The onset of The Great Recession seemed a moment ripe with revolutionary possibility, but as this moment passed another revolution was just gaining impetus, one which threatens to divorce the very idea of revolution from the dream of emancipation.
The revolution wasn’t supposed to be televised. The idea was that we would all unplug from all the administered culture that stupefied us and transform the world with spontaneous justice and generalized, self-evident righteousness. Youth would lead us away from our square, suburbanized plastic hassle of a life and into the streets to speak truth to power and turn the military-industrial complex on its head. Our voices, buoyed by a sense of emancipation for the first time in humanity’s history clearly in view, would be raised in a deglobalized communal chorus for peace.
But instead of eschewing pop culture to wage political battles, many young people, as it turned out, delved ever deeper into it, convinced that it was their culture and they were, in some obscure way, guiding it. The route to power was not via opposition to the existing power structure but through mastery of the minutiae of art and music scenes. Everyday life would be change by making it cooler.
And as communication technology became more intrusive and expansive, it appeared that the chance to transform society wasn’t nearly as pressing as the opportunities to transform the self. With the spread of reality programming, internet usage, Web 2.0 interactivity, user-created content, social networking and mediated sociality, high-tech tools to manage our identity became widely disseminated, and the self-as-brand took on true economic significance. The revolution would not only be televised; the revolution was that we could all be on television.
The authors of The Coming Insurrection (pdf), a 2007 tract written in French and signed by the Invisible Committee, recognize this as the dissolving of the social into a neutralized, atomistic anomie:
To call this population of strangers in the midst of which we live “society” is such an usurpation that even sociologists dream of renouncing a concept that was, for a century, their bread and butter. Now they prefer the metaphor of a network to describe the connection of cybernetic solitudes, the intermeshing of weak interactions under names like “colleague,” “contact,” “buddy,” “acquaintance,” or “date.” Such networks sometimes condense into a milieu, where nothing is shared but codes, and where nothing is played out except the incessant recomposition of identity.
The very possibility of association and affiliation seem under threat; that we might get together with other people for any reason other than to parade our own identity is undermined by the mediated, technologized situations in which our social interaction occurs. Fetishized individuality, played out as an ongoing broadcast of one’s efforts at self-fashioning, becomes hegemonic. After all, consumerism is finally giving us a chance to be creative. What goods can’t we customize or find off-label uses for to better express who we really are?
Fetishized individuality, played out as an ongoing broadcast of one’s efforts at self-fashioning, becomes hegemonic.
Though The Coming Insurrection was composed before the 2008 global financial crisis, it seems well-suited to the soul searching that ensued after investment banking as we knew it collapsed and stock markets fell precipitously. Earnest questioning could be heard in all quarters, in the staid pages of the establishment financial press as well as in leftist blogs and anarchist manifestos, as to whether the capitalist system was broken, whether the state needed to direct investment decisions for the economy in the name of “stability,” whether humans really are rational market actors or inescapably befuddled by the concept of risk, whether we can escape from debilitating investment bubbles, whether a new age of post-consumerist frugality had finally settled upon us. It seemed as though what The Coming Insurrection insisted — that “the catastrophe is not coming, it is here,” that “we are already situated within the collapse of a civilization” — was actually the case, and you could even read about it in the Financial Times.
In that atmosphere, one could dare to dream about local, distributed small-scale economies replacing globalized capitalism and multinational corporations. One could foresee bands of urban homesteaders clearing the rubble of the capitalist crisis. That is to say, one could imagine that others might be taking the Invisible Committee’s advice: Form de facto communes, stay out of exclusionary milieus. Work out barter deals outside the open economy. Learn how to make things again. Seek an internal exile, an invisibility. Maybe ordinary people, people who didn’t read social theory or even the newspaper, were about to follow it by instinct.
The impossible quest for that ersatz authenticity is wearing us down. In the absence of sustaining, reciprocal, non-schematized relations with others, however, the self, as the Invisible Committee asserts, begins to break down: “The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I am drained. The more I run after myself, the more tired I get.” Even though consumerism reifies and exalts individuality, it is ultimately self-annihilating. Rather than losing ourselves in the flow of socially meaningful and useful activity, we are congealed in the aspic of our stultifying self-consciousness, replaying strategies of competitive selfhood, disguising ploys for attention as disinterested solicitude. The ceaseless cynicism is corrosive. But these are the social relations that consumerism requires:
The weak, depressed, self-critical, virtual self is essentially that endlessly adaptable subject required by the ceaseless innovation of production, the accelerated obsolescence of technologies, the constant overturning of social norms, and generalized flexibility. It is at the same time the most voracious consumer and, paradoxically, the most productive self, the one that will most eagerly and energetically throw itself into the slightest project, only to return later to its original larval state.
The productiveness of the consuming self, though, is not especially paradoxical. It’s an expression of the cutting edge of capitalist management technique, as Detlev Zwick, Samuel Bonsu and Aron Darmody point out in “Putting Consumers to Work: ‘Co-creation’ and New Marketing Govern-mentality” (abstract). They argue that corporations have encouraged the often innovative work that consumers — obnoxiously renamed “prosumers” in some marketing literature — perform in making brands meaningful and commoditized goods useful to individuated customers. Moreover, they have figured out ways to seize and exploit it. Once it was sufficient for corporations to secure growth by squeezing out more productivity from the production process — driving wage laborers harder, dividing labor more thoroughly into microgestures, and rendering assembly-line-like procedures more mind-numbingly efficient.
We see a co-creation economy as driven by the need of capital to set up processes that enable the liberation and capture of large repositories of technical, social, and cultural competence in places previously considered outside the production of monetary value.
This requires “experimenting with new possibilities for value creation that are based on the expropriation of free cultural, technological, social, and affective labor of the consumer masses.” We who perform this “free” labor hardly understand it as work, since its ultimate product from our point of view is our own identity.
Free labor wasn’t invented with the internet, of course. In his analysis of David Harvey’s Limits to Capital (pdf), Bob Jessop cites Harvey’s recognition that
the crucial commodity for the production of surplus value, labour power, is itself produced and reproduced under social relations over which capitalists have no direct control.… though labour power is a commodity, the labourer is not.
Raising the next generation requires more than wages; it requires parental care, emotional education, traditional rites of passage, the proverbial village. Capitalists can’t control this realm of production and “value creation” directly, but as with co-creation, they are able to use social leverage to exploit it. Jessop notes that
the wage, the bundle of commodities that it can buy, and the role of non-commodified goods and services (as provided, for example, through domestic labour and/or collective consumption) are determined in the first instance through a combination of class struggle and the interest of certain capitals in expanding the market for consumption goods (cf. Grundrisse: 409, cited by Harvey 1982: 49).
Working-class families need not be paid a subsistence wage, because some of the cost of “reproducing labor power” is borne voluntarily by parents, friends, extended family, and so on. And competition among capitalists leads some sectors to seek to profit at other sectors’ expense, offering proletarians occasional bargains. But the other side of this is that much of the value extracted by capitalist firms may have its ultimate origin in the private sphere, outside of the factory and in the domestic care and productive kindness of familial human relations. We raise children through all sorts of uncompensated labor, and we sustain friendships and meaningful relationships through similar work. We work on friendship-building projects that have the side effect of yielding commoditizable goods and services.
Capitalism finds ways to extract the productivity of sharing, caring and collaboration by alienating it from the relations in which it is situated, and by driving us to live in conditions that either deny opportunities for such caring and sharing or make them more readily exploitable. This is a chief function of social networks. (Borrowing heavily from Tiziana Terranova, I described this phenomenon at length here.)
But consumerism represents a streamlining of this extracurricular production — under the guise of convenience, it strips away the unpredictability and uncertainty of organic friendships (Other people? Who needs them for anything but an audience?) and assures by means of the fashion cycle that self-fashioning work goes on routinely. The discontent generated by the treadmill of consumerist self-production is channeled back into the process to fortify it:
Marketing’s desire to produce cultural conditions that allow for more subtle ways to insert brands and products deeply into the fabric of consumer lifeworlds has resulted in a style of marketing practice that now aims at completely drawing consumers into the production and, more importantly, innovation process itself. This practice, rather fortuitously, invites those consumers into the fold that tend to mount the most stubborn resistance to corporate power, including political and counter-cultural activists, as well as open-source innovators.
Unfortunately for radical revolution, political and counter-cultural activists open-source innovators were most likely the sort of people the Invisible Committee were expecting to mount the insurrection, to seize upon the general atmosphere of crisis to reconstitute life on a different footing. But the Committee fail to grasp that entertainment and labor have been merged: “Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product,” they claim. “We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us.” This is not all that paradoxical either. The “living labor” is no longer bound up in the goods as in their meaning, as in the process that animates their circulation. And that labor manifests as entertainment or self-fashioning — the authors point out that “producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” and argue that “it now becomes possible to sell oneself rather than one’s labor power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes, for our relational talents, for our smile and our way of presenting ourselves.” The crucial difference is that this effort is paid for not in wages but in attention.
The revolution, should it come, must dissolve subjectivity into a process that refuses to become conscious of itself, that fixes its energy on a larger goal, a collective identity, or a multiplicity of possible selves.
This identity-building project has the extra benefit for capital of producing a self that is always already alienated — “we participate in our own exploitation, and all participation is exploited,” the authors note — so there remains no “I” that can recognize what has gone wrong. In the identity-formation process, consumerist capitalism hijacks our will to be autonomous, rooting it in same procedures that generates its codes. We make ourselves in the same way we breathe life into brands through “co-creation.” We are ourselves co-created.
This is why any social movement that promises us chances for a more creative life is now doomed — that revolution has come and been co-opted. The goal of boundless self-expression plays into the hands of the consumerist powers that be, which seductively amplifies the quest for recognition into individualistic self-aggrandizement. The revolution, should it come, must dissolve subjectivity into a process that refuses to become conscious of itself, that fixes its energy on a larger goal, a collective identity, or a multiplicity of possible selves. But the idea is so nebulous, so unsupported by our material conditions, that it is difficult to articulate — it’s nearly impossible to think from inside of it.
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.