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<nettime> Five Theses on Informational - Cognitive Capitalism

Five Theses on Informational - Cognitive Capitalism

George N. Dafermos
dafermos [at] datahost [dot] gr

October 2005.


Recession is here, everywhere. Whether recession is artificial and thus compatible
with the axiomatic of capitalism (that is, the tendency toward a world market), or
forced and thus a threat to capitalism is still debated. From the perspective of
Capital, what is more important is that the historic magnification, which has been
defining capitalism since the 15th century, is not likely to maintain its pace or
character. There are no more barbarians to civilise, no more virgin lands to
conquer and colonise. The new barbarians are refined, the new virgin lands are not
defined by geographical parameters. Primitive accummulation has been completed;
explosion now gives way to implosion. It was reckoned that a myth central to
capitalism came full circle in three generations: I would start from scratch with
empty hands and empty pockets, slowly but gradually accummulate rights and money,
then build a house, find a wife with whom I would make a family, then have a son
and raise him, and, sooner or later, die. My son would repeat the process once
more, but his son ? my grandson - would inherit more than my son did, say three
times more. In the elapsed space of three generations, total wealth would have
multiplied by nine times. This myth starts to shun all relevance: the historic
magnification of capitalism, based on longestablished materialist notions of
value, is no longer feasible. In all probability, my grandson will not inherit
three houses. And here comes the reversal of perspective of Capital: as the
concept of the Spectale is conceived to its full radicality, as a process of
generalised social abstraction, the commodity-form implodes to encompass and
invest all of shared lived experience. The commodity-form has gone well beyond the
romantic stage of fetishism: while there is no doubt that both the use- and
exchangevalue of a product now largely stem from intangible characteristics, such
as perceived sex-appeal, "coolness", and ephemeral trendiness ? a reality of
contemporary commerce which compels us to rethink value along the lines of what
Jean Baudrillard calls sign value ? commodification does not stop at the twilight
of shopfronts and commodity shelves, that is, the sphere of materiality, but it
extends beyond them to encompass all of the immaterial. The leverage and
diffussion of commodification has been so overwhelming that goods long considered
public, such as century-old knowledges pertaining to medical treatments and the
cultivation of the land have been appropriated.[1] In the age of universality of
the spectale, the ultimate commodity is the time of our own lives, that is, the
relationships and experiences that give meaning to its space. "The spectacle is
the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social
life".[2] In effect, nothing escapes vulgar commodification. Even some of the most
subversive and anti-commercial manifestations of shared lived experience have
capitulated. Indicatively, in the space of the last fifteen years, rave has
metamorphosed from an anti-commercial, underground social movement and cultural
phenomenon into a lucrative industry of cool. With the notable exception of
freeraves in England, the commodification of the pulse of rave is ensured by the
increasing centrality of the figure of the Star-DJ (and the ephemeral trendiness
of the Club) to the packaged experience. The associated process of social
formation during a rave is accomplished by reference to the sign value of
fluorescent Adidas trainers and ornament-ised Ecstasy. Rave is now about paying to
dance to the beats of a cultureindustry professsional, rather than realising
temporary autonomous zones through an intensive process of cross-fertilisation
between underground sub-cultures based on the free sharing of conscience.[3]
Presently, rave's claim to "hack reality" has given way to spectacular pomp. Far
from becoming a universal anti-systemic movement, as it once aspired, rave,
blessed by the high priests of the culture industry, became an industry of cool.
Now, more that ever before, the utterance "the poverty of everyday life" attains a
whole new meaning. It no longer refers to the near-complete lack of authentic
excitement and stimulation in shared lived experience, that is, an ontological
condition predicated on esoteric misery and social boredom; now, it comes to
signify the centrality of the commodity-form to the satisfaction and saturation of
all of our socio-cultural needs and wants.


Would-be information-technology (IT) workers are reckoned to be privileged because
it is assumed that IT students are in the rare position of needing none and
nothing, except for plenty of time perhaps, in order to acquire those skills and
competencies that will later guarantee them a job in the epicentre of the most
lucrative labour market. But this is yet another popular myth, in spite of its
been perpetuated by a plethora of computer scientists. In a time when the tools of
the trade are not free (libre) and certainly not free of charge, free time does
not suffice. This becomes obvious when we take a look at the person who is
constantly craving for fresh knowledge, in particular for knowledge that has been
put to the service of capital by means of intensifying and imploding the wealth
bondage that keeps unpaid-for labour hostage. The cost of the investment in time
required to pick up a new skill aside, what is left to the inquiring mind who
desires to internalise an external domain of knowledge, but has no money to pay
for it? Suppose I have no problem spending lots of time getting myself up to speed
with Adobe Pagemaker, Logic, Cubase, AutoCAD or any other piece of software made
possible by incredible programming ingenuity, but I cannot afford to buy them. Do
I abstain from using them as the result of my inadequate funding? Or do I resort
to programming a real alternative (ie. The GIMP Vs. Adobe Photoshop), hoping that
in time this knowledge will compensate for the loss of familiarity in the use of
the mainstream tool which is the one valued by the market according to the
particulars of the jobs currently advertised? From this vantage point, free
software developers, as well as illegitimate vendors of software, and people who
crack software programs are located in the vanguard of the modern knowledge
revolution. Although they rarely understand the actual effect of their actions,
illegitimate vendors of software contribute a strong blow to the world of
commodified knowledge. For their clientelle consists not only of intermediaries
who intend to copy the software they have bought a thousand times and re-sell it,
but also of people who have a genuine interest in acquiring the knowledge embedded
in the software. Not that long ago, I happenned to stand right next to a deal. The
site was the famous agora of Monastiraki in Athens, Greece, located at the foot of
the rock of Acropolis, where hundreds of small-time dealers set up shop every
Sunday. The buyer had picked two or three CDs, one of which was a copy of Avid,
and was negotiating the price for that software. In order to raise the price, I
assumed for this is the only satisfactory explanation I can come up with, the
dealer cunningly offered that this deal was illegal. To which the buyer replied:
?I am doing nothing illegal here. I am not interested in re-selling this software.
I only want it for the knowledge in it. And no one will stop me from acquiring
knowledge?. The dealer, dazed a bit for it seemed he had not been given that
particular reply on that day, nodded and agreed on the price the buyer had
suggested. The deal took place, and in a moment's time the buyer had dissappeared
again into the crowd. The conscious realisation of the social effect of knowledge
acquisition through illegitimate and clandestine channels, as exemplified by the
determination shown by the above buyer to acquire the coveted knowledge by all
means, even through his participation in a deal, seals the reversal of
perspective: the perspective of power through the technique of indoctrination it
employs with the help of mass media has come into such a fierce and cruel conflict
with the imperatives of knowledge acquisition that the genuinely inquiring mind
will assert its right to claim knowledge even in the obscene case that this
process of knowledge acquisition has been criminalised. The primacy to establish
foundations for the advancement of illegal knowledge can only be grasped on this
plane: piracy is incorporated into the radical project of libre knowledge insofar
as the pirates are seeking to extend their body of knowledge. As regards to
crackers, they have been consistently portrayed by mass media as juvenile
delinquents on the brink of a terminal mental collapse, whose kindest motivation
can be explained by their vanity to demonstrate their skills to others. But this
conceptualisation, though it illustrates the underlying motivation of some
crackers, is far from adequate to explain the actions of all crackers. The
practice of cracking envisages the most radical aspect of the project of libre
knowledge: cracking does not stop at the boundary of illegal distribution ? it
goes much further than that. Crackers devote their time and skills to supplying
the realm of illegal distribution with technology artifacts, and, not to forget,
there is hardly ever any money for them. In effect, this critical aspect alone
highlights the radicalisation of the cracker as a computer scientist put to the
service of liberating knowledge from constraints imposed upon it by


Free as in free beer - The possibility that productive cooperation and the
enactment of production in social networks no longer require the mediation of the
capitalist in order to be effectuated ? a presupposition of post-industrial
capitalism that some theorists refer to as the Communism of Capital ? is
compelling enough to tremble the earth. A real-world demonstration of this
phenomenon is provided by the development and organisation model at work in
several large free software and open source projects, such as the Linux operating
system. In fact, many look into networks of collaborative free software and open
source development for a practical demonstration of how the new emancipated
society will be organised. There are several issues to be stressed here. First,
the absence of exchange value: free software, as a technology product, is given
away for free, and this is, partly, why free software is radical. However, this
fact may lead to wrong conclusions, for software is, by and large, a service-based
industry, and, thus, there is money to be made by capitalising on free software.
Indeed, corporate behemoths, such as IBM, are doing exactly this: they sell
services (ie. consulting, training, implementation, maintenance and support, etc.)
tied to specific FS/OSS products. Paradoxically, the absence of exchange value
does not negate the presence of market value. Further, not all FS/OSS development
takes place outside a system of economic incentives; as a matter of fact, free
software is often developed in direct response to market forces.[4] On the other
hand, it is common to underestimate the effect of such a paradigm of (im)material
production on consciousness and subjectivity. In editing Wikipedia or hacking the
Linux kernel, for instance, people are, consciously or not, educating themselves
in what creative, collaborative work really consists. The realm of such networks
of cooperative development is underpinned by the pleasure principle: people
re-discover that products of unparalleled social and technical ingenuity can
result from a production process that is founded on volunteer contributions; they
re-discover the joy and personal fulfilment that accompanies creative work. On
this plane, collective subjectivity is impregnated with the sperm of radicality,
as people are suddently becoming aware of the reversal of perspective that lies in
the shadows: a production setting in which people are using the tools that they
have themselves built to create situations they individually desire is always
bound to outperform in efficiency and expose the poverty of production effectuated
for the sake of profit. A direct confrontation stretching from the terrain of
ideas to the very institutional nucleus of capitalist society is underway. One the
one side stands the beast of living labour organised independently of the
capitalist demand, and, the imaginary of intellectual property law, on the other.
Whereas the beast of living labour seeks to gain its freedom by demolishing a
world shaped by forced labour, the object of intellectual property law is the
regulation of immaterial labour (rather than the creation of artificial scarcity,
as so many critics of intellectual property claim).[5] The imaginary of
intellectual property law is, first and foremost, designed to control people
through control of the producion process, regardless of whether this production
takes place within the factory or outside it. Indicatively, IBM has a patent on
how to employ and retain FS/OSS developers, which means that in an insane world
anyone who has ever written a single line of HTML would have to get IBM's
permission to work at any company other than IBM.[6] Therein emerges a
contradiction that FS/OSS is incapable of dodging, at least for the time being:
given that the time is ripe for the systematic exploitation of immaterial labour,
and draconian intellectual property regimes orchestrate the production process in
accordance with the exclusive interest of massive intellectual property holders,
the idea that radical subjectivity is being produced in networks of collaborative
FS/OSS development is thrown into insignificance. Said otherwise: the global
intellectual property law apparatus has both the power to operationalise FS/OSS
for the benefit of its master ? the culturalindustrial complex, and, most
crucially, to render it illegal lest such a course of action is deemed necessary.
In the latter case, in which FS/OSS developers are marginalised, and networks of
collaborative FS/OSS development are effectively forced into the computer
underground, there is a good possibility that the subversive character of FS/OSS
will re-surface, but nobody can tell with any degree of certainty whether its
subversive motors are sufficiently equipped to deal with a world pompously
indoctrinated to the advantages of a draconian intellectual property regime.


The capitulation of volunteer labour - Free (gratis, unwaged) labour is a
requirement of the current configuration of cognitive-informational capitalism.
There has never been a similar disruption in the number, and in the composition,
of the unemployed population. Nowadays, hordes of university graduates and PhDs,
that is, knowledge workers, are joining the boundaryless 'industrial reserve army'
that sustains the delicate balance that, in turn, restrains the contradictions of
capitalism from exhausting capitalism itself. It is to the credit of thinkers like
Antonio Negri to have formulated the theory of the internal margin, of how
internal ghettos are installed within over-developed regions and post-industrial
metropoles in exactly the same time that under-developed, and developing countries
in the periphery are undergoing a process of heavy industrialisation in
agriculture and commodity manufacturing.[7] The structural violence produced by
capitalism has run amok, giving rise to such a dislocation in the labour-force
that no expansion in any sector of the economy will be able to absorb. And it is
not likely that the historic magnification of capitalism will maintain its pace,
or character, in order to offset the systemic shock triggered by the aggravation
of the army of the unemployed. No previous generation faced the problem of
unemployment to the extent that the current generation will be compelled to
experience. It should not come as a surprise when the "tag" of insanity will be
bestowed upon those who are or remain jobless. A number of pertinent questions
arise: is this surge in the number of the unemployed, and the similarly pertinent
shift in its composition toward increasingly more knowledge workers, likely to
bring capitalism to a halt? Is this class revolutionary or counter-revolutionary?
To a certain extent, the unemployed constitute a singularity deeply embedded in
the revolutionary subject. Yet, against this pressure, the system ? apparently -
does not break down. One could argue that the system feeds on the fragile
circumstances of the unemployed, seizing whatever opportunity there is to utilise
volunteer labour for spectracular goals by turning it into forced labour: tens of
thousands of volunteers were the human motor behind the 2004 Olympic Games, which
took place in Athens, Greece. Whereas some of those thousands of people surely
volunteered because they wanted to volunteer - and there is absolutely nothing
reprehensible in altruistic volunteer work - , others though volunteered in hope
that once the Olympic Games were over, as it was implied, they would find
employment as personnel for the maintenance and operation of the sites that hosted
the Olympic Games.[8] This volunteer labour is conditioned by the structural
violence of late capitalism. Said otherwise: the unemployed (and under-employed)
are forced to volunteer their labour if they wish to stand a chance of escaping


A new class has arisen that is rapidly ammassing increasingly more power through
its ability to veto on the vectors of information which it controls, and which
both knowledge workers and the industrial capitalists need.[9] This is the terrain
of history where class struggle is being re-written. The capitalist, as John
Kenneth Galbraith observed long ago, has been a dwindling figure in the economy.
His hegemonic position has gradually been taken over by committess manned by
technocrats that Galbraith termed the technostructure, and that we, today, would
be more inclined to refer to as the class of knowledge workers.[10] The emergence
of the technostructure, argued Galbraith, was conditioned primarily by the
imperatives of sophisticated technology production. This still holds today:
semi-autonomous knowledge workers are a requirement of late capitalism, without
whom the transition from industrial manufacturing to information feudalism could
not have been feasible. Yet, it is misleading to assume that capitalism had, or
has, a hard time adapting to this reconfiguration: the constant presence of
friction is not important, since frinctionless capitalism, as well as static
capitalism, is an oxymoron. On the contrary, the capitalist system not only
required the formation of this class, but also incorporated it into its very
operational logic. With the rise of this new class, which McKenzie Wark terms the
'vectoralist class', and, which, it should be noted, has its roots in the hacker
universe, yet has chosen to dissassociate itself from the interests of the
'digital proletariat', we witness the final stage of the transformation of
information into property. This transformation, and the ensuing reconfiguration of
class struggle that comes with it, are conditioned by the inability of capitalism
to maintain its pace and character of historic magnification. For capitalism to
elude the spectre of the falling rate of profit and to extend its degree of
accummulation, capital has to turn into an image, and information, shared lived
experience, and the commons be transformed into commodities ? commodification
turns inward. The internal need for continuous magnification, rather than ideology
or class struggle, has led the convulsive reconfiguration of the convoluted mesh
of power relations and the associated relations of production that are manifested
as an intellectual property right. The organic composition of capital may well
have undregone dramatic change, but the social worker of the present remains
subordinated to a regime of spectacular oppression; a regime that substitutes one
class for another, yet still maintains its class-based dichotomic character; a
regime that by Marx's definition may be seen as noncapitalistic, yet it is still
epitomised by the axiomatics of capitalism. To this day, the regime of signs
founded on the emancipatory tendency of the ?general intellect? negates the old
regime of subordination and work done in factories and businesses, but it does so
without negating its own Self. Consequently, although fueled by a desiring machine
predicated on social ejaculation, it remains a regime of signs, rather than a
concrete situation experienced in the urban territory.


[1] For example, farmers and indigenous people in many regions have
painfully discovered that recipes, knowledges, and techniques that had
been in common use for medical or agricultural purposes for centuries
have now passed into the ownership of the global pharmaceutical complex
in the institutionalised form of patents.

[2] Debord, Guy. 1983. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Fredy
Perlman et al., Detroit: Black & Red, #42, at
http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/4 .

[3] On rave as an underground socio-cultural phenomenon whose roots are
inextricably linked to the computer underground and the hacker culture,
and for a captivating account, placed in a historical context, of how
rave started, see Rushkoff, Douglas. 1999. Electronica, The True Cyber
Culture. May, at http://www.rushkoff.com/columns/electronica.html ; and
Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (1994, Flamingo) by the same

[4] For two treatises on the issue of motivation in FS/OSS development,
which link developers' motivation directly to market forces and economic
incentives, see Lancashire, David. 2001. The Fading Altruism of Open
Source Development, First Monday, volume 6, number 12, December, at
http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_12/lancashire/ ; and Lerner,
Josh and Tirole, Jean. 2000. "The simple economics of Open Source",
National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper, number 7600
(March), at http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers2/9900/00-

[5] S?derberg, Johan. 2004. Reluctant Revolutionaries: the false modesty
of reformist critics of copyright, Journal of
Hyper(+)drome.Manifestation, Issue 1, September, at

[6] Ibid., endnote #38 at http://journal.hyperdrome.net/issues/issue1/S?derberg.html#_ftn38

[7] Negri, Antonio. 1984. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse,
ed. Jim Fleming, translated by Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan and Maurizio
Viano, South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey.

[8] As of the time of writing, no official statement has been issued (by
the government, the state commission charged with the organisation and
supervision of the Olympic Games, or the commercial entities involved)
regarding how many of the volunteers have been employed at the sites
that accommodated the 2004 Olympic Games. However, based on anecdotal
evidence (that is, from accounts of volunteers who remain unemployed),
this implicit promise has not yet materialised, and it remains uncertain
if it ever will.

[9] Wark, McKenzie. 2004. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press,
and at http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors0/warktext.html .

[10] Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1974. The New Industrial State. Penguin

Publication notes.

This text was prepared for the Proceedings of the 22nd Chaos
Communication Congress (22C3: Private Investigations -
http://www.ccc.de/congress/2005/), scheduled to take place in Berlin,
Germany, in December 2005. It is largely based on G. Dafermos, The
Critical Delusion of Immaterial Labour (October 2005, unpublished
manuscript), several parts of which have been reproduced here.

About the author.

George N. Dafermos is an independent researcher and author based in
Crete, Greece. He is a blogger at home at
http://radio.weblogs.com/0117128/ and can be contacted via email at
dafermos [at] datahost [dot] gr.

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