Tag Archives: digital labor

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Realism and Utopianism in Discussions of Digital Labor

All of the readings we did for this week touch on a tension that exists in many forms of Left politics. On the one hand, there is a desire to find sites of possible resistance and encourage the development of an affective basis for modes of activity that exist outside of Capitalism, which seems to be what Barbrook is attempting to do in his discussion of the early open source community. On the other hand, there is the desire to bring injustices into the light—hence, the “Wages for Facebook” manifesto’s attempt to enable a discussion of the exploitative nature of Facebook by referring to people’s use of the service as “work.” One thing I find particularly striking about this juxtaposition is the way in which naming an injustice produced by Capitalism seems to require that we take on the language of Capitalism, referring to an ostensibly personal form of activity as “work,” while Barbrook’s claim that the Internet is “anarcho-communist”—as radical as the terminology of this argument is—seems to imply a much less critical attitude towards the world as it is.

While I am generally more sympathetic to Ptak than Barbrook, I am concerned that interventions like “Wages for Facebook” will only get us so far. Referring to Facebook activity as “work” brings an issue that was hidden to the foreground, but it also seems to go right along with a broad trend in American discourse towards framing more and more activities within Capitalist and managerial categories. Referring to clicking like buttons as “work” and stating that ad-driven services treat users as “products” may serve the interest of social realism, but this rhetorical move could also backfire, feeding right into the madness that, for instance, leads people to obsess over their “personal brands” and use the word “metric” to refer to any sort of standard against something is to be judged, acting as if the entirety of the world worked like a marketing firm.

One writer who has noted this specific issue in oppositional discourse is Theodore Adorno. At the end of his book Minima Moralia, Adorno arrives at a critique of Hegelian dialectic from the perspective of the anti-fascist Left. One of the issues that he raises is the tendency of dialectical thought to inadvertently reinforce the system that it is meant to critique. To use Adorno’s example, the Left must acknowledge that the romantic view of marriage can cover up the exploitative economic relations that underlie the institution. But if we instead reframe marriage as a purely economic arrangement—realistic as this view may be—we can lose sight of the possibility that it could or should be something more. The structural analogy between the two sides of a dialectic, Adorno argues, makes the immediate division of Hegel’s followers into Left and Right factions inevitable—since the vocabulary of pro- and anti-Capitalist writing is necessarily similar, politics comes to be discernable less in the formal character of a work than in the social, institutional, and discursive formations in which it is enmeshed.

We might find an example of this structural analogy between Left and Right in Franco Moretti’s work on the literary marketplace, which we discussed last semester. In a cursory reading, Moretti’s Marxist account of the “slaughterhouse of literature” could easily be mistaken for a Capitalist analysis—the terms of discussion (market, product, consumer) are largely the same. Christopher Prendergast’s accusation that Moretti’s use of evolutionary ideas makes him a Social Darwinist is unfair, but I don’t think it’s too implausible that Moretti’s work could be mistaken for a Social Darwinist project on a cursory reading, given how much his terms of analysis borrow from this viewpoint. The difference is a hair’s breadth.

Adorno responds to this seeming bind with one of his most famous aphorisms: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption” (247). This formula suggests a different grounding for criticism that aims for transcendence rather than for “realism” of the sort that borrows its terms from the prevailing order. There are some ways in which this response is problematic, and it certainly dates itself as pre-1968. Adorno’s approach bears a suspicious resemblance to the positivist idea of a “view from nowhere;” and his big problem, of course, is his tendency to presume knowledge of what is best for other people. But I think this formula might still be useful in thinking about our own motivations in undertaking online labor. How would we articulate our reasons for blogging, for contributing to Wikipedia, or for clicking a like button if exploitation finally came to an end? How distorted would our activity appear from this standpoint? Framing the question in this way allows us to name the negative aspects of reality within terms that are not determined by the current order—but unlike the sort of techno-utopianism that peaked in the 1990s, it allows us to keep in mind that the alternative is, and perhaps will always remain, not wholly real.