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

By Josephine Berry Slater, 21 September 2012

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