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The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery


The last few years in the U.S. has seen a return of a discussion of work that is reminiscent of the mid-1970s, but with a number of twists. In the
earlier period, books like Where Have All the Robots Gone? (Sheppard 1972),
False Promises (Aronowitz 1972)and Work in America (Special Task Force
1973), and phrases like "blue collar blues," "zerowork" and "the refusal of
work" revealed a crisis of the assembly line worker which expressed itself
most dramatically in wildcat strikes in U.S. auto factories in 1973 and 1974
(Linebaugh and Ramirez 1992). These strikes were aimed at negating the
correlation between wages and productivity that had been the basis of the
"deal" auto capital struck with the auto unions in the 1940s. As Linebaugh
and Ramirez wrote of the Dodge Truck plant wildcat involving 6000 workers in
Warren, Michigan between June 10-14, 1974:
Demands were not formulated until the third day of the strike. They asked
for "everything." One worker said, "I just don't want to work." The
separation between income and productivity, enforced by the struggle, could
not have been clearer (Linebaugh and Ramirez 1992: 160).
This clarity met an even stronger clarity in the auto capitalists'
decades-long campaign to reassert control over the work process in their
plants and assembly lines. These capitalists did not hesitate to destroy
these very plants and assembly lines in order to save themselves. "Rust
belt" and "run away plant" became the phrases of the business press when
describing auto and other kinds of factory production in the 1980's; these
phrases flowed almost seamlessly into "globalization" and "robotization" in
the 1990s. The unprecedented result of this campaign was that full time
weekly "real" wages in the U.S. manufacturing industry had fallen almost 20%
while the work time had actually increased. But in the mid-1990s books like
The End of Work (Rifkin 1995), The Labor of Dionysius (Negri and Hardt 1994)
and The Jobless Future (Aronowitz and De Fazio 1994), and phrases like
"downsizing" (New York Times 1996) and "worker displacement" (Moore 1996)
have revived themes associated with the crisis of work at a time when the
power relation between workers and capital is the inverse of the 1970s.
Whereas in the 1970s workers were refusing work, in the 1990s capitalists
presumably are refusing workers! In this paper I will show that these books
and phrases are misleading in claiming that "scientifically based
technological change in the midst of sharpened internationalization of
production means that there are too many workers for too few jobs, and even
fewer of them are well paid" (Aronowitz and De Fazio 1994: xii), or that
"technological innovations and market-directed forces...are moving us to the
edge of a near workerless world" (Rifkin 1995: xvi), or, even more
abstractly, that the "law of labor-value, which tried to make sense of our
history in the name of the centrality of proletarian labor and its
quantitative reduction in step with capitalist development, is completely
bankrupt..." (Hardt and Negri 1994: 10).

Jobs and the Manifold of Work

A "jobless future" and a "workerless world" are the key phrases of this
literature, but before we can examine the cogency of these phrases for the
present and near future it is worthwhile to reflect for a minute on the
notions of job and work that they imply. "Job" is the easier of the two. It
has a rather unsavory etymological past. In seventeenth and eighteenth
century England (and even today), "job" as a verb suggested deceiving or
cheating while as a noun it evoked the scent of the world of petty crime and
confidence games. In this context, a "jobless future" would be a boon to
humanity. But by the mid-twentieth century "job" had become the primary word
used in American English to refer to a unit of formal waged employment with
some fixed, contractually agreed upon length of tenure. To have a job on the
docks differs significantly from working on the docks; for one can be
working somewhere without having a job there. The job, therefore, rose from
the nether world of political economy to become its holy grail. The mystic
power of the word "job" does not come from its association with work,
however. Indeed, "to do a job" or "to job" were phrases describing a
"crooked" way to refuse to work and gain an income. "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,"
became the shibboleth of late-twentieth century U.S. politicians because the
"job" emphasized the wage and other contractual aspects of work in
capitalist society which were crucial to the physical and mental survival of
the electorate. Hence a "jobless future" would be hell for a capitalist
humanity, since it implies a future without wages and contracts between
workers and capitalists. Although its salience is unmistakable, the job
marks off, often quite conventionally and even with dissemblance, a part of
the work process; but there is no one-to-one correlation between jobs and
work. The same work process can be broken down into one, two or many jobs.
Consequently, "work" and its apparent semantic cognate "labor" seem to have
a greater claim to reality. Therefore, the "end of work" denotes a more
radical transformation than a "jobless future," because there were many
periods in human history when societies were "jobless"--e.g., slave
societies and subsistence-producing peasant communities--but there were
none, Eden excepted, that were workless. Before one can speak of the end of
work, however, one should recognize that here has been a conceptual
revolution in the last political generation concerning the meaning of work.
For a long period of time, perhaps coincident with the formulation of the
collective bargaining regimes in the 1930s and their collapse in the 1970s,
"work" was synonymous with "the job," i.e., formal waged work. But since
then a vast manifold of work was discovered (Caffentzis 1992; Caffentzis
1996/1998). This manifold includes informal, "off the books" work which has
a wage but could not be officially deemed contractual because it violates
the legal or tax codes. This dimension of the manifold tapers into the great
region of purely criminal activity which in many nations and neighborhoods
rivals in quantity and value the total formal job-related activity. Even
more important has been the feminist "discovery" of housework in all its
modalities that are crucial for social reproduction (e.g., sexuality,
biological reproduction, child care, enculturation, therapeutic energy,
subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, and anti-entropic production).
Housework is the great Other in capitalist societies, for it stubbornly
remains unwaged and even largely unrecognized in national statistics, even
though it is increasingly recognized as crucial for capitalist development.
Finally, there is ur-level of capitalist hell which collects all the coerced
labor of this so-called "post-slavery" era: prison labor, military labor,
"sex slavery," indentured servitude, child labor. By synthesizing all these
forms of work, we are forced to recognize an intersecting and
self-reflective manifold of energetic investments that dwarf the "formal
world of work" in spatio-temporal and value terms. This vast emerging
Presence as well as the inverse manifold of its refusal has transformed the
understanding of work profoundly, even though many seem not to have noticed.
It certainly puts the jejune distinctions between work and labor (Arendt),
between bio-power and capitalism (Foucault), and between labor and
communicative action (Habermas) into question while forcing a remarkable
expansion of class analysis and an enrichment of revolutionary theory beyond
the problematics of planning for factory system of the future. Most
importantly for our discussion, this Manifold of Work problematizes the
discussion of work and its supposed end at the hands of technological

The End of Work

Unfortunately, the notion of work that is often used in the "end of work"
literature is often antediluvian and forgetful of work's capitalistic
meaning. This is most clearly seen in Rifkin's central argument in The End
of Work. He is anxious to refute those who argue that the new technological
revolution involving the application of genetic engineering to agriculture,
of robotization to manufacturing and of computerization of service
industries will lead to new employment opportunities if there is a
well-trained workforce available to respond to the challenges of the
"information age." His refutation is simple.
In the past, when a technological revolution threatened the wholesale loss
of jobs in an economic sector, a new sector emerged to absorb the surplus
labor. Earlier in the century, the fledgling manufacturing sector was able
to absorb many of the millions of farmhands and farm owners who were
displaced by the rapid mechanization of agriculture. Between the mid-1950s
and the early 1980s, the fast-growing service sector was able to re-employ
many of the blue collar workers displaced by automation. Today, however, as
all these sectors fall victim to rapid restructuring and automation, no
"significant" new sector has developed to absorb the millions who are being
displaced (Rifkin 1995: 35).
Consequently, there will be a huge unemployment problem when the last
service worker is replaced by the latest ATM, virtual office machine or
heretofore unconceived application of computer technology. Where will he/she
find a job? There is no going back to agriculture or manufacturing and no
going forward to a new sector beyond services. Rifkin applies this scenario
to a global context and foresees not millions of unemployed people on the
planet in the near future, but billions.
The formal logic of the argument appears impeccable, but are its empirical
premises and theoretical presuppositions correct? I argue that they are not,
for Rifkin's technological determinism does not take into account the
dynamics of employment and technological change in the capitalist era. Let
us begin with a categorical problem in Rifkin's stage theory of employment.
He uncritically uses terms like "agriculture," "manufacturing" and,
especially, "services" to differentiate the three developmental stages of a
capitalist economy as indicated in the passage quote above and in many other
parts of The End of Work. One cannot fault Rifkin for making an
idiosyncratic choice here, since major statistical agencies like the U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics also employ these categories to disaggregate
employment, production and productivity in the last few decades. The core
metaphors that helped shape this trichotomy are rooted in a distinction
between material goods (produced on the farm or off) and immaterial services
and in the spatial distinction between farm, factory and everywhere else
(office, school, store, warehouse, road, etc.) This trichotomy allows for a
rough and ready economic typology, with "the service industry" generally
functioning as something of a fuzzy default category. But it is one thing to
use a category ex post facto and another is to use a category in a
projective way (either into the past or the future). Rifkin's somewhat
Hegelian scheme sees technological change as the autonomous moving spirit
that transforms one stage to another until it comes to a catastrophic halt
in the present "service" stage of history. Yet when we look at capitalistic
societies in the past, this neat series is hardly accurate. For example, was
seventeenth and eighteenth century England agricultural? The "service
industry" in the form of household servants in the larger agricultural
estates at that time was quite substantial, but these servants often worked
as artisans (manufacturing) and as farm hands (agriculture). Moreover, with
the rise of cottage industry agricultural workers or small farmers also
doubled or tripled as manufacturing workers on the farm. Finally, throughout
the history of capitalism we find a complex shifting of workers among these
three categories. Instead of simple the move from agricultural to
manufacturing, and manufacturing to service, we find all six possible
transitions among these three categories. The vast literature on the
"development of underdevelopment" and on the many periods of capitalist
"deindustrialization" abundantly illustrates these transitions which were
clearly caused not by some autonomous technological spirit, but by
historically concrete and ever varied class struggles and power relations. A
machine introduced by capitalists to undermine industrial workers' power can
lead to these workers losing their employment and becoming "service workers"
or becoming "agricultural workers" according to a complex conjucture of
forces and possibilities. There is no evidence from the total history of
capitalism that there is only a linear progression that ends with the last
service worker.
Rifkin's schema is further undermined if we examine its future projection.
After a look at the wide variety of applications computer technology in the
service industry (from voice recognition, to expert systems, to digital
synthesizers), Rifkin ominously concludes: "In the future, advanced parallel
computing machines, high-tech robotics, and integrated electronic networks
spanning the globe are going to subsume more and more of the economic
process, leaving less and less room for direct hands-on human participation
in making, moving, selling, and servicing" (Rifkin 1995: 162). But here the
very defaulting function of the category of service makes its future
projection problematic for Rifkin, since it will not stay in a single place
in logical space in order to be reduced to measure zero by technological
change. Let us consider one of the standard definitions of what constitutes
service work: the modification of either a human being (giving a haircut or
a massage) or an object (repairing an automobile or a computer). How can we
possibly project such a category into the future? Since there are no
limitations on the type of modification in question, there is no way one can
say that "advanced parallel computing machines, high-tech robotics, and
integrated electronic networks spanning the globe" will be able to simulate
and replace its possible realizations. Indeed, the service work of the
future might very well be perversely defined (at least with respect to the
constructors of these machines) as modifications to humans and objects that
are not simulateable and replaceable by machines!(1) Just as today there is
a growth in the sale of "organic," non-genetically engineered agricultural
produce, and "hand-made," garments made from non-synthetic fibers, so too in
the future there might be an interest in having a human to play Bach (even
if the synthesized version is technically more correct) or to dance (even
though a digitalized hologram might give a better performance according to
the critics). I would be surprised if such service industries do not arise.
Could they "absorb" many workers displaced from agricultural or
manufacturing work? That I do not know, but then again, neither does Rifkin.
Rifkin's inability to project his categorical schema either into the past or
into the future reveals an even deeper problem: his inability to adequately
explain why technological change takes place in the first place. At the
beginning of The End of Work Rifkin rejects what he calls "the
trickle-down-technology argument"--i.e., the view that technological change
in one branch of industry, though causing unemployment there, eventually
leads to increased employment throughout the rest of the economy--by
appealing to Marx's Capital and Grundrisse. Rifkin's view of Marx can be
surveyed in this extended passage:
Karl Marx argued that producers continually attempt to reduce labor costs
and gain greater control over the means of production by substituting
capital equipment for workers wherever and whenever possible...Marx
predicted that the increasing automation of production would eventually
eliminate the worker altogether. The German philosopher looked ahead to what
he euphemistically referred to as the "last...metamorphosis of labor," when
"an automatic system of machinery" finally replaced human beings in the
economic process...Marx believed that the ongoing effort by producers to
continue to replace human labor with machines would prove self-defeating in
the end....[as] there would be fewer and fewer consumers with sufficient
purchasing power to buy their products (Rifkin 1995: 16-17).
This use of Marx is part of a new and widely noted trend among social policy
analysts on the U.S. Left, broadly considered. But this revival of Marx's
thought is often as selective as is the use of Smith and Ricardo on the
Right.(2) In Rifkin's case, he definitely gets the broad sweep of Marx's
views on technology right, but with some notable omissions. The first
omission is of workers' struggles for higher wages, for reduced work, for
better conditions of work, and for a form of life that absolutely refuses
forced labor. These struggles are the prime reasons why capitalists are so
interested introducing machinery as weapons in the class war. If workers
were docile "factors of production," the urgency for technological change
would be much reduced. The second omission is 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. Marx comments on this eternal
tension in Theories of Surplus Value:
The one tendency throws the labourers on to the streets and makes a part of
the population redundant, and the absorbs them again and extends
wage-slavery absolutely, so that the lot of the worker is always fluctuating
but he never escapes from it. The worker, therefore, justifiably regards the
development of the productive power of his own labour as hostile to himself;
the capitalist, on the other hand, always treats him as an element to be
eliminated from production
(Marx 1977: 409).
Capital's problem with technological change is not the loss of consumers,
but the loss of profits.
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).
Contemporary US capitalism appears to be applying the maximal synthesis of
these counteracting causes while the European capitals are being more
selective. There is no inevitable capitalist strategy in the drive to
overcome workers' struggles and prevent a dramatic decline in the rate of
profit. These struggles can lead to many futures--from the reintroduction of
slavery, to a dramatic increase in the workday, to the negotiated reduction
of the waged workday to the end of capitalism--depending on the class forces
in the field. But there is one outcome that definitely cannot be included in
the menu of possible futures as long as capitalism is viable: Rifkin's
vision of "the high-tech revolution lead[ing] to the realization of the
ago-old utopian dream of substituting machines for human labor, finally
freeing humanity to journey into a post-market era" (Rifkin 1995: 56). For
capitalism requires the stuff of profit, interest and rent which can only be
created by a huge mass of surplus labor, but the total replacement of human
work by machines would mean the end of profit, interest and rent. Although
Rifkin seems to agree with much of Marx's analysis of the dynamics of
capitalism, Marx's fatal conclusion is carefully kept out of the sanguine
scenario presented at the last part of his book. Rifkin lays out a future
that would combine a drastic reduction in the workday along with a "new
social contract" that would provide financial incentives (from "social" or
"shadow" wages to tax benefits) for working in "the third sector"--the
independent, "non-profit" or volunteer sector between "the public and
private" sectors. This sector can become the "service industry" of the 21st
century, since it "offers the only viable means for constructively
channeling the surplus labor cast off by the global market" (Rifkin 1995:
292). That is, it absorbs workers who do not produce surplus value, and
provides them with a wage for non-surplus-value creating work. In other
words, Rifkin's vision of the "safe haven" for humanity is a form of
capitalism where most workers are not producing profits, interest or rent.
He contrasts this vision with a future where "civilization...continue[s] to
disintegrate into a state of increasing destitution and lawlessness from
which there may be no easy return" (Rifkin 1995: 291). But how viable is
Rifkin's social Chimera with its techno-capitalist head, its ample, woolly
third-sector body, and its tiny surplus-value producing tail? There are
proportions that must be respected even when dealing with futuristic
Chimeras, and Rifkin's cannot exist simply because the head, however
technologically sophisticated, cannot be nourished by such a tiny tail. The
capitalism resulting from Rifkin's "new social contract" is impossible, for
it is by definition a capitalism without profits, interest and rents. Why
would capitalists agree to such a deal after they trumpeted throughout the
Cold War that they would rather blow up half the planet than give up a tenth
of their income? This "impossibility proof" is so obvious that one can not
help but asking why Rifkin invoked Marx so directly at the beginning of The
End of Work only to completely exorcise him at the end? Is he avoiding
reference to the unpleasantness of world war, revolution and nuclear
annihilation that his earlier reflections stirred up? Is he trying to coax,
with veiled Marxian threats, the techno-capitalist class into an act of
suicide camouflaged as a new lease on life? Answers to such questions would
require a political analysis of the type of rhetoric Rifkin and his circle
employ. I forgo this effort. But it is worth pointing out that Rifkin's
chimerical strategy is not totally mistaken. After all, he is looking for a
new sector for the expansion of capitalist relations. He mistakenly chose
the "non-profit," volunteer sector, for if this sector is truly "non-profit"
and voluntary, it cannot be a serious basis for a new sector of employment
in a capitalist society. (And there is no way to get out of capitalism via a
massive fraud, however tempting that might be). But 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.

Negri and The End of the Law of Value

Rifkin can, perhaps, be indulged in his half-baked use of Marx's thought.
After all, he did not come out of the Marxist tradition and his previous
references to Marx's work were few and largely in passing. But the themes
Rifkin so clearly presented in The End of Work can be found in a number of
Marxist, Post-Marxist, and Post-modern Marxist writers, often in a much more
obscure and sibylline versions. One of the primary figures in this area is
Antonio Negri who developed arguments supporting conclusions very similar to
Rifkin's in the 1970s, but without the latter's Marxist naiveté.. His The
Labors of Dionysius (with Michael Hardt) which was published in 1994
continued a discourse definitively begun in Marx Beyond Marx (Negri 1991,
originally published in 1979) and continued in Communists Like Us (Guattari
and Negri 1990, originally published in 1985).(3) In this section I will
show how Negri's more sophisticated and Marxiste analysis of contemporary
capitalism is as problematic as Rifkin's. It is hard to discern Negri's
similarity to Rifkin, simply because Negri's work is rigorously
anti-empirical--rarely does a fact or factoid float through his prose--while
Rifkin's The End of Work is replete with statistics and journalistic set
pieces on high-tech. Negri does not deign to write plainly of an era of "the
end of work." He expresses an equivalent proposition, however, in his
theoretical rejection of the classical Labor Theory or Law of Value with
hypostasized verbs. In the late 20th century, according to Negri, the Law is
"completely bankrupt" (Hardt and Negri 1994: 10) or it "no longer operates"
(Guattari and Negri 1990: 21) or "the Law of Value dies" (Negri 1991: 172).
This is equivalent to Rifkin's more empirical claims, but the equivalence
can only be established after a vertiginous theoretical reduction. Negri's
version of the classic labor theory of value has as its "principal
task...the investigation of the social and economic laws that govern the
deployment of labor-power among the different sectors of social production
and thus to bring to light the capitalist processes of valorization" (Hardt
and Negri 1994: 8), or it is "an expression of the relation between concrete
labor and amounts of money needed to secure an existence" (Guattari and
Negri 1990: 21) or it is a measure of "the determinate proportionality
between necessary labor and surplus labor" (Negri 1991: 172). The Law of
Value was alive in the 19th century, but just like Nietzsche's God, it began
to die then. It took a bit longer for the Law to be formally issued a death
certificate, however. The bankruptcy, inoperativeness, and death of the Law
of Value simply mean that the fundamental variables of capitalist
life--profits, interest, rents, wages, and prices--are no longer determined
by labor-time. Negri argues, as does Rifkin, that capitalism has entered
into a period that Marx, in his most visionary mode, described the "Fragment
on Machines" in the Grundrisse (Negri 1991: 140-141) (Rifkin 1995: 16-17).
Let me chose just one of the many oft-quoted passages in this vision:
The development of heavy industry means that the basis upon which it
rests--the appropriation of the labour time of others--ceases to constitute
or to create wealth; and at the same time direct labour as such ceases to be
the basis of production, since it is transformed more and more into a
supervisory and regulating activity; and also because the product ceases to
be made by individual direct labour, and results more for the combination of
social activity....on the one hand, once the productive forces of the means
of labour have reached the level of an automatic process, the prerequisite
is the subordination of the natural forces to the intelligence of society,
while on the other hand individual labour in its direct form is transformed
into social labour. In this way the other basis of this mode of production
vanishes (Marx 1977: 382).
The development of "automatic processes" in genetic engineering, computer
programming and robotization since the 1960s have convinced both Negri and
Rifkin that the dominant features of contemporary capitalism are matched
point-for-point by Marx's vision in 1857-1858. The major difference between
Negri's work and Rifkin's The End of Work is that while Rifkin emphasizes
the consequences of these "automatic processes" for the unemployment of
masses of workers Negri emphasizes the new workers that are centrally
involved in "the intelligence of society" and "social labor." Whereas Rifkin
argues that these new "knowledge workers" (e.g., research scientists, design
engineers, software analysts, financial and tax consultants, architects,
marketing specialists, film producers and editors, lawyers, investment
bankers) can never be a numerically large sector and hence are no solution
to the problems created by this phase of capitalist development, Negri takes
them as the key to the transformation to communism beyond "real socialism."
It is important to note a terminological difference between Negri and
Rifkin, because Negri has over the years termed these Rifkin's "knowledge
workers" first in the 1970s to be "social workers," and later in the 1990s
he baptized them as "cyborgs" a la Donna Haraway (Haraway 1991: 149-181).
Although singularly infelicitous in its English translation, the term
"social worker" directly comes out of the pages of the Grundrisse. For when
looking for a descriptive phrase that would contrast the new workers in the
"information and knowledge sector" to the "mass workers" of assembly line
era, many of Marx's sentences--e.g., "In this transformation, what appears
as the mainstay of production and wealth is neither the immediate labour
performed by the worker, nor the time that he works-but the appropriation of
man by his own general productive force, his understanding of nature and the
mastery of it; in a word, the development of the social individual" (Marx
1977: 380)--deeply influenced him. The social worker is the subject of
"techno-scientific labor" and s/he steps out of the pages of the Grundisse
as a late 20th century cyborg, i.e., "a hybrid of machine and organism that
continually crosses the boundaries between material and immaterial labor"
(Hardt and Negri 1994: 280,1)(4) The old mass worker's labor-time on the
assembly line was roughly correlated to (exchange-value and use-value)
productivity and s/he was alienated from the factory system, the social
cyborg's labor-time is independent of its productivity but it is thoroughly
integrated into the terrain of production. Rifkin sees the "knowledge class"
of "symbolic analysts" as fundamentally identified with capital and explains
the new interest in intellectual property rights as a sign that the elite
capitalists have recognized the importance of the knowledge class and are
willing to share their wealth with it. Knowledge workers are "fast becoming
the new aristocracy" (Rifkin 1995: 175). Negri has a rather different
reading of this class' present and future. The existence of social cyborgs
not only is evidence that the dialectic of capitalist development has been
"broken," according to Negri, but capital simply cannot "buy it out,"
because "the social worker has begun to produce a subjectivity that one can
no longer grasp in the terms of capitalist development understood as an
accomplished dialectical movement" (Hardt and Negri 1994: 282) In order
words, 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." Not only is the social working cyborg beyond the bounds of capital's
time honored techniques of control, it is also in the vanguard of the
communist revolution. Why? Let us first hear and then interpret Negri's
Cooperation, or the association of [cyborg] producers, is posed
independently of the organization capacity of capital; the cooperation and
subjectivity of labor have found a point of contact outside of the
machinations of capital. Capital becomes merely an apparatus of capture, a
phantasm, an idol. Around it move radically autonomous processes of
self-valorization that not only constitute an alternative basis of potential
development but also actually represent a new constituent foundation (Hardt
and Negri 1994: 282)
Negri claims that the cyborg workers have escaped capital's gravitational
field into a region where their work and life is actually producing the
fundamental social and productive relations appropriate to a communism.
These relations are characterized by "self-valorization"--i.e., instead of
determining the value of labor power and work on the basis of its exchange
value for the capitalist, the workers value their labor power for its
capacity to determine their autonomous development--arises from the period
when techno-scientific labor becomes paradigmatic (Negri 1991: 162-163)
(Caffentzis 1987). In effect, Negri's notion of "self-valorization" is
similar to the "class for itself" or "class consciousness" of more
traditional Marxism; but self-valorization distinguishes the cyborg from the
politics of the mass worker and marks the arrival of the true communist
revolution ironically percolating in the World Wide Net rather than in the
(old and new) haunts of the mass workers, peasants and ghetto dwellers of
the planet.
The clash between Negri's picture of the anti-capitalist cyborg and Rifkin's
image of the pro-capitalist knowledge worker can make for an inviting theme.
But just as Rifkin's knowledge worker (as the last profit-making employee)
is built upon a faulty conception of capitalist development, so too is
Negri's cyborg. Consequently, it is more useful to consider and critique the
common basis of both these views. Negri bases his version of "the social
worker" on Marx's Grundrisse just as Rifkin does for his knowledge worker,
but we should remember that the "Fragment on Machines" was not Marx's last
word on machines in a capitalist society. Marx continued work for another
decade and filled Volumes I, II, and III of Capital with new observations.
This is not the place to review these developments in depth. It should be
pointed out that in Volume I Marx recognized not only the great powers
machinery threw into the production process; he also emphasized machines'
lack of value creativity analogous to the thermodynamical limits on
availability of work in a given energy field (Caffentzis 1997), but even
more crucial for our project is the part of Capital III where Marx revisited
the terrain of the "Fragment on Machines." In these passages he recognized
that in any era where capitalism approaches the stage of "automatic
processes," the system as a whole must face a dramatic acceleration of the
tendency for rate of profit to fall. He asked, "How is it that this fall is
not greater and more rapid?" His answer was that there are built-in
processes in capitalist activity that resist this tendency and therefore the
system's technological finale. These are to be found directly in the Chapter
XIV on "counteracting causes" and indirectly in Part II on the formation of
the average rate of profit. I mentioned the critical consequences of
"counteracting causes" in my discussion of Rifkin, and they apply to Negri
as well. Negri imperiously denies "the social and economic laws that govern
the deployment of labor-power among the different sectors of social
production" and rejects the view that labor-time is crucial to "the
capitalist processes of valorization." But capital and capitalists are still
devoutly interested in both. That is why there is such a drive to send
capital to low waged areas and why there is so much resistance to the
reduction of the waged work day. For the computerization and robotization of
factories and offices in Western Europe, North America and Japan has been
accompanied by a process of "globalization" and "new enclosures."
Capitalists have been fighting as fiercely to have the right to put assembly
zones and brothels in the least mechanized parts of the world as to have the
right to patent life forms. Instead of a decline, there has been a great
expansion of factory production throughout many regions of the planet.
Indeed, much of the profit of global corporations and much of the interest
received by international banks has been created out of this low-tech,
factory and sexual work (Federici 1998). In order to get workers for these
factories and brothels, a vast new enclosure has been taking place
throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas. The very capital that owns "the
ethereal information machines which supplant industrial production" is also
involved in the enclosure of lands throughout the planet, provoking famine,
disease, low-intensity war and collective misery in the process (Caffentzis
1990) (Caffentzis 1995). Why is capital worried about communal land tenure
in Africa, for example, if the true source of productivity is to be found in
the cyborgs of the planet? One answer is simply that these factories, lands,
and brothels in the Third World are locales of "the counteracting causes" to
the tendency of the falling rate of profit. They increase the total pool of
surplus labor, help depress wages, cheapen the elements of constant capital,
and tremendously expand the labor market and make possible the development
of high-tech industries which directly employ only a few knowledge workers
or cyborgs. But another complementary answer can be gleaned from Part II of
Capital III: "Conversion of Profit into Average Profit," which shows the
existence of a sort of capitalist self-valuation. In order for there to be
an average rate of profit throughout the capitalist system, branches of
industry that employ very little labor but a lot of machinery must be able
to have the right to call on the pool of value that high-labor, low-tech
branches create. If there were no such branches or no such right, then the
average rate of profit would be so low in the high-tech, low-labor
industries that all investment would stop and the system would terminate.
Consequently, "new enclosures" in the countryside must accompany the rise of
"automatic processes" in industry, the computer requires the sweat shop, and
the cyborg's existence is premised on the slave. Negri is correct in
connecting the rise of the new workers in the high-tech fields with
self-valuation, but it has more to do with capitalist self-valuation--i.e.,
the right of "dead labor" to demand a proportionate share of "living
labor"--rather than workers' self-valuation. Indeed, capital's
self-valuation is premised on the planetary proletariat's degradation. One
can easily dismiss Negri's analysis as being profoundly Eurocentric in its
neglect of the value-creating labor of billions of people on the planet.
Indeed he is Eurocentric in a rather archaic way. He would do well, at
least, to look to the new global capitalist multiculturalism and the
ideologies it has spawned (Federici 1995), instead of to the rather small
circle of postmodern thinkers that constitute his immediate horizon, in
order to begin to appreciate the class struggles of today, even from a
capitalist perspective. But the charge of Eurocentricism is a bit too
general. What can better account for Negri's methodological oblivion of the
planetary proletariat is his adherence to one of the axioms of the
Marxist-Leninism: the revolutionary subject in any era is synthesized from
the most "productive" elements of the class. It is true that Negri has
nothing but scorn for the metaphysics of dialectical materialism and for the
history of "real socialism," but on the choice of the revolutionary subject
he is Leninist to the core. Negri makes so much of computer programmers and
their ilk because of their purported productivity. Since the General
Intelligence is productive, then these intellectual workers are its ideal
(and hence revolutionary) representatives, even though they have not yet
launched a concrete struggle against capitalist accumulation qua "social
workers" or "cyborgs." But this methodological identity between revolution
and production has proven false time and again in history. Leninists and
Leninist parties in the past have often paid for this mistake with their
lives. Mao's political development clearly shows that it took the massacre
of Communist workers in the cities and many near mortal experiences in the
countryside before he recognized that the Taoist principle--the seemingly
weakest and least productive can be the most powerful in a struggle--was
more accurate than the Leninist. Negri's choice of revolutionary subject in
this period--the masters of the ethereal machines--is as questionable as the
industrial worker bias of Leninists in the past. Indeed, the failure of The
Labor of Dionysius which was published in the US 1994 to address the
revolutionary struggles of the indigenous peoples of the planet, especially
the Zapatistas in Mexico, is a definite sign that Negri's revolutionary
geography needs expansion.


Negri and Rifkin are major participants in the "end of work" discourse of
the 1990s, although they occupy two ends of the rhetorical spectrum. Rifkin
is empirical and pessimistic in his assessment of the "end of work" while
Negri is aprioristic and optimistic. However, both seem to invoke
technological determinism by claiming that there is only one way for
capitalism to develop. They, and most others who operate this discourse,
forget that capitalism is constrained (and protected) by proportionalities
and contradictory tendencies. The system is not going to go out of business
through the simple-minded addition of more high-tech machines, techniques,
and workers come what may, for Marx's ironic dictum: "The real barrier of
capitalist production is capital itself" (Marx 1909: 293), is truer than
ever. It might be an old and miserable truth, but still to this day profit,
interest, wages and labor in certain proportions are particular, but
necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism. Capital cannot will
itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of
existence. Rifkin tries to trick the system into believing that a viable way
out of the unemployment crises he foresees is to abandon profit creating
sectors of the economy. He reassuringly says that all will be well if the
capitalists are in control of automated agriculture, manufacturing, and
service industries and nearly everyone else is working in a non-profit third
sector which makes no claim on hegemony. But this scenario can hardly to
pass the eagle eyes of the capitalist press much less those of the boardroom
without ridicule. So it cannot succeed. Negri tries philosophical cursing
instead. He calls late 20th century capitalism "merely an apparatus of
capture, a phantasm, an idol" ontologically (Hardt and Negri 1994: 282). I
appreciate Negri's desire to put a curse on this system of decimation,
humiliation and misery, but I question his "merely." As the highest organs
of capitalist intelligence (like the Ford Foundation) have shown, capital is
as impervious to these ontological curses as the conquistadors were to the
theological curses of the Aztec priests. Indeed, capital revels in its
phantom-like character. Its main concern is with the duration of the
phantasm, not its ontological status. The "end of work" literature of the
1990s, therefore, is not only theoretically and empirically disconfirmed. It
also creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both
friend and foe that, behind everyone's back, capitalism has ended. It motto
is not the Third International's "Don't worry, capital will collapse by
itself sooner or later;" rather it is, "Capitalism has always already ended
at the high-tech end of the system, just wake up to it." But such an
anti-capitalist version of Nietzsche's motto "God is dead" is hardly
inspiring when millions are still being slaughtered in the many names of
both God and Capital.

Spring 1998


This "perverse" definition is reminiscent of Cantor's diagonal method that
has proven so fruitful in mathematical research in this century. The trick
of this method is to assume that there is a list that exhausts all items of
a particular class K and then to define a member of K that is not on the
list by using special properties of the list itself.
For example, in much of the current discussion of free trade, a low wage
level is considered by many to be a Ricardian "comparative advantage." But
such a reading is a distortion of Ricardo's views and an invitation to
justify repressing workers' struggles. The sources of comparative advantage
for Ricardo are quasi-permanent features of the physical and cultural
environment of a country, not economic variables like wages, profits or
This is not the place to discuss Negri political and juridical life since
the 1970s. For more of this see Yann Moulier's Introduction to The Politics
of Subversion (Negri 1989). He volunterally returned to from exile in France
in July 1997 and is now in Rabbi Prison (Rome). There is an international
campaign demanding his release.
Negri often describes the work of the social worker cyborg as "immaterial."
But an analysis of Turing machine theory shows that there is no fundamental
difference between what is standardly called material labor (e.g., weaving
or digging) and immaterial labor (e.g., constructing a software program).
Consequently, one must look to other aspects of the labor situation to
locate its value creating properties (Caffentzis 1997).


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