"End of work" literature; "counteracting causes"

A few notes from “The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri” by Constantine George Caffentzis, who rejects the end-of-work scenario on traditional Marxist grounds, namely that capital needs human labor to exploit to create surplus value. He says we should recall:

Marx’s Ricardian recognition that every worker permanently replaced by a machine reduces the total surplus value (and hence the total profit) available to the capitalist class as a whole. Since the capitalist class depends upon profits, technological change can be as dangerous to it as to the workers. Hence the capitalist class faces a permanent contradiction it must finesse: (a) the desire to eliminate recalcitrant, demanding workers from production, (b) the desire to exploit the largest mass of workers possible.

That tension can never be fully resolved, though the end-of-work theorists tend to see its demise in the spread of machine-driven automation, and more important, the networked society. Networks end up tapping into the “general intellect” — the affective production of individuals in non-formal work settings, the sort of production that goes along with making self-identity. Workers slip out from subsumption under capital, and are productive on their own autonomous terms, even as capital finds new, indirect ways to harvest that production. The contradiction is resolved — for certain industrial sectors, at any rate — by exploiting a mass of workers through the network while the “workers” work on immaterial things without realizing what they are doing is work — to them it is identity-making, self-expression, entertainment. But the rest of industry, still riven by the contradiction, resolves it through globalization — exploiting masses in underdeveloped economies.

Both Rifkin in The End of Work and Negri in his whole corpus refer to Marx’s vision of machines replacing grunt labor. Negri tends to cite the Fragment on Machines from the Grundrisse, but Caffentzis points to Marx’s later version of the idea in Capital III.

Marx’s most developed discussion of this story is to be found in Part III, Capital III: “The Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit.” There he recognizes that a tendency towards the total replacement of humans by an “automatic system of machinery” must continually be met by “counteracting causes” or else the average rate of profit will actually fall. These counteracting causes either increase the mass of surplus value (e.g., raising the intensity and duration of the working day), or decrease the mass of variable capital (e.g, depress wages below their value, expand foreign trade), or decrease the mass of constant capital (e.g., increasing the productivity of labor in the capital goods industry, expand foreign trade) or some combination or these disjunctive possibilities (Marx 1909: 272-282).

The “counteracting causes” are key to Caffentzis’s critique. He sees them in the expropriation of immaterial labor, free (and possibly forced, dependent on how you view psychological imperatives in the modern world) labor of self-construction — among other things as listed below.

Rifkin’s intuition is correct. For the Manifold of Work extends far beyond the dimension of formal waged work and this non-waged work does produce surplus value in abundance. If it is more directly and efficiently exploited, this work can become the source of an new area of surplus-value creating employment through the expansion of forced labor, the extension of direct capitalist relations into the region of labor reproduction and finally the potentiation of micro- and criminal enterprises. That is why “neoliberalism,” “neo-slavery,” “Grameenism,” and the “drug war” are the more appropriate shibboleths of the Third Industrial Revolution rather than the “non-profit” third sector touted by Rifkin, for they can activate the “counteracting causes” to the precipitous decline in the rate of profit computerization, robotization and genetic engineering provoke. [bold added]

Caffentzis has little sympathy for Negri’s vision of the multitude eluding capital’s control. But there does seem to be something to Negri’s claim, in Caffentzis’s words, that “techno-scientific labor cannot be controlled by capital via its system of wages and work discipline rounded out with the promise of entrance into the top levels of managerial, financial and political power for the ‘best.’ ” Another way of putting that is: workers need more than wages to feel rewarded. They need attention, recognition, meaning, what have you (this is one of the “consequences of modernity”; the destabilization of identity and the onset of perpetual reflexivity). This doesn’t allow them to escape from capital, but instead opens a new means by which labor can be exploited, controlled. The workers’ pursuit of affect is a new potential market, a potential source of profit, a space that thanks to technological developments can be rationalized and subsumed to capitalist relations.


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