Unchained melodies of the new proletariat

A review of For a New Critique of Political Economy - by Bernard Stiegler, translated by Daniel Ross, Malden, MA, Polity Press, 2010, 154 pp. $9.82 (paper) ISBN-13:978-07456-4804-0 .

Manuela Zechner and Bue Rübner Hansen

This short book by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler stipulates the necessity of a new critique of political economy. For Stiegler, the present economic crisis is first and foremost a crisis of the consumerist model, i.e. of the libidinal economy proper to the era of Fordist mass production.

Building upon his long term project of developing a general theory of technology, developed first and foremost in his Technics and Time trilogy, Stiegler presents the crisis as a result of developments in the technical organisation of society. Following the French paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, Stiegler's project is to theorise the human animal as primordially technical; the very structure of the human body and brain is shaped by its technical milieu, technologies themselves to be understood as externalized memory (1). This means that technics generally are forms of the materialization of experience and the ‘spatialization of the time of consciousness beyond consciousness’ (p.8), what Stiegler calls a process of grammatization. In this theorisation the question of economics becomes one of the externalisation and exploitation of forms of human memory, of libidinal economies and economies of attention.

The fruitfulness as well as limitations of Stiegler’s theorisation – especially with regards to thinking the situated body and antagonism – are clear in two of his central concepts, proletarianization and technologies of attention.


Stiegler distinguishes proletarianization from pauperisation and the working class, relating it not to material conditions or labour, but to the loss of ability to do and make [savoir-faire] and to live [savoir-vivre]. This happens through processes of grammatization of gesture, desire and affect, which is nothing other than a loss of knowledge and memory, through its externalisation. This process is nothing other than the process of externalisation of gestures of labour in industrial machines, and of affect and desire in advertisement and mass media – the function of which is to allow for the harnessing of the labour power of workers, and the attention and libidinal energy of consumers. For Stiegler we have gone through ‘a vast process of cognitive and affective proletarianization’ which today concerns all producers and consumers, rendering their activities meaningless and shallow, limiting their space to invent, invest and self-organise – and to desire. ‘The proletarians of the nervous system are no less deprived of knowledge than are the proletarians of the muscular system’ (p.45) (2).

Bernard Stiegler laments the increasing proletarianization of life – 'proletarianization' being a matter of losing access to the knowledge that allows us to do things and to exist, in his definition (3). Just like industrial capitalism proletarianized 'work' – taking away our capacity to make, collaborate, self-organise and draw meaning from our labours (or 'savoir faire') – consumerist capitalism has proletarianized our capacity to live, our 'savoir vivre', making us dependent on consumption as a compensation for meaningful life. Stiegler says we need to contest

[…] the new form of proletarianization consisting in the organization of consumption as the destruction of savoir-vivre with the aim of creating available purchasing power, thereby refining and reinforcing the system which rested on the destruction of savoir-faire with the aim of creating available labour force.(4)

Stieglers argument points to a de facto impoverishment of everyday and collective intelligence, and as such points the way to important investigations into this contemporary everyday and its forms of solidarity an reproduction. But Stiegler ends up with a relatively limited critique that speaks from the position of paid labour only – even if it's now flexibilized, fee-based and possibly even precarious labour that is at stake. He is clear about the poverty of cognitive labour:

We thus have pure cognitive labour power utterly devoid of knowledge: with cognitive technologies, it is the cognitive itself which has been proletarianized. In this consists, then, cognitive capitalism, also known as 'creative' or 'immaterial' capitalism. And this is concretely expressed in the fact that the cognitive has been reduced to calculabilitylogos has become, pharmacologically and economically, ratio.(5)

Yet he still does not look beyond this cognitive field to find other cultures of knowledge and sharing. He talks about 'economies of contribution', imagining modes of networked production that put resources in common: however this still seems to be mainly about the sharing of ideas and IPs in generally competitive settings, a narrative by and for white educated males in industrialized countries of the west (6). Reading Stiegler's New Critique of Political Economy', one finds many sensitivities and intuitions, yet he insists on projecting new political economies into cognitarian fields rather than elsewhere. Missing out on the wealth of self-generating knowledges in the experiences of women and subaltern people, Stiegler also fails to address the repression and deprivation of reproductive knowledges that have occurred with colonization, housewifization and capitalist accumulation across the globe and centuries. Whether women and the subaltern have a different point of view on contemporary 'proletarianization' remains unknown: a promising story reverts to its usual protagonists.

While the proletarianization of workers was a condition of the development of the productivist model of Fordism the proletarianization of consumers was a solution to its limits, its inherent tendency to overproduction. The creation of a mass market did not only involve an increase in demand - presupposing both an increase in purchasing power and desire for goods - but the reliance of consumers on the market – that is, on their decreasing ability to live without it. This process, according to Stiegler, ‘fundamentally and practically weaken[ed] the Marxist theory of class struggle’ (p.40). However, this model has increasingly hollowed out savoir-vivre, and diminished the time necessary for the constitution of desire. In short the consumerist model undermines its own basis, tending towards crisis because it exhausts the libidinal energy which keeps it running.

Stiegler thus thinks of 20th century consumerism not as a question of class compromise (on the background of class struggle, imperialism and the global division of labour), but rather as an occasion to question as compromised the very concept of class antagonism itself. As consumerism itself, Stiegler’s consumption centred account tends to depoliticise capitalism. Stiegler diagnoses the ‘first planetary economic crisis’ as the crisis of the consumerist model, symptom of an ever falling rate of profit, yet without paying much attention to the fall of real wages in Western Countries in the past 25-30 years, or to the growing consumerist economies of China, India, Brazil, etc. (7)

Economies of contribution

The economy of contribution stands for a world of meaningful communalist relations, an economy that reclaims technologies and knowledges of work in ways that make both economics and work more meaningful – in Stieglers case (as in the case of so many theorists of 'cognitive', 'immaterial', 'creative' or 'knowledge' labour), via the emergence of digital technologies and computer networks. In this tech economy, 'work' can emancipate itself from the abstracted, alienated and measured activity that consists in the execution of programmed gestures, in the pushing of buttons upon a surface one can't grasp or hack: hacking is an exemplary self-driven activity that reinvents work, creativity and meaning, according to Stiegler. Work as the constant re-invention of meaning at the interface of the psychic, social and political: Stiegler insists on new hacker and geek cultures constituting such a new economy of contribution. A fair point, yet what revolutionary potential can be derived from such a minority white industrialized culture – is this really where the potentials to break with proletarianization have a privileged place today, should we really invest all that hope into relatively privileged knowledge workers? What about the 99% of others, who restlessly push buttons in call-centres, offices and home workstations? I very much doubt that the emancipation of creative labour as such can achieve any more than relative privilege for some people with computers.

As many philosophically and scientifically positioned theorisations, Stiegler's too fails to position itself with regards to its object, and as such presents a relative monofocal perspective which ends up resembling a 'god trick' in Donna Haraways terms – a perspective that fails to articulate itself in relation to its place, its others, its history in a thoroughly critical way. Donna Haraway calls for developing situated knowledges in the face of disembodied objectivity:

We need to learn in our bodies, endowed with primate colour and stereoscopic vision, how to attach the objective to our theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and where we are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name.(8)

The absence of a feminist and postcolonial viewpoint – or even recognition thereof – does make itself felt in Stiegler's work, and with this, questions of care and sustainability become somewhat shallow. Reproduction and the feminised everyday are finally left behind in favour of the conceptual pair production/consumption (9): this is why Stiegler’s 'care' remains too abstract a concept, without much indication of a practice beyond that of certain people working with computers. The notion of care sits in the right place, addressing an absence of certain practices of attention-giving within contemporary networked capitalism, and pointing to the need to invent new ways of putting things in common:

The economy of contribution is the stimulation of desire through the reconstitution of systems of care founded on contemporary pharmaka and constituting a new commerce of subsistences in the service of a new existence.(10)

Yet how to imagine 'subsistences' without an attention to reproduction, to care in its proper embodiment? As the Heideggerian concept of Sorge on which he draws heavily, Stiegler's 'care' is blind to how any mode of care is internally and antagonistically split according to class, gender and race. Like many Marxist theorisations of labour, it overlooks the very activities that make life - and production and consumption – sustainable. The 'economy of contribution' sits rather awkwardly historically with women, who whether as mothers, wives, witches or prostitutes have developed and passed on an incredible wealth of knowledges and practices of care and communisation, despite having no access to mainstream institutions, public spaces or high technologies. It also sits strangely with cultures that haven't yet gone through quite as many cycles of accumulation to arrive at the techno-individual of Stieglers narrative: what about subsistence in this context, and all the knowledges that exist there? In the end, one senses a preference for white, male, philosophical referents in this work.

Interestingly, in relation to questions of care, Stiegler (11) points out that spaces of collaboration are not a matter of autonomy merely: a point missing in many autonomist and network theories that are purely affirmative of digital collaboration. This questioning of autonomy is a point feminists have made for decades, in speaking about an ethics of care, vulnerability and interdependency. What is at stake, what we must invent, is a way of thinking autonomy and heteronomy together: if we think 'economies of contribution' as spaces of both creativity and care, of interdependency as well as self-determination (12), and if we think the beyond the experiences of creative or cognitive labourers. Within Stieglers work, the frame of reference remains the state and an idea of encouraging spaces modelled on digital cooperation via policy (13): no touching upon non-industrial work, no referent beyond a bourgeois male subject, no rapport to embodied practices.

Technologies of attention

In speaking about how new information and communication technologies reshape work and relationality, Stiegler points to the ways in which new modes of attention formation emerge. Technology always differentially structures our attention, whether it is papyrus, the printing press, television, the telephone or internet - attention is a matter of the way we relate to the world, and thus of care. He sees new possible modes of care emerge from collaborative cultures across the internet in cultures of hacking and open source programming. For us, this opens a pertinent question particularly in context of the precarious, flexible and insecure work that neoliberal economies today run on: how might people look out for each other in these contexts, avoiding exploitation and collaborate and organise with both their autonomy and heteronomy in mind?

If one is looking for a hint at an answer that runs beyond the much-theorized realms of hacker culture, 'immaterial' and 'cognitive' labour, one may not find it in this book, however (14). The absence of a feminist viewpoint makes itself felt, and with it the questions of care and sustainability become somewhat shallow, leaving reproduction and the feminised everyday behind in favour of the conceptual pair production/consumption (15). Stiegler’s 'care' remains too abstract a concept. As the Heideggerian concept of Sorge on which Stiegler draws heavily, it is blind to how any mode of care is internally and antagonistically split according to class, gender and race. Meanwhile, as many Marxist theorisations of labour, it overlooks the very activities of reproduction that make life - and production and consumption - sustainable.

The New Critique of Political Economy risks leaving these questions untouched in its affirmation of an ‘economy of contribution’ that speaks always from the perspective of the universal and the rational – against a system of stupidity and short-termism, against the very being of the proletarians as proletarians. Having defined proletarianization as a sort of becoming-incapable we must ask: who can change this system? Are proletarians something other or more than simply proletarians? Which bodies are at stake here, and where?

Stiegler speaks engagingly if vaguely of new policies, new regimes of investment etc., as well about 'a political and social will capable of making a break with the present situation' (p.6-7). The source of this change however is not localised in the aspirations and intelligences of the proletarians, nor is its necessity found in their suffering. Change must happen, he writes, because the system does not work, because it ‘has run its course’ and is headed for ‘total destruction’ (ibid). To lead us out of the misère Stiegler and his cohort in Ars Industrialis call on the elites of ‘economic agents and public institutions, research foundations and associations, economists, artists, scientists, philosophers, investors and partners in the tasks of government at all echelons, etc.’. The question of situated practices and movements countering proletarianization remains untouched in this book (16).

(1) Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1998), 2: Disorientation. (2009) and 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (2010), Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(2) Franco Berardi, Bifo (2009) The Soul at Work, New York: Semiotexte.
(3) As such, there is a key difference between proletarianization and pauperization, as Stiegler points out. Proletarianization is about access to knowledge and meaning-making, while pauperization is about the withdrawal of means to survive. Where proletarianization deprives of libidinal energy, withdrawing the desire to live, pauperization is the material-bodily aspect of deprivation, withdrawing the necessary material conditions for sustaining life as zoe. See also: Stiegler, Bernard (2010): For a new critique of Political Economy, Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 36 – 41.
(4) Stiegler, For a new critique, p.27.
(5) Ibid. p.46.
(6) Much like Paolo Virno's theories of the virtuosic multitude, Stiegler praises what Bifo would call the 'cognitariat' for being the exception to this rule of proletarianization. People working creatively with technologies own their means of production themselves, are very in touch with their skill and independent from a single employer in the way they use and develop their knowledge. A refrain much heard throughout the first years of the millenium, with publications by Paolo Virno, Franco Bifo Berardi, etc: yet again the so-called 'cognitariat' is mainly constituted by young, healthy people with an education and access to technology.
(7) See Brenner, Robert (2009), ‘What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good for America’, new preface to Spanish edition of Economics of Global Turbulence, London: Verso 2006. Available online: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0sg0782h#page-2
(8) Haraway, Donna (1988), Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, in: Feminist Studies, Vol 14, No 3 (Autumn 1988), p.582.
(9) Cameron, Jenny and Gibson-Graham, J.K (2003), 'Feminising the economy: metaphors, strategies, politics' Gender, Place and Culture, 10: 2.
(10) Stiegler, For a new critique, p.121.
(11) See particularly Stiegler, For a new critique and Ars Industrialis
(12) Stiegler recognizes that it is libidinal energy that is invested in spaces of contribution, and that it is this very desiring energy that is destroyed in processes of abstraction, whether those are spatial (outsourcing, globalisation) or temporal (credit, debt). We may wonder if when saying 'contribution' he is translating the notion of 'care' towards more digital-technologically focussed environments. He invests much hope into digital economies of cooperation, because in the collaborative and hacker ethic they appear to him to circumvent an omnipresent and fatal loss of self-determination, whether affective, social of technological. When he critiques how the technological capitalism of the post-fordist type (wherein work and life blur and all becomes a matter of networking and motivation), savoir-vivre is subtracted (the knowledge of how to live, of otium, of the time of thoughtful rest, drifting, reflection), he again remains in slightly bourgeois and male clichés. Otium has never been a privilege of women or those slaving it in the shadow economy, and yet there are all sorts of 'other' knowledges and intelligences of how to live (in community and solidarity) that are developed in these worlds of feminised and informal labour. The economies of contribution and of care that emerge there are quite alive and vital, even as precarity hits them harder, since as spaces of care they organise survival.No doubt many people – the decomposing middle class and lower bourgeoisie – have perhaps forgotten hot to enjoy Otium. The reasons for this are clearly structural, as Stiegler points out in his critique of political economy. Yet he addresses the problem from a moral rather than from a clearly political standpoint, noting it's a problem of how we relate (which indeed it is) yet not moving on to imagine new solidarities and alliances beyond what he sees as the economy of contribution (the digital-knowledge economy). This question of Otium and of digital contribution is however not what I am concerned with here, since it fails to address precarity as a phenomenon and imagines change on the basis of large scale institutions rather than social movements and grassroots initiatives. It's a slightly patronizing notion of change that's at work here.
(13) See his Ars Industrialis initiative, for instance.
(14) But one could look to Lazzarato, Maurizio (2009), Experimentations Politiques, Paris: Éditions Amsterdam.
(15) Cameron, Jenny and Gibson-Graham, J.K (2003), 'Feminising the economy: metaphors, strategies, politics' Gender, Place and Culture, 10: 2.
(16) A Manifesto for an International Association Ars Industrialis for the Promotion of an Industrial Politics of Spirit

little site banner