Wages and Prizes

by Rob Horning

7 December 2010


I put a link to this post by Jodi Dean on my Twitter feed (@marginalutility—I have periodically been posting links there, as well as the customary self-promotion) but wanted to highlight it here too. Dean excerpts a portion of her conference paper (draft pdf) on the future of democracy that makes an interesting point about the internet and social media and so on starting to transform labor markets into contests. The shift to a more network-driven economy—one which exploits the communications common (itself increasingly online and controlled/administered by big internet companies like Google and Facebook)—means that markets, more driven by power-law distribution, tend to become more winner-take-all for competing conglomerates, which hope to market the mega-selling products that will dominate their sectors. Dean argues that the communication common online is being fostered as a petri dish in which those megasellers (“the one”) can be identified or developed: “Exploitation consists in efforts to stimulate the creative production of the field in the interest of finding, and then monetizing, the one. Expanding the field produces the one (or, hubs are an immanent property of complex networks).”

In other words, the pool of quasi-voluntary communication that has been captured online by private companies makes up a big productive resource out of which certain economic winners emerge. The emergence depends on the mass of participants, virtually all of whom get only the satisfaction of participation as their reward, even though the work they are doing for free is removing jobs from the economy, and hurting them all, as a proletarianized class, in the aggregate. Those conditions—which resemble a general lottery—naturalize the idea that wages for work should be determined through a contest settled “democratically” by participating individuals, possibly in social media, rather than something negotiated into contracts, possibly by unions. Social media and the communities they tend to generate end up being fake unions that neutralize real ones.

And as consumption and production merge in everyday life for more people, it seems normal to work hard merely for a chance at getting the money one needs to live.

Rather than having a right to the proceeds of one’s labor by virtue of a contract, ever more of us win or lose such that remuneration is treated like a prize. In academia, art, writing, architecture, entertainment, design, and, in the US, increasing numbers of different areas (education, technology), people not only feel fortunate to get work, to get hired, to get paid, but ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions, which means that those doing the work are not paid unless they win. They work but only for a chance at pay.

What makes this potentially worse is that such work (being online and contributing or organizing information, sharing), so much closer subjectively to consumption or self-actualization, will register as meaningful and will feel like progress. Perhaps this sort of work (sometimes called immaterial labor), combined with welfare payments, could be the foundation of a less exploitative social order in which what people do “for a living” actually seems to constitute the meaning of their life, and no one is left “unemployed” and rendered socially worthless. But under our current conditions, immaterial labor mainly makes life more precarious, and taints the things we ordinarily would enjoy doing with an urgent anxiety. We can’t just be ourselves; we have to make ourselves a personal brand that we desperately need our friends,  i.e. networked nodes, to buy into.

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