Google and goon squads

by Rob Horning

15 July 2011


This December 2010 post by Peter Frase, addressing how capitalism might cope with technology’s diminishing the need for labor inputs, has deservedly been put into broader circulation by Matt Yglesias and Metafilter. Frase sets up a thought experiment based on the Star Trek fantasy of a world in which productive labor has been rendered unnecessary, energy supplies are inexhaustible, and all humans apparently share in universal prosperity. Given these conditions, Frase wonders “how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power?” Would capitalist relations continue to organize society even in the absence of the scarcities that legitimize those relations? If so, how? (Also, are we headed to this sort of society, given the persistence of unemployment and the arguably structural problems with Western economies that economist Michael Spence discusses here?)

Frase imagines that such a society would lean heavily on intellectual property law, presumably enforced by a draconian, all-encompassing surveillance state. It’s not too hard to imagine Google facilitating this under the Orwellian auspices of “Don’t be evil,” especially after reading this article by Evgeny Morozov. “History is rife with examples of how benign and humanistic ideals can yield rather insidious outcomes—especially when backed by unchecked power and messianic rhetoric,” he notes, and cites Said Vaidhyanathan’s argument from The Googlization of Everything that asserts “the triumph of neoliberalism has made the ‘notion of gentle, creative state involvement to guide processes toward the public good ... impossible to imagine, let alone propose.’ ” As manufacturing increasingly becomes a matter of information rather than manpower, Google’s control of the information economy will potentially afford it the opportunity to implement a social structure. We would all essentially work for Google, whether (to draw on Frase’s categories of post-productive labor) we are producing, sorting, and circulating content to attenuate its social value—immaterial labor, by Lazzarato’s definition, which Hardt expands to affective labor; I’ve written a bunch of posts about this sort of thing—or whether we are muscle for intellecual-property enforcement (lawyers and “guard labor,” to use the term Frase adopts from this paper).

Both immaterial labor and lateral surveillance seem to be expanding under the auspices of commercial social media and, as Frase notes, gamification, establishing the infrastructure and the mores to prevent informationalization from leading to an expansion of the commons, as P2P enthusiasts hope. Frase links to Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, which sounds an optimistic note about the increased role of sharing and cooperation in production. Benkler’s analysis resembles in some ways the Marxist theories regarding the “general intellect” that have evolved out of this cryptic section of the Grundrisse. (My effort at decoding it here.) Hardt and Negri extrapolate from the productive cooperation of the “general intellect”—the development of which capitalists theoretically must foment to sustain productivity—something they call the Multitude, a emerging political force that transcends state power and instantiates some sort of spontaneously self-organizing communism made of networks and flows. But it seems as though Web 2.0 companies are developing precisely to pre-empt such possibilities, to enclose the emerging commons and fuse them to structures that emphasize competition and individualism in the midst of enhanced sociality, that foreground status hierarchies rather than dissolve them, that articulate class distinctions rather than undermine them, and so on. Social media foster new forms of “artificial” scarcity (in attention, fame, relevance, identity, etc.) at the same time it eases inequalities in access to cultural goods. We can all download all the music and movies we want and remix them to our hearts content, but this doesn’t touch the inequalities that form the basis of class. And reproducing class, guaranteeing that pre-existing inequalities in wealth and power can be reproduced and carried forward even in the absence of more-traditional methods of labor exploitation, is capitalism’s primary raison d’etre (not increasing productivity or freedom or the “wealth of nations”).

That’s an implicit point of Frase’s thought experiment, I think—to suggest that no amount of prosperity or labor reduction will get rid of the class system and the exploitation it engenders structurally. It’s not a set of social relations designed to promote equality, but its opposite. It creates a dynamic set of values that protect privilege in the face of abundance, in the face of technological improvements, in the face of developments that threatened to invalidate the aristocratic pretenses to inborn and inaccessible superiority.

Frase wonders where the money will come from to sustain the society of the future if zero-marginal-product workers have no right to expect to earn anything (according to neoclassical economic models) in a post-productive economy.

Thus it seems that the main problem confronting the society of anti-Star Trek is the problem of effective demand: that is, how to ensure that people are able to earn enough money to be able to pay the licensing fees on which private profit depends. Of course, this isn’t so different from the problem that confronted industrial capitalism, but it becomes more severe as human labor is increasingly squeezed out of the system, and human beings become superfluous as elements of production, even as they remain necessary as consumers.

He wonders if capitalist ideology would be flexible enough to permit the guaranteed wage system this dilemma seems to require—people get issued some token amount of money to keep the wheels spinning—and if this nonetheless implies stagnation, the end of capitalist growth (and possibly capitalism itself). The issue seems to hinge on the difference between that minimal wage paid out (which stultifies its recipients, locks them in class position) and the creation of economic value that continues to accrue to capitalists. The value creators—the minions of the general intellect—need some nominal amount of money circulating among themselves to lubricate the gears of the social factory, but enough real value must be extracted from that factory to sustain the class divide—to forestall redistributive effects. (My postulate is that capitalists will not create or sustain enterprises that redistribute wealth, only ones that concentrate it.) That value probably can’t continue to be denominated in the same currency as the wages. Perhaps this is perhaps why more people are becoming content to work for attention, especially in the sectors most transformed by information technology, the ones subsumed by code. Google has indeed rolled out “badges” to reward users for consuming and processing news stories through its interface, as Rob Walker notes here.

In the dystopian Google-run world of the future, workers will have attention rankings and goon-squad thug power to oppress one another and promote general insecurity; meanwhile real power and privilege will adhere to the corporation, its big shareholders, and those politicians it patronizes to protect itself.


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