Digital Democracy?

[A version of this text was published in Socialist Register 2018 ed. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo]



We stand on the cusp of enormous change, both politically and technologically, and the two can hardly be separated at this point. To speak from the situation in the United Kingdom at the moment is to recognize a series of sea changes and tendencies that will, and have already, changed much about contemporary life for millions. We need to be wary of both political and technological determinism here – the recent surprising hung parliament in Britain which saw the Conservative government drop more than twenty points in the polls on the back of a terrible election campaign and massive Labour activism shows that politics remains unpredictable, even when austerity and despair have become internalized. Technology’s future too remains uncertain, even as it is integrated more and more into the everyday lives of millions to greater or lesser degrees. We cannot begin to discuss the relationship between technology and politics, however, without acknowledging from the outset the fundamental asymmetries in its distribution in the modern world, or without a series of major caveats. As many feminist writers have pointed out, technology cannot be considered as neutrally or inevitably ‘progressive’. Cynthia Cockburn put it like this more than thirty years ago:

It is common sense to suppose that technology, as a medium of power, will be developed and used in any system of dominance to further the interest of those who are on top. As women, then, we have to consider technology from, at the very least, the perspectives of both class and sex.[1]

Similarly, we can also take our cue from the deep concern and suspicion expressed by Marcuse and other twentieth-century critical theorists about the ambivalent nature of modern technology:

Technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.[2]

         To think politics and technology together, then, is to rethink what we mean by organisation, as well as to understand what it is that is being organised (knowledge, resources, people). The uneven distribution of technology, globally and locally, has put questions of automation, production and consumption firmly on the left’s policy agenda, and such questions go to the heart of Marxism’s status as a live political and theoretical perspective on the world. Expanding our historical and critical relationship to technology via feminist and ecological perspectives, particularly thinking about the continued dependence on fossil fuels, and how automation might avoid that (or if it can avoid it), there are huge questions at stake: the future of work, the future of politics, the future of global relations of production and consumption, and even the relationship between men and women. Politics and technology must also be understood as intimately intertwined in the everyday lives of millions.

            One factor in the success of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2017 UK election was the massive mobilisation of young voters, attracted not only by socially just policies and promises of free university tuition fees, but also influenced, not by old media (the right-wing Murdoch-owned press which spent months smearing Corbyn), but by social media which tended irreverently leftward. If older media forms have lost their capacity to influence political decision making, these newer forms of ‘digital democratising’ need to be understood both at the level of form and at the level of content. Again, we should be wary of overly hasty causal stories (such as the reductionist analyses of the Arab Spring that attributed to Facebook and Twitter some sort of revolutionary determinism), but at the same time it is clear that major shifts in the media landscape and the speed and manner of the dissemination of words and images (or both at the same time in the form of memes and viral videos) are having an enormous impact on the way politics proceeds, for better or worse.

            I’ll begin here, in the light of the massive Labour resurgence, with an analysis of a brief policy document launched by Labour in August 2016. ‘The Digital Democracy Manifesto’ indicates some of the core techno-political concerns that interest us here, under the following headings: ‘Universal Service Network’, ‘Open Knowledge Library’, ‘Community Media Freedom’, ‘Platform Cooperatives, ‘Digital Citizen Passport’, ‘Programming for Everyone’, ‘The People’s Charter of Digital Liberties’ and ‘Massive Mutli-Person On-line Deliberation’. From the slightly clunky titles alone it is clear that politics and technology are here being thought together: albeit a rather narrow image of technology that concentrates on the internet, end-users, and ‘networked individuals’. Nevertheless, the Manifesto’s call for ‘high speed broadband and mobile connectivity for every household, company and organisation in Britain’, for ‘cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services’, and for ‘publicly funded software and hardware’ demonstrate an attempt to make egalitarian services and technologies that are so far unevenly distributed.[3] It is an image of publicness in the form of networks and platforms that nevertheless has security and privacy at its heart – elsewhere the Manifesto talks about the ‘Digital Citizen Passport’, which will gather information and provide a way of interacting with public services like ‘health, welfare, education and housing’, and users will be encouraged to share anonymized data ‘for medical, government and academic research’ but at the same time individuals will be protected against unauthorized hacking on the basis of ‘the human right to individual privacy’. Elsewhere, the ‘Open Knowledge Library’ will gather ‘the digital repository of lessons, lectures, curricula and student work from Britain’s nurseries, schools, colleges and universities’.

            While caution might be urged here, as technophiles imagine a bright new future of pre-recorded lectures, virtual classrooms, and the elimination of existing lecturers, there is nevertheless a series of oppositions and tensions at the heart of the Manifesto that are worth excavating for any deeper investigation of the current hopes and fears relating to technology and politics. The first is the relationship between the public and the private, and how this relates to various images we have on the left of the ‘commons’, and especially of the limitations that are often exhibited in thinking the internet and the commons together. The second is the relationship between democracy and technology. The language of ‘rights’ and ‘charters’ in the Manifesto harkens back to older civil and revolutionary relations to the commons and public ownership and participation. (The Manifesto also tries to integrate unions with the new digital age, summed up in its desire to protect ‘the inalienable right of trade union membership to everyone who earns most or some of their livelihood from digital platforms’. The question arises of whether this is adequate. The third question involves the construction and image of a new collective digital subject. The Manifesto states: ‘[b]y enhancing the on-line rights of every individual, we will facilitate the virtual collectivity of all citizens’. But is this ‘new collective’ the natural heir of the proletariat, and a potentially revolutionary force, or a more passive beast? Here I will suggest that the crucial question for the left in relation to the ever-pressing question of automation concerns the relationship between jobs that can be automated and those that cannot. Those forms of paid and unpaid employment that fall under the heading of ‘care work’ or social reproduction in its broadest possible sense will here be posited as the major battleground for future debates regarding how work should be valued, and how we might think about the future of work more broadly.


An overt focus on technology, particularly the internet, can give the impression that the relationship between the public and private is primarily carried out online, or in virtual forms (albeit with material consequences). There is no doubt that security concerns about individual information, as well as the possibility of elections being ‘hacked’ by third parties, are real and widespread. Many lives and careers have been wrecked by information and images shared maliciously online (in response to which a ‘revenge porn’ law was passed in the UK in 2015, making it illegal to share a ‘private sexual photograph or film’ without the consent of the person depicted in the content, and with the intent to cause them distress). There is no doubt that there are good reasons to be suspicious of a state-managed ‘digital citizenship’ that claims to be impervious to hacking, or to be willing and able to prevent for the misuse of data for political or commercial ends. Yet if we see virtual life in isolation from broader state powers, and material institutions such as the police, the courts, and prisons, we misunderstand the way in which the public and the private are intertwined online and off. While there are calls for some minor offences to be ‘tried’ online (or at least fines paid online), this is a frightening proposition, given that for serious offences, the jury is the only ‘public’ element that would be the difference between a conviction and a not guilty verdict.

            Furthermore, the massive rise in online use has not eroded the apparent need on the part of the state for its repressive aspects, which still have the monopoly on violence, and can still imprison, torture, and kill with impunity – as we see again and again in the US, UK, and elsewhere where the police routinely kill black men, women, and children without trial or imprisonment. #BlackLivesMatter can be seen as the most important recent political movement that recognizes this violence is in the streets just as much as it ever was. Similarly, issues of housing cannot be solved by getting everyone internet access. The social murder of hundreds of tenants in Grenfell Tower in London because of flammable cladding and economic and technological neglect cannot be separated from our idea of which technologies are available to which people, and which technologies kill those who are poor and dispossessed.

As the policy of austerity in the UK has deliberately destroyed many aspects of the ‘public’, from libraries to forests, from national resources to the health service and education, we should be extremely wary of images of a new online ‘public’ that might somehow replace real material provision, whether it be in the form of financial support or free access to resources that belong to everyone. Similarly, while there are clear links between online activism (an important development for those physically unable to attend protests) and public demonstrations against injustice, the idea that the former might one day replace the latter seems ultimately highly attractive to the powers that be, and may not be of much benefit to ‘the people’. Outside of the question of direct democracy, some on the left have discerned the potential for liberation at the heart of digital networks of online interactions, from the ‘knowledge economy’ to models connecting ‘leisure’ time to work.

            Sylvia Federici, amongst others, has addressed this idea directly, placing it firmly in the long history of thinking about the commons. Looking in particular at the work of Hardt and Negri over the past decade or so, she summarises their argument in the following way: ‘that a society built on the principle of “the common” is already evolving from the informatization and “cognitivization” of production’.[4] In this model, the internet as an organising structure creates a ‘common space’ and even a ‘common wealth’. Federici points out, however, that despite the appeal of this idea, in that it sees the common as immanent to the organisation or work and production, and that the ‘multitude’ immersed in such networks already have political knowledges suitable for future communist organising (if we flip the capture of knowledge from capitalist profit to the communist general intellect), there are nevertheless serious limitations to this image of the world:

Its limit is that its picture of the common absolutizes the work of a minority possessing skills not available to most of the world population. It also ignores that this work produces commodities for the market, and it overlooks the fact that online communication/production depends on economic activities – mining, microchip and rare earth production – that, as presently organized, are extremely destructive, socially and ecologically. Moreover, with its emphasis on knowledge and information, this theory skirts the question of the reproduction of everyday life. This, however, is true of the discourse on the commons as a whole, which is mostly concerned with the formal preconditions for the existence of commons and less with the material requirements for the construction of a commons-based economy enabling us to resist dependence on wage labor and subordination to capitalist relations.[5]

By placing technology in the wider context of production, consumption and reproduction, we can see how an optimistic and utopian image of the internet and internet workers as integrated participants in the commons misses so much. From the dangerous and violent mining of materials necessary to the production of new technologies, overwhelmingly hidden from the everyday sight of the end-users of such machines, to the way in which ‘the reproduction of everyday life’ is simply neglected by such an account, and the relationship between state violence and the ‘private’ lives of individuals, we cannot simply and with good conscience talk about the construction of ‘new online publics’ without serious caveats. When Federici and others bring the commons to the discussion – not merely in terms of the ‘formal conditions’, but as a verb that encompasses the social reproduction of everyday life – we should be clear what definition of the commons we are working with.

We should note that debates in the literature (and various political struggles) over the years around the enclosure of the commons – originally understood as the ‘subdivision and fencing of common land into individual plots’[6] – has moved from primarily being concerned with land and land-ownership to a broader debate concerning multiple types of ‘global commons’. This involves everything from social, cultural and intellectual commons (cultures, knowledge, ideas, shared online resources) to DNA, natural features (rivers, forests) and the atmosphere we share. The contemporary resistance to various types of enclosure, whether real or virtual, point to the idea that enclosures (or privatization or ‘land-grabs’) are not yet ‘complete’ because access to resources is still a matter of real contestation in many places. The difficulty of pinning down exactly what ‘the commons’ refers to complicates matters considerably. Are shared internet resources really new commons? What does the verb form – ‘commoning’ – mean? Can we engage in forms of commoning without having access to the commons, as classically understood? Might focussing too much on digital life mean we forget about common rights to the land?


In Labour’s Digital Democracy Manifesto, explicit reference is made to the idea of a ‘People’s Charter of Digital Liberties’ which involves a ‘digital bill of rights’. Here various forms of communal and civil language are invoked in order to tie the Manifesto to older, but historically disparate, forms of demand and constitution. In this sense, the Manifesto should be seen in the context of other recent attempts to put the commons back on the constitutional agenda, to reconnect the links between civil liberties and the commons (most notably in Peter Linebaugh’s 2004 the Magna Carta Manifesto), and to demand that the commons – ‘the theory that vests all property in the community and organises labour for the common benefit of all’ – must exist in both juridical forms and day-to-day material reality.[7] Although enclosure and private property are dominant regimes, reflected in the legal forms that protect them, the commons understood in a broad sense remain a site of contestation across the planet, including in legal forms. Thus to resurrect the seemingly archaic term is to acknowledge an ongoing struggle over everything from land to ideas. As Federici puts it: ‘Ironically, the new enclosures have demonstrated that not only the common has not vanished, but also new forms of social cooperation are constantly being produced, including in areas of life where none previously existed like, for example, the internet’.[8]

The idea of private ownership as exclusive ownership, which dominates both the legal and everyday understanding of property today is a relatively modern idea, only a few hundred years old.[9] It is also a history that was primarily violent before it was ‘legal’. Marx’s account of the ‘expropriation of the agricultural population from the land’ describes the transition from the open field system to the conversion of arable land, to sheep farming at the behest of wealthy landowners, to the complete dispossession of commoners from land previously held in common:

The “glorious Revolution” brought into power … the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus-value. They inaugurated the new era by practising on a colossal scale thefts of state lands, thefts that had been hitherto managed more modestly. These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure, or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure. All this happened without the slightest observation of legal etiquette.[10]

Marx argues that the legal formalities for the robbery of land actually came into force long after the seizure and annexation of the land itself (it is only in the 18th century that ‘the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land’). What Marx’s analysis points to, apart from the sheer violence of creating landless populations and depriving commoners from access to the means of sustenance, is a perhaps surprising disconnect between law and common rights. While there were specific ‘protections’ for practices of commoning in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, the ‘rights’ afforded to commoners were rarely, if ever, bestowed from the top down, and were always undermined via the at least implicit consent of the state, which turned a blind eye when landlords kicked people off their land, or permitted the seizure of land and resources from indigenous populations while providing military protection to the companies involved – practices which continue even to this day.. The restoration of common rights cannot simply be a matter of petitioning for legal reform, but must involve an active resistance to having these rights taken away in the first place, as well as a fight to recover them. Common rights do not therefore have the same structure or meaning as human rights or other rights enshrined universally by the state. Linebaugh differentiates common rights from human rights because, amongst other things, ‘being independent of the state, commoning is independent also of the temporality of the law and state’ and further, they ‘inhere in a particular praxis of field, upland, marsh, coast’.[11]

            If we link this discussion to the Labour Digital Democracy Manifesto, we can immediately see serious tensions between the language of ‘Charter’ and the language of ‘rights’, which points again to the tensions identified in the first part of this essay between the public and the private and how, in the last instance, the state cannot in any straightforward way be invoked in order to protect the public or the private. English and Welsh law put in place so many restrictions on the commons and commoning (between 1750 and 1850 there were approximately 4,000 Enclosure Acts of Parliament) that it cannot in any sense be said to be an obvious first port of call to seek recourse for the protection of the commons, virtual or otherwise. Where can we today find resources to think otherwise about the commons? Not, for Federici, in ‘the statist model of revolution that for decades ha[s] sapped the efforts of radical movements to build an alternative to capitalism’.[12] We live in a world where people directly confront rapacious private property-owners, and where the law is rarely able (or willing) to prevent yet further expropriation. The enclosures that began with hedgerows and landowners have expanded to encompass everything that can be owned and sold. As Federici puts it: ‘The ‘new enclosures’ have also made visible a world of communal properties and relations that many had believed to be extinct or had not valued until threatened with privatization’.[13] Any move towards a ‘digital democracy’ necessarily involves global questions regarding enclosures and the commons, and cannot simply restrict itself to consideration regarding participation and representation online, or online voting schemes, for example.


Also raised, albeit in the briefest terms, in the Labour Digital Democracy Manifesto is the notion of the ‘virtual collectivity of all citizens’ as the collective subject of contemporary technology. This resonates with how various writers , have attempted recently to link thinking about the commons with the possibility of a new collective subject. In his recent Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism, Massimo De Angelis argues that commoning needs to be rethought in the age of capitalism and what comes after, stressing that:

commoning must depend on an open attitude that embraces traditions and projection into the future, history and contemporaneity, memory and immanence. We are not just discovering the commons – we are (re)inventing them as well. As we rediscover how to interact and take responsibility in ways that are both old and new, and as we discover more elemental ways of interacting and organising social and economic life, even with high-tech communication tools, when we common we engage in the oldest ways of doing things and relating, the most convivial and democratic.[14]

Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex directly addresses the relationship between politics and technology today in terms of whether a collective political subject has already been generated by such technology, ,or is perhaps just in the process of emerging..To invoke the idea of the ‘cyber-proletariat’ is to attempt to capture at once the power and the powerlessness of such a class. On the one hand, Dyer-Witheford argues that:

the conjunction of automation and globalization enabled by information technology raises to a new intensity a fundamental dynamic of capitalism – its drive to simultaneously draw people into waged labour and expel them as superfluous un- or underemployed. This ‘moving contradiction’ now manifests as, on the one hand, the encompassing of the global population by networked supply chains and agile production systems, making labour available to capital on a planetary scale, and, on the other, as a drive towards the development of adept automata and algorithmic software that render such labour redundant … digital capital’s making of a planetary working class [that is] tasked with working itself out of a job, toiling relentlessly to develop a system of robots and networks, networked robots and robot networks, for which the human is ultimately surplus to requirements, [is] on a fatal trajectory at once dramatized and protested in the self-immolation of Bouazizi, the death leaps of Foxconn workers and other political suicides in the revolts of 2008 to 2014. It is about a global proletariat caught up in a cybernetic vortex.[15]

The ‘vortex’ of networks, automation and robots that has at its aim, consciously or otherwise, the elimination of the human as worker, as well as the destruction of the human during the process of production in the literal sense of inducing suicide, is the central point here. But what happens to vast numbers of workers when machines can do their job, whether the task is simple or complex? Here is where the question of what cannot be automated becomes central to thinking about the left’s position on technology. In this respect, Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat askss such vital questions as the following:

What then is the relation between cybernetic capitalism and its increasingly disposable working class? What are the interactions between segments of that class with different, yet also sometimes shared, relations to information technologies, such as miners and students, extremes of manual and mental labour? And what is the significance of the networked circulation of the revolts which, beyond Turkey, have so widely disturbed today’s algorithmic capital?[16]

Dyer-Witheford argues, among other things, that a new model of ‘syndicates’ is necessary:

[C]ross-segmentary struggle organizations are urgently needed: without invoking too much left-historical baggage, let us call these ‘syndicates’. Some principles that should inform such organizations are: a) alliances of the working, workless, and precariously employed; b) taking responsibility for the social reproduction of the destitute and crisis-struck, without becoming a voluntarist substitute for a destroyed social safety net, but instead maintaining a fighting front; c) adopting a stance of ‘raising from the bottom up’, prioritizing the needs the most precarious and pauperized workers in a racialized and feminized workforce.[17]

Here let us stay with the question of the ‘most precarious and pauperized’ workers in the context of ever-dominant automation. Firstly, it should be noted that environmental crises may involve massive restrictions on the possibility of automation in the sense that it continues to be based largely on a fossil fuel economy. Secondly, and more positively, we might imagine a reversal in value, as those jobs that are currently unpaid, under-and poorly paid, particularly in the care sector, become the most vital and important (after all, what is there to compare in the protection and maintenance of life and someone manipulating an algorithm?). Popular discussion is turning more and more to the realisation that the future of work must centre care and social reproduction. As Livia Gershon puts it:

There’s an enormous opportunity before us, as robots and algorithms push humans out of cognitive work. As a society, we could choose to put more resources into providing better staffing, higher pay and more time off for care workers who perform the most emotionally demanding work for the smallest wages … This isn’t something our economic system, which judges the quality of jobs by their contribution to GDP, is set up to do. In fact, some economists worry that we haven’t done enough to improve the ‘productivity’ of service jobs such as caring for the elderly the way that we have in sectors such as car manufacturing. Emotional work will probably never be a good way to make money more efficiently. The real question is whether our society is willing to direct more resources toward it regardless.[18]

What is clear is that care work, despite the best efforts of corporations, states and individuals to privatise it, cannot primarily generate profit. Nor can we conceive of ‘care strikes’ in the same way we might envisage strikes in a more classical industrial sense: turning away from life has much higher stakes than laying down tools or sabotaging machines. In addition to simply paying attention to shifts in the economy, the left has an opportunity here to draw upon (often intertwined) feminist and ecological thought to conceive of a collective political subject that is not first and foremost digital. The role of an exclusively digital subject is granted to very few and only at the cost of massive exploitation and dependency on the labour of others, as well as increasingly finite raw materials. Discussions about forming new collective subjects through struggles for alternative sources of livelihood that do not depend upon labour (such as Universal Basic Income schemes) are one aspect of the discussion – though it should be noted that UBI is not straightforwardly progressive in and of itself, and could easily be used by right-wing governments to close borders to ‘reward’ only their own citizens and to push flexibilization, wage subsidization, and administrative rationalization.

We would be better off shifting the debate around digital democracy and a new collective subject towards larger and more fundamental questions concerning the commons (virtual and actual), the role of care in our societies, and how we value all the paid and unpaid work that goes into reproducing life at all levels. Corbyn’s Labour Party has pledged £8 billion to solve the ‘care crisis’, which includes paying a living wage to all care workers. Centring care alongside education generated a lot of support for the party in the recent election, which surely points to the potential for shifting popular perceptions of how these aspects of social, personal, and political life should be regarded. We can, however, ask even more radical questions of the relation between ‘digital democracy’ and all the work and relations that fall outside of the virtual and online worlds. A collective communism of care that would reclaim the commons such that there were enough resources for the global community seems utopian in the extreme. Yet in the face of new enclosures, private property, and asymmetrical global violence, we have little choice but to address the future of technology, work, and politics in the broadest and most direct of ways.


Care presents some difficult planning issues. Because of its often private and multiply-located nature, it is harder, on the face of it, to see how centralization could be used to ‘redistribute’ care, to ensure fair provision of skilled labour, and to facilitate use of expensive facilities. Care involves a collective condition – as is evident from the fact that we all need care at various points, and far more often than the liberal and neoliberal image of the self-standing, self-generating subject ideologically presupposes. But it also involves diverse geographical workplaces and an immense amount of self-management and individual decision-making. Moving from a classical image of work as centralized, geographically concentrated, and with obvious ‘product’ means rethinking completely what we value and even what image of being human lies behind our policies. Care is ignored, assumed to always be there, undervalued both socially and economically, gendered and racialized. Yet if we were to centralize it, and to acknowledge that automation may not be able to replace care (even if it might be able to help in its planning), then we might begin to recognize its foundational political and social importance. Care work is often extremely gruelling as well as poorly, under or unpaid: making it a public issue and something to be valued and collectively discussed and democratically planned would be a revolution.

How might the new digital technologies help us to think about democratic economic planning, taking the care sector as our central example? As part of this process, we might also want to reverse the question and ask what technology can learn from care work. Hilary Wainwright, in her discussion of the ‘Lucas Plan’, where in the face of redundancy workers at Lucas Aerospace came up with their own plan to keep jobs via proposing ‘socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills’,[19] points out that the democratic egalitarianism central to the plan made it possible to imagine what ‘socially useful production’ might mean. We might build on such examples to imagine what ‘socially useful reproduction’ might look like, particularly as we move into service, knowledge, and care economies. As Wainwright puts it:

We are in new times for trade union organisation but interest in democratic economics is increasing with the spread of green and solidarity economies, commons-based peer-to-peer production, and grassroots fabrication in ‘hackerspaces’ and ‘fab labs’. All of which has deepened ideas about connecting tacit knowledge and participatory prototyping to the political economy of technology development, as was the case with Lucas.[20]

We need to think beyond the separation of the virtual and the real, although it is hard to avoid the thought that one is ineffable and the other is all-too-material. How can technology not replace or subsume care work, but assist in its redistribution? How can technology help people organize without simply removing social responsibility from the state? The latter we have seen in all too cynical detail: playing upon people’s genuine willingness to help in their communities, the Conservative government’s ‘Big Society’ slogan provided the cover for removing state responsibility for libraries, or even welfare safety nets. It handed over responsibility to unpaid volunteers, who were left to manage formerly planned and paid for infrastructure in unbalanced and difficult circumstances. The massive rise in foodbanks in the UK, not to mention teachers buying food for undernourished pupils, is also indicative of this handing over of central planning to well-meaning citizens. Technology will need to be put in the service of people’s needs, and not fetishized for its own sake, nor used to relieve responsibility for the vulnerability of populations.

Possibilities for rethinking the role of technology in dealing with the distribution of care will be enhanced if, as Ursula Huws argues, we can avoid the trap of thinking of ‘digital labor’ as somehow isolated from the rest of the economy:

it is worth noting that digital labor cannot be regarded as a discrete form of labor, separated hermetically from the rest of the economy… the existence of a separately visible sphere of non-manual labor is not evidence of a new “knowledge-based,” “immaterial,” or “weightless” realm of economic activity. It is simply an expression of the growing complexity of the division of labor, with a fragmentation of activities into separate tasks, both “mental” and “manual,” increasingly capable of being dispersed geographically and contractually to different workers who may be barely aware of one another’s existence. This is a continuing process, with each task subject to further divisions between more creative and/or controlling functions on the one hand, and more routine, repetitive ones on the other.[21]

The possibilities afforded by geographical dispersal should alert us to possible positive uses of digital technologies (think of the way, for example, epidemiologists can already track potential illness outbreaks by tracking people’s web-searches). Of course, fragmentation and atomization suit particular aspects of the capitalist economy, but there are potentials here, particularly if we imagine what it might mean to use the same technologies to overcome the lack of awareness of each other’s existences.


Jeremy Corbyn’s recent challenge to neoliberal austerity under Conservative rule was in good part predicated on a mobilization of the youth, addressing education and care with a progressive image of the future. To a lesser extent, it addressed questions of technology, drawing on various historical and contemporary rhetorics in ‘The Digital Democracy Manifesto’ to present a sketch of how technology might expand rather than restrict democracy. Social media was integral to the recent mobilisation of young people in registering to vote and pushing a left-wing agenda which was often old-fashioned in its social democratic impulses, but highly contemporary in the dissemination of its message. How could it go further? How can social media increase social agency? In connecting online activism and activity to grassroots, on-the-streets mobilising, Corbyn’s Labour Party has been extremely successful, indicating not a divide between technology and everyday life, but rather an optimistic kind of continuity.

It is clear that old media is over: it cannot poison the young in the same way. There are of course newer forms of right-wing influence that use the internet at their base (the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and a particular kind of online violent irony that too spills over onto the streets and into the ballot box needs careful understanding and attention). It would be foolish to trust too much in technology in and of itself without being permanently critical of malign uses, whether they be in terms of surveillance, commercial data gathering, or even personal upset caused by the often-cruel mediation afforded by the internet, but it is imperative that the left take seriously the challenges and opportunities provided by technology, not only at the level of social and political participation, and feminist and environmental concerns, but also at the level of economic infrastructure. The central question of care can help us to orient our thinking and practice to the core questions that will dominate the next few decades. Let us hope that a future Labour victory will allow this discussion to proceed in such a way that human needs and the redistribution of the commons are treated as paramount.

[1]           Cynthia Cockburn, Machinery of Dominance: Women, Men and Technical Know-How, London: Pluto Press, 1985, p. 8.

[2]           Herbert Marcuse, ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology’, Technology, War and Fascism, London: Routledge, 1998, p. 41.

[3]           ‘The Digital Democracy Manifesto’, released in August 2016 and available here:

[4]           Silvia Federici, ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’, 2011, available here:

[5]           Federici, ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’.

[6]           Simon Fairlie, ‘A Short History of Enclosure in Britain’, Land Magazine, Issue 7, Summer 2009.

[7]           Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, p. 6.

[8]           Federici, ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’.

[9]           Fairlie, ‘A Short History of Enclosure in Britain’, p. 3.

[10]         Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 27, (1867), available here:

[11]         Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto, p. 45.

[12]         Federici, ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’, p. 1.

[13]         Federici, ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’, p. 1.

[14]         Massimo De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism, London: Zed, 2017, p. 208.

[15]         De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia, p. 15.

[16]         Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, London: Pluto, 2015, p. 3.

[17]         Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat, pp. 201-202.

[18]         Livia Gershon, ‘The Future is Emotional’, Aeon, June 2017, available here:

[19]         Hilary Wainwright, ‘When the Workers Nearly Took Control: Five Lessons from the Lucas Plan’, OpenDemocracy, November 2016, available here:

[20]         Wainwright, ‘When the Workers Nearly Took Control’.

[21]         Ursula Huws, Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014, p. 157.