Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Affective Composition of Labor

Of all the various concepts, innovations, and interventions of “autonomist Marxism,” perhaps the most well known is the so-called autonomist hypothesis. This idea, first developed by Mario Tronti, and publicized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, fundamentally argued that resistance precedes and prefigures exploitation. The appeal of this hypothesis almost goes without saying, it makes it possible to see not capital, or Empire, everywhere, to see living labor and the multitude in place of exploitation and domination. However, its limitations are just as clear, it is too easy to simply identify this “hypothesis” with an unproblematic assertion of the ubiquity of resistance, of an insurrection that it is all the more impotent as it is everywhere. Thus, as something of an alternative, I propose that we take a different concept as our starting point, one that is perhaps more analytical, more of a conceptual problem than a political assertion. This concept is “class composition,” which can be broadly defined as an examination of the social, technological, and political composition of class, the structure of work, its relations of command and hierarchy, as well as the political articulation of the class, its cohesion and antagonism. 

Class composition is not opposed to the so-called autonomist hypothesis. In fact it could be argued that it is only through the latter that the former becomes possible. It is only be recognizing he dynamics of resistance that it becomes possible to see the political composition, to recognize the struggle behind every change of the elements that compose class. This is the interpretation that can be traced back to at least Marx’s Capital, in which technological developments, such as the introduction of machinery, can be understood to be a response to struggle and resistance. As Marx writes, “It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working class revolt.” Class composition makes it possible to understand the autonomist hypothesis as something other than a great battle, or a Manichean dualism. Working class struggle reshapes the social and technological conditions of labor, which in turn becomes the source of new conflict. As Antonio Negri writes, “Every constitution of a new structure is the constitution of antagonism.” The autonomist hypothesis of resistance is not opposed to composition as event to structure, but necessarily animates and shapes it. 

Most importantly class composition makes it possible to recast the philosophical and political shifts of post-autonomist thought, shifts which themselves are the effects of, and conditions for seeing, transformations of labor and society. These shifts can be best characterized, or explored, through the addition of subjectivity, in terms of affects, desire, and knowledge to the analysis of composition. Thus, to focus on one of these, we could say that post-autonomist thought could be characterized through the addition of the “affective composition” of labor to its political, social, and technical composition. The  affective composition of labor is distinct from "affective labor." The term “affective labor” is used by Hardt and Negri (among others) to describe a particular subset of the larger field of “immaterial labor,” it describes labor that produces emotional states, care, wellness, desire, etc.: it is labor that produces subjectivity, in terms of its most basic conditions of existence through the work of care, and in terms of the feeling and sense of self. Moreover, the history of feminist writing on “care work,” reminds us that such work, especially as it performed in day care centers and nursing homes, is devalued because it is seen as natural attribute of being female, as something given rather than learned. Affective labor plunges us into the unstable border between reproduction and production, subjectivity and the conditions that produce it. 

However, by the affective composition of labor I mean something broader than “affective labor,” something that can be analyzed in any labor process, no matter what it produces. The affective composition of labor refers to the way in which all labor is situated within the production and reproduction of affects and desires. Thus, it is close to what Paolo Virno refers to as the “emotional tonality” of a given historical moment. As Virno argues, defining, the need for the theorization of this connection: “What is involved here is the conceptualization of the field of immediate coincidence between production and ethics, structure and superstructure, between the revolution of labour process and the revolution of sentiments, between technology and emotional tonality, between material development and culture.” This tonality can only be grasped through class composition, through the technological, political, and social conditions of labor: it is one of the effects of this composition, but also one of its conditions, a crucial aspect of its reproduction. Virno’s argument is that it is through this affective tonality that much of resistance and subjection is produced, it is on this quotidian terrain that class is composed and decomposed. Virno’s analysis is oriented towards the current conjuncture, a conjuncture which is defined by both the increased sense of precariousness, brought about by contingent and part time work, and the increased role of knowledge and intellect in the production process, these combine to create an affective situation defined by anxiety and cynicism.

My point here is less to focus on Virno’s specific analysis of the conjuncture, but I will return to it, than to develop the general conditions for an analysis of the affective composition of labor. Virno’s analysis offers two major provocations for grasping this composition. First, what he calls “immediate coincidence” can be understood as immanence, or immanent causality, the idea that what appears as an effect of the economy, such as the affective anxiety, has to be thought as a cause, as a condition of its functioning. Second, Virno argues that there are few philosophical precursors that make it possible to grasp this affective composition: affects, or emotions, are generally considered to be a private matter, cut off from changes in the economy or politics. There are exceptions to this, the writings of the young Marx contain a reference to feelings as “ontological affirmations of being,” a point which is perhaps only developed in a few scant references of the power of money to restructure desire and subjectivity. Beyond these suggestions (which unfortunately are never really developed), the primary precursors to thinking affects as constitutive, rather than simply expressive, and as social, rather than individual, are Spinoza and Heidegger. Virno has interesting things to say about Heidegger’s general concept of anxiety, as well as the importance of idle talk and curiosity in a post-fordist economy, but I would leave Heidegger aside to focus on Spinoza. 

Spinoza is not a central figure for Virno, but he is of course central to the recent thought of Negri. Beyond this, Spinoza is a central philosopher for those outside the autonomist tradition from Althusser and Deleuze to contemporary thinkers such as Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton who articulate a Spinozist critique of political economy. Without attempting to survey all of this vast literature, it is possible to isolate several aspects of Spinoza’s thought that make it an indispensable point of reference for a theory of the affective constitution of labor. To start with, we have the conatus, the striving that defines every particular thing. At the level of human life, subjectivity, this conatus is desire, the striving to persevere in one’s being. Desire is thus constructive, constituting a world. While it might seem that this desire is radically atomistic, an interest to preserve one’s being. Spinoza subverts this now familiar figure of interest that defines everything from Hobbes to neoliberal economics. First, he removes any finalism, any pregiven good, even self-preservation from this striving, it is without telos. As Spinoza writes, “it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, and desire it.” Desire is conditioned, shaped by the affects, images, and concept we have of things. These affects, starting with joy and sadness, the increase and decrease of my power to act, are necessarily relational, love and hate, the things that I strive towards and against, are themselves determined by other relations and histories. At the core of desire, of my striving, is nothing other than my relation with others: all individuation is transindividual. Put differently, that which individuates me, my particular striving, exists only in and through the relations that constitute my love and hatred, my hopes and fears. 

If we take these two principles, the constitutive nature of desire and the transindividual conditions of individuation, as our basic orienting ideas, what then does Spinoza’s thought offer for the affective composition of labor? It is worth noting that Spinoza does not have anything like a theory of labor. This limit may also have merit: the lack of a theory of labor in its instrumental or teleological dimension, labor as the work of a subject on an object to realize an end, makes it possible for Spinoza to think a generalized constitutive ontology. As Spinoza states, “Nothing exist from whose nature some effect does not follow,” a general proposition which, once applied to the realm of politics and human history, makes it possible to think the productive nature of the imagination and reason. As Negri writes of the analysis of prophecy, scripture in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, “Imaginative activity reaches the level of an ontological statute, certainly not to confirm the truth of prophecy but to consolidate the truth of the world and the positivity, the productivity, and the sociability of human action.” Imagination constructs the world. In Negri’s reading Spinoza’s lack of a theory of labor makes it possible to view his work as all the more contemporary: it is possible see in Spinoza a kind of precursor to affective labor, to the production of affects by affects, through the various constitutions of associations and connections. Or, as Negri writes in his latest collection of essays on Spinoza, “With Spinoza, forces of production produce the relations of production,” the practice of desire, reason, and imagination, produces the structure of society. 

It is then possible to make Spinoza into a thinker of “affective labor” but what of the affective constitution of labor? First, following the work of Frédéric Lordon and André Orlean, we have to start from the axiom that labor in capitalism is not directly a striving for an object, we are not actively engaged in seeking this or that desired good, but money, the means to acquire any object. Any thought of the affective composition of labor must begin from this initial separation, the separation of the activity, the striving, from its good, from the object. There is thus in capital a tendency towards indifference to the activity itself, the goals of the particular activity are stripped of their meaning, their particular orientations of good and bad, perfect and imperfect. (It is important to remember that as much as Spinoza stripped these terms of any intrinsic transcendental meaning, he does relate them back to practice, to projects as their only possible ground). As much as we might affectively attach ourselves to any particular job, any particular task, developing our potential and relations, becoming the cause of our joy this is secondary to the desire for money. Money is a common affect, a sort of general equivalent of all of the possible joys, loves, and desires. There is thus an affective split at the core of the labor process, between the love of my own activity and its results. Second, the love that attaches itself to money is amplified by the uncertainty of capitalist life. Whatever I do only has value insofar as it makes possible money, a condition that changes with the vicissitudes of cooperation and technological development. This uncertainty, or precarity, which despite the current vogue of the term has always been a part of capitalism, increases the desire for money, a desire based on its quasi-eternal status as an object of desire. Time, or the imagination of the uncertainties of time, plays a crucial role in Spinoza’s Ethics: it is my tendency to prefer a current good to an uncertain future one that explains mankind’s tendency to “see the better but do the worse.” The quasi-eternity of money, of the general equivalent, stems from the fact that it remains certain as an object of desire, including the desires of others, even as other things, including my own activity, my labor, remain uncertain. The affective composition of labor is how, at a given moment in time, these two poles are valued or devalued, how much joy is sought in the activity of labor itself, or how much is found in sought in money. 

This affective split between the activity and the object of that activity, between labor and money, is a generic condition of labor under capitalism, which is itself subject to historical transformation. The history of capitalism, from Fordism with its increased Taylorization and fragmentation of the labor process and the “five dollar day,” to the consumer society, has been one of developing the affective attachments of money, over and above the attachments and investments in labor. Which is to say the “exchange” of labor for money, is itself made possible by an affective economy in which labor, as a task with its own joys, power, and potential is devalued in the face of money. We might call this an affective economy of hope. The sadness, the decrease of my power, that I endure in the present is made possible by the idea of future pleasure, what I could buy. Its corollary, and opposite, is an affective economy of fear, of austerity, precarity, and insecurity. Money is central in this economy as well, but it is not the money of desire, of consumer goods, vacations, and advertising fantasies, but money as the only possibility of security, of food and shelter in an uncertain world. These are the two extreme cases, but for Spinoza fear can never be separated from hope and vice versa. In each case living labor, which is not just work, but one’s life and activity, is devalued, seen as something that only has value only insofar as it is exchanged. There is a difference on this pole as well, an affective difference between the hours and toil that are devalued as a means to some desired object, and the devaluation of one’s activity in the face of uncertainty. As Ivor Southwood and others have argued, the often touted flexibility is often nothing more than utter passivity in the face of market demands: it is a absolute indifference to the content of work, to its tasks, social relations etc., but a commitment to its form, to dedication, availability, etc. To sum up all too quickly, we could say that the current conjuncture, the combination of neoliberalism and austerity is one in which the conditions of fear, job insecurity, etc., are revalorized through a whole discourse and imaginary onto objects of desire: insecurity is sold as freedom and lack of bonds and connections are sold as independence. 

The affective composition of labor is the way in which every labor condition, every particular conjuncture in the mode of production, involves a production and a reproduction of hope, fear, joy, and sadness, distributed not just across the activity, and its monetary reward, as I have outlined here, but also across the social relations, the joys of comraderie and cooperation, and political relations, the sadness and envy of hierarchy. As such it is also transformed by the political and technological transformations examined in (classical) class composition. A thorough investigation would examine the intersections of this affective composition with the other dimensions, including “affective labor.” In closing, however, I intend to ask one last lingering question. This question lingers because both of the “compositions” I have outlined here, the one dominated by hope, the hope of consumer goods, and the other dominated by fear, have as their common denominator a lack of revolutionary desire, they are each defined by an acceptance of the given labor practices, the time of work and life, as something which exists only to be exchanged. In each case money dominates as the object of hope or fear (but often a combination of the two). So the question remains as to how it could be possible to constitute a revolutionary affective composition, one in which hope is not directed to money but to an alternate future, where fear, the insecurity of the present, makes possible something other than docility? The beginning of a response can be found in recognizing the transindividuality in each of the poles of the affective composition, that of both labor and money. This is obvious in the first case, that of labor, which has an irreducible (and perhaps even increasing) social dimension, but it is no less true of money, which is as Marx argued, the alienated social ability of mankind. When I desire money my desire is also the desire for not only what others desire, as a communication of the affects, it is also a desire to coordinate my actions with that of others, a desire for autonomy, but one that it is always already thwarted by the disorder of capitalist society. Money is an inadequate idea of the fundamental idea that nothing is more useful to man than man. Thus, transforming the affective composition of labor entails transforming the sociality of labor. This may seem circular in which passivity breeds passivity, and isolation breeds isolation, but the way out of this circle, the condition for its rupture, lies in the affects themselves, in the hopes and fears the condition our daily existence. If we can understand these affects, and communicate this understanding, see not just the hope but the fear that underlies money, we can be brought to the point of transforming them as well. 


  1. Your suggestion to reconsider/reevaluate class composition here is interesting... I am wondering where you locate certain claims by Tiqqun: "The notion of class is only good for holding like a little bedpan the neuroses, separation, and perpetual recrimination in which THEY have taken such morbid delight in France, in every segment of society, for such a long time."

    Behind this claim seems to be a more fundamental argument that partisanship, thought as a kind of friend/enemy relation, is an inadequate means of thinking partisanship and resistance. Where class composition is reconsidered, how is partisanship reconsidered?

    I guess I am wondering if you locate Tiqqun as a collective that merely thinks the ubiquity of Empire and the ubiquity of resistance, thus falling into the impotence you speak of in the opening paragraph.

  2. I think that my emphasis here is more on composition than class, but that does leave me open to the second problem, that of partisanship.

    It is difficult to think the latter outside of the "in itself/for itself relation," the objective determinations and subjective will, which seems to be wholly inadequate.

  3. This is an excellent piece, thanks. I wonder to what extent does English cultural marxism converge with Italian autonomist marxism on the point about affective composition. Working within a Gramscian framework and, specifically, 'historical blocs', Raymond Williams uses the category of "structures of feeling" to describe this affective historical dimension.

  4. I really want to reexamine William's structure of feeling. I see many writers in the field of affects, most recently Shaviro in Post-Cinematic Affect, reference the concept, as something which affect is analogous to, without examining it.