Ethics and General Intellect

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Second chapter of Adam Arvidsson's book on the Ethical Economy]

First chapter: Introduction to the Ethical Economy


For quite some time now there has been a strongly developing interest in ethics, and a multiplication of the points of view that lend themselves to an ethical perspective. Perhaps this ‘ethical turn’ began in the 1980s, when thinkers like Levinas, Buber and, following them, Bauman, argued that ethics was to become the central concern of the philosophy of ‘post-modern’ times. Since then we have seen the explosion in business or corporate ethics, ethical consumerism, various policies that aim at micro managing the ethics of everyday life, like smoking bans or sexual harassment policies, and, most recently, a renewed popularity of the conceptions of the ‘ethical state’ whether of religious (Bush) or secular (Berlusconi, Thaksin) inspiration.

In these more recent developments ‘ethics’ is not simply a ‘philosophy of the good’, but a technology of management. Corporate, or business ethics is no longer simply about benevolent positioning and PR. It is about the rational management of investments in initiatives that aim to shape patterns of behaviour and affect in order to reap what management theory now speak of a ‘Return on Values’ (RoV). Indeed a recent McKinsey report states that … Here then investment in corporate ethics, is clearly productive. Its productive contribution comes from its ability to fine-tune the behavioural and affective patterns that underpin the complex network of cooperation at work in modern corporation. The productivity of ethics thus resides in its biopolitical function, its ability to fine-tune the formation of subjectivity and sociality. Similarly, as Clive Barnett (et al. 2005) have argued, ‘ethical consumerism involves both a governing of consumption and a governing of the consuming self’, reaching far into and configuring the way people relate not just to commodities, but to other people by means of commodities (cf. Miller. …). Here as well as in the case of brand management more generally (Arvidsson, 2006), the ability to mobilize a consistent affective pattern from the multitude of such micro-configurations that arise out of ordinary practices of consumption can be the source of substantial monetary values. As in the case of corporate ethics, this would be a case of ‘advanced liberal government’ (Rose,.Dean..) put to work directly for the valorization of capital.

The directly productive role that ethics has acquired as a branch of management suggests that the general upsurge of ethics as a branch of advanced liberal governance might be connected to an overall reconfiguration of the relations of production. The novelty, as suggested by a wide range of recent business phenomena, from ‘crowdsourcing’ to ‘web 2.0’ would be that of the directly productive role of autonomous forms of social interaction. The rise of ethics, thus conceived, would be a reaction to the new productive power of the social, what Paolo Virno (2004) has called ‘mass intellectuality’. In this paper I shall attempt to outline the contours of that relationship.

Ethics and capital

‘Ethics’ derives from the Greek which can mean both ‘habit’ (from etomai to use to ..) and ‘character’ mood or, affective state (as in o miaron eton kai gynaikos ysteron- the terrible character that rests in a woman). Ethos relates to that which is shaped in and concerns the interaction between people, whether this be social habits and institutions or subjective moods. Furthermore, for the Greeks, Ethics applied to the interaction between free men, and not to the interaction between men and animals or slaves. Thus the space of ethics was also a space of freedom, where interaction was not predetermined by rigid hierarchies ultimately sanctioned by overwhelming power, but subject to some degree of contingency and openness. It is thus clear that already from the Greeks, ethics, or the ethical problematic, has been concerned with more or less autonomous processes of interaction in which forms of sociality and subjectivity, or, in other worlds, a common social world are shaped. This connection of ethics to the common as a space for autonomy has a long tradition in European continental philosophy, from Hegel to Arendt. Indeed, for Hannah Arendt the fundamentally ethical nature of human nature, and thus the status of human beings as zoon politicon, was based on their capacity to construct a common social world through interaction and communication. Human beings distinguish themselves by their ability to produce what Maurizio Lazzarato has called an ‘ethical surplus’ a more or less table and enduring thing in common: a social relation, an affective experience or a value judgement, that was not there before.

That very same tradition has consistently understood forms of social relations imposed by capital in its ongoing subsumtion of the social as directly antithetical to the fundamentally ethical nature of human nature. To Arendt, the overall discipline that resulted from this process (what she called ‘socialization’) simply deprived human beings of their ethical nature and reduced them to rule-bound creatures, enacting the objective laws of the market or of bureaucratic rationality. Consequently the rise of ‘society’ in the shape of a state managed capitalist administration of the social also deprived human existence of its ethical, and by extension also its political dimension. Habermas argues along similar lines in his thesis of the colonization of the lifeworld.

It is true that Fordist managerial discipline aimed at a neutralization of the ethical or affective aspects of work. The aim of Taylorism was to reduce the worker to an appendage to the machine and to minimize the margin of error and insecurity in his interaction with his fellows as well as with the machine environment. Similarly, early 20th century marketing was conceived as a ‘programming of consumption’ in which spontaneous, ‘irrational’ consumer desires and forms of consumer sociality were to be replaced by programmed desires for a particular range of goods together with the pre-constituted forms of sociality that they implied, like, principally, the nuclear family. As in the logic of the ISAs analysed by Althusser, the goal was the pre-constitution of subjectivity and social relations and hence the reduction to a minimum of the space for ethics. Viewed with recent developments in mind however, this ‘unethical’ nature of capitalism seems to have been more like a passing phase in a more general development. Capital, I would suggest, does not so much obliterate, as much as it re-mediates the ethical.

General Intellect

Indeed, the main productive advance of capitalism, for Marx, and for Adam Smith before him, was that it makes possible new forms of productive cooperation. In the Grundrisse and later in Capital it is clear that the concentration of capital in machinery and large factory systems makes possible new more complex forms of social organization in which the productive energies of the multitude are organized in new and more efficient ways. The contribution of machinery is thus both material and immaterial. Indeed, in the Grundrisse it seems that this reorganization of social cooperation constitutes the main productive contribution of machinery and hence the chief source of what Marx called relative surplus-value. […..] This immaterial productive contribution of machinery is what Marx calls General Intellect. General Intellect consists in a number of competences that are inscribed in the social environment organized by capitalist machinery, and hence available freely to its participants, by virtue of their existence as ‘social individuals’. These competences can be cognitive, as in technical or scientific knowledge, but they are also social and affective, as in knowledge about how to organize the production process or how to interact and function in the factory. The point to stress at this point is that General Intellect is the outcome of the re-mediation of social interaction performed by capitalist machinery in the factory. But it is by no means controlled by capital. On the contrary, the free availability of General Intellect in the social environment of the factory means that capital cannot exercise a monopoly over this productive resource. It can be employed for autonomous or even subversive purposes. General Intellect thus contains the potential for an overcoming of the forms of discipline from which this phenomenon originally emerged.

Many have argued that it was this potential autonomy at the heart of the system of advanced capitalism that drove the intensification of capitalist discipline, which marked the Fordist regime. The aim of Fordist social engineering was to reduce the potential for autonomous appropriation of general intellect and to collapse this resource coincide with the medium by which it had been made possible. The aim of Taylorist scientific management was to render productive cooperation on the shop-floor entirely directed by the machine-system by means of which it had been organized. The aim of Fordist marketing was to ensure that consumer needs and habits were predictably dictated by advertising and, latter, television. Within this order value-producing labour was defined as those practices that repeated the tasks set forth by this over-coding of General Intellect: the repetition of an isolated number of tasks in the factory, with no spontaneous interaction or communication permitted; the enactment of the structure of needs transmitted by television advertisements (as in Dallas Smythe’s ultra-Fordist theory of the ‘audience commodity’); the meticulous execution of bureaucratic tasks that saved Eichmann from any ethical responsibility for the crimes he helped to perpetrate.

Mass Intellectuality

This ideal of total control, of tying the message to the medium, or agency to structure, to use sociological terms remained an ideal (perhaps best expressed in the sociology of Talcott Parsons), it was never (?) a reality. (Indeed as Paul du Gay has argued, the space for deviance, for drinking on the job, taking time off, or insulting management, was probably much greater in the bureaucratic organization than today. ) One could argue that the history of capitalist managerial techniques has been driven, to some extent by the ongoing autonomous deployment of General Intellect in the construction of forms of opposition and alternatives. The turning-point arrives in the 1970s when capitalist discipline began to encourage rather than seek to repress autonomous uses of general intellect. The story behind that shift is well known. It can be reduced to three main factors. One, the geopolitical collapse of the Fordism. Two, the extreme socialization of General Intellect achieved (primarily) by the expansion of the culture and consumer industries in the post-war years and the subsequent mass appropriation of this resource into autonomous or deviant practices (what Paolo Virno has called ‘mass intellectuality’) and, three, the maturation of information and communication technologies as a new means of production. This discovery unfolded chiefly in three different areas. One, during the 1960s it was discovered that the innovation of new processes of consumption (an essential component to the accelerated turnover needed by Fordist mass production) was best left to consumers themselves. With the new tool of ethical productivity at their disposal- the socialized General Intellect of consumer and media culture- they embarked in a continuous production of new forms of life. Some with strong connotations of resistance, as in youth and counter culture, others embodying weaker and more individualized attempts at escape (as in the (in)famous ‘hedonism of the new middle class’). This ‘conquest of cool’ constituted arguably the first systematic attempt to incorporate the mass intellectuality enabled by the far reaching Fordist re-organization of the social, and to put it to directly productive ends. Two, the development of post-burecratic or toyotist managerial techniques in factories and knowledge intensive organization in the 1970s can be understood as an appropriation of the self-organizing capacities developed as part of worker resistance in the previous decades. This appropriation was now made possible by means of the greater control capacities enabled by new information and communication technologies. Three, the present boom in user-led productivity known as Web 2.0. This has been made possible by the deep penetration of networked computers with high speed internet access (on the right side of the digital divide) and the subsequent ability to ‘socialize’ the immaterial productivity that rests in the minute details of everyday interaction. In all these three cases, the abandonment of media-centric, disciplinary managerial approaches were all premised on a recognition that, as already Daniel Bell had argued in this The Coming of a Post-Industrial Society, the true source of productive wealth was not so much machinery (or media) as in the interaction processes made possible by machinery (or media); that the future development of the productive forces rested in the autonomous appropriation of General Intellect on the part of living labour: in mass intellectuality. Given the unpredictability of these processes, and the fact that their productive autonomy made command in the classical sense impossible, productive cooperation now emerged as an ethical space, a space where productive performance was contingent on the inter-subjective construction of a common social world, however within capital this time. This way, to manage the ethics of interaction became a key to control and appropriate the productivity of the social.

The Ethical Turn

The source of value in this ethical economy lies in the free, mediated cooperation between minds (Lazzarato, ….and, one should ad, bodies). It is important to stress that this cooperation is free and that it is mediated. The fact that it is free means that it cannot be directly commanded. (One cannot order someone to be cool or creative). Therefore other forms of governance are necessary. The fact that this ethical productivity is mediated means that it is public. Gabriel Tarde anticipated this over a hundred years ago. The public, ‘ the social form of the future’ mediates cooperation in new ways that transcend local and traditional boundaries and renders what was once private, localized and isolated to closed social networks, public, able to circulate and hence potentially valuable. Mediation thus already solves the problem of translating particular use values into general value, which is the first precondition for valorization to take place. Contrary to Fordist valorization processes however, this is achieved by the immanent properties of media of communication (that they make things public) rather than by the imposition of any disciplinary law of value, form above. This immanent fusion of the private-public boundary (your MySpace profile is public, and it is also private) means that the context of action itself becomes plastic and open to intervention. These two factors: freedom as a precondition for productive cooperation and the plasticity of the context of action are the main factors behind the development of ethics as a managerial technique.

This discovery first developed as the use of ‘values’ as a managerial tool. Within management the concepts of ‘corporate values’ or ‘corporate culture’ ermerged in the early 1980s with Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (and a number of similar seminal publications). The argument there was that excellence was premised on the existence of a well designed and correctly motivating corporate culture. Corporate culture was conceived as centred on a set of values, usually decided by senior management and written down, which were then inscribed in the social environment of the corporation through a variety of techniques [of affect modulation] that went from team meetings, weekend courses, investment in communication and information campaigns and design of logos and the physical environment. The purpose was to promote an environment of action where the autonomous formation of sociality and subjectivity was likely to envolve in highly particular directions. A second, but equally significant example of the discovery of ‘values’ as a point of managerial intervention was the brand. Like corporate culture, the concept of the brand evolved as a response to a new-found autonomy in the group subject to governance, in this case consumers. Also, the development of the brand as a way of managing consumption was premised on the discovery of ‘values’ as a methodological construct. Here a ‘value’ was understood as a consistent principle that gave coherence to a particular style of consumption, or ‘lifestyle’ (as in the commercially successful method for market segmentation VALS – Values, Attitudes Lifestyles). A brand was conceived as an artificial ‘value’ in this sense- as an abstract principle able to give coherence to and centre a particular process of consumption. Like corporate culture, brand management emerged as an attempt to promote an artificial context of action able to promote the production of a highly particular ethical surplus, a sense of community with other Macintosh users or ‘the particular way we have in this company of [working together] solving problems’. By working with values, management seeks to promote a particular ethical style, which makes probable a particular ethical outcome. This way management recognizes the open-ended future of productive cooperation. Rem Koolhaas puts this well in his ….

Value based techniques for managing productive interaction are premised on increasing centralization and surveillance. The brand as a consumerist institution was made possible by the host of new market data that became available as computers grew powerful and cheap enough to be put to commercial uses in the early 1970s: psychographics and life-style segementation, and latter data mining form bar code and credit card scans. Similarly, the arrival of value-based management was paralleled with a host of strategies- from Statistical Process Control (SPC) to Total Quality Management, that relied on a multiplicity of measure points planted in the environment of productive action. With the diffusion of networked ICTs within organizations as well as socially, the extent to which these measure points overlap with the life processes subject to control has increased significantly. This way it now becomes possible to survey the unfolding of productive processes of interaction and adjust the programmed environment of action accordingly, almost in real time. Very probably such possibilities will grow in scope with the arrival of new and more seamless forms of augmented space (Manovich..). The multiplication of control points also makes it easier to identify and clamp down on undesired practices: smoke detectors for renegade smokers, email scans to identify undesirable language, and surveyed online habits to identify undesirable patterns of interest. The result is more freedom at the immediate micro level (with respect to disciplinary surveillance techniques of the last century) combined with a greatly increased centralization of overall power and control [Sennett]. As Chris Rees concludes his survey of studies of people ‘experienceing Human Resource Management’ ‘Employees are likely to experience sokme genuine extension of discretion and autonomy albeit retaining to the detail of their immediate work situation, whilst at the same time management will be able to consolidate more general control’. (Rees, 50). The same thing goes for consumers. There is an increase in freedom and autonomy as regards to market choice, but choice unfolds in a media-augmented environment in which centralized power and control is much more intense than before (The shopping mall with all its surveillance cameras). Ethical management thus intervenes directly at life itself: it is a matter of biopolitical intervention, in the Foucualtian sense of that term. The object of intervention is a life process which is presumed to be autonomous and which transpires across institutional borders. While disciplinary power regarded the individual behaviour within the institution, biopolitical, ethical management techniques touches the life of its subjects in a wide variety of points at home, as well as at work. Life as an object of ethical management is thus always ‘naked’ in Agamben’s term, deprived of its particular institutional clothing and the rights and social status that pertains to it. (Indeed, the object of management is not so much the particular individual with his or her particular social determination, as much as the pattern of actions or affective investments, of which he or she might be part- see my instalment on Affective Apparatuses). The resulting subjectivity is a state of permanently managed affect. Motivated by the omnipresent possibility of surveillance and intervention, the subject develops an apparent emotional detachment form life itself, a coolness which is however easily interrupted by the unexpected (brilliantly illustrated by the British comedian ..who in the Character of Borat tries to kiss everybody on a New York subway car.).

The Value of Values?

To summarize. Under fordism, labour power consisted in such actions that could function as an appendage to the General Intellect socialized within the machine or media system: labour was programmed. Under post-Fordism, the free appropriation and autonomous use of General Intellect, mass intellectuality becomes instead a potential source of value. The value of MySpace builds on the user-creativity that is a programmed feature of the site (…), the value of a Reality Show is premised on the affective loop, reaching deep into the everyday existence of viewers, that the program is able to construct. But not all forms of free appropriation of General Intellect are valuable. Only such freedoms that can potentially be subject to management and control can potentially function as valuable labour power. The first step to valorization of productive autonomy is thus the construction of controlled biopolitical spaces where freedom can evolve in a managed way. These can be physical spaces, like brandscapes or the branded City (where the point is to stimulate the production of a particular affective climate: one that promotes creativity and attracts the ‘Creative Class’), but they can also be mediatic: the social media of Web 2.0 and the coming mobile internet are particularly well adapted to this purpose in their ability of fusing private and public and making every action and communication subject to management and control. Increasingly, as in augmented spaces, some combination of the physical and the mediatic is used. The use value of media capital is thus less a matter of its ability to mobilize attention, and more a matter of its ability to organize patterns of communication and interaction so that they unfold in particualr ways (cf. Lash..). In this context the point of managerial intervention is not the individual as much as the values that prevail in the particular biopolitical context. ‘Value’ – in the sense of corporate value or brand value- is thus an abstraction of a particular affective milieu: in their materiality, values are biopolitical [affective, or ethical] capital. Their use value, as in recent managerial debates on the Return on Values, lies in their ability to streamline processes of cooperation or , to ‘organize patterns of communication and interaction so tha they unfold in particular ways’.

But how is the value of values measured? This issue points at a conflict within informational capitalism which still awaits its resolution and which has potentially very important political implications: There are basically two ways in which the value of values are currently measured. The first way is premised on a proliferation of measurement points in which the overall performance of a particular affective environment is estimated. This can be a matter of the proliferation of quality control points and the manifold points of quantification that permeate the quality oriented organization: be this a factory, hospital or university. Here the performance of the organization’s values are continuously measured in terms of a series of output variables, like customer satisfaction, performance benchmarks or numbers of errors. Usually, such measured performance is linked to some form of concrete value stream and/or system of sanctions: forom individual renumeration to institutional financing, as in the British QEA and REA exercises. Brand valuation works in similar ways. The performance of a particular set of brand values is measured against a number of performance estimates, like bar-code scans, consumer surveys or the status of the brand in market and trend indexes. These values are used as a proxy for determining the overall marketing performance of the brand. (It is interesting to note that this performance, like the performance of the value based organization, is not only measured quantitatively, as in sales or productivity output, but also qualitatively as in accumulation of trust, standing or other forms of affective capital, to be capitalized on mainly on financial markets). This system of ubiquitous quantification is coherent with contemporary managerial drives towards inscribing control and surveillance systems within the environment of action. In its drive towards keeping freedom under tight control it often risks limiting the productivity of mass intellectuality. It is possible for users to be creative and innovative, but such creativity risks scoring badly on measurement cards.

A second emerging valuation system builds on what is known as ‘folksonomies’. Value here is based on some form of agglomeration of the ratings produced by immaterial producers themselves. Google works this way. Its ranking (effectively a hierarchy of value) is based on an agglomeration of user generated estimates of the utility of a particular site in relation to their specific productive pursuit.) is another example. P2P systems use forms of folksonomy in determining the value of the contribution of particular co-producers- mainly in terms of immaterial reward systems like ‘respect’. There are indications that similar principles are entering the corporate world. The Danish Actics system for ethics management is an innovative start up that builds on folksonomy-like techniques for measuring the ethical performance of individual co-producers. The crucial thing with such folksonomy techniques is that they do not rely on centralized definitions of value, but rather encourage the formation of autonomous circuits of valorization. While taxonomies are part of an effort to keep mass intellectuality within the fold of a single logic of capital (or perhaps, Empire), folksonomies encourage further self-organization of the productive forces. In other words, the conflict between taxonomy and folksonomy is a conflict between a system that attempts to centralize command over mass intellectuality and a system that encourages auonomoy not only of production process but also of command and value.

First Chapter: Introduction to the Ethical Economy