Maurizio Lazzarato's inquiry into the production of informational/cultural content as a commodity.
Towards an Inquiry into Immaterial Labour
by Maurizio Lazzarato
translated by Ed Emery
[TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: This is a rough working version. I have put it on this site while we work on the final text. Please do not copy or circulate]
There has by now been a significant quanity of empirical research into the new forms of organisation of labour, and a corresponding wealth of theoretical reflection on the question, and all this has begun to highlight a new concept of labour and the new relations of power which this implies.
A first synthesis of these results, conducted from a particular viewpoint (that relating to a definition of the technical and subjective-political composition of the working class), can be expressed via the concept of immaterial labour, wherein immaterial labour is the labour which produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity. This concept refers to two different methodologies of labour: on the one hand, as regards the "informational content" of the commodity, it alludes directly to the modifications of working-class labour in the big industrial concerns and big organisations in the tertiary sector where the jobs of immediate labour are increasingly subordinated to the capactities of treatment of information (and of horizontal and vertical communication). On the other hand, as regards the activity which produces the "cultural content" of the commodity, it alludes to a series of activities which, normally speaking, are not codified as labour, in other words to all the activities which tend to define and fix cultural and artistic norms, fashions, tastes, consumer standards and, more strategically, public opinion. Once the privileged domain of the bourgeoisie and its children, these activities are today a spreading,* after the end of the 1970s, of what has been defined as "mass intellectuality". The profound modifications in the strategic sectors have changed radically not only the composition, the management and the regulation of the workforce, the norms of production, but more deeply still the role and function of intellectuals and of their activity within society.
The "great transformation", which began at the start of the 1970s, have altered the very terms of the question. Manual labour incorporates increasing numbers of "intellectual" procedures, and the new technologies of communication involve increasingly subjectivities that are rich in knowledge. Not only has intellectual labour has not only been subjected to the norms of capitalist production, but a new "mass intellectuality" has been constituted between the demands of production and the forms of "self valorisation" that the struggle against work has produced. The opposition between manual labour and intellectual labour, or between material labour and immaterial labour, risks failing to grtasp the new nature of the productive activity which integrates and transforms this separation./ The division between conception and execution, between labour and creation, between author and public, is at the same time overcome within the "labour process" and re imposed as political command within the "process of valorisation".
The Restructured Worker
Twenty years of restructuring of the big factories has led to a strange paradox. In effect, what has been set up is the variants of the post-Fordist model both on the defeat of the Fordist worker and on the recognition of the centrality of living labour, everincreasingly intellectualised within production. In the big restructured undertaking, the work of the worker is a work which increasingly implies, at various levels, the ability to choose between different alternatives, and thus a responsibility in regard to given decisions taken. The concept of "interface", used by sociologists in the field of communications, gives full account of this activity of the worker. Interface between different functions, between different work-teams, between levels of the hierarchy, etc... As the new management prescribes, today it is "the soul of the worker which must come down into the factory". It's his personality, his subjectivity which must be organised and commanded. Quality and quantity of labour are organised around its immateriality. This transformation of workingclass labour into labour of control, of management of information, into a decision-making capacity which requirtes the investment of subjectivity, touches workers in varying ways, according to their function within the factory heirarchy, but is nonetheless present as an irreversible process. Work can, thus, be defined as the ability to activate and manage productive cooperation. The workers must become "active subjects" in the coordination of the different functions of production, instead of being subjected to it as simple command. Collective learning becomes the heart of productivity, because it is not a matter of composing differently, or organising competences which are already codified, but of looking for new ones.
However, the problem of subjectivity and of its collective form, of its constitution and its development, has immediately become a problem of a clash between social classes within the organisation of labour.
We would stress that we are not describing a Utopian place of recomposition, but the terrain and the very conditions of the clash between social classes.
The capitalist must command subjectivity as such, without any mediation; the prescription of tasks has been transformed into a prescription for subjectivities, according to a felicitous definition of the team of researchers who have analysed "the caprices of the flow".* "You are subjects" is thus the new command which rings out within Western societies. Participative management is a technology of power, a technology of constitution and of control of the "relationship of subjectivation". If subjectivity cannot be limited to tasks of execution, it is necessary for its competences of management, communication and creativity to be compatible with the conditions of "production for production". "You are subjects" is thus a slogan which, far from cancelling the antagonism between hierarchy and cooperation, between autonomy and command, reposes it at a higher level, because it mobilises and confronts itself with the individual personality itself, of the worker. First and foremost we are dealing with an authoritarian discourse: one must express oneself, one must speak, one must communicate, one must cooperate. The "tone" is exactly the same as that of those who were in executive command within Taylorist organisation; what has changed is the content. Second, if it is no longer possible to individualise rigidly tasks and competences (labour as it is imposed by the scientific organisation of labour), but if, on the contrary, it is necessary to open them to cooperation and collective coordination, the "subjects must be subjects of communication", active participants within a work team. The relationship of communication (both vertical and horizontal) is thus completely predetermined within content and also in form; it is subordinated to the "circulation of information" and can only be one of its aspects. The subject is a simple relay of codification and decodification, whose transmitted message must be "clear and without ambiguity", within a context of communication that has been completely normalised by the firm.* The necessity of commanding, and the violence which is co-natural to it, here take on a normative communicative form.
The management watchword "you are to be subjects of communication" risks becoming even more totalitarian than the rigid division between conception and execution, because the capitalist would seek to involve the very subjectivity and will of the worker within the production of value. He would want command to arise from the subject himself, and from the communcative process: the worker self-controls himself and self-responsibilises himself within his team without an intervention by the foreman, whose role would be redefined as a role of an animator.* In reality, entrepreneurs are tired of the puzzle presented by the necessity to recognise autonomy and freedom of labour as only possible forms of productive cooperation and the necessity (a life and death necessity for the capitalist) of not "redistributing" the power which the new quality of labour and its organisation imply. The new management only takes into consideration the subjectivity of the worker with a view to codifying it according to the modalities and finalities of production. What this phase of transformation still succeeds in hiding is that the individual and collective interests of the workers and those of the company are not one and the same.
If we define working-class work as an abstract activity which relates back to* subjectivity, we do however need to avoind any misunderstanding. This form of productive activity does not belong only to the more qualified workers; it is more a matter of a use value of labour-power today, and more generally, of the form of the activity of each productive subject within post-industrial society. One could say that within the qualified worker, the "communicational model" is already determined, constituted, and that its potentialities are already defined; whereas within the young worker, the "precarious" worker, the unemployed youth, we are dealing with a pure virtuality, fo a capacity which is still indeterminate but which shares already all the characteristics of post-industrial productive subjectivity. The virtuality of this capacity is neither empty nor ahistoric; it is, rather, a matter of an opening and of a potentiality which have as their presupposition and historical origins the "struggle against work" of the Fordist worker, and, closer to us, the process of socialisation, formation and cultural self-valorisation.
This transformation of labour appears even more evident when one studies the social cycle of production (the "diffuse factory", organisation of decentred labour on the one hand and the various forms of tertiarisation on the other). Here one can measure the extent to which the cycle of immaterial labour has taken on a strategic role within the global organisation of production. the activities of research, conceptualisation, management of human resources, together with all the tertiary activities, are organised within computerised and telematic networks, which can only explain the cycle of production and of the organisation of labour. The integration of scientific and industrial and tertiary labour becomes one of the principal sources of productivity and passes through the cycles of production examined previously which organise it.*
"Immaterial Labour" Properly Defined
All the characteristics of the post-industrial economy (present both in industry and at a territorial level) are heightened within the form of "immaterial" production properly defined: audiovisual production, advertising, fashion, the production of software, photography, cultural activities etc.
The activities of this kind of immaterial labour oblige us to question the classic definitions of "work" and of "workforce", because they are the result of a synthesis of varying types of savoirfaire (those of intellectual activities, as regards the cultural-informational content, those of manual activities for the ability to put together creativity, imagination and technical and manual labour; and that of entrepreneurial activities for that capacity of management of their social relations and of structuration of the social cooperation of which they are a part). This immaterial labour constitutes itself in forms that are immediately collective, and, so to speak, exists only in the form of network and flow. The organisation of its cycle of production, because this is precisely what we are dealing with, once we abandon our factoryist prejudgements) is not immediately visible because it is not confined by the walls of a factory. The localtion within which it is exercised is immediately at the territorial level: the basin of immaterial labour. Small and very small "productive units" (being often only one individual) are organised for ad hoc projects and are used for the given time of work. The cycle of production emerges only when it is solicited* by the capitalist, then to dissolve, once "order" has been determined, within networks and flows which permit the reproduction and enrichment of its productive capacities. Precariousness, hyperexploitation, mobility and hierarchy are what characterise metropolitan immaterial labour. Behind the label of the "independent or dependent" worker is hidden a true and proper intellectual proletarian, recognised as such only by the employers who exploit them.
What is worh noting, within these activities, is that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish free time from labour time. We find ourselves in front of a global lifetime which, in a certain sense, coincides with work.
This form of work is, at the same time, characterised by real entrepreneurial competences, which consist:
a) in a sort of ability of management of its social relations;
b) in the stimulation of social cooperation within
the basin of immaterial labour and within its structuration.
Thus the quality of this kind of workforce doesn't reside solely in its professional capacities (which enable the construction of the cultural-informational content of the commodity), but also of its competences of "management" of its own activity and as coordinator of a different immaterial labour (production and management of the cycle).
This immaterial labour appears as a true mutation of "living labour".
Here the distancing from the Taylorist model is at its maximum.
Immaterial labour finds itself at the crossroads (is the interface) of a new relationship between production and consumption. The activation, both of productive cooperation and of the social relationship with the consumer, is materialised within and by the process of communication. It is immaterial labour which continually innovates the form and the conditions of communication (and thus of work and of consumption). It gives form and materialises needs, images, the tastes of consumers and these products become in their turn powerful producers of needs, of images and of tastes. The particularity of the commodity produced through immaterial labour (seeing that its essential use-value is given by its value contained, informational and cultural)* consists in the fact that this is not destroyed in the act of consumption, but enlarges, transforms, creates the "ideological" and cultural environment of the consumer. This does not produce the physical capacity of the workforce, it transforms the person who uses it. Immaterial labour produces first of all a "social relationship" (a relationship of innovation, of production, of consumption); and only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value. This activity shows immediately that which material production "hid": in other words, labour produces not only commodities, but first and foremost the capital relationship.
The Autonomy of the Productive Synergies within Immaterial Labour
Our working hypothesis consists in the observation that the cycle of immaterial labour is preconstituted on the basis of a social workforce which is autonomous, and able to organise its own work as its own relations with the enterprise. Industry does not form this new workforce, but simply recuperates it and adapts it. The control of industry, on this new workforce, is predisposed by an independent organisation and by a free "entrepreneurial activity" of its productive force. Proceeding on this terrain, we enter into the debate on the nature of work in the post-Fordist phase of the organisation of labour. Among economists, the predominant view of this problematic can be related back to a statement: immaterial labour reveals itself within the forms of organisation which industrial centralisation allows to it. On this terrain, and on the same basis, two schools differ: one is the extension of the neoclassical analysis; the other is that of systems theory.
In the first, the attempt to solve the problem consists in a redefinition of the problematic of the market. They ask whether, in order to explain the phenomena of communication and the new dimensions of organisation, there should not be introduced, not only cooperation and intensity of labour, but other analytical variables (anthropological? immaterial?) and whether on this basis there should not be other objectives of optimisation introduced, etc.
In reality, the neo-classical model finds great difficulties in freeing itself from the constrictions of coherenece imposed by the theory of general equilibrium. The new phenomenologies of labour, the new dimensions of organisation, of communication, the power (potenza) of spontaneous synergies, the autonomy of subjects, the independence of the networks, were neither foreseen nor foreseeable by a general theory which considered material labour and the industrial economy as indispensable. Today, with the new data available, the micro-economy revolts against the macro-economy, and the classical model is corroded by a new irreducible anthropology.
Systems theory, eliminating the constriction of the market and giving the central place to organisation, is more open to the new phenomenology of labour, and in particular to the emergence of immaterial labour. In the more highly developed systemic theories, organisation is conceived as the ensemble of material and immaterial dispositives,* both individual and collective, which can permit a given group to reach objectives. In order to assure the success of this organisational process, there are foreseen instruments of regulation, either voluntary or automatic. A consideration from the viewpoint of social synergies becomes possible, immaterial labour can be taken on board, in consideration of its global efficacy. Nonetheless these points of view remain tied to an image of the organisation of work and of its social territory, within which the afficiacious activity from the economic point of view (that is to say, the activity conforming to the objective) cannot not be considered as a surplus in relation to a collective cognitive dispositive. Sociology, as economy of labour, systemic, cannot detach themselves from this presupposition.
We think that the analysis of immaterial labour and the description of its organisation can lead us beyond the presuppositions of enterprise theory which itself developed under the form of the neoclassical school or under the school of systems theory; we think, meanwhile, that it can lead us to define, at a territorial level, a location of radical autonomy of productive synergies of immaterial labour. Against the old schools, the viewpoint of a constitutive "anthropo-sociology" can thus be decisively established.
With the predominance of this latter within social production, we find ourselves facing an interruption within the continuity of productive models. With this we mean that, unlike what is thought by many theoreticians of postFordism, we do not believe that this new workforce is solely functional to a new historical phase of capitalism and of its process of accumulation and reproduction; this workforce is thus the product of a "silent revolution" which is taking place within the anthropology of work and within the reconfiguration of its senses and its significance. Waged labour and direct subjugation (to organisation) are no longer the principal form of the contractual relationship between capitalist and worker; polymorphous autonomous work emerges as the dominant form, a kind of "intellectual worker" (operaio intellettuale) who is himself an entrepreneur, inserted within a market that is mobile and within networks that are changeable in time and space.
The Inquiry: From the Concept of General Intellect to a Project of Research/Organisation
If the "discovery" of the Marxian concept of "General Intellect" guaranteed a sure theoretical and political anticipation, today this anticipation has become a reality of management and of organisation of the collective capitalist. During the 1980s, at a worldwide level, production and command were rearticulated along the lines of the networks and flows of immaterial labour. Its cooperation and its subjectivity guaranteed management, innovation, productivity of the post-Taylorist system. The class anticipation sprang out* against the massive and imposing "setting-to-work" of general intellect. In these conditions, also a theoretical advance, requires as an absolutely necessary presupposition an inquiry into the powerful economic, productive and political threads* woven around immaterial labour. An inquiry into the material power (potenza) of the immaterial will only be able to bring forth convincing results if it takes on the necessity of the political constitution of the "general intellect" as a precondition.