This text is a first draft, trying to identify key topics for an inquiry into the new organisation of labour. It starts with a historic analysis and then explores the notion of Post-Fordism.Specific sections are devoted to cognitive capitalism, the creative industries, informational capitalism and the split between manual and mental labour. It ends with a modest proposal for an alternative path of development.
The motivation guiding this text is to provide some foundational ideas for a working group on labour, online and IRL in Vienna. I hope that the topics here are of interest to you and that you make use of the ability to comment, criticise, amend. If you are not already a subscriber to thenextlayer.org you need to register an account first to be able to add to this text. Newly registered accounts have to be switched open by the site administrator first, so their may be a delay between registration and the ability to post.
In this current version, there are no footnotes and bibliographic references. I have chosen this format to allow for a greater cohesion of the text, without direct quotes and hypertextual elements. In a future version references may be added. For now, I hope it is enough to say that of course this text has been written informed by and in dialogue with various sources of inspiration in literature and also stemming from conversations with friends. Among those people are, without any claim on completeness: John Barker, Richard Barbrook, Brian Holmes, Thomas Thaler, Saskia Sassen, Carlota Perez, Harry Braverman, Giovanni Arrighi, Beverly Silver, David Harvey, Michael J.Piore, Charles F.Sabel, Folker Fröbel, Jürgen Heinrichs, Otto Kreye, Karl Heinz Roth, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Armand Mattelart, Henry Lefevbre, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and others.
The human species cannot exist without work. Even if automation is driven to absurd limits, there will always be a rest of socially necessary labour. Labour is essentially the work of self-creation of the human species. And insofar this is true, there is no fixed or permanent understanding of labour and the social relationships which it is part of and which it creates. Therefore a reassessment of labour in the 21st century is urgently necessary.
We are interested in an inquiry inte the new organisation of labour not because we are obsessed with work. We also do not privilege in our analysis the wage-labour relationship. The question of labour of course implies forms of non-labour or what Marx called 'reproduction'; it implies idleness, affective labour, the labour of love, learning, experimentation and many other forms of labour which are not captured 100% by the notion of 'productive' labour in wage-labour relationships.
Our interest in labour is stimulated by the sense of crisis that reaches much deeper than the recent banking crisis and the ongoing market volatility. We think that we are going through a phase of transition during which either the tracks can be laid for a future development of human civilisation that is more beneficial in its relationship with the biosphere, including our own physical and mental resources; or we are bound to suffer from further rapid cycles of accumulation of capital and collapses, of speeded up developments and of break-downs, which will cause poverty, hunger and devastation on a global scale, but inadvertently hitting the poor much worse than those living in the comfort zone of the relatively wealthy countries.
We propose to undertake an inquiry which looks at the reality of living labour today. Putting labour into a central position is a methodological decision designed to counter the tendency of the reification of theories, a one-sided process of abstraction which creates false totalities.
This inquiry is informed by an underlying concept of periodisation or techno-economic paradigm change. While building on work previously done in this area, we think that existing models need to be enriched and improved to account for more than 'technological progress' linked to the rise and the fall of the profit rate. This work is urgent and necessary, but we cannot wait till it delivers 'final' results.
Our starting points include big chunky concepts such as Fordism and Post-Fordism and the transition from one to the other. By using such concepts one could be too easily tempted to fit history nicely into categorical boxes and according periodisations. It is again the methodological decision to look at labour as a 'secret history' which helps us to avoid such over-simplifications.
Since the beginning of industrialisation it was the application of the principle of the division of labour to mechanisation which drove economic development. To this constellation was added the Babbage principle, the idea that the capitalist can buy exactly that amount and level of skill of labour which he needs at an optimised (for the capitalist) price. This created a system of hierarchies and subdivisions, in which economic and political relationships were expressed in the production system. The machinery used in production was designed not only with the purpose of optimising quantitative output but also with a view of fragmenting and controlling labour power. Workers became appendages to the machine. The development of the productive forces became itself a political technology, a matter of techno-politics.
From ca. 1890 onwards the development of new industrial processes and new products became a systematic activity called Research and Development (R&D) and carried out by large corporations, in cooperation with and aided by the state. At about the same time scientific management was invented by F.W. Taylor. Taylor had observed that in factories it were actually the workers who were in control of the labour process, to a certain degree, unless the factory took strong measures to control them. In order to optimise the appropriation of surplus labour, control of the working process had to be wrested from workers. Through the introduction of centralised planning, step by step knowledge that belonged to the workers was divested on to management. Production processes were re-arranged in such a way that skilled labour was reduced, while the numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers working to the rhythm of the machine rose. This created not only the mass worker who was forced to carry out stupidifying and alienating repetitive labour, it also enabled the creation of large labour organisations who quickly gained significant political power.
The techno-politics of labour-vs-capital intensified with the introduction of the assembly line and the mass production of consumer goods. The huge cost of setting up production lines for mass production meant that companies needed not only to control the production process but also create markets for guaranteed levels of consumption in order to satisfy the valorisation needs of capital. In the 1920s a new form of production emerged, first in the U.S., which entailed the emergence of a number of important innovations: large scale production in factories organised according to the principle of assembly line production; the payment of wages above the minimum wage to secure peace, i.e. undisrupted production in the factory, and to create a mass market for consumption, the rise of advertisement to facilitate the creation of 'the consumer' and a corporate management hierarchy with divisions and sub-divisons, governed by a headquarter where the functions of costing and planning were centralised. While this system contained the seeds of what would later become called Fordism, it had not yet fully established into a paradigm in the 1920s. Labour relations were antagonistic, capitalists tried a mix of techniques of social control, from sheer coercian with violent union busting to some interstitial forms of reaching an accord between management and workers. The financial crisis of 1929, the depression afterwards and the rise of totalitarian regimes put an end to this early phase of proto-Fordism.
In the U.S. after 1938 and in Europe and Japan after 1945 a new settlement or social contract was established between workers and management. Workers gained some improvements in payment, collective bargaining rights and decision making about working conditions while accepting a hard pace of work under alienating conditions in highly mechanised factories. This new social, political and technological form called Fordism became generalised in the decades after the 2nd World War. It came together with a new social form, that of the large U.S. style corporation; it enabled a growing number of people in participating in the consumption of the fruits of productivity while at the same time suffering from the conditions they had to accept; and it brought into the labour market new social groups such as women, African Americans, Latin Americans or 'Gastarbeiter' in Europe.
During this phase the U.S. were at their peak as a hegemonic power. The U.S. did not only dominate through military projection of force but also by presenting itself as the most attractive model which was voluntarily followed by others. Its cultural industries in film, music, radio, television produced outputs which were eagerly adopted by people around the world, especially youths. The dynamic growth of media industries followed patterns similar to those of industrial production. The media helped to create close feedback cycles between production and consumption. They also circulated the message through constant massage that the West was the Best. The message produced by the media strove to provide orientation and guidance for cultural adaption to the mass production society in the Western empire. They did so not only through the concrete messages or 'content' of their productions but also through the structural properties of broadcast media. At some point the incremental growth of new media technologies also produced qualitative change. The media were not just mediating pre-existent content but became means of productions themselves and became central players in the technopolitics of the 20th century.
The Fordist workers did not only consume but created cultural forms of their own in the shape of a diversity of subcultures in music, fashion and life-style. From within the framework of mass production and consumption, the seeds for a counter-culture were beginning to blossom, creating links with earlier forms of resistant folk cultures. Already in the early 1960s cracks were showing up in the Fordist social contract. The defeat and cooptation of the working class was not permanent. Younger workers started to rebel against Fordist factory discipline. The compensation offered by consumption was increasingly perceived as not being satisfactory alone for having a good life. Women and ethnic minorities strove for political and personal emancipation.
The accelerated pace of scientific-technical innovation during and after WWII facilitated the introduction of a new level of rationalisation in production summarised by the term automation. First through analog electronic devices numerical control was introduced in the production line, which was later improved by the use of semi-conductors and from the 1970s by microprocessors and computerised numerical control (CNC). Workers in the factory became more and more like watchmen, keeping eyes on instrument dials and only intervening when necessary. While car production and other consumer goods were still the most recognisable areas of production, the flow processes of petro-chemical industries increasingly became the model for all production, turning the factory into a cybernetic system where the workers use less muscle and more often primarily add human judgement and 'information' to the production process. While this removed some of the physical strains of earlier forms of rationalisation, it increased psychological stress through the accumulation of functions and added the likelyhood of early burnout. In order to cope with the requirements of those new flow processes workers had to develop clandestine forms of cooperation - they had to break the rules to fulfil the plan. The stratification of jobs, hierarchies and levels of payment was less and less based on real differences in skills and education rather than social mystifications.
The increased use of scientific-technical knowledge in production and the growth of corporate organisations also induced the growth of aspects of office work, administration, engineering and planning. Sectors of work which during earlier stages of industrialisation had enjoyed a higher social status than work on the factory shop floor became subjected to the division of labour, scientific management and the Babbage principle. While the appearance was kept up that those jobs would be more desirable, in reality the conditions of office workers of various kinds were as alienating as those of the traditional working classes. Office workers, even those involved in engineering and planning, had only limited insight into the whole of the production process. Within the corporate hierarchy even the lower and middle layers of management became subjected to Taylorisation. The improvements in office machinery devalued the skills of many office workers as human skills were replaced by the mechanisation of the office.
As more and more countries introduced mass production following the model of Fordism, the valorisation of capital reached its limits. Because of global over-capacities and the saturation of the labour market, competition forced companies to try out new models to gain higher profit rates. Started by the textile and electronics industries, companies began moving production abroad into so called export-processing zones of low-wage countries. At their domestic sites of production firms introduced even higher levels of automation. This resulted in job losses and structural unemployment at home, while global trade became of ever greater importance. Aided by new techniques in transport and communication such as containerisation and international air freight, a new international division of labour developed. But the fruits of productivity spread unevenly across the world. Only a small number of countries, most notably in Eastern Asia, managed to use export-processing zones and technology transfer to build up domestic industries, an accordant knowledge base and an economy able to support a rising middle class. For many countries export processing meant growing inequality and the enrichment of a local capitalist class. In the long term, the promise of development was never made true. This led to rising social antagonism in the so called Third World. The U.S. as the worlds leading capitalist in many cases sided with right-wing authoritarian regimes to keep the global labour force under control. This, together with the Vietnam war, severely dented the image of the U.S. as a benevolent hegemon. Social antagonism spread to the core industrial countries erupting in May '68 and related, time-delayed revolts.
We can say with hindsight that social values changed. Fewer and fewer people in the rich countries found it desirable to work in a factory. At the same time the whole world was changed into a social factory. It was recognised that social struggles outside the factory were as important as those centred on industrial labour-capital relationships. Women's rights movements fought important battles against patriarchal social relationships. People in poorer countries in the global South as well as ethnic minorities began to make their voices heard against a unified history centred on Europe and its former key colonies of white settlers in America and Australaisa. As the new international division of labour penetrated ever more corners of the world, the traditional working class in the rich countries started to shrink. Individualism, the realisation of the self, became the new battle-cry of a generation which had lost any belief into the Fordist paradigm. It is an open question if the accelerated pace of relocation of more and more branches of industry to export-processing zones in low-wage countries was a reaction by capitalism to an increasingly unruly working class in the rich countries or if companies simply followed the profit motive, the competitive advantage of lower wages and less regulation regarding environmental protection and working conditions, such as shift work, night work, female and child labour.
In the late 1960s, early 1970s global capitalism started to enter a long crisis of declining rates of profit, stagnant or even declining real wages for the lower income groups and declining investment into R&D. The disappearance of the working class, with relatively high levels of permanent or structural unemployment led to a significant decline of the negotiating power of labour. The abolition of fixed currency exchange rates and the rise of financial markets started to transform the economies. A new market fundamentalism, known as neo-liberalism, spread from the U.S. and Britain. The Cold War delivered the pre-text for a permanent war economy, with high spending on permanent standing armies, high-tech killing machines and, in the case of the U.S., a high level of government funded research into key areas such as computer science and weapons related electronics and communication techniques. In the civilian domain digital and electronic technologies also started to spread from the late 1970s onwards, with personal computers, video games, cheap musical production equipment, cable and satellite TV. A privatised communication landscape promised new forms of more individual media consumption. The means of production for amateur or semi-skilled media production became affordable.
For a while, in the 1980s in Europe a new kind of bargain seemed in the air. While the power of large labour organisations and parties was in decline and working conditions became more flexible and precarious, the various minoritarian social struggles also made gains. People could live more individually than ever before, dress as they like, make love with whom and how they like, eat more varied foods, and so on and so forth. The rise of the neo-liberal condition of the political economy seemed to go hand in hand with more individual freedom. But with hindsight we can also say that such a bargain was either a self-delusion or a bluff or there never was a bargain. U.S. and British style neo-liberalism was socially conservative and if there were still any gains made in emancipatory struggles those were hard fought for and not granted by an enlightened leadership. What at first developed in non-commercial sectors such as the self-provision of organic food through cooperatives, the illegal house and techno-rave party in squats or abandoned factories, the rise of socio-cultural centres offering spaces for all kinds of self-organised groups, soon either became commercialised or went into decline.
What Is Post-Fordism?
Thus, what post-Fordism really entails is still quite difficult to tell. As jobs were exported from the rich countries to emerging economies, the overall number of people working in wage-labour conditions did not shrink but did grow. Yet if this can be called a displacement of Fordism is far from sure, as the new working classes did not enjoy the same improvements in pay and working conditions as had the workers in the highly developed countries in the decades from 1945-75. It seems also, however, to be a bit of a caricature to speak of post-Fordism or even a post-industrial society when the global level of industrial production rose, together with the exploitation of labour and natural resources. At the same time it is true that in the newly de-industrialised countries new service industries grew driven by the desires of people for individualisation and self-realisation in their working life. More and more people turned their hobbies or preferences of patterns of consumption into their jobs, from the second hand musical record shop to the yoga or shiatsu praxis, to healthy but high prized organic food and furniture. New demands in leisure and tourism fed the growth of the wellness-industries, dedicated to the reproduction of an increasingly frustrated workforce, prone to depressions and anxieties. Those developments only intensified during the 1990s and 2000s.
In industrial production a trend towards flexible specialisation has been proposed as a possible alternative to mass production. This means, that while large corporations still exist they became supplemented by growing numbers of smaller production facilities with highly skilled workers, capable of shifting their production to new products within short timeframes, therefore being able to adapt more quickly to the ever changing demands of ever more fickle consumers. Yet since flexible specialisation has first been noticed new centralisations have also occured. It is therefore not really possible to speak of flexible specialisation as the new leading industrial paradigm.
The rise of flexible specialisation has partly also to do with the re-structuring strategies of larger companies during the long phase of industrial decline from the 1970s onwards. The multi-divisional corporation has undergone top-down restructurings with decentralisation of many decision making processes into different branches or even making those branches wholly independent, while keeping a few financial and planning capabilities under centralised control. Many thus restructured corporations switched to financial speculation and mergers and aquisitions as a way of returning a profit and growth. (The electronic company Siemens has been called "a bank with an associated electronics shop".)
This simultaneous de-re-centralisation has facilitated the rise of specialised service industries from logistics to producer services, with a big demand for, on one hand, highly skilled 'creative' input for key management functions (innovation, marketing, PR, brand strategies, etc.) and on the other hand a growing low-wage service sector with a high degree of invisibility. While the high value jobs are concentrated in the beautifully restaurated city centres the low-wage job sectors are occupied by people on the fringes of society, often geographically separated and dispersed, commuting in and out of work at dusk and dawn.
The role that new technologies have played is highly ambiguous. For creative workers the dissemination of new media production equipment, computers and the internet has meant that they now own the means of production, yet this has not brought the liberatory effects once imagined to be the result of such a step. It now shows that owning the means of production is not enough if one does not have ways of valorising one's work somehow in the capitalist economy.
The Information Commons
Yet some strongly motivated social groups have managed to use the emancipatory potential of new media and have had some intermediate successes in disrupting capitalist consolidation and expansion processes (Seattle). Inside the most advanced sector of the capitalist economy a high-tech gift economy has grown and has created a growing digital commons of free software and liberated cultural goods which enter the public domain not as commodities but items which can be used as public goods. The hacker ethic has provided the world with examples how a post-capitalist stage could be reached.
But can we have post-capitalism in one sector? Is digital socialism a real possibility or just another self-delusion faced, as the digitall commons is surrounded by with various threats, from anti-file sharing legislation to the appropriation of free labour by corporations such as Apple and Google? And, last not least, have not the largely unsuccessful attempts to transfer the hacker ethics to areas other than software and digital cultural goods shown that this new mode of production called peer-based commons production works best with bits and bytes due to the special properties of information, i.e. making 'free' or very cheap copies, non-exhaustability of digital commodities (making copies does not wear out the original) and the great malleability and re-usability of code? Our proposed inquiry will have to look more deeply into the social contexts as well as the global variables that make free software and other public digital goods possible.
The Digital Panopticon
At the same time networks, computers and audiovisual techniques have made the surveillance of the workforce possible on a scale hardly imaginable before. The tendency of the factory as the ideal panopticon has been realised with the digital panopticon in industries such as call centres and transport, where every step, every key-stroke, every move is under permanent, centralised and mediated control. The work of many people is now completely ruled by code, the reification of processual knowledge embedded in 'the internet of things' designed not only to govern over call centre workers and other desktop jobs but also the work of bank tellers, parcel and delivery services, waiters, nurses and even doctors, the rationale governing the development of those technologies being efficiency increases and the power to control workers' activities in minute detail. This is sold to society as increased 'transparency' while management boardrooms and kitchen cabinets of executive government enjoy mafia-like protection levels of their own privacy, i.e. secrecy and unaccountability.
The most important changes that networks and digital technologies have enabled are probably in the area of financial speculation. Financial markets started to grow after the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. However, it is only since the late 1990s and the 2000s that we can speak of a full fledged financialism. Complex financial instruments are employed in real-time speculation on computerized markets. Buying and selling of shares and derivatives is automated and carried out in time-spans smaller than milliseconds. The free movement of capital between global markets hangs like a Damokles sword over national economies, currencies, regions. Financial capital has become innovative and feeds on itself in speculative bubbles whose bursting, however, causes real pain in the economy. The rise of finance coincided with the dawn of U.S. hegemony. The ruling class of the hegemonic power is using the centrality of its institutions in the world system to cash in before its hegemony crumbles.
The condition described as financialism relies on the global cities as its core sites of production. There, agglomeration effects among producer services support the central industry, finance. With the financial industry as engine of growth, all other sectors need to adapt to it according to its laws.As always, the leading technological form of production becomes generalised. But what would this mean in the case of the financial industries? What is the mode of production of financialism? How does it affect, how can it be a model for other industries?
The securitisation of risk which was behind the latest bubble separated the risk of lending from the responsibility to check if those who borrow will ever be able to pay back. The 'assets' created by the financial industries seemingly out of thin air, i.e. high-end mathematics used to repackage and bundle debt, increasingly look like a form of tribute, a one sided appropriation of value created by others through their labour. Financial markets are driven by the expectation of extremely high profits realised within short time spans. This pressure has pervaded more and more industries. It has driven real estate prices in the global cities and their smaller, regional global cities to extreme heights; it has driven food and raw material prices up; it has invested into speculative markets such as future technologies and contemporary arts; it has created demand for producer services in communication, PR, marketing, corporate identy, and a variety of branches of the creative industries.
The term cognitive capitalism describes a shift away from manufacturing towards knowledge as a key new source of profit. Beginning already in the 1960s, techno-scientific innovation, patents and other immaterial commodities have been recognised as key areas to secure competitive advantages for corporations and national economies. While there is still an artificial distinction kept up between 'pure' and applied research the majority of scientific research is now carried out by large corporations, sometimes in collaboration with universities. A revolving doors system has developed between natural sciences departments of universities, government 'innovation' quangos and corporations. Thus, even if a department formally belongs to a public university, its goals usually are of a commercial nature. Specialised departments for the valorisation of intellectual property (IP) have been created at many universities. Together with companies, those business centres and research offices of universities compete for EU and domestic research funding whose orientation is towards applications and the market, not 'pure' research. Funding agencies on a domestic or EU level have great power in agenda setting through the structure of the research funding programs they manage. Scientists have to fine-tune their applications to match the requirements and expectations of the funding agencies. While the official language aims at 'innovation' and 'cutting-edge' research, the structure of those programs and the, usually unacknowledged, social agenda behind them is socially conservative.
This creates the impression that techno-scientific innovation is like an automaton, an unstoppable force controllable by no one. While this is of course a typical capitalist mystification, an accumulation of reified thinking and false consciousness over 250 years, it appears also to be true to some extent, at least within the current system and the limits which it creates for democratic participation in the direction of techno-scientific change.The directions that science and technology take are of benefit to corporartions and financial capital while those developments heighten existing inequalities within highly developed economies and between them and the poorer countries who have no chance to create a competitive techno-scientific research complex of their own.
The Proletarisation of Intellectual Labour
For scientists cognitive capitalism is a double edged sword, because on one hand it has enabled a dramatic growth of the worldwide numbers of scientists, research centres and innovation labs, yet on the other hand scientists have become a highly exploited and flexible workforce with little or no control over the fruits of their work - a classic definition of the proletariat. Scientists work on isolated subjects in compartmentalised research projects with little overview over the whole of their project, while they are under close supervision of research managers. Their job situation is, especially for the younger ones, highly insecure as their positions are dependent on corporate funding or succesful applications for national and EU funding. Many scientists find themselves frequently unemployed for longer periods between jobs, or working for years on part time jobs or in non-paying positions such as internships, while they also have to go where the funding is. The pursuit of science has become one of the most globalised businesses, many researchers find themselves moving from one city to the next every one to three years or they live in one city while they work in another. This has negative effects for their chances of having a family, a situation which disadvantages female researchers or discourages them from having children in the first place.
From traditional types of office work to science and engineering the proletarisation of intellectual labour is progressing. While the content of the work is quite different from that of manual labourers, the formal relationships under which scientific labour is carried out is that of dependent wage labour.
Manual and Mental Labour
The separation of manual and mental labour is not only one of the most basic ideological foundations underpinning capitalism, it has also been the result of as well as the driving force behind age-old class divisions. With the introduction of coin money and the development of commodity exchange on markets as the most significant form of relationship between (and to a lesser degree within) societies since the 7th century B.C. the split between manual and mental labour has also driven the genesis of idealistic philosophy and pure, abstract knowledge. Cognitive capitalism is only the latest step in this development, yet together with financialism has evolved into a system which fetishises information to an extent as never before. We appear to be ruled by information. While this is of course fetish thinking, as a surface appearance it can be perceived as true. The ownership of information and the ability to act on that information - preferably in real-time - characterises the ruling class of informational capitalism. While this strengthens the dominance of incumbents, mega-corporations, holders of large amounts of patents, hoarders of intellectual property and other 'data-lords', it also creates contradictions, for instance by becoming an obstacle to innovations. (Cognitive capitalism as a term introduced by leftists to criticise developments such as those described in the paragraphs above is also a bit misleading as it gives the impression that capitalism has somehow become more intelligent when all it has done is to have become better at appropriating intelligence and driving the polarisation between manual and mental labour to new extremes.)
The catch all term creative industries describes another aspect of the expansion of capital into areas which have until recently existed as kind of protected islands within it. The desire for self-realisation through creative labour has been identified, first by the British government, then by governments around the world, as a potential source for economic growth. While now, more than ten years after the first creative industries mapping exercise by the British governments, the facts do not support this proposition, creative industries policies cling on to the myth of creativity as the new economic powerhouse. Those policies often are linked with plans for urban gentrification, using arts and culture as a pretext for what is called 'revitalisation' of run-down areas, areas which have become economically dilapidated due to the voluntary de-industrialisation of the rich countries.
While the idea that the creative industries can replace manufacturing as a major growth industry seems absurd, those policies have a profound effect on the conditions suffered by cultural producers and on the perception of the role of art and culture in society. As cities compete as locations for investment into growth industries, they invest relatively large sums into a festival culture, an event culture which exhibits, shows, presents, performs art and culture high-and-low without investing into the base of cultural and artistic creativity. This event culture turns the city into a spectacle of creativity, while its one-sided orientation towards events actually undermines the conditions for nurturing creativity. As a result, on one hand there is a growing sphere of arts and culture which submits itself to instrumentalisation, while on the other hand critical practices in the arts are a minoritized activity, consigned to shrinking protected spheres where a relative freedom of expression is still granted, yet so marginalised that they can hardly dream of emulating neo-avantgardes that transcend the borders between art and life, resorting to a self-delusional language of 'artistic interventions' of limited impact.
It is no coincidence that student protests in Vienna started at the Academy of Fine Arts and spread from there to the main university. The critique of the creative industries has created awareness among art students about their future prospects either as precarious workers in an instrumentalised culture of the spectacle or as even more precarious radical artists. The protests started when the Bologna process, a commitment by EU countries to re-structure their education systems along Anglo-American lines - into a BA. MA, PhD structure - hit the Academy of Arts. The students at University of Vienna where restructuring had already happened shared a widespread dissatisfaction which needed only the spark from the Arts Academy to result in occupations, demonstrations and a wide variety of self-organised activities. The major thrust of this protest is to restore free university education as a pragmatic ideal. Discussions on the media have made the frontlines pretty clear. even the liberal press agrees that the Bologna process has gone all wrong, that it is basically an attempt of streamlining higher education along capitalist criteria. In cognitive capitalism the university itself has become a site of production and students and precarious ,members of staff, teachers on low-pay and flexible contracts, protest against exploitation and the centralisation of decision making power in the hands of university management.
It is not so clear if those students are aware of what awaits them in professional life after study. It is not only the case that jobs traditionally occupied by people with academic training are more rare, the majority of those jobs will also be more badly paid than in the past and the working conditions will bear the traits of the proletarisation of intellectual labour. Yet many will have no job at all and will be forced into self-managed careers in the creative industries or producer services. In those areas self-management will be synonymous with pimping one's own creative identity to potential customers within extremely uneven power relationships.
Informal Labour Relationships
As a hypothesis we propose that in those areas a development is under way which moves from 'flexible' and 'precarious' relationships to an even higher degree of informality. Powerful clients, lean corporations buying in creative talent for limited periods and tasks, have the choice on a crowded market of independent agents competing against each other through price dumping and levels of servitude. The legal framework offers those who pimp their personality little protection so that they often have to accept acting on the basis of trust. This means that the risk starts with 'pitching' a proposal to a client, who has no obligation to honor this trust and can take the proposed ideas and carry them out with someone working for less. Even when work has already been done, projects often stall and clients simply refuse to pay, or pay only parts of agreed sums. Contracts, if they exist, are not worth the paper they are printed on as the power relationships are so unequal.
Informal labour relationships are of course also characteristic for the lowest paid jobs or those eeking out an existence outside capitalist relationships. The exploitation of cheap labour in emerging economies can still rely on an immense reservoir of surplus labour, on people who are not even part of the modern economy or who begin to climb its lower rungs. Absurd policies try to deter and punish 'economic migrants' while at the same time those who make it to rich countries are often forced into shadow economies where the level of exploitation is even worse than in the legal low wage sector, with dangerous jobs in completely unrelgulated areas. The existence of such a huge reserve army is used as a pseudo-argument against the necessary introduction of a basic income.
Rather than the celebrated end of work we have a crisis of un-employment, underemployment and over-employment at the same time. Capitalism is creating poverty amidst the plenty. The inequalities which capitalism creates are central to the appropriation of surplus value. With the informalisation of the relationship between capital and labour, appropriation takes on aspects known from before capitalism: one-sided appropriation by sheer command, by force, through indentured labour, exploitation within families, clans or ethnic minority communities. Yet the contradicitions which capitalism creates also show a self-destructive tendency. As workers are denied a living wage that would allow them to be also consumers, the global production line runs into limits.
Those limits are not only of social origin but have reached levels where the global biosphere is endangered. We can already see on the horizon the threat of an authoritarian green capitalism which tries to solve climate change and energy problems with the same old measures - a financialisation of the problem through carbon emission trading schemes, energy futures and a newfound desire for 'innovation' expressing itself in buzzwords such as 'social innovation' or 'open innovation'. We are not discussing the merits of one or the other proposal but we are not holding our breath.
Alternative Paths of Development
Recent years have seen a rising tendency of projects trying to combine cooperative and collaborative working practices with environmental and technological issues. Alternative technologists are building low-cost solutions based on the open-sourcing of knowledge on a much broader base than just software. Free software and permacultures, do-it-yourself technologies for the production of machine tools, developments aiming at energy autarky and autonomy for small communities on the countryside, urban farming and food cooperatives in big cities, new alliances based on solidarity between producers and the de-commodification of local economies with their own currencies: there are many, many such initiatives, and while currently they may still be too small and insignificant compared to the huge machinery of informational capitalism and financialism, those micro-political reforms all point into a similar direction, toward the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production consisting of isolated owners of goods who enter exchanges based on the abstract money form of value. Instead, those new initiatives are based on mutual exchanges between producers working within a cooperative mindset where the separations between mental and manual labour become increasingly teared down, with the genuine chance that a new kind of society can emerge.