Scholium V. De homine II: Cross the Threshold!
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
From Commonwealth (Belknap Press, 2009), translation by Arianna Bove.
‘[I]f a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.'
Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Lecture on Ethics' 1929
What is the value of a company in the post-industrial era? In traditional industry, the value of an enterprise was established by calculating the cost of its initial outlay and adding it to an estimate of its productive organization, the quality of its labor force, the size of the markets for the circulation of the commodities it produced, etc.
All of this has now changed. Today, the value of a company can suddenly go from -1,000 to +1,000. In fact, with every crisis of the stock exchange, colossal immaterial assets, known as goodwill , are destroyed and/or recreated. Goodwill is the value of a company defined by the evaluations that the stock exchange, banks, sellers and buyers, various entrepreneurs in the same sector, rating agencies and the industrialists and brokers of the immaterial agree to fake. Therefore, what becomes essential to the definition of goodwill is intangible and the company appears to be a monetary materialization of the functions of the market. In reverse, consider Dickens' Hard Times or Zola's Germinal : what was the value of a company in those days? It was its ability to discipline labor and measure its efforts, the very material efforts of thousands of workers, the harshness of organized command in manufacture. Labor ran through the technical structures of production. It was undoubtedly there, and with the enterprise, both the worker and the master turned into corporeal prostheses of the machines and their enormous mechanisms (1). So, is it a question of enterprise as goodwill versus enterprise as machine? This alternative would be laughable had the financial markets not already made it their own; as contemporary capitalism seems to be adapting itself to it (2). It could almost make one question whether there really still is any labor-power in production today. Does wealth really flow from the brain of the masters? Only imbeciles – and there are many of them – could ever believe that. But why then, instead of making irony of goodwill or demystifying the intangibility of value, do we take them so seriously?
In order to answer this question we need to take a brief detour . This is not the first time we come up against the labor theory of value in this work. Now, faced with the problems outlined, a height of critical difficulty is reached when we are confronted with value that is intangible and cannot be grasped as if it was effective. Let us try to face this crisis, so that we can eventually overcome it.
In the Marxist tradition that we see ourselves as part of, the theory of value takes on two forms : first , it is a theory of abstract labor, which is present in all commodities in so far as labor is the common substance of all productive activity. From this perspective, every form of labor leads back to some abstract labor: what this view makes clear is that behind every particular form assumed by labor in determinate instances lies a global social labor power capable of being transferred from one use to another in accordance to social needs, the importance and development of which are dependent – in the last instance – upon society's ability to produce wealth. From this qualitative conception, Marxism shifts to a quantitative notion of the law of value centered on the problem of the measure of the value of labor. ‘The magnitude of value expresses the link between a certain commodity and the labor time necessary to produce it. And this can be expressed in units of ‘simple labor'. The fundamental task of the theory of value arises out of this definition of value as magnitude. The problem it poses is that of seeking the laws that regulate the allocation of the labor force to the various branches of production in a society of commodity producers. To use a modern expression, the law of value is essentially a theory of general equilibrium, developed in the first instance with reference to simple commodity production and later on adapted to capitalism' (3).
The law of value also takes on a second form as the law of the value of labor power. What does this form of the law of value consist in? It consists in regarding the value of labor as a figure of antagonism , as the subject of an open and ever-present rupture in the system, rather than as an element of equilibrium. Throughout Marx's oeuvre, the concept of labor power is regarded as an element of production that valorizes relatively independently of the functioning of the equilibrium sought by the first version of the law of value. This means that, rather than idealized as measure, the ‘unity' is found in a relation to ‘necessary labor', which, rather than a fixed quantity, is a dynamic element of the system. Historically, necessary labor is determined by struggles and built on the ever-growing needs of the proletariat, the working class, and now the multitude: as such it is the product of the struggle against waged labor and of the effort to transform labor and release it from its misery. Thus a second point of view emerges, one that considers the law of value as a motor of constitutional disequilibrium rather than as the law of equilibrium of the capitalist system. Within this perspective we need to conceptualize the law of value as part of the law of surplus value , in so far as it something that helps generate a constitutional crisis of equilibrium. When the law of value is applied to capitalist development as a whole, it generates crisis – not only crises of circulation and disproportion (i.e. phenomena that are reducible to the model of system equilibrium), but also crises caused by the struggles and subjective disequilibrium of the cycle – because of the impossibility of containing the growth of demand (that is, of the needs and desires of subjects). In this framework the law of value/surplus value appears both as the law of the continual destructuring and restructuring of the cycle of capitalist development and as the law of composition and recomposition of the multitude as power of transformation (4). Thus the labor theory of value defined by classical political economy is being extinguished in the process of the development of industrial capitalism as the latter produced new forms of organization in the post-industrial era. This extinction cuts across the deepening of the contradictions of the law of value. The first of these is the opposition of ‘simple labor' to ‘skilled and complex labor'. The latter cannot be reduced to a multiplier of the former, which is regarded as a unit of measure. Here lies the origin of the nonsensical claim that the greatest use value of skilled labor (that is to say, its highest productivity level) is alleged to be deduced from the value of its product rather than explained by the ‘difference' inherent to the labor employed in the production.
The second contradiction is the opposition between ‘productive' and ‘unproductive' labor. Unlike unproductive labor, productive labor produces capital. However, this definition is absolutely reductive of the notion of productivity and, more generally, of productive force. In fact, productive labor in general is defined by its inscription in social cooperation rather than in relation to the quantity of units of simple labor that it assembles, and the more labor is subsumed under capital, the more this is the case. Cooperation and the common make labor productive, and cooperation grows as the productive forces develop and increasingly become common assets.
Finally, the third contradiction is that the productive labor of intellectual, scientific, communicative and affective labor power is neither reducible to the sum of simple labor nor to cooperation (however complex it might be). Intellectual, scientific, communicative and affective labor expresses creativity – creativity as an expression of the common.
Today the contradictions outlined above have become real, present and significant: this is to say that they no longer represent contradictions of ‘tendencies' in the system; as capitalism developed, these contradictions became concrete aporiae. Therefore, the distinction between simple and complex labor was valid for the historical phase of capitalist development that Marx defined as ‘simple cooperation', but in the phase of ‘manufacture' it becomes an aporia; similarly, in the period of ‘large scale industry' the distinction between productive and unproductive labor that was valid for ‘manufacture' becomes an aporia; and now, in the post-industrial era, the productive value of intellectual, scientific, communicative and affective labor has become hegemonic through the inclusion rather than exclusion of every other element of production. Because of this evolution, it is clearly impossible to regard the law of value (in its classical formulation) as a ‘law of measure' of the global productivity of the economic system and as the rule of its equilibrium.
The capitalist reinvention of measure in terms of the market, goodwill, stock exchange determiners, shares and intangible values corresponds to the ‘inadequacy' of the law of value for measuring productivity, not to the nature of productive power – which is still work-based (5).
In fact, if all of the dispositifs predisposed to measure labor such as productive and unproductive labor, labor time and the organization of the working day, the hegemony of labor composition and/or of industry over production as a whole, and working wages and social income are now in crisis, the theories of measure related to the law of value are no longer applicable to contemporary society – or, at least, cannot be applied exclusively to what we defined biopolitical society . So, given that measure is indispensable to capitalism, why not rely on ‘market conventions'! Obviously, we are being ironic here!
So far we have explored the negative aspect of this transformation: this standpoint allowed us to see how the ‘crisis of value' often takes on the character of exception, war, destruction, dearth, etc. Sometimes a sort of ‘catastrophism' occupies the minds of those who, whilst being critical of society, still want to change it. However, this attitude is doomed to fail. It would be better if we inverted this view and looked at things realistically – simply by adopting a realistic standpoint, rather than a supposedly positive one - we would then recognize that wherever value presents itself as intangible and as capable of being grasped only by ‘market conventions', it has been abstracted into the form of finance, and aims to be an efficient measure and control within this form. But under no circumstances could it succeed in being what it would like to be – self-coherent and becoming independent of labor. It is at this point that we need a new theory of value.
Will it really be a theory of value? In the sequence of these scholia , we tracked the various figures where labor-value exceeds the flows of the economy and power. First we insisted on how the biopolitical event exceeds the continuity of historical development, temporal routine and the linear connection of its eventualities ( scholium I ); in scholium II we emphasized that knowledge , another knowledge, and another reason exceed the instrumental norms of knowledge and power construed in modernity; that the training of love is a constitutive social drive, and vital passions of solidarity exceed in the construction of the common ; in scholium III we revealed the anthropological project that underlies our research; in the Intermezzo we insisted on the fact that exceeding love also included, above all, power in its training (that is fractal in the succession and interruption of biopolitical events and the invention that animates it); finally, in scholium IV we began to give actuality and concreteness to the exceeding of the multitude that becomes the reality of the common in the metropolis.
Now we are able to present the subjective relevance of this world of historical and ontological exuberance. When asking what it means for biopolitics to exceed, as is customary when looking for a definition we need to proceed from the establishment of the difference between this extraordinary figure of non-measure and the strong models that were proposed to measure at other times.
Here, value overflows beyond any threshold of political and economic control. Its measure can be derived neither from the quantity of time granted to the necessary reproduction of labor power as a whole, nor from the ensuing social order. Here value is biopolitical , already social and institutional: it is founded on the common of cooperation and projected towards the political institution to come. The needs interpreted by valorization arise out of subjects and continually change them: in the common, within this biopolitical constituency lies the social as production of subjectivity . ‘If two come together and unite their strength, they have jointly more power, and consequently more right over nature than both of them separately, and the more there are that have so joined in alliance, the more right they all collectively will possess' - an old yet always novel discovery of Spinoza's (6). In our view, a discussion about value in the current situation refers to life activity as a whole, and therefore we understand the dis-measure of productive labor, increasingly and more specifically, as a process that traverses the biopolitical fabric of society (7).
Crossing the threshold: a first definition of biopolitical inordinacy , here understood as the dis-measure of all the barriers built by the tradition of modern political economy in order to control the different elements of the production of value.
By insisting, positively , on the issue of biopolitical exceeding as a productive and political activity we can now start defining it. Firstly, in epistemology , exceeding is manifestly an activity, a linguistic rupture, words and innovation: something that is not satisfied just with composing the continuity of language anew, but shows an accumulated and still unexpressed power of meanings on the one hand , and an innovative expression of signs on the other (8). Secondly, a fundamental character of the activity of exceeding can be seen in what we would call the biophysics of bodies as the continual metamorphosis of modes of living and the ever more accelerated invention of new social forms of life in common and innovations in life and production.
In the history of materialism the physical innovation of bodies was always presented as a clinamen , that extraordinary yet casual element that intervenes in the fall of atoms to deviate their singular course – and thus determines the event. When objectively described, the activity of exceeding can be similarly envisaged as on a cinema screen. However, it should also be understood as a dispositif , a dynamic of desire that not only sees its formation but also prefigures and experiments it, carrying it out in its making from below , from the drive of being itself, within the processes of singularisation that define subjects. Finally, in ethics, when viewed as the experience of training in love , this exceeding explodes in all its clarity – as Wittgenstein says in the epigraph to this chapter – no longer as the product of the biopolitical process, but as its performative machine (9).
A continuing legacy, constantly reaffirmed and invariably repressed in the history of philosophy, and not only in the West, defended the affirmation of value as an expression of life and interpreted it as a power of constitution. Confronted with the excellence of reason and the intellectual hierarchies imposed on other elements of life by dogmatic philosophy from Ancient Greece onwards, the principle of the exuberance of will over instrumental knowledge always faced a strong opposition. We now need to identify another course of philosophy, another history of resistances, and another theoretical and practical line of flight that have not been concluded. As we said, not only in the West, but in the East too (as Bloch reminds us), the ‘Aristotelian left' of Avicenna and Averroé insisted on the creativity of matter to discover, with the eductio formarum , in the insurgence of powers that qualify life, the human powers that interpret and develop them (10).
Let us return to us/Western history and to the moment between the ancient and the modern period when the theory of Renaissance refers to the other tradition, in Augustine in particular. Augustine's affirmation of a free will that elevates man to the threshold of transformation of being itself was revisited and modified as a principle of power throughout modernity. We always find it in the currents that ran counter to the intellectualism that – since the beginning of philosophy – tried to identify origin with power, and truth with instrumental rationality. Contrary to it, free will runs everywhere: ‘ voluntas est quipped in omnibus; immo omnes nihil aliud quam voluntates sunt ' (11). From Duns Scotus to Nicholas of Cusa, from Spinoza to Deleuze, we could chart the development of these dispositifs of exceeding and ethical performativity that were soon to be articulated in metaphysical differences and organized ontological species of singularity. Can you forgive our insistence on the emphasis on the dialectics of poverty and love in this work? Do so, and take into consideration the fact that our theory develops out of this alternative genealogy and that, like Nietzsche, we understand love as will to power, as the ontological production of a common subjectivity.
We still need a new theory of value and thus of crossing the threshold, exceeding, as we mentioned before referring to the long tradition of theories of exuberance founded on will that opposed intellectualism and pointed towards another direction in western philosophy.
First of all, when confronting this issue, we should note that we are not expecting a theory that reveals value as something other than the perception of a historical event. In the most powerful theoretical Erlebnisse that runs from Marx to Nietzsche, value is already regarded as a historically determined innovation, or a constituent activity . Wilhelm Dilthey aptly sums it up when writing: ‘everything man does in this socio-historical reality is produced by putting will into play; in will, the end becomes the agent under the guise of the motive' (12); as does Michel De Certeau, who shows us how the dispositifs at work in Foucault's historical research provoke an explosion of the life events we build for the future, ‘like a laughter' (13). This is all the more so when in recent trends of critical theory we detect a constant approximation to it. Yet this is not enough - we need to go further. We are at the stage of the explosion, as Wittgenstein qualified it, a singular, ethical, new and irreducible determination.
What does all this mean? That a theory of value can and should be construed as a dispositif that, breaking away from determinism, re-qualifies the temporality and spaces of life in creative terms. To exceed is shown to be a creative activity. A new theory of value has to be based on the historical succession of the powers of economic, political, and social innovation that today can be determined by the expression of multitudinal desire. We have value when the surplus human activity determines a rupture in the balance of power; when, as a consequence of this, the relations between the constitutive elements of the biopolitical process and the structure of biopower fall out of balance; when resistance becomes overflowing, creative, boundless, and human production is shown to be originally constitutive. Then, control over development (which the State and the collective organisms of capital assume as the very definition of their own legitimacy) will no longer be able to hold back resistance (the resistance of the multitude, of labor power, and of the whole of social singularities): only then will there be value .
Starting from this hypothesis, let us try to describe some of its movements. First and foremost: labor power against exploitation . The elements that determine the disequilibrium of capitalist command are insubordination, sabotage, industrial jacquerie , the demands of direct and social income, the liberation and organization of the intellectual labor of the multitude and so on and so forth. Capitalist power can track and govern this disequilibrium either in a static or in a dynamic manner. The choice between different techniques of containment and/or governance is dictated by the intensity of resistances. When the forces of excess win, the system enters a state of crisis and repression can only be organized at the most advanced and sophisticated levels of capitalist organization, or rather, starting from processes of reform in the structures of power (14).
The same applies to the second series of questions related to the explication of the concept of exceeding activity from the perspective of resisting subjectivities. Singularity against identity : this is the second articulation of the dispute. We have already frequently referred to how identity represents, from the point of view of ideology, a fundamental instrument of capitalist mystification and repression: here it acts to neutralize and/or crush the developments produced by singularities in the construction of the multitude and the common (through the dialectics of identity). However, singularities can in no way be reduced to identity, nor can the multitude ever be regarded as a unity (15).
Thirdly, last but not least: the common against the Republic . We already know that where labor and life exceed, it is always towards the construction of the common. Only the common is the sign of productivity, and productivity is the exceeding of the common today. However, the proprietary Republic wishes to subjugate, exploit and capitalize the common in order to reallocate it in accordance with the laws of individual ownership and liberal political representation. This project asphyxiates singularities and neutralizes the power of the common. Here, the same thanatopolitics that many authors unfortunately try to retrace to the repressive exuberance of totalitarian regimes is in fact the bourgeois identity politics of capitalist exploitation and republican transcendence. Biopower reacts everywhere and always against this exceeding activity and cannot accept its biopolitical materiality.
What is the definition of value in economic terms? This is a meaningless question, because economic science is always also a bio-economics, and thus also biopolitics and a bio-society (and obviously also bio-resistance and bio-revolution, as well as bio-happiness). If capitalists destroyed economic science by turning it into mathematics, the possibility of bringing it back to life is open to us! Economic value consists in the exuberance that cooperative activity (intellectual, manual, affective or communicative) can actualize counter to and beyond the capitalist regulation of society exercised through the financial conventions of the market. As for the ‘measure of value', it can only be given – within the recognition of the common nature of value – by the democratic exercise of the production of the General Intellect. It would be useful to reclaim an old adage for ourselves as communists: freedom is not just a political value, but above all an economic, or, better, a biopolitical value. Starting from these political considerations, we can start measuring economically the excess produced by social activity and common labor. We are now operating within an ontology of the present, a biopolitics of production that, as we will see in the next chapter, needs a radically democratic structure.
We are proposing a difficult path. When studying the development of industrial capitalism, Marx wrote the following on the forces that would overthrow it: ‘It takes time and experience for the worker to learn to distinguish machines from their capitalist use , and thus to deploy his attacks from the means of material production itself to the social form of its exploitation ' (16). For new proletarian subjects of knowledge and exceeding activity, this will be a difficult path, made easier only by the fact that the multitude is now established in the common, whilst capital is recognizably an obstacle to production. We dare ‘surpassing' with force but without illusions, in the way that Spinoza teaches us, paradoxically: ‘If, for instance, I say that I can rightfully do what I will with this table, I do not certainly mean that I have the right to make it eat grass. So too, though we say that men depend not on themselves but on the commonwealth, we do not mean that men lose their human nature and put on another; nor yet that the commonwealth has the right to make men wish for this or that' (17).
1 – K. Marx, Il Capitale, Vol. 1, sez.IV (ed. Rinascita 1956, vol.II. pp.97 sgg.)
2 - On Goodwill , see M. Aglietta, Le capitalisme de demain , Notes de la Fondation Saint-Simon , no. 101, Paris 1998; L. Nakamura, Intangibles: What Put the New in the New Economy , Philadelphia 1999
3 – P.M. Sweezy, La teoria dello sviluppo capitalistico, Einaudi Torino 1951, p.67ff (Oxford University Press, 1946) P.M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian political economy , Monthly Review Press, New York 1942, p.52-53.
4 – On the theory of value in general, see I.I. Rubin, Essays on Marx's Theory of Value (1928), trans. by M. Samardžija and F. Perlman, Black and Red, Detroit 1972; R.L. Meek, Studies in the Labour Theory of Value , Lawrence and Wishart, London 1956; C. Napoleoni, Smith, Ricardo, Marx , Torino 1972; on the reduction of the law of value to the law of surplus value, see M. Tronti, Operai e Capitale, Einaudi, Torino 1966 and A. Negri (1979), Marx Beyond Marx , trans. by M. Ryan, M. Viano and H. Cleaver, Autonomedia, New York 1981; on the theory of crisis, see A. Negri, (1972) ‘ Marx on Cycle and Crisis' in Revolution Retrieved , trans. by E. Emery and J. Merrington, Red Notes, London 1988.
5 – A. Orlean, Le pouvoir de la finance, Odile Jacob, Paris 1999.
6 – B. Spinoza, A political treatise, II, 13, trans. by R.H.M. Elwes, Dover Publications, New York 1951, p. 296.
7 – See L. Nakamura, op.cit. and M. Nussenbaum, ‘Juste valeur et actifs incorporels', in Revue d'economie financiére , n. 71, August 2003.
8 – On this duplicity of method, see G. Agamben, Segnatura rerum. Sul metodo, Bollati Boringhieri, Milano 2008.
9 – Here we refer to Deleuzian interpretations of Spinoza's Ethics ( op. cit. ), see M. Hardt, Deleuze , Routledge, London 1993 and A. Negri ‘Kairos, alma venus, multitudo' in Time for revolution, trans. by M. Mandarini, Continuum, London 2003.
10 – E. Bloch, Avicenne et la gauche aristotelicienne, trans. by C. Maillard, Premières Pierres, Paris 2008 (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2005).
11 – This is a scholastic adage reported by H. Heimsoeth in defence of his thesis Les six grands themes de la Metaphisique, du moyen age aux temps modernes, Vrin, Parigi 2003, p.223.
12 – W. Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I: Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, Teubner, Lipsia and Berlin , 1914, p. 47.
13 – M.De Certeau, ‘Le rire de Michel Foucault ', in Revue de la Bibliothèque nationale, n. 14, 1984, p. 10-16.
14 – For an interpretation of economic innovation as historical rupture, and of Schumpeter in particular, see A. Zanini, Filosofia economica , Torino 2005, p. 204ff; Economic Philosophy. Economic Foundations and Political Categories , trans. by C.E. Orsi , Peter Lang Verlagsgruppe, Oxford 2008.
15 – Here we refer back to the arguments developed earlier in paragraph 3.2.2
16 – K. Marx, Capital, I libro, sez.IV, cit., p.13 .
17 - B. Spinoza, A political treatise, II, 13, trans. by R.H.M. Elwes, Dover Publications, New York 1951, Ch. IV Sec 4.