Matthew Barad

Aug 12, 2019

6 min read

Seize the Means of Distribution

Capital in the Age of Technology

Taken from In These Times —

For all of human history, a person’s relationship to the means of production defined their social, political, and economic status. In the industrial age this truth was made more obvious than ever before. Because one class controlled the factories and owned the fields, they could dictate the conditions of labor and profit from its fruits. Laborers needed these “means of production” to produce goods, so they had no choice but to alienate themselves from their products and accept less than the value they produced as compensation.

To the seasoned Marxists among my readers, I apologize for the quick and incomplete review. However, in order to understand how this dynamic shifted with modernity, we need to understand this basic historical precedent. For three centuries, the control of capital has allowed one class to exploit another. Though that simple fact has not changed, its form is continuously evolving.

Today, the material conditions of the global north vary drastically from their industrial roots. Industrial production has slowed, and most workers now provide services rather than products. Nowhere is this shift more visible than in the realm of technology. In this brave new world, the means of production cannot be easily contained. Every person with a computer is capable of coding. Open source and free development software means nearly everyone has a means of production.

In order to account for this development, capitalists have been forced to shift their mechanisms of control — and have done so with great success. 6 of the world’s largest 20 corporations are tech and software firms. For an industry that has only existed on a consumer scale for just over 30 years, this constitutes incredible growth. However, this was not achieved through control of factories, but instead through the domination of intellectual property, advertisement, and most essentially, the means of distribution.

Apple, for example, is keenly aware that its software empire is under constant threat from third party coders. Everything from its operating systems to individual applications could potentially be out-compete by aspiring coders. Their solution has been two fold — coopt developers when possible, and when all else fails, force them out of the market altogether. Compared to Android OS, IOS is draconian. Its monthly updates thwart attempts at jailbreaking. It forbids apps outside of the Apple store from competing on its platform without those jailbreaks. And crucially Apple charges a steep fee for developers to access its marketplace.

The capitalists who own Apple are able to exploit developers in a manner which directly parallels the exploitation of 20th century factory labor. Because indie devs lack the capital for advertisement budgets and are not guaranteed access to Apple’s marketplace, they are forced to surrender a portion of the value they produce to a capitalist class. Though the means of production have become ubiquitous, the means of distribution have been seized.

This helps explain why so many popular apps are clones dedicated to microtransactions and devoid of content. In order to overcome the barriers to distribution while also making enough to live, developers must alienate themselves from the act of creation and dedicate themselves to menial cash-grabs. Just as the cobbler’s of Paris were replaced with desolate shoe factories, so is the indie-dev being replaced with soulless code-recyclers.

Though this shift in the mode of capitalist accumulation is most obvious in the world of technology, it extends well beyond it. Online marketplaces like Etsy and Ebay use their control of distribution and advertisement to steal labor value from small-time crafters. Amazon uses its market to extract wealth from self-published novelists. Uber and Lyft use their control of driving apps to extort wealth from drivers. These laborers are forced to rely on means of distribution which are owned by a capitalist class, so instead of receiving the full value of their products, they receive a fraction.

To return to the Marxist lens, this has ramifications for the labor theory of value as well. In Capital, Marx famously uses linen and coats to demonstrate how labor adds value to commodities. Though the need for clothing explains its value as a commodity, labor transforms low value linen into a product with a high use-value. In this example, ownership of industrial sewing machines allowed the capitalist class to exploit factory laborers. Without access to the machines, labor could not compete, and so they surrendered a portion of their wages to unproductive oligarchs.

Today, the means of distribution allow capitalists to similarly exploit wealth by leveraging their ownership, however the transfer of value is even more extreme with software than it was with footwear. Though industrial capitalists don’t do nearly enough work to justify the wealth they steal from labor, physical means of production do require continued investment. If the coat-making capitalist doesn’t buy linen, labor cannot create coats. However, Steam, Apple, Etsy, Uber, and Amazon can extract labor value without sending so much as a cent of material to the workers. Coders create value from electricity and intellect. Craftsmen buy their own supplies. Uber drivers pay for their own cars, their own gas, and rely on their own labor.

Controlling the means of distribution has the potential to be much more lucrative than the means of production, as workers are not only responsible for their own labor, but for their continued business expenses as well.

In this way, our modern capitalist class in more akin to landlords than industrial capitalists. Just as tenant wages are exploited by property owners in exchange for shelter, many modern service workers must surrender part of the value they create in exchange for digital distributive property. This is partly why the gig economy is so often compared to Feudalism. Without the guarantee of steady income, and without the bourgeoisie’s direct involvement in production, laborers in the gig economy are paying to access the means of distribution with no promise of future wealth.

If the “risk of investment” is meant to justify capital’s supremacy over labor, then the gig economy is entirely unjustifiable. Just as serfs were forced to give up the fruits of their labor to landowners, so too must developers surrender their code to online distributors. And just as serfs suffered all the risk in planting, so do Etsy crafters suffer all the risk in production.

Of course, the two aren’t identical — after all, serfs were promised food and protection. Today’s laborers are not.

As 21st century socialists, we have an obligation to apply and reapply Marxist frameworks to our ever-shifting economic landscape. This essay was not meant as an absolute conclusion so much as an initial effort. If we do not understand the economic and political relations which define the life of laborers today, socialists have no hope of building solidarity, much less building a better world.

To that end, let us recognize that western capitalists are quickly redefining themselves as owners of the means of distribution, rather than of production. If labor unites and seizes online marketplaces, or creates its own collective alternatives, we can free ourselves from this new tyranny, and reclaim our labor value.

Let us not be mesmerized by Capital’s parlor tricks or transmutations. Exploitation clings to life with the same grotesque tenacity today as it has for all our history. Be you writer, coder, crafter, driver, or entertainer, you are entitled to all you create. Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Addendum: Because there has been much confusion and debate concerning the scope of this piece, I want to clarify that it does not apply to the entirety of western economies. Most workers still deal directly with means of production. However, the direction of the economy towards ethereal tech jobs and gig-based labor is worth examining. It is tech jobs and gig labor that this piece describes best.