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Limited Inc.: A Jobless Future and the Narcissist Economy

The redundancies made necessary by economic recession and technological advancement throw workers into a new form of unpaid labor.

Unemployment in the United States marches on and shows no sign of abating. Don Peck’s article in the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic about the worsening labor situation offers stark details of what the grim consequences might follow prolonged joblessness. Chief among them is the prospect of an entire generation of newly graduated college students unable to find work. “When experienced workers holding prestigious degrees are taking unpaid internships, not much is left for newly minted B.A.s,” Peck writes. “Yet if those same B.A.s don’t find purchase in the job market, they’ll soon have to compete with a fresh class of graduates — ones without white space on their résumé to explain.” Peck observes that “[t]his is a tough squeeze to escape, and it only gets tighter over time,” because “[s]trong evidence suggests that people who don’t find solid roots in the job market within a year or two have a particularly hard time righting themselves.” These unfortunate souls thus become “different — and damaged — people.” One imagines a tribe of broken youths wandering around muttering, “Confused, I’m confused, don’t want to be confused,” à la Black Flag’s “Damaged.” But does today’s damaged generation (Peck suggests they are “temperamentally unprepared” for our economic reality) share the hardcore commitment to apathetic nihilism? “I no longer feel a thing / I no longer want to see / But you can’t make me long / For your life and security.”

Peck does note the advent of so-called “funemployment,” in which younger workers with no responsibility regard joblessness as semi-voluntary. But he is quick to argue that term simply disguises rationalization as insouciance, and that the real damage to “earning potential” and chance for corporate promotion these funemployed folks will likely never recover from. He quotes a university career-placement counselor who worries that many recent graduates are “not even engaging with the job market.” As Black Flag lead singer Henry Rollins says in the song: “stupid attempts, no conclusions.”

Young adults’ refusing to enter corporate America could potentially hinder the latter’s ability to reproduce itself for future generations. But at the same time, corporations need to eliminate jobs or to send them overseas in order to compete in a tough economic climate. What, then, must hegemons do? How do they try to whip joblessness now depends on whether they believe cyclical unemployment confronts them, in which case workers can expect jobs to return in familiar sectors when the recession ended, or structural unemployment, in which case there must appear entirely new kinds of jobs to replace ones permanently destroyed by technological change. The economy must recalculate how to reallocate labor, and unemployment lingers during the lag time. Peck writes:

New jobs will come open in the U.S. But many will have different skill requirements than the old ones. “In a sense,” says Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution, “every time someone’s laid off now, they need to start all over. They don’t even know what industry they’ll be in next.” And as a spell of unemployment lengthens, skills erode and behavior tends to change, leaving some people unqualified even for work they once did well.

Peck doesn’t really try to explain why these changes take place. Instead he indulges the widespread tendency to regard technological change as inevitable and see the jobs lost on its account as the necessary price for efficiency, modernity, and a better standard of living across the board in the long run — provided it’s not the Keynesian sort of long run in which we are all dead. “Ultimately, innovation is what allows an economy to grow quickly and create new jobs as old ones obsolesce and disappear,” he writes hopefully, espousing the “lean and mean” interpretation of economic contraction. “Typically, one salutary side effect of recessions is that they eventually spur booms in innovation.” New technology improves productivity, meaning we produce more from less, which will ultimately enlarge the social surplus. If that surplus is distributed unfairly, we should attend to that problem rather than, say, mount Luddite-like attacks on server farms.

A version of the “inevitable technological change” argument is often deployed with regard to the demise of print media, which has fallen victim of internet media which have brought more information more cheaply to many more people. Yes, many of those people who once made their living working at newspapers and magazines must now find something else to get paid for, but in the meantime they should quit grumbling and use their unemployment as an opportunity to take advantage of the digital surplus that has put them out of work: stream movies and TV shows all day long and work on getting the personal iTunes library over a million songs; spend the time fixing up the old Facebook profile and reconnecting with forgotten friends.

But it is not as though God decided to unleash new technologies on capitalist economies. These innovations are driven not by fate or a teleological vision of progress but by the pursuit of profit. A recent New York Times article explains structural changes slightly differently:

Large companies are increasingly owned by institutional investors who crave swift profits, a feat often achieved by cutting payroll. The declining influence of unions has made it easier for employers to shift work to part-time and temporary employees. Factory work and even white-collar jobs have moved in recent years to low-cost countries in Asia and Latin America. Automation has helped manufacturing cut 5.6 million jobs since 2000 — the sort of jobs that once provided lower-skilled workers with middle-class paychecks.

“American business is about maximizing shareholder value,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics. “You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”

The pursuit of innovation then is not the quest for social benefits so much as it’s the search for a way to replace expensive and unpredictable labor (to whom companies may incur longstanding responsibilities) with cheap, docile machines (to which they owe nothing in return for unlimited proprietorship over them). As Stephen Marglin argued in his 1974 article, “What Do Bosses Do?” (pdf), technology gets developed not to make all of our lives better but to make capitalists more secure in their authority.Workers don’t need bosses, he contends, but the capitalist way of structuring  production necessitates hierarchy and the curtailment of workers’ autonomy. His examples suggest that hierarchy and its technological apparatuses may actually impede production efficiency. “This perversion of the competitive principle, which lies at the heart of the capitalist division of labor, made discipline and supervision a class issue rather than an issue of technological efficiency; a lack of discipline and supervision could be disastrous for profits without being inefficient.” In other words, workers must be bossed around not because it improves a firm’s output but because it gives the managers a better stake in the proceeds. What gets called technological improvement  is often an improvement in the stability of hierarchy, typically a matter of deskilling workers along the lines Harry Braverman details in Labor and Monopoly Capital.

Marglin traces capitalist interloping to the days before factories, when “putter-outers” interposed themselves between the workers who made things and the market. “Separating the tasks assigned to each workman was the sole means by which the capitalist could, in the days preceding costly machinery, ensure that he would remain essential to the production process as integrator of these separate operations into a product for which a wide market existed.” With the advent of machinery, capitalists could use expensive equipment to assure their necessity, but machines also meant they needed to keep on fewer workers. (This is one of the classic “contradictions of capitalism” Marx identified. Surplus value can theoretically only be extracted from living labor, so replacing people with machines — dead labor congealed into capital — will presumably hurt profits eventually when all the productivity gains are squeezed out of the workers that remain.)

Perhaps a certain slice of unemployment is actually an unanticipated career shift  into the full-time job of broadcasting ourselves.

Recessions have the effect of pitting workers against one another rather than management. As work becomes more provisional — contract-based, freelance, or part-time — and union-style labor protections vanish, workers who manage to hold on to full-time jobs can begin to seem like a mysteriously fortunate elite, with ineffable, nontransferable qualities that make them eminently employable when so many others are not. Rather than skill-rich employees with useful knowledge to offer, they become entitled insiders who focus their efforts on further mystifying the tactics and connections that have allowed them to survive, and pressuring employers systematically to favor them over new hires. Drawing on the work of several economists, Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution suggests the unemployment story may be seen as a struggle between insiders and outsiders — insiders’ advantages discourage firms from hiring as they would if the labor pool was undifferentiated. (This paper [pdf] summarizes the insider-outsider hypothesis.)

It would suit business fine, however, if the struggle between insiders and outsiders were resolved by making everyone essentially an outsider — reducing labor turnover costs to the firm closer to zero. If  skills could be made into capital and workers deskilled to the point of interchangeability, then all workers could be treated equally poorly as they would be shuffled in and out of the reserve army of the unemployed. But such a thorough deskilling is impossible to imagine, and likely counterproductive for capitalists, who are able to extract more value from the skills workers develop but fail to value properly the labor market. Thus a more lucrative arrangement is for workers to continue to develop skills, but outside of markets and in forms that workers do not recognize as labor skills. And then, if capital could devise a way to exploit those skills without having to hire them or grant them insider status, it will truly be the best of all possible worlds.

This may help explain the dissolution of the old culture industries and the rise of communications companies. Culture industries sought to lock up talent and exploit the intellectual property they generated; communications companies are content to provide platforms and harvest the valuable information generated as a by-product of customers’ leisure activities. The key is to increase the amount of leisure time for those who create more value in their leisure through immaterial labor than they would through more traditional forms of work.

And so certain dog-whistle messages begin to filter through the culture: Isn’t work sort of a bummer anyway? Isn’t that what “funemployment” is all about? To put these lures into econospeak, the issue may not be one of labor demand but of the labor supply curve bending backward. Aren’t some workers apt to substitute leisure for wages, if only they could? Haven’t wages become less important, thanks to past overproduction, easier credit, and rampant sharing online and elsewhere. The substitution effect is the supposed selling point of the “gig economy” (working only when you feel like it) and is implicit in “funemployment.” According to an L.A. Times article on the subject, the funemployed “thumb their nose” at work, “send a message to corporate America,” and spend their time pursuing higher goals of self-actualization: “They can post online photos of globe-trotting vacations, blog about their long lunches and broadcast via Twitter the day’s weighty choices, as @james6378 did last week when deciding between Lucky Charms and Frosted Flakes cereals.”

Perhaps a certain slice of unemployment — for the current generation of well-educated 20-and 30-somethings, former publishing professionals or not — is actually an unanticipated career shift, into the full-time job of broadcasting ourselves, of being ourselves for public consumption. In a sense, the over-coddled “damaged” youth now displaced from the traditional workforce have been perfectly trained for “work” in the information-services field, provided it is sublimated as a rococo mode of elaborate self-fashioning. They only seem unemployed, but they are busy self-branding. Viewed optimistically, the immaterial labor they perform online for various internet companies by using social networks, writing unsolicited reviews and essays, recommending products and links, and “sharing” in a host of other ways, could be regarded as new kind of meaningful work that is supplanting the old kind which involved bosses, hierarchies, assignments, deadlines, bullying, commuting and so on. Sure, the new work doesn’t pay, but with a generous enough social safety net, it wouldn’t need to. In the post-work utopia, we’d meet our expenses through a government-issue living wage, energetically promote ourselves and lifestyles online, and consume “free” entertainment product to keep ourselves busy in the interim. Forget the culture of narcissism. Welcome to the economy of narcissism.

Sight maintenance: "funemployed" twentysomethings the backbone of the narcissist economy.

Why would capitalism want such a cohort of identity-conscious semi-slackers? Mainly because the “work” of their extended leisure time develops a set of consumption skills for the entire consumer society. Their labor has the critical function of not only of demonstrating how to consume more, but also categorizing the meanings of goods and services, helping manage the ever-accelerating turnover in significations. In The World of Goods, Baron Isherwood and Mary Douglas argue that goods, regardless of their putative use value, have the chief social function of offering marking services: “Consumption uses goods to make firm and visible a particular set of judgments in the fluid processes of classifying persons and events.” By consuming things along the lines of the rituals prescribed by society, we mark a social agreement about the meanings of those things.

In order for goods to serve as markers, they must make up a coherent system — one must know with certainty what it means to wear certain brands of clothes, listen to certain sorts of music, espouse certain ideas about art, wine, furniture and so on. But the meanings, traveling through society like currency, are always changing, and the pace of change is always accelerating, as Douglas and Isherwood explain:

In the top consumption classes the attempts of some to control the information scene are being foiled by others who stand to gain by changing it. But since this is the class that both uses and fabricates the information, naturally they cannot help but outbid each other and speed up the game, turning the society into  a more and more individualistic and competitive scene. As they do, something quite simple happens which increases the differences between their class and those at the bottom.

In a consumer society, power stems from being able to “choose rationally in an intelligible world” — to be able to make the choices that enable us to “share names” of things while signaling entitlement and securing deference. Whoever controls the way meanings change controls the social hierarchy, and the faster meanings change, the wider the gulf grows between classes. “Ethnography suggests that competition to acquire goods in the information class will generate high admission barriers and efficient techniques of exclusion,” Douglas and Isherwood write. Speeding up consumption and the redefinition of its rituals is one of those techniques. Another: “Consumers will tend to create exclusive inner circles controlling access to a certain kind of information.” Information, then, does not necessarily want to be free. It wants to be managed.

Our social behavior is taken away from us, in the sense that it is turned to account by capital.

Society needs people to elaborate the rituals, to espouse the markers, to prove them in the public process of consumption. As the process accelerates, this becomes more and more difficult and time-consuming to keep up with. Enter Web 2.0, a real-time trend tracker and data harvester, and enter the newly “unemployable” youth leisure class, which may actually be busily working on reproducing the ideology of consumerism online. When a self-conscious group of hyperconsumers take to the internet to chart their retail course among friends and stake out their identity, they are simultaneously working as cultural functionaries, taming the promiscuous field of goods, doing the grunt work in developing the marking services that help the haute-consumer classes perfect its privilege. They secure the appropriate set of meanings to preserve the status of the class to which they have pretensions of belonging. Though outside the traditional job market, we may be able to feel like we are insiders with respect to consumption — true connoisseurs, with rich inner lives we share on Facebook, no matter our level of income. But in fact we may only be guards and servants for the consumerist castle.

Online sociality facilitates new ways to mediate this meaning-making process, partially privatizing and capitalizing it. It’s a new arena for money-making, and also simultaneously a reinvigoration of the old means for reproducing the capitalism’s class structure in the information age. Immaterial labor in social networks and the like naturalize and render concrete the various class-association patterns as information networks, formalizing what has always been true about the cliquishness of status. The networks will help assure that only the right people receive the crucial and ever more timely information about opportunities and about how to communicate social meanings that will attract favorable attention rather than ridicule and exclusion. Class barriers that are technologically mediated like this may be more insurmountable since they are not dependent on cold hard cash but are meted out in terms of online identity and attention, things we are likely to hold ourselves personally culpable for.

But rather than a liberation of a fortunate generation of gadget-happy narcissists, these changes in the structure of the work world may merely be the latest iteration of the logic of capital. Writes media-studies professor Trebor Scholz, “It is crucial to understand that pleasurable cultural production and sociality is turned into capital” by social-network participation. “Today we witness a centrality of proprietary platforms online, which substantiates that the Internet embodies a complex continuation of capital.” Our social behavior is taken away from us, in the sense that it is turned to account by capital. Consider sociologist Stanley Aroniwitz’s claim in The Politics of Identity that “Just as property is the theft of the labor of the immediate producer in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so technology is the theft of the artisan’s craft in the transition from the formal to the real subsumption of labor under capital.” It seems as though this could be extended to cover a more recent transformation, a new dimension, enabled by networking technology, of the logic of capital: the subsumption of immaterial labor under capital, which plays out as the theft of friendship.

Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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One Response to “Limited Inc.: A Jobless Future and the Narcissist Economy”

  1. Everyone’s watching, to see what you will do
    Everyone’s looking at you, oh
    Everyone’s wondering, will you come out tonight
    Everyone’s trying to get it right, get it right

    – “Working for the Weekend”, Get Lucky, Loverboy

    Avoiding all work
    Cos there’s none available
    Like battery thinkers
    Count your thoughts – on one two three four five fingers
    Nothing is wasted
    Only reproduced
    You get nasty blisters
    Du bist sehr schen
    But we haven’t been introduced.

    – “Girls & Boys”, Parklife, Blur

    But what happens when the weekend is catch-as-catch can and we are all truly “very between”?

    You document it, because the once monolithic 20th century (post-WWII) 5 day on, two day off cycle has been broken, because one’s time is ephemeral. And with the overlay of Blackberry and other electronic leashes work and play have blurred.

    Posted by schveenietodd | May 11, 2010, 4:12 am

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