Vectors of Collective Imagination

Invisible Hand(s) • Hidden Labor, AI-Driven Capitalism and the COVID-19 Pandemic

From the Introduction: Whose Invisible Hand(s)?

— Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, editors

In the past 30 years, globalization has been underpinned by ideas and laws that have enabled governments to deprioritize the needs of their citizens. After the financial crisis of 2007-08, this tendency was driven by punishing austerity, including ever harsher cutbacks and accelerated privatization. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the devastating consequences of these tendencies.

The neoliberal restructuring of health care – as one of the key frameworks for deprioritizing the needs of citizens – reveals itself as a (racialized) death machine that enables capital’s requirements to be prioritized. If this tendency reshuffles the dehumanizing of capitalism from previous historical episodes such as colonialism, it also consolidates the idea that “capitalism is an intelligent computer”— a computer that turns qualities into quantities, enshrines calculating as the dominant form of labor, and promotes the idea of self-learning, quasiautonomous machines running production and the economy at large. The SILENT WORKS project explores this Western phantasm as AI-driven capitalism, thereby expanding on the already established notion of “computational capitalism” (Beller, 2017). Conceived thus, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a crisis of this very system, coming about as, all of a sudden, the ostensible frictionlessness of self-running machines has been interrupted and distorted by an unexpected disruptive factor: de-humanized humans, whose vulnerability (also read: contagiousness) necessitates the shutdown of the system and thus the suspension of capital’s allegedly seamless and incessant circulation.
The interviews published in this volume were conducted between March and June—a period in which, following China’s example, drastic containment measures were also being introduced in the West, including shutting down air traffic, closing state borders, ordering the population to stay at home, and allowing – if not in fact compelling – “systemically relevant services” to be kept up. The related explosion of labor struggles would probably have gone unnoticed had the invisibilized work of people who actually provide “systemically relevant services” not become more visible in the COVID-19 pandemic. Exploring this critical moment, this series of interviews brings together our findings from within emergencies in Austria, Germany, Italy, and the US, among others. All of the interviews emerged under the almost paralyzing impression of the escalating pandemic, many of them within just a few days, in a fit of work fever at our privileged retreats (read also: “home offices”), with quick exchanges of emails. The selected texts intend to be representative neither of the results overall nor of the struggles in question. Putting them together, we were bound by a page limit and by our quest for a balance between discursive density and diversity. As a consequence, the selection mainly conveys views from the West and on emergent struggles in the West, albeit often in a self-critical manner. The German versions of the interviews have been published on Berliner Gazette and the English versions in our blog on Mediapart.fr.
(Berlin, June 2020)