Reflections on Labor Power from Il ricordo del presente

These are excerpts from a book by Paolo Virno, Il ricordo del presente. These all come from the third section of the book.

Submitted by Nate on June 10, 2010

The concept of labor power, even though it is repeated in the words of economic and sociological analyses, has remained largely unthought. Professional philosophers shrug their shoulders in apathy, busying themselves with matters that are only a corollary to labor power (biopolitics, for example). (…)

The capitalist relation of production is based on the difference between labor power and effective labor. Labor power is pure potentiality, very distinct from the corresponding acts: “When we speak of capacity for labour we do not speak of labour, any more than when we speak of capacity for digestion, we speak of digestion.”*1 But it is a potentiality that assumes the concrete prerogatives of the commodity, of a not-yet subject to supply and demand. The capitalist acquires the faculty to produce as such (”the aggregate of of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being,” writes Marx *2), not one or the other determinate prestations. After the purchase-sale has been effected, the buyer employs at will the commodity that they have taken possession of: “The purchaser of labor power consumer it by setting the seller to work. By working, the latter becomes actually, what before he was only potentially”.*3 The really effectuated labor is not limited to compensating the capitalist for money laid out previously with the end of assuring the potential of other people’s labor, but rather which prolongs itself by a supplementary lapse of time: this is the genesis of surplus value, the arcane of capitalist accumulation.


The purchase-sale of laboral capacity is an exchange between juridically equal subjects whose personal liberty is outside the range of discussion. With no little sarcasm for those who reproach capitalism for undermining the State of Right, Marx observes: “Equality and freedom are thus not only respected in exchange based on exchange values but, also, the exchange of exchange values is the productive, real base of all equality and freedom.*4 The content of the transaction must be looked at more closely. Unlike any other commodity, “The use value which the worker has to offer (…) is not materialized in a product, does not exist apart from him at all, thus exists not really, but only in a potentiality, as his capacity.”*5 In way does labor power, that is, something that lacks presence and which “does not really exist” obtain the status of use value alienable in exchange for money? Potentiality comes to be thus only where it is separated radically from the acts that it correlates with. The worker sells her labor power because, deprived from the means of production, she can not apply herself to them on her account. If she were not a free citizen, the proletarian would not be permitted to sell in the market a personal faculty like labor power (all of her person comes to belong, by right, to others). But if she was not expropriated from all economic resources, she would not have any motive to sell labor power. Free and expropriated at the same time: juridical independence marches alongside material dependence.*6 Only the intersection of these two conditions makes it such that potentiality affirms itself in the world of appearances as the concrete realization of an exchange, leading thus to its parousia or revelation.


From the beginning capital appears as an excessive deposit of objectified labor, effected prior time, condensed into exchange value. It seeks in the worker the only thing distinct for it (and in conditions to augment it): “non-objectified labour (…) is still objectifying itself, labour as subjectivity.”*7 Nonobjectified labor, that is, the mere faculty of producing, becomes, however, “is a reality only in the immediate vitality of the worker.”*8 Each time that it seeks to procure labor power, capital runs into a living body. This last, in itself, does not count for anything, within an economic perspective, but is the ineliminable tabernacle of what certainly does matter: “labor as subjectivity.” The living body, without any dowry than pure vitality, becomes the substrate for productive capacity, the tangible sign for productive capacity, the objective simulacrum of nonobjectified labor. If money is the universal representative of exchange value, life is the extrinsic equivalent of the only use value “not materialized in a product.”

The nonmythological origin of the dispositif of knowledges and powers that Michel Foucault defined with the term biopolitics without a doubt finds its mode of being in labor power. The practical importance assumed by potentiality as potentiality in the capitalist relations of production; its inseparability from “immediate corporeal existence”: here is the exclusive foundation of the biopolitical point of view. Foucault mocks libertarian theorists (Wilhelm Reich, for example), for whom a convulsive vigilance over life would be the fruit of a repressive apparatus: to discipline bodies in order to elevate the productivity of labor. Foucault has arguments to offer, but against an easy adversary. The government of life extends from the containment of impulses to the most unbridled license, from the punctilious interdiction to so-called tolerance, from the ghetto for the poor to Keynesian high salaries, from maximum security prisons to the welfare state. Saying that, there remains the crucial question: why is life as such taken charge of and governed? The answer is unequivocal: because it forms the substratum time of a faculty, labor power, which possess the autonomous consistency of a use value. The productivity of labor in act is not in play here, but rather the exchangeability of the potential for labor. By the fact of being bought and sold, this potentiality carries the receptacle from which it is inseparable, that is, the living body; more, it shows itself as an accomplished object of knowledge and government (of innumerable and differentiated strategies of power). It remains clear that life, taken as the generic substratum of potentiality, is an amorphous life, reduced to a few essential metahistoric traits. Biopolitics is a particular and derivative aspect of the inscription of metahistory in the field of empirical phenomena; an inscription, we know, that historically distinguishes capitalism.

The inseparability of the potential to produce from the living body contributes to explaining also that ignominious mystery that is the wage (the true apex of biopolitics, certainly). (…) Giving the wage, the capitalist seeks to buy labor power, or “labor as subjectivity”, not the living body. Unlike the life of the slave, the life of the worker has no price: “As a slave, the worker has exchange value, a value; as a free wage-worker he has no value; it is rather his power of disposing of his labour, effected by exchange with him, which has value.”*9 Potentiality and life are consubstantial, but not identical: as such it is the appreciation of the first is effected together with the devaluation of the second. But, how can the exchange value of potentiality be fixed? On what basis is the wage determined?

There is a difficulty. Objectified labor, possessed by the capitalist in the form of money, is not commensurable with nonobjectified labor, with the faculty of labor as such. (…) To establish the price of labor power requires, as such, a middle term that, having points of contact with both heterogeneous poles (money and “labor as subjectivity”), makes comparison and exchange possible. This middle term is amorphous life without qualities, “immediate corporeal existence”. As with objectified labor, the living body is something in act; a product whose costs (means of subsistence, costs for education and training, etc) are equivalent to determinate quantities of objectified labor. On the other hand, the living body is inseparable from potentiality, given that it constitutes the substratum of potentiality. The price of labor power, or rather, the wage, adjusts to] the middle term: in order to obtain the only good that interests it, potentiality, the capitalist offers a remuneration corresponding to the price of maintaining that which has no value, life.*10 If it leaves exchange (or because it leaves, precisely), the life-substratum procures the unit of measure of exchange itself.

(…) The Marxian definition of labor power must be understood precisely: ” the sum of all the physical and intellectual aptitudes existent in corporeality.” All, so it is clear. Speaking of labor power, we refer implicitly to all types of faculty: linguistic competency, memory, capacity to think, etc. “Labor power” does not indicate a circumscribed potentiality but rather a common name for various types of potentiality; or better, the name that is incumbent upon all that which converges in production, manifesting itself as “nonobjectified labor.” In the exact degree in which they are part of production, the multiple faculties share the destiny of labor power: they impose themselves with the peremptoriness of an empirical fact. For example: the power to speak as such, separated from any speech act, presents itself as a concrete object of experience which is involved in the exchange between money and “the sum of all the aptitudes” of the worker. Things are no different for the power to remember or the power to think. (…)

The thesis that I want to sketch here is this: at the culmination of capitalist development, labor in act consists in exhibiting (more than applying) the potential to labor; before differentiating itself, the real execution brings out the mode of being of the faculty; the structural characters of labor power (latency, inseparability of the living body of the worker, etc) transmits itself to the punctual operations through that which explains them. We leave to one side the intermediary stages of this imatatio potentiae on the part of laboral acts (it would be interesting, however, to re-examine from a similar perspective the very notion of “abstract labor”). The contemporary situation more than suffices to illustrates the briefly explained thesis.

Delineating a historical tendency that today seems realized down to the last detail, Marx writes: “by the manner in which its buyer uses it, but only by the amount of objectified labour contained in it; hence, here, by the amount of labour required to reproduce the worker himself. For the use value which he offers exists only as an ability, a capacity [Vermögen] of his bodily existence; has no existence apart from that. (…) He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor.”*11 One who is limited to flanking the productive cycle, carrying out functions of monitoring and regulation, alternates individual activities with a state of vigilant inaction. During the work day, a simple potentiality remains for long intervals: not applied but still however available. Effected labor conserves, in the very course of its realization, the connotations of “nonobjectified labor”. Labor power thus maintains its physiognomy. The fatigue of the worker is in the oscillation, with care and exactitude in time, from the not-yet of the faculty to “now” of the execution. Activity is that which introduces and articulates in principle the difference between potential and act. On the other hand, it will be recalled that labor power is a use value “not materialized in a product”, nonexistent outside the “living subject” in which it is inserted. Now then, the prerogative of potentiality returns in the productive process, characterizing even the modality and the results of the labor in the process of developing. Given that it watches and regulates, the worker does not make an external object, but rather executes linguistic actions that have themselves as their own ends.*12 Production based on language likens itself, at least in some respects, to the virtuosic interpretations of a pianist or actor: the absence of a lasting final product implies that the use value of the activity is not longer separated from the person that executes it. *13 It is the same with the use value of labor power.


*1. Marx, Capital V1, ch6, p173. All quotes from Capital are from the International Publishers edition of the Moore and Aveling English translation.

*2. Capital V1, ch6, p167.

*3. Capital V1, ch7, p177.

*4. Marx, Grundrisse, p245. All quotes from the Grundrisse are from the 1973 Vintage Edition of the Martin Nicolaus English translation.

*5. Grundrisse, p267. Elipse is Virno’s.

*6. “This sphere that we are deserting, [circulation,] within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself.” [Marx, Capital V1, ch6, p176] Fragments of this type abound in Marx. His objective is to combat the tendency to confuse capitalism with the ancien regime based on juridical dependence; and show how the [compraventa] of labor power, far from violating the principles of the French Revolution, applies them with all scruples. Without a doubt there is an excess in this schematism. Yann Moulier-Boutang, in his Le salariat bride’ has meticulously reconstructed the capitalist vocation to reinstall forms of direct domination over labor power. Personal subjection and juridical subalternity have never completely disappeared from the horizon.

*7. Grundrisse, p272.

*8. Grundrisse, p36 This short quote has been difficult to locate without access to an Italian edition of the Grundrisse that Virno translates from. Virno’s quote translated into English reads “inseparable from the immediate corporeal existence of the worker.” This is likely an idiom not used by the Nicolaus in translating the Grundrisse. A similar quote can be found on p296 of the Grundrisse.

*9. Grundrisse, p288-9.

*10. “In general terms, the exchange value of his commodity cannot be determined by the manner in which its buyer uses it, but only by the amount of objectified labour contained in it; hence, here, by the amount of labour required to reproduce the worker himself. For the use value which he offers exists only as an ability, a capacity [Vermögen] of his bodily existence; has no existence apart from that.” Grundrisse, p282.

*11. Grundrisse, p705.

*12. In reference to the essentially linguistic character of contemporary labor, also called “post-fordist,” permit me to recall my work Convenzione e materialismo. L’unicita’ senza aura, Roma, Teoria 1986, in particular the sixth chapter, “Labor without teology”. On the complete juxtaposition of material production and linguistic communication, the decisive text, now a small “classic” is Christian Marazzi, Il posto dei calzini. La svolta linguistica dell’economia e i suoi effetti nella politica, Bellinzona, Edizioni Casagrande, 1994 (which has been followed recently E il denaro va. Exodo e rivoluzione dei mercati finanziari, Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, which establishes a close nexus between the productivity of labor based on communication and the new figure of money). On postfordism in general, and over Marx as a tool very adequate for the big transformations of the end of the century, we can cite here a great number of titles of Antonio Negri. We limit ourselves to two important ones: Marx Beyond Marx and The Labor of Dionysus (with Michael Hardt).

*13 For the structural analogy between virtuosic activities of artists and postfordist labor, I have tried to given an account in Virtuosismo e rivoluzione, La teoria politica dell’esodo, collected in Mondanita’. L’idea di “mondo” tra esperienza sensibile e sfera pubblica, Roma, Manifiestolibri, 1994. [This piece appears in English in the collection Radical Thought In Italy edited by Virno and Hardt. - Tr.]