Monday, September 21, 2009

Rage Against the Consciousness Industry

Last night Rina Chandran filed a story for Reuters from their Mumbai desk that really gets you thinking about where we have arrived and just how the hell we got here. Here are her lead paragraphs:

When Infosys Technologies, India's second-largest IT firm, hired paramilitary troops to protect its sprawling headquarters in Bangalore, some observers might have thought they had gone overboard.

But since the Mumbai attacks last year, India's software exporters have bolstered security due to concerns that militants might target their headquarters as symbols of the country's economic success and to deter foreign investors.

Foremost among those seeking to hire well-armed paramilitary troops are companies in India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore, the nerve center of the nation's $60 billion outsourcing industry that runs services from software coding to managing computer networks and call centers.

"India's IT firms are the flag-bearers of the country's thriving knowledge economy. This makes them 'high economic-value' targets with a global identity," said Manoj Vohra, director of research at the Economist Intelligence Unit's India division.

Security guards are no surprise to me. I have dealt with them since I was a graduate student doing my research in an off-campus building that housed the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I have also recognized the need for security, since I was doing my doctoral research at the time of the bomb attack on an Army-supported research facility at the University of Wisconsin. However, I never found myself working in an environment that required the protection of "well-armed paramilitary troops," even when I was working on classified material. Is this an overreaction to the Mumbai bombings or a recognition of the way things now are; and, if the latter, just what are "the way things now are?"

Recently, a New York Review article brought my attention to Hans Magnus Enzensberger and his study of the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late nineteenth century. His two-part essay, "Dreamers of the Absolute," was included in Michael Roloff's anthology of Enzensberger's work, published under the title Politics and Crime. I thought about Enzensberger while reading Chandran's article but realized that this was not a story about politics. As I saw it, the focus of the story resided in the Vohra quote at the end of the above excerpt. It was a story about the new Weltanschauung of the "knowledge economy;" and that association triggered a memory of an item at the end of the table of contents of Politics and Crime entitled "The Consciousness Industry."

When you think of it, there is something awesomely arrogant in so much having been written about the knowledge economy when we know so little about knowledge (perhaps no more than Socrates ever did). Enzensberger's gift was his ability to focus on industry, rather than economy, and to recognize that industry could be more about manipulation than about production. This was the origin of his "consciousness industry" concept, which has been nicely summarized by Jeffrey Thomas Nealon and Caren Irr in their book, Rethinking the Frankfurt School: Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique, as follows:

The basic premise of the consciousness industry approach is that gaining the consent of the dominated is essential to the ruling class. The coercive nature of capitalism alone cannot guarantee its hegemony; it requires ideological work to convince subordinate classes that the system is fair, just, and "natural." Formal democratic rights guaranteed to the subordinate classes also complicate matters of class rule. The ruling class must work to articulate its particular class interests to the general interests of the citizenry as a whole. Nevertheless, the capitalist class has a clear advantage in the struggle over definitions of what policies and programs are in the "public interest." It is more organized and unified than the working class. It has the networks and resources to maintain and reproduce its hegemony. In addition, the field of struggle—whether the state or the media—is structurally tilted against subversive forces. For example, a historical study of copyright law demonstrates how the legal system tends to privilege private property rights over the rights of creators and consumers of culture and information.

In other words, class warfare has moved from the conflict between those who produce goods and those who profit from the production of those goods (the primary focus of the investigations of Karl Marx) to a new conflict between a ruling class that controls the thinking of those they rule and those who resist having their thoughts controlled. If the IT firms of India are bearing any flags (as Vohra wishes to believe) they are the flags of a ruling class that can now "manufacture consent" (to borrow a phrase from Noam Chomsky).

However, what Chandran's report reveals is that the change in the objective of class warfare has been accompanied by a change in how that warfare is conducted. The bomb-throwing anarchists that Enzensberger were challenged by government-based institutions of enforcement, ranging from the municipal police to the national armed forces. What we see in India is a migration of defense and protection from the public sector to the private sector. This throws some new variables into the mathematical models of that "knowledge economy." The "supply and demand of knowledge" (whatever that may mean) now depends on the supply and demand of brute force to insure the security of "those who manage the knowledge" (again, whatever that may mean). Put another way, the geek kids in the playground now have the resources to hire their own bullies to protect them from other bullies, which means that, just as in every other era of history, it will all come down to which bullies are stronger. Is it time to hide under the bed yet?

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