I. New Production, New Technique?
On April 23rd, 1934, Walter Benjamin gave an address to the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris, titled “The Author as Producer.” In it, Benjamin gives a singular summation of the issue he is most known for addressing, what would later become the foundation of his famous “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduceability” and which would continue to inspire the Situationists and John Berger:
“Rather than asking, ‘what is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?’ I would like to ask, ‘What is its position in them?’ This question directly concerns the function the work has within the literary relations of production of its time. It is concerned, in other words, directly with the literary technique of works.”[i]
Despite the recognition of Benjamin’s works, and the impact that they have had, this particular question of technique as it applies to production seems particularly absent in contemporary media. Today’s analysis largely rest on psychoanalysis (a la Zizek); broad aesthetic critique wherein all technique, content, and form is rolled up into an emotive response; or else representative critique where the images are judged against an expectation of reality on the part of the reader, viewer, or listener. Benjamin, as the title suggests, privileges the author as producer, a singular entity, and he goes on to argue that Brecht serves as an example of a producer who highlights “the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers- that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.”[ii]
Of course, though Brecht was a playwright and a director, the theatrical production itself is composed of various techniques that are outside of the individual writer or director’s grasp. It is a co-operative form of media, something that Benjamin would write more about in his later essays and notes on technology in artistic production. Today, in an era of immersive, networked digital creation, it seems important to return to examining production in the sphere of media and its role in the formation of technique. The co-operative, and diffuse, nature of this production, neatly fitting into the tensions of mass commodity production described by Marx in the first volume of Capital, determines a great deal of the technique and function of digital media. These techniques and functions, in turn, are a major determining factor in the resulting aesthetic and representative results that emerge when the creations meet the public.
“The games industry has undergone significant growth in recent years and this trend is set to continue…. The size of the global games market was $83.6bn in 2014 and this is estimated to increase to $113bn by 2018 (newzoo 2015). Not only are vast sums of money involved, but games have an increasingly global reach, with an estimated 1.6bn players worldwide in 2013 (Newzoo 2014). This comes at a time when growth rates in the global north have been sluggish at best in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.”[iii]
In November of 2018 Newzoo reported that the estimated Global Games Market for that year would be $137.9bn, upward of over $20bn from what was estimated in 2015.[iv] In April 2018 they estimated the global games market would reach $180bn by the year 2021.[v]
Contemporary digital technology appears at first glance to embody the apparatus that transforms consumers into producers. Free programs for creating and editing images, films, 3D models, and full games are increasingly abundant with greater adaptability and power. Though early in development, and with their own stumbling blocks, programs like Project Spark and Dreams are moving closer towards fusing open game creation tools with play itself. Even if a flux of user-generated content shows the capacity of non-professional individuals to engage in creative activity for the public, this activity is mediated through a particular kind of production. The way this content is managed, how it is hosted and distributed, how data is monitored, all this is outside of the user’s hands and plays an important role in contemporary capitalism. Furthermore, these masked networks and relations tie back into physical commodity production, the creation of hardware, the extraction of minerals and exploitation of mass labor in recycling plants, mines, and factories. The relevance of video games as a model of contemporary capitalist production and relations is summed up by Jamie Woodcock:
“At this moment in time the production of video games has been identified by the political representatives of capital as a key growth area. It is likely that others are also watching its development and considering how rates of profit can be increased and the imperatives of capital further written into its activities. What I have argued is that Marx can offer more than a simple cameo for those seeking a critical understanding of video games. Reversing the perspective from capital to workers allows a much deeper understanding of the processes of video game production.”[vi]
Now, in 2019, with the games industry still growing, game streaming services around the corner, and companies like Amazon warehouses creating competitive “games” for their workers, the need for a thorough examination of game production and labor relations is even more necessary. Such an examination is necessary for the creation of better systems of production, but also for an understanding of networked capitalism and its potential for socialism. Finally, for those who care about the quality of games themselves, their representation, their inclusivity and diversity, and their innovation (or lack of it), an understanding of the question of production also provides necessary insight towards developing better games that will be inclusive, personally healthy, and innovative: “The critical analysis of games needs to understand that there is a struggle both between these kinds of games [reactionary and radical in content], but also between labor and capital in the process of actually producing them.”[vii]
Much cultural criticism from Lukacs onward has focused on an ideological critique of mass media, criticizing the indoctrination and the formation of mass identity. In place of middle-brow mass cultural forms, high art, the avant-garde, or folk arts were touted as solutions that better explored ambiguity, the working condition, or authentic being. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that there was little substantial difference in game playing across gender, ethnicity, or income (from $30,000/yr to $75,000/yr) and while “Young adults are particularly likely to play video games” it was also found that a “notable number of older Americans play video games.”[viii]
At the same time, the demographics of those who identified with the term “gamer” was primarily young men: “men ages 18 to 29 are more than three times as likely as their female counterparts to identify as gamers (33% vs. 9%),” with Hispanics more likely to consider themselves “gamers” than black or white demographics.
While games do appear to have a particular subgroup or identity that have crystallized around them, it appears that games are nonetheless appreciated and engaged with widely across most demographics in America. The identities that play games are vastly more diverse than those that generally identify around the term “gamer.” To take seriously a medium of entertainment and social engagement that extends through such a wide proportion of the public (at least within America) means we cannot merely assume a flawed or reactionary ideological content that crystallizes around a dangerous or non-revolutionary “identity.” As games have become more prominent in society, we should think of them as developed or habitual needs on the part of society:
“Luxuries goods in general seem to constantly work their way into general public use, becoming “habitual needs” that are available to the working class. However, because Capital itself accumulates, access to material for the purpose of producing and exchanging commodities will not necessarily become more widely available. Watches, laptops, or phones might become more available to the working class, but the machinery to produce these objects, and the industrial planes and trucks for distribution and movement of materials, will not necessarily become widely available to the working class. “‘Necessary’ needs develop, historically, they are not dictated by mere survival; the cultural element in such needs, the moral element and custom, are decisive, and their satisfaction is an organic part of the ‘normal’ life of people belonging to a particular class in a given society.”[ix]
Importantly, they are not simply passive commodified needs, but needs which people take an active, participatory interest in. Games as a relatively common topic of interest that extends into low-income and working class households, as well as minorities that commonly make up those demographics, offer a point of discussion for explaining revolutionary analysis of the productive process, labor, class, and commodity fetishism. Jenkins has noted that fans who take interest in mediums are typically driven by a simultaneous appreciation and frustration with the work: “the fans’ response typically involves not simply fascination or adoration but also frustration and antagonism, and it is the combination of the two responses, which motivates their active engagement with the media. Because popular narratives often fail to satisfy, fans must struggle with them, to try to articulate to themselves and others unrealized possibilities within the original work.”[x] Within the industry too, developers find themselves limited in their capacity to produce creative and fulfilling work, sometimes having their pre-production shut down due to the demands of publishers to acclimate to certain models and technological limitations.[xi]
As the Pew research study indicates, among game players there is still a divide about the issue of representation among women and racial minorities.
The point here is not simply to provide an argument for a “multiplicity of narratives” or to justify the death of the author. Rather, I am proposing that games have become an important part of daily activity and interest outside of work and have an interesting tension among fans concerning how they feel games represent them and fulfill their recreational and creative interests. Connecting the limitations of production to the issue of technique (in turn responding to the frustration of players towards unsatisfying experiences) can bring the issues of production into a personal space where recreation and production connect.
II. Cooperation and Division in Digital Production
“Only by transcending the specialization in the process of intellectual production – a specialization that, in the bourgeois view, constitutes its order – can one make this production politically useful; and the barriers imposed by its specialization must be breached jointly by the productive forces that they were set up to divide.” – Benjamin
One of the reasons why I suggest that it is an important time to be considering this research is because of the recent interest in workplace struggles in the video games industry. While these struggles have focused on a variety of issues from mass firings, to “crunch” culture, to dominating management of sexual assault cases, they all highlight the problems of development that are occurring in what is usually considered a niche digital or post-productive industry. Talk of game development as a career might bring up images of small teams huddled around desks in silicon-valley campuses, or a couple coders working in a basement. While game companies do hire fewer employees than many other mass industries, it would be a mistake to think it is a small or insular industry when it comes to the actual process of developing and distributing games.
Jamie Woodcock, studying the games industry in the UK splits it into three different segments: development, production, and consumption.
“The first part of this value chain is the development, which involves the studios (whether independent or affiliated to a particular publisher) that create new games…
The second segment is publishing, which could be compared to distribution in film and television. Historically – and … increasing numbers of independent studio[s] should be kept in mind – publishers funded developers and then marketed and distributed the finished games…
The third segment is consumption, covering the ways in which customers are connected to games. This traditionally involved the sale of boxed games in retail space, but the growth of digital platforms like Steam, iOS, Android, or console online stores has changed this drastically.”[xii]
These segments show a complicated and well-developed process of production and distribution requiring division of labor and organized co-operation both within and across each segment. In development alone the process of creating a game is often closely monitored and scheduled according to the publisher’s plans, producing an intense division of labor which work together under the guidance of management:
“Video game production involves the large scale investment of capital and intensive division of labour. This tendency is not only due to the relationships between publishers and game studios, but also the introduction and development of technology in the industry. Most games are not written from new, instead they utilise game engines and various kinds of middleware…An important instance of this is software development kits (SDKs), which have a twofold effect on production. The first is that it narrows the range of options available to developers, homogenising the kinds of games that are produced… the second is that… [SDK’s break] up the overall processes of production into smaller separate parts.
The introduction of capital intensive methods to video game production has resulted in a number of changes. The most important of these is a concerted attempt at managerial control…. Games with huge budgets need to be launched at specific times: whether in relation to other games, before the holidays, to tie-in with films, or simply to synchronise with expensive and extensive marketing campaigns.”[xiii]
Game development does not need to take place within a factory system to still echo Marx’s thoughts on cooperative labour: “When numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different by connected processes, this form of labour is called co-operation.”[xiv] Game development’s division doesn’t take place in simply one studio. Many games, especially from major producers, are built over several studios and can feature input from any number of commissioned artists, part-timers, or outsourced workers: “games, are not produced, distributed, or consumed at the national level… this [global] orientation includes outsourcing relationships from the global north to the south, including the subcontracting of activities like “porting” existing games to additional platforms, rote programming, and made-to-order artwork…”[xv]
Rockstar games alone has eight offices over five different counties with thousands of employees.[xvi] Again, it appears that the “digital mode of production” does not escape the limitations of the industrial capitalist form that Marx described in his own time:
“What is it that forms the bond between the independent labours of the cattle-breeder, the tanner and the shoemaker? It is the fact that their respective products are commodities. What, on the other hand, characterizes the division of labour in manufacture? The fact that the specialized worker produces no commodities. It is only the common product of all the specialized workers that becomes a commodity. The division of labour within society is mediated through the purchase and sale of the products of different branches of industry, while the connection between the various partial operations in a workshop is mediated through the sale of the labour-power of several workers to one capitalist, who applies it as combined labour-power. The division of labour within manufacture presupposes a concetration of the means of production in the hands of one capitalist; the division of labour within society presupposes a dispersal of those means among many independent producers of commodities.”[xvii]
As we have seen above, game development is particularly marked by the phenomenon of “crunch time” or heavily concentrated labor extending beyond the standard 8-hour work day. In 2004 Erin Hoffman published the (originally anonymous) livejournal entry “letter from an EA spouse” where she described her husband’s experience working with Electronic Arts:
“I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: “how do you feel about working long hours?” It’s just a part of the game industry — few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what “working long hours” meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.
Within weeks production had accelerated into a ‘mild’ crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this “pre-crunch” was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don’t know how many of the developers bought EA’s explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title’s shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm…
Now, it seems, is the “real” crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team’s existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.“[xviii]
In October of 2018, fourteen years after the “EA Spouse” article, Rockstar Games received a media backlash after Dan Houser bragged that Rockstar employees has been working 100-hour workweeks. Though Houser said that it was only the writing team and the crunch only lasted for three weeks, a subsequent removal of NDAs allowing employees to discuss work culture had reports of 55 or 60 hour workweeks and crunch that effected personal relationships and health.[xix] [xx] It appears that developers are still expected to be “prepared to work long hours, sometimes unpaid, and to put up with precarious terms of employment.”[xxi]
The structure of this work, between strict deadlines, organized crunch time, and digital outsourcing produces a precarity to the work that would be unusual for many other highly skilled jobs. Programmers and other digital workers have the risk of being outsourced or replaced from a pool of other independent contractors. This kind of precarity is what allows companies like Telltale to let go 90 of its developers, almost a quarter of its staff.[xxii] Tightly scheduled development means that developers often rotate multiple projects at once, and within those projects are internal development cycles. Teams that might be hired for pre-production then laid off once that part of development closes. Once a title is launched, the whole team might be laid off to save costs while the next title project starts ramping up.[xxiii] This kind of precarious work, further amplified by contract employees and outsourcing, allows labor to become detached from the standard working day, crunch and continuous layoffs result:
“If the hour’s wage is fixed in such a way that the capitalist does not bind himself to pay a day’s or a week’s wage, but only to pay wages for the hours during which he chooses to employ the worker, he can employ him for a shorter time than that which is originally the basis of the calculation of the wages for the hour, or the unit of measurement of the price of labour. Since this unit is determined by the ratio of the daily value of labour-power to the working day of s given number of hours, it naturally loses all meaning as soon as the working day ceases to contain a definite number of hours. The connection between the paid and the unpaid labour is destroyed. The capitalist can now wring from the worker a certain quantity of surplus labour without allowing him the labour-time necessary for his own subsistence. He can annihilate all regularity if employment, and according to his own convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment, make the most frightful over-work alternate with relative or absolute cessation of work. He can abnormally lengthen the working day without giving the worker and corresponding compensation, under the pretense of paying ‘the normal price of labour.’”[xxiv]
It seems readily apparent that the description of capitalist production written by Marx, and the methods of exploitation and domination of workers in the relations produced, are not at all out of date for digital industries.
III. On Commodities, Commodity Fetishism, and Rents
“I spoke of the process of a certain modish photography whereby poverty is made an object of consumption… I must take a step further and say that it has made the struggle against poverty an object of consumption… The transformation of the political struggle from a call-to-decision into an object of contemplative enjoyment, from a means of production into a consumer article, is the defining character of this literature.” – Benjamin
Above there was mentioned the emergence of film as a subject of Marxist critique, namely, film as a mass media that was produced for crowds. Films are not only a medium consumed by crowds but are a product of a complicated process of many parts involving many different producers. This is a precursor to the kind of labor process described above. While films are composed from complicated processes and individual contributions, most of which audiences never see, films have had a remarkable effect in producing a popular fascination with individual performers, screenwriters, and directors that overshadows the incredible amount of co-operative creation that goes into their production. Co-operation that even operates with members of the same creation never interacting with one another.
Videogames, as we have seen, are composed almost entirely of co-operative production without obvious representation of any developers of the end product. While early games have had “big names” attached to them early on (I have no mouth and I must scream, Chronicles of Riddick, Dig) and even early game auteur celebrities (Richard Garrioux, John Romero) only recently have games begun to truly incorporate iconic actors into their content with the intent of the actor being recognized, of a face being attached to the image of the game itself, even without being based on larger franchises from film (Fallout 3, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Metal Gear Solid:V, Mass Effect). In all of these games, actors give performances where they are intended to be recognized, increasingly characters are modeled (if not motion-captured) to represent the performer’s actual appearances (or, more appropriately, their popular images). Just recently Keanu Reeves has become a trending subject online because of his appearance playing a character in Cyberpunk 2077. Searches for his name in google are higher now than they have ever been in the last five years.[xxv]
While this relationship between the celebrity image and the game is not the fetish of commodities proper, it helps elucidate what commodity fetishism does, and its social effects. Commodity fetishism is not an obsession with “useless” or “trivial” items to an excess, or a devaluing of what is properly “necessary” or “essential.” Nor is it an obsession with branding, or with the fads regarding celebrities (though both of these things point towards commodity fetishism in their own ways). Commodity fetishism is, rather, the way that commodities “stand in” or mystify actual human relationships and social organization.
“[there is a] physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodityform, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”[xxvi]
Even where the image of an actor is present, I am not seeing the full process of production that goes into the capturing of the performance, the creation of the sets, costumes, or special effects. The actor’s image is not a commodity, but it also does not reveal the actual labor process despite showing someone in the process of contributing to the end product. Even what appears as the labor (“what a great performance!”) is only a part of a product which masks the full process. Even if we see a performance by Keanu Reeves, he does not show us the experiences of coders during crunch time. Nor even the process of capturing and implementing his own performance for the game. All of the experiences of the product mystify the relations of production, “The taste of porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and the process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave-owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist.”[xxvii]
It should be noted, however, that even if games are tied to the commodity fetish (the game appears as something immediate before us once it enters the market, we do not comprehend the production that created it and made it available) this does not mean that software and videogames really function as commodities in the full sense that Marx described. On the most basic level a commodity is something produced to be exchanged. Games do, in fact, appear on a market where they can be purchased. However, what is being purchased is not considered the game itself but a license to run the game on the particular hardware being used. Most games are released with software licenses that state the software is not to be redistributed, used by anyone else, or accessed.
‘A “software licence” is a form of contract and has become the most common form of software distribution today. When installing a new programme on your computer you may recall having to click “I Agree”, or “OK”, or something to that effect. That was you signing a contract that you probably never read in the first place. For the moment we are going to take a rather simplistic approach and divide all software licences (contracts) into two, distinct categories. We will call them “Closed” and “Open”. Let’s start with “Closed” licences, as they are currently the most common type.
Closed licences are usually fairly restrictive with regard to what you are (and are not) allowed to do with the software in question. When you buy a copy of, for example, Windows XP or Windows Vista, you are typically only allowed to use one licence per computer, you are not permitted to pass copies on to any friends, you are most certainly not allowed to resell it, and you are in no way permitted to make changes to the software…Here is where the distinction between licensing (renting) and purchasing (buying) software becomes important. When people say “I am going to buy a copy of Photoshop,” they actually mean “I am going to buy a licence to run a copy of Photoshop, and hope that I meet all the criteria stipulated in the licence contract.” This form of agreement is called an end user licence agreement or EULA.
Purchasing implies ownership, and we all know that although you can do whatever you want with a car you own, you should not try to add new wheels or a spoiler to a rental car. We have come to an agreement with the rental company that we hand over some money in exchange for which we are allowed to use the car. However, if we abuse the car then the owner has every right to stop us from using it. It is the same principle in the computer world.”[xxviii]
On top of this is any copyright owned for the content of the game: characters, terms, logos, locations, and numerous other parts of a game can be copyrighted to prevent their likeness, design, or terminology from being used outside of the permission of the owner of the product. This too functionally serves as rent: use of characters or logos is dependent on certain conditions determined by the owner of the intellectual property (the monopoly) and cannot be used outside those conditions, it rarely is allowed to be used indefinitely. Software, then, operates as a rent: it is not subject to the full social relationship of private property exchanged as a commodity. I do not own the software I use under current property laws. Things like iTunes libraries are not allowed to be inherited under most property law at present because that would violate the single-owner license (whether this is usually or practically enforceable is a different question).[xxix]
“Control of game finance, licensing and marketing enables these giants to harvest the creativity of thousands of game developers, from big third party studios to microenterprises, all around the world. The global revenues of this industry are about $57 billion, five times the annual additional expenditures necessary to provide basic primary education to every child on the planet. It is often claimed videogames are “bigger then Hollywood,” but while North American sales rival the cinema box office, games lack the film’s ancillary streams from advertising, DVD, and cable TV release, though advergaming and DLC sales may change this. Game factory revenues are, however, overtaking those of the music business, and growing faster than those of both film and music. More significantly, games are integrated with film, music, and other media: Spiderman, Saw and The Simpsons become games, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy, films; EA’s Madden games are part of the sports-media nexus; Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the new music platform.”[xxx]
The fact that software ultimately operates on the market as a rent (it has become even more obvious as more and more software providers gravitate towards monthly payments and stream services) doesn’t reduce the importance of labor in their production. A car rental, or someone who rents land, would be wise to hire employees or pay for services to ensure that the service they rent (transportation or shelter) is serviceable and operates well. Even in these “concrete” services, labor is involved in the upkeep. Software, once released as a product, does not have a normal marginal cost for its continued production: it can be essentially copied indefinitely with the source code. What labor that does go into it after its release will be fixing bugs, updates, or additional content added to the source product. Nor does the rental system of software mean that commodities proper do not play a role in the digital market itself. Copyright in the videogame industry is often used to tie particular intellectual property to specific consoles (Play Mario on Nintendo, Halo on XBox, etc).[xxxi] New game console sales are heavily driven by the availability of flagship game titles that cannot be played elsewhere. Companies like Razor tailor and orient their gaming hardware by purchasing IP images from games, receiving sponsors, and connecting their products to game production.
“Software – regardless of how, where, why, or by whom it is produced – needs hardware of some sort in order to run. This requires the physical production of smartphones, tablets, computers, laptops, and game consoles. The production of the physical hardware does not involve immaterial labour…The condition under which production is organised, particularly with the dagongmei – female migrant workers in China – …are much closer to that found in Marx’s chapter on the Working Day than the new campus-style workplaces of companies like Google…”[xxxii]
Even distribution through digital stores like Steam, Humble Bundle, and console stores “still require complex supply chains for hardware, logistical networks, and the availability of high-speed internet connections.“[xxxiii]
I am not equipped with the economic knowledge to analyse the particularities of the IP-driven market-economy, or to say how this relates to industrial production. I will leave that to others at the moment and potentially advance my own research into the subject. For now, what is important is that we can see that, whether or not software functions as a proper commodity 1) the exploitation of labor is still crucial to development; and 2) the software market is still integrally bound to the development of hardware and material infrastructure. Software development therefore still appears as a necessary subject of analysis for labor relations, and is a subject we must examine to understand the contemporary situation of the proletariat both in and out of the sphere of material production.
IV. Moving Forward
Again, it is foolish to believe that we have moved beyond the horrific conditions of brutal factories, mines, and farms. No game developer will get black lung because of their work. However, what we can still see is that even in the chic world of game design, imagined as the cultural form of the digital age, exploitation is rampant, and conditions and precarity will be subject to the productive conditions of capitalism. Labor disputes, unionizing, and walkouts have become a hot issue for the games industry, and games journalism, today. Looking at how an industry tied to digital production and the massive network of rent and IP that connects our world could lead to important lessons for further struggles. Finally – games, movies, and images proliferate throughout our world with abandon, often to promote products and drive profits. As I stated in the first part of this piece, issues of aesthetic, psychology, and representation may not provide a clear solution to the production of these materials themselves, or for the exploitation of workers, nor the effects of the commodification of personhood. However, I think that the analysis offered here, and an interest in the method and organization of the production of these materials, can also provide potential insights towards solving these problems. Creating diverse, and respectful, characters and representations in media is inevitably tied to the ability of many different peoples to have access to the production of that media. Removing, or at the very least loosening, intellectual property restrictions opens up that opportunity without individuals being subject to the whims of some kind of IP sovereign like Disney. Moving towards communal, democratic production also allows for media to be produced with new techniques that produce new effects, and represent new views. Production that is not focused on profit through an averaged-out “majority demographic” of the population is necessarily going to have an advantage for producers that would want to produce in ways that aren’t conventionally “profitable.” Certainly, individual toxic behaviors and prejudices would still exist and would be a necessary barrier to overcome. But, a vision for democratic and accessible production that orients itself towards the ability of all individuals to express and create would be, I think, a better way of providing greater freedom to all than hoping for companies to wait and see profit arise in one or another growing demographic. As Mike MacNair of the Communist Party of Great Britain has pointed out: company defenses about sexist behavior, racism, transphobia, or any other attacks are done for the convenience and benefit of the owners, not necessarily for the protection of individual identity.
“The capitalist class consciously manages those below. It engages in divide-and-rule tactics – which is why managers want to retain the right to hire and fire, limit the intervention of employment tribunals, etc. It is why they want to keep wage agreements private and do not like collective bargaining. Managers resist having to disclose sex discrimination in pay precisely because they need to manage those below in every way they can. […] We have to get beyond decision-making about the allocation of resources via the market and money, because otherwise the problem of radical social inequality cannot be overcome. That means a cooperative commonwealth, whose possibility arises because the working class is forced to cooperate – it is defined as a class by the non-ownership of the means of production. Dentists can walk out of the national health service and run small businesses (yes, they get loans, etc on advantageous terms, because the Tories wanted to break up the NHS). That is an example of the individualistic action available to the petty bourgeoisie. But this is not something wage-workers can do. We cannot restore generalized petty commodity production. Moreover, if we did, what would result would be worse gender inequality, etc, since small business is even worse on this front than big capital. The working class is driven to cooperate, irrespective of how much it is exploited by the employers or how many gains it can make. For that reason the working class is naturally driven to look for something beyond capitalism.[…] There must also be a perspective under capitalism for working class political action: not just demands for sectional strikes, but action for gains affecting the whole of society. This is a very fundamental point, constantly repeated by Marx from the 1850s, yet somehow forgotten by the left. The working class needs to take leadership over the society as a whole and thus propose policies for the society as a whole – everything from local arrangements to foreign policy.“[xxxiv]
What does this struggle look like? What are the ends we are aiming for? Abigail De Kosnik argues that, in an age of abundantly produced fan material online, fan creations and interactions should be classified as value-producing labor and that fan compensation should be a goal for labor movements:
“Garnerning revenue from advertising has proved feasible for bloggers and video makers who attract significant audiences; fan producers could similarly benefit from Google AdSense or the YouTube Partner Program if companies would allow them to use copyrighted images, text, video, and sound, as most fan productions make use of proprietary media (companies could give permission tacitly, by not suing fans or serving them with cease-and-desist letters for copyright infringement).
Another form of compensation that has benefited a few fans, and could benefit many more, is the elevation of fan laborers from amateurs to paid professionals. Some companies have included fan works with their official products or have used them as advertisements for the products, which have boosted those fans’ careers in the creative industries; other companies have hired talented artists, writers, and moderators whose works they first encountered on fan sites. Fan labor could eventually be regarded as the first rung on the reputation ladder for aspiring creative professionals, with the highest rung on the ladder being full-time employment.”[xxxv]
Full-time employment, proletarianization, is now the goal of liberation? Instead of resisting the commodification of fan creation, or seeking to communalize distribution, data, and intellectual property, we should seek for fans to attach themselves to the mechanisms of control? Today fans knowingly send out their work to receive commissions, either from other fans or from professional companies. Artist booths at comic con feature plenty of copyrighted characters oftentimes with the hopes of attracting attention for a contract. This runs counter to the goals put forward by McKenzie Wark’s conception of a revolutionary hacker class: “we hardly profit from private property in information. If anything, it is a fetter on our own productivity…[the hacker class] is fully capable of organizing around net neutrality, creative commons, open publishing in science, challenging stupid and harmful patents, and so on… The challenge is to think the whole social totality from our point of view – to imagine worlds in which our own interests and the interests of the people are aligned. The way to do this, I think, is to push beyond the compromise formations of things like creative commons. What would it mean not to liberalize intellectual property but to conceive of the world without it altogether? What would it mean to really think and practice the politics of information as something that is not scarce and has no owners?”[xxxvi] The most damning phrase I will steal from Wark I think skewers Kosnik’s perception of freedom: “The question arises as to whether making labor more secure and rewarded or extending the social compact is the better strategy. It’s a question with two dimensions. Which is more tactically feasible, but which is more desirable in the first place? Do we want to focus on labor, and securing life through labor? Or do we want to secure the conditions of life itself? It is hard not to be pessimistic about both options. And it is also hard to argue against any and every opportunity that people might find to secure life against commodification wherever they can find it. But taking a step back, perhaps there’s something to be said for the struggle to secure the conditions of life directly.“
The struggle to secure the conditions of life directly.
While I am skeptical of the use of a “Hacker Class” as a real category for class struggle (I am more inclined to think that a proletariat proper does exist as a revolutionary force) Wark’s analysis here affirms something about revolutionary politics that is fundamental yet constantly forgotten over and over again: the point is to abolish the system as it is, not to make lives more fair under the system itself. Remember Marx’s address to the First International: “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”[xxxvii] For us today this means that all the fantastic technologies that are potentially available can be thought of as liberating only if they themselves are liberated from the capitalist mode of production. Our imaginations must be put to the test: streaming services for software that can reduce the unnecessary mass production of hardware, communal ownership of servers and databases and search engines to make content freely available, removing intellectual property so that profit is negated in favor of creative production on the part of all individuals, seizure of distribution networks for companies like Amazon and Walmart to create an efficient and rich planned arrangement of resources, ending the invasive harvest of personal data to be sold for profit, and the reduction of necessary work and expansion of dynamic and personally expressive free time. All of these are potential tasks for establishing communism that exist in tandem with the more traditional visions of seizing industrial production and state power, today they are interconnected. The task is momentous, but the infrastructure to change the world is there. In truth, the potential for liberating change is always present, in our fugue since the collapse of the Soviet Union the infrastructure and capacity for utopian action has continued under the limitations of capitalism without our notice. The development of unions and labor-organizing in the industry is a promising sign, as are the appearance of employee-owned studios. But to seize the conditions of life means that workers (and those who wish to liberate society from wage-labor) across all industries and nations must struggle together. The fact that the one of the largest industries in producing recreation is reliant on international networks shows us the potential for a better future, and the incredible difficulty of the task of bringing that future to bear.
[i] Benjamin “Author as Producer”, Selected Writings vol. 2.2, 770
[ii] ibid 777
[iii] Woodcock, J. (2016) ‘The Work of Play: Marx and the Video Games Industry in the UK’, Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, 8(2): 131-144. https://www.academia.edu/23223413/The_work_of_play_Marx_and_the_video_games_industry_in_the_United_Kingdom
[vi] Woodcock, J. “The Work of Play”
[ix] Heller, Agnes. The Theory of Need in Marx, 33.
[x] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers, 23
[xii] Woodcock, J. “The Work of Play”
[xiv] Marx, Karl. Capital vol. I. 443.
[xv] Woodcock, J. “The Work of Play”
[xvii] Marx, K. Capital, 475-6
[xxi] Kirkpatrick, G. Computer Games and the Social Imaginary, 108
[xxiv] Marx, K. Capital, 686.
[xxvi] Marx, K. Capital, 165.
[xxvii] Ibid, 290.
[xxx] Dyer-Witheford, de Peuter. “Empire@Play: Virtual Games and Global Capitalism.”
[xxxii] Woodcock, J. “The Work of Play”
[xxxv] De Kosni, Abigail. “Fandom as Free Labor,” Digital Labor. Ebook.
[xxxvi] Wark, McKenzie. “Considerations on a Hacker’s Manifesto”, Digital Labor. Ebook.
[xxxvii] Marx, K. Value, Price, and Profit. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit/ch03.htm#c14