A brief response to Chris Land’s and Steffen Bohm’s Short Essay: “They are exploiting us! Why we all work for Facebbok for free”
The gist of the essay is the following hypothesis: The users of Facebook produce value in the same way as wage workers produce it. Hence, Facebook exploits users by expropriating this value.
Although I have a great respect for Land’s and Bohm’s good intentions and sympathize with their anti Facebook sentiments their claim that Facebook exploits users by extracting value from them is wrong.
Facebook definitely exploits someone. But whom? The answer is: the total world wage labor which is exchanged with capital (variable capital), including its own workers. This is Marx’s definition of productive labor under capitalism. From the point of view of capital only the labor that produces value and surplus value is productive. Only, in this limited sense productive labor is equated with the wage labor, whether material or immaterial, which is exchanged with capital. Otherwise, all labor as far as it is a purposeful activity is productive, because it produces something, whether material or immaterial.
A small part of the value expropriated by face book is produced by its own paid workers, and the overwhelming rest of such value consists of rents which are extracted from the worldwide wage labor (both material and immaterial) which is exchanged with capital. Hence to claim that Facebook users produce value is to deny the role of wage laborers and their antagonism to rent-extracting entities such as faceebook and google.
Marx, in Vol. 3 of Capital, demonstrates how the surplus values that are produced by different sections of working class become a total pool and then are redistributed among industrial and commercial capitalists ( in the form of profit), Bankers (in the form of interest ), and land owners (in the form of rent). So the source of both interest and rent is surplus value produced by the labor which is exchanged with capital. We use banks on daily basis and banks lend our money (savings, pensions..) to others in exchange for interests. It would be absurd to claim that users of banks produce value for banks. We spend time and energy to use bank services, even when we use credit cards. But this energy -time does not produce value, because it is not exchanged with capital. Even when users pay fees to banks for using services they, do not produce values but buy values which are produced by bank workers. It is equally absurd to claim that the users of Facebook and Google produce value. Facebook and Google extract rents that are parts of the total surplus value which is produced by the wage laborers worldwide, including their own workers.
Actually the knowledge economy in general rests on the shoulders of the wage labor which is exchanged with capital outside it. The overwhelming part of the value circulating in the knowledge economy is produced by wage labor outside it, though knowledge workers themselves also contribute to the total surplus value to the extent that their labor is exchanged with capital (variable capital).
The thesis that users produce value for facebook may lead to the following practical misleading conclusion. The users should build their own p2p cooperatives of Facebooks and Googles, and sell information and collect fees for adverts. According to the thesis this is a fair exchange, because, the members of such cooperatives appropriate the value they themselves have produced. But, such cooperatives only replace Facebook in extracting surplus value in the form of rent from the wage labor. The thesis foregrounds rentier forms of p2p communities. Hence, the thesis is indeed a mystification of the exploitation of labor by capital.
To conclude the claim that users produce value for facebook is a very bad thesis. We should not fight to become rent suckers but to abolish wage labor, surplus value, in all its forms including rent.
Jakob Rigi is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University in Budapest.