The industrial revolution of the 19th Century has undoubtedly been one of the most significant economic and cultural developments in human history. The technical advances that were made during this period have laid the groundwork for the capitalist systems that our increasingly globalised societies are run on. However what if there wasn’t just one industrial revolution? What if we were currently living through the most significant industrial and cultural revolution the world has seen since 200 years ago? Influenced by the economist Jeremy Rifkin, this is the claim that philosopher Bernard Stiegler wants to make.
Following from Jean-Francois Lyotard, Stiegler argues that desire is itself the fuel on which the contemporary capitalist economy runs; it captures the attention of the consumers to promote an unsustainable need for consumption. When considering his own critique of political economy, Marx, whilst being focused on formulating a theory of the means of production, failed to foresee the importance of the question of consumption, as Stiegler puts it, and the role it would play in modern 20th and 21st century capitalism.
To Stiegler ‘the way in which consumption would be reconfigured in the twentieth century is an essential relation to desire and to its economy’ (CPE, 12). He posits that through grammatisation, contemporary capitalism has created a new kind of proletariat and a new kind of proletarianisation, one that has led not to an increase in class division, or increased separation between producer and consumer, but to the creation of a universal proletariat class whose only purpose is to serve the capitalist machine.
This new critique of political economy is therefore no longer concerned with the question of the working class but with the question of desire in relation to the proletarianisation of labour as a whole. Drawing on terms from Simondon, Stiegler argues that we must view the proletarian as a disindividuated worker; he is a labourer who has passed his own knowledge into the machine such that ‘it is no longer the worker who is individuated through bearing tools and putting them into practice’ (CPE, 37) i.e. understanding their role as an I within society as whole. Instead it is the worker who is serving the machine-tool and the machine-tool that becomes the technical individual, as it is within the machine, and the system to which it belongs, that individuation is produced. This idea of technical individuation is therefore ‘a process through which the system of industrial objects becomes functionally integrated and thus transformed.’ (CPE, 37)
However it is the proletarianised worker who is excluded from this transformation, he becomes dissociated from it and thus becomes disindividuated. In other words, the worker loses the understanding of his relationship to the collective. Proletarianisation, for Stiegler, is therefore not only concerned with proletarianisation in the Marxist sense, but with the process that excludes the participation of the producer from the evolution of the conditions of production as a whole. In other words the worker, who was previously the technical individual, as may have been the case when Marx was writing, has become the servant of the machine which takes his place as the technical individual.
Thus, the idea that the exteriorisation of memory equates to a loss of memory (the idea that is described in the Phaedrus) is to Stiegler one that has gone beyond the realm of memory and language and extended to knowledge as a whole:
‘the reality of proletarianization is, more than pauperization1, the worker’s loss of knowledge, […] the worker becomes proletarian, which also means that the proletarian ceases to be a worker’ (DD1, 62).
The most influential change, then, from the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, to the ‘hyper-industrial capitalism’ of twentieth century, was the new types of mnemtechnologies that were being developed and implemented on a large scale, mnomotechologies that had the ability to affect our culture, through manipulation of desire, as well our economy and society in general.
The nineteenth century industrial revolution that Marx had witnessed (what Stiegler refers to as the ‘first’ industrial revolution) had transformed the pre-industrial economy into an economy based on coal, steel, the steam engine, and the vast network of railways that were used to aid the buying and selling of commodities at a never before seen rate. This economy was revolutionised again during the beginning of the twentieth century into an economy reliant on oil, and Fordist production that led to the popularisation of the automobile, along with the increasingly huge road network systems that were built throughout the western world (Stiegler brands this the ‘second’ industrial revolution).
However, the most important, when looking at the new proletarianisation is the ‘third’ industrial revolution, an industrial revolution that leads from industrial capitalism to hyper-industrial capitalism. Stiegler argues that ‘if one can speak of a third industrial revolution, then this must also be a matter of a […]political, social, and cultural revolution’ (DD1, 22). The third industrial revolution, to Stiegler, is first and foremost a cultural revolution. It is a revolution that has implemented a new stage of grammatisation and therefore transformed the capitalism of the early twentieth century into a new age of capitalism, the hyper-industrial epoch, one reliant on the ever increasingly advanced system of mnemo-technologies (that were initially analogical and are now digital) that are facilitating the increase of proletarianisation through the culture and programme industries. This third revolution, Stiegler argues, is how the apparent globalisation of capitalism was completed; it was done through the proletarianisation, not of just the worker, but of the consumer.
Stiegler outlines that this loss of knowledge brought about by the third industrial revolution was enabled through what he calls ‘the extraordinary mnesic power of digital networks’ (CPE, 30). These digital networks have the ability to make us aware of the apparent infinite recoverability and accessibility of human memory which in turn leads us more and more to a feeling of powerlessness and obsolescence. Beistegui remarks that the technical process has therefore become a process of:
‘standardisation and formalisation that subjects everything it formalises to calculability, thus extending the process of rationalisation […] and progressively erasing the incalculable and unforeseeable’ (de Beistegui in Howells and Moore, 2013, 184).
What this means for Stiegler is that it leads to a vast process of the loss of knowledge, both in terms of savoir faire (‘knowledge of how to do or act’) and savoir vivre (knowledge of how to live’) (CPE, 30).
So, in summary, whereas the previous revolutions have brought about, through mechanisation, the separation of producer and consumer, with the third revolution, the consumers have also found themselves disindividuated:
‘just as workers-become-proletariat find themselves deprived of the capacity to work the world through their work, that is, through their savoir-faire, so too consumers lose their savoir-vivre insofar as this means their singular way of being in the world, that is, of existing’ (DD1, 62).
In conclusion, it might seem that Stiegler’s outlook is a bleak one, yet, as implied by the adoption of the term pharmakon, the mass exteriorisation of memory that has led to the disindividuation of the producer and the consumer can also have curative qualities. The extraordinary mnesic power of digital networks has the potential to bring back savoir-vivre through the interconnectivity brought about by the internet. What the internet provides, then, is the potential for a collective unity of psychic individuals that step beyond the hyper-industrial categories of proletarianised consumers and producers. It is their interconnected desires that have the potential to provide the libidinal energy that is necessary to counteract the negative tendencies of the pharmakon. The savoir-vivre knowledge that was lost through the hyper-industrialisation of culture therefore has the potential to be regained through the connections brought about by socio-digital network innovations.
What we can see with the development of the internet, then, is a new wave of societal progressions that are not controlled by the industries that have become so powerful in previous years. The internet is the technology that has the capacity to bring us out of the global crisis we have put ourselves into. Through the freedom and unrestrained spread of information that the internet makes accessible to us, and the critical discussion of opinions that this enables, we can see at a light at the end of the tunnel; the technical pharmakon that has previously disindividuated society, is, now more than ever, showing its curative character. It is providing the cure to its own poison.
1 Pauperization refers to the withdrawal of means to survive; it differs from proletarianization in that it is referring to a loss of savoir-faire knowledge (see above) alone. It is an aspect of deprivation, withdrawing the necessary material conditions for sustaining life. The Ars Industrialis manifesto defines pauperisation as reference to ‘the loss of savoir-faire of workers enslaved to machines, and no longer masters of their tools (craftsmen)’. Stiegler, Bernard (2010), ‘Ars Industrialis Manifesto’, Ars Industrialis, <http://arsindustrialis.org/manifesto-2010>; (last accessed June 2015).
Stiegler, B, (2011) The Decadence of Industrial Democracies : Disbelief and Discredit, 1. tr. Daniel Ross and Suzanne Arnold. Cambridge: Polity
Stiegler, B, (2013), For a New Critique of Political Economy. tr. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity.