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Face it, you’re just an ignorant subject of the knowledge economy

August 2, 2009

Grazing the internet I came across an article by Alan Finlayson in a back issue of Mediacative (July 2003). In it he argues that the knowledge economy as perceived by New Labour is actually dependent upon an ever expanding realm of ignorance. Things that were once routine chores and tasks — part of a common stock of knowledge — are now done for us by ‘service providers’ with the specialist know-how to do with things like cooking, deciding what to wear and entertaining ourselves. And those cunning capitalists keep expanding into new areas in which we consumers can be utterly ignorant, such as the computer you’re sitting reading this on now, which when it breaks down will require you to phone someone in a call centre with the knowledge to get you back on-line. Our homes and work are full of high-tech hardware, the workings of which we know little of, and requiring software and content provided by others. This, as Finlayson acknowledges, is not entirely new. What is different however is the growth and intensification of our ignorance about everyday artefacts and tasks, and their subsequent commodification.

So just about everything is a commodity but perhaps the key commodity is ourselves. In the knowledge economy we are no longer seen as an appendage to the machine. No, we’ve been ‘liberated’ and now we are enterprising and entrepreneurial individuals competing with others for advantage in the market place. The key to success here is flexibility and our willingness to re-brand and re-skill ourselves when the market demands it. This is the secret to employability – turning yourself into a commodity; not just your labour, as in the past, but your self. Pheobe Moore has argued that the government’s drive to encourage ’employability’ among young people and graduates is nothing short of the colonisation of the everyday life. In effect she says, workers are expected to ‘embrace their own alienation from their work, and are told that the project of self-employability must become a part of their subjectivities and self worth’ (see previous post).

As with the ‘knowledge economy’, there is nothing new about people trying to make themselves employable or governments working to that end either. But what these new terms signal is the aggressive expansion of capitalism into every corner of our lives and being. There is no respite from the economy. If one is not consuming to compensate for one’s ignorance, one should be making one’s self consumable.

Finlayson points to education (and higher education in particular) as being key to the making of subjects suitable for the knowledge economy.

Education was the key site for the production of economically usable individuals in the industrial revolution,ordering them,encouraging them to keep time and instilling in them the skills and knowledge necessary for worker efficiency. Now education focuses on key skills of presentation,task-prioritisation and all the rest of it. Furthermore, in a fee-paying system the very form of higher education becomes part of the training.In exercising ‘consumer’choice over their education,students learn how to be good purchasers and sound investors in their own human capital.Education becomes an investment in the enhancement of this individualised physical and mental capital;the purchase of knowledge an investment in a consumer durable that can be traded in for a cash return.

How should we feel about all this? My own default position is to be instantly suspicious of the commodifaction of anything but especially things that seem as sacrosanct as knowledge and the self. If we come to know ourselves merely as commodities is this at the expense of something else? Does it deny some sort of human authenticity? What if we accept the arguments that the self is discursively constituted, arising in language and ideology? In which case why should we worry about its commification at all?

Answers on a postcard please (or just leave a comment).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2009 3:37 am

    Hello Rab,
    Regardless of what we do as an employee or employer knowledge makes us better humans and also (maybe more important) makes us better capable of functioning in society beside those who do not agree with our own point of view. This is something I have argued for in many heated conversations. Knowledge can be accrued simply by exposing ourselves to alternative viewpoints which educates us to realize that there are other opinions. When we realize and accept this truth life gets easier – a lot easier.
    So for my postcard I think I am saying – don’t worry about it and continue learning new knowledge.
    T

  2. Alex G permalink
    August 18, 2010 10:52 am

    This seems to me a fairly straightforward (naive?) Marxist critique of the classical division of labour, a la Adam Smith. It’s nothing unique to 21st Century Britain, although I’ll grant you that the scope of it and some of the technologies involved have accelerated recently.

    The point is, we don’t allow “cunning capitalists” to get away with this simply because we’re helpless victims of their mesmeric power. Set against the obvious alienation and other limitations imposed by this model are the massive increases in productivity that result from specialisation in knowledge. Without them, the resources available to everyone within the system, not just the uber-rich, would be much less.

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