In recent years when we try to understand the digital world critically, we frequently encounter with Christian Fuchs. Fuchs, whose books we translated into Turkish in NotaBene publications, is a very productive name. He publishes more than one book until we translate his one book into Turkish. He writes in topics like social media, digital labour, the criticism of communication from the Marxist political economy perspective, alternative Internet imagination etc. I find his insistence on applying the Marxist perspective to the communication and information studies crucial. While I was so focused on translating Fuchs’ new works into Turkish, I wanted to talk to him about both his books and theses.
Hello Christian, thank you for accepting our interview offer. In recent years, your book collection in Turkish has been growing steadily. The series that started in the NotaBene publications with the Marx is Back nowadays continue with the second edition of the Social Media: A Critical Introduction, and also in this year your Re-reading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism book will be published in the same series. First of all, I want to ask you something from publishing aspect. What would you like to tell to your readers from Turkey, who are interested in critical communication and information studies?
I am really pleased to see that NotaBene has published Turkish versions of some of my books. What these books try to show is the continued need and importance of Marx’s theory for understanding society and capitalism today, including the role of digital media and communication age.
Social Media: A Critical Introduction tries to show how we can make use of Marx and critical theory for understanding the power of transnational digital corporations such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Weibo, Uber, Airbnb, etc.
Rereading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism argues that Marx is a critical political economist and sociologist of technology and communication and that his approach is needed for the analysis of digital capitalism.
Marx is Back is a collected volume whose authors analyse a look at a variety of communication phenomena today. Marx is Back is a special issue of the journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique published in 2012. I edited it together with Vincent Mosco. Later updated versions were published as a two-volume English book. The Turkish translation is a selection of some, but not all essays of the special issue.
Also Digital Labour and Karl Marx was translated into Turkish. IT analyses the international division of digital labour based on Marx’s approach.
It is possible to observe an increase in interest in Marx especially after the 2008 crisis. Even if we do not make a deep observation, we can see the increase in the number of books that Marx’s name passed in the field of communication. Why don’t we leave Marx in peace, why do we keep calling him in critical studies?
Marx lived in the 19th century. He experienced and analysed the rise of modern-day capitalism and unveiled its key mechanisms. Marx is physically dead, but capitalism is alive in the 21st century, which means that capitalist corporations continue to exploit workers and that life is shaped by a variety of forms of alienation. As long as capitalism exists, Marx will be kept alive in the form of the critique of the political economy of capitalism. Exploitation and domination call forth critique, including critical analyses in the intellectual realm. Marx will rest in peace once capitalism is abolished. Until then, he will continue to haunt capitalism and will remain a symbol that stands against oppression and exploitation and for socialism and social struggles for socialism.
Every day, we come across countless news and articles that how big technology companies and their products improve our lives. You, on the other hand, try to stay away from both lines (techno-optimism, techno-pessimism) of techno determinism, which puts technology at the center as the driving force of history. How should we approach the digital world, and specifically the Internet, in this context?
Most public discussions, newspaper articles, etc. are quite one-sided forms of the analysis of the Internet and technology. They either celebrate or condemn technology and blame technology as such for the ills of society. Inspired by Hegel, Marx was a dialectician. Especially in the Grundrisse and in Capital’s chapter on “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” he outlined a dialectical analysis of technology. Marx does not blame technology for the ills of society, but shows how technology and society interact in complex manners. And he sees potentials and risks at the same time in any modern technology that is embedded into capitalist relations. My books take this methodological insight from Marx and apply it to the analysis of digital technologies.
In Re-Reading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, there is a chapter that discusses the development of the dialectical concept of technology in Marx’s works and shows that Marx is a sociologist of technology.
In your Digital Labour and Karl Marx book, you present today’s “digital labor” world and also class composition, and talk about the international division of digital labour. Do you think the division of digital technology production into such different geographies reduces the potential for an international class struggle or, on the contrary, make it possible for the class to establish connections that cross the borders?
One of the very reasons that capital disperses the production process globally and in an international division of labour is that thereby makes the production process anonymous so that the workers do not meet physically in the production process. The other reason is that global outsourcing is used for cutting production costs and maximising profits. Capital is global, whereas political regulation and organisation is predominantly taking place in nation states. There is an antagonism between global capital and nation-state politics in global capitalism. But the result is rising inequality, precariousness of labour and life, etc. It is difficult for workers and trade unions to organise across national borders. At the same time already Marx and Engels spoke of the need of international solidarity in class struggle. The Internet is a global means of communication and therefore not just a means for the global organisation of commerce and capital, but also a means for networking class struggles internationally. What is more needed is the internationalisation of trade unions and working class struggles and social movements. Companies such as Uber exploit an international workfoce. In the case of Uber, it was possible to coordinate strike actions across cities in different parts of the world. If the global workforce of transnational corporations refuses work all at once, then this really hurts transnational corporations. In the age of digital labour, the meaning of what a strike is and how class struggles can best operate change. In the concluding chapter to one of my newer books – Marxism: Karl Marx’s Fifteen Key Concepts for Cultural and Communication Studies – I discuss prospects for class struggles in the digital age in more detail. This book is a kind of continuation and update of the thoughts started in Digital Labour and Karl Marx.
Germany-based Industry 4.0 debate and also the US-based Internet of Things debate continue to occupy the agenda for a long time. Many countries are trying to keep up with these “transformations” with their national industrial plans. What do you think about these debates? Can we say that these discussions have been put forward to weave the ideological line of bringing industrial production back to Europe and the USA?
There is a chapter in Rereading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism that focuses on the critique of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet. It is not an accident that there is so much talk about how to digitise the manufacturing industries in Germany. Germany and the other European countries cannot compete with the digital giants that are either based in the USA or in China. There are no European equivalents to Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. Therefore, European capital tries out new strategies. German’s economy is quite strong in manufacturing cars, washing machines and other industrial goods. And it is a net exporter making lots of profits from exporting these manufactured goods. Germany’s industrial strategy is to bring digitise manufacturing and for doing so combining manufacturing with Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, social media, and the Internet of Things. One imagines that the production, delivery, use (driving), repair and disposal of cars and other technologies can be entirely automated and done by robots. A new debate on automation’s implicatons for society has thereby been started. The chapter in Rereading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism outlines the capitalist interests underpinning these developments and the ideological claims made in the public debate on industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 is the new German ideology.
Profit-oriented, commercial social media platforms (or Internet companies with more accurate naming) like Facebook, Google and Twitter etc. have up to billions of users with different services, and they use user data for targeted advertising, and also by cooperating with states in different ways and causing increased surveillance they put people directly at risk. On the other hand, there are alternative platforms that have different potentials such as Wikipedia but have to face many challenges in today’s capitalist world. What do you think the Internet of tomorrow, the socialist Internet will look like, and what do platforms like Wikipedia whisper in our ears about it?
In Social Media: A Critical Introduction, the analysis ends with a focus on Wikipedia and potential alternatives. Wikipedia is the largest non-capitalist Internet platform. It is run by a non-profit foundation, does not sell any commodity, does not make profit, and uses a Creative Commons licence. The problems of the capitalist Internet have become evident to all of us – exploitation of digital labour, monopolies, digital surveillance, fake news, etc. In the last instance, capitalism, capitalist communication and capitalist Internet are a threat to democracy and the public sphere. Socialism is the only true alternative. A socialist Internet should consist of two parts – self-managed Internet platforms, so-called platform co-operatives, – and public service Internt platforms run by public service media organisations that are public organisations, but independent from governments. In Europe, there is a long public service media traditions but these organisations are legally kept from offering Internet platforms that compete with the digital giants.
The third English edition of SociaL Media: A Critical Introduction will be published in late 2020. It contains an updated and extended discussion of Internet alternatives, especially platform co-operatives and public service Internet platforms. My journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique has just published a special issue about “Communicative Socialism/Digital Socialism” (https://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/issue/view/41) that features 15 articles on all dimensions of what socialism means in the context of digital technologies, media and communication today.
Nowadays I think all the conversations are somehow related to the Coronavirus. Many people predict that Coronavirus will increase the surveillance activities of states and companies, and unfortunately we see the concrete steps taken in this regard. As such, we have seen that production activities in different sectors do not stop even when the epidemic reaches its peak in different countries. What effects will coronavirus have on tomorrow?
The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy to humankind. It shows how suddenly in highly advanced technological societies small events can trigger large, global crises. The so-called lockdown of societies is an absolute necessity in order to spread the pandemic. And we can observe that in those countries that are ruled by governments that do not take the virus serious, implemented the lockdown too late half-heartedly opened up public life to early – such as the USA, the UK, Brazil, and Sweden – the infection and death rates are extremely high. The whole crisis has so quickly and drastically changed everyday life and work. So many people have suddenly become digital workers who work from home using a variety of technologies. But there are inequalities that reflect capitalism’s inequalities. Not all work can be done from home, which means that in many countries there is now high unemployment in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, hospitality, tourism, etc. Not everyone has the same access to digital technologies and digital skills, etc. People of colour and immigrants have been particularly affected because they do lots of the high-risk jobs etc. What I find most worrying is how far-right groups make use of this crisis to spread fake news and foster division in society. Donald Trump spreads all sorts of hatred in the context of this crisis. In reality, the coronavirus crisis shows that we are just one humanity and that overcoming global problems requires international co-operation and solidarity across national borders.
I published an article titled “Everyday Life and Everyday Communication in Coronavirus Capitalism”, https://doi.org/10.31269/triplec.v18i1.1167. It analyses the changes of life, work, communication and ideology in the coronavirus crisis with a special focus on the role of digital technologies.