Digital Coercion and the Tendency Towards Unfree Labour

Triumphant in the Cold War, wary of decline, and compelled by capitalism to expand, the US’ imperialist inclination has expressed itself on continental, hemispheric, and global scales. Still, the goal has not been to control but one part, several parts, or even large parts of the globe. Rather is it the attempt to control the planet itself. In this sense, US imperialism is a manifestation of the desire to create space and mechanisms for the accumulation of value, a more basic component of capitalism than profit. It concerns forming a world dedicated to capital accumulation primarily benefiting the US ruling class, and, as a secondary consideration, the ruling classes of tribunes and client states such that they continue to support US rule. However, it is social structure that also produces increasing inequality and authoritarianism almost everywhere, whether that be in the America itself or other places in the international system. Thomas Jefferson called this the ‘empire of liberty’. But the rhetoric clouds the extent to which dispossession, exploitation, and oppression are the mechanisms of this expansion.

Capitalism is a globally expansive system, one hierarchically structured between metropole and hinterland, core and periphery; which seeks to open up the later with its supply of cheap raw materials and labour for investment, extraction of surplus value, and a site for exporting surplus goods. Since the emergence of capitalism in Europe, economies in the periphery have been restructured to meet the needs of the core, rather than their own needs, and as but one example, this has resulted in debt bondage for poor states. Indeed, capitalism requires an expansionary dynamic to postpone economic crises. This postponement can be achieved by using indirect or direct coercion from security forces, or the establishment of domestic and international institutions to structurally adjust places to serve the interests of the US ruling class.

Put in different terms, the US security state is the outcome of a capitalist state, using its security forces to ‘accumulate by dispossession’, oversee the extraction of commodities, and to enforce a global labour regime that to one degree or another has an elective affinity with unfree labour practices. These are features present in both internal and external components of the New American Way of War. The harnessing of this labour power is used to extract surplus value that in turn is converted into a ‘security surplus’ that is spent to enforce a global imperial order that in service of the aforementioned regime of accumulation. Politically, it is a system that no longer seeks the basic pretence of governing with public accountability in mind. Militarily, it is a system with the capacity to deploy force against internal dissidents and rivals at will. Internationally, it is a system of indirect rule on a global scale.

So the more violence seems unavoidable and incomprehensible, the more it is an expression of an underlying social structure, and irrespective of whether it is carried out by security forces, or patterns of investment, the outcome is to strengthen the position of the ruling class. When and where rulers have a monopoly of force and can acquire their resources without necessarily bargaining with producers that rulers can extract at a rate of their discretion. This combination creates an unstable social system prone to inequalities. Domestically, the struggle between subjects and rulers that led to democratization will likely be eroded as increasingly portions of the subject-population cannot offer items rulers require for their strategic pursuits. Therefore, these persons are deemed politically dispensable and basic services and welfare provisions are curtailed or withdrawn because this mode of accumulation has no functional need to be accountable to those who provide the necessary labour power required to produce the state. Instead, the state will make strategic selections catering to those it deems valuable or whose support it requires to continue ruling. This has domestic as well as global ramifications for governance. If this social structure continues, it is likely that arbitrary rule, militarization, and wide inequality will be the order of the day. How this politics is meant to promote the well-being and human flourishing of ordinary Americans and persons living elsewhere, is unclear.

This is a good place to revisit the main topic of this book: the relationship of capital to constraint. I have illustrated contemporary constraint as being organized by a security state managing a particular labour regime (Chapter 1) which itself has long institutional antecedents (Chapter 2), but which now works through various mechanisms like calculated conflict (Chapter 3). One can see the securitization dynamics internally, for instance in policing the most vulnerable (Chapter 4), and externally, for instance in international uneven-development (Chapter 5). New techniques of ideological manipulation are being developed to mystify this process (Chapter 6).

Common to all of these processes is the role of unfree labour. Indeed, given the intensity and scope of exploitation in capitalism, the need for a reserve army of labour, debt bondage, market dependency for social and personal reproduction, and induced underdevelopment, without a doubt unfree labour is a labour model in fully-functioning capitalism. One might say that there is a tendency to replace free labour with unfree equivalents. This is telling about the prospects for mass prosperity.

Amongst apologetic analysts, unfree labour is normally attributed to momentary instances of dispossession as previously unconnected parts of the globe are being integrated into the global economy. In this kind of explanation, it is temporary measure that will apparently subside, leading to free wage labour as fully functioning capitalism takes hold. Setting aside the questionable assumption that dispossession and fully functioning capitalism are incompatible, the main deficiency of this interpretation is that it neglects the extent to which labour power is unfree precisely because of the capital accrued by the ruling class, which itself is because of an extended period of accumulation by dispossession through extraction, expropriation and exploitation. Related, apologists proclaim that the need for labour-power to be a freely traded commodity in a capitalist economy. But nothing prohibits unfree labour from being bought and sold. If anything, it is the preservation of this hard distinction that obscures one from witnessing the mechanics of capital in places with unfree labour while furthering dividing workers to ensure that they cannot form and then act upon a proletariat class-consciousness. The exploitation of unfree labour then is a sign of mature capitalism and is the imposition of class struggle ‘from above’ to ensure than labour-power is entirely directed by their discretion and intentions, and ultimately to keep value of commodities higher than the value of labour.

The rise of unfree labour is related to two economic considerations. The first is that unfree labour is easier to control than free labour, thus making it cheaper to employ and reproduce. With global markets, ruthless competition, and demands for maximum profit, unfree labour becomes an option to reduce labour costs, perhaps even a preferred form of labour regime in the twenty-first century in the absence of economic growth and with the rate of profit falling. To be clear: this does not mean that all labour will become unfree, rather that first there are degrees of freedom, and second that the tendency to adopt this practice when competition is most acute where class struggle ‘from below’ could jeopardize profit making.

Returning to the apologists for unfree labour, they claim that the remuneration in this set of production relations is beneficial to the worker, for at least it provides some subsistence, thereby providing opportunities that those persons might not otherwise had have, and indeed the possibility of increased status. However, such positive appraisals wilfully dismiss the many reports about working conditions in the garment industry in South East Asia, construction in the Emirates, or assembly plants in China. Here, workers are worked to death, in unsafe environments, and face sexual harassment with limited recourse to report abusers. Still, it is telling about the apologists’ moral character to suggest that even an oppressive subsistence job is sufficient for a person. However, aside from this, the existence of unfree labour is a functional by-product of class struggle ‘from above’ where capitalists seek to lower pay to increase profits.

Attention to the spectrum of free and unfree labour is vital for two reasons. The first is the extent of coercion that hinders class struggle ‘from below,’ thus limiting prospects for the development of not only class-consciousness, but also the necessary organizing required to make this consciousness a prominent political force able to contest for racial structural transcendence. Further to this point, a labour regime that seeks to convert a workforce from free to unfree needs to understand the conditions under which this is likely, and so informs class struggle.

There are two problems here. The first is that the imposition of unfree labour means that it is difficult for workers to form a proletariat class-consciousness; instead their subjugation means that they defer to social pre-political identities that ensure their particularity and otherness. Here class identity is replaced by an identity based in race, gender, sexuality, vocation, leisure, or nationalism. In this respect, one of the benefits of unfree labour is that capitalists can stall, retard, or diminish the production or reproduction of class-consciousness. There other identities are reifications that displace a politics of society for one of particularity. This is a form by which capitalists are successfully able to restructure and thwart opposition; it is successful class struggle ‘from above.’

In the end, American imperialism is the net result of politics, policies, corporation actions, and trade relations, the nurturing of local collaborators in dependent societies, and fiscal instruments to compliment security forces seeking to ensure that there are no insurmountable barriers to capital accumulation. Demilitarisation is a necessary step to reduce the power of fully functioning capitalism. Granted the orderly conversion and redirection of human and material resources employed in military activities to human and environmental development can do much to help the truly disadvantaged. While this process will have short-term costs, such as assisting industries in transition, the ‘peace dividend’ will be considerable. Ending unchecked US imperialism will not issue in an era of global lawlessness and war. If anything, the opposite is more likely because great wars are the result of uneven development. While this will do much to limit the coercive constraints of capitalism, the elimination of security forces is necessary but insufficient. Accordingly, it is vital to move beyond a narrow understanding of demilitarisation and end the accumulation drive itself. Doing so requires taking away the capitalist ruling class source of power, the private ownership of property.

How to cite this book chapter:

Timcke, S. 2017 Capital, State, Empire: The New American Way of Digital Warfare. Pp. 145–148. London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

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