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In providing an account of the debates on immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism, the previous sections have emphasised their relations and connections, with the latter debate presented as cumulatively building on, and, therefore, completing and complementing the former as a post-workerist theory of contemporary capitalism. However, for a full understanding of the prospects for capitalism and political economy advanced within this theory, it is important to show how these follow from two otherwise related contradictions running across both debates. Firstly, as the frontier between productive and unproductive labour is constantly pushed back conceptually by positing the breakdown between production and reproduction, this is taken to imply the end of the law of value (Gorz, 2003), or that value is omnipresent yet immeasurable (Hardt, Negri, 2000, 2004, 2009). However, although contradictory, both perspectives amount to holding, at the same time, that nothing is productive of value anymore, while any activity or sign of life (biological, mental, affective, and so on) can be understood as work and production for capital through the creation of subjectivity and, therefore, subject to capitalist exploitation and domination (Harribey, 2004).
Thus, the law of value and value theory itself are rendered shadowy (suspended) if not redundant, and presented as superseded by the very functioning of capitalism itself. Secondly, and according to whether one subscribes to the end of the law of value or the immeasurability thesis, cognitive capitalism is alternatively presented as the terminal crisis of capitalism itself (Gorz, 2003, pp.55, 81), or the age of the general intellect, characterised by increasing autonomy of workers and the social production process from capital, yet constrained by capitalist power relations and political command, or, in other words, communism, ‘even if it is only the “communism of capital”’ (Haug, 2010, p.214) (as in the work of Hardt and Negri and Vercellone addressed and assessed in this chapter). However, despite contradicting one another, both perspectives portray cognitive capitalism as the modality and form through which capitalism, although ‘virtually outdated’, ‘perpetuates itself when its categories have lost their pertinence’ (Gorz, 2003, p.81). Thus, the cognitive capitalism debate ultimately portrays contemporary capitalism as suspended, i.e. undermined and de facto transcended by the current material organisation of production and economic activity, as well as its functioning and modality of operations, yet maintaining the form and appearance of capitalism.
Furthermore, this account of capitalism and its prospects have come to be seen, within postworkerism, as providing the necessary basis for the urgent rethinking of political economy.
Thus, taking the ‘key to Marx's method of historical materialism’ to be that ‘social theory must be molded to the contours of contemporary social reality’ (in opposition to the ‘various idealisms’ proposing ‘independent, transhistorical theoretical frameworks, adequate for all social realities’), Hardt and Negri have submitted that, to ‘follow Marx’s method’ today, ‘one must depart from Marx’s theories to the extent that the object of his critique, capitalist production and capitalist society as a whole, has changed’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.140).
Similarly, in reviewing Vercellone, 2003, Negri declared the insufficiency of the ‘“fundamentals” of political economy’ and the ‘end of political economy’ itself in light of the current increasing socialisation and globalisation of production. Thus, he proposed the full acknowledgement of the (putative) centrality of externalities in economic activity and the adoption of a biopolitical perspective within economic theory (Negri, 2003, p.205) as basis for the search for ‘the founding principles of value in the common recomposition of labour’ and ‘the concrete cooperation of the subjects’ inhabiting production (p.204). However, it is only with the closing of Hardt and Negri’s trilogy that this methodological rethinking of political economy found final elaboration and a clearer statement. Published in the midst of the current crisis and focusing on ‘the common’ as source and outcome of a ‘democracy of the multitude’ (Hardt, Negri, 2009, p.viii), Commonwealth draws and expands on the theme, absent in Empire (Hardt, Negri, 2000) and only cursorily sketched in Multitude (Hardt, Negri, 2004), of the ‘death of the dismal science’ in the context of biopolitical production (Hardt, Negri, 2004, pp.153Reading financialisation as ‘capitalist response to the crisis of the Fordist social relationship and the other social bases on which industrial capital relied’ (Hardt, Negri, 2009, p.289), and the current financial crisis as caused ‘by the new ontology of biopolitical labor’ (p.264), Commonwealth leaves Hardt and Negri’s substantive analysis of contemporary capitalism unchanged. However, with its rhetorical emphasis on political economy (epitomised by the mobilisation of foundational myths and thinkers, and a narrative framed as a classical treatise of political economy), this last volume of the trilogy makes recourse to specific categories from the discipline of economics to corroborate its socio-political analysis and foundation.
Indeed, to substantiate the post-workerist reading of contemporary capitalism, Hardt and Negri explicitly mobilise from the toolbox of economics the concepts of externalities and market failure, and from the toolbox of mainstream social theory the concept of social capital, of which they propose their own peculiar reading (shown below to be neglectful and incoherent on a number of accounts). Thus, they ascribe the presumed increasing importance of externalities in economic theory to the hegemony of ‘biopolitical production’ and ‘biopolitical exploitation’ (Hardt, Negri, 2009, p.141), ‘[t]he capacities of biopolitical laborpower’ exceeding work and spilling over into life (p.152), and the shift ‘from the industrial to the biopolitical metropolis’ (p.154), central ‘site of biopolitical production’ (p.250) and ‘vast reservoir of common wealth’ (p.153), where social cooperation affects the value of landed property through negative and positive externalities (pp.154-155) ‘embedded in the surrounding metropolitan terrain’ (p.251). Therefore, in order to conceptualise ‘in economic terms’ the ‘political regime’ able to ‘foster and control production today’ (p.271), Hardt and Negri propose social capital, understood as ‘the various forms of community’ constituting the ‘stock of wealth’ allowing the functioning of all other forms of capital, as ‘supplementary concept’ to bypass ‘crude economistic notions of production’ (p.271). Nonetheless, they also see it as insufficient because of its presumed understanding of ‘the new figures of biopolitical production as supplements or appendages to Fordist industry and its mode of accumulation’ (p.272); thus, it is in the pervasiveness of externalities and market failure that they recognise ‘a spectre of the common’ allowing ‘to rethink some of the standard assumptions of political economy’ (p.155). Therefore, for Hardt and Negri, understanding biopolitical production would require reversing the economists’ perspective, to ‘internalize the productive externalities, bringing the common to the center of economic life’ (p.280): ‘freedom of the common’ being essential in the KBE to spur creativity, production and growth, the common would, thus, replace the private as ‘locus of freedom and innovation’ (p.282). Since, for Hardt and Negri, the common, previously perceived as external to economic activity, is now ‘becoming completely “internalized”’, adopting ‘the standpoint of the common’ implies rethinking ‘many of the central concepts of political economy’ to understand a biopolitical production unconstrained by ‘the logic of scarcity’ (p.283). However, as Hardt and Negri summon concepts and tools from mainstream economics and social theory to substantiate their reading of contemporary capitalism, this turn is merely rhetorical if symbolic of opportunism and casual, even incoherent, grafting of concepts. Rather than being indicative of any substantive change in their analysis, it clearly reveals the (seemingly) paradoxical nature and logic of postworkerism itself: while claiming an attachment to Marxism (in method and for its characterisation of society) as point of departure with the aim of highlighting (the putatively new character of) exploitation and class conflict, post-workerist Marxism undermines, by the development of its very own analysis, the logic and prospects of such a Marxist project itself (similarly, Rolle, 2004).
2.5) All that is material melts into air: a critique of immaterial and cognitive reason The debates on immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism surveyed in the previous sections have the merit of bringing back to the forefront of discussion issues relating to the labour process, the historical development of capitalism, the institutions and mechanisms of accumulation characterising the latter’s contemporary phase, as well as that of attempting to incorporate in the debates on these issues a critical understanding of the role of knowledge, information, and technology. Both debates, under the leading light of Negri’s post-operaismo, posit that valorisation nowadays takes place outside the labour process and the wage relation, with the whole of society as its object and the social process of production understood as increasingly autonomous from capital. Yet, these assumptions, together with their presumed consequence of greater autonomy of labour from capital, jar with the ongoing attack on labour systematically carried out during the current era of neoliberalism (Burgio, 2001; Pouch, 2004;
Smith, 2008) and the daily reality of work, both clearly located within the persistence and functioning of capitalism. Following from this observation, this section proposes a threefold assessment of the post-workerist reading of contemporary capitalism, with the intent of shedding light on its apparently paradoxical nature emphasised at the end of the previous section. Firstly, its internal logic will be assessed in sub-section 2.5.1, highlighting important conceptual ambiguities and theoretical misunderstandings; these are shown to preclude postworkerism from grasping the functioning of capitalism and the analytical usefulness of the categories of Marxist political economy. Secondly, an account of the intellectual sociology of post-workerism will be provided in sub-section 2.5.2, highlighting the trajectory leading it to depart from its origins in the Marxist analysis of the labour process and, as a result, to become increasingly detached from the reality of labour and the working class itself. Thirdly, postworkerism will be assessed in relation to broader debates within and across the social sciences in sub-section 2.5.3, not least by emphasising how Hardt and Negri’s intervention in the debate on the commons, together with their attendant rhetorical use of concepts from mainstream economics, exemplify the immanent political limits of post-workerism and its analysis and, despite the latter’s radical posturing, its ultimate docility with respect to neoliberalism.
2.5.1) Misunderstanding capitalism and (Marx’s) value theory To begin with, it is worthwhile emphasising how the genealogy of both the concepts of immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism is not fully acknowledged within their respective debates. Indeed, ‘the expression “immaterial labour” was coined by Henri Storch in the early nineteenth century, following Jean-Baptiste Say and the French “ideologues”’ in the attempt to defuse ‘Adam Smith’s notion that “the labour of some of the most respectable orders in the society is … unproductive of any value”’ (Haug, 2009, p.177). Further, the expression resurfaced during the 1960s and 1970s in the work of Italian philosopher and semiotician Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, who elaborated a theory of language in stark opposition with the consensus in the semiotics of his time by drawing from Marxian political economy. Through the elaboration of concepts such as linguistic production, linguistic alienation and linguistic capital, it analysed the role of language in the processes of social reproduction with the aim of grounding it in material social practices (Rossi-Landi, 1968). However, the origin of the concept in opposition to the labour theory of value, and Rossi-Landi’s different use of the expression, are never referenced in the debate (with the notable exception of Marazzi’s discussion of Rossi-Landi in Marazzi, 1999; but see Di Fede, 2000 for a critique of Marazzi’s interpretation), with neither Negri nor other participants to the debate showing awareness ‘of the history of the concept and Marx’s rejection of it’ (Haug, 2009, p.177). Similarly, the expression cognitive capitalism was ‘first put forward in the Italian context by Lorenzo Cillario... in terms of a theory of real abstraction, in an enquiry still centred on the transformations taking place within the factory itself’ (Toscano, 2007, pp.4-5). Yet, ‘Cillario’s work is not discussed in Vercellone’s recent collection on cognitive capitalism [Vercellone, 2006a]’ (Toscano, 2007, p.5, footnote 1), and his work on the role of knowledge within contemporary capitalism (Cillario, 1990, 1996; Cillario, Finelli, 1998) is never referenced in the debate (with the exception of Toscano, 2007) (nonetheless, the reasons for this cannot be simply dismissed as ignorance of Cillario’s work; indeed, and however anecdotal this may be, I have witnessed personally Vercellone admit Cillario’s paternity of the expression in a session devoted to cognitive capitalism at the conference “Political Economy and the Outlook for Capitalism”, held in Paris in July 2012).