The challenge of working at the time of network: Interview by Il Manifesto with Ned Rossiter

Alessandro Delfanti and Ned Rossiter, ‘La sfida del lavoro al tempo della rete [The challenge of working at the time of network: Interview with Ned Rossiter]’, Il Manifesto, 1 May, 2008. Italian version available here.

Alessandro Delfanti: What's the best way to rebuild labour organizations in the network society? The anti-globalisation movement (a network-based movement) is dead and unions are incapable to intercept the needs of precarious and cognitive workers ...

Ned Rossiter: At the risk of rehashing all too familiar territory, let me elaborate some of the current conditions challenging political organization within network societies. First, we need to problematise labour as some kind of coherent, distinct entity. We know well that labour in fact is internally contradictory and holds multiple, differential registers that refuse easy connection (gender, class, ethnicity, age, mode of work, etc.). This is the problem of organization. How to organize the unorganizables?, to borrow from the title of one of Florian Schneider's great documentary films. Second, we need to question the border between labour and life - contemporary biopolitics has rendered this border indistinct. Techniques of governance now interpenetrate all aspects of life as it is put to work and made productive. The result? No longer can we separate public from private, and this has massive implications for how we consider political organization today. What, in other words, is the space of political organization? Paolo Virno, for instance, speaks of a 'non-state public sphere'. But where, precisely is this sphere? All too often it seems networked, and nowhere. This is the trap of 'virtuality', understood in its general sense. Of course there can be fantastic instances of political organization that remain exclusively at the level of the virtual, which is the territory of today's 'info-wars'. Here, we find the continued fight over the society of the spectacle. Yet the problem of materiality nonetheless persists, and indeed becomes more urgent, as the ecological crisis makes all too clear (although this too is a contest of political agendas played out within the symbolic sphere).

Personally I prefer a combinatory approach that brings the virtual dimension of organization together with a material situation. This may take the form of an event or meeting, workshops, publishing activities, field research, urban experiments, migrant support centres, media laboratories ... there are many possibilities. In Italy, uninomade and the media-activist network and social centre ESC are good examples of what I'm talking about here. In the instance of bringing many capacities together around a common problem or field of interest we begin to see the development of a new institutional form. These institutions are networked, certainly, and far from the static culture and normative regimes of the bricks and mortar institutions of the modern era – unions, firms, universities, state. Their mobile, ephemeral nature is both a strength and a weakness. The invention of new institutional forms that emerge within the process of organizing networks is absolutely central to the rebuilding of labour organizations within contemporary settings. Such developments should not be seen as a burden or something that closes down the spontaneity, freedom and culture of sharing and participation that we enjoy so much within social networks. As translation devices, these new institutions facilitate trans-institutional connections. In this connection we find multiple antagonisms, indeed such connections make visible new territories of 'the political'.

AD: What's the role of communication (and info tech) in new political organizations?

NR: In many respects communication conditions the possibility of new political organizations. We could say that 'the political' of network societies is comprised of the tension between horizontal modes of communication and vertical regimes of control. Just think, for instance, of the ongoing battles between Internet and intellectual property regulators such as WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and pirate networks of software, music or film distribution. Collaborative constitution emerges precisely in the instance of confrontation. In this sense, the horizontal and vertical axes of communication are not separate or opposed but mutually constitutive. Moreover, how to manage or deal with these two axes of communication is often a source of tension within networks. Here, we are talking about the problem of governance, and there are no universal models to draw on. More often than not, networks adopt a trial-and-error approach to governance. But it is better to recognize that governance is not a dirty word, but one that is internal to the logic and protocols of self-organization.

AD: Production and appropriation by firms are reaching every moment of our lifes (i.e. in web 2.0). Cooperation and coproduction are an asset of the firms' or workers' wealth?

NR: You've identified one of the key tensions operating in the 'participation economy' of Web 2.0. Unions, in their industrial form, functioned to protect workers against exploitation and represent their right to fair and decent working conditions. But what happens when leisure activity becomes a form of profit generation for companies? Popular social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and the data trails we leave with Google function as informational gold mines for the owners of these sites. Advertising space and, more importantly, the sale of aggregated data are the staples of the participation economy. No longer can the union appeal to the subjugated, oppressed experience of workers when users voluntarily submit information and make no demands for a share of profits. Though we are starting to see some changes on this front, as users become increasingly aware of their productive capacities and can quickly abandon a social networking site in the same manner in which they initially swarmed toward it. Companies, then, are vulnerable to the roaming tastes of the networked masses whose cooperative labour determines their wealth. This cooperative labour constitutes a form of power that has the potential to be mobilized in political ways, yet so rarely is. Perhaps that will change before too long. Certainly, the production of this type of political subjectivity is preferable to the pretty revolting culture of 'shareholder democracy' that has come to define political expression for the neoliberal citizen.

AD: You wrote about the potentialities that spring from workers' own refusal of labour and subjective demands for flexibility. Can you explain it?

NR: Here, Brett Neilson and I were writing about the ways in which the shift from Fordist modes of assembly production to post-Fordist modes flexibilization cannot be accounted for by reference alone to capital's demands for enhanced efficiency through restructuring and rescaling. As readers of Il Manifesto know all too well, to the point of tedium I suspect, the 1970s in Italy saw the rise of operaismo who, along with international labour and social movements, refused the erosion of life by the demands of wage labour. Importantly, the refusal of labour demonstrates a clear capacity of workers to change the practices of capital, for better and worse. But it is in that power of transformation that a common is created. The ongoing challenge remains how to organize that potentiality in ways that produce subjectivities that can open a better life.

AD: Workfare, flexicurity or 'commonfare'?

NR: All of these options are variations on the theme of state intervention that is able to supply a relative security to the otherwise uncertainties of labour and life, as noted in an essay written with Brett Neilson. Such calls are misguided. They presuppose that somehow the state resides outside of market fluctuations and the precarity of capital. The state is coextensive with capital. The recent credit crisis sweeping the world has shown the state has little command over the uncertainties of finance capital. How, then, can the state guarantee stability? Furthermore, to whom does the state offer security? Certainly not to undocumented migrants. So, I find the call for flexicurity a regressive, nostalgic move that holds dangerous implications vis-à-vis the formation of zones of exclusion. This is not what the dreams of the multitudes aspire to realize. I think there is much political value in targeting not the state but the companies - especially those engaged in the Web 2.0 economy - and insisting on a distribution of income commensurate with the collective labour that defines the participation economy. This may be a more effective strategy for broadening the constitutive range of labour organizations. If the movements are serious about addressing the economic conditions of workers and engaging the complexities of the political they would put an end to the mistaken faith in the state as the source of guarantees. Moreover, the logic of the state as a provider of welfare is special to Europe that does not translate to the situations of workers in many Asian countries, for example. So what are the borders of connection among workers? Does the movement simply reproduce the borders of the EU? Or does it engage in the much harder but no less necessary work of transnational connection? If so, then targeting the state does not especially help facilitate a common territory of organization. The global circuits of capital are where radical politics should focus their attention. But global capital is in no way uniform in its effects, techniques of management or accumulative regimes. Political intervention, in other words, must always be situated while traversing a range of scales: social-subjective, institutional, geocultural. The movement of relations (social, political, economic) across and within this complex field of forces comprises the practical work of translation. Translation is the art of differential connection and constitutes the common from which new institutional forms may arise.

AD: This year's euromayday is focused on and built by precarious workers (call centres, social work, entertainment workers, etc.) and migrants. Furthermore, in Italy the notion of creative class is overwhelmed by the words 'precarity' and 'precariat'. You underline a distinction between different forms of work, but how can they struggle together while maintaining their differences?

NR: Practices of collaborative constitution are defined by struggle. There is no escape from struggle and the tensions that accompany collaborative relations. This is the territory of the political - a space of antagonism that in my view is much more complicated than Schmittian friend/enemy distinction. Again, it is the work of translation that reveals the multiplicity of tensions. As Naoki Sakai and Jon Solomon have written, translation is not about linguistic equivalence or co-figuration, but rather about the production of singularities through relational encounters. But let's get a bit more concrete here. What is a relational encounter? It occurs through the instance of working or being with others. Of sharing, producing, creating, listening. Sustaining a range of idioms of experience is a struggle in itself - one that is rarely continuous, but rather continually remade and reassembled. This in turn is the recombinatory space and time of new institutions.

Let me try and briefly unpack this idea of new institutions and their relation to precarity. If we say that precarity is a common condition – one that traverses class and geocultural scales – then we can ask: what is the situation within which precarity expresses itself? The situation (concept + problem) will define the emergence of a new institution. Situation, here, consists of virtual/networked, material, affective, linguistic and social registers. We are of course always in a situation, but how to connect with others? The point of connection brings about tensions - the space of the political - and the ensemble of relations furnishes expression with its contours. Euromayday is precisely one of these situations. With each iteration - both annually along with its spatial locations - euromayday articulates an accumulation of distributed, shared knowledge, and in doing so becomes more powerful. But I wonder if the real power of euromayday is not the spectacle of the event, but rather the resonance of experience and the minor connections and practices that occur before and after the event. That is the time and space of institution formation. The rest is a public declaration of existence.

AD: a suggestion for the precarious and migrants that will take the streets of europe on euromayday 2008?

NR: Abandon the state, create multiple expressive forms, engage in transborder relations (affective, intellectual, social, political), invent new institutional forms!


Ned Rossiter is an independent researcher based in Beijing. His book Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions will be published by Manifestolibri in 2008.