reproduce(future) – the fourth congress of the antinational platform …ums Ganze! will take place between 24-26th November in Hamburg. The discussion-oriented panels feature international speakers and will be translated into German and English. For all info: http://techno.umsganze.org.
In an interview first given to Lower Class Magazine one of the organizers talks about the congress’ focus on technique as a potential field for an actualization of anti-capitalist politics.
In the last years, you have been concerned with questions of flight and migration on the one hand, and authoritarian formations and right-populism on the other. Why the increased interest in technique now?
Flight, right-wing populism, and technological developments don’t seem to have much in common. But we think that at their roots they are connected. Schematically, we might say: Because wages are a cost factor in production, competing factions of capital seek to gain advantages over other factions by reducing the amount of necessary labour. This can be achieved, amongst other means, by technical innovation, like automatisation of work routines. This automation then becomes the standard in its respective sector of production. But, because the accumulation of capital depends on living, human labour, this process undermines the accumulation of capital. Thus, capital’s inherent necessity for expansion. The same process repeats itself, but at another level.
This capitalist mode of production and its coverage of the globe, produces surplus people. Since these surplus people remain dependent on selling their labour power and don’t have any other means of making a living are sometimes called surplus proletariat. It’s no wonder that these people migrate where they think they can sell their labour-power. What journalist Tomasz Konicz recently called “imperialism of crisis”, but also the strengthening of reactionary ideologies of collective identity, which promise security that will never be possible under capitalist conditions, belong to this context – whether in form of Islamic or Christian fundamentalism or as nationalist thinking.
The announcement of your congress mentions digital capitalism. What does this mean? Is it another capitalism than the one before?
It is and remains the same old mode of production, but modes of productions are historically specific. Important changes in the development of capitalism can be connected to technical revolutions. Just as much as capitalism increasingly reproduces itself and its various areas – labour and capital, states and politics, subjects and gender relations, law and right – by the techniques of the digital, we are forced to rearticulate our critique. And as much as capitalism reproduces and cannot get rid of its contradictions, the old positions of critique resurface, though with new and sometimes extravagant names. Our congress is supposed to negotiate these contradictions, to communicate, and to determine positions.
What is new about digitalisation?
Digitalisation in a narrow sense means the translation of meaning of every kind into discrete, that means formalised, and distinct units. This allows for electronic processing and less error-prone storage and copying. The technological condition for this is the invention of the micro-chip in the 70s. The so-called microprocessing revolution, and this is what is particularly interesting to us, is the basis for the restructuring of the then-dominant regime of accumulation. The latter used to depend, at least in centres of capitalism, on Fordist organisation of work. Its symbol is the factory. Digitalisation allows new phases of automatisation and is as information technology at the same time a meta-technology, which allow the recombination of already existing technologies into new technological systems. In this way, Taylorist standardisation and Fordist automatisation can be merged and flexibilised in a post-Fordist manner.
With cybernetic, self-optimising control-circuits and robotisation work processes become automatable that have until now remained impossible to automatise. Accordingly, digitalisation in a broader sense is not just the translation from analog to digital. With it, a development is continued that is at the heart of capitalism. In a sense, capitalism realises itself. But, for society as a whole, this can make a huge difference, with enormous, for example, enormous social consequences.
What is the role of the computer in this constellation?
The prevalence of computers as well as the computerization of all areas of economics (and increasingly of all areas of life) is a precondition for the new regime of accumulation. The formalisation described above is crucial for digitalisation. It is the basis of its functioning. The computer is a universal computing machine, where energy is not transformed into mechanical movements but calculations. The results of these calculations eventually end in a kind of re-translation: as output on a screen, on a piece of paper or as the movement of a robot’s arm.
At the same time, the computer has its place in the (cultural) logic of the digital, which established itself universally with the emergence of capitalism. Digitalisation is not just the discretisation of information by microelectronic technology, but part of the general logic. Marx describes abstraction as constitutive of the commodity form. Something similar happens with digitalisation, where the world is quantified in a way which is indifferent to any qualitative determinations. Or put in another way: Capitalism through formalisation and quantification makes social situations economically determinable. Only in this way can they be subjected to valorisation. The natural sciences did the same with nature during industrialisation: They don’t simply observe phenomena but construct them as predictable and repeatable processes. This reproducibility makes nature into something that can be controlled and then – although we don’t mean this to be a historic sequence – inscribed into machines and put to work. This leads to enormous increases in productivity. With digitalisation, this rationale is transferred to any kind of knowledge and any kind of meaning. It can be digitally produced, reproduced, and copied. These procedures of translation again massively reduce production and circulation times and lead to accelerations in turnaround of capital and with this to its extended reproduction. Put in a more succinct way: The digital is the essense of automatisation. Of course, the contradiction described above – between a tendency to automatisation and the dependence on human labour – is not solved by all this. Rather, it is exacerbated.
Where can we especially see the change you describe? Can you elaborate with a few examples?
Digitalisation is a technical revolution because it restructures all areas of society. Society does not reproduce itself in the image of the steam engine, and not even in the image of the assembly line, but in the image of the universal computing machine, of information and data-processing and of networks. Accordingly, we first need to determine the restructuring for the various areas of society. Put in a broad-brushed manner, in economics there is an increase in productivity mediated by techniques of the digital and at the same time a precarisation of labour and the production of a surplus proletariat.
In politics there are new techniques of control and surveillance, on the one hand, and new potentials for collectivity, non-representative forms of the political, as well as planning and self-governance beyond state and market.
When it comes to labour, we can see a decrease in mindless work, new capacities develop and then again, we can see imperative to be creative, to self-optimise, and continuous deskilling of existing qualifications and even the re-emergence of piece-work in the (former) industrial centres. The mark of the contemporary constellation of human and machine is its folding, its entanglement, which can be depicted as a cybernetic control-circuit: The machine is monitored by the human, who in turn is monitored by the machine, which in turn is monitored by the human… and so on, ad infinitum. This has immediate consequences for the self-relation of humans, their sense of security, their life plans. From this there emerges new kinds of labour conflicts and social struggles. Recently, the deliveroo-strike in london showed this impressively with regards to the so-called gig-economy.
Through computerisation processes at financial markets accelerate beyond human comprehension. These movements of capital in the financial markets are an intermediate step in the productive valorisation of capital. At the same time, there is a dissociation of the movement of capital in spheres of finance from productive areas. This facilitates new forms of appropriation and redistribution, exploitation and dependence, for example by indebtedness and austerity, which lead to the restructuring of complete economies and welfare systems. We don’t claim that all these phenomena follow directly from digitalisation, but that they are all mediated, among other things, by techniques of the digital. Or to say it in a stronger way: Digitalization is the technological foundation which changes all these areas, even where you cannot see it immediately. Digitalisation is thus the foundation and condition of critique of contemporary capitalism. Similar tendencies can be formulated for art, gender relations, and our relations to nature.
Two aspects regarding gender relations can serve as an example. The possibilities for altering and intervening in human bodies, through medicine and techniques, drugs, surgery, gadgets etc., have never been as many as now. On the other hand, we observe a tendency for retraditionalisation: Father, mother, child; Dog, house, that’s it. Moreover, the possibilities for bodily intervention are often used to secure and produce these traditional roles and conditions, instead of breaking with them. For example, in cases where women* who preferred to pursue their career and put off their wish for children, are enabled to bear “biological” children at an older age. This is, first of all and without judgment, an increase in possibilities. But sure enough, on a second glance the class-aspect of this becomes apparent: Who is able to pay for what, which bodies are appropriated to what end? Another social organisation or even just of the workplace, another distribution of necessary care-work among companions, is pushed out of focus. Patriarchal structures remain untouched. This aspect is usually eclipsed by talk of a natural motherly wish for children, although – or maybe because – this wish can only be fulfilled in an unnatural way. That we can observe both phenomena simultaneously reminds us, that gender is always socially and technically constructed.
What does this have to do with the internet or digitalisation?
First of all, the internet used to be associated with the hope for disembodiment, for uncoupling of gender identities. Now, in fact, the complete opposite is the case. The internet sometimes acts as amplifier for sexism, it furthers norms and hierarchisation that rule the world. This is no surprise, if you consider that the pioneers of the commercial implementation of the internet are the porn-industry, which is oriented towards the cis-hetero sexual desire of males and even forms them. Supplying the demand that comes from these desires still is a major part of the internet’s usage.
Secondly, the internet provides the infrastructure which enables or at least facilitates international trade of ova or communication of surrogate mothers. This again shows an ambivalence. This transnational exchange includes possibilities of self-organisation in a solidary way. In reality, it just enables the exploitation of bodies against the background of global division of labour and different legal situations.
Why should I as a leftist be concerned with digitalisation?
Simply because the techniques of the digital reproduce one and the same capitalist mode of production, and at the same time all social areas are reconstructed on its basis. Regardless of which field of struggle I’m active in as a leftist, of what I’m interested in – I inevitably engage with these new techniques, even if unknowingly.
Additionally, technique is a fundamental question of critique. Its position on technique is pivotal to any critique of capitalism, because techniques mediate and bring together both elements of the capitalist mode of production, namely labour and capital. Put another way: capitalism is in itself a technique for decoupling labour and capital, but also to put them into relation and thus to reproduce them. Every single technique embodies, however its shape may be, the overall technique of the capitalist mode of production.
Incidentally, fractions of German capital have long ago realised the impact all this will have and adjusted accordingly, ideologically and practically. In Germany, under the heading of “Industrie 4.0” a big image campaign including YouTube clips and fancy websites is going on. Especially export-oriented fractions of capital, with companies such as Siemens, seek to uphold their dominant position on the world-market by producing and selling automated production facilities and robots. The government, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the Ministry for Economic Affairs are also involved in this. Of course, this is about conflicts between different fractions of capital within Germany and Europe, but also about interpretative sovereignty, occupying concepts, and determining public discourse. This shows that critique and clarification are also necessary at an ideological level.
Usually in public debates when the internet and digitalisation are a critical issue, the possible new intensities and scopes of surveillance are discussed. Facebook and others are called »data kraken« in these contexts, because their business model is based on massive storing, analysing, and selling of user data. Especially the exposures of Edward Snowden regarding the NSA in 2013 have put governmental agents in the spotlight. Will the congress address these issues as well?
Sure, Facebook, Google, etc. try to collect and valorise data, yet, these are first of all created by them. A critique of domination and power which assumes that technique exploits and appropriates – or, as in this case, analyses and economizes – “us”: the humans, creativity, subjectivity, communication, the social, or just “life”, comes to nothing, because such a critique misses that technique first of all has to constitute and generate what it then exploits and valorises.
If one were to secure one’s own data against attacks and access, for example, one would accept already the conditions of the new techniques: To generate Data and to interpret them as information. If critique of domination aims at technique itself, it at the same time would fight the conditions of what it seeks to secure and conserve. The rejection of new technologies is quickly exhausted by arranging itself. But to set boundaries, to create niches and spaces of freedom, to find alternative ways of use, to demand democratic control, to attempt a subversive approach, etc.
So, should we shove critique of domination in the bin?
No, of course not. The opposite: surely it’s about power. The influence of big internet corporations is enormous, especially where they provide infrastructure, access, interfaces for communication and information they also create control. Initiative like »free basics« which facebook tried to implement in the hundred poorest countries in the world to provide mobile internet for everyone, show: Access is only granted to selected services. This was supposed to be a generous act and was marketed as such, but turned out to be a neo-colonialist attempt at campaing of conquest with huge consequences. Understandably, there was massive resistance against this. Accordingly, the connections between Google, Facebook, Apple, IBM and so on with nation states and their agencies is intense. That being said, we should not assume a monolithic bloc that controls everyone and everything, but see the different interests and conflicts of interest.
They are negotiated under certain conditions and in turn form them. Both conflicts between interests and their conditions should be considered by a critique of domination that does not want to become a conspiracy theory.
Importantly, critique of domination cannot betray its own conditions. It has to ask: what makes people want to produce and distribute their data? Is it an issue of comfort or something else? How are our online activities connected to the world, society, and the conditions we live in? All this will be discussed at the congress.
British political scientists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams claim in their “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics” that the left have come to an impasse with their concern with the local and processes of basic democracy and horizontality. They demand a treatment of technology which realises its potential for the organisation of an emancipated society. To this end we should not delay but in fact accelerate technological advances. Against this approach was the Invisible Committee (“The Coming Insurrection”) with their widely-read text “Fuck Google”, which identifies technological development with forms of domination, surveillance, and control. How do you position yourselves in this debate, if we assume that those positions form the extreme poles on the spectrum?
For us it’s about using the discussion of these positions to get to a self-understanding: What is the stance of critique towards technique? To survey the possibilities, it is useful to introduce these radically opposed positions. Should we disrupt the new techniques, their algorithms, networks, and logistics, should we disconnect the interfaces, sabotage the new techniques and withdraw? Or should we appropriate, or in fact conquer and redeem, the common that is gathered in technique? Should we further accelerate technological developments, over-affirm them and thus resolve them towards the future and bring them beyond themselves? Or is it important to decelerate and to put everything on “de-growth”? The crucial question here is whether there is a third option beyond these positions, or if this is already the wrong alternative and why it is persistently re-emerging.
What can we expect from the congress?
In autumn, there will be three congresses about new technologies, first in Cologne, then ours in Hamburg, and after that one more in Berlin. It is obvious that the issue is high on the agenda. While the congress in Cologne with its title “Life is no algorithm” aims, in the tradition of social-revolutionary-autonomous critique of technique, to address technique as a form of domination and to aim for self-empowerment and self-defense, the congress in Berlin by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is primarily interested in a solidary, democratic appropriation of technique geared towards ends and uses for the whole of society. Our congress instead seeks to sharpen radical and partly contradictory positions. As you can see, all three complement each other quite well, although there are important differences. We do not want to assume a certain position, nor find a rotten compromise. It’s about as-well-as-positions to find a common neither-nor. To this end we invited quite different theorists, activists, artists, and political groups with whom we want to discuss these positions, not just from Germany but from other European countries as well. Digitalisation is an inter- and trans-national phenomenon anyway. Accordingly, we deem it proper to leave behind any national restrictions. We hope for active international participation, for example from our comrades from the anti-authoritarian platform Beyond Europe, but also from others.
What do you hope to achieve with the congress?
Basically, we seek to extend ourselves beyond a current business-as-usual way of doing politics. It might be qualifying as “reactive” analogous to fire-fighting: We try to extinguish fire after fire, but we are always too late and always too few. And while we are at one site, someone is already lighting the next fire at another site. Of course, we cannot cease this mode of doing politics. Outside the radical left only few people even concern themselves with this. However, to bring back into view a politic without these fires and to formulate options for achieving that is a hope we place in our conference. To this end, we think, one needs to formulate proposals. To do this, a basic issue like digitalisation or technique seems well suited. If you wonder about technique, you necessarily wonder how this society works. And you wonder how another society might work. Of course, we are not the first ones to have this idea.
So, is the congress just talk or will there be anything practical?
Apart from panel-discussions we plan to have some workshops. We are in contact about this with some individuals and groups. For example, participants will be able to get help with setting up encryption for their hard-drives or e-mail and this is a way to do a first step towards digital emancipation. For us this an interesting step outside our bubble. Apart from this we we want to take a closer look at the Hamburg Container Port, the second largest in Europe, to better understand the connection between digitalisation and world-trade. At the port, we can also see which tensions and conflicts emerge from this constellation. Supposedly, they are very interesting for the radical left. In this sense, we are very happy to organise the fourth …ums Ganze! Congress with our comrades from Gruppe für den organisierten Widerspruch (roughly “group for the organised opposition”).
Yet, central to the congress are analysis and discussion of political and strategic questions, simply because we think there is a lot of need for talk, also on our side. Still, you can expect one or another surprise, for sure!
Will technology be an issue for ums Ganze! besides the congress? Have you planned anything?
It will be an issue, and already is an issue, in the several areas we are active in already. This already tends to be a partial reconfiguration.
The congress is supposed to give room to and to further the discussion about political areas, forms, and strategies. Anti-national critique of capitalism has to be up to the current level of its subject and has to orient itself along its strengths – currently, capitalism gathers its productive forces, its valorisation of labour and capital, its possibilities of surveillance and governance, its control of migration and of flows of commodities and capital from the techniques of the digital.
One last question: What do you mean by your talk of a communist wager we can see in your congress’ subtitle? Is radical leftist politics a matter of gambling?
Wager is an old figure and originally referred to the wager that there is a god, even if there is no convincing proof. After the enlightenment, this figure was reformulated and secularised, namely to index that human beings have nothing but their bare existence and are on their own. Only from political practice something can emerge that before it is actualised remains a wager. We think a wager for a communist society is not gambling, but a bet on possibilities that lay already within the status quo. To determine and to bring about these possibilities is up to us. They cannot be anticipated theoretically coherent and without doubt. But we can say for sure, that these possibilities cannot be actualised without technique. However, we position ourselves towards technique – that we look towards society, to a mode of production and its means, to our labour-power, its qualification and its selling, to our gender and how it is put into question – all this is already: technique.