Useless Labor and Production of the Self

[18 February 2011]

By Rob Horning

Why won’t hipsterism ever go away? Consider that technology (facilitated by capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency; i.e., consider the assembly line a technology as well as the internet) is stripping people of what has been traditionally defined as “useful” or “legitimate” or “meaningful” work, and thus stripping meaning from their lives. “Nothing productive left to do since the robots came; better make my consumption more flamboyant and self-announcing!”

Ryan Avent, paraphrasing a point made by Steve Waldman in a great post on Tyler Cowen’s recent book The Great Stagnation, writes:

The big innovations are all massively labour-saving. Humanity has gotten richer because new technologies have enabled people to wring ever more out of a given level of labour. And so through this long era of rapid technological change, people are constantly being thrown out of work and asked to find something useful to do. Throughout the 20th century, government has been there to provide that something. Governments at all levels have grown, in both absolute terms and as a share of the economy. So, too, has employment in government-like fields like health care and education. Maybe, just maybe, the growth of these fields isn’t a drag on output. Maybe those fields have grown to absorb the increasing mass of more or less useless labour in “gainful” employment, and to provide those workers with an income—a share of the surplus generated by the productive sector that they can use to live off and perpetuate the consumption portion of the economy.

One might object that no labor is in fact “useless” if someone is willing to pay for it. If that is so, then we will naturally begin to increasingly locate our self-worth in net worth, since social recognition is not conferred by the quality of our social contribution in these useless fields (though the examples given, heath care and education, are not particularly useless, just somewhat immaterial). But if the “useless” work—and I am thinking more of designy-ness, creative-class hucksterism, culture industry, etc., than care work—must be subsidized via the government through a redistribution regime, theoretically something that might look like a negative income tax (Guy Sorman recently defended the idea in City Journal here), then what we make (money or stuff) can’t testify to our personal value either. We’re doing useless things and collecting the dole like the rest of our peers, so what makes us stand out?

Hence the field of consumption becomes the field of distinction and social recognition as well, and consuming becomes a sort of semiotic labor that absorbs more and more of our natural inclination to do something regarded as socially useful. (And Shop Class as Soulcraft-style retro crafts like carpentry and gardening and Etsy-ism start to register as consumerist hobbies, not “real” production.)  Social media supplies the factory and distribution center for this sort of work, as well as the scoreboard in the form of data about just how many people are paying attention to you. We produce content and links to try to “connect” to others, that is, have them regard us as socially necessary the way, say, in the 19th century the village blacksmith was vitally necessary when the horse you were traveling on pulled up lame. (Okay, that was a somewhat far-flung, Downton Abbey-inspired example.) The point is we want to feel useful, and there are fewer opportunities for that in the sphere of production. So consumption becomes production, and the main way that happens is to make what we consume more salient and more socially significant, to have it inflect an ever-shifting language of status signifiers.

This whole set-up, in turn, fuels the view that narcissism and hipsterism are increasing society-wide, since self-production in the mode of marketing copy (developing the personal brand) is more and more what people do, if not for a living, then simply to appear, to be socially relevant.

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