MCC Doctoral Seminar I Final Paper


This blog post is a complete reproduction of my final assignment for the doctoral core theory seminar required for all first semester PhD students in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication. There were four possible prompts, from which I chose:

Drawing from at least four theorists, consider the relevance of Marxist social theory developed in the late-19th and early 20th century for contemporary (late-20th century to current) debates about media, technology and the political.

Marx was one of the theorists we studied in class, although Capital and the Grundrisse, which I draw from most extensively, were not assigned texts. (Most of my knowledge of Marxist theory comes from independent study and not the academy, at least not directly.) Mao and LeGuin I brought in from the “outside” for the sake of my argument, whereas all other authors and texts I cite were drawn from the syllabus. I wanted to use a couple of other Stuart Hall and W.E.B. DuBois texts (“The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees” and “Marxism and the Negro Problem”) as well as even more other thinkers, but I think I packed about as much as I could into a 10-12 page double spaced paper.

While I do not cite my own past work from before I re-entered the academy, I discuss or allude to many of the same topics and themes I covered in “Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition”, “Computing, climate change, and all our relationships”, and “Ecological Prospects for Computing”. I am grateful for all I learned in this course – both from our professor Paula Chakravartty and the other PhD students in my cohort – and glad that I was able to connect mandatory schoolwork to my independent research and political interests, although I’m already becoming impatient to dedicate more time to those matters and less to academic requirements. As I continue to develop the reading discipline and writing practice I previously set an intention to nurture, I look forward to becoming more able to produce reasonably substantial work like this paper on a relatively quick timeline, and sharing it with those who find it useful.


Karl Marx in his magnum opus vividly described the violence and parasitism of wealth accumulation, writing that “capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Capital vol. 1, ch. 10, section 1). Decades earlier, Marx and Friedrich Engels used another horror metaphor to declare that the “spectre of communism” haunting Europe’s ruling capitalists (or bourgeoisie) could never be exorcised, but rather that the “fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (The Communist Manifesto, ch. 1). The better part of two centuries later, even as this prediction has yet to be realized, marxism is still the spirit that simply will not perish – regardless of how many times it is declared already dead, irrespective of how vigorously and brutally it is assaulted (or ignored) by its enemies, and no matter how staggering are the structural developments and changes within the many subjects and objects of its theory and practice. Marxism is a living tradition continually revitalized by new thinkers responding to the conditions of their own times – diverse workers, intellectuals and organizers hailing from countless distinct and overlapping positionalities of geography, identity, and experience. This expansiveness and situatedness is key to understanding both the limitations and the continued relevance of long-established (and more recent) marxist social theory to contemporary debates about media, technology, and the political. In this paper, I use marxist theories and methodologies to analyze the racial and national character of computing as a case example of all of the above.


To accomplish this task, it is first necessary to answer: what is media? What is technology? And what is the political?

I take “media” at its literal and etymological meaning of “the middle layer or sheath”. Media denotes what lies in between, the means by which communication travels or is fixed. “Media” is a historically, geographically and culturally broad category, ranging from ancient, relatively durable mediums such as drawings and written language, to today’s seemingly (but not truly) immaterial smartphone software applications, and everything in between – the printing press, the photograph, the gramophone, and far more than I can name.

With similar breadth and literal-mindedness, I follow Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Rant on Technology” in opposing how “the word [technology] is consistently misused to mean only the enormously complex and specialised technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources”. Contrarily, in fact the term “technology” is quite expansive in its literal and etymological meanings as “systematic treatment” or “study of art/craft/technique”. Returning to LeGuin’s words, technology is “how a society copes with physical reality…technology is the active human interface with the material world”. Again, my focus here is on computing as a particular instance of a technology which mediates social relationships, a scope still wide enough to overfill the boundaries of this essay.

This brings us to the final and most challenging question of what is the political, where once more, I seek a definition both precise and capacious. I certainly would not restrict “the political” to the domain of so-called public offices and acts. In Louis Althusser’s words:

The distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the (subordinate) domains in which bourgeois law exercises its ‘authority’. The domain of the State escapes it because the latter is ‘above the law’: the State, which is the State of the ruling class, is neither public nor private; on the contrary, it is the precondition for any distinction between public and private. (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, section “The State Ideological Apparatuses”)

What then is the political, if not the “public sphere” or the affairs of the state? I consider the economic struggle of workers taking collective action against their private employer to be “political”. So too the cultural and propaganda work of using media to disseminate ideas, liberatory or otherwise, and alter “common sense” among some population – this is the Gramscian “multi-dimensional, multi-arena character of hegemony…it results from winning a substantial degree of popular consent” (Hall p. 424). Hence I take “the political” to mean whatever impacts the balance of power among different classes or groups in a given society, particularly but not necessarily by conscious intention. This certainly includes elections and all else normally legible as “political” according to a (narrower) popular definition, and also encompasses the above examples and more – for example struggles over the distribution of resources and performance of reproductive labor within a household or other non-state, non-market-economic community.

Equipped with these definitions, we can recognize computing as fitting into all of the above categories, and move from horror to science fiction imagery in making a case for marxism’s explanatory power in theorizing media, technology, and the political today.

Marxist theory of technology

In the “Fragment on Machines”, Marx describes the continued development of industrial machinery as destined to eclipse living labor:

In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labour…it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc., just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite…The production process has ceased to be a labor process in the sense of a process dominated by labor as its governing unity. Labor appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living, (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. (Grundrisse, Notebook VI)

Discussing a subquote of the above passage in an article “looking at the Internet as a specific instance of the fundamental role played by free labor” (p. 33), Tiziana Terranova describes how in the 1999 film The Matrix, “the visual power of the Marxian description is updated by the cyberpunk snapshots of the immobile bodies of the hackers, electrodes like umbilical cords connecting them to the matrix, appendixes to a living, all-powerful cyberspace” (p. 45). Having myself worked for some years as a software developer, it is striking to read such an aptly detailed description of computing from a text that predates digital electronics by the better part of a century. The data center is the virtuoso that consumes fossil fuels to tirelessly transform and transmit information: serving web pages, sending email, generating reports, maintaining blockchain ledgers, and so forth. “The machine” performs the actual work of executing the coded instructions, and may continue doing so long after the worker’s direct labor time has ceased. The worker performs the mere “abstraction of activity” of writing instructions (incantations) in some obscure and restrictive programming language or languages, configuring that code to conform to the execution requirements of some particular region of the vast, abstracted apparatus of “the cloud” – a misleadingly hazy metaphor for the immense material infrastructure that undergirds the internet. In more than one literal sense, it is not I as worker (or consumer, or…) who uses “the cloud” or “the machine”, but rather the machine that uses me.

The capitalist industry of Marx’s own day arguably already realized the vision of “living, (active) machinery, which confronts [the worker’s] individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism…[the worker] steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor” (Grundrisse, Notebook VII). Nevertheless, contemporary software and particularly the questionable “artificial intelligence” of machine learning models (trained on enormous datasets, commonly of dubious veracity, provenance, and relevance) is the most complete expression yet of how “one is dealing with knowledge…which has become incarnate…in the automatic system of machines” (Grundrisse quoted in Terranova p. 44). This incarnated machinic knowledge is neither the product nor the possession “of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy” (Communist Manifesto, ch. 3). Technical knowledge is extracted from workers, materialized and made alien from workers via its mediation through fixed capital, and thus accrues to the power and wealth of a capitalist class constituted by racial, national, ableist and gendered exploitation and oppression (among other axes). This process is of course political. So is the inevitable resistance to it.

As Terranova extensively analyzes, on the internet much knowledge is extracted from “immaterial labor” provided not only by paid “knowledge workers”, but also “free labor” performed by open source developers, internet users, and others. This “collective aspect of labor implies a rejection of the equivalence between labor and employment, which was already stated by Marx and further emphasized by feminism and the post-Gramscian autonomy” (Terranova p. 46). Many knowledge workers (formally employed or otherwise) are far from privileged, suffering from “the shamelessly exploitative nature of the job, its punishing work rhythms, and its ruthless casualization” (Terranova p. 33). These trends have only worsened in many respects since Terranova’s 2000 publication, e.g. in reports of conditions of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, let alone Amazon warehouse workers. When we widen our lens beyond the “knowledge worker” Terranova analyzes to include also the mining, manufacturing, transport and other workers without whom computing could not exist – predominantly racialized workers in the Global South, including the “South within the North” – we see how apposite Marx’s analysis still is, that “accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole” (Capital, vol. 1, ch. 25). This analysis has long been enriched in specificity by indigenous, Global South and Black Marxist thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote in “Black Reconstruction America” that “Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal” (ch. 1, p. 16).

Broadening the frame

In the pages of “Rethinking Marxism”, Anna Tsing’s “Supply Chains and the Human Condition” “theorizes supply chain capitalism as a model for understanding both the continent-crossing scale and the constitutive diversity of contemporary global capitalism…bringing together self-exploitation and superexploitation. Diversity is thus structurally central to global capitalism, and not decoration on a common core” (p. 148). Tsing develops materialism a step beyond classical marxist theory by abandoning a still abstract – and often implicitly white, male, and otherwise privileged – concept of “the worker” in favor of a more granular analysis of how “labor mobilization in supply chains…depends on the performance of gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and citizenship status” (p. 148). Tsing’s analysis has a kinship with Marx’s reproach of idealist notions of “Man” beyond class, and with the detailed analysis of the interplay of class with race and other salient social factors by countless Black Marxist thinkers.

In “Black Reconstruction in America”, W.E.B. DuBois distinguished the economic, social and political roles of the Black worker and the white worker in the mid to late 19th century US South, recognizing the Black worker as more intensely exploited and oppressed, by the white worker as well as by white capital. In “The Wretched of the Earth”, Frantz Fanon stated that in “the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race…this is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem” (ch. 1, p. 40). Tsing draws attention to how, in contrast to these developments of marxist thought, in much of the writing of Marx and Engels “the race, gender, and national privileges [the Manchester industrial workforce] shared with their employers made their struggles over wages and working conditions appear unmarked by these principles of difference and exclusion. Thinking through them, class relations could be imagined as abstract, transcendent of the person-making characteristics of particular times and places, and thus, substantially gender-, race-, and nationally neutral” (p. 153).

We can compare Tsing’s method of figuration to Donna Haraway’s invention of the “cyborg” in the eponymous “Cyborg Manifesto”, a figure which is a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism…the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism…[potentially] exceedingly unfaithful to their origins” (pp. 7; 9-10) in the context of her attempt to “build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism” (p. 7). In a distinct but related vein, the marxist Tsing paints a very different picture from Marx and Engels of the everyday workings of capitalism:

Let me define ‘‘super- exploitation’’ as exploitation that depends on so-called noneconomic factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and citizenship status. Superexploitation is exploitation greater than might be expected from general economic principles; the use of these so-called noneconomic factors to determine the rate of exploitation would be one conceivable use of the term. My use of this term does not require worker abjection, but it points to the inability of workers to negotiate the wage in the manner imagined in much of both Marxist and neo-classical economics: that is, as abstract ‘‘labor,’’ without the obstacles of these ‘‘cultural’’ factors. In the definition I use here, all exploitation is probably superexploitation. This does not render the term meaningless: it continues to focus our attention on these so-called noneconomic factors in class formation. (p. 158, emphasis added)

Tsing goes on to explore several types of super-exploited labor in modern global capitalism’s transnational supply chains, many of which are not spoken of as “work” by the people who engage in them (p. 169). We can employ these conceptual tools to recognize in some detail the differentiated super-exploitation of figures in every sector of the computing industry: from the heavily African mining workforce, to the overwhelmingly female and Asian electronics manufacturing workforce, to the Global North knowledge worker, to the surveilled populations whose data is extracted for the profit of the ruling class. Of course, not only marxists have contributed to the empirical study and theoretical understanding of such figures.

Engagement beyond the marxist tradition

In “Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness”, Simone Browne introduces the term “racializing surveillance” and describes it as “a technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race” (p. 16). Browne’s examples of anti-Black surveillance technology date to the 1700s, including “lantern laws…in New York City that compelled black, mixed-race, and indigenous slaves to carry small lamps, if in the streets after dark and unescorted by a white person” (p. 25), and the “Book of Negroes”:

The Book of Negroes is an eighteenth-century ledger that lists three thousand self-emancipating former slaves who embarked mainly on British ships…after the American Revolution. The Book of Negroes, I argue, is the first government-issued document for state-regulated migration between the United States and Canada that explicitly linked corporeal markers to the right to travel. This linking of gender…disabilities…and other identifying marks…points to the ways that biometric information…has long been deployed as a technology of the surveillance of black mobilities.” (p. 25)

Moving to present-day examples of biometric surveillance, Browne extends “Fanon’s concept of epidermalization – that being the imposition of race on the body – [to] trace and provide a genealogy of modern, digital epidermalization by focusing on branding and the role of prototypical whiteness in the development of contemporary biometric information technology” (p. 26). Situating her intervention with respect to the emerging interdisciplinary field of “surveillance studies”, Browne quotes John Fiske saying that “‘although surveillance is penetrating deeply throughout the society, its penetration is differential’. Fiske argues that although Michel Foucault and George both conceptualized surveillance as integral to modernity, surveillance ‘has been racialized in a manner that they did not foresee: today’s seeing eye is white’” (p. 17). Regardless of whether she is a marxist (if pressed for a binary answer, I would say no), Browne’s detailed analysis is useful to my own attempt to understand the role played by computing and software in what Althusser describes at a high level of abstraction as the “repressive state apparatus”.

The historical origins of computing in the Western imperialist military-industrial complex, referenced extensively by Haraway, are critical to understanding the whiteness of computing in all its varied expressions: from the dominance of English in programming languages and technical documentation, to the racialized character of “cameras that ‘can’t see black people” (Browne p. 29), and far beyond. There is unresolved contemporary scholarly and popular debate regarding the desirability of representation and inclusion in software and other technical systems largely controlled by the ruling capitalist class, among other imaginaries of possible paths from the oppressive status quo towards a liberated future. Marxism is not a dogma with ready-made answers to these questions, but a guide to action with value recognized outside the tradition, even as writers like Browne bring valid critiques of masculinism and other problems in thinkers like Fanon who they build on (p. 6). Moreover, as Mao Zedong describes in “On Practice”, marxism provides an appealing and practical means to measure its own adequacy:

The Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism has two outstanding characteristics. One is its class nature: it openly avows that dialectical materialism is in the service of the proletariat. The other is its practicality: it emphasizes the dependence of theory on practice, emphasizes that theory is based on practice and in turn serves practice. The truth of any knowledge or theory is determined not by subjective feelings, but by objective results in social practice. Only social practice can be the criterion of truth. The standpoint of practice is the primary and basic standpoint in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge.

There are countless contemporary workers, intellectuals and organizers building on marxist traditions to make sense of the circumstances of their own existence, some number of whom I am honored to know through my own participation in struggle. Our engagement alongside many non-marxists in active social practice to change those conditions – in computing, and in other domains of media, technology, and the political – is the source of my optimism for the prospects for transformation. Only time will tell how justified that feeling is.

Conclusion and prospects

Against the sleek and artificially shiny imagery supplied by the high technology industry in its advertisements for smartphones and other ideological productions depicting computing, it is necessary to remember that capitalism has never outgrown the violence required for its birth. Today as much as in centuries past, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Capital vol. 1, ch. 31). Marx’s graphic imagery evokes the wealth produced by the suffering of my enslaved ancestors, and that of other racialized and indigenous peoples around the world: “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production” (Capital, vol. 1, ch. 31). In Fanon’s words, “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples” (p. 102). Today as in the 19th century when Marx began his analysis with an initial unpacking of the many relationships obscured by the humble and ubiquitous commodity (Capital, vol. 1, ch. 1), marxist traditions continue to offer powerful means by which to pierce the veil obscuring computers from popular understanding, peek behind the curtain of “the cloud” and other one-sided abstractions, and grasp the history and interrelationships of computing and of society as a totality. With an altered and broadened “we” over the years, still we “have a world to win” (Communist Manifesto ch. 4). A computing of and for Black folks and other oppressed peoples would be an integral component of that world.

Works Cited

Louis Althusser. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.
Simone Browne. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.
W.E.B. DuBois. Black Reconstruction in America.
Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth.
Stuart Hall. Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity.
Donna Haraway. A Cyborg Manifesto.
Ursula K. LeGuin. A Rant about “Technology”.
Mao Zedong. On Practice.
Karl Marx. Capital.
Karl Marx. Grundrisse.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto.
Tiziana Terranova. Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.
Anna Tsing. Supply Chains and the Human Condition.