Careful making – Stiegler’s Economy of Contribution

Following on from the fairly rapid translation I made of the Fondation Macif interview with Stiegler, a few emerging thoughts have been rattling around that I thought I’d post here. I want to think about the centrality of an ethos of care to Stiegler’s proposition of the economy of contribution and the kind of ethics this suggests for Stiegler’s philosophy.

In elucidating the economy of contribution Stiegler refocusses the understanding of an economy, zooming out from the contemporary (capitalist) focus on exchange value–exemplified by fast moving consumer goods and speculative financial markets–to reconsider broader understandings of value. As the Ars Industrialis glossary entry denotes, in an economy of contribution not only is the separation between production and consumption collapsed but ‘the value produced by contributors is not totally monetisable’.

Through contributive technologies, such as open source software and 3D printing, production is not a separate form of labour but mixed in with activities of consumption; the results of which are ‘positive externalities‘–value that exceeds the immediate state of affairs. A contributor is not (simply) a labourer, a subsistence crafts person or a passive consumer but rather someone that cooperates and collaborates to both produce and receive (something of) value.

The mass (over)consumption of capitalism forges the apparently passive consumer that no longer desires–in the sense that the embodied subject is no longer motivated by the creative and connective capacities of the pre/sub-conscious that promote long-term engagement and care–but instead is motivated by drives, short-term impulses for particular things in the moment that are then set aside or thrown away. For Steigler, this is a form of dis-individuation an inhibition of becoming, in and with the world, that constitutes forms of selfishness and carelessness, in some ways analogous to Freud’s notion of an inability to pass beyond primary narcissism.

The argument goes, following Marx, that the automation of industry and the market-driven detachment of the consumer, encouraging passivity and carelessness, separates individuals from the ‘means of production’, and thus the facility to creatively engage with the world, and divorces them from expertise [savoir-faire]. Furthermore, for Stiegler, this ‘proletarianisation’ extends beyond traditional understandings of labour into consumption itself: we not only lose expertise [savoir-faire] but also life skills [savoir-vivre]. It is not only, then, the de-skilling of the workforce, in the sense of Fordism, but also, more importantly, the inhibition of the populus as a passive and ‘careless’ mass of (over)consumers. Furthermore, for Stiegler, this short-termist drive-based overconsumption is recursively addictive, or ‘addictogenic’-addictions lead to further addiction. Consumers thus no longer create ways of living for themselves, they simply follow the examples of branded ‘lifestyles’. So far, so Adorno–perhaps.

To answer this dilemma Stiegler proposes the economy of contribution as an alternative mode of economic operation that, rather than somehow functioning outside of capitalism-in a communist revolutionary manner for example, works within and alongside the existing market economy, composing production and consumption into contribution. At the heart of this formulation is the proposition that ‘to economize means first of all and before anything else to take care‘ [1]. To contribute then means to care: for oneself, for creativity and knowledge, for society and for the planet/world.

At the heart of the economy and society of contribution proposed by Stiegler and Ars Industrialis is digital technology. It is the digital that affords the kind of contributive activities that are called for. Turning again to the Ars Industrialis manifesto, we can see the centrality of the digital: ‘digital technology opens a reticulated space of contributors, who develop and share knowledge, and who form what one calls an associated milieu‘ [2]. The digital as the latest phase of grammatisation, which is ‘all technical processes that enable behavioural fluxes and flows to be made discrete’ [3], it is therefore a pharmakon–that is, it is both potentially harmful or beneficial (‘poison’ or ‘cure’ following Plato), resolved in particular states of affairs–“it can lead either to the destruction of the mind, or to its rebirth” [4].

So, finally, we arrive at the question that has been rattling around my head. If the pharmakon is the conceptual device by which we are invited (by Stiegler) to wrestle with the ethical and political import of digital technology as the most recent and most important phase of grammatisation, then how do we conceive of an ethics for an economy of contribution?

I think I would currently argue that the ethics proposed is itself centred on an ethos of care, and to a lesser degree, perhaps, effort. Care, here, is not only for others but for the self, for knowledge, for society and for the world. In particular care is a pedagogical concern. Stiegler engages with Foucault’s later work  in a number of places and in particular draws upon his reading of biopolitics, the techniques of the self and indeed care as epimēleia. We are accordingly compelled, in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (henceforth TC), not to know ourselves (following the Delphic principal) but to care for ourselves. To return again to the manifesto, we can see that care is the principal concern for a rethinking and rehabilitation of political economy:

It is in such a context that the question of care can be posed in a new and political way, not confined to the medical field or the ethical field: the question of care must go to the heart of political economy—and with it, clearly, a new cultural, educational, scientific and industrial political culture capable of taking care of the world. This is why we propose as an axiom of our reflections that—as the first meaning of the verb “economiser” says, and as at bottom each of us knows—to economize means first of all and before anything else to take care [5].

And, further, in Stiegler’s 2010 book For a New Critique of Political Economy (henceforth FNC):

a pathway to genuine growth must be refound, a growth running counter to the mis-growth [mécroissance] that consumerism has become, and a growth which would consist in a renaissance of desire. Such a rebirth would be achieved by implementing an economy of contribution, an economy for which “to economize” means “to take care,” and an economy within which care cultivates associated milieus [6].

This form of care is significantly drawn from Stiegler’s reading of Freud, found in both TC and FNC. As Richard Beardsworth [7] observes, Stiegler’s critical engagement with ‘cognitive’ capitalism argues that capitalism increasingly reduces desire to its constituent drives, which he calls ‘negative sublimation’. The complex processes of sublimation that displace our primary narcissistic tendencies (placing ourselves as the centre of the world), opening up identifications with other generations, ‘towards a… libidinal economy of commodity fetishism’ [8]. Rather  than ‘deep’, prolonged and careful engagements with ideas, literature and the arts the ‘shallow’ attention of always on media pumped out by the ‘programming industries’ engenders a carelessness and ‘I-don’t-give-a-damnism’ amongst the (current) younger generations [9].

‘Careful’ cultivation of knowledge and practices  form culture–understood as the recorded, shared and transmitted forms of retained knowledge or hypomnemata. As Stiegler argues in The Decadence of Industrial Democracies:

‘These engrammes form hypomnemata as supports of cultivated practices… that, in democratic society, must be systematically cultivated and, in particular, cultivated from specific possibilities offered by the digital stage of the industrial development of grammatisation’ [10].

These forms of culture are precisely forms of care [11]. Another conceptual basis for this cultivation of culture, and I think a foundation of the ethos of care I’m trying to explore as an ethics here, is Stiegler’s use of the Roman idea of otium. Literally ‘free time’, otium consists in ‘practices free of all the worries of subsistence’ [12], it is the time and space of vocation (in the historical sense of clerics) – of careful practice of expertise. In contradistinction, Stiegler conceptualises negotium as the ethos of capitalism: the proletarian obsession with (short-term) need, which we can assume leads to carelessness.

Through his activist-oriented writing, I think we can see Stiegler developing an ethics founded in a particular understanding of care as a normative morality: careful attention to knowledge, the assiduous practice of skills and the collaborative contribution to the cultivation of culture are good. In this sense, Stiegler’s argument for an economy of contribution can be seen not only as a political economic argument but perhaps also a pedagogical and, dare I say, moral argument too [13]. To coin a clumsy phrase then: to participate in an economy of contribution is to (collaboratively) ‘carefully make’ and to ‘make care’.


These are quite sketchy notes towards thinking about what might constitute a ‘Stiegler-ian ethics’ and are very much written as a way to think. I would certainly welcome comments and critical responses! I hope to push this line of thinking a bit further as I continue to read the Disbelief and Discredit series of books and the new translations to be released this year, namely The Re-enchantment of the World and What Makes Life Worth Living.


1. Ars Industrialis Manifesto 2010 (henceforth AIM),  section §2.

2. AIM,  sect. §3.

3. Stiegler, Bernard. 2012. “Die Aufklärung in the Age of Philosophical Engineering” Computational Culture 2. trans. Ross, Daniel. n.p. (henceforth: DA).

4. DA.

5. AIM sect. §2.

6. Stiegler Bernard. 2010. For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ross, Daniel. Cambridge, Polity, p. 108.

7. Beardsworth, Richard. 2010 “Technology and politics: a response to Bernard Stiegler”, Cultural Politics 6 (2) pp. 191-199.

8. Beardsworth, 2010 ‘Technology and politics’, p. 192.

9. See: Stiegler, Bernard. 2010. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, trans. Barker, Stephen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

10. See: Stiegler, Bernard. 2011.  The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, Disbelief and Discredit, Volume 1 (henceforth DID), trans. Ross, Daniel. Cambridge, Polity, p. 116.

11. ‘Because this spirit is the fruit of an economy: this economy is what must be made into objects of care, of cura. This care is called culture’ DID, p.18.

12. DID, p. 65.

13. Interestingly, Alexander Galloway argues that Stiegler is, in fact, a moral philosopher in his review of TC in the journal Radical Philosophy (#163).

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