Homer Simpson and the communism of capital

  • August 4, 2012

The task of the capitalist firm today is an ambivalent one: to reify the institution of private property while pretending to “create a better world”.

“For it is not you who loses your job,
but your job which disappears
as a possibility.”

Second statement from the Occupied Athens Law School
10 February 2012

“Lastly, as obedience consists in acting at the bidding of external authority, it would have no place in a state where the government is vested in the whole people, and where laws are made by common consent. In such a society the people would remain free, whether the laws were added to or diminished, inasmuch as it would not be done on external authority, but their own free consent.

Baruch Spinoza
Chapter V, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

A Copernican shift in capitalist use-value

By Jorge Moruno and Carlos Delclós

Immanuel Kant once said that music is the pinnacle of the arts. In his view, music is a practice that disturbs those who do not participate in its creation and, like the smell of a perfume, invades without consent. Kant makes the distinction that, in contrast to painting, ‘music goes from certain sensations to undetermined ideas, while the figurative arts go from determined ideas to sensations’ (Kant 1975). Regardless of one’s subjective assessment of such a strong affirmation ranking something as essential to human culture as music, what interests us is the degree to which it embodies the philosophy of a mode of production. In a sense, Kant’s affirmation provides a useful framework for interpreting a particular shift embedded in the transition towards the current productive paradigm, namely, the communism of capital.

In its industrial form, from the so-called ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ to the development and collapse of Fordism, the capitalist mode of accumulation was guided by the pattern of the figurative arts described by Kant. When Henry Ford stated that any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants as long as it is black, he was essentially implying that pattern-determined ideas invoke user-experienced sensations to reconfigure desires: the black car becomes the car the user wants. This pattern underlay the consumption-based society of the mid-20th century: a product was designed and, once constructed, seduced the consumer (Rifkin, 2010). Marco Revelli (1996) defined this precisely when he proposed that, during the Fordist period, consumption was the dependent variable of production. Desire, imagination and sensation were relegated to the background of consumption decisions or depended on and adapted to production beforehand, independent of consumption.

In post-Fordist production, space submits definitively to time, giving way to the fragmentation of time and, consequently, of work. The consequence of this transition is that “the worker no longer exists as a person. He is just the interchangeable producer of the microfragments of a recombinant semiosis who enters into the network’s continuous flux” (Berardi 2009).

Here, Marx’s analysis on the role of those segments of labour which do not have as their objective the materialization of a tangible object of production takes on a new importance. Marx divided mental activity into two classes: those whose labour ‘resulted in commodities whose existence was independent of the producer’, such as paintings or books; and those where ‘the product is inseparable from the act of production’. This was the case of butlers or dancers, who in Marx’s time represented a very small minority of the population. In the Fordist interpretation, this class could not integrate itself into the category of the proletariat since its activities were generally servile, a form of labour in which capital was not invested but served as a destination for revenue or interest (Virno 2003), as fetishized emissions of bourgeois affect.

Yet according to Virno (2003), the intangible, immeasurable product of our sensations, emotions and shared social communication is now the raw material modulated by capitalism in order to accrue exchange value or, ontologically, use-value. Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein’s Theory of Reasoned Action has proven especially useful in this task (1975). Drawn from behavioural social psychology, this theory used by social scientists in fields as disparate as fertility studies and consumer choice suggests that a person’s behavioural intention depends on the person’s attitude about the behaviour and his or her own subjective norms. Ajzen later adapted this logic to formulate his Theory of Planned Behaviour, which proposes that, in a general sense, people intend to perform a behavior (purchase a product, in this case), when they evaluate it positively, when they experience social pressure to perform it, and when they believe that they have the means and opportunities to do so (Ajzen 1991). Underlying each of these three subprocesses are the individual’s values, which following Virno’s assertions, capitalist production assumes to be translatable into exchange value.

Engineering affect, parceling off the common

Today, image and affect are no longer derived from the product, as was the case in the society of producers (Bauman 2007). More and more, the opposite seems to be true: it is the products themselves which seek to link with novel ideas, sensations or experiences (Rifkin 2010) in order to establish a parasitic relationship of value transfer. In this sense, the essential role of demographic market research and product framing betrays the profoundly reactionary orientation behind post-Fordist capitalist production. As the emergence of the common amplifies its resonance with interconnected users through increased access and innovative use, it reshapes values, social practice, subjective norms and beliefs in the process, generally at the expense of notions and institutions of private property and, with those, capitalist production itself.

In this scenario, the task of the capitalist firm is a discursive one: to reify the institution of private property by appealing to communist values (insofar as these are rooted in the common). It is no coincidence, then, that private consultants (‘corporate activists’, as they prefer to be called) increasingly adopt the form and aesthetics of the manifesto to voice their recommendations (or ‘initiatives’) to prospective clients. One particularly well-known, pioneering example is The Cluetrain Manifesto by Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine (Locke et al 2000). Written in April of 1999 and boasting a website that has been ‘declared a read-only landmark’, the book literally proposes 95 theses as a call to action for businesses operating in a transformed marketplace. Starting with the premise that ‘markets are conversations,’ the authors argue that:

networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.

What is most striking about the language employed by Cluetrain is their interchangeable use (and deliberate confusion) of the terms ‘markets’, ‘conversations’ and ‘human beings’ throughout the text, combined with their hostility towards the group identities they refer to as ‘demographic sectors’. By operationalizing the symbiotic nature of social relations through the unit of ‘the conversation’, what at first seems to be a concession to the social predisposition of human beings towards cooperation, and a step away from the reductio ad unum of the competitive, utilitarian, individualistic logic of human behaviour at the core of capitalist agency, is ultimately still a reduction to two agents: the company and the consumer.

There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market… These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other’s voices.

The reference to ‘recogniz[ing] each other’s voices’ refers to an earlier section of the ‘manifesto’, in which the authors highlight the ‘open, natural, uncontrived’ voice of ‘conversations that sound human’, a voice that allows ‘people [to] recognize each other as such’.

Taken together, these theses reveal the company’s desire to feign the humanity it does not possess through tone, affect and shifts in grammatical person in order to present itself as a speaker on equal footing with the consumer. The illusion of equal footing allows the company to mask the parasitic nature of its relationship with consumers as symbiosis, as consensus, as an agreement reached through dialectical exposition and deliberation. It’s a lesson taken to heart by The Green Xchange, a platform that incorporates companies such as Best Buy, Nike, Yahoo! and Creative Commons whose strategy is:

to accelerate and scale sustainability-innovation through sharing intellectual property assets. We do this with an eye toward: reducing the costs of technology transfer, driving the creation of new innovations and business models, and finally, accelerating industry convergence. The resulting innovations create more efficient, more profitable, and more meaningful business opportunities or models.

Their discursive approach is far more human-sounding in a spot released in January 2010. Delivered in a reassuring, slightly accented but affectively adapted tone of voice that posits the immanent nature of the common as a given, a matter-of-fact or simply common sense, the spot functions primarily as a mission statement. ‘Creating a better world means helping to set it on the right path,’ the narrator begins, immediately appealing to the divine aspirations of corporate logic (‘creating worlds’) and the strength of the company’s agency (its ability to ‘set’ the ‘world’ on a ‘path’), as well as reifying that logic as the legitimate perspective (‘the right path’). After equating resources with money and waste with unwise investment, the narrator states that ‘increasing sustainable practices can increase profits as well, but getting there will require innovation and disruption,’ thus laying claim not only to the fruits of production within the common, but also to the conflict over universal access to it, for ‘great movements create a ripple effect,’ he states, in a somewhat bizarre non sequitur which seems primarily intended to position Green Xchange as one indirect effect of a large-scale social movement.

As is often the case with manifestos or mission statements, the most important lines are reserved for the end. The first is the final sentence spoken in the spot, which states that ‘there is only one real choice: to be ahead of the curve or behind the times, because the best way to plan for the future is to make sure it’s the future you plan for’. As is also the case with many of the theses in The Cluetrain Manifesto, this statement admits that companies have been left behind by the emergence of the common. It presents the moment as a crossroads, as a time at which the only real choice is to make the jump towards a controlled, voluntary sharing of intellectual private property in order to develop a vision for the future that can be imposed such that the terms are favourable to the participants in this initiative (or cartel). But the final phrase in the spot, the slogan, is perhaps its most revealing: ‘Uncommon insights for the common good’. A slogan that resonates with the intrepid spirit that nourishes capitalist egotism, its linking of an exceptional position (‘uncommon’) with the wellbeing of the totality through ‘insight’ constitutes an agency that is much closer to that of the enlightened despot than the representative democracy evoked by Cluetrain’s market-as-conversation 10 years earlier.

Homer Simpson: Prosumer

In an early episode of The Simpson’s, Homer discovers that he has a long-lost brother. Despite his excitement, Homer quickly notices the contrast between the laboured qualities of his and his brother’s lives. Homer fits all the stereotypes of the average American father rendered monstrous: ignorant, drunk, vulgar, lazy. In contrast, his brother Herb personifies his opposite: the paradigm of Schumpeter’s (1984) U.S. entrepreneur, he is a man-of-success (he owns a major car company), well-mannered and well-dressed. At one point in the episode, Herb finds himself faced with the need to innovate in the automotive market and offers Homer the chance to design the next model his company will put out according to his own tastes, for the everyday American man.

Set to the task, Homer gives free reign to his imagination, adding all types of accessories for food and drinks, multiple car horns and random features — essentially mechanical extensions of the singularity that is Homer Simpson. The project ultimately fails and drives Herb into extreme poverty because Homer is the whole set of all that is recreational extreme stupidity, a plurality of unpresentable forms reduced to a single container of ridiculousness that represents a piece of all in one person, despite being no one at all. But something very similar happened on 4 October 2011. GAP decided to change its logo, after 20 years, looking for something ‘more modern and contemporary’ (Fernandez 2010). An avalanche of customer criticism followed, and the company had to retire it within a week.

Web-based commerce rose 15.9% in 2010, but folks aren’t dedicating their online time exclusively to creating and consuming; as Cluetrain knew in 1999. They’re also conversing (Fernandez 2010). When people communicate through social networks, they exchange and negotiate perceived value or propose tastes and styles; effectively, they stop being passive agents and become determinants of production. What they asked Homer to do, to place his interests at the service of a company’s, was to become what the business world calls a ‘prosumer’. A strategy which attempts to provoke positive externalities, examples include Mercedes’ MYVAN program (Barry 2011), which provides a place for fans of their vans in which clients could maintain an ‘active interchange of experiences and opinions’, and KLM’s “Meet & Seat” service (Paur 2011), which allows customers to pick the person they sit next to according to their Facebook profiles.

Thanks to social media, the company often doesn’t even have to launch an initiative. In May 2011, a three year old girl asked her mother why tiger bread was called tiger bread when it really looked like a giraffe (Mendiola 2012). She and her mother sent an e-mail to the company, Sainsbury’s, asking why this was the case. The person at the company kindly replied that, over 30 years ago, the baker thought it looked like a tiger and he called it that. The girl’s mother posted the emails to her blog and her social network’s curiosity made it a trending topic on Twitter. The company experienced a zero-cost viral marketing campaign that generated an exceptional amount of publicity and decided to change the bread’s name to giraffe bread, after thirty years.

The examples of the GAP logo and the tiger bread develop differently, but their decisions react to the same thing, namely, customer feedback whose intensity was amplified by social networking and cooperation taking place outside of the company’s walls. While the first company changed its logo (its identity) without consulting people, the second did it in response to an impromptu consultation. In today’s environment, socially shared information is, in itself and in its exchange, a resource that generates wealth. Before, people depended on a company’s supplies and today the company does not produce without the necessary knowledge and information (Lazzarato & Negri 2001). Companies adapt to what society demands and invent ways to privatize social communication and sell products that are designed based on the views and imagination of the public. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook now generate more desire than drinking or smoking (El País 2012). It seems producing desire through desire is the real-time, just-in-time economy.


References:

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179–211.

Ajzen, I.  (2005). Attitudes, Personality and Behavior. Berkshire: Open UP.

Barry, K. (2011).  ‘New Social Network Is For Van Fans Only’, Wired, 16 December.

Berardi, F. (2009).Precarious rapshody. Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generatio. London. Minor compositions

‘Facebook y Twitter despiertan más deseo que beber o fumar’, El País, 3 February 2012.

Fernandez, D. (2011).  ‘Las marcas no hablan con sus consumidores’, El País, 13 March.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kant, I. (1975). Crítica del juicio. México. Editora Nacional

Lazzarato, F Negri, A (2001) Trabajo inmaterial, formas de vida y producción de     subjetividad. DP&A

Levine, R., Locke, C., Searls, D., and Weinberger, D. (2000), The Cluetrain Manifesto : The End of Business as Usual, Cambridge (Mass.), Perseus Books.

Mendiola, J. (2012).  ‘Cómo una niña de 3 años ‘doblegó’ a una cadena de supermercados con Facebook’, El Confidencial, 3 February.

Paur, J. (2011).  ‘KLM Passengers Can Facebook to ‘Meet & Seat’, Wired, 16 December.

Revelli, M (2001). 8 tesis sobre el postfordismo. Madrid. Contrapoder nº 4/5.

Rifkin, J. (2010). El fin del trabajo, nuevas tecnologías contra puestos de trabajo: El nacimiento de una nueva era. Barcelona: Paidós.

Schumpeter, J. (1984). Capitalismo, socialismo, democracia. Barcelona. Folio

Virno, P (2003). Gramática de la multitud, un análisis de las formas contemporáneas de vida. Madrid: Traficantes de sueños.

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Carlos Delclós

Carlos Delclós is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. His research interests include international migration, social stratification, fertility, urban sociology, social movements and cultural theory.

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