This started out as a comment over at Rough Theory but got too long so I figure I’ll post it here. NP mentioned something Mike Beggs (the name of whom I must finally admit always makes me think of the Goldie Lookin’ Chain because one of them has a similar name, though a worse grasp on Marx) said in discussion on the post below on Negri (it’s a flurry of link and counterlink, like a chess game of cooperation except without horses, bishops, or other animals), about how overblown responses to immaterial labor seem to involve a mistaken understanding of Marx’s account of abstract labor. I won’t summarize further, the post and discussion are worth reading in full. At present I continue to have to do more of the work I’m paid to do and less internet stuff if I’m to avoid near-panic, so I will add much of the substance of the post and discussion to the long list of stuff I plan to read and respond to in full when I eventually get time.

For now a somewhat tangential comment on the immaterial labor bits. First, not prompted by the discussion so much as something I remembered I’d wanted to say (and which I’ve tried to say before but I’m not sure with how much success, like this old post from when Negri first started to unravel for me and this post that I never followed up on, referencing Plato and obliquely Leibnitz) which is that I feel there’s a serious mistake made in some of the discussions of immaterial labor that link immaterial labor to political forms. Virno writes somewhere that Aristotle/Arendt’s (I think it was their’s) formulation of the division between politics, art, and whatsitcalled – thought maybe? – has broken down due to immaterial labor. The first problem is that it’s not clear that this formulation ever held. Worse still is the attribution of new capacities – new abilities to autonomously produce sociality, new powers of cooperation, and new capacities for the working class to exist not just in itself but for itself – based on changes in labor. This forgets precisely that labor under capitalism is abstract labor (see Mike and NP for more on that category) and implies a derivation of communist subjectivity from capitalism (put schematically, capitalism is an order of reduction into a single quality which is quantified; the immaterial labor mistake is to suggest that this qualitative reduction makes possible new qualitative multiplicity, a very old bad marxist mistake).

The issue for me is the type of novelty implied in “new.” “New” as in “a new mode” is fine. “A new mode of ability to autonomously produce sociality,” “a new mode of power of cooperation,” “a new mode of capacity to produce the class for itself,” fine and good. That implies that these abilities, powers, capacities are not new. That is, it is not the case that the working class prior to the transition to immaterial labor etc (whenever the moment of transition is alleged to have happened) lacked the capacity for producing sociality, cooperating, being class for itself, etc. Unfortunately this is I think implied in the immaterial labor stuff – the bad (and false) claim to historical novelty rather than the innocuous (and true) one. I know I’ve said this before, but this strikes me as going back on one of the most important bits of operaismo from what I know of that material, in that this post-operaismo immaterial labor stuff derives political capacities from the technical composition of the class as it currently stands – schematically, a technizing of politics. The point instead as I took it was that the current technical composition was the result of the prior political composition and struggles around that (capitalist reaction), a politicizing of the technical. Also, it’s not at all clear to me how much of the exciting bits of history make sense based on the ideas implied in the post-operaismo immaterial labor stuff (which doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem for that discourse because its practitioners don’t seem to want to do or read much history, to be uncharitable for a moment).

Anyhow, second tangent (it’s like a tangent fork) – NP writes

Whatever stance one wants to take toward Marx’s theory, it is somewhat difficult to see how the development of service industries, the rise to prominence of “knowledge workers”, the development of some kind of “creative class”, or similar trends often cited as evidence of a shift toward “immaterial labour”, would have much to do one way or the other with the “theory of value” that Marx articulates.

Marx is very clear, very early in Capital, that his notion of “use value” and of “labour” is extremely broad, and can comfortably encompass the sorts of activities that some theories currently attempt to pick out with concepts like “immaterial labour”.

Mike writes

my reason for highlighting the collective aspect of abstract labour was that I think it is a confusion over this that leads people to think ‘immaterial labour’ requires a rethink of ‘value’. I take it that people notice that an awful lot of workers in advanced capitalist society are not directly involved in the physical production of commodities – they are ’symbolic manipulators’ or whatever. But labour doesn’t have to be _physically_ involved in producing a commodity to be necessary to commodity production.

But as soon as you admit that, it becomes more difficult to work out ‘how much’ each individual labourer is contributing in value terms. At a newspaper, say, what part of the product is produced by the journalist, the printer, the ad rep? Competitive pressures are felt on the commodity and the production unit as a whole.

I tend to argue that each kind of labour is necessary, and each labour process is rationalised by capital because of competition between capitals, so it seems reasonable to say, if you want to look at it on an individual level, that each person contributes equally.

(On the competition bit, see this brief post by Massimo as well.)

This reminded me of these bits from v2 of Capital (chapter 1 section 4 –

“there are certain independent branches of industry in which the product of the productive process is not a new material product, is not a commodity. Among these only the communications industry, whether engaged in transportation proper, of goods and passengers, or in the mere transmission of communications, letters, telegrams, etc., is economically important.

(… )

what the transportation industry sells is change of location. The useful effect is inseparably connected with the process of transportation, i.e., the productive process of the transport industry. Men and goods travel together with the means of transportation, and their traveling, this locomotion, constitutes the process of production effected by these means. The useful effect can be consumed only during this process of production. It does not exist as a utility different from this process, a use-thing which does not function as an article of commerce, does not circulate as a commodity, until after it has been produced. But the exchange-value of this useful effect is determined, like that of any other commodity, by the value of the elements of production (labour-power and means of production) consumed in it plus the surplus-value created by the surplus-labour of the labourers employed in transportation. This useful effect also entertains the very same relations to consumption that other commodities do. If it is consumed individually its value disappears during its consumption; if it is consumed productively so as to constitute by itself a stage in the production of the commodities being transported, its value is transferred as an additional value to the commodity itself. The formula for the transport industry would therefore be M — Clmp … P — M’, since it is the process of production itself that is paid for and consumed, not a product separate and distinct from it. Hence this formula has almost the same form as that of the production of precious metals, the only difference being that in this case M’ represents the converted form of the useful effect created during the process of production, and not the bodily form of the gold or silver produced in this process and extruded from it.”

I quote this for two reasons. One is that some of the qualities occasionally pointed to about immaterial labor (like in Virno’s discussion of “virtuousity”) are present here. This activity does not immediately appear productive, though it is for Marx. It has the quality of being sort of performative: what is sold is the act of the workers, not an object existing outside the person or persons who work. He also mentions an early case of the type of immaterial labor that most commentators on the term are most interested in, which is the information side – telegrams and all that. This labor also fits with the stuff Mike is referencing in his comment quoted above. As do the reproductive labors I’ve been concerned with lately particularly in regard to Negri and immaterial labor – many of these labors are or appear not directly or physically involved in the production of any specific commodity, but are still necessary and still get pressures from capital.

It also strikes me that the formula Marx names here might be applicable to those labors: the housewife’s services (re)produce labor power via performative actions, or I think more accurately, the type of action described in this quote are an important subset of the labors of reproduction performed (the housewife’s management of when to perform what labors, often just-in-time, including labors which make others possible – shopping then cooking in order to have food ready to serve at the right time, for instance – also involve multitasking and self-management in a way that Hardt and Negri attribute to immaterial laborers, arguably to a degree greater than assembly line work; to be polemical, it seems to me that these activities are equally deserving of being dignified with counting as part of “general intellect”).