I recently had the opportunity to ask Tiziana Terranova a handful of questions about her concept of free labor. My own work has been greatly influenced by Prof. Terranova’s particular analytical approach to the study of social relations in the digital economy. Therefore, I am especially pleased to share her responses to our questions here.
Copygrounds: How does your concept of “free labor” differ from other historical forms of unwaged work? For example, the domestic work of housewives or the work of raising children may both be seen as integral to the continued reproduction of the capitalist system and are often unwaged. Moreover, these types of labor may also be both enjoyable and exploitable. What sets your concept of “free labor” apart?
Tiziana Terranova: When looking at the concept of ‘free labor’, you need to remember that it was formulated about 12 years ago, that is at a very early stage of what people called ‘the digital economy’. There was much debate at the time about the economic transformations triggered by the specific properties of information. The article, that constituted my research output after a grant received under the nationwide British ESRC (Economic and Social Research) programme ‘A Virtual Society?’, claimed that one of the most important transformations in this new domain affected the nature of labor. There were two perspectives on this transformation. On the one hand, you had writings that were ‘internal’ to these changes, such as those coming from the new media industry as such. These sources were very clear that the new source of added value in the digital economy was users’ participation. Neoliberal sociologists claimed that the digital economy was the expression of a larger transformation that involved the formation of a new type of knowledge worker, the owner of a certain amount of knowledge capital, overcoming alienation through the possession of his/her own means of production (the brain). The Marxist perspective which I privileged, postworkerist or compositionist Marxism, claimed that we were dealing with a new class composition where immaterial labor had become not the property of a class, but a larger, diffuse social quality, that was at the heart of the transformation of capital and hence of new forms of social antagonism.
Undoubtedly, the essay suffers from a lack of engagement with other sources on the historical development of forms of labor – in particular feminist, but also postcolonial theories. As you mention, feminist political economists have talked about the peculiar nature of women’s reproductive work that defied the masculine bias of Marxist political economy. There is definitely a relation between women’s reproductive, caring and unwaged work in the household and the free labor of Internet users and media consumers, but it is a rather complex one. On the one hand, feminist Marxists have pointed out how some of the features of women’s work have become generalized in contemporary economies (both in terms of the extension of the ‘caring’ and ‘affective’ qualities of women’s work in the service industry but also in terms of the relationship of dependency and vulnerability inherent in precarious work). On the other hand, the free labor of Internet users seems to me to correspond to a very different organization of capital, which has ceased to work according to the classical division between working time and leisure time, and hence, as Donna Haraway had already seen in the nineteen eighties, has overlaid the separation between the factory/office as a site of economic production and the home/family as a site of social reproduction. The implications of all of this for the specificity of women’s work and gender relations constitute a very promising basis for new research (some of which has already been done, I am thinking about the special issue of Feminist Review on precarity, Cristina Morini’s book on the feminization of work and the biopolitics of the body, the caring labor archive http://caringlabor.wordpress.com/ with essays by Precarias a la deriva, silvia federici, maria rosa dalla costa etc).
Copygrounds: The exploitation of immaterial labor takes on different forms than the exploitation of manual labor. Is it appropriate to characterize participants in the digital economy as “net slaves” in light of the severe exploitation of miners, factory workers, and farm workers? In other words since the activities of people in the digital economy often occur in loose and voluntary cooperative arrangements, are we in need of a new set of terms to accurately describe these dynamics?
Tiziana Terranova: The term ‘netslaves’ refers to a book by Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin, published in 1999, where the author describe the corporate ladder and the working conditions of the lower rungs of the web industry. Obviously, it is not a matter of claiming identity between the different historical forms of slavery from Antiquity onwards and high tech work. It is a term that emerged out of the subjective experience of a segment of workers in the Internet industry who described in such a way their feeling that their working conditions had somehow become extreme. It pointed to an acceleration and intensification of exploitation (and self-exploitation as well) in core segments of a key, emerging economic sector. This exploitation took the form of endless working days (they talked about 80 hours per week), relentless drive to higher levels of productivity and efficiency which made these workers ‘feel’ like slaves to the new economy machine. In a recent publication by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg De Peuter (Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, Univ of Minnesota Press, 2009), the authors report the story of the wife of a major employer in the game industry, Electronic Art, who posted to a blog detailing the damage done to her husband and hence their marriage by EA’s working conditions. “EA’s spouse described how her partner’s initial enthusiasm for a job with a company listed as one of Fortune’s ’10 Best Companies to Work For’ had evaporated as seven-day, eighty-five hour work weeks, uncompensated either by overtime pay or by time off, became routine. It told of a ‘put up or shut up and leave” human resource policy’ (p. 35). If we add to this, the widespread indebtedness endemic to late neoliberal societies, we get an idea why many workers feel that their work is not ‘free’ at all, on the contrary, and describe themselves as ‘slaves’. Do we need a better term to describe this process, one that does not collapse different historical forms of slavery (including the very real new slaveries of the twenty-first century) with work which one can always theoretically walk off from and is also relatively well paid? Sure, it is a good idea. On the one hand, we cannot but recognize the symbolic power of such self-descriptions.
Copygrounds: How can we articulate a politics in the context of “free labor”? That is to say if free labor is enjoyed as much as it is exploited how can a class politics emerge if the antagonistic social relation is obscured?
Tiziana Terranova: In Marxist terms, what you are asking about is how you pass from the existence of a ‘class-in-itself’, that is a class whose existence as such is given within the objective conditions of production, to a ‘class for itself’, that is a class who is conscious of its unity and able to pursue collectively its goals of shared liberation. If we remain within this framework, then the unity of such class is ‘objectively’ given within the conditions of the current capitalist mode of production. The unity of labor is given by its generalized exploitation that is characterized on the one hand by a surplus of wealth (the excess of pleasurable production, of the investments, desires, knowledge, intelligence and capacity for invention) and on the other hand by its surplus of ‘poverty’ (economic impoverishment, loss of rights and control over the working process, etc).
In such context, which Negri and Hardt among others have called ‘biopolitical capitalism’, this passage is problematized in ways that help to understand the difficulties I’m having in answering your very important question. The technologies of production, and the very source of production, are basically affecting and reworking subjectivity. It is as if capital had installed itself within the working subject. It constitutes it at the level of language, affect, perception. As Franco Berardi has put it, it is as if the antagonism between labor and capital has been interiorized as a conflict within the subject – causing feelings of inadequacy, fear, depression, powerlessness, isolation. The unity of the working class as class for itself in industrial production is given by the collective nature of that work, the disunity of the working class as class for itself in conditions of free labor is given by this interiorization of capital, of competitiveness, individualism etc.
However, I do believe that the conditions for a newly found unity is given somehow within the current organization of production. It is the unity of the network, that is a mutant multiplicity in an endless process of transformation. Nobody can see the future, but I still believe that it is within the form of the network, and the peculiar conditions that it expresses, that new antagonistic relations will be realized. I’m saying ‘potential antagonisms’ because the network is a very open form and it does not mean that it will have the contents that we believe it should have. After all you are dealing with subjectivity, that is with memory, habits, percepts, affects, desires, opinions, feelings, sex etc! There is no historical teleology, here, no predetermined happy ending for the troubled relation between labor and capital, but only an open field of experimentation.
Copygrounds: What is your opinion of Facebook? Is this an archetypical example of “free labor”? Can Facebook or similar platforms be used in ways which are subversive of the capitalist logic? Or do you think the activities occurring on such platforms are always subsumed within the production of value?
Tiziana Terranova: Facebook is a very interesting case. I disagree with much of what Jaron Lanier said about the web 2.0 recently, but one statement he made I found absolutely right: users are not Facebook’s customers. It is clear that Facebook’s customers are those who purchase the data generated by the users, who are thus producing value ‘almost’ for free (they do get the minimum for the production of such value, that is access to its software and platform). As far as your questions on whether facebook can be used ‘subversively’, of course it can. Users’ activity obeys the rule of free labor: it is excessive. Here in Italy, I have seen facebook used as an effective tool of counter-information, producing real counter-publics, supporting and sustaining mass protests and civil disobedience actions. The question for me, as far as facebook is concerned, is another. Facebook remains a proprietary platform, whose owners are effectively sovereigns when it comes to the digital life of hundreds of millions of users. When I say sovereign, I mean that they have the power of life and death. They can cancel any account or page without needing to justify themselves. Again, in Italy, we have seen that in action, with many facebook pages and accounts closed without warning or explanation because somebody up at facebook might have deemed them ‘too political’ or controversial. Furthermore, facebook actively collaborates with various security agencies, providing access to users’ profiles, and other data that are able to generate social graphs of networks of dissent. Of course, as with all enterprises that thrive on free labor, Facebook knows that its most valuable asset, users’ participation, can just evaporate in a mass exodus very quickly. So this kind of governance has to be very subtle and secretive. I do think that massive social networks such as Facebook do constitute an invaluable innovation of the network form, but I do hope for a mass exodus one day to some kind of p2p, that is distributed, nonproprietary social networking platform.