Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho on the Marxian notion of “merchant’s capital”

One of the themes running through Marx’s treatment of capital in exchange is that there is a crucial distinction to be made between money as money and money as capital (see Chapters 4 and 12). Money functions as money when it acts as a means of exchange between two agents /…/ Hence, the role of money as money is understood by reference to simple commodity circulation, C – M – C. By contrast, money as capital is understood by reference to the circuit of capital, M – C … P … C’ – M’, where money is employed for the specific purpose of producing surplus value.
There is a definite relation between the two functions of money in capitalism, since simple commodity circulation and industrial production are closely connected. /…/
Marx’s treatment of merchant’s capital is an abstract one. Although capitalist production and trade are closely intermingled, they are structurally distinct, and Marx identifies a tendency towards the separation of these activities in the economy. /…/
Apart from distinguishing between industrial capital, which produces surplus value, and merchant’s capital, which circulates it and facilitates the transition between the commodity and money forms of capital (indirectly increasing the mass of surplus value produced by industrial capital), Marx points out that merchant’s capital itself tends to be divided into two forms: commercial capital (buying and selling of commodities) and money-dealing capital, or MDC (the handling of money).
With the development of production, the acts of buying and selling become the specialised tasks of particular capitalists (for example, transport, storage, wholesale and retailing). Industrial capitalists increasingly rely upon specialised merchant capitalists to undertake the realisation of (surplus) value. /…/
Marx adds that merchant’s capital is subject to competitive mobility between itself and industrial capital (industrial capitalists can move into trading, as is currently shown by the ubiquity of direct sales on the internet, and vice versa, for example, when large retailers contract manufacturers to produce ‘own brand’ goods). Consequently, the rate of return on merchant’s capital tends to become equal to the rate of profit on industrial capital, even though the former does not itself produce surplus value, which can only be created by productive labour engaged by industrial capital (see Chapter 3).
From the point of view of the commercial capitalists, the labour power purchased by them seems to be productive, because it is bought with variable capital with the intention of valorising the capital advanced. However, what it creates is not surplus value, but merely the ability of the commercial capitalists to appropriate part of the surplus value produced by industrial capital.
The theoretical distinction between industrial and merchant’s capital is simple enough in principle, once we accept the distinction between the spheres of production and exchange in the circuits of industrial capital. But matters are not so simple in practice. For historically, and continuing to the present day, there are what might be termed ‘hybrids’ cutting across these distinctions.
Perhaps an analogy will help. Take the self-employed. What is their status? They do not appear to be exploited wage workers. But what if their earnings are equivalent to those of a skilled (or even unskilled) wage earner, and they work just as long hours, and, possibly, for the same company, often without job security, pensions and other contractual rights? In this case, the self- employed are wage workers in disguise and are likely to be highly exploited, despite their apparent ‘autonomy’. There might also be self-employed whose earnings exceed value produced (for example, top accountants and lawyers whose income and status are similar to those of managers or small capitalists).
This latter example indicates that classification problems and the presence of hybrid categories do not invalidate abstract analysis. Indeed, they make it even more essential, to avoid a descent into ever more refined description. However, in order to proceed further the limits to abstract analysis must also be acknowledged, and reference must be made to empirical realities. In this relationship, the abstract categories provide the basis on which increasingly complex empirical outcomes can be understood. Exactly the same principle applies to the distinctions between the spheres of production and exchange, and between industrial and merchant’s capital.

Excerpt from Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s ‘Capital’, 6th ed., Chapter 11.

David Harvey on the different forms of capital

Capital is not a thing but a process in which money is perpetually sent in search more money. Capitalists — those who set this process in motion — take on many different personae. Finance capitalists look to make more money by lending to others in return for interest. Merchant capitalists buy cheap and sell dear. Landlords collect rent because the land and properties then own are scarce resource, Rentiers make money from royalties and intellectual property rights. Asset traders swap titles (to stocks and share for example), debts and contracts (including insurance) for a profit. Even the state can at like a capitalist, as, for example, when it uses tax revenues to invest in infrastructures that stimulate growth and generate even more tax revenue.

But the form of capital circulation that has come to dominate from the mid-eighteenth century onwards is that of industrial or production capital. In this case the capitalist starts the day with a certain amount of money, and, having selected a technology and organisational form, goes into the market place and buys the requisite amounts of labour power and means of production (raw materials, physical plant, intermediate products, machinery, energy and the liked The labour power is combined with the means of production through an active labour process conducted under the supervision of the capitalist. The result is a commodity that is sold by its owner, the capitalist, in the market place for a profit. The next day, the capitalist, for reasons that will shortly become apparent, takes a portion of yesterday’s profit, converts it into fresh capital and begins the process anew on an expanded scale. If the technology and organisational forms do not change, then this entails buying more labour power and more means of production to create even more profit during the second day And so it continues, ad infinitum.

In the service and entertainment industries this process looks a little different because the labour process (cutting the hair or entertaining the crowd) is in itself the commodity being sold, so there is no time lag between producing and selling the commodity (though there may be a lot of preparatory time involved). The necessity to reinvest in expansion, given the personal nature of the services often on offer, is not as strong, though there are plenty of examples of expanding service store and cinema chains, coffee shops and even private higher education centres.

Continuity of flow in the circulation of capital is very important. The process cannot be interrupted without incurring losses. There are also strong incentives te accelerate the speed of circulation. There are also strong incentives te accelerate the speed of circulation. Those who can move faster through the various phases of capital circulation accrue higher profits than their competitors. Speed-up nearly always pays off in higher profits. Innovations which help speed things up are much sought after. /…/
The circulation of capital also entails spatial movement. /…/ The means of production (including raw materials) have to he brought from yet another place to produce a commodity that has to be taken to market somewhere else. Frictions within or barriers to this spatial movement lake time to
negotiate and slow down circulation, throughout the history of capitalism much effort has therefore been put into reducing the friction of distance and barriers to movement. Innovations in transport and communications have been crucial. /…/

Throughout the history of capitalism there has been a trend towards the general reduction of spatial barriers and speed-up. /…/ But this trend is neither smooth nor irreversible. Protectionism can return, barriers can he refortified, civil wars can disrupt flows.

Excerpt from David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (2010), chapter 2. Emphasis added.

The becoming-rent of profit

Rent is the revenue that can be extracted from exclusive ownership of a resource, where value is contingent on its availability with respect to demand (Harvey, 2001). Industrial capitalism concerned direct intervention in the production process, and subsequently in the generation of profit. In industrial capitalism, therefore, rent is characterised as external to production and distinct from profit. Industrial capitalism constituted a shifting emphasis from immobile to movable property, corresponding to a shift from primitive accumulation towards profit. Rent was largely understood as a pre-capitalist legacy, traditionally associated with immobile forms of property such as land. Where ‘rent’ is the primary locus of value, the rentier is thought to be external to the production of value, merely extracting the economic rent produced by other means. The generation of profit, in contrast, requires the direct intervention of the capitalist in the production and circulation of material commodities. It is associated with the ability to generate and extract surplus (Vercellone, 2008, 2010). This transformation from rent to profit, many theorists argue, is emblematic of a passage from primitive accumulation to capitalist productive power in industrial capitalism (Hardt, 2010). In contrast, capitalist accumulation is today characterised by a shift from the productive forms of capitalism that characterised the industrial era towards new modalities in which rent is no longer cast in opposition to profit. Through the growing role of property in extracting value from a position external to production, and the manipulation of the social and political environment in which economic activities occur, such as the management of scarcity and the increasingly speculative nature of capital itself, the core tenets of ‘rent’ are confused with ‘profit’. This is described in the Post-Operaismo theory of the ‘becoming-rent of profit’, an economic theory specular to the communism of capital.

Rent, as Pasquinelli (2008) maintains, is the flipside of the commons. Through the rent applied over proprietary frameworks that flank the digital commons, the material surplus of immaterial labour is opened to extraction.

Excerpt from Rachel O’Dwyer, “Spectre of the commons: Spectrum regulation in the communism of capital” (2013)


Positivismen kan generelt definieres som en videnskabelig holdning indenfor historie- og samfundsvidenskaberne, der hylder den antagelse, at man relativt uproblematisk kan anvende naturvidenskabelige metoder her /…/
Indenfor den økonomiske videnskab er det især Adam Smiths og Ricardos modeltænkning, altså anvendelsen af metoder fra den klassiske fysik, tankeeksperiment, idealisering, matematisk iklædning af lovmæssigheder, der bærer de naturvidenskabelige metoder frem indenfor samfundsvidenskaberne. Heroverfor står en helt anden opfattelse af den økonomiske videnskab, som er knyttet til forestillingen om politiske faktorers konstituerende indflytelse på bestemmelsen af økonomiens genstand. En sådan opfattelse karakteriserer den såkaldte ældre og yngre “historiske skole” indenfor den økonomiske videnskab.
“Den ældre skole” repræsenteres af navne som Roscher, Knies og Hildebrand, “den yngre historiske skole” af navnet Schmoller[2] især. Schmoller forsøgte i 70-erne og 80-erne af det 19-nde århundrede at skabe en alternativ økonomisk videbskab, det var knyttet til arbejderbevægelsen og i økonomien så en mulighet for at realisere etiske normer, der konkretiseres i retning af en forbetring af arbejderklassens vilkår gennem en integrering i det kapitalistiske system. Denne skole stiftede foreningen “Verein für Sozialpolitik, som også Max Weber var medlem af. /…/
Dette program gik ud på at afvise generelle love i den økonomiske videnskab. Love her var af en meget begrænset gyldighed.
De økonomiske fænomener og bevægelser bestemtes derimod efter Schmollers mening delvis af sociale og politiske faktorer. Derfor skulle den økonomiske videnskab holde sig fra præcist afgrænsede begreber, thi sådanne kunne først nås for enden af emnets egen udviklingsproces, der var betinget af politiske faktorer. I stedet for modeltænkning og deduktion skulle den økonomiske videnskab benytte sig af induktion, altså af empirisk generalisation, og derved nå til indsigt om visse lovmæssigheder, der ikke var af særlig universel karakter.
Denne opfattelse af den økonomiske videnskab hører naturligvis nøje sammen med den opfattelse af samfundet som bl.a. kommer till udtryck i Bernsteins och Kautskys revisionistiske socialdemokratisme.
Hertil hører Hilferdings teori om ‘den politiske løn’, altså tesen om, at lønnens størrelse bestemmes af arbejderklassens politiske styrke og ikke af værdiloven, altså ikke af forholdet mellem enkelt- og totalkapital som indeks på akkumulationsfondens og profittens størrelse.
[2] “Historisme” betyder en historisk forståelse, der vil forstå fortiden på dennes præmisser, og måle den med dens egne alen. Det betyder også en erkendelseteoretisk og videnskabsteoretisk holdning, der afviser en “transcendental”, altså eviggyldig, uhistorisk tilgang til det sande.
Denne betegnelse har ikke udelukkende “negativ” eller kritisk indhold. Begrebet “historicisme” er vel den angelsaksiske version av “historisme”, og har samme betydning, blot bruges ordet i en mere negativ sammenhæng. Med Popper er det blevet et skældsord mod en holdning indenfor historie- og samfundsvidenskaberne, som Popper vel nok selv i vid udstrækning har opfundet, men som af ukyndige alt for ofte problemløst forbindes med Marx’ og Mannheims skrifter. Denne negative betydning er blevet yderligere cementeret af Althusser, dog i et andet ærinde end Poppers.”

ur Ole Fogh Kirkeby: Kapitallogik og historie (Ruc Boghandel & Forlag 1975), s. 173–175, 220

Isaac Balbus (1977) on commodity fetishism and legal fetishism

Although Marx never developed a full-fledged theory of the legal form, it is nevertheless possible to reconstruct from his early writings on law and the state /…/ an analysis of the logic of the legal form which, in its essentials, completely parallels his more systematic, fully developed analysis of the commodity form. /…/

If, in a capitalist mode of production, products take on the form of individual commodities, people take on the form of individual citizens; the exchange of commodities is paralleled by the exchange of citizens. A citizen, in turn, is every bit as “mysterious,” twofold, and in fact contradictory a reality as a commodity. An individual citizen, to begin with, is a qualitatively distinct, concrete subject with qualitatively distinct human needs or interests. /…/
At the same time, however, individual citizens are not only, and not immediately, subjects with needs but also and rather objects of exchange who exist in order to represent, and be represented by, other individual citizens. The existence of political exchange or representation thus requires that qualitatively distinct individuals with otherwise incommensurable interests enter into a formal relationship of equivalence with one another, i.e., that the qualitatively different subjects become what they are not: equal. This relationship of equivalence, in turn, is made possible by the law which, with the development of capitalism, becomes the universal political equivalent by means of which each individual is rendered equal to every other individual, so that any one individual can represent any other. The fully developed legal form thus entails a common form which is an abstraction from, and masking of, the qualitatively different contents of the needs of subjects as well as the qualitatively different activities and structures of social relationships in which they participate. Thus the legal form, in Marx’s words, “makes an abstraction of real men” which is perfectly homologous to the abstraction that the commodity form makes of “real products.” /…/

And, just as the commodity form “replaces” use-value and concrete labor with the abstractions of exchange-value and undifferentiated labor-power, the legal form “replaces” the multiplicity of concrete needs and interests with the abstractions of “will” and “rights,” and the socially differentiated individual with the abstraction of the juridical subject or the legal person. Pashukanis was perhaps the first Marxist after Marx to specify what might be called the common mode of substitution underlying both the commodity form and the legal form:

In the same way that the natural multiformity of the useful attributes of a product is in commodities merely a simple wrapper of the value, while the concrete species of human labor are dissolved in abstract labor as the creator of value – so the concrete multiplicity of the relationships of a man to a thing comes out as the abstract will of the owner, while all the specific peculiarities distinguishing one representative of the species homo sapiens from another are dissolved in the abstraction of man in general as a juridic subject.


Similarly, the “individuality” established and protected by the legal form is illusory insofar as it is established in and through an abstraction from the concrete, social bases of individuality and is thus a “pure, blank individuality” (Marx, 1843:481) bereft of any qualitative determinations and differences. /…/
The only form of individuality common to all members of a capitalist society, moreover, is the individualism and egotism of commodity exchangers, which is in fact the real (and thus “false”) content of the formal individuality produced and guaranteed by the legal form. The indifference to qualitatively different needs “announced” in and through the abstractions of “will” and “rights” parallels, and is made possible through, a system of commodity exchange whose individual agents are necessarily indifferent to reach other’s reciprocal needs and are rather obliged to treat each other as a mere means to their own purely “private” ends. /…/
Thus the commitment of the legal form to individuality is ultimately illusory, because the individuality it recognizes and presupposes is in fact an alienated form of individuality – individualism.


Thus the legal form both produces and reinforces illusory, rather than genuine, forms of equality, individuality, and community. At the same time, as I have suggested, these illusory forms contribute significantly to the persistence of a capitalist system which necessarily precludes the realization of genuine equality, individuality, and community. For both reasons, the legal form is a specifically “bourgeois” form; those who would simultaneously uphold this form and condemn the capitalist mode of production which “perverts” it simply fail to grasp that part they uphold is inextricably tied to the very system they condemn /…/
To put it another way, the emergence of human need as the basis of social production and intercourse necessarily entails the transcendence of that form – the legal form – which, as we have seen, carries out a systematic, bloodless abstraction from human needs. /…/

C. “Legitimation”
The foregoing analysis has important implications for a theory of the “legitimation” and/or “delegitimation” of the legal form, and thus, of the capitalist state. Those who would argue that delegitimation can result from the failure of law to live up to its “promises” (i.e., from the gap between its promises and its performance) fail to understand that the legitimation of the legal order is not primarily a function of its ability to live up to its claims or “redeem its pledges” but rather of the fact that its claims or pledges are valued in the first place. /…/
Consider, for example, legal practices that systematically and obviously violate the principle of “equality before the law” /…/
Such practices may in fact delegitimate particular judges and particular court systems, but they will not delegitimate the legal order itself, insofar as the delegitimation of the former does not call into question, but rather is based on the affirmation of, a central criterion of the legal order, equal treatment irrespective of class position. /…/

D. The Fetishism of the Law
The legal form is normally not called into question, I would argue, because the form itself ordinarily precludes the possibility of performing this critical operation. The calling into question of the legal order presupposes individuals who conceive themselves as subjects evaluating an object which they have created and over which they have control. It is just this presupposition, however, which is nullified by the perverse logic of the legal form; this form creates a fetishized relationship between individuals and the Law in which individuals attribute subjectivity to the Law and conceive themselves as its objects or creations. Under these conditions, the calling into question and subsequent delegitimation of the legal order is literally “unthinkable.”
The fetishism of the Law of which I am speaking appears in many guises. /…/ The most frequent /…/ is the common refrain: “If we didn’t have the Law everyone would kill each other.” All these instances, and many others, are simply variations on the common theme of legal fetishism, in which individuals affirm that they owe their existence to the Law, rather than the reverse, inverting the real causal relationship between themselves and their product. /…/ When Society is held to be a result of the Law, rather than the Law to be a result of one particular kind of society, then the Law by definition is unproblematical.
Commodity fetishism and legal fetishism are thus two inseparably related aspects of an inverted, “topsy-turvy” existence under a capitalist mode of production in which humans are first reduced to abstractions, and then dominated by their own creations.

Isaac Balbus: “Commodity Form and Legal Form: An Essay on the ‘Relative Autonomy’ of the Law” (1977)

David Greaeber on avantgardism, prophecy and so-called “immaterial labor”

Excerpts from “The sadness of post-workerism“.


“We might ask: what does the moment of Futurism, Dada, Constructivism and the rest, and French ’68 thought, have in common? Actually quite a lot. Each corresponded to a moment of revolution: to adopt Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, the world revolution of 1917 in one case, and the world revolution of 1968 in the other. Each witnessed an explosion of creativity in which a longstanding European artistic or intellectual Grand Tradition effectively reached the limits of its radical possibilities. That is to say, they marked the last moment at which it was possible to plausibly claim that breaking all the rules—whether violating artistic conventions, or shattering philosophical assumptions—was itself, necessarily, a subversive political act as well. /…/
All that remained for the Surrealists was to connect a few remaining dots, and the heroic moment was over. One could still do political art, of course, and one could still defy convention. But it became effectively impossible to claim that by doing one you were necessarily doing the other, and increasingly difficult to even try to do both at the same time. It was possible, certainly, to continue in the Avant Garde tradition without claiming one’s work had political implications (as did anyone from Jackson Pollock to Andy Warhol), it was possible to do straight-out political art (like, say, Diego Rivera); one could even (like the Situationists) continue as a revolutionary in the Avant Garde tradition but stop making art, but that pretty much exhausted the remaining possibilities.

What happened to Continental philosophy after May ’68 is quite similar. /…/ The heroic moment was over. What’s more, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the premise that heroic acts of epistemological subversion were revolutionary or even particularly subversive in any other sense. In fact their effects seemed if anything depoliticizing. Just as purely formal avant garde experiment proved perfectly well suited to grace the homes of conservative bankers, and Surrealist montage to become the language of the advertising industry, so did poststructural theory quickly prove the perfect philosophy for self-satisfied liberal academics with no political engagement at all.
If nothing else this would explain the obsessive-compulsive quality of the constant return to such heroic moments. It is, ultimately, a subtle form of conservatism—or, perhaps one should say conservative radicalism, if such were possible—a nostalgia for the days when it was possible to put on a tin-foil suit, shout nonsense verse, and watch staid bourgeois audiences turn into outraged lynch mobs; to strike a blow against Cartesian Dualism and feel that by doing so, one has thereby struck a blow for oppressed people everywhere.


Consider Negri’s contribution to the conference. He begins by arguing that each change in the development of the productive forces since the 1840s corresponds to a change in the dominant style of high art: /…/
The changes in the material infrastructure—of industry—are thus reflected in the ideological superstructure. The resulting analysis is revealing no doubt, even fun if one is into that sort of thing, but it sidesteps the obvious fact that the production of art is an industry, and one connected to capital, marketing, and design in any number of (historically shifting) ways. One need not ask who is buying these things, who is funding the institutions, where do artists live, how else are their techniques being employed. By defining art as belonging to the immaterial domain, it’s materialities, or even its entanglement in other abstractions (like money) need not be addressed.
This is not perhaps the place for a prolonged analysis, but a few notes on what’s called “the art world” might seem to be in order. It is a common perception, not untrue, that at least since the ‘20s the art world has been in a kind of permanent institutionalized crisis. One could even say that what we call “the art world” has become the ongoing management of this crisis.
I am really not trying to be cynical. Actually I think the dilemma to some degree flows from the very nature of politics.
Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence.
In this sense politics is very similar to magic, /…/ something that works because people believe that it works; but also, that only works because people do not believe it works only because people believe it works.
Yet the same bankers and traders who produce these complex financial instruments also like to surround themselves with artists, people who are always busy making things—a kind of imaginary proletariat assembled by finance capital, producing unique products out of for the most part very inexpensive materials, objects said financiers can baptize, consecrate, through money and thus turn into art, thus displaying its ability to transform the basest of materials into objects worth far, far more than gold.
The original, romantic conception of the artist—and hence, the very idea of art in the modern sense—arose around the time of industrial revolution. Probably this is no coincidence. As Godbout and Caille have pointed out, there is a certain complementarity. Industrialism was all about the mass production of physical objects, but the producers themselves were invisible, anonymous—about them one knew nothing. Art was about the production of unique physical objects, and their value was seen as emerging directly from the equally unique genius of their individual producers— about whom one knew everything. /…/ What’s more, the market value of their work is dependent on the perception that it was
produced in the pursuit of something other than market value.
For two hundred years at least, artists and those drawn to them have created enclaves where it has been possible to experiment with forms of work, exchange, and production radically different from those promoted by capital. /…/
The fact that all this is made possible by money percolating downwards from finance capital does not make such spaces “ultimately” a product of capitalism any more than the fact a privately owned factory uses state-supplied and regulated utilities and postal services, relies on police to protect its property and courts to enforce its contracts, makes the cars they turn out “ultimately” products of socialism.
Total systems don’t really exist, they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and the fact that capital is dominant now does not mean that it will always be.
Now, this is hardly a detailed analysis of value formation in the art world. It is only the crudest preliminary sketch. But it’s already a thousand times more concrete than anything yet produced by theorists of immaterial labor.


The notion of immaterial labor can be disposed of fairly quickly. In many way it is transparently absurd. /…/
To some degree this is just a much more sophisticated Leftist version of the rise of the service economy, etc, but there is also a very particular history, which goes back to dilemmas in Italian workerism in the ‘70s and ‘80s. On the one hand, there was a stubborn Leninist assumption—promoted, for instance, by Toni Negri—that it must always be the most “advanced” sector of the proletariat that makes up the revolutionary class. Computer and other information workers were the obvious candidates here. But the same period saw the rise of feminism and the Wages for Housework movement, which put the whole problem of unwaged, domestic labor on the political table in a way that could no longer simply be ignored. The solution was to argue that computer work, and housework were really the same thing. Or, more precisely, were becoming so: since, it was argued, the increase of labor-saving devices meant that housework was becoming less and less a matter of simple drudgery, and more and more itself a matter of managing fashions, tastes and styles.
The result is a genuinely strange concept, combining a kind of frenzied postmodernism, with the most clunky, old-fashioned Marxist material determinism. /…/
The trick only works if you do not, under any circumstances, reinterpret the past in the light of the present. One could after all go back and ask whether it ever really made sense to think of commodities as objects whose value was simply the product of factory labor in the first place. /…/
One could, even, start from the belated recognition of the importance of women’s labor to reimagine Marxist categories in general, to recognize that what we call “domestic” or even “reproductive” labor, the labor of creating people and social relations, has always been the most important form of human endeavor in any society, and that the creation of wheat, socks, and petrochemicals always merely a means to that end, and that—what’s more—most human societies have been perfectly well aware of this.
To take an obvious example: for most of the twentieth century, capitalist offices have been organized according to a gendered division of labor that mirrors the organization of upper-class households: male executives engage in strategic planning while female secretaries were expected to do much of the day-to-day organizational work, along with almost all of the impression-management, communicative and interpretive labor, mostly over the phone. Gradually these traditionally female functions have become digitized and replaced by computers; this creates a dilemma, though, because the interpretive elements of female labor (figuring out how to ensure no one’s ego is bruised, that sort of thing) are precisely those that computers are least capable of performing. Hence the renewed importance of what the post-workerists like to refer to as “affective labor.”
Immaterial labor, we are told, is labor that produces information and culture. In other words it is “immaterial” not because the labor itself is immaterial (how could it be?) but because it produces immaterial things. This idea that different sorts of labor can be sorted into more material, and less material categories according to the nature of their product is the basis for the whole conception that societies consist of a “material base” (the production, again, of wheat, socks and petrochemicals) and “ideological superstructure” (the production of music, culture, laws, religion, essays such as this). This is what’s allowed generations of Marxists to declare that most of what we call “culture” is really just so much fluff, at best a reflex of the really important stuff going on in fields and foundries.

What all such conceptions ignore what is to my mind probably the single most powerful, and enduring insight of Marxist theory: that the world does not really consist (as capitalists would encourage us to believe) of a collection of discrete objects, that can then be bought and sold, but of actions and processes. This is what makes it possible for rich and powerful people insist that what they do is somehow more abstract, more ethereal, higher and more spiritual, than everybody else. /…/

One would think that the first aim of a materialist approach would be to explode such pretensions—to point out, for instance, that just as the production of socks and silverware involves a great deal of thinking and imagining, so is the production of laws, poems and prayers an eminently material process. And indeed most contemporary materialists do, in fact, make this point. By bringing in terms like “immaterial labor”, authors like Lazzarato and Negri, bizarrely, seem to want to turn back the theory clock to somewhere around 1935. /…/

Lazzarato for example argues that “the old dichotomy between ‘mental and manual labor,’ or between ‘material labor and immaterial labor,’ risks failing to grasp the new nature of productive activity, which takes the separation on board and transforms it. /…/
Note here that (a) Lazzarato implies that the old manual/mental distinction was appropriate in earlier periods, and (b) what he describes appears to be for all intents and purposes exactly the kind of dialectical motion of encompassment he elsewhere condemns and rejects as way of understanding history (or anything else): an opposition is “transcended”, yet maintained. No doubt Lazzarato would come up with reasons about why what he is arguing is in fact profoundly different and un-dialectical, but for me, this is precisely the aspect of dialectics we might do well to question; a more helpful approach would be to ask how the opposition between manual and mental (etc) is produced.


Negri tends to throw everything, all the specific gestures, exchanges, and transformations into a kind of giant blender called “real subsumption”—whereby since everything is labor, and all forms of labor operate under the logic of capital, there’s rarely much need to parse the differences between one form and another (let alone analyze the actual organization of, say, a collection agency, or the fashion industry, or any particular capitalist supply chain.)
One could argue that revolutionary thought, and critical social theory, both have their origins in prophecy. At the same time, prophecy is clearly a form of politics. /…/
The same could be said of theories of immaterial labor. They’re not really descriptive. For its most ardent proponents, immaterial labor is really important because it’s seen to represent a new form of communism:
Capitalism, which is reduced increasingly to simply realizing the value created by such communistic practices, is thereby reduced to a purely parasitical force, a kind of feudal overlord extracting rent from forms of creativity entirely alien to it. We are already living under communism, if only we come to realize it. This is of course the real role of the prophet: to organize the desires of the multitude, to help these already-existing forms of communism burst out of their increasingly artificial shackles. Beside this epochal task, the concrete analysis of the organization of real-life TV studios or cell phone dealerships seems petty and irrelevant.
In contrast the main body of social theory as we know it today does not trace back to such performative revolutionary gestures, but precisely, from their failure. Sociology sprang from the ruins of the French revolution; Marx’s Capital was written to try to understand the failure of the revolutions of 1848, just as most contemporary French theory emerged from reflections on what went wrong in May ’68.
Certainly this is the role in which Negri, Bifo, and the rest have now been cast. /…/ Their job is to explain why the time we live in is unique, why the processes we see crystallizing around us are unprecedented; different in quality, different in kind, from anything that has ever come before.
Of course, Bifo was explicitly arguing that the Future itself is dead. /…/ We have come to a point where it is impossible to even imagine projecting ourselves forwards in time in any meaningful way, where the only radical gesture left to us is therefore self-mutilation or suicide. /…/
So we are faced with a dilemma. The revolutionary Future appears increasingly implausible to most of us, but neither can we simply get rid of it. As a result, it begins to collapse into the present. Hence, for instance, the insistence that communism is already here, if only we knew how to see it. The Future has become a kind of hidden dimension of reality, an immanent presence
I actually do agree that thinkers like these are useful in helping us conceptualize the historical moment. And not only in the prophetic-political-magical sense of offering descriptions that aim to bring new realities into being. I find the idea of a revolutionary future that is already with us, the notion that in a sense we already live in communism, in its own way quite compelling. The problem is, being prophets, they always have to frame their arguments in apocalyptic terms. Would it not be better to, as I suggested earlier, reexamine the past in the light of the present? Perhaps communism has always been with us. We are just trained not to see it. Perhaps everyday forms of communism are really /…/ the basis for most significant forms of human achievement, even those ordinarily attributed to capitalism.