Actually existing capitalism: some digital delusions

Paul Thompson, Kendra Briken

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Contemporary labour process analysis (LPA) emphasises the intimate connections between transformations of capitalism and trends in work and employment. Within social theory influential images of labour such as Reich’s (1993) symbolic analysts or Castell’s (1996) self-programmable workers, ultimately derive from conception of the broader economy, in this case informational capitalism or the knowledge economy. Their diagnosis is based on the following assumptions. First, the sources of profit, productivity and power in the new economy are said to be (variously) intangible, immaterial or weightless (knowledge, creativity, information, intellectual assets). Digital products are reproducible at low cost for high returns, enabling capitalism to overcome scarcity and ‘the limits of time and space’ (Castells 2001, p. 5). Second, that knowledge-intensive, intellectual or professional work is either in the majority or becoming the majority in advanced post-industrial societies. Third, there has been a decisive shift of power from capital to labour given that ‘(knowledge) ‘remains with the employee and in no real sense is it ever of the firm. It is impossible to separate knowledge from the knower’ (Despres and Hiltrop, 1995, p. 11). Fourth, that traditional, hierarchical structures and practices of management are no longer appropriate, with the best practice being to hire talented people, then leave them alone (Florida 2002, p. 132). Fifth, corporate forms have mutated into decentralised, flat, networked organisations. Extensive critique of these claims have been made elsewhere and we will not repeat them here (Thompson et al 2001; Thompson and Harley 2012). What we do want to do is look in more detail at a related, but newer version that comes under the heading of cognitive capitalism, in part because it will facilitate a more extended engagement with issues of digital industries and labour.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe New Digital Workplace
Subtitle of host publicationHow New Technologies Revolutionise Work
EditorsKendra Briken, Shiona Chillas, Martin Krzywdzinski, Abigail Marks
Place of Publication[Basingstoke]
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9781137610133
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2017

Publication series

NameCritical Perspectives on Work and Employment
PublisherPalgrave MacMillan


  • capitalism
  • labour process analysis
  • digital industries


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