The Soul of the Creative: Free Labor and the Psychopolitics of Control

Fernand Léger, The Builders

We are living in an era of smoothness. Smooth movies, smooth design and smooth digital infrastructure form an unblemished carapace around our day-to-day experience and psyche. The spaces we move through are soundtracked by algorithmically-designed “mood” playlists, full of lo-fi-beats-to-chill-and-study-to and affect-less dance-pop. Work has been “streamlined” into  adjunct, gig and permalance jobs for maximum efficiency and maximum flexibility. Cosmetic surgery and nootropics offer the potential to smooth out the body and mind, leaving the individual with no excuse but to harmonize their entire being with the aesthetic regime of capital.

Since the neoliberal revolution in the late 1970s, the impetus to speed up information, communication and capital flows has become a prime concern of the political elite. That which stands in the way, be it labor law, technological obstacles, the welfare state, or the mental health of individual subjects, has been cast aside in favor of smoothing out the arteries of global capital. Manufacturing, public infrastructure and health and safety standards may be crumbling, but there is nothing stopping the infinite acceleration of information.

In March, the United Nations, with the help of Talent House – “the World’s leading creative collaboration platform for brands & agencies” – put out a call to “creatives” to “help stop the spread of Covid-19.” In the months since, the UN has amassed a library (Creative Content Hub, in their parlance) of artwork intended to push messages of personal hygiene, physical distancing and solidarity. Much of the work is insightful and shows a great deal of skill, yet it has been compensated in exposure (yes, they use the phrase) across UN social media channels.

There is humor in the idea that contributing artwork that could potentially help translate critical public health messages for a deadly virus is to be compensated with exposure, but the international governance body’s marshalling of creative energies and cognitive labor is representative of more than the dire nature of artistic compensation in our moment. As the hacker was to the 1990s, the “creative” has been to the aughts and 2010s. They are a figure that embodies changes in the nature of production, consumption and surveillance, as well as the manner in which discipline has developed from a regime of control over the body to one that puts the psyche, or even the soul itself, to work.

Published in 2002, pop urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class can be seen as a PR manual for the past two decades of experimentation in real estate, tech and venture capital. Centered on the “three Ts” – technology, talent and tolerance – Florida positions the figure of the creative as the main driver of urban regeneration. Following the book’s success, Florida founded the Creative Class Group, a consultancy that has wooed cities like Austin, Barcelona and Dublin into adopting his formula for lurching out of post-industrial obscurity.

Neither an entrepreneur nor an auteur, the creative is described by Florida as a producer of “meaningful new forms.” They can be viewed as an instrumentralized dilettante, a master-of-nothing who nonetheless understands and exploits their function as a node of culture, information and capital. As a class, it is composed of demographics that range from the bohemian layabout to educators and engineers, and is centered on what Florida dubs the “super-creative core.” That core, made up of those who “fully engage in the creative process,” is premised as the focal point and future of capitalist innovation.

While it is easy to laugh off Florida’s messianic language and booster-ish disposition, there is no doubt that the framework he presents is omnipresent today. In his focus on innovation and his emphasis on the creative individual – over the businessman, CEO, or even entrepreneur – The Rise of the Creative Class has become a paradigmatic text of our era. Its language can be found in projects as extreme as Google’s abandoned smart city initiative in Toronto, coincidentally Florida’s current home, and in the banalities of localized brand initiatives. More to the point, it presaged and celebrated new modes of cognitive and cultural exploitation.

In 2009’s The Soul at Work, Franco “Bifo” Berardi details the emergence of cognitive labor, utilizing “creative, innovative and communicative energies,” that arose out of the remains of industrial production. Bifo historically contextualizes Florida’s creative in the transition from manual labor, executed by automatically programmed machinery, to innovative labor, produced by mental processes. From this point, cognitive labor is centered in the production process, both in what is left of the assembly line and in wider reverberations in post-industrial labor.

As a result, Bifo argues that labor has lost any “residual materiality” and is now reduced to “symbolic abstractions, bytes and digits.” The creative operates in this realm of symbolic abstraction, a very real participant in complex intellectual labor, but also an abstracted confluence of social capital and cultural knowledge. Labor and enterprise, previously thought to be unequivocally opposed in Marxist thought, converge in the creative subject, who sees their labor as “[independent] from the economic and juridical condition in which it expresses itself.”

A series of Uber commercials dating back to 2014 aptly sums up the convergence of labor, enterprise, social capital and cultural knowledge. From September 2014: a music teacher named Matt in his 14th year on the job is still reliant on Uber for spare income. Zakiya is a former jazz trombonist and runs a music management company in Chicago. The text of the ad claims that “her lifelong passion for music drives her.” 2018’s “The Music Movers”, a bleary eyed jaunt through Nashville’s live music scene, is the most anhedonic of the bunch, half-heartedly profiling artists with dreams of “making it.”

Uber is an obvious manifestation of capital’s insatiable drive to innovate new markets, oozing into the spaces left where regulation, stable employment and social benefits abdicate. Its “flexible earning opportunities” are also explicitly marketed to those who engage in cultural and cognitive labor, allowing the rideshare company to capitalize on a desire for flexibility, free time and independence in order to pay drivers a poverty wage. The Uber driver survives on their ability to extract tips from a customer base, a comically disempowered, yet optimal entrepreneur in the gig economy.

The principal factor in the formation of the creative subject is the centering of desiring energies in enterprise, both in their economic and psychological manifestation. Fellow Italian autonomist theorist Tiziana Terranova further demonstrates this in her 2000 essay “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” arguing that the fixed distinctions between production and consumption, and labor and culture have collapsed. The creative and technical work of “knowledge workers”, once the sacred domain of artists and hackers, is now undertaken by all denizens of the net.

Most importantly, these activities are taken on willingly and enthusiastically. “Free labor,” as Terranova dubs it, is “pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.” At the time of the essay’s publication in the late 1990s, those involved in free labor were the “open source” movement, individuals who spent countless hours manually maintaining mailing lists or chatting for free on AOL, and the “NetSlaves” who rallied against the glamorization of digital labor. At the time, participation in the digital economy had not matured to its present point of total saturation, but abstention is now inconceivable.

Today, free labor is manifest in the most ordinary activities. It includes the mass production of memes and the live streaming of video games, make-up tutorials and political activist trainings. Some free labor involves high level skills like coding and video editing, but other forms can be as passive as walking down the street and having your visage captured by facial recognition technology. In contrast to popular depictions of tech dystopia where the surveillance state coerces profit out of passive individuals, most free labor is performed willingly.

In opposition to past models of “capture” where subculture (language, music, style) was appropriated and incorporated into capital, Terranova introduces a new paradigm. No longer captured from outside, culture is propagated from within capital, not simply in response to economic needs, but rather as a process of economic experimentation. Byung-Chul Han demonstrates this in Psychopolitics, the German-Korean theorist’s historical polemic on control. In Han’s decisive reading, the disciplinary regime of Should has given way to the freedom of Can.

The disciplinary apparatus of the twentieth century – made up of the family, schools, prisons, barracks, hospitals and factories – ensured the reliable functioning of industrial productivity, but has proven inadequate in a post-industrial context. The neoliberal system’s replacement, what Han calls psychopolitics, is hyper-efficient and intelligent, enabling influence on a pre-reflexive level. Emotion, play and communication are all vital avenues for psychopolitical control, ground where the self-realization of capital can come to obfuscate and take the place of the self-realization of the individual.

In contrast to the Marxian understanding that freedom is tantamount to self-realization with others, the neoliberal order posits the choice of the individual subject as the highest order of freedom. What Han calls the “achievement-subject” now willingly, even happily, self-exploits and self-surveils. Han emphasizes the surveillance and tracking elements of psychopolitics, but it would be a mistake to overlook its almost infinite capacity to raise productivity and experiment with new forms of capital growth through the means of Can.

In order to ensure an infinite capacity for growth, the individual subject has been transformed into a perfectly smooth terminal for information flows. Through free labor practices like posting on social media, assisting AI networks and online gaming, the subject functions as a hyper-productive node. Even more insidiously, the subject becomes data itself, a walking conglomeration of consumer activity and demographic information ready to be broken down, traded and surveilled by Cambridge Analytica, Google or Palantir. That this process largely occurs in the background of our day-to-day existence doesn’t alleviate its debasing effect on the soul. But how has capital transitioned from a regime of discipline over the body to one of control over our very desiring energies?

Terranova begins to approach this question by situating her understanding of “free labor” in the historical conditions that have resulted in the “cultural and affective desire for creative production.” As the old working class became obsolete in the “overdeveloped” nations, a new class of “active consumers of meaningful commodities” took its place. The move away from the Fordist assembly line, paired with brutal anti-union maneuvers, resulted in estrangement from established organs of labor, while simultaneously positioning “knowledge as the main source of value added.”

Han develops the historical context, particularly the evolution of production, in Psychopolitics. In agrarian society, the power of a sovereign (a king or God) with the might of the sword was necessary to maintain a system of feudal serfdom. As outlined above, industrial society abandoned the power of the sovereign in favor of the power of discipline, manifesting as coercive control of the body in order to fit machinic production. Today, the labor of the assembly line has yielded to cognitive labor, or what Maurizio Lazzarato calls “immaterial labor,” and as a result, disciplinary power has ceded to control of the psyche.

The material conditions of the moment – stay-at-home orders, schools planning for long term online learning and the rapid expansion of the gig economy – will only result in further opportunities for the extension of psychopolitical control. And while control does often manifest in the terrifying realities of surveillance, its most useful instrument is still the regime of Can. This is most clearly revealed in the collapsing of distinctions between culture and commodity.

The framework of appropriation – often white and cisgender individuals annexing the cultural products of black and queer artists, or Western institutions hijacking the work of artists from their former colonies – has proven inefficient and has often been supplanted by the voluntary channeling and structuring of culture within capitalist business practices. The punk notion of “selling out” presupposed an “other” or “outside” capturing and overturning the authenticity of the “inside”, but distinctions between inside and outside no longer hold.

Far more devastating than the slow and deliberate appropriation of art by black and queer people is a reality where those same artists are now compelled to produce in a context where they hold little to no equity and the sum total of their creative process and output is captured. That means that the work of already-exploited musicians, who may have previously had an outlet on black-owned record labels like Black Swan, Philadelphia International or Transmat, are sandwiched between the traditionally exploitative organs of the music industry and a streaming/gig framework that demands full participation in the 360 deal-brand building circus show.

In an inverted template for this sort of internal capture, we can look to the evolution of Vice Media from trend-capturing magazine to a marketing agency that promises to plunge its hooks into their audience’s subconscious. No longer presented as autonomous, cultural production now operates in tandem with advertising and data collection. Vice’s audience, as both the agency’s productive source and consumptive patron, is sold to corporations as a set of data and behaviors to be manipulated at will. In this act, culture is rendered as financial information with its historical, material and spiritual context transcended by capital.

Terranova argues that “incorporation is not about capital descending on authentic culture but a more immanent process of channeling collective labor (even as cultural labor) into monetary flows and its structuration within capitalist business practices.” Han mirrors this invocation: “We are being expelled from the sphere of lived immanence–where life relates to life instead of subjugating itself to external ends.” Instead of life relating to life, through the vessel of the individual, capital relates to capital through the soul of the creative subject.

This is embodied in how labor and the cultural processes behind art have been commodified. The art object itself has long been valorized as a commodity form, but now its formation itself has been colonized. This is because, per Terranova again, “the sustainability of the Internet as a medium depends on massive amounts of labor.” It is not the cultural product itself, but the labor that goes into its creation, promotion and hosting that produces value on the web. This is represented in streaming in particular with its almost infinite proliferation of data, but also in subscription platforms like Patreon that incentivize transparency from their producers, and the recent trend of “watch party” apps that consolidate social behavior that previously occurred offline.

Published 20 years ago, in a very different stage of the internet’s evolution, Terranova’s essay provides valuable perspective on the development of capital in the digital era. Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class was published two years later, codifying and glamorizing many of the emergent trends that Terranova details for a generation of real estate developers, urban planners and Silicon Valley idealogues. Yet, it is not those who hold the purse strings of capital that now embody the spirit of the creative.

Today, the ideal of the creative, as outlined in Florida’s cheerleading volume, has been transubstantiated into the soul of the neoliberal subject itself. As Bifo illustrates, in an echoing of Thomas Aquinas, the soul is a “metaphor for the energy that transforms biological matter into an animated body.” Its instrumentalization by capital is the subject of The Soul at Work and the most efficient site of contemporary alienation. The body and the earth’s material resources are exhaustible, as are twentieth-century forms of discipline, but the willing subjectivity of the creative, has no limits.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as Keynesian hegemony and the Fordist production line dissolved, punk and techno emerged as two dual representations of the post-industrial city. Matteo Pasquinelli describes their emergence from the ruins and factories of the city as a representation of a dying industrial epoch and a foretelling of coming automation, alienation and network society. The underground paradigm that punk and techno represented – described by Pasquinelli as a “parasitic form of life in the interstices of dominant mode of production” – is now a relic of the industrial context it emerged from.

The creative’s soul, captured so efficiently by the machinations of capital, now occupies a different set of ruins. Representing the tail end of a four decade long political economic consensus, they are not as recognizable as the abandoned factories and decaying modernist housing of yesterday. Instead, they render the smoothing out of the city and its transformation into a matrix of surveillance tools and financial transactions.

The ruins of the industrial era and the ruins of neoliberalism are differentiated in the sense that the former came with an explicit crisis of production while the latter, certainly prior to COVID-19 and arguably through it, have only resulted in further incursions into what is left of the commons and 20th century social democracy. Industrial ruins left us with a distinct eeriness, a space emptied of the human, but the ruins of today, embodied in the data left behind from online activities, forgets nothing and refers only to itself.

What this resembles is a void. Memory is reduced to a quantifiable set of posts and transactions, but there is no past and there is no future. The uprisings and violent reactions of this summer represent a potential break in that void, but also a reassertion of the interplay between older forms of discipline and contemporary forms of control. In the aftermath of yet another trillion dollar wealth transfer, the relationship between the subtle capture of creative energies, surveillance and violent repression will only become more urgent for capital.

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