Will the P2P revolution harm workers?

A very interesting take on the crisis of value by Rob Horning, focusing on its dark side of also weakening worker’s bargaining power and well-being.

The original article has links and ends with a more extensive analysis of Apple and the iPad as example of netarchical strategies.

Rob Horning:

“What Anderson seems to miss in all his glee is the erosion of labor’s bargaining power. Since we’ll all be small-scale manufacturers, he seems to assume, there will be no laborers, per se. Or they will all be in China, at any rate, and who cares about them? The reality of crowdsourcing is that it is a good way to find someone to do any given piece of work the cheapest. And there are always people out there who underestimate the value of their abilities.

The future may be a time when we can’t sell our labor power alone; we’ll all need to be small-time entrepreneurs, hawking some small-time idea or contribution to a project, just to hustle up a living. In other words, in the future we will all basically be living off the books, and if you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s book of the same name, you know that’s not such a good thing. Another book that is probably relevant to this is The Jobless Future by Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, which I’ve not yet read.

Still, the question of whether the disintermediation facilitated by the internet is causing a revolution in the means of production—what they are, who has access to them, how they are related to capital, and so on—is well worth considering. Michel Bauwens, whose P2P Foundation site is a fount of links and essays about whether the internet can be the basis for a whole new mode of social organization, posted this summary of his ideas about what he calls (unfortunately) “netarchical capitalism”—an economic system in which the most important means of production is the information infrastructure that allows for participatory networks to form and free labor to be performed and what Paulo Virno (following Marx) calls the general intellect to operate. The general intellect is basically Marxist jargon for decentralized collaboration and cooperation, the generalized sharing of useful information about how to make things or consume things. As Virno defines it, it is “inseparable from the interaction of a plurality of living subjects. The ‘general intellect’ includes formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’. Thoughts and discourses function in themselves as productive ‘machines’ in contemporary labor.” In other words, the most valuable thing in the early days of the Industrial Age were machines and factories—you needed them to compete. Now, those are arguably less important than knowledge, how to operate machines and disseminate their products. And thanks to the internet, that knowledge is starting to belong to all of us.

Virno is glossing the “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse, in which Marx suggests that technology will make human labor time less central to production, even though it remains the critical component in creating surplus value through exchange. Virno: “The main lacerating contradiction outlined here is that between productive processes that now directly and exclusively rely on science and a unit of measure of wealth that still coincides with the quantity of labor embodied in the product. According to Marx, the development of this contradiction leads to the ‘breakdown of production based on exchange value’ and therefore to communism.” Optimists believe we are seeing that play out now in the development of “the networked information economy” to use economist Yochai Benkler’s term (though Benkler does not seem to think these changes threaten the foundations of capitalism).

But that won’t happen without a fight. Bauwens recognizes that the information infrastructure will remain in the control of capitalists and could close off the liberating potential of new technology. “A new capitalist class is emerging,” he writes, “the forces which both ‘enable’ and exploit the participatory networks arising in the peer to peer era.” He adds, “Although the large netarchical corporations do enable participatory networks, their for-profit nature makes them dangerous trustees of commons-favorable protocols.” He lists some examples of netarchical capitalists, but no better example exists than Apple, whose new tablet device is clearly an attempt to toll the flow of information and reinstate the prerogatives of private intellectual property in the face of an emerging commons.”

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