Absolute and Triple Exploitation: Capital Accumulation in the Information Age

Information Technology Computer

As the technological revolution (and especially the recent developments in artificial intelligence) progresses, the discussions surrounding its dystopic potential are abundant. However, there is a desert of analysis as to how these developments have influenced capitalist exploitation, specifically in the data-selling industries worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In this short essay I will introduce the concepts of absolute and triple exploitation to account for the billions of profits made in the selling of data produced by internet users, and how such new form of exploitation warrants understanding contemporary capitalist exploitations in a triad of forms (triple exploitation). Along with this, I will explore how these developments affect identity formation in our age of profilicity.

Absolute Exploitation in our Leisure Time

A few years ago, Harvard Business Review noted that “collecting and selling data about people is estimated to be a $200 billion business, and all signs point to continued growth of the data-brokerage business.” What exactly is being sold? Data. But, where does it come from?

It is the data we produced in our leisure time that is sold – realizing massive profits for the data-gathering companies. What else can this be called if not the intensification of the ‘rate of exploitation’ (as Marxism refers to it) to the absolute maximum? Is what we are producing when we curate our profile-identities and surf the web not capital? Is it not something produced out of the combination of human action (or labor) and machinery (in this case, phones or computers)? Is this not variable and fixed capital being put to work for capital accumulation – in one of the most essential forms it takes today? What is the rate of exploitation when the denominator is 0? Undefined? Is it even worth speaking of this exploitation in terms of rates? Is this not absolute (or pure) exploitation, where those who create the surplus value realized into profit (i.e., the data) aren’t even paid for doing so? Is the opposite not the case? Aren’t the data producers the ones having to pay for producing the data by having to purchase Wi-Fi, the technology, various paywalls to sites, etc. Can the labor that produced the data even be considered a commodity if it was never bought (at least not from the producer nor before what they produced was already sold)? And if it was never bought, in what terms can we best describe the data-gathering capitalist’s sale of it?

This intensifies the character of surplus value magically appearing as a “creation out of nothing” for the capitalist – a phenomenon Marx had already explained in Capital Vol. I. Let us recall Marx’s reply: “What Lucretius says is self-evident; “nil posse creari de nihilo,” out of nothing, nothing can be created. Creation of value is transformation of labour-power into labour. Labour-power itself is energy transferred to a human organism by means of nourishing matter.” The 200+ billion in profits of data-gathering companies is not created out of nothing, it is, instead, rooted in the absolute exploitation of the data producers. This is a society of exploited people[1] (i.e., unpaid surplus value creators) who, for the first time in history, are exploited through their leisurely consumption. The veiled character of the exploitation is even deeper than regular wage labor. The wage laborer knows he is working, and on that basis, can eventually understand his exploitation. The data producer, on the other hand, thinks they’re resting, enjoying a good death scroll on their phones.

They do not even know they are producing, much less that they are paying to be exploited.   

Triple Exploitation

Exploitation today, therefore, exists in a triad form – triple exploitation:

1) We continue to be exploited in the usual moment of production. This is the traditional “primary exploitation” scientifically explained by Marx in volume I of Capital (and concretized in volumes II and III).

2) With the generalization of crippling debt weighing down on working people unable to pay for their basic necessities, debt as what Marx called “secondary exploitation” becomes the norm. As he writes in Capital Vol III, this secondary exploitation “runs parallel to the primary exploitation taking place in the production process itself.”  
3) Lastly, we have (to follow Marx) tertiary exploitation: what I have called the absolute exploitation occurring through the sale of data produced by people who do not even know they are producing surplus value.

This is an unprecedented amount of capitalist exploitation forms. This is bourgeois parasitism achieving an unparalleled stage, concomitant with the system’s moribundity.

Another Dystopian Component – The Profilic Dimension

We live in a time of profiles. Who we are, our identity, is deeply embedded in the curation of our profiles for general peers, those ‘users’ who validate our content through various interactive means (likes, shares, retweets, etc.). Our future posts are influenced by the reaction of previous posts. Those which tend to do good are repeated, those which don’t are not (often these are deleted outright). The dialectical interdependency of the individual and the social obtains a new form in the age of profilicity. Through these ‘social validation feedback loops’ (termed as such by Facebook president Sean Parker) we adjust our content to the reception of the general peer. Our identity is crafted with an eye to how we are ‘seen as being seen’. Second order observation becomes the norm; all judgement is subject to some degree of mediation by how the thing judged is seen by the general peer. These are some of the central insights of Hans Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio’s book, You and Your Profile: Identity After Authenticity. While it does have some blind spots (which I have hoped to bring light to in my work), it is without a doubt an essential text for understanding the dominant mode of identity technology in our day.  

Is it not our identities, then, which are being sold by data collecting companies to companies that can sell us their products? In this massive data gathering from our profiles and online activities, these companies have come to know us better than our most intimate friends and families could. For all the sharing we do to our best friends, they will never have the predictive capacity of our future behavior like the data-gathering companies do. As they have become essential for modern capitalist life, these companies have come to own access to our deepest selves. Their knowledge of ‘us’ is unmatched. Today we are not only triply exploited workers, but utterly alienated from any semblance of basic human privacy and intimacy in our identities. Data-gathering capitalists have conquered and sold the private dimension of the self.

These companies have the power to watch us in our moments of leisure, a power unmatched in the history of class society. No despot of any ruling class in history has ever penetrated the lives of the exploited and oppressed with such profundity. Unlike in the old days, the security state (some call it the ‘deep state’) no longer needs to come within any proximity of your cellphone (the device through which now we curate our identities) to tap it. The security state doesn’t even need to come into your home to place cameras to spy on you, as has been shown through various studies, advanced artificial intelligence is capable of ‘turning routers into cameras that see through walls’.

The dystopian novels of the last century are no match for the reality of 21st century capitalism.

Barbarism is here. Only socialism can dig us out of it.


[1] Since all classes produce this data, it is as if society at large (everyone) undergoes this exploitation on the part of the data-selling capitalists.  

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). He has written for dozens of scholarly and popular publications around the world and runs various live-broadcast shows for the Midwestern Marx Institute YouTube. You can subscribe to his Philosophy in Crisis Substack HERE.

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