Hans-Christian Dany


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The linear career is superseded by an only partially meaningful patchwork of various activities in increasingly temporary contexts.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 process.
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