Saturday, June 06, 2020

Work and Production: On Fischbach's Après la Production

One of the common criticism of Marx is that his thought is dominated by production. Philosophers from Jean Baudrillard to Hannah Arendt have criticized Marx for the way in which his thought is dominated by production, with its corollaries of instrumentality, teleology, and mastery of nature. All of these different critiques have taken on added salience and importance in the anthropocene which has exposed the limitations of ideal of production as Promethean overcoming of the limits of nature. Infinite productivity confronts the limits of finite planet and its resources

Franck Fischbach's Après la Production : travail, nature, et capital engages not so much with these myriad critiques than with the central question underlying all of them, to what extent is Marx's thought a thought of production? Fischbach begins his examination of this question with an inquiry by looking at one of Hannah Arendt's criticisms of Marx. For Arendt the paradox of Marx's thought was that its realization could only be that of "workers without work." In other words, work is at once defined as fundamental to the very definition of humanity, defining species being, but it is also that which must necessarily be overcome, the realm of freedom begins with the end of the realm of freedom. As much as Fischbach starts with Arendt, he turns to Thomas Coutrot's Libèrer le travail: Pourquoi la gauche s'en moque et pourqoui ça doit changer for a more precise articulation of this paradox. Coutrot distinguishes between two different concepts of labor in Marx. The first Marx, Marx one, begins with the ideal of work, with work as the realization and objectification of the self. While Marx two argues that liberation can only be a liberation from work, from the realm of necessity. Thus Coutrot finds another break in Marx, between the young and old, but not framed in terms of humanism and its critique, but in terms of the critique from the perspective of work and the critique of work. 

Against this paradox, in Arendt's view, or this progression, in Coutrot, what Fischbach argues is that Marx's critique of capitalism is a critique of the subsumption of labor under production. As Fischbach argues, capital is both an extension and a reduction of production. It extends production to all sorts of activities that are indirect As Marx writes, "In order to work productively, it is no longer necessary for the individual himself to put his hand to the object; it is sufficient for him to be an organ of the productive laborer."This expansion to all sorts of activities far from material production is coupled with a reduction of the definition of production to what is productive for capital. Production is defined by the valorization of surplus value. It doesn't matter what you do, what its function or purpose is, as long as it helps someone make money. That is what it means to be productive. To put it into the vernacular of our time, when people ask a philosophy major or art history major "what are you going to do with that?" they do not mean what effects will you have on the world but how will you be employed. How will you make money for someone. 

In Chapter Two Fischbach turns to a fairly unlikely figure, namely Heidegger in order to further develop a distinction between work and production. Fischbach's examination of Heidegger is less an uncritical incorporation of his thought than an examination of how the limits of Heidegger's thought on work reveal the limitations of our own thought. Contrary to what many remember work is discussed in Being and Time.The world is in some sense defined as a Werkwelt. Work defines our preoccupations, or as Heidegger puts it, in a piece that Fischbach cites as the chapter's epigraph, all human comportment is "work and care." Work is a fundamental comportment, a way of relating to the world, and it is through this relation that other subjects and objects emerge. Fischbach argues that this dimension of work, as integral to both being in the world and being with, at the intersection of our relation to the world, to nature and what is built, disappears in favor of a more individualist productivist attitude. Fischbach does a good job of charting this change across the courses on logic and the fundamental concept of phenomenology in the twenties and thirties. I must admit that my copies of these books are in my office on campus and it is more than a pandemic that is keeping me from retrieving them right now. Heidegger was more or less required to get through grad school, but I have not looked back much since. Fischbach's chapter on Heidegger was the most I have thought about Heidegger in years. It confirmed one suspicion, and that is Heidegger's work on comportment, on the phenomenology of everydayness is perhaps the aspect of his thought that is most amendable to a materialist analysis, as Paolo Virno and others have demonstrated. More importantly, however, Fischbach argues that as the social dimension of work drops out, leaving a single and solitary figure of a producer, Heidegger turns more and more to social relations founded on decision, thus bringing together the figure of the solitary worker and fascism. To risk a hasty conclusion of the engagement with Heidegger, any politics that skips over the social dimension, the space of work as the constitutive relation, vacillates between liberalism and fascism, between the isolated individual and the community formed through an act of the will or decision.

That is not where the book concludes, however, the detour through Heidegger raises the question as to what kind of world the world of capitalism is. Marx anticipated Heidegger and answered this question when he answered that the world presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities. The world of commodities is in some sense a privation of a world, to cite the title of an earlier book by Fischbach.(Speaking of earlier books Fichbach's argument that subjectivity, an isolated subject standing against the world, is a kind of alienation is his interesting contribution to the intersection of Marx and Spinoza). The privation of the world through consumption, through commodities which negate nature, cannot be countered by the world of work. Work has been entirely subsumed under production. Whereas work is necessarily finite and relational, production is infinite, or infinitizable and absolute. This does not mean that work, concrete labor, can be retrieved from underneath abstract labor, however, it is thoroughly permeated and defined by it. Concrete labor is not an alternative to abstract labor but its necessary antithesis. Fischbach comes very close to André Tosel's thought on this point, on this idea of a double alienation, an alienation of the finite in the infinite and an alienation of the infinite in the finite, but he is not cited. Or, as I argued, there is a privation, or alienation, not only in the way in which work is made productive, compelled to produce more and more against the limits of bodies and nature, but also in the way in which it is reduced to this or that specific concrete labor, made an organ of a larger machine.

The opposition between work and production is not a matter of a prefigurative utopia in the cooperation of work, but of reminding us that we live under the domination of production, a domination that distorts our relation with the world, each other, and nature. 


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