Combatting Surveillance Capitalism: An Orwellian Lesson in History from Ford to Google

Close scrutinization of the daily lives of workers has always played an important role in enabling capitalists to squeeze greater profits from their workforce. The relentless surveillance of employees, whether it be on the factory floor or in the workers’ homes, was something that the anti-Semitic industrialist, Henry Ford, was proud to have honed to a fine managerial art. This history is well-established. In fact, the website of the Henry Ford Museum boasts that a central part of the Ford Motor Company’s much vaunted $5 per day profit-sharing plan, which was rolled out in 1914, was that Ford “opened up the most intimate and personal details of employee’s personal, family, and financial life to investigators from the [Ford] Sociological Department.”

History, however, demonstrates that surveillance (in this case of a paternalistic variety) ultimately failed in its objective to pacify the workforce. Ford workers responded by becoming better organised. This in turn led the Ford managers to create something called the Service Department – a body which effectively served as an anti-union paramilitary arm of the Ford Motor Company. Hence especially during the mighty upsurge of trade union militancy in the 1930s, highly developed forms of espionage and violence were systematically deployed by Ford’s private army against any workers who strived to democratise their workplaces and their lives. The battle between workers and bosses continues to this day.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s shocking book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier (Profile Books, 2019) brings this history of corporate surveillance up-to-date, providing page after page of horrifying revelations concerning the depravity of contemporary capitalism. Most of all, however, her book codifies the dangerous shortcomings of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who rail only against selected aspects of working-class repression. So, while Zuboff’s hefty 700-page tome does shed light upon recent developments in how surveillance technologies are deployed against the working-class, she fails to provide a clear context for how these methods became institutionalised and, ultimately, how they are intrinsically linked to capitalism itself.

In charting the recent evolution of what she calls surveillance capitalism, Zuboff correctly focuses her anger upon the rise of corporate giants like Google and Facebook and their “ruthless expropriation” of behavioural surplus value which they scrape together from our online activities “for the purposes of shaping individual behaviour”. She explains:

“At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” (p.9)

Yet Zuboff revives Marx’s theories not because she likes to engage with Marxist ideas, but precisely because she is adamant that the problem is not capitalism per se, but just its latest “rogue” iteration — surveillance capitalism. In grounding her fairy tale that “Capitalism evolves in response to the needs of people in a time and place” when it has only ever been responsive to the needs of capitalists — she repeatedly refers to the benign leadership of Henry Ford (1863-1947) as demonstrating how far things have gone wrong since his glory days of managerial insight. Zuboff would do well to read some books about Ford’s toxic legacy.

According to Zuboff’s belief in good and bad forms of capitalism, its latest form, surveillance capitalism, evokes for her the bad old times of the late-nineteenth-century when robber barons “defended their new capitalism from democracy at any cost.” She even furnishes a definition of industrial capitalism (the bad type that she says was dominated by robber barons) as a system “driven by its own inner logic of accumulation” and “profit maximization”. How this differs from other forms of capitalism is unclear.

To give her some credit, Zuboff appreciates that major reforms under capitalism were won by ordinary workers. Thus, she explains how significant reforms were attained when “we once withdrew agreement to the antisocial and antidemocratic practices of raw industrial capitalism, righting the balance of power between employers and workers by recognizing workers’ rights to collective bargaining and outlawing child labor, hazardous working conditions, excessive hours, and so on.”

But contrary to Zuboff’s claims, the move away from a bad industrial capitalism to an enlightened Ford-era form of capitalism is a myth, especially when we consider capitalism’s never-ceasing depredations against workers on a global scale. Instead the international battle for workers’ rights has always been a work in progress; a battle that has been opposed with great ferocity by all capitalists, whether their methods be the blunt ones wielded by early robber barons, or those anti-democratic techniques that were sharpened by the likes of Ford and further honed today by Google and Facebook today. Zuboff’s petty-bourgeois rendering of politics consequently leads to her mistaken conclusion that to secure a more democratic future workers must simply limit their demands for a nicer capitalism. However…


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s