Extracting Free Labor

There is the old-fashioned way, second shift style. In this case, though with a reverse twist:

And then, there is the “new” way, made famous by Arianna Huffington, where you get paid in whuffie, hugs, beer or prestige (as when one blogs or reports for the HuffPo):

“Album in hand, Palmer prepared to tour. She advertised for local horn and string players to help out at each stop along the way: “join us for a couple tunes,” as the post on her Web site had it. Even better, “basically, you get to BE the opening ACT!”

Just one thing, local musicians. There would be none of this million-plus dollars available for you. Supposedly, Palmer had spent it all on producing her album, along with things like airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt, and so couldn’t afford to pay anyone else. She promised instead to “feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily.” This is a compensation package which, honestly, might be worse than nothing. Depends on the beer.”

So, Amanda Palmer took a lot of heat for this and rightfully so but this goes beyond her case (y’know, the whole C. Wright Mills, personal trouble versus public issues):

“This is a time-honored dodge, which might be called “the Oompa-Loompa defense.” It goes something like this: outsourcing labor to people who will work for less is fine because they are “happy” to do it. Such practices and accompanying rationales have been continually refined—think the helpline that dials a tech in Bangalore. But the fantasy of the happy worker has taken on newer and more mind-bending aspects, as has work itself. It now includes things like the unpaid microlabor of providing content for Web sites. It includes the amateur photographer who provides her images of, say, the police killing a young black man to the local news as an “iReport” for nothing but a credit and a T-shirt. Or a music lover scratching out a review on some hip site for a byline alone. Or consider the subtlest and arguably the most exemplary case: how, in wandering the byways of Facebook and Google, you are diligently rendering gratis a host of information about the preferences and habits of you and your friends—data they sell to advertisers. This, too, is unpaid labor.

In general, there is the boom in such practices that seems tied to the digital era; you can’t spell Internet without intern. As the argument goes, you are paid in access to a desirable milieu, or the chance to do good. Work for nada at an N.G.O.: you are being paid in justice itself. Oh, you might also get the vague promise that such valuable experience will pay off later. This promise is packaged with the threat that if you don’t take the gig, you will be closed out of the disastrous job market altogether. You had better be happy about it.

Ideally, you don’t even know you are working at all. You think you are keeping up with friends, or networking, or saving the world. Or jamming with the band. And you are. But you are also laboring for someone else’s benefit without getting paid.”

Let’s definitely call this the Oompa-Loompa economy: where happiness pays off in itself. And remember that part of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention where she told that moving story of teachers teaching for free after furloughs or lay-offs? Same idea. If it is your passion, your calling, you vocation, then, surely, money does not matter.

And don’t get me started on internships.

Then, there is all the work we volunteer for the m/billionaires who created social networking platforms, from Facebook, to Twitter, to Tumblr, to Pinterest, etc.

This means a radical redefinition of the modern dichotomies: work / leisure, home / workplace, public / private. Digital information and communication technologies break down barriers between these different spheres, often with innocuous names (crowdsourcing, crowdfunding) but they involve the redefinition of labor (as something paid based on different factors but always compensated) to labor as not-work but fun, voluntary, bringing its own rewards (remember playbor?).

This does not just affect creative workers but can potentially extend to anyone. And as the article above notes, working for free might now be seen as a prerequisite before entry in the job market proper. Of course, these years of unpaid internships and gigs will do wonders towards reimbursing these student loans.

But this is a zero-sum game, every bit of free labor, volunteered or extracted, makes someone else wealthier. Every time one creates value but does not benefit from it, then such value creation benefits someone else. So, there are one billion people working freely (as in voluntarily and without compensation) for Mark Zuckerberg. Every blogger or reporter providing content without pay on HuffPo makes Arianna Huffington wealthier (along with investors of course).

But I guess as long as we are happy to do it, that’s ok. This is the version 2.0 of the old argument that peripheral workers are happy to have low-paid, long-hours factory jobs because these jobs are better than what they had before Nike or Foxconn opened that factory.

The morality of the story: every form of labor extraction comes with a cute ideological justification that makes it sound neutral, if not actually beneficial. But it is still extraction, therefore, predatory and inequality-deepening.

2 thoughts on “Extracting Free Labor

  1. It’s worth noting that Palmer has completely reversed that policy, and has allocated cash for all future & past opening bands on this tour.

  2. I have a good friend, Deborah Rapuano, who made this argument about musicians and dancers in Irish music sessions in Ireland and in Chicago. Her work was important in that it outlined very clearly how it is that gender and social class got reiterated in these sessions and how profit was made, but artists were convinced that this profit did not belong to them. We lost Deb this year to cancer, but she was beginning to look at people like Civil War re-enactors and how their work was structured.

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