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Moreover, the concept of immaterial labour is spurious, while biopolitical labour and biopolitical production are redundant with respect to Marx’s analysis of economic and social reproduction. Strictly speaking, no labour is immaterial, with tasks as simple as thinking, speaking or reading requiring physical expenditure and involving transformations of material reality (for mere existence, let alone work, constantly involves alterations of material reality, as cognition requires burning calories, speech produces sound waves, etc.). Hardt and Negri acknowledge that ‘the labor involved in all immaterial production … remains material’, involving ‘bodies and brains as all labor does’; what, in their opinion, would allow defining labour as immaterial, is its result (Hardt, Negri, 2000, p.290). However, this reveals a crude physicalist conception of materiality.
resuscitated by managerial writers in search of a language of discontinuity around which to weave their fanciful notions of post-bureaucratic organisation’ (Thompson, 2005, p.94, footnote 7).
The concept of immaterial labour is also problematic and confusing with respect to the Marxian distinction between concrete and abstract labour. Concentrating on the (re)definition(s) provided in section 2.2 of this chapter, it is clear from the characteristics enunciated by Lazzarato (1996) and Hardt and Negri (2000, 2004, 2009), that immaterial labour refers to specific concrete labours, i.e. labours producing specific use values.
Nonetheless, since Hardt and Negri see the ‘real homogenization of laboring processes’ as ‘consequence of the informatization of production and the emergence of immaterial labor’ (Hardt, Negri, 2000, p.292), and ‘the relations of capitalist exploitation’ as ‘expanding everywhere... tending to occupy the entire social terrain’, for them ‘the object of exploitation and domination tend not to be specific productive activities but the universal capacity to produce, that is, abstract social activity and its comprehensive power’, for which they claim the character of ‘abstract labor’ (p.209). Indeed, for Hardt and Negri, ‘the computer’ being ‘the universal tool, or rather … central tool, through which all activities might pass’, it is through ‘the computerization of production’ that labour would tend ‘toward the position of abstract labor’ (p.292). However, this is an obvious misunderstanding, as the abstract character of labour does not hinge, in Marx’s account, on any technical aspect of production (be it the physical or “immaterial” character of the product, or the technique and means of production employed) (Harribey, 2004). Rather, it depends on the latter’s social character, whereby private labours are brought into equivalence and validated as social labour through market exchange (Harribey, 2004; Rolle, 2004). Indeed, ‘in commodity society concrete labours (producing specific use values) are not performed casually but as part of an intricate social division of labour which connects them with one another through the market, or through the exchange of their products for money’ (Fine, Saad-Filho, 2010, pp.16-17). Therefore, ‘capitalism, as generalised commodity production for profit, is characterised by the production of social use values, and, therefore, the exchange of the products of concrete labours that exist, and contribute to value as abstract social labour’ (p.18-19). Thus, the labour of factory workers is not made any less abstract than that of software producers when their products are sold on the capitalist market (Harribey, 2004). Furthermore, according to Hardt and Negri, in ‘capitalist production the specific labors of the mason, the welder, the shop clerk, and so forth are equivalent or commensurable because they each contain a common element, abstract labor, labor in general, labor without respect to its specific form’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.144).
However, through this understanding of abstract labour as ‘a physiological category only, as expenditure of human energy irrespective of its specific form’ (Jeon, 2010, p.101), Hardt and Negri ‘attribute a rather simplistic theory of value to Marx... based on the idea that everyday concrete labour is recognized as physiological labour embodied in commodities during production... and is measured as an average of concrete labour-times it takes to produce a commodity’ (Cremin, Roberts, 2011, p.184; see also, for example, Hardt, Negri, 2004, pp.144But this is to misunderstand how ‘abstract labour is socially and historically equivalent human labour that is expressed through generalised commodity production and exchange’ (Jeon, 2010, p.103), meaning that, contrary to Hardt and Negri’s belief that the ‘temporal unity of labor as the basic measure of value today makes no sense’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.145), the social commensurability of labours and value as socially necessary labour time emerge objectively from the social processes shaping and structuring capitalism, since ‘the reduction of all types of labour to a common standard is an essential and spontaneous product of the real world of capitalism itself’ (Fine, Saad-Filho, 2010, p.19). Therefore, to adopt the concept of immaterial labour is to obscure the nature of value and its connection to the workings of the market and capitalism.
Closely related to the previous points, the supposed hegemony of immaterial labour requires separate discussion. Indeed, for Hardt and Negri, the hegemony of immaterial labour is not exerted in quantitative terms, which would be easily disproved considering that, by Hardt and Negri’s own admission, the vast majority of the world population still works in the agricultural sector, and that ‘industrial labor has not declined in terms of numbers globally’. Although constituting ‘a minority of global labor... concentrated in some of the dominant regions of the globe’, immaterial labour is posited by Hardt and Negri as having ‘become hegemonic in qualitative terms’, imposing ‘a tendency’ to adopt its qualities ‘on other forms of labor and on society itself’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.109). This follows from Hardt and Negri’s own specific view of the historical development of capitalism, put forward in Empire (Hardt, Negri, 2000) and carried on in Multitude (Hardt, Negri, 2004), which classifies ‘the succession of economic paradigms since the Middle Ages in three distinct moments, each defined by the dominant sector of the economy: a first paradigm in which agriculture and the extraction of raw materials dominated the economy, a second in which industry and the manufacture of durable goods occupied the privileged position, and a third and current paradigm in which providing services and manipulating information are at the heart of economic production’ (Hardt, Negri, 2000, p.280). Every period being characterised by the pre-eminence of ‘one figure of labor’ exerting ‘hegemony over the others’ and serving ‘as a vortex that gradually transforms other figures to adopt its central qualities’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.107), immaterial labour would be ‘today in the same position that industrial labor was 150 years ago’, accounting ‘for only a small fraction of global production and... concentrated in a small part of the world but nonetheless’ asserting ‘hegemony over all forms of production’. Therefore, ‘[j]ust as in that phase all forms of labor and society itself had to industrialize’, for Hardt and Negri, ‘today labor and society have to informationalize, become intelligent, become communicative, become affective’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.109).
However, this account of the rise of services and immaterial production neglects how the ‘boundaries between’ the primary, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy and the sphere of reproduction are ‘not only extremely blurred, but also dynamic’ (Huws, 2003, p.63).
This has two important consequences. Firstly, from ‘accountants to lorry drivers to cleaners’, ‘there are many large groups of workers whose classification is essentially an arbitrary byproduct of the size and degree of specialization of their employers’, and ‘whether or not there is a policy of subcontracting work’ (Huws, 2003, p.64). Thus, the rise and expansion of the service sector is in large part due to processes of outsourcing and subcontracting of labour, which, in turn, presuppose management reorganisation of work through fragmentation, routinisation and rationalisation of work tasks, and can subsequently lead to the specialisation and reintegration of these to increase productivity (Greenbaum, 2004). Thus, while postworkerists present the rise of services as implying a break with, the transformation, or the end of the capitalist division of labour and organisation of the labour process, the expansion of the service sector reconfirms these, both as prerequisite for the process to happen in the first place (through outsourcing of activities), and conduit for the creation of new jobs which can also involve a variety of different tasks, seem rich in knowledge, communication, and so on (new jobs which, in turn, can be subject to the same processes of fragmentation, routinisation and rationalisation of work tasks, in accordance with the needs and imperatives of surplusvalue production). Secondly, Hardt and Negri’s account of the historical development of capitalism through the articulation of economic paradigms stresses a univocal tendency towards dematerialisation, but this is one-sided in its neglect of the dynamism of the processes of commodification shaping capitalism itself. Indeed, these imply the movement of activities from the reproduction to the market economy, through manufacturing and into the service sector, but are also paralleled by the movement of activities from the service into the manufacturing sector, and back into the reproductive economy (see Huws, 2003 for an account). Thus while ‘it may possibly be the case that dematerialization is taking place in some’ activities, ‘in others precisely the opposite tendency is occurring, and … in the long run this tendency of commodification, or the transformation of services into material products, is the dominant one in capitalism’ (Huws, 2003, p.131).