not a commodity. On the contrary, commodity is above all conflict
1. A revival of the creative industries
In early 2006 the term Creative Industries (CI) pops up in the mailboxes and mailing lists of many cultural workers, artists, activists and researchers across Europe, as well as in the calls for seminars and events. An old question spins back: curiously, for the first time, a term is picked up from institutional jargon and brought unchanged into alt culture, so far used to debate other keywords (that may deserve an acronym as well!) and other post-structures such as network culture (NC), knowledge economy (KE), immaterial labour (IL), general intellect (GI) and of course Free Software (FS), Creative Commons (CC) etc. According to the original 1998 definition coined by the Creative Industries Task Force set up by Tony Blair, the CI are “those industries that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property”(1). As you can see, social creativity remains largely left out of that definition: after many years Tony Blair is still stealing your ideas. Let’s try to look at another background to this.
First, there is
a European genealogy. In 1944 Adorno and Horkheimer presented the concept
of “cultural industry” as a form of “mass deception”
in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. In the early 90’s
Italian post-Operaism (in exile and not) introduced the concepts of
immaterial labour, general intellect, cognitive capitalism, cognitariat
as emerging forms of the autonomous power of the multitudes (authors
like Negri, Lazzarato, Virno, Marazzi, Berardi). In the same period
Pierre Levy was talking about collective intelligence. Later, since
2001, the transnational mobilisation of the Euro May Day has joined
precarious workers and cognitive workers under the holy protection of
San Precario. Second, there is an Anglo-American genealogy. During the
golden age of net culture the debate around ICT and the new economy
was often linked to the knowledge economy (conceptualised by Peter Drucker
in the 60’s). In 2001 the copyleft debate escaped the boundaries
of Free Software and established the Creative Commons licences. In 2002
the best seller The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida (based
on controversial statistical evidence) pushed for trendy concepts like
After years of fetishising precarious labour and the abstract gift economy, a Copernican turn is taking place - hopefully- : attention shifts to autonomous labour and autonomous production. A new consciousness arises around the creation of meaning, that is creation of value and – consequently – creation of conflict. It is the political re-engagement of a generation of creative workers (who were previously indistinct from chain workers) and at the same time the “economic” engagement of a generation of activists (as the Seattle movement was more concerned about global issues than their own income). My creativity = my value = my conflict. And backwards.
2. The majority of the value (and of the conflict)
In this essay I
would like to portray a missing part of the debate on “creative”
labour. First, to point out the collective dimension of value creation:
it is an investigation of the social processes behind creativity, the
creative power of collective desire and the political nature of any
cognitive product (idea, brand, media, artefact, event). Question: what
or who produces value? Answer: the “social factory” produces
the greatest portion of the value (and of the conflict). Second, I spotlight
the political space of cognitive competition. I do not focus on labour
conditions or neoliberal policies within Creative Industries, but on
the public life of immaterial objects. I put cognitive products in a
space of forces, framing such objects from outside rather than inside.
I am trying to answer another question: if production goes creative
and cognitive, collective and social, what are the spaces and the forms
of conflict? As a conclusion I introduce the scenario of an “immaterial
civil war”, a semiotic space that Creative Industries are only
a small part of.
So far it seems a linear scenario, but there is also a grey zone to take in consideration: the massification of the “creative” attitude. “Everyone is a creative” is a common slogan today. Many years after Benjamin’s artwork, the mass artist enters the age of his social reproducibility and “creativity” is sold as a status symbol. The social base of Creative Industries is getting bigger (at least in the Western world) and unveils new scenarios. In a first period, Creative Industries become hegemonic (as a fact and as an concept). In a second one, they face an entropy of meaning and producers. Thanks to the internet and the digital revolution, everyday we witness the conflicts of the latter stage.
All the different schools previously introduced focus each on a different perspective. To clarify the subject we have to explode the question in its components. The “creative thing” could be dismantled in: creative labour (as autonomous or dependent work), creativity as faculty and production, the creative product (with all its layers: hardware, software, knoware, brand, etc.), the free reproducibility of the cognitive object, the intellectual property on the product itself, the social creativity behind it, the process of collective valorisation around it. Moreover, the social group of creative workers (the “creative class” or “cognitariat”), the “creative economy” and the “creative city” represent further and broader contexts.
The original definition of Creative Industries focus on the intellectual property exploitation. Richard Florida’s concepts of creative class and creative economy are based on (controversial) statistics only and on the idea of a political agenda for CI fuelled by local governments. On another level, Creative Commons is about open licences, a formal solution to handle the free reproduction and sharing triggered by the digital revolution on a mass scale (“building a layer of reasonable copyright” as they put it) (2). Coming from a different (Latin) background, the post-Operaism and the precarious workers movement point out the social and distributed form of production (Tronti’s “social factory” (3)) and ask for a guaranteed minimum income. Geographically close to the last ones, Enzo Rullani (initiator of the term ‘cognitive capitalism’) suggests to focus on the autonomous power of producers rather than on the dimension of dependent labour, as public welfare is a solution that transfers knowledge, risk and innovation capital to institutions. Such a disambiguation of political views around CI is needed to clarify what the present essay is not covering. I will not focus on the labour conditions of (precarious) cognitive workers, on the exploitation of intellectual property an on the legal protection of the public domain, but on the collective production of value and the strong competition cognitive producers face in the “immaterial” domain.
3. Lazzarato reading Tarde: the public dimension of value
does not have a clear perspective of the public life of cognitive products:
it is largely dominated by the metaphors stolen from Creative Commons
and Free Software, which support quite a flat vision with no notion
of value and valorisation. For this reason, I want to introduce a more
dynamic scenario following Maurizio Lazzarato and Gabriel Tarde that
explain how value is produced by an accumulation of social desire and
collective imitation. Lazzarato has re-introduced the thought of the
French sociologist Tarde in his book Puissances de l'invention
[Powers of invention] (4) and in his article “La psychologie économique
contre l’economie politique” (5).
To sum up in few lines, Tarde’s philosophy challenges the contemporary political economy because it: 1) dissolves the opposition of material and immaterial labour and consider the “cooperation between brains” a main force in the traditional pre-capitalist societies not only in postfordism; 2) puts innovation as the driving force instead of monetary accumulation only (Smith, Marx and Schumpter did not really understand innovation as an internal force of capitalism, a vision more concerned about re-production rather than production); 3) develops a new theory of value no more based on use-value only, but also on other kinds of value, like truth-value and beauty-value (Lazzarato: “The economic psychology is a theory of the creation and constitution of values, whereas political economy and Marxism are theories to measure values” (6)).
Tarde’s crucial insight for the present work is about the relation between science and public opinion. As Lazzarato put it: “According to Tarde, a invention (of science or not) that is not imitated is not socially existent: to be imitated an invention needs to draw attention, to produce a force of ‘mental attraction’ on other brains, to mobilise their desires and beliefs through a process of social communication. […] Tarde figures out an issue crossing all his work: the constituent power of the public.(7)” We could say: any creative idea that is not imitated is not socially existent and has no value. In Tarde the Public is the “social group of the future”, integrating for the first time mass media as an apparatus of valorisation in a sort of anticipation of postfordism. Moreover Tarde considers the working class itself as a kind of “public opinion” that is unified on the base of common beliefs and affects rather than common interests.
The Tarde-Lazzarato connection introduces a dynamic or better competitive model, where immaterial objects have to face the laws of the noosphere – innovation and imitation – in quite a Darwinistic environment. Tarde is also famous for introducing the S-shaped curve to describe the process of dissemination of innovation, another good suggestion for all the digital planners that believe in a free and flat space.
However a dissemination process is never as linear and peaceful as a mathematical graph might suggest. On a collective scale a cognitive product always “fights” against other products to attain a natural leadership. The destiny of an idea is always hegemonic, even in the “cooperation between brains” and in the digital domain of free multiplication. The natural environment of ideas is similar to the state of nature in Hobbes. The motto Homo homini lupus [the man is a wolf to man] could be applied to media, brands, signs and any kind of “semiotic machines” of the knowledge economy. It is an immaterial but not often silent “war of all ideas against all ideas.” If Lazzarato and Tarde track back the collective making of value, such a competitive nature is more transparent reading Enzo Rullani.
4. Enzo Rullani and the “law of diffusion”
Rullani was among the first to introduce the term cognitive capitalism (8). Unlike most, he does not point out the process of knowledge sharing, but above all the process of cognitive valorisation. He is quite clear about the fact that competition still exists (is perhaps even stronger) in the realm of “immaterial” economy. Rullani is one of few people that try to measure how much value knowledge produces and as a seasoned economist he gives mathematical formulas as well - like in his book Economia della conoscenza [Economy of Knowledge](9) . Rullani says that the value of knowledge is multiplied by its diffusion, and that you have to learn how to manage this kind of circulation. As Rullani puts it, in the interview with Antonella Corsani published on Multitudes in 2000 (10):
An economy based on knowledge is structurally anchored to sharing: knowledge produces value if it is adopted, and the adoption (in that format and the consequent standards) makes interdependency.
The value of immaterial objects is produced by dissemination and interdependency: there is the same process behind the popularity of a pop star and behind the success of a software. The digital revolution made the reproduction of immaterial objects easier, faster, ubiquitous and almost free. However, as Rullani points out, “proprietary logic does not disappear but has to subordinate itself to the law of diffusion (11)” : proprietary logic is no longer based on space and objects, but on time and speed.
There are three ways that a producer of knowledge can distribute its uses, still keeping a part of the advantage under the form of: 1) a speed differential in the production of new knowledge or in the exploitation of its uses; 2) a control of the context stronger than others; 3) a network of alliances and cooperation capable of contracting and controlling modalities of usage of knowledge within the whole circuit of sharing.
A speed differential
means: “I got this idea and I can handle it better than others:
while they are still becoming familiar with it, I develop it further”.
A better understanding of the context is something not easy to duplicate:
it is about the genealogy of the idea, the cultural and social history
of a place, the confidential information accumulated in years. The network
of alliances is called sometimes “social capital” and is
implemented as “social networks” on the web: it is about
your contacts, your PR, your street and web credibility.
Here it is clear that a given idea produces value in a dynamic environment challenged by other forces and other products. Any idea lives in a jungle – in a constant guerrilla warfare – and cognitive workers follow often the destiny of their brainchildren. In the capitalism of digital networks time is a more and more crucial dimension: a time advantage is measured in seconds. Moreover, in the society of white noise the rarest commodity is attention. An economy of scarcity exists even in the cognitive capitalism as a scarcity of attention and related attention economy. When everything can be duplicated everywhere, time becomes more important than space.
An example of the competition advantage in the digital domain is the Wired CD included with the November 2004 issue under the Creative Commons licences. Music tracks were donated by Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Gilberto Gil, etc. for free copying, sharing and sampling (see: www.creativecommons.org/wired). The neoliberal agenda of Wired magazine provides the clear coordinates for understanding that operation. Indeed, there are more examples of musicians and brain workers that associate their activity with copyleft, Creative Commons or file sharing on P2P networks. We only heard about the first runners, as it is no longer a novelty for those who came second. Anyway, there never is a total adherence to the Creative Commons crusade, it is always a hybrid strategy: I release part of my work as open and free to gain visibility and credibility, but not the whole work. Another strategy is that you can copy and distribute all this content, but not now, only in four months. And there are also people complaining about Creative Commons and Free Software being hijacked by corporations and majors - the point is that the world out there is full of bad music which is free to copy and distribute. No scandal, we have always suspected it was a race.
Rullani shows how competition is still present in the knowledge economy, even in the parallel enclave of digital commons. Competition is a field radical thought never attempted to enter: because it is not politically correct to admit such a competition and because any political solution is controversial. It is impossible to reconstruct any unified political subject (as at the times of proletariat) starting from such a balkanised scenario of “social factories” and molecular biopolitical production. However, if individual surplus-value is difficult to measure and reclaim, the collective accumulation is still something visible and tangible.
5. David Harvey and the collective symbolic capital
If Tarde, Lazzarato
and Rullani are useful for framing the competitive habitat of ideas
(dissemination, imitation, competition, hegemony), David Harvey’s
essay “The Art of Rent” (12) introduces a clearer description
of the political dimension of symbolic production. He manages to link
intangible production and real money not through intellectual property
but by tracking the parasitic exploitation of the immaterial domain
by the material one.
The key example is Barcelona, where there is the clearest connection between real estate economy and the production of culture as social capital. The success of Barcelona as an international brand has been created by its cultural and social roots and is continuously fuelled today by a cosmopolitan and alternative culture: in fact, that collective product is exploited first and foremost by real estate speculators. The kinds of gentrification processes are well known. Bottom-up: outsiders attract artists that attract gentry. Or, on the contrary, top-down: open-minded and futuristic art institutions built in a ghetto (like the MACBA in the Raval in Barcelona) raise rents and force people to move. However, Harvey wants to point out a more general process.
Harvey applies the concept of monopoly rent to culture: “All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners of certain portions of the globe.” There are two kinds of rent: you can exploit the unique quality of a wine or you can see the vineyard producing that extraordinary wine. You can put a hotel in a very charming city, or selling the land where to put hotels like that. Capitalism is always looking for marks of distinction. According to Harvey culture produces today the marks of distinction that capitalism can exploit selling material goods. On a city scale, real estate business is the biggest business triggered by knowledge economy. Any immaterial space has its material parasites. Think about files sharing and iPods.
If the degree of dissemination makes the value of a cognitive product, as Rullani points out, Harney put a limit to that valorisation. Dissemination that goes too far can dissolve the marks of distinction into a mass product. There is an entropic ending in any idea after its hegemonic period. Harvey highlights the first contradiction: the entropy of the marks of distinction:
The contradiction here is that the more easily marketable such items become the less unique and special they appear. In some instances the marketing itself tends to destroy the unique qualities (particularly if these depend on qualities such as wilderness, remoteness, the purity of some aesthetic experience, and the like). More generally, to the degree that such items or events are easily marketable (and subject to replication by forgeries, fakes, imitations or simulacra) the less they provide a basis for monopoly rent. […] therefore, some way has to be found to keep some commodities or places unique and particular enough (and I will later reflect on what this might mean) to maintain a monopolistic edge in an otherwise commodified and often fiercely competitive economy.
A second contradiction connected to the first is the tendency towards monopoly: if the value inflates, the only way to preserve the rent is to set up monopolies and avoid competition. For example, the digital and network revolution has attacked traditional monopoly rents (used to quite stable ‘territories’) and forced them to reinvent their strategies. The common reaction was to reclaim a stronger regime of intellectual property. On another level, capitals were forced to find new material and immaterial territories to exploit. Harvey notices that capitalism rediscovers local cultures to preserve monopolies: the collective and immaterial sphere of culture is a crucial dimension to maintain marks of distinction in a postfordist economy.
They have particular relevance to understanding how local cultural developments and traditions get absorbed within the calculi of political economy through attempts to garner monopoly rents. It also poses the question of how much the current interest in local cultural innovation and the resurrection and invention of local traditions attaches to the desire to extract and appropriate such rents.
The cultural layer of Barcelona and its unique local characters are a key component in the marketing of any Barcelona-based product, first of all the real estate business. But the third and most important contradiction discovered by Harvey is that global capital feeds local resistance to promote mark of distinction.
Since capitalists of all sorts (including the most exuberant of international financiers) are easily seduced by the lucrative prospects of monopoly powers, we immediately discern a third contradiction: that the most avid globalizers will support local developments that have the potential to yield monopoly rents even if the effect of such support is to produce a local political climate antagonistic to globalization!
Again it is the case of Barcelona, quite a social-democratic model of business that is not so easy to apply to other contexts. At this point Harvey introduces the concept of collective symbolic capital (taken from Bourdieu) to explain how culture is exploited by capitalism. The layer of cultural production attached to a specific territory produces a fertile habitat for monopoly rents.
If claims to uniqueness, authenticity, particularity and speciality underlie the ability to capture monopoly rents, then on what better terrain is it possible to make such claims than in the field of historically constituted cultural artefacts and practices and special environmental characteristics (including, of course, the built, social and cultural environments)? […] The most obvious example is contemporary tourism, but I think it would be a mistake to let the matter rest there. For what is at stake here is the power of collective symbolic capital, of special marks of distinction that attach to some place, which have a significant drawing power upon the flows of capital more generally.
The collective symbolic capital of Barcelona is shaped more clearly now. The brand of Barcelona is a “consensual hallucination” produced by many but exploited by few. The condition of the creative workers (and of the whole society) is a vicious circle: they produce symbolic value for the real estate economy that squeeze them (as they suffer the housing price of Barcelona). Furthermore, Harvey helps to understand better Florida: the so-called “creative class” is nothing but a simulacrum of the collective symbolic capital to raise the marks of distinction of a given city. The “creative class” is the collective symbolic capital transformed into an anthropomorphic brand and a monopoly rent applied to distinctive parts of the society (“creative class”), of the territory (“creative city”), of the city itself (“creative district”). The “creative class” is a parasitic simulacrum of the social creativity that is detached from the precariat and attached to the upper class.
The rise of Barcelona to prominence within the European system of cities has in part been based on its steady amassing of symbolic capital and its accumulating marks of distinction. In this the excavation of a distinctively Catalan history and tradition, the marketing of its strong artistic accomplishments and architectural heritage (Gaudi of course) and its distinctive marks of lifestyle and literary traditions, have loomed large, backed by a deluge of books, exhibitions, and cultural events that celebrate distinctiveness. […] This contradiction is marked by questions and resistance. Whose collective memory is to be celebrated here (the anarchists like the Icarians who played such an important role in Barcelona’s history, the republicans who fought so fiercely against Franco, the Catalan nationalists, immigrants from Andalusia, or a long-time Franco ally like Samaranch)?
Harvey tries to sketch out a political response questioning which parts of society are exploiting symbolic capital and which kinds of collective memory and imaginary are at stake. Symbolic capital is not unitary but a multiple space of forces, and can be continuously negotiate by the multitude that produced it.
It is a matter of determining which segments of the population are to benefit most from the collective symbolic capital to which everyone has, in their own distinctive ways, contributed both now and in the past. Why let the monopoly rent attached to that symbolic capital be captured only by the multinationals or by a small powerful segment of the local bourgeoisie? […] The struggle to accumulate marks of distinction and collective symbolic capital in a highly competitive world is on. But this entrains in its wake all of the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and who benefits. […]. The question then arises as to how these cultural interventions can themselves become a potent weapon of class struggle.
The crucial question is: how to develop a symbolic capital of resistance that can not be exploited as another mark of distinction? As Harvey points this kind of vicious circle works even better in the case of local resistance. Global capitals need anti-global resistance to improve the monopoly rent. Especially in the case of creative workers resistance is always well-educated and well-designed: and in the case of Barcelona it produces a titillating and never dangerous environment for the global middle-class. Inspired by the history of Barcelona, we introduce an immaterial civil war into the space of symbolic capital.
6. Immaterial civil war
We suggest the term
‘civil war’ as conflicts within cognitive capitalism have
no clear class composition and share the same media space. Moreover,
if it is true that “there is no more outside” (as Negri
and Hardt state in Empire (13)) and that “there are no
longer social classes, but just a single planetary petty bourgeoisie,
in which all the old social classes are dissolved” (as Agamben
puts it in The Coming Community (14)), conflicts can only take
the form of an internal struggle. The multitude has always been turbulent
and fragmented. If Florida dreams of a “creative class struggle”
(where fashion victims are the first casualties, we guess), we push
for a civil war within that comfortable “class” (and within
a comfortable notion of multitude). Moreover ‘civil war’
ties into the glorious resistance of Barcelona (a political background
that interestingly fuels its current social capital) and is also a reminder
of the internal fights of any avant-garde group (anarchists and communists
started to shot each other then).
On the other hand, “immaterial” is the constant struggle on the stage of the society of the spectacle: a cruel Ballardian jungle of brands, pop stars, gadgets, devices, data, protocols, simulacra. Immaterial exploitation is the everyday life of precarious workers, in particular of the younger generations, quite aware of the symbolic capital produced by their lives “put to work” (new trends and lifestyles generated by what post-Operaism calls biopolitical production). The immaterial civil war is the explosion of the social relations enclosed in the commodities. In his book Les révolutions du capitalisme (15) Lazzarato says that “capitalism is not a mode of production, but a production of modes and worlds” (engineered by corporations and sold to the people) and that the “planetary economic war” is an “aesthetic war” between different worlds.
Immaterial civil war is also the usual conflicts between brain workers despite all the rhetoric of knowledge sharing and digital commons. It is the joke “a friend of mine stole me my idea for a book on Creative Commons”. It is the well known rivalry within academia and the art world, the economy of references, the deadline race, the competition for festivals, the envy and suspicion among activists. Cooperation is structurally difficult among creative workers, where a prestige economy operates the same way as in any star system (not to mention political philosophers!), and where new ideas have to confront each other, often involving their creators in a fight. As Rullani points out, there is almost more competition in the realm of the knowledge economy, where reproducibility is free and what matters is speed.
7. Facing the parasite
The parasite is
the parallel exploitation of social creativity. There are indeed modes
of exploitation of creative work that are not based on intellectual
property and produce more value and conflict. As we have seen, Harvey
introduces the framework of “collective symbolic capital”
and suggests that “cultural interventions can themselves become
a potent weapon of class struggle”. Political activism in the
cultural sector, creative industries and new economy have always remained
within these fictional enclosures, making local protests and demanding
more cultural welfare or stable contracts. Recently, a more radical
demand to counter the exploitation of social creativity involves a basic
income for all (see www.euromayday.org). Conversely, Rullani notes that
a welfare system transfers both innovation and risk to the state apparatus
reinforcing it. However, what Harvey suggests is to take action not
only on the level of collective symbolic capital, but also on the level
of the parasite exploiting the cultural domain. A difficult point difficult
for the radical thought to grasp is that all the immaterial (and gift)
economy has a material, parallel and dirty counterpart where the big
money is exchanged. See Mp3 and iPod, P2P and ADSL, free music and live
concerts, Barcelona lifestyle and real estate speculation, art world
and gentrification, global brands and sweatshops.
A form of resistance suggested by Harvey in the case of Barcelona is an assault on the myth of the “creative city” rather than wanna-be-radical reactions that can contribute to making it even more exclusive. If the people want to reclaim that symbolic surplus-value vandalised by a few speculators, all we can imagine is a re-negotiation of the collective symbolic capital. Here comes the option of a grassroots rebranding campaign to undermine the accumulation of symbolic capital and alter the flows of money, tourists and new residents attracted by specific marks of distinction (Barcelona as a tolerant, alternative, open-minded city, etc.). Moreover another field of action suggested here are the specific areas where the “art of rent” plays (particular districts like the Raval or Poblenou), where the symbolic accumulation could be reset by a less symbolic sabotage. In the case of Barcelona the “parasite” to spotlight is real estate speculation, but we could apply that insight to a broader scale.
Recent forms of resistance have almost always been quite representative and media-oriented, dreaming of the rise of a new cognitariat or of a repoliticization of the collective imagery and its producers, like in the golden 60’s. Many activists and artists – like Harvey – are aware of the risk of overcoding of their messages and practices. In the end many protest actions merely succeeded in focusing the attention economy around their target. Traditional boycotts of big brands sometimes turn into free advertisement in their favour. What recent activism and critical thought have never attempted to explore is the material (and economic) dimension connected to the symbolic. Creative workers should start to recognize the surplus-value of imagery they produce beyond their immaterial objects and all the remote political effects of any sign. Leaving the symbolic, entering the economy of the symbolic. We are waiting for a generation of cognitive workers able to mobilise out of the imagery.
Barcelona, September 2006