Tagged: labor

The Book of Rutger (17:3): Abstract, Living, and Immaterial Labor

“Charlton Heston is an axiom of cinema.” So declared the great French film critic, Andre Bazin.  Yet, once Heston gave up the cinematic ghost – – some time between Soylent Green (1973) and his appearance in Dynasty (1985) and then The Dame Edna Experience (1987), who could replace Hollywood’s Last Hard M[a]n (1976)?

Enter Rutger Hauer, the blue-eyed Dutch import who crashed onto American screens in 1982’s still-canonical dystopic epic, Blade Runner.  In one single scene (see below), Hauer wrote the first chapter of the Book of Rutger.

From this brilliant apogee, Hauer’s career began its stolid decline into the depths of post-Korman B movies – – B-movies, that magic zone where the quest for quick profits pulls cinema closer and closer to the sensationalism of current reality, throwing up – – in the process – –  a dark, glittering forest of social allegory.

Born in 1944, Hauer was no nubile tulip when he appeared in Blade Runner at age 38. Yet, one could almost say that Hauer’s true “Earthquake” phase began with 1989’s The Blood of Heroes, where he co-starred with Joan Chen, soon to breakout in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. And so, Hauer wended his way through a series of similar ersatz Blade Runner ripoffs, swords and unicorns fantasies, and post-Hitcher, scary-strung-out-dude-with-a-slightly-off-accent epics until I recently caught up with him in 1999’s cyber-crime thriller, New World Disorder, where he teams up with another in-decline but non-axiomatic Hollywood b-teamer, Andrew McCarthy.

Hauer’s turn as David Marx, a washed-up, rotund detective assigned to the cold case file of a “Silicon Valley” police department, appears at first as a study in ironies.  Roy Batty, whose buff, Aryan presence betrays genetic engineering’s paucity of imagination, has gotten more life, and it’s not a pretty thing.  The contrast between Blade Runner and New World Disorder (a too literal gloss perhaps on Ridley Scott’s opus) bears cruel witness to the intrusion of cellulite into celluloid, of real time – – wrinkles, expanding waists, diminishing energies – – into film’s timelessness.  Classic movies persist impervious to fading on tape and disc, but actors have to keep working.

By 1999, Roy Battie has become Rick Dekkard (Blade Runner‘s Harrison Ford), the grizzled, burned-out veteran of life on the streets.  Still, in recycling one of the oldest topes of the cop procedural (rookie meets vet, vet hates rookie, vet comes to love and cherish rookie), New World Disorder manages to entangle itself in a fundamental question of “post-Fordist” society: what does labor mean when bytes have replaced atoms?  Both movies orbit around questions of labor, New World Disorder more directly and Blade Runner more indirectly.  (Recall that the problem in Blade Runner begins with an android revolt in an off-world mine.  And, Ray and his fellow ‘droids repeatedly confront Dekkard with the accusation of their slavery.) But, in 1999, here’s how veteran, David Marx (Hauer) and hot shot, FBI, cyber-crime rookie, Kris Paddock (Tara Fitzgerald) first butt heads over this thorny issue:

Technology upends seniority.  Time (of police procedure) and place (scene of the crime) have been dissolved into the “virtual world.”  The old way of work – – “sifting through old bones, revisiting crime scenes over and over again, waiting weeks for lab results” – – just doesn’t cut it any more.  Effective cops work with networks, gigabytes, connectivity, and ip packets. “It’s not the computer firing the bullets,” but when you’re hunting down thieves who steal software (in this case, a super-security program reminiscent of the Carnivore project), tote laptops, plug into ethernet connections, download onto zip drives, and drive cool, black motorcycles (all circa 1999), a good cop has to give up shoe leather for immaterial labor.

And, with the hint of David’s last name in mind, that’s the conflict that connects the disorder and not-so-early sorrow of 1999’s Hauer to questions of immaterial labor.  “Immaterial labor” is the term used by Maurizio Lazzarato in a highly influential essay to describe the shift from the manufacture of things to the  manufacture of “the ‘informational content’ of the commodity.”  Lazzarato argues that immaterial labor fundamentally reorganizes contemporary work; in focusing on the informational content of the commodity, the capitalist regime seeks to extract surplus value based on the “ability to activate and manage productive cooperation.  The workers must become ‘active subjects’ in the coordination of the different functions of production, instead of being subjected to it as a simple command.”  Capitalist work harvests “rich subjectivities” through new structures of cooperation and communication and “so to speak, exists only in the form of network and flow.”  And, as Lazzaroti notes, contemporary capitalism exploits the blurry line between consumption and production, employment and non-employment.  Pre-carity – – the insecurity of employment amongst young people, professionals, and workers in general – – represents a “virtual” form of immaterial labor.  All those hours on Facebook are training missions in immaterial labor.

If Hauer needed Blade Runner to break out of the minuscule Dutch media world, Lazzarato’s concept would have to wait for Negri and Hardt’s Empire to break out into the wider world of post-Marxist theory.  There, besides announcing that immaterial labor had now become the dominant form of labor, Negri and Hardt refined Lazzarato’s concept into a triptych: immaterial labor consists of three types of labor – – industrial production that has been informationalized (think Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine), analytical and symbolic tasks (think Robert Reich’s “symbolic analysts“), and the production and manipulation of affect (think the “softer” version of the service sector).  Like Lazarrato, Negri and Hardt play up the ambivalences inherent in this new category of labor: capitalism increasingly depends on self-managed, networked, and collectively intelligent laborers, even as the necessary autonomy of this labor strains against traditional forms of capitalist control and regulation.

You can see why immaterial labor seems so exciting to pundits of the new informational or digital economy.  The “californian ideology” of Wired magazine and its ilk, for instance, puts web designers, coders, innovators, and app-producers at the center of the digital economy because, in large part, they are the avant garde of immaterial labor – – networked, self-managed, entrepreneurial, and engrossed – – on the clock and off the clock – – in the byte-world of informational flow.  Richard Barbrook has mercilessly skewered this ideology and its consequences, and Tiziana Terranova has offered a powerful, if fragmentary anatomy of the “outernet”  – –  “the network of social, cultural and economic relationships which criss-crosses and exceeds the Internet – – surrounds and connects the latter to larger flows of labour, culture and power.”  Nick Dyer-Witheford and Steve Wright, the brilliant chronicler of Italian “autonomous” marxism, have offered similarly smart, provocative criticisms of immaterial labor.

Yet, missing from these critiques is perhaps a more fundamental flaw in the idea of immaterial labor.  Whether immaterial labor is the dominant form of labor today, or whether it can be discerned into diptychs or triptychs, for immaterial labor to produce value for capitalism, it must become abstract labor.  That is, capitalism’s ability to exploit the “free labor” of wiki-writers, Facebook users, and blog-posters depends on the alienation of worker from labor, the transformation of concrete labor into abstract labor.  Or, as Marx wrote: “The capitalist epoch is, therefore, characterized by this, that labor-power takes in the eyes of the laborer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labor consequently becomes wage-labor.”  As Raya Dunayevskaya (C.L.R. James’s compadre in the Johnson-Forest Tendency) noted long ago, the “cooperative” aspects of capitalist work are nothing new: “The ‘pecular form’ [of cooperative labor under capitalism] is also due to the fact that the laborers have sold their individual, isolated labor power. But since there are many such laborers, the capitalists must make cooperators out of them, but cooperators who must fructify with their living labor the value of the past labor incorporated in the machine but which is in actuality labor of the laborers themselves in alienated form.”  Immaterial labor turns out, then, to be a sociological description – – a pretty interesting and fruitful description of new, different kinds of work which now seem to flourish within the capitalist regime of alienated labor.  In other words, the content of labor may have changed (Fordist workers made cars and blenders on the assembly line, many of today’s workers make smiles and french fries) but the form (abstract labor) remains the same.

By its conclusion,  New World Disorder submits to the control of Hollywood convention: grizzled veteran learns to appreciate computers and brash rookie learns to appreciate bullets and procedure.  The “date” between Marx and Paddock cements this happy algorithm with a kiss.  Yet, despite it’s predictable generational reconciliation, New World Disorder may inadvertently also offer a final comment on immaterial labor.  Perhaps the real problem with immaterial labor is that it depends on a too strict dichotomy between Fordist and post-Fordist labor.  As John Holloway reminds us, “the only way in which we can understand the capitalist forms of social relations (and, at their center, abstract labor) is as forms swollen with their own negation, forms that do not contain their content, but from which their content constantly overflows.”  Abstract and living (or concrete) labor are two antagonistic aspects of labor under capitalism.  “There is a non-identity between them: doing [concrete labor] does not fit in to abstract labor without a remainder.  There is always a surplus, an overflowing.  There is always a pushing in different directions.”  Indeed, there would be no need for capitalism’s dense, fierce, and costly practices of control, on and off the job, if this antagonism didn’t threaten the ultimate goal: surplus value.

Immaterial laborists too easily cast the antagonism between living and abstract labor into strict historical sequence: before, in the factory, abstract labor ruled; today, in the software design firm, living labor dominates. The Book of Rutger tells us otherwise: Roy Batty’s “I want more life” testifies that even the most extreme imagination of abstract labor (programmed from his DNA upward to be a model worker) cannot stifle the ecstasies of living labor.