Interview with Andrew Ross

Organic Intellectual Work: Interview with Andrew Ross
By Geert Lovink

Does cultural studies scholar and labour activist Andrew Ross need to be introduced? I became familiar with the work of U.S. American researcher of Scottish decent in the early nineties when his co-edited anthology Techno-Culture and books No Respect and Strange Weather reached wide audiences. His highly readable books deal with a range of topics from sweatshop labour, the creative office culture of the dotcoms, middle class utopias of the Disney town Celebration to China’s economic culture as a global player. For outsiders, Andrew Ross might embody the ‘celebrity’ persona of academia, but he is someone I experienced as modest and open, a prolific writer who is very much on top of the issues. To me Andrew Ross has been a role model of how to reconcile the world of High Theory with the down-to-earth work within social movements, a tension that I have been struggling with since the late seventies. Reading Andrew Ross makes you wonder why it is so hard to be an organic intellectual after all, as Antonio Gramsci once described it, a figure which is light-years away from the abstract universes of the Italian autonomous theorists such as Negri, Virno and Lazzarato. No esoteric knowledge of Spinoza, Tarde or Deleuze is necessary to enjoy Ross. We do not read about exploitation in a moralistic manner but instead obtain a deeper understanding of the complex contradictions that the global work force has to deal with.

Australian post-doc researcher Melissa Gregg, whose book Affective Voicesdeals with the history of (Anglo-Saxon) cultural studies, includes a chapter about Andrew Ross. Gregg describes Ross as an “intellectual arbiter between the academic politics of cultural studies and the activist imperatives of the progressive Left.” His “academic activism” describes the “human cost of economic growth,” thereby counterbalancing the “neglect of material labour conditions.” Instead of fiddling around with concepts and terminologies, Ross describes the “human face of economics” much like Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigative journalism, reaching into the category of airport non-fiction. The suspicious attitude towards appropriate payment is the key obstacle to an effective labourist politics among Leftist intellectuals. In the case of the no collar culture “not only did the culture of willing overwork severely haemorrhage any chance of a sustainable industry, but investment in the cult of creativity disassociated no collar work from the manual labour involved in producing the tools of their craft.” In the following email exchange with Andrew we focused on the topics of research methodology and style of writing, the role of ethnography, the question of creative labour and strategies of activism.

GL: Suppose you were to write one of those booklets and we would entitle it Letter to a Young Researcher. How would you approach this? Could you tell us something about your method? Is it fair enough to say that you moved on from General Theory to case studies? Clearly, students need to know about both, but I have the feeling that theory is a dead end street these days and that your research methodology offers an alternative.

AR: Since I came of age, intellectually and politically, in the 1970s, I was a paid-up member of the Theory Generation, dutifully participating in Lacan and Althusser reading groups, and the like. But even then, I was rarely comfortable with the hothouse climate around what you call General Theory. Even then, I was learning that theory should be approached as simply a way of getting from A to B. It wasn’t the only way to get from A to B, nor was it always the best way, and it was easy to get stuck en route with all your mental wheels spinning in the air. Indeed, I saw some of the best minds of my generation–to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg–vanish down that path. I’m glad I survived, I’ve been in recovery for two decades now.

When it comes to method–and this is what I tell my graduate students–it’s more important to know what A and B are. Once you have a good sense of your object and the questions you want to answer, then you are in a position to choose your methods–i.e. how to get from A to B. In most disciplines, the method comes first, and is then applied to an object. For us, it’s the other way around. The questions and the goals determine the methods. So, how will I answer those questions? Do I need to do interviews, or conduct surveys? Do I need to visit sites, or consult archives? What kind of reading do I need to do, and what is the likely audience? In the program where I teach, our students are trained in more than one method–ethnography, historical inquiry, textual analysis, data analysis–and are encouraged to be flexible in their application. They are much more likely to think of themselves as investigators, undertaking case-studies, rather than being motivated by general theoretical problems.

Approaching research in this manner, it’s more likely that they will find their own voice, or at least a voice that is uniquely theirs, rather than aping the consensus voice of their discipline, or whatever influential master thinker they have been weaned on. It took me several years to shake off my own academic training and find a voice that I felt was my own and I had to go well outside my comfort zone to achieve anything. So my advice to young researchers is tailored to the goal of getting them to that point much earlier than I did.

GL: Does your move from Cultural Studies to a new form of labour sociology also imply a critique of the way in which cultural studies has been bogged down in studying popular culture and mainstream products and services? In my experience ‘cultural studies’ has not globalized but can increasingly be identified as an Ango-Saxon project that has not broadened its reference system outside of the UK, USA and Australia. It may have adopted ‘French theory’ but in France itself cultural studies is nowhere to be seen. Now, there is nothing wrong with cultural specificity and the political heritage of research schools … knowledge is always embedded in particular generations and experiences of a small group of players. I know there are zillion debates about the ‘future of cultural studies’ but could you nonetheless say something about this?

AR: To answer that question, I’d have to touch on a debate about why labour was not more central to cultural studies during its heyday. Indeed, some would say that a conscious effort was made to sideline attention to labour. This is quite understandable if you consider how the British Left, for example, was dominated by a labourist mentality in the 1960s and 1970s. It was necessary to get out from under the heavy weight of that mindset to appreciate that other things mattered politically. I myself grew up in the industrial belt of Scotland, where labourism was the air that you breathed, and so the discovery of cultural politics–the fact that you could even think about culture politically–came as a revelation. Naturally, there was a certain degree of overcompensation involved in the cultural turn. Folks just kept going further and further from the labour fold, arguing that this or that sector of daily life “mattered” in ever more ingenious permutations of the feminist axiom that “the personal is the political.” The result was that the field of political economy was abandoned, to some extent, to the hardliners, who no longer had to listen to the feminists, queers, cultural radicals, and ethnic identity advocates, and polarization set in between the cultural justice and the economic justice camps. The legacy of that split is still with us–indeed it has been played out in every US election since the early 1990s. There’s no doubt it has hampered the Left, but the division has been exploited much more adroitly by the Right.

While you may be right about the limited geographical footprint of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline, I don’t think these larger political conflicts are confined to the Anglophone countries. They are expressed in different ways in other societies–usually through the repressive filter of religion or statism or ethnic sectarianism–and are sometimes harder to discern, but they are no less relevant.

In all of the hand wringing about polarization, what’s neglected is the work that was done–it was never really abandoned–and is still being done to reconnect these two wings of social justice. I suppose that’s where I would place my own energies from the late 80s onwards, in areas of research–science and technology, and environmentalism in books like Strange Weather, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life, and Real Love–that were not at all central at the time to the main currents of cultural studies. By the mid-1990s, I was being drawn into labour and urban research, both of which have dictated the bulk of my research and activism for the last decade or so. However, I’m not sure I would have gone in that direction if it hadn’t been for cultural studies. For example, it was my interest in fashion consumption that took me into the anti-sweatshop movement and led to the publication of No Sweatand Low Pay, High Profile, and it was an interest in ecological politics that motivated my field work on the New Urbanist movement in The Celebration Chronicles.

One area where all these currents re-converge is in the emergent policy about the “creative economy.” Here is a sector that has received a massive amount of attention from government agencies and national economic managers desperate for a development paradigm that will allow them to compete or play catch-up in the high-skill, knowledge economy. And it’s all about cultural workers, once seen as completely marginal to the forces of production and now increasingly central as a source of potential economic value. Now there does exist an extensive body of cultural studies scholarship, initiated by Tony Bennett in the mid-1990s, that engaged directly with cultural policy-making, but it’s only recently that this tendency has moved centre-stage, and will, I predict, occupy more and more of the field. In many ways, it’s an angle that was missing from Raymond Williams’ distinction between two conceptions of culture: one based on the high/low value hierarchy, and the other, more anthropological understanding of culture as “way of life.” Neither made much room for culture as a livelihood, or cultural work as labour. In Williams’s day, it would have taken a remarkable act of social foresight to imagine that artists, writers, and designers would come to be seen, in the governmental imagination, as model entrepreneurs for the new economy, and yet here we are.

Let me give you an instructive example. Back in the mid-1990s, after the leadership of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations)changed hands, I became involved in a organization called Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ). It was founded, mostly by labour historians, in recognition of the hope that the US labour’s movement’s era of complicity in the Cold War was over, and that a rapprochement with intellectuals was now possible. Most of the activities of SAWSJ were dedicated to supporting the industrial and service unions. This was entirely laudable, but it often meant ignoring the labour issues in our own backyard of the knowledge economies. Even at that time, it was difficult to get an audience for the view that we were not only in denial about this, and that we should be alerting the labour movement to the opportunities and dangers posed by the burgeoning culture/creative/knowledge industries (I wrote an essay “The Mental Labour Problem,” which was intended to address this denial). Not long after, managers and ideologues of the New Economy dramatically reshaped perceptions about how value could be generated, and the labour movement was left sucking dust. New media employees helped to glamorize the 24/7 workweek, design, art, architecture, and custom craft were embraced as engines for boosting property values in the real estate boom, the amateur (MyCreativity) ethic became the basis for a whole new discount mode of production that exploited the cult of attention as a cheap labour supply, and much, much, more along these lines.

The only development along these lines that has really attracted trade unions is in academic organizing, and largely because it offers a fairly traditional opportunity to recruit new members. For sure, there are individual unionists, mostly in sectors like telecommunications, who are keeping up with changes in the mode of production, but the labour movement, as a whole, and not just in the US, may have relinquished the short-term opportunity to fight over the terms of the knowledge economy. Knowledge and cultural workers are accustomed to think of themselves as in the vanguard, and it will probably take a generation of “proletarianization” and another big recession to persuade them that collective organizing is in their long-term interest. But that’s no reason not to build a movement of ideas and actions that will be serviceable, when that moment comes.

GL: I read your Low Pay, High Profileas a search for new strategies in activism. In your ‘academic activism’ you leave behind the disempowering reform-or-revolution choice and try to imagine, being part of a movement, where the ‘global push for fair labour’ can be taken. Here in Amsterdam I have seen how the Clean Clothes Campaign is doing this. Is it fair to say that you practice a form of ‘radical pragmatism’? Is there a politics of immersion? Many of us fear deep engagement and try to keep the appropriation machines at a safe distance. How do you gain the confidence to survive Disney’s Celebration, the dotcom madness, and Chinese IT culture?

AR: “Intellectual activism” is a term we use among our students. We vastly prefer it to “public intellectual” because there are very few slots available on the public media spectrum at any one time, and they are usually reserved for gatekeepers or single-issue political advocates. For sure, activists and intellectuals function in a different kind of temporality. The activist needs something to happen tomorrow, the intellectual needs a slower germination of ideas. But you can’t have movement of action without a movement of ideas, and the challenge really is to try to synchronize your thought with what’s happening on the ground. If you work closely, as a scholar, with a justice movement, then requests will invariably be made to provide tailor-made research to further the activist cause. In some instances, that will be straightforward, in others it won’t be so easy to provide because activists generally don’t want complexity, they need black and white, and critical scholars are not trained to think in black and white. I have certainly encountered this dilemma in my own labour-oriented work, in the anti-sweatshop movement, for example, where, at times it seems that the only desirable research is that which corroborates the existence of corporate atrocities. But I didn’t experience it as a fear of “deep engagement” as you suggest, nor as a fear of indulging in intellectual dishonesty.

Take the work I did in the China field as an example. I had been a China-watcher for a long time, but was clearly not a sinologist. Nonetheless, I figured that I may be able to produce some useful research (that a sinologist, bound by disciplinary convention, perhaps could not) by going there. So, too, since the AFL-CIO refuses to have any official relationship with the China labour federation, there was a real research gap for labour scholars and educators to fill. I was familiar with all the literature on the labour-intensive export factories of South China, but I could find very little about the Yangtze Delta workplaces, where the lion’s share of high-tech FDI was beginning to flow, and most of it higher up the technology curve than in South China. At that time, there was a wave of anxiety about the outsourcing of high-wage, high-skill jobs to China and India, but very little was known about the conditions, aspirations, and opinions of the new offshore workforce employees. So I enrolled in Mandarin classes for a year to give me some language mobility and took my family off to Shanghai to see what I could find. A trained sinologist would probably not have started out interviewing where I did–at the American Chamber of Commerce, in the belly of the beast, as it were–but in fact the contacts I made there helped open doors to many of the factory and office workplaces where I did my research. Nor do I think that a sinologist would have followed some of the leads I did since they were often about explicitly transnational flows of capital, knowledge, technology, personnel, and customs.

In fact, in the year’s worth of field work I did in the Yangtze Delta industrial parks, I didn’t come across a single researcher doing anything in any of the areas I myself was pursuing–documenting the regional labour market, workplace conditions, the nature and character of the investments, the rate of technology transfer and knowledge transfer into the industrial parks, the cultural conflicts between young Chinese engineers and their foreign managers, etc. Now this is the single biggest regional economy in China, and the most high-tech, so it was astonishing to find no one else in the field. Even the foreign journalists I got to know there rarely left their offices in Shanghai–a convention, no doubt, that goes back to pre-Liberation days.

So, to get back to the gist of your question, I think the “confidence” you refer to has more to do with not being bound by the conventions of a discipline or a profession that tends to dictate the conduct of scholars, activist, and journalists much more than we imagine. I became an agnostic in that regard a long time ago. The downside of this is that you have no idea who your audience will be, or that you will indeed have an audience. For example, the most detailed early review of my China book was by George Gilder, in his newsletter for high-tech investors. He mined it for information about the performance of Chinese tech companies that would be especially useful to his readers. Not exactly the kind of audience I had anticipated!

GL: How important is storytelling in your work and is it something that we, cultural theorists, can learn? I find this skill more difficult to practice, and teach, compared to the relatively easy act of summarizing the theory of canon of the day, now Agamben and Badiou, in the past Derrida and Foucault, and Althusser and Gramsci in the early 1980s. I see your recent work in the critical anthropology tradition. Action research also had a particular mix of observation and active participation. Is ethnography something we should look into or do we then again run the risk of turning it into a theory religion?

AR: You are right, it is not easy to teach, and largely because it is so experiential. I was trained first as a textual analyst, and then as a theorist, so I developed skills as a close reader and a conceptual thinker. What this meant was that I was a pretty bad listener. I grew up in a storytelling, working class culture in Scotland, but my academic training had taught me to distrust all of that, in fact, to distrust language tout court. Over time, and as I developed my own ethnographic techniques, I had to re-learn how to listen to other people’s stories, and to be accountable to these people when I used their stories for my own purposes. So listening was important. As for telling the stories, the genre of investigative journalism has probably been as useful to me as critical anthropology. When anthropologists are in the field, they are often competing with journalists (though not on deadlines) but they rarely acknowledge journalistic narrative. In the full-length ethnographies I have done–in new media companies, in Celebration, and in China–I was competing directly with other journalists for stories insofar as my informants were often used to talking to journalists. Being a scholar was an advantage in those situations because people trust you more with their stories and confidence.

As for ethnography becoming a religion, I don’t see that happening. To go back to what I said at the outset, it’s a method for getting from A to B, but it’s not the only way, nor is it always the best way. You have to choose your methods based on your goals. These days, ethnography feels more honest to me than the kind of armchair criticism that I started out doing in the 1980s, but I still do certain kinds of writing that don’t entail getting out of my seat.

GL: Activist campaigning is becoming more and more associated with ‘tactical media’, social networking and so on. Is this justified? Do you think that a better understanding of Web 2.0 and new media would alter activism as is often claimed? As you know my work is associated with the ‘tactical media’ term but I have often made clear that (new) media cannot create social movements out of nothing. A more effective way of using cell phones and the Net is not in itself a guarantee that the real existing discontent in global capitalism will flip into organized resistance or even protest.

AR: I agree, these days it is necessary but not sufficient for social movements to be tech savvy. The tactics for outwitting the oppressor have to be continually updated, and that is the job of movement tacticians, but the “sufficient conditions” for change haven’t altered appreciably. You need a critical mass of popular sentiment, you need a significant fraction of elites to break with their class station and cross over, and you need an effective formula for capturing media attention. These days, most social justice movements have about six or seven years to make their mark before a) activists burn out or branch off, b) the formula exhausts its efficacy, c) the enemy co-opts public attention. The anti-sweatshop movement was a good example; the formula of shaming the brand was like a narcotic for the media, “Nike sweatshops” became a household phrase, and elite guilt was appropriately mobilized. It took the lavishly funded efforts of “corporate social responsibility” several years to convince the public that the big garment companies had somehow “fixed” the problem and that it was OK to go out and buy Gap clothing again. In the interim, I think we achieved quite a lot. At the very least, the trading rules of the global economy are now contested in the public eye, rather than written in secret by unelected WTO officials, and consciousness-raising about sweatshops contributed, in no small part, to that shift in the rules of play.

That said, there is one key area of activism in which tactical media has become particularly important, and that is in the copyfight over intellectual property. The corporate rush to proprietize knowledge is surely one of the biggest acts of theft in centuries, and new media activists have a frontline role to play, because the tactical tools they use are, more often than not, the technologies at play in the property grab. Disciplining rogue users (for the downloading of unauthorized content) is just the most highly publicized face of the massive effort of capital-owners to administer an effective division of labour within the knowledge industries. That effort increasingly depends upon control over not only the authorized use of technologies, but also the IP inside employee’s heads. But it’s not just the high-tech employees that are suspect. The new property grabbers are in a running battle with the ever-proficient hackers of the technocratic fraternity, and now they have to contend with a small army of legally-minded and tech-savvy advocates of the information commons.

As I see it, this contest is very much an elite “copyfight” between capital-owner monopolists and the labour aristocracy of the digitariat (a dominated fraction of the dominant class, as Pierre Bourdieu once described intellectuals) struggling to preserve and extend their high-skill interests. The history of shareware and its maturation into free software/open source can be seen as the narrative of a distinctive class fraction–a thwarted technocratic elite whose libertarian world view butts up against the established proprietary interests of capital-owners. While they see their knowledge and expertise generating wealth, they chafe at their lack of control over the property assets. Their willingness to work against the proprietary IP regime is directly linked to their entrepreneurial-artisanal instincts, but, more importantly, it is a power-test of their capacity to act upon the world. The class traitors in their midst are engineer innovators who go over to the dark Gatesian side of IP monopoly enforcement. So, too, the mutualist ethos of the FLOSS communities is very much underpinned by the confidence of members that their expertise will keep them on the upside of the technology curve that protects the best and brightest from proletarianization.

What I don’t see is all that much attention to those less-skilled who are further down the entitlement hierarchy, who are not direct participants in this power struggle, and whose prospects in the chain of production do not extend to the profile of the master-craftsman straining at the corporate leash. They are much more distant from the rewards of authorship, and are less likely to feel personally disrespected when IP rights are expropriated from above. So how do the interests of these below-the-line workers get represented in the copyfight? I’d like to see new media tacticians think more about sustainable income models for everyone rather than focus primarily on the livelihoods of creatives or high-skill knowledge workers.

GL: Surprisingly, in the new media sector, young professionals are earning less and less while their working conditions aren’t that great either. This is one of the outcomes of Rosalind Gill and Daniella van Daemon’s case study on the Amsterdam web designers. It’s important here to add another level that sufficiently describes freedom and subjectivity of the actors involved. People are passionate about the challenges that new media create. In what ways could we describe such a paradoxical circumstance?

AR: The Amsterdam study is interesting, though these results don’t surprise me. The labour market for new media employees was at its rosiest at the height of the New Economy years—there was a limited labour supply, the new entrants had a monopoly on skills and applied knowledge, and demand for them was fierce. Under normal circumstances, conditions and pay scales could be expected to deteriorate from that high. But the impact of outsourcing, since 2001, has accelerated that decline, if not in terms of actual jobs transferred overseas, then as a result of the general climate of insecurity that has been ushered into white collar and no collar workplaces by the imminent threat of “knowledge transfer.” The house motto of Razorfish in the boom years used to be “Whatever can be digital, will be.” It was by no means easy to predict what came to pass all too quickly as “whatever can be outsourced, will be.” For sure, the offshore transfers started out in coding and in the more routine sectors, but they moved up into design and web development fairly rapidly. As far as jobs in the global North goes, there’s no reason not to expect that the situation will soon resemble the garment industry, with the most specialized, custom work remaining onshore, perhaps along with a less formal sector of sweated or intern work needed for fast turnaround. Everything else will be done overseas.

As for on-the-job passion and enthusiasm, it’s an integral part of the job profile, attested to through thick and thin. It was this devotion that got me interested in studying new media workplaces in the first place, since it’s quite uncommon, in the history of modern work, to hear employees express this kind of zeal around their jobs. My study, in No-Collar, turned into an effort to describe and diagnose the conditions of “self-exploitation” that resulted. One of my informants put it most succinctly when she said she was given “work that you just couldn’t help doing,” and in a workplace from which the very last drops of alienation had been squeezed. Nowadays, every knowledge industry employer recognizes the benefits of this kind of ideal employee, who is turned on by the challenge of risk, accustomed to sacrifice (long hours) in pursuit of gratification, and willing to trade his or her most free time and free thoughts in return for the gifts of mobility and autonomy. Folks in the arts have long lived with this sacrificial mentality, and know a thing or two about the insecurity associated with it. So, too, gearheads, from the days of ham radio onwards, are familiar with the devotional cults that a machine can inspire. But neither cohort has been prepared for the consequences wrought by the rapid industrialization of their respective crafts and hobbies. The effort to industrialize custom creativity is a primary goal of capitalist production today, right now.

I suppose I would say the same of the academic sector, with the proviso that academics are so fond of their siege mentality that they can only see their workplaces being invaded by corporate logic or industrial process. They don’t see that the traffic goes in both directions, they know so little about the corporate world that they can’t see how the mentality and customs of academic life are being transplanted into knowledge firms, whose research is increasingly conducted along similar lines. The truth of the matter is we are living through the formative stages of a mode of production marked by a quasi-convergence of the academy and the knowledge corporation. Neither is what it used to be; both are mutating into new species that share and trade many characteristics, and these changes are part and parcel of the economic environment in which they function.

GL: You touched on the “creative economy.” As you know, we’ve been dealing with this in the MyCreativity project that my institute in Amsterdam co-initiated. What should the critical research in this field look into? There is a call to go beyond the hype bashing and look into the labour precarity issue. Still, the consensus-driven hegemony of business consultants seems strong and uncontested. What work could be done to open the field and make space for other voices and practices? Are there ways to obtain cultural hegemony these days?

AR: That’s a good question, and should be at the heart of anyone interested in a sustainable job economy. It’s not all that productive to scoff at policy initiatives that might just be capable of generating a better deal for creative labour. As I see it, critical research ought to be doing what governments are not, and that is coming up with qualitative profiles of what a “good” creative job should look like, based on ethnographic methods. Currently, all we have are productivity and GDP statistics, on the government side, and, on the other side, a cumulative pile of scepticism based on the well-known perils of precarity that afflict creative work, dating back to the rise of culture markets in the late eighteenth century. I have yet to see a “mapping” of the creative sector that includes factors relating to the quality of work life. It wasn’t that long ago, in the 1970s, in response to the so-called “revolt against work,” that governments actively championed “quality of work life.” Of course, corporations came up with their own versions of “innovative” alternatives to the humdrum routines of standard industrial employment, but the hunger for mentally challenging work in a secure workplace has undergirded and outlived all the management fads that followed.

For those with an appetite for a dialogue with the policy-makers, I’d say that the qualitative research about good jobs is a plausible way to go (and I’m talking about fully-loaded jobs, not simply work opportunities). It wouldn’t take all that much to come up with some proposals for guidelines, if not outright guarantees, about income and security, based on that kind of research. The goal would be to offer a sustainable alternative to the IP jackpot economy that currently drives the consultants’ world-view. I’m not sure if the result would be what you would call cultural hegemony, but if the challenge to existing hegemony is going to draw on labour power in any way then it’s in our interest to ensure that there will be a robust employment sector there to provide heft and volume to these challenges. Clearly, the strategies for organizing have to be re-thought in ever more ingenious ways, but there are no good substitutes for organizing, as far as I can see. Tactics like culture jamming or brand busting have their uses, and they have served as appropriate tools, but you can’t give up on the power of numbers.

(edited by Ned Rossiter)