by Akis Gavriilidis
Brussels, as everybody knows, is the seat of the EU institutions, as well as of several other international agencies –private, public, or any combination of the two- who all day long praise the virtues of «liberalisation and market-oriented reforms» and propose/ impose them on all countries as the only one-size-fits-all solution. So much so that the name of the city itself has come to constitute a synonym for neoliberal governance.
But apart from being a symbol, Brussels is a real city where real people live, whose lives and needs are administered and served (or not) every day, in certain ways rather than others. (Ιncluding the people –dozens of thousands of them- who work for the said institutions and agencies). These ways can rarely be considered as a paradigmatic delivery of the promise for a “smooth functioning market system which provides flexibility and freedom of choice for the consumers”.
Especially if we take the field of electronic connectivity, (a field promoted by the neoliberal narrative as the privileged case where the «removal of obstacles to free trade» will bring «more and cheaper solutions for the consumer»), this is organised in ways that would be better described with words such as a set of parallel monopolies, or an oligopoly, cartel, trust, or some other obscure and obsolete term dug out from Lenin’s Imperialism. Unless we take the step and just call them a Mafia-like arrangement, which would arguably be much clearer and no less accurate.
In a nutshell, this is how the Buxellois/ Brusselaars have access to the cyberspace: the city is divided into areas, and each area is allotted to only one provider after an auction-like procedure. The best bid wins, and after that the winner has «electronic sovereignty», so to say, over the respective territory. In principle, each inhabitant is only permitted to adhere to the provider corresponding to their residence, and to no other «free competitor».
This was what I discovered recently at my own expense: about two years ago, I moved from an apartment in the urban district of Brussels to another in the same district, 2 km away. In the first one, I had a subscription with a company called Telenet, covering Internet, cable TV and fixed telephony. As soon as I notified them I was moving, Telenet informed me that I had to terminate my subscription with them and open a new one with another provider, Numericable.
I obviously found that absurd; I saw no reason to change anything –on the contrary, I saw every reason to keep the same email address, as otherwise I would have to inform dozens of people, including mailing lists, authorities, firms etc., about the new one. So I told them I would prefer not to: I would prefer things to just remain as they were.
They replied that this was impossible; they could only do me the favour and delay the de-subscription for another 12 months, thus permitting me to use my old email address at no charge, but after that they would have to abolish the account from the face of the earth –including all messages sent to and from it.
I assured them my problem was not the price (in any case, the Numericable subscription would be no cheaper), and that I was disposed to continue paying the same amount for these 12 months and beyond, provided I could just keep the account. The call centre guy regretted they were not permitted to do that. C’est la loi, Monsieur.
So there is a law, spontaneously followed and invoked by capitalist firms, which makes them renounce from pursuing their profit, and even take positive action to get rid of an existing client.
Which law could that be? We could make a number of guesses here.
The «law of the profit rate’s tendency to decline», implied in the already mentioned theory of imperialism, would not be of help here –all the more so since the attribution of its formulation to Marx has been contested by serious Marx scholars.
David Graeber, in his book The Utopia of Rules, claims there is an «Iron Law of Liberalism» which he defines as follows:
any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs (p. 9).
To begin with, this law was absolutely confirmed in my case, and in innumerable other similar cases reported to me by almost anybody I have told this story to. «Market reforms» made me spend an absurd amount of time over phones, listening to interminable recorded messages and pressing respective buttons each time (for Dutch 1, for French 2, for a technical issue 1, for an administrative 2, and so on and so forth); including this final message: «For reasons of safety and evaluation, this conversation will be recorded; if you don’t want this message to reappear in future conversations, press the X button». At least ten times have I done so, and as many times this message did reappear in every future conversation. (The reason for this could be a technical deficiency or to laziness, but it could also be the obsession of managers to constantly –and «objectively»- control and evaluate their employees).
The «red tape» being the same, if not worse, as in the previous «statist» arrangement, we could at least grant them that this was worthwhile if the delivery was better, or if technical innovations were enabled by «liberalising» the cyber market. But this wasn’t the case either. Numericable was a lousy provider, and, in any case, after some while it was acquired by SFR and renamed «SFR Belgique». Things became only worse: connection was at times weak or failing, and the payments for several months were being repeatedly «lost»; so was the permanent bank order I sent five (!) times by paper mail. This meant I had to pay extra charges for the delay every time, although it was not my fault.
After some more time, SFR Belgique … merged with Telenet.
Of course, this did not mean I could get back my old address or messages. These were permanently deleted.
So this was a case where the only thing I, the «consumer», wanted, was for things to remain as they were: let things happen –is that not what «laissez faire – laissez passer» literally means? But no: there is this curious law against that. A law that imposed to the Numericable/ SFR/ Telenet people (and to myself as well, for that matter) to put time and energy into receiving forms and calls, fill other forms, submit papers and reports to their productivity manager or controller etc., although these man/ hours would not make anybody’s life better, ensure them faster Internet, or help them get a job done.
Nor were they intended to do so anyway; we all know that the capitalist economy is driven by exchange value, not by use value.
But that is not all. The formal purpose for the labour of these employees was to bring network covering where none existed before; but what previously prevented this covering was not technical barriers, but purely administrative-bureaucratic ones. These barriers were themselves produced by this very labour in the first place, which was intended to create obstacles rather than removing them, as the neoliberal narrative has it; to de-provide, to disconnect, to block, albeit in order to be able to reconnect.
According to the well known, resolutely pro-modernist phrase from the Manifesto of the Communist Party, with the activity of the bourgeoisie «all that is solid melts into the air». Here, however, something that was supposedly already melted into the air was re-solidified, re-territorialised in both the figurative/ philosophical (Deleuzian) and the literal sense, and was subject to spatial regimentation. Apparently, capitalist bureaucracies are able to build walls, invisible but absolutely material, in the supposedly immaterial cyberspace, where no physical borders can be traced, which result in the «end user» being able to connect to company X this side of a street and not at the other side.
The practical difficulty I suffered from this incident was of course minimal. We all know that other people have much more serious problems. However, sometimes the micro level can prove a useful field for considerations equally interesting and valid for other, bigger cases as well.
In the tradition of European thought, law can mean at least two different things: 1) a set of permanent relations between variables, necessarily governing the deployment of phenomena (e.g. the law of gravity); 2) a prescriptive general rule enacted by a sovereign (e.g. the law on citizenship).
The law imposing capitalists not to act as good homines oeconomici pursuing the maximisation of what is useful for them, but to abstain from immediate enjoyment, can be construed in both of these meanings, be read from both points of view: 1) they do so because they conform to what is important for the long-term interests of all capitalists as a class, as opposed to a short term individual profit. 2) These general interests are assured and imposed on everybody, including individual capitalists if necessary, by the state and its bureaucracy (here we can include the forces of –precisely- «law and order», following Graeber for whom «Police are bureaucrats with weapons» -p. 73).
But why is it in the long-term interest of “service providing” capitalists to occasionally limit and interrupt their services? I think the most interesting and useful association here would be one from the tradition of Italian (post)operaism, referring not to the function of a law (in either of the above two senses), but to its crisis.
a new phase of primitive accumulation of capital developed according to a logic that has four main goals: (…). Second: to expand the market sphere through a progressive colonisation of the common goods of knowledge and life. (…) in so far as the marginal costs of the production of a large number of intensive knowledge goods are practically null, these goods ought to be conceded almost freely. Here we find one of the main manifestations of the crisis of the law of value (my emphasis). In this framework, the production of a system of property rights that allows for the artificial construction of scarcity in terms of resources and rent becomes the key dispositif of capital and is effected according to a logic that translates into a clamp on the process of circulation and production of knowledge. This situation contradicts the very principles of the founding fathers of economic liberalism for the justification of property as an instrument to fight against scarcity.
Which means, in order for capitalists to pursue their profit and make people pay them a price for their service providing, they have to determine this price. Normally, the price of a commodity is determined according to the hours of average labor that are socially necessary for its production. But how can one calculate the amount of hours of “social labor” that are needed to not interrupt a telecommunication connection?
This is where the both immaterial and material labor of the provider’s employees, but also of his clients, come in: it is destined to trace borders. Mezzadra and Neilson have written about interesting things about the multiplication of labor with the border as a method. But also the inverse is true: there is a type of labor destined to multiply borders, to constantly (re)produce them in a kind of permanent primitive accumulation for which they serve as cyber-enclosures –analogous to the analogical enclosures of lands and pastures in the beginnings of capitalism.
This enclosure is a prerequisite for the valorisation of capital to be possible, and thinkable. State-like agencies –irrespectively of their formal legal status- have to intervene so as to regulate, and to ensure, the functioning of the so called «de-regulated» market in a certain way; to enclose certain actions, territories, and phenomena, so that they “spontaneously” generate profit. Not all «de-regulated» effects are permitted; those which run counter to valorisation, or to agreements related thereto, have to be clamped down. And, for that, bureaucratic mechanisms are needed –sometimes with weapons, sometimes without.
So there is a social (bureaucratic) labor which is necessary for the very functioning of the law of value: the law that prescribes everybody to pay a price defined as “the amount of socially necessary labor time”.
Precisely this dependence of the law of value on the collaboration of these laborers/ bureaucrats, (and ours as well), makes for its permanent crisis.
To make that shorter: we are its crisis.
And I personally feel fine being the crisis of the law, rather than the law.
Let us remain this way.