Beyond the world of work: Ricardo Antunes

Ceri Richards, The Author's Prologue, 1965


Excerpts from the Preface of the recently released book, organized by Caio Antunes and Claudia Mazzei Nogueira

Ricardo Antunes' courageous and tireless research activity covers a long period of tumultuous social transformations. A true cataclysm. I can't find a better term than that to identify what has happened to wage labor – and to work in general – in the last half century. An arc of time that has rightly been portrayed as an era: the era of neoliberal globalization of capitalist social relations. And it led to two highly dramatic events: the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which seem to put a traumatic end to this era.

The first fundamental aspect of this cataclysm is the formidable growth, on a world scale, in the number of salaried workers.[I] This leap forward in the universal diffusion of work directly subject to capital is the result of a combination of several factors: the sharp increase in world population; the worldwide expansion of capitalist social relations; the spread of modern industry in countries that in the XNUMXth century had managed to escape the stranglehold of historical colonialism; the capitalist transformation of world agriculture, with the expulsion of huge numbers of small farmers and day laborers from the land; the massive entry of women into the labor market.

To all this can be added the universal expansion of employment under the direct or indirect dependence of the State or entities that are, in some way, controlled by it – a part of which is increasingly subjected, in the organization of work, in the use of the machines, in the salary structure, in the mechanisms of control of employees, to conditions that are close to those typical of the work of an employee of the private initiative.

(…) In this era, marked by a patronal-state offensive against the labor movement on a universal scale unprecedented since the times of Nazi-fascism, Antunes (2018, 2019) rightly saw traces of a preventive counterrevolution. This offensive targeted all forms of relative stability and guarantees conquered by salaried work in past decades (Harvey, 2005), through a series of radical counter-reforms of labor law, the progressive attack on the right to strike and organize trade unionism in the workplace, the voiding of national contracts (where they existed), the introduction and generalization of temporary work relationships (up to the extreme of work for voucher), informal, interim, internship, as partners in false “cooperatives”, not to mention irregular work and true forms of forced labor reserved, naturally, for immigrants.

To crown this whole process, spaces were opened for the growing and massive use of a completely free workforce.[ii] – with a first major experiment that took place in 2015 in Italy, at Expo Milan, in which free or semi-migrated work abundantly surpassed salaried work (in a ratio of 9 to 1).

(…) Of this epochal process of transformation of working conditions, the existence of workers, their forms of consciousness and organization, Ricardo Antunes was and is a lucid, passionate, tireless narrator. Maybe I should say analyst. But that term, to my ears, sounds too cold to be applied to the research work of this eminent Brazilian and international scholar. Narrator is, in qualitative terms, something more than an analyst. And so is Antunes.

Not in the often fanciful way of a Foucault, in whose penetrating investigations it is never quite clear where and how the “things” being talked about really are; but above all in the manner of a realist novelist like Balzac, who meticulously analyzes every detail and then reconnects and recomposes the fragments, the carefully analyzed details, until the unitary context of which they are part is recognizable. A narrator who is not a prisoner of the supposed omnipotence of his adversary (power) – as again Foucault seems to me to be. By describing the ability of his opponent (global capital) to materially transform work and manipulate workers from within, Antunes takes into account the insuppressible social antagonisms, the potential for liberation and emancipation of salaried work inscribed in the capitalist social relations of our time. .

And it openly takes sides so that these potentialities become reality, without this taking sides compromising the rigor of the investigation. Moreover, since the first publications, Antunes' object of study, work, is, for him, at the same time a subject: not just a simple workforce, variable capital, the class of capital and capitalist society, but the working class , proletariat, with its parties and unions. Not a partner, but the subject of the story. Protagonist of conflicts, rebellions and revolutions – the social force to which the perspective of establishing a new society, of “a new way of life”, of a new “system of social metabolism” can be entrusted, in which work is really vital activity, self-determined, based on the production of socially necessary use values ​​for humanity and the species.

Antunes’ reconstruction of the new morphology of work is omnilateral because it takes into account, at all times, the North and South of the world, “old” and new technologies, manual work and intellectual work, material work and immaterial work, contractual work and informal work (in all its multiple forms), qualification and disqualification of work, work in agriculture, industry and the tertiary sector, visible work and “invisible” work, productive work and “unproductive” work, salaried work and falsely autonomous work (the cooperatives, certain more or less fictitious “self-entrepreneurship” etc.).

Goodbye to work?, a dense, opportune, important book, translated into several languages ​​in different countries, is, in Antunes' uninterrupted research, a fundamental starting point, because it contains the first formulation of categories, concepts and theses that characterize his thought. In The senses of work and in many other essays, the author identifies the systematic connection between the varied and heterogeneous concretions that living work assumes on a world scale in the fact that today, more than ever, this is social work, universal social work, “more complex, socially combined and intensified in its rhythms and processes” than it was before the digital era.

And, based on this reconstruction, critical of the Eurocentric views of contemporary capitalism and forms of work, but free of Third World suggestions and simplifications, extremely attentive to the new forms of interaction between live work and machines and to the so-called immaterial work, opposes to the theses of the “end of work”, of science as the main productive force in place of living work, of overcoming the law of value, the thesis of an expanded and ever more complex validity of the law of value. Thesis that also encompasses and subsumes “cognitive” work, done in contact with information and communication technologies, without leaving aside, for even a moment, the “old” work, in contact with the machines of the Taylorist-Fordist era .

Twenty years ago, Alain Bihr (2002)[iii] “reprimanded” Antunes, in a very friendly tone, for not having thoroughly explored the process of “automatization of capitalist development”, in order to shed light on its limits and contradictions. the publication of The privilege of servitude and the studies that preceded it (Antunes and Braga, 2009) and followed it (Antunes, 2020b) are the best response to this observation. And they show the dynamism of the “long-term research project” announced by Antunes in the conclusions of Goodbye to work? and their loyalty to this project.

The privilege of servitude it is an essential contribution to understanding the “digital age”, digital capitalism, the digital age proletariat, in materialist terms. From the first line to the last, methodically demolishes the capitalist apologetic rhetoric around the platform economy and gig economy as entirely new forms of economic-social relations capable of exalting workers, promoting them to partners/collaborators of the entrepreneur on whom they depend (themselves and life itself). Likewise, the “anti-capitalist” mystification according to which the advent of platform economy it would be the decisive blow to the validity of the law of value. None of that. Amazon, Uber, Google, Facebook, Deliveroo, etc., with their massive use of information technologies and the respective machinery, are in no way in a position to take away salaried work, or the work carried out on their premises in an apparently independent, from the usual condition of exploitation and estrangement.

On the contrary, by systematically combining informality, flexibility, decentralization and structural precariousness, they use the apparent neutrality of algorithms and a social context of growing overabundance of the workforce to create a new form of slavery: digital slavery. In this description of the advances in terms of work organization in the very recent capitalism of financial dominance, old questions re-emerge: are we, perhaps, facing the end of work? Of the almost complete replacement of the living labor force by the productive force of science? The end of the law of value?

No, replies Antunes. Living work does not disappear; at most, it is “lyophilized”, reduced to dust in the most varied organizational contexts by increasing dead work. Therefore, instead of being relieved of the burdens, as is fabled, it is forced to maximum productivity, linked to the growing absence of rules and job instability even greater than that experienced in the past. In addition, the new technical, organizational and ideological instruments characteristic of the “informatics era”, to extract more work and more value from living work, do not spare even activities of the highest technical qualification.

Today's capital, global financial capital, uses them to force the old boundaries within which the validity of the law of value was, in some way, limited, and to acquire new spaces, new terrains, new fields of accumulation of profits, even those that, at first glance, are misleadingly presented as areas reserved for non-value or “free” autonomous initiative: health, school, social services and, in general, the activities of public institutions. No sphere of human work activity should be removed from the law of value, that is, the capitalist exploitation of work in all its forms.

(…) Antunes corroborates his critical reading of “digital capitalism” with an acute rereading of The capital, highlighting aspects that help to understand the role of privatized services in value creation. In Marx's analysis, underlines the author, the production of value is not necessarily linked to the material production process, since, in the latter, the transport industry, outside of this process, increases the value of goods. It increases it by selling a service represented by the “change of place”, a fundamental link in the complete cycle of the commodity, composed of production, consumption, distribution, circulation or exchange.

For Marx, the process of value production continues in the circulation process and, as far as transport is concerned, cannot fail to include storage, communications, gas supply, etc. Therefore, already in Marx, the production of value can also take place in the form of “immaterial” activities, in the sense that they do not add anything material to the commodity. But it is precisely the immaterial activities that, in this phase of capitalism, are in great expansion, in the tension, which differentiates it, of reducing as much as possible the distance between production and consumption.

(…) In the controversy with J. Habermas, A. Gorz, C. Offe, D. Méda, C. Castoriadis and the sociological theories that tried to liquidate the centrality of work and the law of value, Ricardo Antunes never wields the convenient (and sterile) weapon of quotations to close controversial issues with ipse dixit. The reference to Marx works, in Antunes, as a compass that serves to guide him in proceeding through terrains, at least in part, unknown, to be investigated, precisely because they are, at least in part, new, with an open mind, free from the compulsion to repeat. From this attitude, for example, is born the proposal to expand, in relation to tradition, the concept of salaried proletariat – always present, in any case, in his texts – to the point of redefining it as the class-that-lives-from-work , in order to be able to understand in it all those partly new forms of dependent but unpaid work that have sprouted like poisonous mushrooms over the course of thirty years of neoliberal storms. Hence his special attention, in recent years, to the uberization of work, as a complete exclusion of social rights (Antunes, 2020a), an aspect of the broader precariousness of the workforce – which does not flow, however, as in G. Standing, in the superficial theory of the precariat as a new social class (Standing, 2011).

New morphology of work, new morphology of struggles: this relationship accompanies Antunes' work from the beginning (the studies on the movement of workers' strikes in Brazil in the years 1978-1980) to the end (the struggles of drivers and uberized workers on an international scale ). (…) In this turbulent beginning of the XNUMXst century, on the one hand, the forces of counterrevolution are at play (it must be recognized), on the other hand, the expectation, the demand for socialism, a socialism that has taken advantage of the defeats of the XNUMXth century and that presents itself as the bearer of “a new way of life” (not just a new mode of production of goods), capable of opposing the lethal mode of production, as capitalism is and increasingly appears, the perspective of a new form full sociability.

If we observe it in its evolution over time, Ricardo Antunes' research activity appears to us as an upward trajectory. First of all, for its object, which progressively expanded from Brazil to the Latin American continent and to the universe of capital and work, as an unequal and combined totality. And also because his attention always returns to the same objects, but with a climactic concatenation, a wealth of elements and old and new connections together – as witnessed, among others, by Wealth and misery of work in Brazil, the series, organized by him, of volumes of collections in which the crucial Brazilian experience appears increasingly embedded in the context of the global system of capital, in the global process of corrosion and degradation of work and in the global clash between capital and work.[iv]

In my view, the upward trajectory of his studies also emerges in his ability to gradually integrate, successively, into his original research project the gender issue, the ecological issue, pandemics and – certainly not least – the set of the most recent transformations of capital and work and the formation of the new proletariat of services in the digital age, which we have just mentioned, whose condition refers, in many aspects, to the situation of work in protocapitalism.

This is confirmed by the reactivity with which Antunes framed the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, which enabled him to return with full force to a key theme of his research: the growing destructiveness of the capitalist mode of production, in relation to both work as for nature. The concept of pandemic (or viral) capital (or capitalism) summarizes in a brilliant formula the tragic overlap between the “normal” antisocial character of capital metabolism, its new structural crisis and the explosion of the pandemic/syndemic.

(…) In the reconstruction of Antunes' work, we would commit a great injustice if we concealed that it is characterized and differentiated by the close interweaving of sociological analysis with social philosophy of Marxian matrix and the influx of Lukács' thought mediated by István Mészáros, inspiring master de Antunes (together with Florestan Fernandes).

(…) I am thinking, above all, of the fundamental place that the theme of the strangeness of work occupies in the work of Antunes. In the wake of Marx, work is seen as “the starting point of the process of humanization of the social being”. But under capitalism, the relationship between the individual who works and his work becomes its opposite. Work, instead of being the form of realization of individuals as human beings, becomes a simple means of subsistence – its content, its process, its result are foreign to the individual. And this makes the social being who lives off wage labor a stranger to himself, a dehumanized man, reduced – in the social relationship founded on private ownership of the means of production and the sale of his own labor power – to his animal needs for survival, for mere reproduction of its essential work capacity to live. To live a life that is not life, because it does not allow, but prevents, the omnilateral realization of its social being. The passage from the era of absolute surplus value to one in which relative surplus value predominates did not reverse the preexisting conditions, because the “free” spaces that were created were occupied by a sophisticated manipulation of needs that produced impoverishment and standardization.

(…) Antunes' reflection on the commodity-producing society and on the “class-that-lives-from-work” is naturally projected beyond the mere dimension of work, in the consideration of the totality of social experience, present and future.

(…) Here, a broad historical-critical discussion should begin on the past revolutionary cycle and its shipwreck and on the future revolutionization of social relations and the man-nature relationship, themes that are certainly not foreign to Antunes' work. (...) But let's stop here. With the hope that there will be space and opportunity to discuss this in the coming times, which are expected to be very busy.

*Pietro Basso is professor of sociology at the Ca'Foscari University of Venice (Italy).


Caio Antunes & Claudia Mazzei Nogueira. Beyond the world of work: Ricardo Antunes. São Paulo, Editora Papel Social, 2023, 372 pages (


ANTUNES, R. Goodbye to work? Essay on the metamorphoses and centrality of the world of work.São Paulo: Cortez, 1995 (

ANTUNES, R. The meanings of work: essay on the affirmation and negation of work. São Paulo: Boitempo, 1999 (

ANTUNES, R. The continent of labor. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011 (

ANTUNES, R. The privilege of servitude: the new service proletariat in the digital age. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018 (

ANTUNES, R. Cave policy. La controrivoluzione di Bolsonaro. Rome: Castelvecchi, 2019 (

ANTUNES, R. Coronavirus: work under fire. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020a (

ANTUNES, R. (org.). Uberization, digital work and Industry 4.0. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020b (

ANTUNES, R.; BRAGA, R. Infoproletarians: real degradation of virtual work. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2009 (

BASS, P. Modern times, ancient journeys: working lives in the early 2018st century. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, XNUMX (

BASSO, P. (org.) The Science and Passion of Communism. Selected Writings of Amadeo Bordiga (1912-1965). Chicago: Haymarket, 2021 (

BIHR, A. Introduction a Addio al lavoro? Metamorfosi del lavoro nell'età della globalizzazione. Pisa: Bfs Edizioni, 2002.

CILLO, R. (org.). New frontier of labor precariousness. Stage, tirocini e lavoro degli studenti universitari. Venice: Edizioni Ca' Foscari, 2017.

HARVEY, D. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 (

MESZÁROS, I. Beyond Capital. London: Merlin Press, 1995 (

PEROCCO, F. Transformazioni globali e nuove disuguaglianze. The Italian case. Milan: Angeli, 2012 (

PRADELLA, L. L'attualità del Capitale. Accumulation and impoverishment in global capitalism. Padua: Il Poligrafo, 2010 (

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UNITED NATIONS, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. International Migration 2020 Highlights, 2020 (


[I] Or proletarians, if you prefer – however, perhaps it would be better to call them wage earners, because today the precariousness of work and existence has reached such a point that not a few wage earners have given up having offspring. Antunes, as we shall see, prefers to resort to a third, broader category: the class-that-lives-from-work.

[ii] Which paved the way, among others, for the generalization of mandatory internships in the education system, both at university and high school levels (Cillo, 2017).

[iii] According to the Preface where Alain Bihr presented Antunes' book to the Italian public for the first time. (Note from The Earth is Round).

[iv] This series, currently in volume IV, stands out for the size, quality and critical apparatus of the contributions that cover the most diverse aspects of the current labor situation in Brazil and in much of the world, and for the fruitful interweaving present in so many essays on the theory. historical materialist social base with specific empirical research (devoid of empiricism).

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