Chapter 8: Introduction - Reality Check: Class and Immaterial Labour

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 8 of Proud to be Flesh - Reality Check: Class and Immaterial Labour


Mute could never be accused of remaining indifferent to the techno-utopian thinking of the mid-’90s. But, despite our enthusiasm for, and interest in, the digital explosion of the net, we always aimed to discredit those fantasies attached to ‘immateriality’, in which labour magically disappears from the production of value, and the materiality of life is somehow jettisoned. It is no accident that, for many years, our strap line was ‘Proud to be Flesh’. Mute also partook of its own share of techno-utopianism. This tended to involve visions of virtuality’s power to heal rifts of class, space, race and gender, largely through the power of disembodied global communication. But, compared to the IT-propelled wet dreams of neoliberal capitalists and state planners, entailing the mirage of a ‘weightless economy’ in which knowledge workers perform ‘immaterial labour’ to produce one ‘long boom’, those alternative visions for the network society seem almost sober. At the very least, they continued to deal with the reality of domination, even if the panacea of cyberspace was overly optimistic. Behind the seductive visions of the network society, indulged in by cyberfeminists and venture capitalist alike, however, lay greater transformations, wrought in no small part by the same technologies: The shift from the relatively even distribution of manufacturing across the globe to the West’s rapid de-industrialisation and all that this implies – an opening up of markets, expansion of supply chains and the flexibilised deployment of labour that relies heavily on IT communication networks.

The articles in this chapter strive to define these new contours of labour and capital’s ‘post-Fordist’ recomposition, while consistently trying to understand the possibilities produced for new forms of struggle. This search for a politics of resistance adequate to post-Fordist globalisation also involves, of course, much intra-left debate and disagreement. Most at issue, in the articles compiled here, are the claims made by Italian post-autonomist Marxists, such as Maurizio Lazzarato and Antonio Negri, for the radical possibilities inherent in capitalism’s increased dependency on the creativity and ‘affectivity’ of the worker. Now that repetitive, mind-numbing work is performed increasingly by robots, the argument goes, creativity and affectivity is demanded of workers – a far less controllable means of production. The erosion of boundaries between life and work is also conceived of, by Negri et al., as an opportunity as much as an incursion into free time. The net result of this thinking is that labour time – the basis of value production – becomes impossible to measure and, if labour time is no longer the basis of value, then capitalism’s underlying logic is rendered defunct. A further double-edged condition of post-Fordist labour is its precariousness, as short-term contracts, shift work and a lack of benefits and job security become the norm. This precariousness, or ‘precarity’, affects workers across sectors and classes and, for that reason, some argue, creates the possibility for new alliances. The artist, the call centre worker and the sex worker supposedly now share some of the same exploitative conditions, and possible grounds for struggle.

These articles move at speed through different theatres of production, describing them with great acuity and often humour. Arthur Kroker took one of the first stabs at defining the techno-cultural elite which he named the ‘virtual class’. In his interview with Geert Lovink, he describes how ‘the will to virtuality’ has completed the commodity’s illusory severance from its economic base, conjuring ‘the pure aestheticisation of experience’. This is a fantasy entered into by the virtual class –which also tends towards ‘liberal-fascism’ – a class committed to opening up trading zones to commodity circulation, while living in fear of migrating workers. Their aim is, baldly, to ‘suppress the working class’ says Kroker. Simon Pope, in his hilarious recreation of the internal monologues of the mid-’90s, Shoreditch digerati, ventriloquises a male pubescent mindset fixated with brands, kit, virtual and commercial combat, personal security and making money without doing any work. Pope is careful to graft the ‘weightless economy’ to its hinterland of real production: ‘Where Josh’s dad’s business was built on international trade in fossil fuels, Josh makes his wedge from the trade in cultural currency.’

In the ten or so years over which these articles were commissioned, however, there is a distinct shift in focus from the virtual class to its underclass. This underclass unites the shit work of ‘knowledge workers’ in the world’s call centres, highly exploited and indebted university students, the underpaid cleaners of Europe’s ‘progressive’ cultural institutions, the dislocated logistics workers, who supply the postmodern manufacturing industry with its array of components, and the illegal, domestic and agricultural workers, whose historical precariousness has been eclipsed by the new-found ‘precarity’ of once-secure workers. As Angela Mitropoulos reminds us, global precarity has always been the standard experience of work in capitalism. ‘Fordism,’ she writes, ‘is an exception in capitalist history’.

As the certainties of progress associated with Fordism crumble, so, too, does the confidence of modernity and its culture. Anna Dezeuze explores artists’ fascination with the precariousness of the global poor and their makeshift strategies of survival. The work of artists like Francis Alÿs and Marjetica Potrcˇ mimics the ‘inventiveness’ of shack dwellers and the urban poor, finding in their outsiderhood a ‘certain freedom’. In Potrcˇ’s view, ‘the world we live in today is all about self-reliance, individual initiative and small scale projects’ – something she clearly embraces. This resignation, on the part of liberals, to the postmodern impossibility of mass movements and revolutionary social change is the target of Brian Ashton’s article, ‘The Factory Without Walls’. For Ashton, the Thatcherite defeat of the left and the smashing of union militancy during the 1980s has led to the mistaken idea that production has become so globalised, its workforce so scattered and sub-contracted, that co-ordinated action is all but impossible. Uttering the maxim ‘know thine enemy’, he advocates research into the structures of contemporary capitalism and its global supply chains. ‘The mass worker hasn’t been destroyed’, he argues, ‘s/he has just been reconfigured’. By going global, he concludes, ‘capitalism is creating the opportunity for global working class struggle.’ If IT has been deployed by capitalism to recompose itself by disbanding and outsourcing the centres of proletarian production, then it can similarly be used to recombine this class again. But, what the class identity of this reconfigured mass worker actually is, on what basis struggles will be fought and what role the ‘knowledge worker’ will play in all of this is productively disputed here.

Proud to be Flesh

Call to Arms

In the summer of 1999 Kolinko, a group of German radicals, decided to start working in call centres, examining exploitation there and strategies for overcoming it. Three years later they published Hotlines, an invaluable document for those wanting to understand how work is carried out and resisted in call centres. The group have been criticised by some for promoting workers’ enquiry as a political project and engaging in ‘radical sociology’. Here, Kolinko reprise and defend the thinking behind their research, and one member gives a first hand account of his time working at one of the largest call centres in the UK

A RADICAL ENQUIRYThe Hotlines book describes a three year process of enquiry in call centres, attempting into understand the situation there, workers’ behaviour during and against work, conflicts, and interventions – through leaflets and otherwise. In this enquiry, we saw ourselves as workers participating in the struggles and trying to support their development. We had a guiding principle: make clear to other workers, and ourselves, the actions that are already being carried out. Our goal was not to enlighten ‘unreflective’ workers, but to push beyond our own limited horizons.

We want to grasp the standpoint of the collective social worker: the effects of technological change, the impact of the social and international division of labour on everyday life, the experiences of other workers in their struggles, and the power they develop through them. It’s about breaking up the limited perspective which the isolating capitalist organisation of work imposes on us, blocking our own view of things.

Of course, our attempts to get an overview, to understand class conflicts, and to throw our ideas into discussion – in other words, the ways and means we use for enquiries – ask for a continuous debate. We used the Hotlines questionnaire mainly for reflecting our ideas and for starting discussions with other workers. Consequently there was much they missed; it did not say much about struggles in other sectors, about crisis, and nothing about war. Better leaflets would draw the lines between the events on the shop floor or in the job centres and the global transformations of capitalism – a means to further encourage discussion among workers by supplying information on other struggles. In the worst case, they won’t read that stuff or know what to do with it; in the best case they will use it during upcoming conflicts and start to spread their own experiences through leaflets or other media.

We do not believe in the supposed separation between workers and militants/activists, one lot with their crazy revolutionary ideas, the other only interested in more money and job security. While there may be thousands of examples of the ‘individual worker’ – individualism and competition while searching for a job, demands in collective bargaining situations, racism against newly emigrated workers – there are also many examples of the opposite: the doctor’s receptionist who does not want to work in medical practices any more even if she gets paid better, because she prefers being together with larger numbers of workers in a call centre; the casual worker who doesn’t give a shit about money and security and goes surfing after four months of work. Historically there are many examples of workers who act against their economic interests – enjoying themselves by burning down their company, killing the boss and so on.

Enquiry is one method that can be used in order to understand this space between workers’ behaviour as labour power that wants to improve its conditions, and as the class that wants to put an end to exploitation. It can do this by dealing with real processes, contradictions, and tensions. Workers already make enquiries: they are interested in the wages of their foremen, conflicts in other departments, the restructuring management has planned (sometimes even in the struggles of the landless in Brazil or the unemployed in Argentina); if they don’t make such enquiries, they lose out, unprepared for the next conflict. In most cases the division between those who are interested in what’s going on and those who are not is not a division between so-called ‘revolutionaries’ and workers, but between workers themselves.

For us the issue of our exploitation corresponds directly with that of our struggle. We don’t have to tell anyone that we/they are exploited: it’s a collective effort to understand the social dimension and structure of how this exploitation is organised. We have no desire to be militants or activists, sacrificing ourselves for a historic mission, getting on everyone’s nerves including our own. Rather we make this choice: to deal with the situation collectively, rather than individually, whenever we have to sell our labour power or cope with the worsened conditions at job centres and the welfare office. For instance, we can decide together in which places of exploitation we want to earn our cash and at the same time participate collectively in conflicts. That way, our disgust for the capitalist daily routine and our anger against the conditions and those who oppress and exploit us can flow together into one common political project.

Enquiry is the condition, form and method of our attempts to understand the current struggle and to take part in it. Those who would still like to go into these questions in more detail from the perspective of our experiences should read the Hotlines book.

LONDON CALLINGI had heard a lot about call centres, day after day, for two years. I thought I knew what to expect.

The CompanyOne of the biggest market research companies in the world. They have offices or call centres in 36 countries, big multinational or government clients. For example the Australian General Union asked the company to conduct a survey about flexible work-time. They should just have asked the company’s workers – they knew all about it already.

The Call CentreThe call centre is in London, near London Bridge, in a side street facing a high red brick wall with barbed wire on top. A group of young Spanish and Italians stand in front of it, the Italians swearing about Berlusconi, the Spanish smoking weed. Two doors, one pincode, then you are inside the ‘postmodern chicken farm’ as people call it. Packed little phone booths for hundreds of interviewers. The job is market research, phoning people in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, Ireland, randomly selected by the computer. At the end of each row, the supervisors’ desks.

The ConditionsThe whole thing started with two days’ unpaid training, basic brainwashing about market research, how to use the antique computer program and so on. The second day a really nice guy from French Reunion Island came in ten minutes late and was sent home again, unpaid, but at least only half brainwashed. The stylish gay Asian supervisor, who regularly handed out anti-globalisation information and was a very welcome guest at various call-centre-workers’ parties, was able to justify giving him the sack.

After these two days you can start working – if you get your shifts. You have to book them a week in advance and if there is no work, you won’t get any. The management wanted to introduce a new shift scheme, with a top list of interviewers: whoever completes the most interviews, whoever has got the least ‘idle time’ and is the most punctual and obedient worker can choose their shifts first. If you are a miserable worker, you’ll get what’s left over. Theoretically you can book as many shifts as you want – of course there are some legal restrictions, but they don’t really count. I saw people working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, although that’s a sad exception.

The WorkIf you press ‘y’ after the computer asks you ‘another interview?’, it starts dialling random numbers. When you are lucky, you get connected to a fax machine or a modem and you can press ‘8’, just to be asked the same question again. In between ‘8’ and ‘y’ is the kingdom of idle time, but watch it – the king or queen of idle time gets into trouble. If you are connected to another human being you have to start asking questions.

Most sensible people hang up after hearing the word ‘market research’; all the others usually are very lonely, mentally unstable or just wrong in thinking they’re doing you a favour. We do surveys about alcoholic drinks, fast food chains, mobile phone networks, DVD-players and digital cameras, cars, petrol stations, post offices and more. We do it every day, ‘til nine in the evening.

Imagine phoning a small Irish village on a Sunday night asking about DVD players. At least you can hide behind your script. You are supposed to read it from the screen, word for word. How else could you possibly think of questions like ‘Imagine Burger King is a person with its own personality. Would Burger King be introverted, bold, immature or warm-hearted’? The average interview takes about 20 minutes, on average you do three to four interviews in a four hours shift, the fruit of 200-300 phone calls. Rumour has it that the company gets £70 for each interview.

The WorkersFrom all over the world, in their 20s, most of them ‘creative’ in one way or the other. It would be wrong to say that they are ‘students’, though most of them have been. You can talk about Guy Debord with a French female artist just back from Cuba, the drummer of an anarchist Italian hardcore band, a gay second generation Turkish boy from Cologne who is studying fashion design, a traditional Asian Muslim man from the East End, a girl from a village in the Alps with a population of fifty, who just arrived in London – all in a four-hour shift. I’ve never worked in a place before where people were so critical and verbally able to dismiss their work, even capitalism as such. But I have also hardly ever seen people accepting such mind-numbing work and patronising management behaviour. Because it’s just a job for a while? Because they mainly did that kind of job after quitting school or university? Because of the week-to-week shift system? I still don’t have a clue why.

The SupervisionThere is one supervisor for ten to twenty interviewers, monitoring the idle time, counting interviews and attempts, listening to what you say and how you say it. They come to your desk if you are not dialling for five minutes; they give you bad marks if you don’t stick to the script. They walk around and tell you to put your book or newspaper back into your rucksack and to bring the coffee back to the coffee machine, because hot drinks are not allowed. For an extra pound an hour and the privilege of not having to be on the phone they wear themselves out.

The SabotageIt starts with small things. Little drawings or scribbles in each phone booth. A lot of ‘Leave your brain at the entrance’ stuff. Someone is constantly stuffing the toilets with toilet rolls, so the management put out these notices: ‘Whoever is putting paper down the toilets, please stop it. It is unnecessary, unhygienic and causes inconvenience for everybody.’ The next day people cross out the ‘It’, replacing it with ‘Market Research’, or the name of the most hated supervisor.

We started collective slam poetry, handing on poem lines from neighbour to neighbour. Sometimes we used the computer as well, pressing the right combination of codes to keep the computer dialling, assuming that there are only fax machines at the other end. But that’s risky: the supervisor could be monitoring you. Sometimes, especially with lonely elderly people, we live out our social worker tendencies, talking about gardening and the new priest in the community, instead of fast food chains. Some Spanish guys developed a funny threesome, using the headset, passing the receiver on to the neighbour, so that the confused respondent talked to two interviewers. We faked management instructions that are placed in every phone booth, calling for the return of the Idle-Time King and mass orgies.

On Saturday shifts there is a higher drug consumption. That’s when most of the weird stuff happens. Receivers at the supervisors’ desks glued to the phones, people pretending to be preachers or radio show presenters. But there was never a real collective action. Once on a Saturday, 15 minutes before the end of a nine-hour shift, the supervisors circling to make sure we keep on dialling, some French girls suddenly started to cheer and applaud like crazy. All the pent-up energy broke loose and the whole call centre joined in, then packed their stuff and left five minutes early. We were never able to repeat that.

The EndIn the end, after six months, I got my fair share of disciplinary meetings, but wanted to leave anyway. It was my first and last call centre job. I found interesting people there, situations of solidarity and flirtation, a real friend. In political terms I am less sure. Maybe the most radical thing would have been to elect a shop steward or get rid of the zero-hour contracts and arbitrary management behaviour. But what for? To tie people even closer to this madness, by offering proper contracts? By that measure it would have become clear that we are workers with rights and our own interests. But why channel energy into such formally correct work relations, when there is all this disgust towards this kind of work, all this pent up creative anger?

What I missed here was a group of more experienced people, politically and job-wise, with whom to reflect on the situation. At first I thought a leaflet, for example about the new shift system, would be kind of ‘external’, so I just talked to my neighbours, made little drawings, like everyone did. But maybe something on paper, demanding a collective action and handed out to everyone would have forced all of us to define a position. Who knows..?

Proud to be Flesh

Data Trash (The Theory of the Virtual Class)

An interview with Arthur Kroker about the virtual class, retro-fascism and the figure on the world stage of political history.

Arthur Kroker, Canadian media theorist, is the author of 'The Possessed Individual','Spasm' and 'Hacking the Future'. Over the past years he, together with Marilouise Kroker, were often in Europe and made appearances at Virtual Futures, V-2, Eldorado/Antwerpen, etc. Recently, they have also been discovered in German-speaking countries. Both are noted for their somewhat compact jargon, which made their message appear to drown somewhat in overcomplex code. But "Data Trash"`(1994) changed all that. The long treck through the squashy discourses had not been in vain. Firmly rooted in European philosophy, yet not submerged, Arthur Kroker has found his topic: the virtual class.

The ongoing world-wide commercialization of the Net gives at this moment a new sector in the economy and hence social categories. Kroker's virtual class appears to be remarkably aggresive and cynical and, as anyone can observe, would have little to do with grass roots democracy or public access issues. In today's exploding digital markets, it's grab as much as you can. Now that he has been able to define the adversary in such clear terms, Arthur Kroker understandably thriving. The critics in the media are outraged, why such pessimism? Aren't the good intentions of the media pioneers for all to see? The rapping Kroker is becoming a nuissance. Apparently he is kicking where it hurts.

Arthur Kroker wrote 'Data Trash, a Theory of the Virtual Class' together with Michael Weinstein, a poltical philosopher, rap poet and photography critic for The Chicago Tribune. According to Arthur Kroker he is also "a Nietzschian underground man who thinks deeply about the United States." Arthur and Michael met during the Vietnam years and collaborated for the last 20 years on the Canadian Journal for Poltical and Social Theory (now the electronic magazine 'CTHEORY'). 'Data Trash' is hyper topical, which is remarkable for such a slow medium as a book. It leaves manuals, introductions and speculations behind in order to operate a pincer movement, telling the story of the rise of a new class while at the same time reflecting upon its consequences. This is a far cry from the usual activities of media theorists for whom the Net is still more something of a rumour than of a concrete experience.

I asked Arthur Kroker how his book how it is that his book can be so topical and reflective at the same time. "My body does a lot of travelling. I like to take deep plunges in the San Francisco spreading psychosis. I visit MIT and the Boston area and I spend time in Europe as well, roaming between Grenoble and Munich, to understand the cybermatrixes. And I spend a lot of time in the Net." 'Data Trash' was written on the Net, the writers haven't seen each other face to face in five years. "We experienced that there was a third person, the third mind, who wrote the book. The computer had come alive and 'Data Trash' was the result."

The cultural strategy followed in this book is called 'Hacking the Media'. "We like the notion of overidentifying with the feared and desired object, to such a point of obsession that you begin to take a bath in its acid juices. You travel so deeply and quickly in cyberculture that you force it to do things it never wanted to. I try to live my philosophy through cyberculture." For Michael Weinstein too it was an unique situation because he is mostly outside of the glowing horizon of technoculture and does not live in the corporate capital of America. He dwells in the twilight zone of Chicago which produces rough midwestern thinkers, who reflect on the howling winds of sacrificial violence and the decline of the American empire.

Why does this emerging class does not have a class conciousness of its own?

Arhtur Kroker: "If it did it would be doomed as the emergent class. 'Data Trash' is on suicidal and passive nihilism, as the radical Nietzsche predicted it in his 'Genealogy of Morals'. Virtual Reality means to us the humiliating reduction of human beings to servo mechanisms, or as Heidegger would say: as a standing reserve. The humiliation of the flesh as you are poked and proved and sucked by the harvesting machines of the virtual reality scanners."

Virtual reality does not mean head-mounted scanners and data gloves to Kroker & Weinstein. In their terminology VR is a whole assemblage of experiences, involving a traditional class consiousness, the spread of the ideology of techno culture and the hegemony of 'liberal fascism' and its swing back into 'retro fascism' as the political force behind the so-called 'Will to Virtuality'. 'Data Trash' seems the purest consummation of marxism, the severance of the commodity form from its economic base, into the notion of the pure estheticization of experience. Arthur: "We talk about the recombinant commodity form, in an economy run by the biological logic of cloning, displacing and resequencing. Or virtualized exchange, the replacement of a consumer culture by the desire to simply disappear, from shopping to turning your body into a brand name sign."

Now that the Berlin wall has crumbled and everyone left marxism, Kroker & Weinstein have gone back to Marx for a close reading of the movement of capitalism into the phase of pure commoditization. Living in America is not a question of trying to catch up with the media. The body is always moving to the speed of the media itself. 'Data Trash' begins with two fundamental rejections: the techno-utopian stance taken by Rheingold in his book 'Virtual Communities' (not the same Rheingold than after his 'Hot Wired' experience) and Neil Postman's neo-conservative position. On the other hand, it critiques all brands of technological determinism, who state that we don't have choices. There are real contradictions and lots of fractures, even in the supposedly closed virtual class. For Kroker/Weinstein, the field of political contestation is wide open.

But is this class in itself, not already virtual, in the sense of being invisible, dispersed and without clearly formulated class interests?

"We have done our investigations in many countries, to try to understand the different class fractions. How would the virtual class be actualized in France as opposed to America or Canada? In every case it turns out to be this curious mixture of predatory capitalism and computer visionarism. But it strikes us that it is a coherent class with pretty straightforward ideological objectives. It has to suppress the working class. In North-America one should position it within the framework of the NAFTA agreements. It freezes the working class and lower middle class in place so that they cannot move easily over national borders. When the workers complain, then they bring in the mechanism of a disciplinary state, the pinitive side of the virtual class.

"It's commenplace rethoric now: they have to stampede everybody on the information superhighway, and every business man knows that if you're not going on it soon, you are going to be eliminated, economically and historically. And this whole notion has been appropriated by the virtual class. But at the same time it is not a traditional class because it does not operate in the traditional logic of the political economy. The very notion of capitalism has already mutated, not really into technology, but into virtuality. Our work is a prolegomenon to the study of the virtual class, about the coming to be of a much more sinister and demonic force and that's the 'Will to Virtuality', a deeply disturbing, nihilistic aspect of the culture in which we live. It's about this suicical urge to feed human flesh into image processing machines, in such intensity, hyper accelaration, and suicidal seductiveness that flesh appears humiliated before it.

In the end you have to choose for an existance as a 'honoured collaborator', in Whitehead's sense, of techno-culture, rather than not to act at all. For a lot of thinkers, the position of the human species as 'honoured collaborator' of techno-culture, is their idea of a modernist position, what I call 'technological emergentism'. The human species is being superseded by technology. All right they say (the Shannons, McLuhans, etc.), but we still can be a honoured collaborator, we can probe around the world, and we can have media extensions of man. The notion of exteriorization is the possiblity of discovering new religious epifanies of technological experience. We reject that perspective. It is not about 'reaching out' but about 'reaching in'.

How does the vitual class relate to neo-liberalism?

"The political program of the virtual class goes way beyond the Reagonomics and Thacherism of the eighties. The agenda of the corporate class is to remove all barriers for the transnational movement of products. The knowlegde industry, which is computer based, should also move freely and universally. The technocratic class is not so much conservative as liberal. It stands in opposition to national political forces that would obstruct pure transnationalism. President Bill Gates and President Bill Clinton have a common class ambition, that is to get everyone on the cybernet as fast as possible, through 'policies of facilitation'. Cyberspace promises better communication, greater interactivity, speed: a whole seductive rethoric is on offer. Once everyone is on, there's going to be privatization, what we call the 'politics of consolidation': shutting down the Net in favour of commercial interest or pay in order to have your body accessed.

Yet to outsiders this virual class doesn't appear at all to have an aggressive policy. Its daily work, writing software, seems to be pretty dull and harmless.

"A chacarteristic of the virtual class is that it is autistic. It's an absolute meltdown of human beings into these autistic, historically irresponsable positions, with a sexuality of juvenile boys and being happy with machines. Shutting down the mental horizon while communicating at a global level and preaching disappearance. And why not, because you've already disappeared yourself... But as the guide at Xerox Parc said, "Who needs the Self anyway?" Privacy for these people has always been imposed on human beings by corporations, it's not something they claim they wanted. The Xerox Parc of the future is not about copying paper anymore, but copying bodies into image processing machines. And who needs privacy in such a situation?

The other mental characteristic of the virtual class is that it is deeply authoritarian. It believes that virtuality equals the coming to be of a fully free human society. As CEOs of leading corporations use to say, "adapt or you're toast" and they utter this with the total smuggness of complacency itself. The other side of cyber-authoritarianism is the absolute outrage that grips them in the presence of opposition. Qualms about the emergence of the virtualclass, or about the social consequences of technology are met with either indifference or total outrage. Quite on the contrary, members of the virtual class see themselves as the missionaries of the human race itself, the advant garde, in their terms, of the honourful collaboration with the telematic machines.

The virtual class has this aspect of seduction and the on the other hand the policy of consolidation, which is the present reality in which we live. It is a grim and severe and deeply fascistic class because it operates by means of the disciplinary state, imposing real austerity programs in order to fund the research efforts benefitting to itself. At the same time it controls politically the working classes by severe taxation in order to make sure that people cannot be economically mobile and cannot accumulate capital in their own right. When it comes to Third World nations they act in classic fascist way. They impose strict anti-emigration policies in the name of humanistic gestures. They shield their own local populace from the influx of immigrants bycreating a 'bunker state', by going for a Will to Purity.

We're not dealing here with a 'Will to Power' or a 'Decline of the Western Society' but with a 'Recline of the West' and a 'Will to Virtuality'. The recliner is a new representative persona on the stage of world history. The recliner is the best captured by the US tv-series, 'The Simpsons'. "Just blame it on the guy who doesn't speak English, oh, he works for me." Truely retro-fascist ideas put it the mouth of cartoon characters. Bill Clinton is the perfect representative of the weak will, full of moral vascilations, yet authoritarian at the same time.

Still, you are not moving into a technophobic position, you use computers yourself and enjoy them. How can we make a distinction between the goals of this virtual class and opposite, alternative ways of using technologies?

"I have to be honest with myself and it's hard to think of life without computers. I genuinely believe that these technologies, on the base of real struggle and reflexion, do offer alternative possibilities from domination, towards certain forms of emancipation. 'Data Trash' is also written as a manifesto for the coming to be of geek flesh, a realistic look at the world.

It would be interesting to look at the role of traditional political strategies in cyberspace itself. For example the notion of 'Squatting the Media' for me is a fundamental point of media contestation and a theory in itself. Just as interesting would be the question of subversive forms of sexuality in cyberspace itself, like what the cyber-feminist group 'VNS-Matrix' from Australia is doing. Try to make the stable science systems as unstable as possible to open up possiblities for ambiguity and paradox and for the reversal of reversionary mechanisms. That is done now through these playfull but deadly serious interventions into the media-net itself, enriched with imagination. It attacks the system exactly in its own language and opens up possibilities for democratic consensus, without in any waybeing dogmatic.

'Squatting the Media' after all is politically significant, but it does not want to be explicit about it. When Karl Jaspers wrote 'Man and the Modern Condition' he said that the fundamental act of political rebellion today is the human being who refuses, who says no. It marks the end of any hegemonic ideological position and the beginning of politics again. 'Squatting the Media' represents a refusal and marks a return of morality into politics. It would be important to take practical examples of subversive intentions that operate deeply in cybernetic language itself, not outside of the media-net but inside it.

Geert Lovink

Arthur Kroker, Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash, the Theory of the Virtual Class, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994.

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Proud to be Flesh


Does the term precariousness or 'precarity', as applied to the conditions of employment under neoliberalism, provide us with more than another trendy neologism? Angela Mitropoulos examines its use, misuse and associated political horizons

Few could be unaware that an increasing proportion of the workforce is engaged in intermittent or irregular work. But I'd like to set aside for the moment the weight and scope of the evidentiary, those well-rehearsed findings that confirm beyond doubt the discovery and currency of precariousness and which render the axiomatic terrain upon which such facts are discovered beyond reproach. Instead, I would like to explore something of the grammar at work in these discussions. As a noun, 'precariousness' is both more unwieldy and indeterminate than most. If it is possible to say anything for certain about precariousness, it is that it teeters. This is to begin by emphasising some of the tensions that shadow much of the discussion about precarious labour. Some of those tensions can be located under various, provisional headings which bracket the oscillation between regulation and deregulation, organisation and dissemination, homogenous and concrete time, work and life.

There are notable instances of this: consider recent research commissioned by Australia's foremost trade union body, the ACTU, into what they call 'non-standard' forms of work. As reported, most of those surveyed said they would like 'more work.' It is not clear to what extent that answer was shaped by the research, i.e.: by the ACTU's persistent arguments for a return to 'standard hours,' re-regulation, or their more general regard for Fordism as the golden age of social democracy and union organisation. 'Non-standard work' has mostly been viewed by unions as a threat, not only to working conditions but, principally, to the continuing existence of the unions themselves.

But what is clear is that the flight from 'standard hours' was not precipitated by employers but rather by workers seeking less time at work. This flight coincided with the first wave of an exit from unions. What the Italian Workerists dubbed 'the refusal of work' in the late 1970s had its anglophone counterpart in the figure of the 'slacker'. This predated the 'flexiblisation' of employment that took hold in the 1980s. The failure of this oppositional strategy nevertheless provoked what Andrew Ross has called the 'industrialisation of bohemia'. Given that capitalism persisted, the flight from Fordist regularity and full time work can be said to have necessitated the innovation and extension of capitalist exploitation ­ much like gentrification has followed university students around suburbs and de-industrialising areas since the 1970s.

The search for a life outside work tended to reduce into an escape from the factory and its particular forms of discipline. And so, perhaps paradoxically, this flight triggered an indistinction between work and life commensurate with the movement of exploitation into newer areas. This is why the answer of 'more work' now presents itself so often as the horizon of an imaginable solution to the problem of impoverishment and financial instability ­ not more money or more life outside work, but more work.

Take the distinction between work-time and leisure-time. These categories become formalised with Fordism, its temporal rhythm as measured out by the wage, clock and assembly line, and distinguished by a proportionality and particular division of times, as in the eight hour day and the five day week. Here, leisure-time bears a determined relationship to work ­ as the trade-off for the mind-numbing tedium of the assembly line, as rejuvenation, and as temporary respite from the mind-body split that line-work enforces. Yet leisure time was, still, substantively a time of not-work.

By comparison, while the perpetually irregular work of post-Fordism might, though not necessarily, decrease the actual amount of time spent doing paid work, it nevertheless enjoins the post-Fordist worker to be continually available for such work, to regard life outside waged work as a time of preparation for and readiness to work. Schematically put: whereas Fordism sought to cretinise, to sever the brains of workers from their bodies so as to assign thought, knowledge, planning and control to management, post-Fordist capitalism might by contrast be characterised ­ in Foucault's terms ­ as the imprisonment of the body by the soul. Hence the utility of desire, knowledge, and sociality in post-Fordism.

The long, Protestant history of assuming work as an ethical or moral imperative returns in the not-always secular injunction to treat one's self as a commodity both during and outside actual work time. One can always try to defer the ensuing panic and anxiety with pharmacology, as Franco Berardi argues. But something might also be said here about that other 'opiate,' the parallel rise of an enterprising, evangelical Christianity; not to mention attempts to freeze contingency in communitarianism, of one variant or another. The precariousness of life ­ experienced all the more insistently because life depends on paid work ­ tends to close the etymological distance between prayer (precor) and the precarious (precarius).


The term 'Precarity' might have replaced 'precariousness' with the advantage of a prompt neologism; yet both continue to be burdened by a normative bias which seeks guarantees in terms that are often neither plausible nor desirable. Precariousness is mostly rendered in negative terms, as the imperative to move from irregularity to regularity, or from abnormality to normality. That normative burden is conspicuous in the grammatical development from adjective to noun: precarious to precariousness, condition to name.

Yet, capitalism is perpetually in crisis. Capital is precarious, and normally so. Stability here has always entailed formalising relative advantages between workers, either displacing crises onto the less privileged, or deferring the effects of those crises through debt. Moreover, what becomes apparent in discussions on precariousness is that warranties are often sought, even by quite different approaches, in the juridical realm. The law becomes the secularised language of prayer against contingency. This assumes a distinction between law and economy that is certainly no longer, if it ever was, all that plausible. It is not clear, therefore, whether the motif of precariousness works to simply entice a desire for its opposite, security, regardless if this is presented as a return to a time in which security apparently reigned or as a future newly immunised against precariousness.

There are nationalist denominations. Precarity (or precarité), in its current expression, emerged in French sociology and its attempts to grasp the convergence of struggles by unemployed and intermittent workers in the late 1990s. Most prominently, Bourdieu was among those who raised the issue of a diffuse precarité as an argument for the strengthening of the Nation State against this, as well as the globalisation that was said to have produced it. In its far less nationalist versions, the discussion on precarity is marked ­ sometimes ambivalently and not always explicitly ­ by the presentation of a hoped-for means of resistance, if not revolution. A renewed focus on changing forms of class composition or new subjectivities may have brought with it an irreversible and overdue shift in perspective and vocabulary. But that shift has not in all cases disturbed the structural assumptions of an orthodox Marxism in the assertion of a newer, therefore more adequate, vanguard. Names confer identity as if positing an unconditional presupposition. Like all such assertions, it is not simply the declaration that one has discovered the path to a different future in an existing identity that remains questionable. More problematically, such declarations are invariably the expression and reproduction of a hierarchy of value in relation to others.

For instance, if Lenin's Party, defined as the figure of the 'revolutionary intellectual', paid homage to the mind-body split of Fordism and Taylorism (where others were either cast as a 'mass' or, where actively oppositional, 'counterrevolutionaries'), to what extent has the discussion on precarious labour avoided a similar duplication of segmentation and conformism? Or, to put the question in classical Marxist terms: to what extent can an identity which is immanent to capitalism (whether 'working class' or 'multitude') be expected to abolish capitalism, and therefore its very existence and identity? Does a politics which takes subjectivity as its question and answer reproduce a politics as the idealised image of such? A recourse to an Enlightenment Subject replete with the stratifications which presuppose it, and ledgered according to its current values (or valuations), not least among these being the distinction between paid and unpaid labour.

Let me put still this another way: the discussion of the precarious conditions of 'creative labour' and the 'industrialisation of bohemia' tends to restage a manoeuvre found in Puccini's opera La Boheme. Here, a bunch of guys (a poet, philosopher, artist and musician) suffer for their art in their garret. But it is the character of Mimi ­ the seamstress who talks of fripperies rather than art ­ who furnishes Puccini and our creative heroes with the final tragedy with which to exalt that art as suffering and through opera. The figure of the artist (or 'creative labourer') may well circulate, in some instances, as the exemplary figure of the post-Fordist worker ­ precarious, immaterial and so on ­ but this requires a moment in which the precarious conditions of others are declared to be a result of their 'invisibility' or 'exclusion'.

For what might turn out to have been the briefest of political moments, the exemplary figure of precariousness was that of undocumented migrant workers, without citizenship but nevertheless inside national economic space, and precarious in more senses than might be indicated by other uses of the word. And, far from arriving with the emergence of newer industries or subjectivities, precarious work has been a more or less constant feature of domestic work, retail, 'hospitality,' agriculture, sex work and the building industry, as well as sharply inflecting the temporal and financial arrangements which come into play in the navigation of child-rearing and paid work for many women. But rather than shaking assertions that the 'precariat' is a recent phenomenon, through the declaration that such work was previously 'invisible', the apprehension of migrant, 'Third World' and domestic labour seems to have become the pretext for calls for the reconstruction of the plane of visibility (of juridical recognition and mediation) and the eventual circulation and elevation of the cultural-artistic (and cognitive) worker as its paradigmatic expression. The strategy of exodus (of migration) has been translated into the thematics of inclusion, visibility and recognition.

On a global scale and in its privatised and/or unpaid versions, precarity is and has always been the standard experience of work in capitalism. When one has no other means to live than the ability to labour or ­ even more precariously, since it privatises a relation of dependency ­ to reproduce and 'humanise' the labour publicly tendered by another, life becomes contingent on capital and therefore precarious.

The experience of regular, full-time, long-term employment which characterised the most visible, mediated aspects of Fordism is an exception in capitalist history. That presupposed vast amounts of unpaid domestic labour by women and hyper-exploited labour in the colonies. This labour also underpinned the smooth distinction between work and leisure for the Fordist factory worker. The enclosures and looting of what was once contained as the Third World and the affective, unpaid labour of women allowed for the consumerist, affective 'humanisation' ­ and protectionism ­ of what was always a small part of the Fordist working class. A comparably privileged worker who was nonetheless elevated to the exemplary protagonist of class struggle by way of vanguardist reckonings. Those reckonings tended to parallel the valuations of bodies by capital, as reflected in the wage. The 'lower end' of the (global) labour market and divisions of labour ­ impoverishment, destitution or a privatised precariousness ­ were accounted for, as an inherent attribute of skin colour and sex, as natural. In many respects, then, what is registered as the recent rise of precarity is actually its discovery among those who had not expected it by virtue of the apparently inherent and eternal (perhaps biological) relation between the characteristics of their bodies and their possible monetary valuation ­ a sense of worth verified by the demarcations of the wage (paid and unpaid) and in the stratification of wage levels.


To be sure, there are important reasons to continue a discussion of precarious labour and precarity, of how changes to work-time become diffused as a disposition. Precarity is a particularly useful way to open a discussion on the no longer punctual dimensions of the encounter between worker and employer, and how this gives rise to a generalised indistinction between the labour market, self, relationships and life.

The more interesting aspect of this discussion is the connection made between the uncertainty of making a living and therefore the uncertainty of life that is thereby produced in its grimly mundane as well as horrific aspects: impoverishment, as both persistent threat and circumstance; the 'war on terror'; the internment camps; 'humanitarian intervention', and so on. In this, the topic of biopolitics re-emerges with some urgency ­ or rather this urgency becomes more tangible for that privileged minority of workers (or 'professionals') who were previously unfamiliar with its full force. Impoverishment and war pronounce austere verdicts upon lives reckoned as interchangeable and therefore at risk of being declared superfluous. What does it means to insist here, against its capitalist calculations, on the 'value of life'?

This raises numerous questions. What are the intersections between economic and political-ethical values? Does value have a measure, a standard by which all values (lives) are calculated and related? Transformed into organisational questions: how feasible is it to use precarity as a means for alliances or coalition-building without effacing the differences between Mimi and the Philosopher, or indeed reproducing the hierarchy between them? Is it in the best interests for the maquiladora worker to ally herself with the fashion designer? Such questions cannot be answered abstractly. But there are two, perhaps difficult and irresolvable questions that might be still be posed.

First, what are the specific modes of exploitation of particular kinds of work? If the exploitation and circulation of 'cognitive' or 'creative labour' consists, as Maurizio Lazzarato argues, in the injunction to 'be active, to communicate, to relate to others' and to 'become subjects', then how does this shape their interactions with others, for better or worse? How does the fast food 'chainworker', who is compelled to be affective, compliant, and routinised not assume such a role in relation to a software programming 'brainworker', whose habitual forms of exploitation oblige opinion, innovation and self-management? How is it possible for the latter to avoid assuming for themselves the specialised role of mediator ­ let alone preening themselves in the cognitariat's mirror as the subject, actor or 'activist' of politics ­ in this relationship? To what extent do the performative imperatives of artistic-cultural exploitation (visibility, recognition, authorship) foreclose the option of clandestinity which remains an imperative for the survival of many undocumented migrants and workers in the informal economy?

Secondly, why exactly is it important to search for a device by which to unify workers ­ however plurally that unity is configured? Leaving aside the question of particular struggles ­ say, along specific production chains ­ it is not all that clear what the benefits might be of insisting that precarity can function as this device for recomposing what was in any case the fictitious ­ and highly contested ­ unity of 'the working class'. To be sure, that figure is being challenged by that of 'the multitude', but what is the specific nature of this challenge?

Ellen Rooney once noted that pluralism is a deeper form of conformism: while it allows for a diversity of content, conflict over the formal procedures which govern interaction are off-limits, as is the power of those in whose image and interest those rules of interaction are constituted. Often, this arises because the procedures established for interaction and the presentation of any resulting 'unity' are so habitual that they recede beyond view. Those who raise problems with them therefore tend to be regarded as the sources of conflict if not the architects of a fatal disunity of the class. A familiar, if receding, example: sexism is confined to being a 'women's issue', among a plurality of 'issues,' but it cannot disrupt the form of politics.

What then is the arithmetic of biopolitics emerging from the destitution of its Fordist forms? If Fordist political forms consecrated segmentations that were said to inhere, naturally, in the difference of bodies, then what is post-Fordism's arithmetic? Post-Fordism dreams of the global community of 'human capital', where differences are either marketable or reckoned as impediments to the free flow of 'humanity' as ­ or rather for ­ capital. In short, political pluralism is the idealised version of the post-Fordist market.

It might be useful here to specify that commodification does not consist in the acts of buying and selling ­ which obviously predate capitalism. Rather, commodification means the application of a universal standard of measure that relates and reduces qualitative differences ­ of bodies, actions, work ­ according to the abstract measure of money. Abstract equivalence, without its idyllic depictions, presupposes and produces hierarchy, exploitation and violence. Formally, which is to say juridically: neither poor nor rich are allowed to sleep under bridges.

What does it mean, then, to argue that the conditions of precarious workers might be served by a more adequate codification of rights? It does not, I think, mean that our conditions will improve or, rather, be guaranteed by such. Proposals for 'global citizenship' by Negri and Hardt are predated by the global reach of a militaristic humanitarianism that has already defined its meaning of the convergence between 'human rights' and supra-national force. Similarly, a 'basic income' has already been shown, in the places it exists such as Australia, to be contingent upon and constitutive of intermittent engagements with waged work, if not forced labour, as in work-for-the-dole schemes. The latter policy was applied to unemployed indigenous people before it became a recent measure against the unemployed generally. Basic incomes do not suspend the injunction to work often in low paid, casual or informal jobs; they are deliberately confined to levels which provide for a bare life but not for a livelihood. The introduction of work-for-the-dole schemes indicate that, where 'human capital' does not flow freely as such, policy (and pluralism) will resort to direct coercion, cancelling the formally voluntary contract of wage labour. The introduction of the work-for-the-dole scheme for indigenous people in Australia followed on the collapse in their employment rates after the introduction of 'equal pay' laws. Their 'failure to circulate' was explained as an inherent, often biological, attribute (chiefly as laziness) and, therefore, the resort to forced labour was rendered permissible by those politicians who most loudly proclaimed their commitment to multiculturalism and the reconciliation of indigenous and 'settler' Australians.

So, how might it be possible to disassociate the value of life from the values of capital? Or, with regard to the relation between a globalised nationalism and aspirations for supra-national arrangements: how to sever the various daily struggles against precariousness from the enticements of a global security-state? Rights are not something one possesses ­ even if many of us are reputed, by correlation, to possess our own labour in the form of an increasingly self-managed or self-employed exploitation. Rights, like power, are exercised, in practice and by bodies. As juridical codes, they are both bestowed and denied by the state, at its discretion. There are no guarantees and there will always be a struggle to exercise particular rights, irrespective of whether they are codified in law. But, as a strategy, the path of rights means praying that the law or state might distribute rights and entrusting it with the authority and force to deny them.

That said, precarity might well have us teetering, it might even do so evocatively, for better and often worse, praying for guarantees and, at times, shields that often turn out to be fortresses. But it is yet to dispense with, for all its normative expressions, a relationship to the adjective: to movement, however uncertain. 'Precarious' is as much a description of patterns of worktime as it is the description, experience, hopes and fears of a faltering movement ­ in more senses than one, and possibly since encountering the limits of the anti-summit protests. This raises the risk of movements that become trapped in communitarian fears or in dreams of a final end to risk in the supposedly secure embrace of global juridical recognition. Yet, it also makes clear that a different future, by definition, can only be constructed precariously, without firm grounds for doing so, without the measure of a general rule, and with questions that should, often, shake us ­ particularly what 'us' might mean.

Angela Mitropoulos <s0metim3s AT> sometimes produces websites, writes on border policing and class composition, and sometimes comes across a wage

Proud to be Flesh

Reality check: Are We Living In An Immaterial World?

Immaterial Labour is seen by (post)Marxists and capitalists alike as the motor of the new economy. Steve Wright recovers Marx's theory of value from critics such as Antonio Negri to ask whether it is as 'immeasurably' productive as is claimed?

A priest once came across a Zen master and, seeking to embarrass him, challenged him as follows: ‘Using neither sound nor silence, can you show me what is reality?’ The Zen master punched him in the face.1 Continued assertions that, today, we live in a knowledge economy or society raise many questions for reflection. In the next few pages, I want to discuss some aspects of these assertions, especially as they relate to the notion of immaterial labour. This term has developed within the camp of thought that is commonly labelled ‘postworkerist’, of which the best known exponent is undoubtedly Antonio Negri. While its roots lie in that branch of postwar Italian Marxism known as operaismo (workerism), this milieu has rethought and reworked many of the precepts developed during the Italian New Left’s heyday of 1968-78. If anything, it was the very defeat of the social subjects with which operaismo had identified – first and foremost, the so-called ‘mass worker’ engaged in the production of consumer durables through repetitive, ‘semi-skilled labour’ – that led Negri and others to insist that we are embarked upon a new age beyond modernity.2

According to this view of the world, a quite different kind of labour is currently either hegemonic amongst those with nothing to sell but their ability to work – or, at the very least, is well on the way towards acquiring such hegemony. Secondly, capital’s growing dependence upon this different – immaterial – labour has serious implications for the process of self-expanding abstract labour (value) that defines capital as a social relation. While Marx had held that the ‘socially-necessary labour-time’ associated with their production provided the means by which capital could measure the value of commodities (and so the mass of surplus value that it hoped to realise with their sale), Negri, on the other hand, is of the opinion that in a time of increasingly complex and skilled labour, and of a working day that more and more blurs the boundaries with (and ultimately colonises) the rest of our waking hours, value can no longer be calculated. As he put it a decade ago, in such circumstances the exploitation of labour still continues, but ‘outside any economic measure: its economic reality is fixed exclusively in political terms.’3

This is pretty esoteric stuff, particularly the arguments over the measurability (or otherwise) of value. Should we care one way or the other? What I hope to show below is that for all their apparent obscurity, these debates matter. That is because they raise questions as to how we understand our immediate context, including how we interpret the possibilities latent within contemporary class composition. Is one sector of class composition likely to set the pace and tone in struggles against capital, or should we look instead towards the emergence of ‘strange loops … odd circuits and strange connections between and among various class sectors’ (as Midnight Notes once suggested) as a necessary condition for moving beyond ‘the present state of things’?

Unpacking immaterial labour

Maurizio Lazzarato’s discussion of ‘Immaterial Labour’ was perhaps the first extended treatment of the topic to appear in English. Part of an important anthology of Italian texts published in the mid ‘90s, Lazzarato’s work defined the term immaterial labour as ‘labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity.’4 If the ‘classic’ forms of this labour were represented in fields like ‘audiovisual production, advertising, fashion, the production of software, photography, cultural activities, and so forth’, those who perform such work commonly found themselves in highly casualised, precarious and exploited circumstances, as part of what, more recently and in certain Western European radical circles, has come to be called the ‘precariat’.5

The Taylorist approach to production that confronted the mass worker had decreed that ‘you are not paid to think’. With immaterial labour, Lazzarato argued, management’s project was different. In fact, it was even more totalitarian than the earlier rigid division between mental and manual labour (ideas and execution), because capitalism seeks to involve even the worker’s personality within the production of value.6

At the same time this managerial approach carried real risks for capital, Lazzarato believed, since capital’s very existence was placed in the hands of a labour force called upon to exercise its creativity through collective endeavours. And unlike a century ago, when a layer of skilled workers likewise stood at the centre of key industries, yet largely cut off from the unorganised ‘masses’, today ‘immaterial labour’ could not be understood as the distinctive attribute of one stratum within the workforce. Instead, skilled labour is present (even if only in latent form) amongst broad sectors of the labour market, starting with the young.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire – a book that has come to stand (rightly or wrongly) as the centrepiece of postworkerist thought – built upon and modified Lazzarato’s work. Accepting the premise that immaterial labour was now central to capital’s survival (and by extension, to projects that aimed at its extinction), Hardt and Negri identified three segments of immaterial labour:

a) the reshaped instances of industrial production which had embraced communication as their lifeblood; b) the ‘symbolic analysis and problem solving’ undertaken by knowledge workers; c) the affective labour found above all within the service sector.7

These experiences, it was conceded, could be quite disparate: knowledge workers, for example, were divided between high-end practitioners with considerable control over their working conditions, while others engaged in ‘low-value and low-skill jobs of routine symbol manipulation’.8 Nonetheless a common thread did exist between the three elements. As instances of service work, none of them produced a ‘material or durable good’. Moreover, since the output was physically intangible as a discrete object, so the labour that produced it could be designated as ‘immaterial’.9

How can we make sense of such arguments? Doug Henwood, who praised Empire for the verve and optimism of its vision, was nonetheless moved to add:

Hardt and Negri are often uncritical and credulous in the face of orthodox propaganda about globalization and immateriality … They assert that immaterial labour – service work, basically – now prevails over the old-fashioned material kind, but they don’t cite any statistics: you’d never expect that far more Americans are truck drivers than are computer professionals. Nor would you have much of an inkling that three billion of us, half the earth’s population, live in the rural Third World, where the major occupation remains tilling the soil.10

Nick Dyer-Witheford has likewise registered a number of concerns with Hardt and Negri’s account of class composition.11 To his mind, Empire glosses over the tensions between the three class fragments it identifies, while ultimately reading immaterial labour only through the lenses of its high-end manifestations. And was all of this really as new as Hardt and Negri intimated? It’s not as if ‘affective labour’, for instance, was anything but fundamental to social reproduction in the past, even if it did go unnoticed – because of its largely gendered composition perhaps – in many social analyses.

Another issue concerns Empire’s insistence that ‘the cooperative aspect of immaterial labour is not imposed or organised from the outside’.12 Again, perhaps this is true for some work at the high-end. But does the obligation to ask ‘Do you want fries with that?’ really represent a break with Fordist work regimes? Or might many of the McJobs that are prevalent in the lower depths of so-called immaterial production be better characterised as ‘the Taylorised, deskilled descendants of earlier forms of office’ and other service work?13

More recently, Hardt and Negri have attempted to address some of their critics in Multitude, the 2004 sequel to Empire. The first thing to note here is that while immaterial labour remains a central pivot within the book’s arguments, it is presented in a rather more cautious and qualified form than before. Indeed, Hardt and Negri are at pains to state that:

a) ‘When we claim that immaterial labour is tending towards the hegemonic position we are not saying that most of the workers in the world today are producing primarily immaterial goods’; b) ‘The labour involved in all immaterial production, we should emphasise, remains material – it involves our bodies and brains as all labour does. What is immaterial is its product.’14

Therefore, much like the ascendance of the multitude itself, here the hegemony of immaterial labour as the reference point, or even vanguard, for ‘most of the workers in the world today’ is flagged as a tendency, albeit one that is inexorable. Towards the end of Multitude’s discussion of immaterial labour, Hardt and Negri insist upon what they call a ‘reality check’ – ‘what evidence do we have to substantiate our claim of a hegemony of immaterial labour?’15 It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and unfortunately the half a page of discussion they proffer is something of a damp squib: an allusion to US Bureau of Statistics figures which indicate that service work is on the rise; the relocation of industrial production ‘to subordinate parts of the world’, said to signal the privileging of immaterial production at the heart of the Empire; the rising importance of ‘immaterial forms of property’; and, finally, the spread of network forms of organisation particular to immaterial labour.16 Call me old-fashioned, but something more than this is needed in a book of 400 plus pages dedicated to understanding their claims regarding latest manifestation of the proletariat as a revolutionary subject…

Their reference to the growth in service sector activity is interesting for a number of reasons. Huws argues that the unrelenting rise in service work within the West might be cast in a different light if the domestic employment so common 100 years ago was factored into the equation.17 Writing a decade earlier, Sergio Bologna suggested that certain forms of work only came to be designated as ‘services’ within national statistics after they had been outsourced; previously, when they had been performed ‘in house’, they had counted as ‘manufacturing’.18 Neither author is seeking to deny that important shifts have occurred within the global economy, starting with countries like Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States. Yet they urge caution in how we interpret the changes, and care in the categories used to explain them. Bologna – a one-time collaborator with Negri in a variety of political projects back in the ’60s and ’70s – is particularly caustic about the notion of immaterial labour, labelling it a ‘myth’ that more than anything else obscures the lengthening of the working day.19

Goodbye to value as measure?

As stated earlier, one of the distinguishing features of postworkerism is the rejection of Marx’s so-called ‘law of value’. George Caffentzis reminds us that Marx himself rarely spoke of such a law, but there is also no doubt of his opinion that, under the rule of capital, the amount of labour time socially necessary to produce commodities ultimately determined their value.20 In breaking with Marx in this regard, postworkerists draw some of their inspiration instead from a passage in the Grundrisse known as the ‘Fragment on Machines’. This envisages a situation, in line with capital’s perennial attempt to free itself from dependence upon labour, where knowledge has become the lifeblood of fixed capital, and the direct input of labour to production is merely incidental. In these circumstances, Marx argues, capital effectively cuts the ground from under its own feet, for ‘As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value’.21

Negri, among others, has insisted for many years, and in a variety of ways, that capital has now reached this stage. Therefore, nothing but sheer domination keeps its rule in place: ‘the logic of capital is no longer functional to development, but is simply command for its own reproduction’.22 In fact a range of social commentators have evoked the ‘Fragment on Machines’ in recent times – apart from anything else, it has held a certain popularity amongst those (like reactionary futurologist Jeremy Rifkin) who tell us that we live in an increasingly work-free society. It’s a pity, then, that few of these writers follow the logic of Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse to its conclusions. For while he indicates that capital does indeed seek ‘to reduce labour time to a minimum’, Marx also reminds us that capital is itself nothing other than accumulated labour time (abstract labour as value).23 In other words, capital is obliged by its very nature, and for as long as we are stuck with it, to pose ‘labour time … as sole measure and source of wealth.’

In its efforts to escape from labour, capital attempts a number of things that, each in their own way, fuel arguments that make labour time appear as irrelevant as the measure of capital’s development. Looked at more carefully, however, each can be seen in a somewhat different light. To begin with, capital tries as much as possible to externalise its labour costs: to take a banal example (although not so banal if you are a former bank employee), by encouraging online and teller machine banking and discouraging over-the-counter customer service. As for our own work regimes, many of us find ourselves bringing more and more work home (or on the train, or in the car). More and more of us also seem to be on stand-by, accessible through the net or by phone. Added together, such strategies (which, to add to the messiness of it all, may well intersect with our own individual aspirations for greater flexibility) go a long way to help explain that blurring of the line between the ‘work’ and ‘non work’ components of our day that Negri decries. On the other hand, they also cast that boundary in light other than that of the collapse of labour time as the measure of value, one in which – precisely because the quantity of labour time is crucial to capital’s existence – as much labour as possible comes to be performed in its unpaid form.

Secondly, in seeking to decrease labour costs within individual organisations, capital also reshapes the process through which profits are distributed on a sectoral and global scale. In a number of essays over the past 15 years, George Caffentzis has outlined the idea, first elaborated at some length in the third volume of Marx’s Capital, that average rates of profit suck surplus value from labour-intensive sectors towards those with much greater investment in fixed capital:

In order for there to be an average rate of profit throughout the capitalist system, branches of industry that employ very little labour but a lot of machinery must be able to have the right to call on the pool of value that high-labour, low-tech branches create. If there were no such branches or no such right, then the average rate of profit would be so low in the high-tech, low-labour industries that all investment would stop and the system would terminate. Consequently, ‘new enclosures’ in the countryside must accompany the rise of ‘automatic processes’ in industry, the computer requires the sweat shop, and the cyborg’s existence is premised on the slave.24

In this instance, if there appears to be no immediate correlation between the value of an individual commodity and the profit that it returns in the market, the answer may well be that there is none: the puzzle can only be solved by examining the sector as a whole, in a sweep that reaches far beyond the horizons of immaterial labour. Here too, it’s a matter of which parameters we choose to frame our enquiry.

Thirdly, and following on from above, the division of labour in many organisations, industries and firms has reached the point where it is difficult – and probably pointless – to determine the contribution of an individual employee to the mass of commodities that they help to produce.25 Again, this can foster the sense that the labour time involved in producing such commodities (whether tangible or not) is irrelevant to the value they contain. Marx, for his part, argued that the central question in making sense of all this was one of perspective:

If we consider the aggregate worker, i.e. if we take all the members comprising the workshop together, then we see that their combined activity results materially in an aggregate product which is at the same time a quantity of goods. And here it is quite immaterial whether the job of a particular worker, who is merely a limb of this aggregate worker, is at a greater or smaller distance from the actual manual labour.26

In this regard, Ursula Huws’ critique of notions of ‘the weightless economy’ deserves careful attention. Like Doug Henwood in his fierce deconstruction of the ‘new economy’,27 Huws draws our attention back not only to the massive infrastructure that underpins ‘the knowledge economy’, but also to ‘the fact that real people with real bodies have contributed real time to the development of these “weightless” commodities.’28 As for determining the contribution of human labour within the production of immaterial products, Huws argues, that while this might ‘be difficult to model, that ‘does not render the task impossible’. Or, in David Harvie’s words, ‘every day the personifications of capital – whether private or state – make judgements regarding value and its measure’ in their efforts ‘to reinforc[e] the connection between value and work’; He adds:

Hardt and Negri may believe in the ‘impossibility of power’s calculating and ordering production at a global level’, but ‘power’ hasn’t stopped trying and the ‘impossibility’ of its project derives directly from our own struggles against the reduction of life to measure.29

Other leads?

Not long ago, Dr Woo pointed me to a presentation by Brian Holmes entitled ‘Continental Drift Or, The Other Side of Neoliberal Globalisation’.30 In large part, his talk is a reflection upon the arguments in Hardt and Negri’s Empire, taking advantage of the hindsight provided by five years of events since the book’s publication. For Holmes, many of the arguments advanced in Empire were important for challenging commonplace assumptions about how to make sense of the ‘big picture’ of global power relations, forcing a reconsideration of terms such as globalisation and imperialism. But if the book helped in clearing away certain misconceptions, it has not been nearly so successful in supplanting them with more adequate ways of seeing.

‘Continental Drift’ addresses a host of issues, but Holmes makes three points which have great relevance for our current discussion. First, a privileged focus upon ‘immaterial labour’ is increasingly unsatisfactory for efforts to understand what is happening within contemporary class composition. Second, global events since the publication of Empire cast doubt upon the usefulness of seeing capital’s domination as a smooth space that lacks centre(s). And third, more attention has to be paid to the reasons why the world of finance has become such a crucial aspect of capital’s rule in our time. Regarding the first point, Holmes offers some similar criticisms to those made by Dyer-Witheford. If the concept of immaterial labour is important for analysing certain kinds of work ‘in the so-called tertiary or service sectors of the developed economies’, talk of its hegemony can obscure not only ‘the global division of labour’ and thus ‘the precise conditions under which people work and reproduce themselves’, but also how ‘they conceive their subordination and their possible agency, or their desires for change.’ As for the second point, Holmes argues that global capitalism is better understood through the analysis of ‘regional blocs’ such as the European Union or the increasing engagement between China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Finally, he believes that a far better understanding is needed of the role of money – and of finance above all – in capital’s efforts to maintain its control at both the international and individual level (on this score, see also Loren Goldner’s writings on fictitious capital).31

The richest explorations of regional blocs that I have encountered are those developed by ‘world systems’ analysts such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver. Interestingly enough, their efforts to explain the emergence of a new cycle of global accumulation with its epicentre in Asia is intimately bound up with their attempt to understand why the expansion of money as capital has come so much to the fore over the past thirty years or so. For them, the predominance of financial expansion is symptomatic of a necessary phase in the cycle of accumulation when, as doubts mount concerning the profitability to be found within production, industries are relocated, unemployed capital and labour pile up, and ‘a sharp acceleration of economic polarisation [occurs] both globally and within states’.32 In recent times, Arrighi (who also penned one of the more considered reviews of Empire) has devoted much of his efforts to understanding the waning fortunes of the US state and capital within this process,33 while Silver has concentrated upon the prospects facing contemporary labour in an age of capital flight.34 The work of these authors (much of which is on the net) is well worth a look: in part for the challenges they offer to a number of radical orthodoxies, but also for the depth of analysis that they bring to their account of the conflicts between and within the forces of labour and capital today.

There is still a great deal to unravel in the issues touched upon here. All the same, there are some useful leads as to where to go next. For example, the current centrality of money as capital, with all the peculiarities that it entails, may offer another reason why it might appear that socially necessary labour time no longer has any bearing upon capital’s existence as value in search of greater value. Speculative ventures – of which the past decade has been rife – seem to make money out of thin air. But in actuality, they do nothing to increase the total pool of value generated by capital. At best, they redistribute what already exists. More uncertainly, they seek to sidestep the sphere of production and instead make money ‘from betting on the future exploitation of labour’.35 In the meantime, debt continues to balloon, from the micro scale of individual and family credit cards, to the macro level of public sector budgets and current account deficits. Whatever the ingenious ways through which the burden of such debt is redistributed, the terms of the wager cannot be forestalled forever. When it is finally called in, things will become very interesting indeed. If nothing else, we may then find out at last whether, as Madonna sang:

The boy with the cold hard cash Is always Mister Right, ’cause we are Living in a material world.


1 Thanks to Hobo for telling me this story. Thanks too to Angela Mitropoulos and Nate Holdren for their helpful suggestions with this piece. All mistakes my own, etc.

2 For the best introduction to postworkerism see the Generation Online website

3 Negri, A. (1994) ‘Oltre la legge di valore’, DeriveApprodi 5-6, Winter

4 Lazzarato, M. (1996) ‘Immaterial Labour’, in P. Virno & M. Hardt (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.133

5 Ibid, p.137

6 Ibid, p.136

7 Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p.30

8 Ibid, p.292

9 Ibid, p.290

10 Henwood, D. (2003) After the New Economy. New York: New Press, pp.184-5

11 Dyer-Witheford, N. (2005) ‘Cyber-Negri: General Intellect and Immaterial Labour’, in Murphy, T. & Mustapha, A. (eds.) Resistance in Practice: The Philosophy of Antonio Negri. London: Pluto Press, pp.151-55

12 Hardt & Negri (2000), op. cit., p294

13 Huws, U. (2003) The Making of a Cybertariat. New York: Monthly Review Press, p.138

14 Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, p.109

15 Ibid, p.114

16 Ibid, p.115

17 Huws, op. cit, p.130

18 Bologna, S. (1992) ‘Problematiche del lavoro autonomo in Italia (I)’, Altreragioni 1, June, pp.20-1

19 Ibid, pp.22-4

20 Caffentzis, G. (2005) ‘Immeasurable Value?: An Essay on Marx’s Legacy’, The Commoner 10, Spring/Summer

21 Marx, K. (1973) Grundrisse. Hardmondsworth: Penguin, p.705

22 Negri, (1994), op. cit., 28

23 Marx, op. cit., 706

24 Caffentzis, G. (1997) ‘Why Machines Cannot Create Value or, Marx’s Theory of Machines’, in J. Davis, T. Hirschl & M. Stack (eds.) Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution. London: Verso

25 Harvie, D. (2005) ‘All Labour is Productive and Unproductive’, The Commoner 10, Spring/Summer

26 Marx, K. (1976) ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’, now in Capital Vol. I. Hardmondsworth: Penguin, quoted in H. Cleaver, H. Cleaver (2001) Reading Capital Politically. Second Edition. Antithesis

27 Henwood, op. cit.

28 Huws, op. cit., pp.142-3

29 Harvie, op. cit., pp.151-154

30 Holmes, B. (2005) ‘Continental Drift Or, The Other Side of Neoliberal Globalization’,

31 Goldner, L. (2005) ‘China In the Contemporary World Dynamic of Accumulation and Class Struggle’,, and L. Goldner (2005) ‘Fictitious Capital and the Transition out of Capitalism’,

32 Wallerstein, I. (2003) The Decline of American Power. New York: The New Press, p.275

33 Arrighi, G. (2005a) ‘Hegemony Unravelling – 1’, New Left Review 32, March-April, and, Arrighi, G. (2005b) ‘Hegemony Unravelling – 2’, New Left Review 33, May-June

34 Silver, B. (2002) Forces of Labour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

35 Bonefeld, W. & Holloway, J. (1995) ‘Conclusion: Money and Class Struggle’, in Bonefeld, W. & Holloway, J. (eds.) Global Capital, National State, and the Politics of Money. New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp.213-4 Steve Wright <> works at Monash University and is the author of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto Press

Proud to be Flesh

Recomposing the University

Tiziana Terranova & Marc Bousquet discuss the effects of neo-liberalism on the university and possible lines of resistance

Far removed from the clichéd image of the ‘ivory tower’, today’s universities have been opened to the harsh realities of neoliberal economics: huge volumes of students, extreme levels of performance-geared management, casualisation of employment, and the conversion of students into ‘consumers’. In the name of democratisation and equality, the university has become a cross between a supermarket and a factory whose consumers are also its hyper-exploited labour force. Here, in an email exchange, Marc Bousquet and Tiziana Terranova, themselves employed in US and British universities respectively, describe the way the system works from the inside and look at the possibilities for getting out of it. Far from being a simple question of domination, they contend, the conditions of ‘mass intellectuality’ – also shared by many knowledge workers elsewhere in the ‘social factory’ – create enormous scope for new alliances and forms of resistance.

Tiziana Terranova: I think it would be good to start with the ‘big picture’, that is how the university is an open system opening onto the larger field of casualised and underpaid ‘socialised labour power’. The latter is also often referred to as ‘mass intellectuality’ or even networked intelligence (an abstract quality of social labour power as it becomes increasingly informational and communicative). I have been thinking about it in terms of the opening up of disciplinary institutions as described by Deleuze in his essay on control societies. I would like to move from the idea that the university is some kind of ivory tower or a self-enclosed institution whose current state and future concerns a minority of professionals to that of the university as part of the ‘diffuse factory’ as described in Autonomist work. I think that their description of a shift from a society where production takes place predominantly in the closed site of the factory to one where it is the whole of society that is turned into a factory – a productive site – is still very fitting politically. But in fact, the debate seems to be stuck in the false opposition between the static, sheltered ivory tower and the dynamic, democratic market.

Marc Bousquet: You’re right to call it a false opposition, since the university has never been a shelter from either commerce or politics. And yet the nostalgic idea of the university as a ‘refuge’ from social life is amazingly persistent, isn’t it? The reality is very different. Especially in the US, where nearly 60 percent of high school graduates have some experience of ‘higher ed’, it should be obvious that the university is part of the social factory. The problem is that it’s the wrong kind of factory.

TT: Maybe.

MB: Anyway, it seems that the ivory tower myth persists because it has so many useful functions. For intellectuals, as well as many artists and activists, the idea of the university as a refuge often gives them the feeling of Archimedes – as if it offered a stable fulcrum from which they can move the earth itself. For others, the ivory tower image is a kind of smokescreen for the double-talk and structural transformations of neo-liberalism, a chastity belt as the Bush-Thatcher-Clinton-Blair bloc leads it to market: ‘the university is too much of an ivory tower – we have to make it practical’ on the one hand, and on the other hand: ‘because the university is so much of an ivory tower, we can trust that its profit-seeking will be benevolent.’ It signifies all the way around the political clock. Really, ‘ivory tower’ is the classic ideologeme – practically un-dislodgeable from any point of view.

TT: So the university is no longer, simply, an ivory tower (although I am sure that even the ivory tower persists in pockets of isolated privilege too), but it has not simply turned into a ‘market’ or ‘supermarket’ either – providing exciting new courses/services to discriminating student-customers in search of that elusive perfect value-for-money combination. If anything, it is another site of implosion of the modern separation between consumption, production and reproduction.

MB: Yes, the sense of ‘separate’ circuits is quickly eroding. And ‘supermarket,’ as opposed to ‘market,’ is perfect. It goes beyond the nostalgia of the market-as-agora or public sphere to capture the sense of total commodification.

Once we see that the campus is seamlessly part of the whole (social and global) factory floor – in this sense an unprivileged location in a vast horizontal plane – it becomes an opportunity for the self-organisation of labour and, just as you say, reorganising the social relations of re/production. But in my mind that would mean giving up the fantasy of the fulcrum, of the ivory tower model in which the university offers a ‘safe space’ to benevolent ‘directors of the transformation,’ operating in a cloud-circled meta-plane for mental labourers. For the university to become a site of worker self-organisation and the reproduction of an oppositional mentality – much less the catalyst of a radicalised multitude or ‘mass intellectuality’ – it would mean operating in an unsafe manner.

TT: In your writings on US academic labour, you emphasise the increasing polarisation between tenured academics (of which many exercise mainly administrative/managerial functions of ‘directors of transformation’) and a large casualised teaching force of graduate students and temporary workers.

MB: Tenured faculty schizophrenically experience themselves as both labour and management, a contradictory position reflected in US labour law. They also have another schizophrenia of seeking to produce or direct a cultural-material transformation while simultaneously serving capital (as reproductive labour) through the socialisation of a disciplined professional-managerial class.

Getting beyond either schizophrenia is a hazardous project that ultimately threatens the faculty’s ‘directorial’ position. In the US, for instance, more than half of tenured faculty in public higher education are unionised. This is not impressive by European standards, but it’s three times the average level of worker organisation in the US. I bring it up because – with a few exceptions – it has thus far been very much an old-style craft unionism, a labour aristocracy that preserves workplace hierarchy, and has been very much complicit in the perma-temping of the university workforce, preserving their own jobs while selling out the future. While those unions are moving slowly to address casualisation, the kind of dramatic change implicit in the notion of a mass intellectuality or even the smaller fraction of mental labourers off the campus, would really imply a reverse of the trajectory we usually imagine: not, ‘how can the university serve as a platform for changing society on behalf of the casualised,’ but ‘how can the casualised hijack the university in their own interest?’

This dictatorship of the flexible would not be a safe process for the tenured who imagine themselves as directors of transformation and safely above the fray.

TT: Yes, and this reversal does not necessarily need to concern only university staff, but it must somehow construct an immanent connection to the masses of students who are increasingly going through higher education.

MB: Yes, absolutely.

TT: I find what is happening in the UK with higher education very interesting from this point of view. As you might be aware, the UK system has been through a turbulent decade. In most areas, budgets have been cut back or frozen for a number of years, while student numbers have increased exponentially (for example, according to UCAS statistics the number of accepted first year students has risen from 300,000 in 1996 to almost 370,000 in 2002 – an increase of 25 percent` in just six years).

The UK higher education system has gone from being a manageable cottage industry more or less autonomously run with a moderate number of students living more or less well on a grant system, to something that in places really looks like mass higher education – without the grants and with a new system of fees. There is obviously much to be said about this process.MB: More like the US model. Wide access, but fee-for-service. Though there was a period in which the largest US public systems – in New York and California – were both open-access and tuition free (or nearly free).

TT: Many students are going into higher education because they think that they have no choice in terms of their future occupational opportunities and they have been told that in spite of the massive debts that they will be likely to incur, higher education is, after all, a good investment in terms of future earnings. There is this weird conjuring trick where they are really ‘sold’ this image of themselves as customers in the university supermarket, while for many of them the reality is that they are working in supermarkets, hospitals, and temping in offices to pay for their maintenance while they are studying.

MB: Exactly right. Being a student is ideologically attached to the idea of ‘leisure’ when in reality it’s increasingly visible as a way of being hyper-exploited as a temp worker.

TT: On top of all this work, they will also get a ‘good’ start in life by learning to live with debt and there will be a good deal of that in their future life. Thus, while they are addressed as customers, they appear to me to be, in many cases, very far away from the model of the spoiled student or the education customer. They are working twice as hard as their predecessors to support themselves through their studies; while working they accumulate debts which they will have to work hard to pay back once they graduate, in an accumulation of interest rates that ranges from credit cards to personal loans to mortgages. There aren’t really very many student-customers are there. It seems to me that it is production through and through.

What I wonder is what this mass of students is doing to higher education?MB: You mean that they are changing the system by inhabiting it.

TT: Yes, I think that it is an exciting transformation and does not necessarily need to be interpreted as a ‘dumbing down’. On the contrary, the entry of such a mass of students into higher education implies a political transformation in the role of the university – its reinvention, so to speak. The ways in which this transformation is being managed over here is totally predictable and unsurprising. On the one hand, there is a heightened level of top down, managerial, informational control – an endless, centralised output of new guidelines, targets and initiatives which introduce post-industrial management into the old guild-like university system and which in many cases is pushing teaching staff workloads to extreme limits.

On the student side, although stratified, the UK system is still in a turbulent phase of growth which means that ‘new’ and for many suspicious degrees (such as media studies) are over-recruiting, while older disciplines from mathematics to engineering are suffering. This lack of synchronicity between the degree market and the labour market is obviously a result of the interference of desire in what should be a ‘rational’ economic choice (thus undermining the notion of the rationality of the working class as an internal variable of capital, as Negri once put it). What seems to most concern the higher education managers, however, is not this lack of relation between the labour market and the degree market. They seem to be more concerned with preserving hierarchical differences between universities, degrees, and ultimately social classes.

MB: So the massification of higher ed represents an opportunity for transformation (and I guess you mean to indicate a pretty wide field of possibility, not just for a tighter fit between study and labour markets). But management is responding aggressively to contain the opportunity?

TT: There is an attempt to restrain the turbulence and instability introduced by rising student numbers by engineering a differential system of value – one that would be able to clearly distinguish, for example, prestigious institutions (an Ivy League) from their less prestigious, but still reputable peers (red brick universities), from a bottom layer of vocationally-oriented, hands-on, working class not-quite-universities (ex-polytechnics). This is why we are going from the ‘star’ system of evaluation (where different departments get a number of stars depending on performance at the research assessment exercise) to a ‘league’ system. Apparently there were too many high ratings and not enough of a sense of ‘value-difference’. A league system will thus be introduced allowing a fine-graded hierarchisation of university degrees and research environments. The underlying idea is that ‘excellence’ can only be produced through a concentration of resources (including the best students) which goes against a great deal of what we know about ‘knowledge ecologies’ for example. An American colleague has suggested that here too the model is the United States where higher education has always been solidly stratified.

MB: Yes. More so every year.

TT: So I wanted to ask you about your experience. In which ways have the discourse and technologies of managerialism and privatisation interacted with the ferocious educational hierarchies that we know are a feature of the US higher education system?

MB: That’s a great question. There’s at least two issues here – the ranking of campuses against each other, and the role of higher education as a system in reproducing the ‘ferocious hierarchies’ of class relations in the US and globally (which still remain largely invisible to the US population).

The increasingly fine-grained ranking of campuses against each other is most important to the upper fractions of the professional-managerial class, for whom the ideology of the US as a ‘classless meritocracy’ remains partly viable (a fraction that includes most higher education faculty themselves, as well as media professionals, many lawyers and physicians, etc.). With the intensification of the ranking, the percentage of persons who feel that the ‘meritocracy’ is working appears to shrink. That realisation is probably a good thing overall. For instance, the appearance of graduate employee union movements at Ivy League campuses over the past 20 years (Yale, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Cornell) reflects in part the collapsing viability of merit ideology even while the ‘rank’ of schools against each other gains ever greater ‘cultural capital.’ The problem is that the ‘cultural capital,’ while real, is relative. The rank of schools acquires more relative value because overall the ‘cultural capital’ disseminated by schooling has become scarcer in some way that it’s important for us to try to understand.

TT: Do you see any consistent strategy or tactical manoeuvres through which such cultural capital is made scarce and then given a value?

MB: Well, the classic strategy of creating a ‘surplus’ of workers that has finally hit the American and European professional-managerial class, and the expansion of higher ed – not just internally, but globally – is a big part of that, isn’t it? The US business papers have been full of panicky articles about the ‘new’ outsourcing ‘crisis’ of white-collar work (engineering, programming, design). It wasn’t a ‘crisis’ when outsourcing referred only to manufacturing. The outsourcing of professional and managerial labour (even the reading of CAT scans performed in the US or UK by Indian physicians) puts a lot of pressure on the (formerly) national frames of higher ed/cultural capitalism.    Equally important, as your great ‘Free Labour’ piece and Andrew Ross’s ‘The Mental Labour Problem’ demonstrate, is the way that higher ed creates opportunities for hyper-exploitation.1 Don’t you think that higher ed is a primary vector for the harnessing of affect, socialising bodies to the necessary technologies and creating the psychological desire to give mental/affective labour away for less than a wage?

TT: Well this would be consistent with Louis Althusser’s notion of education as ‘Institutional State Apparatus’ wouldn’t it? And there is no doubt, as Foucault once put it, that the university still partially ‘stands for the institutional apparatus through which society ensures its uneventful reproduction at the least cost to itself’. Sadie Plant used this quote to contest what she thinks is the ‘Platonic’ bias of many pedagogical approaches to higher education which contribute to making the university what Foucault said it was: the idea that knowledge is something that is ‘recalled’ ready made from an original source and then simply transmitted from mind to mind. This is really the uneventful reproduction of readymade knowledges for the purposes of social reproduction.2    There is no doubt, that is, that the university is a site of reproduction of social knowledge and class stratifications. The range of courses and degrees now offered by higher education institutions means that today the university is producing nurses and doctors; managers and IT technicians; journalists, scientists, filmmakers, lawyers, artists, teachers and even waiters and the unemployed (yes a degree does not always guarantee a ‘middle class’ job).     On the other hand, it is not simply reproducing classes and professions but also participating in a larger process of qualitative recomposition at a moment of crisis for post-fordism in the mode of information of which the outsourcing of white collar work from the US is an example. Higher ed is not simply engaged in the production and reproduction of knowledges but also in that of an abstract social labour power which can be multiply deployed across a range of productive sites (from call centres to Reality TV shows).

MB: Right.

TT: For me a key moment of this process involves an engagement with managerial control. I would like to talk about your essay on managerialism in ‘rhet-comp’ [rhetoric and composition].3

MB: That piece just observes that the informationalising or perma-temping of academic labour is not a neutral condition with respect to the knowledge that the academy produces. We call this the problem of ‘Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers.’     In rhet-comp, which is a subfield of English language studies, traditionally lower in status than literature and linguistics, more than 90 percent of the teaching is done by flex workers. (Flex workers deliver labour ‘in the mode of information,’ as if they were data on the management desktop – easily called up by a keystroke, and then just as easily dropped in the trash.) Tenure is primarily reserved for persons who directly manage the temp workers, or who creatively theorise the work of supervised teaching. To a very real extent, the knowledge produced by the field is a knowledge for managers. Of course not all the knowledge is about the work of management. Much of it is. But I think you could argue that even the field’s knowledges on ‘other questions’ increasingly show the taint of the managerial world-view. There would have to be more research into that. TT: So the tendency is for a collapse of the academic and managerial function in the service of institutional and social reproduction?

MB: Yes, but the real change is that it’s more than just reproduction. Academic managerialism is increasingly in the direct service of extracting surplus value from students as well as staff. The university is an accumulation machine. It employs students directly and it farms cheap or donated student labour out to its ‘corporate partners.’     The university’s extraction of surplus value needs to be seen as an under-regulated ‘semi-formal’ economy. For-profit universities accumulate investment capital. But ‘non-profit’ universities also accumulate in the form of buildings, grounds, libraries (fixed capital), and as investment capital in endowments. Accumulated resources such as campus sports facilities have to be understood, to a degree, as the collective property of the ruling class (as opposed to, say, the property of students). For instance, at my public research university few students can afford to go to basketball games – local elites occupy all the seats.     As has been suggested elsewhere, especially by the players themselves, student athletes are unpaid workers contributing to campus and corporate accumulation.

TT: What seems to be at stake, then, is not simply the reproduction of a dominant ideology, but also more explicitly the attempt to induce and/or capture (and contain and control) a biopolitical surplus value that exceeds social reproduction, a potential to induce social transformations and produce new forms of life.     What I am saying is that even if many graduates are going to be disillusioned with the actual earnings and working conditions (or lack of) that they will have to face, it is difficult to know what this outsourced and redundant surplus of educated labour could turn into – how it is going to interact with the communication machine, for example. I think that the early phase of the ‘free labour’ bonanza (where many chose to perform work that they perceived as rewarding either for free or for very little money) is over. At least in Europe, I have noticed a great interest in the problem of the exploitation (and economic sustainability) of autonomous, ‘creative’ labour.

MB: I wish there was a similar interest in the US. It’s definitely a question within managerial discourse, but still far less so in the mass of ‘creative’ labour. There is of course the graduate employee union movement, but there’s almost nothing in the undergraduate population. The primary form of undergraduate labour activism remains the anti-sweatshop movement. It’s very encouraging, of course. But it has real limits. It’s not an activism that proceeds from the situation of the student as labour, but from the situation of the student as consumer. The problem of the undergraduate as labour – as you say, an element of production – is almost completely unexplored. I have had two students write dissertations that partially speak to the topic. But there’s really almost nothing on it. At least in the US, there’s very little law and policy on the question as well. That’s what I mean when I talk about the ‘informal economy’ of the informationalised university. The relations of production going on under the sign of ‘student’ or ‘study’ or ‘youth’ are desperately under-regulated. It’s a question of hyper-exploitation.     There is a bit more work on the student as a future worker, especially as a mental labourer, but very little. It’s not framed as a question of a reserve army, but rather as a question of ‘extended youth,’ which young people are represented as ‘choosing.’ It’s really a version of the Puritan discourse, where your social and economic positioning is read as a function of your moral state. The under-employed (with ‘slack time’) are so because they’re morally slack, therefore require the benevolent intervention of work disciplines such as speed-up.

TT: Yes, the Protestant spirit is, at many levels, well and alive in managerial discourse. And maybe you have a point when you say that, from capital’s viewpoint, it is simply a matter of building an informational reserve army of workers. On the other hand, we also need to ask what social needs and desires and what processes of subjectivation does this reserve army express – what values it is capable of creating.     The question is also that of a direct and active engagement with specific student populations and their relation to this socialised labour power at large. This is why I have problems with a common counter-hegemonic argument against tuition fees (the hegemonic arguments being that ‘we cannot afford mass higher education’ or the ‘many should not pay for the few’ and that ‘a degree is a financial investment for the future’). The counter-hegemonic argument, by contrast, says that by making financial costs between different institutions variable, poorer students are kept away from the ‘best’ institutions. The argument is that tuition fees make social mobility across classes more difficult.    All of this is true, of course, but I think that it only captures a fraction of the huge depletion of resources that is thus perpetrated at the expense of a mass intellectuality. By making tuition fees variable, as you know well from the US, you also automatically make working conditions (and pay usually follows) dramatically different across different layers and sections of academic labour.

MB: You want to get beyond the liberal complaint about social mobility. It’s a more fundamental question of equality?

TT: In a way. In another way, this notion of equality still identifies knowledge too much with access to a limited cultural capital – rather than the huge, diverse and mutating flux of specialised knowledges and transversal connections which is a trademark of social production in network societies. It is not only a matter that the best lecturers will tend to flow towards the institutions where working conditions are better (less students and admin; more money for research; access to international academic networks etc.). It is mainly about how a large part of the living labour within the higher education system will be impeded by higher workloads, scarce resources and tighter managerial control from actively engaging and experimenting with the massification of socialised labour power. Such power does not express itself simply as a unified or even fragmented class, but also as a constellation of singularities connected by communication machines and informational dynamics. All of this at a moment when organised labour is lagging behind (or is being easily accommodated by) the huge transformations induced by post-fordism and globalisation.

MB: Going back to the question you raised about the role of living knowledge labour in transformation. I completely agree with you that the biopolitical potential is there in the lived experience of the student.     Their experience, especially of frustrated expectations, leaves them ‘primed’ and potentially volatile in all the ways you describe. After all, the huge role the US professional and managerial fraction plays in organising production globally has thus far created an oversized managerial fraction relative to the size of the state. And the oversized role of the US – also Europe and Japan of course – in world consumption is related to the expectations associated with the labour of managing globally.    So the frustration of those outsized expectations is volatile in ways we totally haven’t explored. And yet there is at the same time a proportionately greater effort devoted to containing it.

TT: It’s hard to know where it might go.

MB: The question of tuition brings me back to what you said before about the socialising function of education debt – about students being schooled by indebtedness. That is such an immense field for future research. Randy Martin has written about it in ‘The Financialisation of Daily Life,’ in a great chapter about the politics of debt.4 Debt is a way of making the relationship to dead labour more intimate than any possible relationship to living labour.

TT: Yes.

MB: There’s something to be said about schooling, especially the university, and the whole system of cultural capitalism and shaping the relationship of living labour to dead labour. It would be great to think in more detail what it means to understand ‘cultural capital’ as dead labour.     Anyway, what I really like about the questions you’re posing is the way it insists that we return to the question of the relationship of mental labour to other forms of labour. Are knowledge workers a ‘class’ unto themselves? Or are they a class fraction? If the latter, are they à la Bourdieu, the ‘dominated fraction of the dominant class’? Or à la Gramsci, are they the fraction of the working class that tends toward a traitorous alliance with the ruling class?     I tend to think that your work confirms the Gramscian position. I suppose that follows necessarily from the autonomist point of view.

TT: This is a really interesting question. Gramsci was a keen observer of ‘civil society’ – and he was very aware that the complex relation between social classes was a historical and dynamic relation of shifting alliances, with hegemony constituting a kind of ‘moving equilibrium’. The space of civil society, however, is relatively solid, stratified and bounded. Classes enter relationships of alliance but are clearly distinguishable within the overall boundary of the nation state and the dialectic opposition between the dominant and the dominated.

MB: But for you it’s more a question of reinventing the terms of the struggle itself.

TT: Autonomist work started with trade-union sponsored social research into the reasons for declining union membership. The result of that theoretical, empirical and political inquiry was a foregrounding of the alchemical dynamics of class composition. Union membership was declining because neither the structure of the union nor its culture could cope with a shifting class composition (such as an increasing number of young, male, unskilled immigrant workers and their refusal of the unionist work ethic). This was not simply a new contingent coming to join the old generation, but also implied a new set of social needs and desires which not only the union but factory work as such could not satisfy. The figure of this first transformation was the ‘mass worker’ – unskilled, mass factory work that challenged the industrial production machine through the rigidity of its escalating demands and its simultaneous social mobility. The mass worker demanded and caused a reinvention of politics, rather than simply joining the class struggle as a new contingent would – it gave new impetus to the struggle for life time against the ‘time-measure’ of the wage/work relation. An implication is that class is not simply about the reproduction of dialectical domination, but it is also endowed with its own historicity – a kind of dynamic potential, a surplus of value that antagonistically produces new forms of life and demands new modes of political and cultural expression.    Which brings us to today’s question. Should we read the expansion of higher education as, primarily, a desire of capital (for better trained, more manageable, stratified and hegemonised workers)? Or should we read in this transformation also the recomposition of class dynamics – a new production of values and forms of life which produce the basis for the reinvention of politics?

MB: Would it be waffling of me to say both are true? Just as the university is industrialised (albeit on a post-fordist footing of perma-temped labour in the mode of information), it – like the factory – becomes the location of an oppositional agency. Students – in their new character as workers in the present rather than the future – will in my view eventually understand themselves as the agents of their own exploitation. In that moment, we’ll understand the information university to have called forth its own gravediggers.

TT: Sure. And as usual, we must be careful about not repeating the old mistake of thinking of the working class as existing in a state of ‘unrealised consciousness’ which needs to be awoken by an external agency. If we keep this in mind, the main question becomes then not so much to map different fractions of the dominant and dominated classes and their relation to each other within the overall war of position, but to understand the shifting mode of class composition, its dynamics and the values that it produces (taking into account for example the heterogeneous axes of subjectivation linked to ethnicity, race, nationality, gender, sexuality and so on). The shift from the ‘mass worker’ to ‘socialised labour power’ (or a multi-skilled, fully socialised and abstract labour power), was for the early Negri a matter of achieving a new working class identity – one that was adequate to the increasing levels of abstraction and socialisation of labour. The old transcendent dialectic was replaced with an immanent one: class composition, capitalist restructuration, class recomposition.5 In other authors, such as Franco Berardi or Felix Guattari, however, the break with the dialectic is more radical. The emphasis is more on the heterogeneous production of subjectivity, which takes place at the level of material connections (crucially including desiring and technical machines, from the assembly line to media and computer networks).    Subjectivity and class are not simply modes of reproduction but also alchemical, microbiological and machinic factories of social transformation.

MB: I agree.

TT: We could maybe close by talking about the place of academic labour within the labour movement at large (including all those mutant forms of labour that the trade union movement cannot reach).

MB: The one thing I would say is that it couldn’t be a privileged place. To give academic labour a vanguard position would be a disaster. A big part of the academic ‘labour of reproduction’ is the production, legitimation, and policing of inequality. I think academic labour, including organised academic labour, needs to submit itself to the tutelage of more radical forms of labour self-organisation. More radical than the trade union movement, as you say. Mass intellectuality implies a revolutionary transformation in the academic consciousness, faculty especially.     That’s why I place so much emphasis on thinking about students as already workers, not just future workers. They are less ossified, less committed to inequality, than the faculty. To a certain extent they are also not invested in the labor aristocracy/bureaucracy of the trade unions. It would be crazy to call student life the perfect crucible for a movement to create greater equality. But the massification of higher ed has made it more likely. This is not nostalgia for 1968. Far from it. I think that the gigantic expansion of student experience, to the point where we have to see it as a modality of worker experience, creates opportunities so much larger than ’68.

TT: I don't know about 'tutelage' but I would definitely be for a greater effort to open up connections with other forms of labor on the basis of what academic labor shares with them (from the common plague of managerial command and its attack on the time of life to the common implication in the diffuse social factory). On the other hand, there is also a specific contribution that academic labor can provide. This specificity is part of its role as a key site in the production and reproduction of knowledges and forms of control (from policy-oriented social research to scientific patents and new technologies); in its contribution to the production of specific forms of labor directly implicated in the reproduction of the social (from doctors to computer scientists, from managers to artists and social workers); but also in its relation to a wider abstract social labour power (informated, affective and communicational), which exceeds the disciplinary power of the work/wage relation. As you said, a big part of the university's work is still institutional: reproducing hierarchical differences and producing docile subjects, so hacking the machine of social reproduction in Higher Ed is bound to be complicated work. I doubt whether a successful engagement with this process would produce another 1968 - the latter was still a revolt against the institutions, while we know now that power operates in and through networks. But it will definitely be a challenging process to be part of - requiring commitment and imagination.


1 Tiziana Terranova, ‘Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’ and Andrew Ross, ‘The Mental Labour Problem’, both in Social Text 63, vol.18, no.2: Summer 20002 Sadie Plant ‘The Virtual Complexity of Culture’ in G. Robertson et al (eds) FutureNatural: nature/science/culture. London: Routledge, 19963 Marc Bousquet, Tony Scott, Leo Parascondola, eds. Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers: Writing Work in the Managed University, Southern Illinois, 20044 Randy Martin, The Financialisation of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple UP, 20025 Antonio Negri ‘Archeaology and Project: The Mass Worker and the Social Worker’ in Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis & New Social Subjects 1967-83. London: Red Notes, 1988

Marc Bousquet <marc.bousquet AT> is the founding editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour ( and co-editor of The Politics of Information: The Electronic Mediation of Social Change, Alt-X, 2004 (free downloads available from:

Tiziana Terranova <tterra AT> lectures in media, culture and film at the University of Essex. She is author of Network Culture: Cultural Politics and Cybernetic Communication (Pluto Press)

Proud to be Flesh

Take Me I'm Yours: Neoliberalising the Cultural Institution

While talk of precariousness is rife in cultural and political forums, ‘progressive’ institutions do not always practice what they preach. Anthony Davies looks behind the scenes of ‘radical reformism’


In March 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona (MACBA), flagship ‘progressive art institution’, staged the second part of Another Relationality, a conference and workshop project examining the legacy of institutional critique and the new social and political functions of art. The event included presentations from sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato, critic-activist Brian Holmes and economist Antonella Corsani – all broadly associated with debates on the role of creativity, knowledge and subjectivity within contemporary capitalism.

Just prior to a conference workshop in which they had been invited to participate, local activist collective ctrl-i issued a public declaration of withdrawal, accusing the museum of complicity with the very neoliberal imperatives it purported to critique. On the surface at least, their statement – including the trenchant line ‘Talking about precariousness in the McBa is like taking a nutrition seminar at McDonald’s’ – had the hallmarks of a typical struggle against institutionalisation. But there was one key difference: ctrl-i is partly made up of temp workers formerly employed by the museum and not, as might be expected, an unaligned or ‘autonomous’ body resisting co-optation. It was moreover their knowledge and critique of precarious labour conditions and cultural neoliberalisation in Barcelona that was to form the basis of their contribution. The collective had been born in direct response to an earlier MACBA event, El Precariat Social Rebel, where, under the auspices of activist network The Chainworkers, they spoke out against the museum’s dubious employment practices and later gave up their jobs in circumstances that remain largely unclear.[1] While ctrl-i’s unique status as temp workers and local activists may have prompted the invite from MACBA, it also gave the group licence to dramatise Another Relationality’s underlying themes in an emphatic act of withdrawal.[2]

To understand the context for this signal act of protest on the part of a group of culture sector workers, and to give a material basis to the discussions on institutionalisation currently taking place in publications such as Art Monthly and Mute, we need first to look at the uneven process of neoliberal restructuring as it courses its way through cultural and educational institutions.[3] According to Marxist geographer David Harvey, neoliberalism’s trademark rhetoric that human wellbeing is contingent on developing individual entrepreneurial freedoms – chiefly the freedom to operate in the market – should be contrasted with the unprecedented ‘creative’ destruction that accompanies neoliberal reform. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey describes how this process results in an erosion of existing social relations, ways of life and thought, as the market gradually penetrates and puts to work the ‘common sense’ way that many of us live in and engage with the world. The state’s role becomes principally that of ensuring the proper functioning of markets, setting up institutional frameworks which ultimately guarantee the ‘maintenance, reconstitution and restoration of elite class power’. It is difficult to track these developments across different regional and national contexts, however, and this is exacerbated by the multifaceted, hybrid and localised manner in which they unfold, another symptom/condition of the process Harvey terms ‘uneven geographical development’.[4]

Image: subvertisement by ctrl-i

Where do state-funded cultural and educational institutions fit into all this? What role do they play? At a point where many have been set to work by capital in ever more ‘innovative’ (read: commercialised) ways, a host of contradictions and antagonisms have surfaced. While some now openly promote the liberating capacity of new revenue streams linked to consultancy, outsourcing, business incubation and enterprise activities, others seek out more tactical models of engagement, looking to new constituencies and standards of practice to offset the crisis of legitimation which opens up as institutions are subjected to neoliberal agendas.


An attempt to address some of these issues in the European cultural sector can be found in European Cultural Policies 2015: A Report with Scenarios on the Future of Public Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe.[5] This publication acted as the cornerstone of the International Artist Studio Program in Sweden’s (Iaspis) contribution to the Frieze Art Fair, 2005. Against the backdrop of an earlier rejected proposal to the Frieze Foundation, state-funded Iaspis decided to pursue a more general enquiry into the cultural and political questions opened up by their compromised participation in the fair, focusing specifically on its exemplary and problematic identity as a ‘public-private partnership’.[6] In collaboration with the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (eipcp) and London-based design group Åbäke, Iaspis went on to commission reports from eight local experts on key social, political and economic determinants of cultural policy in seven regions across the EU. The reports integrated hypothetical scenarios of what the cultural landscape might look like in 2015 as well as introductions by Iaspis director Maria Lind and eipcp director Gerald Raunig. These latter two texts illustrate the grand ambitions of the project: to influence – and possibly reform – European cultural policy, and to strengthen ‘radical-reformist elements of the cultural-political discourse in Europe’.[7]


Image: diagram by Nils Norman and Dismal Cartographics, November 2006

In spite – or rather, because – of its political ambitions, European Cultural Policies 2015’s focus on the meshing of the state, its institutional apparatus, and the market elides any significant debate on class power within art institutions themselves and across the commercial sectors with which they interact. This makes the underlying economic disparities and antagonisms associated with neoliberalism’s specific mode of ‘uneven development’ impossible to gauge. It also obscures the interests of those whom the report’s findings ultimately serve.

Along with the policy minutiae, however, we do get an insight into the inter-institutional faultlines opening up across Europe. The report’s account of the breakdown of Frieze/Iaspis’s earlier collaboration and the subsequent soul-searching undertaken by Iaspis director Maria Lind and her colleagues is symptomatic of such conflicts. ‘Progressive’ institutional voices, mostly those in the upper echelons (directors, key administrators and curators), in conjunction with a new type of defector academic/activist ‘communication consultant to the prince’ look for new operational models to open up a critical engagement with the institution’s complicity in cultural neoliberalisation.[8] Lind’s introduction to 2015 registers Iaspis’s discomfort regarding the ‘collaboration’ with Frieze while the report itself atones by disclosing the financial details of the project. It’s a characteristic deflective move. Frieze Art Fair’s enthusiastic adoption of corporate values, dramatically high turnover and audience figures, together with the generally porous membrane separating its commercial and non-commercial activities, become the anti-model of neoliberal institutional practice, the vanguard of the ‘almost completely instrumentalised’ cultural/art dystopia for which we are notionally all destined in 2015.


The 2015 report contrasts this nightmare vision of neoliberal cultural lockdown with a wet dream of agile, socially responsible and responsive transnational infrastructures – something like eipcp’s ever-expanding network of ‘Co-organisers’, ‘Associated Partners’, etc.[9] Behind its critical reflections on cultural policy there lies a bid for future state funding. The report’s not so tacit conclusion is that the European Commission should reconsider its priorities and shift monies away from the big players and richer member states (read: UK plc., Frieze & Co.) and over towards ‘responsible actors’ (read: Iaspis/eipcp) and smaller self-organising networks.


This goes some way to explaining the absence of any debate in the report on wage and labour relations within art institutions themselves. It also throws up other questions. For instance, given the EU’s aim of promoting the transnational dissemination of culture as a catalyst for socio-economic development and social integration, and its funding of both Frieze and eipcp, which of the two operational models delivered the most ‘European Added Value’?[10] The introduction to 2015 threw up a series of binaries: Iaspis-eipcp versus Frieze Art Fair; public versus public-private partnership; self-organised versus instrumentalised; institutions acting as ‘responsible actors’ versus institutions as mere ‘facilitators’. However, these alternatives should not be read as divergent paths but as coexistent forms of neoliberalism, evolving at uneven rates and in different phases perhaps, but all moving in the same direction. Each leads towards the same future – one with a human face, the other without – as various institutional actors become the unacknowledged legislators of neoliberalism and work to pioneer a socially acceptable form of its hegemony.


Image: MACBA Barcelona

This process sees a proliferation of transnational infrastructures connecting art institutions up with self-organised (activist) networks. As a tendency it can be tracked back at least as far as the earlier institutional incorporation of activist strategies in the late 1990s-early 2000s with MACBA frequently being cited as one of the first institutions to spearhead this with their Direct Action as One of the Fine Arts workshop in 2000 and Las Agencias (The Agencies) in mid 2001.[11] However, the consolidation of left radical-reformist agendas and coalitions at the first European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002 provides the more obvious ideological blueprint for the type of ‘critical’ policy alternatives found in 2015. Around this time, eipcp also launched its ‘Republicart Manifesto’, setting the tone and operational parameters of a three-year, EU-funded programme of events, web essays and conferences. This hauled a range of micro-institutional programmes and discourses into its investigation of the ‘development of interventionist and activist practices of public art’. The manifesto also claimed to pose a corrective to the dialectical cul-de-sacs and ‘revolutionary pathos’ characterising ‘90s political art. It explicitly rejects ‘reforming a form of state’, but nevertheless lays out a road map that would later enable state-funded institutions to harness some of the provisional overlaps between their activities and those of social and political movements.[12]


Eipcp continues to function as the project leader in a transnational cartel of institutions and individuals, all of whom feed into its web portals Republicart (2002-05), Transform (2005-2008) and Translate (2005-), and back out, to conferences, symposia, exhibitions and workshops (see diagram). The network is now positioned at the institutional epicentre of a number of European cultural debates on progressive and radical reformist cultural strategies.


The phrase ‘progressive art institution’ for example can be tracked back to eipcp and, as a generalised catch-all, has proven itself particularly adaptable to the kind of concerted effort the network makes to generate a coherent theoretical framework. This project starts to take shape in the run up to the conference Public Art Policies: Progressive Art Institutions in the Age of Dissolving Welfare States, in 2004. An open discussion on web platform Discordia between the organisers, participants and other interested parties offers an insight into some of the general confusion, disputes and problems associated with the term ‘progressive’. According to eipcp’s Raunig, it should be read as ‘becoming’ not ‘being’ progressive:


this becoming progressive happens between the two poles of movement (micropolitical actions etc.) and institutions (political organisation, etc.). the abstract negation of one of these two poles would lead directly into myths of freedom (which I also suspect behind notions like ‘open cultures’ or ‘free networks’, especially if in connection to the art field) or reformist reductions.[13]



While key figures in the eipcp network continue to promote various modes of ‘non-dialectical’ engagement, any claims to new forms of resistance and political action should be tested by their effect on the core of the (art) institutions in question. If they simply serve to insulate and insure these neoliberal cultural nodes against attacks on their legitimacy or provide ideological cover for a process of economic restructuring, how ‘progressive’ are things becoming?


In addition to its pioneering approach to outsourcing, MACBA, according to its website, is economically supported by a foundation of thirty-eight sponsoring members and thirty-three founding businesses including multinational financial and consultancy services groups like Ernst and Young, Deloitte and scandal-hit Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA).[14] As state-funded cultural and educational institutions pass through the eye of the neoliberal storm, it’s hardly surprising that a conspicuous self-reflexivity about their inner contradictions has become the stock in trade of progressives and radical reformers alike, broadcasting consciousness of the problems but holding their resolution in abeyance. With uneven rates of movement and development between states, regions and cities, the institutions in which these professionals work are now bogged down in an erratic process of ‘catch up’ as the state at once withdraws public sector support and economically mobilises culture and education.


This can be seen in the plethora of strategies for public sector reform and outsourcing. On the one hand, new models of efficiency and standards of assessment are introduced, on the other institutions are given the task of attracting inward investment, contributing to cultural tourism, urban regeneration and the Creative Industries. Cultural and educational institutions, then, are in the midst of various forms of neoliberal enclosure and the concomitant restructuring is seen by competing individuals, networks and agencies to offer openings for a range of agendas seeking to gain purchase on institutional structures/bureaucracies. Referring to the market for higher education and universities for example, academic Ned Rossiter has argued that,


just as NGOs and CSOs have filled the void created by the neoliberal state’s evacuation from the social, so too must organised networks seize upon the institutional persona of the ‘external provider'[15]



At the other end of the scale, the many and varied external providers linked to finance capital are also busy at work. At the inaugural conference of the British Venture Capital Association in September 2006, for example, companies referred to a ‘land grab’ as they rushed to secure stakes in the future output of university departments.[16] This activity is mirrored in the University of the Arts London’s (UAL) Innovation Centre and wholly owned subsidiary company UALVentures – part of a dozen or so other schemes set up at UAL since 2002 to capitalise on staff and student enterprise initiatives, develop company spin-outs and build up IP portfolios.[17]


In response to this rapid proliferation of new enterprise zones in the cultural and educational sectors, some leading progressives advocate a rearguard challenge to neoliberalisation with the aid of what MACBA’s head of public programmes, Jorge Ribalta, has called his ‘trustees from below’ (e.g. displaced, dispossessed and previously excluded constituencies).[18] With uncanny echoes of Blairite sociologist Anthony Giddens’s earlier totem ‘the state without enemies’, these art institutions without enemies no longer recuperate resistance or institutionalise critique but claim to operate as its facilitators – partners in its very construction. And herein lies a principle contradiction: the content of the institution’s discourse can be utterly inverted in the institutional form. While formally affirming the fight against precarious labour, for example, institutions continue to maintain high levels of labour insecurity among their workers. Ctrl-i’s act of refusal brought this to wider attention, but it was already the subject of earlier critiques from activist network The Chainworkers at El Precariat Social Rebel (November 2003) and Spanish Indymedia activists at EuroMayDay Barcelona (2004). All these critiques actually occurred ‘within’ MACBA and, to varying degrees, at the behest of the museum itself (Indymedia Barcelona for example, is said to have grown out of one of its workshops). MACBA not only ‘commands’ criticism but lays down the terms and conditions in which it can take place. It does it by offering its facilities and expertise, by inviting the big international celebrity activists to further politicise their ‘trustees’, and generally help to integrate anti-capitalist and social movements into its programme. As Gerald Raunig puts it:

A productive game emerges here in the relationship between activists and institution, which is neither limited to a co-optation of the political by the institution, nor to a simple redistribution of resources from the progressive art institution to the political actions.[19]



This then begs the question whether, for all the autocritique conducted by institutional directors, curators and activists, for all the talk of transnational networks linking up radical reformist elements, what tangible ‘progressive’ change has occurred within art institutions? Or indeed, for all those on temporary, fixed term contracts, in Spanish and other European (non-art) contexts?[20] Are we just looking at institutions looking at institutions looking at institutions – churning self-reflexivity as they oversee the creation of the EU’s socially conscious variant on UK/US neoliberalism.


If two earlier phases of institutional critique broadly located in the ‘70s and ‘90s have been integrated into cycles of legitimation and further disabled by the ongoing privatisation of culture and education, should we take these more recent state-funded institutionally led initiatives seriously as a ‘third phase’ as some have argued? Of all the interpretations put forward by eipcp ‘correspondents’ and associates at the 2005 conference The Future of Institutional Critique and in the first issue of the web journal Transversal, filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s is perhaps the most plausible though by no means unproblematic.[21]. She notes the integration of cultural workers into the flexible, temporary and exploitative labour conditions ushered in by neoliberalisation and claims that there is a ‘need for institutions which could cater to the new needs and desires that this constituency will create’.


It’s necessary here, when talking about needs, desires and constituencies, to acknowledge class struggle in these new enterprise zones/progressive art institutions and maintain clear lines of antagonism in any proposed ‘third phase’ of institutional critique. As ctrl-i have shown, we could start by directly confronting in-house disparities and inequities and ask why radical reformers avoid debating ongoing and often intensified labour market segmentation (i.e. the differential between permanent and temporary workers) within their own ‘exemplary’ cultural and educational institutions? Why do those at the top of the institutional pile and their army of new consultants continue to promote self-reflexivity and claim to facilitate dissent while acting as a buttress to elite class power? The question then is not so much whether 2015’s call for the EU ‘to invest in long-term basic funding for transnational infrastructures’ should be met (eipcp’s continued funding suggests that it has been, in their case) but the manner and extent to which these infrastructures function in the service of capital.



Editor’s note

Anthony Davies’ concluding question will be further explored in a forthcoming text for Mute on the neoliberalisation of education



[1] Email correspondence with ctrl-i, August 2006. According to ctrl-i’s account of their relations with the museum’s Temporary Employment Agency, Serveis Educatius Ciut’art, SL, some of those who had spoken out against the museum were removed from their contracted positions in the ‘guided tour’ programme and placed in other, less publicly engaged, roles. Within two months all had left the museum. As temporary workers none had recourse to claiming ‘constructive’ or unfair dismissal. In UK law constructive dismissal is where an employee is moved to resign due to their employer’s behaviour (and this can range from the interpersonal, harassment etc., to the structural, where the nature or description of the job changes), see For an online account of ctrl-i ‘s relation to MACBA and their withdrawal letter see and i-manifest at

[2] The invitation to ctrl-i to participate in the Another Relationality (part 2) workshops was made by MACBA and Marcello Expósito on behalf of the now disbanded ‘Faculty for Radical Aesthetics’, an offshoot of the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (eipcp). See the call for applications,

[3] This article is based on a text originally commissioned by Art Monthly, where debate on institutionalisation and so-called ‘New Institutionalism’ has been developed through Dave Beech’s ‘Institutionalisation For All’, No. 294, March 2006; Peter Suchin’s ‘On Institutionalisation’, No. 295, April 2006; Lisa Le Feuvre’s ‘The Institution Within’, No. 297, June 2006 and Jakob Jakobsen’s ‘Self-Institutionalisation’, No. 298, July-August 2006, as well as the conference Worlds Within Worlds: the Institutions of Art, July 2006:

[4] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 87-119

[5] European Cultural Policies 2015: A Report with Scenarios on the Future of Public Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe was commissioned as part of Frieze Projects and distributed free of charge at the Frieze Art Fair in October 2005. The report is also available as a pdf-file at: and

[6] Maria Lind, introduction to 'European Cultural Policies 2015': The previous year Iaspis had an artists-commission project proposal rejected by Frieze Foundation. The Foundation is supported by Arts Council England and the Culture 2000 programme. The 2005 Frieze Projects were commissioned in association with Cartier and supported by Arts & Business and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

[7] Gerald Raunig, ‘2015 [Introduction]’, For Maria Lind’s introduction, see

[8] Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant have identified such consultants’ role in granting a veneer of legitimacy to projects of the new state and business nobility. Their prototypical example was Anthony Giddens, British sociologist and ideological architect of the Third Way. See Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, ‘Neoliberal Newspeak: Notes on the New Planetary Vulgate’, Radical Philosophy, 108, January 2001,

[9] They are listed in the ‘cooperation’ section of epipcp’s website and stand at around 50 organisations as of March 2007,

[10] ‘European Added Value’ is outlined in the ‘Award Criteria’ section of the European Commission, Culture 2000 Specifications document,

[11] See Discordia exchange on progressive institutions: ‘more than one shining institution’, and Jorge Ribalta, ‘Mediation and Construction of Publics. The MACBA Experience‘, April 2004,

[12] Republicart manifesto, September 2002, and eipcp 2002 intro,

[13] See Discordia,

[14] According to the MACBA website the objective of the Foundation is to 'actively contribute to the creation and development of the Contemporary Art Museum through the growth of its permanent collection.' The MACBA Consortium on the other hand (which consists of two public administrations) contributes the resources to maintain the museum’s basic functions. See MACBA Foundation and for BBVA see: ‘A Widening Probe in Spain’, BusinessWeek Magazine, 22 April, 2002

[15] Ned Rossiter, ‘Organised Networks: Transdisciplinarity and New Institutional Forms’,[16] ‘Jon Boone, ‘University Spin-Outs Turn the Heads of Venture Capitalists’, Financial Times, September 28, 2006 and and venture capital firm Quester’s commentary/report into ‘Building University Spin-Outs: A VC’s View on Three Key Ingredients to Success’, October 2006

[17] The University of the Arts, London is at the forefront of this debate in the UK and in addition to the rapid growth of business incubators and enterprise initiatives it has recently set up Creative Capital-World City. This state funded initiative been developed in conjunction with a number of London based 'partner' universities (including Kings College London, London Business School and the School of Oriental and African Studies) to open up key world markets for the UK Creative Industries. See: and

[18] Jorge Ribalta, ‘Mediation and Construction of Publics. The MACBA Experience’, April 2004,

[19] Gerald Raunig, 'The Double Criticism of parrhesia. Answering the Question “What is a Progressive (Art) Institution?”’,

[20] Spain accounts for 31 percent of temporary workers in Europe and has more temp workers than Italy, the UK, Belgium and Sweden combined. See Sebastian Royo, ‘The European Union and Economic Reforms: The case of Spain’, An OECD survey from 2005 noted labour market segmentation between permanent workers protected by high severence payments and the growing army of temp workers with little employment stability as a 'harmful feature' affecting productivity growth. See:,2340,en_33873108_33873806_34585738_1_1_1_1,00.html

[21] Debates on a third ‘phase’ or ‘wave’ of institutional critique can be found in Simon Sheikh’s ‘Notes on Institutional Critique’, Hito Steyerl’s ‘Institution of Critique’ and Gerald Raunig’s ‘Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming’. All can be found at


Anthony Davies <ajwdavies AT> is a writer and organiser

Proud to be Flesh

The Factory Without Walls

Wireless and social networking technologies depend on and help shape the global logistics industry. This worldwide supply chain ensures just-in-time production responds to consumer demand, whether it be books from Amazon or exhaust pipes for Jaguars. If, contrary to theorists of ‘immaterial labour’, the mass worker is not dead but reconfigured, will networked production and distribution see the rise of networked labour struggles? Drawing on personal experience and ongoing research, Brian Ashton gives a brief introduction to the complexities of the logistics industry


Information Technology has enabled capital to coordinate the production of commodities like never before. It is a seeming contradiction: production is spread across the globe, parts are made here and there and moved thousands of kilometres to be assembled, but this process produces more commodities than ever before. Capital has renewed itself yet again, and in the process it has thrown the left into crisis. While the talk among the intellectuals is of immaterial labour and precarity, capital is busy ironing out the kinks in its new system of production. At the same time, though, it is creating a communication system that enables workers to interact with each other across national borders and continents. Just about every worker is now an IT worker, and it is the potential that lies in this fact that poses the greatest threat to capital. It is not about immaterial or material labour. The intellectuals have got to stop creating hierarchies of labour, the mass worker and the social worker, the immaterial worker and the precariat. They would be better employed getting a proper understanding of how the supply chain – some capitalists call it the virtual enterprise – now works. Know thine enemy, as Sun Tzu said in The Art of War.

P&O Nedlloyd

A team of researchers from the Cardiff Business School studied the chain of actions required to make a can of cola. The whole process, starting at the Bauxite mine in Australia and ending with the can in somebody’s refrigerator took no less than 319 days. Of that time only three hours were spent on manufacturing, the rest was spent on transport and storage. An advertisement for the shipping company P&O Nedlloyd claims that the journey of one single container can involve literally a hundred people. These range from the guy who loaded the container to the IT people, from the logistics planners to the dockers, through the haulage drivers to the warehouse workers, from the customs officer to the captain of the ship. This highlights time and labour. The control of these two factors is the major concern for those charged with the management of supply chains.


As the Cardiff Business School study highlights, logistics is a major factor in the supply chain. According to the Council of Logistics Management, logistics is:


the process of planning, implementing and controlling the efficient effective flow and storage of raw materials, process inventory, finished goods, extraction/production to the point of consumption.


In the last twenty years there has been a revolution in the world of logistics, a revolution that seems to have escaped the attention of the autonomous left. The cause of this upheaval was the application of technology to the globalisation of commodity production. Or as Marx put it:


A radical change in the mode of production in one sphere of industry involves a similar change in other spheres. This happens at first in such branches of industry as are connected together by being separate phases of a process, and yet are isolated by the social division of labour, in such a way that each of them produces an independent commodity … But more especially, the revolution in the modes of production of industry and agriculture made necessary a revolution in the general conditions of the social process of production, i.e., in the means of communication and transport … The means of communication and transport were so utterly inadequate to the productive requirements of the manufacturing period, with its extended division of social labour, its concentration of the instruments of labour, and of the workmen and its colonial markets, that they became in fact revolutionised … And in the period of ‘modern industry’ the means of communication and transport handed down from the manufacturing period became impediments.

Capital, vol.1, pages 262-26.


Autonomist marxism sees the struggle of the working class as the driver of capitalist development. In the ’70s capital started to attack the concentrations of working class power that some have called the mass worker. It attacked on three fronts. It started to break up the rigidities imposed on production by working class militancy using technology to de-skill the workers and reconfigure the factory layout. It started to relocate some productive capacity to smaller sites, sub-contracting the work to other companies. And it used the state to impose crisis upon the working class. It was largely successful in its project and as the ’80s developed, defeat followed defeat for the working class. A political composition forged in battle was dismantled and discarded. It seems to this old car industry worker that it wasn’t only capital that discarded us but that quite a number of communist intellectuals turned their backs on us, too. The consequence is that now we have a generation of anti-capitalists who don’t know how to engage with the working class. Despite being surrounded by the class they seem more interested in what goes on in the Mexican jungle, or prefer to go to Genoa and Seattle and give the state machine an opportunity to practice crowd control.


In the ’60s and ’70s there was constant interaction between working class militants and the left emerging from the universities. This wasn’t always positive, but, where there was a synergy, theory and practice had some connection. We learned from each other and good work was produced. Here in Britain work published by Solidarity and Big Flame is evidence of that. In Italy Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua helped to develop an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of capital’s composition. Today we may talk about a globalised production system but how many of us can describe how it works? How does the can of cola get from A to Z? In the ’70s we knew how the factory and the transport systems worked and in that knowledge lay our ability to combat capital. Today, it is certainly difficult to grasp exactly how things are made, but it is imperative that we gain deep knowledge of the processes of production and logistics, the supply chains of capital or, to put it another way, the factories without walls. Some capitalists see the supply chain as a virtual factory and want workers to relate to the supply chain rather than perceiving themselves as employees of the separate organisations that make the chain up.


Working class composition comes from struggle, but first capitalists have to bring the workers together and impose the discipline of production upon them. In the present period we can only understand how that discipline is imposed if we take a global approach. The technical composition of capital is spread across the world, as are the workers in the commodity’s supply chain. Discipline under such a system is imposed through the application of kaizen (continuous improvement) and just-in-time stock delivery combined with the application of information technologies that police the workers’ productivity.


This is reinforced by the change in how commodities are moved through the system. Capital has moved from a push to a pull economy, in other words, it is making things that are being demanded rather than making them to forecast demand. The motto of the pull economy could be, ‘If it isn’t sold, don’t make another one.’ The pull economy gives the big supermarket chains enormous power because they control the information that pulls a commodity through the supply chain. When you buy a tin of beans in Asda the information is sent out to all those along the chain in order for another tin of beans to be produced. Of course, millions of such pieces of information are flying through cyberspace every moment of the day. One of the results of the pull economy is an increase in precarious work: if demand is down then lay off workers. Companies have computer programs that calculate the number of workers needed to satisfy a given demand, drawing in extra workers from a pool of casual labour, often supplied by employment agencies. And increasingly they outsource non-core activities to service companies; this is one of the reasons for the mushrooming of the logistics industry in these last years. The automotive industry is moving to a pull economy model and this is one of the main reasons autoworkers in the States are being battered at the moment.


If you spread your supply chains across the globe and reduce your stock levels to just-in-time then you increase the importance of the logistical exercise in the completion of the cycle of accumulation. At the same time you increase the possibility of effective working class struggle: when the truckers on the west coast of the USA struck a year or so back they paralysed the supply chains of Wal-Mart and other chain store giants, sending waves of panic through many a boardroom. The importance of logistics cannot be overestimated; try imagining the supply chain of any product without the logistical input. The globalisation of production has left many workers believing they can do nothing about it when companies move production to China or India, they stand hypnotised by the lights on the capitalist juggernaut as it runs them over, but this apparent strength of multinational capital is in fact its weakness.


Historically, logistics workers have been carriers of radical thought and transporters of the news of working class struggles. They have, of course, been involved in many a battle themselves. In the last twenty years many of those battles have been defensive, fighting to save jobs and maintain working conditions. The withdrawal of the state from the direct management of the logistics industry was the catalyst for a global attack that continues to this day. As the state withdrew, private capital stepped into the breech and attacked workforces throughout the industry. At the same time these companies have been engaged in a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions that have resulted in the emergence of truly global organisations employing many thousands of workers.


Some idea of the size of these companies can be gleaned from two examples, United Parcel Services (UPS) and Deutsche Post (DP). UPS is a 33.5 billion dollar company that operates in 200 countries and employs more than 340,000 workers. It provides transportation and freight logistics/distribution, international trade, financial services, financial mail facilities and consultancy services. It has grown by benefiting from the outsourcing processes that are common in industry and by acquiring other companies. It plays for big stakes: it bought the Fritz freight company for 450 million dollars. DP is partly owned by the German government, who hold 41.6 percent of the shares. These will be sold to institutional investors over the next few years. DP runs the German postal service, owns DHL, and last year it bought the British registered company Exel. Exel was an acquisitive company itself before being bought out; it had previously bought Tibbett&Britten, the seventh biggest logistics company in the world. This resulted in a company employing more than 103,000 people. I don’t know how many people work for DP, but it must be in the hundreds of thousands.


The Jaguar auto plant in Halewood on Merseyside can perhaps give us an idea of how a supply chain works and how logistics fits into the chain. Halewood was where Ford built the Escort, and where this proletarian worked for seven long years. It was regarded as the basket case of the Ford organisation and the threat of closure was always hanging over it. Ford bought Jaguar and decided to manufacture Jags at Halewood, at the same time it decided to radically alter working practices in the plant. It brought in an American company called Senn-Delaney to alter the mindset of the workforce, and it appears to have been successful because Halewood is now regarded as the best car plant in Europe. If such a company had been brought in during the ’70s their work would have been challenged by counter-information from the left.


When I worked in Halewood in the ’70s there were 14,000 of us employed on the site. Today Jaguar employs some 2,800 people, but this figure is deceptive because a sizable chunk of the work has been hived off to suppliers who in turn pass some of the work on to smaller suppliers. In a supply chain firms are categorised thus: Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), i.e. Jaguar; First Tier Supplier, i.e. Bosch; the smaller suppliers are called second tier, third tier, etc. Linking all these together are the logistics companies. At Halewood UCI Logistics, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) runs the logistical set up. As lead logistics supplier, UCI is responsible for inbound logistics to Halewood as well as the internal logistics at the plant itself. In the Ford days internal logistics would have been carried out by Ford workers. The inbound logistics service involves a supply chain operation and the collection of parts and sub-assemblies from suppliers around Europe partly using their own fleet and partly UCI Logistics-appointed partners. The internal logistics service involves offloading parts, movement of components to storage areas and making them available to the production lines without incurring line-side storage. It is also UCI’s task to ensure that line-side stock never exceeds the two-hour volume Jaguar has stipulated. It is UCI workers who drive the fork lift trucks that transfer material within the Halewood plant.


NYK logistics


Let’s look at the logistics of a particular product going into Halewood, the wheel and tyre assemblies. UCI moves 500,000 assemblies a year into Halewood. The contract includes both external logistics for the supply of alloy wheels from Italy to Pirelli’s facility in the UK and the delivery of completed assemblies to Halewood, three times a day, together with the internal logistics at the Jaguar site. UCI chooses from twelve different types of assemblies on receiving automated instructions from Jaguar and delivers the product to the point of fit. The mass worker hasn’t been destroyed s/he has just been reconfigured.


Capital gets its power from the extraction of surplus value and the supply chain is the factory without walls where this process takes place. In the past socialists organised and agitated around the centres of commodity production – one thinks of the work done around Fiat’s Mirafiori factory in Turin and Big Flame’s efforts at Dagenham and Halewood – but is that sort of work going on today? If such agitation is to take place it will have to be on a global scale, but the technology exists to do it. By going global with its supply chains, capital is creating the opportunity for global working class struggle. In order for such struggles to succeed we need to know how the present composition of capital works. The craft worker and the mass worker knew how the system produced commodities in their day; we need to develop such knowledge today.


Brian Ashton <t.ashton AT> is an ex-car industry shop steward who developed an interest in the logistics industry while doing support work with the sacked Liverpool dockers during the mid-nineties

Proud to be Flesh

Thriving on Adversity: The Art of Precariousness

Whilst in the expanding global slum survival at subsistance level is increasingly the only option, in the West the celebration of the creativity and ingenuity of the slum dweller is becoming fashionable. In a conflation of relational aesthetics with the 'creative' survival strategies of the globalised slum, many artists have become associated with what could be called 'slum chic'. Anna Dezeuze surveys a number of artists who draw upon the experience of everyday life in the slums to make their work, and tries to separate out the aestheticisation of poverty from the poverty of aesthetics

Walking around the immaculate spaces of the New York Guggenheim, I once came across a roughly built brick shelter, with two pillars and a roof, and a small shack with a large satellite dish. In an adjoining metal structure stood a single functioning toilet. In the reassuring bubble of an archetypical museum, the images of shanty town architecture and emergency refuges conjured by the basic components of this pared-down construction seemed very remote. The structure in front of me, I was informed by a wall-text, corresponded to an existing type of core unit being built at the time in a far-away location: Kagiso, a suburb of Johannesburg. The artist, the Slovenian Marjetica Potrc, had just been awarded the 2000 Hugo Boss Prize. Two years later, the Belgian, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs was short-listed for the Hugo Boss prize. His Ambulantes (Pushing and Pulling), a slide series executed 1992-2002, documents the astonishing range of street vendors, refuse collectors, delivery men, and salespeople walking around the streets of Mexico City, pushing and pulling loaded carts or wheeled stalls, and occasionally carrying loads on their heads.

Works such as Potrc’s and Alÿs’ point to a widespread interest, among artists and curators, in the precarious existence of shanty town dwellers and of the millions of people across Third World cities whose mode of livelihood Mike Davis has described as ‘informal survivalism.’[1] In order to address the apparent contradictions suggested by these works and by their appeal to official sponsors and institutions, I would like to sketch out some characteristic features of this trend and some of the problems it raises. Rather than providing a systematic overview, I will look in particular at the ways in which artists and curators have theorised this growing interest, and explore a few of the perils and promises that precariousness holds for contemporary art today.


Image: Francis Alÿs, from the series Ambulantes, 1992-2002   

On Adversity We Thrive!

Potrc was one of the artists included in the exhibition The Structure of Survival at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. The curator, the Argentinean Carlos Basualdo, chose to focus on the favela or shanty town as the guiding theme of the exhibition, which featured over 25 international artists. Basualdo’s definition of the shanty towns as spaces of resistance, ‘places in which original forms of socialisation, alternative economies, and various forms of aesthetic agency are produced’ has been echoed in other fields.[2] The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, for example, believes that ‘[t]he new forms of social awareness that emerge from slum collectives will be the germs of the future and the best hope for a properly “free world.”’[3] Basualdo’s ideas on this question developed more specifically from his engagement with the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who coined the motto ‘on adversity we thrive’ (‘da adversidade vivemos’) in 1967.[4] Adversity, for Oiticica, was a condition of Third World countries, and should be the starting point for any Brazilian artist. Oiticica himself found inspiration for his work in the Brazilian popular culture of samba dancing and the shanty town architecture of the Rio favela of Mangueira.[5] In 2001, Basualdo appropriated Oiticica’s motto as the title for an exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Featured artists, among whom were included Francis Alÿs, as well as artists who would subsequently figure in the Venice Biennale show, were discussed in terms of their experience of a Latin American reality characterised by ‘constant precariousness’ and ‘adversity in tragically unstable socio-economic contexts.’[6]

Hélio Oiticica

Image: Hélio Oiticica, Parangolé (as worn by Caeteno Veloso on the book cover of Marginália by Marisa Alvarez Lima)

If the critic Guy Brett described precariousness as a characteristic of Latin American art as early as 1989,[7] Basualdo’s shows have contributed to the growing celebration of contemporary practices relating to issues of adversity and crisis. In our current globalised world, as Basualdo has pointed out, crises operate beyond national boundaries, and beyond distinctions between developing and developed countries.[8] Yet rather than analyse the ways in which the First World societies may be in a state of crisis, Basualdo, like many artists, has focused on the ongoing inventiveness of those who experience adversity at first hand. The attraction of the precariousness of the Developing World for artists and curators seems to lie not in the situation of crisis itself as much as in the responses that it encourages. Potrc often speaks of the ‘beauty’ of slum architecture,[9] while Francis Alÿs marvels at the ways in which people in Mexico ‘keep inventing themselves’, like a man in his neighbourhood who spends his day cleaning the gaps between the pavement flagstones with a bent wire.[10] The Turkish artist collective Oda Projesi, who were included in The Structure of Survival, seem to summarise a widespread, if often implicit, belief, when they explain that inhabitants of the prefabricated houses erected after the 1999 Adapazari earthquake ‘construct these annexes by choosing the materials in accordance with their own conditions and needs, just like an artist or an architect.’[11] Similarly, both Alÿs and Potrc have celebrated the ways people occupy space in an unplanned fashion and erect shelters spontaneously. In 2003, Potrc exhibited a ‘growing house’ from a Caracas shanty town at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The ‘iron wires sprouting from its rooftop,’ according to her, ‘proclaim the vitality of the place.’[12] In 1994, Alÿs pieced together electoral posters declaring ‘housing for all’ (‘viviendas por todos’) in order to create a shelter-like structure fastened over a subway air duct in Mexico City. ‘It was a direct comment on the state of local politics and at the same time an attempt to recreate these cells of squatters that I encountered everywhere in the city’, he has explained.[13] Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Alÿs and Potrc come from an architectural background. Urban planning is their frame of reference, and their concerns with precariousness mirror the emerging attraction among architects to the hitherto unmapped slums of Third World cities.

Growing House

Image: Marjetica Potrc, Caracas: Growing House, 2003  

The abandonment and neglect experienced by, to use Mike Davis’ term, the ‘informal proletariat’ seems to be conceived by artists such as Alÿs and Potrc as a kind of freedom. In a 1990 essay, Guy Brett explained that in Latin America ‘many grass-roots movements have appeared because of a complete loss of faith in the willingness or ability of governments to do anything about major problems.’[14] Many activists and non-governmental organisations in the West would recognise themselves in this description, and Latin American grass-roots movements have been models for similar groupings elsewhere. For Potrc, there is a direct parallel between NGOs and shanty towns: both have been ‘[g]rowing without any control or planning’, and both, according to the artist, embody our aspirations, dreams and ideals.[15] In the catalogue for The Structure of Survival, Basualdo invited a group of Argentinean activists, Colectivo Situaciones, to write about responses to the devastating economic crisis in their country. Like many such groups, Colectivo Situaciones explain that their type of revolution differs from traditional ‘modern emancipatory politics’ in that they do not seek to gain state power. Instead, they are concerned with finding concrete means of self-sufficiently managing resources and of affirming common values of solidarity and sociability.[16] Similarly, Potrc believes that ‘[t]he world we live in today is all about self-reliance, individual initiative, and small-scale projects.’[17] This corresponds to a widespread belief that the utopias of the past, the grand narratives of ‘emancipatory politics’, remain forever unattainable. Potrc focuses on ‘small gestures, not big ones’,[18] while Alÿs, according to a critic, ‘moves as an artist who has come to understand that the only thing left to do is to take small steps’.[19] Potrc does not wish to change anything, she claims she is interested in analysing, without judging, the ‘facts of contemporary urban life’.[20] Alÿs, for his part, explains that Mexican society ‘is a society that is governed by compromise’ and that he has adopted compromise as the very modus operandi of his work.[21]TuristaImage: Francis Alÿs, Turista, 1996 

Neither Potrc nor Alÿs, however, perceive this resignation and compromise pessimistically. Like Colectivo Situaciones, they reject ‘the idea that the omnipotence of market flows (with the wars that accompany them) leave no space for any struggles for liberation’ and believe that it is ‘possible that power and its opposition can coexist long term without eliminating one another.’[22] In this sense, their outlook brings to mind Michel de Certeau’s analysis of everyday life as containing in itself the potential means through which to subvert the dominant order from within. ‘Making do’ – ‘faire avec’ is, in fact, the title of a chapter in de Certeau’s 1980 book entitled The Practice of Everyday Life. Alÿs’ Ambulantes seem to embody Certeau’s idea that practitioners of everyday life constantly tinker ‘within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules.’[23] On the one hand, Alÿs’ photographs literally demonstrate practical tricks – such as how one can fit fourteen cardboard boxes onto one small hand-pulled cart. On the other hand, they point to the range of petty jobs that inhabitants of Third World countries have to keep inventing to survive and to find a useful function in a chaotic economy. As job precariousness has also become a concern for activist groups in First World countries – since ‘jobs for life’ are becoming a thing of the past – Alÿs’ slide show immediately chimes with global struggles in the age of micropolitics.

Making Do

One of the problems with the discourse of precarity is the conflation of a wide variety of situations, ranging from the illegal immigrant working as a cleaner, or the employee in a call centre, to the freelance web designer or the projectionist at the Cannes film festival.[24] It is precisely this kind of confusion that can occur when precariousness is used as a privileged theme in contemporary art. Within this conflation, the emphasis on precariousness runs the risk of erasing crucial differences at the same time as it tries to bring together a disparate group in order to promote a specific argument. Basualdo’s Da Adversidade Vivemos and The Structure of Survival certainly included a wide range of practices under the umbrella of crisis and adversity. Fernanda Gomes’ installations, which were included in both exhibitions, display a vocabulary of simple, sometimes fragile, everyday objects, casually placed on the floor, hung or propped within an empty space. While these discrete and ephemeral arrangements evoke precariousness and instability, they seem far removed from the realities of everyday life in Latin American slums. Condemning Gomes’ works for not having the same urgency as the works of some of her compatriots would be falling into the trap of asking them to conform to some kind of Latin American stereotype. Claiming that these works are about survival, or that they propose a model for a new type of ethical art would suggest, however, that precariousness in itself is subversive.

No Title

Image: Fernanda Gomes, No title, 2003, installed at The Structure of Survival  This problematic slippage can be better understood when reading statements by artists such as Potrc or Alÿs who speak of their work in terms of the ‘human condition’. Potrc justifies her placement of shanty town architecture as ‘case-studies’ in galleries by explaining that galleries are ‘places where we think the human condition’,[25] whereas Alÿs claims he is ‘trying to suggest this absolute acceptance of the “human condition”’ by the people he sees struggling every day in his neighbourhood.[26] While the implications of Potrc’s and Alÿs’ works can indeed be extended from their locally specific origin to encompass wider reflections on human finitude and inventiveness in the face of death, the logic that inflects Basualdo’s readings of Gomes’s work operates in reverse: installations that suggest a general sense of instability, transience or fragility, he seems to suggest, must de facto be related to the particularly precarious social and economic conditions of living in Latin America. I believe that this logic is erroneous, and that these distinctions remain crucial. There are substantial variations among artists working in different countries, and even within the same country distinctions should be highlighted among social and ethnic groups as well as successive generations of Latin American artists. Unlike Basualdo, I would like to emphasise the gap that separates Oiticica’s 1960s oeuvre from some of the younger Brazilian artists, whose work betray the influence of the growing internationalisation of the art market. An instance of this shift can be seen in Alexandre da Cunha’s work, which was included in The Structure of Survival. By displaying cheap objects (such as sleeping bags, raincoats and plastic brooms) to create shelter-like arrangements, da Cunha seems to me to be using conventional, trivial signifiers of precariousness in a way that aestheticises, rather than embodies or analyses the nature of this condition. The creation of a ‘slum chic’ style will no doubt find echoes in contemporary fashion and design trends. It is hard to find here even the slightest echoes of the existential precariousness hinted at by Gomes’ ontological evocation of human finitude.


Where da Cunha seems to aestheticise the signifiers of precariousness, the Angolan artist Antonio Ole, also included in The Structure of Survival, seems to be aestheticising precariousness itself. By arranging found fragments of an impoverished architecture along the walls of the gallery in his Township Wall, Ole makes poverty look cheerful and picturesque. This points to a second major pitfall in the exploration of practices of ‘making do’ and thriving on adversity. This is a problem that Alÿs himself encountered when he was planning a film which sought to illustrate the virtue of ‘valemadrismo’, the Mexicans’ ‘capacity to accommodate oneself to mala fortuna, to bad luck, and even more, to actually turn one’s misfortune into an advantage.’[27] This film was to tell the story of a dog called Negrito who lost a leg but went on to develop a very successful juggling trick using the bone of its broken leg. Although Alÿs has not given the reasons why he abandoned this film, he admits that it was a ‘somewhat romanticised account’, and my guess is that he became wary of this. For celebrating valemadrismo can lead to an occlusion of the suffering itself, and perhaps even to a lapse back into a primitivising stereotype of the carefree, cheerful pauper who accepts his condition without protest. Calls such as David Aradeon’s, reproduced in the catalogue for The Structure of Survival, to remember that inhabitants of Brazilian shanty towns are ‘poor but vibrant, sensitive and creative’, can easily slip into a confirmation of such romanticising stereotypes.[28]

I am possessed

Image: Hélio Oticica, Parangolé P15 Cape 11, 'I embody revolt', 1967

Such problems, I would like to argue, take us back to the crux of precariousness, and its existence at the junction of crises and reactions, of adversity and coping strategies. At the heart of this articulation lie two much broader issues. The first concerns the politics of the slums themselves. I mentioned earlier how Zizek has suggested that slum-dwellers constitute the new proletariat, the agents of the next revolutionary challenge to capital. However, not everyone shares his optimism. Davis, for example, argues that up until now the dominant political force in the slums has been organised religion; survival rather than protest has remained – perhaps unsurprisingly – the main agenda of this ‘informal proletariat’.[29] Thus the activity of ‘making do’ in itself could turn out to be more conservative than revolutionary, as millions of people struggle to make it through another day, with little possibility of making organised and effective demands. In this sense, Alÿs’ interest in the Mexican’s ‘absolute acceptance’ of their condition could be read as a call for passivity, rather than action. In order to contradict this narrative, and glimpse some potential change, it would be useful to further explore the grass-roots model of micropolitics, and the potential for change once the traditional revolutionary seizure of state power has been set aside in favour of ‘self-reliance, individual initiative, and small-scale projects’, to use Potrc’s terms. Colectivo Situaciones, after all, still believe in a ‘struggle for liberation’. The question remains whether, and how, the model of effective reaction, which they have substituted for the Marxist call for action, can ultimately lead to such liberation.

The second issue raised by the politics of ‘making do’ is the question of agency. George Yúdice has criticised Michel de Certeau’s notion of subversive tactics because they ‘are wielded not only by workers but by the very same managers (and other elites) who reinforce the established order.’[30] In order to reveal the subversive potential of everyday life, it is necessary to ‘distinguish among the practitioners of such tactics in terms of how the tactics enable them to survive and [to] challenge their oppressibility.’[31]

Towards a ‘Coalition’?

In order to navigate these distinctions, I would like to finally turn to Zizek’s definition of the slum-dwellers of the world as the ‘counter-class to the other newly emerging class, the so-called “symbolic class” (managers, journalists and PR people, academics, artists etc.) which is also uprooted and perceives itself as universal.’[32] This definition, which effectively updates Marx’s social analysis, seems to me to avoid the conflation of different kinds of precarious work in discourses about job security, while acknowledging a relationship that can be fruitful. Crucially, Zizek asks: ‘Is this the new axis of class struggle, or is the “symbolic class” inherently split, so that one can make a wager on the coalition between the slum-dwellers and the “progressive” part of the symbolic class?’[33] My contention here is that some artists can indeed occupy the ‘progressive’ place of a symbolic class trying to forge a coalition in the arena of art and discourse. If the celebration of ‘making do’ tactics can be recuperated by a conservative discourse of passivity and conformism, it can also nevertheless contain the seeds of a globalised discourse of protest, as long as the agents of this coalition, and their respective needs for empowerment, are clearly distinguished. Once the utopias of the Left have been set aside, the objective for many artists today is to find ways of bringing this coalition to light by eschewing the risks of voyeurism or romanticism. Potrc’s rejection of 1980s social activism as reinforcing the marginalisation of the homeless and the poor is premised on a belief that artists need to move away from traditional models of critique in order to explore a model of the coalition based on empathy.[34] Alÿs’ adoption of compromise as a guiding force for the redefinition of artistic practice offers a similarly empathetic model through which to relate to the subjects with whom he co-exists in Mexico City. Other modes of coalition are being explored by contemporary artists, whether in traditional forms of documentary or activist reportage, or for example in the provocative alienation set up by Santiago Sierra’s performances, which provocatively dramatise the radical differences between the informal proletariat and bourgeois art viewers.

Line TattoedLine Tattoed

Image: Santiago Sierra, 250 cm Line Tattoed on 6 Paid People, 1999 

Ultimately, the deep ambivalence that I experienced when I encountered Potrc’s shelters in the white cube of the gallery points to the final, inevitable question for artists investigating precariousness: can the rarified conditions of display and reception in the contemporary art world really provide a platform for the exploration of political alternatives? Can art be a credible space in which to foreground this potentially revolutionary ‘coalition between slum-dwellers and the “progressive” part of the symbolic class’? How artists manage to articulate this coalition within the framework of the current artworld, and to what effect, constitutes one of the most interesting questions of contemporary art. It also happens to be one of the more urgent questions for society at large – especially if we agree with Potrc that when ‘[y]ou lose sight of your dreams, you die.’[35]


[1] Mike Davis, ‘Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat’, New Left Review, 26, March-April 2004, p. 24.

[2] Carlos Basualdo, ‘On the Expression of the Crisis’, in Francesco Bonami (ed.), Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer, exh. cat., Venice: Biennale, 2003, p. 243.

[3] Slavoj Zizek,‘Knee-Deep’, London Review of Books, vol. 26, no. 17, 2 September 2004,, accessed 17/05/2006, p. 5.

[4] Oiticica used this motto in one of his works, a Parangolé cape, and included it in a manifesto-like text written on the occasion of the exhibition Nova Objetividade Brasileira, at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.

[5] I have written about Oiticica’s relation to Brazilian popular culture in ‘Tactile Dematerialisation, Sensory Politics: Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés’, Art Journal, vol. 63, no. 2, Summer 2004, pp. 58-71.

[6] Carlos Basualdo, ‘A propos de l’adversité’, in Da Adversidade Vivemos, exh. cat., Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2001, p. 13.

[7] Guy Brett, ‘A Radical Leap’, in Art in Latin America, The Modern Era, 1820-1980, exh. cat., London: Hayward Gallery, 1989, p. 255.

[8] ‘On the Expression of the Crisis’, pp. 243-244.

[9] Marjetica Potric, ‘Urban, 2001’, in Marjetica Potric: Next Stop, Kiosk, Moderna Galerija Llubjana Museum of Art, 2003, p. 31.

[10] ‘La Cour des Miracles: Francis Alÿs in conversation with Corinne Diserens’, in Francis Alÿs: Walking Distance from the Studio,, Wolfsburg: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 2004, pp. 100-101.

[11] Oda Projesi, ‘Annex’, on, accessed 20/03/2006.

[12] Marjetica Potric, ‘In and out of Caracas’, in Marjetica Potric, p. 83.

[13] ‘La Cour des Miracles’, op. cit., p. 109.

[14] Guy Brett, ‘Border Crossings’, in Transcontinental: Nine Latin American Artists, exh. cat., Birmingham: Ikon, 1990, p. 16.

[15] Potric, ‘Urban, 2001’, op. cit., p. 31.

[16] Colectivo Situaciones, ‘Through the Crisis and Beyond: Argentina’, in Bonami (ed.), Dreams and Conflicts, p. 245.

[17] Potric, ‘Back to Basics: Objects and Buildings’, in Marjetica Potric, p. 54.

[18] Marjetica Potric, ‘Take me to Shantytown’, Flash Art, March-April 2001, p. 98.

[19] Annelie Lütgens, ‘Francis Alÿs and the Art of Walking’, in Francis Alÿs: Walking Distance from the Studio, p. 56.

[20] ‘Tracking the Urban Animal’, Circa, 97, Autumn 2001, p. 29.

[21] ‘La Cour des Miracles’, op. cit., p. 112.

[22] Colectivo Situaciones, ‘Through the Crisis and Beyond: Argentina’, p. 245.

[23] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, transl. Steven F. Rendall, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1984, p. xiv.

[24] For an overview of debates regarding job precarity, see ‘Precarious Reader’ Mute Vol II #0, London: 2005.

[25] ‘Take me to Shantytown’, p. 98.

[26] ‘La Cour des Miracles’, op. cit., p. 83.

[27] Ibid., p. 85.

[28] David Aradeon, ‘Are We Reading Our Shanty Towns Correctly?’ in Bonami (ed.), Dreams and Conflicts, p.264.

[29] ‘Planet of Slums’, pp. 28-34.

[30] George Yúdice, ‘Marginality and the Ethics of Survival’, Social Text, no. 21, 1989, p. 216.

[31] Ibid., p. 217.

[32] Žižek, op. cit., p. 5.

[33] Ibid.

[34] See ‘Tracking the Urban Animal’, op. cit., 29.

[35] Potric, ‘Urban, 2001’, op.cit., p.31.


Anna Dezeuze <anna.dezeuze AT> holds a Henry Moore Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester. She is working on a book project entitled The ‘Almost Nothing’: Dematerialisation and the Politics of Precariousness

Proud to be Flesh

Unleashing the Collective Phantom (Resistance to Networked Individualism)

Today’s ‘self-managed’ or sociological type has been shaped overwhelmingly by the impact of ‘60s counter-culture. Jettisoning the disciplinary schemas of modernity, capitalist production models – of goods and subjects – have taken on board the anti-authoritarian demands of the flower power generation. But, argues Brian Holmes, our newfound flexibility, mobility and interactivity is both repressive and liberatory by turns. It is able to create both the extreme individualisation of cybernetic market research and the anti-individualism of the multiple name – two polarities which define and open a new space of struggle.

The classical function of the stock market is to provide resources for industrial development, through a speculative game that pays off later in the ‘real economy’. But history is cunning, and the result of the dotcom boom may have been to free up vast amounts of private money for the development of a virtual public realm, where people can confront the major corporations on their home turf – that is to say, in transnational space. Huge amounts of infrastructure were installed throughout the world in the period from 1995 to 2000; now the oversupply crisis is accounted a disaster. An alternative history turns that equation upside-down. The speculators of the late 20th century asked: ‘Is there any limit to the profit we can make off the internet?’ Today a wilder speculation has arisen: ‘Can we really make the networks useless for corporate capitalism?’

Unlike most people, I don’t think the answer is primarily legal, or even technological. Instead it is cultural and artistic. It has everything to do with subjective capacities for resistance, and a history of resistance might suggest a different question: ‘Can the expanding virtual class finally escape the domination of the flexible personality?’

PARADIGM SHIFTFrom Taylor and Ford to Stalin and De Gaulle, the adversary of the radical Left in the 20th century was rationalising authority. Whether on the factory floor or in the military ranks that gave the orders, regimentation and the hierarchical pyramid supplied the images of authoritarian oppression. The difference between East and West was slim in that respect. The army muster and the assembly line set the pace of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The first to analyse this situation was the Frankfurt School.

The originality of the Frankfurt School was to combine Marx and Freud, to explore the industrial economy’s masochistic libido. But to do so was not just to go beyond the pleasure principle. What the Frankfurt School studied from the 1930s onward was a new form of political-economic command that stretched its social fingers deeply into the psyche. The liquidation of nineteenth century bourgeois individualism and the emergence of a central-planning state, along with a totally mobilised factory society, were pursued on the subjective level by what they called the authoritarian personality. They understood this fascistic character structure as a ‘new anthropological type.’ Its traits were rigid conventionalism, submission, opposition to everything subjective, stereotypy, an exaggerated concern with sexual scandal, emphasis on power, and the projection of unconscious impulses.

The Frankfurt School writers perfected their analysis of the authoritarian regimes in the 1940s and ‘50s, while living in exile in the USA. There they saw Prussian parade ground discipline transforming into the softer coercions of behaviourist psychology and the culture industry. We know the new forms of revolt that arose in the 1960s against those standardising forces: everything from Reichean group sex, burning draft cards and dollar bills, to Provo events, situationist drifting and LSD. What Marcuse called ‘outbreaks of mass surrealism’. On a deeper level there was an assertion of subjectivity, of identity, of sexuality, the personal as the political. A poetics of resistance helped bring the decline of regimentation, welfare state bureaucracies, mass-consumption models and factory discipline. But are we even aware how that decline helped shape today’s political-economic system?

In response to the troubles of the 1960s and ‘70s, a new paradigm has arisen in the developed countries in the past twenty years, with a specific production regime, consumer ideology and social control mechanism, all integrated into a geopolitical order. For almost twenty years this development remained largely unconscious, unnameable. During that time, vanguard movements were obsolete, intellectuals were useless, artists were clowns, there was no alternative. Now the cracks are opening up everywhere. People are realising that the New World Order is not just oppressive at its edges, in the so-called developing countries. At the very heart of casual freelance culture, replete with PCs, mobile phones and general nomadism, the technology of control is continuously recreated. Winning the economic game today brings a high reward. You get to be the inventor of the flexible personality.

CULTURE/IDEOLOGYNew paradigms are adopted because they work. Only in retrospect can we see them becoming modes of control. Flexibility was an extremely positive idea in California in the 1970s when the culture of microelectronics was invented. It was the polar opposite of the rigid 1950s: openness to others, embodied experience, self-expression, improvisation, refusal of hierarchies and discipline. These were the utopian days of Bucky Fuller, Gregory Bateson and the Whole Earth Catalog: no-one would have dreamt that An Ecology of Mind could become a management tool. But the looser, more creative lifestyle did not just mean the emergence of a whole new range of products, useful for stimulating consumption. In California, and ultimately in much of the developed world, the new culture seemed to promise a way out of the social conflicts that had stalled the Fordist industrial regimes.

Consider the way things looked to the Trilateral Commission in their 1975 report on The Crisis of Democracy. Not only were Third World countries using the powers of national liberation to demand higher prices for their resources while the US lost its war in Indochina. Not only were the capital returns plunging while wildcat strikes multiplied and the big ecological standoffs began. But worst of all, the huge postwar investments into socialised education, conceived to meet the knowledge needs of the techno-economy, were backfiring and producing resistance to capitalism and bureaucracy, alternative values, demands for further benefits and socialisations. These new claims on the welfare state had to be added to the traditional demands of the working class; and then the crisis began. The Trilateral countries were becoming ‘ungovernable,’ there was an ‘excess of democracy’. The kind of systemic critique that the Frankfurt School had pioneered reached its height in the mid-1970s. From that point on, the authoritarian system had to start learning from the enemy within.

The transformation took a decade. The golden age of neo-management began in the mid-1980s, while unionised workers were replaced with robots and unskilled labour was sought overseas. Corporate operations and financial flows expanded outside nations, where regulation and redistribution were deemed excessive. The triple challenge for the managers was to keep tabs on a distant work force, to open up global marketing and distribution, and above all, to create a culture – or an ideology – that would entice significant amounts of younger people to run this new machine. The key word was ‘flexibility’. The flexible system had to accept and divert the demands for autonomy, self-expression and meaning, it had to turn those very demands into a new mode of control. The magical answer turned out to be a communications device, a language-and-image transmitter: the networked personal computer. Now the computer was going to set you free.

Freedom has always been the great neoliberal watchword, from Hayek and the Chicago economists to the right-wing libertarians and the Cato Institute. Why not throw in the artists’ and the drop-outs’ dreams, roving desire, semiotic proliferation, Deleuzo-Guattarian schizophrenic visions, multi-culti creativity? After all, the innovations were coming from there. The networked computer promised to place a whole new alchemy of cooperative production in the same kinds of global channels that were already working for the finance economy. Research and invention could happen directly within the circuits of production and distribution.

The laptop computer freed up individuals for physical and psychic mobility, and it could also be used as an instrument of control over distant labour. It miniaturised access to the remaining bureaucracy, while opening private channels into entertainment, media and the realms of ‘fictitious’ capital – the speculative economy that feeds off the dismantling of the public sphere. Best of all, it recoded every kind of cultural production as commodities, multimedia. Here was a mode of development that might solve or at least gloss over the full set of problems inherited from the 1960s, particularly the struggles around the welfare state. Small wonder that the governments and the corporations started actively promoting a myth of flexibility. The emerging ‘virtual class’ – including cultural producers, digital artisans, prosumers, what are now called ‘immaterial labourers’ – stumbled more or less blindly into it.

GUIDANCE SYSTEMSHow does the culture/ideology work? War is popular these days, so let’s take the military point of view. The weapon of choice during the Cold War was the ICBM: a huge, never-used giant, endlessly deconstructed by the critiques of phallo-logo-centrism. The New World Order takes off with a smaller, more practical device: the cruise missile. This kind of weapon gets constantly used, not just on the battlefield. Since the heyday of Star Wars – both the Strategic Defence Initiative and the Lucas movie – the military-entertainment complex has become part of everyday experience.

‘It seems that retailers will go to any length to capture customers,’ reads a 1997 article called ‘Star Wars turns on to Shoppers’ (quoted by Sze Tsung Leong in The Harvard Guide to Shopping). ‘Witness Safeway, which has recently used an artificial intelligence system from IBM called AIDA (artificial intelligence data architecture) – which was initially developed to detect and identify Russian missiles in space, but is now used... to analyse information on buying patterns with details of purchase from loyalty cards.’ When consumer desire is ‘turned on’ and encouraged to proliferate, the ultimate control fantasy becomes that of tracking the flexible personality.

‘Mass marketing, for all intents and purposes, is dead,’ writes business guru Art Weinstein, in Market Segmentation. ‘Precision target marketing... has taken over. By focusing on ever smaller yet profitable market segments, stronger company-customer relationships transpire. With technological products, users can practically invent markets for companies – customers become customisers.’ When feedback devices are built directly into the distribution circuits, the sources of desire are directly available to corporate monitoring. So you can help perfect your own internal guidance system.

Until recently, such trends seemed comfortably ambiguous – just the irritating price for increased freedoms. But with security-fever rising after September 11, everything starts to look different. The incitement to perform, to find creative ways of deploying the new equipment, reveals its hidden face, the fear of the excluded other, the imperative to ruthlessly extend and perfect the system. And the system really is threatened, not only by suicidal terrorism, but by the collapse of the ‘new economy,’ the growing protests against neoliberal globalisation, the revolution against the IMF in Argentina... The perfect solution is total mobilisation, the shift to a wartime footing. September 11 was a chance just waiting to be taken – the chance to consolidate the new paradigm on every level.

>> Jordan Crandall, Drive, 2000. Installation view, Neue Gallerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz

The American artist Jordan Crandall has made the military compulsions of the networked system visible. His work began with the heritage of the 1970s: experimentation, cooperation, networked performance, adjustment to the presence of others in virtual space. But in 1998, he hired a freelance military contractor to help him develop movement-predicting software, whose algorithms show up as eerie green tracery around bodies in a video image. The following exhibitions, Drive and Heat-Seeking, were fully-fledged explorations of the psychosexual relations of seeing and being seen, through the new technologies in both their civilian and military uses.

Crandall recently published an article called ‘Fingering the Trigger’ on the Nettime mailing list, which recounts the CIA’s use of an unmanned, camera-and-missile-equipped Predator drone to fire upon a suspicious Afghani man who, it turns out, was probably just scavenging for metal. ‘We align eye, viewfinder, and target in an act of aiming,’ Crandall writes. ‘But we are aimed at, we are constituted in other acts of looking. These are analysis and control systems in which the body is situated... It sees us as a nexus of data, materiality, and behaviour, and uses a language of tracking, profiling, identifying, positioning and targeting... Within the circuitous visualisation networks that arise, one never knows which “side” one is truly on, as seer switches to that which is seen; as targeter switches to that which is targeted.’ Crandall thinks a new sexuality lodges in the body-machine-image complex – hence the image of the soldier-man ‘fingering the trigger.’

This work helps us see what the easy money and pluralism of the Clinton years kept hidden: the outlines of a social pathology. It has an authoritarian cast – like everything that involves the military – but it does not produce unthinking, stereotyped behaviour of the kind we associate with fascism. What Crandall describes is an extremely intelligent process that, precisely by individualising – tracking, identifying, eliciting desire, channelling vision and expression – succeeds in binding the mobilised individual to a social whole. The new fascism discovers a complex, dynamic order for subjective difference, perspectival analysis, jouissance, even schizophrenic ecstasy. It integrates networked individualism.

GHOST IN THE MACHINEArthur Kroker had an inkling of these things. Almost a decade ago he and Weinstein wrote about the ‘liberal fascism’ of the ‘virtual class’: a technological elite, driven by possessive individualism, whose interests lay with the financial establishment, the military state and the big corporations. But like all neo-situationists in Baudrillard’s wake, Kroker is obsessed by ‘the recline of the West’ and the hypnotic power of the digitised image: ‘The virtual class is populated by would-be astronauts who never made it to the moon,’ reads a passage from Data Trash. ‘They do not easily accept criticism of this new Apollo project for the body telematic.’

No doubt that was true in 1994, when the text was written. But the virtual realm has expanded vastly since then, and with it, the space for critique. One major effort has been to describe the new mode of domination. Another is to create a poetics of resistance: virtual class relations, alongside the embodied ones that never disappeared.

>> AAA For Sale

Consider the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA), founded in 1995 with a five-year mission to establish a planetary network to end the monopoly of corporations, governments and the military over travel in space. The AAA is a kind of multiple name, a freely invented identity. Forget about the moon, ‘Reclaim the Stars’ they said on 18 June 1999, during the Carnival against Capital. The idea was not to create an art group, but a social movement – a collective phantom acting on a global scale. ‘Unlike a multiple name that is restricted to art practices, a collective phantom operates within the wider context of popular culture, and is used as a tool for class war,’ says an astronaut of the South London AAA, in a text called ‘Resisting Zombie Culture.’

One aspect of the project was infrastructural mapping, identifying the satellite hardware that links up the world communications network. But another was what Konrad Becker calls ‘e-scape’: ‘Cracking the doors of the future means mastering multidimensional maps to open new exits and ports in hyperspace; it requires passports allowing voyages beyond normative global reality toward parallel cultures and invisible nations; supply depots for nomads on the roads taken by the revolutionary practice of aimless flight.’ Ricardo Balli gives a further idea of what the galactic phantom might do: ‘We are not interested in going into space to be a vanguard of the coming revolution: the AAA means to institute a science fiction of the present that can above all be an instrument of conflictuality and radical antagonism.’ (Both quotes are from Quitter la gravité [])

What does it all mean? The ideas sound fantastic, but the stakes are real: imagining a political subject within the virtual class, and therefore, within the economy of cultural production and intellectual property that had paralysed the poetics of resistance. Consider Luther Blissett, an obscure Jamaican football player traded from Britain to Italy, who fell short of stardom but became a proliferating signature, a multiple name, the ‘author’ of a book called Mind Invaders: How to Fuck the Media. Between tales of Ray Johnson and mail art, Blissett takes time out for some political-aesthetic theory: ‘I could just say the multiple name is a shield against the established power’s attempt to identify and individualise the enemy, a weapon in the hands of what Marx ironically called “the worst half” of society. In Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick, all the slaves defeated and captured by Crassus declare themselves to be Spartacus, like all the Zapatistas are Marcos and I am all we Luther Blissetts. But I won’t just say that, because the collective name has a fundamental valence too, insofar as it aims to construct an open myth, elastic and redefinable in a network....’

>> Ya Basta principles in practice

The ‘open myth’ of Luther Blissett is a game with personal identity, like the three-cornered football played by the AAA: a way to change the social rules so a group can start moving simultaneously in several directions. This ‘fundamental valence’ lies at the prehistory of the counter-globalisation movement. Just think of the way names like Ya Basta, Reclaim the Streets, or Kein Mensch ist Illegal have spread across the world’s social networks. One can see these names, not as categories or identifiers, but as catalysts, departure points, like the white overalls (tute bianche) worn initially in north-eastern Italy: ‘The Tute Bianche are not a movement, they are an instrument conceived within a larger movement (the Social Centres) and placed at the disposal of a still larger movement (the global movement),’ writes Wu Ming, in the French journal Multitudes. This ‘instrument’ was invented in 1994, when the Northern League mayor of Milan, Formentini, ordered the eviction of a squatted centre and declared, ‘From now on, squatters will be nothing more than ghosts wandering about in the city!’ But then the white ghosts showed up in droves at the next demonstration, and a new possibility for collective action emerged: ‘Everyone is free to wear a tuta biacha, as long as they respect the “style”, even if they transform its modes of expression: pragmatic refusal of the violence/non-violence dichotomy; reference to zapatismo; break with the 20th-century experience; embrace of the symbolic terrain of confrontation.’

Yet a strange thing happened, explains Wu Ming in another text: ‘Some rhetorically opposed the white overall and the blue overall, and the former was used as a metaphor for post-Fordist labour – flexible, “precarious”, temporary workers whom the bosses prevent from enjoying their rights and being represented by the unions.’ []. Between politics, class uncertainty and sheer word play, the Tute Bianche got into full swing. The technique of ‘protected direct action’ – allowing ludicrously padded protesters to face blows from the police – was a way to invade, not just the media screens, but above all the minds of hundreds of thousands of other people. They converged in Genoa in July 2001, to open a real political debate in a country stifled by a neofascist consensus.

Another example of the effects created by a confusion of identities is the Yes Men, in their cameo or ‘chameleo’ appearances as representatives of the World Trade Organisation. Here we’re talking about two artists, whose names aren’t hard to discover, but which makes the uncertainty over language no less interesting. To say ‘yes’ to neoliberal ideology can be devastatingly satirical, as when the self-elected WTO representative ‘Hank Hardy Unruh’ displayed the logical fiction of the Employee Visualisation Appendage, a telematic worker-surveillance device in the shape of a yard-long golden phallus. But what kind of satire is at work when Kein Mensch ist Illegal takes the neoliberal ideology seriously, and declares all the world’s borders open, for everybody? (See Florian Schneider in this issue.) Like the fire-coloured masks worn by thousands in Quebec City, today’s networked protests have two faces: the laughter of open communication, or the violence of a gagged mouth behind a chain-link fence. Both faces are the truth of the contemporary political confrontation.

VOICE AND EXITNo doubt millions of the world’s ‘flexible’ workers remain largely gagged – mute – with no voice and no hope of escaping. But as use of the internet has increased, and as people have seized its communicational power for both organisation and subversion, a metamorphosis has invaded the ‘transnational public sphere,’ which formerly was only open to the corporations. The global e-scape remains virtual, but in the sense of Deleuze: virtuality as latency, as unmanifest reality, potential flight-lines waiting to be taken.

The virtual class in this sense, or the immaterial labourers – I’ve always preferred to say networkers – cannot stand in for the rest of the world’s population. There is no universal subject, not even ‘the individual.’ But an active indistinction of identity has begun to spread, like a new departure point. In a recent text, Paolo Virno locates the universal in pre-individual aesthetic and linguistic experience, in the impersonality of perception and circulating language. The chaotic dissension of public space then becomes the landscape, not of defensive individualism, but of evolving paths to individuation: ‘Far from regressing,’ writes Virno, ‘singularity is refined and reaches its peak in acting together, in the plurality of voices, in short, in the public sphere’ (Multitudes #7).

The kinds of conflict that began in the universities in the 1960s have crossed over into the global knowledge-space, whose nature as a public domain in now intensely at issue. If the new voices and political confrontations should ultimately point to an exit from the flexible personality, and from liberal fascism, then there will have been no waste in the speculations of the late 1990s – whatever the multiple names of the investors.

>> RTmark: Andy is proud as a dictator CEO on cocaine.

Brian Holmes is an art critic, activist and cultural theorist, author of the forthcoming book of essays, Hieroglyphs of the Future: Art and Politics in a Networked Era

Association of Autonomous Astronauts [][][][]The Yes Men[]Kein Mensch ist Illegal[]Ya Basta[]Luther Blissett []

Proud to be Flesh