(Below is an excerpt from some comments I'll make at tomorrow's conference on contemporary Italian thought at Cornell).
For Cesare Casarino, the common is another name for the self-reproducing excess that is capitalism. It is another name, but it is not the same exactly the same thing. The common is not a thing or an attribute; it is a dynamic process. It is production. Glossing Hardt and Negri, Casarino writes, “nowadays the common is virtually indistinguishable from that which continually captures it, namely, capital understood as a fully—that is, intensively and extensively—global network of social relations” (25).
The idea becomes clearer in contradistinction to the commons. Both common and commons are material and immaterial, natural and historical. Although the common indicates language, affect, thought, and knowledge, that is, communication, it should not be and cannot be detached from its materiality and historicity. I’ll add that this is a crucial point today, an advance over emphases on immaterial labor. Communication depends on a complex assemblage—satellites, fiber-optic cables, broad spectrum bandwidth, cellular networks, SIM cards, laptops, mobile phones, personal media devices, screens, protocols, code, software, search engines, radio signals, blogs, images, emotions, catch phrases, jingles, jargon, citations, archives, fears, omissions, comfort, denial. Installing breaks in the assemblage on the basis of an always questionable materiality closes off what the present opens, namely, the fecundity of communicative substance.
Casarino’s insight into the difference between commons and the common is that the commons is finite and characterized by scarcity. In contrast, the common is infinite and characterized by surplus. The common thus designates and takes the place of labor power (Marx’s source of surplus value), now reconceived in the broadest possible terms of the potential of creativity, thought, knowledge, and communication as themselves always plural, open, and productive.
How does the move from commons to common help our ability to understand exploitation and expropriation in contemporary capitalism? Well, at least one of the problems with the expropriation of the commons is that a few get a lot and some are left with nothing, thus having to sell their labor power. Privatization leaves them deprived of what they had. The widespread extension of credit—whether in the form of high interest credit cards, mortgage refinancing, or leverage in investment banking—is a kind of privatization of the future as it deprives the indebted of what they will have (more about this in a minute). The situation with the common is different. There is expropriation, but an expropriation that does not appear to leave many with little. There is more than enough, perhaps even too much. A question for the capture of the common in capitalism, then, is the crime or harm: if there is abundance or surplus why is expropriation a problem? Or is the problem some kind of exploitation and if so what kind?
Networked communications provide multiple instances of expropriation and exploitation of the common. I list six: data, metadata, networks, attention, capacity, spectacle. First: Facebook and Amazon.com claim ownership of information placed on their sites. They claim as their own property the products of unremunerated creative, communicative labor. Indeed, a primary characteristic of most commercially successful internet platforms is the capacity to become a singular locus for multiple communicative engagements. Some of these, Google comes to mind, collect and store metadata about user actions. This is a second kind of expropriation, of metadata (our search patterns), and exploitation, of user desire to navigate a rich information field. Google treats the trace left by searching and linking as its own potential resource.
A third, broader, instance of expropriation and exploitation of the communicative common involves the larger structure of complex networks (those characterized by free choice, growth, and preferential attachment; for example, academic citation networks, blockbuster movies, best-sellers, popularity of blogs and websites). As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi explains, complex networks follow a powerlaw distribution, the item in first place or at the top has much more than second place, which has more than third and so on such that there is very little difference among those “at the bottom” but massive differences between top and bottom (the idea appears in popular media as the 80/20 rule, the winner-take-all or winner-take-most character of the new economy, and the “long tail”). So lots of novels are written, few are published, fewer are sold, a very few become best-sellers. Or lots of articles are written; few are read; the same 4 are cited by everybody. In these examples, the common might designate the general field out of which the one emerges. Exploitation consists in efforts to stimulate the creative production of the field in the interest of finding, and then monetizing, the one. Expanding the field produces the one (or, hubs are an immanent property of complex networks). Such exploitation contributes to the expropriation of opportunities for income and paid labor, as we’ve seen in the collapse of print journalism and academic presses. Of course, another way to look at it is to say that all these blogs and articles are a surplus common beyond value. Just as digital media actualize the limits of property (even as companies like Apple have found effective work-arounds), so does the common as communication open us to potential beyond value.
The other three instances of communicative expropriation and exploitation highlight the instability of the distinction between common and commons (I should add that Casarino insists on this instability). These are attention, capacity, and spectacle.
The myriad entertainments and diversions available on-line, or as apps on our iphones, are not free. We don’t usually pay money directly for Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, the Huffington Post, Digby, Counterpunch, Rottentomatoes, TMZ, WeeWorld, I can haz cheeseburgers, and, why not, my own blog, I Cite. These don’t cost money. They cost time. It takes time to post and write and time to read and respond. We pay with our attention.
Our attention isn’t boundless. Our time is finite—even as we try to extract value out of every second (we don’t have time to waste). So we cannot respond to every utterance, click on every link, read every post. We have to choose even as the possibility of something else, something wonderful, lures us to search and linger. Demands on our attention, injunctions for us to communicate, participate, share—ever shriller and more intense—are like so many speed-ups on the production line, attempts to extract from us whatever bit of mindshare is left. When we do respond, our contribution is an addition to an already infinite communicative field, a little demand on someone else’s attention, a little incitement of an affective response, a digital trace that can be stored—and on and on and on. We pay with attention and the cost is focus.
This cost is particularly high for progressive and left political movements. Competition for attention—how do we get our message across—in a rich, tumultuous media environment too often and easily means adapting to this environment and making its dynamic our own, which can result in a shift in focus from doing to appearing, that is to say, a shift toward thinking in terms of getting attention in the 24/7 media cycle and away from larger questions of building a political apparatus with duration. Infinite demands on our attention—demands we make on each other and which communicative capitalism captures and amplifies—expropriate political energies of focus, organization, and duration vital to communism as a movement and a struggle. It’s no wonder that communicative capitalism is participationist: the more participation in networked media environments, the more traces to hoard and energies to capture or divert.
The limits of attention are not only the limits of individuals (and so can be resolved by distributing labor and crowd-sourcing); they are the limits that make communication as such possible (I’m thinking here of the distinction between signal and noise as well as of the habits, environments, and processes that direct and thereby produce the circumstances of communication). Perhaps we could say that the limit of attention is common. And if this is the case, then the common actualized in contemporary communication networks can function itself as a means of expropriation (which suggests that it could be useful to think about overproduction and over-accumulation of the common as distinctly political problems).
Casarino argues that potentiality is common, and thus while potentiality is fully embedded within capitalism, it does not belong to capitalism. It doesn’t belong to anybody. It could be, then, that my reflections here focus too much on the common in its actual aspects rather than its potential. But if that’s the case, then I’d like to know how or why that is the case insofar as surplus is one of the lures of communicative capitalism—anything could be out there, not just any video or insight, but opportunities for love, recognition, enjoyment.
Bets on these futures, their likelihood and the risks that accompany them, constitute a primary—and deadly—instrument of global finance. Derivatives—the over the counter value of which grew from $866 billion to $454 trillion between 1987 and 2007—are bets on potential. More specifically, the way derivatives function as financial instruments is by stepping back from an asset’s relation to its setting to bet on how investors will assess that relation in the future. They aren’t just bets; they are bets squared, bets on how others will bet, ways to capture and value potential. I’m tempted to say that a key aspect of communicative capitalism is precisely this capture of potential—how else to describe the excessive generation of debt (via high interest credit cards and mortgage refinancing) and the amplified role of speculation as an engine for capital accumulation? The gap between potentials and their actualizations is securitized, traded, and valued. Many hedge funds, for example, use arbitrage to exploit differentials within actual prices, treating potential, we might say, as a gap in the actual.
The fifth instance of expropriation and exploitation of the common/commons concerns capacities. Just as industrial labor expropriated craft skill, breaking it into its smallest components and distributing these components via mechanization and assembly lines, so does communicative capitalism participate in the dispossession of our previously common knowledge and capacities. Computer chips and processors, mobile phones and mp3 players, are primary components of the expansion and acceleration of disposability. Computers are antiquated in under three years; mobile phones become old-fashioned (if not quite obsolete) in about 18 months. What this means is that we don’t learn to fix them. Capacities to repair the items we use daily have diminished; the supposition is that we can just buy a new one. Of course, this was already the case with the rapid expansion of domestic goods after WWII; middle class households in the US became less likely to make the things they needed—clothes, furniture—and instead to buy them. Pressures on households to earn income, even while raising kids and participating in the care of others, has meant increased reliance on take out, fast, and frozen food, with a corresponding decrease in capacities to prepare and cook fresh food. Contemporary media highlights the expropriation of capacities many in the middle and former middle class currently confront—experts provide guidance in household organization (“Hoarders”), basic cooking skills (too many to name), and how to get along with others (most reality shows). Neoliberal trends in higher education seem bent on extending these dynamics to the university: in a society without skills, who needs a degree? Anyone who wants to can find out what she needs to know by googling it—everything is out there. You don’t need a professor to tell you. In a nutshell, things do it for us so that we don’t have to. We’ve outsourced basic skills—or, they’ve been expropriated from us (a new kind of capital accumulation).
The final instance of expropriation and exploitation in communicative capitalism I want to consider is spectacle. In The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben writes:
The extreme form of the expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, that is, the politics we live in. But this also means that in the spectacle our own linguistic nature comes back to us inverted. This is why (precisely because what is being expropriated is the very possibility of a common good), the violence of the spectacle retains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it.
The specific crime of the spectacle is that it exploits our aspirations for common being and uses them against us. Like networked personal media (which dis- and re-assemble the older spectacle form, now via our own creativity and longing), the spectacle is a form for the expropriation of linguistic being. Agamben works here from the dilemma expressed by Debord: in the society of the spectacle, ‘the language of real communication has been lost’ and a ‘new common language has yet to be found.’ Debord writes:
Spectacular consumption preserves the old culture in congealed form, going so far as to recuperate and rediffuse even its negative manifestations; in this way, the spectacle’s cultural sector gives over expression to what the spectacle is implicitly in its totality—the communication of the incommunicable.
Agamben’s response to the expropriation of communicativity Debord identifies is to turn the problem into the solution, that is, to find in the spectacle ‘a positive possibility that can be used against it.’ Communication of the incommunicable dissolves the gap between the language lost and the language to be found. The incommunicable can be communicated. Insofar as it is common, it persists beyond even the most extreme attempts at its expropriation. The spectacle thus contains its own overcoming. The expropriation of language in the spectacle opens up a new experience of language and linguistic being: ‘not this or that content of language, but language itself, not this or that true proposition, but the very fact that one speaks.’ Failure to communicate provides its own satisfaction, the enjoyment of language itself.
Agamben treats communication reflexively: he turns from what is said to that something is said. Not only is a negative condition (estrangement from linguistic being) treated as a positive opening (new experience of belonging), but its positivity is a result of reflexivity. Language turns on itself. In his discussion of drive as precisely this turning round upon the self, Freud views it as a change from activity to passivity. The active aim, to say something, is replaced by the passive aim, to have said. The movement from commons to common repeats, in a way, this shift from active to passive or, although I can’t develop it here, the movement from desire to drive. The force of scarcity that characterizes the commons pushes action, decision, choices for this rather than that. The excess, the surplus common, suggest a field or milieu wherein activity has become passivity, a mode of capture or entrapment in the “not yet” or “could have been” or “perhaps” rather than the “make it so.” Blogs, Facebook, YouTube—they each and together take our ensemble of actions and return them to us as an endless communicative common. Rather than “I make,” there is production, a production of thoughts and affects, opinions and contributions that circulate, accumulate, and distract. Words were spoken.
Casarino’s reflections on the contribution of the common to understanding communicative capitalism today put in relief some of the challenges in conceptualizing action and resistance when capital operates through communication, when communication is inextricable from capitalist processes of expropriation and exploitation. Communicative capitalism celebrates and relies on constant, nearly inescapable injunctions to participate, to express, to be part of an in common—“we are the world.” This enjoins us to share in an illusion, to embrace a fantasy that extreme inequality is accidental rather than essential to the capitalism of global communication networks. Because we know it’s an illusion, a fantasy, at least part of the work of consciousness-raising is done. The next step is claiming, owning, the division and using it to ally, coordinate, and mobilize anti-capitalist sentiments into a new vision of a communist state.