The Problem of Value in Post-Fordist Immaterial Labor

The Problem of Value in Post-Fordist Immaterial Labor

Degenerate Communism attempts to problematize the post-autonomist treatment of "value" in regards to immaterial labor. Arguing that value is only produced in the sphere of production by living labor, DC charts the post-autonomist argument for immaterial labor and tries explore its limitations.

It is without question that the terrain of global capitalist development has shifted in radical new ways during the last few decades. Whether one chooses to contextualize the post-Fordist/“New Economy” moment as a reaction to the failure of the labor movements of May 1968, operaismo’s failure during Italy’s “Hot Autumn” of 1969, the 1971 dissolution of the Bretton Woods system and the termination of the gold standard in the United States (which effectively ushers in the era of fiat currency, expanding credit economies, and greater abstraction through financialization), the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 and the ensuing recession, or perhaps most significantly, the collapse of the Soviet Union following the revolutions of 1989 as the “triumph” of liberal capitalism and the end of history, such periodization is fraught with the ontological impulse to qualitatively hold that capitalism has entered into a new phase, or even more contentiously, an entirely new mode of production. While capitalist development has undeniably experienced many structural shifts throughout the course of its development (e.g. the shift from mercantilism to generalized commodity-production in Western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries), the claim that its very nature as the contemporary globalized mode of production has changed so much that surplus value itself becomes detached from the traditional Marxian location of productive labor (living labor) is rife with problems. It is our intent in this essay to argue that while concepts like post-Fordism and immaterial labor are useful in attempting to describe the current form of highly mediated, globalized capitalism that we find ourselves in, the post-autonomist position nonetheless makes the error of conflating a description of symptoms with faulty causation.

What then are these symptoms of post-Fordism? For Paolo Virno, it is a logic that originally stems from the radical politics aligned against capitalism, which finds itself reinscribed and transmuted into a logic of decentralized managerial control. As Virno claims: “Contemporary labor has introjected into itself many characteristics which originally marked the experience of politics. […] It is not that politics has conformed to labor; it is rather that labor has acquired the traditional features of political action” (50-51). It is here that post-Fordism as a shift within capitalist development, starts to signify an increasingly closed system or circular economy where all the antagonisms positioned against capitalist accumulation become, with ever increasing temporal speed, the very methods deployed to increase capital’s efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

Some concrete examples of the integration of a communicative politics into labor itself:

1.) The political clamoring for difference as opposed to the homogenizing impetus of traditional Taylorization results in post-Fordist flexible specialization.

2.) The consensus-based methods of decision-making attempted in the most radical wildcat strikes of the ‘60s and ‘70s against both hierarchical management and traditional union bureaucracy, become a hallmark of the “egalitarian” workplaces of today where labor takes on a communicative aspect within a larger “collective” process (e.g. the problematic trope of the Silicon Valley tech firm). Maurizio Lazzarato writes on this emerging biopolitical self-regulation that “the worker is to be responsible for his or her own control and motivation within the work group without a foreman needing to intervene, and the foreman’s role is redefined into that of a facilitator” (135).

3.) The traditional movements for a shorter working day which are then integrated into post-Fordist logic, result in the paradoxical effect of “freeing” labor-time while concurrently fragmenting leisure-time as well. You, as an individual service producer, now “control” the relationship of your labor to temporality – which seems to run counter to Marx’s claim of an ever-increasing quantitative constraint placed on labor time by capital. As a result however, the clear distinction between work and non-work becomes increasingly blurred, or in Lazzarato’s words: “life becomes inseparable from work” (137). Thus, Virno argues that within the post-Fordist time-space of production, “from the point of view of ‘what’ is done and ‘how’ it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment […and] social time has come unhinged” (103).

4.) Second-wave feminism’s focus on issues of the workplace, the home, familial power dynamics, and reproductive rights becomes synthesized into a greater feminization of labor from the 1980s and onward.

These are just a few of the many concrete examples of the way in which post-Fordism appears as a period in which capitalism has been able to synthesize the traditional antagonisms leveled against it.

All of the once radical propositions for “the abolition of that intolerable scandal, the persistence of wage labor; the extinction of the State as an industry of coercion and as a ‘monopoly of political decision-making’; the valorization of all that which renders the life of an individual unique” are subsequently integrated into a decentralized theory of management in which “these same objectives [are] put forth” by the “communism of capital” (Virno 110). It is precisely at this point, after the adept description of the symptoms of contemporary capitalist production, that the post-autonomist position takes a leap of faith out of the traditional Marxian understanding of material, concrete, productive labor and into the realm of immaterial labor. The problem here is not with the concept itself, as even Marx identifies immaterial labor as a non-productive (in the strict sense of not producing surplus-value) form of intellectual labor in the chapter “Manifestations of Capitalism in the Sphere of Immaterial Production” in his Theories of Surplus-Value. The problem is with the post-autonomist claim “that immaterial labor produces […] economic value” (Lazzarato 142).

At the simplest level of definition, Lazzarato claims that immaterial labor is “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (132). This is inherently a description of the emergence of a type of “communicative” production. We argue that the use of “communicative” here functions as a social lubricant for what the post-autonomists argue is becoming an increasingly absorptive system where the traditional delineation between the spheres of production, circulation, and consumption are becoming blurred. For Lazarrato, communication and language itself become an integral part of post-Fordist capitalism. The “communicative” functions as an “interface” between production, circulation, and consumption – conflating these spheres to the point where it becomes increasingly difficult to locate the site where value itself is now created. Because the communicative interface assumes central importance in the post-Fordist moment, immaterial labor is always producing and reproducing post-Fordist subjectivity. Lazzarato claims that “the capitalist needs to find an unmediated way of establishing command over subjectivity itself; the prescription and definition of tasks transforms into a prescription of subjectivities” (134). It is important here to note however that this is the production of a subjectivity that realizes itself precisely through a deterritorialization of labor-power from the traditional mode of industrial production. Thus, consumption can take on the appearance of production in the sense that the communication involved between these two spheres necessarily influences the movement of value within each. According to Lazzarato, “the consumer is no longer limited to consuming commodities (destroying them in the act of consumption). On the contrary, his or her consumption should be productive in accordance to the necessary conditions and the new products. Consumption is then first of all a consumption of information” (140). As critical as we are of this position, we must concede that the post-autonomist preoccupation with the sphere of consumption does indeed call into question a sphere that Marx under-theorized.

Within this new space of a hyper-dialogic, communicative capitalism it goes without saying that value circulates at ever-increasing speeds, diminishing distance (both temporally and spatially) between post-Fordist capital’s individuated “subjects.” This diminishing distance can thus be seen in the constitution of the individuated post-Fordist subject itself, in their existence as producer/consumer or consumer/producer. Lazzarato argues that “the cycle of reproduction of immaterial labor dislocates the production-consumption relationship” (139). Unmoored from their previously dialectical relationship, the post-Fordist synthesis frames these spheres in an amalgamated manner. If consumption, once traditionally thought to be realized in the consumption of a commodity’s use-value, becomes productive then a concerning problem arises. In a theory of capitalism that conflates the spheres of production, circulation, and consumption, it follows that the creation and valorization of value can occur in any of these spheres. This radically challenges the Marxian notion that value, as surplus-value, is created only within the sphere of production and socially necessary labor-time is its measurement of magnitude.

In “Value | Theory | Crisis” Joshua Clover attempts to complicate this flattening, by bringing the tensions between the spheres of production, consumption, and circulation to the fore. In a compelling periodization, Clover situates the rise of communicative post-Fordism as the post-industrial mode of production with the so-called “linguistic turn” of poststructuralism. Thus, Clover claims that what emerges is a “figure of performative economics, attuned to speech-act theory” (112), which is easily evidenced in Virno’s equation of immaterial labor with “virtuosity.” Clover goes on to argue that treating immaterial labor in this performative-linguistic way “occults its status as an effect – an outcome of critical developments in the circuit of value production” (112). While not dismissing outright the notion of immaterial labor as a description of an effect of the restructuring of contemporary capitalism, Clover here is adamant in arguing that value is still necessarily created by living labor in the sphere of production. He succinctly elucidates this point by claiming that “the rise in finance is correlated with the rise of both speculative value and immaterial labor – but this indicates a problem in production, not a new source or mode” (112).

What then is this “problem in production” in the real economy that the post-autonomists mistake for the cause of value being “dislocated” from productive labor? Clover locates the beginnings of this problem in production with the intensification of “the competition for extant profits” in the wake of the waning of real accumulation after the 1973 recession. This intensification, according to Clover, takes the form of “the offshoring of labor and the tax revolts that inaugurated neoliberalism, in capital’s leap into finance in search of profit, and in the need for manufacturing firms to turn over their stock more swiftly” (112). Thus, we can claim that post-Fordism and immaterial labor emerge here in the midst of the most recent restructuring of the real economy as symptomatic reactions to a larger crisis in production.

Timothy Brennan, in his critique of Empire, claims that the post-autonomists engage in the “juggling of sources” in regards to their use of the famous “Fragment on Machines” section of the Grundrisse. Brennan claims that when Marx speaks of the development of “mass intellectuality” he means it only in relation to the industrial planning involved in the attempts to increase “the ratio of fixed to variable capital” (348). This re-reading of a passage so central to the post-autonomist premise allows Brennan to argue that “there is no hint that Marx equates managerial planning with theoretical inquiry as such, much less that he projects a future in which immaterial values displace basic production as the motor of capitalist profit making” (348). The post-autonomists mistake the spatial and temporal distance between immaterial and traditional productive labor for a new mode of production. Whether productive labor is distanced spatially through its off-shoring in the developing zones, or distanced temporally by financial transactions abstracting the trade of future productive labor – the creation of surplus-value can still only be realized in production.

-Degenerate Communism, December 2014

Works Cited

Brennan, Timothy. “The Empire’s New Clothes.” Critical Inquiry 29.2 (2003): 337-67. Print.

Clover, Joshua. “Value | Theory | Crisis.” PMLA 127.1 (2012): 107-14. Print.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Radical Thought in Italy, a Potential Politics. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota, 1996. Ed. Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno. 132-47. Print.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude for an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2004. Print.