Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Dyer-Witheford, Nick


Karl Marx theorized capitalism as a relation between labour, capital and machines. For Marx, capital, the process of self-augmenting value appropriated from human labour, is inherently driven by competition to replace labour in production with machines. Marx goes as far as to describe machines as capital’s “most powerful weapon” for suppressing working class revolt. Marx, however, could not have predicted the computing machines – such as artificial intelligence – which now form the basis for an increasingly cybernetic capital. Since Marx’s time, many Marxist thinkers have sought to apply or update his approach to the cybernetic era. The influential post-operaismo school argues that fundamental revisions to Marx’s approach are necessitated by the changed nature of high-tech capital wherein arises a novel “immaterial” type of labour. Immaterial labour, the argument goes, appropriates the machines of capital and achieves a new autonomy from capital, which can no longer control labour and instead, can only attempt to capture the fruits of its autonomous productive capacities.

This dissertation’s goal is to assess the validity of post-operaismo’s claim for a new autonomy of immaterial labour from capital. It does so by conducting an analysis of work in the contemporary artificial intelligence (AI) industry. Work in the AI Industry should be, according to post-operaismo, immaterial labour par excellence. Therefore, this dissertation answers the following research question: does work in the AI Industry evince the new autonomy from capital attributed to immaterial labour by post-operaismo? I argue that it does not. I mount this argument with a multimodal methodology. I employ documentary analysis and qualitative interviews with workers and management in the AI Industry to produce a history, political economy analysis and labour process analysis of the AI Industry. This is followed by a theoretical analysis which assesses the claims of post-operaismo by the example of the AI Industry. I argue that work in the AI Industry remains under the control of capital and that, antipodally to claims of a new autonomy of labour, this industry evinces an increasing autonomy of capital. I conclude the post-operaismo mistakes obsolescence for autonomy.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation argues that while Karl Marx may have analyzed capitalism a distant two hundred years ago, his insights remain relevant today. Marx argued that capitalist businesses use machines to oppress and control workers in the interests of harvesting what he called surplus-value. Some contemporary theorists, inspired by Marx, argue that while his analysis was valuable, it needs to be updated in substantial ways to remain relevant to the social and economic systems of today, which are characterized by advanced digital technologies that he could never have anticipated, such as the internet and artificial intelligence. This dissertation argues against one such school of thought, called post-operaismo, which holds that digital technologies mean that work increasingly takes a form they call “immaterial labour” in which workers gain increasing control over their own work, ultimately leading to a post-capitalist society.

This dissertation disputes immaterial labour theory. It does so through an analysis of work in the contemporary AI Industry – which by post-operaismo’s own definitions counts as immaterial labour. I argue that contemporary work in the AI Industry does not evince the qualities attributed to it by post-operaismo. On the contrary, work in the AI Industry suggests the continued relevance of Marx’s original analyses of capitalism.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.