Let’s All Write a Dissertation, Part 2

So Part 1 is something like a brief take on where labor history has been and where labor history currently finds itself. Conducting such a review has helped me to clarify what I think I am doing with my own writing and research.

I have known for some time that I would my dissertation on cultural labor: specifically, the history of the notion that the work of cultural production–removed from or only tenuously connected to the vagaries of the market until the late nineteenth century–might be a species of capitalist labor. As the US culture industry underwent its extraordinary expansion over the course of the twentieth century,  this question of the character of cultural labor became increasingly pressing, for at least three reasons.

First: for epistemological reasons. In the Western imagination, the production of art has, since Plato, been understood as the polar opposite or inverse of manual labor. With the rise of Romantic aesthetics, this presupposition gained in both strength and influence. A corporate-capitalist culture industry with a labor force of skilled workers who nevertheless remained, in some deep and unchangeable sense, artists, created all sorts of thorny contradictions for moguls and managers, and for cultural workers themselves.

Second: for reasons related to the always unsettled question of how value is produced in both the capitalist production process and in art. The emergence of cultural laborers as unionized workers meant that the “black box” of labor-capital negotiations–the question of how to fairly determine what part is contributed, variously, by owners, managers, technological machinery, and laborers in the creation of value–might be cracked open and placed upon the bargaining table as part of the ordinary business of contract negotiations.

Third: for reasons related to the politics of production and workers’ control. With the rise of both scientific management and marginalist economics in the early twentieth century, capitalism in the US moved to a new and more brutally hierarchical vision of the proper distribution of power in the factory. Skilled workers and foremen who once wielded the lion’s share of control and authority over the production process were forced to cede that power to managers and employers. Workers’ resistance to this power shift, their pushback against the loss of autonomy, while initially treated as a sensible but doomed atavism on the part of management theorists like Frederick Winslow Taylor, was increasingly treated as an aberrant personality defect, form of mental illness, or failure to adjust to the reality of life by subsequent generations of capitalist court philosophers. Against this trend, cultural laborers, for reasons related to their dual status as workers and artists, clung much more doggedly than most other skilled workers to their autonomy, and proved much more difficult to discipline, bully, or medicalize. This was particularly evident in fights against the waves of new technologies of mass reproduction, and attendant specters of “technological unemployment,” that capitalism often used as both an instrument of labor discipline and a means of boosting profits by trimming payrolls.

Historically speaking, these are fascinating but difficult phenomena to track, often played out off the archival grid. The richest archival source for mapping this process is that of intellectual property law (which, for most of the history under review, means copyright law): court cases, legal briefs, law review articles, and correspondence regarding copyright fights between cultural workers and the capitalist firms for whom they worked, with unions, the state, and the public often intervening as interested parties. Related to these battles within the field of intellectual property law are a host of legal and policy conflicts in the realms of First Amendment/censorship jurisprudence, and labor legal antagonisms surrounding the use by cultural laborers of union rules as the means to resist the introduction of new technologies.

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2 Comments on “Let’s All Write a Dissertation, Part 2

  1. The film and music industries were always postindustrial and from the beginning blended technological and service work with high finance to create and exploit a highly “flexible” workforce. How and why unionized work appeared and sustained itself for decades (from the ’30s-40s onward) can tell us something important about (a la Badiou) the metapolitics of 20th c. America–how did the “labor question” become an “obsolete field of political intelligibility” in its heavy industrial context while remaining relevant in a postindustrial context? In a world where organized labor is embattled and strikes increasingly rare, some cultural workers continue to win material and ideological concessions from capital through the strike weapon. The world of this work of course remains riven with intra-class conflicts and capital’s ever-present desire to deskill and disorganize, but this milieu of cultural work seems to be propelled by a kernel of anti-capitalist thought in the otherwise mundane demand by screenwriters to be paid royalties for past work (what if the autoworkers demanded a percentage of every Chevy sold?).

  2. Exactly! And such extension of workers-as-owners entitled to royalties isn’t so nutty. Coal miners have had royalty schemes, and the conception of job rights as property has sometimes been taken seriously in courts.

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