Day 38: Capitalism 3.0


***EDIT: quickly in response to skunk’s comment and the “fun with Emerson” idea. Here some R.W. I think everyone should be able to quote at random occasions:

“I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They present the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.”

Yes, the unconscious is productive indeed and nothing yields more productive force for the accumulation of capital than the undeveloped twilight woods of our minds. Let us then surrender our brains to the owls, let’s follow Emerson’s advice and escape the productive agency of misguided hooting and live forever freely in ignorance. Strange logic? Yes/no. Thus here the beginning of the strand on affective labor: ***

As promised, here a brief introductory post on the concept of immaterial labor. I do not have tons of time, so I figured I would keep posting details on the issue (which is rather complex) over the next few days and we can discuss them as we go along. This is something that is very interesting to me and in my dissertation I am trying to formulate an account of the precise effects this change in the economic and social organization of capitalism has had/is having on cultural production.

A VERY broad intro into the subject: the concept of immaterial labor is mostly associated with the economic writings of Maurizio Lazzarato, which have recently been picked up and further developed by people such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Paulo Virno, or Antonella Corsani. Most of the discussions surrounding this topic are primarily carried out in the Italian and French context, but there are also a few German economists who have begun to write about this. The general argument is that we have transitioned into what could be called the third stage of capitalism (the first two being mercantile and industrial in nature). Lazzarato claims that it is not sufficient to talk about “post-industrial” capitalism. Instead we must also examine this on the level of subjectivity–in other words on the level on which the subject is included in the production process. Lazzarato’s assertion is that we have entered a stage of capitalist accumulation in which the immaterial labor processes are almost more important than the material ones–this precisely has been taken up by Hardt in his formulation of “affective labor,” or by Corsani in her analysis of what she calls “cognitive capitalism.” The realization that the main productive forces are internalized, what D&G would call the desiring machines, as well as the understanding of affect as the primary force behind the positive dissemination of information must the include the necessity to articulate precisely the ways in which the individual subject is (often unconsciously) involved in a production process that is assumed to exist in an exteriorized relation to the subject. Hence here the link to Baudrillard’s assertion that we have indeed passed the age that can be analyzed from a Foucauldian angle, as discipline and surveillance do not serve the purpose of rigorous categorization any more. Instead what we find is the internalization of labor processes and the abolition of centrally regulating structures in the attempt to create a decentralized, anarchic and semi-autonomous production process that should precisely not be perceived as production, but as an exercise in democracy, freedom and rhizomatically liberating information exchange.

Here a short section from Lazzarato that introduces the general concept. Let me kow what you think and we can begin a basic discussion of the implications of this. I will then continue to add more detailed info and theoretical arguments as we go along.

An initial synthesis of these results – framed in terms of an attempt to define the technical and subjective-political composition of the working class – can be expressed in the concept of immaterial labor, which is defined as the labor that produces the informational and cultural concent of the commodity. The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the “informational content” of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers’ labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor arc increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communi­cation). On che other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural con­tent” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that arc not normally recognized as “work” – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion. Once the privileged domain of the bour­geoisie and its children, these activities have since the end of the 1970s become thedomain of what we have come to define as “mass intellectuality.” The profound changes in these strategic sectors have radically modified not only the composition, management, and regulation of the workforce – the organization of production – but also, and more deeply, the role and function of intellectuals and their activities within society.


  1. This is interesting. What is the relationship between immaterial labor and the accumulation of capital? Is surplus-value measured differently?

    I find the rhetoric of “changes taking place” and “activities involved” suggestive. Are these activities and changes still production? Does production itself connote a materiality that immaterial labor has superceded in the transition between industrial and immaterial capitalisms? Is the accent on production in “the organization of production” or is production just a way of understanding the composition, management, and regulation of the workforce?

    Sorry for the barrage of questions, but the idea of immateriality from the vantage of historical materialism is suggestive and perplexing.

  2. Indeed, the entire definition of value needs to be re-thought here. While throughout the centuries the accumulation of capital and the production of knowledge existed in a sense in a state of relative separation, assuming a rather linar relationship between knowledge and technological innovation leading to the accumulation of capital, today the relationship between knowledge production and commodity production has been reversed, resulting in an effective amalgamation of sorts of both spheres. The production of knowledge as a process of accumulation is becoming independent from the process of industrial production and thus results in the increasing impossibility to distinguish between production and innovation, or between, say, producer and user. Thus, we do not only need to rethink ideas of production and value, but of the very concept of property, which in turn results in he necessity of analyzing totally new forms and loci of social conflict. But the question of value is truly a good one (and a puzzler): what does value mean in a political economy of knowledge? Hoe does it change in a stage of capitalism in which every kind of knowledge is turned into a commodity while removing it from traditional understandings of property. I am not yet entirely sure how to answer that. Any ideas?

  3. Hmmm…well, I dunno, but one place to look might be at some specific examples.

    Let’s take ourselves. How does the knowledge we produce work?

    On the one hand, it’s entirely divorced from the amount of money the university receives from our students (and the state) above and beyond what we need to live. So surplus value is still relevant.

    The content of the knowledge (as long as it doesn’t cause any problems, is deemed competent, and we are sufficiently credentialed) is simply taken for granted. Our labor time (and power) is not really regulated (unlike what anaj has to deal with, it sounds like).

    Yet our value is in part as gate-keepers. We reward and punish students with grades that may or may not help them in the future. That is, we participate to some extent in determining THEIR value in the economy.

    That seems a secondary function. The university is non-profit (nevermind those military contracts in physics!) and we should also consider that, I suppose.

    So where does this put us? We seem like wage-labor without the need for constant vigilant oversight (Tom Moss and Ann Feldman notwithstanding).

    Let’s not take ourselves. What are the formerly industrial workers doing? The service economy seems much what it always was. Is today’s kentucky fried chicken worker so much different? Maybe a few more computer skills?

    In the third world perhaps there are more information workers?

    I guess my suspicion is Le Roi Est Morte, Vive Le Roi.

    Where is the political economy of knowledge?

    Finance, maybe. The Chicago futures market is an excellent example of immaterial value. Nothing like speculating on a crop that may never be produced, and yet is sold several times, its immateriality notwithstanding.

    Is this a local phenomenon–or a general economic trajectory. I don’t know. What do you think?

  4. Well, to take the example of our work:
    we are supposed to teach critical thinking skills (at least that is what we more progressive teachers say–others would say we should only teach disciplinary skills). In other words, we teach our students to interpret systemic connections in order to read socioeconmic forms, as well as the therefrom created networks including cultural production. Isn’t this skill of critical analysis precisely what drives both commodity cultzre and informatin exchange (in essence, is it not the very basis of how for example the stock market works)? Meaning: it is false to assume, as so many people still do, that we live in an overtly repressive age. In fact, repression is the complete opposite of the logic of capitalist accumulation these days. We have moved from a logic of repetition and norms to one of perpetual innovation. Hence, the most essential skill of the consumer, connected closely to affective structures, is critical analysis and critical thinking. What bigger market these days than the commodification of dissent (or as we have to designate it in this instance: trends). Dissent is from the angle of accumulation merely another productive impulse that commodifiers can be pointed at. The primary interest of capitalism is thus the reproduction of affective readings skills, for which critical thinking is the basis, which then, only on a secondary level, are connected to commodities (i.e. the hierarchy and temporal/causal chain between commodity and knowledge has been reversed). We need only think of things such as TV shows, fashion, anti-Busg paraphernalia–in fact: one can simply say that there is little money in neocon identity. But there is lots of money in being an anti-neocon. This is the paradox that interests me: that the neoliberal structure rests on the opposition to the mainstream, or in part even on the opposition to capitalism (with the exception of religious fanatics anf the 700 club, but that is more inherited and re-distributed wealth–however, not a basis for creating innovation). Nothing is as mainstream as not being part of the mainstream.
    Another example: the NIN marketing campaign. It rests solely on critical thinking (the implied consumer is precisely anti-imperialist, anti-Bush, anti-Hollywood, etc.). That is precisely why it works. Without this informed consumer interested in critical thinking, which is is the supposed basis for political action and identity, capitalism 3.0 won’t work.
    Actually, let me put this into a slightly more inflammatory way:
    the most effective means of anti-capitalist resistance may not be the production of revolutionary theory, or intellectual analysis, but mandatory lobotomies.
    Obviously this is just demagogical, but I would say it at least pinpoints some of the problems we are looking at and illustrates the degree to which we need to re-think intellectual (and eventually didactical) practice.
    As far as developing countries go, I am on Harvey’s side here (“uneven development” and the need to theorize spaces that [strategically] function merely as “Fordist peripheries”).

  5. Ok–this may sound a little too fascist coming from a German, so let me put the lobotomy part a different way:

    whereas the main strategy of resistance against Fordism was the general strike, the main strategy of resistance against post-Fordism may be the general cerebral strike. I.e. the economy will not come to a halt of all factory workers will walk out. It will certainly take a huge hit (but there are so many contingencies in global mirgant labor that this will be just as unlikely as a cerebral strike), but capitalism will not crumble. Stopping to think is a truly revolutionary act these days (as well as terribly regressive and depressing as a thought, but we wouldn’t know that, of course). Does revolution under cognitive capitalism truly mean that bliss is to be derived from ignorance? Scary thoughts (literally–i.e. is the antidote to alienation these days the departure from our own thoughts–I don’t even think schizophrenia would do the trick any more–in fact, the schizo is a great productive force).

  6. ok–still in other words: which action is more valuable for capitalist production/domination: ignorance, or critical thinking?

  7. Scary to think, scarier still to write and share, but I am wondering here this morning if your facist impulse isn’t right on track if you are searching for an answer as to how to bring Capitalism 3.0 to a grinding halt. It’s not so much a mass lobotomization that we should be calling for, but rather a push against individualization. As you point out, Capitalism 3.0 runs, as it were, on the democratic impulse for individuation, and a good deal of the “work” being done to support this is through the promotion and sale of commodities through which we are directed to seperate ourselves from others. Style and fashion may be a good example here. I am thinking in particular of “celebrity stylists” like Steven Cojacaro (sp?). If he can be said to work, his work is in directing the desiring machines toward the purchase of more and varied clothing and accesories with which to stand out amongst their peers. Indeed, the unnervingly popular “queer eye” series works in a similar way. We have a group of men–read straight, white, and by connotative, sterotypical norms inherently unfashionable as a group–seeking to seperate themselves from the rest of the nascar herd. To achieve this they turn to the advice and affective labor of the “fab five” who direct these men to abandon jeans and mullets in favor of flat-front slacks and a short-croped “ruffled” hairdo. That the men being made over now just fall into a different group of similarly stylized meterosexual men–much akin to the gay “clones”–is not simply a bitter irony that escapes the attention of most, it is “the” work of capitalism 3.0 in that it produces and directs the desire for such differentiation and individuation acheived through commodity consumption. To imagine a resistance to such work is to imagine the return of centralized repression that–in keeping with our fashion example–calls for a mass uniform imposed upon all. It’s not so much fascism that is the antithesis to Captialism 3.0 then as it is an Orwellian dulling or greying of our tastes and affective desires. How much better off would we all be if overalls were de riguer? For now, i am simply stuck wondering if i should go inner party black or outer party blue today? 🙂

  8. Hmmm, but mass lobotimization seems to provide an important new group of “consumers” in need of special services. It does limit their desire, though. Is surgical violence preferable to capitalist violence? Forgiving the obvious false dichotomy, the answer seems no.

    It’s a bit like saying that once everyone is dead, there will be no more consumption and no more capitalism.

    I worry, really, (and this is the spirit in which I read your comments) when the only avenue for resistance is commodification.

    If there is a practicable solution it’s going to start with organizing. At first on a very small small scale. It’s sucks to be living in the dystopian future–and we may lose, may have already lost–but doesn’t Adorno suggest that the way out of the I is to mourn the death of the possibility that things could be otherwise? To act and believe we are paying tribute to a dead past. That seems, in a quiet way, better than playing with scalpels.

  9. Ha! I like that.
    I think you are completely correct by concretizing the argument by looking at invidivuality, which, I agree, is the playing field necessary for cognitive labor to be transformed into a surplus-producing activity.

    Isn’t it also strange that one of the worst Cold War stereotypes about communism (forcing all people to become the same by wearing the same clothes–usually grey, or brown) might now actually take on some real-world significance as a political program? In a way we are already being shown the way by the African-American practice of wearing baggy white shirts and blue jeans to erase individuality as a form of protection against police repression (so they cannot be id’ed). Maybe we should introduce a “wear all black for social justice day (or for true individualism).” I am sure we can motivate the GAP to get on board–have you seen their summer-khakis billboards? Not very far away from what we’re talking about. (To be honest, they look very comfy and casual, decidedly not as hip and flashy as a lot of other fashion–one could even say they have a non-upper-class touch, which made me actually buy some and in turn proved our point again).
    Is there, however, a way to save our affective desires from being productive in ways we don’t want them to be? Is there a way to re-gain control over them–because in a way they are being increasingly exteriorized, are taking on lives of their own once we have released them into the world? Are there desires that cannot be functionally included (apart from, say, necrophilia, or pedophilia, which, in fact, also become productive for social norms, as well as for capital proper when we look at the internet, or TV shows and movies)?

  10. @skunk: I agree. Despite all the fun we are poking at the situation it seems rather dire. But this is to me precisely a symptom of two things: one, that capitalism’s hegemony has found new ways of spreading to untapped resources (i.e. parasitizing our entire knowledge production), and two, that anti-capitalist and social justice arguments need to be radically innovated if they want to keep up with capitalism’s development. Now, obviously there needs to be a mix of strategies to account for uneven development–cognitive capitalism has not become dominant everywhere. If we want to address it, however, what would be the program to organize around? Meaning: one basic assertion seems to be that what seems to be the superficial granting of freedom for the bourgeois consumer by erasing previous limitations on articulating identity, sexual desires etc. in fact turns out to be a calculated move that is functional and productive. Hence, as Mike Hill argues, it can be seen as a form of “de-disciplinary governmantality,” i.e. a new form of totalitarianism that taps into our desires and into the knowledge processes we perceive as increasing freedom. The concepts to organize around would thus be freedom and the fact that individualism has once again been mobilized as a surplus-producing concept and not as one leading to liberation (as already argued so eloquently by Marcuse in his description in the previous stage of capitalism). But how exactly would a political/organizing program look like that focuses on a galvanizing process that separates freedom/individuality from capitalist production (since erasing the concepts, as we have seem from our sarcastic comments above, doesn’t seem to be a viable option for anyone)?

  11. Oh–just to clarify: the GAP billboards made me WANT to buy khakis. I did not really do it (I might, though–not sure how much ignorance that requires on my part–this discussion, sweat shops,…).

  12. For starters we might wear WWZD bracelets: What Would Zizek Do? But then, we’d just enjoy our symptom all the more…

    I wonder if there’s an ambiguity in our discussion of knowledge.

    1.) There’s the knowledge we identify with our freedom and individuality, but is deeply (all the way to the bottom a la Althusser) ideological–we understand through the filters possible for people who live in a particular moment of capitalist production.

    2.) There is the knowledge that is taken and commodified–that is, from which someone (a corporation), somewhere, derives a profit.

    The problem, as I understand it, is that 1 and 2 are so deeply imbricated that it becomes difficult to imagine a freedom/individuality that is our own, and hence resistant to capitalism.

    It may be that right now all we can do is approximate a Marxist science that is vigilant about ruptures. (?)

  13. i believe jonathan beller contributed in this direction, in ”the cinematic mode of production”

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