The cognitariat

Posted: 3 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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The following post was contributed by Toby Miller.

The right-wing futurist Alvin Toffler invented the useful concept, “the cognitariat” a quarter of a century ago (1983). Sometimes those people get something right. The idea has since been taken up and redisposed by the left. Antonio Negri (2007), for example, applies the term to people mired in contingent media work who have educational qualifications and facility with cultural technologies and genres. The cognitariat plays key roles in the production and circulation of goods and services, through both creation and coordination. This “culturalisation of productionenables these intellectuals, by placing them at the center of world economies, but it simultaneously disables them, because it does so under conditions of flexible production and ideologies of “freedom.” What used to be the fate of artists and musicians—where “making cool stuff” and working with relative autonomy was meant to outweigh ongoing employment—has become a norm. The outcome is contingent labor as a way of life. This new proletariat is not defined in terms of location (factories), tasks (manufacturing), or politics (moderation of ruling-class power and ideology), and it is formed from those whose immediate forebears, with similar or less cultural capital, were confident of secure health care and retirement income. It lacks both the organization of the traditional working class and the political entrée of the old middle class.

The U.S. media lost 200,000 full-time jobs in the decade after the 2000 dot-com bubble, more than half of them in newspapers (“Media Jobs?” 2008). The Bureau of Labor Statistics warns that “a large number of jobseekers” remains “attracted by the glamour of this industry” (2008), even though projections for employment are dismal. Consider television. For decades, employment in TV expanded above U.S. national averages, with cable a particular source of job growth (Toto 2000). But television companies are now producing, distributing, and exhibiting texts through a wide array of platforms, mechanisms, and funding systems. This proliferation, alongside technological, regulatory, and wider macroeconomic changes, has dramatically altered the landscape and experience of media work. Before the recession was officially decreed, in 2007, screen writers’ employment was at its lowest ebb for eleven years (Writers Guild 2008). There are fewer jobs than before in U.S. broadcast TV, although cable continues to grow.

This disparity is partially due to the change in viewing numbers, and partly to the fact that cable is a largely un-unionized sector by comparison with broadcast, so wages, security, and health insurance decline while profit margins increase. In 2008, the weakness of the advertising economy was hidden by two gigantic stimuli—the Olympic Games and the Presidential election. The key difference emerging last year was the collapse of non-media firms that paid huge sums of money for national television coverage, such as car companies and big-box or high-street retail stores (“Most Media” 2008; Consoli 2008).

At the same time as “good,” ongoing jobs in TV diminish, cable networks continue to emerge—13 percent more in 2004 by contrast with the year before—and gain profitability, with each year of the past decade bringing advertising growth due to the discounts available by comparison with the old networks. But this is no index of an open market. Rather, it signals additional ownership concentration: 90 percent of the major cable networks are owned by five conglomerates, which also run many of the companies that make the shows they buy. Before deregulation in 1995, networks had to abide by an anti-trust logic. Instead of screening shows they had produced, they bought the right to put on programs made by others; as a consequence, independent houses proliferated—there were forty major independents. But when these rules were rescinded, many small businesses fell apart. Big TV corporations moved production in-house so that they could sell texts on through infinite other territories and media. The people who made the creative decisions about everything from story lines to wallpaper were overridden again and again by men in suits who lacked relevant expertise. Today, these desk-bound businesspeople want to prevent the web from being subject to the same wage conditions as television (“Most Media” 2008; Richardson and Figueroa 2005; Herskovitz 2007; Dobuzinskis 2009).

Cultural work is subject to local, national, regional, and international fetishization of each component, matching the way that the labor undertaken is largely fetishized away from the final text. Business leeches want flexibility in the numbers they employ, the technology they use, the place where they produce, and the amount they pay—and inflexibility of ownership and control. The orthodoxies that created this economy, the neoclassical doxa preached by neoliberal chorines, favor an economy where competition and opportunity cost are in the litany and dissent is unforgiveable, as crazed as collective industrial organization. Hence the success of Mindworks Global Media, a company outside New Delhi that provides Indian-based journalists and copyeditors who work long-distance for newspapers whose reporters are supposedly in the U.S. and Europe. There are 35-40 percent cost savings (Lakshman 2009).

How to respond? Progressives need to account for the post-industrial standing of these cultural workers, and reject a neoliberal embrace of casualized labor:

for those who can keep a job in the post-Fordist labour market, decent and meaningful work opportunities are reducing at a phenomenal pace in the sense that, for a high proportion of low- and middle-skilled workers, full-time, lifelong employment is unlikely. (Orsi 2009, 35)

The discourse of neoliberal knowledge work needs serious reconceptualization, because grotesque inequality is the stalking horse of romantic deregulation. For while there is a sweetly-engaging quality to the amateur discourse of peer-to-peer exchanges that claims to elude corporate and state dominance, it relies on a series of anecdotes in place of an analysis of the structural obstacles to an egalitarian social system that would give all people time and space for leisure regardless of class and other axes of subjectivity.

REFERENCES: “Media Jobs? Depressing,” (2008, 19 December), AdvertisingAge; “Most Media to Suffer Retrenchment in 2009,” (2008, 30 December), Center for Media Research; Dobuzinskis, A. (2009, 19 February),  “Hollywood Struggles to Find Wealth on the Web,” Reuters; M. Herskovitz (2007, 7 November), “Are the Suits Ruining TV?” Los Angeles Times: A21; N. Lakshman (2009, 8 July), “Copyediting? Ship the Work Out to India,” Business Week; A. Negri (2007), goodbye mister socialism, Paris: Seuil; C. Orsi (2009), “Knowledge-Based Society, Peer Production and the Common Good,” Capital & Class 33: 31-51; D. Richardson and M. C. Figueroa (2005), Basic Cable Television Industry Research and Corporate Profiles, Industrial & Labor Relations, Cornell University for the Writers Guild of America, East; A. Toffler (1983), Previews and Premises, New York: William Morrow; D. Toto (2000, August), “Job Growth in Television: Cable Versus Broadcast, 1958-99,” Monthly Labor Review: 3-14; Writers Guild of America (2008), Who We Are: The Marketplace for Writing.

  1. Wow. Disturbing. Thanks for the references.

  2. […] sociaux et générationnels divers mais proches à des outils de communication inédits. C’est le mouvement des cognitaires, y compris en […]

  3. […] The following post was contributed by Toby Miller. The right-wing futurist Alvin Toffler invented the useful concept, "the cognitariat" a quarter of a century ago (1983). Sometimes those people get…  […]

  4. It’s actually a nice and useful piece of information.
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  5. […] sociaux et générationnels divers mais proches à des outils de communication inédits. C’est le mouvement des cognitaires, y compris en […]

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