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Bernard Stiegler on Proletarianization

Pieter Lemmens:

"Proletarianization, Stiegler argues with Gilbert Simondon and Karl Marx, consists essentially in the loss of knowledge and know-how (savoir-faire) in individuals and collectives. Whereas nineteenth-century capitalism proletarianized workers by delegating their knowledge and know-how to machines, reducing them to labor power, twentieth-century capitalism has proletarianized consumers by depriving them of their own ways of life and massively replacing them with preformatted and standardized ‘lifestyles’ fabricated and marketed on a worldwide scale by global corporations exclusively driven by profit. In today’s service economies, consumers are ‘discharged’ of the burden as well as the responsibility of shaping their own lives and are reduced to units of buying power controlled by marketing techniques. They have lost their ‘knowledge-how-to-live' (savoirvivre) and become ultimately deprived of the joy of life (joie de vivre). The much-heard slogan that our contemporary societies are ‘knowledge societies’ is a patent lie, according to Stiegler. In fact, today’s cognitive capitalism implies the systematic destruction of knowledge and the knowing subject.

The phenomenon of proletarianization, that is put on the agenda of philosophical reflection again by Stiegler, is not something that came up first with the Industrial Revolution. In fact, it forms a constant threat to the human as a being that continuously evolves through processes of technical exteriorization that must necessarily be accompanied by processes of interiorization and appropriation of technical prostheses and procedures.

This is particularly true since the exteriorization of memory and cognition in so-called mnemotechnologies like writing and printing. What is characteristic of our contemporary age, according to Stiegler, is the systematic industrialization of human memory and cognition through digital technologies, a process with dramatic implications for individual human psyches as well as collectives. In our hyperindustrial societies, even the life of the mind is thoroughly technicized and industrialized and this happens in the context of an increasingly totalitarian capitalism.

It is the systematic annexation of the new technical milieus of the mind (first of all the network of digital information and communication technologies: Internet) by capitalism that is the principal cause of the cognitive and emotional proletarianization that affects all strata of contemporary society. Capitalism today exploits the mnemotechnical milieu for capturing the attention and desires of populations for the purpose of promoting consumption and creating consumer subjects. This phenomenon is called psychopower by Stiegler, in analogy to Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower. Its ultimate result is the destruction of the libido and with it the sublimatory capacities of humanity, which lie at the basis of every civilization.

Today’s cognitive and consumer capitalism is first of all a capitalism focused on the control of libidinal energy – of consumers and employees as well as financiers. Criticizing it presupposes the development of a critique of libidinal economy." (