The practices of capital

Image: Nubia Navarro


Between semiotics and doing in mercantile societies

The conditions of productive work (material, immediate, economic) contracted for industry presuppose extortions, such as the separation of the maker from the work tools, the maker of the total and generic knowledge of the work, its usefulness, the freedom to do it and to how to do it.

John Holloway (2003) related the expressions power-to to the specialized and technical knowledge of the doer, and power-over to the generalist and intellectual knowledge of management subsumed by capital. These expressions give rise to modulation possibilities that make explicit the language of capital appropriation in terms of the power or power of will, duty and know-how for the organization of the commodity production system and under the command of its management, the power-over those functions.

Between power-to-do and power-over, there is an insoluble contradiction regarding the treatment that capital gives to commodity production: producers cannot own or take possession of the means or forms of production, except in minimum proportions of the specific part in the social work process. Industrial production under the aegis of the capitalist production system is typically marked by the extreme division of labor: each producer is responsible for only a small part of a larger work process; this is valid even for activities that are not directly industrial (MARX, 2015: chap. 13).

The market society is especially resistant to comprehensive, tacit knowledge and full-time work as an attribute of the direct maker and salaried worker. Your modus operandi it is, inversely, the segmentation, the digit and the partitioning. Therefore, the control of the work processes – of the social organization, therefore, of the social relationship and of the subjectivity constituted therein – is, as an extension of property, privately in the hands of the holders of capital.

Defenders of goods, those who appropriate goods and exchange them in the market, need subordinates to manage their interests and organize social life according to liberal logic, and income with a view to accumulation. Hence, the specialized top management is co-opted to reproduce the functionalities necessary for the accumulation regime.

On all sides, from material production, to the production of culture and to the forms of reproduction of the dominant ideology, it is the partition, segmentation and specialization, commanded by the capitalists' top management, that prevail. Thus, the contradiction that matters for the domain and, consequently, the exploitation of labor for the generation of surplus value,[I] it is the opposition between the power-to-do (the knowledge, means and freedom to do, on the part of the doers) and the power-over (the ownership of the means and ways of doing, which is imposed on the doers). For John Holloway (2003, p. 36): “Power-to exist as a power-over, but power-to-do is subject to a revolt against power-over, and power-over is nothing more than the metamorphosis of the power-to-do and, therefore, absolutely dependent on it”. But this is, at the same time, a world view, and a language.

Semiotics of production (semiotics of action)

In fact, where there is power-over-doing, there is no power-to-do (although there may be some know-how) – domination is always domination (absolute domination of the means and forms of knowing and doing), and it is seen that the modulations between the terms that “contradict” each other for the path , or the opposite, , significantly reveal links of domination and work on certain unequal conditions (not just “different or contrary”).

All power-to-do (and know-how) implies power-over over externality, a mastery of materials and conditions to do it, but in the capitalist system this dominion does not belong and is not available for the doer to do. , is separated from him – the knowledge (partitioned), the technique (to which he submits and which does not submit to him) and the necessary inputs (materials, tools, capital, and the worker's own workforce, which are owned of capital) – just as the interchange or exchange of the products of his labor was separated from him.

Thus, those who do know little about what they do, they do not do it with their own intentions, they cannot exercise their creativity, the power to create disappears in the very process of doing it, they do not see the final usefulness of what they do. Therefore, both the makers and the totality of social agents can only reestablish their bonds through exchange values ​​or commodities, as they are made available, not by the producers, but by their owners. And since they are the ones who advantageously enjoy the distribution of general social wealth, it is not in their interest to discover behind these exchanges of things what they really are, social relations constituted in (and for) an unequal social organization of production and consumption. enjoyment of general wealth.

In this way, all the weakness of conscience of social agents necessary for the regime of accumulation, tends to permanently magnify the reification of things over human will and action, and to sublimate all these interdictions of power-to-do by power-over. The former, which was expurgated from the former, began to constitute itself as a specialized category of capital management over workers and work processes, since thus disconnected from doing itself, power-over can appear illusory as separate from power-to-do, and as such, it does not seem to dominate it – generalist and content knowledge is now positioned as special, superior, important, etc., to the detriment of action, doing, execution, fabrication pure and simple.

In the goods themselves, their perception remains separate from what they effectively are, human work, collectively organized under juridical-political conditions of domination and exploitation, purged of ontocreativity, a phenomenon that extends, with the massive participation of ideology, production immediate economic material to the arts and other creative activities, from the center to the periphery.



(Square for power-over adapted from AJ Greimas (1976))

The dynamics of mercantile societies in terms of human action, its doing, that is, from the point of view of production, ultimately refers to the struggle between more power to do and less power to do, from the point of view of domain of the producers, or that of the domain of management and owners.

Emancipation and regulation

The route of the possible semiotic function is, to do so: (1) , which corresponds to Emancipation of producers against conditions of domination according to the terms of capital for the production of commodities; and those that go in the opposite direction: (2) , in the sense of more Regulation or mastery of work and doing in general, according to these same terms, therefore, greater common sense, more reification of objects and more fetishization of exchange values ​​or of beings elevated to the mere condition of merchandise (SANTOS, 2000).

For power-to-do, that is, for axis 1, of Emancipation, we have: (i) doing things in one's own likeness, similar to one's own will, will-of-Self and will-for-Self; (ii) doing things in his likeness to Other, like his own will to Other, will-of-self-to-Other and will-to-self-to-Other.

For axis 2, of Regulation, on the contrary, for the dominance of power-over, which in the capital system is under the domain of other non-doers, owners and managers of the means and ways of doing, we have: (i) doing things in the likeness of the Other, similar to the will of the Other, will-of-Other and will-for-Other; (ii) doing things in the likeness of Another for Another, similar to the will of the other Other, will-in-Itself-for-another-Other.

In all cases, however, the “junction” of the modalities of “doing” according to the domination of capital, which unfolds between power-to-do (conjunction) and power-over (disjunction), takes place according to the creative potentiality and by the relationships / social bonds, in the vicinity of the cultural experience, in a certain degree of scientific and technical development offered to the means and ways of doing things.


It must first be understood that the cognitive formulations and practices of capital are, in every way, disjunctive, insofar as the status quo it watches over partition, segmentation and industrial specialization (even in the ideological and cultural spheres), as seen in the dominant operative forms of power-over. Capital in its regulation (control) mechanisms always tends, by its own laws, to be only apparently “concessive”, being in fact highly “implicative”, even in the face of cases in which one wants to linguistically name certain “events” (ZILBERBERG, 2015) of “crises”: in open market economies the system is itself a crisis, it lives from crises, it lives from its regulation, even if on the surface this necessarily appears to individuals as an unexpected rupture – that is the power semiotics of language circumscribed to capital.

In the same way, on the other hand, when the activity of a direct producer concentrates the totality of intellectual, spiritual, creative operations and performs them in the face of the opportunity and availability of means and knowledge, in this case, establishing the empire of power- to do (of the in-itself-for-itself), knowledge is conjunctive and is the one that denied power-over: this is a real productive impossibility of societies operating in their commodity-form. In other words, the reification of commodities, in its most capitalist form, immediately transforms the concessive event (spectacular-one) into yet another “fact of the multitude” such is the power of power-over, a phenomenon that acts first disjunctively (removing -o property of the Self, shredding it as if to an ET), to then return it according to the interests and implicative benefits inherent to the regime and dynamics of capital accumulation.

For a semioticism of production, the struggle of the axis in opposition to the axis , involves all classes and social fractions for hegemony within the reproduction of capital. Not being able to do is also doing under the conditions of capital's control; and in the form of capital production, every action is an action under formal (unequal contractual) and ideological conditions (PÊCHEUX, 2015). All concessiveness vanishes here, all belief is, in the end, a real disjunction, equal and free only in formality.

It is clear that this struggle also corresponds, sooner or later, to an intestinal social process for a form-language, corresponding signs and values, now from regulation to emancipation (or to a ““second humanization”, this time conscious”, in the words by Anselm Jappe (2009, p. 39)), sometimes from emancipation to regulation essential to social life, but not necessarily in neoliberal molds.[ii]

*José Manuel de Sacadura Rocha He holds a PhD in Education, Art and Cultural History from Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie. Author, among other books, of Legal anthropology: towards an anthropological philosophy of law (Elsevier).


GREIMAS, Algirdas Julien. Structural semantics. method search. São Paulo: Cultrix/EDUSP, 1976.

HOLLOWAY, John. Change the world without taking power. So Paulo: Viramundo, 2003.

JAPPE, Anselm. El Absurdo Mercado De Los Hombres Sin Cualidades. Logrono (La Rioja, Spain): Pepitas de Calabaza, 2009.

MARX, Carl. The capital. Book I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2015.

PÊCHEUX, Michel. Discourse Analysis. Texts chosen by Eni Puccinelli Orlandi. Campinas (SP): Pontes Editores, 2015.

SANTOS, Boaventura de Sousa. The critique of indolent reason: against the waste of experience. São Paulo: Cortez Editora, 2000.

ZILBERBERG, Claude. The tensile structure. Lima: University of Lima; Editorial Background, 2015.


[I] “Surplus value” or “Surplus value” is the surplus of “labour power” contained in the commodities of a day's work, which is not paid to the worker; this is the true profit of the capitalist.

[ii] According to Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2000, p. 227): “I defended that modern science, once transformed into a productive force of capitalism, contributed decisively to the mischaracterization of this tension through the way it facilitated and even promoted the absorption of emancipation by regulation".

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