Rewriting Marx to expose the data society and AI

Stefano Diana, Independent researcher

This work has nothing to do with Marxism. It’s not a new application of Marx’s theories. It does not belong to the strand of studies on contemporary adaptations of Marx’s theories to our age, e.g. revised definitions of “general intellect” or compositions of capital. It is more of using Marx’s style of thought to read the culture we live in. I’m only referring here to a small slice of Marx (&Engel)’s analysis, dealing with the social meaning and effects of money becoming capital. I will use it by analogy to explore the social meaning and effects of digital data, and of those special data computing techniques known as Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, since that slice is an integral part of Marx’s socio-economic critique, the restrained instance presented in this paper can be considered a proof of concept and a starting point of a much broader investigation that might be undertaken.

I propose an experiment, which at first glance might seem an exercise in Raymond Queneau’s “potential literature”. Let’s start from this piece of Marx’s Grundrisse as an example.

Every particular commodity, in so far as it is exchange value, has a price, expresses a certain quantity of money in a merely imperfect form, since it has to be thrown into circulation in order to be realized, and since it remains a matter of chance, due to its particularity, whether or not it is realized. However, in so far as it is realized not as price, but in its natural property, it is a moment of wealth by way of its relation to a particular need which it satisfies; and, in this relation, [it] expresses (1) only the wealth of uses, (2) only a quite particular facet of this wealth. Money, by contrast, apart from its particular usefulness as a valuable commodity, is (1) the realized price; (2) what satisfies every need, in so far as it can be exchanged for the desired object of every need, regardless of any particularity. The commodity possesses this property only through the mediation of money. Money possesses it directly in relation to all commodi-ties, hence in relation to the whole world of wealth, to wealth as such. With money, general wealth is not only a form, but at the same time the content itself. The concept of wealth, so to speak, is realized, individualized in a particular object. In the particular commod-ity, in so far as it is a price, wealth is posited only as an ideal form, not yet realized; and in so far as it has a particular use value, it rep-resents merely a quite singular facet of wealth. In money, by contrast, the price is realized; and its substance is wealth itself considered in its totality in abstraction from its particular modes of existence (Marx 1857–58 [1973]).

What is Marx saying here? Commodities exist as tangible things because they are good for something and for someone. They might be exchanged, and therefore have an exchange value. But essentially a commodity «in its nat-ural property» has only a particular and concrete “use value” for the one who needs and uses it. This concrete and personal character means that commodities originally have no connection with the abstract concept of “wealth”. The idea of wealth is meaningless when commodities are made by a man for his own needs, that is where «the extent of his production is measured by his need» (Marx 1844).Money instead transcends any personal and peculiar use value of any commodity: it is an abstract represen-tation, like a universal unit of measurement for the “exchange value” of different commodities between people. In fact, we can consider the market as a measuring device that converts everything to numbers. While generating those “exchange values”, Marx notes, money gradually gains its independence and turns into the universal mediator between men and goods, that is between men and their own desires, and eventually between man and man.1 At the same time, the ideal concept of “wealth” becomes real: it’s an amount of money.Around the middle of last century, the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi carried out one of the first modern and realistic inquiries into how we create and shape knowledge (Polanyi1958[1966]) . I say “modern and realistic” because it builds on the actual capabilities of our bodies — on the «bodily roots of all thought», he says — and on up-to-date science, instead of adding yet another old-school speculation on words and abstract concepts, far from scientific grounds. Marx is modern and realistic likewise: he always looked at history and concrete life conditions of real people with real bodies and sentiments, in order to develop his social theory. It’s no coincidence that mathematics and formulas are rare in Marx’s political economy, what matters to him is the real story told. In present academic economics, by contrast, papers without math are unacceptable.


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University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy