There is Another Way

November 13, 2013


A Response to Will Hutton’s Proposal for a Capitalist Future

In “We shouldn’t be fatalistic about our future. There is another way”,  Will Hutton presents an examination of neoliberal capitalism, proposing a new direction for industry in a post-industrial future. This is the latest in a series of articles that make a claim to new technologies as a way out for capitalism, and a better future for all of us. I will refer to this as the Hutton proposal, because as a series of repetitions (here, here and here), he seems to propose a new version of capitalism – like a kind of capitalism 2.0 – that will find sustainable growth through the exchange of creative and digital commodities.

Hutton’s proposal is welcome, because it provides us with a discursive axis to point out the failures of such an ideal. It is important to challenge Hutton’s new way for capitalism, not because it’s particularly original, but because as ever, it is presented with an almost evangelical panache that is altogether quite convincing. In his market utopia, the desperately unequal state of neoliberal Britain will be renewed through the unending potentials of code. Like a new renaissance, a better capitalist future is just around the corner, if only the politicians would listen. However, the digital turn that Hutton seems quite attached to as a way out (or way in) for a this new iteration of capitalism, does seem to brush over a few things. A gap in his analysis, for instance, is that he seems ambivalent towards the contradiction of Intellectual Property.

It should be pretty clear to all of us now that anything digital is made out of code and is thus hackable by anybody who claims the grammar of this vernacular. This is its double edged character. As a concern of capital it can be directed in many different directions, from surveillance to virtual warfare, but it also has an emancipatory potential. Code is a means to develop new cultural formations and infrastructures that claim autonomy from capital. This is its positive edge – it is something we have claimed as a common and capital is finding it very difficult to take that away from us. It is through our interactions as users and producers that this resource develops. So naturally, it feels like it belongs to us. Yet capital, which demands all things become a property form, wishes to reverse the egalitarian potential of this technology by enclosing it in private hands: turning our collective knowledge and endeavor into a sale or a rent. Although he might not see it this way – and it would be interesting to hear his response – this is what is implied when Hutton talks about the creative economy. The contradictions of his new way are not difficult to locate.

For instance, in one of his articles he espouses public subsidies for a creative economy based on “openness and free exchange”. This is an encouraging prospect, but it is difficult to understand how this could be achieved by encouraging the enclosure of our intellectual potential? In Hutton’s view, Intellectual Property – a regulation that hinders our ability to share knowledge – simply requires more regulation. It is Ofcom – which has had its fair share of problems with regulation in the recent past – that will ensure the largest corporations in the world open up to this new Huttonian spirit. If only the politicians would listen, Ofcom could be granted “new powers to develop an early warning system to spot market abuses”. Hutton fails to understand that to deny the iterative development of knowledge is itself the abuse. Ideas aren’t invented – they are extended. Yet, even as an economic proposal it fails on its own terms. If Ofcom were given the power to regulate this regulation, the presumption is that Apple and Google would simply fall in line. The first would not exist if it did. The second cannot even stop its own intellectual property being stolen. But then, it is obviously much easier to surveil a global population when we all use the same search engine. If Google released this infrastructure back to the people it serves then the NSA would really have a problem.

In the same presentation, Hutton cites Life of Pi (2012) as a model of what we can achieve if we only put our heads together and got behind our creative industries. This film made headlines after its spectacular demonstration of visual effects (VFX) and then again after many of the workers who contributed to it were expunged, without severance pay, after the studio went bust. The creative industries complain that they need subsidies to keep going, but why subsidise companies so they can outsource work to, and exploit, talented people in the VFX sweatshops of the Global South?

In another article, Hutton demands Britain follow California on the road to riches. The insinuation here is that the “tech startup” is our only chance to compete. The only way to become wealthy, no less. It is warming to think of this on a micro level – as cool kids lounging around in Google hangouts, producing immaterial stuff for us to consume. I wouldn’t see much wrong with that either, if it wasn’t scaffolded by the catastrophic extraction of conflict materials in far away places. But leaving the macro issues to one side for a moment, anybody even vaguely familiar with tech pop-up cultures would give the Hutton proposal short shrift. Immaterial production, reconfigured back into an industrial process, is the purest expression of our zero-hour temporality – laissez faire capitalism par excellence. Which is why our political class drool over it with a messianic zeal. The entrepreneurial potential of tech is probably the last thing a capitalist can rest his hat on. Yet, the intensity of app development as a capitalist concern, is not suddenly going to be a great thing for workers, just because it’s new. It still needs to be profitable. The logic of the process is as follows:  the entrepreneur starts with an idea they claim as their own; then hires lots of other people to develop the idea as fast as humanly possible. Tap tap tap. Then, before moving on to marketing the commodity, the entrepreneur would do well to scrub the developers off the payroll before they get security of tenure. Finally, the entrepreneur must aggressively market the commodity, based on the principle that it will sell advertising (as if any of us pay attention to advertisements anymore?).

It is thus a ruthlessly precarious industry for many of its workers, who rake out algorithms for feudal tech magnates (who are often very rich and privately educated). The hope, of course, is that any given concept can be made quickly and inexpensively, marketed, then pumped out onto the stock market – then sold on. Hence its “pop-up” nature. This means long hours and short contracts. But it also means our entire notion of existence is scaffolded on the illusionary value of immaterial goods. The Twitter stock market flotation is the obvious example. This was something keenly anticipated by Hutton, but judging from the underlying comments, it seems that even the eagle-eyed readership of the Financial Times are not convinced by this latest foray into the tech bubble. Nevertheless: in case anyone is interested, the Occupied Times, claiming an impressive 7777 followers is worth $1864. There’s about 7 of us working on this so that means, for all of our labour thus far, we are each worth two hundred and… Oh.

As is often the case with people who locate creativity as an industrial concern, Hutton really seems to forget that making things and forming knowledge autonomously is how many people find enjoyment in day-to-day life. That is something Adam Smith left out of his seminal works and why those who follow him over the brink presume it must be the same as capital. Creativity has little to do with industry, or the exploitation of labour, in fact, it is its polar opposite. Fascinating things come out of creative industry, but it is often not without damage to a person’s well being. The recuperation of the human imagination as a fetish or rent is not where our future belongs. It can’t be, because we have bigger things to think about, like the end of human civilisation. Locking knowledge away in boxes or canons will not help us solve that problem. Equally, it is pretty ridiculous to suggest that digital things could ever be locked away and sold as commodities. Pirate Bay puts paid to that suggestion. Initiatives like Pirate Bay are a more truthful expression of our rational desire to share culture because they challenge the very “cognitive inequality” Hutton attempts to address. Because do we really believe – or want to believe – that our future selves will be dutifully pumping out code on zero hours contracts for capitalists? Will the app of 2023 even need people making it?

If Hutton really believed in the true potential of technology he would fight for its emancipation from capital – not encourage us to will its enclosure. This is a fatalistic expression that is severely lacking in the imagination he makes such a passionate case for. The general intellect of the internet is something that needs protection from such reductive claims. Indeed the servers up there in the cloud are actually in a corporate lock-up somewhere, but we would do well to remember that they only exist to serve us. Without us they serve no purpose at all. It is crucially important to make this clear to those people who, in quite pleasant language, believe the things we make, should be rented back to us.

By Alex Charnley | @Alex_Charnley


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