Lessons for the Corporate World From an Old Commie, Research Time, 30/03/2016

I generally think that everybody who cares about politics should read Antonio Negri’s Empire / Multitude / Commonwealth trilogy with Michael Hardt. Even if you don’t agree with his left-wing politics at all, the books supply a good way to think about the global economy and the possibilities beyond just the style of globalized capitalism that we all tend to take for granted.

It makes you think that maybe there are other ways of doing business, doing politics, building relationships around the world, communicating, thinking. It’s important as a society that we never forget how to think, how to imagine new possibilities for ourselves.

The most ridiculous insults toward Bernie Sanders
revolve around completely misunderstanding his
actual political message that our economy should be
fair to everyone.
For example, I’m a bit of a left-wing guy, and my more conservative friends are always astonished to hear that I’m not that big a fan of socialism, per se. “But how? I thought the left was socialism!” 

Well, you thought wrong, for one. Because while I agree with people like Jonathan Chait in his article from New York Magazine on why traditional state socialism fails. But that doesn’t mean I embrace new liberal politics or economics, become a libertarian, or build a personal shrine to Ronald Reagan like most Republicans seem to today.

Negri uses the term “post-socialism” in some places in Multitude, and that’s really the direction he’s trying to stake out. It’s where the contemporary left needs to go too.

For example, take the old marxist concept of alienated labour. In its shortest form, the idea goes like this. The artisan was deeply connected to his entire production process as a person, but going to the segmented labour of the factory floor’s assembly line broke that personal connection to his work.

The super-short version of a really complex concept, but that’s basically it. Now, the modern pitch for the gig economy is a solution to alienated labour. You become a contractor, negotiating each of your jobs on your own, representing yourself in all your ventures. You become your own entrepreneur.

But this has simply caused another kind of alienation – the alienation of precarity. No matter how hard you work, you have no safety nets, no one to rely on in case an emergency or accident prevents you from working as you should.

The worst examples are workers in sharing economy businesses. Taskrabbit seems to have suffered the greatest fall in this regard. It was one of the highest profile sharing economy companies, but has had to radically retool its business model because customers were turning away in droves. 

I would not hire a rabbit to do personal assistant jobs
for me. They have no opposable thumbs and are easily
frightened by things like cars and loud noises. And
they smell funny.
To put it simply, work as a Tasker simply couldn’t offer enough security to make it worth a genuinely driven and intelligent person’s time. Eventually, the compensation offered to be constantly on-call, but paid by the task only, was so little that the only people who were good enough workers to do all their crap properly wouldn’t do it.

And there’s another form of alienation that manifests in another sector that Negri calls “immaterial labour.” My own industry of corporate communications. Communications is fundamentally about building relationships, and the dominant model of industry in the 21st century is all about communicating and relationship building.

In a very literal sense, professional communicators make friends on behalf of the companies they work for. It’s a profession that can come naturally to gregarious people like me, but Negri makes an intriguing observation. 

Building professional networks operates in pretty much the same way as building personal networks. That's a pretty intimate activity. Our social relationships constitute a major element of who we are, our fundamental identities. You make that a profession, and your own identity can blur with that of your company’s in a very complex, multifaceted, and profound way. 

The stereotypes of any profession speak to a truth that people in the profession all admit is sort of right. No one in communications or marketing embodies all the worst stereotypes of the field. But there’s always that danger of losing sight of yourself. 

Like a strategist whose job is countering environmental activists who doesn’t seem to understand that grassroots activism is a thing that exists. Or those marketers who were so deeply embedded in the culture of McDonalds that they couldn’t understand how anyone could have any negative attitudes about McDonalds

This erosion of your individuality can happen in any circumstance. But if your labour is your life, and your labour is building relationships for a company, then you can start to confuse the relationships that build your company and the relationships that build yourself. 

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