[iDC] Why labor?

Aymar Jean ajean at asc.upenn.edu
Fri Oct 30 15:20:08 UTC 2009

Hello all:

I too have enjoyed the conversation on this list, though I haven't had time to read every post, what I have read has been informative and thought-provoking.

I wanted to interject a short statement, in case it hadn't already been said. A lot posters have implicitly assumed that all "free" laborers on the web produce for such ineffable commodities as attention or because it feels good. I'm not going to say whether or not this is true. But I will say that in my research interviewing vloggers on YouTube and, more recently, writers and producers of independent web series, many content creators are viscerally aware of their labor. They understand the value of their time -- even a modest web series takes weeks of shooting -- and many go into debt to create content.

Why labor? They work as an investment to obtain capital after production. So an independent filmmaker invests hours of his and his friends time, making zero or losing money, to get the attention of traditional media industries, have his/her series picked up or bought by an advertiser or network website (Crackle, Babelgum, etc.), or obtain enough of a fan base to support further creation (through YouTube ad deals or PayPal benefactors). Vloggers hope to become one of YouTube's top "partners" and make money off their videos, or they hope their online presence will lead to gigs, or fame, elsewhere. Some of these content producers are successful; the vast majority are not.

Because of the large amount of labor required to produce something viable online -- the Internet craves content and is rarely satisfied -- most producers actually give up. Scores of web series don't make it past the first season, or even a few episodes. YouTube vloggers often quit early, realizing that the benefits (capital, whether social, cultural, or economic) do not outweigh the costs (labor, measured in time or money).

I just thought this needed to be said if it hadn't been already, so we have more of a grounded understanding of what labor looks like in our current digital moment. Far from the perceived legions of producers working for free, many seek capital quite explicitly, and, if they don't get it, redirect their labor to something more viable (likely offline). Of course, I'm neglecting the class component here as well, which many others have noted, that it requires a certain amount of cultural or economic capital to even have the time and knowledge to produce in the first place; that is another conversation.

Oh yes, an introduction: I'm a doctoral student in communication at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm currently researching original web series production and distribution, and writing about it for various media sources. I have abstracts and links to mainstream and academic publications on my website: http://ajchristian.org.

Aymar Jean Christian
Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
Cell: 201-923-8369
Home: http://ajchristian.org
From: idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net [idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net] On Behalf Of davin heckman [davinheckman at gmail.com]
Sent: Friday, October 30, 2009 10:43 AM
To: Sareeta B Amrute
Cc: idc at mailman.thing.net
Subject: Re: [iDC] Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value

Sareeta, everyone,

First off, I want to say that this conversation has been an excellent
one.  Too much for my little mind to process in full, but little
pieces of it inject themselves into my consciousness as I walk around,
talk to people, teach my classes, try to sleep.  Thank you for that.

I am wondering if part of the answer might rest outside of the economy
altogether.  I know that when write something for a list like this,
I'm just doing it out of curiosity and the desire to contribute to a
conversation with people I am interested in talking to.  As a scholar,
I don't expect this work to be recognized in any way that translates
into cash.  In a sense, I guess it is a side-effect of all the work
that I do.  I teach classes and I really worry that my students might
be too fixated on the promise of a career.  I like to imagine that by
talking about the possibility of a reality outside of the current one
which is just running people ragged, starving babies to death and
burning everyone else either slowly or quickly...  that maybe I find
people as they really are (a hard thing to do when the word "really"
doesn't have any firm definition, here I use it dialectically to mean,
"as opposed to bullshit".).  Not by representing myself through some
technical means, but by just kind of doing something because it is
interesting, because it is good, because I feel the need for something
that isn't a representation of me that can be shuffled around like a
widget...  or, worse, a channel that commands your "attention".

I wonder if I just want to be present....  to you, to anyone, to
myself.  Maybe this is why people make content for "free"....  maybe
because it just feels great to do something for free.  It's like
walking through the woods and finding a bush with raspberries on
it....  and eating some....  and then running back to bring someone to
that special place.  You will get more uniformly large and uncrushed
berries from the store.  But there is something staggering about
finding them on your path.  Eating and sharing them and paying nothing
not only tastes good, but it comes with a pleasure we have been taught
to distrust.  One of my best moments this summer was watching my son
eat berries we found growing in a field near my house.  My wife came
running home to tell me she had found a bush with berries on it.  She
got a bowl and took our three year-old son to pick berries.  When he
returned, there were only a couple left for me, his face was stained
from his eyes and down his chest, his fingers covered with dirt and
seeds and stained with purple juice.  He had a berry in his filthy
little hand and placed it in my mouth.  And it tasted better than any
berry I have ever eaten.

I don't want to pretend that there aren't forces out there in the
world that try to exploit these moments of "grace" and turn them into
transactions.....  but I think the spirit that makes it move is really
a powerful one, too much to contain.  If I were a wizard fighting
against the dark sorcerers of global capitalism, I think that odds are
even that my son's magic berries could destroy overwhelm teargas and
billy clubs and bullets (at least, as far as I'm concerned, I find his
stained grin and acts of authentic generosity more potent than all the
pain, greed, and terror in the world).  Maybe, by objective measures,
it's a lie (In the same way that, from time to time, we live as though
our lives will never be touched by sorrow...  those times we laugh
with every ounce of our being, when in reality we might be dead
tomorrow).  Or, perhaps, this impulse towards the fecundity of the
gift just cannot be harnessed by the spirit of the transaction....
one always overwhelms the other.  Maybe this means we steer clear of
commerce altogether, except when we mean to use tools.  In any case, I
doubt that "playbour" exists....  It's labour.  And if the place of
labour gives way to the occasion of play, then it ceases to be labour.
 And if a third party tries to impose a commercial order upon play,
then either play will be destroyed or the perverse artifice of this
order will be destroyed.  Love cannot be mapped onto finance, love
demands that we betray all other considerations.  We might play on the
structures in the workshop or use the tools for our own ends....  but
when we settle on the compromise that our play should be economically
useful...  it's not playing anymore.

Well...  now I am getting weird.  Maybe it's too much coffee....
maybe it's emotion.  Reading this thread has filled me with a sense of
dread and hope.  And I want to meet my students today with hope.



On Thu, Oct 29, 2009 at 2:53 PM, Sareeta B Amrute
<amrutes at u.washington.edu> wrote:
> Dear Christian and List:
> I really enjoyed your last post, and it stimulated a series of questions for me.
> 1) If, as you suggest, Internet producers are maximally exploitable because no wage is paid to them, this begs the question (which has been discussed on this list and seemed embedded in the term 'playlabor/playbor' itself), why do they engage in these forms of surplus value creation/exploitation?  In my view, answering this question requires us to take 'ideology' seriously (An earlier post on McLuhan also moved in this direction). There is of course a view of ideology that treats it as false consciousness, but I do not think this gets us very far.  Among its many problems, the ideology as false consciousness thesis would suggest that all we need to do is educate people on how they are being exploited and they would stop.  A more fruitful way of thinking through ideology might be as part of production of surplus value itself. That is, ideology is not false representation, but an account of
> actually existing social relations, one that in a certain sense makes possible (because its widely agreed-upon) the continued production of surplus value for capitalist.  To quote Marx's famous passage on fetishism, 'to the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appears as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.'  The key phrase here is 'as they really are'.  So, what is the relationship between the 'dinglich' and the 'sozial' that is being established in web 2.0 economies?
> 2) My second question is on necessary labor.  While the producer in your formulation is not being paid a wage (but MTurk would be an exception here), it may be worthwhile to think about what necessary labor is in this economy.  That is, what is required (the amount of labor) for the worker to reproduce herself in order to be vital (to capital itself perhaps)?  Although it is true that in your scenario the capitalist is paying out no contribution for the subsistence and reproduction of the worker, clearly the worker thinks/feels that she is 'getting something out of' all of this labor.  Borrowing from Spivak's notion of affectively necessary labor (see Scattered Speculations p. 162), it may be useful to ask what other conditions are vital to the reproduction of the worker here (i.e. connectivity itself, the circulation of reputation, the transfer of information all via Facebook)?  I recognize
> that you still might argue that the capitalist is contributing nothing to this affectively necessary labor, since setting up the platform etc. does not require compensating those who work on it, but the difference seems important.  It might allow a discussion of desire to enter into a discussion of web 2.0 political economy. It would be nice to hear some thoughts on this.
> Thanks,
> Sareeta
> Then, it seems as if the capitalist is contributing    On Tue, 27 Oct 2009 idc-request at mailman.thing.net wrote:
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>> Today's Topics:
>>   1. Re: Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value
>>      (Christian Fuchs)
>> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Message: 1
>> Date: Mon, 26 Oct 2009 14:59:46 +0100
>> From: Christian Fuchs <christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at>
>> Subject: Re: [iDC] Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value
>> To: idc <idc at mailman.thing.net>
>> Message-ID: <4AE5AB52.2070805 at sbg.ac.at>
>> Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-15; format=flowed
>> Thank you for brining up the issue of the labour theory of value, Adam,
>> and thanks to Mark for following up on this issue. I think this topic is
>> important for the discussions about digital labour, but of course it is
>> a difficult issue, which in my opinion requires to discuss what Marx
>> actually wrote about value, surplus value, class, exploitation, etc. I
>> agree with most of Mark's reply on this issue and I disagree with much
>> of what Adam has written in his posting.
>> Let me add my own views.
>> The exchange value of a commodity is the quantitative relationship in
>> which it is exchanged with other commodities: x commodity A = y
>> commodity B, further developed by marx in capital, vol. 1, in the
>> wertformanalyse (analysis of value form). Exchange value is not the same
>> as value. In exchange, the values of two commodities are equivalized,
>> but the value of each single commodity is determined in the labour
>> process. Labour is the substance of value.
>> Therefore for such a discussion, we need to start with the question.
>> What is the law of value? So let's go to Marx, Capital, Volume 1:
>> Marx says that when speaking of the value of a commodity, labour "counts
>> only quantitatively", it is a matter of "the 'how much', of the temporal
>> duration of labour". "the maginitude of the value of a commodity
>> represents nothing but the quantity of labour embodied in it"
>> "A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because
>> abstract human labour is objectified (vergegenst?ndlicht) or
>> materialized in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be
>> measured? By means of the quantity of the 'value-forming substance', the
>> labour, contained in the article. This quantity is measured by its
>> duration, and the labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale
>> of hours, days etc".
>> "In general, the greater the productivity of labour, the less the
>> labour-time required to produce an article, the less the mass of labour
>> crystallized in that article, and the less its value. Inversely, the
>> less the productivity of labour, the greater the labour-time necessary
>> to produce an article, the greater its value".
>> Can the law of value be applied to Facebook? Yes:
>> The capitalist exchanges access to user data and to his Internet
>> platform with money in the form x commodity A = y commodity B. The value
>> of the Internet platform as commodity is determined by the amount of
>> labour objectified in it that is created by the substance of value -
>> labour, i.e. by the users. The more Facebook users there are, the more
>> playlabour time is objectified in the Facebook platform, the higher the
>> value of Facebook, the higher advertising rates (at the price level) can
>> be set, the more profit can be made.
>> When we talk about labour value, we always talk about labour time, which
>> is different from the price level, which we can observe and calculate
>> because existing economic statistics are not based on labour values, but
>> on prices. It is generally speaking not possible to calculate prices
>> directly from labour values, there is not a simple mystical formula for
>> solving the transformation problem because this is a much more complex
>> problem. But there is a causal relationship between values and prices:
>> Marx: "When the labour-time required for their production falls, proces
>> fall; and where it rises, prices rise, as long as other circumstances
>> remain equal".
>> Marx's category of the rate of surplus value or rate of exploitation
>> measures the relationship of surplus labour to necessary labour, e = s /
>> v. At the value level, this means the relation of the hours a labourer
>> produces surplus value to the number of hours s/he works to reproduce
>> his/her wage. At the price level, this is the relation of profit to wages.
>> In the case of Facebook produsers: e = s /v, v => 0, s=>total number of
>> working hours, therefore: e => infinity. Which means: The rate of
>> exploitation of Internet produsers converges towards infinity, they are
>> enormously exploited because no wages are paid to them. By outsourcing
>> production from wage labour to unpaid labour, web 2.0 capitalists can
>> accumulate ever more capital. The value produced (i.e. the objectified
>> labour time) by  Internet produsers is divided in such a relation  that
>> all of their labour time is surplus labour time.
>> It is a wage labour fetishism to say that only labour that receives a
>> wage can be exploited, produces value, etc. This would mean that a slave
>> is not exploited. But if the slave is not exploited, why would one want
>> to start a revolution in order to break the chains of slavery? Wage
>> labour fetishism not only affirms slavery, it also establish a dangerous
>> dualism that considers all those who do not work for a wage (the
>> unemployed, etc) as parasites. This terroristic labour ethic is typical
>> for contemporary capitalism, but was also an element of Nazism and
>> Stalinism. A fetisthistic labour theory of value is one that does not
>> see human activity as the source of value, but wage labour.
>> At the gates of hell of most of the Nazi death camps, there were signs
>> saying: "Arbeit macht frei" (Labour makes you free, see for example the
>> gate to the extermination camp Auschwitz here:
>> http://www.bufata-chemie.de/reader/ig_farben/pics/4-2-2_01_tor_auschwitz.jpg
>> ). All those, whom the Nazis considered as "unproductive labourers" or
>> as "unproductive capitalists", were either vaporized or killed by the
>> hardest compulsory labour (that benefited the  German war machine and
>> certain German industrialists).  Saying that labour only creates value
>> if it is commodified, brings us dangerously close  to arguing that
>> non-wage labour is unproductive, which always is the first logical step
>> for the concept or praxis of the annihilation of so-called "unproductive
>> labour" that is seen as parasitic and can easily be connted as Jewish,
>> foreign, black, unemployed, homeless, etc.
>> Adam referred to the "Maschinenfragment" in the "Grundrisse",
>> specifically to the passage, where Marx says that the emergence of
>> General Intellect anticipates a communist society, in which "the measure
>> of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather
>> disposable time". Communism is for Marx a highly productive, automated
>> society, in which goods are produced automatically without any or hardly
>> any human labour/work necessary. As a result, all time becomes
>> disposable time and humans  can for the first time be real humans
>> because they are emancipated from  hard work.  General Intellect
>> becomes an immediate force of production when there is a very high
>> degree of productivity, because the technologization of production
>> increases the informatization of production. Marx says that if this
>> situation is given within capitalist relations of production, then the
>> law of value does not vanish within capitalism (it only vanishes in a
>> fully automated communist society), but a contradiction in the character
>> of value production emerges/is intesified that Marx also formulated in
>> the Maschinenfragment: "Capital itself is the moving contradiction, in
>> that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits
>> labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth".
>> Contemporary technology anticipates communism, but is embedded into
>> capitalist relations of production, where labor time is the source of
>> wealth and the law of value applies, so that the contradiction between
>> the productive forces and the relations of production is intensified.
>> Concerning the productive forces, we are objectively close to communism,
>> but concerning the relations of production, this results within
>> contemporary capitalism in an expansion and intensification of
>> exploitation, i.e. a situation of convergence towards infinite
>> exploitation, in which no wages are paid, but there is maximum
>> exploitation.
>> Negri and other Autonomist Marxists have in my opinion incorrectly
>> interpreted the Maschinenfragment by assuming that the situation, where
>> disposable time is the source of wealth, exists in contemporary
>> informational capitalism. They observe the existence of General
>> Intellect and assume that this means the end of labour time as the
>> source of wealth. But Marx refers to communism in the specific passage.
>> The contemporary situation is described by the contradiction between
>> labour time and disposable time that Marx mentions and that I just
>> cited. Disposable time only becomes the governing principle of the
>> economy in a true communist society, not in capitalism.
>> Toni Negri wrote in "Marx beyond Marx" that Marx's "Capital" is much
>> inferior to the "Grundrisse", which implies one should stop reading
>> Capital and instead focus on the Grundrisse. But the Grundrisse is in
>> many respects only a fragment that contains interesting passages, but
>> there are reasons why Marx published Capital, Vol. 1, as his main work,
>> and saw the Grundrisse only as a preliminary study. I think it is a
>> problem that there is a tendency in Autonomist Marxism to ignore or not
>> to read Capital.
>> Cheers, Christian
>> --
>> - - -
>> Priv.-Doz. Dr. Christian Fuchs
>> Associate Professor
>> Unified Theory of Information Research Group
>> ICT&S Center
>> University of Salzburg
>> Sigmund Haffner Gasse 18
>> 5020 Salzburg
>> Austria
>> christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at
>> Phone +43 662 8044 4823
>> Personal Website: http://fuchs.uti.at
>> Research Group: http;//www.uti.at
>> Editor of tripleC - Cognition, Communication, Co-Operation | Open Access
>> Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society
>> http://www.triple-c.at
>> Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Internet and Society: Social Theory in the
>> Information Age. New York: Routledge. http://fuchs.uti.at/?page_id=40
>> ------------------------------
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>> End of iDC Digest, Vol 58, Issue 40
>> ***********************************
> ...................................
> Sareeta B. Amrute
> Assistant Professor of Anthropology
> University of Washington
> tel: 206-543-7796
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