When Value Creation Is Immaterial, The Exploiters Have Nothing To Grab Hold Of

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth (Belknap, 2009).

This third installment in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, which began with Empire and continued with Multitude, is concerned mainly with the forms taken by the successor society emerging from the decaying corpse of corporate capitalism. This quote is as good a statement of the general theme as any:

…the trend toward the hegemony or prevalence of immaterial production in the processes of capitalist valorization…. Images, information, knowledge, affects, codes, and social relationships… are coming to outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in the capitalist valorization process. This means, of course, not that the production of material goods… is disappearing or even declining in quantity but rather that their value is increasingly dependent on and subordinated to immaterial factors and goods…. What is common to these different forms of labor… is best expressed by their biopolitical character…. Living beings as fixed capital are at the center of this transformation, and the production of forms of life is becoming the basis of added value. This is a process in which putting to work human faculties, competences, and knowledges–those acquired on the job but, more important, those accumulated outside work interacting with automated and computerized productive systems–is directly productive of value. One distinctive feature of the work of head and heart, then, is that paradoxically the object of production is really a subject, defined… by a social relationship or a form of life.

Under the mass-production industrial paradigm, increased productivity was achieved by making the production process more capital-intensive. And this was also the basis of the wage system. The more expensive the machinery became and the more concentrated productive facilities became, the more dependent workers became for their livelihoods on employment by those who could afford the machines — and the more subject to whatever conditions the owners of the machines imposed in return for the right to work them.

As technological progress makes the physical capital required for production cheaper and cheaper, and brings it back within the realm of ownership by individuals and small cooperative groups – like the craft tools that prevailed before the industrial revolution – the main source of productivity becomes human cooperation itself, and knowledge as a commons.

This means that the rentier classes can no longer extract surplus labor from the population by controlling access to the physical means of production. It must enclose our social relationships themselves as a source of rents.

Capitalist accumulation today is increasingly external to the production process, such that exploitation takes the form of expropriation of the common.

But they can’t do it. The music, movie and software industries have learned that all the DRM, all the anti-circumvention laws in the world, can’t stop people from copying their content. And if manufacturing corporations DRM their digital industrial designs and legally mandate anti-circumvention features in digital machine tools, they will experience the same humiliating defeat.

Corporate capitalism is becoming totally dependent on immaterial property as a source of profit at the very same time that immaterial property is becoming unenforceable.

The Social Democratic approach is not to take advantage of the liberatory possibilities against capital offered by new production technology — in fact it’s just the opposite. The Social Democratic agenda is basically “to reintegrate the working class within capital.”

It would mean, on the one hand, re-creating the mechanisms by which capital can engage, manage, and organize productive forces and, on the other, resurrecting the welfare structures and social mechanisms necessary for capital to guarantee the social reproduction of the working class.

To work, social democracy would have to first use the state to forcibly integrate production under the control of capital even when capital was technically obsolete, either by outlawing competition from more efficient forms of production or giving legacy capitalist interests a “property” right in the ability to put the new forms of production to work. It’s an essentially Hamiltonian approach of propping up the worth of large concentrations of capital by artificially maintaining a need for them.

But this agenda is irrelevant to the actual paths being taken by working people in these terminal days of capitalism. According to Hardt and Negri, class struggle increasingly takes the form, not of an attempt to storm the physical means of production, but of “exodus” – “a process of subtraction from the relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power.” For the first time in two hundred years, the radical cheapening of physical capital and the primacy of human capital mean that we can adopt a revolutionary strategy that’s not based on somehow obtaining control of the ruling class’s institutions and concentrations of capital. As I wrote a while back,

Our goal is not to assume leadership of existing institutions, but rather to render them irrelevant. We don’t want to take over the state or change its policies. We want to render its laws unenforceable. We don’t want to take over corporations and make them more “socially responsible.” We want to build a counter-economy of open-source information, neighborhood garage manufacturing, Permaculture, encrypted currency and mutual banks, leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state. We do not hope to reform the existing order. We intend to serve as its grave-diggers.

The other side of this is that, as human social relationships replace the aggregation of physical capital as the main source of productivity, the withering away of material scarcity as the basis of exchange value will cause those specific forms of human activity and relationships we call “economic” to dissolve into the larger category of general social relationships. Human beings will meet a growing share of their material subsistence needs through activities we would currently classify as socializing or play.

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