Radical media, politics and culture.

Bifo, "Info-Labour and Precarisation"

"Info-Labour and Precarisation"

Franco Berardi (Bifo), Generation online,

"We have no future because our present is too volatile. The only possibility that
remains is the management of risk. The spinning top of the scenarios of the present
moment." — W. Gibson: Pattern recognition, tr. It. L'accademia dei sogni

In February 2003 the American journalist Bob Herbert published in the New York
the results of a cognitive survey on a sample of hundreds of unemployed
youths in Chicago: none of their interviewees expected to find work the next few
years, none of them expected to be able to rebel, or to set off large scale
collective change. The general sense of the interviews was a sentiment of profound
impotence. The perception of decline did not seem focused on politics, but on a
deeper cause, the scenario of a social and psychical involution that seems to
cancel every possibility of building alternatives.

The fragmentation of the present time is reversed in the implosion of the future.In The Corrosion of Character: the Transformation of Work in Modern Capitalism
(Norton: 1998; tr. It. L'Uomo Flessibile), Richard Sennett reacts to this
existential condition of precariousness and fragmentation with nostalgia for a past
epoch in which life was structured in relatively stable social roles, and time had
enough linear consistency to construe paths of identity. "The arrow of time is
broken: in an economy under constant restructuring that is based on the short-term
and hates routine, definite trajectories no longer exist. People miss stable human
relations and long term objectives." (R. Sennett: The Corrosion of Character)

But this nostalgia has no hold on present reality, and the attempts to reactivate
the community remain artificial and sterile.

In the essay "Precari-us?", Angela Mitropoulos observes that precariousness is a
precarious notion. This because it defines its object in an approximate m anner,
but also because from this notion derive paradoxical, self-contradictory, in other
words precarious strategies. If we concentrate our critical attention on the
precaricious character of job performance what would our proposed objective be?
That of a stable job, guaranteed for life? Naturally no, this would be a cultural
regression that would definitely subordinate the role of work. Some started to
speak of Flexicurity to mean forms of wage independent of job performance. But we
are still far from having a strategy of social recomposition of the labour movement
to extricate ourselves from unlimited exploitation. We need to pick up again the
thread of analysis of the social composition and decompositon if we want to
distinguish possible lines of a process of recomposition to come.

In the 1970s the energy crisis, the consequent economic recession and fin ally the
substitution of work with numerical machines resulted in the formation of a large
number of people with no guarantees. Since then the question of the precarity
became central to social analysis, but also in the ambitions of the movement. We
began by proposing to struggle for forms of guaranteed income, uncoupled from
work, in order to face the fact that a large part of the young population had no
prospect of guaranteed employment. The situation has changed since then, because
what seemed a marginal and temporary condition has now become the prevalent form
of labour relations. Precariousness is no longer a marginal and provisional
characteristic, but it is the general form of the labour relation in a productive,
digitalized sphere, reticular and recombinative.

The word 'precariat' generally stands for the area of work which is no longer
definable by fixed rules relative to the labour relation, to salary and to the
length of the working day. However if we analyse the past we see that these rules
functioned only for a limited period in the history of relations be tween labour
and capital. Only for a short period at the heart of the 20th century, under the
political pressures of unions and workers, in conditions of (almost) full
employment and thanks to a role more or less strongly regulatory of the state in
the economy, some limits to the natural violence of capitalist dynamics could be
legally established. The legal obligations that in certain periods have protected
society from the violence of capital were always founded on the existence of a
relation of a force of a political and material kind (workers' violence against
the violence of capital). Thanks to political force it became possible to affirm
rights, establish laws and protect them as personal rights. With the decline in
the political force of the workers' movement, the natural precariousness of labour
relations in capitalism and its brutality have reemerged.

The new phenomenon is not the precarious character of the job market, but the
technical and cultural conditions in which info-labour is made precarious. The
technical conditions are those of digital recombination of info-work in networks.
The cultural conditions are those of the education of the masses and the
expectations of consumption inherited from late 20th century society and continuously fed
by the entire apparatus of marketing and media communication.

If we analyse the first aspect, i.e. the technical transformations introduced by
the digitalisation of the productive cycle, we see that the essential point is not
the becoming precarious of the labour relation (which, after all, has always been
precarious), but the dissolution of the person as active prod uctive agent, as
labour power. We have to look at the cyberspace of global production as an immense
expanse of depersonalised human time.

Info-labour, the provision of time for the elaboration and the recombinat ion of
segments of info-commodities, is the extreme point of arrival of the process of
the abstraction from concrete activities that Marx analysed as a tendency inscribed
in the capital labour relation.

The process of abstraction of labour has progressively stripped labour time of
every concrete and individual particularity. The atom of time of which Marx speaks
is the minimal unit of productive labour. But in industrial production, abstract
labour time was impersonated by a physical and juridcal bearer, embodied in a
worker in flesh and bone, with a certified and political identity. Naturally
capital did not purchase a personal disposition, but the time for which the workers
were its bearers. But if capital wanted to dis pose of the necessary time for its
valorization, it was indispensable to hire a human being, to buy all of its time,
and therefore needed to face up to the material needs and trade union and
political demands of which the human was a bearer.

When we move onto the sphere of info-labour there is no longer a need to have
bought over a person for eight hours a day indefinitely. Capital no longer
recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchan geable
and occasional bearers.

De-personalised time has become the real agent of the process of valorisation, and
de-personalised time has no rights, nor any demands either. It can only be either
available or unavailable, but the alternative is purely theoretical because the
physical body despite not being a legally recognised person still has to buy his
food and pay his rent.

The informatic procedures of the recombination of semiotic material have the effect
of liquifying the 'objective' time necesssary to produce the info-commodity. All
the time of life the human machines is there, pulsating and available, like a
brain-sprawl in waiting. The extension of time is meticuously cellularised: cells
of productive time can be mobilised in punctual, casual and fragmentary forms. The
recombination of these fragments is automatically realised in the network. The
mobile phone is the tool that makes possible the connection between the needs of
semio-capital and the mobilisation of the living labour of cyber-space. The
ringtone of the mobile phone calls the workers to reconnect their abstract time to
the reticular flux.

It's a strange word that with which we identify the ideology prevalent in the
posthuman transition to digital slavery: liberalism. Liberty is its foundational
myth, but the liberty of whom? The liberty of capital, certainly. Capital must be
absolutely free to expand in every corner of the world to find the fragment of
human time available to be exploitated for the most miser able wage. But liberalism
also predicates the liberty of the person. The juridical person is free to express
itself, to choose its representatives, to be entrepreneurial at the level of
politics and the economy.

Very interesting, only that the person has disappeared, what is left is like an
inert object, irrelevant and useless. The person is free, sure. But his time is
enslaved. His liberty is a juridical fiction to which nothing in concrete daily
life corresponds. If we consider the conditions in which the work of the majority
of humanity, proletariat and cognitariat, is actually carried out in our time, if
we examine the conditions the average wage globally, if we consider the current and
now largely realised cancellation of previous labour rights, we can say with no
rhetorical exaggeration that we live in a regime of slavery. The average salary on
the global level is hardly sufficient to buy the indispensible means for the mere
survival of a person whose time is at the service of capital. And people do not
have any right over the time of which they are formally the proprietors, but
effectively expropriated. That time does not really belong to them, because it is
separated from the social existence of the people who who make it available to the
recombinative cyberproductvie circuit. The time of work is fractalised, that is
reduced to minimal and reassemblable fragments, and the fractualisation makes it
possible for capital to constantly find the conditions of minimum salary.

How can we oppose the decimation of the working class and its systemic
de-personalisation, the slavery that is affirmed as a mode of command of precarious
and de-personalised work? This is the question that is posed with insistence by
whoever still has a sense of human dignity. Nevertheless the answer does not come
out because the form of resistance and of struggle that were efficacious in the 20th century appear to no longer have the capacity to spread and consolidate themselves,
nor consequently can they stop the absolutism of capital. An experience that
derives from worker's struggle in the last years, is that the struggle of
precarious workers does not make a cycle. Fractalised work can also punctually
rebel, but this does not set into motion any wave of struggle. The reason is easy
to understand. In order for struggles to form a cycle there must be a spatial
proximity of the bodies of labour and an existential temporal continuity. Without
this proximity and this continuity, we lack the conditions for the cellularised
bodies to become community. No wave can be created, because the workers do not
share their existence in time, and behaviours can only become a wave when there is
a continuous proximity in time that info-labour no longer allows.

[Translated by Erik Empson. Published in Italian here.]