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 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.

Historic Analysis

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.

Cognitive Capitalism

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.)

Creative Industries

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.


Notes on a few concepts

Excellent text! I totally agree, there is no time to wait for this subject of labor. It has been totally neglected by media studies in particular, due to the reigning technological fetishism. I will suggest some things to add or at least, take into consideration, concerning some of the key concepts that this kind of analysis rests on. Warning: this is gonna be technical as hell, but presumably interesting for the author and anyone else seriously involved in these questions...

Concerning television in the 50s and 60s: I think that cybernetic-type feedback systems, as pioneered by the Danish-American firm Nielsen, mark the specific difference between television and cinema, which along with radio was the dominant communications medium of the unregulated phase of assembly-line capitalism before WWII. One could even speak of "Neilsenism" in the 50s and 60s, given the importance of this feedback principle to the stablization of consumer demand and therefore, to economic recovery from the earlier overaccumulation crisis of the 30s, when, as today, markets could not be found for capitalist production. The double integration of the worker as both producer and consumer is fundamental to the postwar boom. In a crucial text, "Keynes and the Capitalist Theory of the State post-1929," located here, Toni Negri argues that the integration of workers to the capitalist system in the form of what Keynes called "effective demand" for industrial products -- and not in the autonomous and fully conscious form of human beings -- was the capitalist response to the challenge and threat of communist revolution in 1917. It is crucial to understand this double integration within the framework of the major epistemology for the creation of social-technical machines in the postwar period, namely cybernetics. Interestingly, the computer modeling theorist Jay Wright Forrester, who had previously designed the Whirlwind computer for the US Air Force, included an additional loop in his cybernetic flow-diagrams of factory production and distribution in order to show the time delayed effects of advertising. The little circles on the diagram show how many weeks should be allowed for the various phases of distribution, on the right side, and for the stimulation of consumer demand, on the left. Here it is:

Concerning cybernetics and factory work: I think Braverman's strong point is that management began not only to assign to workers the mere role of alienated watchman over an automated production process, but far worse, they began "to treat the workers themselves as machines." The material in chapter 8 on "The Scientific-Technical Revolution and the Worker" is really astonishing in this respect. Human motion and muscular expenditure is measured by attaching a sound-emitting source to the limb in question (usually the hand), then taking readings of the Doppler effect from three calibrated points corresponding to a three-dimensional spatial grid (the grid of projective geometry, developed in the 17th century by Gerard Desargues in the wake of Descartes). So movement in space can be dynamically plotted and mapped out in time down to the 36/1000th of a second. Equipment and work environments are then designed to coerce the conformation of real individuals to the ideal model worker simulated in the computer on the basis of such measurements. No wonder Foucault wrote about discipline in that era! No wonder there was a refusal of work and a desire to flee the conditions of industrial labor! But you know, I think there are now many attempts to apply that kind of simulation to consumption... and I am afraid that the current research into neuroscience will do just that, if we do not find ways to resist such a "regulation" of the informational economy.

Export-processing zones: Is this the adequate term in the 1960s? It would be important to trace the uses of this term and also "free trade zones," to see what realities they correspond to. In my understanding, a crucial part of the postwar regulation of assembly-line production is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiated along with the Bretton-Woods agreements in 1944 and considered incomplete from the liberal capitalist point of view, because the idea was to have free trade right away. Instead there was a complex series of quotas, taxes and barriers which typically forced US and other would-be transnational corporations to be "multi-domestic," in other words, to have a full productive operating and distribution system in each foreign country, with at least nominal foreign ownership. In underdeveloped countries, and indeed, in countries devastated by the war as well, the whole point of these tariffs and barriers was to insure that fixed capital and the skills to run and reproduce it would be sedimented in the country. That was explicitly called for by Latin American theories of "import substitution," which originated in Argentina with the work of Raul Prebitsch, beginning in the 30s and coming to explicit formulation in 1950 in the framework of the CEPAL (Consejo Economico para America Latina). Breaking down the governments that applied these theories was the historical role assigned to the Latin American dictatorships of the 60s and 70s, and then later, to the World Trade Organization that replaced (or completed) the GATT process in 1995. In my understanding so far, the decline of US industrial hegemony in the 1970s was brought about more by the appropriation of American-style industrial and business processes in Europe, Japan and then the Asian tigers. Again in my understanding, the Third-World revolts of the 1960s mark the end of the decolonization struggles against the former European colonizers, exacerbated by Soviet-American proxy wars. However, all this does not mean you are entirely wrong, I would like to check into that more and see what the status of EPZs is in the 60s. I had always thought their major importance came from the 1980s onward, with the symbolic kickoff being the opening of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980. In her book "Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades" (which I just consulted on Google books) Keller Easterling claims that "Viewed as economic stimulants for developing countries, export processing zones became a global contagion, increasing in number from seventy-nine in 1975 to three thousand in 2003." It seems they are dependent also on containerized transport, whose takeoff is dated in a book by Marc Levinson that I gotta read some day, The Box, as being, guess when? 1967! In other words, at the very outset of the crisis of Fordism...

Post-fordism, just-in-time production or financialization? Although I agree with the critiques of both the broad notion of post-Fordism and the utopian dimensions given to the more technical notion of "flexible specialization" (as defined by Piore and Sabel), still I wonder if the models of the outsourcing corporation and the networked firm, discussed in some detail by Castells in the first volume of his trilogy, are not most pertinent to describe the "recentralization" you talk about. Check out chapter 3 on "The Networked Firm." As Castells indicates, Toyota's reorganization of factory work for just-in-time production is clearly fundamental to the change in industrial processes after the 70s, and this logistics revolution also has to do with the regional division of labor that Japan set up from the 70s onwards, its so-called Network Power in East Asia, hooking back into the EPZ discussion above. Information Technology then becomes central to the American corporate model developed on the Japanese basis, under the name "lean production" which was introduced by Womack and his collaborators when they published "The Machine that Changed the World" on the Toyota Production System in 1990 (the TPS was in fact already known in American industry due to the appearance of Japanese transplant car factories in the 1980s). Cf. the summary article, "The Genealogy of Lean." Lean production relentlessly cuts the corporation down to high value-added operations and core competencies, while outsourcing everything else ("lean and mean"). At the extreme you get a networked firm like Benetton that does only design, logistical coordination and advertising. In addition to these considerations on the organization of the firm properly speaking, I think some credence has to be given to Hayek's notion of the price system as an information system for coordinating human effort - a notion which obviously could only be fulfilled in the world of computers and telecommunications. Outsourcing as we know it today is partially a matter of just looking on the open market for whatever the industrialist needs. But what gives social form to the so-called "open market"? Today, a major coordinating function is assigned to future prices - ie the profits that are expected from speculative investment. On the basis of the calculation of future returns, huge amounts of capital are raised for industrial ventures in lands far distant from the core of capitalist accumulation (which was until only very recently, North America-Western Europe-Japan). Today we can see that financialization has created something like a new, artificial region, "Chimerica," in which the working class of the US is Chinese and lives on another continent, connected by IT, container traffic and financial flows. The research question is whether this was not all foreshadowed by the division of Toyotist labor in the East Asian Network, and, crucially, if Japanese financialization did not also foreshadow the Anglo-American financial surge after 1989.

Finally, cognitive capitalism-creative industries. I think both of these are best seen as dependent on financialization, with cognitive capitalism being by far the broader and more abstract concept. In my view, cognitive capitalism describes what is also called the "tertiarization" of the developed economies, the shift to services, which are first of all business services but also medical services, educational services and, very importantly, technoscience. This shift can occur because there are such huge needs for technoscientific innovation and management control in an era of global outsourcing, and also because finance has become so bloated. The reason for the latter phenomenon is because finance has been chosen to fix the classic overaccumulation crisis: rather than the "spatial fix" that Harvey talked about to describe the global redeployment of productive capital, we now have a "temporal fix" where most of the so-called accumulation is being won and lost by means of projections of future values. In some ways akin to the 4-dimensional computer modeling of living labor recounted by Braverman, and in other ways quite its opposite, finance is now the simulated theater of profit and loss, life and death for the capitalist, with corresponding effects in the here and now even if this theater is completely abstract and purely "symbolic" (undoubtedly in the Lacanian sense of that term). It is important to realize that the tertiarization that results from all this has huge social consequences: I think it has created a new category of labor, brainworkers, alongside industrial labor and peasant labor which still exist of course. It is thus important to realize that cognitive capitalism, inseparable so far from informationalism, is a "layer" added on to persistent older layers. What's interesting in the theory of cognitive capitalism, as developed in France and Italy over the last 15 years or so, is that it names basic conflicts between a cognitariat or cybertariat and the owners of capital, among which are the questions of copyright and intellectual property (but these are not the only ones). MacKenzie Wark speaks of the "vectoralist" and "hacker" classes, but maybe we should read Enzo Rullani as well, or at least, the analyses of Rullani's work given by Matteo Pasquinelli in Animal Spirits, to get a more precise idea of the basic procedures for value creation in cognitive capitalism and the basic struggles to which they lead, which are very much the struggles now being developed in the universities in Austria, Croatia, France, Italy, California and everywhere this layer of the economy exists (essentially in the global cities, but extending more broadly to the educated classes of all the core countries).

The above are obviously very rough notes, meant to open up discussions that will ultimately help us all get more precise ideas on the questions of technopolitics and periodization.

maybe references needed after all

Dear Brian

your 'comments', if those can even be called so, are as always very useful. In most cases I do not see them as contradicting what I had written but as supplementing it and adding to the level of complexity of the discussion of the terms.

As stated above my initial idea with this piece was that it should become a starting point for discussions about labour, maybe also in the form of an active working group here in Vienna. I thought I would distill a German version out of this, without footnotes, to distribute as a pamphlet and invitation to the first working group meeting. Therefore, although the piece is already quite long - I was striving for brevity. Your comments show that this has been achieved sometimes for the price of oversimplifications. The questions thrown up merit further discussion, which often have to do more with our other building site, the technopolitics project. Labour, of course, is a subthread in that inquiry. I wonder if we should copy past both your commends and amendments together with some of my writing into associated chapters of the techpol working group.

What your comments also show is that this text, before it can shrink into that handy little pamphlet which I tried to write, first has to grow. Some, or most of your comments could actually be worked into the text. But before aiming at such a synthesis, just a few clarifications:

Television in the 50s and 60s: Basically agree with everything that you say; also, we can use the term Neilsenism as a shared term, I did already do so in another text. So what I say does not contradict but adds further notions to this.

Maybe we could say that in the 1950s and 1960s a sort of cybernetic model of society arose, which included both the Fordist factory and the feedback cycles through broadcast media, but also advertisement, marketing, polling, audience research. If we could say hypothetically that a cybernetic view disseminated quite quickly from the participants in the Macy conferences to the ordinary technocrate, we could explore this model further of the leitmotif of the cybernetic society. What interests me here for my PhD and as a kind of sub-thesis, is that the imaginary and reality of production as well as society becoming more cybernetic, correlates with artists discovering 'participation', if in the Black Mountains or at GRAV, Paris, or with Eco's famous essay on the open artwork, the early period of the view of the artwork opening up in various ways is in my understanding, but what needs to be looked at further, linked with the cybernetic paradigm in productions and communications.

Furthermore, this offers opportunity to look at simultanous tendencies to discover the 'audience' in communication studies, but also in advertisement, linguistics and literary theory. Connected with this, but a much bigger topic would be a generalised theory of media which associates them with the circulation sphere, thus, within a Marxist framework. We could say that media both belong to the superstructure and the base, as media are involved with logistics, transport, control networks, but also consciousness. This is somethink I want to look into more in the near future, whereby a 'generalised theory' could be quite a long term project ;-)

Concerning cybernetics and factory work: while I dont think what you have written is wrong, I emphasised another aspect, which is largely inspired by Alquati's FIAT and OLIVETTI studies, but also Braverman. There are always mystifications in place. So even the most efficient management is deluding itself if it believes to be fully in control, as, on one hand there is always a clandestine low level warfare going on, even outsides times of strike and open protest, and on the other hand, clandestine levels of cooperation between workers are also needed to fulfil the quota. thus, there is a very complex argument involved here, between de-skilling and re-skilling, the idea of 'mastery' and its reality. So, even in the most advanced factories in Italy at the time, as early as 1960, Alquati uses those cybernetic terms and points out that workers are adding 'information' to the production line, and the 'ideal' even if far from achieved back then, is that of a 'flow process'. The meaning of terms such as skilled and semi-skilled is bound to be mystified to allow it to be used arbitrarily by capital owners against workers' interests.

Export processing zones: I don't like this term because it has such a degrading viewpoint already built into it. my interpretation is here mostly shaped by the New International Division of Labor by Fröbel et al. The U.S started to relocate industries already earlier, but, as they showed, Germany started to do it big time from 1967 onwards, reaching significant levels by 1975, growing only more after that. Thus, we could say the recession of 1967 was the tipping point for Fordism, but it needed a few more years to become apparent. Germany kept doing fairly well until 1974 or so, Austria, an even later developing economy, did will till until 1978/9 with Keynesian policies aiming at full employment. Thus, while EPZ was probably an appropriate term in the late 1970s, we should try to differentiate between 'free trade zones' and relocated industries which did actually work as import substitution and did start to turn such countries into 'emerging' economies as opposed to places which also had EZPs but became chronically non-developing despite that.

The whole issue on Toyotism, mechatronics, lean production, flexible specialisation, needs more study, your remarks are good starting points for that. We could say the relationship between mass production and flexible specialisation as alternative paradigms and as co-existing, these tensions between those interpretations form a research question?

Finally, could not agree more with: "In my view, cognitive capitalism describes what is also called the "tertiarization" of the developed economies, the shift to services, which are first of all business services but also medical services, educational services and, very importantly, technoscience." This is a good summary whereby I think Saskia Sassen's qualifications on 'what tertiarization' - i.e. that we do not only have generally a shift to services but to specific ones which are highly polarised between highvalue/income, low value/income - means are important. What would be nice to have would be a genealogy of the knowledge society, to show how notions such as the information society, the knowlegde society and cognitive capitalism are related but different and how they came about to be. I could see some outlines of such a project but for me it is a bit too early to tackle right now.

So much for now

Comments on comments

Indeed the comments are not critiques but attempts to have a dialogue, glad to hear that you do see it that way. I have been trying to make them clear, substantial and semi-autonomous, with references and links when possible, so as to both help generate shared understanding and start building up an archive of research materials. However the research materials will ultimately have to be integrated to the chronology to be of any use.

Concerning cybernetics, since during the war it developed directly out of what the British and Americans called "operations research" (OR) and was carried from there into corporate planning. There is no doubt that it diffused widely into society, and not only (by any means) from the theoretical heights of the Macy Conferences. For me, the model of first-order, command-and-control cybernetic feedback loops (including the concept of metastability, or stability in motion) is a central trope for understanding postwar society. As I point out in several texts of Escape the Overcode, cybernetics had a decisive influence on French structuralism. It was also crucial to the Systems Theory of Talcott Parsons, which is the basic sociology of organization for the Fordist period in the States. It's also foundational for Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory (although he denies that). Everything seems to indicate a particularly strong cybernetic paradigm in the arts, which culminated around 68 and then disappeared from view with the general discredit of first-order cybernetics. What I see (and I think this could be verified by those who know the career of Luhman, which I do not) is the emergence around 1970 of constructivist theories of autonomous systems, first with Maturana and Varela, then Von Foerster, and then a very broad trend that culminates in the complexity theories deriving from Prigogine and the social network (or indeed, actor-network) theories of the 90s onward. Media critique can probably follow these trends very closely, if they are conceived not in a determinist fashion, but rather as developments in which the media artists themselves were very often a driving force.

Looking into Toyotism has been extraordinarily interesting, because it helps unfold the complexity of the transition between the first-order cybernetic paradigms of the postwar period and the kinds of second-order modeling that are used for cooperation-competition relations between networks.

Next I will set about trying to provide one-sentence definitions for the primary categories. I suggest that after these initial definitions are written (and maybe before they are corrected) we try to have a phone or skype conversation, because speaking is generative, you get lots of ideas... Although its less precise than writing it is a lot more effective for sketching out broad plans and arriving at basic agreements. The kinds of "comments on comments" that tend to open any spoken exchange are exactly what Bateson considered the "meta" level of his Ecology of Mind!

ciao ciao, BH

A Quick Thought on the Labor of Collaboration

Hellos... just a quick note to say that I've printed this out and am definitely up for the kind of collaborative thinking through of these paradigm shifts in labor and social composition, or labor and state form to use an older language. But having said that I think it could also be useful to think through some ways to create space and time for thinking things through in a slower manner than one often feels prompted to by the imperative of techno-mediated forms, if that makes any sense. In other words, I'm quite snowed under by work I'm involved in and thus will be moving fairly slowly in these things, but am definitely up for it.


Hello Stevphen -

Nice to see your message here. One of the things we would very much like to do is organize some seminars, in fact a couple are in the works. So perhaps it would be possible to do that in London or New York some day, and then devote a block of time to these subjects, which could be a more enjoyable social answer to the electronic nature of this experience...

all the best, Brian