The Binary Proletariat
First Monday


The Binary Proletariat

In the endless quest to transform itself, capitalism has spawned a new working class. The proletariat was an essential product of the industrial revolution, and the lighter, more efficient capitalism of the digital revolution has created the Binary Proletariat.


Capitalists, armed with deregulated communication networks, have finally achieved the Victorian goal of State abolition [1]. Digital capitalism, as author Dan Schiller calls it, has circumvented the geopolitical boundaries of the industrial era and given new life to the "liberal economic policy of Victorian Britain" [2].

In the endless quest to transform itself, capitalism has spawned a new working class. The proletariat was an essential product of the industrial revolution. The lighter, more efficient capitalism of the digital revolution has created the Binary Proletariat. This new proletariat is made up of the working class employees of digital companies worldwide. Those who face the endless glow of a screen from within the confines of cubicled subjugation make up this new, but as of yet unrecognized, Binary Proletariat. Nation-states that once accommodated varying levels of wealth are converging on a two-class society. Although capitalist domination has not given way, there are other ways by which "everything solid melts into air" [3]. Fixed capital, domestic corporations, and government regulation have melted into air as a result of the digital telecommunications revolution.

Class-consciousness, as Marx defined it, might have been threatened by the progression of industrial society, but it has been dissected and dispersed by the new digital global economy. And Marx defined class-consciousness, as Lenin quotes him in the Granat Dictionary written in 1914 and published in 1915, [4]

"Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production ... . [5]

So, Marx argued that as long as one is not controlling the means of production, they are proletarian. And if one's labour is being exploited, they are proletarian. The advanced industrial Proletarian worker might have been fooled into thinking they were a member of the petit-bourgeoisie because, among other things, they lacked exposure to the rest of their class. But with the ephemeral, casual, and de-centralized world of digital employment, each binary proletarian worker often defines the means of production (juggling temporary contracts and multiple clients). One also might have direct contact with the market (stock options or direct distribution). While the Binary Proletariat may defy Marx and Engels' primary definition of class-consciousness, it fits right in to their strictly bifurcated models of class division.

For example, there is a similarity between the fact that "the misery of the working class in the years 1848-1864 [had] not lessened, in spite of the unexampled development of industry and growth of trade during this period," [6] and current economic trends. Unsurprisingly, the economic growth that accompanied capitalism's global permeation only profited the upper echelons of society. As Thomas Friedman points out, the political systems that distributed wealth have been dismantled by capitalism's sheer ability to generate wealth [7]. A sandwich vendor in Bangkok said it best, "Communism fails, socialism fails, so now there is only Capitalism" [8]. So we're left with an economic climate very similar to that which Marx describes between 1848 and 1864. The "average U.S. CEO made 209 times the pay of factory workers in 1996 - up from 42 times as much in 1980" [9] because the pay of factory workers is no longer the economy or public's main concern.

With the ten hour workday law, "Marx pointed out the triumph of the principle of government interference in economic relations over the old ideas" [10]. To what extent are programmers and systems support members of the Proletariat? This is a domain where an eight-hour workday does not exist. It is true that programmers and technicians in any part of the world are far from the malnourished factory workers of 19th century Great Britain. But I can attest to situations where digital companies regularly extract twelve and fifteen-hour workdays from fleets of willing programmers. Liquid compensation rarely follows such marathon compiling. Instead, the payoff might be time after work to play Quake on the company local area network, or the right to download and burn software on the company T1. I am not drawing a parallel between the exploitation of industrial labour and the lavish benefits accorded young programmers. But there is a widespread presumption that "because the Internet reduces the cost of producing and distributing ... to almost zero, it is likely to make 1 Local Area Network decentralization the rule." [11]. While this scenario was perhaps possible, I believe the "cost of producing and distributing" have taken on new forms, not evaporated. And capitalists have adapted to exploit labour based on the new models of production and distribution.

The Binary Proletariat is binary in two senses. First, it is a by-product of the information revolution and deals exclusively with a production system structured on the zeroes and ones of digital networks. Friedman, Schiller, and the Annual Review of the Institute for Information Studies all agree that massive digital communications are directly responsible for the global transformation of our economy. Second, there are two opposite poles of workers united by their involvement with digital capitalism. Transnational corporations that have permeated the globe indirectly employ the first contingent, mostly third world workers living in astounding poverty. The second faction is usually directly involved with some aspect of digital telecommunications, earning comfortable wages (for now) and living in the first world. Both groups are part of the Binary Proletariat, but there is a polar opposition between the laborers directly involved with digital technology (well-paid and living in developed countries) and laborers who are indirectly involved (workers in shoe factories).

The second side of the Binary Proletariat is much less visible, as they are hiding out in the lucrative Web design positions of the late 20th century. The call centers of 2,000 telemarketers who sell the drone of their authentic human voices make up the Binary Proletariat [12]. The cubicled floor space of start-ups turned agglomerates make up the Binary Proletariat. The 3,500 temporary workers at Microsoft, subject to the slightest change in the new global market, are part of the Binary Proletariat [13].

As long as wages remained high enough to satiate our desire to consume, it appeared that the Binary Proletariat was a delightful byproduct of digital capitalism. However, as the complex technological system of distributed computing has evolved, the liberalized free markets have started to stream towards the cheapest labour. One way this has taken place is by increased vocational training in public school curricula, as long as the vocations are digital. Relational database programming, for example, may be taught in a for-profit high school, instead of at a four-year university. Like in the California's San Bernardino County School District, where they have partnered "with Cox Cable Company, a multimedia sponsor, to assist them in creating a Web based institute" [14].

This private partnership undeniably benefits underprivileged children who would not otherwise have access to the technology. But even in California, a worldwide leader in the computer industry, the effects of academic commodification have not trickled down to the lower and middle class children. "One in three ninth-graders in California public schools in 1994 failed to receive a [high school] diploma four years later" [15], the bastion of digital technology does have one of the highest dropout rates in the country [16]. An interesting relationship has developed between the technology that is driving the digital economy, and the educational framework that creates laborers. At the same time that graduation rates are decreasing, "statewide school information system that will allow [us to keep better track of students" [17]. What has happened is a simultaneous influx of corporate sponsorship into some schools, and decrease in government funds. The result is that the mythical [18] American class mobility has turned into a binary opposition; you may grow very rich, or you may grow very poor.

Thomas Friedman calls this system the "golden straitjacket", and it is supposed to be the global garb of a free market economy. It brings instant fortune at the cost of having a middle-class. Friedman believes "If your country has not been fitted for one, it will be soon" [19]. Being "fitted" for a golden straitjacket requires the government to de-regulate and shrink itself as much as possible. Once that happens, private industry commences generating wealth. For some, the ability to generate instant income in under-developed countries is one of the best features of the global free market economy [20]. But the free market is much better at the generation of income than the distribution of income (which comes close to not occurring). Consequently, the lower classes have remained at the level they achieved after the initial flux in income, while the transnational corporations indefinitely accelerate profits. Alternative political systems that attempt to do both simply can not compete. As both Schiller and Friedman point out "The corporate-led market system no longer confronts a significant socialist adversary anywhere on the planet" [21]. Eventually all governments have done away with programs to distribute wealth in favor of the more immediately stimulating policy that generation of wealth. My point is, mechanisms for the distribution of wealth are being dismantled by a consensus that the new global market should not be regulated. Digital globalization then completely bifurcates existing socio-economic gradients.

But long before the first microscopic transistors were etched onto silicon in the 1950s, Marx decided that the we would eventually live in a society where "all that is solid melts into air." Although Marx was thinking in the abstract, his theory has now taken on an entirely tangible meaning [22]

Digital technology has enabled the transformation of physical interactions into binary estimations, and the their subsequent transmission through the air on a global scale. Just as part of the agricultural population was "constantly on the point of passing over into an urban or manufacturing proletariat," part of the remaining industrial proletariat is constantly on the verge of passing into the Binary Proletariat [23]. The Chinese politician who demanded fiber optic cables for his northeastern Chinese village desperately wanted his people to become part of the Binary Proletariat, and reap the rewards of global digital capitalism [24].

About the author

Nate Bolt is CEO of Bolt | Peters User Experence.
E–mail: nate [at] boltpeters [dot] com

Notes

1. Engels, 1880.

2. Schiller, 1999; p. 1.

3. Marx quoted by Berman, 1982; p. 23.

4. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/jul/granat/index.htm

5. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/jul/granat/ch02.htm

6. Marx, quoted in Riazanov, 1927; ch. 6.

7. Friedman, 1999; p. 82.

8. Friedman, 1999; p. 84.

9. Schiller, 1999.

10. Riazanov, 1927; ch. 6.

11. Institute for Information Studies, 1998; p. 9.

12. Schiller, 1999.

13. Or perhaps the Lumpenproletariat, but I hesitate to label temporary workers as the "scum of the decaying elements of all classes" (Engels, 1850; preface). Also, see Schiller, 1999.

14. Fresno County Office of Education, 1998. "Minutes from the Education Council for Technology in Learning," February 23-24.

15. I realize this statistic is probably more false than true, but it represents the overall dismal state of public education in California.

16. Associated Press; June 6, 1998.

17. Associated Press; June 8, 1999.

18. "Ain't No Makin' It" in 1991 illustrated that American class mobility was approximately equivalent to feudal England.

19. Friedman, 1999; p. 84.

20. Op.cit.

21. Schiller, 1999; p. 203.

22. Marx, quoted by Berman, 1982; p. 23.

23. Marx, 1867. Das Capital, volume I, p. 668.

24. Friedman, 1999.

Bibliography

Marshall Berman, 1982. All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Frederick Engels, 1880. Socialism: Utopian And Scientific at http://csf.colorado.edu/psn/marx/Archive/1880-SUS/sus1.html

Frederick Engels, 1850. The Peasant War In Germany (Engels' Preface To the second edition) at http://csf.colorado.edu/psn/marx/Archive/1850-PWG/pwg0a.html

Fresno County Office of Education, 1998. "Minutes from the Education Council for Technology in Learning," February 23-24.

Thomas Friedman, 1999. The Lexus and The Olive Tree. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Institute for Information Studies, 1998. The Emerging Internet. (Annual Review of the Institute for Information Studies; 1998). Queenstown, Md.: Institute for Information Studies.

Karl Marx, 1867. Das Capital, volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital, at http://marxists.firetrail.com/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm

David Riazanov, 1927. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work. at http://marxists.firetrail.com/archive/riazanov/works/1927-ma/index.htm

Dan Schiller, 1999. Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Editorial history

Paper received 22 March 2000; accepted 18 April 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Copyright ©2000, Nate Bolt

The Binary Proletariat by Nate Bolt
First Monday, volume 5, number 5 (May 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_5/bolt/index.html





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