Writing, Artwork, Projects

Beyond Sabotage

Of newspapers, migration, and finding happiness


Among the different ways in which Marx described the crisis of capital accumulation (overproduction, the law of diminishing returns, etc.), there is one that goes largely unrecognized: the workers’ desertion of the factory.

Paolo Virno –About Exodus

There was a time, not long ago, when one eagerly picked the day’s newspaper in the morning with the feeling that it was a sort of magic object that contained the world. Not only because journalists narrated the joys and disasters of the day, but to a great extent because of the exuberance and timeliness of everything else inside: current movie listings and reviews, art shows, judicial news, sporting results, opinion columns, the stock market and exchange rates, ongoing comic strips, fresh crossword puzzles; even the recently deceased were made relevant one last time. The newspaper was a unique heterotopia (Foucault 1986) that compressed the social space; a sort of ephemeral aleph that allowed you to hold the Zeitgeist in your hands thus infusing a comforting sense of orientation within the daily labyrinth. The crisis of newspapers perhaps really is the result of the fact that, due to the explosion of information technology, most of those attached features now feel redundant, and the whole magic is gone.


At the centre of the newly redundant we find the classified ads section. Early on in the popularization of the internet, Craigslist happened, allowing for an ever increasing number of individuals to bypass the newspaper tax and make their trades without the need to pay a toll to the newspapers.  While the migration of classified ads to the land of free is one more example of a greater trend that results in the increasing irrelevance of the newspaper, Craigslist is a most painful blow, not only for the irrelevance at the semiotic level, but also for the deep disturbance of their economic game. In the business model of classified ads, the newspaper becomes a searchable information hub where buyers and sellers meet. Very googlesque. Because the newspaper is not involved in the production of the traded goods, nor does it take part on the trade itself, classified ads can be basically understood as a game of rent. Carlo Vercellone proposes a definition of the concept of ‘rent’ as defined by three main characteristics,

1 It is ‘the result of a process of expropriation of the social conditions of production and reproduction (…) the transformation of the common into fictitious commodities’,

2 It is “based upon monopolistic forms of property and positions of power that allow for the creation of scarcity and the imposition of higher prices that are justified by the cost and the result of institutional artifacts”,

3 “rent presents itself as a credit or a right to the ownership of some material and immaterial resource that grant a right to drawing value from a position of exteriority in respect to production”(Vercellone 2009)

    Vercellone’s concept of rent fits the newspaper’s business model for classified advertising if we interrogate it in terms of the commons and the commodity: Which are the commons that are being subjected to commodification, and what is the resulting commodity? The classified ads section represents a dual operation; on the one hand someone’s information is being commodified in the price the reader pays for the newspaper (to be able to read the classifieds), and on the other hand the other people, the people who might read and respond to the ad are being commodified in the prize paid to place the ad in the first place.

    Notable insight into the fictitiousness of these commodities was curiously provided by the manager of the classifieds section in a US newspaper, who remarked he saw classifieds as “news which we are fortunate to be paid to print” (Lorimor 1977). Therefore, rent: the paper has managed to essentially charge the reporter, in an extreme example of joyfully ‘drawing value from a position of exteriority in respect to production’. Each classified ad is a microscopic bit of journalism in the sense that it reports on an event of the life of the city: there is a two bedroom apartment for sale, an accounting position is available, there is a mature woman looking for a serious relationship. Whether the publication of such bits of ‘news’ is customer driven is irrelevant: someone somehow considered that it was worth reporting. Also, a classified ad fits the presumed veracity of news: it has to be accurate (how many rooms in the apartment?) while regular advertising constructs deceit (‘CocaCola: Open Happiness’). Thousands of these microscopic news thus aggregated make for a section of the newspaper so rich in journalistic content (albeit heterogeneous to the ‘real’ journalistic content) that it actually drives circulation.

    But the only commons, as we have pointed, that is under commodification is not information. To say that the group composed by my fellow citizens is a commons borders on tautology. However, Negri articulates:  “The notion of the common and the notion of multitude tend to be juxtaposed and confounded. They are interchangeable notions, the constitution of the common and the multitude. That is to say, the common does not precede or follow the multitude: the making of the multitude is the common.” (Negri 2009) The monochromatic liveliness of a classified ads page, the endless argumentations on a Slashdot forum, the thousands of apps in the app store, and even the statistics driven objectivity of Google News, are all examples of how for media the value is in the multitude.

    Craigslist is emblematic as an example of real world starvation of rent due to the vulnerabilities exposed by technology.  When previously commodified commons are available for free just one click away, the illusion of scarcity collapses. The commodity is no longer. This is where thinking about classified ads meets the greater debate regarding Free Culture. As the multitude migrated to Craigslist, the commons of the multitude itself was reclaimed. To frame Free Culture as a crusade to reclaim the commons back from the current self appointed landlords seems to be the obvious feel-good project, but the hard fact is that the dark side of Free Culture is Free Labor (Terranova 2003).

    Matteo Pasquinelli proposes a critique of Free Culture by opposing Benkler’s rationale of “information is non-rival” to Serres’s “the flesh is made code”. He means that production of ‘information’ consumes resources in the real world, and that therefore information certainly does compete with itself in the real world. Pasquinelli argues that Free Culture further articulates the exploitation of the creativity of the multitude by devaluating digital labour to the point where not even capital has to pay. Pasquinelli shows the naiveté of Brand’s “Information wants to be free” mantra: it ultimately opens the door wide open for the parasitic practices of cognitive capitalism. (Pasquinelli 2008) The proposal for a copyfarleft license that acknowledges the shortcomings of the praised Creative Commons license points in that direction. A copyfarleft license essentially grants the individuals in the multitude free productivity rights while demanding compensation for them from capitalist entities. This seems like a step in the right direction because it improves the claims of individuals to profitability, who could dig into the commons for resources they need to be productive. The critique of Free Culture and digitalism is thus centered by Pasquinelli in the economic argument: Free culture is a flawed model that jeopardized the sustainability of cultural production and devalues cognitive production.


    The central argument of this essay is that although the economic argument against Free Culture is correct, it is still the wrong argument, because the real problem (and the superior solution) lies in the territory of ethical philosophy. Critical to grasp the ambivalences that the Internet presents, between freedom and control, is the idea that if all the rules are known then there are no decisions to be taken.

    “if I know, for example, what the causes and effects of what I am doing are, what the program is for what I am doing, then there is no decision; it is a question, at the moment of judgement, of applying a particular causality. (…) If I know what is to be done (…) then there is no moment of decision, simply the application of a body of knowledge, or at the very least a rule or a norm. For there to be a decision, the decision must be heterogeneous to knowledge as such.(…) The instant of the decision, if there is to be a decision, must be heterogeneous to this accumulation of knowledge. Otherwise, there is no responsibility.”

    (Derrida 2002, p. 231)

    The ethical critique of Free Culture, then, should start by pointing out that Derrida’s observation is also true when the rule states that the price is zero. To think of the ‘moment of decision’ is to acknowledge a missing link in the economic argument against Free Culture.

    To use the debate of intellectual property licensing as an example of the consequences of this, we could suggest the following modification to Pasquinelli’s copyfarleft proposal: that the individual rather than not having to pay by default, be asked to decide how much he wants to pay. We could call it the copy&think license. Such a modification introduces Derrida’s ‘moment of decision’; granting such agency to the ‘passive’ part of the transaction makes the customer a participant in the creative process. Precisely because of the “flesh is made code” theorem, the autonomous participation of the individual in pricing is critical to introduce an ethical dimension in a process that is in need for the costs of production, the flesh, to be considered.

    While Pasquinelli rejects Lessig’s suggestion of an embedded taxation system to ‘reward creators for their work’ because of its inherent governmentality (Pasquinelli 2008, p. 5), here we reject it because it is just as infantilizing to the parts involved as the free option.  Paradoxically, there is no possibility to establish autonomous zones, autonomous networks, unless the rules are obscure, heterogeneous to knowledge as such, (i.e. removed). This kind of thinking is not exclusive, of course, to content licences. It has also been considered as a critical issue for collaboration; Lovink calls it ‘Notworking’:

    “Spehr’s key concept is that everyone should have the freedom to dissolve collaboration at any given time. (…) The option to bail out is the sovereign act of network users. Notworking is their a priori, the very foundation all online activities are built upon. If you do not know how to log out, you’re locked in. Notworking has to remain an option. It is not the aim. Key to our effort to theorize individual and collective experiences, is the recognition that there must be a freedom to refuse to collaborate. There must be a constitutive exit strategy. At first instance this may be a mysterious, somewhat paradoxical statement. Why should the idea of the refusal be promoted as the very foundation of collaboration, as Christoph Spehr has suggested?”

    (Lovink 2005 p. 13)

    The question then shifts, in the context of Free Cultures, from the idea of ‘free from cost’, which is not realistic to ‘free to decide’ which dignifies the individual, and creates a direct  revenue stream that the creative commons and copyfarleft licenses do not. In this way it establishes the possibility of autonomous zones where ‘the making of the multitude is the common’#.

    Lovink speaks of the sovereignity of the individual, Derrida of responsibility; I think that it is also essential to talk about personal happiness as the unavoidable result of the exercise of personal sovereignty and personal responsibility. In this sense, Pasquinelli’s version of the copyfarleft license is still operating within the logics of the commodity, and still not fully reclaiming the sovereignty of the commons. His understanding of ‘Notworking’ as an invitation to ‘uncooperate’ and therefore to ‘sabotage’, probably driven by the bellicose mania stereotypical to the Marxist, misses the mark#: Lovink is clear to delineate ‘Notworking’ with an autonomist (or libertarian) rather than a  combative revolutionary ethos. ‘Notworking’ is to know one is free to bail out; and that therefore not doing so is a sovereign decision. It is an option, ‘not the aim’, but Pasquinelli makes an aim out of sabotage, therefore misrepresenting the spirit of ‘Notworking’.

    To his notion of sabotage as the response to the parasite of rent I would respond with the counterproposal of migration. Migration means moving away from the logics of rent to the happy logics of autonomy. Sabotage means to still be obsessed with capital, while migration is obsessed with the commons. Where sabotage is tactical, migration is strategic. Where sabotage wastes one’s vital energy in confrontation, migration reserves it to nurture the commons. Sabotage will never eliminate the parasite because contrary to what the term ‘parasite’ suggests, the parasite, capitalism, is structural; migration on the other hand eventually erodes its structure: as it subtracts elements from the opponent the migrated community grows more autonomous.


    Derrida’s ‘moment of decision’, coupled with Spehr’s ‘freedom to refuse’ configure a sort of fundamental first stage to autonomy. A personal, intimate autonomy without which the very word ‘autonomy’ is empty. Over this foundation at the level of the intimacy within individual, a second layer of autonomy can be then conceived. A political autonomy; the collective project to reclaim the commons by simply migrating the processes of society away from rent.  Because “the making of the multitude is the common” the reclamation of the common is the aggregation of a multitude of exercises of autonomy. The reclamation of the commons is necessarily a collective process of wilful de-commodification.

    Because devising a plan to de-commodify the whole set of processes of society is infinitely beyond the aspirations of this essay, the focus here will be on the more media related ones. ‘Autonomous Culture’ is perhaps a more desirable project than ‘Free Culture’; it is a ‘free to decide’ culture, but also a ‘free from rent’ culture. To be complete it has to achieve integral de-commodification: de- commodification of the audience, de-commodification of the content, and de-commodification of the producer. But ‘to be complete’ does not mean that everything must be achieved at the same time; it is a slow revolution made up of many complete exercises of de-commodification. Although new media blurs the line between audience and producer, we keep the distinction here because it is important to have strategies to reclaim the professionals from the ownership of ownership: film makers, musicians, journalists, developers, etc. Even scientists and academics. The concern about the professionals is major; most have been kidnapped to produce rent rather than culture so their production rarely fails to go through processes of heavy deformation.

    Pasquinelli makes a valid point when he stresses the pitfalls of free culture-ism and digitalism. (Pasquinelli 2008, p. 4) The solutions proposed here are based precisely in thinking beyond the digital and bringing personal autonomy to the debate. It must be stressed that the concept of autonomy as it is understood here goes well beyond the computer and the network of computers; it starts in the sacredness of the chaos within an individual and encompasses the wider realm of the social. I would like to close this section on autonomy with the following quote from Collective Futures:

    “However, communities that exist outside of the market and state obtain a much greater autonomy. These communities have no need for the freedoms discussed above, even if individual community members do. There have always been such communities, but they did not possess the ability to use open collaboration to produce wealth that significantly competes, even supplants, market production. This ability makes these autonomous organizations newly salient. Furthermore, these autonomous communities (Debian and Wikipedia are the most obvious examples) are pushing new frontiers of governance necessary to scale their collaborative production. Knowledge gained in this process could inform and inspire other communities that could become reinvigorated and more effective through the implementation of open collaboration, including community governance. Such communities could even produce postnational solidarities, especially when attacked. Do we know how to get from here to there? No. But only through experimentation will we find out. If a more collaborative future is possible, obtaining it depends on the choices we make today.”

    (CFBST 2010 p. 98)


    “However the Net itself presents a pattern of changing/evolving relations between subjects (“users”) and objects (“data”). The nature of these relations has been exhaustively explored, from McLuhan to Virilio. It would take pages and pages to “prove” what by now “everyone knows.” Rather than rehash it all, I am interested in asking how these evolving relations suggest modes of implementation for the TAZ.”

    Hakim Bey 1990 – The Net and the Web

    If we understand that “technology is not necessarily computers”(CFBST 2010 p. 25) ,  and that therefore the technology that migration requires should be called social technology and social protocols, we propose the term Internetism# to overcome the valid concerns raised by digitalism. In this context Internetism refers to the resilient conviction that the technical infrastructures of the web, as well as its underlying protocols, have the potential to eventually make migration widely viable. Internetism also goes beyond digitalism in the sense that it involves a sense of collectivism, Internetism is the view that prioritizes the becoming of networks and the becoming of connections between networks. It is about the social and its potential for autonomy. It is the ism of networks; in this sense it is about the social experiment rather than about the digital experiment and as such Internetism paradoxically is not necessarily concerned with making things happen through the Internet. Conversely, not everything that happens on the Internet is internetist, as we know after seeing how the net can be used to perpetuate and even intensify hegemony. Because of its collective ethos, the term carries an implication of dynamism, of permanent change: no social formation is permanent, individuals change and groups evolve, a new experiment is always built on top of the latest experiment, some experiments go wrong, some experiments get hacked, and some hacks are a blessing.

    Migration never stops; it never reaches the Promised Land because autonomy needs to be a vital attitude; not a lifestyle but a way of life, it is a permanent project of contesting gentrification. “If there is an aim, it would be to parallel hegemony, which can only be achieved if underlying premises are constantly put under scrutiny by the initiators of the next techno-social wave of innovations” (Lovink 2005, p. 23). Bey’s request for suggestions and Lovink’s request for scrutiny are an invitation to look into some examples of ‘techno-social” innovation that can shed light into this debate. To do this, I will briefly examine some relevant experiences of late. I will also include a project I am currently working on that is inspired by the ideas discussed in this essay.

    Lentil As Anything / Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne

    AustraliaLentil as Anything is a restaurant located in Melbourne. It works on the radical premise (for a capitalist society) of pay-as-you-feel, so the customer decides how much to pay for their meal. The first shock that this premise brings, especially in the context of this essay, is that it makes the debate of the rivalry or non-rivalry of information irrelevant to overcome rent. Food is certainly rival in Benkler’s terms: to eat means that less food is available. Moreover, Lentil shows how the rivalry debate distracts from the more essential issue of autonomy.  By allowing each person to decide, by granting them with a meaningful agency in the becoming of the restaurant, Lentil redefines its whole network. It is in this sense an example of what Lovink calls techno-social innovation, if we remember once more the assumption made by Collaborative Futures, “technology is not necessarily computers”. The technology here is to introduce a ‘moment of decision’ where previously there was none, and to understand that doing so brings autonomy to the whole network because the commons are reclaimed.

    The KJF Initiative / www.keepjournalismfree.org

    While Craigslist reclaimed the commons of the audience from rent, it then turned out that the liberation brought an unexpected victim: the producers suffered from the shift. The rent generated by classified advertising was in part destined to fund the journalists. Craigslist is an example of a positive techno-social experiment with unforeseen secondary effects. The KJF Initiative seeks to reclaim the commons of professional journalism by enabling the migration to a model where the multitude funds the professionals, liberating them from the dependency of working to produce someone else’s rent. To do this, an ambitious and persistent software development effort must be deployed; to provide web-wide funding instruments parallel and even superior to those that enforce rent. Also, journalism should start, with all of its shortcomings, to be conceived as a commons, as a Public Good that has to be funded by the multitude, and perhaps even produced by the multitude. The reclaimed common of journalism could have, in the long run, an enormous beneficial impact in the way the world is run.

    KickStarter / www.kickstarter.com

    Kickstarter is a project that enables ‘A New Way to Fund and Follow Projects”. Independent creators post a description of the project they need funding for, and individuals then can ‘pledge’ to fund ideas they like to the amount they want. Crucially to the idea of a migration to the logic of autonomy sought in this essay, there is no notion of ‘investment’ involved. The money received creates a moral obligation for the creator to fulfil the promise, but no part of the ownership is compromised. Kickstarter teaches that, contrary to the confrontations and romanticism of sabotage, it is by making things easy that migration from rent can take place. Among the hundreds of active pledges on Kickstarter one finds things like “Trade School: At Trade School, students barter with teachers for instruction. Classes range from butter making to ghost hunting. Help us run Trade School again!”, “Little City Gardens: An experiment in the economic viability of urban farming”, to “Coming & Crying: real stories about sex from the other side of the bed”, just to name a random few.

    Diaspora / www.joindiaspora.com

    Among the list of successful Kiskstarter projects funded, perhaps the most interesting, especially in the context of this essay, is Diaspora; “The privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network”, Diaspora is a sensible answer to the concerns with privacy and control that Facebook raises. Facebook is the quintessential example of the commoditization of a commons (the community), to generate rent. The Diaspora project, at least in theory, reclaims the commons by simply returning to what the web is supposed to be good at in the first place: distribution. It is a very good example of applied Internetist ethos: “[Diaspora is] an open source personal web server that will put individuals in control of their data (…) Enter your Diaspora “seed,” a personal web server that stores all of your information and shares it with your friends. Diaspora knows how to securely share (using GPG) your pictures, videos, and more. When you have a Diaspora seed of your own, you own your social graph, you have access to your information however you want, whenever you want, and you have full control of your online identity. Once we have built a solid foundation, we will make Diaspora easy to extend to facilitate any type of communication, and the possibilities will be endless.”#

    The time of happiness

    These are just a few examples of strategic migration. They seek not to sabotage but to embed the solutions within the system; they are less about changing the content than about changing the medium. To change the medium is what we argue that needs to be the main goal to spark migration; these are small steps towards a different situation that we can seriously foresee in a not distant future. Virno states the need to go beyond uncooperation and sabotage; a project that ‘demands more initiative’:

    Disobedience and flight are not in any case a negative gesture that exempts one from action and responsibility. To the contrary, to desert means to modify the conditions within which the conflict is played instead of submitting to them. And the positive construction of a favorable scenario demands more initiative than the clash with pre-fixed conditions. An affirmative “doing” qualifies defection, impressing a sensual and operative taste on the present. The conflict is engaged starting from what we have constituted through fleeing in order to defend social relations and new forms of life out of which we are already making experience. To the ancient idea of fleeing in order to better attack is added the certainty that the fight will be all the more effective if one has something else to lose besides one’s own chains.(Virno 2005, p. 20 emphasis in the original)

    Starting from the analysis of the convoluted operations of commodification that support the classified advertising business model, we have been able to render visible underlying economic structures of contemporary media and the ethical pitfalls that Free Culture leads to on a personal level. Ultimately, at the bottom of the riddle is the thought that our decisions have been commodified and sold to us through law and comfort, but also through a false sense of infinite entitlements. The proposal is to put something else on the line, especially wherever the gifts seem too free to be true. For people to be able to do that, the spaces need to be created and talked about, but at the final moment, the unsupervised individual needs to have a moment where he asks himself what he is supposed to do. After all, to reclaim our moments of decision is to reclaim the time and space when human happiness is produced.



    Bey, H. (1990) – The Temporary autonomous Zone in http://hermetic.com/bey/taz3.html

    CFBST -Collaborative Futures Book Sprint team (2010) Collaborative Futures in http://en.flossmanuals.net/CollaborativeFutures

    Derrida J., Rottenberg E. (2002) Negotiations: interventions and interviews, 1971-2001 Stanford University Press

    Foucault, M. (1986) Of Other Spaces Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1 pp. 22-27      The Johns Hopkins University Press FLA http://www.jstor.org/stable/464648

    Lorimor, E. S. (1977) Classified Advertising: A Neglected Medium Source: Journal of Advertising, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter, 1977), pp. 17-25 Published by: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/4188086 Accessed: 17/04/2010 04:18

    Lovink & Rossiter (2007) My Creative Reader Institute of Network Cultures, Veenman Drukkers, Rotterdam

    Lovink, G. (2005) The Principle of Notworking. Concepts in Critical Internet Culture Public Lecture Delivered on 24 Februari 2005. Hogeschool van Amsterdam, HvA Publicaties is an imprint of Amsterdam University PressPDF Available in http://www.hva.nl/lectoraten/documenten/ol09-050224-lovink.pdf

    Lovink, G. (2003) Science Fiction for the Multitudes- Interview with Christoph Spehrhttp://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0306/msg00049.html

    Negri, T. (2009) Commonwealth. Some thoughts and first polemics – AB – in http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_negri22.htm

    Pasquinelli, M. (2008) The ideology of free culture and the grammar of sabotage – AB –  in http://www.generation-online.org/c/fc_rent4.pdf

    Terranova, T. (2003) Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy in http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/technocapitalism/voluntary

    Vercellone, C. (2008) The new articulation of wages, rent and profit in cognitive capitalism in http://www.generation-online.org/c/fc_rent2.htm Accessed June 2, 2010

    Virno, P. (2005) About Exodus in Grey Room 21, Fall 2005, pp. 17–20. © 2005 Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology



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