The Virtual Factory

Factories were designed by capitalists as exploitative panopticon enclosures. Nevertheless, they socialized workers, and became sites of organization and struggle. Yasha Levine’s superb research into surveillance technology should not lead to numbing cynicism about the potential of the time we spend online. [1]

As his work shows, the internet is built atop US military infrastructure, and popular social networks are managed by corporations in close collaboration, for purposes of social control. These entities are viciously hostile to socialist organizing. In a more general sense, they foster discord, pit people against each other, abusively gamify social engagement, and bury educational material. They censor content in incredibly sophisticated ways, to the point that this censorship becomes undetectable or, worse, comes to be seen as desirable. More particularly, on the off-chance a genuinely progressive initiative survives and gets traction, surveillance offers an infinite array of opportunities to sabotage and ruin the lives of the human beings behind it.

However, it would be a terrible mistake to presume that, just because capitalists designed something, we cannot use it against them.

This essay will not explore how, in our free time, we perform unpaid affective labour for online companies (clicking around, producing market signals, etc.). Though this does occur, and buoys the valuation of juggernauts like Google and Facebook, bringing it up in this context would be misleading, since I do not wish to argue that being online locks us in any kind of “common struggle” on that basis. Even if it did, unlike in factory floors, we don’t have an achievable common goal (we can never “take over the factory” by posting), and the desirability of such over-developed propaganda organs in socialism is unlikely. That said, this doesn’t mean that the amount of time we spend online should be treated as something shameful, silly, or superficial. It absolutely deserves to be handled with greater seriousness and discipline. This essay tries to address the nihilism and backward-looking romanticism of frustrated advocates of cord-cutting.

A central idea of Marxism, born out of dialectics, is that capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction. As Ishay Landa put it “Marx could swim with the current of history, so to speak, whereas bourgeois intellectuals had to swim against it.” [2] He goes on:

Marx’s hopes for a better future were not, or not simply, the result of his belief in an external intervention which will terminate capitalism; rather, he considered capitalism itself to be intrinsically revolutionary. This was so much the case, that even the probability of a proletarian revolution was seen not as simple negation of capitalism, some defiant gesture against history, but as an upshot of capitalist dynamics itself:

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas and principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.

They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. [3]

Had this been otherwise, had Marx’s vision of socialism depended solely on external revolutionary intervention, then the pessimism characterizing much of leftist discourse in the post 1968 period, as well as Fukuyama’s obituary, might have been justified. Yet for Marx the prime revolutionary force in bourgeois society, and against it, is ‘the living contradiction,’ [4] capitalism itself. ‘The true barrier to capitalist production,’ Marx pithily states, ‘is capital itself.’ [5] The immanent, dialectical development of capitalism prepares the ground for a social transformation, both destructively — a point traditionally emphasized by leftists — and constructively, a point which they largely neglect. In a destructive sense, capitalism eats away at the props of the old society, religion, the family, traditional ideology, the old modes of production, etc. It thereby creates a social vacuum of sorts, which calls for new content. But it also contributes to a new society in a more constructive sense, being a ‘civilizing force’ — albeit as Marx tirelessly emphasizes, doing so despite itself, ‘malgre lui,’ against its intentions, etc. Among such civilizing aspects are to be counted the collectivization of work, the unprecedented enhancement of productivity, the (at least potential) shortening of the working day, made possible by mechanization, as well as the expansion of needs and of consumption:

[The capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour, which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests. [4]

Revolutionaries like Lenin, Stalin, Gramsci, and Mao understood this extremely well. They appreciated the dialectical potential of every negation, instead of contrasting every adverse development against an ideal.

Lenin:

No better proof of the Russian Soviet Republic’s material and moral victory over the capitalists of the whole world can be found than the fact that the powers that took up arms against us because of our terror and our entire system have been compelled, against their will, to enter into trade relations with us in the knowledge that by so doing they are strengthening us. This might have been advanced as proof of the collapse of communism only if we had promised, with the forces of Russia alone, to transform the whole world, or had dreamed of doing so. However, we have never harboured such crazy ideas and have always said that our revolution will be victorious when it is supported by the workers of all lands. In fact, they went half-way in their support, for they weakened the hand raised against us, yet in doing so they were helping us. [6]

Stalin:

Ludwig: I notice that in the Soviet Union everything American is held in very high esteem, I might even speak of a worship of everything American, that is, of the Land of the Dollar, the most out-and-out capitalist country. This sentiment exists also in your working class, and applies not only to tractors and automobiles, but also to Americans in general. How do you explain that?

Stalin: You exaggerate. We have no especially high esteem for everything American, but we do respect the efficiency that the Americans display in everything in industry, in technology, in literature and in life. We never forget that the U.S.A. is a capitalist country. But among the Americans there are many people who are mentally and physically healthy who are healthy in their whole approach to work, to the job on hand. That efficiency, that simplicity, strikes a responsive chord in our hearts. Despite the fact that America is a highly developed capitalist country, the habits prevailing in its industry, the practices existing in productive processes, have an element of democracy about them, which cannot be said of the old European capitalist countries, where the haughty spirit of the feudal aristocracy is still alive.

Ludwig: You do not even suspect how right you are.

Stalin: Perhaps I do, who knows? [7]

Mao:

Some Americans had said that the Chinese revolution was led by Russian aggressors, but in truth the Chinese revolution was armed by Americans. In the same way the Vietnamese revolution was also being armed by Americans, not by China. The liberation forces had not only greatly improved their supplies of American weapons during recent months but also expanded their forces by recruiting American-trained troops and officers from the puppet armies of South Vietnam. China’s liberation forces had grown in numbers and strength by recruiting to their side the troops trained and armed by the Americans for Chiang Kai-shek. The movement was called “changing of hats.” When Nationalist soldiers changed hats in large numbers because they knew the peasants would kill them for wearing the wrong hat, then the end was near. “Changing hats” was becoming more popular now among the Vietnamese puppets. [8]

This is what “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” means[9]

The appeal and utility of online communication grew immensely throughout the 2020 global pandemic. Quarantines locked millions of people inside their homes, forcing them to employ social media to keep in touch with their loved ones. The internet dealt movies, TV shows, and music, and so it helped with the tedium of everyday lockdown. Some countries, especially China, also used sophisticated technology for contact tracing, and in this way explicit surveillance played a central role in helping humans defeat the inhuman virus. Even before the pandemic, we could see how socialist countries used surveillance technology to reduce workplace fatalities and for mentorship, safety, and quality control.

In a capitalist context, however, these technologies have an undeniable dark side. Police and corporations furnish innumerable examples of abusive monitoring. Not understanding the manipulative power of social media means that gullible people fall for the flashing lights of incredibly banal media carnivals such as the reddit-Robin Hood-GameStop fiasco, while ignoring world-historic mass strikes in India. The hype around “rebel crypto-hackers” seems to be geared towards relaxing our attitudes towards the sharing of sensitive organizing information for the sake of convenience, and it’s impossible to know to what extent our devices and applications are compromised.

Then again, people like being on Twitter and other social media sites. This certainly holds true for a lot of the cord-cutter preachers of doom-and-gloom, who in turn have large audiences. At times it seems as if no one is more fatalistic about the political prospects of the internet than the legion of personalities who make a living off of it. The hyper online crowd — millionaire podcasters, tenured professors, and marquee blog writers — demarcate the internet as a place constitutively void of political change. It is reminiscent of that moment during the Bush-era when Jon Stewart became the most trusted media personality in the United States, a clarifying voice that shaped the aim and trajectory of popular dissent — as well as its boundaries. Confronted with the responsibility of that high cultural perch, he responded with defensive chiding: he was “just a comedian.” It is an expedient answer, for Stewart then and the extremely online now. With it, one may reap all the rewards of cultural ascendance and none of the responsibility. Perhaps we should understand their message as something closer to “I don’t want to take any flak, so I’ll call anyone who thinks my platform is worth taking seriously a sucker.”

As for the less celebrated critics — the various Western Marxists who decry economic development in Cuba, the left- and ultra-communists who cite Bordiga on abolishing the value form while cluelessly citing the BBC on Xinjiang for their critiques of China, the anarcho-primitivists with no plan other than an absolute, abstract negation of modernity — what can we say about their cynicism? Capitalists love to associate communism with technological backwardness, in order to displace the real potential of Communism. These radicals’ complete inability to see past the ruse just reflects their “optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will.”

There is no way to retreat into a pre-internet era. Instead of self-flagellating and guilt-tripping, pretending we can escape our wired future by unplugging, we need to take our participation in the medium seriously and in a way that integrates well with our offline organization. I am in no position to dispense major advice about what should be done, so I’ll just end with some personal observations about what helps me make use of the internet as a tool, as opposed to feeling like I am being used by it.

  1. Use tools to block advertisements. In almost all cases the best solution is uBlock Origin. Reduced tracking and better performance are the most usually cited advantages in tech circles, but I think the largest benefits are psychological.
  2. Learn to use search effectively. The absolute best part of us all being together on here is that so much work already has been done. Many discussions have already been had. Combine general and site-specific search-engines, recover past discussions, learn to use keywords and filters, and suddenly you’ll find yourself with more resources than you know what to do with.
  3. Try to figure out if the people and institutions you are putting your trust in deserve it. Before quoting someone, look up their past positions on subjects you feel strongly about. If someone has a track record of regurgitating propaganda, they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt on their nth effort.
  4. Cite as much as possible, give credit to wherever you got an idea from, allow people to verify your claims. Appearing as a unique source of info is great if one is building a personal brand, but if the goal is information dissemination and resilience against censorship, there’s nothing better than giving every reader everything they need to become themselves a teacher.
  5. Use technology to break down language barriers. Automatic translations are getting very good! Combining them with just a little quality control can allow atomized communities to understand each other and form united fronts heretofore impossible.
  6. Communicate with other people on your terms, not just the ones offered by a platform. In my case, after a certain degree of trust was established with certain people, we simply became “real life friends.” Be extremely careful here, but something like a reading group can be a very social activity that requires no exchange of personal information whatsoever.

In short, when it comes to the internet, it is correct to reject advice that we should build anything on it. In its current state, at least, it’s profoundly hostile territory — a minefield. However, we can learn to utilize it very effectively, as radio and printing presses before it, simply to communicate. To build confidence in our ideas, to accelerate the process of learning, to reassure and validate each other when anxious, to be truly social beings.

Sure, there will be clamp-downs, but here it is important to note that the excuses put forth by political economists to rationalize the behaviour of capitalists aren’t completely false, just partial: market competition does impose a certain degree of determinacy on aggregate human behaviour. Capitalists can’t pursue the endless accumulation of profit without handing their gravediggers shovels. Whether we call it Invisible Hand or Commodity Fetishism, the tendency of capitalism is to uncontrollably sow the seeds of its own destruction. Thus, we must identify what form of expression this takes in each particular social formation, and exploit it. Online is no exception.


  1. Yasha Levine, 2018. Surveillance Valley: The Rise of the Military-Digital Complex. [web] 

  2. Ishay Landa, 2009. Who’s Afraid of the End of History? [web] 

  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848. The Communist Manifesto

  4. Karl Marx, 1858. Grundrisse

  5. Karl Marx, 1894. Capital Vol. 3

  6. V. I. Lenin, 1920. Speech Delivered To The Moscow Gubernia Conference Of The R.C.P.(B.). [web] 

  7. J. V. Stalin, 1931. Interview with by Emil Ludwig. [web] 

  8. Mao Zedong, 1965. Interview with Edgar Snow. [web] 

  9. Antonio Gramsci, 1929. The Prison Notebooks