Adam Smith on the General Intellect

October 20, 2012

Adam Smith understood that the productivity gains in a productive process depended on appropriation of the knowledge of workers, though, like a lot of things, he wants to credit the division of labor:

Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man’s attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Whoever has been much accustomed to visit such manufactures, must frequently have been shewn very pretty machines, which were the inventions of such workmen, in order to facilitate and quicken their own particular part of the work. In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication, to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour.

Wealth of Nations

A Nice Note from a Former Employer

July 11, 2012

I got a bizarre mailing a little while back from ALTA COLLEGES about my “employee benefits.” It took me a minute to figure out what the hell it was about. When you work for a for-profit, you get your checks from the larger corporation that owns that “brand” among many others, not the actual “school” you work for. I was also confused by the stuff about benefits, since you definitely don’t get those unless you chip in to a 401(k), and you certainly don’t have enough money to do that if you’re adjuncting at one of these places.

Anyway, I figured out it was a place I taught a few classes at in the first six months of 2011. Here’s what they sent me. They had all sorts of confidentiality warnings on it, since it contained “salary [sic] information specific to” me, but I don’t really care if the internet knows I pulled down a few grand at this gig. If you want to know my entire income for 2011, you’ll need a few more W-2’s, friend.

Again, I had to look at this a while, since I was pretty sure I didn’t get any benefits. My contract lasted a 9-week term, after which I could sign another one for the next term, though in reality I often didn’t get my contract until the term was half over. I could cough up for the employee health plan, but at that point I had coverage from the university I’m attending, so I didn’t bother. But I could tell that it was trying to show that I was being “compensated” by the company more than I might have realized — Total Compensation, rather than measures of take-home pay, is a favorite stat of people wanting to try to prove that workers aren’t underpaid.

Then I figured it out: the “company paid benefits” consisted of social security, Medicare, and unemployment. In other words, they are taxes that go into safety net funds that I may or may not draw upon down the road. Taxes, which the company redefined as part of my compensation. Aren’t they generous, paying these taxes as required by law, just for me! Look at that adorable yellow cloud — with these taxes, which are paid to the government, I instantly received a 10% raise! And I hadn’t realized it, simply because I hadn’t a single extra cent in my bank account! So glad these fine folks at Alta Colleges, Incorporated bothered to remind me, a long-gone temporary, with this lavish full-color mailing!

But I had another question — why mail me at all? In part, there’s a bureaucratic lag — since I was always an adjunct, not working doesn’t mean I’ve left the job, it just means I’m in the “pool.” I’m in a state of pure potential. But why mail anyone? Well, I’m no expert on the conditions of my coworkers — teaching means you spend most of your time with students, and very little time (and almost never paid) with other faculty, so I didn’t really know anyone else, and I wasn’t there very long. I did talk to one guy who taught six classes a term, and even then I wondered how he could afford to live in the area. He probably can’t, or can’t afford to live very well in the area.

So here’s his, and my, salve for our gross underpayment and exploitation. We aren’t even thrown a sop of a tiny bonus, or even some bullshit “morale-booster” like an awkward office happy hour. No, we get some propaganda from some newly minted MBAs, cruising on a fresh high of middle-management ideology, who seem thoroughly convinced that if they just present their right-wing talking points on “employee compensation” in a pretty chart, maybe their employees, struggling to house and clothe themselves, will understand how well they’re doing. An additional 10% of My Base Pay — that is fucking benevolence, right here in 21st Century America! Thanks, Alta, for paying your taxes. You’re really doing your part, really going the distance for your workers. I should write a thank-you note to your shareholders. I was such a fucking idiot for quitting because I thought I was underpaid. But that’s the narrow vision of your average employee, right, just concerned about paying rent and buying food. That’s why we’re not management material! If only I had known how well, how fully, you’d been compensating me, I might have stuck around a bit longer, keeping my gripes and my worn-out shoes to myself. As it is, I am secure in the fact that I have a couple hundred bucks coming my way if I can survive another four decades. Why, I can feel the class hatred slipping away now…

Maybe I should call these guys up. I could use the money. Er, the compensation, rather. The money fucking sucks.

You Might Stop the Party But You Can’t Stop the Future

December 12, 2011

The acid house explosion provided an inspirational moment for the London underground, participants in which were taking squats and throwing parties amid the sensorial atmosphere enhanced by new technologies, music, and drugs. Under a novel soundtrack and mindscape, these were adventurous times in which a bizarre range of disused government and industrial buildings were occupied. Circus Normal held several huge events in 1990 in a bus garage in Camberwell reputed to be endowed with the largest single-space roof in Europe. Circus Lunatek broke into and occupied a NatWest bank in New Cross and a Barclays in Brockley, South London, in 1991. They would even occupy a police station garage in Elephant & Castle, South London, with Jiba, Vox Populi, and Bedlam sound systems in 1992, and admitted themselves to a ballet school in Kent with Bedlam and others in 1993.

-Graham St John, Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures

While the Occupy movement excavates its history of successful political actions, as Julie McIntyre points out we should also incorporate into this narrative the “libidinal disruptions” and cultural productions that characterize interventions into militarized space. The golden age of rave is over (many claimed it was over by the Nineties), but squat raves persist, while sloughing off some of the more carnivalesque trappings of old. Whereas the early squat ravers’ militancy was mostly semiotic, in the language of their flyers and track titles, a generation growing up under the militarized police forces of neoliberalism often take things a step or two further. Attendants at this 2010 squat rave successfully repulsed attacks by riot police.

The soundtrack is stripped of any new ageism of early rave, just caustic beats with the repeated refrain of “fuck the police.” As we all know, this slogan was popularized by N.W.A., whose own militant aesthetic arose from the then-extraordinary military-style repression that characterized the LAPD’s pursuit of the “War on Drugs.” An earlier L.A. rap song on this topic, Toddy Tee’s “Batterram” from 1985, had a more bemused tone than NWA, but served as a nationwide warning call to ghettos across the U.S.: “New York, it’s coming. Detroit, it’s coming. L.A., it’s coming – no, it’s here!” over the diesel churn of LAPD’s military hardware.

Another song of similarly striking prescience is IDC’s “This Is Not A Riot” from 2009, which begins with a clip from “V for Vendetta,” which, through the use of its imagery by the hacker collective Anonymous, has become associated with the #Occupy movement. The track samples another police military device, the Long-Range Acoustical Weapon (LRAD) used at the protests in Pittsburgh of that year’s G20, and more recently during the raids on occupations in Boston and New York. It splices this with protester chants of “Disobey your orders.” These were directed at the cops breaking up the protest, but their decontextualization in the song destabilizes the command: it is now free-floating injunction to refuse. The shrill chirping of the LRAD melds into the oscillations of the Roland TR-303 synthesizer which characterized acid house. The music had anticipated militant sonics and had been preparing us.

At the front lines of squat raving, Spiral Tribe faced enormous police repression. In 1992, when riot police amassed outside their party space — an abandoned UniChem warehouse in London — ravers barricaded themselves inside. The police broke through the wall, not with a battering ram, but with a JCB Digger. A witness recounts a scene that echoes contemporary Oakland, Manhattan, Boston:

At this point, there were about 750 people in the building – all trying to escape the vicious onslaught from the police. A panic started as people tried to crush through one small exit. Instead of alleviating the crush, the police pushed up hard behind everyone, hitting out and forcing everyone face down to the ground. Some people were singled out and given further severe beatings. The police then started on the equipment that had been lent or donated destroying it needlessly.

The local hospital reported up to 700 casualties amongst the party goers with one policeman injured. 5 arrests were made – for assaults on police officers and for breach of the peace. No charges were made against Spiral Tribe.

One of those casualties was a teenager who was thrown off the roof by officers, breaking both his arms and legs. As arrestees were marched past the police, a man with an American accent boasted that in the States, his squad would have emptied the building in twenty minutes. Police forces were colluding on an international scale in cracking down on rave. A Spiral Tribe communique pondered, “Why should a ‘civilized nation’ wish violence upon its youngest citizens for listening to a stigmatized beat? The question baffles most police constables and ravers alike. No-one can see what the problem is. Unless of course for reasons known only to themselves, the archaic powers that be feel the stability of their regime threatened by the strange music and dancing.” Their apparent bafflement comes from analysis that has just missed the mark: it wasn’t the music that mattered to the powers-that-be, and it wasn’t the dancing, not exactly. What’s becoming clear in 2011 is that what really threatens the archaic powers that be, what invites police violence out of all proportion, is engaging in collective social practices independent of state and market, rejecting capitalist commerce and openly mocking property rights. May we continue this proud, global, collective tradition. As Detroit’s Underground Resistance puts it — illegally, using MLK’s copyrighted enunciations for a decidedly non-nonviolent purposes — “Now is the time.”


Precarity, 19th Century Style

September 6, 2011

If any single factor dominated the lives of nineteenth-century workers it was insecurity. They did not know at the beginning of the week how much they would bring home at the end. They did not know how long their present work would last or, if they lost it, when they would get another job or under what conditions. They did not know when accident or sickness would hit them, and though they knew that some time in middle age — perhaps in the forties for unskilled laborers, perhaps in the fifties for the more skilled — they would become incapable of doing a full measure of adult physical labour, they did not know what would happen to them between then and death. Theirs was not the insecurity of peasants, at the mercy of periodic — and to be honest, often more murderous — catastrophes such as drought or famine, but capable of predicting with some accuracy how a poor man or woman would spend most days of their lives from birth to the graveyard. It was a more profound unpredictability, in spite of the fact that probably a good proportion of workers were employed for long periods of their lives by a single employer. There was no certainty of work even for the most skilled: during the slump of 1857-8 the number of workers in the Berlin engineering industry fell by almost a third.


For the world of liberalism insecurity was the price paid for both progress and freedom, not to mention wealth, and was made tolerable by continuous economic expansion. Security was to be bought — at least sometimes — but not for free men and women but, as the English terminology put it clearly, for “servants” — whose liberty was strictly constrained: domestic servants, “railway servants,” even “civil servants” (or public officials).

–Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Capital (1848-1875)

Piracy is Looting — And That’s OK

August 29, 2011

If you support piracy, you should support looting.

I say this as a supporter of piracy, one trying to come to a consistent position on property as a whole. Plenty of people defend piracy, plenty more pirate secretly, and usually they will have an excuse, like “Pirates buy more music” or “I’m going to the show, so I’m supporting the artist” or “I don’t have money, so the company wouldn’t have gotten me to pay anyway.” They draw boundaries between the good or neutral piracy that they practice, and the bad piracy and theft that others practice. Instead of creating a preserve where the things that I and my friends do is ok, I’m more interested in expanding categories so we can see how what we do is aligned with what others do too.

So what is piracy? It is the deliberate violation of the current system property rights. Our system states that corporations can buy, sell, and own the exclusive right to copy music recordings, films, and books. Anyone else who does so is a criminal. Even though many people possess the means to easily copy and distribute intellectual property, they aren’t allowed. So what happens? We do it anyway. We torrent, we join password-protected communities, we Google music blogs, we upload to YouTube under disguised names, we rip and burn, we violate the laws of property willingly, continuously. We do this because we can. Because it’s easy. Because we know the media companies are greedy exploitative bastards. And because many of us don’t have the disposable income to blow indiscriminately on records, movie tickets, DVDs, and books.

And pay is indeed an important, if neglected, component of piracy. As the SSRC report “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies” states,

Media piracy has been called “a global scourge,” “an international plague,” and “nirvana for criminals,”1 but it is probably better described as a global pricing problem. High prices for media goods, low incomes, and cheap digital technologies are the main ingredients of global media piracy. If piracy is ubiquitous in most parts of the world, it is because these conditions are ubiquitous. Relative to local incomes in Brazil, Russia, or South Africa, the price of a CD, DVD, or copy of Microsoft Office is five to ten times higher than in the United States or Europe. Licit media goods are luxury items in most parts of the world, and licit media markets are correspondingly tiny.

It’s piracy or nothing. Or to appropriate someone else’s words, Share or Die.

So what about looting? Looting is the widespread theft of goods on a mass scale. Looters violate property laws, but many people, including pro-piracy people, will tell you it’s different, that taking a pair of sneakers isn’t the same as downloading an mp3. That seems true on the face of it, but it relies on some faulty claims.

First of all, shoes cannot be shared the way I share an mp3 — it benefits only the person who possesses it at the time. In economic jargon, shoes are “rivalrous.” Now, while it may be true in a limited metaphysical sense that shoes are rivalrous, in the context of the actual world (from which all analysis should proceed), we know that vast quantities of shoes are produced. In fact, if you had $100 to spend, you could go to the store right now and pick out one pair of shoes among many. Very few, if any, readers reading this right now face an actual scarcity of shoes available for purchase. However, we might not be able to afford shoes at any given time. I myself have had to put off replacing worn-out shoes until I could amass enough money to get new ones. I knew that once I had the money, I would have no trouble buying the shoes. Even if other people bought shoes, it wouldn’t prevent me from getting the exact same, or a nearly identical, type of shoe. So this kind of overproduction of mass-produced goods, combined with the widespread inability for many people to pay for these goods, renders the point about rivalrous goods moot.

Now to get that shoe for free, to steal it, would require committing a crime that seems very different from downloading an mp3. In the eyes of the law, in both cases you have violated someone else’s private property rights. But stealing a pair of shoes requires a different kind of physical activity to pull off. Illegally downloading an mp3 just means I sit behind a computer and type, the same way I check my email or do my taxes. I could do it in a cafe without disturbing a single person’s enjoyment of their latte. But looting will probably entail damaging some property — broken locks, smashed windows, and the like. Some people will find this a tad impolite. They think someone who entertains thoughts of violating property laws — laws governing physical property, they have no problem burning a CD for a friend — morally flawed. It creates a mess. In fact, Rudy Giuliani gentrified New York City using the belief that messes were worse than other types of crimes. People who think this way would prefer that you and I walk around unshod rather than make a mess. In fact, as long as you don’t make a mess, they don’t really care about whether you have shoes, food, healthcare, or anything else you need to survive. That, in my book, is some fucked up priorities, revealing, for all their peaceful coffee-sipping, a profound flaw in moral thinking.

So looting says the same thing that piracy says: we can take it and, by coordinating masses of others, we will. If we could torrent clothes and food using Starbucks WiFi, we would, but until then, we can loot from the vast stores of stuff that’s already been produced. Either way, we damage the industries we take from. And that is good, because these industries are terrible, greedy, inhuman industries that exploit their workers and cheat their customers. You could ask Steve Albini, or you could ask any of these women in a Nike sweatshop.

In the London riots, a warehouse owned by Sony housing materials to be distributed by Pias was burned down. Thousands of DVDs and CDs were lost. My first thought was, “Oh no, independent artists will be hurt!” My second thought was “Who was going to buy all that shit?” In fact, the fire could be a boon to some of the affected parties, since they’ll get insurance payout on stock that a decent internet connection renders worthless, unsaleable. Just a bunch of flat shiny discs that fewer and fewer people want, that fewer and fewer people can pay for. Isn’t this the world of pirates, the world where art doesn’t need factories and warehouses and sweatshops, where everyone can pay according to their ability, where the giant corporations who suck income from us at every turn end up looking like this? This is what our piracy, our looting can do.

Holding up the “indie labels” was a way to try and make us feel bad, to think that looters were hurting nice little companies run by nice indie people. It functions the same as this picture:

A nice old man, rummages through the wreckage of his shop. “I’ll probably have to close because I haven’t got insurance,” and we are supposed to imagine the terrible looters who took “a number of small items, including his kettle and cotton wool” from this poor old man. How could they do this? And we forget that the reason people rioted was not that they hated this old man, but because the police murdered yet another one of them, and then roughed up a teenager at a peaceful demonstration against the killing.

While we don’t know what this man’s relationship was to the people who stole his kettle, we should be aware that looting, like piracy, can harm people who we don’t think deserve it. We can pirate independent art and loot independent businesses as easily as the big name stuff, even more easily. Some music fans adopt an ethical stance, saying they support artists they like in various ways — promising to buy the CD, paying for a ticket, purchasing a T-shirt. There’s no reason looters can’t have the same ethics, against hurting people and against destroying the property of those who contribute to the community. I suspect many already do.

An NPR story about looting (related to Katrina hysteria, where we discovered that white people never loot), argues there can be ethics of looting. “Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one’s own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?” Anita Allen asks. These silly conditionals are a middle class affectation, designed to obscure the fact that it doesn’t take a catastrophic emergency for needs to go unmet. Take that part out. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?

The people that say information wants to be free don’t say that shoes want to be free. Or that iPhones want to be free. Or that food wants to be free. Information doesn’t want to be free. Information doesn’t want anything. To say so is to disavow the truth: we want information to be free, because we know that is the way it should be. That art, knowledge, and formulas to life-saving medicines shouldn’t be commodities, but should be available on different terms, not exclusively on something as capricious as our ability pay. This is not some special preserve of art. This is true of clothing, of food, and of gadgets. It is true of survival, and of pleasure too.

Pirate Capitalists will tell you there are new business models out there, that piracy can reinvigorate a moribund media production and distribution system. I think they are wrong, that they are mostly hucksters, and that very few people will end up profiting much from a pirate media economy. But very few people benefit from capitalism at all, though for a while we fooled ourselves into thinking that plenty of people would do just fine under it. Our task is not to find new business models for the current system. What we need to do is realize that the art and social relations we want cannot be supported by the current system, and that the current system needs radical change. This change will come from the gravediggers that the current system of private property produces, the people who don’t benefit from it and have the power to destroy it. Pirates. Looters. Us.

Engels on Gentrification

August 11, 2011

In reality the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion-that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. This method is called “Haussmann.”

By the term “Haussmann” I do not mean merely the specifically Bonapartist manner of the Parisian Haussmann – breaking long, straight and broad streets through the closely-built workers’ quarters and erecting big luxurious buildings on both sides of them, the intention thereby, apart from the strategic aim of making barricade fighting more difficult, being also to develop a specifically Bonapartist building trades’ proletariat dependent on the government and to turn the city into a pure luxury city. By “Haussmann” I mean the practice which has now become general of making breaches in the working class quarters of our big towns, and particularly in those which are centrally situated, quite apart from whether this is done from considerations of public health and for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally situated business premises, or owing to traffic requirements, such as the laying down of railways, streets, etc.

No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else and often in the immediate neighborhood.

This is a striking example of how the bourgeoisie solves the housing question in practice. The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere!

–Engels, “The Housing Question” (1872)

More: Gentrification and The London Riot Clean-up

We Have It Worse

July 7, 2011

In the 1970s there was much talk of a ‘leisure age’ in which, thanks to automation, we would scarcely work at all — and a spate of books brooding earnestly on how we would fill our new spare time without becoming hopelessly lethargic. Anybody spotting one of these forgotten tracts in a second-hand bookshop today would laugh incredulously. The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 in 1981. Far from losing the work ethic, we seem ever more enslaved by it. The new vogue is for books that ask anxiously how we can achieve ‘work-life balance’ in an age where many people have no time for anything beyond labour and sleep.

Francis Wheen, Das Kapital: A Biography (2006)

Rather than the pathetic equivocation of “work-life balance,” I propose a shift to older terms — working conditions. Don’t let some scowling supplicant to Capital from a previous generation tell you that you don’t know how good you have it; by every objective measure we have it worse.

(“Chained to your job” is less a metaphor than you might think, as unpaid prison slave labor proves so much cheaper than decent union jobs… but prisoners are often prone to radicalization…)