As a contemporary critique of Marx’s theory of labor, McKenzie centers on how digital information has rendered his theory of labor value superfluous (see, for instance, Philip Mirowski). He shifts the basis of production from scarcity (socially necessary labor time) to abundance (information wants to be free and multiply), and inextricably mixing up Marx’s theory of class. The crux of these critiques is the observation that information turns the notion of scarcity on its head. Without scarcity, it isn’t easy to see how the classic political economy tools can be fruitfully applied to the information economy.
One objection to this argument is that industrial capitalism has not disappeared, just moved to less expensive locations. No doubt, this is true; industrial capitalism, as Marx described, continues in places like China without pause. The problem of information and the information economy remains to be addressed, not ignored as not relevant to the political economy.
Enter McKenzie Wark. Across two books, Wark has argued that the abundance of digital information has been greatly exaggerated, reworking the old shibboleth “information wants to be free” into “information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains.” The reason for this, Wark argues, is that information is held down through legal means - intellectual property in its various manifestations.
The upshot of intellectual property laws, the walled gardens of social media, and even the dark web is not so much the political economy of industrial capitalism so ably traced by Marx, rather something new, containing echoes of an older economic from – the enclosure.
As Marx posited, social classes distinctive to industrial capitalism, so Wark asserts, new social classes unique to the information economy. I’ll sketch them briefly: a hacker class that produces new information, a vectorialist class that arranges the means to enclose information, and a service class that maintains and repairs the spaces and machines hackers and vectorialists use.