When I was asked to write about new economy
New economy and neo-liberalism
are commonly used terms that are meant to describe certain ways of change
in professional (working) life. As buzzwords they omit all pressures to
analyse what they are meant to describe. This text, too, will not discuss
them in a useful way, as it has to satisfy the crypto-neoliberal demand
of “readability, fluffy, so please no academic language” (to
quote the commissioning E-Mail sent to me). So let us indeed stick with
the desirably vague; neo-liberalism describes what it is commonly understood
as, or not. In any case:
Work receives a new
defininition under the new economy. The previous understanding of work,
or indeed the accepted meaning of work to this day, derives from the classic
capitalism of the 18th century. Let’s call it a capitalism of production
and goods, one that creates wealth exclusively through the production
and sale of hard objects.
This relationship could have been and was interpreted as a contrast; Marx called it the “antagonism”, the opposing entities of Worker and Capitalist. Every worker had to accept ths fact, no matter what they may have been thinking about factories, capitalists or of capitalism itself. In short, the workers were defined and understood themselves as part of this correlation. The entire culture of workers is defined by its difference to the culture of ownership.
The trick of new economy is that apparently, suddenly, workers are turning into entrepreneurs themselves. This doesn’t mean it’s actually true, as they are still subordinate and not part of the executive board in “their” place of employment (apart from few rituals of pseudo-decision-making in what can only be aptly described as motivational farce.
Instead of making
decisions the workers are encouraged to “being part in shaping the
work-environment”, a rather vague offer, the outcomes of which can
at any time be retracted if the boss doesn’t like it.
A major aspect here is, next to things like responsibility („self-responsibility“), the branch of control (now termed “independent working”). It was once the responsibility of the boss to monitor his/her workers and their activities, to then encourage the worker to conduct himself in a way that is ultimately beneficial to the boss only, whereas today the workers are deemed to do this themselves.
Beyond readability, this change was once called „a shift from a disciplinary society towards a society of control”. But what does that mean?
The institutions of a disciplinary society are founded mainly on two devices that keep its subordinates where they are: Control and punishment. Both are certainly effective, yet they produce at least an inner resistance, as well as the possibility to avoid either. It’s hard to monitor in absolute terms, and there are always ways of avoiding, if not “hacking” and ridiculing these mechanisms of control. Loop-holes will be identified and used. Control breeds seemingly non-sensical but valid rituals of comfort (from long trips to the toilet, theft of work-materials, misuse of hard- and software, sick-leaves, pretending to look busy, playing dumb, exact word-by-word following of orders while knowing they are non-productive, to actually harming the business by removing objects that are vital to the day-to-day survival of the company).
In short, the disciplinary society was one that created refractoriness; it revealed hierarchies and blatantly opposing classes of rulers and the ruled. These small acts of individual resistance also instigate models of theoretic and actual resistance on a grander scale.
An example for direct action is the word sabotage, derived from the french word for clogs (“sabots”), which when thrown into looms would stop production and destroy the machines.
To cite examples for a theoretical approach is of course to tell the history of the left itself, which bases itself on Marx’ writings on the conflict of workers and owners.
The society of control has however shifted this device and transplanted it into the subjects themselves. As soon as control is collectively internalised, when control is part of the psychological apparatus and of thought, then we can speak of control in absolute terms. Not much can be done anymore, as no one is independent from, or outside of, control any longer.
This historical shift
has nothing to do with a change in the work-environment or relationships
within work, it stems from an earlier period during which protestantism
invented a conscience in opposition to the theology of heaven and hell
of medieval catholicism. It stems from the morality of a bourgeois society
(Kant’s categorical imperative). From the invention of reason during
Enlightment. From modern psychology, et cetera. But the best example is
my old religous studies book from the 1970s, whose authors propagated,
a responsible treatment of sexuality, instead of the age-old catechistic
way. It was nothing but a perfidious trick in order to save the old forms
of repression into a new age.
This also works by
the dissolution of clear work-time structures that previously revealed
the opposing themes of worker and boss. Postmodern work is permanent.
It may have been permanent before (spare-time is only part of work, as
it serves for relaxation and the charging up with new strength for a new
week), yet at least there used to be real demarkation lines. Pop has always
taken the subversive part of such.
All inner borders seem to be dissolved in the boat-company, the only remaining border is that which is visible to the outside, to the enemy, to crisis. The metaphysics of neo-liberalism has turned economic crises into the equivalent of hell in medieval theocracy, the permanent menace from the outside, a menace which is always there, free from human influence. This extra-territorial, chaotic threat of free-flowing capitalism is needed in order to lower the dissolution of personal, inner demarkation lines. If you can’t keep up you will be chucked out quickly into the outside with its societal evils of fringes, poverty and shame, of uselessness and of an audience for cheap afternoon-television. In contrast to this, the post as worker-slash-entrepreneur suddenly isn’t such a bad choice after all. Did I say choice?
The lie of de-demarkation
is the actual demarkation between all and everything. Whereas workers
in the classic company-model used to have a common interest, in itself
a dissolved boundary, workers in the new economy are quickly made into
sole entities. The company buys solidarity for the company and destroys
solidarity within its staff. Indeed, such de-solidarisation althemore
turns into a model for society as a whole. In the same way that companies
battle against each other on the battle-field that is the market, postmodern
workers are also supposed fight against each other and only work with
each other when certain ecomic interests shall be met. The idea of individualism
that turned into solidarity (as well as internationalism) is ditched and
replaced by collective surrogates such as national and ethnic interests.
The more we are made to not see ourselves as workers, the less helpful it is to do this in secret. We are, after all, workers, yet workers that aren’t allowed to be workers, we are an entrepreneurial task. Investment in future without any future. But just let us be nostalgic if we may, let us see ourselves as workers at least for a minute, if only to point to the fact that we all have to make money somehow for instance 300 Euros for this text, because I too have to feed a family and to point to the circumstance of what these modes of production want from us. They want us to be fluffy, for instance.
(PS: This text was written for Silverserver-Magazine, issue # 3, Vienna. It was published in a shortened and edited version.)
(PPS: The translator [Daniel Eberharter] may want to add that he gets no money for this.)