Digital Labor and Imperialism

By Fuchs, Christian | Monthly Review, January 2016 | Go to article overview

Digital Labor and Imperialism


Fuchs, Christian, Monthly Review


A century has now passed since Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) and Bukharin's Imperialism and World Economy (1915), as well as Rosa Luxemburg's 1913 Accumulation of Capital, all spoke of imperialism as a force and tool of capitalism. It was a time of world war, monopolies, antitrust laws, strikes for pay raises, Ford's development of the assembly line, the October Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the failed German revolution, and much more. It was a time that saw the spread and deepening of global challenges to capitalism.

This article reviews the role of the international division of labor in classical Marxist concepts of imperialism, and extends these ideas to the international division of labor in the production of information and information technology today. I will argue that digital labor, as the newest frontier of capitalist innovation and exploitation, is central to the structures of contemporary imperialism. Drawing on these classical concepts, my analysis shows that in the new imperialism, the information industries form one of the most concentrated economic sectors; that hyper-industrialization, finance and informationalism belong together; that multinational informational corporations are grounded in nationstates, but operate globally; and that information technology has become a means of war.1

Defining Imperialism

In his 1916 "Popular Outline," as he subtitled his work, Lenin defined imperialism as

capitalism at that stage of development at which the domination of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all the territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.2

Bukharin and Preobrazhensky understood imperialism as "the policy of conquest which financial capital pursues in the struggle for markets for the sources of raw material, and for places in which capital can be invested."3 Bukharin, a contemporary of Lenin and editor of Pravda from 1917 to 1929, drew conclusions similar to Lenin's list of imperialism's key features, delineating imperialism as "a product of finance capitalism" and arguing that "finance capital cannot pursue any other policy than an imperialist one."4

For Bukharin, imperialism is also necessarily a form of state capitalism, a difficult concept to apply in the context of neoliberalism, which is based more on worldwide domination by corporations than nation-states. He saw nations as "state capitalist trusts" locked in a "worldwide struggle" leading to global war.5 For Bukharin, imperialism is simply "the expression of competition between" these trusts, all aiming to "centraliz[e] and concentrate] capital in their hands."6 Lenin, in contrast, wrote that "an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony."7 Lenin's formulation of a competition between "great powers" is more careful than Bukharin's concept of state capitalist trusts, because it encompasses both companies and states.

For Rosa Luxemburg, meanwhile, imperialism is the violent geographical and political expansion of the accumulation of capital, the

competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment.... With the high development of the capitalist countries and their increasingly severe competition in acquiring non-capitalist areas, imperialism grows in lawlessness and violence, both in aggression against the non-capitalist world and in ever more serious conflicts among the competing capitalist countries. But the more violently, ruthlessly and thoroughly imperialism brings about the decline of non-capitalist civilizations, the more rapidly it cuts the very ground from under the feet of capitalist accumulation. …

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