[iDC] Intro and response to Ross/Terranova

paolo carpignano carpi at newschool.edu
Tue Oct 20 17:05:14 UTC 2009


I am Paolo Carpignano. I am Associate Professor of Media Studies and  
Sociology at the New School. This semester I teach a course called The  
Political Economy of Media which focuses specifically on the  
relationship between work and media and thus it deals with some of the  
themes of the conference on Digital Labor. In fact, attending the  
conference is one of the class assignments this semester.
Also, the Vera List Center asked me to respond to the Changing Labor  
Value panel, one of the Preludes to the conference. What you will find  
below is my response in the form of a posting that I wrote for my  
class discussion.
I know that it is too long and  not very good for the format of this  
online discussion but Trebor suggested that I post it anyway.
So, here it is:

Response to the Changing Labor Value panel

It might be useful to start from the differences. Had Richard Sennet  
participated, as it was announced originally, it would have been  
easier. After all his work is representative of a very learned but  
moderately progressive critique of the current problems of labor and  
it would have provided a more clear-cut counterpart to the more  
radical and transformative approaches of Andrew Ross and Tiziana  
Terranova (from now on AR and TT). In their case, difference might be  
too strong a word. It might be more appropriate to talk about degrees  
of emphasis. Yet, I am going to highlight a few areas where, in my  
opinion, they diverge in the hope of adding some clarity to the  
current discourse on the nature of labor and on its possible political  

There is a strong sense of continuity, almost inevitability in the  
picture that AR gives of the current restructuring of labor,  
particularly in the case of the so called creative industries and new  
media industries, resulting in a high degree of flexibility and  
precariousness of working conditions. AR explicitly claims that such  
restructuring is but the latest stage of a trend that started in the  
1920’s under the managerial practices of Human Relations. I find this  
assertion rather problematic because either it is too general a  
statement about the constant attempt on the part of capital to  
regiment its workforce by force or inducement (and in this case it can  
be applied to the history of capitalism even before the advent of  
Human Relations), or, if it is the result of a comparative analysis of  
specific managerial strategies , it misses the important point that  
the current capitalist turn in regards to labor is a repudiation of  
Human Relations’ theories and practices of the past. In fact, at the  
risk of simplifying, one can say that the break between Fordism and  
Post-Fordism, consists, to a great degree, in the substitution of  
Human Relations with what it is often called distributed management or  
self management, and therefore with an entirely new conception of what  
management and labor are. Historically, Human Relations were developed  
to respond to the failure of Taylorism and Scientific Management in  
order to create a docile work force that could be molded to fit the  
dictates of standardized mass production   (the assembly line being  
the epitome of such arrangement), and to recognize the need to deal  
with workers subjectivity and their rebellion to work rules and  
rhythms. Thus, Human Relations began to consider the work force as a  
counterpart to be dealt with through some form of communication and  
negotiation. It led eventually to the recognition of shop floor  
representation albeit with a clear separation of management from waged  
labor. More broadly, it corresponded to the dialectics of classes of  
the Keynesian system and of the welfare state. The neoliberal turn and  
the Post-Fordist mode of production have drastically changed the terms  
of engagement.  In rethinking the enterprise, to the point of  
envisioning its disappearance in a series of distributes entities,  
current management theory tries to capture the realities of a  
drastically reconfigured labor dynamics characterized by work teams,  
temporary employment, flexible skills and amateur “free labor” . But  
for AR these new realities are but an extension of old Human Relations  
strategies. The difference today is only in the degree of  
“permissiveness” (his word). It is not by chance that for AR Harry  
Braverman is a paradigmatic author. Capitalism leads inevitably to a  
progressive impoverishment of the quality of labor and to a  
socialization of alienation and exploitation, a sort of  
proletarianization of the whole society that might not take the form  
of deskilling, as Braverman claims, but that nevertheless leads to  
even worse conditions of sacrificial labor and self exploitation.

For TT, instead, the importance of the present restructuring consists  
in the novelty and discontinuity that they represent in relation to  
the previous social economic formation. TT is interested in  
understanding the current changes in managerial practices, but also in  
reading these changes against the grain, so to speak , from the other  
side of the relationships of production. Thus, she is interested in  
analyzing not only the new forms of extraction of value from labor,  
but also the new subjective practices that accompany and shape those  
relations, and in drawing implications for a new political strategy.  
Interestingly enough it is Marx that provides a guide for the  
understanding of the present turn in the nature of labor. Marx shows  
that there are always two inextricably connected sides of the labor  
process: the side of exploitation and alienation, and the side of  
cooperation. In general, the Marxist tradition has emphasized the  
former and left the latter to the realm of politics and consciousness,  
beyond the labor process. Yet, the changing nature of labor in Post- 
Fordism has shifted the balance of productive forces on the side of  
cooperation. Increasingly, it is social engagement, both in the sense  
of interpersonal relationship and symbiosis with technological  
artifacts, that drives innovation and creativity to the center of  
production by transforming machinery into media. But cooperation is  
also the site of subjective practices of resistance, and here is where  
TT sees the opening of new possibilities for alternative forms of  
production. We could say succinctly that where AR is describing the  
new conditions of labor as a social factory, TT sees them as a factory  
of the social. Work in the new productive landscape is increasingly  
characterized by communication, symbolic interaction, affective  
engagements. It entails less and less fabrication and more social  
cooperation, (what she and others call “immaterial labor”). And these  
are the material conditions that give rise to new subjective practices.

The difference between the two approaches becomes even more evident  
when they try to envision future developments and to formulate  
alternatives.  In my view, AR analysis leads ultimately to a very  
defensive position. It seems that his main concern is to alleviate the  
deteriorating working conditions of the labor force and to fight the  
onslaught of neoliberalism’s restructuring, which undoubtedly has  
created, particularly in the present crisis, massive unemployment, the  
increase in precarity and the abolition of safety nets.   To respond  
to such devastating dislocations much more has to be done in terms of  
providing adequate income maintenance programs (see for instance the  
current push on health care) or for the development of new forms of  
labor organization that expand across economic sectors and global  
fragmentation. But if we follow TT’s perspective, these struggles have  
a much greater strategic value to the extent to which, in addition to  
being defensive measures, they prefigure new productive arrangements  
and alternative social configurations.

Take for instant the proposal of a guarantee income.  Whatever the  
difference between Europe and the US, in terms of historical  
circumstances and short term feasibility, it appears to be an issue  
that is gaining ground and could be central to a policy debate in the  
near future. However, a guarantee income can be conceptualized quite  
differently and have different political implications. For AR a  
guarantee income is a remedy for the instability and flexibility of  
employment. By providing income security it increases the chances of  
finding adequate employment. For TT a guarantee income is, in a larger  
context, a stepping stone in the direction of severing the relation  
between income and work. A guarantee income based on life needs and  
not productive performance goes a long way in prefiguring and give  
sustenance to experiments of non economic productive arrangements. The  
political value of a struggle around a guarantee income is in the  
linking of immediate defensive measures to the strategic new  
institutions of cooperation, what TT calls the commons. Seen from this  
point of view, the path from the guarantee income to the commons is  
part of the process that, in the Italian Marxist literature that TT  
refers to, is called the “exodus”.  In other words, the potentials  
expressed by the current social dynamics point to the opening of areas  
of self valorization and autonomous social practices that are quite  
different from the preceding dialectics of classes.

I think it is clear by now where my preferences lie. However I think  
that the conceptual framework and the practice of the new commons are  
still, to say the least, in their infancy and there are some  
fundamental political and theoretical issues that have to be addressed  
and clarified. What is the nature of the commonality that it is  
detected in current subjective practices and proposed for future  
institutional forms? For instance, it is not clear to me to what  
extent there is a direct path from immaterial labor to the commons.   
Is the common a realization of labor, albeit a labor based on  
cooperation rather than competition? Is it the old Marxist notion of  
emancipation of labor through labor? And if so, how does it differ  
from the historical experience of soviets and workers’ councils,  
except from the heightened sociality of immaterial labor? It could be  
just another version of industrial democracy, a democracy for the  
social factory.  If, on the contrary, it means not just exodus of  
labor but from labor, and from its connotations of productivity,  
utility and efficacy, then it would be nothing short of a redefinition  
of praxis itself. And maybe that is what is required today.

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