Michael Hardt’s talk, “The Production of the Common,” at the London conference On the Idea of Communism, summarized a lot of his ideas over the last several years in a way that I found helpful. He defined “communism” as having to do with the common — as opposed to both private property and state property. And said he wanted to put the focus on political economy and on the question of property. (This in contrast to the other speakers on his panel, Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward, who were both far-ranging and lucid, but foucsed rather of questions of political action and organization. Indeed, I have now gone to nine talks — with three more to come — and Hardt’s and Negri’s were the only two which so much as mentioned political economy. Quite odd for what is supposed to be a Marxism conference). I will try to summarize what Hardt said, with a little commentary.
In the 18th century, and still in the 19th when Marx wrote, capitalism was in transition from a form based mostly on immobile property, which is to say agricultural land, from which surplus was extracted in the form of rent, to a form of capitalism based on mobile property, which is to say manufacturing (since a factory can in theory be built anywhere), from which surplus was extracted in the form of profit (i.e., although Hardt didn’t express it this way, from the direct expropriation of absolute and relative surplus value). The landlords were losing out to the new industrial capitalists. Even still in Marx’s time, there were less industrial workers than there were agricultural ones, but industry was the dominant mode of production in the sense that it was the one that imposed its forms and methods of organization on all the rest (a “dominant,” as Jameson would say).
Today, Hardt said, we are in the midst of another transition, this time from industrial production to “immaterial production.” The number of workers involved in immaterial or affective production is still much smaller worldwide than the number of factory workers, etc., but immaterial production is the leading edge that imposes its forms of organization on the rest, just as industry was in the 19th century. (This, in part, was Hardt’s response to criticisms of the entire notion of immaterial production on the grounds that millions of people still work in factories, even if it is mostly today in the “underdeveloped” world instead of in the wealthy nations of the West, or global North). [Hardt didn't mention this, but his periodization fits in well with McKenzie Wark's idea of a movement from landlords to industrialists to the current "vectorial class" of the owners of property rights to "information." Hardt, like Wark, is focused on what Wark calls "the property question"].
Today, informatic or immaterial production is focused on questions of so-called “intellectual property” (this is my term, not Hardt’s), in the forms of copyright, patents, etc. A company’s physical products often have value, not because of any actual use, but because they are manifestations of a “brand” to which consumers are attracted, or with which they identify. Massive sums of money are gained from things like patents on genetic sequences, genetically modified crops, rights to copyrights on music, video, and text, to (often frivolous) patents on supposed inventions, to control of certain channels of distribution, to a company’s working methods and “trade secrets,” and so on. Even traditional hard-manufacture factories are governed by informatics, and profit comes as much or more from control of the informational organization that governs production, than from the physical items in themselves that are produced (as these latter are not sold for much above cost).
According to Hardt, all this means that immaterial production has more similarities to the pre-industrial capitalism focused on the extraction of rent than it does to the (pre-informatic, or perhaps Fordist) industrial system that focused on the extraction of surplus value as profit. The most dynamic sort of capitalist appropriation today comes in the form of a renewed “primitive accumulation,” or privatization of the common: one can see how both the patenting of genetic sequences taken from plants used by traditional cultures, and the copyrighting of “new” ideas and their expression, fits into this paradigm. This means that the struggle against capitalism must take on radically different forms, compared to those of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Hardt, immaterial production qua primitive accumulation is more a case of the direct appropriation of the common by capitalists, than it is one of the indirect expropriation of the common through the sale and purchase of labor power as was the case under industrial capitalism.
Now, I am largely in agreement with Hardt (and Negri, and some of the economists associated with their position, like Marazzi and even to some extent Moulier Boutang) about the transformations in capitalism over the last fifty years, and especially since the 1970s. But I am not sure I entirely accept the framework through which Hardt interprets these developments. In particular, I do not think that immaterial production involves a more “direct” expropriation of the common than was the case when industrial capitalism extracted value. It is true, as I have already said, that a lot of this new source of capital appropriation comes from a kind of “primitive accumulation” — corporations are now appropriating the commons in the form of things like genomes and songs and procedures of working, in the same way that landlords appropriated the commons of land at the time of the enclosures. But I don’t think that this is either a novelty or a reversion. It is rather the case that “primitive accumulation” never went away; it is a continual structural feature of capitalism, and was at work in the industrial age as much as it was in the agricultural stage, and as much as it is still today. Capitalism always both appropriates to itself things that it didn’t produce — and this precisely by “privatizing” them — and extracts a surplus from the processes of production that it directly initiates and supervises.
That is to say, there isn’t that great a difference between, on the one hand, how industrial capitalism imposes “cooperation” on large numbers of workers simultaneously, and draws profit from the economies of scale due to this cooperation (which is a form of relative surplus value) as much as it does from the initial inequalities built into the process of buying and selling “labor power” as a commodity (which is what Marx calls absolute surplus value); and, on the other hand, the way that immaterial capitalism today draws its profits from turning employees’ collaborative projects, and the cultural knowledge of indigenous peoples, into “intellectual property” locked under copyright and patent. In both cases, there is a double movement: on the one hand, the appropriation of what would otherwise be (or what previously was) common, and on the other hand, the transformation of that “common” precisely into a commodified form that stores or embodies congealed “labor” and that allows for the “marketization” of the product. The transformation of home knitting into manufactured clothing is not that different from the transformation of a plant with medicinal properties into a patented drug, or into a genetic sequence that can be used for controlled production of the medicine.
So, the point is that primitive accumulation and surplus-value extraction go together, both in 19th-century industrial production and in today’s immaterial production. This is why I don’t accept Hardt’s claim that production today somehow involves a less mediated and more direct appropriation of the common than was the case in the large factories of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Primitive accumulation or appropriation doesn’t occur apart from those other techniques of the extraction of surplus value — and this is just as much true for immaterial production today as it is, and was, for industrial production.
If we are to see a difference in the capitalism of the contemporary era, this has to to with the fact that, today, capital has become even more mobile and abstract than it was in the age of heavy industry. The movement from industrial to immaterial production is an intensification of the movement from agricultural to industrial, an even further internalization of capitalist social relations, an increase in the “mobility” or “flow” of capital. Today we are coming closer than ever to the limit-condition of the real subsumption, instead of the merely formal subsumption of all of society under capital. There is less and less of an “outside” that capitalism can “primitively” accumulate, and more and more is included in the mass of what is directly managed by capital’s disciplinary and modulatory procedures. (But there is only an asymptotic approach to the absolute of “real” subsumption; such a totality is never fully achieved. There always has to be some outside that capital has not appropriated yet, and without such an outside capitalism would entirely stagnate — a point made as much by Schumpeter as by Marx).
To say that we are moving ever closer to real subsumption is equivalent to saying that now — under what Jonathan Beller calls “the cinematic mode of production” (although I think it is rather post-cinematic — which is a point I am still working on), or what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — surplus value is extracted in the processes of distribution and consumption as well as in the process of primary production. For Marx, circulation involved the faux frais of the capitalist mode of production, and had to be subtracted from profit. But today, in an “information economy” or ‘attention economy,” circulation is itself a direct source of further profit. Hardt and Negri are correct to associate this situation with real subsumption displacing merely formal subsumption. But they seem to me to be overly opimistic when they suggest that this means that we are finally reaching the point where the “objective conditions” for communism finally exist, or that the property form has become a “fetter” on the technological means of production, a fetter that is ready to be burst asunder. It just ain’t so. Digital technologies bring with them new forms of potential liberation, certainly; but they also bring new forms of control, new potentials for micromanagement and control via continual modulation (as Deleuze says in his great article on the society of control).
Hardt said at several points that the restrictions of copyright, patent, etc., because they are privatizing the common, are thereby making immaterial or affective labor less “productive” than it could be — which isn’t altogether wrong, but also isn’t the right point to be making — since “productivity” (like “efficiency”) is a category of the private enterprise system and wouldn’t have the same meaning (certainly wouldn’t be measured in anything like the same way) in a world of communism, or of the unrestricted common. Part of the point is precisely that (as Hardt, together with Negri, says — and as Virno says as well) even the most individualized and particular acts of human invention rely so extensively on the whole past accumulation of human invention, that private property rights become absurd. I maintain my signature on this blog, for instance, but it would be utterly ludicrous for me to maintain that my ideas and words come from nowhere — in fact, they come from what I have heard and read and otherwise encountered in the society that I live in. My own personal spin on things is still a spin on what arises and exists elsewhere, or in many elsewheres. And people can make what they want of my words, including things that I absolutely detest, which disabuses me of the notion that these words are “mine” in any metaphysical, propertarian sense.
At best, my words here will become part of what Hardt beautifully called — quoting from Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts — “the production of man [sic] by man” — this by way of making the point that those early manuscripts are anything from essentialist, since they see “human nature” not as something that exists once and for all as our basis, but rather as something that human beings themselves continually remake. Our very remaking of ourselves is at stake, and this is one further reason why the relentless privatization of the common is so obscene. But I am made uneasy when Hardt also calls this remaking a process of “biopolitical production” — because, once again, I think that this characterization is only valid under the conditions of capitalist appropriation, and that it would have to be characterized differently if it were truly to be, and to remain, common. I think that more than vocabulary is at stake here; Hardt and Negri’s terminology reflects what I see as their excessive optimism about how conditions for the common have (supposedly) already been achieved in the heart of capitalism itself.
One final word, on finance. Hardt cited the current financial crisis as an instance of capital’s inability to manage its own complexities in a useful manner. But things seem to me to be a little more complicated than this. Obviously, the system is dysfunctional; and obviously, the insane proliferation of derivatives and other “arcane financial instruments” is a symptom of informatics run amok. More orthodox Marxists often say that finance is merely fictive, since it is not related to, or backed up by, any actual production. But this “ungrounded” finance itself needs to be seen as part of the infrastructure of immaterial and affective capitalism; and as an effect of immaterial and affective labor. In such a context, “fictive” does not mean unreal or ineffective — as we are currently experiencing, the effects of delirious financial capital flows are all too material and evident. This is something that needs to be theorized much more than I am able to do here. I am still trying to figure things out; I would definitely say that, for instance, Christian Marazzi’s ideas about the linguistic nature of these types of finance is inadequate. But I haven’t found anyone yet who can explain it to me, or theorize it, better.