INVASION OF THE CRICKET BREEDERS (Sommer 98)
Fire burns in the rubbish bins at the market. It is snowing, children huddle
around the flames. Like gouty crows, they hop from one foot to the other,
while the wind tugs at their dark coats. At the edge of the city, where
they used to drink vodka, the washing is frozen on the lines in the provisional
tin-roofed ring around Stockholm. Pink-colored sheets glow against the dark
background with its satellite antennas and solar energy units. The whirling
windmill that belongs to somebody alternative turns continuously, indicating
the gigantic hydro-culture forests as it whizzes by. Actually it is summer,
and capitalism does not seem so far off track as science fiction literature
imagined it would be fifteen years ago. In the Scandinavian metropolises
there is less trace of the collapse of public order than its opposite. There
is no outbreak of chaos; the society that is left following the collapse
of the East Block is slowly crumbling away behind a facade of normalcy.
There are many helping to weave this surface, in order to cover up how they
are falling out of this order themselves.
In his new book "Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences
of Work in the New Capitalism", Richard Sennet attempts to outline
the psychosocial effects of a working world in the process of restructuring.
The American sociologist's study, written to appeal to a wide audience,
centers around the collapse of the "grand narrative" in the biography
of the individual. In addition, according to Sennet, the mobilization of
production leads to an increasing lack of commitment on the part of the
workers and subsequently to a loss of social responsibility.
The linear career is superseded by an only partially meaningful patchwork
of various activities in increasingly temporary contexts. As soon as the
project, the job, is finished, the team is disbanded.
Due to their technical abstraction, many of the new jobs are hardly able
to provide employees with a possibility of identification. Often the jobs
are only made endurable by regular job changes. Sennet describes this development
using the example of a high-tech bakery, where pushing buttons is only a
transitory station for the people employed there. Yet the American's analysis
reveals little scope for maneuvering, but rather seems defined by immutable,
almost fated circumstances. In the selected case studies there seems to
be a strangely sentimental, almost conservative subtext emerging, evoking
what has grown up through time, a solid social grounding. With the example
of the bank, Sennet codes the biographical discontinuity arising from the
changing world of work at the dawn of the post-industrial age as negative.
It is grotesque when Sennet, in an evocation historically supported by Adam
Smith, describes routine work in the often life-long, dull jobs of Fordism
in terms of their function in establishing identity. An intellectual, whose
success has afforded him the various privileges of mobility, waxes enthusiastic
about the felicitous rootedness of working on the assembly line. At the
same time, this assembly line requires a degree of skill from the worker,
so that he is not able to switch from burger industry to auto industry to
computer industry within only a few days. In its perspectives curtailed
by the popular science form, Sennet's skepticism with regards to capitalism's
most recent wave of developments appears to have little political context
and exhausts itself in apprehensions. There is almost no indication anywhere
of perspectives, let alone a subversive potential. What is left in the end
is primarily a value-conservative critique of capitalism, such as may be
found in the feature sections of middle-class newspapers stabilizing the
system in the same way.
More resistive than Sennet's is the critical observation of a world of work
growing more diffuse, as formulated by Toni Negri. The Italian author, recently
returned from exile in France and currently imprisoned, observes the new
formations of capitalism less from the vantage point of a "professional
sociologist" than of a political activist. In his writing, he is interested
in opening up latitudes of action. As Negri states, "the point is to
avoid falling back into the terminology of a purely economic logic when
describing the transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism." In other words,
it is a question of opposing the presumed dictates of economy, with which
a currently dominant discourse attempts to assert the interests of capital
over better political insights and to maintain that this dominance of economic
interests is practically a natural given.
Negri traces a development that began in the seventies as a reaction to
the commencing dispersion of the northern Italian industrial proletariat
in a network of small businesses supplying large corporations and subsequently
maintains: "New distributions of labor do not exclusively accommodate
the interests of the industrialists. They are also among the results of
the struggle against wage labor and a consequence of the collective endeavor
to overcome it." Negri regards his approach of revealing the subversive
origins of new distributions of labor as an example that is characteristic
of a specific region, yet this approach could be also productive in a broader
application. A renewed differentiation attempts to recharge blocked energies
and resistive approaches.
Negri's text underlines the long historical development precursive to the
current transition. In this way he contradicts a representation of the restructuring
of economy, which is reduced to a term that has been elevated from a historical
no-man's-land: globalization. This term that has been so frequently invoked
as the key to the logic of capitalist development is hardly to be admired
like the eighth wonder of the world, even though that is often the case.
As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in the "Manifesto": "The
bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production,
by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the
most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities
are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate
hatred of foreigners to capitulate... (etc.)." 150 years ago the image
of the global village may have been more metaphorically intended than it
reads this summer.
Sometimes it almost seems as though some of Marx's analyses, which allegedly
went out of fashion earlier in this decade as a consequence of the failure
of the socialist experiment, might only now be realized to their full extent.
For instance, Marx used the example of a table to describe the appearance
of the thing as commodity, as the transition from the material to the transcendent.
In the market it not only stands with all four feet on the ground, "but
in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head and evolves
out of its wooden brain the most grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than
'table-turning' ever was." Originally, Marx regarded these grotesque
ideas as being as lively as crickets springing forth from the wooden brain,
and this surreal image was already based on the insight that the mystical
character of commodities could hardly be the result of their use-value.
Under the conditions of oversaturated markets in the metropolises, work
more and more frequently means producing this kind of surrealism, in which
the heads of Medusas and dancing tables are still among the most harmless
items from the bottom shelf.
In a continuation of Marx, the Italian theorist Maurizio Lazzarato, who
comes from Negri's circle, describes the rapidly increasing significance
of "immaterial work", in other words the communication of commodities,
as a "silent revolution." An involvement with the context of the
commodities will become considerably more important than production. The
framework, in which the staging of commodities is to take place, as yet
a barely existent demand, is explored in every detail. Here, immaterial
work forms an "interface" between production and consumption.
Activities emerge in this way, which are as yet barely recognizable as work.
To begin with, immaterial work calls to mind cocaine, canvassers or content
hunters buoyantly prowling through the night in search of the newest feeling
of life. But of course I am also exploiting myself here in a practically
hobby-like environment, as I attempt to write this article. I also read
the books first of all in my free time, as it used to be called, and convince
myself that I am fervently interested in the questions. If this is not the
case, then those who have commissioned the work may be quite disappointed.
Another raw material that I utilize at the same time is the "ideological
milieu" in which I move, because I naturally talk about my texts in
the kitchen or at the bar and then integrate these dialogues. Communication
thus increasingly becomes part of a process of utilization, from which I
cannot even be fired, because I am not in an employed position. The fact
that I vastly prefer this "hyper-exploitation", as Lazzarato terms
it, to a single day in the ordered circumstances of routine work may seem
at first surprising. This mentality has been schooled in a praxis of self-organization,
or that which has come to be known in the departments of culture in large
corporations as a "post-bourgeoisie attitude." Yet it actually
seems to be more a case of a general absorption into a middle-class state
of mind with no financial latitude.
Through the involvement with their subjectivity, the growing number of communication
workers are entering the terrain of artistic or cultural work, which was
formerly a privilege of the middle class, but they must utilize this involvement
much more intensively. Lazzarato accords social struggles a significant
role in this "mass intellectualization." Like Negri, he locates
the point of departure for this development in the early seventies. Following
Lazzarato's line of reasoning, however, the concomitant autonomization of
the producers only conditionally indicated an emancipatory development and
sometimes even the contrary, since the call to "become subjects"
harmonizes repeatedly with the interests of capital. Thus the company appropriates
an even greater portion of productive energy, which is modified in keeping
with needs newly arising due to services and communication. The essential
change is to be found in a shift in the relationship between the capitalist
and the worker, since the latter now becomes active in a business sense
himself. What was originally resistive, this revolt of "microeconomics
against macroeconomics", has been increasingly integrated in the utilization
If one observes the resistive potential of microeconomic forms, such as
those proposed by the science fiction author William Gibson in his novel
"Neuromancer" in the mid-eighties, the conditions appear to be
arranged in a quite orderly manner and well channeled. In light of today's
orderly arranged circumstances, in which worms grow out of chains of signs
and platinum shapes from super-autonomous contexts do what they want, the
subversive energies that Gibson invokes read like a world that has vanished
into a black hole.
Professing a defusion may sound as though it provides little in the way
of perspectives, but it could be considered as a possibility. This integration
also opens up new fields in which strategies of subversion can form now.
This term, which was diluted into a non-word during the eighties, seems
to have become meaningful again, as the surplus of resistance has been dammed
up in previously unimagined places. And the horizons of the strategy for
overcoming current crises by transferring production reveal ever more amazing
forms of breeding crickets. It seems that Karl Marx once again has something
to say about the perspectives of these kinds of self-overtaking and self-distorting
revolutions of capitalism.
Published in Siksi (Helsinki) 9.98
Translation by Aileen Derieg