Free Labour, Enforced Education and Precarity: an initial reflection, 2009

Situated in a broader debate around the condition of precarity, the context for our analysis of free labour is around two trends in Europe:

1.The Bologna process proposition to validate and standardise lifelong, lifewide and ‘flexible’ learning, and

2.The European Union language promoting ‘occupation’ rather than ‘employment’, marking a subtle but interesting semantic shift towards keeping the active population ‘busy’ rather than trying to create jobs.



The figure of the intern appears in this context paradigmatic as it negotiates the collapse of the boundaries between Education, Work and Life.


Like Tiziana Terranova suggested in her analysis of free labour in digital media, we must conceive of free labour, internships, volunteer work not as a separate sphere of activity but as condition of late capitalist cultural economy.

While Schneider, the inventor of cooperative programmes in the U.S.A. (the first structured university programmes combining secondary education with practical work experience) referred to them as ‘the people pipeline‘, now, we might say with Magritte – Ceci n’est pas une pipe!

What appears to be a ‘stage’ (like the French word for internship) in the trajectory whose result is to be found in a lifetime paid employment, is a rehearsal for uncertain career paths, hyper-active networking, strategic lunching and infinite flexibility: in other words, an internship in the strategic use of affects, an internship without end.


We are aware that the discussion around the educational value of job placements finds its roots in the model of the apprenticeship, and that today it articulates a longing for the valorisation of learning experiences outside the narrowly defined institutional curricula and classroom simulations. We are told that internships give us an opportunity to experience the ‘real’ work. Indeed, the danger could be to loose the criticality necessary to the understanding that the ‘real’ conditions of work are something that is produced, and not given as a set of rules that we must learn in order to ‘play the game’.


While we agree with the need of rethinking many aspects of education and pedagogy, we believe that what we are learning in the internship is precarity as a way of life.

Furthermore, internship is functioning as an access filter to professions perceived as desirable, a regulatory valve that replicates the most classic lines of class division. In order to be able to work for three or six months for free, the intern/volunteer needs to have the economic possibility of doing so. Internships finally are not so ‘free’ after all, as the cost of the unpaid labour is absorbed by the families or by the self-exploitation of the worker who then seeks complementary jobs.





There is a subtle but important shift that occurs in going from ‘working for a very bad salary’ to ‘working for free’ (or for symbolic reimbursements), as the economy of the exchange becomes completely based on social capital and voluntarianism.


The condition of free labour thus faces us with a particular investment to be productive that may require a different framework of analysis that the ever popular socialist and populist valorisation of work (let’s think of Sarkozy’s recent valorisation of ‘those who want to work” and promises to “The France that wakes up early”. There is a hollowing out here of what is at stake in working. Rather than the a living wage, or to fulfil the desire to be an active member of society, the emphasis here is on the ‘being busy’ of work, occupation as the ultimate achievement, at any cost (i.e. without pay)


On the one side, the autonomist call for a ‘refusal of work’ seems also somehow inadequate to understand the micropolitical configurations of desire (Guattari) and the affective investments that make people want to apply for absurdly demanding job placements and to derive their identity from affiliations with institutions. The refusal of work may be a first step, but a further investigation in the differences between labouring, working (Arendt), being productive, being creative and being active may be a fruitful line of research.


This is funnily reminiscent of futurist Alvin Toffler’s fear that in the third wave (the unfounded moment when technology fulfilled all needs within the productive chain), free time in its vastness and threat of the figure of the sloth, would require an army of ‘leisure counsellors’ to fill the endless expanses of time.


This also speaks directly to Illich’s assessment of the negation of ‘useful unemployment’ produced by the rise of the professional classes, consolidating of all social relations into the framework of clients and users.



The Culture Factor(y)



The first moves of the group in London are much inspired by those who have worked on similar campaigns – i.e. the Intermittents and the White Masks in France, etc.

Culture, however, is somewhat distinct from these contexts as in England it is an unregulated sector. Those who work in cultural institutions often seek out and arrange their internships independently and this makes it harder to think of a revendication of rights through an agreement between employers and educational institutions.


Furthermore, the cultural sector presents us with another peculiar phenomenon, where the increasing number of people wanting to find a ‘creative’ emplyment has been matched by a consistent withdrawal of funds and public resources across Europe.

The deployment of unpaid interns is fast becoming in many cases a structural necessity for companies and organizations. There is a suspicion that interns and volunteers may be de facto masking the collapse of the European cultural sector, hiding the exodus of the public resources from such activities and thus preventing the general public to perceive the unsusteinibility of the situation.


In the particular case of the UK, it is clear that New Labour’s dream of an economically burgeoning cultural sector is not going to come to fruition. Projections actually show that the service sector will be the largest employer in twenty years time. Blair has now suggested that the funding bubble that has supported whatever growth in culture has occurred (subsidies whose allocations were never anywhere near commensurate with the ambitions they commanded) is about to burst. The investment in the PPP (public private partnerships) has not resulted (surprise surprise) in any degree of financial security for galleries and other cultural institutions, but has rather increased already toppling workloads and shifted focus to money-making schemes.


In this landscape, interns offer both a solution and a threat. They fill in the ever-widening gaps between ambitions and dollars, but they also legitimize the exploitative nature of cultural work – reminding to those who are employed in the sector that there is always someone ready to do your job for free.


Four initial points of our research


In trying to create a research/mobilisation around this issue, we are pre-occupied with four central concerns:


a) Welfare and the Living Wage.

We are clearly interested in increasing the ability to live and the absence of the wage in the internship sets up a series of expectations around non waged labour that infiltrate the entirety of productive relations. However, in culture, we must also address the fact that organising around the wage does not allow us to account for the desires that bring people to work for free in culture. Akin to the question raised for women’s wages in the home, we know that this will not sufficient as a mobilizing strategy.

Within cultural work there are many lay narratives that align these desires to current labour and wage relations and neo-liberal ideas about freedom and the market. Central to organising then, will the formulation of our desires in relation to another set of possibilities for living in other ways.


b) Affects.

The desire to live and produce creatively, to manage ones own time, to be social, these are all as important bases for organising that are as important as the discourse around the wage and that raise questions of a different nature.

Any mobilization of non-regulated cultural workers will have to account for both the affective conditions and the affective motivations of why people work for free. Here, the micro-political relations between intern and manager/paid worker (both, as Brian Holmes underlines, ‘humiliating’ in their own way) are a point of possible convergence. The desire to produce the conditions of lived experience creatively is fruitful terrain for imagining a ‘to come’, both in terms of mobilization and what comes after (Rolnik).



c) ‘My Real Work or The Work I do For Money?’ – or the relationship with the service sector.

In the 90s, a phenomenon emerged in which, when presented with the ever banal chat up line ‘what do you do for a living?’, people working across a number of creative areas responded: ‘do you mean what I do, or what I do for money?’.

This splitting tells us something about the contingency of free labour on ‘unreal’ wage labour. In the unreality of this second work – often precarious, based in the service sector – there is an evacuation of all aspiration, which means that this labour group is endlessly exploitable. Any mobilisation around free labour (the real work) will plant the seeds for critical investigation of the ‘unreal’.


d) Production of tools/commonware.

Within the production of free labour, the work we do as interns, as entrepreneurs, the work above and beyond waged labour, we are creating tools, networks and sociabilities. Ivan Illich would call these tools for conviviality. How do we re-orient these to serve our own agendas and interests?

One Response to “ON FREE LABOUR”


  1. The Groundswell Blog: Scapegoat Journal's Issue 01: Service - July 14, 2011

    […] Characterizing pro-bono work as sacrificial labor begs the question, how is it like other service work?   Because their sacrifice begets more gainful work, by and large, pro-bono workers aren’t subject to the same precarity as other service workers, as this kind of work is typically a required component of highly gainful employment.  Indeed, the form their work takes – and thus their alienation from it – is remarkably different, from the knowledges required to the very way their bodies move while on the job.  But, following the Carrotworkers’ Collective, it nonetheless qualifies. […]

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