[iDC] precarity, distributed capitalism and resistance

Ksenija Berk ksenija.berk at siol.net
Wed Jan 3 12:21:51 EST 2007

Hi Michel, Trebor, Brian...

Great debate and postings and I have decided to post one of my recent texts for which I think fits quite nicely into this debate. Originally it was sent as a contribution for the book Creativity for All, but since there were no news about it for quite a while from the my-ci list I decided to put it on this list as a small contribution to the ongoing debate... 

I absolutely agree with what Michel wrote, I am just the one of Them:
On a deeper level, socially, we are less and less in a pure situation of workers/consumers that are exploited by an external force, but rather, we move in and out of situations, consuming one day, created user content the other; working in peer production one day, as free lancer the other day, as employee the third. 

This is my original text:
wish you creative reading
Ksenija Berk

Creative Industries and Immaterial Labour on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The question of whether humanity has a predilection toward the good is preceded by the question whether there exists an event that can be explained in no other way than by that moral disposition. An event such as revolution. Kant says that this phenomenon (of revolution) can no longer be ignored in human history because it has revealed the existence in human nature of a disposition and a faculty toward the good, which until now no politics has ever discovered in the course of events.  

Friedrich Nietzsche. Multitude, p. 189.

When spring unleashed its charms in Chicago 1886, nobody expected it to be so intensely hot as it revealed later, perhaps slightly too hot for some tastes and time of year. On May 1st, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions came up with a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work on international level and called for a general strike until the goal is achieved. Some riots occurred, and when suddenly a bomb was thrown from somewhere into the police forces. The police fired into the crowd and several men were killed and injured. After the Congress of 2nd International, held in Paris, the 1st of May has become an International Workers' Day as a commemoration of the events in Chicago. Despite of Chicago riots, May 1st is still not recognized as a remembrance day in the so-called cradle of democracy - USA, in South Africa and Canada.  

Nowadays, more then hundred years later, we are faced with similar problems, even though the circumstances are slightly different. Today capitalism is just another name for modernity, as Lyotard[1] figured out some time ago, and contemporary workers' scene is mostly predominated by hegemony of immaterial work. Just a century ago, the fight for an eight hour workday was fought by manual workers in factories, today the same battle is fought on the other side - with immaterial, creative workers and their unsuspectedly stretching working day. The universal economical strategy successfully positions the professions of the so-called third sector[2] - our dear and beloved Creative Industries - onto the map of neo-liberal capitalism. Instead of commodities, the immaterial workers produce immaterial goods as information, knowledge, ideas, images, relations . However, the third sector of industry is a new kind of working class if we briefly and quite superficially borrow this term from Marxist theories; however, it is quite unhomogeneous and diversely structured. We can find significant members of this, let's call it workers' class, among the darlings of capital, who proudly wear the title of most fashionable professions of our age, for example creative workers in advertising, fashion and entertainment industries, various counsellors, portfolio managers, lawyers, doctors . On the other side of the paycheck list, very similar to those who work in factories, yet still in the class of creative workers, there are almost infinite numbers of those who work in arts. 


It was a long time ago when only those who work in emergency units as rescue teams, plumbers, dustmen and other watchers and maintainers of our society were always on duty. Immaterial worker has inevitably become a para-special, mobile unit, always on the move, always prepared on action, with a completely new way of living and structuring social relationships. Rough separation on working day and free time does not exist anymore, because you never know when you will get any new project. An eight-hour working day, as I'm writing this now in a year of 2006, exists only in textbooks or as a very cynical comment in our everyday life. When you get the work, there is no free time left until it is done, it doesn't matter how long it will take. A day, a month, two years . For example, I only have a few days to translate this article from Slovenian into English, so it is prepared to be published, if I am the lucky one to be chosen. I do not have a permanent working place, as a digital nomad I'm constantly running from one computer device to the other, from one institution to another. We - the immaterial workers - never actually go home. We live in our jobs and our jobs live with us in the same single apartment, although, imagine - they do not even pay the rent. As constantly on the move, nobody expects us to have a permanent place or time to work. Everything has become fluid around us, so fluid that we are under a constant thread of drowning since there is no one left to rescue us anymore. The borders of our intimate world are fusing with the world of computer-mediated technologies, our bodies, equipped with the latest achievements of designed technologies are becoming more and more cyborg-like. As Howard Slater pointed out in one of his texts, we may not all be bourgeouis, but we are all increasingly managers of the animate and inanimate.[3]


All forms of labour are subsumed in the reign of capital[4] and the one thing they have in common is a common potential of dissent against its despotic power. Capital never asks anyone how does he/she feel today, or if you have enough power, strength and resources to successfully complete your tasks. If you are not able to, fine as well. It is a take-it-or-leave-it-world. You have the right to participate as well as to say let's go and leave it all behind. There are more than enough hungry mouth knocking on the notorious front door of Capitalism, tired and exhausted of ever-repeating jobs in the name of glory and higher goals with minimal wages. They are more than ready to work in a cruel world of the Empire[5] as part of multitude workers, as seen by Negri and Hardt. And what is the essence that connects them? Instability and complete neo-liberalization of labour. Stable and long-term labour contracts practically do not exist anymore. We are all on part-time contracts and very short-time projects. Flexibility and mobility are so called slogans of immaterial workers, but frankly, they are just another name for surveillance and punishment in a time when contemporary sport of non-paying the contracts on time is crippling even the strongest and richest among us. "The 'free market' has never existed, it is a utopian construct designed to mask the 'social' forces that actually shape the economy. Historically, as 'the arts' are liberated from the shackles of the patronage system and thereby become 'Art' in its modern sense, precisely at that moment when the commodification of culture brings about the possibility of its ideological 'autonomy,' the institution of art emerges to regulate the cultural field. It follows from this that in attacking the institution of art, the avant-garde ought to develop a critique of commodity relations."[6]


What is a successful dissent, appropriate for an immaterial, multitude worker? Surely the answer does not lie in one-day warning protests. Such kind of gesture is almost impossible - and a little bit perverse, too - to perform these days. Even if it happens, it does not bring much benefit to the protestors. Such gestures - we could name them minute-protests[7] - are just an ordinary exhaust of the system to cool down the angriest lads of the society, and to provide them an official performative catharsis. By the end of the day they happily go home to cradle their naive thought how they rebelled against the system. A single-day dissent, even an organized one, unfortunately brings nothing new anymore. Except from the profit for local stores which happily run of all stocks of liquor. The morning after, an alarm clock rings as so many mornings before and yesterday's protestors go back to work, schools or to apply for social help, as they usually do on mornings. What they are fighting for cannot be found on barricades anymore, for it belongs to some other historical space and time.  


Capitalism is very fond of minor, single-day protests. It is a simple method how a system, any system, provides quick cleaning methodes for the most angry members of the society, so it can successfully transfer their attention to some minor affairs, so that they no longer think what is wrong with the system they live in. A single-day dissent, usually generously supported by politics, is one of many diplomatic tools used by capitalism to soften its image on the global level and to strengthen its position and control on the local scene. When Thomas Jefferson, while working as an ambassador in France, heard about farmers' riots in his USA, he wrote the following statement to Abigail Adams: "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. I like a little rebellion now and then!" But, when the farmers' dissent in one year's time had been suppressed in blood, the same  Jefferson wrote in a letter to some colonel: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is natural manure."[8] 


In Multitude the experience of dissent is very much designed by the help of computer-mediated technologies. One of the latest examples are student demonstrations in France, which helped to withdraw the conflictious Villepin's First Employment Contract bill. As a connective communicative element also served mobile phones and internet. The danger upon the dissent of immaterial workers is mostly in their inability to become a unique political subject. Only the fact that they are connected through creative industries and technology is just not enough. When the first thrill about small successful dissents is over, the immaterial protestors are faced with a fatal loop. It is the key moment when protestors, a little bit tired, do not notice, how the other side - the one that literally never sleeps - takes the reins of the protest into their own hands as much quietly and smoothly. As every good strategist, the other side then waits for a while and allow the protestors to continue their dissent, for only a moment later, in a manner of contemporary Debordian spectacle, sweeps them away and sometimes even recycles on the nearest garbage disposal. 

Capitalism does not love order; the state does it. The finality of capitalism is not a technical, social or political creation built according to rule, its aesthetic is not that of the beautiful but of the sublime, its poetics is that of genius: capitalist creation does not bend to rules, it invents them.[9] 

Even a cultural dissent, as a democratic tool for protest, is today possible only through the dissent of the Multitude. In other words: an artist, critic, theoretician or performer should be prepared to accept the part of dissent into its own hands and necessarily step out of the anthropological position of someone who is beyond and outside everything. 

"The multiplicity of responsibilities, and their independence (their incompatibility), oblige and will oblige those who take on those responsibilities, small or great, to be  flexible, tolerant, and force; they will be their signs. Intelligences do not fall silent, they do not withdraw into their beloved work, they try to live up to this new   responsibility, which renders the 'intellectuals' troublesome, impossible: the        responsibility to distinguish the intelligence from the paranoia that gave rise to 'modernity."[10] 

 Everything has changed around us and we have inevitably changed, too. And yet, we are so fond of the protests, dissent and rebellion from almost a century ago. We should be aware that our task is to reinvent dissent strategies appropriate for the society and age we live in. Repeating older anarchistic strategies, no matter how nostalgic, naïve and ineffective the gesture is, is yet another, just all too well known, contemporary symptom of the symbolically castrated creative minds.





- Debord, Guy, Druzba spektakla / Komentarji k Druzbi spektakla / Panegirik: prvi del. Ljubljana: SOU, Studentska zalozba, 1999.

- Marx, Karl, Capital, Vol. 1. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

- Negri, Antonio, Hardt, Michael, Imperij. Ljubljana: Studentska zalozba, 2003.- Negri, Antonio, Hardt, Michael, Multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.- Lyotard, Jean-Francois, Political writings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.- Virno, Paolo, Hardt, Michael, Radical Thought in Italy. Minneapolis: University of Minessota Press, 1996.


[1] Capitalism is one of the names of modernity. It presupposes the investment of the desire for the infinite in an instance already designated by Descartes (and perhaps by Augustine, the first modern), that of the will. Literary and artistic romanticism believed in struggling against this realist, bourgeois, shopkeeper's interpretation of will as infinite enrichment. But capitalism has been able to subordinate to itself the infinite desire for knowledge that animates the scenes, and to submit its achievements to its own criterion of technicity: the rule of performance that requires the endless optimalization of the cost/benefit (input/output) ratio." Lyotard, 1993, p. 25.[2] See Do You Remember Revolution? in Virno and Hardt, 1996, p. 234.

[3] Here's a helpful quote from a recent text by Howard Slater on metamute called Toward Agonism - Moishe Postone's Time, Labour & Social Domination, http://www.metamute.org/en/toward-agonism

[4] "Capital subsumes the whole of social life and the emerging juridical constitution watcher over the process, supervising and regulating the relations at global level." Marx, 1990, p. 1040.

[5] Hardt, Negri, 2003.

[6] The Palingenesis of the avant-garde. Stuart Home, www. variant.randomstate.org/issue1.html [7] Gramsci, 1973.

 [8] Negri, Hardt, 2004, p. 248.

[9] Lyotard, 1993, p. 25, 26.

[10] Lyotard, 1993, p. 7.

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Michel Bauwens 
  To: IDC list 
  Sent: Wednesday, January 03, 2007 6:13 AM
  Subject: Re: [iDC] The wrong kind of youth and distributed capitalism


  This is a great posting, and I wonder if I could republish it in my own blog, as an appeal for participation literacy? Do let me know.

  I mostly agree with what you said, though perhaps I would to stress the following points, which I think are actually implied as a subtext (see your dual account of Amazon). 

  I think that a too stringent duality between the interests of users, and the netarchical capitalists (http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Netarchical_Capitalism ) who both enable and exploit participatory platforms, like Amazon, would be counterproductive.

  People who do participate in such platforms get a lot of value out of it, they are not just being exploited. If you write a review for Amazon, you contribute to the collective intelligence of the system, and you profit from that. Furthermore, it is part of your identity, and you get reputation value, as expressed by that youngster. 

  On a deeper level, socially, we are less and less in a pure situation of workers/consumers that are exploited by an external force, but rather, we move in and out of situations, consuming one day, created user content the other; working in peer production one day, as free lancer the other day, as employee the third. 

  Hence, what works best I think is to show the dual nature of those platforms, that they are both useful, and harmful, that the owners/organizers are both acting in our interest (because it is what they live from) and in their own, and that an awareness of the difference is crucial, and that they are not powerless against such abuses. And of course, the awareness that they can also create their own platforms, and avoid these dependencies altogether. (see http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/?p=736)

  Like with environmental education, where it has been shown that while direct participation in nature increases critical awareness, purely critical approaches actually made youth cynical and apathetic. 

  So we should go 'with them' and their peer ethics, rather than teach from the outside.

  Don't we all use all kinds of 'corporate' tools, after all they are useful, allow sharing and participation, give all kinds of value, and furthermore, it is also 'where the people and their attention' is, so that worldchangers would be ill advised to isolate themselves amongst smaller but purer in-crowd projects? 


  On 1/3/07, Trebor Scholz <trebor at thing.net> wrote:
    I agree with Brian that youth should not be looked at as a prime example to be imitated or as a solace for our own bad habits. However, at the same time it is absurd to claim
    that today's kids are just the "wrong (uncritical) kind of youth." 

    [The phrase "the wrong kind of snow" goes back to a statement by British Rail's Director of Operations Terry Worrall, who stated on 11 February 1991 that "we are having
    particular problems with the type of snow".] 

    Youth needs to be educated and what that means changes frequently. Today, informal "peer education" plays an increasingly important role. Finding your way around
    participatory cultures is crucial for professional life in the "creative industries," for citizenship, and for personal growth. This literacy needs to be taught and right now many 
    relevant skills are mainly taught outside of institutions of learning. Kids are not born with a better ability to cope with information overload (like a sixth finger to text faster).
    Teenagers don't have dual processor brains. Some of them are more fearless and playful in their encounters with technology partially because they grew up with networked 

    However, if you don't know how to deal with the constant influx of music, videos, software, email, friends on IM, and blogs and wikis and MySpace posts (now also available
    for life on the go), then you will be simply drown in a swamp of data. Your attention will be so diffuse that you can't follow through with a concentrated, long-term project. It 
    will also be hard for you to be present with another person, to actually "meet" them.

    We need an ethics of participation! That's part of  participation literacy. Do I let myself being taken advantage of by those who pull the strings behind sociable environments? 
    "Why would I not help out Amazon.com by writing book reviews for them (?), they sold great books to me." I heard this puzzling logic from a young student. I paid and
    therefore, in return, I give my labor away for free. (It's of course more complex than that as arguably  these reviews serve the public as well.) Another example: 

    In mid-December at the LeWeb 3 conference in Paris a disconcerting project was launched: YAADZ. To the realm of viral video and guerrilla marketing you can now add this
    site that offers "video advertisement by the people who watch them." YOU AD[Z]. Somebody who loves Reebok shoes can now create their own video ad and upload it too. 
    And it's free. They don't even have to pay for giving their immaterial labor away for free.

    Critical participation literacy will make kids aware that projects like this exemplify the self-exploiting hell of distributed capitalism. (Many of them lack totally this criticality.) 
    They have no hesitation to "outsource" their photo memories to Yahoo (Flickr) or to leave all their daily life traces with Rupert Murdoch (MySpace). The ethics of participation
    need to be taught.

    In a recent survey that I conducted, a participant (age 18) stated that she wears MySpace and YouTube like clothes. "They are an extension of my identity," she said. If social 
    networking sites are an expression of identity, then we need to teach a critical awareness of the environments in which kids hang out online. Students may be aware that it is
    uncool to wear Abercrombie & Fitch but they don't hesitate to trust MySpace with their life. (Abercrombie & Fitch was accused of discrimination against minority employees-- 
    2004 lawsuit Gonzalez v. Abercrombie & Fitch).

    My argument is clearly against continuous partial attention. In my opinion cpa is caused by information overload and the vertigo of choice that comes with it. To shape their 
    own vision, to follow their own life direction (not remote controlled by the carrots of distributed capitalism) youth needs to learn--

    to filter,

    to judge information sources,

    to play,

    to experiment, 

    to collaborate with others,

    to be critically aware of the ethics of participation,

    to master cooperative tools and instruments
    -this includes simple email skills
    < http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2005/01/how-to-e-mail-professor.html>

    and to meaningfully distribute their ideas (create platforms).

    It's not the wrong kind of youth, it's merely youth that needs to be educated. 

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20070103/9e307987/attachment-0002.html

More information about the iDC mailing list