Exploitation and Platform Capitalism

Work on digital or online platforms are increasingly shaping how work is carried out. With that, it also reshapes, if not re-organizes labor relations, and perhaps even the way exploitation works under capitalism. But what kind of exploitation exists and does it differ under platform capitalism? First and foremost, most of the basics of capitalist exploitation do not change at all under platform capitalism. Platform capitalism takes place between capitalist platforms (firms) and exploited workers (labor).

Exploitation also becomes a seemingly tricky subject under platform capitalism. Traditionally, Marxist exploitation focuses on productive labor working for a wage over a set period of time. Ultimately, all forms of capitalism depend on working time as a key measure.

Platform capitalism creates what became known as prosumers. These are individuals who are at the same time – consumers and producers “working” for corporate surplus value, i.e. profits. Prosumers are typical under platform capitalism. They produce content such as, for example, software, audiovisuals, texts, data, etc.

But they are not – at least not primarily, productive workers in the classical sense of producing surplus value according to Marx. For some reason, the issue of exploitation under platform capitalism appears to get only limited attention among those writing on platform capitalism. Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, for example, only mentions ‘exploitation’ in passing out of its 700 pages. Yet, without exploitation there is no capitalism.

This lack of acknowledgement of exploitation may have two reasons. On the one hand, most writings on platform capitalism only very occasionally mention exploitation as these focus instead on surveillance, precarization, inequalities, etc. On the other hand, however, exploitation still persists under platform capitalism and cannot remain unmentioned as long as capitalism exists.

Platform capitalism is rarely seen as a distinguished stage of modern capitalism. Platform capitalism is usually seen as being governed by technological, and – worse – by economic determinisms. Yet, it remains undisputable that technologies – particularly the Internet – play a major role in the transition to digital capitalism. But, it is by no means all there is to platform capitalism.

Platform capitalism also means that there has been a transformation in the managerial organization of productive capitalist processes. This also continues to be shaped by pro-business regulation – often framed as de-regulation under the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism. Simultaneously, new modes of controlling workers appeared together with something called algorithmic management.

To some extent, the transition towards platform capitalism has changed, if not, enhanced capitalist exploitation. Ultimately, exploitation under platform capitalism depends on the often unremunerated knowledge supplied by prosumers to online companies and corporations. In most cases, this involves three kinds of exploitation of platform work:

1) The exploitation through alienation;

2) The exploitation through reproduction; and finally,

3) The exploitation through attention.

These three versions of online exploitation relate to different corporate business models. All this leads to new types of managerially-controlled work, labor exploitation, and productive activities. Under the capitalist platforms, these take on three basic versions of online work: i) gig labor (e.g. 16% of Americans), ii) prosumers, and iii) self-employed and often self-exploiting owners of mini businesses. Gig labor is, for example, well-known through those workers employed by, for example, Uber. Yet, there is also Freelancer and other online platforms.

It is rather obvious that this platformization under capitalism and the emergence of prosumption lead to an increasing contradictionsbetween working time and leisure time, as well as to other contradictions internal to work under platform capitalism. For example, those who produce and consume content, data, and attention through YouTube, Facebook, etc. embody this tendency. Of course, the trouble with Roblox, the video game empire built on child labor continues to be with us.

Yet, there is also the commercial labor done by self-employed business owners through online platforms by way of renting (e.g. Airbnb) and selling of physical goods (Amazon, etsy, etc.). This configures yet another new tendency in the capitalist labor processes.

Finally, there are several types of work carried out behind platforms such as, for example, in-house or outsourced development of software and hardware, IT infrastructure, online human resources, digital marketing, logistics, and warehouse work. These are relatively new in the history of capitalism.

It has become rather common to divide the history of capitalism into the three broad stages of merchant pre-capitalism (mid-15th to late 18th century); industrial capitalism (late 18th to late 20th century), and digital capitalism showing its first signs in the late 1970s.

Essentially, all versions of platform work are representations of the present phase of digital or platform capitalism and its resulting forms of exploitation. At its very basic, capitalist exploitation is a socio-economic relationship fulfilling five key requirements to make capitalism possible:

Firstly, exchanges extolled into productive process of capitalism are generated between at least two classes of actors namely, the exploiter (capital) that receives resources from those who work and the exploited, who produce them (labor).

Secondly, the exchanges between the exploiter and the exploited are asymmetrical in relation to the value of the goods and services created. In Hegel’s master-slave dichotomy, the master obtains surplus value from his work slaves. This occurs regardless of any subjective representations that these actors might have. In Kantian terms, one remains a means, a tool, an asset, and a human resource that allows the achievement of profits for capital.

Thirdly, all productive processes under capitalism are orientated towards the production of commodities and services that can be sold for a profit. Specifically, the exploiter and management are involved in organizing this process.

Fourthly, the positions of the exploiter and the exploited also remain asymmetrical with regard to the perspective that they have about the productive process even when they – seemingly – “share” this process. The vertical Tayloristic divisionbetween labor (down) and management (up) persists in platform capitalism. The exploiter tends to have an overarching view of the entire process. Labor’s role differs. Just as Taylor once outlined, the exploited – even under the conditions of platform capitalism – is reduced to accomplishing a corporate or managerially- defined work task.

Finally, under platform capitalism, these asymmetrical relationships continue to take place – to a greater or lesser degree – even when they take on a new form of a seemingly consensual arrangement. They do so as long as they do not imply a direct violation of labor legislation on, for example, limits on working time.

All five aspects of platform capitalism remain inextricably linked to Marx’s concept of exploitation. They are characterized by capital and the buying of a certain amount of working time supplied by labor – the exploited. Under platform capitalism, companies and corporations continue to have access to the exclusive use of human energy (labor power) and human knowledge.

But now, this occurs through the online application of work over a given period. Online working time can be fixed or flexible, long or short. Yet, this does not matter as long as it takes place inside a process that ends up with profits for capital.

In capitalism, companies and corporations contribute the means of production while the goods and services produced by labor are, by definition, owned by the capitalist. For labor, this means alienation. For capital, this occurs under the laws of private property. And, this is camouflaged when state regulation allows capitalism to exist despite the neoliberal deregulation and anti-state ideology.

As a consequence, labor’s energies and knowledge remain objectified in the goods and services produced. Even under platform capitalism, capitalists realize this as a commodity through sale and more importantly, through achieving surplus value. Entirely new under platform capitalism is that exploitation can also occur through reproduction or simply by copying.

This refers to the situation in which the exploiter (a company or corporation) reproduce knowledge that has been created by the exploited (labor). This knowledge – at times, simply through copying – becomes the property of the capitalist exploiter, due to the pro-capital lines drawn by business law in the form of intellectual property law such as, for example, patents, copyright, trademarks, and others.

Worse, even if the exploited continues to possess this knowledge, labor can still be dismissed and, in some cases, even banned from using the knowledge that now belongs to an online company or corporation. Yet, there is also exploitation through attention.

In this, digital information can be injected by exploiting an actor’s subjectivity for the benefit of an online corporation. This is based on the fact that in platform capitalism, a flood of information results simply from human attention.

As a consequence, human attention is monetized particularly since its cost tends to be zero. The exploiting actor (an online corporation) appears as giving away something. But in reality, capital actually gets something more valuable and it gets it for free: human attention and the possibility of placing commercial ads while simultaneously taking advantage of the socio-emotional networks of the exploited actors.

Exploitation through attention differs from the usual notion of exploitation. Of course, its distinguishing trait is that the direction in which the knowledge flows is actually reversed. In platform capitalism, capital is looking to introduce online knowledge into exploited subjects. It profits from selling the attention given freely by the exploited. Interestingly, much of this takes place during leisure time. Yet, the exploited prosumer remains external to the firms which profit from them.

Fascinatingly, direct monetary exchanges between labor and capital are generally not involved in this relationship. In fact, the work the exploited carries out might or might not even be called labor. In short, the traditional understanding of labor is changing. Under platform capitalism, labor is no longer an essential condition for exploitation to take place. This is the key to understand the role of labor and exploitation under platform capitalism.

Yet, those exploited under platform capitalism and through attention perceive themselves as being involved in a process of seemingly idle consumption. This is an entirely new – but, core fact of platform capitalism. Platform capitalism is a “capitalist” process and at the same time, still has exploitation – it exploits people. But there may no longer be work and exploitation in the traditional sense of our understanding.

The crucial part to much of this, is that exploitation always implies the existence of a profit-oriented productive process. Yet, platform capitalism does no longer – and certainly not necessarily – depend on a labor process.

Only during platform capitalism does it become profoundly relevant to grasp the new dynamic of online exploitation. This is, in part, because online platforms – based on advertising and data gathering – use the subjectification, recognition, attention, and identity traits of labor for capitalism.

At the surface, this can turn labor into seemingly self-driven entrepreneurs who are, more often than not, not much more than individuals seeking attention. They are particularly well-suited for being exploited through the use of their attention in a sphere known as reproduction. This is why exploitation through attention remains not only strongly associated with platform capitalism, in fact – it defines platform capitalism.

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.