Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Work and the Clamour Towards Libidinal Economy: A Response to Mark Fisher

Just another day at work?

1. In a recent article for the Occupied Times Mark Fisher makes the argument that recent changes in communicative practices inaugurate a new form of work-life relationship radically different from those of the past. The jumping off point for his analysis are two quotes taken from a recent Guardian article purportedly exposing the hard working lives of CEOs. “I usually get up at 5 or 5:15am. Historically, I would start sending emails when I got up. But not everyone is on my time schedule, so I have tried to wait until 7am. Before I email, I work out, read, and use our products. … I am not a big sleeper and never have been. Life is too exciting to sleep.” “I quickly scan my emails while my son is taking over my bed and having his milk. Urgent ones I reply to there and then. I flag others to follow up on my commute into work. . . . I receive an average of 500 emails a day, so I email throughout the day.”

Drawing on various themes from the work of Deleuze, Guattari, and the Italian post-autonomist writers Fisher concludes that as such labour is essentially communicative and that with the advent of technologies such as email, social networking , smart phones and the like, the temporal distinction between work and life has been rendered “permeable”. Brushing aside the issue of whether we should take the testimony of early bird CEO’s as gospel at a time when corporate excess and elite bonuses are under the microscope, what is more important are the implications of this proposed  new work-life paradigm for the understanding of class relations.

“The good old days of exploitation, where the boss was interested in the worker only to the extent that they produced a commodity which could be sold at a profit, are long gone.  Work then meant the annihilation of subjectivity, your reduction to an impersonal machine-part; it was the price that you paid for time away from work. Now, there is no time away from work, and work is not opposed to subjectivity”.

For some, we can quickly retort, this may be the case. But is there not something perverse mere weeks after over a thousand clothing manufacturing workers were crushed to death in appalling conditions in Bangladesh, in claiming that the old exploitative model of production is a thing of the past? Perhaps I’m just “disavowing” but I don’t believe one has to be a card carrying Trotskyite to note that globalization while linking people communicatively to a far greater extent also produces a highly uneven playing field of working conditions. The industry in which those workers died is not a minor one (Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest clothing manufacturer), nor could we argue that those workers formed part of the global population who find themselves “compulsively gripped by the imperatives of communicative capitalism (to check email, to update our statuses)”. Rather their invisibility and lack of communicative resources is what characterizes their position as exploited, to claim otherwise is absurd.

Similarly, has work in the modern age ever really been opposed to subjectivity? My thoughts turn to former miners in the North East of England for whom their work and the mine around which their community was centered formed such an integral and inseparable part of their lives. The pit closures of the 1980s were so brutal that even now the life-world of many of those former mining communities are still in pieces. We would do well to remember that the notion of a reflective distance between work and life, between the time one sells to the boss and the time that is one’s own is itself a product of capitalist development; a corollary of the Marxian scission between Man and Citizen. We might glibly say that if work was a more pleasant experience then a life that identifies with it might not necessarily be a bad thing.

2. Fisher’s corollary claim to that for the novelty of communicative capitalism is for an extension to the understanding of work itself. “All time is entrepreneurial time because we are the commodities, so that any time not spent selling ourselves is wasted time”…This mode of work makes Sisyphus’s interminable labours seem quaint; at least, Sisyphus was condemned to perform the same task over and over again. Semio-capitalism is more like confronting the mythical hydra: cut off one head and three more grow in its place, the more emails we answer, the more we receive in return”.

Sisyphus’ task was of course a form of non-productive labour. The rendering useless of his capabilities was implicit to his punishment for showing hubris towards greater gods. Fisher’s claim as the Hydra example suggests is that the communicative practices which many are engaged in to ever greater extent are in fact a form of productive labour, a form of work. An understanding of this claim might be the way in which social networks like Facebook, marketed ostensibly as leisure or purely social activity, are taking up an increasing amount of our time and efforts while simultaneously providing a pool of commercial and personal data collecting opportunities for private companies. However, to render the notion that we are “commodities” intelligible it must be seen in a more nuanced light. The idea of commodification which I think is in play here has more to do with self-production or perhaps self-realization than the notion that we are subjectivised by a purely external power. On this understanding we are never “finished” commodities, otherwise what reason would we have for continually working on ourselves; nor do we so to speak always engage in a process of selling ourselves on social media, unless Fisher views any public speech act as itself an act of self-production/work. Rather is it not the activity of sociality itself which Facebook and others turn into profit producing means? And if so could not this trend just as easily be captured under the familiar headings of commodification or the marketization of social relations, rather than an extension of the paradigm of work?

Updating statuses, uploading photographs and responding to the activities posted by others; is this really the same sort of work as that done by the CEO that gets up early to send emails to colleagues? Does this comparison not conflate a juridical concept of work - implicating contracts, working hours, rights and obligations, with a boarder non-juridical understanding that would implicate all socially productive activity into the concept of “Work”? In the example of the CEO he is obliged to respond to emails as part of his activity as a CEO, however in the case of the Facebook user despite what some seem to believe, you are not obliged to update your status on a daily basis, and you won’t be kicked off the site for refusing either.

Fisher’s text at times suggests a very one sided view of the use of social media and other communications technology. While there are undoubtedly users who feel compelled to upload content on a daily basis, there are many more who perhaps only use it to arrange their social life, or to keep in touch with friends around the world. Similarly there are users who feed the net with every banal thought that enters their head while never uploading a single photograph, participate in a discussion, or arrange an event; just as there are people who never check their work email away from the office despite the technology being available for them to do so. The norms governing the use of social media are in no way as prescriptive as those governing the world of work.  The “productive activity” involved is still leisure (of a kind) but like so many other forms of leisure activity it is framed within a profit making environment. In this we can draw a comparison between the two fields in the sense that the rules and norms are constituted with capital as their ultimate horizon.  However, unlike the work you are required to do to pay the bills, using social media is not compulsory. The degree to which you participate and the finesse that you bring to the activity is to a significant extent highly negotiable and within your own hands. Conversely, employment is still governed under the rubric of the juridical subject of rights and obligations; even so for many, particularly the class of networked educated westerners that Fisher’s text addresses, there is considerable room for contestation and maneuver. Far more room that is than that available to Bangladeshi textiles workers, for whom violent protest against their working conditions is an understandable response.

3. There is a strange ambiguity in Fisher’s discussion of work. It is still an “exploitation” from which there is “no liberation”, and yet at the top “you might now enjoy it (life is too exciting for sleep)”, even though up there you find only more work. Perhaps most striking is the claim that unhappy employees despite being compelled to put on a positive face (a trend perhaps explainable by the domination of service industry jobs which are naturally more customer facing) are simultaneously compelled by the same system of work to provide a somatic sign of discomfort: “The subjugatory libidinal forces that draw enjoyment from the current cult of work don’t want us to entirely conceal our misery. For what enjoyment is there to be had from exploiting a worker who actually delights in their work?”

In claiming that work actually requires suffering from us Fisher describes a world that is comparable to the Red Room in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a strange metaphysical place from where demonic forces are sent out to harvest pain and strife for the consumption of timeless desiring beings. Unless we accept the premise that capitalist economy is governed by an impersonal psychological imperative towards sadism this claim is clearly somewhat exaggerated. Fisher I think is drawing on passages from the seminar of Jacque Lacan where he makes a comparison (more semantic than philosophical in my view) between the Marxian notion of surplus-value and what Lacan glosses as surplus-enjoyment. The discussion revolves around a pun on the German for surplus-value, Mehrwert, which Lacan twists into the French Mere Verte (green mother). Lacan’s suggestive but as always gnomic text alludes towards a connection between his theory of a fundamental lack constitutive of any subjectivity, and the activity of alienated labour under capitalism. Taking this into account we might then interpret Fisher as suggesting an identity between this jealous green mother and the “subjugatory libidinal forces” that draw enjoyment from the worker.

It’s an interesting perspective which I think may have merit in explaining some more symptomatic social phenomena such as binge drinking at the end of the working week. It has often seemed to me that people in that situation are trying to claw back quickly something that was lost during the preceding week of work. However, the trouble I have with it as a general interpretative principle is that it’s essentially a negative theory that in many ways sets up the same old Marxian opposition between the oppressed worker and dominating capitalist, albeit now in spritely post-structuralist and psychoanalytic garb. It is this essentially negative oppositional characterisation of work which Fisher is transposing onto what I have outlined as the broader non-juridical form of productive activity; what in Italian autonomist literature is sometimes referred to as the “social factory”. Crucially it should be noted that for Lacan, unlike Marx the concepts of loss and alienation pointed to by Fisher function constitutively as the ground of any subjectivity whatsoever, and are not just a historical characteristic of capitalist societies. Thus taking Lacan as our guide in these matters renders the possibility of change or of overturning these states of affairs highly problematic. We should also note that for Lacan alienation is principally alienation into the signifier, into the materiality of language itself. Thus, we might wish to be wary of endorsing the earlier claim that work is essentially communicative, lest we commit ourselves to such a dark perspective on work and productive activity that we find it impossible to escape to the light. 

More generally the move to account for complex and uneven social phenomena like the emergence of new forms of communicative practices by recourse to psychological explanations requires considerable justification, which in this instance is conspicuously absent. Even if we were to take this explanation in a softer more interpretive sense there still remains the problem of demonstrating that subjective pain is a necessary component of capitalist economy rather than an ever present byproduct. The proposed obsolescence of the traditional production paradigm (call it Fordist, or whatever) hinted at by Fisher leaves a major gap in theories of social and political agency into which much of this psychological explanation is I think unjustly poured.

4. Finally, perhaps we might concede that abolishing the antagonistic distinction between work and life need not be construed negatively. As I remarked above, separation of subjectivity into that which is one’s own and that which is not is a prominent mark of the alienation that capitalist society, whether historical or contemporary, produces. If we follow Giorgio Agamben’s recent work then what is at stake in this division is nothing less than the possibility of a future beyond our current predicament. He claims it is this scission between bare life (Zoe in the Greek), the abstract subject of right (ultimate and opaque barer of sovereignty) and the multifarious forms of life abstractly recodified as social juridical identities (the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman) which prevents us thinking the possibility of a new kind of community (Agamben pg7). Conversely, to think a form-of-life in which subjectivity is not alienated in this way, a life in which productive capabilities are not cognized as working for an Other, but rather orientated towards both self and common use is a worthwhile goal.

If it is the case as Fisher states that productive practices in the West, whether strictly work or social production, are moving progressively towards a point of indistinction, then the question we might wish to ask is not whether we can push back the tide of work into its old temporal framework, but rather whether this coming unity of life and work might be re-orientated away from capital. His diagnosis is essentially correct that when we are at the office or when we are engaged in forms of social production like sport and other leisure activities, including the use of social media, the fruits of that activity are channeled away into capital production. Is this not then the crux of the matter? Not that the indistinction between work and life represents a new horror of alienation that progressively sucks up our libidinal life force; but rather that the increasingly networked and communicative practices that characterise Western societies are harnessed predominantly for the benefit of a minority. Perhaps then instead of utilizing the Lacanian framework which would have us ringing our hands at the impending eclipse of a world away from work, theorists of social change might want to consider what sort of changes are required to reorientate emerging communicative practices away from capital and private use towards the possibility of a form-of-life without division, whose powers are directed towards the common use of a community of which oneself is a part. However, in order to begin this task it is first necessary to move beyond thinking work in purely negative and oppositional terms.

Agamben,Giorgio - Means Without End: Notes on Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2000)