Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Friday, Sep 16, 2011

Karl Smith speculates that the information age has brought on the “rise of the generalist,” by which he means that “the returns to specialization are falling.” I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at, but I think he means that the division of labor is not working out anymore for those who end up in some highly specialized niche, assuming it ever did. Specialization wasn’t ever particularly beneficial for the specialist, who was plugged into an industrial process and lost sight of the general process. Capital made such workers forgo the ability to be generalists—only those who had accumulated sufficient sums of capital could perch themselves at the lofty position overseeing the whole production process. As Harry Braverman details in Labor and Monopoly Capital, specialized workers were typically deskilled (Smith puts this cheerfully as “each person could become more suited to that task and learn the ins and outs of it”), while management amassed the general knowledge required for manufacturing processes so that workers lost their bargaining power and became interchangeable. I’m having trouble, I guess, figuring out when things were ever good for those obliged to specialize in this way; I’m guessing Smith is thinking of specialized workers not as individuals so much then as abstract laborers as a class, whose wages were better before technology eliminated or made exportable many of their positions and eroded their bargaining power even further. Now, as Arnold Kling has suggested, “if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.” Being a “generalist” may be a matter of playing hide-and-seek with management about the particularities of your job function or selling yourself (a la neoliberalism’s mandate of perpetual personal branding) constantly as a jack-of-all-trades virtuoso whose skills can’t be fully enumerated. (So a corollary: If a “fair wage” can be assigned to your position, your position can be eliminated. All the good things you are doing for the company must so elude quantifying that both you and your employer can feel you are getting the better of the bargain.)

The reason Smith’s post caught my attention, though, was his concluding line: “Even if you stop and think for a minute about all of the things that your computer or now even your phone can do, are you now wielding the most generalized tool ever conceived?” This reminded me of a passage in Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, (which I just finished, an effort I am struggling to justify to myself). in “Lesson Seven: The Theory of the Wage,” Negri makes a great deal out of Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse—a section that in Negri’s interpretation outlines how technological development will change work relations to the point where worker-management antagonisms become unmistakable, and the transition to communism will begin as workers become all-sided “social individuals” and their praxis is communism embodied. (Or something like that. It’s complicated.) Negri pretty much block quotes the entire “Fragment” in chunks, including this bit:

In machinery, objectified labour itself appears not only in the form of product or of the product employed as means of labour, but in the form of the force of production itself. The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. In another respect, however, in so far as fixed capital is condemned to an existence within the confines of a specific use value, it does not correspond to the concept of capital, which, as value, is indifferent to every specific form of use value, and can adopt or shed any of them as equivalent incarnations. In this respect, as regards capital’s external relations, it is circulating capital which appears as the adequate form of capital, and not fixed capital.

I don’t know if that reads as mumbo jumbo to someone who hasn’t been steeped in Marxist arcana, and the meaning of all those abstract terms is hotly debated. But I quote it here because I think it corresponds with the point I take Smith to be making. Marx argues that machines, as fixed capital, become part of the total composition of capital that doesn’t generate the profit, to the extent that they are confined to a specific use value. But capitalists still need to increasingly use machines, because they improve productivity and reduce labor costs and allow for partial appropriation of the “social brain.” Information technology appears to resolve the potential problem here, because it is a machine that appears to improve productivity without being so inflexible that it can’t be adapted quickly to new labor processes. It is not “condemned” to a specific purpose but fulfills the ideal of being “indifferent to every use value” and can be adapted to whatever is profitable at a given moment. It is not attached to any of its functions; it is programmable with skills that it can be made to immediately forget. It isn’t sentimental about what it has mastered. The handheld computers that Smith mentions are ideal “generalized tools” for capital—making that partial appropriation of the “social brain” made possible by specific-use machines more general, assimilating an ever widening set of skills to capital and making their embodiment in particular workers superfluous. Marx adds that the worker is moved to the side of the production process and becomes “watchman and regulator,” while “the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body” becomes the source of wealth for capitalists. The way I understand this is that the “magic” we attribute to our devices is a reflection of how our collective productive power as a social body has been alienated, reified (or fetishized, if you prefer) and sold back to us as, say, an iPad. The devices measure the extent of our social power but also the thoroughness with which it has been appropriated, taken away, subjected to capitalist control in accordance with how capital structures social relations. 

Negri seems to find hope for communism in all this, announcing it in cryptic passages like this:

At this stage, the capitalist appropriation of society is total. The subjectivity of capital has been violently activated. Machines and science have constituted and produced it. But the separation within the category has not been suppressed. The antagonism must reproduce itself at the highest level of power. The displacement of antagonistic dialectic must be totally revealed and operate fully at this stage.

I don’t really know what that is supposed to mean, but I think it is an extrapolation of this stirring passage in the “Fragment,” which I find pretty inspirational too (I bolded what I think is the key):

The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

Capital is spurring the technological developments that it must then mystify (as magic devices, for instance) in order to subjugate us, to keep us willing to work for wages even after wages no longer make sense as a measuring rod for the value we produce. But the value being produced—and this is the point cyber utopians and p2p enthusiasts seem to insist upon—is immense and uncontainable within capitalism’s structures. Firms can’t harness and exploit it as profits they can claim, as commodities they can circulate. Instead, the foundation is blown sky-high. Maybe so.


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Thursday, Sep 15, 2011

I have been trying to read Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx. Frequently I have a hard time figuring out what is even at stake in the arguments he’s making; it seems as though he is trying to ground a proof of working-class agency in some finely wrought quasi-Hegelian piece of dialectical deduction. I don’t find this particularly useful, but I am still drawn to his reading of Marx’s ideas about technology and “real subsumption.”

What follows is my attempt to make some sense of those ideas. To begin with, I found this definition, from the “What in the hell…” blog, useful in figuring out what some of the stakes are in Negri:

Marx defined real subsumption of labor in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” the so-called unpublished sixth chapter of Capital Volume One (a translation here). Real subsumption is defined in contrast to formal subsumption of labor. Formal subsumption occurs when capitalists take command of labor processes that originate outside of or prior to the capital relation via the imposition of the wage. In real subsumption the labor process is internally reorganized to meet the dictates of capital. An example of these processes would be weaving by hand which comes to be labor performed for a wage (formal subsumption) and which then comes to be performed via machine (real subsumption). Real subsumption in this sense is a process or technique that occurs at different points throughout the history of capitalism. For some thinkers, such as Antonio Negri, real subsumption of labor is transfigured into real subsumption of society such that all of society becomes a moment of capitalist production. In this version of real subsumption is an epoch, a stage of capitalism within a historical periodization, analogous to postmodernity.

“Real subsumption” is akin, then, to post-Fordism or the “social factory”; the move from formal to real subsumption is arguably a matter of technological development, as directed by capitalism. Technology reorganizes society to lend support to the imposition of wage labor, and the commoditization of more and more of everyday life, of “living labor” or even life itself, as a presupposition, a given. So those of us who precede the “digital natives,” for instance, are subject to “formal” subsumption of friendship—suddenly being “paid” a kind of wage for translating their social lives into preformatted data. Digital natives will be subject to “real” subsumption, in that using social media, etc., will seem like the necessary precondition for friendship.

I don’t know how useful that jargon is, ultimately, but it captures an important “passage,” as Negri would say, in the conjoined development of technology and capitalism. Capitalism continues to expand as it must by subsuming more of social life to the way it organizes relations, configuring encounters as opportunities for commodification and profit extraction, as moments of competition between exchanging parties—as moments of class struggle, in Negri’s account.

The point of emphasizing the passage from formal to real subsumption is to highlight it as a point around which resistance can be organized. In general, if you accept that our being or subjectivity is economically determined, then the function of dialectical criticism is to open up imaginative spaces in which resistance to determinism can be conceived—cracking open the surface of relations to reveal hidden “contradictions” as moments of possibility, of alternatives, of autonomy and opportunity for self-determination.

A critique of technology can be organized around preventing the formal-to-real-subsumption passage, preventing the implementation of technology to grease the skids of this epochal transformation. One way is the “Luddite” approach of rejecting technology, breaking machines, clinging to outmoded work processes that may limit productivity gains but also prevent deskilling from being implemented by management through technology. Or to expand that to Web 2.0 conditions, one rejects social media to prevent social deskilling, the erosion of social skills. We refuse to let convenience and efficiency govern social lives, avoid the seductive trap of narcissism that technology lays out for us, and instead choose slow, more difficult social relations characterized by less frequent but more intensive face-to-face communications. The point is to resist the mediation of sociality, resist turning our various intimate communications into moments for capitalistic commodification, even when they promise to enhance our personal brand or bring us profit/attention/social recognition (on capitalism’s terms). But this strategy has the disadvantage of forcing those who adopt it to live separately from the mainstream of society, as conscientious rejectors, which ultimately isolates them and makes them an ignorable subculture within a capitalist society that proceeds without them.

One can alternatively proselytize for dropping out. One could try to use subversively the technology that capitalist development has brought, deploying it against the real subsumption it is designed to foster. In other words, one could use social-media technology to continually announce the dangers incipient within it.

That seems somewhat facile (the subsumption captures resistance; it makes Che into Che T-shirts) and open to accusations of hypocrisy (though it is basically what I do—I’m doubling down on hypocrisy here), which is probably why Negri and his followers advocate pushing through this passage, totalizing it, and seizing that complete unification of the working class in social life as always already production as the condition of the transition to communism. But such a program still seems like cooperating with capital, merely relabeling its prerogatives with radical terminology. At this point I am content to try and think about how formal and real subsumption are progressing on the front of everyday life. The relevant terminology for that seems to be things like affective labor, immaterial labor, emotional labor, erotic capital. Technology is serving to accelerate the accumulation of these forms of capital, which it helps constitute in the first place—communication, consumption, and identity broadcasting and so on are being made more efficient and “convenient” at the same time that convenience also institutes universal surveillance. Also, these new forms of capital foist the responsibilities of entrepreneurship on their putative owners, reconfiguring the wage as a return on investment rather than the result of a struggle with management for a fairer share of the surplus. One way of understanding neoliberalism, then, is to see it as the passage to real subsumption. (That the surplus is socially produced is masked by capitalist relations.)

Anyway. Even when I can’t figure out what Negri is getting at in his glosses in Marx Beyond Marx, he consistently excerpts fascinating passages from the Grundrisse. I think this is pretty awesome, for example:

Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness [Naturbedürftigkeit], and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because a historically created need has taken the place of the natural one. This is why capital is productive; i.e. an essential relation for the development of the social productive forces. It ceases to exist as such only where the development of these productive forces themselves encounters its barrier in capital itself.

This strikes me as a key idea about technology with respect to capital. Pursuit of profit (i.e. the elaboration of the capital relation) drives us to extend our ideas of what is “necessary” in life—beyond the classic Conan formulation of “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of the women,” if you will. So cooperation with capital appears to be an extension of the self, McLuhan style—an opportunity to become more “all-sided” and thus consume/enjoy more, and regard these acts of consumption as fundamental to who are. That is, we start to regard consumption as “productive,” as expressing our basic capacity to do things. Marx seems to suggest here that “individuality” as we experience it is actually contingent on capitalism—the degree to which we are constituted by the relations it posits. This is why “individualism” should be held in some suspicion—this seems easier to do, actually, with the advent of technology, as this kind of individualism now so obviously manifests as personal branding. (Maybe there is some sort of negation of the negation at work. Individualism that was once a product of “real subsumption” suddenly seems an alien thing that we are obliged to operate, develop.)

It seems to me that we then come to depend on the technology, as it is embedded in capitalism, that elaborates consumption as opportunities for self-expression. Mediating consumption makes it appear productive: To the consumers, it makes it expressive of the self to an audience as opposed to a private moment of sustenance, and to capital, mediation makes consumption into data that is raw material for further production (i.e. it becomes more capital). We cooperate willingly with the subsumption process because it appears as a kind of liberation into a new of wonderful all-sidedness, even though these new sides are opened to us only as moments of exploitation, ultimately—the new sides are just new ways to work for someone else through the technology. But the hope is that we can reclaim these new sides to ourselves and render them autonomous from capital. That seems to be Negri’s hope anyway, and the healthy gist of the argument in Multitude as I understand it.


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Friday, Sep 9, 2011

I haven’t posted here in a while, but I have been busy on Twitter. (@marginalutility) Lots of links mostly (and hopefully not too much inside joking and side chatter.)

And I have a few posts up at the Jacobin’s blog: one about Jaron Lanier‘s recent interview at, and one about gamification. Please read!

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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2011

Mike Konczal wrote a critique of Mitt Romney’s plan to convert unemployment insurance into something that more closely resembles a 401(k)—the idea being that everyone should have the “freedom” to manage their own unemployment insurance in accordance to how they assess their own personal risk. Of course, as Konczal notes, it would also help erode the idea that government exists in part to provide a general social safety net and aggregate social risk efficiently in order to defray it—conservative thinking is that individuals should bear all of life’s risks themselves. The private-account gambit is one of the quintessential neoliberal policy moves, ostensibly ending government “interference” in the labor market by making sure workers are as insecure as possible.

Conservatives favor these sort of arrangements, Konczal suggests, because “people will look at private savings accounts and think that the government isn’t doing anything.” This furthers their arguments for dismantling the services government provides to all straightforwardly while protecting the “submerged” benefits that the rich, savvy, and well connected are better positioned to exploit through knowing how to take advantage of tax loopholes—a phenomenon explored in this American Prospect essay by Suzanne Mettler and elaborated here by Henry Farrell. It reminds me also of arguments Dean Baker makes in The Conservative Nanny State (pdf) and Jamie Galbraith makes in The Predator State (excerpt here). They argue that the rich have figured out the government exists to be looted, and the key political question is how to perpetuate and mask that process at the same time. One good way of doing that is through expanding the “submerged state” and generating policies that confront people with decisions that they are not sophisticated enough to make on their own and make them into more vulnerable prey. Private retirement accounts, for example, are far more lootable by financial advisors, etc., than the guaranteed-benefit pensions they have supplanted. (In the mean time, conservatives have succeeded in convincing many of us that our Social Security benefits are insecure and that the U.S. government is perfectly capable of simply reneging on its debts.)

If neoliberal reform is intended to let markets govern more and more of our everyday lives, then it’s not surprising that the tactics of exploitation rife in market exchange—things akin to price discrimination and exploiting asymmetrical information and implementing hidden fees through confusing contracts—will also come into play. Markets are often good at incentivizing complexity, which produces the ignorance they need as an alibi. Cell-phone service providers, mortgage originators, used-car salespeople, the travel industry (hotels, rental cars, airlines) are the classic exemplars of these tactics, but they are endemic in a consumer economy whose firms frequently depend on stratifying customers to maximize profits. But when applied to the distribution of tax obligations and government services, these tactics become the legitimized means for reproducing and expanding existing disparities between classes while making it seem as though that is the fault of the disadvantaged—it’s their fault for being ignorant, too “lazy” to master the tax code, or to drive hard bargains of their own.

In his response to Konzal’s post, Corey Robin notes the needless complexity of the arrangement, “all the time and energy we as individuals now have to devote to doing the things that the state used to do for us” thanks to neoliberalism and privatization. Robin adds, “The right thinks of that as freedom—they hear the words ‘state is doing for you’ and they imagine patients etherized on a table—but I think of it as tyranny.” Peter Frase concurs in this response, pointing out that “in a highly unequal society, greater complexity in the institutions of the state will generally favor the interests of the rich.” He concludes that “the right has gotten a lot of mileage of out of the demand for small government. Maybe it’s time for the left to make a bigger deal out of simple government.” That seems like a pretty good idea to me, though the logic may lead to supporting policies like the flat tax. Also, our tendency to overrate our pleasure in making decisions for ourselves (and underestimate the problem of ego depletion) makes us vulnerable to believing that it is generally simpler for us to do things ourselves and assume total responsibility for them. The celebration of individualism in American society is such that there is already ideological momentum behind the idea that self-managing everything is somehow always convenient, even in the face of frustrating experiences to the contrary, which are seen as isolated exceptions.

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Friday, Aug 12, 2011

I borrowed the title for this post from my friend Anton of Generation Bubble, who forwarded me a link to this NYT article by Stephanie Clifford about Pret à Manger, sort of the Target of sandwich shops, assuming Subway is the Wal-Mart. If you want to see a horrific application of all the principles of immaterial and affective labor, Virnoesque virtuosity, lateral surveillance, obligatory reflexivity, emotional management, gamification and so on, you need look no further.

How does any company encourage teamwork? At Pret a Manger, executives say, the answer is to hire, pay and promote based on — believe it or not — qualities like cheerfulness.

There is a certain “Survivor” element to all of this. New hires are sent to a Pret a Manger shop for a six-hour day, and then the employees there vote whether to keep them or not. Ninety percent of prospects get a thumbs-up. Those who are voted out are sent home with £35 ($57), no hard feelings.

The crucial factor is gaining support from existing employees. Those workers have skin in the game: bonuses are awarded based on the performance of an entire team, not individuals. Pret workers know that a bad hire could cost them money.

All the joys of tournament labor markets like those that exist in academia, with none of the “life of the mind” rationalizations. And instead of solidarity against management, each worker becomes the face of management, another Stasi spy for the happy police.

But that is not nearly enough surveillance to allow Pret’s management to discriminate among workers:

Pret also sends “mystery shoppers” to every shop each week. Those shoppers give employee-specific critiques. (”Bill didn’t smile at the till,” for instance.) If a mystery shopper scores a shop as “outstanding” — 86 percent of stores usually qualify — all of the employees get a £1-per-hour bonus, based on a week’s pay, so full-timers get around $73. “There’s a lot of peer pressure,” said Andrea Wareham, the human resources director at Pret.

DARE sessions in school taught me that peer pressure was bad, but I suppose peer pressure, in this context, is good. It is the vaunted power of worker collaboration and cooperation turned inside out and made into a coercive management tool. One’s very ability to get along with others is alienated and quantified,amde into somethign you would only do for money rather than from basic human solidarity. Pret rejects the sort of human sociality that might thrive outside of capital, that is possible in environments where making a profit by selling commodified service experiences isn’t the overriding goal. Instead Pret chooses to incentivize human feeling and turn the point of exchange into an explicit, quantified moment of affective labor while turning worker cooperation into a reified shadow of itself. That policy is carried out all down the line, apparently, with no sociality left unincentivized and thus unexploited:

Pret reinforces the teamwork concept in other ways. When employees are promoted or pass training milestones, they receive at least £50 in vouchers, a payment that Pret calls a “shooting star.” But instead of keeping the bonus, the employees must give the money to colleagues, people who have helped them along the way.

There are other rewards. Every quarter, the top 10 percent of stores, as ranked by mystery-shopper scores, receive about £30 per employee for a party. The top executives at Pret get 60 “Wow” cards, with scratch-off rewards like £10 or an iPod, to hand out each year to employees who strike them as particularly good. Pret has all-staff parties twice a year, and managers get a monthly budget of £100 or so to spend on drinks or outings for their workers.

“Rewards, through bonuses or ‘outstanding’ cards, affect behavior,” Ms. Wareham says.

Wow cards, I suppose, are the Scooby snacks of the service industry. It’s always nice to be recognized, but there seems to be something backhanded about making even that a lottery scenario. And in the end, it’s just Pavlovian manipulation, not genuine recognition of the worker as a human. The incentivizing of feeling leaves no space for the employees to be recognized in and of themselves. Everything about them as feeling creatures has been subsumed by the wage relation. That’s what is so creepy about going into a Pret—you know they are being forced to be nice to you and are being carefully watched by other fake-nice bosses and informers. It feels like those moments in movies about people in a mental asylum, where the patients try to maintain a facade of controlled politeness in hopes of demonstrating their newfound sanity. This sounds sort of insane to me, anyway:

Every new employee gets a thick binder of instructions. It states, for example, that employees should be “bustling around and being active” on the floor, not “standing around looking bored.” It encourages them to occasionally hand out free coffee or cakes to regulars, and not “hide your true character” with customers.

Can a boss really force you to display your “true character” without driving you into an insane spiral of endlessly recursive reflexivity? And is one’s “true character” nothing more than picking random lottery-winner customers to hand a cake to? Are human interactions so conditioned by the imperative of exchange that giving and getting something for nothing is the best way to simulate genuineness, or sincere benevolence? Perhaps the looting in London was just a big expression of love.

The article should put to rest any ideas that the implementation of such concepts as gamification and the general intellect are inherently benevolent or subversive. Instead, they can be deployed by management to create a kind of affective Taylorism, where emotional experiences are assembled under hurry-up conditions and energetically concealed duress. Unless you believe that it’s more fun to be forced to pretend to be having fun while working a deli counter—maybe the findings that people who are forced to smile report being happier apply here also. Clifford notes that Pret’s “annual work force turnover rate is about 60 percent — low for the fast-food industry, where the rate is normally 300 to 400 percent.” Stockholm Syndrome is a powerful management tool.

The emotional labor being extracted from Pret employees exemplifies the way tight labor markets give employers the chance to cement expectations of a more pliant disposition from workers. The new normal is a grotesque sycophancy sugarcoated as a fun, cheerful workplace where “teamwork” rules. In an email, Anton says Pret’s approach elicits an “unprecedented self-relation—instrumentalization of mood and affect as a way of producing surplus value. It can only end in a psychotic break.” I’m inclined to agree.

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