BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Cybertariat Struggles

Who is the cybertariat? Why care? Ursula Huws, author of Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age (Monthly Review Press, 2014), has answers as a class-based technology shapes our world. An historical continuity emerges in her writing. This approach casts context on the current moment.

Huws delves into the technical nuts and bolts of modern class society. Work and workplaces shift amid a dizzying pace of change. The very ground beneath our feet constantly moves as industry integrates technology to better profit via control over consumers and employees. The effects are far-reaching, and decades in the making. On this front, nothing falls from the sky.

As Huws details, there are overlapping processes of class formation and fragmentation that characterize this systemic push-and-pull. Spatial and temporal continuities drive the rise and demise of technology-driven identities and job locales. Huws develops from a left viewpoint the relevant and significant actors and factors, to paraphrase Marx, in the activity that makes us human: work.

What happens, and why, when the pace of occupational and technological change increases? Social media’s impact on youth is not the half of it. In an introductory essay “What Will We Do?” Huws lays the groundwork for interrogating core concerns.

How does intellectual labor connect with commodification? Huws suggests we take “a broader look at the technical division of labor across the economy and the way in which it is constantly being restructured through the combined impact of technological change, standardization, and ‘scientific management’ processes.” Such science-based management, e.g., Taylorism, is at least a century old, emerging during capitalist industrialization. We are a long way from that time in the Global North. Still, the division of labor retains rather strong importance for the employer and employees classes. Huws updates Marx in part on the concept of value as workplace power relations require clarity on who controls software technology involving work time.

Hers is a voice from the academy. No surface analysis. No short sentences, either. Bear with Huws, though.

She proposes a “conceptual model” for clarity on the contemporary conflict between capital and labor. Whiz bang gadgets can distract from this basic point. Don’t swallow such hype. It’s an illusion, despite and because of our oligarchy’s hegemony over popular culture. Gramsci’s insights on how elites wield social control remains spot-on.

Politics and economics since 1989 drive Huws’ model of class antagonisms. The whole of this global reality is staggering. The author aids readers’ grasp of vital elements.

Accordingly, “economies are seen not as made up of ‘enterprises’ within ‘sectors’ but as aggregates of ‘business functions,’ which are in turn made up of increasingly interchangeable ‘tasks’ carried out by workers using specific labor processes.” One part of this is standardization. It facilitates commodification of public services. The ongoing, global privatization of education is a case in point. Its handmaiden is high-stakes testing. That trend depends upon computerized standardization of the teaching profession. In turn, such processes require surveillance. Pearson Education’s spying on US students using social media is a recent case in point.

Struggles over autonomy define and describe work for wages, increasingly precarious. When it comes to creative labor services, struggles over work time unfold in complex twists and turns as global capital restructures occupations via anti-labor laws and austerity policies. In the US, the move to “right to work” laws in formerly union-friendly states such as Wisconsin is a case in point.

In a chapter titled “Expression and Expropriation,” Huws cites Karl Marx’s first contradiction of capitalism, between production and consumption. Think of the global boom of over-building real estate relative to workers’ buying power, despite and because of “easy credit.” While hidden in plain sight to mainstream commentators, this contradiction of consumption and production is a driving force of economic instability. Busts that follow booms serve a purpose: to kill invested capital unable to grow.

For Huws, the 2007-08 credit crisis after the real estate market crashed furnished the energy for a new wave of commodification. Global capital pounced, carnivore-like, on the worst downturn since the 1930s to unleash a new wave of privatization of public services. The EU austerity project reduced employment in nations such as Greece and Spain, and paved a path to privatize public assets. Stateside, public education privation boomed, thanks in no small measure to computer billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates, of Microsoft Corp. fame. Software technology like online instruction spawns education privatization.

This technology deskills the profession of teaching, from elementary to higher education. But wait. There is more. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Standardization of instruction impacts students and teacher. The effects “on working-class lie are multiple and pernicious,” Huws writes. She dives into the role of standardization as a main underpinning of privatization to make labor more interchangeable on a vast scale. Think in-sourcing and outsourcing of labor services. This trend aims to improve the mobility and profitability of capital. Accelerating the circulation of capital, spawns its more rapid turnover and swifter return on investment.

Huws unravels the incredibly complex division of labor under capital’s rule in our era. Hers is important work, and well worth reading.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015

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