Monthly Archives: July 2010

"Organizational capital" and immaterial labor

From a post by Arnold Kling outlining his theory of economic “recalculation” — structural unemployment from unsustainable or obsolete trade patterns.

16. The production process has become more roundabout over the years. Fewer workers are engaged in hands-on production of output. Instead, they are engaged in building what Garett Jones calls organizational capital, as indicated by functions such as marketing communications, management reporting systems, or corporate training. This means that the relationship between output and employment has become looser. It means that patterns of specialization and trade reflect not just what goods and services are produced but how they are produced.

This is not all that far off from Marxist theories of the general intellect and its appropriation by capital, and the significance of immaterial labor and affect, etc., to production. Capital is valorized through increasingly indirect processes rather than the manufacture and circulation of commodities. The nature of the commodity has lost its discrete boundaries (becoming an affect or an experience rather than a good), as has the nature of labor power, which is no longer x amount of work on the assembly line but an integration of variables, the more or less smooth collaboration of workers and their resulting fitness for innovating on the level of information.

And circulation too is no longer a direct thing, a shifting of units from point A to point B. What’s increasingly being disseminated is productive knowledge, the general intellect, a habitus of consumerism, etc., that is only indirectly profitable and at less predictable intervals and durations. The commodity-circulation cycle is less predictable, less manageable.

The means of production are no longer bound up with effective operating capital. Lots of noncapitalists have digital means of production; often they are carrying them around in their pockets. But effective capital is increasingly that which can subsume that labor being done with those noncapital goods, that is, it is capital being used productively in a way that requires no wage payments because it has harnessed networks directly instead of the workers that make them up.

Cool as self-negating protest; Facebook as corporatized friendship

I had photocopied some pages from Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool a few weks ago, and now I am trying to figure out why I felt they were so important. The book is mainly about the future of humanities education within the knowledge economy, or cognitive capitalism, and it seemed a little dated to me.

1. This is a good question though: “How to neutralize or at least normalize [tensions that arise from an automated, dehumanized workplace suffused with computers] … when the nature of information work made it increasingly undesirable for industry to rely on the safety valve that had once vented work frustrations into leisure?”

In other words, if we all are now in the social factory and our leisure time is spent on consumption-production, which has all the efficiency pressures (accelerating the throughput and thoroughness of our consumption and experience collection) of the workplace, when do we ever vent off steam, when do we ever unwind from forced-march productivity?

“While fantasmic leisure was crucial to the system of production because it created the conditions for the complementary system of consumption, it had no direct bearing on the routines of productivity” — in leisure time we learned to daydream and desire goods being overproduced in the industrial economy. “But in the information workplace, the equivalent contradiction between vision and supervision lay at the center of the new technologies and techniques of work” — now the important productive work is wrapped up with leisure consumption, the mobilization of the content of those daydreams as marketing information, for instance. Our work is to us voluntary, self-productive, but it must be captured within the system, not vented off outside the realm of productivity. That is, technology has been oriented toward capturing our leisure as information work, because other forms of productive work have lost their value. The value for capital now is in the general intellect, in reprivatizing that commons by mediatizing sociality.

2. In enumerating the laws of the “tribe of the cubicle” — basically flexible knowledge workers; sub-creative-class types — Liu mentions “information designed to resist information” as exemplifying the law of cool. An interesting idea — cool is resistance that defuses itself in the expression, as it assimilates itself to the Baudrillardian code which it ostensibly opposes.

“To go to work today is to face the demand for a fearsome new rationalization: industrial efficiency and productivity plus postindustrial flexibility and decentralization. Such neo-rationalization, however, feels unreasonable or ‘paradoxical’ because it is heedless of the ‘archaic’ and/or ‘residual’ biological, prehistorical, agrarian, craftsman, and even early 20th century industrial rationales of behavior codified in the habits (‘habitus’) of communities and individuals.” In other words, working demands we be more flexible than old-style identities would allow for. To evade this intensification of rationalization, workers “express in lifestyle … the enormous reserve of petty kink” — what Liu labels “cool”. Basically, slacker attitude, la perruque of De Certeau. “Cool is the protest of our contemporary ‘society without politics.’ It is the gesture that has no voice of its own and can only protest equivocally within the very voice of the new rationalization.”

3. Liu’s “Song of Cool”, derived from the idea that saying any object is cool is simultaneously saying the subject is also cool — trapping the subject in the language of tech objects:

This T-shirt with a corporate logo or this TV show with its advertisements: what does it have to do with “me”? It’s just a medium, like air or water. “I” am the one who knows how to wear, sample, assemble, mix, or filter that medium with “style.”

The user asserts pseudodominance through the medium that dominates and curtails him. Rather than a decent wage for decent day;s work, workers are content with a sense of being cool/slack/subversive within the knowledge-work edifice. Only with the rise of harvested immaterial labor, even this is turned to account.

4. Liu describes the networked age as “a scripting that binds workers not just to the friendship system of corporate culture but, through their automatic participation in a universal environment of ‘user friendliness,’ to corporate culture as the stage of general culture, as the new model of general sociality, interaction, and communication. We don’t need to be kind, generous, tolerant, accepting, sympathetic, or in a word, social, anymore. We just need to be user friendly, which is the same as being corporate.” Interesting to draw a line between corporate niceness, user-friendly interfaces and social networking as the model of sociality in the networked age. Liu didn’t anticipate Facebook, but arguably Facebook is the corporatization of friendship, making it a kind of hierachical, institutionalized endeavor instead of an ad hoc, autonomous zone of relations.

Conservative critique of Web 2.0

Will critique of web 2.0 be the thing to revitialize conservative thought, lead it out of “epistemic closure” and bring it new adherents and fresh lines of inquiry? Can it replenish tired themes of elitism?

building from this column I wrote a few months ago.

This essay by Geert Lovink runs down some of the big names.

1. Andrew Keen, Cult of the Amateur. Lovink’s summary:

In this state of “digital Darwinism” only the loudest and most opinionated voices survive. What Web 2.0 does is “decimate the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers”.

At stake is the loss of elite tastemakers to guide the plebes. In their absence, the plebes create a vulgar culture of disposable junk memes — the ROFL culture that Rob Walker recently surveyed. This conservative critique hinges on the idea of preserving the cultural capital of properly trained “experts” in aesthetics, who are in fact ideologists preserving a particular status hierarchy expressed through highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, etc., as Bourdieu argued.

2. Nicholas Carr. In Lovink’s view, Carr indicates a “neurological turn” in conservative tech criticism, rooting the critique in the damaging effects technology has on the brain rather than in the damaging effects it has on the existing distribution of prestige. I’m sympathetic to parts of this:

“With the Internet stressing speed, we become the Web’s neurons: “The more links we click, pages we view, and transactions we make, the more intelligence the Web makes, the more economic value it gains, and the more profit it throws off.”

I see this as less a matter of neurology than a culturally imposed imperative that suits capital — as the way Carr phrases it here stresses. Elsewhere he shifts the emphasis to empirical studies of brain function. But these are ambiguous. I find it preferable to start from the idea that it’s ideological pressure that accelerates our consumption of media and shrinks our attention span, not the brain succumbing to a neuroplasticity disaster. Technology is innocent, but the consumer-capitalist context in which we have deployed it has made it an instrument of evil.

Carr’s critique is conservative insofar as it urges caution, the imposition of barriers to the open development and deployment of technology that the market has thus far supported, because presumably the way tech has infiltrated lives already has enfeebled consumers and made them unable to act in their own interests against the proliferation of gadgets and the mediatization of everyday life. He rejects the techno-positivist position that all participation in digital culture is good (i.e. Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody), and evokes a tradition of regarding the plebes as incapable of such participation — that it is harmful for them to suddenly become democratized culturally, if you want to call it that. The neuroplasticity critique seems to have that fear at its root — people are damaged by too much freedom, too much access, too much information.

But the critique is not merely antidemocratic. It seeks to protect privacy and to preserve the system of work as it had existed in the pre-biopolitical era (to use the Negri/Hardt jargon). It becomes a conservative impulse to want to protect the integrity of the individual by making him willfully obscure, out of the networked system designed to stimulate dreams of fame and social relevance but that ultimately imposes conformity and “digital sharecropping” instead. Better to be detached from the obsession with real-time presence management and information saturation, and achieve a Thoreau-like calm and ability to penetrate meditatively into the deep, personal meaning of things. The personal must be protected through real privacy, a refusal of the cloud, and of Web 2.0. Again, the quintessential conservative gesture is to stand athwart and say no to something that already exists and has momentum in some unapproved direction. Usually the momentum can’t be stopped, and the critique offers only what consolation comes from the righteous narcissism of the noble lost cause.

3. Frank Schirrmacher, editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Schirrmacher also worries about the pressure of information overload — “I exhaustion”, the sensory overload of the informavore. This leads to the end of independent thought as reliance on collaborative filters and automated filters grows and the brain gets fatigued by constant information barrage. Predictive technologies will erode free will and make us robots programmed by the data-driven inferences made on the basis of our online behavior. Schirrmacher: “Germany still has a very strong anti-technology movement, which is quite interesting insofar as you can’t really say it’s left-wing or right-wing. As you know, very right-wing people, in German history especially, were very anti-technology.” Anti-technology blurs political lines in history generally: Luddites and Amish.

See also: http://www.goethe.de/wis/med/idm/fin/en6170792.htm

4. Jaron Lanier. He argues for “pattern exhaustion” setting in among crowdsourced cultural producers and tries to make the case for the necessity of individual genius on the mountain top, well compensated and motivated by intellectual property rights, of course.

Web 2.0 and immaterial labor dispossession

From Pirates of Silicon Valley: State of exception and dispossession in Web 2.0 by Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt:

Another look at how Web 2.0 is about expropriating creative labor of consumer-participants in the information economy. Good point here about the dialectic of freedom and exploitation:

Long–standing folk traditions of appropriation, remixing, and playful interpretations of texts with a sound disrespect for the figure of the author, are awarded an infrastructure and a public platform in Web 2.0. We are free to work as cultural entrepreneurs, writing texts on blogs, producing videos for online services, etc., with relatively cheap means of production and distribution, and with some chances of receiving part of the money that flows in the Web 2.0 networks. Furthermore, we are witnessing a renegotiation of traditional copyright, which opens a space for these popular practices, and entrepreneurial spirits.

The dialectics of Web 2.0 means, however, that in the informational economy our participation plays an essential role in the accumulation of capital. For that reason participation goes from being restricted and privileged to becoming mandatory. Increasingly, in the informational economy, to gain access to the networks of culture, knowledge and information, some kind of production — active, conscious and participatory (e.g., uploading videos to YouTube), or passive, automatic and even unconscious or involuntary (e.g., in the case of language processing and social profiling) — becomes obligatory. This is fundamental to how dispossession works in the Web 2.0 economy. The enclosure in the informational economy, in contrast to the first enclosure movement, becomes more metaphorical since the preconditions for dispossession in Web 2.0 are not based on locks or barriers that restrict access. Somewhat paradoxically, the essence of the informational enclosure is openness. Although the enclosure is not without its restrictions, it strives for informational and communicative excess through promoting freedom and openness, and enhancing certain types of communication.

Web 2.0 seems to open a new space for communication and sharing, but it is at the same time a new mode of discipline, of mandatory production to garner social recognition or qualify for even basic social participation. The paradox the writers refer to is one of Foucault’s main observations about the “biopolitical”. Foucault discarded the “repression hypothesis” and argued more or less that power recruited modes of pleasure to entice subjects to serve its ends. This shows up as the compulsion to make an identity and to keep working on it as though one’s very soul is at stake in the production — that is, to always be sharing the fruits of one’s self-consciousness while never garnering any relief from it.

Web 2.0 is part of the redefinition of friendship as something that can be construed as production — it means friendship must be carried out along the lines of self-branding, of churning out nuggets of alienable and tradeable information and opinions. Our social life must now create a data trail that can be mined in order to be accepted as truly social, within the context of our times. Another way of putting that is that more and more of what was once “private” or “intimate” experience must now be mediated to be experienced as such. It needs to circulate as a reified nugget of information in order to be validated as the kind of experience we plan to archive it as. And of course, the whole idea of archiving experience is a new ramification of the experience is mediatized. That is one of the reasons we consent to it — we like the idea of having a tangible collection of memories rather than relying on our feeble brains. As this NYT piece points out, the web means the end of forgetting.

With the public archive of private memories, individuals constantly are confronted with the loss of control over how they wish to be remembered or seen, even as they work harder than ever on self-presentation. The harder they work on identity, the more it seems out of control, because the work involved is a matter of making the self permeable and public. The authors approach YouTube in this way — it’s a hegemonic medium that presumes universal publicity: we are “free” to be recognized socially, but that means we are at the same time free to be exposed.

The democratic potential of YouTube needs to be considered in relation to the site’s dispossession of the control of the audiovisual means of constructing narratives of our own lives, as well as in relation to the lack of control over products of the orchestrated imagination of cultural industries and amateur video producers.

Similarly, Facebook and other social networks are “profiling machines” that translate us into our relevant demographic information almost in real time as it changes, even as we are compelled by network effects to be social through its medium. Facebook, more important, permits for the monetization of the social: “companies and brands are paying Facebook for the possibility to exploit what is the main feature of the site: that it is a venue for sociability and social trust.” Facebook grants access to consumers in a moment of vulnerability and openness that is compelled by the participation of a network of friends as a whole. Friends bring us into Facebook’s world and establish a sphere of apparent trust and control; then brands worm in, as if they too are entities that can be trusted and can have relationships. And at the same time, people become more like brands in the same space, with reputational capital distributed in a network rather than plain reciprocity with friends in the real time-space of presence.

What is dispossessed in social networking sites is then not only personal information and intellectual property rights but also sociability as such. This is not to be confused with the privatization of the infrastructures of social or interpersonal communication, which is a much more commonplace phenomenon (i.e., telephone, mail). In social networking sites, what is taking place is an inclusion into capitalist relations of the very quality of social relations as such — the sense of community and social trust. Plus — not to forget — also the means of staging, upholding and making community and sociability through the dispossession and instrumentalizing that is inherent in “networks” and “news–feeds”.

The last sentence is key — social networks “enclose the commons” in the sense that they make sociality outside of their auspices difficult. Your friends want you on Facebook, and you tend to disappear if you are not there, because you now present an additional burden to them, requiring contact outside the automated procedures of the social-network interface. We must migrate onto the platform, in the name of universal convenience, which usurps intimacy as the governing value of friendship.

Familial love and industrialization

From The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett.

Laslett wants to dispel some of the myths about life being better before industrialization transformed England. But he points out the price exacted by industrialization. “All industrial societies, we may suppose, are far less stable than their predecessors. They lack the extraordinary cohesive influence which familial relationships carry with them, that power of reconciling the frustrated and discontented by emotional means. Social revolution, meaning an irreversible changing of the pattern of social relationships, never happened in traditional, patriarchal, pre-industrial human society. It was almost impossible to contemplate.”

But the dissolution of the family as a productive unit and the separation of the household from the factory and the expansion of the possibility with improved travel and communication and whatnot undermined traditional beliefs and received wisdom and made revolution possible, made egalitarianism thinkable. The price (if it was a price) was the lost of intimate, taken-for-granted family unity.

In the premodern world, “everyone had his circle of affection: every relationship could be seen as a love-relationship.” That is because everything was personal; impersonal exchange was beyond the scope of everyday life. Social relations had not yet been depersonalized. However miserable life was then, “a man usually lived and worked within the family, the circle of affection, released enough dissatisfaction to account for all the restlessness which has marked the progress of the industrial world.”

Hence the recent efforts to bring affect back into the production world. What may be happening now is that these relations (now carried out with brands and institutions) are being repersonalized. Laslett asks, “Who could love the name of a limited company or of a government department as an apprentice could love his superbly satisfactory father-figure master, even if he were a bully and a beater, a usurer and a hypocrite?” Well, that is what branding and affective labor is all about today. A capitalistic effort to reinscribe the semblance of love into the relations of production and consumption in the social factory, using realtime communications, etc., to shrink the world back to the village size (a la McLuhan’s idea about the global village).

Laslett turns a nice phrase when, in discussing the aristocracy, notes that historians will have to “show an imaginative sensitivity to all those subtle influences which enable a minority to live for all the rest.” I tend to call those “subtle influences” ideology, others hegemony. The point is to be aware of the irrational ways in which privilege gets naturalized, perpetuated — how institutions and material culture conspire to accomplish the task.

The book, in the detail it provides about servants in preindustrial England, made me wonder about the novelty of our service economy, or if that also is a kind of return. “In 1901 personal domestic service was the major occupationof all the employed women in the country…. By 1951 the female domestic servant had practically disappeared.” Service as it is conceived in our economy is something quite different, with a different set of entitlements being deployed to claim the right to require others to serve them. Rather than landed gentry and the dispossessed, there are media corporations poaching the creative self-fashioning work of the masses trying to differentiate themselves.

"Distorted commoning" in capitalist labor space

From an interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides in e-flux.

Massimo De Angelis: The factory for Marx was a twofold space: it was the space of capitalist exploitation and discipline — this could of course also be the office, the school, or the university — but it was also the space in which social cooperation of labor occurred without the immediate mediation of money. Within the factory we have a non-commoditized space, which would fit our definition of the commons as the space of the “shared” at a very general level.

An Architektur: Why non-commoditized?

Massimo De Angelis: Because when I work in a capitalist enterprise, I may get a wage in exchange for my labor power, but in the moment of production I do not participate in any monetary transactions. If I need a tool, I ask you to pass me one. If I need a piece of information, I do not have to pay a copyright. In the factory—that we are using here as a metaphor for the place of capitalist production—we may produce commodities, but not by means of commodities, since goods stopped being commodities in the very moment they became inputs in the production process. I refer here to the classical Marxian distinction between labor power and labor. In the factory, labor power is sold as a commodity, and after the production process, products are sold. In the very moment of production, however, it is only labor that counts, and labor as a social process is a form of “commoning.” Of course, this happens within particular social relations of exploitation, so maybe we should not use the same word, commoning, so as not to confuse it with the commoning made by people “taking things into their own hands.” So, we perhaps should call it “distorted commoning,” where the measure of distortion is directly proportional to the degree of the subordination of commoning to social measures coming from outside the commoning, the one given by management, by the requirement of the market, etc. In spite of its distortions, I think, it is important to consider what goes on inside the factory as also a form of commoning. This is an important distinction that refers to the question of how capital uses the commons. I am making this point because the key issue is not really how we conceive of commoning within the spheres of commons, but how we reclaim the commons of our production that are distorted through the imposition of capital’s measure of things….

Stavros Stavrides: This topic of the non-commodified space within capitalist production is linked to the idea of immaterial labor, theorized, among others, by Negri and Hardt…. Negri and Hardt argue that with the emergence of immaterial labor — which is based on communicating and exchanging knowledge, not on commodified assets in the general sense, but rather on a practice of sharing — we have a strange new situation: the change in the capitalist production from material to immaterial labor provides the opportunity to think about commons that are produced in the system but can be extracted and potentially turned against the system. We can take the notion of immaterial labor as an example of a possible future beyond capitalism, where the conditions of labor produce opportunities for understanding what it means to work in common but also to produce commons.

Of course there are always attempts to control and enclose this sharing of knowledge, for example the enclosure acts aimed at controlling the internet, this huge machine of sharing knowledge and information. I do not want to overly praise the internet, but this spread of information to a certain degree always contains the seed of a different commoning against capitalism. There is always both, the enclosures, but also the opening of new possibilities of resistance. This idea is closely connected to those expressed in the anti-capitalist movement claiming that there is always the possibility of finding within the system the very means through which you can challenge it. Resistance is not about an absolute externality or the utopia of a good society. It is about becoming aware of opportunities occurring within the capitalist system and trying to turn them against it.

The idea of non-commodified space is interesting, especially in the heart of the factory, where valorization is presumed to occur — valorization may happen only in these noncommodfied zones, for as long as they can be maintained, where effort is made voluntarily and cooperation is its own potential reward for workers, even as the fruits of that cooperation gets reified into products. The social-networking space presents itself as such a place, with the labor appearing as cooperation among those “laboring” on Facebook, and the fruits of that effort being made into saleable commodities behind their backs, or out of their view.

But at the same time, the experience of collaboration online does not necessarily build an awareness of commons; it also encourages a sense of fundamental isolation and the instrumentality with which relationships with others can be used. The production and dissemenation of information online — is it the production of commodities from commodities (cultural commodities, reified meanings), or is noncommodfiied production, the production of new ideas from common intellectual resources? Branding, as it becomes a ubiquitous metaphor for social practices, encourages the commodification of ideas and meanings as reified brands, as logos, as design-y implementations and so on. This thwarts the ideal of immaterial labor as liberating form of sharing, turning it instead into an invidious search for personal advantage.

Resistance doesn’t happen automatically with the freed-up distribution of information; resistance must be a conscious disposition, a strategic deployment of newly common resources against the inertia that directs people toward capitalist impulses of seeking profit and transforming identity into a brand.

Immaterial property, rent extraction

From Michael Hardt, “The Common in Communism” (pdf). A concise elaboration of how Hardt and Negri see “bioproduction” and immaterial labor (definition: “By immaterial and biopolitical we try to grasp together the production of ideas, information, images, knowledges, code, languages, social relationships, affects, and the like”) as modes of production within capitalism that threaten to undermine it. “Through the increasing centrality of the common in capitalist production – the production of ideas, affects, social relations, and forms of life – are emerging the conditions and weapons for a communist project.”

Hardt claims immaterial labor has now become hegemonic in the sense that manufacturing once was, disclosing the paradigm for how work is conceived in a society and generalizing its specific needs of workers as what is needed of people generally. “Industry has to informationalize; knowledge, code, and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production; and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorization process.”

It’s essential to remember that the product made in capitalism is the subject who can reproduce capitalism: “the ultimate object of capitalist production is not commodities but social relations or forms of life.” Those forms — clearer perhaps as modes or ways of life — are being produced outside of capitalist-controlled factories, which is to say people feel like the stuff they do that matters to who they are is what goes on outside of wage work — inevitable considering the deskilling that went on throughout the 20th century. Commodities are important not so much in and of themselves but as objects that posit and normalize ways of life: “the production of the refrigerator and the automobile are only midpoints for the creation of the labor and gender relations of the nuclear family around the refrigerator and the mass society of individuals isolated together in their cars on
the freeway.”

The shift to immaterial production — the important products and machinery for reproducing the capitalist way of life being ideas and cooperative collaborations, not things — means that the economy is more and more reliant on “immaterial” property: intellectual property, processes, cooperation, manufacturing affect, etc. Such property can’t be owned the same way material property is owned as capital. This creates a problem for capital between controlling capital absolutely through property rights and extracting rents for its use, and allowing immaterial property (which Hardt equates with the “common”) to circulate freely to create more value. “Here is an emerging contradiction internal to capital: the more the common is corralled as property, the more its productivity is reduced; and yet expansion of the common undermines the relations of property in a fundamental and general way.”

A consequence is that capitalists are marginalized in productive processes they once completely dictated: “Whereas in the case of industrial capital and its generation of profit, the capitalist plays a role internal to the production process, particularly in designating the means of cooperation and imposing the modes of discipline, in the production of the common the capitalist must remain relatively external.” So basically capitalists are now trying to solve this problem with new business models — how to collect rents on property they can’t completely enclose. “The production and productivity of the common becomes an increasingly autonomous domain, still exploited and controlled, of course, but through mechanisms that are relatively external.”

Capitalists must make themselves seem necessary in a new way, justify a rent through “new mechanisms.” The corporate provision of Web 2.0 applications and social networks is one of these mechanisms. Facebook seems paradigmatic in this regard, providing a service that permits them to seize rights over production they only stand beside tangentially. They provide the medium for social production and claim ownership to everything the medium makes possible for consumer/user/producers.