COME ON, COGNITARIANS: One more effort if you want some equality

Free time? Out of work? Looking for a good summer read? Try the short, sharp, maybe even shocking book called In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch (available on aaaaarg.org). It goes straight to the sorry state of financially driven capitalism – which is the state we’re in (the USA).

The authors all live in Canada, but they focus on the US banking system. Their writing is concise and lucid, without the hasty diagnostics and predictions of decline that plague so many Marxists. Two ideas inform the discussion of recent events. The first is that despite incessant proclamations, the corporate makeover of American society since the age of Reagan has not involved deregulation and the downsizing of big government. Instead it’s been all about re-regulating the economic game in favor of the largest players, and shifting both tax revenues and borrowed funds to serve new priorities (such as bailing out the banks whenever there’s a crisis). The second key idea is that the astronomical sums of computerized finance are not simply “speculative” or “fictitious” capital, as critics on the conservative Right and radical Left often say. Instead they are directive forces, shaping global urban and industrial development through the allocation of credit, offering nearly irrresistible incentives for certain kinds of avaricious behavior and exerting powerful disciplinary effects on companies, local governments and individuals. What we face in today’s society is not just “speculation gone wild,” but an increasingly integrated system of management whose leading institutions, the investment banks, now appear to have been strengthened rather than weakened by the crisis. As the authors observe, “financialization gives rise to such financial volatility that crises actually become one of the developmental features of neoliberalism, and this reinforces rather than undermines the central position of financial interests in capitalist power structures.” The point is that despite radical dreams of one great big apocalyptic blowout, such a finely tuned system of national and planetary management is not going to disappear in an eyeblink. It can only be confronted and beaten back over the course of the upcoming years and decades, by social forces which are presently dormant or have yet to be developed.

Albo, Gindin and Panitch are basically unionists. They devote much of their effort to understanding how the egalitarian politics of organized labor has been neutralized by the enlistment of workers as unwilling participants in the competition between firms and nations. What results, under the threat of layoffs and joblessness, is a downward spiral of concessions that leaves workers individually poorer and collectively short on resources for the development of cultures of solidarity and progressive social transformation. Under these conditions, no one could blame the three authors if they focus on the needed changes in organized labor, which in their view would include moving beyond traditional collective bargaining, toward broad community campaigns that involve people outside a single sector or place of employment. There are a lot of good ideas in this book, and its lucidity inspires lots of respect for serious socialist organizers. Still I ended up feeling restless, particularly when reading that the sharp declines in union membership “reflect, in part, the difficulty of organizing the service sector, where about 80 percent of employment is now found.” After the recent GM bankruptcy, surely we need to look beyond the likes of the UAW? As a freelance writer and translator with academic degrees gathering dust on a wall, I feel much closer to that amorphous “service sector” than to assembly lines and shop stewards. For personal, economic and cultural reasons, my main man in this summer’s quest for class consciousness has not been a union organizer or even a direct actionist from a group like “Take Back the Land.” Instead it’s been a critic of the contemporary knowledge factories.

Life among the Lambs

Check out “The Structure and Silence of the Cognitariat,” an article by a UC Santa Barbara professor named Christopher Newfield. It’s a great piece, clear, concise and packed full of pertinent things you probably don’t know (find it in the edu-factory journal). The footnotes of Newfield’s text include some quotes in French that could be tough for les Americains. But hey, that allowed me to “apply” my dusty old Romance Languages degree, always a thrill. The text turns out to be a direct reply to concepts of class consciousness developed over the last decade in the French journal Multitudes, for which I used to write during another life in gay Paree.

Working with Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato and other Italian autonomists, we analyzed a basic contradiction at the heart of the knowledge society, or what we called “cognitive capitalism.” Namely, that knowledge is inherently abundant and proliferates under conditions of free circulation and cooperative development; while capitalism requires relative scarcity, absolutely private property and strict hierarchical control over producers. In an economy that’s increasingly based on communication, the application of science and the consumption of aesthetic goods and services, that contradiction is potentially very important. It often makes the knowledge worker feel that there’s something wrong with this picture. “Why do I keep getting controlled, when information wants to be free?” If that contradiction could be exacerbated, some of us thought during those heady days of the counter-globalization movements, then maybe we could launch a new kind of revolution. Cultural-intellectual sabotage, anyone?

Chris Newfield is more cautious, but in the end he’s working with a variation on the same ideas. Against the backdrop of the ongoing budget crisis of the University of California, he asks why knowledge societies like the US, Germany or France would chronically underfund their universities? Aren’t they the crucial institutions of cognitive capitalism, and maybe even of financially driven globalization? The seeming paradox is that while the old industrial corporations needed large numbers of college graduates to perform their management functions – a need most willingly fulfilled by the publics universities of the 50s and 60s – the New Economy flagships like Microsoft, with their pure brainpower products, have managed to severely restrict the numbers of salaried intellectual workers they employ, mainly by the use of temp contracts and outsourcing schemes. Similarly but more shockingly wheen you first find out about it, the universities themselves employ an average of 70% short-term contractuals and grad students to teach their undergraduate classes. If you want to see what direction the whole operation is headed, definitely watch the PBS Frontline reportage on “College, Inc.” which was still an eye-opener for me despite lots of reading on these subjects. There you see vocational business schools raking in big money for often fraudulent degrees. What you don’t hear a lot about anymore are real careers. Bizarrely, the number of good white collar jobs seems to be shrinking as the knowledge economy grows.

Newfield finds the solution to the paradox in the practices of knowledge management that began to be employed in the 1990s, at the time when massive numbers of kids who had grown up with the intellectual technologies of computers and the Internet just started coming on the job market. He quotes a suit named Thomas A. Stewart who makes a distinction between three different categories of knowledge. The first and lowest forms of knowledge are “commodity skills” like typing quick and talking nicely on the phone – skills which are easily obtained, add no value to the firm, require no particular concern for the employee and should be outsourced from the get-go. Next are “leveraged skills” requiring a lot of advanced education (my old standby of translation would be one, but computer programming is the classic example). These kinds of skills (“leveraged,” I suppose, by all the borrowing the owner did to acquire them) do add some value to the firm, but they can still can be codified, routinized, maybe even partially robotized, and rapidly gotten out of the way just like the others. What that leaves are “proprietary skills,” i.e. “the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business.” These are the only kind that really matter, because they allow the firm to develop and own intellectual property, build a brand and cash in on some rare, secretly produced and closely guarded service. Now the hidden structure of the cognitariat leaps into view. The financial discipline of the firm requires it to make the distinction between the three types of knowledge, and to treat its employees accordingly. In the best of cases it can even practice “open innovation” which entails giving up entirely on in-house researchers or creatives and simply scanning the available knowledge resources, typically found in public universities, whose production can be creamed off at will for the price of a few small grants, maybe an endowed chair or a piece of fancy equipment. Under this scenario, the predatory strategy of the corporation is complete. Only the top researchers, managers and marketers will take home a real salary.

The new hierarchy of knowledge workers in the firm is bound up, in its turn, with much broader transformations. Christopher Newfield is also the author of an essential book entitled Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008). Briefly put, his thesis is that with the expanded educational entitlements of the post-WWII period, the US began developing an enlarged, fully multicultural middle class that was potentially hegemonic and that began to transform society in its own diverse and complex image. In this new formation (which is described in a lot of cultural studies work) working class traditions and more recent immigrant cultures begin to fuse into a democratic hybrid, sustained by the models of success and the possibilities of self-invention that arose in the public universities. A new kind of language and even a new common sense emerge, dubbed “PC” by its critics and symbolized, in literary terms, by a complex artifact like I, Rigoberta Menchu, the oral history of a Guatemalan peasant activist as told to a metropolitan researcher with a microphone and a publishing contract. The conservative Right bitterly hated this kind of leftist talk-literature. But there was a little more to the opposition than a question of taste. What we called the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, says Newfield, was in fact the spearhead of a concerted attack by older elites against this new, radically democratic class formation – an attack that culminated with the dominance of neoliberal and then neoconservative ideology, the skyrocketing inequality of our own time and now the massive expropriation of middle- and working-class savings in the infamous “financial crisis.” The book repeats this fascinating thesis maybe once too often, but it is a goldmine of precise economic and sociological information for anyone interested in contemporary managerial techniques and the politics of education in the USA.

Working from this perspective, Newfield now suggests that we have a three-tiered university system. First come the top twenty private schools like Harvard and Yale, or the Ivy League Plus, that educates around 1% of the society. Next, “a group of about 150 colleges and universities that are ‘selective’ and have good reputations outside their local area.” And finally, some 3,500 institutions of sort-of higher learning for the hoi polloi, offering degrees with no particular value on the job market. At this point the scholarly author gets uncharacteristically angry, plays another very jarring French chord and claims that our society now resembles nothing so much as the Ancien Régime with its “Three Estates,” or stratified social standings. The First Estate, corresponding to the old aristocrats, is the top 0.1% of Americans who are essentially the bankers and financiers whose activities are described so well by Albo, Gindin and Panitch – the ruling class if you don’t mind me sayin’. The Second Estate, corresponding to the clergy of olden times, are the top 1% who earn over $350,000 a year. These are the upper votaries of capital and the state, who speak “technical languages of law, management and finance that are largely indecipherable even to highly educated non-specialists, and maintain an invisible empire of ownership structures and lucrative transactions whose existence makes itself known only through occasional disasters like the 2008 financial meltdown.” Mon Dieu! The Third Estate – le Peuple – are the rest of us, crammed into the vast category of the powerless and the silent despite the huge differences between the top 20% who are still “middle class” and all the rest who do not just worry over the “fear of falling,” but rather, get the experience of being pushed off the cliff and feel the indignity of not being able to pay their rent or their mortgage in the richest country in the world.

What I’m trying to get at is that the budgetary crisis and the conditions of precarious living that afflict knowledge workers are tightly entangled with and also sharply cut off from the directive actions of the financial elites who just robbed the country and strengthened their own positions in the process. What’s happening in the US is a sweeping and carefully concerted operation, not to resolve any of the major social and ecological problems that are staring us in the face, but to assure a strict separation of the classes. The divide is not into the traditional Three Estates that make for great satire, but instead into at least five groups: the aristocratic super-rich; the high priesthood of technocrats and traders; the merchant class who sell their soul to placate their fear of falling; everyone else on the roller coaster down to the bottom; and finally, the new immigrants who believe they can climb this weird human ladder (at least until they get to the state of Arizona).

So here’s another paradox: quite a large number of us in the third and fourth and fifth estates are well educated, we can speak all the languages we need. Tell me, what explains the silence of the lambs?

Starting Where You Are

Newfield doesn’t answer his own implicit question, except to say that in the advanced economies “the knowledge worker masses are still middle class on a world scale,” or in other words, they still have a long way to fall. Maybe, but an earthquake just happened and the cliff came a lot closer. What he criticizes in the theories of the Multitudes group is an excess of rosy optimism: the belief that an inherent contradiction of the knowledge economy would necessarily produce a revolt against its particularly well-constructed structure of injustice. Point well taken. With a fairly good grasp of the American scene I always felt exactly the same, and eventually I found myself on the political fault line that split the journal in two, right in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. Yet like my autonomist friends and like Newfield, I still think some kind of mobilization of educated workers is necessary, desirable and maybe the most passionately inspiring thing you can do today, if starting from where you are means figuring out what to make of your scientific, technical, or cultural skills and your university education. Amid the bewildering complexity of the predatory knowledge economy, what’s missing is an active egalitarian and ecological critique of the owning and managing classes, a critique that does not remain locked away in the university but reaches out to the rest of society. That’s what we can build in the wake of the budgetary crisis, now that the new lines of inclusion and exclusion have been drawn and the writing on the wall is legible to practically everyone. The least you can say is that it’s getting urgent – after the lies of the Bush era, Katrina, the bailouts and the foreclosures, the Copenhagen debacle, the BP disaster that’s directly attributable to the pressures of neoliberal financial management, etc etc etc. The question is how to do it, when the traditional centers of education are so deeply instrumentalized?

According to Newfield we need a two-track strategy, the first of which should reveal “the hidden subsidies through which the Third Estate and its institutions support the other two – in many case, the ways by which public universities support private industry.” He warns that this first strategy may set off an internal civil war among the top faculty in research universities, which I guess is supposed to indicate how difficult this track will be to follow. The other strategy is “to re-imagine and articulate the broad social and cultural missions that will flow from the other nine-tenths of knowledge workers… whose ideas about diversity, equality, justice, technology for use, sustainable development and so many others are essential to the indirect modes through which knowledge and education create social value beyond that which economics can measure.” That sounds easier, to the extent that it can be done not only or maybe not even primarily inside the universities, but in self-organized seminars, affinity groups, clubs, artists’ collectives, cultural scenes, hacker labs and so forth, where the diverse languages of society mingle and knowledge circulates, hybridizes, throws off its old skins and moults into new colors. But this time, let’s try to find a path between the dark black cynical pessimism of typical American critics and that rosy Multitudes stuff I mentioned just before. Something more than a snap of the fingers is needed to delegitimate an extended technocracy that holds all the cards of power in its many active hands. If you look around, you’ll see that the sites of self-organized education and action in American society are very few, very fragmented, and far too often lacking in the subtle kind of creative focus that can at once rise to the level of the problems that face us, and not get co-opted into the very jargons and structures they seek to challenge. As the public universities are downsized (or really, expropriated) under the disciplinary pressure of the current budget crisis, an entire social process is waiting to be invented.

The US Social Forum, held in Detroit amid the ruins awaiting at the bottom, was sweet and delicious precisely because it was like a wide-open university, a laboratory upside-down, a radical experiment mixing very different people in order to find new ways of acting together. The combination of union organizers, community groups, radical intellectuals, artists, direct activists, social workers and many other sectors is fundamental to the politics we need on the Left, not just for strikes and protests but also when it comes to changing something within the key institutions of a rareified knowledge economy. Experiences like the Forum, or like a university occupation, can be a great inspiration for the deeper and slower work that starts from wherever you are, from your own class and cultural and economic position. Many groups are now trying out processes of invention, and we can encourage each other not by the sort of mutual denunciations that used to be the stock-in-trade of the extreme left, but instead by telling the stories of different attempts and by presenting the material, intellectual, social and artistic results. Of course there is a wider horizon to the singular experiments. At some point, by some combination of careful efforts, the dam has to break and larger numbers of people from all levels of society have to realize that something is wrong with this picture. Knowledge workers could help a lot by creating a clear language and a good set of images, to say what it is and to see it clearly. What we need to build are new and complex forms of pressure from below: social counter-forces to the disciplinary powers brought to bear by finance capitalism.

Creating those counter-forces is not going to be easy and it cannot be accomplished by any single group or tendency or philosophy. A very subtle form of political vocation has to find its original expressions on the tongues of the widely different sectors of society which are all under threat. Those whom we try to address in this webzine – the people who feel in some way interpellated by the current crisis of the university – are obviously just one group among others, as complex and fragmented as any other. The challenging thing is to give the fragments that we are some political coherency. But what else is there to do?

Come on, cognitarians. It’s going to be a wild ride. We’ve got some very interesting years ahead of us.

Opening march, US Social Forum, Detroit (photo Claire Pentecost)