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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Facebook and living labor

Around the same time I was reprocessing my ideas about social media into the jargon of Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, I was also reading Jason Read’s The Micro-politics of Capital, a fusion of poststructuralist and autonomist-Marxist analytical approaches. The book — which I found immensely difficult but worth the effort — assesses the problems capitalism faces with regard to the production of subjectivity. This excerpt should give you a sense of it:

At the foundation of the capitalist mode of production is the production of subjectivity in both senses of the genitive: the constitution of subjectivity, of a particular subjective comportment (a working class which is both skilled and docile), and in turn the productive power of subjectivity, its capacity to produce wealth. These two senses of “the production of subjectivity” do not or have not coincided in the history of capitalism. In fact it is because they do not coincide that capitalism has a history as the struggles produce legal, technical, and political transformations. Thus, as the capitalist mode of production develops, the problem of subjectivity in the capitalist mode of production develops as well, becoming more central as capital encompasses more of social life in what Marx calls “real subsumption.”

I think social media have become central to these struggles and to the capitalist “mode of production” as it is currently configured. It seems to me that Facebook, et al., represent capital’s current attempt to reconcile the productivity of subjectivity with capitalism and neutralize the liberatory potential inherent in that productivity. Social media allow us to expand our identity and the amount of work we can sink into it without that work prompting an escape from or an elaboration of alternative to capitalist relations. At the same time, that flow of work becomes increasingly deployable by capital to make profit as it sees fit even as it retains its unique meaningfulness for the worker. In other words, social media compel labor not through wages but through the promise of apparent self-actualization.

Capitalism generally must represent work as fungible, comparable, and quantifiable in the same unit (wages) in order to function. It requires labor as such — abstract labor. But this form of work prompts the critique that work is meaningless, alienating, as opposed to what Marx describes as “living labor,” self-defining activity.

If the capitalist mode of production is founded on valorization, the increase of surplus value, then living labor is self-valorization. As capital seeks to reduce necessary labor and increase surplus value, living labor seeks to increase necessary labor and thus increase the effectivity of needs and desire.

Living labor is embedded in the contingencies of the worker’s everyday life; abstract labor is deployable at capital’s whim. Capitalism is structured by “a struggle that seeks to reduce living labor, the flexibility and productivity of a new subject, to abstract labor, to a homogenization and standardization that is the precondition for surplus value.” That is, capitalism must turn identity-building labor (the scope of which is broadened by the effacement of traditional prescriptions by capitalist “creative destruction”) into abstract labor amenable to rationalization, measurement and control — the sort of labor that can be an input to a profitable production process.

The capitalist development of technology has in part been driven by a need to render “living labor” into “abstract labor” without snuffing it out altogether. Put another way, it’s not only machines that embody technical knowledge to improve productivity, but also subjects, who are freed to produce new needs and hence new opportunities for profit. Subjectivity becomes a developed from of capital, with an enhanced productive potential. (We think to want more; we are determined to express ourselves in original ways; we are driven to discover ourselves rather than take our identity as given and fixed.) The development of machinery and now computer technology and augmentation nullifies inherent differences and particularities in users, leveling pre-existing human variety while producing an urgent need to manufacture new distinctions. It takes pre-existing qualities, makes them quantifiable, and then uses those quantities to impel production.

In capitalism, the value of labor is not dependent on traditions and some secure, stable structure of productive relations (think the mythical precapitalist community, with little class mobility and hereditary rank and occupations) but is “liberated” to be deployable in whatever ways suit capital. Capitalism thus remakes local, traditional arrangements in its image. Workers become nothing (no integral identity is given, in theory), but have the potential of making anything, and must make something of themselves. This is the source of capitalism’s power to bring novelty into the social world. The formation of social bonds becomes a source of value — the power of cooperation, the creation of value that exceeds the independent effort of any one person.

In general, the dynamism of capitalism is a matter of turning more and more human activities into commodities, which is a process of getting people to do new and different things (living labor, the creative potential of one’s unique identity) that are simultaneously the same old thing (a commodity, abstract labor). Workers have to be willing to do whatever capital needs for profit at the same time that whatever they do becomes productive in its innovative particularity. The latter expands the amount of “needs” capitalism can fulfill while the former expands the supply of labor to accommodate it. (Yes, I broke my cardinal rule of style: never use former/latter. Sorry.) This is a tricky balance to achieve.

Because the abstracting process also opens up the identity-making process for workers, capital also invests them with, as Read puts it, “abstract subjective potential that continually exceeds and evades the conditions of its production.” (This same sort of logic ultimately leads to the constitution of Hardt and Negri’s “multitude.”) This makes it imperative that the expanded potential for living labor be domesticated for capitalism. Not only does this snuff out the revolutionary potential in self-discovery — the “artistic critique,” in Boltanski and Chiapello’s terminology — it also ensure growing profits.

Thus, according to Read, a fundamental problem for capitalism is how to maintain a supply of workers who are (a) flexible, creative, and motivated at the same time they are (b) manageable, controllable, and predictable. That seems to explain social media’s underlying ideological function. Not only do social media provide a basis for neoliberal subjectivity, affording us hands-on experience of neoliberal prerogatives and pleasures: branding ourselves, proving our flexibility, maneuvering ourselves into less precarious places in always-reconfiguring networks, and so on; they also serve to contain that subjectivity and neutralize it.

Social media, I think, have developed along these lines. They are enlisted in this struggle to make users’ “self-valorization” subject to capture as redeployable abstract labor. Abstract labor, in the context of social media, is the quantification of the self — making that labor of self-creation productive for capital by conforming it to pre-existing measuring tools that allow for commodification. The living labor of self-development and self-valorization becomes simultaneously a reductive matter of fitting oneself to the yardstick.

Life experience (self-production, self-expression, relationship forming, etc.) is being transformed through social media into something abstract and redeployable behind the scenes by capitalist firms: data. Work (now becoming, in ideology if not in actual fact,  a matter of “immaterial labor” — the filtering of production through lifestyles, branding, symbolic layering) can become meaningful and social and self-fulfilling because it is at the same time generating data. The data self is the sort of capitalist subject that experiences its “alienation” as liberation and an open-ended process of self-discovery; it experiences the quantification of life (once strictly a matter of reducing human effort into abstract labor power measured in wages) not as alienating and reductive but as positive, descriptive, self-defining, revealing.

Social media presuppose the conditions of their popularity (network capitalism) are permanent, present themselves as solution to what they are actually instrumental in causing and perpetuating. They give shape to the emerging social factory, integrating the productivity of subjectivity into existing ways of doing business, prompting investment flows, and harvesting and distributing profit. That’s what is meant when tech startups are said to have “social” business models.

All Facebook profiles in theory are born equal; they allow the same exact repertoire of actions to shape and improve them. It seems like an opportunity and a medium in which to develop the self, but it is also a way to contain and control those efforts, making sure they are producing value within capitalism (rather than liberation from it). Facebook makes us aware of the possibility of identity work in such a way as to make that work ultimately generic. That seems highly paradoxical: The more we use social media to try to individuate, the more we format ourselves to be machine processable, the more we reduce our ineffability to code.

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