Thursday, August 09, 2018

Conscious Organs: Toward an Anthropology of Labor Power

Presented in Rome in May 2018
Conference Draft 

Buried in the back of Volume Three of Capital, Marx puts forward a thesis of determination that is different from the familiar assertion of a base. As In Volume Marx writes, 

It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of production to the immediate producers—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of the state in each case. 

The determining instance is not, as is often the case the relationship between forces and relations of production, but more immediate relation of the labor relation. Of course such a statement seems even more questionable than the more structural examination in terms of the basis. How could the labor relation have such an immediate relation to politics, to the entire social order? A key to such an answer can be found in remembering that the labor relation is not just the organization of the production of things, of commodities, but is also the production and reproduction of the capitalist relation itself, which is also to say that it is the production of subjectivity. Or, to push it further, the labor relation is not without its anthropological effects. 

This can be demonstrated by turning to the definition of labor power in Capital. Capital, it is well known begins with an examination of the dual nature of the commodity, as use value and exchange value, a dual nature which in turn stems from the dual nature of labor as abstract and concrete. The fact that labor functions as a corollary to the much more central analysis of the commodity form has often led to its specific tensions and problems being overlooked. Concrete and abstract labor are the conceptual corollaries of exchange value and use value, the first is defined by concrete particularity and the second is defined by abstract equivalence. As much as the former serve as the necessary corollary of the later, in some case as both condition and effect, this should not obscure the particular innovation of the concept of abstract labor, and the specific problems of the conjunction of the abstract and concrete and labor. 

As with the commodity, there is no immediate mystery to concrete labor; it is the specific work of weaving, tailoring, forging, and so on, the specific work of an individual, undertaking a specific task. As much as this concept seems self-evident, like something from a children’s book dividing a village into butcher, baker, candlestick maker, there are a few riddles concealed in this concept. As with use value, the emphasis is on the concrete particularity of labor. My labor, your labor, is then singular, specific, and thus cannot be exchanged with that of others. It is possible to then see concrete labor as something irreducibly specific, as being not only the specific task of a specific individual, but also the singularity of a given moment. As with use value, it is hard to comprehend how something so singular can be exchanged at all; this is of course the riddle that Capital opens with, an attempt to think the ground of that which is taken for granted.[1] Concrete labor is only one side of the labor process, however, it concrete specificity is also confronted with its abstract generality. The idea that labor is the source of value is, after all not Marx’s discovery, it can be found in Smith and Ricardo. What is unique to Marx, or what Marx gives himself credit for is the dual nature of labor, abstract and concrete, which is “the secret to the whole critical conception.”[2] Given that abstract labor is the solution to the riddle of commodity exchange, explaining how it is that commodities of different qualities and uses can be treated as equivalent, the question of its own condition of possibility is particularly important. Marx would seem to offer two reasons. First, Marx overs what could be considered an anthropological ground of abstract labor, arguing that the different forms of labor have as their common denominator the fact that they are produced by different human beings. As Marx writes, 

If we leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefore the useful character of the labor, what remains is its quality of being an expenditure of human labor-power. Tailoring and weaving, although they are qualitatively different productive activities, are both a productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc. and in this sense both human labor. They are merely two different forms of the expenditure of human labor.[3]

This assertion of a natural, human basis of abstract labor, of a communality is contradicted, or at least put in tension with Marx’s assertion that the abstract nature of labor is not anthropological given but a social process. It is the very fact that labor is exchanged, is treated as interchangeable that provides its abstract commonality. Its common basis is not to be found in the recesses of the human body, but in the social relations themselves. As Marx writes in the same section, “However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labor, that the objective character as values is therefore purely social.”[4] Marx seems to vacillate with respect to the ground of abstract labor, placing the abstract quality alternately in the biological identity of humanity as a species or the social relations of a capitalist society. As much as these two definitions are in contradiction they both posit abstract labor as a reality, a real abstraction, and not simply a mental generalization. Bringing the two definitions together, we could say that it is a matter of positing the very constitution of abstract humanity down to its biological basis as a product of social relations. As Marx writes in the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach, which stated that the “human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”[5] The Sixth Thesis states as a principle what Capital presents as a tension: the human essence, the very identity of humanity right down to biology and the body itself, exists only in and through the historical articulation of social relations.[6] Abstract labor, and with it abstract humanity, did not exist prior to the social relations of wage labor. As Marx indicates, the effect of this transformation extend well beyond the restricted domain of an economy, to encompass religion, 

For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material [sachlich] form bring their individual, private labors into relation with each other as homogenous human labor, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc. is the most fitting form of religion.[7]

One could read Marx here as completing Feuerbach’s project. It is not enough to reduce theology to anthropology, to find the figure of humanity beneath the projection of god, one must recognize that there is no humanity as such, there are only specific social relations which produce and reproduce a given figure of humanity. God, especially that of Deism and Protestantism, is not the product of some general longing of humanity, but of the particular society organized by the abstraction of wage labor. Other societies, other mode of productions, produce different ideas of humanity and God. 

One could argue that abstract and concrete labor each produce their own specific ideological effects, spontaneous ideologies that emerge from their specific conditions. If abstract labor gives us the image of an abstract and interchangeable humanity, of everyone possessing the same capacity to be exploited, an image which culminates in the theological image of equality before god, then concrete labor gives us a different image, one of a hierarchically and differentiated society of different tasks and skills, an society in which “none of us is self-sufficient” because every individual is set a different task and has a different nature. Universality and hierarchy are components of every political anthropology, every definition of humanity, with the labor relation they are less a speculative definition than the effects of material practice, an ensemble of social relations. These spontaneous ideologies entail not just a particular description of humanity, a description that alternates between general interchangeability and difference and hierarchy, but a particular prescription, a particular imperative and ethos. Abstract labor is the imperative to be socially useful, to work not because of the specific need for this or that task or skill but to be put to work. It is the imperative underlying the demand to “get a job,” an imperative that does not dictate what is to be done, but simply that everyone be employed and engaged. Concrete labor is closer to the ethos of the craftsman. It is the demand to complete a particular and singular task according to its specific exigencies and demands. 

For an illustration of these two aspects of labor considered as two separate ideologies, one can turn back briefly to Hegel, to two texts of Hegel. Hegel’s well known dialectic of master and slave develops the ethos of concrete labor, of a particular labor as mastery of the world and the self, as externalization. In the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel primarily considers work in terms of the isolated actions of the slave, externalizing her consciousness in an object. As much as this externalization entails its own dialectic, the cunning of its mastery through submission, it is not considered in its fundamental sociality and historicity. This isolation has been interpreted as either a lack of historical specificity or an ideological nostalgia for a past form of work.[8] In contrast to this, The Philosophy of Right presents work as always already socialized, as subject to the constraints of the tool and the presence of others. Thus, work is seen not so much as the productive activity of the individual, but the production of an individual, the constitution of habits, discipline, and norms—second nature. The tension between these two aspects, between the individual as producer and produced, as cause and effect, can be seen as precursors to concrete and abstract labor, understood not as two sides of the commodity but as two different ethics, or ideologies of work, specific mastery and general social functioning. As much as these two ethics overlap in what Althusser calls the “bourgeois ideology of a work” defining an ethic that is both a general social imperative to work combined with a rationalization of the minor ideology of a trade or slot within the division of labor, they come into conflict as well, as this ideology splits into two, The general ideology of work, an imperative to be employed regardless of the job, is often at odds with the identification with the particular exigencies of a given skill or trade, and the ideal of a particular job well done often comes into conflict the generic imperative of to be efficient, to be productive, to make labor abstract and interchangeable. There are moments when the general imperative of efficiency conflicts with the exigencies of a particular job, and vice versa, but it is important to stress that the dominant ideology is less the specific ideology of a particular task or trade, but the abstract imperative to be put to work. This is the infra-ideology of contemporary society. 

These two ethics, two ideologies, reflect the positive dimensions of labor, its constitutive role in forming a sense of self. They are the ideologies that guarantee its reproduction dictating both a general social usefulness and a particular commitment, but abstract and concrete labor can also be related to the negative dimension, to a specific alienation. The first relates to what André Tosel refers to as a fantasmic illimitation.[9] Abstract labor cannot be separated from the idea of an infinite and inexhaustible productivity. As Marx argued in the Grundrisse, “what is wealth other the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange?” Capital abstracts from the reproduction of a particular form of existence; its imperative is less a particular mode of life than the abstract imperative of productivity, of the increase of value for value. This overcoming of all natural limits is not just realized on a macro-scale, in the ceaseless search for new markets, and new commodities, but it is also realized on a smaller scale, in the labor process itself. [10] That the worker sells not labor, but labor power, means that it falls to the capitalist to transform this potential into actuality, overcoming every natural and cultural limit. In contrast to this, concrete labor demands the individuals see themselves as identified with a particular task, a particular job and set of skills. This is what Tosel refers to as a disempowering finitude, the demand that one simply be consigned to this or that job. 

As with the two conflicting ethics that are their flipside and corollary these two alienations often overlap and intertwine. The promethean dimension of abstract labor, of overcoming any and all natural obstacle, especially as it is mediated through the commodity form, and thus through the ability to realize every supposed need or desire, often functions as the alibi for the restricted domain of concrete labor. It is because capital overcomes every barrier and every limit, breaking down the divides of culture and nature, that its ability to proscribe someone to a particular concrete labor, or even exclude them from concrete labor altogether, is justified. As Marx argued part of the fetishization of capital is the tendency to treat its laws as self-evident natural laws, a naturalization that is further strengthened by capital’s disregard for any cultural or natural limit. The more capital itself appears to overcome every limit, the more its limits are naturalized as inevitable and inescapable. Incidentally, despite all of the debate about human nature in Marx, In Capital at least Marx uses the term “anthropology” primarily ironically, referring to capital’s tendency to overcome all limits. As Marx writes in the Chapter on the working day, “Accordingly to the anthropology of the capitalists, the age of children ended at 10 or at the outside, 11.” Of the two aspects of labor, abstract and concrete, it is the former that is dominant, as many have remarked, ceaseless transformation and disruption, constitutes not just the dominant ideology but Nonetheless there is still a tension between abstract indifference and concrete tasks and labor, a tension that is also a tension between abstract humanity and concrete hierarchies. This can be seen in the extent that Marx’s own political pronouncements about abstract labor under capital have been disproven by the dynamic of history. Rather than undoing all anthropological divisions, divisions of race, gender, etc., in the face of an abstract labor that is also an abstract humanity, these divisions persist with a new life. It is not just that concrete labor, as both an ethic and an alienation, coexists along with abstract labor, but that the divisions and hierarchies of different tasks are anthropologized, seen not just as hierarchies that distribute different individuals to different tasks and jobs, but are naturalized as being the proper place of particular groups that are effectively racialized. 

In order to understand why this is the case it is necessary to trace an additional effect, a different after-image of, abstract labor. As I cited above Marx draws a direct line between abstract labor in the factory and the abstract ideal of humanity as it is expressed in religion, moving from the base to the loftiest realm of the superstructure. However, it is also possible to argue that this abstract humanity is not without its political effects. The idea of abstract and interchangeable humanity emerges with the real abstractions of the wage and the commodity form; real abstractions that are at their core abstractions of equivalence and equality. On the one hand capital is not just theoretically indifferent to differences of race, gender, and other anthropological divisions, but practically so, in that it is able to put to work a labor that has been stripped of differences of skill, strength, and ability, human beings as bearers of labor power. This elaborate deterritorialization has as its necessary corollary the reterritorialization that ties some people to a particular part of the labor process, a particular job, and a particular level of the social hierarchy. Reconciling the two often entails or demands a supplement, another ground for the explanation and justification of a hierarchy that cannot be justified on the basis of the wage relation alone. Or, as Etienne Balibar, “The problem is to keep ‘in their place,’ from generation to generation, those who have no fixed place; and for this it is necessary that they have a genealogy.” Or put more simply, racialization, a racial division of labor, which manifests itself differently in different places with different contexts and histories, is the only way to reconcile the constant transformation and flexibility of abstract labor, indifferent to anything other than the maximization of profits, and the inertia of concrete labor, an inertia that not only ties specific individuals to specific jobs, but explains why those jobs continue to exist and have people staffing them. Racism, and with it other anthropological divisions, is the perpetual alibi for division in existing society. 

Up to this point I have considered what I am calling the “political anthropology of labor power” from the perspective of the contradiction of abstract and concrete labor, but that contradiction does not exhaust the theorization of labor in capital, nor does it account for its specific history. It would be impossible to trace all of the aspects of this history here, a history that is only thinkable in a concrete situation. Briefly it is necessary to In Capital Marx considers what he calls the labor process independently “of any specific social formation.”[11] Marx describes this process as a general schema in which the worker transforms nature, and him or herself, through the mediation of a tool or instrument. This tool or instrument is introduced first through a subordination to nature and its laws, utilizing chemical or physical processes, but through the cunning of reason it becomes a promethean instrument of transformation.[12] Labor is the subordination of human activity to natural laws in order to master them, the negation of the negation. As Marx writes, ‘Thus nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, which he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible.’[13] Despite Marx’s claim that the basic schema of all production is made up of activity, object, and tool, the chapter on “Machinery and Large Scale Industry” which examines the automation system in the factory reduces the worker to a “conscious organ of the machine.” The tool is identified with a Promethean self-transformation, one that transforms man from god’s image to a maker of images and things, while the machine is identified with fragmentation and disruption of the unity of the body. This process of fragmentation culminates in Marx’s famous passages known as “The Fragment on Machines” in which the machine because the virtuouso, the skilled worker, and the worker has been reduced to nothing other than a watchmen over the labor process, a conscious organ that merely oversees the vast network of machines.[14] This is the moving contradiction, at least one of them, labor power is displaced as it continues to serve as the measure of production. 

In the posthumously published chapter of Capital titled “Results of the Immediate Process of Production” Marx reflects on a different tendency. This tendency is rooted in the fundamental division between capitalism and previous modes of production, but points beyond it. As Marx writes, 

In contrast to the slave, this labour becomes more productive because more intensive, since the slave works only under the spur of external fear but not for his existence which is guaranteed even if it does not belong to him. The free worker, however, is impelled by his wants. The consciousness (or better: the idea) of free self-determination, of liberty, makes a much better worker of one than of the other, as does the related feeling (sense) of responsibility; since he, like any seller of wares, is responsible for the goods he delivers and for the quality which he must provide, he must strive to ensure that he is not driven from the field by other sellers of same time as himself.[15]

External compulsion is replaced with internal motivation. This tendency becomes even more pronounced as work not only becomes more precarious, forcing more and more workers to compete with each other for jobs, but becomes increasingly disconnected from any concrete immediate result. What seems like an opposition between the reduction of the worker to a conscious organ and the increased internalization of the compulsion to work is more of a dialectic in which fragmentation and interiorization coexist and reinforce each other. “There is a constant back and forth between subjectivation and desubjectivation, between automation and resistance…which unfold along with the fabrication of individuals and the development of capital.”[16] The worker may be reduced to a conscious organ of a social and technological process that exceeds her, but nonetheless is compelled to take responsibility for the entire process. Or, alternatively it is because the worker is nothing more than a conscious organ that indicators of subjective commitment take on increased importance: the organ may be just an organ, a part of a process that exceeds it, but it must be conscious, taking responsibility for the entire process. This is why, as Paolo Virno and Peter Fleming have argued, subjective indicators of commitment take on increasing importance in the contemporary workplace: a professional attitude matters more than actual work performed, because the actual performance of work is both lesser than and greater than the wage relation. It is less than because of the tendency to reduce the worker to just the conscious organ, a process that can be found not only in the development of large scale industry but also social reproduction itself, as the worker becomes just the point of contact; more than because as point of contact, as the face of an entire process, the worker must embody the corporation. 

By way of a conclusion it is possible to argue that an examination of the anthropology of labor power is a necessary corollary to the anthropologization of work, work is increasingly internalized as both an abstract potential and a concrete task, stripped from its social determination to become a natural quality. Work, not just the physical capacity, but the social, affective, and mental willingness to work, has become a kind of second nature that has effaces whatever could pass for primary nature. It has become anthropologized at the same time that its actual existence and need has diminished; this is the moving contradiction that Marx wrote about, one that will eventually produce a society of workers without work. Against this, it is not enough to simply engaged in a refusal of work, to define an anti-work ethic, but it is necessary to rethink and rearticulate both the finitude of work, the constraint that ties one to a particular set of tasks, and the infinitude, the capacity for transformation and abstraction. This may be what it at stake in the concept of living labor, not the concrete or the abstract, but both understood as the basis for subjectivity and sociality rather than exchange and use value. 






[1] On this point see Michel Henry, Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality, Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press). 


[2] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence. Edited by S. W. 

Ryanzkaya and Translated by I. Lasker (Moscow: Progress, 1955) 186. 


[3] Karl Marx, Capital A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, translated by Ben Fowkes, (New York: Penguin, 1977),134. 


[4] Ibid., 138. 


[5] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” In The German Ideology. Edited and Translated by C.J. Arthur. (New York: International, 1970) 122. 


[6] Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, Translated by Chris Turner and Gregory Eliot (New York: Verso, 2017) 153. 


[7] Karl Marx, Capital, 172 


[8] Marx famously criticized Hegel’s Phenomenology for only grasping labor as abstract labor. As Marx writes, ‘He grasps labor as the essence of man – as man’s essence which stands the test: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labor. Labor is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man. The only labor which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labor’ (Marx 1964, 177). In contrast to this, Jameson argues that Hegel’s conception of work is a handicraft ideology (Jameson 2010, p. 68). 




[10] From this point of view, we could say that when the capitalist occupies himself with his workers’ labor-power, which he has acquired the right to employ in exchange for a wage, treating it as a “productive power” whose productivity he intends to increase in order to produce relative surplus value – he practices metaphysics not in a theoretical but in a practical way. He practices this peculiar sort of metaphysics not during his leisure time, as a distraction or mental exercise, as he would a crossword puzzle, but throughout the entire working day dedicated to production. By opening up his company to notions such as “power,” “capacity” and “causation,” he thereby makes them a reality, realizing these fictions, these products of the mind, which he then employs with daunting efficacy. In this way, with payrolls and charts of organizational tasks at hand, he shows, better than a philosopher’s abstract proofs, that the work of metaphysics could not be more material, provided that one knows how to put it to good use in introducing it into the factory. One could, incidentally, derive from this a new and caustic definition of metaphysics: in this rather specific context, it boils down to a mechanism for profit-making, which is no small matter. This means that, amongst other inventions that have changed the course of history, capitalism has found the means, the procedure, the “trick” enabling it to put abstract concepts into practice – the hallmark of its “genius.” Macherey 2015, p. 175. 


[11] Karl Marx, Capital, 283 


[12] It is in this context that Marx cites Hegel’s description of the cunning of reason at work in the labor process. As Hegel writes, “Reason is as cunning as it is mighty. Its cunning generally consists in the mediating activity which, while it lets objects act upon one another according to their own nature, and wear each other out, executes only its purpose without itself mingling in the process.” G.W.F Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, translated by T.F. Geraets et al, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), 284 . 


[13] Marx Capital p. 285 


[14] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicolaus. (New York: Penguin, 1973) . 


[15] Marx Capital, 1031 


[16] Yves Citton, Renverser L’insoutenable, (Paris: Seuil, 2012) p. 143

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