Dead Souls: The Ghostly Subjects of Contemporary Capitalism
19 min read

Dead Souls: The Ghostly Subjects of Contemporary Capitalism

It's in the chapter on the working-day in Capital that Marx put forward the following definition of Capital

capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks

In so doing Marx asserts something fundamental, that Capital isn't simply a relation between individuals (and this is why it cannot simply be debated away) but it is a relationship between individuals and things, it is a system comprised not only of working individuals but also machines, property, money and legal rights, all of which constitute a sort of petrification of historical life. Insofar then as capital isn't simply a relation between individuals capital attains a sort of parasitic or vampiric character in which social relations aren't simply mediated by relations between persons but relations between persons are govered by the past relations between persons which now take concrete form. Insofar as this "dead labour" is dead, it possesses no affectivity of its own, it only attains this in use which ensures its reliance upon the activity of living labour, but paradoxically living labour insofar as it puts such dead labour to use ensures its valorization and its continued domination of social relations.

Yet can we read the same struggle at the heart of social relations today? In one area in particular it appears that we have collectively cast off Marx's distinction between dead and living labour, and this is on the Internet.In relation to the internet we have all collectively seemed to absorb the notion that the Internet enables the proliferation of something like "pure" social relations undetermined by the solidity of property ownership, wealth or place. In this sense we afford the Internet today a transformative power to reorganise social relations in ways less impacted by existing structures of power and physical restraints. Along these lines the Internet is often idealised as a way in which we can envisage the radical reform of the way in which individuals relate to one another, the organisation of social groups, activist networks and political protest, and of economic life in a decentralised, non-hierarchical and creative manner, That is to say that it appears to us that the Internet is the space in which the dead loses its grip over the living and the living are able to freely realise themselves in whichever ways they wish.

Yet is this the case? Such a discourse I think relies in the end upon the internet being seen to function as a connection between real individuals who are living their real lives. But as Doug Bock Clark's article in the New Republic shows such an assumption isn't necessarily secure. As he outlines in reference to the relationship between social networking and advertising this idealism is increasingly becoming unstable because of the domination of false and fake accounts on social networks which challenge the notion of such networks as a pure representation of social-relations. Rather he argues this is increasingly calling into question to worth of the internet to brands wishing to make "real" connections with consumers and thus contribues to the development of a "bot bubble" as the over inflation of Internet idealism. This is important  in a broader sense then because it challenges many of the assumptions we hold about the progressive relationship between political subjectivity and the internet but also because its increasingly enabling a far darker image of the internet to emerge.

Central to this debate is the falsifying power of the internet. Within the bounds of the internet more than anywhere else Debord's comment that in the Society of the Spectacle "The true is a moment of the false" becomes realised. For the anonymity and virtual creativity of the internet ensures a power of production completely detached from the demands of the real and nowhere is this truer than in the falsification of people and identities online. It is on this basis a mass of workers today working in cities across the Global South from Bangladesh to the Phillipines, spend their time producing to-order social network profiles for those individuals or businesses who through the accrual of followers and likes wish to gain the kind of reputation that today means something. Even with attempts to combat such enterprises through piles of mobile sim cards they are able to by-pass the restrictions that are imposed in the knowledge that the falsifying advantage of the internet ensures they can remain one step ahead. What then confronts Marx's "living labour" online is not the weight of the past and the solidity of property and machines but virtual creativity of the network. Not dead labour but virtual labour now appears to govern the living.

Yet in the end this means that more and more the global economy appears not to be dependent upon the needs and views of real individuals but of computer simulations who provide it with its own desired feedback and customer base ensuring that today corporations are able not only to produce products but also produce their "consumers" aswell. Like Gogol's Chichikov who collected the deeds to the "dead souls" valorization today increasingly doesn't rely only on the living but also on those who only exist "on paper" or rather who only exist on databases.The question that remains for the future is how far such a trend will go.

From the perspective of the authenticity of online experience however this model of poisonous. For consumers one is unable to know whether or not the supposed popular endorsement of individuals is representative and yet this goes much further. Because these fake profiles have to hide their own false nature from the social networks they are required to produce the fiction of being a "normal" profile, following celebrities, distributing other likes etc. The collateral damage of these fake profiles is therefore the proliferation of falsification across the network. As Doug Bock Clark's article notes it was estimated by the New York Times in 2012 that of Lady Gaga's 29 million followers around 71% are fake whilst of Barack Obama's 19 million followers around 70% are judged to be fake or inactive such that it becomes impossible not only to trust brands who might be engaging in this sort of activity, but also the supposedly representative trends of the net more widely.

Never has the notion of "being well known for being well known" been more evident here for the logic of these fake profiles is to piggy back upon popular brands and personalities which they paradoxically help to inflate ensuring the reproduction of their online popularity. Here the reality of public opinion becomes separated into two very distinct spheres. On the one hand you have something like the spontaneous sentiments and reactions individuals hold in relation  to events, products and individuals, whilst on the other hand you have the abstracted general consensus or culture which represents a kind of collective response. Traditionally public opinion was the mediation of both spheres whereby individual sentiments could inform collective responses, but also collective responses could shape individual opinion (take for example the way in which working class individual wanted to "become" middle-class, and actively tried to shape their given tastes in certain directions). Yet online as against mediation it increasingly appears that individual opinions don't inform collective opinions (which are themselves now in a sense spontaneous) and collective opinions don't shape individual opinions (that is to say that popularity is no longer a result of a collective formation of opinion, popularity is already simulated by advertisers in order that individuals might consume their product). Rather as Slavoj Zizek notes the "subject supposed to believe" takes over, and vicarious belief, the belief that others must believe and therefore the assumption that certain beliefs must be normal, popular or even worthwhile, increasingly dominates the kind of trends we're subjected to. It is at this point that the proliferation of dead souls can begin to effect the network.

The Political Subjects of Cyber-space

Yet this trend doesn't only effect the sphere of advertising. In fact in keeping with the growing indistinction between politics and advertising the fabrication of political subjects has become a growing tendency aswell. Central here is the emergence of the Internet and the death of mass society. If within the era of mass society it was possible for the state to mould public opinion from on high, through the control of information, secrecy, the suppression of truths and the proliferation of uniform narratives and world views through organs of mass consumption (from the newspaper to the television) which could produce identical experiences in millions across space and time, the emergence of the internet challenged this insofar as it enabled the proliferation of individual narratives and perspectives. The task then for states today seeking to govern public opinion is no longer to control it from the source but  to mould it as its forming. That is to say, no longer to hide and cover-up the truth but to allow for their emergence in a way that ensures its impact is managed to ensure political stability. Fundamental then to moulding the emergence of truths has been the production of citizens who through participation inthe national discourse can shape it.

In Russia this has taken two forms. In electoral politics it relates to the figure of the "Ghost Voter" who is produced through the manipulation of the electoral role (voting for example on behalf of the recently deceased) but also through the abuse of the absentee ballot allowing for supporters to be bused around polling stations under false identities to amplify the Putin vote. Whilst at the level of public opinion it takes the form of an army of paid bloggers and commentors who swarm over the internet disguised by many different identities to spread government propaganda. As a former worker notes key to this is the production of believable subjects,

We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,

Here the aim isn't simply to put across an opinion but also normalise the role of the Putin regime within Russian life, thus the idea is to show how you can function as a normal individual, liking Western music and hobbies whilst also holding correct political views. The effect here is then to disconnect such political views from any particular social position such that on the one hand a reader can assume that such views are widely held by all sorts of individuals, and a reader can then also assume that such views don't neccessarily contradict whatever particular life they lead. Internationally this practice not only functions to distract political debate from major issues in order to deal with a mass of accusations but it also normalises certain conspiratorial world-views which rely on a entirely false sense of safety in numbers.

The same is true in China where the the Communist Party established the 50 Cent Party which derives its name from the price paid by the party for each pro-government comment posted. Speaking to Ai Wei Wei a professional commentor described the process of moulding online opinion as follows:

In a forum, there are three roles for you to play: the leader, the follower, the onlooker or unsuspecting member of the public. The leader is the relatively authoritative speaker, who usually appears after a controversy and speaks with powerful evidence. The public usually finds such users very convincing. There are two opposing groups of followers. The role they play is to continuously debate, argue, or even swear on the forum. This will attract attention from observers. At the end of the argument, the leader appears, brings out some powerful evidence, makes public opinion align with him and the objective is achieved. The third type is the onlookers, the netizens. They are our true target “clients”. We influence the third group mainly through role-playing between the other two kinds of identity. You could say we’re like directors, influencing the audience through our own writing, directing and acting. Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality.

Here the tactic is to produce multiple personas and have these characters play out a fictional debate under the guise of authenticity which slowly has the effect of shaping the debate in certain directions. The aim isn't then to merely promote good opinion or denounce bad ones, but both to give the illusion of real citizens debating important issues in a fair and rational manner, trying to pick apart the complexities of the situation. The aim is not then to counter cries for democracy with cries of treachery but to produce debates on What is democracy? Is it just Westernization? Can it work here? What about the instability it would bring? That is to say to dissolve righeous anger in the very complexity of situations and thus to govern individuals from the empowerment of rage to the powerlessness of the question concerning "Well what do we do now?".

Another tactic is however not to dissipate anger but direct it elsewhere, as the commentor goes onto say,

Each time the oil price is about to go up, we’ll receive a notification to “stabilise the emotions of netizens and divert public attention”. The next day, when news of the rise comes out, netizens will definitely be condemning the state, CNPC and Sinopec. At this point, I register an ID and post a comment: “Rise, rise however you want, I don’t care. Best if it rises to 50 yuan per litre: it serves you right if you’re too poor to drive. Only those with money should be allowed to drive on the roads . . .”

This sounds like I’m inviting attacks but the aim is to anger netizens and divert the anger and attention on oil prices to me. I would then change my identity several times and start to condemn myself. This will attract more attention. After many people have seen it, they start to attack me directly. Slowly, the content of the whole page has also changed from oil price to what I’ve said. It is very effective.

In this case the aim is to depoliticize issues through turning anger against the state into anger against concrete individuals who atleast have appearance of existence. This tactic is in reality nothing more than virtual scapegoating in which the sacrifice of some in order to reproduce a given form of power can continue indefinitely insofar as its victims merely exist within the confines of a database. Yet such a tactic once again contributes to the disempowerment of individuals for no sooner have they rallied themselves to a cause, "This is awful we have to do something!", than when confronted by obscenity or crassness they sink into the feeling of "How will we ever achieve anything if this is what we're working with...".

Finally in a different way this tactic has also become fundamental to the work of Western security services in combatting terrorism. Here the aim isn't to govern the opinion of masses of people but rather the opinions of terror groups and certain suspected individuals. In this way one of the main tactics utilised by the security services has been the sting operation in which their agents, assuming false online identities, involve themselves in a certain network in order to uncover those with terroristic inclinations. Yet it is also possible that in doing this they actively produce that which they seek in a relatively crude form of entrapment. In fact terrorism today cannot be divorced from this reality, as HRW outlines around 50% of Federal counter-terrorism convictions since 9/11 have involved the undercover work of government agents and this work isn't simply neutral.

In the case of the “Newburgh Four,” for example, who were accused of planning to blow up synagogues and attack a US military base, a judge said the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had, in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”

Is it possible then that rather than simply uncovering the terrorism that is already out there the tactics of the security services can govern the bewildered, mad or just confused down the path of considering terrorism? As highlighted by the Snowden leaks there are other tactics at work, GCHQ in the UK for example was found to be in possession of tools which could fabricate normal internet usage, from altering the outcomes of polls, altering individuals social network accounts to spreading false information on individuals and generating false information about individuals through directing them into compromising situations and posting fake victim blogs and false flag attacks. Here the aim is to permanently disrupt and discredit certain organisations through the manipulation of the reality they live in.

It has long been known that the concept of the People is no longer what it once was, it is no longer a collective subject representing a physical reality but is increasingly just a referent of the opinion poll and media discourse. More than ever then the concept of the "People" has appeared to be manipulable and placed at the service of populist rhetoric, yet no longer does this occur simply through an attempt to manipulate really existing public opinion, it also occurs through the direct creation of public opinion itself. When Brecht in "The Solution" suggested to the East German government that if they had lost their confidence in the people then they should consider electing another, he was of course speaking securely under the veil of irony, he wasn't to be taken seriously. "The Solution" goes as follows:

After the uprising of the 17th of June The Secretary of the Writers' Union Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee Stating that the people Had forfeited the confidence of the government And could win it back only By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier In that case for the government To dissolve the people And elect another?

Yet for some there is today the faint hint of a manifesto at the heart of this piece. Today it becomes increasingly possible to think of dissolving a people and replacing them with a new people you have created yourself and can directly speak through.

The Internet as a Revolutionary Device

To return however to the internet, does this mean that conceptualisation of the internet as a positive means of social reform is dead? Is it not a place for the free exchange of good s and ideas but rather a place in which individuals get lost in a space of fabrication and falsification. Its probably worthwhile here to defetishize what we mean by the internet. Whilst it is usually talked of in terms of the ideal of a deterritorialized network that is liberated from determinant constraints, that is to say liberated from the power of the real world, we know in practice that this is untrue. As the examples above already show there is a great deal of production that goes into making what appears on our screens to be a pure representation. Thus what we assume to be a pure representation of individuals thoughts and desires in fact often relies upon crude mechanisms of content production which take place in modern day sweat-shops in which individuals sit in computer banks producing paid for content. Yet this works both ways, social networks also outsource their moderation work to similar organisations in the global south in which individuals filter content in order to maintain the integrity of the network.This is not even to talk of the ways in which the algorithms utilised by social networks manipulate and organise content in order to produce the desired outcomes in individuals so that similarly what we take to the be authentic representation of a network is in fact manufactured.

Its worth noting then that a great deal of labour goes into what we take to be a self-producing expression of the totality of social-relations and that this labour is itself inserted into the network of power relations which structures the real world. In this sense the problem that we are confronted with today isn't so much that the internet is a means of falsification, but rather that this falsification is principally a power only held by some which can by mobilized by them in order to govern the network as a whole, the problem is perhaps then not that the internet is full of dead souls, but that these souls are sold for profit to be utilitsed en masse by a few. The question of social reform therefore needs restating, for we need to ask not whether or not the internet can be an agent for social reform but what kind of social reform is required in general in order that the internet might be able to realise its promise.

Here there are perhaps two solutions emerging today in relation to the internet. Either the complete regulation of the public sphere or the deposition of forms of power and authority within this sphere. The first entails the regulation of identities online, the fetishism of the official and authentic, the principles of publicity, accountability and transparency and the extension of laws governing social relations into the sphere of virtual relations. Here the goal is simple, to turn virtual relations into basic social relations such that individuals should know who they are talking to or reading from and individuals who produce and post content should be able to be fully identified with their work and we will know that we are dealing with real people.This is of course the liberal attempt to reform capitalism which allows for free markets but seeks to ensure that actors can be held responsible for their actions and that consumers are able to know about who they buy from, where products were made and sourced, that they are safe and properly manufactured etc. Here the idea is that capitalism can continue to function but only in a rule-governed manner.

This is however perhaps merely a dream. As earlier noted the nature of the relationship between advertising and falsification is completely parasitic. Insofar as popularity is easily fabricated and popularity is the means to success the requirement to continually attain it will ensure its fabrication continues.Here the best analogy is perhaps with labour rights with sweatshop workers. For decades now people have been outraged by the use of child workers, unsafe working conditions, low pay and poor labour rights and this has produced certain regulatory changes, major retailers now practice supply-chain management, enforce certain standards on suppliers and Third World states have signed up to certain labour conventions yet abuse continues to flourish? Regular invesigations into sweat-shops in the Global South find them manufacturing goods to be sold in the markets of the West in unsafe conditions or with child labour which often end in disaster. The question is of course why has regulation proved impotent to prevent this? To answer this you'd have to look i think at the pressure of the market place, if you take for example clothing there has been a race to the bottom in the market requiring the production at throw away prices such that the ethos of the market neccessitates low-cost high turnover production. On this basis supply-chain management begins from the perspective of maintaining low costs which can ensure that such regulations are only partially applied, applied imperfectly with gaps in the system or that even with good regulation, people further down the chain are incentivsed to cut corners and outsource work to firms outside of the reach of regulation. In fact the only way to ensure the real protection of labour standards isn't to apply minumum standards half-heartedly but to insist on high labour standards as such.

I think theres reason to believe that this would be no different an outcome with attempts to regulate and legalise the internet in order to render it less susceptible to the governance of power and more amenable to democratic action.

What is required then is to undermine these organisations in order to limit their influence over the internet. Partha Chatterjee has generated the idea of  "political society" in which he argues the aim is no longer to construct a formal notion of civil society on which a state-form can be constructed but to do away with the need to undertake politics within both the confines of the state and of "civil society" allowing for politics to emerge in the gap between society as a whole and the formal sphere of the state and civil society. Here the aim is to depose the authority and influence of the state by submitting it to the demands of society who organising locally don't attempt to either take over the state or produce a new form of counter-power but merely realise certain particular ends. Chatterjee gives many examples here from the organisation of slum communities to gain recognition or resources, struggles for land rights and struggles over utilities. Here the tendency towards fetishising the "official" and "public" is undermined in favour of an increase the raw power of particular communities.

Is such a vision not also realisable online? In terms of how we approach the internet we seem to be continuously remain caught within a paradox, we know that the internet has at its heart the ability to undermine formal institutions and organisations and has at its heart an anarchic power of disruption, yet this power increasingly seems to be used to engage in the officiality of institutions and the public sphere. This is similar to how Chatterjee talks of civil society, as he notes itis never a pure notion but always a dual reality, split between its formal character,(law rights, citizenship) and its governmental character (the pre-political needs and demands of individuals). Civil society isn't then defined by the creation of a neutral space in which individuals recognise each other as equals and enter into transparent discourse, but is divided in two between those who possess entry into the sphere of formal rights and legal protection and those denied such access. For Chatterjee in response to the dream of completing civil society and including all wtihin its space, should one not rather accept the structural character of this division, and go to the logical end, not seek to limit it but rather generalise it, to sacrifice the false promise of a zone free from relations of power to an accentuation of relations of power in a particular direction.

Today the great hope of the internet is for many the way in which it can be used as a tool in order to realise the dream of civil society, through the creation of a space of free discourse, and popular participation in both poltiical and economic life. And yet as is evidenced above the anarchic power of the internet also continues to perpetually undercut such an enterprise, it confronts the dream of civil society with a deliberately decivilised society or fabricated society in which subjects are created as much to produce publicity and popularity as to defame, bully and spread rumour. Should we in this sense not attempt to fix this division between anarchy and officialdom, but rather like Chatterjee take it to its logical end, to generalise its functioning in order that it begins to function as a generalised power.

Giorgio Agamben repeatedly talks of the ungovernable as a subject who isn't receptive to governance, who isn't looking for a leader or easily led. If you take the examples above, what is obvious is how the fabrication functions on the basis of this ossilation between anarchy and the public sphere, it becomes easy for Russian and Chinese commentors to shape public opinion insofar as people are continuously engaging with it and thus victims to the anarchy of online discourse. Isn't here the figure of the ungovernable the one who disengaging from this dichotomy doesn't engage but acknowledging the anarchy inherent in the medium, continues to operate  in spite of this, to function as if it were not and continues to find meaning outside of this. In fact this is already the case, for whilst the internet is certainly today a means through which to govern individuals inspite of this they continue to take it up for their own ends, from art to writing to revolution in the hope of finding others who think like them. In this sense the internet is more than anything today a laboratory for the creation of different attempts at building communities which don't conform to the norms typically expected by Western political theory.

On this basis the recent founding in Spain of the organisation "Holograms for Freedom" proves an interesting development. The organisation was founded in order to oppose the imposition of the "Gag Law" which seeks to heavily regulate the right to protest yet in order to do this they employed virtual means. If they reasoned the law banned protests outside of Parliament then why not establish a virtual protest outside of Parliament. Using holograms they were then able to project the scene of a protest on the Parliament building, within crowd-sourced messages and demands represented on placards.


Here the attempt to fabricate the people evidenced above is turned on its head, rather than used in order to manipulate public opinion through the isolation and disempowerment of individuals, it becomes used in order to confront the government with its own inability to control and regulate what the public means, and how the public sphere operates. In so doing they created their own dead souls and thus utilised the anarchic power of the net and technology in order to refuse to be governed, not to enter into discourse with the law but evade it.

Perhaps in this way the internet can serve for us as a new model, not of an idealised civil society but of how a less-rule governed, less centralised and less formal notion of society can function not in terms of the domination of one group over another, but as a way of limiting and stiffing such a domination.