Immaterial property, rent extraction

From Michael Hardt, “The Common in Communism” (pdf). A concise elaboration of how Hardt and Negri see “bioproduction” and immaterial labor (definition: “By immaterial and biopolitical we try to grasp together the production of ideas, information, images, knowledges, code, languages, social relationships, affects, and the like”) as modes of production within capitalism that threaten to undermine it. “Through the increasing centrality of the common in capitalist production – the production of ideas, affects, social relations, and forms of life – are emerging the conditions and weapons for a communist project.”

Hardt claims immaterial labor has now become hegemonic in the sense that manufacturing once was, disclosing the paradigm for how work is conceived in a society and generalizing its specific needs of workers as what is needed of people generally. “Industry has to informationalize; knowledge, code, and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production; and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorization process.”

It’s essential to remember that the product made in capitalism is the subject who can reproduce capitalism: “the ultimate object of capitalist production is not commodities but social relations or forms of life.” Those forms — clearer perhaps as modes or ways of life — are being produced outside of capitalist-controlled factories, which is to say people feel like the stuff they do that matters to who they are is what goes on outside of wage work — inevitable considering the deskilling that went on throughout the 20th century. Commodities are important not so much in and of themselves but as objects that posit and normalize ways of life: “the production of the refrigerator and the automobile are only midpoints for the creation of the labor and gender relations of the nuclear family around the refrigerator and the mass society of individuals isolated together in their cars on
the freeway.”

The shift to immaterial production — the important products and machinery for reproducing the capitalist way of life being ideas and cooperative collaborations, not things — means that the economy is more and more reliant on “immaterial” property: intellectual property, processes, cooperation, manufacturing affect, etc. Such property can’t be owned the same way material property is owned as capital. This creates a problem for capital between controlling capital absolutely through property rights and extracting rents for its use, and allowing immaterial property (which Hardt equates with the “common”) to circulate freely to create more value. “Here is an emerging contradiction internal to capital: the more the common is corralled as property, the more its productivity is reduced; and yet expansion of the common undermines the relations of property in a fundamental and general way.”

A consequence is that capitalists are marginalized in productive processes they once completely dictated: “Whereas in the case of industrial capital and its generation of profit, the capitalist plays a role internal to the production process, particularly in designating the means of cooperation and imposing the modes of discipline, in the production of the common the capitalist must remain relatively external.” So basically capitalists are now trying to solve this problem with new business models — how to collect rents on property they can’t completely enclose. “The production and productivity of the common becomes an increasingly autonomous domain, still exploited and controlled, of course, but through mechanisms that are relatively external.”

Capitalists must make themselves seem necessary in a new way, justify a rent through “new mechanisms.” The corporate provision of Web 2.0 applications and social networks is one of these mechanisms. Facebook seems paradigmatic in this regard, providing a service that permits them to seize rights over production they only stand beside tangentially. They provide the medium for social production and claim ownership to everything the medium makes possible for consumer/user/producers.

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