On circuits of affect and resistance

This post was written whilst listening to LCD Soundsystem’s last concert at Madison Square Garden.

ONE. Circuits of affect and resistance

Yesterday I attended an ESRC seminar series on Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights. The seminar was on Affective Digital Economy: Intimacy, Identity and Networked Realities. One of the key points that emerged from the day was the need to reconnect a political critique into the lived realities of social spaces like the Allsorts Youth Project, or in work related to transnational communications amongst a diaspora, or where we are thinking about the relationships between spaces, surveillance and mental health. In particular the event had me considering how we abstract the specificities of our individual or community-based struggles, in order:

  1. To find sites of solidarity that enable us to push back against the alienation of capitalist work and the marginalisation or labelling of our identities;
  2. To recognise how we might resist capital as the automatic subject, from the standpoint of labour;
  3. To understand and analyse the relationships between affects, cognition and kinaesthetics, and how they are captured and then subsumed under the circuit of production.

One outcome of this is the extent to which we might see the social circuits of affect or emotion, not as a means for converting immaterial labour into the commodity form, but as a mechanism for refusing and then interrupting the circuits of production, commodity or money capital. This might be done by revealing our systemic alienation from the products of our labour, from our labour itself, from ourselves and from our species-being. Or it might be done by opening-out spaces for sharing rather than trading, and for use-value rather than exchange-value. Or it might be done by redefining the organising principles on which technological systems, technologies and data are used, so that they are co-operative rather than marketised and securitised. Or resistance and pushing-back might be something else entirely.

TWO. Some notes on affect, immaterial labour and cognitive capital

One of the points of contention during the day was whether affect or emotion was a commodity or could be commodified. From my perspective, there was a large amount of confusion around this point, and it connects affect, cognitive capital and immaterial labour. For Beradi, a focus on affect or emotion reveals the mechanisms through which the human soul is commodified through data, databases, being always-on, perceived speed-up, network-centrism and so on, and can thereby be put to work. In this Autonomist tradition, the autonomy or ability of globalised labour to develop its own self-awareness and to utilise technology to act for-itself is critical. Thus, feeling is critical. Here there is no outside of capitalism, and overcoming the alienation of capitalist work demands mechanisms that push back against it, and structures that are beyond its value-form. This idea of negating capital from the point-of-view of the working class as revolutionary social subject is revealed in the epithet in-against-beyond, and predicates critiques of the structures that reproduce capitalism’s domination, like the State and its educational institutions. It is important to recognise that in this view capital needs labour in order to be valorised, but labour does not need capital and is therefore potentially autonomous. This self-awareness or subjectivity is not automatic and demands a co-operative species-being that is cognitively, affectively and kinaesthetically aware.

In classical Marxism, material production forms the basis of all social life and drives the objective history of capitalist social relations. However, radical shifts in technology are important because they revolutionise the valorisation process. For Marx, the magnitude of the value of labour is driven by the labour-time that is socially necessary to produce a specific commodity ‘under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society’ (Marx 2004, p. 129). Thus, academic labour is particularly valuable as a result of the amount of socially-necessary labour-time embedded in its products, which integrate specialised cognitive and material means of production. This promises the capitalist high rates of surplus value extraction or rental income from patents or licenses. However, the people and skills that support such high-end commodity capitalism, are both menial and leverage, and can be made precarious or be outsourced. One outcome of this cognitive work is a view that the material, objective world is replaced by a subjective immateriality that is increasingly inscribed digitally, and which suggests a limitless expansion of the system across the social factory.

Therefore, inside education a focus on immateriality encourages an analysis of the struggle between labour and capital in the creation and commodification of what is termed cognitive capital. Technology is a critical force in the production and accumulation of cognitive capital because it as Žižek notes, it ‘reduces everything to functions and raw materials’, with the result that individual emotions and affects, cultural cues and mores, and the construction of the relations between individuals ‘are themselves the very material of our everyday exploitation’. Educational contexts are vital in enabling capital to find circuits for extracting value from socio-emotional or personalised learning, using technologies like smartphones or personal learning networks. These mechanisms enable capital to enclose and commodify an increasingly fluid and identity-driven set of social relations, which themselves form the basis of further exchange. These processes of exchange are catalysed by, for example, the sharing of personal information on cloud-based social networks that can be aggregated and data-mined. Thus, all activity or work inside the social factory, including the processes of learning serve as the basis for developing new services and applications. For Beradi (2009, p. 90) this construct emerges across the length, breadth and depth of cyberspace from the immaterial labour of knowledge-workers who

move to find signs, to elaborate experience, or simply to follow the paths of their existence. But at every moment and place they are reachable and can be called back to perform a productive function that will be reinserted into the global cycle of production. In a certain sense, cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it. In this way, workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular. Info-producers can be seen as neuro-workers. They prepare their nervous system as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible. The entire lived day becomes subject to a semiotic activation which becomes directly productive only when necessary.

In this view, social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

Thus, constant innovation becomes a central pedagogic project, for instance in: monitoring and stimulating cognition through pervasive technology and mobility; enforcing private property rights through intellectual property and patent law so that a knowledge-rent economy can take hold; opening-up public data and knowledge so that new cloud-based services based on learning analytics can be developed and marketised; amplifying innovations around internationalisation like MOOCs and open educational resources so that world markets of consumption and production of commodities and cognitive capital are opened-up; and organising, disciplining and exploiting an immaterial workforce, orcognitariat’. This is a terrain of conflict, especially as the processes that deliver cognitive capital involve the development of cyborgs or the fusing of objectivised, fixed machinery and human subjects. Instead of the promised technologically-fuelled reduction in toil and labour-time, technology ‘suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorisation’ (Marx, 1993, p. 532).

In the Autonomist tradition, the concept of immateriality is tied to the production of living knowledge, or the general intellect, which offers a theoretical tool to analyse the transformation of labour and knowledge production through the integration of science and technology across society. Thus, it is important that the immaterial world of capital, in which it is believed that accumulation can occur without material production, is inverted so that the fetishised myth of technology as the creator of value is replaced by an analysis of co-operative, socialised labour-power. This can be revealed through a critique of Marx’s (1993) concept of the general intellect, inside-and-against a networked, globalised production/consumption process, as it emerges as mass intellectuality.

THREE. Some criticisms of immateriality or affective capital

Criticisms of Autonomist Marxism have focused on its apparent network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality. The same is also true of those who would make claims for affect or emotion as commodity, or themselves as the source of value (see below Camfield, 2007; Davies, 2011; Robinson, 2004). In particular, there is a tendency to forget the realities of privatisation and outsourcing to the global South, and for the accumulation of natural resources, like rare earth metals, oil and coal, and human capital from that same space, alongside cataclysmic environmental despoilation. Thus, as Camfield (2007, p. 31) argues

biopolitical labour… fails to make distinctions between the different forms of production involved in the production of all that falls within the scope of ‘social life itself ’. In a highly abstract sense, it is possible to talk of labour producing goods, services, social relations, and human subjectivities. Yet it is essential to be able to distinguish the production of ourselves as human subjects through our relationships with nature and each other in determinate socio-material conditions and particular historical moments from the production by humans of, say, microprocessors. Very different kinds of production processes and products are involved. Labour is at the heart of them all, but at different levels of abstraction and in different social forms.

Moreover, entrepreneurial education and the promise of technology in the global North support precarious work and hyper-exploitation for those without proprietary skills, alongside reinforcing transnational hierarchies. Thus King (2010, p. 287) notes that ‘From a structural perspective, even with the transformative powers of digital technology, we are not moving into a post-capitalist age. The fundamental property relationships that underpin the class structure remain intact and have sharply intensified.’ The question is whether and how the connections between sites of exploitation including education and technology can be made.

What might be noted of the Autonomist approach is that its broader categories enable a critique of capitalist work in the networked society, which point to how the whole of human life is systemically enclosed and mined for new services. The connections between immaterial or affective labour in the production of cognitive capital, and their connections to the broadening and deepening of the accumulation of value across the whole of society restructured as a factory, point towards the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work.

When we use the term capital, we might reflect on how it is not only value-in-motion, but also an alienating social relation based on specific, totalising organising principles that are themselves coercive. Any notion of choice, ethics, morals, identity, empowerment, agency and so on, can only emerge as objectified or alienated inside and subjugated through this totality. So affective capital points to asymmetrical power relations, separation, alienated labour and being, and fetishized relations. For example, for a community forced out of its homeland by war, that maintains contact via a synchronous technology like skype, we might ask how they and those of us who tolerate this state-of-being are alienated at each point by capital: in the geographical struggles for means of production that drive war; in the struggle for self-worth and betterment that force us to migrate to earn a wage to subsist; in the promise of a better life that can only exist as capitalist work and the entrepreneurial or neoliberal self; in the fetish of familial or communal connection through the use of technology. In each case, those communities are separated from the land, from their labour, from their society and ultimately from themselves.

One problem of the use of terms like affective capital is that it risks reducing people to human capital or means of production, which are themselves dehumanising. We risk accepting our alienation through its temporary and marginal technological amelioration. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity/war that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic/exchange value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring all of life as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity, including through the co-option and subsumption of affect or emotion or “the subject”.

FOUR. Some references on Autonomia or affect or immateriality

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Beradi, F. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Transl. F. Cadel and G. Mecchia, with preface by J.E. Smith. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Bonefeld, W. 2010. What is the alternative? Shift Magazine 11. http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=400.

Burston, J., N. Dyer-Witheford, and A. Hearn. 2010. Digital labour: Workers, authors, citizens. ephemera 10, no. 3/4: 214-221

Camfield, D. 2007. The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52.

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Cleaver, H. 2002. Reading capital politically. Edinburgh: AK Press.

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