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Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality


In his programmatic work A Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno describes a number of signs of post-Fordist capitalism that mark radical changes in the First-World production system’s relation to labor over the past forty years. Most importantly, he states that post-Fordism has annulled or complicated the traditional Marxist correlation between the worker’s labor time and the degree of his or her exploitation. As labor is dematerialized and the division of labor in industrial production erodes, capital not only occupies the working hours during which products or goods (and its surplus value) are produced; it absorbs all of the worker’s time, as well as his or her existence, thoughts, and creative desires. Products or goods are produced not to be consumed, to be swallowed directly, but as a set of new modes of communication, knowledge, languages, or even worlds.

Labor coincides increasingly with the creative maneuvers of a virtuosic performer, with active memory and an engagement with knowledge. According to Maurizio Lazzarato, the aim of consumption today is not merely the production of goods, but the multiplication of new conditions and variations for production itself. The prerogative of immaterial industry becomes the production of subjectivities and worlds—and these are cultural and creative categories, not economic ones. Consumption in turn gives rise to a consumer who does not merely devour, but communicates, is “creatively” engaged. In this way, production activates and occupies life, social and societal space, the intellect, the “soul.” Contemporary material labor only reproduces this scheming of worlds, situations, and events automatically, finding itself on the periphery of strategies of modern production. Despite all this, Virno believes a positive aspect of post-Fordist capitalism can be found in its having created the conditions for the emergence of non-private, non-capitalist public benefits—languages, network-based know-hows, systems for informational and cultural dissemination. Virno as well as other theorists of post-operaism (André Gorz, Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri, Enzo Rulani, Antonella Corsani) refers to what Karl Marx called “general intellect.” As Virno puts it,

Marx … claims that … abstract knowledge—primarily yet not only of a scientific nature—is … becoming no less than the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious labor of the assembly line to the fringes. This is the knowledge objectified in fixed capital and embedded in the automated system of machinery.

This knowledge is social and general; it is a collective competence that creates a shared common space of production. Although it is true that post-industrial capitalism has blurred the boundary between consumption, information, cognition, and communication, this doesn’t mean that post-Fordist capitalism automatically generates a post-capitalist utopia. On the contrary, when corporations vie for control over the power of knowledge objectified, the space of the commons becomes a real battleground. Slavoj Žižek, in a recent talk at the “Idea of Communism” conference in Berlin, made an apt observation: the wealth of monopolies like Microsoft or Nasdaq derives not so much from their sales profits, but mainly from the fact that they are acting in the name of a universal, nearly Enlightenment-style standard of “general intellect.”

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