Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Means of Production

We're talking about the fashionable neo-Marxist book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I was fiercely critical in the last post. But there a few glimmers through the fog that do seem potentially illuminating.

New means of production

The most interesting thing, at least in terms of my interests on this blog, is they do recognize that the production process has fundamentally changed, and this has to have theoretical implications:

In postmodernity, the social wealth accumulated is increasingly immaterial; it involves social relations, communication systems, information and affective networks. (p259)

The Soviet Union failed, they say, because its Fordist and Taylorist model of disciplinary government could not adapt to the change in the nature of labor power.

It could not compete... because advanced technologies of communication and cybernetics are efficient only when rooted in subjectivity, or better, when they are animated by productive subjectivities. p272

The Soviet machine turned in on itself and ground to a halt, without the fuel that only new productive subjectivities can produce. The sectors of intellectual and immaterial labor withdrew their consensus from the regime, and their exodus condemned the system to death. p279

This is a broader story of a transition to a more service-oriented economy, where..

The jobs for the most part are highly mobile and involve flexible skills. More important, they are characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect and communication. p285.

More and more labor is the "affective labor" of human contact and interaction, such as in healthcare and entertainment.

This labor is immaterial, even if it is corporeal, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion. p292-293

The network has replaced the assembly line.

Our economic and social reality is defined less by the material objects that are made and consumed than by co-produced services and relationships. Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities...

The concept of private property itself, understood as the exclusive right to use a good and dispose of all wealth that derives from the possession of it, becomes increasingly nonsensical in this new situation. There are ever fewer goods that can be possessed and used exclusively in this framework; it is the community that produces and, that while producing, is reproduced and redefined. The foundation of the classic modern conception of private property is thus to a certain extent dissolved in the postmodern mode of production. ..

Private property, despite its juridical powers, cannot help becoming an ever more abstract and transcendental concept and thus ever more detached from reality. p302

This is much more interesting and I like it. Of course, in many ways it is recognizing the obvious, but often that is both difficult and essential. Our economy is no longer just a matter of producing stuff. And the property rights attached to non-stuff - like patents, risk contingencies, relationships and intangibles - are much less intuitive and easy to handle effectively

Apple has been fighting again over essentially the "look and feel" of innovations, for example. Half the tech industry is besieged with patent trolls. Music DRM has proved unworkable.


And I've discussed before how economics is having to deal with non-rival and non-excludable goods. Much as I often complain about mainstream economics, it is grappling with these issues in a much more substantive way than Hardt and Negri, however.

Primitive accumulation (again)

Hardt and Negri also say that there has been a continuous movement in the modern period to privatize public property, from enclosures in England to privatizations.

Capitalism sets in motion a continuous cycle of private reappropriation of public goods: the expropriation of what is common. p301

This is their new version of Marxist primitive accummulation. It is possible it happens like this sometimes - like Russian oligarchs in the post-Soviet turmoil, for example.

But it's also in many cases just a silly argument. Indeed, the problem is often narrow producer groups and leftist unions appropriate public resources and run services for their own convenience. Teachers' unions appear not to care about kids (or even young teachers) , but focus on tenure and pensions which will bankrupt cities and ultimately destroy services. Margaret Thatcher privatized British state-owned industries partly because the union bosses cared more about socialist agitation than mundane things like providing phone service or reliable cars or coal supply. The unions' winter of discontent shattered public support and brought Thatcher to power.

And probably the most grotesque and hypocritical appropriation in recent years, given how Hardt and Negri stress the primacy of communications, is left-leaning Hollywood's gratuitous extension of copyright to seventy years or more. Expropriation doesn't come in a top hat and chomp cigars any more. It parades on Oscar night and holds big fundraisers for Obama.


Obliterating distinctions

Hardt and Negri emphasize how capitalism, and money, level all distinctions:

.. capital brings all forms of value together on one common plane and links them all through money, their general equivalent. Capital tends to reduce all previously established forms of status, title, and privilege to the level of the cash nexus, that is, to quantitative and commensurable cash terms. p326

This is true, even if it is not a new observation, and it can have negative social consequences. In their tortured way, they stress how all distinctions disappear:

Capital tends toward a smooth space defined by uncoded flows, flexibility, continual modulation and tendential equalization. p327

It thus also obliterates previous Marxist concepts of imperalism. On the other hand, it destroys the segmentation of the multitude as well, which, they claim, has been the traditional means of public administration, a version of divide and rule. So, they argue, there is more chance of unifying the multitude to overthrow capitalism.

In the end, a new notion of "commons" is the way forward, although they are not very specific.

The commons is the incarnation, the production and the liberation of the multitude. (p303).

They apparently have a recent book, Commonwealth, which deals with this, which I might actually read. I do think there is something to a broader need to evolve property rights, and what economists call public goods - although I now doubt what Hardt and Negri have to say is sensible.


SO what is left? Empire is "corrupt" against the "generative" power of the multitude, they claim.

Here is where things go a little off-key.

Corruption, contrary to desire, is not an ontological motor but simply the lack of ontological foundation of the biopolitical practices of being. p389.. It is command directed toward the destruction of the singularity of the multitude thorugh its coercive unification and/or cruel segmentation. p391

Huh? The problem with Empire is ultimately a lack of ontological foundation?

The reason for the crisis of European civilization and its imperial practices consists in the fact that European virtue - or really its aristocratic morality organized in the institutions of modern sovereignty - cannot manage to keep pace with the vital powers of mass democracy. p375

The "pallid and parasitic European ruling class" is obsolete, they say. This is probably true. Possibly including neo-Marxist professors, who have cultural and communicative power? Although the "aristocratic morality" is potentially interesting. Europe is still fighting the ghost of the past.

Empire takes form when language and communication, or really when immaterial labor and cooperation, become the dominant productive force. .. Exploitation is the expropriation of cooperation and the nullification of the meanings of linguistic production. p385

Um? What?

" Nullification of the meanings of linguistic production" seems like an ironically self-referential phrase, like the Epimenides Paradox. It deconstructs itself, so to speak. The book certainly seems like an expropriation of clarity of language and communication.

What does the future look like?

When we look closer at how the constitutive process of subjectivity operates, we can see that the new spaces are described by unusual topologies , by subterranean and uncontainable rhizomes - by gegraphical mythologies that mark the new path of destiny. p397 ..

This task for the multitude, however, although it is clear at a conceptual level, remains rather abstract. What specific and concrete practices will animate this project? We cannot say at this point. p 399-400.

And this is the basic problem. They just can't say anything specific. The multitude will experiment, they believe. It is just the same as all the other Marxist gods-in-history and teleological inevitabilities which never came to pass. Ontological myths replace engaging with current arguments.

Mainstream economics and management and politics need plenty of critique, But please, guys, put Spinoza down once in a while. Look around you. The point of philosophy is to make us look afresh, not entrench us in ideological systems.

They do have three concrete suggestions for demands: the right for the multitude to control its own movement with global citizenship; a social wage and guaranteed income for all; the right to reappropriation of the means of production, which now means " free access to and control over knowledge, information, communication and affects". And they say cooperation will change the economy..

Cooperation annuls the title of property. p410

.. which in some form Is probably true. I read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything recently. I haven't blogged about it yet, but really enjoyed it. And we looked at Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age some time ago. Both have more substantive and interesting things about cooperation and property rights than the glimmers in this fashionable leftist book.


Orwellian Advice

So in the end, I'm principally alienated by the atrocious prose. Leftist academics ought to be tied down and forced to read Orwell's famous Politics and the English language essay before being allowed anywhere near a laptop or source of public funding. Orwell could have been writing about this book:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Competing ideas are a good thing. Rotten pompous prose helps no one.

I think there is a lot of potential in seeing production as now largely about cooperation and effect, even if they don't develop it much in this book. And we need to think much more carefully about how a shift to intangibles affects property rights and incentives.

But in the end, the book is a colossal distraction and failure. At best, it drops some previous leftist myths, but does its best to construct free-floating nebulous new ones, like "the multitude." It isn't capitalism or "empire" that lacks ontological foundation. It's the holy multitude.

If this is the best the left can do, no wonder they are an irrelevant rump confined to college campuses. I'll still read some other things - Zizek, Deleuze & Guitari, original Marx - but I don't see much in this stream of leftist thought so far that offers a helpful perspective on what has gone wrong with the economy.



No comments:

Post a Comment