The Net Effects of Affective Capitalism

P2P Wiki entry on Affective Capitalism. This
blog post.

This is a repost from my occasional blogging at the P2P Foundation, run by Michel Bauwens.

Michel has posted a fascinating addition to the Relational category and asked that I blog it. Called Affective Capitalism, it draws on authors Juan MartĂ­n Prada and Michael Hardt. I have to confess that I’m not familiar with Prada’s work, and have not yet read Hardt’s and Negri’s Multitude, though Empire was terrific.

If you subscribe to the version of economic and social history as told by the Left, our daily lives today have become rationalized, instrumentalized, and assimilated to economic purposes more now than ever before. But things are even more complicated in the view of these authors. By their account we are beyond any conventional late stage advanced capitalism. Affective capitalism, as it’s put here, has progressed even further: beyond extracting value from surplus value, to the extraction of value from our relationships, our leisure time, our desires and enjoyments. By their definition, in this phase of capitalism, economic organization “is essentially the production of sociability itself.”

Clearly though, capitalism is far beyond the industrial age, and I would argue, beyond the information age also. I’ve suggested elsewhere that we now live in an age of communication, and that one of the vectors behind the explosion of communication technologies is a centripetal force of decentralization. A proliferation of productive and consumptive relations expanding ever outward: into the home, into leisure, into daily practices that go go go, around the clock. “The individual serves and is served, in turn, by an economy based on desire, affectivity and pleasure.”

Capitalism is founded on growth and progress, and if it is not spreading horizontally across the world’s territories, it instead colonizes the “lifeworld” (the every day) along a line that descends like hook, line, and sinker. A line of economic logic that runs from the currents and trends that send waves across the surface, downward like a vertical, (data) mining the depths of our desires and interests. Even if you disagree that capitalism eats at the soul, you have to agree that it increasingly looks as if everything is for sale…

Indeed, a dark reading of the Long Tail (concept) might argue that all of the serendipitous dots connected by collaborative filtering engines reduce the rich spontaneity of friendships to relations based on a one-dimensional pivot around a simple data point: common interests shown by the consumption of alike objects. Renters of March of the Penguins and Winged Migration Unite!

This dark reading is possible even with the lights on. In fact it’s more enjoyable. In the words of Juan Martin Prada:

“economic power does not intend to continue to base all of its privileges on the exploitation of its subjects as a workforce but on the increasingly lucrative regulation of their ways of life, life dynamics and personal and affective interactions, emotions, consumer habits and satisfaction.”

This is the rub of affective capitalism. It describes a mode of regulation we could conceive of enjoying. Precisely because it targets enjoyment itself. So the inclusion of affective and emotional aspects of life and experience in economic production and consumption is a positive or negative development according to how you calibrate your philosophical and critical sensibilities. Negative, if you would like to reserve some of your heart and cranium for activities outside the economic sphere. Positive, if the Venn overlap of the public and private, productive and intimate, is as good as it feels. There is nothing essentially wrong with a capitalism whose growth and reach increases with every bigger and expanded catalog of new and enriched products. And surely an open-minded view of body modifications, gene therapies, and other life-preserving medical advances could befriend affective capitalist production, whether it seeks quantity or quality of life:

“affectivity is for once and for all liberated from its former, restrictive enclosure in the contexts of intimacy and the family and is gradually becoming the real object of production in new industries that are increasingly designed to produce new forms of life and subjectivity.” Juan Martin Prada

The evidence for affective capitalism is all around us. Entire industries now cater to entertainment of all kinds, from life-threatening location-based thrills to one-click phenomena like Amazon and Netflix. There’s tourism for the ecological, archaeological, religious, even medical tourism, and with trips to Gulags and Chernobyl now possible, the pathological? If the evidence simply showed that money can be made by pleasuring the senses this would be nothing new. But by “affective capitalism,” the authors mean more than the economics of enjoyment (and the enjoyment of economics). I think they also mean the mobilization of “human interests” (Habermas) but with affective attributes added to those of reason. An economy not just of reason and rational choice, but of pleasure and affect.

An economy of affect would have to generate affective flows just like any other. It would have to inspire the desires it can satisfy, and successfully market to markets it has presumably created. The argument gets interesting here, and here I depart from a strict reading of our affective capitalism entry. Backing up a few levels, what is an economy? Cultural anthropologists have described “archaic” economies as allotting deductions from a common stock (e.g. land) and apportioning amounts from shared flows (say, harvests). Pre-capitalist economies took from the land, or cultivated and farmed foodstuffs and livestock, using allotment and apportioning regimes to distribute shares to members (of a tribe). The act is deductive. It is a distributive act of dividing resources that belong to all into parts according to a social logic, with a view of sustaining not only a society but the relations among its members. Capitalist production, by contrast to the disjunctive economic logic of archaic societies, produces through conjunction, by a creative act of addition (see Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus). Goods are created ex nihilo, not given by the gods or spirits (in gift economies the gods are placed in debt to tribes through offerings and sacrifices, those divine debts repaid in the form of bountiful harvests and other interventions). As consumers of a capitalist mode of production, we do not owe higher authorities anything but a tax (which is a debt, but a monetary one only). The conjunctive economy constantly adds. It adds through relations, connections, and links. But how? Communication.

What better to use for creating links and associations than communication (and related tools and technologies). Here’s Hardt on affective capitalism:

“Whereas in a first moment, in the computerization of industry for example, one might say that communicative action, human relations, and culture have been instrumentalized, reified, and “degraded” to the level of economic interactions, one should add quickly that through a reciprocal process, in this second moment, production has become communicative, affective, de-instrumentalized, and “elevated” to the level of human relations—but of course a level of human relations entirely dominated by and internal to capital.”

From the marketing might of mass media to social marketing phenomena like MySpace (miniMedia), messaging, imagery, and the sheer sex appeal of people, goods, and services move from mouth to mouth by face to face as well as mediated connections. Word of mouth marketing, then, is an example of affective capitalism, for it establishes demand on the evidence of shared interests and likes. We’re back to the long tail. Buzz marketing is marketing to affects, by means of communication tools.

Indeed, collaborative filtering is also a means of filtering collaboration. In particular, it suggests an AND between two products based on their likeness or similarity. Connections and relations spread out like a web among products, and with the dots connected (collaborative filtering), human relations emerge (filtered collaboration). Our relations become subordinate to economic relations because they have been produced by them. Is that not an example of “human relations entirely dominated by and internal to capital?” And are these relations not an example of filtered collaboration, for our communication is in the service of product promotion?

This being an economy of surplus and digital duplicates, not of scarcity, getting attention is the aim of affective marketing. But it works off a logical twist: that we like things that are alike. Surely we don’t like things (intrinic logic) because they are alike (extrinsic logic). We may like things that are alike, but not because they are alike. The long tail is an example of affective marketing in its early stages, because the similarities among products promoted together (linked) is only a stand-in for the real marketer’s grail: the connections between personal likes. For now, connections of likeness substitute for the connections between likes. The latter suggest themselves as a frontier of resistance to author Michael Hardt, who writes: “On the contrary, given the role of affective labor as one of the strongest links in the chain of capitalist post-modernization, its potential for subversion and autonomous constitution is all the greater.” Hardt seems to suggest that we thwart marketing surveys and throw a wrench into the machine, with the aim of refusing to allow capitalism its sought-after model of our desires and pleasures.

I wonder whether Foucault, were he alive today, might write a book on the database as a concrete design equally suited to surveillance and to marketing purposes. The concepts here are rich. Affective capitalism marks a historical moment in capitalism’s development. I’m with Hardt. But I’ve always thought that if there’s one thing we have going for us (humanity), it’s that capitalism can’t think. It can only observe. We have a lead on it, always.

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