Monthly Archives: March 2011

Facebook and credit worthiness; What is post-Fordism

From the draft version of “VALUE IN INFORMATIONAL CAPITALISM AND ON THE INTERNET. A REPLY TO
CHRISTIAN FUCHS” by Adam Arvidsson and Elanor Colleoni. (pdf)

This compelling paper starts by trying to discredit using the labor theory of value to critique “prosumerism” and “digital sharecropping”– the harvesting of the value created by consumers through acts of consumption, collaboration, identity display network forming and general sociality. Seems like a bit of a side issue to me — but it is a stepping stone to a much more interesting point about how social media produce value. The labor/value that Facebook harvests isn’t a matter of time invested on the site but more a matter of how many connections are traced. These build it’s brand, and brand equity isn’t measured in time. The same is true for the emerging personal brand that Facebook facilitates in its image.

But I found this interesting: “If Facebook made a profit of $ 355 million in 2010 (according to its own figures), this would mean that each Facebook user was a ‘victim of exploitation of surplus value’ to the extent of $ 0.7 a year, and if we use the consulting company McKinsey’s most recent figure on the overall value created by audience participation on the internet globally, $ 100 billion, this becomes $ 59 per internet user per year, hardly an ‘a rate of exploitation that converges towards infinity’ as Fuchs claims.” That’s a good point, but I suppose the way to interpret that is that users are putting a lot of time in to create very little economic value; their work time can be inefficiently wasted since it is not a disutility to workers (they regard the labor as creating personal identity and living social life, not working) and because the social-media firms harvesting the “value” aren’t paying much for it and have scaled up to the level of billions of unpaid “employees.”

The authors appear very concerned about putting an accurate price tag on the value created through social media practices and volunteer brand building and so on, as they see such a calculation as the key to their argument that the financial valuation of social media companies and the like is the new means of capital accumulation and expropriation (not exploiting labor):

appropriation and realization of value in informational capitalism needs to be understood as part of an extended, society-wide process of finance-centered accumulation, where the link between reputational (or affective) value and access to financial rent becomes fundamental. This, we argue is particularly true for social media platforms, the values of which are very difficult to justify in terms of their non-financial revenues.

The finance system, they argue, and not commodities, is where the “value” appears in hard dollar terms that is generated by the social factory, or the general intellect, or informational capital, or immaterial labor, or whatever you want to call it. And there, I suppose, it accrues to the people who have the means, access, and know-how to manipulate value at that level — bankers, large-scale investors, tech entrepreneurs, etc. Otherwise, they suggest, the value of the brand equity co-creation and the marketing data created by our social practices and mediated online can’t be extracted. In other words, value in this realm isn’t generated by a commodity’s circulation; it comes through financial manipulation of the underlying platform for sociality, through instruments tied to those platforms conceived as assets, which then circulate in the commodities’ stead. The value of these media platforms is tied inexactly to the amount of communication and “value creation” we do on and through them.

In other words, the setting of values on financial markets is a deliberative decision that mobilizes and builds to a large extent on the public reputation of companies, brands and related assets. This leads us to suggest that informational capitalism ever more deploys a reputational ‘law’ of value, where the value of companies and their intangible assets are set not in relation to an objective measurement, like labor time, but in relation to their ability to attract and aggregate intersubjective judgments of their overall value or utility in terms of mediated forms of reputation.

The authors add that “the value of brands depend less on the (directly measurable) quanta of labor time that go into their production, and more on their reputation and brand strength [and] in the case of knowledge workers, and in particular freelances, the value of skills is increasingly determined by their ability to create a ‘personal brand.’” That obviously rings my bell; my whole spiel lately revolves around social media as a vector for transforming subjectivity into personal branding, to make that feel like common sense and natural instead of alienating, self-centered and rude.

I am intrigued by the possibility of applying this whole line of thinking to individuals rather than firms and by the implicit idea that credit may be the way a “basic income” is extended to workers in “informational capitalism” (call them the creative class or the cognitariat, if you like) in lieu of stable wages. The level of credit access becomes an index to an individual’s perceived contribution to the “general intellect” or alternatively, the value of their personal brand to the information economy. Credit scores may become vaguely tied to how hipsterish one is, how credible one’s lifestyle and habitus and social network are and thus how valuable one is likely to be to the generation and circulation of valuable meanings/uses/brands/innovations to be attached to goods and services. Perhaps in the future Facebook status will be factored into one’s credit worthiness (perhaps this is already happening, as it is with employment, and hirers using Facebook as a tool to evaluate candidates.) It seems that the authors welcome this possibility in their conclusion, with social media “democratically” determining personal worth. That sounds like the very definition of dystopia to me, as I see these sorts of technological systems as likely means to leverage preexisting social inequities.

Anyway, along the way, the authors offer a lucid account of the somewhat elaborate arguments that Negri/autonomist-derived terms”post-Fordism” and “multitude” and :immaterial labor” are supposed to serve as shorthand for. Under Fordist conditions (factories, big firms, Taylorist division of labor, rigid hierarchies) “concrete productive practices must be organized in such ways that they can be measured as expressions of a general equivalent: abstract labor time [and] the labor process must be organized in such ways that value creation can be easily attributed to individual actors or units. Both of these conditions become increasingly problematic as capitalist development proceeds ‘beyond Fordism’.” That is to say, production in the sphere of informational capitalism is more collaborative and inspiration-driven; it isn’t a matter of x number of employees putting x amount of hours in. Basically, “labor creates value in ways that are poorly related to quanta of time.”

Thus the nature of the workplace must change from being a factory to the “social factory” — meaning production can occur through sociality at any time, and requires that people get along with one another (thus building friendships becomes a work process too). The premier productive force and source of wealth is what Marx called “general intellect” rather than labor time — updating that for contemporary times, that general intellect becomes the value of social being being captured and harvested all the time by various media.

As the authors note, Negri argued that this sort of labor is “outside capital” but it seems more that it broadens capital’s nature to include platforms and networks and identity itself as resources to marshal and exploit. What is “valorized” is these media is not, as the authors notes, pageviews or clicks or audience eyeballs but social relations themselves — that is what is being brokered and sold by Facebook. We create “webs of affective attachments around informational objects” — I tend to call this “immaterial labor” or “meaning making” or “affective labor” or “communicative capitalism” depending on the context.

But the idea is that social media can capture the value in our efforts to make ourselves seem cool by sharing well-curated stuff and ideas with others (or in the authors’ jargon, social media “trigger forms of ‘self valorization’ whereby the multitude itself confers the kinds of affective investments on an informational object that is able to render it interesting and worthy of attention”). These media encourage us to orient more and more of our self-fashioning efforts to that model — to build our personal brand, our influencer status, which is measurable in terms of retweets and likes and so on. This engenders a new kind of alienation, a kind of perpetual reflexivity and calculating approach to our social behavior that ruins it as a respite. Identity and friendship become more and more explicitly competitive, and capital (social media companies and marketers, mainly) reaps the benefit.

The authors are anxious to stress that the economic value in these attached affects stems not from the time it takes to notice and like things but from “affective webs” among the “networked multitude” — a kind of commons of social affinity that Facebook encloses.

From a business point of view this means that the strategic key to value is not the sheer
number of hits or hours of attention paid to a site but, on the one hand, the ‘virtuosity’ that is able to attract such affective investments by inserting an informational product at the right time and place in such communicative and affective flows and, on the other hand, the ability to control the platforms, like Facebook, on which such affective self-valorization takes place. Indeed the value of Facebook is not primarily built on its ability to attract attention time, but on its ability to control and objectify the affective flows that organize the attention and prosumer input on the part of the multitude, and, to tax these flows in some way.

They control the platform, and then they securitize it (via IPO, etc.) to transform it to financial value (leveraging implicit brand equity derived from all that immaterial labor the platform has attracted), to collect their tax. But who has paid the tax? That’s what gets lost in the web of financial engineering chicanery.

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inseparability of freedom and alienation

It is hard to argue with those who say that Facebook is making their lives better. I complain about the nefarious nature of the social-networking company repeatedly, but I have a page myself and occasionally promote my anti-Facebook screeds on the site itself. The problem with Facebook is not that it is immediately immiserating, or that its mode of exploitation makes everyday life appreciably worse. Rather it changes how we perceive the everyday, what sort of criteria we use to evaluate the quality of our social lives. The problem is that it offers a freedom that is contingent on alienating and abstracting aspects of our lives that were once left outside the realm of economic calculation and marketability. It has brought us to think of our behavior, our friends, our beliefs, our tastes, our interactions, and so on inherently as products worthy of design and careful roll-out, and to think of ourselves as a sort of branded firm whose value can be tracked.

As Facebook adoption become near universal, this sort of self-concept becomes normative. Behavior must be interpreted in light of the assumption of a entrepreneurial self behind it; thus “sharing” is never innocent of calculation, but nor does that calculation connote a kind of guilt. It is simply expected and inescapable. Everyone assumes everyone else is stage managing their identity, so even if we aren’t, it is as if we are. And soon it makes no sense simply not to, and that new level of reflexivity characterizes our consciousness “naturally,” with no particular forethought. We become free to connect and share more, but that freedom also implies a certain kind of capture as well. We seem to have a greater control over our self-presentation and self-broadcasting but that’s only because it’s been rendered exploitable by capital — it’s been abstracted from specific practice and made available for general appropriation by third parties for a variety of purposes. Only by making something exploitable by others can we seem to exploit it for ourselves — this is the condition of subjectivity under capitalism, which makes us discontented with our practices when they are unmeasured, uninvested, inaccessible for entrepreneurial growth. The capability for communion becomes technologized, itself subject to rational maximizing.

One of Marx’s basic ideas is that labor power had to be liberated from feudal arrangements so that it could be exploited by capital. The Communist Manifesto offers perhaps the classic statement of this:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Workers became “free” to sell their labor power as an alienated thing, to trade on it in a market tilted against them by their need to survive, which gives capital all the leverage it generally needs to force bad bargains. But that new “freedom” was still probably experienced as such, as the ecstasy of possibility as well as the burden of autonomy. People could fantasize about social mobility even as they needed to worry about their livelihood. Capitalism’s process of reinvigorating itself involves not only the clearing away of moribund ideological strictures — what can feel liberating in and of itself — but also the extension of its calculating logic, its entrepreneurial method, which offers a procedure for self-advancement even as it upsets other humanistic illusions. It allows us to become strategists, though it takes away our experience of the spontaneous givenness of life. Reducing social relations to the cash nexus means also an elimination of prejudice in favor of competition, whose fairness could at least theoretically could be perfected to a unblinkered neutrality. But in practice, workers are given the freedom to choose aspects of their work life so that the misery of work under capital (exploitation) becomes their responsibility. Freedom is offered because it generates competition that is useful for capital.

Probably this is obvious, but capitalism continually repeats this process, presenting us new forms of freedom and alienation simultaneously. The freedom capitalism offers generally comes through the objectification (the mobilization, or the subsumption under capital) of some aspect of life that never before seemed contingent and changeable. What had seemed an intrinsic part of us suddenly becomes a manipulatable trait, something we can manage to our advantage, however we choose to construe that.

What seems to be happening in “late capitalism” is that personal identity and intimate relations are increasingly being subsumed: friendship and identity are becoming alienated and commoditized, translated into quantities that can be efficiently managed, measured and valorized as capital — made to seem to increase in a concretely measurable way. Those measurements can then rationalize various sorts of self-aggrandizing behavior, allow those behaviors register with us as new freedoms, new opportunities, new means for securing social recognition and personal gain. We have more and more abstract, externalized choices about how to present ourselves, and means to exhibit these choices to others in lieu of what once constituted social interaction. And again these freedoms of choice merely serve to set in motion interpersonal competitions which ultimately benefit capital, which doesn’t compete but merely profits by staging the competition and collecting “entry fees” in the form of goods purchased and labor offered.

If before, labor power was liberated so it could be exploited, what is happening now is that identity-making power is being liberated to be exploited.

fashion and destroying calculating consciousness

From The Fashion System by Roland Barthes. A very skimmable book because most of it is, as he writes, “purely imminent description of a particular system” and, as such, is little more than a bunch of fashion magazine copy subjected to quasi-rigorous semiological analysis. (I.e. it investigates in painstaking detail how something like “Layering different tones of the same palette has a graphically modern appeal” — to grab a random sample from Lucky — might mean something to someone, how it connotes the abstract idea of Fashion.) One need only read the foreword, the conclusions and the appendices.

This is from the forward; seems relevant to fast fashion, and fast fashion’s relation to post-Fordist subjectivity, the consumer as producer, etc. :

Why does Fashion utter clothing so abundantly? Why does it interpose, between the object and its user, such a luxury of words (not to mention images), such a network of meaning? The reason is, of course an economic one. Calculating, industrial society is obliged to form consumers who don’t calculate; if clothing’s producers and consumers had the same consciousness, clothing would be bought (and produced) only at the very slow rate of its dilapidation; Fashion, like all fashions, depends on a disparity of two consciousnesses, each foreign to the other. In order to blunt the buyer’s calculating consciousness, a veil must be drawn around the object — a veil of images, of reasons, of meanings; a mediate substance of aperitive order must be elaborated; in short, a simulacrum of the real object must be created, substituting for the slow time of wear a sovereign time free to destroy itself by an act of annual potlatch.

Only fast fashion has made the annual potlatch a biweekly one.

The idea that fashion works to make us suspend our calculating rationality is interesting — but slightly wrong I think. I think it shifts the nature of our calculation away from material things and money and toward our self-construction. It allows us to be entrepreneurial in the medium of style (and, while that has cultural/social capital ramifications, only through a great deal of ambition and effort does that translate directly into real economic opportunity). We calculate not how to economize on material clothes but how to profit through using clothes to build our personal brand value. We now no longer need fashion magazines to affix meaning to clothes; we are part of the meaning-making process, helping destroy slow time and true economy.

the meaning of professionalization

From John Holbo’s “Graphs, Maps, Trees,Fruits of The MLA” in the collection of Valve essays about Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. (pdf) (though this is mostly Moretti in this passage):

In his second paragraph Moretti lists a number of scholars on whose work he builds. “I mention these names right away because quantitative work is truly cooperation: not only in the pragmatic sense that it takes forever to gather the data, but because such data are ideally independent from any individual researcher, and can thus be shared by others, and combined in more than one way.”

That eagerness to suspend the self in a collective project reminded me of the ideal sometimes espoused by autonomistas about the multitude and productive cooperation and so on. The Virno interview I wrote about here gets into that idea, positing the possibility that a new kind of subjectivity emerges from this kind of cooperation. At least that is what I think he means here: “We could say: the One of the multitude collimates in many ways with that transindividual reality that Marx called the ‘general intellect’ or the ‘social brain.’ “

Moretti’s point brings it home more concretely to me because I experienced first-hand in graduate school the shock of discovering that what I thought was collective scholarly enterprise really was to a shocking degree a lot of petty ego projects. And professionalization in literary studies seemed to be a matter of learning that lesson and embracing its ramifications. Choose your scholarly interests with entrepreneurial savvy and guard your turf jealously and you might just thrive in the profession and maybe even get on the tenure track. It’s all about setting yourself up for life. The game is afoot and the poets and novels and theorists just make up the hand you deal yourself. I honestly thought academia was a place to transcend the ways capitalism subsumes one’s life work and perverts it to serve its cause. In academia, those ways are merely more attenuated, more insidious — or perhaps academia is a hold over of precapitalist relations that makes one grateful for the bourgeois pseudo-meritocratic takeover.

Holbo suggests Moretti’s project might serve as a retroactive justification for the bloat of English departments in the U.S., a more justifiable reason than the need to marshal a bunch of composition instructors. “Actually existing academic literary
studies makes considerably more sense if something like Moretti’s project makes sense. So, on behalf of the institution, there should be a concerted effort to make sense of such projects.” Something similar could be said about creative-class labor conditions generally — they await the project that can justify them, and I hope it is not the analog of Moretti’s quantitatively driven effort. But if social media is to be the sponge of all the excess mental energy of the creative class, they seem highly amenable to various actuarial accountings of ourselves; they are designed to quantify and archive everything we do and make our souls accessible to statistical processing.

Structuring the self as inherently entrepreneurial, Facebook as neoliberal state

From Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Democracy” (pdf) in Edgework. This, I hope, will clarify what I am talking about with personal branding and the neoliberal subject. Once these are connected, it paves the way to a broader point I’m trying to argue: that social media is part of the project of establishing neoliberal subjectivity. Facebook, in other words, is an emerging institution whose function (while seeming open-ended and eminently flexible, as the film The Social Network emphasizes — “We don’t know what it’s for, it’s just cool”) is to ground the neoliberal subject, supply it a field where it can be naturalized.

Brown attempts to pin down a definition of neoliberal political rationality — that is to say, how neoliberalism works in practice and manages to justify itself in democratic societies despite producing manifest inequality. The neoliberal state exists only to generate economic growth, and subjects of such state must adapt to suit that goal, adopting individual entrepreneurial goals and values themselves.

First, Brown’s overall point: “Neoliberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.” The assumption that market values or economic rationality yield truth or justice or efficiency is exported into other spheres of social life to organize them, to tell the truth about them. Things that aren’t conformable to economistic thinking don’t exist — they must be reshaped to become visible, processable by that type of rationality. Thus, incentives are said to be “everywhere,” and all human behavior is held to be comprehensible by analyzing them. The analytical tool (economic rationality) posits the content suitable to it, gives it recognized being. Everything else disappears.

Brown puts it this way:

Not only is the human being configured exhaustively as homo oeconomicus, but all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality. While this entails submitting every action and policy to considerations of profitability, equally important is the production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action, conducted according to a calculus of utility, benefit, or satisfaction against a microeconomic grid of scarcity, supply and
demand, and moral value-neutrality. Neoliberalism does not simply assume that all aspects of social, cultural, and political life can be reduced to such a calculus; rather, it develops institutional practices and rewards for enacting this vision. That is, through discourse and policy promulgating its criteria, neoliberalism produces rational actors and imposes a market rationale for decision making in all spheres. Importantly, then, neoliberalism involves a normative rather than ontological claim about the pervasiveness of economic rationality and it advocates the institution building, policies, and discourse development appropriate to such a claim. Neoliberalism is a constructivist project: it does not presume the ontological givenness of a thoroughgoing economic rationality for all domains of society but rather takes as its task the development, dissemination, and institutionalization of such a rationality.

Social media has become one of those institutional practices, with its own set of rewards for reinforcing that sort of subjectivity (my bold above). Brown emphasizes that a subject driven exclusively by profit motive in all things must be constructed; such a subject is not simply given automatically by human nature. Social media assists the neoliberal project by making the development of a personal brand seem second nature. Reciprocal self-promotion seems like the inherent content of social interaction.

Brown describes the consequences of neoliberalism (and its elimination of social safety nets) for its subjects, who must assume full responsibility for outcomes despite unequal resources and opportunities. These new neoliberalist subjects reject collective action in favor of self-aggrandizing consumerism.

The extension of economic rationality to formerly noneconomic domains and institutions reaches individual conduct, or, more precisely, prescribes the citizen-subject of a neoliberal order. Whereas classical liberalism articulated a distinction, and at times even a tension, among the criteria for individual moral, associational, and economic actions (hence the striking differences in tone, subject matter, and even prescriptions between Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and his Theory of Moral Sentiments), neoliberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for “self-care” — the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions. In making the individual fully responsible for her- or himself, neoliberalism equates moral responsibility with rational action; it erases the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits, and consequences. But in so doing, it carries responsibility for the self to new heights: the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action—for example, lack of skills, education, and child care in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits. Correspondingly, a “mismanaged life,” the neoliberal appellation for failure to navigate impediments to prosperity, becomes a new mode of depoliticizing social and economic powers and at the same time reduces political citizenship to an unprecedented degree of passivity and political complacency. The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neoliberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded; indeed, it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is rather a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers … which is, of course, exactly how voters are addressed in most American campaign discourse.

It’s also how Facebook addresses its users, a bunch of isolated nodes connected by its graces and its software, all competing for one another’s attention and approval, urged perpetually to up the stakes of their sharing by Facebook’s algorithms, which determine whether their content will surface widely and reap the sought-after recognition. The bolded part above pertains to Facebook’s success in encouraging us to “connect” on its commercial terms. Facebook has been credited with facilitating revolutions in the Middle East, allowing for groups to organize and communicate, but it’s possible that it only serves that role in a crisis, through a subversion of its implied intended use of multiplying commercial communication, by people who by and large don’t constitute the audience being sold to advertisers and marketers. The revolutionaries more or less freeload on the networks enabled by social media companies, with those companies possibly assuming that with greater freedom for protester/users will come greater chances for social media to harvest their activities commercially. Facebook is a transnational sort of neoliberal state — a idealization of the actual neoliberal states, which are burdened with legacy welfare obligations — whose citizenry need only fulfill the minimum requirements of working for free and scheming to be relevant.