Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More on subsumption of identity labor

More from chapter two of Aronowitz's The Politics of Identity:
Scientific knowledge, which is nothing other than the formalization and commodification of the transfer of artisan skill, appears to determine the process of production. Actually, Marx shows the relations of science to industry to be mutually determining. Large-scale production is the condition for the transformation of 'invention (into) business.' In turn, science and technology as forms of objectified labor now confront the living laborer as a form of capital's compulsion that appears inexorable and even beneficial
There are many ideas packed into that. First, an exceedingly cynical view of technological change, namely that under capitalism, only technology that is profitable is pursued or even named "technological process" in the first place. Further, the aim of technology is not improvement of the species but improvement of capital's leverage over labor. Because they are employed by capital, technologists are only ever looking for ways to basically deskill labor, take production out of their hands. Thus in some fields of industry, you can't work for yourself; you can only work for corporations that give you access to the necessary means of production to produce at the necessary scale with the necessary degree of technical "advancement". In short, capital serves the needs of capital, not people; it's only natural that the R&D it funds would serve the same purposes.

The effect on researchers is that they conceive of the success of their efforts in strictly capitalist terms -- if it sells, it is successful. This same attitude affects innovation in the arts as well, where the goal in creating new forms is not some abstract edification of humanity, but the objective, measurable increase in units sold. The bulk of creative energy is thus deployed into the sorts of innovations that suit that end -- hence, the industrial design field's prominence.

Calling all this technological "progress" as we habitually do has the effect of making what's actually a capitalist strategy seem inevitable, a law of nature. Of course it is "progress" to intensify the division of labor. Of course the market should decide which innovations are viable. And since these things are beneficial, they are probably providential. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

But one could argue that technology is now reversing the deskilling process with which Marx and Braverman associated it, at least in the sense of making the sort of work available to most of us feel meaningful rather than alienated and empty. That's because it has developed to the point where it can make our identity work subsumable under capital, a fancy way of saying that we can "become ourselves" for pay rather than as a hobby. We can professionalize "being someone" -- have a look at reality TV for the farthest reaches of this. Facebook though is the norm right now. We do our self-fashioning in a privately owned public forum, generating useful marketing data and furnishing marketable meanings for commodities of all sorts. If this form of labor ("immaterial labor," in autonomist terminology) ever becomes remunerative, it would allow our labor to be of the most meaningful sort, ending the alienation that made what we do seem antagonistic to who we think we are (working in order to earn the time and money to pursue our selfhood and identity). Instead what we do will be synonymous with what we are (working is the way we develop identity).

Right now, the problem seems to be that technology is creating unemployment and the immaterial labor we perform is not compensated, the surplus it generates inadequately or privately appropriated.

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