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the ‘repented gurus’ rereading McLuhan (p.47):133 analysing and criticising their earlier enthusiasm in favour of new technology and the web 2.0 (often grounded in one-sided readings of McLuhan’s work as ‘unconditional acceptance of the “new time” inaugurated by electricity’, now qualitatively deepened by the ‘digital revolution’, p.49), Formenti, however, appreciates how the extension of McLuhan’s theoretical construct and concepts to the computer contributes to ‘dispel the illusion’ construing networked computers as ‘an ideal environment for the enlargement of the critical consciousness of users’ (p.148).134 Moving on to debates on prosumption exalting the provision of work for free, user-generated content, and peer production practices likened to gift economies, Formenti highlights how these deploy the old ‘ideological trick’ of reducing ‘economic relations’ and the behaviour of ‘social actors to subjective motivations’, to mask ‘the reality’ of exploitation and ‘“unequal exchange” hiding beneath the “reciprocally satisfactory” relations between’ firms and prosumers (p.58).
But see Lucas, 2012 for a Marxist assessment of the work and intellectual trajectory of Nicholas Carr (2008, 2010), highlighting grey areas and shortcomings of this type of contemporary McLuhanite analysis.
For a similar view, see Zittrain, 2008. The concept of “lock-in” of technical standards, together with path dependence and network externalities, originates in the work of David (1985) and Arthur (1994) (but see Mirowski, 2009a for critical discussion). These concepts have risen to such prominence in the literature on technology and innovation (in its academic, business and popular variants) to have become common wisdom. Thus, the concept can be summoned by Formenti without providing a reference for it, simply absorbed through his engagement with the literature on the politics of the internet. However, as will be shown in section 3.5 below, the acceptance of this common wisdom does not come without consequences for Formenti’s own analysis.
Assange and his role in the Wikileaks affair) has the paradoxical ‘collateral effect’ of ‘convincing individuals to give up all expectations of privacy, delivering them’ to the control of governments and businesses (p.74). Thus, unsuccessful in acquiring ‘awareness of their failure’ and denouncing the forces causing it, these utopias and hopes turn, for Formenti, into ‘the discourse of the useful idiot’ (p.145).
In the second part of the book, more academic in tone and style, Formenti deals with a host of ‘theoretical and ideological discourses which’, although ‘aware of the reality of exploitation hiding behind all liberal utopias, including’ the ‘2.0’ variant, refuse the restitution to labour of its lost ‘dignity, awareness of its own rights and capacity to fight for’ their affirmation (Formenti, 2011, p.83). Asserting that thwarting the recent ‘catastrophe’ of labour entails eradicating ‘the very concept of work’ and disconnecting ‘dignity, income, rights, freedom and power of community and individuals’ from ‘the social, political and cultural status’ of ‘the “worker”’ (pp.83-84), Formenti’s targets are the distinct, yet related, discourses on, respectively, the ‘end’ and the ‘refusal of work’ (p.84). Indicted by Formenti as ‘“gravediggers” of work’, these have common roots in the critique of the reformist social-democratic wing of the workers’ movement, its ‘cooptation’ in the ‘construction of the historical compromise between capital, labour’ and (welfare) state (p.84), and its demise of labour as ‘subject of a process of liberation’ in favour of a conception of labour as ‘foundation of all citizenship rights’ renouncing ‘autonomy in exchange for security’ (p.85). Charging social-democratic parties and trade unions of incapacity to react against the structural changes of the 1970s, and of involvement in ‘rearguard battles’ protecting ‘an obsolete’ and ‘residual’ image of work refused by workers themselves through their struggles (p.87), the theorists of the end of work extend their critique of the ‘conservative ideologies of the traditional workers’ movement’ to its ‘antagonist and revolutionary variants’ (p.87). Aiming to move from a project of liberation of work to the liberation of society from work itself (p.88), they follow Arendt (1999 ) and Polanyi (2002 ) and accuse Marx of inheriting from the classical economists a conception of labour as a natural anthropological category (Formenti, 2011, pp.88-90). Thus, for Formenti, they offer three ‘distinct, yet not necessarily’ opposed, perspectives to liberate society from work: the ‘genealogical discourse’ (p.90) attributing ‘the invention of the economy’ and ‘valorisation of work’ (pp.90-91) to the convergence of utilitarianism and a ‘new scientific spirit’ exalting ‘technique and de-naturalising the world’, which advocates the ‘“decolonisation of the imaginary”’ from the ‘obsession’ for economic growth and ‘the ideology of abundance’ (p.91); the ‘ambivalent’ (p.90) interpretations of ‘the processes of individualisation/flexibilisation of work’ which, drawing from post-workerism the concepts of ‘second generation autonomous work’ and ‘post-Fordist production’ and from the discourses on the KBE the idea that anybody can become an entrepreneur by virtue of him or herself (p.91), declare the end of the twentieth century’s ‘declination’ of work as ‘employment’ and welcome flexibility insofar as it allows for self-sovereignty (albeit at ‘inferior levels of security’ and income) (p.92); and, lastly, the tentative reformulation of ‘a radical reformist project’ (p.90) of those (such as, for example, Ulrich Beck) laying the foundations for a political economy of risk as base for an ‘ambitious project of transition towards a “second modernity”’ (p.92).136 However, Formenti’s analysis reaches its climax in confrontation and critical dialogue with post-operaismo (Formenti, 2011, pp.94-104), of which he develops a focused and vitriolic critique (nonetheless, section 3.4 below will show how ineffective this critique is in reality).
Here Formenti retraces its history and development, from the original operaismo of the 1950s and 1960s to the ‘extraordinary publishing success’ (p.94) of Empire (Hardt, Negri, 2000) and the theorisation of the multitude (Hardt, Negri, 2004). Highlighting post-operaismo’s merits, limits and contradictions, Formenti’s account characterises (post-)operaismo’s trajectory as a process of ‘radical “subjectivation”’ of the capital-labour conflict (Formenti, 2011, p.95).137 In this account, operaismo’s conceptualisation of a mass worker deskilled and relegated to executive tasks by the system of machines of the Fordist factory broke with the ‘communist tradition’ linking party hierarchy to the organisation of production, and identified the political The reader will not hesitate to recognise Bologna’s argument and trajectory discussed in section 3.2 as straddling both the discourses and (some of) the attendant perspectives discussed in this paragraph.
This is not surprising, as these perspectives have often mutually informed one another (for different examples germane to the concerns of this thesis, see: Gorz, 1988; Alquati, 1998; and Standing, 2011). At first sight, the convergence (if not hybridisation, see below) of the discourses on the “end” and on the “refusal” of work – i.e. operaismo – might seem striking. Indeed, at a general level, Marxism has been traditionally characterised (though not necessarily in all its variants) by a complex, layered and dialectical assessment and understanding of the changes inherent in modernity, “progress” (however defined) and the development of the forces of production (following Marx himself) (see Burgio, 1999).
On the other hand, the analyses of thinkers such as Polanyi (2002 ) and Arendt (1999 ) are amongst the intellectual sources of one-sided anti-modern assessments of capitalism (Burgio, 1999) (although these and their judgements may not necessarily belong to, nor directly follow from, Polanyi and Arendt themselves). However, this seeming contradiction is easily dispelled by recalling that one of the distinguishing features of operaismo lies in the conscious attempt to reverse simplistic Marxist economistic readings of capitalism (not least as an attempt to break with the orthodox Marxism of the Italian Communist Party of the 1950s and 1960s, see Turchetto, 2008). Indeed, by ‘affirming that capitalism is a system that contradicts itself not because it stalls the productive forces, but because it develops them to the maximum and by so doing unleashes antagonistic forces’, operaismo identified the emancipatory task of workers in opposing, rather than favouring, (the) development (of the forces of production) (Porcaro, 1990, p.14). The irony of this is that, in doing so, operaismo (especially in Negri’s version) has affirmed an equally one-sided form of economism, albeit reframed in negative terms (as shown in the second chapter of this thesis).
Formenti does not give indication of whether the term “subjectivation” should be interpreted as a neologism of his own coining, or whether he is referring to the notion as developed and understood by Foucault, Deleuze, and French post-structuralism in general. The latter seems more probable, but, if that is the case, more careful explanation of this concept and its use would have been necessary, especially given Formenti’s own professed aim and prospect of ‘“parenthesising” the thought of Michel Foucault’ (Formenti, 2011, p.147), see below.
and cultural cohesive factor of class in the ‘“refusal of work”’ (as opposed to the professional pride of the specialised worker) (p.95). This category led to reinterpretation of class consciousness as a result of the collective resistance against both deskilled work and the ‘hierarchies of capitalistic command’ (manifested through forms of sabotage and ‘worker “idleness”’) (p.95), and radically changed ‘the strategic objective of class struggle’ (from selfmanaging to destroying the factory, to ‘build on its ruins a new universe of productive and social relations’) and its ‘organisational instruments’ (advocating the demise of parties and unions mirroring the hierarchies of capitalist control, and the abolition of the delegation of the representation of interests to the ‘professionals of politics’) (p.95).
Nevertheless, for Formenti, the greatest implications of this process of ‘“subjectivation”’ were theoretical (p.95), with the ‘constant drive to innovation’ characterising capitalism understood not only as the outcome of capitalist ‘competition and/or the necessity to face crises’, but ‘also and above all’ as capital’s defensive response to the ‘constant pressure of workers’ struggles’ (p.95) (see also footnote 136 above). Thus, the operaismo of the 1970s read the effects of capitalist restructuring as capital’s response to the cycle of struggles of the mass worker and, ‘paradoxically’, as ‘confirmation’ that the refusal of work’ had ‘won’, forcing capitalism to do away with both the Fordist factory and the mass worker itself (p.96). From this, according to Formenti, followed a second, ‘double paradox’: operaismo set forth to become a ‘“workerism without workers”’ theorising ‘antagonism without class’, while at the same time moving from ‘the refusal of work’ to attributing to work (albeit understood in a very particular way, see below) a central role ‘for the understanding of the social conflicts’ of our times (p.96). Indeed, the elaboration of the concept of social worker (operaio sociale) – indicating a federation of social subjects and practices breaking with those traditionally associated with the working class, its politics and organisations (pp.96-97) – allowed reformulating resistance to capitalism as refusal of the monetisation and incorporation within social reproduction of one’s ‘knowledge, creative capacities, feelings and emotions’ (rather than opposition to factory hierarchy), anticipating themes which would find ‘definitive systematisation’ (p.97) in Empire (Hardt, Negri, 2000) and the post-workerist literature of the turn of the century.