Today let me begin by suggesting the following: inherent in many debates about social justice is a problematic kind of temporality. We can see this for example when people mainly focus on discussing communism/socialism in a post-revolutionary scenario, trying to imagine ways of re-distributing wealth and democratizing the production process. Similarly, these are the ways in whch we address issues of immigrant labor, exploitation, unionization, or any other kind of regulatory measure that might counteract the exploitative nature of capitalism as we find it. The problematic temporality here is that we are inclined to talk about capitalism after production has already happened. Hence, we actually talk about capital and its flows, rather than about labor and its fucntion in the production of capital. If there is a flaw in revolutionary theory it is not the inability to imagine a post-revolutionary social scenario, as conservatives so unfoundedly tend to claim. There are plenty of accounts of how to re-structure society and the distribution of capital. However, there are surprisingly few accounts of how to restructure the actual productive apparatus (not structurally, but logically), resulting in the fact that many post-revolutionary scenarios are in fact based on the same capitalist production processes that are just arranged in a more “just” form. I.e. we redistribute wealth, restore rights to the worker etc. What this means in essence, however, is that we locate exploitation logically in the post-productive flows of capital, not essentially in production. Even the Fordist assembly line could be reformed by assigning the worker more control over her product, removing competition between workers and by paying wages “according to her abilities.” This would de facto solve the description of alienation put forth by Marx (division of labor, alienation of worker from product, alienation of worker from herself and others via competition and need to transform human being into commodity, etc.). And this would be after a proper Marxist revolution. Much talk, however, is obviously a lot less revolutionary than this and leaves the production process entirely untouched (again: locating exploitation and alienation enturely in the post-productive flow of liquid capital). Talking about the role of the subject in relation to affective labor and cognitive capitalism does for me one essential thing: it brings back our discussions to the production process and forces us to engage with the possibility that the actual way of producing things and non-things cannot be salvaged and is logicall inherently alienating, hence must be re-thought and completely discarded, or liberated in drastic ways. This for me leads to a lot more rigorous and revolutionary analyses than post-productive scenarios of re-distributing wealth, or revamping labor law–especially in a time where post-Fordist production seems to partially grant the wishes of the proletariat that would seem to counteract Marx’s definition of alienation. Consider this analysis:
Twenty years of restructuring of the big factories has led to a curious paradox. The various different post-Fordist models have been constructed both on the defeat of the Fordist worker and on the recognition of the centrality of (an ever increasingly intellectualized) living labor within production. In today’s large restructured company, a worker’s work increasingly involves, at various levels, an ability to choose among different alternatives and thus a degree of responsibility regarding decision making. The concept of “interface” used by communications sociologists provides a fair definition of the activities of this kind of worker – as an interface between different functions, between different work teams, between different levels of the hierarchy, and so forth. What modern management techniques are looking for is for “the worker’s soul to become part of the factory.” The worker’s personality and subjectivity have to be made susceptible to organization and command. It is around immateriality that the quality and quantity of labor are organized. This transformation of working-class labor into a labor of control, of handling information, into a decision-making capacity that involves the investment of subjectivity, affects workers in varying ways according to their positions within the factory hierarchy, but it is nevertheless present as an irreversible process. Work can thus be defined as the capacity to activate and manage productive cooperation. In this phase, workers are expected to become “active subjects” in the coordination of the various functions of production, instead of being subjected to it as simple command. We arrive at a point where a collective learning process becomes the heart of productivity, because it is no longer a matter of finding different ways of composing or organizing already existing job functions, but of looking for new ones.
What if the departure from the forces of alienation that described the industrial worker in Marx’s time is precisely part of the capitalist logic that informs production today? Would this not suggest that we need to radically re-vamp and adapt our analytical framework? Don’t we then have to assign the affective production and immaterial inclusion of the worker a central role in entirely new formulations of the concept of alienation–and: is the concept of alienation in fact theoretically more helpful to envision alternatives than the concept of exploitation (for the reasons indicated above)?