I just stumbled across “The Sadness of Post-Workerism,” a review by David Graeber of an event that several thinkers from post-operaismo (often called autonomist marxism in a narrowing conflation). Graeber’s brief positive claims or gestures toward positive claims don’t move me, but his negative remarks are dead on. In many ways the essay works out his closing class for post-operaismo thinkers to “extricate [them]selves from the shackles of fashion, the need to constantly say that whatever is happening now is necessarily unique and unprecedented.” Extensive quotes below of the bits I like best. The review is worth reading in its entirety. Brought to you by the good people at The Commoner (commoner.org.uk). http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=33

Oh yeah, let me just add: “workerism” is an annoying translation of “operaismo.” It’s correct in a literal sense, but misleading in that it blurs the specific currents of Italian operaismo into broader/disparate currents derided as workerist by their opponents. I’m told the term had as much to do with the name of a journal (Classe operaiso) as it did with them being ‘workerist’. Anyhow, the quotes:

Post-operaismo involves a “trick [which] only works if you do not, under any circumstances, reinterpret the past in the light of the present. One could after all go back and ask whether it ever really made sense to think of commodities as objects whose value was simply the product of factory labor in the first place. (…)Wasn’t the creation of value always in this sense a collective undertaking? One could, even, start from the belated recognition of the importance of women’s labor to reimagine Marxist categories in general, to recognize that what we call “domestic” or even “reproductive” labor, the labor of creating people and social relations, has always been the most important form of human endeavor in any society”

Immaterial labor is “a genuinely strange concept, combining a kind of frenzied postmodernism, with the most clunky, old-fashioned Marxist material determinism.” The “very notion that there is something that can be referred to as “immaterial labor” relies on a remarkably crude, old fashioned kind of Marxism. Immaterial labor, we are told, is labor that produces information and culture. In other words it is “immaterial” not because the labor itself is immaterial (how could it be?) but because it produces immaterial things. This idea that different sorts of labor can be sorted into more material, and less material categories according to the nature of their product is the basis for the whole conception that societies consist of a “material base” (the production, again, of wheat, socks and petrochemicals) and “ideological superstructure” (the production of music, culture, laws, religion, essays such as this). This is what’s allowed generations of Marxists to declare that most of what we call “culture” is really just so much fluff, at best a reflex of the really important stuff going on in fields and foundries. What all such conceptions ignore what is to my mind probably the single most powerful, and enduring insight of Marxist theory: that the world does not really consist (as capitalists would encourage us to believe) of a collection of discrete objects, that can then be bought and sold, but of actions and processes.”

“By bringing in terms like “immaterial labor”, authors like Lazzarato and Negri, bizarrely, seem to want to turn back the theory clock to somewhere around 1935.” Graeber adds in a footnote: “Lazzarato for example argues that “the old dichotomy between ‘mental and manual labor,’ or between ‘material labor and immaterial labor,’ risks failing to grasp the new nature of productive activity, which takes the separation on board and transforms it. The split between conception and execution, between labor and creativity, between author and audience, is simultaneously transcended within the ‘labor process’ and reimposed as political command within the ‘process of valorization’” (Maurizio Lazzarato, “General Intellect: Towards an Inquiry into Immaterial Labour”, http://www.geocities.com/immateriallabour/lazzarato-immaterial-labor.html. Note here that (a) Lazzarato implies that the old manual/mental distinction was appropriate in earlier periods, and (b) what he describes appears to be for all intents and purposes exactly the kind of dialectical motion of encompassment he elsewhere condemns and rejects as way of understanding history (or anything else): an opposition is “transcended”, yet maintained. No doubt Lazzarato would come up with reasons about why what he is arguing is in fact profoundly different and un-dialectical, but for me, this is precisely the aspect of dialectics we might do well to question; a more helpful approach would be to ask how the opposition between manual and mental (etc) is produced.”

He continues: “something very similar is happening with the
notion of “the biopolitical”, the premise that it is the peculiar quality of modern states that they concern themselves with health, fertility, the regulation of life itself. The premise is extremely dubious: states have been concerned with promulgating health and fertility since the time of Frazerian sacred kings, but the same thing seems to be happening here. The insistence that we are dealing with something entirely, dramatically new becomes a way of preserving extremely old-fashioned habits of thought that might otherwise be thrown into question. After all, one of the typical ways of dismissing the importance of women’s work has always been to relegate it to the domain of nature. The process of caring for, educating, nurturing, and generally crafting human beings is reduced to the implicitly biological domain of “reproduction”, which is then considered secondary for that very reason. Instead of using new developments to problematize this split, the impulse seems to be to declare that, just as commodity production has exploded the factory walls and come to pervade every aspect of our experience, so has biological reproduction exploded the walls of the home and pervade everything as well—this time, through the state. The result is a kind of sledge-hammer approach that once again, makes it almost impossible to reexamine our original theoretical assumptions.”

“In each case, we are presented with a series of historical stages: from societies of discipline to societies of security, from conjunction to connection, etc. We are not dealing with a series of complete conceptual breaks; at least, no one seems to imagine that is impossible to understand any one stage from the perspective of any of the others. But oddly, all of the speakers in question subscribed to the theory that history should be conceived as a series of complete conceptual breaks, so total, in fact, that it’s hard to see how this would be possible. In part this is the legacy of Marxism, which always tends to insist that since capitalism forms an all-encompassing totality that shapes our most basic assumptions about the nature of society, we simply cannot conceive what a future society would be like. (Though no Marxist, oddly, seems to think we should have similar problems trying to understand past societies.) In this case, though, it is just as much the legacy of Michel Foucault, who radicalized this idea of a series of all-encompassing historical stages even further with his notion of epistemes: that the very conception of truth changes completely from one historical period to the next. Here, too, each historical period forms such a total system that it is impossible to imagine one gradually transforming into another; instead, we have a series of conceptual revolutions, of total breaks or ruptures. All of the speakers at the conference were drawing, in one way another, on both the Marxian and Foucauldian traditions—and some of the terms used for historical stages (“real subsumption”, “societies of discipline”…) drew explicitly on one or the other. Thus all of them were faced with the same conceptual problem. How could it be possible to come up with such a typology? How is it possible for someone trapped inside one historical period to be able to grasp the overall structure of history through which one stage replaces the other?”