of abstraction and from different approaches inside history and across different cultures. I found that so excellent that I was thinking of writing it even on the back cover. You pedagogy has though quite a twist; there is this wonderful excerpt from the final chapter of your book:
I took my kids to see it. I wanted them to know something of the origins and
motivations of a structure of feeling that was something that I once felt deeply and to which I will remain in solidarity for the rest of my life. Let us admit, comrades, that we are a defeated people. There will be no second coming for us. And to try to remain in fidelity to something whose core myth lies in History is always to betray it anyway. The whole is to be begun again, and from the beginning.
MW: I wanted my kids to see Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx at the movies with me, to see a story about the beginnings of the culture from which I came, and with which I’ll be in solidarity til the day I die. I won’t say a fidelity, as Badiou does, which just reeks of theology to me. Rather, solidarity. What’s key for me about Peck’s film is that Marx and Engels radically changed radical proletarian culture. They brought it into history, and brought history into it. No longer would it be the timeless call to justice of the artisan class. It would be an historical praxis for the era of the factory worker. Well, that’s a renovation to be begun again, as Debord says, from the beginning.
 Doctoral Student Researcher and Artist in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Based in Paris.
 As such, those questions may be contradictory to each other.
 As well as passages 24, 35: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm
 The Althusserian approach as M.W. calls it – which is primarily the main way through which I have come to appreciate Marx’s theoretical body of work.
 Data as a form of potential information, could be clearly seen in the case of the google search “Did you mean” feature: Google was holding up unprocessed data from the searches of its users. At some point one of their engineers realized that textbook machine learning techniques could easily be applied to produce a quite accurate recommendation system. The recipe was simple: detect when someone has finally found what they were searching for and create data points between erroneous and intended searches and let them bots do the rest… It’s amazing how much time I was searching – without any luck – to locate this video, which I had seen around two years ago, where this engineer from Google was describing their methodology. It was missing from my youtube history, although at the time I was trying to not leave any traces, supposedly as a form of individual political action; afterwards I was deleting only those things that I didn’t wanted youtube to focus on; today I just prefer to be recorded; all of these are signs of different stages of socio-technical adjustment. At the same time, most of my google searches around this topic (although targeted) somehow avoided or obscured any mention of the term “user data” and as a result their scale and significance. They focused on the technical aspect of this task, as if it was accessible. This rather unfortunate Google bombing and the additional need for SEO knowledge can both be seen as counter measures to different forms of counterprogramming against the dominant narratives and priorities that benefit the Vector.
 See for example reinforcement learning and especially the research around what is called imitation learning.
 As some Marxists point out advertisement is a final and essential part of the production process (of the so-called salto mortale of the commodity). In that way the media industry has a core role in commodity production. Thus, the idea of a commodity overdetermines its production process and motivates the design of technologies that can scale forms of creation that can be driven by abstract people’s needs (something like a generative version of amazon). Forms of interfacing such as prompting (see Stable Diffusion), that we use today to “create” and download a picture of our specification can in the future be used in order to receive an object made according to our instructions at home. Imagine a personal tailor to whom you give general guidance or reference images so that they make something tailored to your liking. As Holly Herndon puts it, the general guidance we give throughout the creative processes (for example what a director does) doesn’t differ that much from prompting itself.
 In more and more increasing scales of abstraction.