torsdag 22 november 2012

Books I've read recently

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I read the three books below in ≈ August and the first half of September. 

The three books constitute a series of sorts as they all treat different aspects of recent (last decades) developments in turbo-capitalism, and implications for the Internet. Or was it the other way around - implications of the Internet on capitalism? Who knows, perhaps it's both. This theme anyways sort of connects back to the books I wrote about last month (on computer culture, computer history and computers in a societal context and the parallels between the emergence of a computer culture and a counter-culture). 

I read Chris Carlsson's "Nowtopia: How pirate programmers, outlaw bicyclists, and vacant-lot gardeners are inventing the future today!" (2008) because my sometimes-collaborator Karin Bradley read and recommended it. I'm slightly ambivalent about the book. I think Chris is on to something when he tries to connect those different pursuits into a more general trend of kinds, I'm just not sure Chris is the very best person to write about it. With a background as an activist and a deep involvement in counter- and alternative movements, he really knows a lot about the people and the developments of these movements, but I also feel that his lack of a research background sometimes works against him. He has for example read a lot of leftist, class-consciousness-lifting literature (Marx etc.) and seems to have this hang-up about trying to squeeze his informants into social classes. I guess that could be ok too, but it doesn't turn out great when he explicitly asks his informants about class background and class membership and they (from an American context) are more or less clueless and just don't get it. Some things do hit a little too close to home for comfort though:

"These days, a successful professional is expected to work upwards of 70 hours a week [...] Worse, a lot of that working time is unpaid. British journalist Madeleine Bunting describes a common corporate strategy of this era: "Don't employ more people, just devise an organizational culture which will ensure that people will give you their free time for free." And [...] clearly it's working." 

What then is the alternative? To Carlsson, "Community gardening, alternative fuels, and bicycling [...] all represent technological revolts that integrate a positive ecological vision with practical local behaviors." Carlsson sketches out an "anti-economy" of people who "are engaged in creative appropriation of technologies to purposes of their own design and choice". These people are providing services for free, organizing festival and (sometimes subversive) activities and making things happen for the love of sharing, for the love of other people and for the love of doing a really good job on something they care about deeply. There is an interesting connection here between the kinds of low-tech Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos that permeates the phenomena Carlsson describes and Schumacher's 1970's "Small is beautiful" ethos.  

In their book "The new spirit of capitalism" (1999), Luc Botanski and Eve Chiapello describe exactly the ideological and political developments that Carlsson and his informants rebel against. Carlsson wrote:

"The new apparatus of global production helps speed up the extension of market society of course, but inevitably it is also speeding the spread of social opposition, the sharing of experiments and alternatives". 

Where Carlsson writes about alternatives and social opposition, Boltanski and Chiapello writes about the extension of market society during the last decades (i.e. from 1965 to 1995 - the book was published in French in 1999 and translated to English in 2005). 

First of all, this book is a veritable brick with its 600 pages of that oh-so-typical dense theoretical-laden long-sentenced and not seldom complex-languaged and -concepted style that relatively often (in my experience) permeates a tradition of French academic writing, putting a premium on sentences that never seem to end, and on stacking dependent and subordinates clauses on top of each other in a seemingly never-ending fashion and where one single sentence not seldom can constitute a entire paragraph (and an entire universe) in and of itself. You get the drift. I would have wished the book was 200 pages shorter and had twice a many but half a as long sentences.  

Despite this, it is a very interesting book. The basic material that Luc & Eve have analyzed for their treatise is not some empirical material they have collected, but rather a comparison of two different corpuses of management literature from the second half of the 1960's and the first half of the 1990's (60-65 texts in each sample). How has capitalism changed and what do the ups and downs of different (business) terms and values say about "the new spirit of capitalism"? 

Even though Luc & Eve wrote their book 15 years ago, and even though they write primarily about business (and often spilling over to arguments about workers and artists), some of what they write at times hits home and almost seems to be written about 2012 and about me and my job:

"Lemaire (1994) dreams of abolishing bosses completely, in particular by introducing a principle of symmetry that allows the person in charge of a project to have as their basic collaborator the head of another project in which one is oneself merely a participant."

Comment: This is for example the case for me and my colleague Björn. He has been our director of studies and has had the responsibility of planning my time and my (undergraduate teaching) commitments, but I am at the same time co-advisor of his hopefully soon-to-be-finished Ph.D. thesis.

"Another seductive aspect of neo-management is the proposal that everyone should develop themselves personally. The new organizations are supposed to appeal to all the capacities of human beings, who will thus be in a position fully to blossom."

Comment: I have already written about a "life and career planning" course/product that KTH pays for and where I currently (ir-)regularly meet a career coach. Need I say anything more? 

Beyond this and that, there were two general ideas in the book that I found especially intriguing. The first has to do with the ideological justification of capitalism (which also tends to shift at different times, or in different "ages"). The key group that must be swayed by the very idea of capitalism is not primarily the capitalists themselves, nor the workers, the unemployed, the old, the young, the sick or the infirm, but rather the managers and the executives, capitalism's willing participants†, taskmasters and evangelists. It's easy to see the connection to the management literature that Luc and Eve have studied. To get the managers on to the bandwagon, capitalism has to promise a plausible (and attractive, and profitable) future for these key groups as well as "a minimum of security for themselves and their children". [The spirit of] capitalism must also be able to justify participation in terms of the common good and be able to mount a defense against accusations of injustice, e.g. that the creation and accumulation of wealth (eventually and more or less automatically) is and will lead to better societies. It's an open question what the consequences would be if capitalism for some reason can't deliver. The faith of key groups (managers, (EU and national) political and union leaders etc.) would be undermined, and that faith is necessary (crucial?) for the system to reproduce itself. When reading the book, my thoughts began to stray to certain countries in southern Europe with shrinking economies and where the unemployment figures are hovering around 25% (and around 50% for youths up to 26 years of age). What is the future of capitalism in Greece, Spain, Portugal, perhaps soon to be joined by yet other European countries?

The second idea I found extremely intriguing has to do with speed, mobility and linking on a very general level ("exploitation in a networked world"). Luc and Eve basically say that the faster you move in comparison to other actors, the better off you are (at the expense of (e.g. exploiting) slower-moving actors) - because in a connected ("connexionist") world, speed and mobility is an essential quality of winners. Losers are rooted, stay behind and take responsibility for "the plumbing", while winners surf on the waves (or on the backs of the losers), moving around and creating new links that help them move around and create new links.

Because of the ever-present threat of withdrawing capital, "financial markets may be regarded as exploiting countries and firms" and industrialists who invest in assets that are not mobile (factories, machines, employees) "are in constant fear of losing the support of their financial backers". "Although [...] less mobile than the financial markets, [multinational companies] are scarcely more loyal to a country, region or site". "The most mobile [...] are always on the point of leaving." Consumers with their rapidly shifting preferences (think about the fall of Nokia in 5 short years) can also be winners in a fast-moving, globalized world. As can job hoppers on various levels be - from CEOs to wage-earners - leaving others behind to take care of left-behind messes. "What is at stake is being more mobile, less ponderous, than one's customer or employer". A well-informed specialist (university teacher?) should keep the options open and be ready to quit and find a new job the following day - and use implicit or explicit threats of resignation to squeeze out higher compensation for his services from his current employer. "At all levels of the chain, those who are more mobile extort surplus-value from the less mobile, in exchange for a [temporary] slackening in their own mobility".

Either you (are prepared to) move on, or you run the risk of being left behind! The slow can and will be exploited by the fast! General knowledge is better (more applicable in a variety of contexts) than specific (deep) knowledge! I think it is prudent to at this point send a thought to the effects of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.) here and while there is (much) more to write about regarding "The spirit of new capitalism", this will just have to do for this humble blog post. I will however end with a quote (written by Charles Péguy) that Luc and Eve begin their book with:

"We have known, we have had contact with a world [...] where a man condemned to poverty was at least secure in poverty. It was a kind of unspoken contract between man and fate, and before the onset of modern times fate had never reneged on this contract. It was understood that those who indulged in extravagance, in caprice, those who gambled, those who wished to escape poverty, risked everyting. Since they gambled, they could lose. But those who did not gamble could not lose. They could not have suspected that a time would come, that it was already here - and this, precisely, is modern times - when those who do not gamble lose all the time, even more assuredly than those who do."

The last book in this blog post is Peter Jakobsson's Ph.D. thesis "Öppenhetsindustrin" (March 2012, pdf file) [The openness industry]. Peter is an ex-student of ours (KTH/Media Technology) and I have worked together with him for two years after he finished his studies at KTH. Oh, and I was also the advisor of his prize-winning (really!) 2005 master's thesis "Subversivt spelande: En etnografisk studie av onlinevärlden Project Entropia" [Subversive gaming: An ethnography of the online world Project Entropia]. I still think it is a very good thesis about the upside-down world of complex online games, still very well worth reading of the thesis is too heavy for you!

In his thesis, Peter contrasts the openness industries (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft etc.) with the copyright industries - industries that are dependent on copyright laws for their revenues from texts (publishing), music, film, computer games etc. Peter focuses on the ideas and the conceptions about the openness industries and I end this blog post with a quote that ties his thesis back to the two books above:

"The open source movement have provided us with a blueprint for how people can work together - with enthusiasm, competence and without a salary."

† When I wrote the expression "capitalism's willing participants", I have to admit I was partly thinking about similar processes of justification described in Daniel Goldhagens book "Hitler's willing executioners: Ordinary Germans and the holocaust" (1997).

1 kommentar:

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post and for performing the impossible task of reducing Boltanski and Chiapello to manageable proportions and getting the essence just right (cooking metaphors of sauce reduction keep coming to mind).

    However, I take issue with the Open Source quote. No one works "without a salary." We are supported through our own labor directly or indirectly through that of others (welfare transfers, help from family members, and so on). The sharing economy (and correlates such as Open Source) propose that we don't need pesky things like benefits and well-paid jobs. Marx's notion of labor-time is relevant here; the worker must be able to find food, shelter, basic necessities or he or she cannot do any work at all. In feudal times, serfs did all this for themselves on land provided by the lord of the manor. Now we need jobs or welfare to accomplish the same (using our dollars to consume what the market produces). Capitalism has become adept at keeping these costs to itself low and sqeezing lots of free labor out of us in various ways. Note how it co-opted Open Source.

    Hard-hitting ending about the willing participants!

    Bonnie Nardi