[iDC] Creativity and value in contemporary capitalism - a few words about FSUW

janek sowa jan.sowa at ha.art.pl
Thu Aug 18 12:20:19 UTC 2011

Dear iDCers,

I am writing again, as promised, to give you a hint of current 
activities undertaken by Free/Slow University Warsaw (FSUW). I will not 
concentrate on FSUW itself, as its presentation will be the main part of 
my contribution to the summit in October. I’d rather like to tell you a 
few words about what kind of problems are we interested in and how are 
we working.

This year’s FSUW activity revolves around the question of value. As I 
wrote before, we aim at parallel exploration of two domains: artistic 
creation and production of knowledge (both within academia and outside 
of it). It’s in these two fields that one can see the fundamental 
tendency of contemporary capitalism that Carlo Vercellone describes as 
“rent becoming of profit” (and that has been explored by theorists such 
as Marazzi, Harvey, Hardt, Negri and others). What interests us the most 
are the mechanisms of value appropriation and extraction that allow some 
key individuals and organization to turn labor of multitudes into some 
form of private capital (material, but also social or symbolic) and/or a 
merchandise. Similar questions have been recently addressed by Greorgy 
Scholette in his book The Dark Matter, however we try to attain  a more 
general perspective that allows to look outside the art-world alone.

We elaborated five different aspects that we try to address in our 

1. Ideological appropriations: cognitive capitalism and creative industries.
Although it’s been more than half a century since Horkheimer and Adorno 
diagnosed the rise of culture industries, commodification of cultural 
production seems to be  still reaching new territories. Ironically, the 
very term “cultural industries” is being used as a positive description 
of new wave of capitalist expansion. With the recent neoliberal twist in 
cultural management strategies the imperatives of efficiency and profit 
generation have become the guidelines even in the public sector. So how 
are we to judge the famous and much discussed autonomy of artistic 
creation, scientific inquiry and cultural production? Does it have any 
critical and subversive potential? Is it a class privilege allowing 
those who have accumulated  enough capital (in its various forms) to 
bypass and overcome the demands of the economic power leaving the rest 
as an easy prey to the market forces? Or maybe it offers the last and 
only bastion of defense against ubiquitous commodification?

2. The future of work: the changing forms of labor and its remuneration.
The transition from a production in a closed, industrial plant to the 
times of dispersed and networked social factory is accompanied not by  a 
spread of wealth, but a growing precariousness. More and more work is 
performed by each and every of us – when we browse the Net, when we 
watch commercials, when we share photos on Facebook, when we search on 
Google, visit the galleries or even install software on our computers – 
yet remuneration we get for any kind of work is getting not only smaller 
and smaller but also less and less stable and predictable.  Is it a 
manifestation of logic of exploitation and alienation impossible to 
overcome within the capitalist mode of production? Or, maybe, we need to 
invent and introduce new forms of wealth redistribution that would take 
into the consideration the new logic of cognitive capitalism, like 
guaranteed minimum income? What new forms of resistance to exploitation 
can and should accompany the new forms of labor that we see emerging in 
front our eyes?

3. Propriety and value.
The question of value production has always been in the heart of 
political economy as well as its critique. How much the new forms of 
production rely on the old ways of producing and appropriating value? 
What are the new mechanisms of value extraction and how do they 
function? How new forms of intellectual property developing parallelly 
in the fields of high technology and culture – like copyleft, creative 
commons, copy-far-left etc. exemplified by such diverse phenomena as 
free software movement and Brazilian  Techno Braga – challenge the very 
mechanisms of capital accumulation? Artistic experiments are, more than 
anything else, immediately appropriated and commodified by creative 
industries. Art is therefore involved in an endless "minority game" with 
the reality of cognitive capitalism. Is autonomy of art still possible 
and how, or is it a mere myth? It looks like contemporary art – with its 
tacit yet crucial dependence on both market forces and public 
institutions as well as its mechanisms of exploiting the general 
creative intellect – is a perfect laboratory of future surplus value 
production and appropriation. Can it also inspire us how to resist and 
subvert the rule of capital? Is there an artistic mode of resistance 
parallel to the artistic mode of production that we can see functioning 
in creative industries or artists led gentrification?

4. Peripheries of cognitive capitalism – continuation or redefinition.
One of the basic feature of capitalist world-system has been its 
division into core and periphery. Many contemporary theorists – like 
Antonio Negri or Christian Marazzi – argue that the transition from the 
times of material labor and industrial capitalism to immaterial labor 
and cognitive capitalism has made this distinction obsolete. The 
struggle between capital and labor is now supposed to take place within 
a unified circuit of production in the form of conflict between the 
Empire and the Multitude. Where does it leave traditional peripheries of 
capitalist economy, like the Central and Eastern Europe that played – 
according to Wallerstein and Braudel – the role of historically first 
Third World? Is there anything specific and particular about this part 
of the world that should make its way into theoretical analysis and 
practical action?

5. Politics in the age of immaterial labor.
If it is true that neither production nor labor nor power are what they 
used to be, one has to devise and implement new forms of political 
organization and struggle. Trade unions and party politics seem to be as 
obsolete as industrial factory and disciplinary power. Some argue that 
the multitudes emerge as already politicized subjects of resistance and 
revolutionary change, but isn’t it a too optimistic vision of future 
politics? And how resistant this resistance can be? With a wave of 
“Twitter Revolutions” and “Facebook Activism” the Internet has been 
hailed as a new tool of struggle, however the Wikileaks affair showed 
how easy it is to block inconvenient content and to pull the plug on 
free communication. On the other hand “the idea of communism” advocated 
by Žižek and Badiou in their two recent books and conferences (2009 
London, 2010 Berlin) may seem like a call to go back to traditional 
forms and ways of struggling against capital. Is there an alternative?

To address these issues we are trying to self-organize in an autonomous 
circle of research and self-teaching. By autonomous I mean not 
necessarily relying on support of public or private institution, but 
rather based on our own resources (knowledge, free time, skills, social 
capital etc.). This year we started with a small and irregular seminars 
(a sort of self-teaching/learning circle) dedicated to classical 
theories of value (mainly the ones revolving around the labor theory of 
value that we treat as a starting point) as well as contemporary 
investigations dealing with the problems mentioned above (Bourdieu, 
Zukin, Csikszentmihalyi, Wallerstein, Diederichsen and others).

As I wrote in my previous post, one of the inspirations for FSUW is the 
operaist idea of co-research. What it means for us is that we always try 
to refer theoretical issues to our own situation (for example, talking 
not about precarious workers, but with them) and to combine theoretical 
inquiry with a construction of political subjectivity. As we are 
deliberately addressing problems of cognitive and not industrial 
capitalism, partners in our research are not industrial workers but 
comrades belonging, like most of us, to the group of precarious 
cognitariat: writers, designers, curators, artists, theorists etc. We 
maintain links with similar organizations combining theory, practice and 
political investigations around Europe. So, another part of our this 
year’s co-research activity was FSUW Summer Camp that took part in early 
July in Kaszuby region in northern Poland. Participants included members 
Carrot Workers Collective (http://carrotworkers.wordpress.com/) and 
Critical Practice (http://criticalpracticechelsea.org ) from London, 
Microsillions (http://www.microsillons.org/) from Geneva as well as 
Praktyka Teoretyczna (http://praktykateoretyczna.pl/) and Krytyka 
Polityczna (http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/) from Poland.

One of the reasons for organizing the summer camp was to make 
preparations for an international conference we are organizing in 
October in Warsaw. It’s called The labor of multitudes - political 
economy of social creativity and will be devoted to the question of 
value central for this year’s FSUW research. You’ll find more details 
about the conference on FSUW webpage: 

What I described here is a work in progress, so, obviously, there is 
more questions than answers. It would be great to hear your comments, 
thoughts and doubts.

All the best!

Janek Sowa

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