The Kurz Gradient


I recently came across a translation of a debate, held in 2012, between a handful of excellent Marxian economists and theorists—Michael Heinrich, Robert Kurz, Thomas Ebermann and Joseph Voegel. Of particular interest (to me, at least) is the dispute that occurs between Heinrich and Kurz over the current phase of capitalist development and its implications for potential future trajectories (or lack thereof). Generally I find Kurz’s project to be more fascinating and relevant than Heinrich’s, but in this case it was clear that the latter bested the former. For Kurz, the capitalist mode of development is currently in a terminal phase, with catastrophic collapse being the existential threat that is rapidly become an actuality. To put it simply: with the end of Fordism, a structural decoupling of finance capital from the physical conditions of production (from investments in infrastructure and productive forms to the circulation of non-financial instrument commodities) occurred, engendering a situation in which a ballooning mass of wealth is produced without recourse to labor and the production of value. While the detachment of financial from industrial production is a recurrent factor in the cyclical development of the capitalist system (signalling, as Arrighi and other world-systems theorists have shown, the interchange between ‘systemic cycles of accumulation’, which plays out in the transfer of power between global hegemons), for Kurz this simply cannot occur at the present stage. Even China, ostensibly the next great zone of productive growth—not to mention the country likely to serve as the next ‘capitol of capital’—is not free from this, having resorted to building ghost cities and the like to keep GDP afloat. He continues:

Something is happening now at the level of “normal” capitalist reproduction on a large scale that previously only happened in wartime economies: direct financing through the money presses. Up ’til now, that has not been transformed into real demand at a large scale; rather, it has merely absorbed bad loans. But that solves nothing. They’re still there. If the economic cycle dips, then the states and the world economy have no other option than to finance real demand by turning on the presses. That is the inflationary potential. In Great Britain, there’s already five percent inflation. In the eurozone and the USA three percent, in China six percent. The politicians will probably regard inflation policies as the lesser evil. But that would devalue money, the end in itself.

For Heinrich, however, this gloomy outlook is less than warranted:

I think you’re too oriented towards Fordism and post-war Wirtschaftswunder capitalism. And you correctly say there’s no starting point for something like that occuring again the near future – a long the lines of: “we have a structural crisis, but soon everything will take off again, like in the 50s and 60s.” I agree with you up to that point.

But then you draw the conclusion: if there is no possibility for something like that occuring, then capitalism is about to collapse. But Fordism and the “economic miracle” of the fifties and sixties were not the peak of capitalism, but rather an exceptional situation historically, the economic and political preconditions of which can be exactly stated. Accumulation will continue to proceed, even if bumpily. Even if all these financial claims are devalued, that doesn’t destroy a single factory. Maybe this or that enterprise will go bankrupt, but then it will be bought cheaply by a competitor and will continue to produce. With regard to your argument that production processes are set in motion that owe their existence to deficit flows, I can only say: so what? Then some creditor will go bankrupt. That doesn’t mean that everything will collapse.

Heinrich, alluding to the massive acceleration of industrial production and wealth in the Pacific and Southeast Asian regions of the globe, points out that capitalism is expanding. For Kurz, however, this growth, if it is occurring at all, is at best untenable and erected upon exceedingly shaky foundations:

But on what foundation? And here we come back to the deficit flows: on what foundation has Chinese economic growth occurred? Solely upon the basis of the Pacific deficit flow; without this, there would have been no industrialization of China. That means, it has feet of clay.

to which Heinrich offers the following fatal blow, which ends the debate (or at the part of the debate that has been translated into English and published):

But that’s always the case. That is in fact the same old, same old. How were the railroads constructed in the 19th Century? On the basis of an enormous credit and stock market swindle. With your argumentation, the collapse of capitalism would have already had to have come at the end of the 19th Century, since enormous infrastructure projects only came about on the basis of deficit flows. Immense processes of redistribution occurred. Small savers lost their savings, because they bought railroad shares at the wrong time. So there were enormous losses, but ultimately capitalism was pushed along by the deficit flows of the 19th Century. It seems to me that something very similar is happening right now in China.

Part of the problem with Heinrich’s treatment of Marx is that he swamps the various tendencies or laws that Marx poses into states of indeterminacy, most importantly that of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. In a 2013 essay for Monthly Review on the topic of crisis theory, he argued because Marx determined that countervailing factors would push re-inflate the ratio of constant capital to variable—and thus reverse, however temporarily, the falling rate of profit—the so-called law could not be treated as a law as such. This should be no surprise, even to theorists who accept the existence of the falling rate of profit (and I am, of course, including myself in this category); after all, there is a clear distinction to be had between laws and tendencies. For Heinrich, however, the ultimate conclusions that this tendency ultimately calls forth is an erroneous proposition: insofar as the tendency exists, it always stands to be beaten back (for a roundtable discussion on Heinrich’s interpretation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and crisis theory more general—as well as a response by Heinrich—see here). It is this opposition that stands at the root of Heinrich’s critique of Kurz in the above: if the objective tendencies do not exist, then the claims we base upon them fall away.

Kurz, on the other hand, remains committed to the theory of objective tendencies, and further offers an analysis of capitalism unfolding in stages. Fordism was one such stage, and what came after (post-Fordism or however else one might describe it) is another; these are splayed out across the oscillations of the rate of profit. The other benefit that Kurz has over Heinrich is the careful attention paid to the industrial basis that underpins growth and which serves as the attractor for investment capital. When speaking of the contemporary, he noted the distinction the high industrial capitalism of Fordism and the more contemporary regime organized around “micro-electronic” commodities and systems, and the way in which this shift (which corresponds precisely to the subsumption of Fordist capitalism by post-Fordism) has triggered not only a quantitative, but qualitative transformation in the nature of production.

In a 2010 interview on the topic of crisis theory, Kurz elaborated on how this epochal shift plugged into the greater arrangement of tendencies and counter-tendencies identified by Marx:

…productivity never increases value, but always diminishes it, as Marx demonstrated in the first volume of Capital. Anyone who claims the contrary confuses the social level with the level of the economy of each entrepreneur, or the totality of capital with individual capital. The individual capital that first increases its own productivity in isolation from its competitors achieves an advantage over its competition. It can offer its individual products at a cheaper price, and thus succeeds in selling more commodities and, precisely for that very reason, realizes for itself a greater part of the social mass of value. What appears from the point of view of the economy of the individual entrepreneur as growing profits and therefore as a growing “creation of value” leads socially, however, to the diminution of value, and indeed to the detriment of the other individual capitals. If the productivity gains are generalized, the innovating individual capital loses its advantage over the competition. This by no means, however, represents a return to zero or to a previous starting point. To the contrary, the increased productivity now becomes the new general standard. An hour of labor, as the basic unit of abstract labor, is always the same, since it cannot by any means have different “levels”. The new, higher standard of productivity, however, causes fewer of these always-equal hours of abstract labor to be necessary for an increasing mass of products. If capital is devalued and destroyed in the crisis, the already-attained level of productivity nevertheless remains, because it is inscribed in the totality of knowledge and know-how. We have to be clear about this: capitalism cannot go back from the level of microelectronics to the level of the steam engine. A new increase of value is becoming ever more difficult in the face of increasingly higher levels of productivity and, consequently, with an always diminishing substance of abstract labor. In the past, the constant reduction of value was only relative. With the increase of the standards of productivity, the individual product can represent ever less abstract labor and, therefore, ever less value.

Elsewhere, he suggests that part of the ongoing crisis arises from the contradiction between the actual possibilities latent in micro-electronics and the capitalist context in which they are being deployed: “[m]icroelectronic productive forces… have made a high potential of productivity utilizable on a small scale, but also remains imprisoned within the categories of commercial rationality”. This corresponds precisely to the what Postone and others have identified as the primary contradiction of capitalism—the increasing capacity for the producing immense volumes of material wealth and the simultaneous collapse of value imparted to the individual units that make up this mass.

Kurz’s model of the contemporary epoch is thus one characterized by a dual-faced crisis. On the one hand, there is the situation, the one anticipated by Marx, in which the capitalist mode of production is shaken apart by its own feverish drive to maximizing mechanical efficiency, bringing into play waves of overproduction and crisis. On the other hand, however, is this question of financialization, in which a tension between the direction of technological development (towards miniaturization) and the infrastructure of the world-capitalist system (still largely framed by that of the Fordist era) gives rise a situation in which the primary means of accumulation. M-C-M’ is short-circuited into M-M’—

As global finance evacuates the territory and begins to exchange, by itself, in an orbital, virtual dimension the city is abolished as a commercial centre.

—and the whole system begins to swing out of joint with itself. With anything short of a revolution that not only anti-political, but also anti-economic, Kurz sees an apocalypse (albeit one that unfolds in slow-motion) rising up on our horizon:

A collapse would mean that everything that can no longer actually be financed will be brought to a standstill. And we’re already experiencing that, but up ’til now the shock has been absorbed. Now, if in the dimension reached thus far a crash occurs, then things will come to a standstill in the real sphere of reproduction. Starting with the state sectors of infrastructure, healthcare, education all the way to industrial production and private services, everything.

And thus we return to Heinrich’s critique of Kurz, but with a bit more clarity. When it comes to the question of China, Heinrich is undoubtedly correct: the financial flows fueling the country’s industrial growth replicates a pattern that stretches back across the past five hundred. As alluded to earlier, Arrighi’s model of ‘systemic cycles of accumulation’ is instructive here. For Arrighi, these cycles are something like the M-C-M’ loop blown up to a macro-scale level and used to explain the transition of between hegemonic powers. By cleaving M-C and C-M into two very distinct but unified phases, he poses two phases to the cycle: the first, corresponding to M-C, is the industrial mobilization of industrial mobilization and the circulation of physical commodities, while the second, C-M, is the detachment of finance capital from this material substrate. There are two paths at this point: the recursion into an auto-amplification of financial growth (via M-M’), or the searching for greater returns elsewhere. Understood as a geopolitical process as much as a techno-industrial one, the first part of the cycle constitutes the acceleration of industrial power attached to a rising hegemonic state, with the second being its peak and ‘autumnal’ (as Braudel might say) phase. At this point, the ‘searching’ character of finance capital begins to engender the new wave of expansion elsewhere, within a new hegemony.

This is, of course, separate from Kurz’s issue, which is the problem of deficit spending—but the issue is exactly that these deficits must be contextualized within this wider shift of trans-territorial supremacy. And indeed, while China has kept certain limits on foreign direct investment (limits which, in the face of the US-China trade war, are slackening), it has been a vital aspect of China’s growth. None of this is to say that the dawning of a ‘Chinese century’ is guaranteed; as Arrighi says, “[a]ll previous hegemonic transitions were characterized by long periods of systemic chaos”, with highly variable outcomes—but at this stage, it seems highly likely (particularly as evidenced by the simmering tensions radiating from the United States, which itself in undeniable decline).

Setting this aside, another issue arises when considering Kurz’s argument and how it aligns with that of Marx. The entire line tracking into the increasing efficiency of ‘microelectronic’ production follows along the structure of the argument concerning the rising organic composition of capital—with one key exception. Kurz’s outlook was, at the end of the day, stagnationist, if not catastrophist (though by acknowledging the increasing efficiency of technology it cannot be classed as a decadence theory in the mode of the I.C.C., among others). For Marx, this was not the case. It was accelerative, compressive, and dynamic, with the modes of retrogradation—manifesting as overproduction—being annihilated by sharp, repetitive and increasing crises. The picture that is being offered here instead, where everything things shutdown one by one, does not correspond to this diagram, and likewise, neither does this vision of industrial disjointedness (which resembles more than anything the structure of historical development offered by Lewis Mumford and its more recent resurrection by Kevin Carson, of which much more will be said soon enough). If there is validity to this vision of stagnation, then we must consider a capitalism that, in the West at least, no longer corresponds to that tendential structure offered by Marx in Capital. It would mean that something else is going on.


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.