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11 Things To Know About Abstract Labor

A different way to understand the dynamism of capitalism

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1. Wages of living

Capitalism, oriented on growth for its own sake, presupposes an ever expandable amount of needs to satisfy with commodities and thus an ever growing amount of potential work to produce those commodities. It requires a general sense that work is fungible or “abstract,” measurable as a certain amount of money (a wage). And it requires a sense that any activity whatever on the part of a worker can be that productive abstract labor and be turned into a commodity or a new need.

2. Free agents

In capitalism, the value of labor is not contextual and contingent, not dependent on traditions and secure, stable structure of productive relations (think the mythical precapitalist community, with little class mobility and hereditary rank and occupations), but is “liberated” to be deployable in whatever ways suit capital; capitalism thus remakes local, traditional arrangements in its image. Workers becomes nothing (no integral identity is given, in theory), but have the potential of making anything, and must make something of themselves.

3. I'm for sale!

Once we are nothing, the formation of social bonds can become a source of capitalist value — it doesn't belong to the community or any of the other groupings that organize social life, but to the individual as a kind of labor open to sale (i.e. exploitation).

4. Working for money not love

A fundamental problem for capitalism: how to maintain a supply of workers who are (a) flexible, creative, and motivated to be social (work cooperatively with others to produce value) at the same time they are (b) manageable, controllable, and predictable. It must be able to extract “living labor” — the work of belonging socially — as “abstract labor” amenable to rationalization, measurement, and control and freely deployable on whatever opportunity will yield the most profit.

5. Becoming money

Living labor can be understood as identity-making effort (in the absence of traditional prescriptions); it is the productivity of open-ended potentiality. You can be whatever you want (and you will have to work to become it!) Abstract labor is the quantification of that effort, conforming it to pre-existing measuring tools that allow for its commodification. It's a matter of having oneself fitted to the yardstick. All the work of being someone can be converted to dollars.

6. Being work

Technology development has been driven by this need to render “living labor” into “abstract labor” without snuffing it out altogether. The development of machinery and now computer technology helps nullify inherent differences and particularities in users, leveling pre-existing human variety while producing an urgent need to manufacture new distinctions. It takes pre-existing qualities, makes them quantifiable and then uses those quantities to impel production. Technology channels the innovations that a self-fashioning human comes up with in the struggle to create an identity out of cultural bric-a-brac.

7. Recording ourselves

This transformation of work defends capitalism from the critique that the work it demands is personally meaningless, alienating. The process of capital valorization becomes a kind of self-production for workers at the same time. What enables this is technology's underlying ability to transform life experience into something abstract and redeployable behind the scenes by capitalist firms: data. Work can become meaningful and social and self-fulfilling because it is at the same time generating data.

8. Good vibrations

The self rendered as data in social media is the sort of capitalist subject that experiences its “alienation” as liberation, as an open-ended process of self-discovery. It experiences the quantification of life — once strictly a grim Taylorist matter of boiling human effort into abstract labor power measured in wages — not as alienating and reductive but as positive, descriptive, revealing.

9. Willing slave of capital

Technology thereby supports the "new spirit of capitalism," neoliberalism. As Frédéric Lordon explains, "The strength of the neoliberal form of the employment relation" — which social media exemplify by aggregating the work voluntarily performed by isolated users — "lies precisely in the reinternalization of the objects of desire, not merely as desire for money [i.e. wages] but as desire for other things, for new, intransitive satisfactions, satisfactions inherent in the work activities themselves." It's more "fun" and joyous to be paid in identity than in cash.

10. Friend me

All Facebook profiles in theory are born equal; they allow the same exact repertoire of actions to shape and improve them. In that it seems to deliver on the neoliberal promise of Equal opportunity in the meritocracy of markets. Facebook seems like an opportunity and a medium in which to develop the self on equal terms with everyone else, but it is also a way to contain and control those efforts, making sure they are producing value within capitalism (rather than liberation from it).

11. My struggle

To recap: Social media are ways to contain and recapture the productive and potentially disruptive energy of the cooperation engendered by the capitalist production process, which depends on bringing workers together, dividing labor among them, and generating/capturing the surplus that emerges from their effort to work together. Cooperative efforts — sociality — are captured by social media and made into data: that is, they are made fungible, abstract, countable. This data then sets cooperative workers back into competition with one another, now competing over and in terms of measurable influence, attention, contribution, network links and so on. The struggle comes to seem like the very struggle for personal identity, but it's just the opposite; it's the struggle to render what is personal about oneself into something that is generally exploitable to whatever company wants it.

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