It’s been a little while since I’ve engaged much with Negri’s recent work or other post-operaismo material. Given how phenomenally important all of that was to me, it’s been a really long time, relatively speaking. I just stumbled across a translation of Negri’s response to Macherey’s criticisms of his recent work, an excerpt from which is pasted below.

I believe that critical thought, yesterday as today, still consists of placing the exploitation of labor power at the center of our theoretical framework. From this point of view, I reaffirm my fidelity to the critical mission of materialism. In reality, the new face of productive labor (intellectual, relational, linguistic, and affective, rather than physical, individual, muscular, instrumental) does not understate but accentuates the corporality and materiality of labor. It is clear that this transformation must always be considered in relative terms: in terms, however, that tend towards the real. We offer neither apology nor enthusiasm for this transformation of labor: who would argue that the fatigue of a call center operator is less (albeit absolutely different) than that of a steel worker of a century ago? Who would argue that the nurse working in a computerized hospital asks less of her body than did a coal miner? From another point of view, there are surely elements that aggravate the exploitation of “immaterial” labor (this term is not completely satisfying but it is the best that I know for marking this paradigm shift): the post-modern dissolution of space and labor time (the “work day” dissolves with increasing flexibility, the “factory” with increasing mobility), and the disappearance of temporal criteria for measuring labor (the classical law of labor value no longer holds as a measure of exploitation and, therefore, no longer provides the basis for a politico-syndical relation of force). A series of paradoxes follow from this point. For example, the laborer feels alone despite working in a cooperative and relational network: the multitude produces solitude. Or, inversely: the productive capacity of cognitive labor always exceeds the time spent in general at work (because intellectual labor cannot be reduced to simple intervals of time, and because the means of production do not lose but gain value during the labor process). Faced with these paradoxes, exploitation appears, in a manner more violent than ever, as the expropriation of the excesses created by intellectual labor, by cooperation itself.

If the classical descriptions of the “work day” and the law of value/labor no longer correspond to reality; if, moreover, we accept that labor remains at the center of production and constitutes the motor of all productivity, then we must also realize that we are now entering a new historical epoch, a new age of exploitation.

Massimiliano Tomba’s essay in the last issue of the Commoner is good and relevant on the periodization here. I’ve written many a blog post and the occasional paper on the topic too. It simply is not the case that there is a transition which has occurred like that which Negri describes. There certainly have been important changes in capitalism (though there are important continuities as well which I think Negri understates) but Negri’s periodization strikes me as at best a clumsy took for grasping this – like trying to catch a ball while wearing oven mits or with grease on one’s hands.

It’s not at all clear that “the classical descriptions of the “work day” and the law of value/labor no longer correspond to reality” though Negri is convinced it is. His conditional is rhetorical, not sincere – there is no question “if” the transition has happened. It has for Negri. Interestingly and I think revealingly, Negri has asserted the supercession of the law value since at least the late 1970s, well before his post-structural vocabulary and his attention to the affective and immaterial. It seems to me the case that his resort to that vocabulary and that attention is at least as much the result or expression of (that is, it’s motivated by a desire to retain) his views on the law of value as it is the case that this vocabulary and attention support his arguments about value.

To say that “exploitation appears, in a manner more violent than ever, as the expropriation of the excesses created by (…) cooperation itself” in the present neglects that capitalist exploitation was always the exploitation of cooperation (as detailed in the chapter on cooperation in v1 of Capital) in the workplace. Negri has written that today the workers no longer need the capitalist to provide the framework for cooperation, something which is a) in one sense true for some particular industries but false for others, b) in that same sense has long been true for many industries, and c) in another sense not only false but perniciously so, in that for Negri this means that the working class acquired a new or newly increased capacity for the autonomous production of social relations: the working class has always had this capacity, though it has been expressed in a variety of modes changing historically and geographically and by social strata. Negri’s new or newly increased capacity for cooperation in the present is a theoretical fiction deriving from an equally fictional minimizing of said capacities as they have existed in the past. This claim is problematic in a third sense as well: not only is cooperation present in production, but in reproduction as well. The commodity labor power enters the marketplace already the product of past and implicated in present cooperation outside the formally recognized workday. Negri’s lack of attention to this form of cooperation and its productivity is a failure to take reproductive labor and at least a certain type of feminism seriously enough.

As a result, each of these statements or their implications are overstated:

“the nurse working in a computerized hospital asks [as much] of her body than did a coal miner” – this is true, but not only of nurses in informationalized labor, and true of other and older reproductive labors. Also, coal miners are not a group who only “did” but also a group who “do”, which is to say, coal miners exist and are not a temporal throwback.

“the “work day” dissolves” – for reproductive labor it could be argued that the work day was always already dissolved, flexibilized, etc. At one point I beleive in the 90s (I can chase up the reference if anyone cares), Negri referred to the transition he believes he sees as the “becoming woman of labor,” somewhat akin to what Mies has called the housewife-ization of labor. This transition may be happening and is an important matter, but one can not adequately assess transition if one starts with an impoverished few of the past out of or from which we are allegedly transitioning.

“the disappearance of temporal criteria for measuring labor” – ditto. For both, it’s also arguable that the work day was and still is measurable and measured and solid (or whatever the opposite of “dissolved” is).

“the classical law of labor value no longer holds as a measure of exploitation and, therefore, no longer provides the basis for a politico-syndical relation of force” – again ditto. I don’t think Negri’s right about the law of value and even if he is then he gets that particular transition wrong. It’s also indicative that the story about “politico-syndical relations of force” is one of supercession – a “no longer” – rather than one of critique. Those once left out of that organizational form (in some parts of the world, anyway) are newly subjects in the present because of the present changed form of labor, according to Negri’s argument. This implies that these forms were once adequate and those excluded were once not subjects.

“the laborer feels alone despite working in a cooperative and relational network” – this also can apply to housework and traditional “women’s work.”

“the productive capacity of cognitive labor always exceeds the time spent in general at work” – this is true of all labor as I understand the claim. Even bad old Marxism saw a productive excess in waged labor: it was believed to discipline the working class, unite them, train and organize them to become capital’s grave diggers. The argument I mention above about reproductive labor also entails a view that the productive capacities used in reproducing labor power could be used to produce other forms of life, the same view holds for the critique of capitalist productive.

A friend of mine recently suggested that Negri and Hardt’s work may have something in common with post-feminism. I’m not familiar with anything like that. My reaction is summed up in the t-shirt slogan: “I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.” That remark, though, makes me interested for the first time in trying to get to know that literature. Not any time soon, I’m still trying to get up to speed on feminist political economy and history (I will say the minimal degree to which I feel more up to speed on that makes me exponentially more confident about Negri being wrong about this stuff), but that seems a relevant line of inquiry eventually, though one which will probably be pretty annoying. It also seems to me that this may provide a fruitful avenue for reconsidering Negri’s early work on the law of value, which seems to be one of the constitutive axes of his work for the duration of his career at least since 1980.

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