Saturday, June 04, 2022

Production and Labor: Two Alienations, Two Liberations

My drawing of Laika and Loukanikos


The conclusion of Franck Fishbach's La Production des Hommes: Marx Avec Spinoza ends with a discussion of Heidegger's understanding of production in contrast to its focus on the intersection of Marx and Spinoza. A Fischbach argues the contrast could not be more clear, whereas Marx and Spinoza posited a thought of production that broke with idealism, with much of philosophy, Heidegger saw production as the basis and culmination of metaphysics. Our conceptions of substance, being, and actuality all stem from humanity's productive comportment and this understanding of being culminates in the idea of a world in which what exists exists to be manipulated, produced, transformed, exists as an object for a subject. Production is the metaphysics of subjectivity.

As Fischbach writes (I am citing from my translation here): 

"This conception of production as immediately inscribed in the center of the relation of subject and object seems convincing. However it is challenged by at least two authors who have in common (among other things that we have considered) that Heidegger never entered into dialogue with them: namely Spinoza and Marx. It is also certain that these are two central thinkers of production in the history of philosophy who which Heidegger almost never addresses one or the other in characterizing metaphysics as metaphysics of producton: no mention of Marx and only one allusive mention of Spinoza in the entirety of The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Spinoza is presented as the one who posits at the foundation of being in general and the totality of being in particular, an infinite productivity: the power (potentia) of God, that is to say his essence, is the power which “all things are and act.” God is according to Spinoza an infinitely productive force eternally and absolutely active, this productive force, this productive force exists only in and through the immanence of the infinity of the things it produces. If the modes as products can be understood as objects it is because they have an objective reality and not by an opposition to a subject, because God is not a subject that would have opposition to objects: God is not the subject of production because he does not exist apart from the objectivity of its production and is absolutely immanent to it. In the same way that God is not the subject of production, but effectively exists in the immanence of its own infinitely objective production, the things produced—what Spinoza calls “modes”—are not to be found in the relation of subjects to objects, but in a relation of things produced to things produced, objects to objects. None of these things possess in relation to others some sort of ontological privilege that permit them to be placed in terms of the subject, which is an illusory existence for the human mode. 

 Spinoza and Marx lead us to suspect that, when Heidegger speaks of “production” it is not production in itself that is at stake but a form that it has historically taken in terms of work. Presupposing the “labor form” of production, Heidegger always analyzes the second in the function of the first. The opposition between a subjective productive actor on one part and of the other part the products and objective means of this subjectivity activity of production, this opposition is certainly a characteristic of the form of production in the labor form, but it remains to be seen if this form expresses the essence of production, or inversely if it is on the contrary a fundamental break with this essential signification. It is in the framework of the labor form of production that it is led to posit, first as its foundation or base, the subject as stable support for productive activity, and it follows that what is opposite, as objects, is also inert matter—brought of its inertia only by “the flames of the power of living labor” —by the objective means used by the work, and finally the objective product of the work, that is to say the object as a work or product. Heidegger is therefore not wrong to establish a link between, on the one hand, the understanding of the being of man as subject, and on the other hand the deployment of its own activity in the form of work, insofar as this form supposes the confrontation of the subject with objectivity, as well as the desire for mastery and domination of the first over the second. The error would be to think that work can express the sense of production , that the labor form can represent the accomplished form of production. Spinoza and Marx make it possible to understand that labor-form dissimulates, obscures, and betrays the true sense of production." 

These paragraphs touch on one of the most important aspect of Fischbach's argument that rather than think of alienation as the reduction of the subject to the object, alienation, in Marx and Spinoza, or rather in the early Marx read through Spinoza, is actually the loss of objectivity for the subject. The individual subject, what Spinoza called the "kingdom within a kingdom" and what Marx called the worker, is itself alienated cut off from the objects and relations that constitute it, and make acting possible. Equally important is the second claim, the claim that for Marx and Spinoza, or once again their point of intersection, that not only does production exceeds the intention of a subject, to be a process encompassing nature and industry, but that labor is always a reduction and distortion of this process. To see production in terms of labor, as the work of the individual, is to reduce it an obscure it. It is a matter of not so much of the reification of labor in the commodity, but the reification of productivity in labor, or labor power. Fischbach's claim here has interesting resonances with attempts by work on social reproduction, housework, and the environment that argue, in different ways, that the wage laborer, the individual worker, is less the culmination of production than only a small part of it. A small part that takes itself for the whole in the same way that humanity is a small part of nature that takes it for the whole of nature, not just a kingdom within a kingdom but the ultimate end and meaning. This is an interesting connection, but it is not one that Fischbach explores.

In fact in the preface to the second edition of Fischbach reverses his point of view. 

"This leads directly to the usage I have made in the present work of the concepts of production and work. Now I think that the limit of my propositions in La production des hommes is have admitted without examining sufficiently that labor can be included not only as a figure of production, but more over as figure of the reduction of production: therefore to have considered without further examination that capitalist modernity has been the theater of a "becoming labor" of production, and that such becoming labor of production is a limitation, a weakening of what production is and can do. From which at the end of the book I attempt to liberate production from Heidegger’s criticism. I now think that I got it backwards: saving labor from production is not a matter of leaving labor to be dissolved in and by production. This signifies that labor is positively and uniquely human modality of production: one can therefore certainly continue, in the manner of Spinoza, to insert human production in the heart of natural production, but add that human production takes the specific form of labor. 

If it can be said that capitalist modernity is a theater, it is not one of the reduction of production to labor, it is inversely of a reduction of labor to only production a reduction of human labor to an activity that is only production, or, in order to put in in terms of the tradition, to an activity that is only poietic. The entire effort has been to demonstrate (still implicitly in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of Eighteen Forty Four but explicitly from The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach) that human labor cannot be reduced to only poiesis, but must be realized to be the unity of poiesis and praxis. The activity of human beings, the activity in producing useful things is at the same time an activity of the formation and transformation of themselves: and it is thus because the human activity of production that is labor is always a social activity, that is an activity that is socially divided which places human beings at the same time in mutual dependence and reciprocal interaction. Of the sort that if, to say in the manner of Spinoza, human beings are always mutually affected, it is the social division of labor that renders them mutually dependent upon each other. It is this mutual dependence that human beings find themselves in terms of the condition and division of labor that opens at the same time the possible horizon of a possible transformation of these relations that situate them from the outset. The horizon of this is the transformation of a division endured to an organization that is rationally, consciously, willed and organized division of labor, and therefore also the practical (praxis) horizon of the formation of human beings, in their labor and association. Capitalism strives to block this horizon of transformation which expands beyond its limited foundation and one of the means it uses for this is precisely the reduction of work to a simple poiesis, the limitation and the restriction of work to a purely productive activity which eliminates any practical element of training and self-transformation from it."

While this perspective reflects Fischbach's own recent work, I am tempted to read this transformation less a linear correction, in which one view is replaced with another, than a dialectic of sorts. In other words it might be useful to think of capitalism as both the transformation of production into labor, in that the productive processes that exceeds an individual is reduced, both materially and ideologically, to the individual action of the isolated wage laborer, and the transformation of labor into production, as labor the labor of the an individual is forced to maximize its productivity. 

As I argue, there is perhaps a double alienation or a contradictory alienation in capitalism. This alienation stems from the two sides of the labor process, on the one side there is abstract labor, which can be understood to be a productivity that is indifferent to the specific limitations of different individuals as the generic productivity of humanity; on the other side there is concrete labor, which reduces human capacity as generic capacity to the specific tasks of a specific job. The two sides of labor, abstract and concrete, are also the basis for different identifications or ethics of work, the first is the ethic of having a job, any job, of labor as a formative activity regardless of its goals, while the second, concrete labor, is the specific pride of a particular task.  (On this point I am very indebted to André Tosel). It is also possible to argue that the two sides of labor produce not just their own alienations and identifications but also fuel our utopian dreams. The dream of abstract labor is that of realizing a productivity that exceeds, and, in its more technological version, transcends the productivity of individual bodies, a productivity without labor, while the dream of concrete labor is a dream of returning to meaningful work, to use values, and to a purpose, labor liberated from productivity. (This is the closest this blogpost comes to justifying my illustration).  These two sides animate technological accelerationist fantasies and their opposite, fantasies of meaning, community, and real needs. 

The task of a Marxist politics of work is not to just resist the reduction of production to labor, as the generalized productive (and reproductive) force of social relations is reduced to wage labor, to the quality of a single individual, but to resist this while also resisting the reduction of labor to production, as the embodied, social, and cognitive aspects of labor are reduce to pure productivity. It is a matter of being against both the becoming labor of production and the becoming production of labor. 

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