Towards a Post-Fordist Shop Floor Ethic or, ‘What the Fuck Was That?’

The publicity suggested the event would focus on a project that works off of notions of antiwar activism and media. The expectant crowd was hungry for something. When the artist playfully shared candy as part of a pre-screening quiz, it seemed curious. But by the time the self-indulgent reel began playing, the audience saw clearly that they’d been had.

I left early mumbling under my breath, “what the fuck was that.” I was angry because I had the sense that I’d been robbed. Not only was my time stolen, but also a little of my capacity to make meaningful anti-war artwork, to do detailed and philosophical media projects.

This essay is not about cultural criticism. Instead of looking at what is, this essay leans forward to posit what could be.

We should demand more from our scenes.

Often, when we go out to an art event, we are going to work in the office known as “our scene.” Our scenes gather around public wellsprings of ideals. Though impossible to specifically define, I do know that I’ve meditated with 200 people around the possibility of expanded human consciousness and more just and pleasant societies at the Hammer Museum. With 1000 others, I have gazed upon the collective expression of the desire for borderless states – on display at a Culver City gallery. In Chinatown, I joined a small group of thinkers drinking from the fountain of liberatory possibility for intellectual culture when tied to criticism of specific capitalist regimes.

And though each instance draws from its particular tap, I am pretty sure that our scene’s visionary infrastructure is broad and finds release at multiple spigots. This water metaphor is useful – our scene is constructed from pre-histories (extant water sources and geography or general wider social histories) infrastructures (aqueducts or funding sources and venues) and distribution points (spigots or exhibitions).

Like water, the greatest constituent parts of our scenes are made of elements whose real ownership is next to impossible to define (imagine clouds as social history, cultural formations, and socio-political archipelagos). Secondarily, water like our scenes are a large public work (remember, water is serviced by the historic social movement known as the DWP.)

The scenes we participate in are our public resources. The accretion of intellectual dialogs and practices are among our finest collective tools.

Inside urban planning, cartography, public practice, sociology, cartography and curatorial studies, the nature of our scenes are generally discussed in terms of “public space.” Through these disciplines, we say that public space is in crisis within the current regime of the neoliberal “creative economy.”  This economy hungrily searches for previously public or non-valued resources to privatize and or/monetize. Our scene – this public space – is in crisis when its constituent balance between private and social interests gets tipped too far towards the private.

When “blue chip” artists sell the image of collective history without giving back, this is theft. When theorists publicly poo-poo our collective potential to give comfort to power or stasis, this is a theft of our potential for collective dreaming. When academics sell radical theory while being complicit in structurally conservative departments they sell all our radicality short.

Our scenes are our collective resource. They generate continuing streams of potential. Yet in our neoliberal economy, the scene works double. It is now even more – both a collective dream and a mundane workshop floor.

We use our public space to forge new identities and to egregiously crowdsource for cheap labor

Our scenes are public space. Yet in neoliberal economies, the scene has become a human resource office. From networking with peers to find exhibition spaces to procuring space for employing (often younger, often less-educated) skilled laborers to work as assistants.

Our scenes are public space – a location to present and discuss meanings. Historically, the role of discourse served public ideals. Either as a space of presentation at a project’s fruition or as an ongoing discourse. Yet in this neoliberal economy, public space has also become our propaganda office. Here I use the balanced definition of propaganda – the act of spreading a message as advertising or overt political messaging.

When our art scenes are overwhelmed by these (often necessary) neoliberal realities, that public resource, our scenes, are threatened. When the participants on a panel are chosen for institutional networking potential instead of the ability to hold a meaningful conversation, our scenes are threatened.

Today, more than ever, art and cultural workers do have the ability to harness institutional voices to raise the social and philosophical questions at the hearts of our scenes. The (collectively forged) language and rhetorics, iconography and social practices we employ around our works have the potential for deep resonance within a broader society. Amid collapsing social systems, we stand on stage – for the possibilities that our scenes maintain.

So the quite common act of drawing from the scene without paying back is unfortunate. Employing popular ideological aesthetics and rhetorics (“collaborative”, “activist”, “socio-economic”, “critical”, “open sourced”…) to sell their work. Employing historic strategies collectively scripted behavioral patterns, etc… without crediting the history and legacy in order to individually “advance”. These actions poison the well.

Let me be clear, I am not specifically focusing on artists with “successful careers.” Collaboration with capitalist institutions is an unfortunate necessity for many people. Collaboration with institutions currently provides a louder tool for propaganda, access to social relations, etc..

Our scene imagines itself as an autonomous sphere that can balance mutual collaboration and mutual aid with individual expression. Our scene desires us to actualize this potential. It calls upon us to imagine what is possible when we devote enough time and love to its beautification and adornment.

But Los Angeles doesn’t look like this today.

The ethical worker in Los Angeles’ art scene – no matter where they operate (within or outside of capitalist institutions) – protects the interest of the scene first. The ethical artist understands that the scene’s idealisms are their source of real value. The scene drives them to work and compels others to get to know the work. It messages desire. It provides meaning. The ethical worker does not fuck with this.

Protecting our scene from undue privatization has parallels with the struggle of the Bolivian people in protecting their water from privatization.

Hyper-capitalism wants our meaningful symbols to be emptied. But our strength as individual workers lies in our collective struggle – in our collective attempts to maintain meaning and to construct a collective legacy. Our scene is a non-human accretion – a highly socialized aggregate of collective anger, collective history, collective understanding that beauty (or ugliness) does matter. That which provides for what we call LA’s art scene – this is our strength. When someone empties this out for a byline in some lame blog, they cheapen our resource. This is serious business.

Cultural movements like San Precario have struggled to successfully socialize a post-fordist ethic of values. People have rights that lie outside of day-to-day income. San Precario holds this knowledge together as the source of strength, as a fountain of the possible.

The Escrache Movement in Argentina hold tightly to the collective ideal of justice outside of history. Justice is the driving force in Escrache’s workers’ attempt to return Argentina to history.

The Anti-Deutch autonomist-Marxist movements in Germany hold on to a post-humanist ideal of anti-Semitism as a necessity outside of rational discourse from which to anchor their actions.

In this globalized capitalist world, I am astounded that so much writing on public space does not hold out for a pragmatically ideological construction of public space. No, much of the writing does one of four things- 1) It usefully critiques the traditional notion of public space as innately exclusionary 2) It naively imagines the possibility of escape from a public, as if there was another space for pure interaction 3) It strategizes (in curatorial studies or business classes) ways to best reach and use publics 4) It acknowledges public space to be a complicated subject and makes nothing of it.

What the hell!? As our agency, health and security go down the tubes, is it too much to ask for a useful and reasonable fiction? A collectively narrated fiction that imagines our collective responsibility to nurture our ideals?

Through the socializing of our scene, we begin to gain practical political agency together. By expecting one another to respect the highest (or lowest if you’re a pagan) spirits of the LA Art Scene in a workerist mode, we will find a political language that amplifies even our most abstract projects. Our scene can discover ways to materially, aesthetically and intellectually support it and us.

What does this look like? It would start with a clear statement of expectation – to be treated fairly – in the way that Wage Artists and others articulate.   But beyond this – into speculative economies – it is the honoring of the scene by publicly and privately holding true to ideals in thought and action. Ones work (paid and especially unpaid) as fabricator, designer, theorist, curator, organizer, participant, viewer will not be sold out. We will not be ignored, fail to be credited, gloss over each other’s labor and legacies for a cheap capitalist buck. We must honestly assess our work and use appropriate language to characterize it, avoiding outrageous claims when outrageous goals are attempted. We will honestly appraise our work and how a given project’s dance between the scene and the institutions affects its reception. Ethical workers do not allow institutional desires to recklessly muddy the scene’s ideals for the institutions private profit.

This is not a call for infighting. Instead, I see the potential for socialization of the scene. I understand that this involves a lot of conscious (and half-conscious) socializing. This sensibility takes its time to build.

We cultural workers have far bigger issues.

What I am proposing is that through a collective raising of expectations and a socializing of the spheres of our production and reproduction, our hand as workers will be improved.

Thank you Michael Wilson, Christina Ulke, Cara Baldwin, Robby Herbst, Temporary Services and many others for inspiration and energy in writing this essay. I’m done now.


Interview with Brian Holmes: Steps Toward a Cultural Strategy

Michael Wilson: Earlier this year, you were a part of a group of artists, students, educators, writers and theorists who came together at The Public School in an attempt to understand the crisis and to formulate radical responses.  Were your recent pieces on this site conceived in light of that project?

Brian Holmes: Of course. The students’ movement in California and around the US is a real opening for radical politics. It raises basic questions about what society has become and where it is going. I am a long-term critic of neoliberalism, I am convinced that this form of capitalism is totally unsustainable and unlivable. Since, however, it is squarely installed in the realms of knowledge, culture and information — since it is cognitive capitalism — it seems there is no more strategic point for opposition than the universities. That doesn’t mean that every point of opposition is not important, just that this one could become crucial if enough people would raise the basic questions of value, what’s society good for, how am I participating, which consequences does that have on others, etc. Those kinds of questions form the basis of the practical philosophy that interests me. The work at the Public School is one expression of this practical philosophy that comes to grips with the currently existing forms of society and asks how do these social forms make us who we are? How could we transform ourselves and the world we share? As the economy tanks and the basic insanity of the current mode of development reveals itself in the social unconscious, I guess there may well be increasing chances to get involved in this kind of thing.

MW: You seemed to experience a lot of hope at the US Social Forum – conjuring up an atmosphere of something like visionary realism. Did you feel a new kind of energy there? Is there a continuity with the anti-globalization movement or is this something new?

BH: I think it’s totally continuous, but social movements are directly confronted with the times, they are the expression of people facing today’s problems on the ground. To that extent, whenever such movements are active they are new. Perhaps quite a large number of movements are more active now than in the preceding ten years, because the needs and opportunities are greater. I definitely felt a new kind of energy there because I have never been to such a thing in the US (I lived the last 20 years in Europe). I guess most everyone involved in radical politics is somewhat visionary — they see the possibility of a different society — so when you all meet it’s an assemblage or concatenation of visions, that’s pretty inspiring. What’s new to me is the resolve of the American activists to go on with a double program, which involves opposing one or several facets of society as it is, usually on the national or systemic level, while pursuing some already existing transformative process on the ground, at the community level. This doesn’t function in the same way as the diffuse “hope” around the Obama campaign. It’s both more pragmatic and more idealistic. I left the Social Forum feeling very respectful of peoples’ capacities to sustain their systemic resistance on their home territories.

MW: That seems to be key — sustaining resistance on home territories. If our home territories are education, research-based art, journalism and more academic systems analysis, how important is it to integrate our approaches? Through something as disciplined as a collective re-imagining of pedagogy or just by resisting the star/fashion systems of their various disciplines and working together?

BH: That’s a very precise question. Actually the answer demands such an articulation in practice, to see what it produces. In France I used to work with an association of graphic artists based in a city called Ivry, just outside Paris. That association involved journalists, sociologists and also a version of systems analysis called Marxism. Popular education was one of the main concerns of this group, which was called “Ne Pas Plier” (Do Not Bend). Most of the work was around unemployed people’s movements, immigrants’ rights, homelessness and the general theme of exclusion. It was a very strong experience, and we made some significant contributions to the counter-globalization movement. From my perspective there was a limit to the way the group articulated itself, in a kind of national-communist framework that had made a lot of sense for several generations but was now seeing its institutional base erode without being able to connect to anything emergent. So I ended up leaving, but I always had this desire for exactly the kind of articulation you are suggesting. The tendency for me has been to work out of a more active moment — artistic research, activist campaigns — rather than beginning with pedagogy. In the US there is a kind of implied neutrality to pedagogy which undoubtedly has its reasons for existing in a multicultural democracy, but which makes political articulation difficult. There are definitely kinds of knowledge that have value in and of themselves, but knowledge about society does not fall into that category, it has a purpose, it’s political. So there is a kind of intuitive progression whereby journalistic or artistic investigation of society leads both to activism and to the analysis of social systems, with all of that providing the material for an engaged educational practice that is in itself politically motivated (though not simply subordinated to any of the components that go into it). Whether you unfold that progression by a disciplined process or just by working together with some kind of healthy repulsion toward prevailing norms, is a question of taste, of inclinations, of opportunities, whatever. Working across the disciplines, without denying their particular capacities and expertise, is definitely what I find most promising.

MW: In Fault Lines & Subduction Zones, you say that “we missed the opportunity of the 2008 meltdown and failed to impose any re-evaluation of the basic tenets of neoliberalism.” Could you elaborate on this?

BH: Hmm, we just went through the biggest financial crisis since 1929 and there has been no revision of the major tenets of neoliberal economics as put into practice by public officials. The whole recovery effort, including the Keynesian stimulus packages, has been conceived as a way to return the economy to its finance-driven, just-in-time production of hyper-consumerism. The models incarnated by Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart — lightening fast computerized trading for the few, massive importation of cheap Chinese products for the many — remain the ideal figures of this society. As soon as the credit-card bottoms out it doesn’t work anymore, and obviously people are not going to get jobs out of that economy, just read the headlines. What I found impressive was the almost total absence of any expertise to support an opposing vision. Of course there are opposing visions, notably around the idea that the whole pattern of energy usage in our society needs to be reformulated through the production of basic tools and infrastructure: better insulated living spaces, more efficient transportation networks, multiple and decentralized energy production through solar and wind methods, healthier food production with less industrial inputs and so forth. There is also a growing recognition that these transformations involve basic changes in values and desires, therefore, there is an imaginary side to it, a need to rework “the imaginary institution of society,” as Castoriadis would say. But no one is able to act on these perceptions. One reason is that a broad constituency perceives no need to act: huge sectors of society see no urgency in climate change, they have no cultural problems with big-box consumption, they’re nationalist and militarist and they want less taxation. But the other reason, closer to us, is that for the last thirty years all the experts educated in the neoliberal universities have been trained only to fine-tune and perfect the formulas of finance-driven growth, global supply chains, human capital etc. Which is more functional and therefore more deadly than atavistic nationalism. It will be interesting to see whether the continuing decay in our quality of life leads to the appearance of some new ideas on the political and administrative stages.

MW: In the same text, you call for a “powerful utopian vision … with a concrete grasp” and “a new kind of common sense.” What characterizes this common sense? Fundamental assumptions about possibilities beyond the present crisis? Or a ‘sense of the common’ that others have talked about?

BH: I’ll go with both of those. You know, the theme of “the common” put forth by the Italian autonomist Marxists has been echoed very powerfully in much wider social circles by the Nobel prize awarded to Elinor Ostrom for her work on the commons, that is, on the management or stewardship of collectively used resources like grazing grounds, forests, fisheries and so forth. That’s a big turnaround for a prize committee that has been promoting Milton Friedman’s disciples for so many years, all of whom subscribe to the “tragedy of the commons” thesis that makes the free market into the only effective way of managing scarce resources. What we have been proposing for many years in autonomist circles is that culture itself — including science and technology — is a commons of language, image, affect and ideas, that it grows in productivity and value through the sharing of inventions and that this offers a new basis for social wealth in the knowledge societies. You can find these ideas throughout Hardt and Negri’s work, and they were developed quite extensively in France by participants in the Multitudes journal. Behind that, Karl Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation, has been a huge inspiration for me. However, when I referred to a “common sense” I wasn’t actually thinking about such subtle things, more about the need to regain a political program that many people can agree on and share broadly as first principles on which the rest depends. For those purposes, an insistence on the common or on common goods as a kind of productive antithesis to private ownership and profit is probably too abstract. Still there’s obviously an interest in pursuing fundamental philosophical work in that direction!

MW: You seem critical of eschatology, but it seems clear that you also believe that we are at the end of an age or at a time of profound transformation. Is this in response to what might be called a fetishizing of ‘the end’ on the left?

BH: Since the time of Marx, leftists have always believed that capitalism was about to end in some mega-crisis. That belief has been obsolete since the Thirties, when Keynesian social-democracy added a new wrinkle to the capitalist state and proved that even major economic crises can be managed. In the wake of the Great Depression, and also of the long-term recession of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of financially-driven globalization, what’s become evident to many social theorists is that the capitalist economy goes through technological, organizational, political and geographical changes in the course of each major crisis. So instead of focusing on “end times” we should look down the pipe and try to imagine what it might be like to come out on the other side. It may not look good, but it can’t be changed if you just deny it. People love the apocalyptic imaginary, but I am more interested in pathways through chaos.

MW: Is this a mirror of what we see on the right – an ‘end’-fetish/death drive channeled into fascist expressions?

BH: Everyone has their favorite psychological interpretation of Cheney, Palin, the Tea Party, Joe the Plumber and so on. But it’s easy to get lost in psychology. I just wanna say that a practical definition of fascism is when corporate elites seize on nationalist sentiment to carry out a program of police repression at home and militarism abroad, with state control over industrial production dictated and legitimated by those same urgencies. That sounds a lot like what we had from 2000 to 2008. I’d also maintain that the issue of state control over the banking and financial sectors is not the same as the militarization of the industrial economy. The latter is more closely associated with the right, and it’s built deeply into this society, Obama has done very little to change that. If there is a failure to get financialization under control and to achieve any transformation of consumerist desires, then a full-fledged war economy is likely to reappear as a pseudo-solution to the decline of American credit. That’s a present danger, given the dysfunctional nature of free-market thinking and the increasing likelihood that its Republican proponents will return to power. Industrial elites, nationalism and the militarization of the economy were the central facts of fascism back in the mid-twentieth century and their relevance to the present can’t be ignored. I do wonder about the denial of the ecological consequences of hyper-industrial society, the outburst of nationalist aggressivity, the underlying death-drive that suggests and so on. Max Blumenthal has written a fascinating but also somewhat simplistic book on James Dobson and Focus on the Family which takes the psychological road, check it out. I would be interested in going back to Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which seems to be the founding text of leftist psychology, and exploring the long series of left-right conflicts that have knotted themselves around interpretations of childhood and sexuality. However I have not done the work and it’s probably a good class for The Public School.

MW: That’s an idea. Do you think work like Blumenthal’s is indicative of a liberal-left analysis in general – one that seeks to marginalize all radical challenges to neoliberal hegemony by labeling them ‘extremist’?

BH: Well, I’m sure the liberal left perceives me as an extremist! But even on the further left we are quick to toss our adversaries off as loonies. The thing about the neocons is that for a long time they have been playing a very canny game with the reactions to capitalist alienation that continually arise from their grassroots base. The neocon elites take those expressions of angst very seriously, then blow them up into nationalist, racist, anti-government rhetoric that they can use to win elections and impose their neoliberal program. On the left, we prefer to diagnose the Tea Party types and explain why they’re nuts, twisted, complexed or whatever. Blumenthal has some important psychological insights, but he follows this old leftist bent which is the easy way out, because it explains social problems rather than confronting social actors. At least Reich had a cultural strategy, he was suggesting the need for a different kind of childhood education, exactly the opposite of the disciplinary kind that Dobson recommends. Yet that still avoids the problem of making political arguments against people who have a well-defined stand on issues of national sovereignty, social cohesion, jobs and so on. The thing would be to use the Reichean psychological insights to understand how the nationalistic reactions are constituted, then find an analysis that reopens the connection between those reactions and their initial departure point, which in my view lies in the shock of continuous expropriation, deskilling, economic dislocation, financial predation and manipulative advertising culture. Up until recently the liberal left wasn’t really concerned about these things — they were able to get lucrative jobs out of informationalism and globalization, plus they enjoyed the mobility and the pleasures of hyper-consumerism. Now we have to offer our own answers to much more difficult questions.

Childhood education is a big part of this — authoritarian forms of organization on the level of education emerge directly from capitalist austerity, don’t they? Instead of talking about the de-funding of the public sector, we’re obsessed with discipline and standards-based achievement goals. This is what Dobson wants to produce from the start, but he certainly doesn’t stop there and neither should a movement that seeks to oppose fascism and/or capitalism. Dobson, and the right in general, consciously operate on many levels. But you seem to be asking for a way of understanding why someone would be mobilized by reactionary passions rather than liberatory ones and that leads one into the dynamics of resentment — precisely the thing capitalism produces more efficiently than anything else, even when it’s in freefall, no?

BH: You are right, an economic collapse can set off the dynamics of resentment, it’s been seen before. But the thing is to find the affective nexus where resentment and authoritarianism spring, and to offer some different resolution, a kind of constructive play — far away from standards and discipline. That was done with the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies, but in a utopian way that surfed on an economy of abundance. The utopianism was often libertarian in the broad sense of the term and so it got absorbed into the New Economy, it became the raw material of entrepreneurial innovation, what I call the flexible personality. In that regard, the Nineties marked a dead end in a cultural strategy of play. What has remained alive on the left and is re-emerging now is an ecological constructivism that seeks a positive response to the crisis.

MW: We seem to be collectively desiring some sort of cathartic rupture with the present – militant religious movements are one response, but the analysis you propose is a long way from rapture. How does the left reconcile that gap?

BH: I dunno, I try not to get apocalyptic. Then again, consider that the Book of Revelation was written during the decline of the Roman Empire. You are right that the contemporary sense of meaninglessness and disarray goes deep, and it may be that something more than just the American empire is ending. A full-fledged ecological crisis would ultimately entail a transformation of industrialism itself, a change of civilization. It’s obvious that the Old Left, a praxis philosophy for industrial civilization, has done nothing to overcome the gap you are talking about. Mike Davis goes around the planet of slums and finds only religious prophets. Surely it is more valuable to go to the Andean regions of South America and see how indigenist movements are transforming the leftist call for equality and redistribution. Those are materialist ecological struggles, of tremendous political importance. But I think when you come back, you still have to find out where the roots of social change can take hold here, and what they can blossom into. In the Sixties we started to understand that our frontier society was deeply imperialist, and that the difference between conquest and co-existence is profound. To make that discussion exist again in contemporary terms would be a beginning. To extend the discussion to include the problem of co-existence with our own intellectual faculties and tool-making capacities would be even better. We have to learn to live with the tremendous disruptive capacities of our own minds, it is a civilizational challenge.

MW: If an engaged, critical pedagogy is a way to mediate between activism and theory, how can we keep it vital? Paolo Friere emphasizes the need to work with those who are directly affected by what he calls the ‘thematic of domination’. Pedagogy is crucial to the revolutionary project for him, but it’s a dialogical, generative process facilitated by the ‘teacher/student’ from below — not a process of illumination executed by a vanguard elite. It seems like this form of ‘teaching’ is both more difficult and urgent than ever, considering the standards-based approach that’s infested the educational system in this country.

BH: You’re a working teacher, so you have a far better understanding of what’s possible in the classroom than I do. Particularly when it’s a matter of undoing the strange hierarchical relationship that has emerged between the precarious adjunct and the paying, loan-taking student. What interests me right now are co-educational processes that arise out of a desire to go on exploring ideas and interpreting information, long after the formal learning experience is over — or while it’s happening, for those students who don’t find what they’re seeking in the universities. I think this kind of experimental process could constitute a very different sort of vanguard, one that’s not based on an elite but instead on a radical difference in social relations. There are lots of people starting up such experiments right now and I just want to join them, to collaborate. If we — by which I mean the self-organized educational movement that’s now arising — can manage to develop situations that are intrinsically valuable, then maybe that will influence the wider culture. New ideas and new desires always have to be created by someone, sometime, somewhere. The current restructuring of the public university system is an invitation to look elsewhere, to investigate other possibilities.


On Not Allowing the Dead to Work, or Fight Firing with Firing

You are invited to join us for a conversation about getting fired, losing a job, and the implications and hidden potentialities of unemployment.

III: On Not Allowing the Dead to Work, or Fight Firing with Firing

A conversation about the cessation of labor moderated by Michael Wilson as part of an installation and event series by Liz Glynn

Saturday August 7, 2010

Beginning at 6pm; please arrive no later than 7pm

Located behind 2939 Johnston St., LA CA 90031 call 323 206 2433 if lost

Email liz_glynn (at) if you would like to attend future events in August and September