This, in the middle of a piece about more specifically music-industry issues, I found to be a strikingly elegant description of the problem with capitalism, or at least with our political approach to it (you could say that the dividing line between economic Left and Right is which side gets the larger emphasis, now that society remains committed to supporting both - pointing out the contradiction in social terms gets you accused of class warfare, as perhaps Romney discovered, but fundamentally class is the issue of who get to be owners and who get to be workers).
The part about wandering the byways of Facebook and Google being unpaid labour, though, I don’t altogether agree with. Apart from blurring the lines, from both perspectives, between work and leisure and what exactly constitutes ‘labour’, it’s not unrewarded. New media and social media, along with the various other free platforms for online activity, provide a service in exchange for ‘eyeballs’ and a contribution to the nebulous, half-unbelievable world of internet advertising. Add in the push from venture capital - hello Tumblr - and it seems as if we’re heading for another dotcom bubble.
Essentially “dotcapitalism” (which is a term I just invented, feel free to add to its brand recognition by incorporating into your own intellectual property) seems to function by shifting the use of capital as much as possible onto labour which is unpaid, though not necessarily unpleasant. The term ‘affective labour’ covers the extent to which sharing and other forms of social interaction underpin some of the most active yet mysteriously commercial parts of the internet - sharing which, especially in the case of music, may be subversive of one kind of property (that of artists themselves, and their representatives) but is supportive of another kind of property, one that uses human opinions and self-expression as a commodity to be bought and sold, analysed and monetised. And, perhaps a little late to the party, I’m starting to find that rather creepy. Given the pressure to optimise everything, to ‘grow’ pageviews, I find myself wondering when about to (say) tweet a link to something, how much has the desire to express, to inform, to share (and how less the desire to create, to truly subvert, to truly rebel) been captured by the industry that promotes the internet as a social, prepaid mode of communication.
This is not ‘labour’ in the sense that it provides many of us with a living, which is another of the chief reasons why I resile slightly at the use of the expression, but it provides a distraction from labour (and lack thereof) while also being labour in the sense that it creates profits for others, and genuine employment for some (although the nature of this employment is, unsurprisingly, often problematic). Historically the distraction-from-work and entertainment would have taken the form of consumption, as it is still generally seen - yet with the apparent difficulty that people are now not paying for it, and either or both are not expected to and do not expect to. Moreover, while people are clearly still paying for it by indirect means - whether or not these prove sufficient, we will discover - there is no obvious requirement for employers to pay a rate for ‘actual’ labour that allows for the enjoyment of free entertainment.
If consumer capitalism has ‘worked’, so to speak, by paying people enough for the production of goods and services so that they can afford to consume them, dotcapitalism introduces a murky break in the circle by making (mostly virtual) goods and services dependent on revenue from advertising, which is itself dependent on the income from a shrinking pool of paid-for physical products. Shrinking not necessarily in terms of value (although I suspect that might be the case, as a proportion of the economy) but in number of kind, restricted by having to draw on finite incomes of consumers, and by dwindling environmental resources. Whereas capital flows to the new, the growing, the market-expanding: finding new ways to harness the affective labour of the technological masses, expandable because it is cheap, requiring little or no pay, only the power to host and run; finite only to the literal exhaustion point of human interest, the number of hours in the day someone can look at a computer screen and tap on a keyboard or keypad.
Of course, the technological improvements that every tech-conference speaks of can deliver actual efficiencies, improvements in productivity (even perhaps through targeted advertising!) in meatspace, or in the blurred area between offline and online, where it’s still more meat and money-making than not; but I’m afraid that sometime quite soon the income and investment from capital and consumption in the offline economy will become insufficient to sustain the advertising budgets that support the ‘free’ web, and a bubble will burst. There could be adjustments: we could start redirecting our income in more conscious ways, forego some more frivolous entertainments while perhaps even reducing our physical, paid-for consumption; but that would be to go against the tide of capitalist growth, of supposedly rational consumer economic incentives. There could very well be some crucial part of the economics I’m missing: perhaps Google have hired their own economists to figure this out, if they care, but it seems to me that for all the talk of it, interconnectedness is something people don’t really understand about either the web or economics.
However you spin that regards education (I think we’re happy expecting that probably most 15-24 year olds would be in education, full-time - I didn’t finish my primary degree until age 22, my master’s at 23; the problem has been after that point) it’s a large drop, covered in part by emigration. The next sentence I don’t wholly agree with, though:
“When you consider that the number of over-45s at work has hardly been affected by the recession, it is surprising that issues of intergenerational equity have not come to the fore.”
Partly because it’s answered later in the same article, although he doesn’t seem to realise it:
“While longer spells in education probably account for most of the young people who are not in the workforce, it is very likely that more under-25s who are neither at work, on the dole or in education are depending on their parents.”
Almost literally it’s ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’, since most people in their early 20s are likely to have parents in the over-45 age group; it’s the parents paycheques and pensions which stretch to providing an unofficial support and safety net. So while there are definite issues about entry to public sector jobs and unequal conditions between new and existing workers, it’s a mistake to suggest that the young don’t also benefit from the old hanging on to their incomes. Yes, we’d like the opportunity for more independence, but not as cover for pursuing an ideological agenda against public sector pay, thank you very much.
‘Intergenerational (in)equity’ is I think in many respects a weaker force than intergenerational solidarity, and to suggest otherwise implies a lot of arguments at family dinners. Instead the major force at work in Irish economics is, as always, more of an ‘intersectional inequality’, between those (young or old) on higher incomes, with better opportunities and resources, and those on lower incomes without. Wealth is already redistributed within families - that is essentially their purpose, to provide for the next generation - and what is needed is greater redistribution between families, i.e. across society, the social family mediated by the state. It’s ironic that conservatism, so traditionally supportive of ‘the family’, is now in hock to a neoliberalism which seeks to drive it apart by reducing its members to simple individuals, a radical anti-patriarchy that sees the destruction of unionised working gains as a solution to the poverty of youth, rather than as removing a crucial backstop against the tidal wave of failure created by capitalism.