My friend Stevphen asked me to contribute some definitions to the glossary of a book he worked on called Constituent Imagination. Among the terms I wrote definitions for, precarity and social factory. I have strong opinions about these terms. I tried to be diplomatic in the definitions.

Precarity : Precarity is currently the subject of growing debate and political mobilization in Europe at the time of this writing, partly in response to changes in the regimes of labor and welfare policy as well as labor practices. Precarity has several related meanings. With regard to work, precarity refers to a variety of so-called ‘nonstandard’ work arrangements: times of work (night and weekend work), quantities of work time (flexible or variable hours, part-time work, demands for overtime), and durations of work assignments (temporary work, non-contract work, freelance work). Precarity also refers to the legal status of work: whether work is legal or illegal, and which customary labor rights do and do not apply to which workers. Precarity also refers to instability of income, linked to precarious work arrangements, and to access to needed services such as healthcare and housing. All of these meanings of precarity indicate a general unpredictability of access to needed goods and services whether via a welfare state or private sector and a lack of control of work which in turn imposes less control over the rest of one’s life. In this sense precarity has historically been the general condition of the proletariat globally with moments of relatively less precarity being exceptions resulting from a number of political factors.

Social factory : The social factory is a term developed within the operaismo tradition of Marxism in Italy. There is an ambivalence in the term, between being a conceptual optic and being a narrative of historical periodization. The social factory as a conceptual optic argues that the techniques and practices of power deployed within the factory also impact life outside the factory, and vice versa. In other words the walls of the factory are a semi-permeable membrane across which passages take place and across which lines of force operate. The basic point of the concept is that value production and resistance to value production do not occur only in determinate and recognized workplaces and in activity by waged workers. This concept of the social factory has a polemical force against the factory-ist political and organizational model that centers on workplaces and waged work. As a type of historical periodization the social factory is a narrative in which the inside and the outside of the factory become contiguous over a period of time such that capitalist command now comes to reach across the inside and outside of the factory. See also real subsumption.

I’ve been rereading v1 of Capital (I set out, naively, to speed read it. Sigh.) and some passages in the chapter on machinery support my claims about these terms, I think – mainly that they’re not novel.

In contrast with the manufacturing period, the division of labour is thenceforth based, wherever possible, on the mployment of women, of children of all ages, and of unskilled labourers, in one word, on cheap labour, as it is characteristically called in England. This is the case not only with all production on a large scale, whether employing machinery or not, but also with the so-called domestic industry, whether carried on in the houses of the workpeople or in small workshops. This modern so-called domestic industry has nothing, except the name, in common with the old-fashioned domestic industry, the existence of which pre-supposes independent urban handicrafts, independent peasant farming, and above all, a dwelling-house for the labourer and his family. That old-fashioned industry has now been converted into an outside department of the factory, the manufactory, or the warehouse. Besides the factory operatives, the manufacturing workmen and the handicraftsman, whom it concentrates in large masses at one spot, and directly commands, capital also sets in motion, by means, of invisible threads, another army; that of the workers in the domestic industries, who dwell in the large towns and -are also scattered over the face of the country.


The exploitation of cheap and immature labour-power is carried out in a more shameless manner in modern Manufacture than in the factory proper. This is because the technical foundation of the factory system, namely, the substitution of machines for muscular power, and the light character of the labour, is almost entirely absent in Manufacture, and at the same time women and over-young children are subjected, in a most unconscionable way, to the influence of poisonous or injurious substances. This exploitation is more shameless in the so-called domestic industry than in manufactures, and that because the power of resistance in the labourers decreases with their dissemination; because a whole series of plundering parasites insinuate themselves between the employer and the workman; because a domestic industry has always to compete either with the factory system, or with manufacturing in the same branch of production; because poverty robs the workman of the conditions most essential to his labour, of space, light and ventilation; because employment becomes more and more irregular; and, finally, because in these the last resorts of the masses made “redundant” by Modern Industry and Agriculture, competition for work attains its maximum. (590-591 in the Penguin edition)


More notes. Or quotes. There’s a chapter in Thoburn’s book called ‘The Social Factory’ I though it was online but can’t find.

“As the co-operative character of the labour-process becomes more and more marked, so, as a necessary consequence, does our notion of productive labour, and of its agent the productive labourer, become extended. In order to labour productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do manual work yourself; enough, if you are an organ of the collective labourer, and perform one of its subordinate functions.” (643-644.)

“If the hour’s wage is fixed so that the capitalist does not bind himself to pay a day’s or a week’s wage, but only to pay wages for the hours during which he chooses to employ the labourer, he can employ him for a shorter time than that which is originally the basis of the calculation of the hour-wage, or the unit-measure of the price of labour. Since this unit is determined by the ratio ‘daily value of labour-power / working-day of a given number of hours’ it, of course, loses all meaning as soon as the working-day ceases to contain a definite number of hours. The connection between the paid and the unpaid labour is destroyed. The capitalist can now wring from the labour a certain quantity of surplus-labour without allowing him the labour-time necessary for his own subsistence. He can annihilate all regularity of employment, and according to his own convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment, make the most enormous over-work alternate with relative or absolute cessation of work. ” (686.)

“Since, before entering on the process, [the worker’s] own labour has already been alienated from himself by the sale of his labour-power, has been appropriated by the capitalist and incorporated with capital, it must, during the process, be realised in a product that does not belong to him. Since the process of production is also the process by which the capitalist consumes labour-power, the product of the labourer is incessantly converted, not only into commodities, but into capital, into value that sucks up the value-creating power, into means of subsistence that buy the person of the labourer, into means of production that command the producers. The labourer therefore constantly produces material, objective wealth, but in the form of capital, of an alien power that dominates and exploits him: and the capitalist as constantly produces labour-power, but in the form of a subjective source of wealth, separated from the objects in and by which it can alone be realised; in short he produces the labourer, but as a wage-labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine quâ non of capitalist production.

The labourer consumes in a two-told way. While producing he consumes by his labour the means of production, and converts them into products with a higher value than that of the capital advanced This is his productive consumption. It is at the same time consumption of his labour-power by the capitalist who bought it. On the other hand, the labourer turns the money paid to him for his labour-power, into means of subsistence: this is his individual consumption. The labourer’s productive consumption, and his individual consumption, are therefore totally distinct. In the former, he acts as the motive power of capital, and belongs to the capitalist. In the latter, he belongs to himself, and performs his necessary vital functions outside the process of production. The result of the one is, that the capitalist lives; of the other, that the labourer lives. When treating of the working-day, we saw that the labourer is often compelled to make his individual consumption a mere incident of production. In such a case, he supplies himself with necessaries in order to maintain his labour-power, just as coal and water are supplied to the steam-engine and oil to the wheel. His means of consumption, in that case, are the mere means of consumption required by a means of production; his individual consumption is directly productive consumption. This, however, appears to be an abuse not essentially appertaining to capitalist production.

The matter takes quite another aspect, when we contemplate, not the single capitalist, and the single labourer, but the capitalist class and the labouring class, not an isolated process of production, but capitalist production in full swing, and on its actual social scale. By converting part of his capital into labour-power, the capitalist augments the value of his entire capital. He kills two birds with one stone. He profits, not only by what he receives from but by what be gives to, the labourer. The capital given in exchange for labour-power is converted into necessaries, by the consumption of which the muscles, nerves, bones, and brains of existing labourers are reproduced, and new labourers are begotten. Within the limits of what is strictly necessary, the individual consumption of the working-class is, therefore, the reconversion of the means of subsistence given by capital in exchange for labour-power, into fresh labour-power at the disposal of capital for exploitation. It is the production and reproduction of that means of production so indispensable to the capitalist: the labourer himself. The individual consumption of the labourer, whether it proceed within the workshop or outside it, whether it be part of the process of production or not, forms therefore a factor of the production and reproduction of capital; just as cleaning machinery does, whether it be done while the machinery is working or while it is standing. The fact that the labourer consumes his means of subsistence for his own purposes, and not to please the capitalist, has no bearing on the matter. The consumption of food by a beast of burden is none the less a necessary factor in the process of production, because the beast enjoys what it eats. The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation. All the capitalist cares for, is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary, and he is far away from imitating those brutal South Americans, who force their labourers to take the more substantial, rather than the less substantial, kind of food.

Hence both the capitalist and his ideological representative, the political economist, consider that part alone of the labourer’s individual consumption to be productive, which is requisite for the perpetuation of the class, and which therefore must take place in order that the capitalist may have labour-power to consume; what the labourer consumes for his own pleasure beyond that part, is unproductive consumption. If the accumulation of capital were to cause a rise of wages and an increase in the abourer’s consumption, unaccompanied by increase in the consumption of labour-power by capital, the additional capital would be consumed unproductively. In reality, the individual consumption of the labourer is unproductive as regards himself, for it reproduces nothing but the needy individual; it is productive to the capitalist and to the State, since it is the production of the power that creates their wealth.

From a social point of view, therefore, the working-class, even when not directly engaged in the labour-process, is just as much an appendage of capital as the ordinary instruments of labour. Even its individual consumption is, within certain limits, a mere factor in the process of production. (…) The reproduction of the working-class carries with it the accumulation of skill, that is handed down from one generation to another.” (716-720.) Marx adds in a footnote, “individual consumption by the labourer becomes consumption on behalf of capital-or productive consumption” (724).