How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.
The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – increases in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.
The same is true of natural resources, the exploitation of which is one of the world’s main sources of rent. There is a permanent struggle over who gets this rent: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations. It’s ironic that in explaining the difference between labour (which in its use produces surplus value) and other commodities (which consume all their value in their use), Marx gives oil as an example of an ‘ordinary’ commodity. Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.
A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity etc) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing – less hard labour needed – becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege. The world market, as Fredric Jameson has put it, is ‘a space in which everyone has once been a productive labourer, and in which labour has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system.’ In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisation, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marx’s ‘reserve army of labour’; it also includes, as Jameson notes, ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases’: so-called failed states (Congo, Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disaster, those trapped by pseudo-archaic ‘ethnic hatreds’, objects of philanthropy and NGOs or targets of the war on terror. The category of the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the temporarily unemployed, the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to the inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself as ‘lumpen-proletarians’), and finally to the whole populations and states excluded from the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on January 26th 2012.]