I think that Hardt/Negri are right when they suggest that a contemporary analysis of “the organic composition of capital” will involve great attention, not just to what capitalist corporations do internally, but to the “externalities” that greatly affect “the increase and decrease of value” (Commonwealth 141). But there is rather a too easy slide from this to the claim that “capital is increasingly external to the productive process and the generation of wealth. In other words, biopolitical labor is increasingly autonomous” (141). These two statements are not equivalent. The first one means that what is being expropriated from workers is not just their eight hours a day of labor power, but their entire body and soul, with all the knowledges and practices that are parts of the common lifeworld that informs them, and that they inherit. In this sense, it is perfectly true that predatory capital is extorting wealth today to an enormous extent through continuing “primitive accumulation”, and through what might be considered a sort of “ground-rent” on what was up till recently the commons,or general culture, until it was appropriated in the form of “intellectual property.” But — where Hardt/Negri say that “the exploitation of labor-power should be understood in terms of not profit but capitalist rent” (141), they really should have said “as well as” rather than “not… but.”

Hardt/Negri then make a sort of rhetorical slide when they move from the (correct) claim that capital is increasingly exploiting the entire life-world of the multitude, to the (highly dubious) claim that, therefore: “rather than an organ functioning within the capitalist body, biopolitical labor-power is becoming more and more autonomous, with capital simply hovering over it parasitically with its disciplinary regimes, apparatuses of capture, mechanisms of expropriation, financial networks, and the like” (142). The problem here is that capital has always been “parasitic” in this sense. Industrial production was/is no more “organic” than the current regime of immaterial production. (That is, unless you get rid of the old-fashioned, idealistic notion of what is “organic”, and understand that the relationship of parasite to host is itself entirely something “organic”). It is not as if workers in call centers and workers hired through temp agencies somehow have more autonomous control over what they are doing than workers on a factory assembly line. What we are still seeing is the expropriation of relative surplus-value.

The ambiguity here relates especially to the idea of the “real subsumption” of labor under capital. I think that Hardt/Negri are right to see the intensifying movement from merely formal subsumption to real subsumption as a characteristic of the current order. I agree entirely with them that today “capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society as a whole or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to work in biopolitical production and what is produced” (142). But I cannot for the life of me see how this can be inverted into the assertion that, therefore, “capital is increasingly external and has an ever less functional role in the production process” (142). (“Functional” is a strange word here. Capital is always dysfunctional in the sense that, as Marx often says, it introduces faux frais into the process of social reproduction. But it is highly functional in the sense that it coercively organizes production to the end of more intensive expropriation — I am inclined to agree with Max Weber that the whole point of capitalism, in contrast to earlier modes of expropriation, is that it “rationally” organizes its extortion). With real subsumption, the coercive organization of all life by capital for the purpose of increased expropriation is, if anything, intensifed beyond what it ever was in the time of merely formal subsumption.

Hardt/Negri can thus be denounced as guilty of the old Marxist sin of  “economism”, to the extent that they seem to argue that the advance of capitalist exploitation, in itself, somehow objectively leads to a situation in which the multitude (proletariat) becomes autonomous and is able to take the production and reproduction of life into its own hands. They even say that “the exercise of capitalist control is increasingly becoming a fetter to the productivity of biopolitical labor” (143); this is just a new formulation of the old idea, from the earlier Marx, that capitalism is doomed to collapse because the relations of production turn into fetters on the development of the forces of production. This is a position that Marx himself later nuances and problematizes greatly, and perhaps rejects entirely.

I think that Hardt/Negri’s claims that the current form of capitalist control interfere with productivity needs to be modified. They identify three trends that are needed in order for capitalism to control production, but that in fact limit production (145ff): destroying and appropriating the common fetters or reduces production, as does “precarization” of labor, and as does the enforcement of borders and the limitation of labor mobility. I am not convinced that these trends really cripple productivity in the way that Hardt/Negri say; rather, they all work to insure profits by transforming abundance into scarcity. Such measures do indeed lead to crises, as has been the case for the entire history of capitalism; but do such crises actually herald the end of capitalism?

I think not. Indeed, Hardt/Negri themselves quite accurately note that the inevitable, and repeated, economic crises of capitalism do not lead to collapse, but rather offer opportunities for capital to reorganize itself on a more intensive basis: “capital works by breaking down, or, rather, through creative destruction achieved by crises. In contemporary neoliberal economic regimes, in fact, crisis and disaster have become ever more important as levers to privatize public goods and put in place new mechanisms for capitalist accumulation” (143). It is extremely odd, therefore, that in the same paragraph where they observe this, they also argue that “subjective” crises, as opposed to “objective” ones, do indeed threaten the survival of capitalism by means of the contradiction between relations and forces of production. In Hardt/Negri’s own context, this distinction makes no sense. For all that they proclaim their allegiance to a Deleuzian affirmationism rather than to the old Hegelian vision of “the negation of the negation,” Hardt/Negri are in fact relying on a facile dialectical reversal in the bad old Hegelian manner.

“Economism”, in the Marxist tradition, has generally meant a belief in the inevitability of the fall of capitalism, and the birth of socialism, through objective economic laws alone. And I do think that Hardt/Negri can be charged with this, for all their claims to be radically rewriting Marx in accordance with the changed configuration of capitalism we face today. At the same time, I think that Hardt/Negri are right in their attention to economic processes, or to the accumulation of capital; in contrast to the way that Badiou, for instance, entirely dismisses such concerns, and turns instead to a romantic and mystical hyper-voluntarism. I think that Hardt/Negri are in fact at their best and most helpful when they discuss the “metamorphoses of the composition of capital” (Commonwealth 131-149); if only we leave out that twist of dialectical reversal at the end by which they endeavor to rescue things.

What I propose, therefore, is indeed a renewed “economism” — only without the sense of historical inevitability tacked on at the end. I haven’t really seen any arguments about agency, or about organization, that are more than futile compensatory fantasies. I think economism is of value, to the extent that at least it lets us see clearly what is going on, what the situation is, in which we are enmeshed. Economism would correspond, therefore, to Jameson’s famous call for a “cognitive mapping” of the world system of capital. It is necessary in order to account for the ascendency of finance capital in the present moment. It would let us better understand what has happened as the latest crisis has once again allowed for the reorganization and further consolidation of capital, rather than leading to even minimal changes in its oppressive functioning.

The positive functioning of “economism” is all rather vague for the moment — let’s just say it is something I am starting to explore and work on. I think that the whole subjective/objective opposition, which Hardt/Negri retain as a legacy of Hegelianism, needs to be questioned in the light of speculative realism’s attack on correlationism. The point would not be to get rid of the strong sense that economic arrangements are matters of concern for human beings in particular, but to understand the workings of such arrangements in a different way. I do not think that Marxist capital logic needs to be confined to the Hegelian framework, even if this framework is where he started out from. (Apologies for the vagueness of these final propositions; I am only at the beginning of thinking about them. Stay tuned).

9 Responses to “Economism”

  1. kvond says:

    PT: ” I agree entirely with them that today “capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society as a whole or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to work in biopolitical production and what is produced” (142). But I cannot for the life of me see how this can be inverted into the assertion that, therefore, “capital is increasingly external and has an ever less functional role in the production process” (142)”

    Kvond: Has Capital “subsumed” the life-force productions of this blog, or is it (increasingly) “external” to them?

    I would suggest the latter, but I doubt this leads to some kind of Socialism.

  2. Nate says:

    hi Steve,

    Great post. I’m only 30 pages into Commonwealth, finding it slow going and I have a lot else on my plate.

    This is probably me being predictable, but – “what is being expropriated from workers is not just their eight hours a day of labor power, but their entire body and soul, with all the knowledges and practices that are parts of the common lifeworld that informs them, and that they inherit” is a statement true of capitalism as such, not of any era of capitalism. (This is also implied in your point about the importance of primitive accumulation today.) The *exploitation* of specific elements of the ensemble you (and Hardt and Negri) name has changed in some ways, but there are precedents for much of those too (think for example of Marx’s remarks in passing here and there about exploited writers and exploited clowns).

    That said, I agree about HN conflating the claims you mention, and your criticisms of the slide from “immaterial labor” to “autonomous labor.”

    Re: subsumption, I’m working on a paper on Negri’s use of that term, starting with a hopefully not-too-pedantic argument on marxological grounds then hopefully digging in to some historical examples. The gist is that I just don’t think real subsumption makes much sense as an epoch, and that that’s a significant departure from Marx’s use of the term. (I also wonder, when was capitalism not biopolitical or less biopolitical? [one can’t say “biopolitical now” or “more biopolitical” without implying those terms]; seems to me that “differently biopolitical” is a better way to get at the issues involved.)

    My minor gripes aside, I think you hit the nail squarely on the head by calling HN economistic, and it’s a startlingly bad old marxist mistake, really jarring given their rush to rethink so much and embrace so many claims to seismic shifts in both objective conditions and theoretical traditions. I’ve recently become convinced that one of the good old marxist discussion topics that gets liquidated by this move is the issue of organization.

    It seems to me that part of the problem with this economism is its lack of clarity about the terms/ideas of wealth and production – “capitalism is a block on wealth!” is true in one sense, and false in another, likewise with “capitalism wastes production!” — capitalism is about the production of wealth qua value, not qua use values. There’s little waste of the former, massive waste of the latter. I think the illusion of internal contradiction that dooms capitalism is tied to not making these distinctions clear enough.

    I’m interested to see your new but different economism shakes out. I rather like what I can tell of the ‘economism’ that Lenin criticizes (I can’t remember where), which struck me as being largely a matter of emphasizing the importance of waged workplaces.


  3. Mark Crosby says:

    Yes, Stephen, this —
    “But – where Hardt/Negri say that ‘the exploitation of labor-power should be understood in terms of not profit but capitalist rent’ (141), they really should have said ‘as well as’ rather than ‘not… but.’ … [might be redeemed] if only we leave out that twist of dialectical reversal at the end by which they endeavor to rescue things”
    — is exactly what I just called “Negative Logic”, the “trademark of Structuralism”, over at LARVAL SUBJECTS, on “Why Does Change Take Place?” It is endemic to THE ITALIAN DIFFERENCE; but, more specifically, to theorists of Negativity like Agamben, Nancy, and Esposito.. Thanks for the affirmation of my naive suspicions.. Mark

  4. Erik says:

    Labor becoming “autonomous” has alot to do with the automaticness of technologies. There was a period where civilization started to exponentiate, several times, and that required strict ruling over their domains in a personal, direct communicative sense. The prerequisites for this were already in place from the solidifying realm of centralized egypt, christianity, feudalism, triangulated democracy, idealism and so on. These types of idioms made it possible to have the authority of non-autonomous structures. It was the precursor that was necessary to kind of culminate a canon that leaves all kinds of individuated shrapnel. Though the fragments are alienated; the standing figures of authority are a kind of holographic endpoint.

    Technological man seeks to accomplish this stability “through a complete ordering of all beings, in the sense of a systematic securing of stockpiles, by means of which [its] establishment in the stability of certainty is to be completed.” Thus the world is ceaselessly objectified, qualified, quantified, and systematized–in essence, reduced to the level of stock, or resource. What cannot be objectified cannot be put to use, and what cannot be put to use is useless, and thus redundant. Man himself and every aspect of human culture is transformed into a stockpile which, psychologically reckoned, is incorporated into the working process of the will-to-will…The fact that…mankind has become a “human resource,” ranked behind natural resources and raw materials…is grounded in the unconditioned character of objectification itself, which must bring every stockpile, no matter what its nature, into its own possession and must secure this possession. – Heidegger

  5. Kirby Olson says:

    The post makes me interested more than ever in the Hardt/Negri position on sports. Sports in capitalist societies are zero-sum, and there is a stockpiling of goals, which seems to cleverly mimic the “will-to-will” that is briefly mentioned at the end wrt Heidegger.

    Heidegger I believe would have been big on sports, but I don’t know if he writes about them often from the viewpoint of a fan. The 1936 Olympics were apparently a fairly big problem for the Hitleristicals.

    But sports were always a big concern for the Marxists. Even chess was considered a sign of the ascendancy of totalitarian man.

    Hardt’s opposition to the lacrosse team at Duke may come out of his disgust for competition in general, but would he want all sports removed, and banned in permanancy, with death penalties for anyone who competes in sports or who in any way wants to see competition between people instead of total cooperation with the public authority?

    The role of professional sports players as “laborers” did in fact exist over the last century — with myriad numbers — boxers, lacrosse players, water polo, football, soccer, basketball, there are even professional badminton players, and curlers. Now increasingly there are professional women sports players, too. A professional women’s basketball league, boxers, mud wrestlers, and of course, tennis players — especially those whose parents escaped from the communist countries in order to go pro in the capitalistical west.

    Ted Williams’ head is cryogenically preserved in a laboratory in California against his will. He wanted to be cremated and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean.

  6. Kirby Olson says:

    Oh wait, the head is being kept in Arizona. This was in the NY Daily News, Friday morning’s edition, p. 7.

  7. Kirby Olson says:

    Out of curiosity I wonder if any English professors have actually read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. It seems that this Marx guy is very hip reading, but I wonder if anybody reads Smith. I know I haven’t.

    You see lots and lots of references to Marx in English professors’ writing. But I almost never see a reference to Adam Smith.

    Would any English professor be caught dead reading Adam Smith? I know that I would not want that. It would be the shame of my life! It just isn’t hip.

  8. […] a recent post, Steve Shaviro suggests that Hardt and Negri are economistic. I agree. In a recent piece, […]

  9. […] 2 Ekonomismista ks. Erityisesti Hardtiin keskittyvästä commonsien erityisyyden kritiikistä ks. […]

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