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.


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