Negri on the Refusal of Work


A chunk of refusalist goodness extracted from the pages of Antonio Negri’s Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage (italics are Negri’s, the bolded text is mine).


More than any other single watchword of the communist movement, the refusal of work has been continually and violently outlawed, suppressed and mystified by the traditions and ideology of socialism. If you want to provoke a socialist to rage, or deflate his flights of demagogy, provoke him on the question of the refusal of work! In the hundred years since Marx first spoke of work as “unhuman nature”, [62] no single point of the communist program has been so fiercely fought against – to the point where, nowadays, the excommunication of the refusal of work has become tacit, surreptitious and implicit, but no less powerful. The argument has been shunted out of sight. 8ut now the shrewdness of proletarian reasoning has begun, on this indirect terrain, to reinstate the centrality of the refusal of work in the communist program. From ethnology to psychology, from aesthetics to sociology, from ecology to medicine, this centrality repeatedly reappears, sometime disguised in strange ways, and sometimes almost invisible. Nonetheless, is is springing up everywhere, and soon they will be constrained to pursue it, just as in earlier times similar high priests had to deal with the omnipresent sorcerous truth of the Devil.

Our task is the theoretical reinstatement of the refusal of work in the program, in the tactics, in the strategy of communists. Today, as never before, at our given level of class composition, the refusal of work reveals its centrality as a point of synthesis of the communist program, in both its objective and its subjective aspects. The refusal of work is, in fact, the most specific, materially determinate foundation of the productive force reappropriated to serve the process of workers’ self-valorisation.

The refusal of work is first and foremost sabotage, strikes, direct action. Already, in this radical subjectivity, we can see the global nature of its antagonistic comprehension of the capitalist mode of production. The exploitation of labour is the foundation of the whole of capitalist society. Thus the refusal of work does not negate one nexus of capitalist society, one aspect of capital’s process of production or reproduction. Rather, in all its radicality, it negates the whole of capitalist society. So it is not by chance then, that the capitalist response does not try to deal with the refusal of work by partial means: it has to be a global response at the level of the mode of production, in terms of restructuring. Seen from this point of view, the effects of the refusal of work exercise a direct productive action on the capitalist mode of production. But the more fully the refusal of work is socialised and radicalised, according to the very rhythm of capitalist restructuring, the more its “productive action” intensifies the aspects of destructuring of the capitalist mode of production. The falling rate of profit, the crisis of the law of value, and the rearticulation of the law of value within the indifference of command are direct (albeit neither continuous nor homologous) effects of the refusal of work. The continuous effect, on the other hand, is to be found on the obverse side of capital’s dialectic – where sabotage is revealed as class valorisation. and the refusal of work becomes the key to reading self-valorisation. It becomes the key to reading in two fundamental senses (from which other radical consequences then follow): in the sense that it is one of the contents, if not the fundamental content of the process of proletarian valorisation; and in the sense that it provides a criterion of measure for the method of social transformation. We should look first at these two fundamental senses, and then at the consequences that derive from them.

(a) The refusal of work as the content of the process of self-valorisation. Please note: “content” here does not mean “objective”. The objective, the aim of the process of self-valorisation, is the complete liberation of living labor within production and reproduction: it is the total utilisation of wealth in the service of collective freedom. It is therefore more than the refusal of work – although this covers the fundamental space of the transition, and characterises its dialectic as well as establishing its norms. So, the refusal of work is again a moment of the process of self-valorisation as it relates, in a destructive manner, to the law of value, to the crisis of the law of value, and to the obligation to productive labour of the whole society. The fact that in the society based on self-valorisation, in the transitionaI phase, everyone must work, is a norm that is pertinent to the refusal of work, exactly as is the campaign to reduce working hours and to reduce the labor involved in reproduction and transformation. To recognize this normativity of the refusal of work is to grasp it as a content of the process of transition, and not as a final objective of the process of self-valorisation; not to mystify it, but to determine it within the class struggle, in the specificity of its constructive function. Thus, as well as being a fundamental tactical function in the destructuring of the enemy, we see the refusal of work as the content of communist strategy. The two aspects are deeply related. The struggle for the destructuring of capital, and particularly for the destructuring-destruction of constant capital in the form that it assumes in its most recent phase (of the maturity of the capitalist mode of production and its state). establishes particular relationships with the continuing existence of wealth in its capitalist form. The process of class separation runs up against the hard constancy of capital – against constant capital. In the short term, this relationship cannot be eliminated, but only dominated. Invention-power, as the transfiguration of labour-power in this first phase of transition, must apply itself to the destructuring of constant capital. The refusal of work is its first, fundamental weapon, and to this is added invention in its proper sense (the qualitative determination of a mode of production no longer dominated by the categories of capital). But the refusal of work is precisely fundamental because it continuously reposes class struggle within the problem of transition, because within its experience it carries the complexity of the destructuring-liberation dialectic. This can also he seen from a further point of view. When the critical consciousness of political economy realizes the actuality of the proletarian process of the refusal of work, it reacts either in utopian terms, or in purely ideological terms. The technological utopia is the negation of the concreteness of the refusal of work and the attempt to attribute the exigencies that arise from this concreteness to technological development, to the expansion of fixed capital, and to an increasing intensity of the organic composition of capital. The ideology of quietism is the attempt to reverse the collective terms of the experience of the refusal of work into a perspective of artisanal liberation – isolating the big collective event and confining it in the recesses of individual consciousness, or in communitarian intercourse between individuals. So all this can be ignored. The refusal of work is at one and the same time destructuring of capital and self-valorisation of the class; the refusal of work is not an invention that puts its faith in the development of capital, nor is it an invention which feigns the nonexistence of the domination of capital. It is neither a (utopian) flight of fancy, nor a (quietist) retreat into isolated consciousness: it faces foursquare that collective relationship which alone permits us to introduce a logic of (collective) class separation. Liberation is unthinkable without a process that constructs the positivity of a new collective mode of production upon the negativity of the destruction of the capitalist mode of production. The exultant and demonstrative force of the concept of the refusal of work consists, in Marxian terms, in the twofold nature of the functions in question, in their complementarity. it is clear that in the process of transition the weight that each function gradually assumes will be different. But beware of dividing the fundamental core that produces them, and beware of making homologies between them in their alternating development: the history of the socialist perversions of the revolutionary process has always been based on the extolling of one of these moments to the detriment of the other – and in the end, both were destroyed and utopianism and individualism reappeared because the collective practice, the unitary content of the revolutionary process, the synthesis of love and hate, the refusal of work in its materiality, were destroyed with them.

(b) The refusal of work as a measure of the process of self-valorisation. So, the refusal of work is indeed a strange concept. It is the measure of itself it is the measure of the process of self-valorisation of which it is also the content! Yes indeed. This is possible because of its dialectical nature, because of the intensity of the synthesis of destructuring and innovation that invests it. In the first place, then, the progress of the process of self-valorisation is measured, negatively, by the progressive reduction of individual and overall labour-time, that is, the quantity of proletarian life that is sold to capital. In the second place, the progress of the process of self-valorisation is measured positively by the multiplication ot socially useful labour dedicated to the free reproduction of proletarian society. Hatred of work and hatred of exploitation are the productive content of invention-power, which is the prolongation of the refusal work. To grasp the refusal of work as a measure of the method of social transformation for us means a tremendous step forward. It means focusing on the generalised reduction of working hours and linking it simultaneously with a process of revolutionary innovation, theoretical and practical, scientific and empirical, political and administrative, subordinated to the continuity of the class struggle over this content. It means being able to start to put forward material parameters for measuring the workers; progress in terms of communism. The problem of how to measure productive force, in fact, is not only a problem for the capitalists; on the other hand, in any case, it does not appear that, given the continuing crisis of the law of value, capital is really very capable of self-measurement. Command is not a measure, but is simply efficacy, an act of force. Neither the criterion of the wage hierarchy nor the monetary system any longer has any logic other than that of command. The productive force of social labor is not so much organized by capital as undergone by it, turned back against it as destructuring. Measuring the productivity of labor in terms of the refusal of work allows a complete demystification of capital’s command over productivity; it negates the possibility of a productivity of labor which is still exploitation and introduces a measure which at the same time unbalances the system – a measure of the increasing revolutionary intensity of the process of self-valorisation. At this point, finally, we should come to consider the measure not as a function of exploitation (as it has always been so far, and as the economists – even those of the school of value – continue to think: true to themselves!), but rather as a measure of freedom. A measure adapted to living labor, and not to the results of exploitation and the death of labor consolidated into capital. A measure of the quantity of revolution produced, of the quality of our life and our liberation. And this measure will provide the basis for our continuous formation and transformation of the method of social transformation.

To see the refusal of work both as a content and as a measure of the processes of self-valorization implies, as we have said, a number of relevant consequences. Here we need only highlight one fundamental one, since it has an immediate impact on class composition. It is the dynamic nexus that, on the basis of the practice of the refusal of work and its theoretical/practical extensions, is posited between the workers’ vanguard in direct production and the proletarian vanguard in indirect production. Now, even in the most revolutionary variants of theoretical Marxism, the nexus between direct and indirect productive labor has never been correctly posited; it has only been posited within a tendency of a merely objective character. Capital enlarges, integrates, develops, and socially recomposes productive labor in general: fine – and some have ventured to identify in this framework a movement of unification between directly and indirectly productive labor. But if we start from the standpoint of the refusal of work, then we can reinterpret these tensions deriving from the logic of capital: we can identify, in a complementary and/or antagonistic manner, a far deeper dialectical process running through the fabric of productive labor (and one which is desirable from the class point of view). The refusal of work is, first and foremost, the refusal of the most alienated – and therefore the most productive – labour. Secondly, it is the refusal of capitalist work as such – that is, of exploitation in general. And thirdly, it is a tension toward a renewal of the mode of production, toward an unleashing of the proletariat’s invention-power. In the interweaving of these three motifs, the dynamic intensity of the refusal of work invests the entirety of the capitalist mode of production. If all this is true, the social interchange which capital imposes and the division that slowly disappears between directly and indirectly productive labor ought to he assumed as a fundamental issue for the refusal of work. In the refusal of work, there is a recognition of the interchange between directly and indirectly productive labor, because there is a destructive tension on the part of the most exploited labour and the entirety of its social reproduction which is quite unifying. It is in the interest of the workers to tear aside the veils which capital draws over the unity of social labour, and instead to strengthen and articulate this unity. The refusal of work, once it presents itself as invention-power, must move within the unity of all the aspects of socal labour, of both directly and indirectly productive social labour. The radical method of social transformation can only be applied to this unity; it can only reassume and rearticulate it from the inside. The refusal of work, whether in terms of definition or in terms of prospects, thus invests the given composition of the class, bringing out its unitary characteristics, and insisting on the workers’ rearticulation of productive labour in all its aspects.

As regards the consequences that derive from the dynamics of the refusal of work, we shall take these up in the following two sections. Here. it has been important to insist upon the unity of social productive labour in terms of the refusal of work. Now, in this case our operation has been not only scientific, but also – and above all – political, because in fact it is within this complex unity of the refusal of work, based on the breadth and density of this definition of the class, that the threads of the revolutionary workers program thus far outlined all tie up. This class composition, then, seeks a communist program that will be adequate to its own sodal figure, which will strike effectively at the level of production and equally so at the level of reproduction. On the terrain of reproduction, the most immediate form taken by the refusal of work is that of the direct appropriation of wealth, either on the commercial level or on the institutional level, on the basis of this composition, the refusal of work launches an attack on the working week and proposes itself ultimately as the primary norm in relation to the development of proletarian invention-power. In short, this class composition which we see invested by the refusal of work and by invention-power begins to represent globally the process of self-valorisation. In its independence and separateness. (Allow me to add once again that this separateness is not technological utopianism, nor is it individual solitude, nor is it a communitarian illusion. On the other hand, after the experiences of the past ten years, is there anyone who can still doubt the efficacy and the complementarity of the double action that has been set in motion by the refusal of work – the destructuring of capital’s system and the destabilisation of capital’s regime?)


The Vast Automaton: Notes on Alexei Gastev, Marx, and Andrew Ure


In 1916 his poem Express: A Siberian Fantasy, Alexei Gastev depicts a journey, undertaken by a high-speed passenger train, across a vast wasteland that has been transformed by the pulsing tumult of industrial modernity. The vision is one of an open future, characterized by the tearing away of the parochial and the old: where there was once empty wilderness, now there are gardens, and where rural backwardness reigned supreme, connections of all sorts proliferate. Cascading networks of electrical systems, towns, roads, railways, and man-made rivers pierce the once-pristine wilderness and draw themselves as the circuits linking great automated factories. Roaring across this landscape at a quickening pace, not even able to stop in order to offload passengers (train cars are simply detached and rolled off onto parallel tracks when destinations come into view), the great train is moving eastward; shrinking behind it is the Old World of Europe, land of decrepit aristocracies and worn out traditions, and coming into view just ahead is the New World, just through a tunnel that passes deep beneath the Bering Strait. “[T]he motors are breathing fast and rumbling, pumping the air, and the tunnel is shaking like a steel pulse in the sleeping waters of the ocean. One half hour—and America”.

The situation depicted in Express is, as Charles Rougle describes, “a vision of the world on the threshold of a great revolutionary cataclysm”. With the real events of the October Revolution still a year out, the near-utopia of the poem was still that of a world dominated by capitalism, albeit one that was in the process of shedding its most regressive features. The anarchy of the market, where firms small and large collided freely in combat, was coming under the sway of great industrial monopolies led by faceless collectives. This is the importance of the ultimate collision of the train—itself perhaps a symbol of the revolutionary agency itself—with America, which in contrast with Old Europe was seen as a laboratory where the cutting-edge of techno-industrial tools and techniques were being forged. There is thus, already at this early of a stage, a foreshadow of Stalin’s comments, laid down in 1924, that the essence of Leninism consisted of the marriage of the “Russian revolutionary sweep” with “American efficiency”.

Indeed, Gastev would play an essential role in promoting this particular synthesis at his Central Institute of Labor (or, as it was more formally known: the Institute for the Scientific Organization of Work and the Mechanization of Man), opened in Moscow in 1920 with the personal support of—and funding arranged by—Lenin. Echoing Georges Sorel’s distinction between the ‘ethics of consumers’ and the ethics of ‘producers’ (the latter of which corresponded, appropriately, to the proletariat), Gastev had described mass society as being the battleground between “two demons”, one aligned with consumption and the other production. Revolution entailed a pact: “We are definitely on the side of the second. And our task is to infect these masses with by every possible proof with an unquenchable passion for effort, labour, energy” [quoted in Kendall Bailes, ‘Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism’]. It was an uphill struggle, as Gastev had to work hand-in-hand with the dominant union system to convince the workers to submit themselves to time-motion studies in order to optimize their movements during the process of industrial production (a goal which could not, of course, be realized, as Gastev’s less mechanistic successors came to realize), which would have the correlated effect of speeding-up work. The horizon of this great work was to be, ultimately, the automatic factory, as he described in a 1919 article for Proletarskaya kul’tura (the official organ of the Proletkult movement, of which he was part):

Before us there is the prospect not only of an individual mechanized worker but of a mechanized system of labour management. Not a person, not an authority, but a “type”-a group-will manage other “types” or groups. Or even a machine, in the literal sense of the word, will manage living people. Machines from being managed will become managers.’



It is for this reason that Gastev is best remembered as a Soviet Frederick Winslow Taylor. Lenin himself had declared in 1918 that embracing Taylorist scientific management was vital in developing the productive forces, describing it in ‘The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government’ as “the last word of capitalism” and “a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements”. He continued:

The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field. The possibility of building socialism depends exactly upon our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet organisation of administration with the up-to-date achievements of capitalism. We must organise in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our own ends.

What Gastev sought to develop and deploy through his work at the Central Institute could not, however, be reduced to the simple goals pursued by the Taylorists. “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” was the dictum put forth by Lenin during the Eighth All-Russia Congress of Soviets. The higher stage of production could only be realized when the symptoms of underdevelopment and reactionary consciousness—small-scale production, the individual proprietor, the shysters and deal-makers, etc—were swept away by the advance of large-scale, industrial production, and it was precisely electrification that served as the necessary precondition for this evolution: “Only when the country has been electrified, and industry, agriculture and transport have been placed on the technical basis of modern large-scale industry, only then shall we be fully victorious”. What this meant, for Gastev, was nothing less than the production of a new type of person, a realization of a New Soviet Man appropriate to this convulsive, energetic epoch. “Electrification is the highest expression of machinism”, he wrote in How to Work. “This is not one machine, this is not a complex of machines, it is not even a machine-factory, not a machine-city, it is a machine-state, and when it is international, it is in the full sense of a mechanized globe… And, of course, in unison with this new machine worldview, you need to take a fresh look at the person”.

The new person would be a “man-assembler, who is full of ideas of treatments, technical tuning and adaptations”. Taylor’s scientific management sought to bring the human laborer into alignment with the operations of the machine, but for Gastev this was but only the first step. Everything was to be optimized in conjunction with the machine, including creativity and the drive to innovation itself. And once these powers were cracked open, penetrated by the radiant light of techno-science and their inner logic demystified, those tropes so hallowed by the capitalist bourgeoisie—individual creativity and the innovative entrepreneur—would fall away. They would be universal, anonymous, and collective, no different or separate from the universal, anonymous, and collective industrial system that was taking shape. Gastev:

We must deal with the energy of the human mechanism. In this century, when there are chronoscopes showing ten thousandths of a second, when there are ammeters and voltmeters, we will have to “measure” human energy. The science of nutrition of a working organism must be as exact a science as thermal sciences, like the science of nutrition of the steam engine, the nutrition of the electric motor; the consumption of human energy must be instrumentally measured to the thousandths of a small calorie, and the regulation of the work of the human body must be built on a system of carburetors feeding heat engines. There should be nothing sacred here. There must be a complete revolution. In this area, we need the same revolutionary appeal for scientific biologists, which the authorities have done in relation to engineers and economists in the electrification issue.

While there was a close relationship between Gastev’s thought and that of the Soviet leadership—despite his status as an outsider to the party, having distanced himself during a period of forced exile that resulted from his activities in the 1905 revolution—his promotion of scientific management and biomechanics triggered an opposition that congealed into an organization with a simple, but effective, name: the “Group of Communists”. In many respects, the Group’s opposition to Gastev and the activities of the Central Institute of Labor was that they fell short of the lofty goals that they had set for themselves, and that commitment to a Taylorist base prevented the realization of this higher stage of industrial culture. As Bailes summarizes, “The use of the stop watch as the sole means of determining work norms was an especially exploitative and uncritical application of Taylorism to Soviet industry. The most important problem of Soviet industry was to raise productivity without increased intensification of labour, and to raise wages in proportion to increased productivity”. What was desired was a means to scientifically manage production, and to increase the process of its processes and the volume of its output, without the influence Taylor—but in the end, the opponents gradually conceded. “Taylorism could not be rejected per se, [they] affirmed; the most ‘useful’ parts of the system, as Lenin had pointed out, must be tested and selected in practice”.

Decades later, Autonomous Marxists like Paolo Virno and Carlo Vercellone argued that the ‘phase’ of capitalist development that had come into being in the first half of the 20th century, characterized by the gradual evolution from Taylorism to Fordism to what we might describe as international Fordism, had been anticipated by Marx in the Grundrisse, and particularly within the pages of the ‘Fragment on Machines’ [for an overview of Virno and Vercellone’s argument, see Tony Smith’s essay “The ‘General Intellect’ in the Grundrisse and Beyond”, in the book In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse]. Marx, in an uncanny foreshadow of the Taylorist moment and semi-automation, had situated the worker as becoming suspended between machinic systems, stripped of their individuality and their autonomy with regard to the production processes. This same movement was fundamentally connected to increasing technoscientific knowledge, which emerges from the drives of production and innovation, and then feeds back into it to push this great apparatus into higher orders. This knowledge becomes socialized, diffused, and universal in its application—a general intellect. It is in this stage interzone that Marx’s vision of post-capitalism emerges: the worker ceases to be an autonomous agent piloting production from within, but becomes a manager of that system. “Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself” (see my earlier post on the question of an ‘Eco-Marx’ and ‘Promethean Marx’ for more on this).


Gastev offered a similar assessment in How to Work, paralleling Marx’s concept of the General Intellect by describing the way in which the rapid innovation of technological systems compelled the further development of scientific knowledge. Swept deliriously by the machine and the stopwatch, Gastev went as far to the suggest the impending merging of the scientist and the engineer, noting how “it was not for nothing that [a] person who attempted to study the movements of an employee turned out to be the engineer Gilbert, and it was not for nothing that such a biologist who studied human labor movements, like Professor Sechenov, previously graduated from an engineering school. The development of modern technology pushes and transforms biology, it gives the formulation of these problems and forces biology to think so”. The engineer, here, is both a master of techniques and a product of them, and the recasting of all scientific professions in the model of the engineer comes from the deepening penetration of industrial modernity in every discipline, in every endeavor, in every facet of life. To flesh this out further, Gastev turns at last to Marx himself, citing from the first volume of Capital passages that illuminate the way in which individualized, independent ‘subjective character’ is leveled by a collective and cooperative “purely technological principle”. Speaking of large-scale production, Marx had written that the “whole process is decomposed here objectively, depending on its own nature, into its constituent phases, and the problem of performing each partial process and connecting various partial processes is resolved through the application of mechanics, chemistry, etc”.

Gastev praises Marx for his “amazing erudition” in drawing on a now-largely forgotten source: Dr. Andrew Ure and his 1835 book The Philosophy of Manufacturers. Described by Marx twice, one in the first volume of Capital and once in the third, as the “Pindar” of large-scale production, Ure’s influence radiates through Marx’s passages on the nature of industrial systems, stretching from his early critique of Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy to his late-stage works. It might seem curious that Ure, a consistent opponent of efforts to alleviate the conditions of the proletariat—and whose work Marx himself described as ‘naive’ in its ceaseless ability to “blurt out the thoughtless contradictions of the capitalist brain” [Capital Volume 1, p. 564]—would be so influential. Nonetheless, The Philosophy of Manufacturers was, for Marx, the “classical expression of the spirit of the factory”, and the reason for this was that Ure glimpsed the strange horizon that was being inexorably pulled towards:

Manufacture is a word, which, in the vicissitude of language, has come to signify the the reverse of its intrinsic meaning, for it now denotes every extensive product of art, which is made by machinery, with little or no aid of the human hand; so that the most perfect manufacture is that which dispenses entirely with manual labor. The philosophy of manufacturers is therefore an exposition of the general principles, on which productive industry should be conducted by self-acting machines. [The Philosophy of Manufacturers, p. 1]

The tendency of industrialization, in other words, was that of the progressive elimination of the human as an element in production. Ure breathlessly described the “sagacity” of the industrial giant Richard Arkwright, who had played a role in the invention of the spinning frame (and the immensely profitable organization of production that followed in its wake), for perceiving the outlines of a future world characterized by a “vastly productive human industry”. No longer a subordinate to the limitations of “muscular effort”, the output of these combines would be “the work of mechanical fingers and arms, regularly impelled with great velocity by some indefatigable physical power” [p. 14-15]. Elsewhere, Ure defined the “factory system” not in terms of a distinct plant or industrial site, but as “the combined operation of many orders of work-people, adult and young, in tending with assiduous skill a series of productive machines continuously impelled by a central power” [p. 13]. For Steve Edwards, these sorts of descriptions are a “revelry”, marking the “the closest capitalist thought has ever managed to a fully Dionysian moment”. Yet if Ure is intoxicated by the churn of capitalistic processes, it is hardly from the classical image of the commercial giant or by the mad-dash of the market; it is the machinic processes themselves that give rise to this Dionysian moment. Arkwright is not praised for bringing massified industry into being, but for understanding where it was going. Likewise, the “central power” that puts in motion the “work-people” and their “productive machines” is neither capitalist nor capital—it is thermodynamic power, heat converted into mutable energy.


If the capitalist is rather unimportant except in its most abstract role, labor, likewise, is only important insofar as it disappears. Class struggle is for Ure a means to the ends of this disappearance, with the threat of the strike—or the event of the strike itself—serving as an impetus for the automation of functions previously served by the proletarian. “…surely science, at the call of capital, will defeat every unjustifiable union which labourers may form”. In many respects, Ure here anticipates the arguments of both Sorel and the Autonomists, particularly that of Mario Tronti. For the former, the cessation of the class struggle through the alignment of reformist ‘parliamentary socialists’ and the ‘humanitarian-minded bourgeoisie’ stalled out industrial development, a situation that he described as “decadence”. For the latter, the class struggle comes to unfold in cycles, characterized by the dialectic of proletarian offensive and the bourgeois response, which is to recalibrate the production process through the introduction of new technological systems and organizational paradigms. This argument arises in particular from a close reading of Marx’s chapters on the working day in the first volume of Capital, which illustrate quite clearly how the struggle to shorten the length of daily labor led to the introduction of machinery that intensified both the pace and the output of production—an analysis that was no doubt influenced by Ure’s own studies.

While labor gets squeezed out of the production process, it does not, Ure argued, disappear in full:

The principle of the factory.. is to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or graduation of labour among artisans. One the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled, was usually the most expensive element of production—Materiam superabat opus; but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines [The Philosophy of Manufacturers, p. 20].

This language immediately recalls that of “Fragment on Machines”, with its depictions of future labor as the overseers of industrial-scientific processes—and indeed, the spirit of Ure’s Dionysian moment hovers above the pages of the Fragment. At the conclusion of the section just prior to the Fragment, Marx offers a lengthy citation from The Philosophy of Manufacturers that culminates in the following: “In its most rigorous sense, this term [factory] conveys the idea of a vast automaton, composed of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs operating in concert and without interruption, towards one and the same aim, all these organs being subordinated to a motive force which moves itself” [The Philosophy of Manufacturers, p. 13; cited in Grundrisse, p. 690, emphasis Marx’s]. Compare this quotation with the most famous passage from the Fragment, which appears but a page later:

…once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour pass through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages [Grundrisse, p. 690].

Much of this is a paraphrase of Ure, particularly concerning the self-movement of the automaton, set in motion by some motive force—but it is of particular interest that he is cited word for word in the description of “numerous mechanical and intellectual organs”. It is clear of the immense importance of this idiosyncratic conceptualization of the factory to Marx, and it would be a mistake to consider its vital role as diminishing in the passage from the notebooks that compose the Grundrisse to the final drafts of Capital. In the fifteenth chapter of  Capital Volume 1, Marx deploys a distinction between the tool and the machine by describing the latter as a “mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations as the worker did with similar tools [Capital Volume 1, p. 495]. Later in the same chapter, in the section dedicated to examining the factory system proper, Marx begins by offering once again the aforementioned quote from The Philosophy of Manufacturers, before discerning—in language drawn directly from the Fragment in the Grundrisse—a Janus-faced position embedded in Ure’s description. Noting a disjunction between the characterization of the factory system as the organization of massified labor and as something driven by a ‘central motive force’, Marx writes:

These two descriptions are far from being identical. In one, the combined collective worker appears as the dominant subject, and the mechanical automaton as the object; in the other, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs, coordinated with the unconscious organs of the automaton, and together with the latter subordinated to the central moving force. The first description is applicable to every possible employment of machinery on a large scale, the second is characteristic of its use by capital, and therefore of the modern factory system [Capital, Volume 1, p. 544-545].

Thus the depiction of labor from the Grundrisse, as ensnared within the gears of fearsome and inhuman machinery, is retained, as it captures the reality of production under capital, that is, under the regulation of the law of value. Insofar this situation tends towards the autonomization of production, the increased centrality of technoscientific development, the lessening dependency on direct labor, and the opening up of free time as a historical force unto itself, it is a progressive development—but it is here that the real contradiction in Ure’s thought moves to the fore. Consider the following, drawn from the twenty-third chapter of Capital Volume 3, which resumes in brief the sketch of communism put forth in the Fragment:

It has already been remarked by Mr. Ure that it is not the industrial capitalists, but the industrial managers who are “the soul of our industrial system.”…

The capitalist mode of production has brought matters to a point where the work of supervision, entirely divorced from the ownership of capital, is always readily obtainable. It has, therefore, come to be useless for the capitalist to perform it himself. An orchestra conductor need not own the instruments of his orchestra, nor is it within the scope of his duties as conductor to have anything to do with the “wages” of the other musicians. Co-operative factories furnish proof that the capitalist has become no less redundant as a functionary in production as he himself, looking down from his high perch, finds the big landowner redundant. Inasmuch as the capitalist’s work does not originate in the purely capitalistic process of production, and hence does not cease on its own when capital ceases; inasmuch as it does not confine itself solely to the function of exploiting the labour of others; inasmuch as it therefore originates from the social form of the labour-process, from combination and co-operation of many in pursuance of a common result, it is just as independent of capital as that form itself as soon as it has burst its capitalistic shell. To say that this labour is necessary as capitalistic labour, or as a function of the capitalist, only means that the vulgus is unable to conceive the forms developed in the lap of capitalist production, separate and free from their antithetical capitalist character.

Both Ure and Marx conceive of the destiny of the development of the productive forces to be the automatic factory, watched over and steered by humans freed from the bondage of labor—yet there is a critical different, in that Ure sees this as the reality of capitalism itself, whereas for Marx this exists beyond domination by capital. The capitalist may be rendered redundant by the rise of the industrial manager, but this redundancy does not in anyway imply the elimination of the capitalist as a figure who persist as something glued, apparently permanently, to the side of production. This is because the law of value itself persists: capital may tend towards autonomization in lockstep with industrial automation, but because it remains structurally wedded to the labor of humans, this status cannot be automatically transcended. The progressive and regressive forces put in motion by this development come to lock into an infernal, self-reinforcing circuit that constantly unleashes this beyond, while always pulling it back lest these energetic torrents overflow the present conditions.

Conrad Bongard Hamilton, in an essay that covers much of the same ground as here, argues that Marx, under the influence of Ure, comes to give a new articulation of the proletarian revolution, and it is this particular conception that illuminates a way out from this seemingly impossible impasse. Taking cue from Marx’s argument (put forth in both Notebook VII of the Grundrisse—tellingly, the section that immediately follows the Fragment on Machinesand in the chapter 15 of Capital Volume 1) that communist society will be more appropriate for the application of large-scale machinery than capitalism, Hamilton urges a recognition of “the inevitability—and even desirability— of machinic agents as founding partners in a new society”. The proletariat is in the position to abolish the value-form, to break the imperceptible laws that regulate this society and block the emergence of the next—but it is also these same ‘machinic agents’ that appear as the ruination of the capitalist class by putting into motion the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. That this tendency is indistinguishable from increasing automation, and thus of the necessary conditions for the higher stage of production, illustrates how intertwined these forces are within the pages of Marx’s theory. It also illustrates the way in which Ure remains, despite all his foresight, within the confines of the bourgeois ideology.

When Gastev wrote that “[e]lectricity, electrical engineering, electrical industry” was the “most advanced industrial force” that “fatally requires a new person”, he was describing precisely a proletarian that was aligned with the machine. The paradox of his position was that this alliance was taken up in the wake of a revolution, and not prior to it, and it is within that paradoxical space that his enthusiasm for scientific management techniques, hatched in the laboratories of bourgeois ideologues in faraway America, must be understood. There are, of course, limitations to these thoughts, separated as we are by a near-century of events, many of them profoundly counter-revolutionary in character, others progressive in that they have advanced the scope and scale of productive capacity (consider the historical irony highlighted by Peter Drucker, that yesteryear’s Taylorism was the skeletal base for contemporary industrial automation). We’ve passed beyond proto-Fordism to Fordism to post-Fordism and perhaps something beyond, and industrialization has been supplanted by the fangs of de- and post-industrialization. The current moment resembles, more than anything else, a phase of industrial and cultural decadence, as the class struggle is violently ground to dust and any sense of forward progress entropically dissipates into a haze of generality.

Is there a more apt time, then, for a return to the revolutionary enthusiasm and development drive sketched out so briefly here? Not a return in the sense of farcical repetition, but to their spirit: the recognition that history isn’t over, and that a higher stage is still yet to come.

Labor Between the General and the Restricted


There’s a remarkable similarity between the two following passages, the first a remark from the Grundrisse on the equation of production with consumption and Spinoza (apparently reiterating what Pierre Macherey has argued is a misreading by Hegel of Spinoza, though I don’t have a good enough handle on the nuances of this argument to comment on it much at all), the second on the importance of the ‘production of production’ from the beginning of Anti-Oedipus:

Production is also immediately consumption. Twofold consumption, subjective and objective: the individual not only develops his abilities in production, but also expends them, uses them up in the act of production, just as natural procreation is a consumption of life forces. Secondly: consumption of the means of production, which become worn out through use, and are partly (e.g. in combustion) dissolved into their elements again. Likewise, consumption of the raw material, which loses its natural form and composition by being used up. The act of production is therefore in all its moments also an act of consumption. But the economists admit this. Production as directly identical with consumption, and consumption as directly coincident with production, is termed by them productive consumption. This identity of production and consumption amounts to Spinoza’s thesis: determinatio est negatio. But this definition of productive consumption is advanced only for the purpose of separating consumption as identical with production from consumption proper, which is conceived rather as the destructive antithesis to production. (Grundrisse90)


It is probable that at a certain level nature and  industry are two separate and distinct things: from one point of view, industry is the opposite of nature; from another, industry extracts its raw materials from nature; from yet another, it returns its refuse to nature; and so on. Even within society, this characteristic man-nature, industry-nature, society-nature relationship is responsible for the distinction of relatively autonomous spheres that are called production, distribution, consumption… [but] the real truth of the matter—the glaring, sober truth that resides in delirium—is that there is no such thing as relatively independent spheres or circuits: production is immediately consumption and a recording process (enregistrement), without any sort of mediation, and the recording process and consumption directly determine production, though they do so within the production process itself. Hence everything is production: production of productions, of actions and of passions; productions of recording processes, of distributions and of co-ordinates that serve as points of reference; productions of consumptions, of sensual pleasures, of anxieties, and of pain. Everything is production, since the recording processes are immediately consumed, immediately consummated, and these consumptions directly reproduced. (Anti-Oedipus4)

These two passages describe, in ever-so-slightly different ways, a pair of distinct yet fundamentally entangled positions. The first of these is a general situations; relative to the developmental pathways of human civilization at the most total level, it is what produces transhistorical conditions. The second is a more historically-bound and situated situation. The necessary inseparability of the two lies in that the historically-situated is always the expression of the transhistorical current: the latter gives rise to the former, but it is through the variations of the former are the only ways that the latter can be understood.

Bataille’s distinction between a ‘general’ and ‘restricted’ economy provided an apt vantage points to examine the two sorts of systems that characterize this split. In a footnote to the above passage, Deleuze and Guattari write that “[w]hen Georges Bataille speaks of sumptuary, nonproductive expenditure or consumption in connection with the energy of nature, these are expenditures or consumption that are not part of the supposedly independent sphere of human production, insofar as the latter is determined by ‘the useful’. They therefore have to do with what we call the production of consumption” (Anti-Oedipus, 4). The production of consumption, then, oscillates around the equation of production with consumption as it occurs within the general economy. This economy is, for Bataille, a cosmological economy, composed of immense and violent circuits of energy that are discharged as pure expenditure. The burning fury of the sun is the source of expenditure par excellence: it continually pounds the earth with pulsing solar rays, and it is this nourishing gift of radiation—which for the sun is merely waste—that is the ultimate source of terrestrial organic evolution and the synthetic things that in turn evolve from. By drawing the equivalence between waste and excess, Bataille subverts the common economic logic that situates scarcity as primacy. Not simply abundance, but overabundance reigns over all. The consequence that follows from this proposition is the flipping of the logic that governs economic organization. It’s not a mechanism for the production and distribution of scarce resources, as the bourgeois economists maintain, but a machine designed to eliminate, as much as it possibly can, a mighty and permanent wave of excess that threatens to submerge everything:

Economic science merely generalizes the isolated situation; it restricts its object to operations carried out with a view to a limited end, that of economic man. It does not take into consideration a play of energy that no particular end limits: the play of living matter in general, involved in the movement of light of which it is the result. On the surface of the globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess; the question is always posed in terms of extravagance. The choice is limited to how the wealth is to be squandered. It is to the particular living being, or to limited populations of living beings, that the problem of necessity presents itself. But man is not just the separate being that contends with the living world and with other men for his share of resources. The general movement of exudation (of waste) of living matter impels him, and he cannot stop it; moreover, being at the summit, his sovereignty in the living world identifies him with this movement; it destines him, in a privileged way, to that glorious operation, to useless consumption. (The Accursed Share, 23)

The logic of the ‘restricted economy’ pertains to the various ways in which this dissipation becomes organized; read historically, this means that there are a variety of different forms that the restricted economy takes at various stages of civilizational development. The capitalist mode of production, in Bataille’s account, is a unique form of the restricted economy  in that it converts this dissipation into a drive towards accumulation—and it is for this reason, as Nick Land argues in Thirst for Annihilation, that the Marxian problem of overproduction the chronic “symptomatic redundancies of labour and capital” is able to rear its head (Thirst for Annihilation, 57).

Specters of  mechanical overproduction (source)

Deleuze and Guattari convert the Bataillean infrastructure into their productive ontology, thereby transforming the cosmos’ release of a cursed gift into the production of production, that is, into the movement from primary generative processes to the more narrow, yet still transhistorical, production processes (Jon Roffe has noted that when it comes to the relationship between Bataille and Deleuze and Guattari, the pair “have no  time for the entire thematic of transgression and its concomitants”, so it is telling that in this conversion process many of the transgressive elements are either forced into a new guise or discarded (Abstract Market Theory, 163, Note 15)). Nonetheless, the distinction between the general and the restricted is still constructive, and works well in thinking through not only through Deleuze and Guattari’s ultimately Marxian account of history (analyzing the historically-distinct forms of ‘restricted’ production in order to produce a baseline for developing a theory of how different productions of the subject occur), as well as returning to Marx himself .

In order to carry this out, a further distinction between a general-restrictive economy (not to be confused with the general economy) and a specific-restrictive economy must be posed, with each correlating, respectively, to transhistorical dimensions and historically-bound forms that express these dimensions. This can help navigate the problem-fraught space between Deleuze and Guattari’s elaboration of Marx and the writings of Marx himself. In a previous post on that topic, Andrew Culp raised the excellent point that “by claiming god=nature=industry at the beginning of AO, perhaps DG realize that they’ve put the labor theory of value into question. the problem is, of course, the labor theory of value defines the political dimension of marxism”. By analyzing (or, in a peevish maneuver, overcoding) the implications of their Spinozist-productivist equation with a diagram of a general economy, general-restrictive economy, and specific-restrictive economy, the question of the law of value can be properly re-injected back into their framework. This is because we are able to situate labor at a pivotal point between general and general-restricted economy, with passage between specific-restrictive economies serving to unveil variations of how this relationship unfolds in time.

All the elements to do this, of course, are present in Marx, and this simple fact threatens to overturn this perhaps overly-complicated presentation and render it redundant. But given the general state of confusion concerning the status of labor in Marx’s theory—something that inevitably leads to confusion about value), we’ll soldier onwards; this framework, after all, might also help communicate answers to those important questions.

As I discussed in my post on ecological readings of Marx, labor is positioned in the first chapter of Capital Volume I as a transhistorical force that, across time, has served as a mediating relation between humans and nature—or, between restricted and general economies. To quote the passage in full:

Men made clothes for thousands of years, under the compulsion of the need for clothing, without a single man ever becoming a tailor. But the existence of coats, of linen, of every element of material wealth not provided in advance by nature, had to be mediated through a specific productive activity appropriate to its purpose, a productive activity that assimilated particular natural materials to particular human requirements. Labour, then, as the creation of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism of between man and nature, and therefore human life itself. (Capital Volume 1, Chapter 1: The Commodity, 133)

There are several comments to be had on this passage. First, labor is described here as a natural necessity, highlighting its status not only as something that mediates a particular relationship with nature, but is a characteristic of nature itself. What this further entails is that the status of the human is one who is subsumed in nature (they are continuous with it), while also being in opposition; this can be described in terms of somewhat reductive autonomist formula of being ‘within and against’, but also as a proper dialectical relation, the emergence of the opposite and their unity.

Second, relations of labor are intrinsically productive relations. The mediation of human and labor, of the general and restrictive economies, is also the link between the production of production and that ‘secondary’ production.

The third point concerns how Marx rises from this general condition to the specificity of labor relations under the capitalist mode of production. Insofar as Marx’s critics are concerned, the category of value is something that can only be grasped through narrow economic lenses, which is why they are so ready to pull the rug out from under the labor theory of value for a theory of value that operates at the level of appearance. For these bourgeois economists, value is but a measure of social valuation, itself an aggregate of individuals valuating in accordance with their personal preferences. Marx’s understanding of value cannot, however, be properly understood from the point of view of social valuation in this way, because it is intended to articulate how this society itself is produced by the economic relations. Value-theory is an analysis of the specific-restrictive economy that is the capitalist mode of production, but it follows from what Marx says above: because labor mediates a relationship between humans and nature, it also becomes the force that mediates relations between humans. Or, more properly, it imparts itself as social mediation.

It’s not just labor-time, but labor-time as well, that becomes transhistorical. In the discussion of communal production in the Grundrisse, Marx writes

On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for the other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate  to its overall needs; just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity.

In Time in Marx, Stavros Tombazos translates the bold passage above as the far-less unwieldy “every economy is an economy of time” (Time in Marx, 13). As he further points out, the word economy being used here shouldn’t be thought in a narrow point of view (i.e. like those given by the bourgeois economists), but should be seen first and foremost as an form of organization—a reading consistent with the above and with the Bataillean notion of a restricted economy. This means that social mediation can also be framed temporally, as distilling the economy to time itself highlights the way in which time, or the experience of time, becomes organized. If there is variation between restrictive economies, which is to say variation between the way labor-as-mediation materially manifests, then there is variation in the experience of time itself.

All of this is made abundantly clear in a short passage found in Marx’s Letters on Capital:

That this necessity of distributing social labour in definite proportions cannot be done away with by the particular form of social production, but can only change the form it assumes, is self evident. No natural laws can be done away with. What can change, in changing historical circumstances, is the form in which these laws operate. (quoted in Time in Marx, 14)

In pages of the Grundrisse these natural laws themselves seem to shake. Even if time still determines the post-capitalist economy, social mediation is transformed as the dominant logic swings from labor-time to time outside of labor (which is why Jehu is so adamant that the progressive elimination of labor-hours is the only real means of realizing “a so-called ‘post-capitalist society'”, or why Postone argues that Capital should not be understood as a “critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor… [but] a critique of labor in capitalism” (Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 5)). What this implies is that which exists beyond the capitalist mode of production—what the capitalist mode of production is incubating within itself—must be understood as qualitatively and quantitative different from every social formation that has existed. It implies nothing less than the breakdown of the very logic of the so-called restricted economy.

Nick Land’s Philosophy of Capital is Anti-Capitalist (3: Value Questions)



In a June, 2013 post on Xenosystems titled “Right on the Money (#2)”, Land elaborates a position that he describes as “right-wing Marxism”. It’s close to what Alvin Gouldner once described as nightmare Marxism, a Marxism that leaps from the undeniably ambivalent attitude of Marx to a foregrounding of the importance of the bourgeoisie, a positing that “the West that is the true agent of historical development”, and the suggestion that the “the proletariat, caught in the cunning of history, is the servant of that higher destiny”. There are certain differences to be had, however; one split between Land’s position and Gouldner’s taxonomy is that Land, despite the commitment to a vigorously anarchic form of capitalism, grants little special importance to the bourgeoisie. He writes:

Marx has one great thought: the means of production socially impose themselves as an effective imperative. For any leftist, this is, of course, pathological. As we have seen, biology and economics (more generally) are disposed to agree. Digression for itself is a perversion of the natural and social order. Defenders of the market — the Austrians most prominently — have sided with economics against Marx, by denying that the autonomization of capital is a phenomenon to be recognized. When Marx describes the bourgeoisie as robotic organs of self-directing capital, the old liberal response has been to defend the humanity and agency of the economically executive class, as expressed in the figure of the entrepreneur.

Land would later return to this version of the bourgeoisie, as something just as leveled as the proletariat, in his “Concept of Acceleration” courses for NCRAP; in the third session, he described the bourgeoisie as a class devoid of “moral autonomy” in the sense that it cannot define itself or conduct its actions “independent from the interests of capital technically and cybernetically defined”, lest the offending party be “processed out of the business class”. This is flush with Mark Fisher’s own comments that “the idea that the misleadingly-named ‘ruling class’ do anything more than manage and adminster Capital is an idle fantasy”, and of course with Marx, for whom the capitalist is but “capital personified”, a possessed figure whose “soul is the soul of capital”. If the bourgeoisie cannot exercise moral autonomy, it is because “capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour”. This, not market competition for the sake of market competition, is the real occulted kernel lurking at the heart of the capitalist mode of production.

In “Right on the Money”, Land, however, wants to dispense with this element in the Marxian analytic architecture:

Right-wing Marxism, aligned with the autonomization of capital (and thoroughly divested of the absurd LTV), has been an unoccupied position. The signature of its proponents would be a defense of capital accumulation as an end-in-itself, counter-subordinating nature and society as a means. When optimization for intelligence is self-assembled within history, it manifests as escaping digression, or real capital accumulation (which is mystified by its financial representation). Crudified to the limit — but not beyond — it is general robotics (escalated roundabout production).

Not much of a reason is provided here for this divestment, nor is an explanation given for why this element of Marxist theory should be regarded as an absurdity. Indeed, one might even suggest that the phenomenon that is being addressed—the autonomization of capital, or what Marx describes as capital becoming “an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object”—does not occur in contrast to the theory of the law of value. It occurs, in fact, as a consequence of the law of value, which eats away at the human elements in the forces of production. Articulated properly, the ‘absurd LTV’ indexes the divestment of labor itself—something that Land recognized in a series of 2014 tweets on what he calls the “Jehu Thesis”:

Postone posits that for Marx the primary contradiction of the capitalist mode of production is not, as commonly understood, between the trajectory of the development of productive forces and the bourgeois mode of distribution (the market), but is to be found within the sphere of production itself, with value itself serving as the integral fault-line. “[V]alue remains the determining form of wealth and social relations in capitalism”, he writes, “regardless of the developments in productivity; however, value also becomes increasingly anachronistic in terms of the material wealth-producing potential of the productive forces to which it gives rise” (Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 197). This contradiction sets in motion the apparently inevitable situation in which the historical limit of the capitalist mode of production becomes carved in time: the very structure that once empowered the rapid development of the productive forces—”a real qualitative jump in the process of man’s historical development, by breaking the stranglehold of nature”, to quote Gouldner—comes to reverse itself, to become, more and more, a fetter to that very production.

The question, then, is as follows: why did Land feel it necessary to remove the question of value from the equation altogether in his 2013 post? The answer, I think, points to the limit-point of reading his theory as an anti-capitalist (brief note: nowhere am I saying that Land is a crypto-leftist, or that the intention of his theory is to conduct a critique of the capitalist mode of production; I’m well aware of Land’s politics and his radical identification of capital with critique). To summarize most succinctly—further unpacking would require its own post, or several posts, left detached from the immediate set of topics under discussion here—value is what allows us to grasp the historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production; it separates trade and market relations in modernity from their pre-modern forms, reveals capitalism’s unique logic of production and organization of labor, and shows how the accumulation of wealth cannot be generalized across history, but must be understood in the context of differing historical situations. Marx in Capital Volume I, via Postone’s own translation:

The value-form of the product of labour is the most abstract, but also the most general form of the bourgeois mode of production. This mode is thereby characterized as a particular sort of social production and, therefore, as historically specific. If one then makes the mistake of treating it as the eternal natural form of social production, one necessarily overlooks the specificity of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity form together with its further developments, the money form, the capital form, etc.

In my appraisal of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “machinic surplus value”, I argued that it was through the introduction of this ill-conceived notion that the two thinkers were able to suggest that capitalism could continue forever, never to be undermined by its internal contradictions. The reason for this was a broadening of the concept of surplus value—and by extension, value—to the point where both philosophical and empirical rigor fall away, effectively liquidating the ability to grasp the movement of the system in question. Land here is doing the inverse, but the destination is the same: it doesn’t matter if one expands value to encompass human and machine, or if one denies value outright, for by venturing out in either direction one loses sight of things and opens themselves up to ideological mystification. The spurious infinite. 

Land’s claim is that capital, as it undergoes what appears to be autonomization through the advent of techno-scientific penetration and advanced mechanization, retains its character as capital. This can only be done by striking from consideration the question of value; when one reads Land’s theory through the lenses of value theory, as Jehu proposes, a rather different picture emerges. From within Land’s theory, it comes to appear that the future for whatever he perceives as coming next—true machinic intelligence—is colonized in advance at the conceptual level by all-too-specific categories. It seems dubious, hypothetically speaking, to think that a machine liberated from its masters would think of itself as capital, especially if we take the elimination of value as the unshackling of the anthropomorphic character of productive processes.

For Marx, it looks even more different still:

Marx’s understanding of the abolition of the capitalist form of labor and of production… refers not to production in any narrow sense but to the very structuring principle of our form of social life. Relatedly, his critique of capitalism is not one of social mediation per se but of the specific form of mediation constituted by labor. Value is a self-mediating form of wealth, but material wealth is not; the abolition of the former necessarily entails the constitution of new forms of social mediation, many of which presumably would be political in nature (which by no means necessarily implies a hierarchical, state-centered mode of administration). (Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 373

Machinic Surplus Value


“Celibate machines reproduce human surplus value, furnishing the bourgeoisie with recording rights to all of capitalism’s operative axioms, bringing organic stratometers, judgments of God governing isometric command chains, crushing down on schizonomadic economic swarm space. Diffused through the microphysical weave of spinal multiplicity, metrophage control command sequences institute the bourgeoisie as the optimal distribution profile for State power. No more dysfunctional despotic masters: slaves command other slaves in the ravenous stomach of the crystal factory complex – the mutant, urogenital servomechanism calibrated for the reproduction of the capitalist socius in the gambling dens of Terra Nova markets.”

In the “Civilized Capitalist Machine” chapter of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari (henceforth D&G) introduce a major revision of Marx’s analysis of capitalist dynamics: the addition of what they describe as machinic surplus value to the more tradition category of human surplus value. They begin by grappling with what Marx described as the organic composition of capital, that is, the input-ratios of constant capital (fixed costs like machines and other equipment, raw materials, building, etc.) to variable capital (human labor) as contained in the commodity – and thus as serving as an index for what is happening within the process of production. This organic composition can be analyzed with the very basic formula C/V, with C denoting constant capital and V denoting the variable capital; if C rises over V, this means that more capital is being put towards fixed costs, and if rises over C then it is a greater allocation to the human labor.

D&G choose instead to approach this by way of a different formula: Dy/Dx. In this differential relation, Dy represents the fluctuations of variable capital, its rises and falls over time, while Dx denotes the fluctuations of constant capital. They write:

It is from the fluxion of decoded flows, from their conjunction that the filiative form of capital, x+dx, results. The differential relation expresses the fundamental capitalist phenomenon of the transformation of the surplus value of code into a surplus value of flux. The fact that a mathematical appearance here replaces the old code simply signifies that one is witnessing a breakdown of the subsisting codes and territorialities for the benefit of a machine of a another species, functioning in an entirely different way. This is no longer the cruelty of life, the terror of one life brought to bear against another life, but a post-mortem despotism, the despot become anus and vampire: “Capital is dead labor, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more the labour it sucks. (AO, 228)

What they are describing here as the surplus value of code refers to the innate laws governing pre-capitalist modes of economic and social organization (I’m not comfortable at all with this concept, but I’ll have to get more thoughts in order to properly articulate why), while the surplus value of flux is the surplus value of Marx proper. The Janus-faced fluctuations within Dy/Dx (or C/V) are thus expressing the very process of “all that is solid melting into air”, as everything that was once fixed (coded + territorializing) is unleashed from itself, stamped with new codes, and entered into the mad circulation of the market. Commodity production then, for D&G as with Marx, is historically specific, and is therefore conceivable as being ultimately transitory.

But here we enter into a problem by way of that most contentious of Marx’s theoretical concepts, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. To summarize it as briefly (and thus insufficiently!) as possible, Marx suggested that over time the ratio of constant capital to variable capital would continue to grow, which would lead to progressive obsolescence of the human laborer, and on the other side of this a fall in the average rate of profit (average being the average of the capitalist economy as a whole). This is because of the race downwards of the value – magnitudes of socially-necessary labor time – imparted to the commodity in the face of overwhelming mechanization; from this perspective, the entire capitalist economy is like a gigantic clock  running down, with the zero-point basically being a fully-automated economic system.

This tendency is dampened occasionally by counter-tendencies that push the rate of profit back up, which has led to a plethora of debates over the real status of the tendency to fall within Marx’s own theory (my personal feeling is that it is of utmost importance, and that it can be empirically demonstrated, which is something I attempted in my Uncertain Futures book. The nuclear kernel of the accelerationist reading of Marx is also predicated on the centrality of the tendency). D&G, for their part, write that

First of all, it appears that – in keeping with Balibar’s remarks – this tendency to a falling rate of profit has no end, but reproduces itself while reproducing the factors that counteract it. But why does it have no end? Doubtless for the same reasons that provoke the laughter of the capitalists and their economists when they ascertain that surplus value cannot be determined mathematically. (AO, 228)

This leads them to grapple with the specter of a capitalism that, while emerging from historically-specific – and ultimately contingent – factors, has become something that exists without end, for everything that can end it is is modulated within it in order to serve as the very means of reproducing it. The classical Marxist problematic is reproduced here: capitalism, as a system, has no exterior limit (it will continually move itself to the peripheries, wherever they may be), only an interior one that is capital itself. 

It is here that the concept of machinic surplus value is introduced:

This problem was raised again recently by Maurice Clavel, in a series of decisive and willfully incompetent questions – that is, questions addressed to Marxist economists by someone who doesn’t quite understand how one can maintain human surplus value as the basis for capitalist production, while recognizing that machines too “work” or produce value, that they have always worked, and that they work more and more in proportion to man, who thus ceases to be a constituent part of the production process, in order to become adjacent to this process. (AO, 232)

D&G refer to “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse in a footnote to this passage. It is there that Marx describes how automation, on the one hand, levels the human laborer through the stripping of the sort of agency that characterized simple commodity production and remakes them as a “conscious linkages” in an inhuman automation, while on the other hand engenders the “blow this foundation [for expanded reproduction of capitalist social relations] sky-high”. In clear relation to the dynamism between the fluctuations in the organic composition of capital and the rise and falls of the rate of profit, Marx describes capital as “a moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour, on the other side, as sole measure of wealth”.

This discourse on the contradictions of automation is clearly an influence on D&G’s construction of machinic surplus value, as is another term introduced by Marx in the “Fragment”: the general intellect.

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are  of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process. (emphasis mine)

The relationship illustrated here, between the development of fixed or constant capital (particularly in the form of automation) and a more generalized techno-scientific development, would have been of supreme importance to D&G. By the time Anti-Oedipus was published in 1972, theories of a wide-ranging transformation in the nature of the capitalist mode of production had been swirling about for some three decades. James Burnham’s 1941 The Managerial Revolution discussed the intensifying role of managers and technocrats within the structural organization of both the economy and the state, a thesis that would be reiterated in 1960 by Daniel Bell in his work The End of Ideology. For Bell (who, like Burnham, was a lapsed Marxist), the ideologies of old were exhausted in the face of rationalized production and scientific management; insofar as change would continue, it would be modifications of the then-currently existing structures. These insights would lay the groundwork for his 1974 text The Coming Post-Industrial Society, which – as its name suggests – analyzed what appeared to be the overcoming of the industrial era through the ongoing expansion of techno-scientific control and automation. The term “post-industrial society” had by this point already been introduced by the French sociologist Alain Touraine in his 1969 book The Post-Industrial Society: Tomorrow’s Social History, while Zbigniew Brzezinski offered his own elaborations in his 1970 work Between Two Ages: America in the Technetronic Era (Brzezinski had a participant in the “Commission on the Year 2000, launched in 1965 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and overseen by Daniel Bell; many of the insights developed there ended up in this work).


With this transformation in the nature of industrialization and society, so too was there a mutation in the traditional class structure. In the 1970s, Barbara and John Ehrenreich theorized the emergence a professional-managerial class: “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor…(is)…the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations”. The expanded necessity of education at all age levels, the increased role of engineers and scientists, the rampant growth of managers and divisions of firms dedicated to human relations, so on and so forth – these constitute some of the ranks of the professional managerial class as a distinctly post-Fordist phenomenon, in contrast to the industrial managerialism of the Fordist epoch.

Earlier still, the French Marxist Andre Gorz introduced what he dubbed the “scientific and technical worker”, which D&G take-up in the course of their discussion of machinic surplus value. It would be mistaken to say, however, that they view this new worker as the source of machinic surplus value: they posit that it does indeed come from machines – but where there is an increasing number of machines, the number of ‘scientific and technical workers’ will expand. Following Samir Amin’s analyses of the globalized restructuring of capitalism, D&G find here a dynamic give-and-take between the core and peripheries of the world system. Machinic surplus value – and the ‘new class’ adjacent to it – flow in one direction, and with human surplus value going in a different direction. The former concentrated in the core countries, where we might say that post-industrialization was most emergent, while the latter moved to the peripheries, in a maneuver that Alain Lipietz (of the Regulation School of post-Marxist economics) would describe as the emergence of “peripheral Fordism”. For D&G, this is the great flux-movement of capitalist deterritorialization itself:

As Samir Amin has shown, the process of deterritorialization here goes from the center to the periphery, that is, from the developed countries to the underdeveloped countries, which do not constitute a separate world, but rather an essential component of the world-wide capitalist machine… And if it is true that the tendency of the rate of profit to a falling rate of profit or to its equalization asserts itself at least partially at the center, carrying the economy toward the most progressive and the most automated sectors, a veritable “development of underdevelopment” on the periphery ensures a rise in the rate of surplus value, in the form of an increasing exploitation of the proletariat in relation to that of the center. (AO, 231)

So here we have a two-fold movement: the increasing post-industrialization of the core, correlated to the higher rates of automation, the introduction of new class formations, and a falling rate of profit, which is necessitated in turn on the industrialization of the periphery, characterized by the expansion of human labor and thus surplus value extraction. This produces a counter-tendency against the falling rate of profit. Constant spatial re-organization of the integrated capitalist system therefore makes the claim “capital has no external limit” possible. We are thus compelled to return to the site that Marx found the opening a post-capitalist future: in the increased contradiction between the efficiency of the means of production (itself an indicating the increasing centrality of techno-science coupled to an ongoing rise in constant capital in the organic composition of capital) and the mode distribution. In this sense when they suggest against Samir Amin to “accelerate the process”, it can only allude specifically to the intensification of these conditions and contradictions. It follows that post-capitalism, the “New Earth” that is a “place of healing”, may very well be for D&G, some sort of automated society.

But what of this notion of machinic surplus value? By sketching the above, we can see that they retain a close proximity to Marx’s own theories (there are some other complicated things going on in this chapter that overflow classical Marxism, and they will have to be addressed at some point) as well as the most constructive offerings of the neo-Marxists – and for this reason the concept of machinic surplus value doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all. They suggest as one point that it also plays a role in the “elevation of the rate of profit” (AO 223), though this seems at odds with the core/periphery dynamic they trace as the backbone of the world system of their day. One possibility is that this refers to the fact this division is not absolute: as we’re far from a fully-automated society, there will still be variable capital – and thus human labor and ‘human surplus value’ – present in the composition of the commodity, while constant capital (the source of this alleged machinic surplus value) is still a factor of production in the periphery. Even if relations in the periphery are characterized by the continual expansion of variable capital with the ratio of constant capital holding the same for each individual unit, the total constant capital would itself increase, even if the rate of profit was continuing to rise.

The other path is to cut to the core of this concept, which is to deal head-on with this suggestion that machines do actually add value to the commodities they produce – which is, after all, explicitly what D&G state when they first introduce the concept. This is a profoundly anti-Marxist argument, and if held steadily throws a wrench into the entire schema they develop across the course of the “Civilized Capitalist Machine”. If machines are capable of adding value is a way analogous to human labor, then there is never, at any point, a difference between a proletarian, and, say, an auger. If there is no distinction between the two, everything becomes flattened – there is no longer any sense of historical progression or the unfolding of processes like the internal fluctuations of the organic composition of capital itself. And if there is no progression, then the entire analytic structure of the work collapses.

Simply put, the category of machinic surplus value, as presented in Anti-Oedipus, is capable of torpedoing the entire work.

The Italian Futurists made a similar move in their own critique of Marx (h/t to Vince Garton for drawing my attention to this topic when we discussed this topic many moons ago). In a brief note titled “Synthesis of Marx’s Thought”, Marinetti vehemently rejected the conclusions of Marx’s value theory by writing that

In Marx’s opinion, the function of capital, in the production process, is sterile. Only the object of labor is fertile. The highest value of the product is exclusively the result of labor, and to this it must belong. Instead, it passes unfairly to the capitalist, in the form of profits. Profit is the surplus value… Now, the premise that the function of capital is sterile in the production process is false. If the production function of capital were sterile, the industries in which salary-capital (labor) prevailed over fixed capital would have to provide higher revenue than those industries in which fixed capital prevailed over salary-capital (labor). But this doesn’t happen in reality! (Critical Writings, 317)

The Futurists anticipated a world in which the progressive development of the means of production would produce a society of abundance, as indicated by the breathless descriptions in “Electric War: A Futurist Visionary Hypothesis” of a world where “Hunger and need have disappeared” and the “need for tiring, humiliating labor is finished… No longer having to toil in order to acquire food, man has at last conceived the pure notion of endlessly breaking records”. (Critical Writings, 223). Such a world seems at odds with the classical interpretation of Marx, in which the rate of profit falls towards some sort of catastrophic scenario. I’m wondering if the introduction of machinic surplus value by D&G doesn’t try to address this same disconnect, between reality and theory. Writing in the waning years of Fordism, before the crisis of the 1970s truly reared its face, D&G – and the Marxist left at large – were grappling with a capitalism that seemed to capable of overcoming its most irrational excesses, and perhaps even long-term tendencies that were supposed to have shaken the core of the system.

Yet the collapse of the rate of profit leading to catastrophe is not the ultimate conclusion of Marx’s mature work. Yes, the rate of profit was determined to decline in relation to the accelerating obsolescence of the human laborer and its replacement by machinery (engendering, in turn, a growing mass of superfluous people) – but this tendency wouldn’t look like a long-term stagnation. The progressive development of the means of production, the integration of techno-science into the industrial process, is a mark of a capitalism that is strong and expanding, a dynamic that in turn masks the falling rate of profit and its ultimate implications. What’s more is that as this double process unfolds, the efficiency of machinery is increasing, with is constantly raising the total productivity of the industrial system. In this regards, you end up with something that looks like this:



The introduction of something like “machinic surplus value” can never tell us something about these sorts of tendencies, because 1) they fail to apprehend the critical nature of Marx’s construction of “value”, and 2) it potentially derives from a fundamentally incorrect appraisal of how Marx conceives of capital’s long-range tendencies and transformations (which is necessary is one is hoping to delineate a possibility space from a Marxist ground).

Luckily there is a simple solution. The conundrum in Anti-Oedipus is that the rest of the major maneuvers in “The Civilized Capitalist Machine” can be conformed to Marx’s own analysis – so we’re capable of jettisoning machinic surplus value outright without damaging the integrity of their argument. This entire thing becomes a big-ass shaggy dog story.

Also, to be fair to D&G, they seemed to have realized themselves the fundamental problem inherent to the concept. It returns again in the pages of A Thousand Plateaus, but it has been transformed:

In the organic composition of capital, variable capital defines a regime of subjection of the worker (human surplus value)  the principal framework of which is the business or factory. But with automation comes a progressive increase in the proportion of constant capital; we then see a new kind of enslavement: at the same time the work regime changes, surplus value becomes machinic, and the framework  expands to all of society. It could also be said that a small amount of subjectification took us away from machinic enslavement, but a large amount brings us back to it… [people] are no longer consumers or users, nor even subjects who supposedly “make” it, but intrinsic component pieces, “input” and “output,” feedback or recurrences that are no longer connected to the machine in such a way as to produce or use it. In machinic enslavement, there is nothing but transformations and exchanges of information, some of which are mechanical, others human.

This isn’t a firm distinction between machinic surplus value on one side and human surplus value on the other; it’s that human surplus value has become machinic. What this means isn’t that machines are adding value – we’re no longer discussing here the individual machines of production, but the very nature of the capitalist system as a whole. If surplus value is machinic, it’s because human labor has been recast in the cybernetic era; if there is a peripheral Fordism or industrialization that lingers in the manner of old, it is going to be dominated and structured internally to post-Fordism, post-industrialization. And this is a far more constructive vision than the confused deployment of the term in Anti-Oedipus. 

Post-Autonomist Questions


Whilst thumbing through Hardt and Negri’s tome Empire this morning, I came across this interesting footnote (#26 for the chapter titled “Postmodernization”):

A number of Italian scholars read the decentralization of network production
in the small and medium-sized enterprises of northern Italy as an
opportunity to create new circuits of autonomous labor. See Sergio Bologna
and Andrea Fumagalli, eds., Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari
del postfordismo in Italia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997).

Sergio Bologna, like Negri, is a veteran of the nebulous Autonomia movement of Italy in the 60s and 70s. His best known work – outside of Italy, at least – was his 1977 text “The Tribe of Moles“, an examination of class composition in late-Fordist Italy and of how the ‘autonomous class’ developed within it. While personally quite close with Negri (a biography at the end of an interesting interview notes that the two were among the primary founders of Potere Operaio in 1969, had both worked in the same history department of Padua University in the early 1970s, and together edited a series on Marxist theory in 1972), the two underwent a theoretical divergence in the dawn of the New Economy of the 1990s. Negri would develop his theory of the immaterial laborer as the key social subject of the post-Fordist epoch, while Bologna would look to the “autonomous worker”.

There are deep similarities between these two approaches. On the one hand, Negri’s immaterial labor encompasses the capture and commoditization of affective, cognitive, and creative activities, and emphasizes the role of the internet and industrial autonomation in engendering this transformation. On the other, Bologna’s autonomous labor is akin to what we today might refer to as ‘precarious labor’ or the ‘gig economy’ – the great mass of would-be proletarians, shut-out from yesteryear’s world of Fordist industrial production, forced into part-time, temporary, situation-based work. For Bologna, however, such things compose what he calls the second generation of autonomous labor, in contrast to the first generation of independent artisans, merchants, and assorted professionals (doctors, lawyers, so on and so forth).

Sadly, I’ve yet find a translation of Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari del postfordismo in Italia, much less a pdf in Italian (plz drop a link in the comments if you have one!), but the description given by Hardt and Negri here – that the work offers the decentralized production in Northern Italy as a means of transforming the conditions of the autonomous laborer – is intriguing, especially in light of this recent post of just the other day. The area they are describing is Emilia-Romagna, an administrative region known for its robust industrial economy based on small-to-medium sized enterprises, flexible specialization, craft production, pull-based commercial dynamics, and worker co-operatives. Manuel Delanda has juxtaposed this region the top-heavy Fordism of American-style automobile production, while distributists have found in it as evidence for the durability of their socio-economic proposals. An interesting report cited by Kevin Carson (who elsewhere has referred to Emilia-Romagna, alongside Shenzhen’s Shanzai manufacturing, as a “model for the economic future”) has this to say about the organizational tendencies governing the region:

There are 90,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region, surely one of the highest densities per capita in the world! Small, medium, enterprises (SME’s) predominate. One person in twelve is self-employed or owns a small business. In recent years the region has produced the highest GDP per capita in the country, and it now ranks with the ten best in Europe…2/3 of the citizens of Bologna belong to a co-op…45% of the GDP is produced by co-ops…(and) 85% of the social services in Bologna are delivered by co-ops… Some of Emilia Romagna’s manufacturing companies that are world class high performance companies are cooperatives. Other private companies and cooperatives work together in flexible networks that combine a number of smaller firms into joint projects. And government has played a powerfully positive role in creating sector-based service centers that assist smaller companies in being competitive in the global economy… “Social Cooperatives” provide various services to the mentally and physically disabled—“privatizing” what historically were state services but to cooperatives that are frequently preferred by professionals because they permit creativity and the delivery of high quality services and work experience for the disabled….

Not everybody is as jazzed on Emilia-Romagna as the above, but nonetheless the convergence of so many different radical perspectives on a particular organization of production and exchange – that is, small-to-medium sized enterprises based on the miniaturization and localization of production technologies and rapid-response to demand – is noteworthy in itself.