The threat of the increasing proletarianisation of our lives under austerity politics is increasingly invoked and folded into the debate over how we structure our social relations. Proletarianisation is an outcome of the materialist nature of our productive relations in an economy based on the commodity form, and where the drive to extract value from those relations is based on increased efficiency and productivity. Labour-power is the vital source of value creation, and one that is constantly being reinterpreted and threatened through its interplay with technique or technology. In its current form, the commodity economy, where labour-power is a commodity brought under the control of capital, all aspects of life are inside the imperative to extract value. In this social factory, our leisure time, our domestic life, our socialised goods held in common, our public/private spaces and places, are all bound by the realities of commodification.
In this commodification we experience a sense of loss because our labour is alienated from us, and is handed to capital, in return for the means of subsistence, or ways in which we can renew ourselves so that we can return to work/sell our labour in the market-place. Marx argues that under the logic of capitalism, labour:
Is then only the semblance of an activity, only a forced activity, imposed upon me only by an external and accidental necessity and not by an internal and determined necessity… My labour, therefore, is manifested as the objective, sensuous, perceptible, and indubitable expression of my self-loss and my powerlessness.
The argument is that under austerity politics, where access to socialised safety-nets or benefits is closed off, where there is an attack on common goods like pensions and education, and where policy discourse is limited to the Scylla and Charybdis of “there is no alternative” and of ”doing more with less”, we might ask how are we to obtain the means of subsistence? Whilst this is a world of precarity, both for labour and capital, and is one in which the politics of the production of our lives is central to our survival, it is also a world that Werner Bonefeld notes is reduced to an existence as labour-under-capitalism, so that our spaces, places, identities, and relationships are all means of extracting value or hoarding wealth. Bonefeld argues:
What does the fight against cuts entail? It is a struggle against the reduction of life time to labour time. The fight against cuts is in fact a fight for a life. For the dependent masses, wages and welfare benefits are the means with which to obtain the means of subsistence.
On Tsianos and Papadopoulos’ terms, austerity/precarity is the duality resulting from a crisis in our social systems when they are faced by the realities of what has been termed immaterial labour, or ”the power dynamics of living labour in post-Fordist societies”. In apolitical terms this is focused upon network governance, or cognitive capital, or the knowledge economy. However, once framed in terms ofpolitical economy we begin to address issues of a life-world “incorporated into non-labour time, [where] the exploitation of workforce happens beyond the boundaries of work, it is distributed across the whole time and space of life”.
Coercion is one central element by which this reduction of life time to labour time is maintained, and socio-technical solutions are a means by which order can be enforced through monitoring productivity or activity, alongside its use in developing the power of cultural norms and manipulation. However, Bonefeld argues that turning points are revealed as the crisis is renewed, in policy or in practice. Thus, it may be possible to move away from uncritical demands for the politics of jobs and wages, which in themselves merely reaffirm the alienating and corrosive relationships that catalysed austerity in the first place, towards questions of the production and distribution of value within global societies. So we might ask why the development of the productive forces at the disposal of society have become too powerful for this society, bringing financial disorder and requiring austerity to maintain it?
Žižek has further developed this articulation of the mechanics of precarity that underpin austerity, and the looming threat of proletarianisation that is etched into our social fabric. Thus, he re-states the classical, disciplining threat posed by surplus labour to those in work:
The category of the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the temporarily unemployed, the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to the inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself as ‘lumpen-proletarians’), and finally to the whole populations and states excluded from the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.
It is against becoming part of this forgotten or vilified mass of humanity that we are coerced into accepting that “there is no alternative”; or that if we occupy then it is for some trans-historical alternative under capitalism. Pace Bonefeld, Žižek argues that much of the occupy movement and rebellions against austerity measures “are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians.” They are an attempt to maintain a lifestyle, or at least to sketch a space where the violation of that lifestyle by austerity politics might be minimised.
This is a central argument progressed by Schwartz in his deconstruction of the occupy movement and its 99 percent motif. Schwartz argues that our traditional identity politics, now morphed into the “them and us” narrative of the 99 percent, merely enables capital to reinscribe itself as the dominating reality of our lives. However, by acceding to the neoliberal ideology of austerity, we are culpable in describing and renewing its boundaries.
The 99%, acts as the loyal opposition within the capitalist society. It cannot even formulate a critique of the system let alone start a revolution. Incapable of understanding itself as a diverse collection of relations, it mistakes itself for a group of individuals bound together by a desire for reform. The least radical common denominator unites the 99%. Such a low level of consciousness is an immutable feature of mass movements within the contemporary biopolitical fabric, one perhaps more pronounced in mass movements inspired by marketing professionals with day jobs that rely on the demographic logic at the heart of biopoltical governance.
They behave as if the spectacle were determined by the production alternative images and narratives, rather than by sets of economic relations. Predictably, their tactics and goals reflect the assumption that groups of individuals rather than sets of relations determine economies. In short they live as if trapped in a reflection on the surface of death’s mirror.
Instead Schwartz calls for a negation of the space and place of capital as reinforced through the cries of the 99 percent for a fair capitalism, or for tax justice, or for more humane labour rights, or for an end to fracking, or for rights for aboriginal groups, inside a system that corrodes. Instead he calls for “0% movements” that in-turn disrupt the dominant logic of capital, and its imposition of precarious subsistence:
Their force increases along lines of affiance and separation based on concrete relations with others. Affiance and separation are anything but the growth associated with the 99%’s demographic counting. The constitutive disorganization and anarchistic fragmentation of 0% resistance has taught those involved that being too small to fail sometimes releases more power than being too big to fail. The lone warrior, the cell, the gang, the alliance that can shut down all the ports along a coast, the commune capable of occupying a whole city, collective sabotage, mass default: all of these 0% movements gain effectiveness from internal and external friendships and conflicts.
Schwartz locates transformation in these spaces inside the totality of capital, as a totalising negation of the real subsumption of our life time to labour time. The logic of zero percent is to move to the cracks that are formed in the circuits and cycles of capital, and away from a reproduction of its domination over our social lives, however humane the hopes for that reproduction may be. This logic of zero percent is for abolition rather than reinscription; it is for the negation of objectified identities as labour-in-capitalism, and for our ability to become subjects in our own life time.
One impact of this debate is on the politics of subject/object, and the possibility that subjectivities might emerge under capitalism. A second is on the place of technology or technique in defining oppositional spaces and connections, inside and across societies. For Žižek one place in which these two elements become entwined and are revealed is in the “privatisation of the general intellect”. He argues that the knowledge created, reproduced, reinforced and shared socially, and generalised at the level of society, which in-turn underpins our life experiences, is being privatised through the use of technology, so that we are witnessing “the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.”
This view connects the rent extracted from software licenses, to the extraction of value through patents generated from the opening of public data to private corporations, to the selling of personal data from adwords for profit-maximisation, to the clampdown on file-sharing and perceived piracy, to the enclosure of commonly-held goods or spaces through primary legislation. It incorporates our immaterial labour, created inside/outside work, within a commodity economy. Throughout these possibilities of en-closure and internet regulation, a rentier class is demarcating its power-over the productive forces of labour.
These foreclosures and enclosures are met, in part, by socially-constructed, ideological struggles over place, using technology to contest privatised control over what is/was held in common, or regarded as a commons. Much of this goes relatively unreported, but forms a vital set of skirmishes in the struggle for open digital space through which a politics of production, re-production and distribution can be affirmed. This affirmation is central to our ability to engage in a politics of zero percent, in order that we are able to imagine collectively a world beyond austerity and beyond the crisis of capital that it reveals.
These digital struggles for space are mirrored in, and map onto the real-world. Rachel Drummond eloquently highlights how austerity politics is being used to kettle, privatise and extract rent from previously socialised places, using tools/technologies of coercion. She states that the logic of public policy is based on long histories in which the accumulation of value and capital has been enabled through the dispossession of people from spaces. This has catalysed the subsequent enforced or coerced proletarianisation of a disposed population, by those in power. Thus, commodification, coercion and control are:
emblematic of a broad and diffuse logic of enclosure (privatizing and limiting access to space) that permeates the ongoing project of ‘regeneration’ in London and the UK. It is this that lies in the background of seemingly discrete issues such as long prison sentences for student protesters, evictions of ‘rioters’ and Traveller communities and the development of the London Olympic site. Just as the state seeks out new ways to criminalise and repress public protest, a new series of strategies and justifications to dispossess the people of any property and housing owned publicly or held in common continues apace. Yet what may be particularly novel in recent years is the specific ways these two strategies of enclosure have intersected with one another: repression and dispossession are increasingly employed together to produce a cleansed entrepreneurial city.
This bears repeating because it reinforces a new politics of place, facilitated by socio-technical tools: “repression and dispossession are increasingly employed together to produce a cleansed entrepreneurial city.” And so we witness techniques and technologies: for outsourcing our social relationships or abstracting them to control of private property and money, for increasing separation and individuation; for labelling individuals through ASBOs and the creation of dispersal zones; for criminalising squatting and occupation; for brutalising space through kettles; and for maintaining hierachies. All whilst we reinforce assertions as narratives of networked democracy.
What’s more, whether in concrete or digital spaces “Collective punishment (via eviction) opens the door to a new strategy of ‘dispossession by criminalisation’”. Whether you are subject to a dispersal order or are convicted of illegal file-sharing, our power to engage in activities using tools in a range of spaces is highly politicised and controlled. This is enforced both as those spaces are commodified and as our activity in them is reconstructed as labour time, in order to enable the extraction of value. For Drummond, this focus on dispossession of space connects to an idea of revolt in the face of the dispossession of a viable, social future, beyond the logic of austerity or the spectre of proletarianisation. She states:
It is perhaps within these twin fronts of dispossession on the one hand and repressive policing on the other, that we might view the recent explosion of occupations, despite all of their contradictions, as one appropriate form of resistance. For here we arrive at a tactic which seeks to transform the privately enclosed and the repressively policed space into something public and open to all.
One terrain in which the struggle against dispossession has played out is that of immaterial labour. This encompasses both intellectual labour, like the production of ideas, computer programs, mash-ups, visualisations, patents and so on, and affective labour, or work that is carried out inside the social factory and which commodifes affect or prepares intellectual labourers for productive labour. For Žižek, immaterial labour is seen by its proponents like Hardt, Negri, Lazzarato and Virno, as
hegemonic in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘common’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.
This production of social life through the fusion or overlay of digital and concrete space is important because it reveals the ways in which the Commons, or digital communes are threatened with enclosure and commodification. One emergent field of contestation within this is then the possible subjectivity of the individual inside the network, the community or the society, and the reality of their objectivity in the face of the realities of power and hierarchy. In discussing the production of social life, the politics of place and space are central, and are amplified by the ways in which tools reveal and reinforce coercive practices. Networks and networked spaces are ideologically-framed and not trans-historical. They exist as spaces inside capitalism, framed by precarious or immaterial labour, and they reveal power.
It is in relation to this debate on immaterial labour, proletarianisation and dispossession that I wish to view models of action or identity inside/alongside digital networks. This is important because debates over educational models like White and Le Cornu’s Visitors and Residents reveal the deep, social interconnections of people, place and purpose inside capitalism, and the risks of transhistorical analysis. They also reinforce the importance of Marx’s note that:
Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.
For White and Le Cornu, making some sense of a digital life is framed by the individual in place, and her/his ability subsequently to transform their existence. Thus, they argue:
social media platforms facilitate the construction, by the individual, of complex social networks not constrained by physical geography. These are critical shifts in the use of the internet which we suggest are transforming the nature of relationships, citizenship and learning.
It is this notion of transformation that demands a political critique precisely because the emergent duality of visitor/resident is socially constructed within capitalism, and reveals the logic of immaterial labour, framed by precarity and dispossession. Witness the description of Residents.
Residents: Residents see the Web primarily as a network of individuals or clusters of individuals who in turn generate content. Value online is assessed in terms of relationships as well as knowledge. Residents do not make a clear distinction between concepts of content and of persona. A blog post is as much an expression of identity as it is a discussion of particular ideas. The fact that Wikipedia has been authored collectively is not a concern, what is important is how relevant the information they find is to their particular needs.
The creation and extraction of value from relationships, networks and affects is central to the creation of productive relations and productive [value producing] labour. Inside a commodity economy people enter into direct production relations [capital/labour/rentier] as owners of things [commodities, property, cognitive capital, social capital, labour-power], and these things acquire specific social characteristics [they define our social relationships]. In Marx’s terms we see the emergence of “material relations between persons and social relations between things”, and so the commodification of our life time comes to define our existence. Moreover, this existence appears as the result of long socio-historical repetition/activity, which becomes enculturated and re-inscribed in the range of spaces/networks/communities where capitalist social relations dominate.
Thus, in the life time of identities that emerge from the fusion of concrete and digital spaces and networks, it is the ways in which the logic of labour time can be refused or negated that matters if we are to talk of transformation. In worlds where the emergence of modelled identities can be farmed or where affects can be accumulated, educators might work against transhistorical narratives that claim emancipatory possibilities beyond the daily realities of political economy. As a result, educational models like visitor/resident become important where they are historically-grounded, and where they offer the possibility that temporal critiques related to the life time of individuals, described on a continuum of forms, developed inside places/networks/hierarchies, and using tools that are shaped by digital media and education, might be socialised.
And yet, as Drummond notes, our socialised identities forged in collective places/spaces are under attack. This attack frames White and Le Cornu’s argument that the “social dimension of computing has brought about a paradigm shift in many individuals’ experience of computer use as well as influenced their attitude and motivation towards the use and purpose of connected digital technologies”, and that in this connectivity, place is a pivotal field. In making sense of these possibilities we need a critique of place, related to issues of power and dispossession, and the social relationships that flow from our labour time, or our work-inside-capital. As the authors note, contextualisation is key if the metaphor of place is “to occupy centre stage in any discussion about how people interact with each other and with content when both are electronically mediated, and be linked to the metaphor of tool.” It might be argued that this context is historically-defined as labour-in-capital, for place anchors commodification, dispossession and coercion.
Without such a contextualisation of the place of education inside the sets of exploitative and corrosive relationships and spaces articulated as capitalism, our models of digital practices and our discussions of digital literacy, will merely reinscribe new forms of proletarianisation, through monitoring, control, efficiency, productivity and mundane work. This, as Bonefeld acknowledged, is the subsumption of our life time to labour time. It is about the extraction of surplus value from the range of places in which we exist, and that are increasingly privatised and commodified, or copyrighted and licensed/rented back to us, or enclosed and kettled, or monitored and taken-down, and in which we are expected to use tools/technologies that we are forced to rent. Whether we visit these spaces or are resident in them, the precarity of immaterial labour, revealed through the dispossessions, privations and privatisations of austerity, frames our existence. How is a transformatory existence possible without such a recognition?
We might usefully reframe our engagements with our digitised life time, through what Dmytri Kleiner calls venture communism, in which we
create our own institutions, our own alternative structures that move beyond the meagre choices offered by bourgeois society and prefigure the future society we are fighting for.
And that is right, that is also the main form of political struggle that Venture Communism proposes and explores mechanisms of realizing. Thus, the most important direct loss is not political influence, but rather mutual capital. Our capacity for investing in alternative structures comes from a single source: The amount of wealth that we, as workers, can consistently divert from consumption.
We transform our society as we build the means satisfy our needs outside the financial cycles of capitalism. When we take demand away from forms of consumption that reproduce capital and further concentrate wealth, and instead satisfy the needs and desires of our communities by other means. When we produce and share according to our mutual needs and desires, and not according to the logic of profit capture.
The desire then is to frame models/spaces/activities that exist for different value forms beyond money/capital, and that act against the coercive practices that enforce spatial dispossession in the name of austerity. This is a connection beyond the dichotemy of 99%/1% , for a politics of zero percent or the collective commons. It is for an exodus from the daily realities of venture capital. Here then educators and technicians might reframe their work politically, and recognise the ideologies that underpin their engagement with place and identity. Educators might then ask how digital literacies or models like visitor/resident are meaningful in the face of the on-going privatisation of our digital spaces/places? How do these digital practices recognise and reinforce the realities of commodity capitalism that in-turn reinscribe an objective existence? How might those practices/models be re-shaped mutually or co-operatively for alternative structures or value forms? How might they lead to a subjectivity beyond proletarianised work or a prescribed readiness for efficiency or productivity or the control/monitoring of others? How might they be co-opted to build the means to satisfy our needs outside the financial cycles of capitalism?