Savior Machines

Just as the recessions of the 1990s brought us “The Jobless Future” and “The End of Work,” our current downturn has brought no shortage of essays arguing that there is something structurally inevitable about high unemployment. A recent entry in the field is this essay at by tech theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who argues that jobs are becoming “obsolete” because computer technology is making much of what was once necessary human labor superfluous. (And apparently, according to Ron Suskind’s new book, President Obama latched on to this sort of thinking in refusing to pursue a larger stimulus.)

The technological-obsolescence thesis has been around basically since the advent of the industrial revolution, but since the 1980s it has been increasingly deployed to explain (and sometimes defend) neoliberalism. Protecting outmoded norms of secure employment, the story goes, would require an illogical, atavistic resistance to technology and its efficiencies. Instead workers must accept a perpetual regime of self-retraining and master the ways of selling oneself to employers who can now afford to be far more fickle about who they employ. One must be relentlessly enterprising and opportunistic, and self-brand to stand out. You have to invent a kind of ineffable job position that only you can fill productively. As libertarian economist Arnold Kling recently suggested, “if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.” And it would be your fault.

Though Rushkoff tries to distance himself rhetorically from both libertarians and communists alike, he ends up sounding more than a little bit like Antonio Negri, who in Marx Beyond Marx, similarly argued that technological development would lead to our liberation from wage slavery. Both Negri and Rushkoff indulge the optimistic view that technology will free ersatz workers from drudgery, allowing them to enrich their personalities and thereby serve one another more rewardingly. As Rushkoff puts it, “the work we do — the value we create . . . isn’t so much employment as it is creative activity.” Negri’s version is a bit more abstruse: “The path of subjectivity is an intensive path. It is a continual and coherent recomposition of successive negations. It raises necessary labor to the point where it can destroy surplus labor” — bringing about the “all-sided” development of the working class and initiating the transition to communism.

Negri is extrapolating from Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” a section of the Grundrisse:

The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. 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. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition — question of life or death — for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations — two different sides of the development of the social individual — appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

By reducing the time workers need to put into production, capital frees them up for self-development, which is also necessary to crate new markets for further commodities. But this self-development makes wage work more intolerable (even as it becomes harder to secure). So it turns out that capital is spurring technological developments that it must then mystify in order to keep us willing to work for wages, even after wages no longer make sense as a measuring rod for the value we produce. But the value being produced — and this is the point Rushkoff and various cyber utopians and peer-to-peer enthusiasts seem to insist upon — is immense and uncontainable within capitalism’s structures. Firms can’t harness and exploit it as profits they can claim, as commodities they can circulate. Instead, the foundation is blown sky-high.

Maybe so. Another Marxist-jargon-infused way of looking at this is to argue that technological change allows for the real as opposed to formal subsumption of labor under capital. “What in the hell are formal and real subsumption?”you might ask. Well, the “What in the hell . . .” blog offers this definition:

Formal subsumption occurs when capitalists take command of labor processes that originate outside of or prior to the capital relation via the imposition of the wage. In real subsumption the labor process is internally reorganized to meet the dictates of capital. An example of these processes would be weaving by hand which comes to be labor performed for a wage (formal subsumption) and which then comes to be performed via machine (real subsumption). Real subsumption in this sense is a process or technique that occurs at different points throughout the history of capitalism. For some thinkers, such as Antonio Negri, real subsumption of labor is transfigured into real subsumption of society such that all of society becomes a moment of capitalist production. In this version of real subsumption is an epoch, a stage of capitalism within a historical periodization, analogous to postmodernity.

One way of understanding neoliberalism is to see it as the passage to real subsumption. Technology under capitalism reorganizes society to allow for the subsumption of more and more of everyday life — more of it is structured as being governed by market-like exchanges between profit-maximizing parties. Capitalism continues to expand as it must by subsuming more of social life to the way it organizes relations, configuring encounters as opportunities for commodification and profit extraction, as moments of competition between exchanging parties — as moments of class struggle, in Negri’s account. But we have recently reached a point that the subsumption has become “real” rather “formal”: that is, it becomes unimaginable that aspects of everyday life could ever have been outside the market, or that personal identity could have ever been something other than a strategically developed asset to be invested wisely to procure monetizable celebrity. So, for example, those of us who generationally precede the “digital natives,” for instance, are subject to formal subsumption of friendship — suddenly being paid a kind of pseudo-wage for translating their social lives into preformatted data. Digital natives will be subject to “real” subsumption, in that using social media, etc., will seem like the necessary precondition for friendship. What Negri seems to suggest in Marx Beyond Marx is that when everything one might do in life seems to deserve wages, then nothing does.

In Negri and Rushkoff’s view, a critique of technology organized around preventing the formal-to-real-subsumption passage would be worthless. Clinging to outmoded work processes that limit productivity gains prevents the “artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals” even as it prevents deskilling in the workplace. Likewise, there is no point in rejecting social media to prevent social deskilling and the erosion of social skills. We should not refuse to let convenience and efficiency govern our social lives or resist the mediation of sociality. Subsumption would capture any resistance anyway; it always makes Che into Che T-shirts. Instead, by turning our various intimate communications into moments for self-commodification, brand building and reputational scorekeeping, we can push right through this transformation, totalizing it and making it a complete unification of social individuals in the perpetual process of sharing everything.

In the same section of the Grundrisse Marx wrote that “Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of activity itself.” Thus the pursuit of profit (i.e. the elaboration of the capital relation) drives us to extend our ideas of what is “necessary” in life. So cooperation with capital appears to be an extension of the self, McLuhan style — an opportunity to become more “all-sided” and thus consume/enjoy more, and regard these acts of consumption as fundamental to who are. That is, we start to regard consumption as “productive,” as expressing our basic capacity to do things. Marx seems to suggest here that “individuality” as we experience it is actually contingent on capitalism — the degree to which we are constituted by the relations it posits. This is why “individualism” should be held in some suspicion — this seems easier to do, actually, with the advent of technology, as this kind of individualism now so obviously manifests as personal branding.

Thus we come to depend on technology, as it is embedded in capitalism, to permit us to see consumption as opportunities for self-expression. Since digitizing technology has made production a snap, we can all move on to something less tedious than work: consuming entertainment and lifestyle-oriented products that we’ve have been trained to regard as the medium of social meaning. Such consumption is reconceived as social production; in Rushkoff’s words, “We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another — all through bits instead of stuff.” Mediating consumption makes it appear productive: To the consumers, it makes it expressive of the self to an audience as opposed to a private moment of sustenance, and to capital, mediation makes consumption into data that is raw material for further production (i.e. it becomes more capital). All this self-branding work may strike us a kind of liberation, since it is arguably preferable to the soulless, alienating work we have known up until now. After all, such work takes as its raw material something with which we are endlessly fascinated: ourselves. Indeed, Rushkoff wonders whether the new normal of massive unemployment and “obsolete people” is really so terrible:

The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with “career” be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

We cooperate willingly with the process because it appears as personal growth toward a new, wonderful all-sidedness — even though these new sides are opened to us only as moments of exploitation, ultimately. The new sides are just new ways to work for someone else through the technology.

The hope is that we can reclaim these new sides to ourselves and render them autonomous from capital. But, as Matt Steinglass suggests in this post at the Economist‘s Democracy in America blog, this vision of progress posits an economy in which we have stopped making things and instead manufacture status distinction directly. Work processes would no longer be a matter of providing for society’s needs but for making the necessary totems to rearticulate and protect established social hierarchies.

Whether you regard such work as socially necessary likely depends on where you stand in those hierarchies. Given a plenitude of material goods, society’s only problem would theoretically be distribution, a problem that class structure has traditionally resolved. But if we no longer need to work to make the things society needs, why would the lower classes continue to work to reproduce the hierarchies that exclude them? Neoliberalism offers a neat solution to this by seeming to promise workers the ability to manufacture status for themselves directly while their effort works to recreate structural inequities. What technological advancement does is intensify the rationing of meaningful work, which is less a hardship than another kind of human need society must work to meet. Who has the power to make meaning remains a matter of intense competition on a far from level playing field. The troubling of the wage relation doesn’t necessarily explode the foundation; it may instead open a new, more intensive means by which labor can be exploited, controlled. If workers as “social individuals” expect more than mere wages, then their desire for affect — for stability and meaning — becomes a new lever for capital, another means by which insecurity and inequality and competition and systematic exclusion and all the other things capitalism requires to function can be reproduced anew.

Rather than accept the inevitability of neoliberalism and seek to metastasize it, it seems better to me to continue to worry about how formal and real subsumption are progressing on the front of everyday life and to try to figure out ways to resist it. The relevant terminology for this includes affective labor, immaterial labor, emotional labor, erotic capital. Technology accelerates the accumulation of these forms of capital, which it helps constitute in the first place: communication, consumption, and identity broadcasting and so on are being made more efficient and “convenient” at the same time that convenience also institutes universal surveillance. And these new forms of capital foist the responsibilities of entrepreneurship on their putative owners, reconfiguring the wage as a return on investment rather than the result of a struggle with management for a fairer share of the surplus. No matter how sharp one’s dialectic is, nothing guarantees that the intensification of insecurity and exposure will magically invert itself.