[-empyre-] Reply to Anna's questions...

Marco Deseriis md1445 at nyu.edu
Sun Oct 25 03:20:02 EST 2009

Hi Will,

thank you for posting this interesting comment, the question of the 
creation of value in the digital world is indeed critical. I have the 
feeling that for the first time there is now a significant pool of 
scholars who are exploring this issue from different angles. The main 
strand is the (post-)Marxist critique of immaterial labor, but there are 
other approaches that are emerging, especially in the field of visual 
culture, which are equally interesting.

The conference you mention here is part of a series of conferences 
organized by Trebor Scholz at the New School, which will culminate in a 
three-day held The Internet as Playground and Factory, which will be 
held at the New School on Nov 12-14:


In relation to the panel discussion you are just mentioning, I am 
pasting below Paolo Carpignano's response to the "Changing Labor Value" 
panel, which he posted on the iDC mailing list few days ago. Carpignano 
is Associate Professor of Media Studies and Sociology at the New School.

Marco Deseriis


Response to the Changing Labor Value panel

It might be useful to start from the differences. Had Richard Sennet 
participated, as it was announced originally, it would have been easier. 
After all his work is representative of a very learned but moderately 
progressive critique of the current problems of labor and it would have 
provided a more clear-cut counterpart to the more radical and 
transformative approaches of Andrew Ross and Tiziana Terranova (from now 
on AR and TT). In their case, difference might be too strong a word. It 
might be more appropriate to talk about degrees of emphasis. Yet, I am 
going to highlight a few areas where, in my opinion, they diverge in the 
hope of adding some clarity to the current discourse on the nature of 
labor and on its possible political ramifications.

There is a strong sense of continuity, almost inevitability in the 
picture that AR gives of the current restructuring of labor, 
particularly in the case of the so called creative industries and new 
media industries, resulting in a high degree of flexibility and 
precariousness of working conditions. AR explicitly claims that such 
restructuring is but the latest stage of a trend that started in the 
1920’s under the managerial practices of Human Relations. I find this 
assertion rather problematic because either it is too general a 
statement about the constant attempt on the part of capital to regiment 
its workforce by force or inducement (and in this case it can be applied 
to the history of capitalism even before the advent of Human Relations), 
or, if it is the result of a comparative analysis of specific managerial 
strategies , it misses the important point that the current capitalist 
turn in regards to labor is a repudiation of Human Relations’ theories 
and practices of the past. In fact, at the risk of simplifying, one can 
say that the break between Fordism and Post-Fordism, consists, to a 
great degree, in the substitution of Human Relations with what it is 
often called distributed management or self management, and therefore 
with an entirely new conception of what management and labor are. 
Historically, Human Relations were developed to respond to the failure 
of Taylorism and Scientific Management in order to create a docile work 
force that could be molded to fit the dictates of standardized mass 
production (the assembly line being the epitome of such arrangement), 
and to recognize the need to deal with workers subjectivity and their 
rebellion to work rules and rhythms. Thus, Human Relations began to 
consider the work force as a counterpart to be dealt with through some 
form of communication and negotiation. It led eventually to the 
recognition of shop floor representation albeit with a clear separation 
of management from waged labor. More broadly, it corresponded to the 
dialectics of classes of the Keynesian system and of the welfare state. 
The neoliberal turn and the Post-Fordist mode of production have 
drastically changed the terms of engagement. In rethinking the 
enterprise, to the point of envisioning its disappearance in a series of 
distributes entities, current management theory tries to capture the 
realities of a drastically reconfigured labor dynamics characterized by 
work teams, temporary employment, flexible skills and amateur “free 
labor” . But for AR these new realities are but an extension of old 
Human Relations strategies. The difference today is only in the degree 
of “permissiveness” (his word). It is not by chance that for AR Harry 
Braverman is a paradigmatic author. Capitalism leads inevitably to a 
progressive impoverishment of the quality of labor and to a 
socialization of alienation and exploitation, a sort of 
proletarianization of the whole society that might not take the form of 
deskilling, as Braverman claims, but that nevertheless leads to even 
worse conditions of sacrificial labor and self exploitation.

For TT, instead, the importance of the present restructuring consists in 
the novelty and discontinuity that they represent in relation to the 
previous social economic formation. TT is interested in understanding 
the current changes in managerial practices, but also in reading these 
changes against the grain, so to speak , from the other side of the 
relationships of production. Thus, she is interested in analyzing not 
only the new forms of extraction of value from labor, but also the new 
subjective practices that accompany and shape those relations, and in 
drawing implications for a new political strategy. Interestingly enough 
it is Marx that provides a guide for the understanding of the present 
turn in the nature of labor. Marx shows that there are always two 
inextricably connected sides of the labor process: the side of 
exploitation and alienation, and the side of cooperation. In general, 
the Marxist tradition has emphasized the former and left the latter to 
the realm of politics and consciousness, beyond the labor process. Yet, 
the changing nature of labor in Post-Fordism has shifted the balance of 
productive forces on the side of cooperation. Increasingly, it is social 
engagement, both in the sense of interpersonal relationship and 
symbiosis with technological artifacts, that drives innovation and 
creativity to the center of production by transforming machinery into 
media. But cooperation is also the site of subjective practices of 
resistance, and here is where TT sees the opening of new possibilities 
for alternative forms of production. We could say succinctly that where 
AR is describing the new conditions of labor as a social factory, TT 
sees them as a factory of the social. Work in the new productive 
landscape is increasingly characterized by communication, symbolic 
interaction, affective engagements. It entails less and less fabrication 
and more social cooperation, (what she and others call “immaterial 
labor”). And these are the material conditions that give rise to new 
subjective practices.

The difference between the two approaches becomes even more evident when 
they try to envision future developments and to formulate alternatives. 
In my view, AR analysis leads ultimately to a very defensive position. 
It seems that his main concern is to alleviate the deteriorating working 
conditions of the labor force and to fight the onslaught of 
neoliberalism’s restructuring, which undoubtedly has created, 
particularly in the present crisis, massive unemployment, the increase 
in precarity and the abolition of safety nets. To respond to such 
devastating dislocations much more has to be done in terms of providing 
adequate income maintenance programs (see for instance the current push 
on health care) or for the development of new forms of labor 
organization that expand across economic sectors and global 
fragmentation. But if we follow TT’s perspective, these struggles have a 
much greater strategic value to the extent to which, in addition to 
being defensive measures, they prefigure new productive arrangements and 
alternative social configurations.

Take for instant the proposal of a guarantee income. Whatever the 
difference between Europe and the US, in terms of historical 
circumstances and short term feasibility, it appears to be an issue that 
is gaining ground and could be central to a policy debate in the near 
future. However, a guarantee income can be conceptualized quite 
differently and have different political implications. For AR a 
guarantee income is a remedy for the instability and flexibility of 
employment. By providing income security it increases the chances of 
finding adequate employment. For TT a guarantee income is, in a larger 
context, a stepping stone in the direction of severing the relation 
between income and work. A guarantee income based on life needs and not 
productive performance goes a long way in prefiguring and give 
sustenance to experiments of non economic productive arrangements. The 
political value of a struggle around a guarantee income is in the 
linking of immediate defensive measures to the strategic new 
institutions of cooperation, what TT calls the commons. Seen from this 
point of view, the path from the guarantee income to the commons is part 
of the process that, in the Italian Marxist literature that TT refers 
to, is called the “exodus”. In other words, the potentials expressed by 
the current social dynamics point to the opening of areas of self 
valorization and autonomous social practices that are quite different 
from the preceding dialectics of classes.

I think it is clear by now where my preferences lie. However I think 
that the conceptual framework and the practice of the new commons are 
still, to say the least, in their infancy and there are some fundamental 
political and theoretical issues that have to be addressed and 
clarified. What is the nature of the commonality that it is detected in 
current subjective practices and proposed for future institutional 
forms? For instance, it is not clear to me to what extent there is a 
direct path from immaterial labor to the commons. Is the common a 
realization of labor, albeit a labor based on cooperation rather than 
competition? Is it the old Marxist notion of emancipation of labor 
through labor? And if so, how does it differ from the historical 
experience of soviets and workers’ councils, except from the heightened 
sociality of immaterial labor? It could be just another version of 
industrial democracy, a democracy for the social factory. If, on the 
contrary, it means not just exodus of labor but /from/ labor, and from 
its connotations of productivity, utility and efficacy, then it would be 
nothing short of a redefinition of praxis itself. And maybe that is what 
is required today.

Will Pappenheimer wrote:
> On Oct 21, 2009, at 11:52 AM, Lichty, Patrick wrote:
>> author/producer/reader/consumer/editor/intervener/etc. has become  
>> such a set of flickering signifiers
> Patrick,
> I went to a panel discussion entitled "Changing Labor Value" recently,  
> featuring works by your sometimes collaborator Scott Kildall and  
> others. The panelists, Andrew Ross and Tiziana Terranova, and the  
> ongoing conference were connected with Trebor Scholz and his concerns.  
> Summarizing their presentations would be difficult here but I think  
> are worth mentioning. The network content or knowledge "commons",  
> which emerges from the reader/producer flows (Roland Barthes), is also  
> becoming co-opted by an adapting business model which seeks free labor  
> for its capital. I don't think Barthes anticipated this nor would he  
> be so pleased. The labor and capital in this case is of course derived  
> from social relations in participatory media. Each time you write an e- 
> mail in Google, for example, related advertisers pop up. This is a  
> situation developing in very recent years and I am myself a huge fan  
> of these media, However, I am mindful of this turn. The panelists in  
> the conference were extremely pessimistic about what it will mean for  
> the labor value, paradoxically, even for the compensation of writing.  
> The rise of reality television, its extensions in YouTube, are what  
> Andrew Ross describes as a "jackpot economy"  in which the audience it  
> is supposedly the authors (for free) but only one or two participants  
> win, not to mention the producers. Foucault has more insights into  
> this picture (Panopticon). When asked about what the art world had to  
> offer, the panelists painted a similar scenario.
> I don't mean to say that I agreed with every aspect of their analysis,  
> nor that it represents a doomsday picture of network culture, nor that  
> I believe it is fully representative of what we do as network artists,  
> but simply that is a flip-side of the developing picture that needs to  
> be considered. So I think we must be careful in conflating "author/ 
> producer/reader/consumer/editor/intervener/etc." as one persona, and  
> that's what you perhaps meant to by "flickering"?  In some significant  
> way it makes me think of "wrestling" with language...
> Will Pappenheimer
> Assistant Professor, Digital Art
> Pace University, New York
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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