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The social factory

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Monday, Dec 14, 2009

I have a new post up at Generation Bubble about consumerism as disguised labor, uncompensated peer production. It draws heavily from “multitude” theory, and Paolo Virno in particular. The gist is that we don’t have much labor to offer that could be exploited in terms of operating machinery or that sort of thing, so the new way of extracting surplus value from our “labor” in what the Italian theorists like to call the “post-Fordist economy” is to turn our social being into a kind of covert work that we perpetuate throughout the day, but in forms that can be co-opted by capitalist firms. The various ways in which we collaborate and socialize with one another becomes value for a business somewhere. Work processes, as Virno explains, become diverse, but social life begins to homogenize in the sense that our identity becomes something we must prove in the public sphere—we all become concerned with the self as brand. (See Virno’s claims here.) This results in the “valorization”—Marxist jargon for value enhancement—“of all that which renders the life of an individual unique”—which is to say our concern for our uniqueness, our identity in social contexts, becomes a kind of value-generating capital, or rather a circulating commodity.


This plays out in seemingly innocuous ways. It can be a matter of hyping a product free of charge but using it or talking about it. Or this can be a matter of going to parties with co-workers, learning to get along better and therefore increasing the efficiency of processes on the job. Or it is a matter of behaving politely among strangers, extending a system of politeness and trust that can be harvested economically as a reduction in transaction costs. Or it can be a matter of friending one another online and creating a social map whose byways can later be retraced by marketing concerns. Web 2.0 is basically a set of tool for capturing that labor, for which we are not compensated with wages but with a stronger sense of self (we shape our identity by promoting products, essentially, associating ourselves with them and attenuating their emotional valence) and a feeling that we are relevant, part of a broader discourse, being recognized for knowing things. As Virno claims, “wage labor is interaction” now. In The Wealth of Networks economist Yochai Benkler writes of this phenomena more positively, identifying ways in which non-market “social” production and “sharing” can nonetheless fulfill economic functions To put it in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, our habitus—our manifest and class-bound way of being in the social world—is transformed into a productive force without our conscious consent by the way various social media have infiltrated everyday life.


The concept threatens to be so broad as to be useless, in that seems to embrace all behavior and reinterpret it as productive consumption—not clear if that is a product of consumer society or the febrile mind of theorists. Naturally I think it is the former.

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