Free Labour

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See also the companion entry: Free Labor. Ideally, both should be merged.


Free Labour, with 'free' in this context meaning, at no cost to for-profit companies. The argument is that peer production, consumer interactivity are used by capitalism and for-profit firms to externalize costs. The argument was first made by Tiziana Terranova.


Structural use of interactive consumers to externalize costs

by Johan Soderbergh:

"The shifting of time-consuming tasks from paid employees to unpaid customers when accessing banking services, is one example of enhanced interactivity. Another example would be the 15.000 volunteer maintainers of AOL’s chat-rooms. Or the attempt by the Open Source initiative to co-opt the labour power of free software engineers. These are highpoints in a broader pattern, according to Tiziana Terranova. Free labour has become structural to late capitalist cultural economy. It is therefore totally inadequate to apply the leftist favourite narrative of authentic subcultures that are hijacked by commercialism. Authentic subcultures at this point of time is a delusion, she charges. ‘Independent’ cultural production takes place within a broader capitalist framework which has already anticipated and therefore modified the ‘active consumer’. Interactivity counts to nothing else than intensified exploitation of the audience power of the user/consumer. It is not different to the intensification of exploitation of wage labourers."

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Historical treatment of work and labor

"How do we understand the relation between freedom and work? For some, ‘freedom’ and ‘work’ are inevitably contradictory terms, while for others new forms of work such as knowledge or creative work offer the opportunity of freeing ourselves. In times of unemployment and job precariousness, the freedom to work is of great concern, especially when working for ‘free’ – whether as an unpaid intern or a professional required to work overtime – is increasingly becoming an essential component of contemporary working life. Many thinkers have conceptualised the relation between freedom and work. For Karl Marx, a clear incompatibility exists between the realm of freedom and the realm of labour. The sphere of production is one in which labour is determined by necessity and external expediency, and we can only hope to organise it collectively. True freedom, defined as ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’, is at odds with the realm of labour, although ‘it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis’ (1991: 959). It is this insight that drives hopes for a freedom from work, in a leisure or post-work society (Aronowitz et al., 1998). A similar idea guides Hannah Arendt’s (1958) distinction between labour and work. For Arendt, labour is governed entirely by biological need, whereas work exceeds the realm of necessity to include the freedom to produce a world. Much of the hope of the nineteenth and twentieth century lay in attempts to transform labour into work and thus allow for the possibility of free work. But Arendt saw the opposite trend: the twentieth century, she said, is best understood as a ‘society of labourers’, which seeks to reduce work (and action) to ‘a job necessary for the life of society’ (1958: 5).

In Max Weber’s (2002) protestant work ethic, we see the quest for free work infused with a theology of redemption, with freedom to be gained through work. In contemporary business gospel, we once again recognise the theme of redemption through work. The knowledge worker, or ‘creative class’ (Florida, 2002), is thought capable of finding freedom from earthly demands in a realm of pure expressivity where work cannot be distinguished from play. The internet is the latest in a line of technologies sustaining a hope for a technology-enabled freedom at work (e.g. Blauner, 1964)."


Freedom and Work Today

"Where freedom in work is promised to all of us, and work even necessitates the exercise of our creativity, innovation and authenticity at work, it is nonetheless often unpaid. So contemporary capitalism relies on incorporating the free labour of those who produce culture in the digital economy (Böhm and Land, 2009; Terranova, 2000); it appropriates the work of ‘culturepreneurs’ for the branding of the ‘creative city’ (Lange, 2005; Lanz, 2009); and develops techniques of crowd sourcing that blur the boundaries between creative potential and corporate interest (Arvidsson, 2007).

The possibility of free work is also conditioned upon its socio-spatial opportunities. ‘Free’ spaces such as the digital commons or abandoned, vacant city areas that seem less determined by ownership, capital, or institutionalisation enable alternative working practices of artistic, activist or open source communities (e.g. Sheridan, 2007). Yet, these productive, innovative and creative free work forces taking place in a space beyond monetary value creation seem to be increasingly instrumentalised in line with the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005).

Freedom to work today also means workfare, precarity, sweatshops and child labour. As the French multitudes take to the streets, their 35-hour-week is extended and their retirement age is increased. Meanwhile, work in the humane workplaces of the new economy comes with hidden costs (Ross, 2004), and the post-bureaucratic organization makes freedom a privilege for those with potential and pushes all others into vicious cycles of opportunism (Maravelias, 2007). It is perhaps no wonder that here some of the most radical responses to contemporary forms of work involve attempting to free the soul from work, to move from alienation to autonomy (Berardi, 2009), or to insist on communism as the necessary condition of freedom (Badiou, 2010)."


More Information

How the use of FLOSS methods leads to lower transaction costs in business, at


Via Ephemera:

  1. Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Aronowitz, S., D. Esposito, W. DiFazio and M. Yard (1998) ‘The post-work manifesto’, in S. Aronowitz and C.
  3. Cutler (eds) Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation. London: Routledge.
  4. Arvidsson, A. (2007) ‘The logic of the brand’, European Journal of Economic and Social Systems, 20(1): 99- 115.
  5. Badiou, A. (2010) The Communist Hypothesis, trans. D. Macey and S. Corcoran. London: Verso.
  6. Berardi, F. (2009) The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. F. Cadel and G. Mecchia. New York: Semiotext(e).
  7. , R. (1964) Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry. Chigaco: University of Chicago Press.
  8. Böhm, S. and C. Land (2009) ‘No measure for culture? Value in the new economy’, Capital & Class, 33(1): 75- 98.
  9. Boltanski, L. and E. Chiapello (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. G. Elliott. London: Verso.
  10. Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
  11. Lange, B. (2005) ‘Sociospatial strategies of culturepreneurs. The example of Berlin and its new professionalscenes’, in Zeitschrift für Wirtschaftsgeographie, 49(2): 81-98.
  12. Lanz, S. (2009) ‘Korridore aus der Marginalität: Städtisches Handeln und subkulturelle Ströme zwischen Rio de
  13. Janeiro und Berlin’, in S. Lanz et al. (2009) Funk the City. Sounds und städtisches Handeln aus den Peripherien von Rio de Janeiro und Berlin. Berlin: bbooks.
  14. Maravelias, C. (2007) ‘Freedom at work in the age of post-bureaucratic organization’, ephemera: theory & politics in organization 7(4): 555-574.
  15. Marx, K. (1991) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume Three, trans. D. Fernbach. London: Penguin Books.
  16. Ross, A. (2003) No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs. New York: Basic Books.
  17. Sheridan, D. (2007): the Space of Subculture in the City: Getting Specific about Berlin’s Indeterminate
  18. Territories, in: Field Journal, Vol 1. (1), 97-119.
  19. Terranova, T. (2000) ‘Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy’, Social Text 18(2): 33-58.
  20. Weber, M. (2002) The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, trans. P. Baehr and G. C. Wells. London: Penguin.