The presence of precarity
On work experience
The work done in academia was different to other types of work. Different certainly when compared to manual work but also to other ‘professional’ work. Indeed it was not labour as such but a vocation premised on creativity1 and autonomy. For many of those working in the Higher Education (also HE) sector, either as graduate teaching assistants, postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers and permanent (and not merely open-ended) academic positions, statements such as these captured a set of assumptions about their work identities: the sense of fulfilling one’s vocation was the unwritten part of the employment contract. It made a work culture based on long hours and insecurity somehow acceptable.
Looking at roughly fifteen years of my own work experience in German and UK Higher Education, I remember throughout it the recurrent discussions over work/life as aspiring academics. ‘Getting there’, admittedly, wasn’t going to be easy. In the German case, the sector was difficult to enter, relying more often than not on the traditions of patronage. In the UK, there existed a relative abundance of entry position jobs but these were increasingly marked by poor contractual arrangements such as high teaching loads or ‘casual’ contracts that, e.g., existed only at department level and thus remained unrecognised by the University in terms of employment rights.
Despite these initial hurdles, those who persisted also persisted with talking of the rewards: of academic work as personal, meaningful and self-determined and not abstract, alienated and subsumed labour. This mystified talk remained a powerful and pervasive constant over the years. It remained intact despite growing reports over the impact of ever-more demanding Research Assessment Frameworks by which academic units and individuals therein were ranked according to their ‘excellence’ (in research and not in teaching or administration). It also remained intact in the face of ever more lectures and tutorials being taught on 9-months teaching-only contracts2. In the face of this, Neil Smith, in an early text on student and academic labour in the university, reminded us over ten years ago of the following observation by Marx:
“… [A] schoolmaster is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, does not alter the relation.”3
For this article I would like to examine more closely the implications, as they arise from particular types of work (such as academic work) as creative and autonomous: What does this assumed premise mean for the labour process? What does it mean for specific work practices? But also what are its implications for organising such particular types of work and the self-reflection that is a necessary condition for such organising?
My starting point is that of Higher Education labour. However, there is an important component of the above mythology that is shared by artists (for the purpose of this article I am consciously collapsing all those who conduct artistic labour as arts managers, co-ordinators, curators, consultants and advisors into this definition, deliberately taking artistic training as common principle) and academics alike: that of creative and autonomous individuals in charge and in ownership of their creations. With this starting point in mind I discuss questions around labour process, practice and organising and – to a lesser extent – professional habitus and selfhood4. As current artistic professional practice increasingly equates itself with the fostering of creative entrepreneurs (insert ‘social’ at will), the question for artists, put more bluntly, becomes: how can we challenge the mythology of the entrepreneurial artist who can turn to anything and anything in turn turns to value?
Autonomia, and the critique of immaterial production
The Italian Operaismo has provided one of the most important contributions in examining labour agency for the analysis of capitalism. Its confluence of political practice, theoretical work and political practice again such as through the organisations of Potere Operaio, the later Autonomia Operaia as well as the more diffuse Autonomia, as ‘autonomy of the social’ as it emerged during 1970s and in particular in the 1977 Movement is well documented and of renewed interest for current struggles.5 They formed out of a cycle of intense struggles within and without the factories of Northern Italy in the 1960s and especially during the “hot autumn” of industrial unrest in 1968. At the heart of Autonomia’s struggle, politically as well as conceptually, lay the extent to which class composition was no longer confined to the Fordist factory. The political calls for ‘We want everything’ or ‘Let’s take the city’ of the 1960s and 1970s stand for precisely that.
“We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle.”6
Autonomia’s practice drew on concepts such as the social worker and the social factory. For the Autonomists, these concepts sought to understand a society where nothing was left outside capitalist production. This subsumption signifies the process by which previously autonomous labour becomes integrated into the cycle of capitalist production as a social relation. Once complete, it signifies a process of ‘internal colonisation’ where
“the whole of society becomes an articulation of production; in other words, the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society.”7
Steve Wright in his discussion of the social factory continues:
“While the subsumption of all social relations to capital brought with it the generalisation of the wage relation, the advancing proletarianisation of new social layers assumed a mystified form. ‘When all of society is reduced to a factory, the factory – as such – seems to disappear’, with it ‘labour-power itself as commodity’.”8
The political defeat of the Italian radical Left in 1977 is also well documented. The conceptual difficulties to understand and build on the changes of labour as a class during this time have re-emerged in the more recent interest in the Italian Operaismo and an assessment of its current relevance and potential. The scale of popularity of Hardt and Negri’s cycle of Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth as well as Holloway’s9 writings for contemporary social movements speaks to this with a certain celebrity status. The continuity of political groups such as Aufheben and Wildcat speaks of years of political practice – such as militant enquiries.
Much of the assessment centres on whether key concepts such as social factory, and even more so, those of the social worker, self-valorisation as well as that of immaterial labour are capable of furthering our understanding of contemporary political economy and to develop political strategies for the present. And while not wanting to replay these extensive debates I will briefly sketch out their relevance in relation to the autonomy of academic and artistic labour.
Maurizio Lazaratto10 defines immaterial labour as labour concerned with the ‘informational content’ of commodities. Immaterial labour also
“regards the activity that produces the ‘cultural content’ of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that not normally recognized as ‘work’ –in other works, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.”
Hardt and Negri expand on this earlier discussion to include also affective labour as it takes place in the service sector. The discussions of Empire and Multitude concerned directly the role of immaterial labour and as such, these debates are several years old. However, a reconsideration of these is timely in the light of how entrepreneurial creativity, the particularity of creative industries and the investment into these are becoming ever more commonplace in policy and practice. Even more so as notably in Scotland little critical or conceptual engagement takes place around the assumed panacea of a ‘creative economy’.
Steve Wright’s11 critique of immaterial labour provides an important contribution for this reconsideration. He questions the assumption of its hegemony; points to the continuity of labour as labour, and to the circumstance that labour before the discovery of immaterial labour also relied crucially on its affective, emotive and cognitive elements (and that maybe only our discovery of this is what is new).
Labour process 1 (The real subsumption of immaterial labour)
Yet, significant for understanding the limitations of the concept of immaterial labour is less its proclamation of novelty or even hegemony but how Hardt and Negri reject the role of value (i.e. the abstract labour contained in the commodity) for capitalist production. For them, “In immaterial production… the capitalist is increasingly redundant as the organiser of production and the one responsible for innovation”.12 Thus, they duly dispense with the antagonism of labour and capital and instead consider immaterial labour as the foundation of a society without capitalists. The capitalist system thus nicely, quietly even, abolishes itself, alongside history. What they rightly talk about is the circumstance that in capitalism, like in no other form of society, “labour itself produces the means for other labour and production… traditional Marxism called this the ‘socialisation of labour’.”13 Yet, rather than representing the arrival of utopia, this logic is premised on divestment, taking place beyond our control or will as workers. The labour of earlier work is in fact ‘dead labour’, it is no longer ours nor active (to be drawn on at will) but in the process of socialisation has become part of capital. In its dead form, which is ‘lost to us’, labour comes to face us objectively as part of a capitalist social relation that ensures our ongoing bind to and exploitation by the production process.
Lazaratto’s14 examination of agency for immaterial workers provides a first insight into its limitations. The call to ‘become a subject’ at the workplace was less of an invitation to express oneself creatively in the midst of post-Fordist restructuring but instead a highly authoritarian demand issued by management: to express oneself meant to take responsibility. Production cycles premised on such subjectivity take place right across society and are no longer confined to the factory. They draw on a wide range of work skills to manage social relations and elicit co-operation. Often project-based, immaterial labour is marked by precarity and the production of contemporary subjectivities where:
“[b]ehind the label of the independent ‘self-employed’ worker, what we actually find is an intellectual proletarian, but is recognized as such only be the employers who exploit him or her.”15
“It is worth mentioning that in this kind of working existence it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time. In a sense, life becomes inseparable from work.”16
While Lazaratto provides a prising open of the antagonism between capital and labour that may well be specific to the immaterial worker and thus can provide leverage for autonomy and also sabotage, Aufheben caution strongly against a naïve hopefulness for the multitude of immaterial labour: the problem resides in a dangerous misunderstanding of (a) the objectification that takes place in a capitalist society; and (b) the subjectification that characterises this specific division of labour. Thus, immaterial labour – as an imposed form of capitalist production – is not to be fostered, promoted or celebrated but indeed to be overcome. Thus, the antagonism that Lazaratto identifies above requires recognition and strategic appropriation. Yet, this can not be done by simply doing more, better, faster, shinier immaterial labour in the false assumption that this labour already presented a set of social relations that was ‘beyond capitalism’, without capitalist producers and their exploitation (see also Anthony Iles and Marina Vishmidt in this issue who explore further the inabilities of immaterial labour).
While marked by precarity, for many artists, and for increasingly more of those working in HE, much in these types of labour offered a fair amount of interest, diversion, autonomy and creativity. The relative absence of the pain and boredom that is characteristic for the experience of subsumed labour has led to overheard conversations (as recent as March 2011) among academic staff who “couldn’t see the point of strike in their privileged position as their activity didn’t really constitute ‘work’”; or who “didn’t need payment for conference travels as these really were holidays”. Here, taste and privilege mark for once the relative class privilege that originates from self-identification with the educated middle-classes or bourgeoisie. It also justifies the particular division of labour into creative/autonomous ‘non’-work and shitwork.
The working conditions of what is not considered work have begun to rapidly unravel over the past year: immaterial labour at the university is revealing its pain, boredom (even if only in the repetitiveness of external income or publication targets, which again remain outwith reach in one’s continuing over-workedness) and in fact as pretty shit work, where UK permanent academic staff also only have a job security of three months should senior management decide on one’s own redundant status.
The presence of precarity. Self-employment as contemporary form
The preceding section has situated immaterial labour firmly within a capitalist social relation and a specific labour process that – albeit in different processes and forms – subsumes immaterial labour as it does material labour.
This article begun with an alignment between artistic and academic labour in their shared belief in creative and autonomous practices and work identity formation. The moment of difference between these labour processes (though recognising variations therein) lies in their form of practice and organisation: academic labour to a large extent takes place within a major institutional form of the public university that increasingly pursues entrepreneurial aims. And while conditions of contract, working time and employment rights are being attacked for permanent staff in addition to those in that ever-expanding part of academic work on ‘atypical contracts’, it is nonetheless a sector with traditional union organising and representation and wage employment.
Angela Mitropoulos17 argues how in fact the absence of precarity and a hegemony of regular work presents an historical as well as geographical exception. Her argument is that not only has
“the experience of work in capitalism […], for the most part, been intermittent, without guarantee of a future income, without punctual limit and, oftentimes, without income at all. Indeed, regular, full-time and secure work, where it did exist, depended upon the organisation and maintenance of precarious conditions for the vast majority of the world’s population.”
Thus, for her, the existence of precariousness is in fact the capitalist norm. This recognition of precarity as ‘business as usual’ engenders a particular politics and organising – rather distinct from those around immaterial labour, to which I will turn later on.
Sergio Bologna, whose Tribe of Moles (1977) has provided to this day one of the most insightful accounts and analyses of the struggles of the Autonomia, dismissed twenty years ago the debates over immaterial labour as “a ‘myth’ that more than anything else obscures the lengthening of the working day.”18 For Bologna, the inability of the Autonomia to understand fully the new kind of class composition that took over from the factory workers of the 1960s has led him to focus on what he calls the second generation of self-employed workers (in Italy) from the late 1970s onwards.19 He argues for a qualitatively different form of wage labour. He is also, however, clear that this does not transcend capitalist production, and leaves little doubt at the illusion of freedom that is commonly attested to the free-lancer.20 Per immaterial labour (as many of his self-employed subjects’ work is that of service provision) the social relations on which a wage labour contract is premised are changed - to the effect of individualising risk (by withdrawing a guarantee for subsistence).
Over the subsequent sections I am drawing on several of his eleven theses (originally, ten written in 1997 plus another, extended, one added in 2005) on self-employment.21
Labour practice (Relationality)
A task, if conducted as wage labour, is bound by organisational rules. These rules premise the task on particular methods or codified knowledge. If this task is conducted freelance it can and in fact has to draw on the entirety of knowledge, experience and skill of the self-employed worker. Thus, every single time, the task takes on a different form to its previous one.
Already visible in this non-standardisation of freelance work, the particular content of communicative and relational activities that have to be mobilised establish self-employed labour as fundamentally different from wage labour.22 Self-employed labour thus presents an investment of one’s entire human capital in order to make up for a fundamental lack: the lack of any organisational structure. In this sense, Bologna points to the contradiction in itself of considering self-employed workers as entrepreneurs or one-person companies – due to the lack of organisational infrastructure no one can realistically ‘go into business for oneself’. This recognition is highly relevant in the context of debates over artist unions: are they servicing – guild-like – associations or organising unions? What does this mean for questions over economic (rather than moral) solidarity? I will return to these questions later on. Crucially, the majority of these relational activities remain ‘unproductive’ and hidden: the hours spent on the phone, in making contacts and maintaining these.
Labour process 2 (Risk and the form of the wage)
The valorisation of one’s self in the relational labour practices outlined above already points to the extent to which ‘non-normative lifestyles’ have become productive and valorised. More acutely, however, is the extent to which this presents, as Angela Mitropoulos23 calls it, the “transformation of risk into profit, the re-impositions of limits through contract, and the restoration of productivist (and reproductivist) norms through intimate self-management”. What is happening here is no less than “the systematic displacement of capitalism’s risks and crises onto households…”.
As Bologna24 observes, a remuneration that is characterised by payment of an invoice no longer achieves the status of a guarantee of subsistence but remains a simple payment subject only to tax law. And while this insecurity may be anticipated for a start-up or occasional freelance work, Bologna observes that it is in the consolidation phase of self-employed workers where the biggest problems of insecurity and risk are emerging. Notably driven by the demands of markets to accept every potential client, the control over free time decreases steadily.25
Both, Mitropoulos and Bologna are clear that the ‘pursuit of non-conformist lifestyles’ as well as the ‘refusal of the assembly lines’ are based in social changes. As Bologna expresses it, the risk of self-employment was readily accepted by the ‘no future’ generation where a desperate and short-term view on life prevailed. Recent explorations into offering loans and credit-schemes specifically for artists in Scotland take these risks further – accompanied by the dictum that ‘risk is designed to enhance the creative process’, as expressed by the Chief Executive of Creative Scotland during the course of his interview for this issue. The workshop on Loans for Art Organisations at the Art+Labour event organised by Variant and Making A Living (MAL) at Glasgow’s CCA, provided a suitable fact-finding mission as to the difficulties of recouping debt and reassigning it as subsidies in the case of the Catalonian Government.26
Labour organising (The question of economic solidarity)
One outcome of the ways in which labour practice and process of self-employment valorises no commodities but the self-employed worker herself lies in an easily-observable behaviour across academia and the arts: the practices of secrecy and guarding one’s own expertise, and the mystification of processes of production, sources and contacts as all these are regarded as crucial to one’s own value. In Bologna’s words,
“we are witnessing a ‘becoming clandestine’ of skills. The self-employed workers become individuals of a drama by Molière, jealously and meanly guarding their microscopic secret knowledge.”27
When faced with the rising degrees of risk and insecurity, a reconsideration of paid employment becomes increasingly attractive. Yet, here also has the ongoing neo-liberalisation undone so many of the contractual rights of a subsistence that was embedded in a wage contract. Thus, the question arises: Do we not need forms of solidarity to safeguard self-employed workers’ rights? Bologna emphasises the right to strike as the key to understand capitalist social relations and the democratic constitution of society. He also points rightly to the extent to which the institutionalisation and integration of this right into the workplace has also historically proven to be the most effective way of defusing the explosiveness of the threat of strike action when it is not merely symbolic. The events around the demonstrations in London on March 26th 2011 and the ‘deviations’ from a legitimated and symbolic march provide illustration to that point and the continuing difficulties of the unions to recognise the weakness of symbols alone.28
In current forms of organisation, self-employed workers are dispersed across social space and rather clearly aware of the need to demonstrate utility (be it for the Big Society or for the extensive disciplinary roles that early 21st century social control has to offer: artists in prisons or trainers in HE skills frameworks) alongside an impressive amount of competition for doing so. Reducing the wage relation to a matter of tax law rather than an institutionally embedded right also allows for demands only to be made retrospectively through court action. Upon surveying these conditions, Bologna regards the oldest (and weakest) form of economic solidarity through mutuality and guild-like associations as the one for the self-employed to fall back on, or rather, to begin with.
The forms of co-operation and solidarity that can arise from self-employment remain to be probed further. This will need to involve an exploration of self-organisation – in the form of artist-run spaces (that don’t take the form of career collectives29) as well as current forms of alternative education spaces. Bologna30 raises the problems with the principle of demand by outlining how the demand that is made within traditional bargaining processes has little relevance for the labour form of self-employment. The ‘something else’ he calls for remains without further specification; into his placeholder I would like to insert, if only temporarily, the ‘Occupy everything, Demand nothing’ that is running through the current UK anti-cuts and education protests, as it did previously through other (student) movements as a similar questioning of well-worn demand rituals.31
Attempting the present
Bologna enquires into the new modalities of labour in the present while being attentive to the continuities and insecurities that are transferred onto self-employed subjects. His study takes us some way towards unravelling some of the myths around creativity and autonomy in immaterial labour (be it as artists or academics). The starting point for his investigations into the practice and politics of self-employment were those of his own precarisation after having lost access to his tenured post as university professor in the wake of the retributions of the Italian state in the late 1970s. Self-employment, for him, as well as the ‘discovery’ of a precariat for those with cultural capital in the 1990s, was based on personal experience; an experience which contradicted the beliefs and stories told before about ‘one’s place’ that are so powerful for the bourgeoisie’s engagement with the academy. This observation about self-interest but also the precarisation of the bourgeoisie is an important one: it is important for our understanding of class and class subjecthood. This understanding needs to take serious class recomposition and as such the devolution of risk to those subjects previously cushioned and sheltered by relative class-privilege.
I am also raising this point since it requires a calling into question of assumed understandings of class divisions between a culture of (UK) middle classes and working classes. These remain unfortunately too often anything but new in the studies of working class lives and firmly rely on the examination of cultural preference if not socio-economic class indices. Instead, going back to a Marxist understanding of class in relation to the means of production and ownership of these allow us to consider that drinking latte, flat whites or similar may not determine one’s class belonging. Consequently, a dismissal of self-employment, or rather freelancing, as the territories of the middle-classes (i.e. not working classes) does not take us very far if we fail to consider how such ‘autonomy’ of self-employment is indeed firmly woven into a process of subsumed labour.
Here, the observation that the modalities of real subsumption have changed – and now have taken on the forms of labour which in earlier decades seemed bracketed off as professional work – resonates with Angela Mitropoulos’s32 writing on precariousness and risk management. She asserts that capitalists were forced “to resort to precarisation so as to renew accumulation and re-impose discipline and control” as a result of social and migration movements but also a rejection of factory work and the nuclear family. She continues that,
“[t]his is why analyses and political struggles around precarity are often in danger of re-asserting the politics of Fordism – not in any actual material sense, since the conditions which made that possible have long been surpassed by various struggles, but as the resurgence of affective attachments to conservative agendas, as the aspiration for transcendental securitisation, whether theological, militaristic, or as a combination of both.”33
Immaterial labour is premised on a particular division of labour and indeed the emergence of immaterial production. The reasons for creative workers choosing arts or academics choosing the academy lie also in the belief that this particular labour feels less alienated, that subsumption of labour is less of an issue than elsewhere. To reiterate, the problem with this approach is twofold. Firstly, the particular division based on creative work and shitwork means there is plenty of shitwork to go round. The discovery of precarity came at a point when HE graduates were also recruited into shitwork and thus an externalisation of bad working conditions could no longer be upheld. Secondly, both forms of labour are part of a process whereby dead labour (in past or present) is subsumed into capitalist production. Consequently, subsumption and alienation are experienced across these forms of work.
Taking on board Aufheben’s considered and sustained critique of immaterial labour it has become evident that there is no point in arguing for more immaterial labour as a way of forcing the antagonism between labour and capital if immaterial labour itself is an already subsumed form of labour. It indeed needs to be overcome. In order to do so, I have argued in this article (along with others) that a first necessary step is an enquiry into the forms under which contemporary labour is produced and subsumed. The social or diffuse factory as one of Autonomia’s concepts made some of these arguments. The value of Hardt and Negri in popularising these in recent years may only lie in engaging critically with Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth to carefully prise open their many flaws.
As proposition for such enquiry into contemporary forms of labour I have drawn on Sergio Bologna’s studies on the particular form of self-employment. The insights offered in his work in regard to labour practice, process and organising can be harnessed to ward off claims to individual career-making, thrift and aspirations as ‘best practice’ of artistic professional development. They can also provide an opening for discussion and strategy that is attentive to the specificity of contemporary (not to call it immaterial) production with a focus on the particular social relations it engenders and to be attentive to continuities to earlier forms of production.
This is important now – as ever – at a moment when personal insecurity, fear and frustration over the limitations that immaterial labour poses for oneself are more easily becoming visible as precisely such social relations within an economy that is premised on our dead labour – be it labour as ‘creative’ work or shitwork.
“Bourdieu and Castell[s] [as public intellectuals of the Left] have spoken of the danger of a disintegration of the social network. They were probably thinking ‘with yearning’ of the old concept of solidarity between work colleagues, between people who go the same way to work every day, … in other words, a micro-society in which the clock regulates the working day like a bell in an monastery. … What seems to me questionable is the idea that is sometimes implicit in such descriptions: that solidarity grows up naturally in the case of ‘normal’ wage earners, while egoistic, individualistic behavior is the sole domain of the self-employed. This is true neither of the past nor of today. Solidarity has always been a political process, has always been the effect of education. (…)
That is why I do not yearn for the good old days. They have gone for ever. We should rather be worried about our inability to depict the present. That is the real disintegration, the disintegration of a culture that is no longer in a position to illustrate present-day labor or to give an account of it…”34
1 Creativity – in academic circles frequently talked of with hopefulness: to be original, innovative and energetic, creative researchers have found their way into the skills agenda for researcher development. The link – and with it the absurdity of this hopefulness – to a creative industry (or knowledge industry) remains wilfully under-researched. Thus, we have to look at the critical politics of artistic practice for an undoing of the panacea of creativity. For this article, a reference to Olma (2007) and his discussion of a conference on creative industries in Amsterdam will have to suffice as an overview of the controversies; in the following ‘creativity’ is employed as part of academic mythology.