Fibreculture, Precarity, Organized Networks

The new fifth issue of an online journal called Fibreculture is out. The theme is “Multitudes, Creative Organization and the Precarious Condition of New Media Labor”…

“Broadly speaking, this issue of Fibreculture Journal is interested in the problem of political organization as it relates to the overlapping spheres of labor and life within post-Fordist, networked settings… It is precisely the informatization of social relations that makes political organization such a difficult–even undesirable–undertaking for many. Without recourse to traditional institutions such as the union, new technics of organization are required if the common conditions of exploitation are to be addressed and transformed.”

This really sparked my interest, since I’ve been writing and thinking about this general predicament for a while now. How–or will–people stuck in typical modern jobs find a political voice, a way of directly contesting the organization of everyday life? I’ve been thinking that it’s probably too soon to expect that political expression to emerge as a movement, an organization or series of organizations, or even as a coherent set of suppositions. I hope to contribute to such an emergence, and so I greeted these opening words with great interest and enthusiasm.

The articles in Fibreculture do not answer this bold call though. They do, however, give us a lot to think about. If you know nothing about the Italian movement around “San Precario” and the Chainworkers who invented this lovely icon, you should give that a read for sure.

The two pieces I spent some real time with are “From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labor, Life and Unstable Networks“, and “Dawn of the Organized Networks.” In the first one, the authors do a very intelligent dissection of the concept of precarity, and highlight how it teeters at the edge of being an “empty signifier” when the whole range of modern experiences get lumped together under its rubric.

“Creative labor, network labor, cognitive labor, service labor, affective labor, linguistic labor, immaterial labor; these categories often substitute for each other, but in their very multiplication they point to diverse qualities of experience that are not simply reducible to each other… Implicit in this tendency to collapse otherwise disparate forms of labor into the containing category of creativity is an eclipse of those forms of bodily, coerced, and unpaid work primarily associated with migrants and women (and not with artists, computer workers, or new media laborers).”

And as they correctly emphasize, if we expand our field of view to include a longer period of history and a wider geographic area, it turns out that precarity “becomes the norm”, since that is and has been the condition of most laborers across the planet for a long time. Similarly they refuse to equate the fight for open architecture on the net with the mobility pursued by undocumented migrants, another frequent conflation made by glib theorists of precarity. Moreover, the focus on the precariousness of all those forms listed above of affective labor distracts from another crucial and basic truth: Capital itself is extremely precarious, and exists in a state of constant crisis, risk and uncertainty. In fact it thrives on the disruptions and mystifications perpetuated by endless crisis and confusion.

One of their more interesting insights is into the problem of scale. They argue that the movements in civil society are being separated from their material bases in production and inhabitation, due to the incessant change and transience imposed by this post-Fordist era. But this disconnection also confronts activist movements as they undergo an increase in their scale of operations. Pressure builds to accommodate demands for accountability and transparency, but there is no clear idea of who should be included in the proposed loop. “While networks can be understood as non-representational modes of organizing political and social relations, they are nonetheless bound to prevailing discourses and expectations surrounding notions of networked governance.”

The article goes on much longer, and at a certain point the academic writing bogged me down. But by the big wrap-up they came back to a schism they’d described earlier between those who assign to the creative worker the role of precarious laborer “par excellence” as opposed to those who attribute it to the undocumented migrant. But they contend that staying at that interesting debate is to miss the point, which is to alter the circumstances in which capital meets life. Ultimately they want to overcome the productivism that underlies the focus on work in pursuit of a life “in which contingency and instability are no longer experienced as threats.”

In “Dawn of the Organized Networks,” this conclusion is repudiated in the first paragraph: “Ephemerality is not a condition to celebrate for those wishing to function as political agents.” Oddly enough Ned Rossiter is co-author of both articles. His co-author on the Dawn piece, Geert Lovink, is a prolific writer and participant in the new media movements of the past decades. Lovink has had a big hand in a number of interesting magazines that crossed my horizons in recent years: Mediamatic out of Amsterdam and the Sarai Reader from New Delhi to name a couple. Lovink’s 2003 book “Dark Fiber” is still high on my to-be-read pile, but haven’t quite gotten to it yet.

In this piece they start right out noting that the idea of “organized networks” sounds vaguely oxymoronic at first. But they are really on to something here, a theme that’s been kicking around below the surface for me for a long time.

Let me digress briefly: I got raked over the coals by self-styled anti-authoritarians and anarchists as early as 1980 for supposedly being “pro-technology”. I always thought this was silly since I don’t think there is a meaningful category referred to by the word ‘technology’ and always insist that we have to get specific to get anywhere. Over the years, mostly in the context of publishing Processed World, I’ve been around a lot of arguments about the social and political impacts of different technologies, and to some extent a larger argument about the meta-relationship between humans and the ‘made’ world. It would be impossible for me to ever join in with the clamorous chorus of those who blithely call for the “end of civilization” as though there was something triumphant and liberating about such an eventuality, even if we could agree on what exactly is being referred to. Of course there are many reasons to ruthlessly criticize the emptiness of claims to being ‘civilized’ by the barbarians who shape this mad mad world. But these seem like rather different lines of discussion…

In the wake of that endless 20-year pseudo-debate, I have been frustrated at what seems to be a dearth of real discussion about real choices we face. How would we self-organize a free society? How could dense, urbanized humans freely plan their own time, work, and how to share the fruits of our activities, while paying close attention to ecological sanity? How can we frame political discussions in order to recognize and act on real behaviors and real options instead of just ongoing meta-discussion?

In the intellectually fossilized world of the North American ultra-left you can’t get off the ground with this line of thinking. But luckily there are plenty of people in other parts of the world who haven’t gotten stuck in the same pathetic ways, and they are thinking, analyzing, writing and moving in new directions that are quite stimulating. To wit, this issue of Fibreculture and particularly the “Dawn of the Organized Networks” article. It’s impossible to know at this point if the dynamism and decentralization of networked political movements can someday usurp the moribund political and economic systems that continue to wreck the world. Clearly that’s a loony idea in the here and now. Examining the trajectory, though, we can catch a glimmer of exciting possibilities for self-organization. The chapter I’ll be writing on the Free Software movement will try to tap the actual lives of some of the people doing that work, and explore their visions of what might be, juxtaposed of course to the banality of the real world in which we’re all surviving now.

Anyway, Lovink and Rossiter raise some very provocative points for thinking about the current social reality of networks and what it might mean for them to move towards what they’re calling “organized networks.” In this world, “networks foster and reproduce loose relationships,” but analyzing networks “as an emerging social and cultural form” makes that an unblinkered assessment of one of the self-limiting aspects of the current state of things. This looseness, which has been my preferred style during the past quarter century of political action, tends to produce interventions that are called “tactical media.” (Again, I’ve been a party to numerous such actions, both media and theatrical.)

“Disruptive as their actions may often be, tactical media corroborate the temporal mode of post-Fordist capital: short-termism. It is retrograde that tactical media in a post-Fordist era continue to operate in terms of ephemerality and the logic of “tactics”. Since the punctuated attack model is the dominant condition, tactical media has an affinity with that which it seeks to oppose. This is why tactical media are treated with a kind of benign neglect. There is a neurotic tendency to disappear. Anything that solidifies is lost in the system. The ideal is to be little more than a temporary glitch, a brief instance of noise or interference… Tactical media point[s] out the problem, and then runs away. Capital is delighted, and thanks the tactical media outfit for the home improvement.”

The authors suggest that the move towards something less ‘short-termist’ would involve a hybrid of tactical media and a new institutional form. This seems to parallel some of my own thinking about the cul-de-sac of radical politics that keeps us forever re-inventing the wheel. In the longer term, they posit that “eventually organized networks will be mirrored against the networked organization…if there is an aim, it would be to parallel hegemony.”

“Networks call for a new logic of politics… A new political subject is required, one that emerges out of the current state of disorganization that defines the multitude… Networks are not institutions of representative democracy, despite the frequency with which they are expected to model themselves on such failed institutions. Instead, there is a search for “non-representational democratic” models of decision making that avoid classical models of representation and related identity politics.”

All of this seems very clear and sensible to me. But Lovink and Rossiter plunge into icy waters when they take up their section “Money Matters”. Here they continue their attack on the short-termism and ephemerality that so many of our efforts have seemed to get stuck in. A crucial question is sustainability, and if we live in a monetary/capitalist world, we have to face funding. In many ways I’ve made my accommodations with this painful truth in personal ways that I feel are reasonable compromises. But in terms of my politics and my vision of what’s worth fighting for, it always excludes money and wage-labor. While L & R don’t have any models they think will bring money in to organized networks, they do not shy away from insisting on finding financial resources as an indispensable part of moving from where we are to where we ought to go. They rampage against the “techno-libertarian religion of the “free”,” because the underlying basis of the common version of that is a “cynical logic of do-good venture capitalists that preach giving away content for no money while [they] make millions of dollars in the back room with software, hardware, and telco-infrastructure, which the masses of amateur idiots need in order to give and take for free.” I have always preferred to critique this hypocrisy by insisting on making all that infrastructure free, along with food, water, housing, et al… rather than extending the logic of money into areas where it is happily absent, why not extend the logic of free to everything? That’s hardly a techno-libertarian religion, it’s just a practical alternative to the perpetual reduction of human life to the commodity form. Sigh.

“The inward looking free software world only uses its paradise-like voluntary work rules for its own coding projects. Cultural, artistic and activist projects do not fall under this category, no matter how politically correct they might be. The same counts for content editors and web designers. Ideally, online projects are high on communitarian spirits and are able to access the necessary skills. But the further we leave behind the moment of initiation, the more likely it will be that work will have to be paid. Organized networks have to face this economic reality or find themselves marginalized, no matter how advanced their dialogues and network use might be. Talk about the rise of ‘immaterial labor’ and ‘precarious work’ is useful, but could run out of steam as it remains incapable of making the jump from speculative reflection to a political agenda that will outline how networks can be funded over time.”

Or to a political agenda of connecting to other people (who are also participating in the reproduction of everyday life) and proposing a project of general liberation that frees us all from the pernicious stupidity of money and markets. Right now a lot of communitarian and cooperative impulses are driving people’s actual engagement with networks. L & R do a refreshingly deep and creative look at the institutional and logical barriers to the rise of organized networks becoming a “parallel hegemony” to the status quo. I especially recommend reading their discussion of “scalar relations” and the relationship between today’s nascent network behaviors and a possible future organized network. But their insistence on finding a funding platform to sustain the effort to grow, while perfectly logical within this world, fails to see how they will reproduce a model that they criticized when looking at tactical media’s role in bolstering Capital. If you get money and paid work, the logic of that will override any deep subversion that you might have thought you were engaged in.

Sure we need to make a living to sustain ourselves in a savage capitalist world. But we have to nurture those pockets of cooperative and collaborative work that escape the logic of wage-labor and capital, and actually expand them as best we can. Does that mean working two or three jobs, one for money and the “real” ones for free? So far, yes. Is there an alternative? So far, no. The “Dawn of the Organized Networks” challenges us to go further, even further than the authors propose.

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