Data and AI, the core of contemporary capitalism

Last week’s Economist had an excellent report on the data economy and its growing importance to contemporary capitalism.  Data is now the most valuable commodity in the world, ahead of oil, and the five most valuable firms in the world are all technology companies: Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

It is generally understood that all the free online websites we use aren’t actually “free”, but rather are paid for via data collection on our activities on these sites, which are used for targeted advertisement.  Less understood is the fact that increasingly, the real value is not in data and advertising, but in using the data to improve artificial intelligence programs that are much more valuable and create much more complex services, like language translation and self-driving vehicle algorithms.  Hence, why Tesla is valued so high, despite selling so few cars relative to companies like Ford: the real value is in their massive pool of data that they collect from Tesla drivers, and their increasingly proficient self-driving vehicle AI.

Data-collection and AI has spread across the entire economy, beyond just what we think of as “tech”. Transportation is the obvious sector that is fusing with data/AI, but less obvious sectors include the health care industry, and traditional sectors in manufacturing and industrial processing.

GE, for instance, has developed an “operating system for the industrial internet”, called Predix, to help customers control their machinery. Predix is also a data-collection system: it pools data from devices it is connected to, mixes these with other data, and then trains algorithms that can help improve the operations of a power plant, when to maintain a jet engine before it breaks down and the like.

Of course, creating a system for data acquisition and monitoring is hardly new for plants, its not like you can run a modern plant without some kind of control system; what is actually new here is the application of AI to analyze plant data and suggest improvements that plant operators might not realize could be done.

The finance-data intersection is also important to grasp.  A primary point of discussion in the Economist report was around data markets — specifically, the lack of one.  Despite data being so valuable, there exists no real market for companies to trade data-sets and data-streams; instead, they simply buy up the whole company so that they can silo off data for themselves.  There doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm from tech companies to create such a market; on the other hand, one would imagine that Wall St. is watering at the mouth at the prospect of financializing data, in the same way that manufactured commodities were in the ’80s and ’90s.  Wall St. already makes use of financial data and AI, to the point where engineers and programmers seem more important than traditional traders, but to bring the data itself into the realm of trading and financial speculation is whole other story.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of the amount of control that we average schmucks have over our data.  The report discusses many ideas around how to give us back control, such as tools and regulations that allow us to view and control all the data that is out there about ourselves, and even get compensation for its use.  Amusingly, the report’s final section is titled “Data workers of the world, unite!” and discusses arguments for a “digital labor movement” by those of us (which is basically all of us) whose data is being fed into increasingly powerful AIs, and monopolized by massive and unaccountable corporations.  References are made to Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, and the way immense amounts of value is being spun out of day-to-day activities– mostly online, but increasingly offline as well.

This idea is a callback to the Marxist analysis of machines and labor, where technology is said to be “dead labor” insofar as it is a mechanized interpretation of what living labor (the human worker) does.  The power loom took the labor of weavers and interpreted it through a machine, locking in the knowledge and skills of the workers into a system controlled by capitalists.  Machine-tool automation did the same for machinists and metal-workers.  Today, we can imagine this trend reaching toward its logical conclusion, where capital soaks up human knowledge and skill in general and uses it to build AI that could perhaps for people entirely — and beyond.

All of this should emphasize the importance of organizing within the tech industry.  All of these data and AI-centered processes are not driving themselves.  They are dependent on armies of engineers, programmers, scientists, and all the other workers within the tech industry.  They are also increasingly political, even radical.  Contemporary movements to overthrow capitalism will necessarily have to synthesize the workers who are laboring at its core.

David Watkins vs. Peter Frase vs. Norbert Wiener on workers, jobs, and technology

How should workers respond to the introduction of labor-saving technology into their workplaces, and the inevitable and potentially negative labor restructuring that follows?

In the context of automatic self-checkout stations at grocery stores, David Watkins argues that we should cheer on Luddism; that is, workers should resist technological changes that will erode their jobs and wages.  He directly responds to the increasingly popular argument that automating away work would theoretically be a good thing, by pointing out that under capitalism this potential benefit will only ever be theoretical.  Therefore this kind of utopian imagining is not useful for workers whose jobs are being undermined and displaced by technology today, and whose living standards are falling.  Watkins also pushes back against the idea that some jobs are inherently alienating and dehumanizing, and argues that workers have always found value in all kinds of labor, regardless of how menial or grinding — including, presumably, grocery store clerks.

Peter Frase pushes back against both of these arguments.  He argues that while it is important to think of pragmatic and/or defensive strategies like resisting technological restructuring, it is also important to move past a permanently defensive posture and imagine a future where the benefits of automation can actually be distributed to workers, instead of being monopolized by capital.  He points to the example of dockworkers, who over the past half-century accepted dramatic technological restructuring of ports — but also engaged in militant struggles against management so that their high wages were protected, and even secured a certain level of profit redistribution for displaced workers.  Frase also scoffs at Watkins’ argument about workers finding value in all sorts of work, pointing out that this totally misses a basic point about how coercion functions in capitalism — that is, workers don’t have free choice to engage in work they personally find valuable, since they have to find some sort of work in order to survive.  Thus, the whole idea that we ought to prevent technology from disrupting work and allow people choice in the work they pursue is meaningless when people never had a real choice in the first place.

Between these two, I lean much more toward Frase’s position.  I do agree with Watkins’ point about the need to not let utopian theories override what we need to do today to protect our interests and needs as workers.  But I think Frase’s example of how dockworkers approached the issue of technology and job loss/change is a much more compelling alternative to neo-Luddism.  I’d also argue that if we were to accept Watkins position that technology restructuring needs to be resisted, then we’re going to need a powerful and rejuvenated radical left — and a radical left that is powerful enough to halt technological restructuring is also powerful enough to coopt and deploy technology on workers’ terms.  So why not just go with the latter?

Practically speaking, local conditions will be the ultimate determinant of whether workers and leftists decide to either resist or coopt technology.  In some cases, it’ll be easier to smash up and sabotage robots, surveillance systems, etc.; in other cases, it’ll be feasible to force management to cut into capital’s share of profits and divert it to workers, or even to research, develop, and deploy new tech on workers’ terms.

And it is worth remembering that this debate is not new.  Norbert Wiener, an MIT professor widely viewed as the “father of cybernetics”, raised the resistance vs. cooption dichotomy all the way back in 1949, in a letter he wrote to the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) on the dangers of automation to organized labor:

What I am proposing is this. First, that you show a sufficient interest in the very pressing menace of the large-scale replacement of labor by machine on the level not of energy, but of judgment, to be willing to formulate a policy towards this problem. In particular, I do not think it would be at all foolish for you to steal a march upon the existing industrial corporations in this matter; and while taking a part in production of such machines to secure the profits in them to an organization dedicated to the benefit of labor. It may be on the other hand, that you think the complete suppression (sic) of these ideas is in order. In either case, I am willing to back you loyally, and without any demand or request for personal returns in what I consider will be a matter of public policy.

At the end of the day, intellectualizing about what machines could do must take a back seat to political practice and concrete movements, and how we view technology must be subordinate to strategies grounded by on-the-ground reality.

Review of “Trade Unions in the Green Economy”

I recently wrote up a short ~2-page review of Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment (2013) for the Environmental Unionist Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  Check it out here.  Here is the introductory paragraph:

Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment (2013) is a compilation of essays on the intersection of labor organizing and environmentalism, with contributions from workers, union staffers, activists, and researchers from around the world.  The usefulness of each chapter varies; some focus on the policies of various technocratic bodies, while others look at the actual social and political dynamics within pro-ecology unions, and a few advance anti-capitalist analysis.  Overall, it is a very useful introductory survey on the modern state of eco-unionism, and contains useful information for revolutionary unionists and environmental syndicalists.

And here is a concluding paragraph, that has more to do with the general political ideology of what we could call “revolutionary environmental unionism” than the book itself, although I do think that the most compelling ideas in the book support it:

Indeed, if there is one takeaway from Trade Unions in the Green Economy, it is that worker self-organization and power are the central pillar of effective environmental unionism.  Transforming production via environmental reforms on capitalist lines will always result in a combination of 1) the displacement and destruction of working-class communities (and a concurrent shift toward reactionary politics in the absence of left-wing alternatives, as we are currently seeing in the Western world), and 2) the offshoring of dirty production to the Global South, which means that at the global level, we’re not necessarily reducing the net rates of pollution.  Furthermore, we must also recognize the limits of traditional liberal strategies for social change, which revolve around lobbying elites through the alleged power of ideas and rational discourse, and a focus on an abstract space of “public opinion”.  What we need instead is a strategy that brings politics into everyday life, where our neighborhoods and workplaces are sites of struggle for livable wages and healthy environments.

AQAP in Yemen

There has been a lot of noise in recent weeks from the Trump administration about increasing US military involvement in the ongoing gang-fight in Yemen, and helping Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Hadi regime in their war against the Saleh-Houthi alliance.  Any such escalation will very likely bolster the position of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), notwithstanding America’s own ongoing military campaign against them.

This contradiction became hilariously and horrifically apparent in the aftermath of the US special forces raid against an alleged AQAP compound back in January, shortly after the transfer of power in the US to the Trump administration.  The raid targeted important leaders of the al-Dhahab family, which is a key backer of AQAP, and is related by marriage to Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher and al-Qaeda recruiter.  But the family is also closely linked with the Hadi regime; Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab, one of the key figures killed in the raid, had met with Hadi’s military chief of staff just a couple of days prior and had received a nice sack of money to help him and his tribal militia fight the Houthis in a nearby city.

This fits in with the larger pattern of more or less overt cooperation between the Hadi regime and AQAP — which, oddly, enough, the US government itself appears aware of, although it does not appear to be influencing the overall military strategy.  Some key connections include:

  • Nayif al-Qaysi, one of Hadi’s provincial governors, who is accused of both the US and the UN of being a senior AQAP official
  • Abdul Wahab Al-Homayqani, the head of a powerful Salafist political party and an advisor to Hadi, who is accused by the US of being an AQAP official and helping mediate financing between Saudi donors and AQAP
  • Al-Hasan Ali Abkar, a pro-Hadi militia commander who is accused by the US of funneling money and weapons to AQAP

Connections between the “official” regime in Yemen and al-Qaeda isn’t new, either.  The ex-dictator Saleh maintained links with al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups for decades, right up until he linked up with the Houthis and went to war against Hadi, his old vice president, and his former allies among AQAP.  Saleh encouraged Salafi-jihadists to fight against his enemies in the socialist south during the 1994 Civil War, including a few prominent militants like Jamal al-Nahdi, who planned al-Qaeda’s first attack against the US, and who would go on to join Saleh’s political party and become an important member of the state security apparatus.  Saleh continued to exploit AQAP militants against political rivals (including the Houthis) even as he took in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP throughout the 2000s.  Now, Saleh and his loyalists in the military have jumped sides to the Houthis, while the security establishment that Hadi took over are still deeply intertwined with AQAP and other Salafi paramilitary groups.

So what is the US plan for all of this?  Pushing the Saleh-Houthi alliance back will almost certainly mean a de-facto alliance with AQAP, which has already demonstrated its ability to take over areas “liberated” by the pro-Hadi coalition.  On the flip side, attacking AQAP means undermining the regime that the US is backing, and letting the Houthis consolidate their gains.  At this point, it seems like the US is content to simply shoot at everybody, strategy be damned.  A drone strike here, a refueling mission there, and so on, until…well, who knows.  At least the defense industry creeps will be happy.


Analysis of science and technology from radical leftist perspectives is often dreadfully dreary and dystopian, focusing on pessimistic narratives around job-killing automation and the planetary crisis of climate change.  So its quite nice to come across more optimistic pieces that imagine positive deployment of technology, and call for leftists to be proactive in taking charge of techno-scientific systems for progressive ends.

Last December, The New Inquiry published an interview with Helen Hester of Laboria Cuboniks, a small group of feminists from around the world who wrote “Xenofeminism: A Politics For Alienation” (warning: site may induce epilepsy), a polemic arguing for the positive use of technology to smash hierarchy and oppression, particularly as they relate to gender.  This could be seen as part of a diverse lineage of critical feminist analysis of technology, which includes classics like Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century” [PDF], and the lesser known works of Italian Marxist-feminists like Tiziana Terranova, who has written on things like communist algorithms.

Xenofeminism casts itself as ruthlessly and unapologetically “anti-natural”, noting that the standard of naturality has often been used as a cudgel against marginalized and oppressed people, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality.

The real emancipatory potential of technology remains unrealized. Fed by the market, its rapid growth is offset by bloat, and elegant innovation is surrendered to the buyer, whose stagnant world it decorates. Beyond the noisy clutter of commodified cruft, the ultimate task lies in engineering technologies to combat unequal access to reproductive and pharmacological tools, environmental cataclysm, economic instability, as well as dangerous forms of unpaid/underpaid labour.

The manifesto goes on to attack observed tendencies within the radical left to retreat from broad analysis and ambitious, large-scale projects, as well as to exist only within the realm of critique and analysis instead of concrete, practical action.  Xenofeminism also adopts a firmly “abolitionist” view with regards to gender, race, and class, while also rooting social hierarchy in capitalism.

Ultimately, every emancipatory abolitionism must incline towards the horizon of class abolitionism, since it is in capitalism where we encounter oppression in its transparent, denaturalized form: you’re not exploited or oppressed because you are a wage labourer or poor; you are a labourer or poor because you are exploited.

Specific comments on technological systems range from the relationship between architecture and gender, to the emancipatory potential of bio-engineering, all along peppered with demands for experimentation and ambition.

Without the foolhardy endangerment of lives, can we stitch together the embryonic promises held before us by pharmaceutical 3D printing (‘Reactionware’), grassroots telemedical abortion clinics, gender hacktivist and DIY-HRT forums, and so on, to assemble a platform for free and open source medicine?

All in all, the Xenofeminist manifesto is a nice bit of poetic polemicizing around an optimistic vision of technology and engineering.  In particular, I enjoyed the presence of an underlying philosophy that sees little distinction between the natural and the artificial, as a framework that I haven’t stumbled across in a long time, but that I’ve always personally leaned toward.

Its unclear whether the theory is connecting with any real organizing yet, but it certainly has a lot of potential to fit into a larger assemblage of left-wing struggles that are looking to appropriate and/or control technological development.

What should the radical left do about Syria?

First, we need to recognize that this is a bad question.  We need to back up a bit, and recognize that the radical left (specifically, in the US) is in no position to do anything about Syria.  We’re weak, divided, confused, and largely isolated from the American masses.  We have depressingly little influence on domestic policy, let alone on how US imperialism functions abroad.  Most of our debates are academic and abstract.  Our protests — especially our anti-war protests — are reactive, and utterly disconnected to any kind of larger, coherent strategy around fighting imperialism and building a revolutionary movement.

With this in mind, the next step is to consider what would constitute an effective program around Syria.

The core plank of an effective program would be establishing and deepening concrete ties with people in Syria.  I’m not talking about re-Tweeting activists in Aleppo or helping “raise awareness” through interviews or whatever — I’m talking about actual coordination, planning, and resource transfer with organizations on the ground in and around Syria.  From this perspective, the most effective programs thus far have been 1) solidarity efforts with Rojava, such as fundraising for supplies and volunteering to fight, and 2) solidarity efforts with refugees, which have been particularly impressive in southern European countries like Greece.

Continue reading

Historical attempts at workers’ inquiry

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi wrote a lengthy and in-depth introduction to Viewpoint Magazine’s Issue 3 on Workers’ Inquiry.  It is worth reading in full in order to get an understanding of various attempts at the project that have taken place in the West.  Workers’ inquiry started off as an idea by Karl Marx himself to combine the perspectives and experiences of workers with an anti-capitalist communist program.

This practice of workers’ inquiry, then, implied a certain connection between proletarian knowledge and proletarian politics. Socialists would begin by learning from the working class about its own material conditions. Only then would they be able to articulate strategies, compose theories, and draft programs. Inquiry would therefore be the necessary first step in articulating a historically appropriate socialist project.

The analysis looks at the efforts of three groups: the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA in the early ’50s, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France in the ’50s, and Operaismo (workerism) in Italy in the early ’60s.  Here are some of the characteristics and insights of each group:

  • Johnson-Forest Tendency: Split off from Trotskyism; saw workers’ inquiry as a way to engage in agitation and raise class consciousness by rooting political analysis in the day-to-day experiences of people; largely divided society into four groups — workers, blacks, women, and youth; their work veered more into the realm of historical fiction than empirical analysis, as it seems that they weren’t very embedded among common people
  • Socialisme ou Barbarie: Closely linked with the Johnson-Forest Tendency and communicated with them quite a bit; connected with several groups of industrial factory workers over time; advanced the idea of workers’ inquiry to be much more of a fusion between intellectuals and workers researching and analyzing day-to-day proletarian experience (seems similar to the Maoist concept of the mass line); over-determined the importance of male factory workers and didn’t pay much attention to the experiences of race and gender (unlike the Johnson-Forest Tendency); some internal splits over the importance of the workers’ paper and how to balance out intellectual analysis and “raw” and “unfiltered” writings from workers
  • Operaismo: Well-connected with workers in various factories; the role of technology in the workplace was a noteworthy focus of analysis and inquiry; as opposed to the other two groups, which seemed to look at the alienating conditions of the workplace as the key contradiction of capitalism, the Italians used their inquiries to look at the larger systemic tendencies of capitalism, and thus built toward the theory of class composition and the role of working-class struggle in being the driving force of capitalist development and restructuring; like the French, they over-determined the role of male factory workers, but this was strongly pushed back by later work by Italian Marxist feminists of the same currents

These seem to be the main groups that took up the most formal kind of workers’ inquiry.  But if we expand the idea of inquiry to be more general, to refer to any kind of serious on-the-ground investigation and analysis of people’s lives and problems and relationships with capital and state, there are a couple of other examples that come to mind, that are actually more rooted in a strategy that embeds research/investigation with an actual revolutionary organization.

  • Abdullah Ocalan and the other founders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) spent at least a year traveling through Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey to talk to people, survey their grievances, analyze terrain and geography, and map out the presence of the state, prior to their launching of a more open organizing campaign and the armed actions in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
  • Amilcar Cabral, the founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), rooted his political organizing in the surveys and inquiries he made of tribes and other communities in Guinea-Bissau during his time as an agricultural researcher, which took him all around the country and allowed him the opportunity to talk to various social and political leaders.  This enabled him to analyze and synthesize the experiences of many different groups, and ground the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle against the Portuguese Empire with the nuances of local context.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about a formal kind of workers’ inquiry that is used to generate Marxist theory, or the more general kind of research that is used to arm revolutionary organizations with local knowledge and networks, inquiry is definitely something that radical leftists of all stripes need to take seriously.  Too many radical left groups are yelling into the wind, attempting to engage with an amorphous and abstract “public” through vague denunciations of capitalism — instead of trying to meet people where they are at, make a genuine effort to understand how other people are working, living, surviving, and resisting under capitalism, and understand that abstract texts from 50 or 100 years ago aren’t sufficient for crafting a revolutionary strategy today.