Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Reddit Shadow Work Strike Pt. 2: Neoliberism and the Breakdown of Non-Gender Binaries

The Reddit strikers have won. Ellen Pao has resigned as company CEO. And with the exception of my previous essay, nothing I’ve encountered has called it a strike.

A NY Times op-ed by two of the /r/AMA moderators came close, at least framing it in terms of unpaid labor and using the word “protest”.

Besides that op-ed the vast majority of the analysis presented has been monolithic in its conclusions and terms-that Pao is a crusader against sexism in the male dominated Silicon Valley culture and was primarily pushed to resign because of the sexism of Reddit users. Though nothing has been confirmed, by all accounts Victoria Taylor was fired because she stood in the way of attempts to make herself and the unpaid mods do more un(der)compensated labor by expanding the scope of the popular AMA features.

Despite the less savory flavors some expressions took, what the reddit users and moderators were saying is “We built the site. We produced the content. The site is ours. We demand a say in how it runs.” That this is being ignored by the media speaks to the larger cultural assumption: “You’re lucky to have work even if they aren’t paying you anything.”

That the media is barely considering or mentioning the place of Victoria Taylor’s firing in the articles and op-eds following Pao’s resignation shows the neoliberal flavor of the “feminism” on display. “Feminism” in the workplace here is just the freedom of women to carry out the neoliberal project of exploiting shadow labor while claiming any and all profits. It is not the right of democratic influence in the form and future of one’s labor. The corporate structure is a literal dictatorship of capital.

One of Pao’s first moves as Reddit CEO was to ban salary negotiations by employees, claiming that salary negotiations were unfair to women with no mention of or regard paid to their rights as employees. The segregation of identity politics and class issues is one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism. Social progress is acceptable only insofar as it gives power disproportionately to the wealthy. This attitude foreshadows the Victoria Taylor firing and Pao’s subsequent relations with the shadow laborers.


As was stated in my prior instalment, useful analysis of this incident has been hindered by a collective and false mental separation of identity politics from class issues. There is just as much identity politics inherent in class issues as vice versa. Just as the cultural gender binary is collapsing publicly with the (welcome and necessary) entrance of transgender topics into the public discourse, several other identity binaries are collapsing with little comment or awareness.

Culturally the internet constitutes the formal emergence of the post-structuralist breakdown of traditionally opposed identity binaries under capitalism, usually to the detriment of the smaller players. Crowdsourcing facilitates the collapse of the charity/capital binary. The fragmented temp work nature of internet employment with its emphasis on unpaid or barely compensated labor in hopes of “making it” or “going viral” breaks down the capitalist/worker identity binary. The rise of unpaid user produced content on sites like Reddit represents the breakdown of the work/leisure binary. The availability of workers by phone and e-mail, frequently abused by management, breaks down the “I’m at work”/”I’m not at work” and worker/consumer binaries.

What the Reddit shadow labor strike represents is one of the first times one of the binaries of economic identity has broken down (however weakly, however problematically) in favor of the unkempt masses.

The void left in the wake of these collapsed oppositional definitions of self and experience creates an economic paradigm defined by splintered pastiches of memories of prior economic formations and identities. The hard-line Marxists repeatedly relive the October Revolution like Civil War reenactors. The emergence of firms in Europe offering unemployed people unpaid “jobs” “selling” fictional “products” to other firms of unpaid unemployed people for imaginary “money” represents nothing else but a sick parody of Keynesianism. The cargo cults have figured out that they can in fact successfully wave the planes in with coconuts tied to sticks so long as the planes are imaginary as well.


This is the world we’re living in. As activists we must adjust tactics accordingly. We can learn from history but we can’t hold it too tightly the same way a person driving in reverse is only going to have limited visibility and will most likely just crash the car.

In the previous essay I mentioned that the Reddit strikers weren’t aware they were on strike. Given the cultural logic outlined above, the question arises: would the strike have been more effective if they were aware they were on strike?

OWS provides some insight. OWS’s defining aspect was the lack of a monolithic definition. It wasn’t a strike, it wasn’t a sit-in, it wasn’t fully Marxist, liberal, or anarchist, but could fluidly be any of these or all them simultaneously. The powers that be could only silence it through coordinated violence because traditional propaganda techniques amounted to a game of whack-a-mole. It might be argued the propaganda did work some of the time. But to extend the metaphor-usually in a game of whack-a-mole one does whack at least a couple moles.

The collective uprisings of the present and the future will not resemble those of the past. As McLuhan pointed out, “Innovation always initially looks like chaos.” And so it is with the Reddit strike.

Catch up on Pt. 1

Guest post by Daniel Levine. His first book, Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead is available on his Etsy store.

Privilege (1967)

That Privilege, a faux documentary about the rise and fall of an English pop star, can be preachy and heavy-handed was probably inevitable. Peter Watkins, who had just watched his second film, The War Game, get banned by the BBC, was a bitter, angry old man at the ripe old age of 31. A black comedy about a teen idol, the object of desire for adolescent girls, requires a light, deft touch, a sympathetic understanding of popular music. That’s not what we got.

“There are millions of people down there, millions of little people,” Andrew Butler, a record company executive says to Steven Shorter, a thinly fictionalized version of the now almost completely forgotten Paul Anka, the Harry Stiles or Justin Bieber of the 1950s. “First we must be clear in our minds about one thing. The liberal idea that given enough education these millions will grow into self-aware, creative human beings is nothing but an exploded myth. It can never happen. They’re stunted little creatures with primitive emotions that are in themselves dangerous. They’ve got to be harnessed, guided. We’ve seen this happen over and over again for an evil purpose, Germany, Russia, China, but now we’ve got a chance to make it work for our own good. You. You’re our chance Steven. They identify with you. They love you Steven. You can lead them into a better way of life, a fruitful conformity.”

That, needless to say, is not a light, deft touch, and Watkins comes off as just another severe, angry dad going on about “these kids today.” Does anybody want to hear my 90 minute rant about One Direction? I didn’t think so. What’s more, he also ascribes an intentionality to the music industry that simply didn’t exist. Watkins is rightfully creeped out by the power that corporate, popular music has over little girls, but he doesn’t seem to understand that record company executives, as sleazy as they are, don’t care if teenagers conform or not. Their objective is to make money, not to prop up the state. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Far from wanting ciphers like Steven Shorter, the record companies prefer willful, self-destructive singers like Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, or egotistical, mirror-images of themselves like Madonna and the Rolling Stones. The biggest act in 2015 is not a Christlike figure like Steven Shorter, but Taylor Swift, an attractive young woman with the soul of a corporate executive. Rince, lather, repeat for Beyonce, and Lady Gaga.

Once you get past Watkins’ heavy-handed moralism,however, and the silly idea that the British ruling class would ever use a fictionalized Paul Anka to promote a bizarre Anglo-fascism in swinging London, Privilege becomes a remarkably prescient movie. The “coalition government” that was a fantasy in 1967 has become non-fiction, with both Labor and the Conservatives acting like two wings of the same neoliberal political party. Watkins got the particulars wrong, but there’s no question that corporate, popular music not only serves to keep young people apolitical and out of the streets. He was onto the way middle-aged men manufactured idols for the youth market, and kept their investments on a tight leash. The behavior of young singers like Steven Shorter is still closely policed. After Selena Gomez tweeted “pray for Gaza,” a loud, and very tightly coordinated backlash forced her to retract her tepid statement of support for the Palestinian people. Ariana Grande created a major scandal after she was filmed licking a donut and remarking “I hate America.” Manufactured celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner provide an endless stream of fodder for the tabloids and for social media that keeps those “millions of little people” living lives of “fruitful conformity.” Taylor Swift and Beyonce will be well into middle-age before they start preaching socialism along with their “lean in” feminism. At the height of his fame in the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen always made sure to dish out a generous helping of flag waiving patriotism along with his New Deal liberalism.

Privilege can be tediously moralistic, but it does have one genuinely great cinematic moment. It comes in the first 10 minutes, when Peter Watkins gets out of the way and lets the film’s star, Manfred Mann’s lead singer Paul Jones, take over and do his thing. It’s easy to see why Patti Smith would cover the theme song “Privilege” on her late 1970s album Easter. Smith’s cover is a virtuoso three and a half minute critique of Watkins’ film that expresses Steven Shorter’s ultimate rebellion against the corporate state better than the film itself. As Privilege opens, Paul Jones is dragged out on stage, and locked up in a cage by a group of policemen. He bangs on the bars and rattles his chains. He wails “set me free” as he whips the audience of teenage girls up into an orgasmic frenzy. There was nothing quite like Privilege in 1967, a song at least 10 years ahead of its time, the violent act anticipating punk, slam dancing, and The Who’s destruction of their instruments on stage. As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, Beatlemania, far from being an exercise in brainwashing and control, was actually an excuse for teenage fan girls to knock over barricades and fight the police. Almost in spite of himself, Peter Watkins predicted the way so many musicians would grow up along with their audience. In 1964, John Lennon was the leader of a boy band. In 1971, he was a political activist with an FBI file and a place on Nixon’s enemies list.

The Reddit Shadow Work Strike

Much of popular internet content aggregator Reddit was blacked out last week by unpaid moderators to protest the firing of Victoria Taylor, best known for coordinating the website’s popular “Ask Me Anything” features. No reliable sources have confirmed why the firing occurred, but the popular theory on the site is that she refused to go along with changes desired by CEO Ellen Pao to make the site more profitable.

The discourse on the site surrounding the shutdown of many of its “subreddits” is familiar to anyone who spends time monitoring internet message boards. There’s a lot of thinly veiled racism, with Pao being repeatedly compared to Kim Jong-Il for seemingly little other reason than that she’s of Asian descent. There’s hyperbole, poorly wrought theorizing and sometimes disturbing turns. Godwin’s Law, which states that any argument on the internet will inevitably trend toward someone/something being compared to Nazis and/or Adolph Hitler, has been reaffirmed dozens, possibly hundreds or thousands of times since Taylor’s firing.

However, warts and all, this is the first shadow work strike (that I can find anyway) and as such some attention should be paid.


The phenomena of “shadow work” is ubiquitous right now. Whenever you use a self-checkout you are doing unpaid labor. Worse, when buying things on the internet like bus tickets, the user is frequently actually charged money to do this unpaid labor under the sham of the “convenience charge.” Much of the internet runs on the work of unpaid moderators and admins. Most of the content that furnishes popular websites like Reddit is provided by users who are never compensated for their work.

As neoliberal policies continue to be implemented this trend will only grow. The internal logic of neoliberalism in its current phase does not work in the manner of capitalism prior. The model before was underpaying someone else to paint the fence and pocketing the remainder. Neoliberalism however is full Tom Sawyer-charging the kids for the “fun” of painting the fence.


Part of why the Reddit shutdown isn’t being talked about as a strike is that from the outside it doesn’t resemble prior strikes. It’s confusing and chaotic. The fight isn’t over money but control of the website. No one is looking for wages or financial compensation. Some commenters are actually against compensation for moderators because they feel they’ll lose the independence they have in the current set up. Acceptance of wages equals a loss of freedom. This is not an unreasonable assumption.

The manifestation of that belief within the shadow worker community of Reddit is not developed into a mature or coherently articulated ideology yet. The shadow worker is confused whether they’re actually a worker or a consumer. In post-structural terms: the producer/consumer identity binary is collapsed.

Self-definition of the strike by the community has rallied around the symbolic image of the pitchfork and the associated archetype of the angry mob, not the picket line or striker. The strikers on some level aren’t aware they’re on a labor strike.

But they are. This is a new type of labor strike. It’s in its infancy, it’s not a clean or clear manifestation yet. But it won’t be the last one. And to miss the opportunity to study the success or failure of its tactics would be a waste.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. His first book, Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead is available on his Etsy store.

Lion of the Desert (1981)

General Rodolfo Graziani, a member of Mussolini’s inner-circle, was one of the 20th century’s worst war criminals, but he paid little price for his crimes. Unlike the Germans and Japanese, the Italians were not subjected to Allied military tribunals, so he wasn’t hanged at Nuremberg. What’s more, even though an Italian military tribunal did find him guilty of collaborating with the Nazis and sentence him to 19 years in prison, he was released after only a few months, and even went on to become the “honorary president” of a neo-fascist organization called The Italian Social Movement in 1953. In 1955, he died comfortably in bed at the age of 72.

If Americans often think of Italian fascism as less violently racist than German fascism, then it probably has something to do with how the worst of Mussolini’s atrocities took place, not in Europe, but in Libya and Ethiopia. For most of our popular historians, black lives seem to matter less than Jewish lives. But Mussolini was more than just the clownish opening act for Adolf Hitler. In Libya, in the late 1920s, in the north-eastern region of Cyrenaica, the Duche’s henchman Graziani, “the Butcher of Fezzan,” forced over 100,000 people into concentration camps, where, according to most estimates, at least 80,000 people died. He also pioneered the use of aerial bombardment against civilians almost a decade before Guernica, and ordered the construction of a barbed wire fence all along the Egyptian border, a project that dwarfed both the Berlin Wall, and the Israeli “anti-terrorist” wall in Palestine. Later, in Ethiopia, the Italian army would go onto massacre over 30,000 people in retaliation for his attempted assassination.

“The Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians,” he infamously remarked.

Lion of the Desert is an unjustly neglected film about Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan resistance leader who fought the Italian occupation from 1911, when the Ottoman Empire retreated after the Italo-Turkish War, until 1931, when he was finally captured and hanged. Directed by Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad and partially funded by the Libyan government under Muammar Gaddafi, it was banned in Italy for most of the 1980s, and never widely distributed in the United States. The reasons are political. Lion of the Desert is a great film about resistance to imperialism and fascist war crimes, far better than the ponderous Gandhi, or the manipulative Schindler’s List, but it doesn’t fit the framework of the “white saviour” story usually required by Hollywood. What’s more, Ariel Sharon would invade Lebanon the very next year, and the United States was awash in Islamophobia. The story of a North African, Muslim resistance movement fighting a genocidal, European colonizer probably hit a bit too close to home.

While it might be a stretch to compare Lion of the Desert to Gillo Pontecorvo’s great film The Battle of Algiers, both films end on a similar note, a tactical victory for imperialism, but a historical victory for the resistance to imperialism. In The Battle of Algiers, Colonel Mathieu crushes the leadership of the Algerian independence movement with forced labor, torture, and the overwhelming brute force of a first world army. In the end, however, he wins the battle, but loses the war. The French occupation of Algeria tears France apart. Algerian independence is inevitable.

Colonel Mathieu’s counterpart in Lion of the Desert, General Graziani, played by British actor Oliver Reed, wants to conquer not only a country, but a man. The film begins with an elegant, contrapuntal movement contrasting the Italian people under Mussolini with the Berber Bedouin people of north-eastern Libya. Graziani is not a cartoon villain. On the on contrary, he’s an intelligent, subtle man, a brave soldier, and deft political thinker. We can see exactly why Benito Mussolini would trust him with the difficult job of pacifying Libya. But if Graziani is an intelligent man, he’s also a brutal, coarse, vulgar man, the very embodiment of the harsh, martial culture of fascist Italy. By contrast, Omar Mukhtar, an elderly ex-school-teacher played by the Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn, is cultivated, poetic. He loves children, and hates war. Personal advancement doesn’t interest him at all. He only wants to serve God. If this sounds corny, sentimental, then it’s my writing, not the movie. Anthony Quinn is so convincing as a soft-spoken old man, a gentle father figure defending his country from a genocidal invader that he almost seems to become the father we all wish we had. In the film’s best single line, Omar Mukhtar and his resistance fighters set a clever ambush for one of Graziani’s patrols. They kill everybody except for one young office, a young man barely in his 20s. Mukhtar’s soldiers want to kill the young Italian, but his fatherly instinct takes over. He orders the young Italian to be released.

“They kill us,” one of the Libyan rebels says.

“Would you have them become our teachers?” Mukhtar responds.

Graziani, by contrast, has no trouble ordering the cold-blooded execution of a brave young Bedouin soldier who allows himself to be captured by the Italians rather than let Mukhtar fall into enemy hands. The Italian victory is as inevitable as their spiritual defeat. Graziani brings in more troops, tanks, heavy armored cars. Mukhtar’s clever knowledge of the local terrain, and his mastery of guerrilla warfare beats Graziani’s fist big push. “We’re not fighting an army,” Graziani concludes. “We’re fighting a people.” Take a page from the counterinsurgency manual, he decides that if Mukhtar’s fish swim in the sea, he’ll dry up the sea. The Italians then herd almost the entire population of the the Cyrenaica region of north-eastern Libya into concentration camps. This is non-fiction. Moustapha Akkad not only makes good use of his 30 million dollar budget, putting thousands of extras behind a gigantic stage constructed of barbed wire and guard towers. In a clever twist, he spices in newsreel footage of the real concentration camps The Butcher of Fezzan used in the 1920s. Did you really think the only concentration camps built by fascists during the Second World War were in Poland? Think again, the film tells us. But the concentration camps only stiffen Omar Mukhtar’s determination to fight on. In fact, as Moustapha Akkad, cracks begin to appear in the Italian facade. When the young officer that Mukhtar had declined kill refuses a direct order to carry out a mass execution of Libyan women, Graziani realizes that time is not on his side. Like the French in Algeria, like the Americans in Vietnam, like the Russians in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, the Italian occupation of Libya is doomed to fail.

The Italian occupation of Libya is doomed to fail, but Rudolfo Graziani, the fascist war criminal, Mussolini’s right hand man, has options that Colonel Mathieu doesn’t. After Omar Mukhtar defeats a large Italian army, and evades a cleverly laid trap, Graziani realizes that he’s losing the chess game. He may have a large, first world army at his command, tanks, airplanes, armored cars, machine guns, concentration camps, and the free hand given to him by Benito Mussolini, but, man for man, he’s no match for Omar Mukhtar. So he sweeps the pieces off the board onto the floor and changes the rules of the game, yet again. The Cyrenaica province in northeast Libya, Mukhtar’s base, also abuts the borders of Egypt, where Mukhtar gets most of his supplies. Graziani travels back to Italy to get Mussolini’s permission to rebuild “Hadrian’s Wall” in north-eastern Libya, hundreds of miles of barbed wire, 270 kiometers long, running from Assalumm on the coast to Jaghbubin the deep south, 10 meters wide and 1.5 meter high. The historical reference wins Mussolini over. How can the Italian dictator resist being compared to one of the greatest of all Roman Emperors? What’s more, in a fascist state, unlike in a democracy, the government doesn’t have to worry about public approval. Perhaps the money would be better spent building schools in Milan than building a 200 mile long human cage in Cyrenaica, but it doesn’t matter. The Duche wants what the Duche wants.

Omar Mukhtar is a gifted military man, but even he can’t do the impossible. Cut off from his supply lines in Egypt, caged in on all sides by barbed wire, his people in concentration camps, he’s captured by the Italians and hanged in front of thousands of of his people. But Graziani’s victory is also his defeat. Omar Mukhtar would not take a bribe, save his life, betray his people, or go into retirement. He goes to his death with so much quiet dignity that the brutal Italian warlord realizes his mistake as soon as the rope snaps his neck. All the concentrated might of the Italian fascist empire has succeeded in doing is to kill one old man. The camera lingers on a little boy in the crowd. Mukhtar smiles at him. The next generation is ready to carry on the battle against colonialism.

Final Note: During the Libyan Civil War in 2011 and 2012, Gadaffi and the rebels both claimed to be heirs to the legacy of Omar Mukhtar. I suppose that’s both inevitable and a testament to Mukhtar’s status as a national hero. It’s also worth noting that while the Pentagon and the corporate media attempted to bring back The Battle of Algiers during the American occupation of Iraq, Lion of the Desert remains in obscurity. The American ruling class can deal with the idea that a Colonel Mathieu can ask us to make the “hard choices” we need for the good of the empire. They can’t take being exposed as fascists.