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Jason Read, “What Is Living and What Is Dead in the Philosophy of Karl Marx: The Politics and Ontology of Living Labor”

What Is Living and What Is Dead in the Philosophy of Karl Marx: The Politics and Ontology of Living Labor
Jason Read

from Chapter Two, The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present, 2003. [PDF]


In effect when Marx concerns himself with the essence of capitalism, he begins by invoking
the establishment of a single global and nonqualified subjectivity, which capitalizes
all the processes of subjectification. And this unique subject (“the unique subjective essence
of wealth”) expresses itself in “whatever” object. According to Marx capitalism liberates the
subjectivity of all of the traditional codes which limit it, only to fall back on [rabattre sur]
it in the production of value.
—Maurizio Lazzarato and Antonio Negri, “Annex 2”

For Karl Marx the two constitutive components of the capitalist mode of production
are labor, or the capacity for labor freed from the means of its employment,
and wealth, freed from the objective means of its investment. The capitalist mode
of production is formed in the encounter between a free flow of labor and a flow
of undifferentiated wealth. The encounter of these two flows, in the form of wage
labor, are sufficient to constitute what Marx calls “formal subsumption,” the initial
stage of capitalism.
In the previous chapter we examined the particular historical argument entailed
in ascertaining the capitalist mode of production from the point of view of the
“encounter”; an argument that entailed a recognition of the role of the encounter
in history—history as the history of the encounter of various ensembles (subjective,
technical, and political) and their effects on each other. Marx’s assertion of the
foundational role of labor and wealth in the formation of the capitalist mode of
production must also be placed in relation to the discourse of political economy
not only in terms of the moral, anthropological, or ideological elements underlying
its philosophy of history, as in so-called primitive accumulation, but also in
terms of the dominant question of its problematic. This dominant question is the
connection between labor and wealth (or as it is called later, “value”) as it is elaborated
and developed by the physiocrats Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Many
have argued that Marx’s formulations involving labor power, living and dead labor,
and capitalist valorization are merely a continuation of “the labor theory of value”
begun with Smith and Ricardo. I will argue, however, that Marx’s thought of the
conjunction of labor and wealth at the formation of the capitalist mode of production
cannot be understood simply as a response to a question already posed but
is itself the formulation of another question that develops into a problem unique
to Marx. This other problem, or rather, series of problems, can be indicated by the
specific antagonistic nature of the conjunction of labor and wealth: Labor and
wealth come together in time and space in a particular relation, between laborer and
capitalist, and thus the problem for Marx is articulating the particular antagonistic
logic produced in and through this relation with its overlapping structures and
strategies of exploitation, domination, and transformation. Marx begins with the
problem inherited from bourgeois political economy—the relation between labor
and wealth—and translates this into another problematic that is strictly unthinkable
from the perspective of political economy: the conflictual and historical logic of the
relationship between capitalist demands and the working class resistance.1

At the heart of this problematic is the production and constitution of subjectivity.
In the previous chapter we saw that in the precapitalist modes of production
the intersection between subjectivity and the mode of production was framed by
reproduction, by what Marx saw as the intrinsically conservative nature of the precapitalist
forms. The precapitalist forms repeat and conserve their conditions and
presuppositions, which are technical, political, and subjective. This repetition exposes
the precapitalist forms to a particular type of vulnerabilty: They are threatened
by changes in the production of subjectivity and in the production of
material life. In contrast to this, the capitalist mode of production has at its formation
and foundation a collective subject that is “free” from the constraints and
guarantees of a particular form of life. Thus the problem of subjectivity enters into
the capitalist mode of production in a fundamentally different way: It is not a matter
of the reproduction of a fixed subject but instead the extraction of wealth from
a multitude of subjects that are constituted as basically interchangeable. This fundamental
difference, which will be explored in this chapter, does not change a
basic fact that is true for all modes of production: The conditions and limits of a
mode of production, everything that causes the dissolution of one and the formation
of another, necessarily pass through the production of subjectivity.
The disparity between the two problems of political economy—the determination
of value and Marx’s problem, the “antagonistic” structure of the capitalist
mode of production—gives us a sense of the gulf that separates Marx from politi-
cal economy proper; however, it does not provide us with a map of this distance.
The outlines of such a map are provided in the various statements in which Marx
summarizes the distance between his thought and that of classical political economy.
This difference would seem to lie, at least in part, in the naming or conceptualization
of those two “flows”: wealth and labor. As Marx tells Frederick Engels
in a letter, the first distinction between his conception of capital, and those of his
immediate predecessors (Smith and Ricardo) is that rather than thinking wealth
from the determinate forms in which it is given (rent, profit, interest, and so on)
he considers it first abstractly as undifferentiated surplus value.2

The second crucial difference is that rather than attempting to directly relate
labor and value, Marx insists that labor, like the commodity, must have a double
character. With respect to the double character of labor Marx argues that it is
“the secret to the whole critical conception.”3 The conceptualization, or name,
of the differences between Marx and political economy are as follows: abstract
surplus value, rather than the concrete figures of profit, interest, and rent, and
labor as the conjunction of “abstract” and “concrete” labor. At first glance these
appear to be simply terminological differences. However, the terminological difference
only begins to indicate a fundamental difference of problematic. The
contours of this distinction become manifest in the form of a paradox. Despite
the fact that Marx identified himself as a materialist, and thus offered a materialist
critique of political economy, the critical difference here would seem to be
the insistence on the abstract itself; that is, Marx separates himself from political
economy by thinking in terms of abstract surplus value, rather than more concrete
forms of profit, rent, or wealth, and by positing abstract labor as a necessary
complement to concrete and particular labor. Marx’s materialism is not
grounded on a simple dismissal of abstraction, or of form, in the name of concrete
materiality of particular things, instead, it is on the recognition that abstraction
itself has very real material conditions and effects. Case in point: What
matters most about the commodity form, in terms of its effects on subjectivity,
culture, and politics is that it is absolutely indifferent to its material content. Its
materiality and effectivity is in its abstraction.4

The paradox of “abstract materiality” deepens if one takes into consideration
Marx’s early criticisms of G.W. F. Hegel and the young Hegelians in which one of
his central points of criticism is the replacement of concrete and determinate relations
of politics and the economy with the indeterminant relations of the concept.
Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” provides a prime example of such a
criticism. Marx summarizes the relation between concept and existence at work in
Hegel’s philosophy of right: “The philosophical task is not the embodiment of
thought in determinate political realities, but the evaporation of these realities in abstract
thought. The philosophical moment is not the logic of fact but the fact of
logic.”5 Hegel, and the young Hegelians, think only of the concept, and relations between
concepts, even when they claim to grasp the concrete reality of existence. It is
from the context of this criticism of the young Hegelians that Marx develops his
early theory of ideology in The German Ideology. In that text abstraction, the removal
of ideas from their particular context and condition, is the primary condition of the
ideological conception of history.6 Once ideas are removed from their sociohistorical
conditions of emergence it is then possible to understand history as not only the progression
of different ideas, but as the self-development of the idea, or spirit. It is
against this conception of history, history as the progress of spirit or the idea, that
Marx proposes a concrete history, one that does not begin with abstraction but the
concrete facts of the necessary material interaction between man and nature.7

Even at the early stage of The German Ideology Marx is not satisfied with a
static opposition between abstract and concrete history. First, the latter must include
the former; Marx sets himself to the task of giving the sociohistorical conditions
that make it possible for history to appear as a history of ideas. Thus,
Marx’s remarks concerning the relation of German idealism to the backward political
conditions of Germany (Germany as a nation in which there has only
been a revolution in and of ideas) are not just polemical remarks; they are integral
to the concept of ideology. Second, ideology is not only explained materially
in terms of its conditions, but it is material in terms of its effects, most notably effects
of domination and subjugation. The dominating and subjugating power of
ideas, or of ideality in general, stems from the division between mental and manual
labor, which is itself the condition and effect of class division. From this division
it is possible to divide the social between those who possess the means to
distribute and circulate ideas and those who are left to passively receive these ideas.
“The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control
at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally
speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject
to it.”8 Subjection here is at one and the same time subjection to particular ideas
and ways of viewing the world and a particular class rule. Thus, these two elements
necessarily imply each other. Marx does not rigorously develop this recognition of
the material force of ideas, in fact he interrupts it, returning to the opposition between
idea and reality in the figure of the proletariat in the final pages of The German
Ideology, which is understood to be free of ideology because of its position
with respect to material production.9

Marx’s “1857 Introduction” returns to the first two of the problems introduced
in The German Ideology: the critique of the ahistorical and idealizing tendency of the
abstract and the historical conditions that produce abstract concepts. (Which is not
to suggest that the third problem, the relation between abstraction and domination,
is entirely absent.) Marx’s return to the problem of the abstract is framed through a
reconsideration of the distinction between political economy and the critique of political
economy, from the place of abstraction in each. Marx introduces this distinction
by stating that political economy that begins from the concrete datum of the
“population” presupposed as the foundation and subject of the entire social act of
production seems to begin from the concrete—after all what is more concrete than
the factual verifiable number of individuals residing in the same place (G 100/35).
However, Marx states that the population, considered apart from and prior to its
constitutive antagonisms and divisions, is itself an “imagined concrete” [vorgestellten
Konkreten]. Marx argues for something of an inversion: Rather than start from the
presumption of a concrete starting point such as the population, which is nothing
but a confused thought of the totality, one must start from the abstract. This inversion
is not just an inversion of priority between the abstract and concrete, but is
founded on the recognition of the difference between the production of abstraction
in existence and their production by and through thought (G 101/36).
The world that we inhabit practically and concretely is produced according to its
own “rules,” which are not the rules of the concept. This division does not preclude
there being any relation between thought and the concrete, but makes possible their
reconciliation in the “real abstraction.”10 Marx contends that Smith’s immense discovery,
discarding any limiting specification of labor tying it to a particular type of
employment such as agriculture or industry, is itself a product of a particular history
that is not reducible to the history of political economy. The simple category “labor
in general” appears only with the emergence of capitalist wage labor.
As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible
concrete development where one thing appears common to many, to all. Then
it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction
of labor as such is not merely the mental product [geistige Resultat] of a concrete
totality of labors. Indifference towards specific labors corresponds to a form of society
in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labor to another, and where
the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence indifference. Not only the
category, but labor in reality [Wirklichkeit] has become the means of creating wealth
in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any
specific form. (G 104/38)

Marx’s statement regarding the appearance of labor as abstraction could be understood
in part as a repetition of Hegel’s regarding the modern condition:
whereas the philosophical task of antiquity was to wrest the concept, or the abstract,
from sensuous immediacy—“in modern times the individual finds the abstract
form ready-made.”11 Thus, Marx could be understood as extending Hegel’s
problem: The task of modern philosophy is to wrest thought from the static and
reified abstractions found ready to hand, whether in philosophy, political economy,
or everyday existence. The problem then is one of recognizing the effectivity
of the “abstract” not only in thought but in existence, and liberating oneself from
its rusted chains. For Hegel this liberation entailed reflexivity, self-consciousness,
and the dialectic, in short recognizing oneself in the supposedly autonomous and
stubborn concepts and setting them in motion.12 For Marx, given that abstraction
is not just a matter of thought, but concerns all of activity, liberation necessarily
passes through different channels.

Marx’s understanding of the abstract is only in part indebted to Hegel. Mario
Tronti has argued that Marx’s development of the concept of abstract labor, or of
the relation between abstract labor and concrete labor, can be understood as the
convergence of problematics inherited in part from political economy, specifically
Ricardo, on one side, and Hegel on the other.13 It is from the combination of
these two problems that Marx develops his thought of the materiality of the abstract.
From Ricardo, Marx inherited a specific problem; that is, the relation between
labor-as-such, as abstract subjective activity, and value.14 Ricardo does not
locate the source of wealth in a specific object, such as gold in the case of the mercantilists,
or in a specific type of labor, as the physiocrats did with agricultural
labor, but in the capacity for subjective productive activity in general.15 Value, for
Ricardo, is determined not by any specific object, or type of labor, but by the cost
of labor or abstract productive activity. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
write, “Marx said that Luther’s merit was to have determined the essence of religion,
no longer on the side of the object, but as an interior religiosity; that the
merit of Adam Smith and Ricardo was to have determined the essence or nature
of wealth no longer as an objective nature but as an abstract and deterritorialized
subjective essence, the activity of production in general.”16 Abstract subjective activity—
activity indifferent to its means and object—capable of being employed
anywhere, is at the basis of the production of wealth in capitalism.17 However, as
much as Ricardo separated labor from any privileged type of labor, such as agricultural
labor, he did not arrive at abstract labor, and continued to see labor as a
cost of production bound up in its particularity. Even though this failure may
have produced problems at the level of political economy, in terms of its specific
questions and discourse, in itself it is indicative of problems at the heart of the
capitalist mode of production. As Deleuze and Guattari make clear, the recognition
of subjective activity as the source of wealth in political economy is combined
with its alienation.

Here we have the great movement of decoding or deterritorialization: the nature
of wealth is no longer to be sought on the side of the object, under exterior conditions,
in the territorial or despotic machine. But Marx is quick to add that this essentially
“cynical” discovery finds itself rectified by a new territorialization, in the
form of a new fetishism or a new “hypocrisy.” Production as the abstract subjective
essence is discovered only in the forms of property that objectifies it all over again,
that alienates it by reterritorializing it.18

Deleuze and Guattari locate in the distinction between classical political economy
and Marx not just a break between two different discourses but a central contradiction
of the capitalist mode of production: “Capitalism can proceed only by
developing the subjective essence of abstract wealth or production for the sake of
production . . . but . . . at the same time it can do so only in the framework of its
own limited purpose, as a determinate mode of production . . . the self expansion
of existing capital.”19 While Deleuze and Guattari locate in abstract labor something
of the dynamic of the entire capitalist mode of production, a point that we
will return to, Tronti recognizes something of this double-sided nature of abstract
labor already at work in the particular way in which Marx develops this concept
from two sources. Which is to suggest that the problem for Tronti is not simply
one of Marx’s two or three sources, but rather it is a problem of the antagonistic
dynamic of capitalism itself.
If, according to Tronti, Ricardo was in some sense the thinker who recognized
the relation between labor in general and value, in effect separating value from this
or that objective measure and referring it to the productivity of subjectivity, it was
Hegel who posed the problem of “abstract labor.” The concept of abstract labor is
a thread running from Hegel’s early Jena philosophy through the Philosophy of
Right. In part this thread concerns the rise of “abstraction” as a defining element of
lived experience. At the same time, what is at stake politically for Hegel in abstract
labor is not the determination of value, but rather the Aufhebung of the particularity
of concrete labors.20 Labor is the space of mediation where the blind and animalistic
concrete labor, often described as the labor of peasants, embedded in the
brute immediacy of need, is subjugated and subjected to universality, making possible
its incorporation into the state.21 Labor is the education [Bildung] of particularity.
The education into universality is found in the technical conditions
(machinery), social conditions (cooperation/division of labor), and political conditions
(trade unions) of work.22 As Hegel describes this process:
Practical education through work consists in the self perpetuating need and habit of
being occupied in one way or another, in the limitations of one’s activity to suit both
the nature of the material in question and, in particular, the arbitrary will of others,
and in a habit, acquired through this discipline, of objective activity and universally
applicable skills.23
Civil society is the society of the organization, education, and control, of abstract
labor.24 Thus, to extend Tronti’s suggestion, two “discoveries” converge in Marx: the
productivity of an indifferent subjective force (Ricardo) and the need to continually
subject this force to discipline (Hegel). The coexistence of these two problems imposes
on Marx’s thought a demand that is alien to Ricardo and Hegel: the demand
to consider the coexistence of an abstract subjective force (labor power) that is extremely
powerful, productive of the realm of value, and the necessary discipline and
control of that force (capital). As a sort of provocation, which will be justified later,
it is possible to suggest that this combination of Ricardo and Hegel in Marx can be
understood to entail the same political problem that Michel Foucault argues underlies
disciplinary power: “Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic
terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience).”25
In each case the political problem is not simply one of exploitation or domination,
but of the necessary provocation of a “counter-power”—capitalism is dependent on
the productivity of the laboring subject, which it must also control.26

It is perhaps because of the novelty of this problem that Marx is forced to rethink
what Hegel understood by abstract labor and thus the abstract itself. Abstract
labor, the labor constitutive of value, becomes itself the site of conflict and
control, and thus it cannot be a simple “generalization.” To return to the passage
from the “1857 Introduction” cited previously:

Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence
of bourgeois society—in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point
of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category “labor,”
“labor as such,” labor pure and simple becomes true in practice [praktisch wahr]. The
simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions
and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society,
nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the
most modern society. (G 104/38)27

Marx seems to suggest in this passage that “labor,” abstract and indifferent from
this or that specific task or activity, is not merely a concept that is applicable to
capital but is itself actual and effective with the emergence of capital. Labor has
become “true in practice,” prior to or at the same time that it is discovered by
political economy. Marx is not simply concerned with the history or the historical
emergence of abstract thought, as in the case of Hegel, but with the way in
which abstraction, in terms of ideal identity and indifference to qualitative content,
is itself practically produced in history, and not simply in thought.28 But
what sort of practice produces this abstraction? How? And what is the relation
of this practice/production to the simultaneous discovery of subjective activity
as the source of value along with the need to subject this activity to the demands
of discipline?

In the opening chapter of the first volume of Capital, Marx demonstrates that
just as the commodity must be understood as the coexistence of use value and exchange
value, labor also must be understood as both concrete and abstract labor.
Tronti argues that, unlike the double character of the commodity, which has found
its way into the heart of Marxist economics and philosophy, the double character
of labor, as concrete and abstract labor, has often been overlooked.29 Furthermore,
it is possible to add, following Tronti, that the latter division has been overlooked,
or even missed, insofar as it exceeds a purely conceptual determination; that is, insofar
as it is something other than the coexistence of the particular (this or that
labor) and the universal (labor in general). Often abstract labor has been understood
as “labor in general” and as such would be a simple “mental generalization,”
necessary to understanding capital, and the production of value in capital. In other
words, abstract labor would only be a mental approximation.30 What this understanding
of abstract labor misses is how such a mental generalization produces
value; or more than that, how abstract labor and the social average of labor has real
effects insofar as value and surplus value are necessarily dependent on it. Seeing abstract
labor as simply a mental generalization of different particular labors makes
it impossible to recognize the particular force of abstract labor. Marx rhetorically
indicates this failure by ridiculing the naivete of trying to draw a direct link between
particular concrete labor and value.

It might seem that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of
labor expended to produce it, it would be the more valuable the more unskillful and
lazy the worker who produced it, because he would need more time to complete the
article. However, the labor that forms the substance of value is equal human labor,
the expenditure of identical human labor power. (CI 129/53)

Such a direct connection fails because it does not recognize the effectivity of abstract
labor. The effectivity of the social average of all labors is that which imposes
itself on this or that particular labor as a norm: failure to produce according to the
speed and productivity of this norm is a failure to produce value or a profit. This
norm makes necessary the equalization of the diverse and heterogeneous labors of
diverse and distinct individuals into an average capable of being measured. At this
point, however, Marx presents this average as sheer fact without indicating its
ground, in other words, without indicating what makes such an equalization of
the diverse possible. At the same time that Marx accepts this as fact, as a given, he
seems to indicate both by his criticisms of classical political economy, which
failed to recognize the necessary abstract nature of value-producing labor, and by
his own statements regarding abstract labor as a “process which goes on behind
men’s backs,” that this equalization is, if not unconscious, at least not recognized
as such. Neither the worker struggling to keep up to speed nor the economist
searching for the secret of wealth recognizes abstract labor. Abstract labor has the
paradoxical status of a fact that is lived in its effectivity, in terms of the demands it
imposes to produce according to the speed and rate of this average, but never recognized
as such. The abstraction of abstract labor is neither arrived at nor recognized
by thought alone, but is lived in its concrete effects.

The intersection of the facticity of abstract labor and the seeming inability to recognize
this fact is obliquely developed through the definition of commodity
fetishism placed at the end of the first chapter of Capital. This assertion seems somewhat
paradoxical since, on a first reading, commodity fetishism and labor would
seem to be opposed as falsity to truth. If commodity fetishism is on some basic level
the false attribution of a social quality, value, to things, to the point where it would
seem that objects and not social relations, specifically labor, produce value, then
labor would seem to be the truth to the illusion. For Marx, however, an opposition
between truth and falsity misses the central question—the question of the particular
appearance, or form, itself. It is by answering this question that we can approach
an understanding of the simultaneous “factual” and unconscious nature of abstract
labor. In the section on commodity fetishism Marx refuses any psychological or intentional
understanding of this illusion. It is not, like Immanuel Kant’s famous antinomies,
an illusion hard wired into human consciousness, nor has anyone been
deceived by a ruling class—operating the smoke and mirrors from offstage. “It constitutes,
rather, the way in which reality (a certain form or social structure) cannot
but appear.”31 For Marx the source of this appearance is to be found in activity itself,
in the ensemble of relations. It is not so much that value is believed to be in
commodities but, rather, that one acts in the process of exchange as if commodities,
despite their distinct and different natures, were all reducible to some abstract equivalent
that constitutes the possibility of exchange. This abstraction is necessary to the
act of exchange, although it is quite possible that it is not recognized as such. In fact,
in the act of exchange what is recognized is the concrete particularity of this or that
specific commodity. Alfred Sohn-Rethel writes, “In commodity exchange the action
and the consciousness of people go separate ways. Only the action is abstract; the
consciousness of the actors is not.”32 It is this production of abstraction in exchange
that is in part constitutive of abstract human labor. In the case of both the commodity
form and abstract labor the issue is how things, or practices, in their diverse
and heterogeneous particularity can be subject to some standard or measure, and
Marx would seem to argue that this happens through exchange.

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labor into relation with each as values
because they see these objects merely as the material integuments [als bloß sachliche
Hüllen] of homogeneous human labor. The reverse is true: by equating their different
products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labor
as human labor. They do this without being aware of it. (CI 167/88)

This unrecognized abstract equivalent that makes the exchange of diverse and
disparate objects possible is itself produced by the practice of exchange of commodities;
it is materialized through these practices. The abstract equivalent is material in
at least two senses: It is produced in the quotidian practices of exchange that continually
bring into relation the different products, and different labors, as units of abstract
homogenized labor; and this equivalent is materialized in money. Or it would
be more accurate to say, placing paradox upon paradox, it is simultaneously materialized
and idealized; that is, money is a material object but it is also a material object
that stands in for pure abstraction as a unit of pure quantity.33 The relations of exchange,
the commodity form, and money are relations of consumption, and thus
they constitute an exemplary instance of consumption acting on and determining
production.34 Because consumption is also a practice it would not be incorrect to say,
referring to Marx’s expansive definition of production, that consumption produces
the particular appearance of abstract labor. The practices of commodity consumption
produce abstract labor as a necessary unconscious presupposition.

It is not exactly correct to say that abstract labor is unconscious. In fact, returning
to the earlier epochal distinction between precapitalist and capitalist
modes of production, it might be more useful to employ the distinction between
“codes” and “axioms” to clarify how abstract labor and exchange value are produced
through quotidian practices without being recognized or interiorized as belief.
One of the central elements of codes, or coding, is that they are meaningful,
attached to belief. When the precapitalist modes of production code their presuppositions,
placing one set of difference over another, presenting the despot as
founder and origin of community, for example, it establishes a relation of belief
that is necessary to the functioning of the mode of production.35 Axioms are distinct
from codes in that they do not require belief in order to function. It might be
more accurate to say that axioms are concerned more with what should be done
rather than what must be believed. Axioms relate to no other scene or sphere, such
as religion, politics, or law, that would provide their ground or justification. They
are merely differential relations between abstract and quantitative flows.36 In capitalism
two such flows are the flow of labor power available on the market and the
flow of capital. These two flows conjoin at a particular time and place, and this
conjunction establishes a differential relation between the two flows.37 Once such
a relation is established, setting up a particular relation between a particular quantity
of labor and a particular quantity of capital, or wage, the axiomatic is effective.
It cannot be avoided; one can only add new axiomatics to the system. There is no
possible contestation at the level of code or belief, in fact the differential relations
and their concrete effects remain in place; they are functional whether or not they
are believed.38 The “setting up” of axioms between abstract quantities is an aspect
of what Deleuze and Guattari call “reterritorialization,” the regulation of the abstract
quantities as abstract quantities.39 To return to the example of commodity
fetishism, the equivalence between a quantity of abstract labor and money displaces
the abstract potentiality of labor onto money itself, setting up an artificial
territory—it now appears as if it is money itself that is productive. The epochal
distinction between precapitalist and the capitalist mode of production is not only
a distinction between subjective and objective domination but also a shift in how
this domination is lived. Whereas prior to capitalism it is lived through the coded
structures of belief and personal subjugation, in capitalism it is lived through abstract
operative rules, which are not necessarily believed or even grasped. As Marx
writes, “These objective dependency relations also appear, in antithesis to those of
personal dependence . . . in such a way that individuals are now ruled by abstractions,
whereas earlier they were dependent on one another” (G 164/98).

In the case of commodity fetishism, value is not something one necessarily believes
to be an attribute of commodities or money; at the end of the day one is
willing to admit that things are “just things” and money is only paper, but one
acts, and must act, “as if ” value is an attribute of commodities or expressed in
money.40 Commodity fetishism is an element of the society effect: It is produced
through actions but it is not recognized as something produced or historical.41 It is
at this point, where the appearance of value in the commodity form immediately
relates to a series of practical comportments and behaviors, that Marx’s theory proceeds
from a theory of social objectivity (the “socially uniform objectivity as values,”
or “phantom objectivity,” which commodities are seen to possess) to a theory
of social subjectivity.42 The value that things possess, and the fluctuating relations
and transformations of value, is not something that one simply observes or perceives
as an optical illusion, but is something that determines or affects behavior.
The worker approaches these commodities, and the values between them, as one
who also has a commodity to sell—labor power—and this commodity is fetishized
as much as the other commodities in the world. Labor power—human activity—
becomes a thing, a value, whose relation to other things must be evaluated and calculated.
43 Thus, abstract labor, which is produced by a particular practical activity,
is posited as a necessary presupposition of exchange value and in turn falls back on
the practical activity governing it.44 Marx shows that labor would seem to preexist
the labors of the specific individual: “Labor, thus measured by time, does not
seem, indeed, to be the labor of different persons, but on the contrary the different
working individuals seem to be mere organs of this labor.”45 Just as one necessarily
sees all the diverse commodities as different expressions of the substance
exchange value one necessarily treats ones own labor power, or subjective potential,
as a share of a labor to be sold.

The interrelation between the social practical production of a particular form
of objectivity (objects as commodities/values) and a particular form of subjectivity
(individuals as instances of abstract labor) is by no means an incidental or secondary
point for Marx. It is from the equivalence of the diverse labors in the particularity
that it becomes possible to speak of humanity in general.

For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production
consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values,
and in this material [sachlich] form bring their individual, private labors into relation
with each other as homogenous human labor, Christianity with its religious cult of
man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism,
Deism, etc. is the most fitting form of religion. (CI 172/93)
Abstract labor, as the possible comparison and equalization of diverse activities, and
humanity, as the essence underlying any particular identity, appear at the same time
historically. As Marx argues, it is because this historical conjunction of abstract
labor and abstract humanity had not yet taken place that Aristotle could not discover
the secret of value (CI 152/72).46 Rather than founding an anthropology in
which labor is the essence of man—the link between abstract labor, labor in general,
and humanity—refers back to a radical historicization in which both terms
must be seen as themselves historically and socially produced. It is the social relation
that is prior to either abstract labor or abstract humanity. In Marx’s words: “However,
let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only
in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labor,
that the objective character as values is therefore purely social” (CI 139/62). Abstract
labor and humanity are both grounded on a social relation, on the production
of commodities.47 From this perspective it is possible to reread the opening
passages of Capital as proceeding from radical rethinking of human needs and
human activity from the abstract indifference of the commodity form.48 The indifference
of commodity production to the needs the commodity satisfies is the precondition
of the indifference of abstract labor. “The commodity is, first of all, an
external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever
kind [irgendeiner Art]. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example,
from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference” (CI 126/49).
Capital opens with the materialization of the abstract.

At this point, it might be necessary to pause over Marx’s assertion that abstract
humanity arrives with the commodity form. Clearly at the time of Marx’s writing,
yet to arrive: Differences of race and gender continue to structure the world of
labor. For Marx machinery constituted the possibility of abstracting labor from the
strength, skill, and ultimately gender of the one performing it, producing an abstract
indifference. “The labor of women and children was therefore the first result
of the capitalist application of machinery” (CI 517/416). In The Communist Manifesto
the patriarchal structure of the family is presented as a feudal residue soon to
be drowned in the “icy waters” of capitalist calculation, which exposes everyone to
an equal exploitation. That such a transformation has not come to pass, despite
the entry of many women into the workforce, has been the critical focal point of
much work in Marxist feminism. Without attempting a thorough consideration of
this debate, it is at least imperative to indicate its importance for the discussion
of abstract labor.

As Heidi Hartmann argues, Marx’s understanding of the tendency toward the
abstract interchangeability of labor regardless of gender is incapable of explaining
the subordination of the family as anything other than a residue of previous feudal
modes of production. There is nothing within the Marxist critical conceptual apparatus
to directly account for the fact that gender continues to be operative in allocating
positions in the economy in the absence of any “natural” justification, or
the subordination of women to men generally.49 Not only is it operative but the
patriarchal family—a family in which the surplus of household labor (cleaning,
child rearing, and so on) is performed by the woman—is functionally beneficial to
capital, reproducing labor power inexpensively.50 It is the question of how do we
account for the simultaneous independence and interdependence of capitalism
and patriarchy that is addressed in much of the Marxist feminist writing.51
The very question would seem to invalidate Marx’s assertion of the materiality
of abstract labor in the capitalist mode of production, or at least limit its scope, in
that it points to a concrete difference—the difference of gender—that has not
been leveled by the abstract flexibility of work. However, as Leopoldina Fortunati
indicates, the coexistence of capitalism and patriarchy is at the same time the coexistence
of different realms of work: abstract labor, or wage labor, which is public
and productive and reproductive work, which is nonwaged and does not even
appear as work. Reproductive work, the work done to care for and reproduce men
and children physically and emotionally, is not subject to the wage, and thus it appears
a “natural” attribute of social relations.52 Whereas labor done for the wage is
abstract and interchangeable, reproductive labor is situated within a network of
personal connections that obscure its status as labor, its productivity. Thus the intersection
between abstract labor and value does not simply work in one direction;
it is not just that abstract labor produces value but also that value, through the distribution
of the wage and capital, determines what activities constitute labor
proper, or abstract labor.53

Despite the fact that Marx argues for a historical and social understanding
of abstract labor, he also presents abstract labor—the equivalence between different
types of labor—as a biological fact or residue. As he states in the first section
of Capital:

If we leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefore the useful
character of the labor, what remains is its quality of being an expenditure of
human labor-power. Tailoring and weaving, although they are qualitatively different
productive activities, are both a productive expenditure of human brains, muscles,
nerves, hands, etc. and in this sense both human labor. They are merely two
different forms of the expenditure of human labor. (CI 134/58)

If the coexistence of these two seemingly opposed statements in the same presentation
is understood to be anything other than confusion and self-contradiction,
then it must indicate a specific problem; that is, the necessity of thinking abstract
labor at one and the same time as historical and natural—as being produced from
a certain ensemble of relations and also involving and implicating subjectivity to
the point at which it appears be coexistent with the biological basis of subjectivity
(“brains, muscles, and nerves, etc.).54

The seemingly contradictory combination of the natural and the historical is in
some sense provocative: It reveals that Marx is not simply concerned with the coimplication
of certain subjective states such as greed—and the formation of the
capitalist mode of production—but with the production of subjectivity down to
its apparently natural and biological ground. Marx’s interest in producing a historical
account of the apparently biological or natural dimensions of subjectivity is
already somewhat ambitiously indicated in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
of 1844 in which Marx writes, “The forming of the five senses is a labor of
the entire history of the world down to the present.”55 The contradictory and
paradoxical description of abstract labor as biological and historical, however, begins
to indicate the limitation of the perspective followed in the first part of Capital.
The first part of Capital limits itself to a consideration of circulation and the
market, whether it be the market of commodities or the labor market. In each
case, following the expansive sense of production—the production of production—
outlined in the Grundrisse and in the previous chapter, it is clear that these
relations of distribution and consumption are in themselves productive in that
they produce abstract labor as their unrecognized yet effective presupposition. It is
unclear, however, whether these relations are entirely adequate to the “production”
of abstract labor; that is, it is questionable if abstract labor can be seen to derive entirely
from the commodity form. Or put otherwise, Can the entirety of social relations
in capital be derived from the commodity form? There have been many
attempts to present the commodity form, or commodity fetishism, as expressing
the essential and central element of the capitalist mode of production.56 Without
attempting anything like a thorough criticism of these arguments, which make up
a long-standing tendency of Marxist thought, it is important to at least point out
their limitations if only to stress the importance of extending the analysis of abstract
labor into the “hidden abode of production.”

As Louis Althusser characterizes it, “expressive causality” is the attempt to present
the social totality as the expression of one central contradiction. Any attempt
to deduce the dynamics of capitalism from the overlapping contradictions of the
and today, this abstract humanity produced by the demands of abstract labor has
commodity (the contradictions of use and exchange value, abstract and living
labor) necessarily participates in this logic.57 This logic runs into problems in terms
of the representation of social relations. In the first section of Capital Marx presents
commodity production as production carried out by isolated producers
whose only social relation is the act of exchange itself. “Since the producers do not
come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labor, the specific
social character of their private labors appears [erscheinen] only within this exchange”
(CI 165/87). The first problem with this presentation is that it is not a
necessary element of capitalist production: commodity production preexists capitalist
production, and the scenario of isolated commodity producers coming into
contact only through exchange is more likely to take place at the margins of precapitalist
society.58 More important, such formulations, which posit isolated commodity
producers coming into contact through exchange, would seem to make
exchange the central nexus of capitalist socialization, leaving labor outside, or prior
to, sociality.

As I argued in the previous chapter, the section on the commodity forms in the
opening of Capital assumes that labor is a natural human attribute; it does not engage
with the problem of the production of the subjectivity of labor. In this point
of view, labor is the natural ground of a history, which is only the history of different
modes of distribution. Following this presentation many writers have elevated
this difference between exchange and production to the point at which it is
a matter of two different or opposed worldviews: exchange is the locus of the production
of abstract labor, if not abstraction itself, and production—labor—is entirely
other from this process. In this view, exchange both requires and makes
necessary a world seen as a world of exchange values, of identical quantitative
units. Labor is an engagement with the concrete in its dynamic particularity.
Even though there is no doubt a necessary connection between commodity
production and abstract labor, presentations that focus on Marx’s early presentation
of production as isolated and asocial have a tendency to occlude the social and
conflictual nature of production that Marx develops in the later chapters of Capital.
59 Such criticisms, which stop at the commodity form, are implicitly criticisms
of the mode of distribution in capital—commodity production and market relations—
rather than the mode of production of capital.60 These criticisms focus on
the commodity form and market relations as the object of their critique, leaving
labor and production relatively untouched. Thus they fail to grasp the extent to
which abstract labor acts not only in the market of commodities and labor but also
in the production process itself as a norm that is forcefully imposed on the diverse
bodies of different labors.61 In Marx’s terms they are attentive to “how capital produces,
but not how capital is itself produced.” What is overlooked is the manner in
which the capitalist mode of production must be made and remade, not just at the
level of economic relations but also at the intimate level of power relations affecting
the body, habits, and subjectivity of the worker. Furthermore, by deriving abstract
labor solely from the commodity form, they present it as a deed already
accomplished with the emergence of commodity production, thus overlooking the
antagonistic relations internal to the social production of abstract labor. What is
missed is not only that the demand to make labor quantifiable and calculable
comes up against certain limits, but also, as we shall see, the most powerful limitation
that capital comes up against is its own tendency to produce an active and
cooperative working class.

Before proceeding to consider the ensemble of relations that constitute abstract
labor and the antagonistic and conflictual terrain that these relations produce, it is
necessary to examine the other side of the problematic Marx inherited from Ricardo
and Hegel. If the Hegel side of this problematic is an examination of the
practices and processes that discipline labor, subjecting it to the equalization and
normalization of abstract labor (practices necessary to the production of value),
then the Ricardo side of this problem is the former’s condition of possibility in that
it presents labor in general as productivity, or subjective potential. Although, as we
shall see, “condition of possibility” is meant here only in a logical sense, rather than
a chronological sense—it is not a matter of a pure undifferentiated potential existing
first only to be contained and trained by practices and forces subjecting it to
quantification and standardization. The names “Hegel” and “Ricardo” indicate
two different complementary examinations: one into the power relations imposed
on bodies and individuals to standardize and regularize their productivity to given
ends; the other into the productivity of bodies and individuals—their superadequacy
to their own self-maintenance.62 These two different sides correspond to
different sides of abstract: The first (Hegel) side corresponds to the interchangeability,
the reduction, of diverse bodies to units of abstract labor power; while the
second (Ricardo) side refers to the potentiality and flexibility of labor power: its
ability to exceed the given.

Although Marx’s concept of abstract labor is explicitly framed as part of his critical
break with bourgeois political economy—the secret to the whole “critical conception,”
the development of which takes up most of the opening pages of
Capital—“living labor” is only explicitly named in a few scant passages in the Grundrisse.
However, just because the concept is only referred to a few times does not
mean that it is not operative throughout Marx’s writing. Thus, defining and explicating
Marx’s idea of living labor demands subjecting Marx’s various critiques of
labor to “symptomatic reading.” Moishe Postone broadly distinguishes between two
different critical strategies in Marxism: the first one that makes labor the object of its
criticism and a second in which labor is the subject of its criticism.63 To make labor
an object of criticism is to criticize the reduction of all human activities to labor; in
short it is to criticize the instrumentality and teleology implicit in the idea of labor.
Such a criticism is situated against the idea that human beings are primarily “homo
laborans” and seeks to undercover the historical, political, and cultural transformations
that have reduced human beings to “organs” of labor; while a critique articulated
from the standpoint of labor takes labor for granted as a fundamental element
of existence and from this criticizes the relations of distribution that exploit labor,
alienating it from its own activity. Labor is assumed to be productive, and creative
of value, and the critical question is how this power is turned against it. These two
critiques are assumed to be fundamentally opposed. The opposition between these
two critical strategies generally assumes that labor itself is one-sided, thus forgetting
the duality of labor. An examination of the relationship between abstract and living
labor makes possible a criticism in which labor is both the object, in the sense that
it is a criticism of the apparatuses and structures that constitute abstract labor, and
the subject, in the sense that it places the potentiality of labor at the center of this
critique. As Tronti argues, the working class must struggle against itself, against its
constitution as abstract labor power as much as it must struggle against capitalism,
against the exploitation of labor power.64

The critique that takes labor as its subject would seem to apply most directly
to Marx’s earliest writings, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
(also known as the “Paris Manuscripts”). On first glance the development of the
idea of estranged labor, or alienation, would seem to follow the lines of a critique
written from the standpoint of labor as subject. Labor is assumed to be the “concrete
essence” of humanity, and it is because it is the essence of humanity that its
alienation, in the products and labor processes which are not under its control,
becomes nothing less than the alienation of human essence itself. However, in
this text there is already a tension between two different definitions of production:
on the one hand, an immanent definition of production—production as the
mutual causality of production, consumption, and distribution—and, on the
other hand, a reduction of not only this conception of production but also all of
political economy to an anthropological meaning of the expression and loss of the
essence of man.65 The space between these problematics is not clearly demarcated,
and their differences can only be identified retrospectively from the perspective of
later developments. It is from this perspective that it is possible to isolate a thoroughly
immanent articulation of the relation between man, nature, and history,
prefiguring the immanent sense of production developed in the Grundrisse:
Nature is man’s inorganic body—nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself the human
body. Man lives on nature—means that nature is his body, with which he must remain
in continuous interchange if he is not going to die. That man’s physical and
spiritual life is linked to nature means nothing else than nature is linked [zusammenhängt]
to itself, for man is a part of nature.66

At the same time this immanent terrain of nature reaches its completion in
man, who has the ability to exceed its limitations. As Marx writes in a latter section
of the same passage, “[An animal] produces one sidedly, whilst man produces
universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical
need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only
truly produces in freedom therefrom. And animal produces only itself, whilst
man reproduces the whole of nature.”67Without ascribing too much importance
to this one passage, or attempting a reading of the entire manuscript, we can
argue that this problematic remains in itself thoroughly ambiguous, in that it
seems to affirm at one and the same time an immanence of man, nature, and
history as well as a residual transcendence that ascribes to “man” the active part
of the relation.68 (It would even be possible to suggest that this ambiguity persists
in Marx’s texts up through the definition of the labor process in chapter 7
of Capital.) It is through this ambivalent insistence of man, nature, and history,
that Marx redefines Ludwig Feuerbach’s term species-being [Gattungswesen]: Man
is a species-being because he takes his species, or the universal as his object, or
rather, man is a species-being insofar as he interacts with nature as such.69 This
definition of species-being seems to turn the previous insistence of immanence definitely
toward a humanism, and it is in this capacity that it grounds the definition
of alienation [Emfremdete].

Alienation can be described in part as an objectification; that is, as labor losing
itself in becoming object, or property, which stands opposed to it. “With the
increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation
of the world of men.”70 Alongside this first sense of alienation—alienation
as objectification—there is a second sense of alienation that necessarily follows
from the first: alienation in the activity itself. “But the estrangement is manifested
not only in the result but in the act of production, within the producing
activity itself.”71 This second sense of alienation is founded on a contradiction
and an inversion between the undetermined possibility of life activity—one possible
understanding of species-being—and this or that specific labor. The worker
is alienated insofar as the former is subsumed under the latter. This transformation
is an inversion: Species-being, the undetermined possibility of this, that, or
whatever activity, is subordinated to one specific activity—labor—necessary to
the maintenance of bare life, of living altogether.72 Species-being as potential indifference
to whatever activity, or the open possibility of any activity, thus seems
to prefigure, one important part of Marx’s definition of abstract labor, although
the sense is entirely inverted: Abstract indifference to activity appears as a quality
that is alienated in capitalist labor and not presupposed by it. Marx’s theory
of alienated labor could also be understood as a theory of labor as alienation:
Labor, the forced constraint to one particular limited activity, is an alienation of
the openness of activity that constitutes species-being and will in turn prove to
be integral to the concept of living labor.

The first of the “Theses on Feuerbach” would seem to develop this thought of
species-being in that it suggests that subjectivity must be thought as activity.
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is
that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of
contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence in
contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—
which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such.73

Marx’s criticism reveals that materialism conceals idealist tendencies in that it
posits the material object as an object that can be represented, and that idealism,
specifically German idealism with which Marx was familiar, has a materialist tendency
in the priority it gives to activity, or practical activity.74 From this twopronged
criticism one can extract the positive content of Marx’s thesis: an attempt
to go beyond all hitherto concepts of both materiality and subjectivity. Thus it is
possible to read the first thesis as both a redefinition of materialism, positing matter
or materiality as practice and activity rather than mute objectivity, and a redefinition
of subjectivity, subjectivity as activity rather than contemplation. It is this
reworking of materiality and subjectivity, subjectivity as material activity, that runs
through Marx’s latter concepts of labor power and living labor.75

In Marx’s later writings, the opposition, or relation, between undetermined activity
and labor ceases to be a static opposition, one that situates species-being as a
potentiality that is already alienated with the onset of capitalism.76 The relation between
the abstract potential of labor and its actual existence becomes a dynamic
condition of conflict. In The German Ideology indifference to whatever activity appears
as a positive figure, one of the few Marx provides, of communism. Marx
writes that:

in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each
can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production
and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow,
to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,
criticize after dinner, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”77

However, the ground of this utopian possibility is ultimately unclear. We might
ask whether it refers to the prior conception of species-being as the central concept
of a philosophical anthropology, in which man’s own proper activity is the impropriety
of any activity. Or is it grounded historically in the existent social relations
as an immanent contradiction between the historically emergent flexibility demanded
of the new proletariat and the social division of labor that chains each
individual to a specific field of activity? This ambiguity seems to be resolved in the
Grundrisse when Marx posits living labor as the historically constituted, and contradictory
facet of abstract labor.

This living labor, existing as an abstraction from these moments of its actual reality
[raw material, instrument of labor, and so on] (also, not value); this complete denudation,
purely subjective existence of labor, stripped of all objectivity. Labor as absolute
poverty; poverty not as shortage, but as total exclusion of objective wealth . . .
Labor not as an object, but as activity; not as itself value, but as the living source of
value. . . . Thus, it is not at all contradictory, or, rather, the in-every-way mutually
contradictory statements that labor is absolute poverty as object, on one side, and is,
on the other side, the general possibility [allgemeine Möglichkeit] of wealth as subject
and as activity, are reciprocally determined and follow from the essence of labor, such
as it is presupposed by capital as its contradiction and as its contradictory being
[gegensätzliches Dasein], and such as it, in turn, presupposes capital. (G 296/217)

In this passage the same terms of the 1844 Manuscripts are employed—subject,
object, activity in general, poverty—only their previous sense has been rewritten.
It is no longer the simple contradiction between poverty (labor) and wealth (capital)
but a dynamic contradiction in which labor must be recognized as absolute
poverty and the source of all wealth. Furthermore, it is because it is poverty,
stripped of any means of production and any specific character, that labor is the
source of all wealth. Marx develops a somewhat different sense of abstract labor and
its confrontation with abstract wealth than those previously explored, “[S]ince capital
as such is indifferent to every particularity of its substance, and exists not only
as the totality of the same but also as the abstraction from all of its particularities,
the labor which confronts it likewise subjectively has the same totality and abstraction
in itself ” (G 296/218). Abstract labor, the capacity for any-labor-whatsoever as
opposed to the determinate fixed activity, appears here in a manner akin to speciesbeing
with the exception that rather than appearing prior to capital, as a lost presupposition,
it appears internal to it as both effect and necessary cause. Moreover,
this passage from the Grundrisse develops a definition of abstract labor that has an
antagonistic character not found in Capital.78 Abstract labor is defined here, not as
a presupposition of commodity exchange nor as a process of equalization and simplification
that goes on behind the backs of producers but as a specific power in its
indifference to its activity.79 Abstract labor is infused with living labor.80

The term living labor [lebendig Arbeit] plays both a rhetorical and a conceptual
role in Marx’s thought. Rhetorically, it informs and underlies an entire metaphorics
that presents the opposition between living labor, in the form of the working class,
and “dead labor,” as capitalist wealth and machinery, as the opposition between
“life” and “death”; or, more dramatically, life and the “living-dead monstrosity of
capital” (CI 302/210). Alongside, and implicated within, this rhetorical use, there
is a somewhat different sense of living labor: not so much opposed to the dead labor
of capital—fixed capital—but understood as the aspect of labor implicated with the
needs and demands of the working class.81 This aspect of living labor is ultimately
unruly in that it is labor as activity, as creative power, as the pure power to produce
the new.82 As Marx writes, “Labor is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness
of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time” (G 361/281).
This labor not only produces things—objects—it is also productive of needs and
sociality; living labor produces for itself, for its need, as much as it produces for capital.
83 What unifies the first (rhetorical) sense and the latter (antagonistic) sense is
that in each case activity, power, and transformation are placed on the side of labor,
and it is this power that capital must utilize.

Living labor is labor power defined in opposition, or better, in antagonistic
relation to, capital. If the capitalist mode of production is founded on valorization,
the increase of surplus value, then living labor is self-valorization. As capital
seeks to reduce necessary labor and increase surplus value, living labor seeks
to increase necessary labor and thus increase the effectivity of needs and desire.84
Self-valorization, as Antonio Negri develops it through a reading of the Grundrisse,
is situated on the intersection between production and reproduction. Stated
somewhat briefly, and cryptically, self-valorization is the nonidentity of production
and reproduction. The space of their relation and conjunction is defined by the
conflict over needs and desires, over necessary and surplus labor. In the first place,
the expansion of need is made necessary by the process of capitalist accumulation
itself: To realize surplus value there must be new needs, new products. Marx describes
it as “the discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs arising from society
itself; the cultivation of all the qualities of the social human being, the
production of the same in a form as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities
and relations . . . is likewise a condition of production founded on capital”
(G 409/323). The expansion of the sphere of needs is not entirely produced, or
imposed by capital; however, it is, after all, necessary for capital to simultaneously
reduce “necessary labor,” to reproduce labor power at the absolute minimum of
cost, and at the lowest level of existence, and to expand the terrain of needs, produce
new needs, and new desires.85 Thus, the tendency for needs to increase cannot
be entirely explained by capital’s drive to create artificial needs because capital
is caught in a conflict of drives working in the opposite direction.

For the tendency to increase the sphere of need to be realized, or actualized,
struggle and conflict from the side of living labor is necessary. This struggle is
made possible by the fact that in capital the worker does not simply work for the
specific and determinate conditions of reproduction, as in slavery or feudalism,
but for the wage—the abstract conditions of reproduction.

The free worker receives [the means of subsistence] in the shape of money, exchangevalue,
the abstract social form of wealth. Even though his wage is in fact nothing more
than the silver or gold or copper or paper form of the necessary means of subsistence
into which it must constantly be dissolved—even though money functions here only
as a means of circulation . . . abstract wealth, remains in his mind as something more
than a particular use value hedged round with traditional and local restrictions. It is
the worker himself who converts the money into whatever use values he desires; it is
he who buys commodities as he wishes and as the owner of money . . . he stands in precisely
the same relationship to the sellers of goods as any other buyer. Of course, the
conditions his existence—and the limited amount of money he can earn—compel
him to make his purchases from a fairly restricted section of goods. But some variation
is possible as we can see from the fact that newspapers, for example, form part of
the essential purchases of the urban English worker.86

Of course the worker’s share of this abstract wealth is limited. More important, it
is from the ground of this abstract potential that the worker asserts his or her particular
desires, a particular form of life. As Marx writes,

[T]he number and extent of [the worker’s] so-called necessary requirements, as also
the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend
therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country; in particular
they depend on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits
[Gewohnheiten] and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been
formed. In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination
of the value of labor power contains a historical and moral element. (CI 275/185)

This historical and moral dimension constitutes the difference between wages
within different national cultures and traditions (the English need their newspapers
and so on). Deleuze and Guattari refer to these moral and historical components,
these values and desires, as “neoterritorialities” or reterritorializations. These
are not the codes or territories of the precapitalist modes of production that tie
production to particular social relations but, rather, the insistence of particular values
that are instituted in and through the abstract universality of the wage.87 Thus,
if these traditions and values are going to have an effect in determining the wage,
they do so only through self-valorization, through the struggles of the working
class, which demands them as necessary conditions of its reproduction.88 It is this
struggle that renders the increase of needs practically irreversible.89 It is not impossible
to reduce needs, but it is difficult in that needs inscribe themselves in the
habits and patterns of the working class. Self-valorization exposes the pressures
that “reproduction,” the reproduction of the working class, places on production.

As much as living labor and abstract labor constitute two sides of an antagonistic
struggle, the stake and scope of which will be clarified in the following sections,
they do not directly coincide or match up. As the connection between living
labor and reproduction suggests, living labor exceeds the labor that is directly compensated
for the wage. The reproductive work of the family constitutes a realm of
need and desire that is incredibly productive of subjectivity and social networks. It
reproduces the labor power necessary to abstract labor. Moreover, such labor is all
the more productive for capital in that it does not assume the form of abstract
labor.90 The immense productivity, flexibility, and potentiality of the living labor
of reproductive work is obscured by its appearance as nonwaged work, as a series
of social relationships that are outside of the economy.91 The wage is necessary to
appear to be productive. Wage labor’s appearance as productive is derivative of
capital’s appearance as self-generating wealth; it is an afterimage of the society effect
of capital. Living labor confronts abstract labor as its internal condition and
its constitutive outside.

The capitalist mode of production emerges when a flow of “free” labor meets a
flow of “free” wealth. It is clear now that this freedom on the side of labor is the
simultaneity of poverty and indeterminacy. It would not be improper to think of
this indeterminacy, this abstraction, as a kind of power, the power to bring the new
into the world; after all it produces not only things—commodities—but also the
capitalist mode of production itself. It would also be correct to identify this abstract
subjective potential as something new, and thus as something that emerges
with, and is the condition for, capitalist accumulation. It would be incorrect, however,
to identify this with freedom in the conventional sense because this abstract
subjective potential cannot but sell itself as labor power. It must subject itself to
whatever-capitalist enterprise, to the job and task available.92 Abstract labor, or abstract
labor as living labor, is free to develop and consume “whatever” forces and
possibilities—forces and possibilities unimaginable and impossible within the narrow
spheres of precapitalist reproduction. At the same time, it is also freely exposed
to the demands and transformations of the labor market. The old guarantees that
limited production, tying it to a determinate sphere of reproduction, political and
social, have disappeared. In the absence of old guarantees and the former limitations,
there is a new struggle, a new antagonism: It is a struggle that seeks to reduce
living labor, the flexibility and productivity of a new subject, to abstract labor, to a
homogenization and standardization that is the precondition for surplus value.

Categories: labor and capital
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