The Social SoftWar

By Angela Mitropoulos, 29 January 2007

Do blogs and social network-based sites offer the prospect of a democratic sociability without borders or wars? Should unpaid producers of content struggle for fair compensation? Or does the very sense of ownership, justice and right founded on labour need to be shaken up? Angela Mitropoulos takes a critical look at the dissident pragmatism of the startup and the ‘alternative’ economies of the digital commons


The cylons were created by man. They were created to make life easier on the twelve colonies. And then the day came when the cylons decided to kill their masters. After a long and bloody struggle, an armistice was declared. The cylons left for another world to call their own. Now mankind’s children are returning home!

– Battlestar Galactica, opening titles, miniseries/pilot

The cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. They look and feel human. Some are programmed to think they are human. There are many copies. And they have a plan.  – Battlestar Galactica, opening titles


‘Being social’ is often understood as the opposite of ‘being at war’. ‘Social software’, even if implicitly, retains this distinction and its premises. Let’s begin, then, with the topic of war – and technology. As Clausewitz once famously complained, ‘War is regarded as nothing but the continuation of politics by other means.'[1] That is, war is conceived as an instrument – to be defended, opposed, or explained according to ends that are external to it, usually political, but also economic, civilisational, humanitarian, theological and so on. In this sense, war is often reckoned as technology, which is to say, with all the associated connotations according to which technology is considered an instrument. That is, as Aristotle defined technics: a man-made thing, distinguished from man by not having the origin of motion or rest within it.

In another but related sense, the question of war, no less than that of technology, is frequently posed in such a way that the nexus between politics, life and technics is denied – often for the purposes of clinching either a pessimistic or optimistic stance – or credited with an infinite sway. In this way, the question of technology too often becomes, and perhaps parallels, the theologisation of politics (and history) that has repeatedly animated both conservative and radical critiques of capitalism. Whether assigned with almighty powers from which, according to Heideggerian lamentation, ‘only a God can save us’, or serving as placeholder of eschatological hopes for the reclamation of a divine-like mastery over the world, the question of technology presents itself as the answer to a political question that has – to modify Althusser’s remark on the structure of ideology – not been overtly posed. In this respect, Arthur Kroker is right to ask whether ‘technology is the name given today to the ancient language of metaphysics.’[2] Foucault’s similarly famous reply to Clausewitz – ‘that politics is war continued by other means’ – suggests the intersection of technics, politics and life as the circumstance of war. Differently put: that war is not outside society, but a condition of it, as an often diffuse and permanent war that, also, marks the perimeter of any given society.[3]

In discussions of the internet, the association between the temporality of this seemingly permanent global war and the entanglements of politics, technics and life has barely begun to be articulated. I want to sketch how this articulation might proceed, emphasising some of the more difficult questions that arise from the intimate networking practices of ‘social software’, particularly as they relate to copyfights. I am interested in underlining the work dimensions of networking, the implications of always-on net-working for conventional distinctions between society and war.

Because work, too, has its theological aspects. From the far-reaching sense of labour as auto-teleology and auto-production to its specific manifestation in the Lockean doctrine of labour, rights and enclosure, the condition of being at war would be posited as the deficiency of borders and rights. Locke’s understanding of society and property rights is of some significance here, being revived in debates over intellectual property, digital content and the like. Locke accorded a privileged status to labour in the definition of the social contract and the determination of rights. For him, the goal of society is the preservation of property rights – and, one can claim rights because labour has been exerted.

Moreover, Lockean arguments are a cliché of anti-piracy campaigns, serving to conflate the work of musicians with the legal ownership of that work by record companies, film-makers with studios, and so on, for obvious effect. But if Locke’s liberal contentions have reinforced juridico-commercial property as rightful, they have also been the ethico-political ground of various socialist – from social democratic to national socialist – claims for a properly remunerated labour (or is it life?). Proposals for an ‘alternative compensation system’ from the ‘digital commons’ are a version of this; coupling rights and labour together almost as precisely as Locke did. In this way, differences are slid under the equilibriating heading of ‘stakeholders’ and, as the Berlin Declaration on Collectively Managed Online Rights added, the goal of balancing rights.

But if one response to this is to insist that there is a crucial asymmetry between wage and profit – without which there would be no profit – the issue becomes complicated if considered through the relation between labour and rights, not least insofar as subcontracting and the ‘free labour’ of the net serve to diffuse this question beyond that of formal wage contracts. Because it is through the coupling of labour and rights that juridico-commercial precepts radiate as politics and/or morality, which is to say: as the quasi- or openly transcendental determination of merit and its rewards and, not least, justice. For the moment, let’s recall Locke’s ‘labour theory of rights’, which is echoed in Marx’s writings. Without doubt, entire debates between variant marxisms have turned around the question of this echo. In any case, for Locke, labour, and the property rights that flow from it, are a condition of being human, a secularised version of divine creation. In his Second Treatise of Government, he wrote:

every man has a property in his own person. This no body had any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.

That is, the human subject consists, above all, in self-possession, in the regard for oneself and one’s labour, as property. One can, of course, contract to sell one’s labour: ‘a freeman makes himself a servant to another, by selling him[self], for a certain time.’ A ‘freeman’, a citizen, is in this sense a proprietor. Locke underscores the sense of the work contract as a non-absolute transference of right and temporal limitation, going on to distinguish servants from slaves. The latter, being captives taken in war, have ‘forfeited their lives,’ and are therefore ‘not capable of property.’ The resonances of Lockean justice and right are more than apparent in Marx’s writing, not least in the early theme of alienation. They are also, later, much more ambivalently put:

At first the rights of property seemed to us to be based on a man’s own labour. […] Now, however, property turns out to be the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labour of others or its product, and to be the impossibility, on the part of the labourer, of appropriating his own product. The separation of property from labour has become the necessary consequence of a law that apparently originated in their identity.[4]

Nevertheless, the question of whether Marx, here and elsewhere, adapts a Lockean exposition for the purposes of a subsequent ironic reversal – as in the recurrence of ‘at first … seemed’ throughout Capital – is perhaps less significant than the problem itself. Or, to put it another way: the circumstances and the predicament of the meshing of life, technics and politics that, in later writings and notes, Marx would refer to as ‘real subsumption’ and, even later still, (translations of) Tronti’s writing would emphasise with the concept of the ‘social factory.’ In this regard, the problem is in no way forestalled by substituting Locke’s abstract individual as proprietor with a properly redeemed collectivity of the ergological, productivist society that exhilarated national socialism.

The larger dilemma – aside from the reverence for labour, but bound up with it – is the foreclosure of politics in democratic theology which accompanied the transformation of ‘class war’ into ‘permanent war.’ If I put it like this, it is to circumvent the dreaming of a time when war was suspended through the determination of fixed boundaries (not least those of class understood as an identity) and in the armistice of (social) democracy. While Walter Benjamin’s arguments on the author function and technology are important to discussions of network, it is I think his discussion of war that might sharpen the connections between authorial subjectivity, right and war. As he remarked in ‘Critique of Violence’, war does not annihilate adversaries. On the contrary, war fixes the borders and shape of adversity itself, proceeding to bestow equal rights upon (what is left of) the adversary as contracting party to a treaty. Benjamin adds:

Here appears, in fearsome originality, the mythic ambiguity to which Anatole France refers satirically when he says, ‘Poor and rich are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridge.’[5]

Borders are not simply geopolitical. They are not only the means by which war is displaced and relocated to beyond socially-contracted space as the division of populations and peoples.

That is, borders are also, in another sense, temporal. From Locke to Marx, the very condition of the ostensible peace of the social contract would be connected up with the temporal limitation of the work contract, in turn constitutive of the difference between the ‘freeman’ and the slave. But, what happens when such temporal limits are frayed by technics? If I might put it like this, technics ‘comes home’, as it were.  It becomes an intimate habitus in the intersection of war and society. Even if this particular war is conducted in more or less soft form, it is as the continuous war of democracy against the outbreak of war within its borders – which is to say, the outbreak of another kind of war, something other than the competitive clash between the formally equal, understood as a prelude to a contract.

And yet, if the proliferation of ‘social software’ and related copyfights suggests anything, it is that while the concept of work preserves its Lockean associations with right and enclosure, its temporal boundaries give way to an always-on, always available net-working. Some time ago, Tiziana Terranova noted the disaffection of ‘netslaves’, experiencing ‘24/7 sweatshops’ and ‘ninety-hour weeks.’ She fruitfully related this to various (post-)Operaio concepts such as the social factory, general intellect and, not least, affective labour. For her, the question was:

How to speak of labour, especially cultural and technical labour, after the demolition job carried out by thirty years of postmodernism?[6]

Mario Tronti explains the problem somewhat differently, less an instance of competing theoretical camps (say, ‘postmodernism’ versus marxism) than the meshing of politics, technics and life:

There is a reluctance to confront the bitter theme of the political consequences that the revolution within work has had upon society. The fragmentation of the left social bloc begins with the loss of the centrality of the working subject. This, in turn, was effected technically.[7]

Yet, the ‘centrality of the working subject’ presupposed certain borders, according to which – to recall Benjamin’s remarks – an armistice had been declared and equality bestowed. That is: it is on the ground of the distinctions between paid and unpaid work, the geopolitical divisions of labour, and more besides, that this conjuncture of work and subjectivity occurred and its political centrality was established. Whatever else might be said, the internet is not simply ‘animated by cultural and technical labour,’ and not only by a chain of labour stretching around the world that produces, among other things, the chipset and the keyboard. It is animated, should one have occasion to speak of labour and life beyond its anthropological dimensions, by the very impossibility of discerning an originary labour in man. In another sense, and considering the mechanisation of the working body that capitalism puts into motion, Silvia Federici insists that ‘the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.’[8] Further (and Terranova appears to dismiss this question altogether), whether workers achieved the status of human beings, said to possess the very essence of what was said to be human, was so often a question of whether their labour could be said to be humanising.

This is one reason why Lockean understandings of property rights have been revived on the net. As Fred Scharmen notes of MySpace, the ‘component parts of the online soul are small pieces of marketing data.’[9] In this shift from habeas corpus to habeas data, which nevertheless maintains the sense of the former as the presentation of the juridical subject (liable to punishment, surveillance, bearing contractual obligation, rights and so on), Locke’s abstract individual finds its most cogent expression. Despite all the talk of intangible commodities and immaterial labour as the circumstances that might sunder neo-classical understandings of property rights, the ‘labour theory of rights’ has in fact become more, rather than less, explicit. Property in land was never, in fact, conditioned by scarcity (as Johan Söderberg has noted), but by enclosure deemed rightful through the exertion of labour.[10] Locke argued: ‘He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common.’ Indeed, Locke’s argument was, in many ways, an argument for colonisation – alongside Blackstone’s Commentaries, it became the template for validating colonial property rights. Colonists enclosed the land and made it productive. What counts as labour and production here is, obviously, decided by whether it might be amenable to being counted – calculable, measurable, exchangeable, abstract, parcellised.

And, on the net, the demand that rights flow from labour functions as an insistence that such labour is human labour, after all – that it is not degraded, alienated, etc. Played out along the axes of a labour deemed to have the capacity for self-possession and therefore self-management – especially because of the intersection between language and labour – one can (but not in all cases) dispose of any questions as to what work is by insisting that it means authorship, self-positing, the conscious, reasoned intent that is said to distinguish the work of man from that of bees (or machines). Hence the often intense debates on the net over recognition of authorship and its reward, particularly at the juncture between ‘social software’ and institutional practice. One can easily recount the instances: anxieties and musings about whether blogs amount to proper (academic) work which may, therefore, be appropriated by oneself or others (either copyrighted, attached to a CV or ‘stolen’); whether Battlestar Galactica webisodes were promotional material or creditable parts of the series; and, following from this, whether the work of fansites, blogs and wikis are promotional material which rightfully can be (as occurred with managed by studios.

Likewise, remunerated or not by actual money, it would be absurd to suggest that exchange and competition – not least in their democratic register – have not predominated as expectation or model on the net, albeit in a particularly intimate and self-managed form. Even where utopian possibility was pronounced in proto-communist terms, the elaboration of a ‘gift economy’ as an economy – that is, marked by exchange, reciprocity and contract – suggested that much of the gifting was perhaps the surreptitious anticipation of reward and, so, hardly a gift at all.[11] Therefore, the invention of the term ‘Web 2.0’ merely provides a handy label for processes that have been occurring for some time. It also makes apparent certain assumptions about network as confined to and having the character of intellectual work. Tim O’Reilly explicitly stated that ‘Web 2.0’ is the ‘harnessing of collective intelligence.’ Henry Jenkins asked:

if these grassroots efforts [of fansites, social software and suchlike] are generating value (and in fact, wealth) and their creative power is being tapped by major corporations, at what point should they start receiving a share of revenue for their work?[12]

Leaving aside the questions this raises about corporate control over such efforts, where does one locate the ‘origin’ of such creativity, since the proposition of creativity so often assumes an originary (and often individuated) authorship? There is a prelude to this. Laments over the degradation of human labour through technics turns out to be the reassertion of a recent and relative privilege (of so-called ‘creative work’) deemed lost. And it is in that process of mourning that a more intense recourse to the language of credit, right and authorship has occurred. Flattened into the language of an unperturbed ‘immanence’, such mourning can segue into an appeal for a properly self-managed labour and the celebration of a coming ergological society – a renewed productivist vitalism that regains the centrality of the concept of labour by conceding that while everything might be becoming laborious, ‘work makes free’, or it could.

It did not take long, for instance, for the political valorisations of, say, immaterial workers as the new revolutionary subject to shift into an explicitly hipster-entrepreneurial gear, notable in Richard Florida’s talk of the ‘creative class’. Alongside these revivals of Lockean notions of property, labour and right on the net, there are increasing and predictable suggestions to ‘switch off’. Displacing questions about work into fears of technology as an ‘inhuman force’, the tendency here is toward moral panics and the proliferation of surveillance and control (mostly of children), and often through software (such as i-Kids mobile phones with a parent-prescribed set of numbers that can be received or dialled and which can act as a leash to Government-subsidised distributions of ‘net nanny’).

Therefore, it may be better to ask what technology’s displacement and dispersion of work might mean for reformulating the very sense of work itself, against concepts of work as appropriation of the world, or work of one’s self (self-positing and self-possession), or work as the rejection of what is deemed foreign, including what is regarded (as Werner Hamacher argues) as ‘foreign to work.’[13] That is, all along the various registers of not-work, not proper work, inappropriate and inappropriable, unemployed, populations deemed superfluous, propertyless, without value – ‘what in work does not correspond to an ergological figure … and does not come back to itself.’ Undoubtedly, there are aspects of net-work that are significant in this respect: from the ‘wasting of time’ at work in the form of ‘notworking’, to the risk that ‘exposure’ on the net might overflow, depose or even expose its (self-)marketing aspects.

And so, the political question which I alluded to earlier – the question that is not posed by presenting it as a question of technology – is not that of reinstating the nobility of politics – or humanity – over technics, along the lines of, say, Andrew Feenberg’s arguments for democratic control over technology, or Graham Longford’s calls for a ‘democratic reinvention of cyberspace.’[14] Nor, along similar lines, is it a matter of suggesting that the invocation of ‘the YouTube community’ in the announcement of YouTube’s sale to Google was the cynical deployment of sociality for commercial appropriation, as John McMurria has argued.[15] Contrary to McMurria and others, neither democracy nor community nor society can exist without recourse to borders and, in each of those cases, the mythologised semblance (and therefore denial) of those borders. Particularly with democracy, juridico-commercial subjectivity is conceived as the very idea of political subjectivity, right down into the confluences between equality and abstract labour and the structural rifts they are constituted through: that is, inequality and concrete indifference.

Indeed, insofar as blogs and other ‘user-generated’ sites assume the model of democracy or community, the question of exclusion (of what/who is included and what/who is not), becomes depoliticised. That is, less a question of differences than numerical calculations. Thus, the purportedly open character of blogs and social networks takes its cue from money as the universal equivalent, assuming the same structure of concrete indifference (and exclusion). It is no coincidence that one ‘how to blog successfully’ site recommends regarding blogs as pieces of ‘real estate’ – the model of landed property is insistent. Even if such property is digital, it is made intimate, as the technics of self – and through the conduit of a ‘labour theory of right.’ In this way, relation, and non-relation, are no longer questions, an experiment in politics, but a market to be expanded.

The specificity of the political, then, is difference – but it is also the cut of difference that can, perhaps, cut both ways. But it will have to be politics conceived otherwise. Neither the difference of competition which puts difference to work. Nor the difference of a dialectics which works out differences. Nor, for that matter the difference as the work of self (as in Schmitt’s existential theology of friend and enemy, toiling on the vocabularies and borders of identity and self-determination). On the contrary, it will have to be difference and relation posed as a question, each time. To be sure, the argument which follows cannot be that people should not be paid, or have an income. But this is not an ontological predicament. Aestheticisations of poverty are no less theological or odious than is Protestantism’s work ethic. Rather, conflicts on the net, as elsewhere, need not continue to have recourse to a labour theory of rights to be political struggles. What is at stake here is by no means confined to the internet. Which is to say: it is no coincidence that migration is increasingly and explicitly controlled through reference to labour. From Bush’s insistence that undocumented migrants must ‘earn’ an amnesty, to the coupling of work contracts and legalisation in the EU, the connection between the emerging criteria of ‘netizenship’ and citizenship are yet to be detailed in their connections, but those connections are pronounced.

Struggles need not posit labour as a condition of right – or, for that matter, understand labour as a condition of life – even as the meshing of technics, life and politics cannot be denied. Which is to say: there is an impasse here, which needs to be cut through. And no amount of pragmatism, in the demand for, say, just compensation can turn aside from its pragmatic repercussions: not least the validation of a border between ostensibly contractarian, self-managed subjects and those deemed incapable of contracting and therefore lacking subjectivity itself (i.e., treated as things, pragma). [For more on these aspects, see Angela Mitropoulos, ‘Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire’ in Mute Vol2#2] This is the condition of post-Fordist policing (or is it a war?). Moreover, as Adorno and Horkheimer remarked, ‘Realistic dissidence is the trademark of anyone who has a new idea in business.’[16] One could add that dissident pragmatism is the very form of the startup. Unquestionably, without work life would grind to a halt, but life does indeed grind to a halt in so many ways that the question of what is life and what is labour (and for whom does the adhesion of labour as life become a condition of life or threat of death) should become the questions.

There are various ways such differences can be played out, perhaps as the difference between wage and profit, even as this unravels in some cases through subcontracting and so on. Or, more ‘creatively’, in the difference between the ‘creative commons’ (of subjects defined as authors) and the undercommons – of those who no longer, if indeed they ever did, figure politically as workers; deemed not to have the origin of movement within themselves, mere prostheses of ‘creative’ labour taking place elsewhere.[17] Or, in a more complex way, through the difference between ‘here and now’ conflicts over digital content and the insistence that technology is the historical repository of ‘dead labour’ as Marx suggested (and an archive, as Derrida argued[18]) and, therefore, what amounts to the incalculable justification of filesharing, editing and reprisal. Yet whatever the particular lines drawn in this other kind of softwar might be, politics here will be a matter of working through the question of work itself, in its differences.

[1] [1] Clausewitz, On War, 1873.

[2] Arthur Kroker, Born Again Ideology: Religion, Technology, and Terrorism, 2006.

[3] Michel Foucault, ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the College de France, 1976-76 (Trans) David Macey; (Eds) Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, Picador, 2003.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.1 1867.

[5] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Critique of Violence’ in Reflections (Ed) Peter Demetz, Shocken, New York, 1986.

[6] Tiziana Terranova, ‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’, 2000. Available at

[7] Mario Tronti, La Politica al Tramonto, Einaudi, Rome, 1998. With many thanks to Brett Neilson for the pointer and translation.

[8] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, New York, 2004.

[9] Freddy Scharmen, ‘“You must be logged in to do that!” - Myspace and Control’ May, 2006.

[10] Johan Söderberg, ‘Reluctant Revolutionaries: The False Modesty of Reformist Critics of Copyright’, 2004.

[11] Richard Barbrook, ‘The Hi-Tech Gift Economy’, 1998.

[12] Henry Jenkins, ‘Taking the You Out of YouTube?’, 2006.

[13] Werner Hamacher, ‘Working Through Working’, 1996. Modernism/modernity Volume 3, Number 1, January 1996, The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 23-56.

[14] Andrew Feenberg, ‘Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom’, 1992.

[15]John McMurria, ‘The YouTube Community’, 2006.

[16] Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Trans) John Cumming, Herder and Herder, New York, 1972.

[17] For a discussion of the undercommons, see Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s ‘The University and the Undercommons’, Social Text, Issue 79, Duke University Press, 2004. Available at

[18] Jacques Derrida, Mal d’Archive, Galilée, Paris, 1995.

Angela Mitropoulos <s0metim3s AT> lives in Melbourne, Australia