Friday 6 January 2023

The Class Struggle Vs Cognitive Capitalism

Writing on a collection of Toni Negri's writing is not the easiest. His From the Factory to the Metropolis is a selection of writing from the mid-1990s to the date of publication (2018), working through his arguments about the transformation of capitalism and class and, with his positions well-established and well known, thinking about how we might proceed strategically on the basis of these insights.

Recapping the ideas most associated with Negri, he argues that class politics as traditionally defined by the left is obsolete. It's not that class doesn't matter, it's that the conceptual apparatus of the centre and far left are not up to scratch. This is based on a privileging of the industrial worker: someone who works primarily with their hands, works for a set number of hours per week under a boss's direction, and this typically occurs in a workplace with hundreds if not thousands of others doing roughly equivalent tasks. This conception of work leads to certain assumptions about workers' consciousness of their work, which include solidarity based on shared characteristics and a spontaneous trade unionist outlook. This idea of how the wage labourer looked dominated labour movement politics from the 1920s up to the early 1980s, and even though workers of this kind are now a minority, at least in the West, left wing assumptions about the working class remain conditioned by this imaginary figure.

For Negri, the industrial worker has given way to the social, or socialised worker. Instead of mobilising the physical body to produce x quantity of goods, and with it surplus labour and surplus value, capital accumulation is increasingly dependent on intellectuality (knowledge) and sociability (service). What is produced is less a tangible thing and something, from an economic standpoint, more abstract: social relationships, care, information, and subjectivities. As such, much of this is directly necessary for the social reproduction of capital itself. For Negri, this marks a transition in capitalism from the exploitation of masses of (individual) bodies to that of the collective output of our social activity. Whereas the industrial workplace provided the tools and sites of production, and the training necessary to set them into motion to produce something, capital is now dependent on our cognitive and social capacities. "Training" for retail jobs, for example, are little more than company orientations around "mission" and procedures, and a reminder to be nice to customers. In so doing, capital here is dependent on a life time of competencies learned by the employee that enables them to do their job. A company can't teach empathy, persuasion, politesse. This is acquired through the social world. Therefore the "tools" of the socialised worker, the "fixed capital" of their immaterial labour is beyond capital. It is part of their brains, their ontology as social beings. Capital can only make use of them through (permutations of) the wage relation. They cannot be owned in the way an assembly line in the employer's property.

Capital has therefore had to evolve new relationships of exploitation to valorise its investments - what Negri, among others, refers to as apparatuses of capture. This can take a variety of forms from the "classical" pattern of surplus extraction, whereby a worker's wage or salary is less than the value of the intangible good produced. For example, entertainment products backed by elaborate intellectual property rights and rental models, and more commonly contracts with the state to produce a defined public service, such as bidding for medical or care services, are variations on this model. Other workers are front end representatives used to sell products - they are crucial for the valorisation process. There are workers engaged in social reproductive work, such as stay-at-home mums and dads, teachers, carers, medical professionals, work that produces not just workers but social subjectivities capital relies on. And then we have the direct capture of social interaction, most associated with social media platforms whereby one's content is mined, stripped down to packets of data and then sold on for targeted advertising. It's also no coincidence for Negri that the age of capture is simultaneously the age of financialisation, and therefore debt, and of rent.

As capital no longer has as much a handle on the forces of production and has to rely on capture, education and the moulding of institutions assumes greater importance. Not because they brainwash those who pass through them, as per crude renderings of ideological state apparatus theory or advocates of false consciousness. But because of the forms of behaviour they respond to, inculcated over lifetimes of authority relationships, carrot and stick discipline. In Britain, for example, state institutions were specifically designed to respond to and encourage consumer-type behaviour, which did more to generate conformist behaviours than the collective output of the right wing press at its height. In his The Order of Things, Michel Foucault talked about the invention of 'man' as the subject of Western thought, and how it was coming to an end. Its replacement was a world of shopkeepers, of self-activating entrepreneurs leveraging the social, cultural, and economic capital to enrich themselves. In the context of Negri's argument, the neoliberal mould is the mode of being most consistent with capital-as-capture.

The class at the receiving end of these new patterns of exploitation are the multitude. As Michael Hardt explains, this was his and Negri's attempt to capture everyone who capital exploits. This ranges from the "classical" worker to real and bogus self-employment, social security dependents, to stay-at-home partners and pensioners - basically everyone who isn't a capitalist. And often, they are subject to overlapping forms of capitalist exploitation. A mid-career marketing worker might, for example, have their knowledge exploited by their employer, their salary assailed by landlords and creditors, and their online movements captured, divided, and sold on. Everyone is subject to these forms of exploitation to greater or less degrees, and because what is exploited are the properties of what Marx would have called our species being, our sociability, despite the differences among the multitude (what Negri refers to as singularities) there are spontaneous affinities with potentials for solidarity. Our society, our social production and competencies are what we hold in common. And it's this exploitation of the social commons that capitalism increasingly depends on.

This is where the metropolis emerges as strategically important. The majority of humanity now resides in or are dependent on urban centres. They are crucial for exploitation because this is where most social production takes place. It is the residence of the common. It is the place of value creation and capture, of exploitation and the struggle over exploitation. The coming and becoming of the metropolis is also an irreversible process. Capital cannot undo it, it has no choice but to cope and try and shape the concentration of the common to its own ends. The city then embodies all the contradictions and geographies of global capital, with the partition and stratification of space, of attempts to appear alluring to capital and visitors, and models its physical infrastructure around revenue generation (exploitation), enclosure of the social commons, and exclusions. The metropolis for Negri is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial worker.

The metropolis, however, is not a bounded entity hemmed in by the green belt. The home is crucially important. The connectivity of our devices ensures we are metropolitan, even if home is in the middle of nowhere. The home, which was previously a relatively enclosed site of social production is now embedded in chains of connectivity. The social cooperation necessary for the production and elaboration of the common inevitably means apparatuses of capture are not far behind. Discussing homeworking a few years before the pandemic arrived, Negri suggests the movement of work out of the place of employment is indicative of what one would expect given the centrality of the metropolis to the multitude, and therefore to surplus extraction. What is found at the home is the self-motivated employee. The disciplinary checks of the Fordist workplace gave way to modulations of control. And the tendency here is, especially if the work is precarious and low paid, toward an intensification of exploitation.

Where does this leave resistance? For Negri, capitalist exploitation - its apparatuses of capture - have evolved in the face of resistance. The move to capture is purposely designed to appear natural and, in many ways, as unobtrusive as possible. How many people using Facebook are aware of how it makes money from their travels around the platform? But ultimately, exploitation undermines the social production it depends on. Using people's intellectual and social capacities is a wearing experience, often resulting in dialling it in, burnout, and mental illness. The urban explosion and waves of colonisation of the metropolis by capital sees the increasing penetration of communities by rent, and with its tendency to go up there's always the danger of pricing people out of metropolitan sites of social production. How Airbnb has moved into and ended up destroying communities previously at the centre of tourist traps is a case in point. Resistance then is a matter of throwing off these forms of capture and deepening the connections between the singularities of the multitude. This is what class struggle looks like now. It's our objective to let the properties of cognitive labour mature, for the common not to just be the site of social production but for it to become a political subject conscious of its affinities and constitutive character. Because, historically, the dominance of the immaterial labour and the socialised worker represents an opportunity. In the history of capitalism, capital has never been so dependent on its subaltern class. The multitude doesn't only have the bodies, but it has the intellectual power to organise production. Capital is growing inessential to the production process, and capture demonstrates its trajectory toward parasitism. Therefore, for the multitude to liberate itself and the common it needs to develop its own intellectual weaponry for analysing the state of play, it has to build its own means of communication outside bourgeois media and social media platforms, and requires its own political organisations. These should also be multiple - not a single political party - and become centres of constituent power and class consciousness.

One kind of struggle Negri raises is the abstract strike, but this depends on the answers to two questions. Can labour still disrupt the process of valorisation? And with capital mining so many aspects of the common, how can its independence of action be asserted? The withdrawal of labour retains its capacity to disrupt, as the recent nurses' and rail workers' strikes demonstrate. But under cognitive capitalism they also need to build outwards and involve service users. I.e. The wider basis of this particular section of social production. The second involves building autonomy from consumption. The strike here involves building mutual aid, cooperative, and not-for-profit production with its own independent economy of desire. As Negri puts it, this twin approach puts us on the path to the emancipation of labour and, crucially, the emancipation from labour.

Again, in his interview to mark 20 years since the publication of Empire, Hardt argued that what he and Negri did in the six works they've written together is condense the ideas and thinking of other militants engaged in struggle. From Factory to the Metropolis is very much the same. Here, Negri has restated the reconfiguration of class, the new patterns of exploitation, but crucially the new powers and potentials the dependency capital has for the struggle. The importance of the common, the affinities of the common, and a politics that looks at extending the common is reflected in the array of struggles, sometimes apparently disconnected, that beset capitalism in its cognitive phase. But as, effectively a translator of struggle into theoretical and philosophical terms Negri merely reports. The demands he's put forward in the past, such as around the basic income, are consistent with a perspective that wants to maximise the autonomy of the common to its breaking point with capital. But where more practical, concrete steps are concerned, there is no road map to revolution here. The way forward can only be determined by the multitude as it struggles, learns, and researches its process of becoming, of recognising itself as a potential hemmed in by capital, but one that can make itself free.

No comments: