Immaterial labor and fetishism

Image: Pavel Chernonogov


A critique of the work of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt

In the book Empire,[I] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt define immaterial labor as work that produces, among other things, but in a special way, services: “As the production of services does not result in material and durable good, we define the work involved in this production as immaterial labor – or that is, work that produces an intangible good, such as a service, cultural product, knowledge or communication”.[ii] In doing so, do they fall beyond or fall short of Karl Marx?

Consequently, in a preliminary way, it must be clear that these two authors, when using the term immaterial labor, are referring to work that produces goods or utilities – and not to abstract work, in Marx's sense, which is an abstraction and substance of the value. However, the reasons and consequences of this theoretical option remain unclear.

Em The capital, this last author mentions a certain preference found in economic texts for dealing with the productivity of work in the capitalist mode of production, making reference to the material content of work. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt attach enormous importance to what they call immaterial labor. Therefore, they believe it is important to make a difference between work that produces useful things and work that immediately generates useful services.

It may be surprising to some, but Marx dealt with the concept “service” with a certain precision, as it, without a doubt, is a source of difficulty and enigma in capitalist production. Even if this is, as we know, mainly commodity production, to clarify this it is necessary to start with production as production in general, in an abstract way.

According to Marx, “service is, in general, nothing more than an expression for the particular use-value of labor, insofar as this [use-value] is not useful as a thing, but as an activity”.[iii] Noting that the product of work is understood here only as material wealth, a better clarification of this quote is necessary.

Does a consumer who purchases pants buy something that covers certain parts of the body or pay for the private service of a tailor? The answer can be found in Marx himself: it is indifferent for the consumer to buy fabric and hire a tailor to do the job or to buy the pants ready in a tailor shop. In one case, the service is visible to the consumer, in the other it is implicit in the finished merchandise. Activity and thing therefore seem to be two sides of the same coin.

Making the difference between activity and thing, however, has a certain importance. Isn't the patient who acquires the services of a doctor also purchasing a healthy body that the doctor, directly or indirectly, helps to produce? It is true that work always presents itself simultaneously as an activity and as a material result.

However, a pair of pants is a use value (it is also a commodity when it is produced to be sold), while a healthy body is not configured as such. This shows that it is necessary to distinguish the case in which the product of work is separable from the work itself from the case in which this is not the case.

This is why economists designate work as “service” as it is consumed as an activity and “good” as the result of work consumed indirectly, through the mediation of things. In the second case, it is the thing itself that is a use value, but, in the first, the use value is a potentiality of the activity that, in fact, disappears as soon as it is consumed.

Note, now, that use value can be material or immaterial. In the first case, the usefulness comes from properties associated with the materiality of the work result and, in the second, this character depends on the informational and cultural content of that result. In both cases, however, the result of the work may or may not be something that is separate from the act of producing.

Because the difference in materiality does not have a precise correspondence with the difference made between good and service. Thus, for example, a haircut and playing the piano are services (not goods) and computer programs and pants are obviously goods (not services). However, a haircut is a material product of work, but music is not; A computer program, on the other hand, is an immaterial product of work that exists, in fact, through a material support (a plastic or metal disc), while pants are clearly a material product. All of this makes the use of the notion of immaterial labor made by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt suspicious.

The notions of good and service classify use values, but do not contribute to the understanding of capitalism as such. As we know, to do so, it is necessary to stick to the notion of merchandise. In other words, it is necessary to consider the product of work as a form of wealth in the capitalist mode of production.

It should be noted, then, firstly, that the nature of what is produced, whether it is something like pants and a computer program or whether it is something like a haircut and music, is not suitable for determining the commodity as such. – because merchandise is just a form of the product of labor. Therefore, as a form, it is to some extent independent of the content. However, when the product of work is not separable from the work itself (that is, when it is a service), there is an inadequacy of the matter of use value to the commodity form, since it is an activity as such and does not exist, therefore, regardless of purchase and sale, as occurs in the other case.

The distinction between labor that produces material or immaterial use-values, moreover, is important to understand a problem that arises in the expression of the contradiction internal to the commodity between use-value and value through the contradiction external to it between use-value and value of replacement. Initially, in Marx's exposition, value is a quantum of abstract labor time; the form of value or exchange value establishes a measurement relationship between distinct use values.

This relationship, therefore, is based on working time. Thus, all wealth in the capitalist mode of production, that is, all merchandise, must be able to be measured by the labor time socially necessary for its production. However, if an important part of social work becomes spiritual, intellectual, moral or artistic work, the work process and the production process result in use values ​​that cannot be quantified, for the purpose of exchange, solely on the basis of time of use. work. As a result, exchange values ​​will also depend on the quality differentials created by labor during working time.

Now, this does not constitute a good reason to reject work as a key sociological category,[iv] nor to modify Marx's theory of value, even because this theory predicts the very vicissitude of value in an advanced phase of capitalism's development, when work, in an important way, starts to produce immaterial use values.

In other words, when concrete work can no longer be reduced simply to abstract work and when services largely take the form of merchandise.[v] This requires, however, an application of Borrador's texts from 1857-1858 to understanding the history of capitalism, an issue that will be discussed later. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt consider work not only as concrete work, but also as abstract work:

From Marx's perspective in the 19th century, the concrete practices of various work activities were radically heterogeneous: the arts of sewing and weaving involved incommensurable concrete actions. Only when abstracted from their concrete practices could work activities be brought together and seen in a homogeneous way, no longer as the art of sewing and the art of weaving, but as an expenditure of human labor force, as abstract work.[vi]

Note, however, that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's concept of abstract labor is not Marx's. First of all, because abstract labor in Marx is not labor in general, that is, the genre of many concrete labors, but concrete labor reduced to abstract labor. Now this reduction presupposes generality, but it is not generality itself.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt treat abstract work in the register of subjective abstraction, therefore, as a genre: “Only when abstracted…, could work activities be brought together and seen…”.[vii] But, broadly speaking, what would be the common quality that defines such a genre? They say it: the expenditure of human strength. While Marx does so in the register of objective abstraction: “A use value or good has value only because abstract human labor is objectified or materialized in it”.

For Marx, as a corollary, the various human works as concrete works remain incommensurable with each other in social practice; Furthermore, they give rise to different use values ​​that also, as such, remain incommensurable with each other. On the other hand, the latter are measured by the mediation of exchange values ​​or prices.

Now, this is only possible because human work that produces use values ​​as commodities are objectively commensurate in the social process. For there it is constantly reduced, in a blind way, “behind the producers' backs”, to abstract human labor. It is in the universe of capitalist companies that different jobs are treated as “human work jelly”; there heterogeneous quantities of labor are added and subtracted from each other as homogeneous quantities. Consequently, Marx treats work in the capitalist mode of production as a coexisting and antithetical duplicity: concrete work and abstract work. It is well known, moreover, that the expenditure of human strength is for Marx only the natural basis of abstract labor and not its content, which is social.

It is necessary to note, now, why they characterize work in this way, in a way that differs from that of Marx. For them, it is about constructing a notion of work appropriate to understanding a recent mutation in the history of capitalism. The fundamental characteristic of the new mode of production seems to consist in the fact that the main productive force becomes technical and scientific work, to the extent that this is a more comprehensive and qualitatively superior form of social work. In other words, living labor manifests itself above all as abstract and immaterial labor (with respect to quality), as complex and cooperative labor (with respect to quantity), and as continually more scientific and more intellectual labor (with respect to form). .[viii]

Now, the meaning of the characterization of work in this passage depends on the understanding of abstract work as a genre, that is, as an expenditure of human energy. The commitment of bodies, muscles, brains, etc. It has historically gained a special quality that makes it have a technical and scientific dimension. It is immaterial because it produces services and not goods. It is abstract because it is very generic, applicable in many situations. It is complex because it requires many qualifications. It is cooperative because it always requires many interactions. It is intellectual because it depends especially on the reasoning capacity of the human brain.

It has already been seen that the connection between intangible labor and services is somewhat misleading. But the origin of the problem has not yet been examined, that is, why do these two authors focus the characterization of the recent capitalist mode of production on the concrete character of work? It is clear that they can talk about labor productivity in a way that they consider convenient to re-critique capitalism. But why is this mode a problem?

Now, the answer to this question is found explicitly in the old Marx: “The mania for defining productive and unproductive labor by their material content originates... from the fetishistic conception, peculiar to the capitalist mode of production, and derived from its essence, which considers formal economic determinations, such as being a commodity, being productive work, etc. as a quality inherent in itself to the material depositories of these formal determinations or categories”.[ix]

In other words, one cannot discuss the issue of labor productivity in capitalism without distinguishing the forms that the social relations that are inherent to it take – relations that occur through things – from the things themselves that are no longer, in words of Marx, than material depositories of formal determinations.

The fetishism into which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt fall is that they reason about the nature of labor productivity by focusing on the material result of the production process. As we know, according to The capital, the necessary condition for work to be productive in capitalism is that it produces use values ​​that have a market – and that it is, therefore, productive in a trivial sense –, but this is not a sufficient condition, as it is also necessary that it produces surplus value for capital.

It matters little here whether the value generated is crystallized in material or immaterial products or in products that have an existence separate or not from the act of working. It should not be forgotten, however, that the appropriate matter for productive work is, according to Marx, that in which work crystallizes into a thing that has an existence independent of the labor itself.[X]

Now, all this no longer makes sense after abstract work was defined as a genre: “(…) in effect” – says Negri – “productive work is no longer 'what directly produces capital', but what reproduces society – From this point of view, the separation of unproductive labor is completely misplaced,”[xi] that is, in some way, any activity that reproduces the existing social world is productive. For them, it is about determining the specifically creative and creative character of work in general, based on a renewal of Marx's analyzes that intend to have overcome their limitations, with the aim of understanding contemporary capitalism.

His theory of value would contain “weaknesses, ambiguities, phenomenological holes and limited plasticity” because it was formulated in the 19th century, taking as a reference the manufacturing period, during the first Industrial Revolution. Based on this diagnosis, they then suggest that value, strictly speaking, cannot be thought of as a measure. From a postmodern perspective, they come to say, therefore, that there is a crisis in the law of value, since “… today value cannot be reduced to an objective measure”.[xii] Criticism proceeds as if value in Marx were not a measure that constantly tends to be excessive and that can be denied and suppressed historically![xiii]

Now, what is important to emphasize, to conclude, is that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt treat work only as work in general (that is, as concrete work in the broadest degree of generality), thus falling into fetishistic conceptions.

* Eleutério FS Prado He is a full and senior professor in the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of Capitalism in the 21st century: sunset through catastrophic events (CEFA Editorial) []

First part of article published in the magazine Marxist CriticismIn 2002.


[I] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 2001.

[ii] Op.cit., p. 311.

[iii] Karl Marx. Capital – Chapter VI (Unpublished) . São Paulo, Human Sciences, 1978, p. 78

[iv] This is a reference to Claus Offe's well-known proposition. Work: the key sociological category? In: Disorganized Capitalism. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1989, pp. 167-197. The position of work as a central activity is inherent to capitalism. When observing, especially in more developed capitalist societies, a shift in the focus of concerns from working time to non-working time (which can be free time), this announces, at the level of subjective conditions, the need and possibility of socialism.

[v] It is true, however, that Marx considered the capitalist exploitation of services as something insignificant in his time: “In short: works that are only enjoyed as services do not become products separable from the workers – and therefore exist independently of them as commodities autonomous – even if they can be exploited in a directly capitalist way, they constitute insignificant magnitudes compared to the volume of capitalist production. Therefore, we must ignore these works, and treat them only with regard to salaried work, under the category of salaried work that is not at the same time productive work”. (Cf. Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 76). Now, this is exactly what should not be done when taking contemporary capitalism as a reference.

[vi] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, op. cit., p. 313.

[vii] Karl Marx. Capital – critique of political economy. São Paulo, Abril Cultural, 1983, p. 47.

[viii] Michael Hardt and Antônio Negri, op. cit., p. 279.

[ix] Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 78.

[X] On this issue, see Ruy Fausto. Logic and Politics, vol. II. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1987, p. 247-257.

[xi] Antonio Negri. Twenty Theses on Marx – Interpretation of Class-Situation Today. In: Marxism Beyond Marxism. Ed. S. Makdisi, C. Casarino and R. F. Karl. London, Routledge, 1996, pp. 149- 180.

[xii] Idem, P. 151.

[xiii] In Hegel, measurement is the unity of quality and quantity; by varying the quantum, the quality changes, the measure changes: “The disproportionate is firstly this step of a measure through its quantitative nature, but beyond its qualitative determination… [a step that] can be represented as infinite progress, how to suppress it and restore it to measure in the immeasurable”. (Cf. G. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, Mexico, Juan Pablo, 1974, p. 91). Changing quality, however, after a certain point, can generate a distorted, inappropriate and arbitrary measure, that is, an unruly rule. More than that, it can be denied.

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