Human capital vs. the multitude

Branko Milanovic wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera urging that we “junk the phrase human capital”: 

why is “human capital” such a disastrous turn of phrase? There are two reasons. First, it obfuscates the crucial difference between labor and capital by terminologically conflating the two. Labor now seems to be just a subspecies of capital. Second and more important, it leads to a perception — and sometimes to the argument used by insufficiently careful economists — that all individuals, whether owners of real capital or not, are basically capitalists.

That is not a bug but a feature for the economists who coined it, who would likely have been pleased if their model and lingo could help reshape reality to make everyone behave as if their model were true, and we all were entrepreneurial enterprises rather than humans. 

Part of the point of neoliberalism is to convince us that there are no opposed classes of “capitalists” and “workers”: there are only capitalists who all supposedly get to play by the same rules (even if they don’t start with the same advantages). It also aims to convince us that we are all individually responsible for our own economic fate and our own productive capacity, as if productive processes have become so modular that cooperation no longer meaningfully factors in. According to the fantasy implied by human capital, the value of the capital that the individual as enterprise “possesses” depends on the good will or collaboration of others only insofar as you can get them to pay you. If you can’t find a way to monetize your skills, then obviously you haven’t properly instrumentalized your social connections into “social capital.”

Neoliberalism prompts us to see individualism and personal responsibility and precarity and personal risk everywhere, even as social connectivity is enhanced and “the social factory” gears up to subsume everything. Neoliberal rhetoric (most blatant in things like Freakomics, but deployed liberally throughout commercial media, not to mention how it is built in to many institutions and technologies) serves to distract us from the increased opportunity for solidarity and collectivity that comes with the vast increases in connectivity (that now typically play out as the unhappy contradiction of increased isolation and surveillance simultaneously.) In “The Neoliberal Subject of Value: Measuring Human Capital in Information Economies,” an essay for Cultural Politics, Niels van Doorn makes a useful distinction between two approaches to understanding the “real subsumption” of everyday life under contemporary capitalism.   

If we juxtapose this analysis of human capital to the Autonomist analysis of labor power, it is evident that both offer a distinctive diagnosis of the “real subsumption” of life by capital, when all of life becomes potentially productive of monetary value. However, they crucially differ in their conceptualizations of the forms of subjectivity engendered by this condition. Rendered succinctly, the Autonomist analysis conceives of the worker as a fundamentally collective subject, whose living labor is rooted in cooperative practices whose value will always partly exceed economic calculation and measurement. In contrast, the entrepreneur of neoliberal analyses is an individual subject whose investments require comprehensive measurement in order to calculate her human capital — a measure that is always in direct competition with others. Thus, while both theories agree that life’s productive capacities — for example, social and linguistics skills, but also health and other physical attributes — cannot be separated from the bodies of those who work, they offer radically different views on what constitutes work, how it is experienced and organized, and how it should be measured and valued. 

The measurement tools that are emerging from the tech sector, van Doorn’s argument suggests, are meant in part to assure the supremacy of the neoliberal view. The metrics that social media apps deploy to incentivize and guide user behavior solidify the groundwork for what Michael Power (whom van Doorn cites) calls an “audit explosion”: 

The ultimate significance of the audit explosion lies not so much with the rise of formal monitoring in wide and widening areas of social and economic life; it is more to do with the consequent elevation of auditing to an administrative and management style in its own right… . The audit is not simply a practice but also a cultural value in which the auditee is the product of a profound transformation of the subject, the construction of an “auditable” professional self.

What is real about the self is only that which can be measured — the logic of human capital made concrete and quantifiable. The so-called social graph (touted by Facebook primarily) attempts to apply the logic to solidarity and human cooperation, reducing it to a quantifiable form of human capital that belongs to individual users. Mapping connections is a prelude to distributing power and establishing hierarchies among those integrated into the grid. In the neoliberalist view, there is no connection without ranking; every social relation has embedded in it a hierarchy. There is no equality among friends.

Van Doorn focuses on the ultimate commensurability of these metrics, and the possibility that they may be consolidated into a single metric, something that Klout (remember Klout?) was a first draft of. But the rise of Big Data and algorithmic processing offers a different possibility: not one metric that masquerades as an objective measure of human capital, but metrics tailored to the specific need for discrimination in any given situation. The various metrics can be combined and correlated and cross-referenced to create bespoke niches that allow for the rationalization of whatever prejudicial outcome was preferred at the onset of any evaluative process. Big Data makes the alibi of objectivity far more flexible in its potential for deployment (how very neoliberal!). 

All metrics are potentially commensurable with all others, but only certain ones need be amalgamated and deployed at any given moment. So rather than being able to evaluate oneself and one’s human capital with reference to one master metric, one must continue to speculate as to what black-boxed combination of data is being used to discriminate against you, and scramble to fix oneself up on all plausible fronts. 

That continual insecurity prods all sorts of productive behavior, all sorts of further data collection and further vectors for algorithmic discrimination. But insecurity only spurs us to the degree that we buy into the neoliberal narratives of sole individual proprietorship over our metrics. The more we see our metrics as not the personal data about ourselves, but as a numeric approximation of a situation created by the entire social context around the measured activity, the more we can theoretically reject them as incentives. (Embrace the multitude, build and protect the commons, etc.) Unfortunately, the application of those metrics by force by the institutions that hold sway over those social contexts (the owners of the social factory’s various components, for instance) can serve to reincentivize us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s