This entry was written as part of a symposium, Surplus3: Labour and the Digital, held in October 2015 to mark the publication of Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (Pluto Press/Between the Lines). We were invited to present a three-minute talk on a concept that speaks to the intersection of labour and the digital in contemporary capitalism. I chose the concept hustle. The entry is published in a micropublication available here. Thank you to Letters and Handshakes for their organizing and editorial work.
To hustle means to hurry, to work busily. A hustle is a source of income, a paid job, although the term still carries an air of illegitimacy. Hustle is an all-too-familiar mode of being for millions of precariously employed workers, who juggle multiple gigs, do what needs to be done to make money, and experience uncertain futures. As precarity creeps up the value chain, workers in the glamourized media industries must hustle, too.
Freelance journalists embody hustle. Their working lives can be exhausting: twelve-hour days writing endless streams of quick-hit articles for fifty dollars here, two-hundred there; chasing perpetually missing paycheques; looking for future work; managing multiple projects; self-promoting; anxiously navigating intermittent work and pay; and negotiating what one freelancer describes as “the dual pressure to appear productive and successful while also available for hire.”1
Working outside of employment relationships, freelancers live by selling bits and pieces of work to various media outlets without access to regular pay, social security, or labour protections. Once marginal players, freelancers now form the core of expansive global media industries seeking to cut costs while simultaneously producing more media content than we have ever seen before. And so, freelancers whip up articles on tight deadlines for very low pay, under copyright agreements that demand, for example, “all rights, in perpetuity, throughout the universe,”2 including rights for formats yet to be invented. And such exploitative arrangements, which extract escalating surplus value from workers, are often framed as not work—freelancers are relentlessly presented with “opportunities” to gain exposure and “build their brand” via no-pay articles for highly profitable media corporations.
Freelancers speak of enjoying flexibility, of the ability to, say, go for a run in the middle of the day; yet most work through weekends and vacations, take on too much work out of fear of having none, and are mired in churn: the “perpetual dissatisfaction”3 of producing “one-thought”4 articles that require as little labour time as possible, rather than writing articles journalists think are important. Under such conditions, investigative reporting is being abandoned, as it now requires freelancers to go deep into debt.5 Journalists are often paid based on the number of clicks their articles receive, putting pressure on individual articles to act as mini-profit centres, generating enough ad sales to pay a writer’s fee.
Such dynamics are transforming journalism into “content,” or undifferentiated material generated in endless cycles of media production and fuelling capital accumulation online. We are witnessing the “real” subsumption of journalism, or the “restructuring of social relations according to the demands of capitalist valorization.”6 This is a shift from “formal” subsumption, where capital imposes on pre-existing forms of production or labour processes.7 Under real subsumption, production processes and work routines are organized explicitly to enable capitalist extraction of surplus value. For Sut Jhally, real subsumption of media signals the solidification of primarily economic institutions designed to “[reap] the biggest return…,” where media is “produced foremost as a commodity rather than an ideology.”8
Emergent digital technologies are being used to extend and deepen the commodification of journalism, which is now valued solely for its ability to link advertisers to consumers. Journalists are tightly bound to market logic, their lives experienced as hustle: endless idea-seeking, selling oneself and one’s capacity to produce, and the never-ending pursuit of contacts and connections. Every social interaction is a possible story and each person encountered a possible lead, as writers’ whole lives are transformed into sources of potential productivity. Welcome to work in the content factory.
1 Susie Cagle, “Eight Years of Solitude: On Freelance Labor, Journalism, and Survival,” Medium, 15 March 2014.
2 Professional Writers Association of Canada, Professional Writers Survey: A Profile of the Freelance Writing Sector in Canada, May 2006.
3 Anshuman Iddamsetty, “Perpetual Dissatisfaction,” The Arcade, episode 28, 2014.
4 Michael Meyer, “Survival Strategies of an Online Freelancer,” Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2015.
5 Project Word, Untold Stories: A Survey of Freelance Investigative Reporters, 2015.
6 Jason Read, The Micro-politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), 104.
7 Carlo Vercellone, “From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect: Elements for a Marxist Reading of the Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism,” Historical Materialism 15, no. 1 (2007): 13–36.
8 Sut Jhally, “The Political Economy of Culture,”in Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, ed. Ian Angus and Sut Jhally (New York: Routledge, 1989), 73.