Monthly Archives: November 2010

"doing" vs. abstract labor

John Holloway’s essay “Cracks and the Crisis of Abstract Labor” (pdf) in Antipode (the Journal of Radical Geography) offers an alternative terrain of struggle to the sort exemplified by unions and labor movements, which in his opinion have been beaten back and are played out, fatally compromised by their acceptance of “abstract labor” — labor that has been alienated and made commensurate with all other labor, that is labor people do for money and not for joy or meaning or social connection. This is opposed to “doing” — unabstracted work as manifestation of species being, as self-expression rather than for wages.

Holloway describes the alienation process forced on us by capitalist relations this way:

I bake a cake. I enjoy baking it, I enjoy eating it, I enjoy sharing it with my friends and am proud of the cake I have made. Then I decide that I will try to make a living by baking cakes. I bake cakes and sell them on the market. Gradually the cake becomes a means to gaining an income sufficient to allow me to live. I have to produce the cake at a certain speed and in a certain way so that I can keep the price low enough to sell it. Enjoyment is no longer part of the process. After a while I realise that I am not earning enough money and think that, since the cake-making is in any case merely a means to an end, a way of earning money, I might as well make something else that will sell better. My doing has become completely indifferent to its content; there has been a complete abstraction from its concrete characteristics. The object I produce is now so completely alienated from me that I do not care whether it is a cake or a rat poison, as long as it sells.

As a result of this sort of production-process-based alienation, under the social relations of capitalism, Holloway argues, sociality is sustained by the commensurability of labor.

When the baker sells her cakes and uses the money to buy a dress, then a social integration between the activities of the baker and the activities of the dressmaker is established through the purely quantitative measure of their labours. The abstraction of doing into labour (or the abstraction of labour from the specificities of doing) is both immediately oppressive for the doer and at the same time the creation of a social cohesion (a system) that stands outside any conscious
social control.

This is why the “system” seems faceless, difficult to pinpoint. We generate it when we value effort in money.

If abstract labor sustains capitalism and its lived relations — if it defines what is “normal” and “realistic” — then anytime we produce outside of that structure, anytime we are “doing” creates what Holloway calls cracks, which posits “extremely fragile spaces or moments in which we live the world that we want to create.” These defy the logic of capital, force a reconceptualization of what sorts of activities and exchanges are “real.” The struggle is of course ongoing; just as capitalism must reproduce itself and its hegemonic ideology from moment to moment, so resistance in the form of “doing” must be made again and again. Holloway writes: “The struggle to impose the discipline of labour upon our activity is a struggle fought by capital each and every day: what else do managers, teachers, social workers, police and so on do?”

Against this, we must fight to prevent the subsumption of all forms of production, of doing, under capital:

The root of the present crisis is our insubordination, our refusal to subordinate our lives totally to the logic of capital, to convert all our doing into abstract labour.

The internet is pivotal in this regard. For example, it potentially extends subsumption of everyday life under capital by subsuming identity production, by making our self-fashioning into a kind of exploitable labor that can be quantified. This is why tracking hits on posts and counting Twitter followers, etc., is so insidious. But the internet also promises an alternative method for gaining social recognition through facilitating sharing and the commons — “collaborative consumption,” as a recent business book calls it. It seems to me that social media subsumes the practices of friendship to capital and this is a terrible, terrible thing. It blurs the line between “doing” and “abstract labor” just as it blurs public and private, leaving a never-certain terrain where one can’t be entirely comfortable in one’s practices or know the scope on which they are being mounted. Sociality blends into surveillance; hobbies blend into social-factory labor; the self becomes an alienated brand, stranding consciousness, which finds it can’t know itself in the moment, because identity has become an external thing. Holloway admits that “autonomist movements … can certainly be co-opted into the decentralized structures of power characteristic of neoliberalism.” The big media companies on the internet seem to be intent of doing this co-opting — actually pre-opting, since most people are introduced to social media, etc., through corporate interfaces, which means whatever they do with them is contained and exploitable. Does it matter if individuals believe they are “doing” when their practices help sustain consumer capitalism? Are these moments “cracks” of resistance, or are they the mortar covering cracks over?

Somewhat grandiosely, I think of what we’re trying to do with the New Inquiry in the light of a struggle against abstract labor, as a process of creating cracks, an open-ended social structure for facilitating “doing”. Not for money or any of its proxies, but for social possibilities, for a sense of fulfilling the self conceived along different lines from that of an acquisitive self. It is ideally a space for autonomous intellectual activity, as an end in itself, an expression of human capability and creativity. That seems a bit squishy though: such a lofty purpose, when not experienced as a flow state, may seem a bit like purposelessness. The answer to “Why am I doing this” can never go beyond “because I want to” — and that seems inadequate. The pursuit for social recognition is also slippery” can it be kept separate from capital’s preferred yardsticks for recognition (money), which spill over into the perpetuation of status hierarchies. The question then is how to allow recognition to function in an egalitarian way without it being meaningless; also how to motivate human doing without relying entirely on metaphysical motives to be human.

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From an interview with Elinor Ostrom

This interview with Ostrom, about self-management of commons property.

If you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if community members don’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.

I would need to actually read her studies, but the key point here is that you need to define “good” when it comes to finding a “good means of communication.” It is not simply synonymous with cheap or free or ubiquitous. My hypothesis is that social media is actually the opposite of a good channel of communication for self-management purposes, that it becomes a distraction from accomplishing commons goals and crowds out the space where good communication might otherwise take root. Social media seems atomizing and isolating to me even though it foments all sorts of weak-tie group formation. Suspect commons management requires strong, strong group ties and the ability to conceive a collective identity rather than a personal profile. I know they are not either-or, but social media seems to have a strong colonizing tendency, conquering other forms of identity making and other mediums for self-expression and assimilating them.

One of the costs of self-organizing is surrendering the individual identity to a certain degree, relinquishing its autonomy and its priority within one’s own psyche — and that flies in the face of social media and the tendency of consumer society generally.

Fittingly Ostrom encourages localism in decision making and rejects consumerism as model for economic growth — in other words, rejecting nationalized standards for the good life that consumerism imports and preferring instead local notions of what it makes sense to have for a fulfilling life as individual and community member.