What would Karl Marx make of Silicon Valley?

It’s the bearded one’s 200th birthday this year. Much of the mainstream media has marked the occasion, including the Financial Times, that pre-eminent “capitalist” newspaper.

Why should Computer Weekly be any different? After all, one of our more distinguished alumni is Paul Mason, these days a public intellectual in the classical Marx tradition.

Mason’s book PostCapitalism (2015) contains an intriguing chapter in which he expands on a neglected text of Marx (the “Fragment on Machines”, published in English in 1973, in that massive tome, the Grundrisse) that seems to predict today’s information economy. Marx figures here as a “prophet of postcapitalism”, according to Mason:

“The productive power of machines like the ‘self-acting’ cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive was ‘out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production’.

“Organization and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the labour of making and running the machines.”

Gartner’s Frank Buytendijk is another who finds value in Marx when it comes to reading today’s IT-saturated economy. In his book Socrates Reloaded: the case for ethics in business and technology (2012), he writes:

“Marx would have been the first to say [of Facebook, Google et al.] that all the ingredients of a revolt [by internet users] are there. What could happen to Internet giants if they shoot themselves in the feet by pushing their data collection and analyses too far?”

Buytendijk argues that Google and Facebook are as hungry for data as Victorian capitalists were for capital. They want to collect as much data as they can for the benefit of advertisers, not for the producers of [that data]. People alienate their data in the way Marx says we alienate our labour power. Moreover, our love of Google and Facebook’s “free” services are the counterpart of the religious “opium of the people”, in his view.

But – in a twist of the dialectic – in the networked world we can “leverage the same community-based business model of the Internet giants to overthrow them”. Go somewhere else and they crumble.

What would Marx, the nineteenth-century economist, make of the particular, venture-capital fuelled economy of Silicon Valley? Would he throw up his hands in horror? More likely, he’d analyse it; most probably at tedious length. And he’d probably applaud its dynamism, just as he hailed the dynamism of industrial capitalism in the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

But surely the hyper-individualist political and social culture of Silicon Valley would be an anathema to this enemy of individualism and promoter of the collective?

Well, maybe. However, Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 would seem to demonstrate an advocacy of all humans realising their individual powers, their “species-being”, once economic scarcity has been consigned to the past. It is just that they can only do so through other beings. You can’t be an individual on your own, seems to be the paradoxical gist.

Was Marx right?

The cultural theorist Terry Eagleton makes this argument in his book Why Marx was right (2011):

“For Marx, we are equipped by our material natures [as labouring, linguistic, desiring creatures] with certain powers and capacities. And we are at our most human when we are free to realise these powers as an end in themselves, rather than for any purely utilitarian purpose”.

And Eagleton contends elsewhere in the same text:

“Marx was an implacable opponent of the state. In fact, he famously looked forward to a time when it would wither away, His critics might find this hope absurdly utopian, but they cannot convict him at the same time of a zeal for despotic government”.

Even so, the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley are famously more indebted to the libertarian thinker Ayn Rand (exiled by the Russian Revolution) than Marx.

And yet Marx figures more prominently than does Rand in Silicon Valley luminary Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One (2014). Here is Thiel:

“As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw clearly, the 19th-century business class ‘created  more massive and more colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs …. what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive force slumbered in the lap of social labour?’”

Among his many ventures, Thiel is co-founder and chair of Palantir Technologies, a big data analysis company whose CEO, Alex Karp, wrote his PhD  in dialogue with the Frankfurt School tradition of Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas.

Not poles apart, then, Marx and today’s laboratory of the future on the West coast of the US (and its clones elsewhere)? (It’s moot).

But would he fit into the geek house in Silicon Valley, the HBO comedy? Given his roistering fondness for pub crawls in Soho, and his famous maxim, “Nihil humani a me alienum puto” [nothing human is alien to me], one would have thought so.

PS: In the interests of balance, fellow economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s birthday is on 16 June; we’ll have to wait till 2023 to register his 300th, along with the rest of the media. What would the author of The Wealth of Nations make of Silicon Valley?

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