Month: January 2014

Communicative Capitalism and Digital Labour

“Affective Labor” by Micheal Hardt, published in 1999,  traces the “changing role of affective labour in the capitalist economy” (p. 89) through the processes of economic postmodernization from industrial economies, to postindustrial economies to informational economies, in which immaterial labor – the labour involved in production of services, knowledge and communication rather than material goods – relies upon the manipulation of affects to produce collective subjects through biopower which is a term he uses to refer to the creation management and control of populations through governmentality. (p. 98) And so the question I want to pose is whether a changing labour landscape call for a change in political organization and mobilization?

I’ve been thinking lately about Jodi Dean’s concept of communicative capitalism, which she describes in an interview prior to the publication to her book The Communist Horizon as a contemporary material condition:

Communicative capitalism is the merger or capitalism and democratic ideals in a material form and space. The material form and space are computers, smartphones, fiber-optic cables, cell phone networks, and the basic idea is that democratic ideas of access, inclusion, participation, in fact are running a particular form of capitalism… it takes away the political efficacy of… formations of resistance or political interventions…

Dean, drawing from psychoanalytic language, describes the relationship of the subject to desire and drive. Desire is an ideal toward which we want to reach, it is open; although one may never reach it, we still strive for it. Drive, on the other hand is also a form of pleasure, but it is compulsive and functions in a loop from which one can’t escape. In communicative capitalism, action no longer becomes a goal, but rather a condition — a setting — in which communication becomes the target of pleasure, a fetish, in which drive replaces desire.  There are a two frameworks operating here that are worth exploring: one is the assertion that what we ought to be aspiring to – our goal – is not a post-capitalist but rather a capitalist horizon. This is worth exploring in The Communist Horizon, in which Dean outlines the contrasting ways in which this horizon has come to be theorized, for example, by Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Zizek, as revolutionary politics:

Instead of a politics thought primarily in terms of resistance, playful and momentary aesthetic disruptions, the immediate specificity of local projects, and struggles for hegemony within a capitalist parliamentary setting, the communist horizon impresses upon us the necessity to abolish capitalism and to create global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation. (p. 11)

The second framework, and the one I take more issue with, is the framing of desire as negative rather than a positive construct. While I don’t wish to take this up in detail now, I do wish to suggest that this may be the point of divergence for theorists.

Dean’s focus on communicative capitalism as contemporary condition takes social media as her primary target; however, I thought Trebor Scholz’s  talk on digital labour at the re:publica 2013 conference provides another perspective from which to analyse the operation of communicative capitalism.  Digital labour is defined as “a human activity sometimes undertaken solely for pleasure that has economic and symbolic value and can be performed at anytime.” Scholz focuses on the crowd-sourcing industry which he asserts is wiping out all the gains of the labour struggle. He spends the greatest length of time discussing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, one of the largest exploiters of digital labour, in which workers’ identities are unknown; the work they perform is unknown; the employer is unknown; and the labour is invisible. As a result, “cloud-workers” are not only exploited, on average being paid $2 an hour, but also alienated from her product. He also discusses other examples of unwaged digital labour, such as those ‘volunteers’ who collaborate to build on Wikis; Huffington post, which doesn’t compensate its contributors; and the ‘cognitive labour’ of social media platforms, in which users’ data are the product.  The argument is that digital labour blurs the lines between work and life; leisure and labour; playing and work.  What I would like to ultimately take up in my own research is the specific ways in which digital labour is manifested in Learning Management Systems. In such systems, students are being prepared to participate in a ‘global knowledge-based economy,’ (KBE) in which Canada seeks to take up an ‘innovative’ and ‘productive’ role as the “Northern Tiger.” Yes, this is the language used in Canada’s officially published ‘Policy Horizons’ for 2017.

So if one of the aims of pedagogy is to prepare students for the workforce, how does this next phase of capitalism produce a shift in practices in education? I’ll leave that’s for another post