Concepts such as “immaterial or digital labor”, “post-industrial society” and “cognitive capitalism” are widely discussed by contemporary scholars. The first part of the article will set the scene for further examination by providing a theoretical framework for the discussions on digital labor. While some argue that the emergence of immaterial labor through technological developments caused a radical change in the relations of production and created a “post-industrial” era, the first aim of this article is to open these points to the discussion. It is going to be argued that although the development of productive forces introduces “new masks” for labor while labor becomes immaterial in the “productivist” sense, it remains material as a social phenomenon. The second part is going to deal with the questions of “What is the place of China in the information economy discussions?”. It is going to be argued that China is now becoming more prominent in the global information economy with the emergence of platform economies, and those digital platforms are the result of planned development strategies and investments of the Communist Party of China. In the last part, the effects of the spread of ICTs and the emergence platform economies on class relations in China will be discussed.
1. Theoretical Framework
Terms such as “information economy”, “digital/immaterial labor”, “information society” are among the central themes of contemporary theoretical debates on labor. Most of the writings on the issue emphasize that the classic theories of labor do not apply to the newly emerging forms of production which include extensive use of computers, and changing character of work with the internet becoming more relevant to it. Before any further examination, the theoretical framework should be set to make possible a thorough investigation on the issue.
1.1. Different Approaches to Immaterial Labor
In contemporary discussions, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt and André Gorz are among the first scholars that challenged the classic concepts of labor in the so-called contemporary post-industrial society. After them, critiques and discussions of contemporary scholars Sean Sayers and Kaan Kangal will be dealt with.
Gorz (2010) argues that, immaterial labor which is inherently irrelevant from a physical substance, creates a new economic phase which he calls “the knowledge economy” (p. 25). According to him, the central origin of value is now the activities involving information and knowledge. The transformation that he defines is between the old understanding of production relations which create a material substance in the end and a new set of relations that reflects the predominance of intellectual, immaterial labor over the manual labor.
Hardt and Negri (2005) argue that the changes in the methods of production bring with them a transition towards the post-industrial phase of production relations. They argue that classical theories of labor, belong to the context of the industrial society and therefore are not applicable for the post-industrial society, of which we have witnessed the emergence. In their book Multitude, immaterial labor is defined as that “‘which produces immaterial commodities such as information, knowledge, ideas, images, relationships and affections” (2005, p. 108). They, too, argue that immaterial labor is now more central to accumulation processes. Moreover, as central figures of Italian autonomism, they argue that it is not only the essence of the production relations that is changing, but also the methods of struggle against it. They believe that the Marxist-Leninist perspective of a centralized struggle of the proletariat is another concept that belongs to the industrial phase, and therefore, is now inapplicable. Thus, it could be said that “the concept of immaterial labor is used by postworkerist social theorists to support their claim that the Marxian terminology is incapable of shedding light on the informational or cognitive aspects of capitalism.” (Kangal, 2017, 130)
Sayers (2007) argue that those critiques of Marx’s understanding of labor are somehow flawed since it reduces his model of labor to a “productivist” one (p. 432). He argues that the “idea that his theories are inapplicable to modern forms of work is based on a serious misunderstanding of his thought. Properly interpreted, Marx’s ideas still provide an illuminating framework for understanding the nature of work in the modern world”. He accuses autonomists and productivists of not thoroughly understanding Marx’s labor theory of value. He thinks that the word “immaterial labor” is “unsound” and “misleading” (Sayers, 2007, p. 445). He claims that labor is an inherently material activity. Kangal (2017, p. 130) argues that this approach is only to “distance himself from the one-sided approaches of the productivist and autonomist accounts”. He argues that Sayers fails to counter the autonomist camp by not being able to make an implicit differentiation between material and immaterial forms of labor. He puts forward that classical Marxism has the necessary analytical tools to investigate contemporary relations of production and criticizes Sayers of omitting some of the works of Karl Marx only to undermine the concept of immaterial labor.
Having summarized the contemporary discussions on the issue of immaterial labor and post-industrialism, it could be said that the debates are still ongoing, and the issue is believed to produce ever more heated discussions as the consequences of the changes deepen. Therefore, there isn’t a scholarly consensus on which we can build unanimous analytic arguments. For the sake of this article, we need to make some presuppositions on which to build a discussion concerning the application of these discussions on contemporary China. Firstly, unlike Sayers, we believe that it is possible to make a clear distinction between immaterial labor and material labor without merely focusing on production relations and omitting its social aspect. To do that, as Kangal (2017) put forward in detail, we need to grasp the two different levels concerning the immaterial/material labor distinction: “labor as a product … and labor process as the social reality”. To put it more explicitly, material reality is going to be examined in two levels, the former consists of the visible end of the production process, while the latter will correspond to labor as a social phenomenon. Therefore, the first presupposition is that the immaterial labor in the “productivist” sense corresponds to a material reality on the social level. As Kangal (2017, p.129) put it: “the immaterial is a dialectical aspect or moment within the material”. Secondly, based on the first presupposition, since labor as a social phenomenon preserves its material essence in the social level, the terms “information society” and “cognitive capitalism” are not going to be used in this article. It is argued here that the contemporary changes that started those discussions (rise of platform economies and spreading ICTs) only made labor intangible in the production processes, rather than transforming the essence of the class relations. Thus, the usage of the term “immaterial labor” is going to include labor activities in jobs such as accountancy, design and computer programming.
2. Platform Economies
The term “platform economy” refers to the change in the economy in which digital domains of monetary transactions are becoming a larger part of the world economy. It has created sorts of online labor markets. In the scholarly discussions, this reality was named in different ways, such as “Creative Economy, … the Gig Economy/the Precariat/1099 Economy, focusing on the impact this emerging economy is having on work” (Kenney & Zysman, 2015, p. 6). The discussion about how to name it is due to the dispute about the direction the changes that come with it are going to affect “work” as a concept. In this paper the term “platform economy” is used only for the sake of clarity.
2.1. Employment Relations in China
To understand the impact of the emergent platform economies on employment relations in China, we first need to take a closer look at the country’s history of labor relations. First, in the Mao period, the economy was dominated by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). It was believed by the state that there couldn’t be any conflict of interests between the working classes and the state. Although when the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949, All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was assigned to operate bidirectionally between the state and workers, it was rather functioning “as an arm of the party-state” (p. 37). On the other hand, most of the workers in the Mao era enjoyed life-long employment in state-owned enterprises (SOEs). According to Chan (1995, p. 39), “in 1978, on the eve of the Dengist economic reforms, there were 74 million state enterprise employees, making up 78% of the non-agricultural workforce, enjoying not just life-time employment, but also better pay and cradle-to-tomb benefits”.
During the Deng period, a gradual change from life-long employment to contract-based employment system has been initialized. The state’s elevation of non-state enterprises posed a radical change in government’s labor policies. One of the bitter consequences of this policy shift is increased unemployment in urban China, which endangered the social stability in late 1970s. Accompanied with the emergent privatization, the changes in labor policies caused a growth in non-state sectors in the expense of the conditions of the working class. (Sabin, 1994)
In the Jiang period, it was put forward by the state that all ownership forms were welcome under the condition of serving the national economy. Although it was aiming to reinforce socialism on paper, it meant extensive privatization in practice. This “resulted in the transformation of labor relations and the widespread adoption of capitalist labor practices by firms of all ownership types (Gallagher, 2011, p. 62). The transformation of labor relations, accompanied with an integration to the capitalist world economy, shifted labor policies “toward favoring firm autonomy, flexibility, and managerial control of worker organizations” (p. 63). One of the costs of these transformations were precariousness of urban employment and labor disputes. To match the “East Asian miracle”, the state wanted to appeal foreign direct investments. Thus, the economic development was driven by export-oriented manufacturing in which employment relations were short-term, insecure and flexible. (Gallagher, 2011)
2.2. The Effects of Platform Economy on Employment Relations
The emergence of platform economies has a transformative effect on employment relations. First, it created an environment for precarious self-employment in fields previously were relying on traditional employment. Second, by breaking down the work, it promoted the “marketization of the world of work”. (Kenney & Zysman, 2015, p. 4). According to Kenney and Zysman (2015), these transformations in work entails a reorganization of work in which employment becomes more precarious than ever. The precariousness in employment relations created a new term called “the ant tribes” in China, which refers to millions of young college graduates who live in brutal conditions in large cities, “in search of work and livelihood” (Zhang, 2013, p. 24). The emergent platform economies could be argued to be playing an important role in the creation of those “ant tribes” since it created precarious employment relationship in which workers are deprived of labor rights.
Another term that is related to the issue is the “Precariat”, which, according to Standing (2011), is a newly emerging class that is deprived of the basic rights of the proletariat. He argues that “it consists of people who have minimal trust relationships with capital or the state … has none of the social contract relationships of the proletariat” (p. 8). On the other hand, Munck (2013) argues that this is a rather Eurocentric view since the achievements of the proletariat that Standing defines are not apparent in the Global South. Moreover, he puts forward that the definition provided by Standing is way too narrow and vague to be named as a new class.
2.3. Information Technologies in China
Although ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) are not directly related with platform economies, this issue is also important for understanding China’s economically developing digital platforms because ICT sector corresponds to the infrastructure of a platform economy. It is here going to be argued that the development of ICTs in China is a product of planned investments of post-Mao era of Communist Party of China and those investments paved the way for the emergence of big platform economies.
After the end of Mao era in 1976, People’s Republic of China has introduced elements of market economy into their planned economy. Within this historical context, ICTs started to gain importance for development in the Chinese economy in a reformist sense. Zhu Rongji, the premiere between 1998 and 2003, stated that informatization is the new way for a leap in modernization. Starting from early-90s, the economic development model was “the twin-track strategy for the new economy” (Dai, 2002, p. 145). Put more explicitly, as the former president Jiang Zemin stated, the amalgamation of industry-based economy and ICTs would be the factor that pushes the Chinese economy to development in the 21st century. We can see the importance of ICTs in numbers as well. Statistics produced by the Chinese government show that in 1999, the ICT sector constituted 10.5% of economic growth. Moreover, it was predicted by the government that the amount would increase to 40.1% by 2010. (Dai, 2002)
2.4. China’s Place in “Global Information Economy”
Although it is an accomplished fact that the fully-industrialized Western economies are remaining as the flagbearers of the development of information technologies, Dai (2003) argues that “after several years of heavy investment in new infrastructure and promoting the application and development of new ICTs, China has emerged as a substantial player in the digital wave” (p. 24). Therefore, it could be said that the “twin-track strategy” of the Communist Party of China has proved to be a success.
2.5. Platform Economies in China
With increasing development in ICTs, China has witnessed a radical increase in platform economies starting from the early 90s. Internet platforms in China are said to be dominated by the abbreviation of its 3 biggest firms: the “BAT” (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). These platform economies are not only very important in the Chinese economy, but also for the world economy. The Economist even called these three firms as “monsters with increasingly hefty international ambitions” (“China’s internet giants go global”, 2017).
3. Changing Class Relations in China
The emergence of platform economies and ICT’s vital importance in China’s economic development strategies caused significant changes in class relations in China. Firstly, with the rise of platform economies, digital labor now became an issue. What it entailed for the working classes is more flexible contracts, a spatio-temporal break in the activities of the working class and precarious employment relations.
Qiu (2009) argues that these changes created “a new working class, network labor, that is indispensable to China’s economic boom and its rise as a global IT power” (p. 5). Although the transformation of working class through the development of productive forces is seen as a global phenomenon, he puts forward that “under the historical and institutional conditions of contemporary China, industrialization and informatization (xinxihua, i.e., the spread of ICTs throughout the economy and society) are juxtaposed, which entails more complex and multilayered labor formation” (p. 9). According to his standpoint, the reason that Chinese working class has evolved differently is the aforementioned “twin track strategy” of the government. This seems to be highly debatable. For a social group to be a social class, it is needed to look at its “role in the relation of production and reproduction” (Munck, 2013, p. 751). Qiu fails to define in which ways digital labor is showing characteristics of a social class that is separate from the proletariat. Accordingly, defining “network labor” as a new social class is rather misleading.
Another reason to doubt seen digital labor as a rupture from the existing class relations of China is that, according to Scholz (2013), “virtually all of the technological infrastructure for this sector is manufactured in the workshops of the world in East Asia, where harsh factory conditions give rise to high-intensity labor conflicts on a regular basis” (p. 38). Returning to the theoretical framework set in the first chapter, we believe that it is more correct to understand these changes on two levels. Although the emergence of digital labor created new forms of work and employment relations, the changes did not undermine the essence of production relations based on the exploitation of labor power. As an example, Taiwanese notebook manufacturers Inventec, Wistron, Quanta and Compal, which monopolize the international markets are still relying on cheap labor of Chinese workers in their supply chains spread all over East Asia (Scholz, 2013).
As highlighted above, that the working class has lost its spatio-temporal unity is going to harness its ability to be able to act as a class for itself. The fact that immaterial labor activities generally take place in the form of self-employment may sweep the possibility of traditional organization methods of the working class, such as collective bargaining away. Nevertheless, these doesn’t necessarily mean that the “old” working class is dead. It means that further discussions as to how to organize digital labor on the front line of the proletariat are needed.
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