My schedule is very compressed at the moment, and I have no time for serious writing, but I’ve been meaning for the past couple of days to post a pointer to a discussion going on over at Nate’s what in the hell…, sparked by Nate’s dissatisfaction with Negri’s claim that recent transformations in the nature of labour undermine “classical” conceptions of the working day and the labour theory of value. Nate argues:
It simply is not the case that there is a transition which has occurred like that which Negri describes. There certainly have been important changes in capitalism (though there are important continuities as well which I think Negri understates) but Negri’s periodization strikes me as at best a clumsy took for grasping this – like trying to catch a ball while wearing oven mits or with grease on one’s hands.
It’s not at all clear that “the classical descriptions of the “work day” and the law of value/labor no longer correspond to reality” though Negri is convinced it is. His conditional is rhetorical, not sincere – there is no question “if” the transition has happened. It has for Negri. Interestingly and I think revealingly, Negri has asserted the supercession of the law value since at least the late 1970s, well before his post-structural vocabulary and his attention to the affective and immaterial. It seems to me the case that his resort to that vocabulary and that attention is at least as much the result or expression of (that is, it’s motivated by a desire to retain) his views on the law of value as it is the case that this vocabulary and attention support his arguments about value.
The full post goes into much greater detail, and I won’t reproduce Nate’s argument here, but rather point readers to the original.
Nate’s post reminds me, though, of something I’ve been meaning to blog, about a somewhat similar reaction I had to elements of Honneth’s presentation at the recent Recognition and Work conference. Caveat here that I don’t have a copy of Honneth’s written paper, and I’m also writing this without the notes I actually took at the conference, so I write this with a strong self-consciousness about potentially being unfair to the nuance of Honneth’s position. But my impression at the conference was that Honneth, first, reads Marx as criticising industrial or factory labour against a model of craft labour (understood as self-determining activity in which people could develop themselves through the process of “objectification” in the creation of a material object). So Honneth seems to take Marx’s critical standpoint (in this one talk – I’m far from an expert in Honneth’s work as a whole) as being grounded in the notion that people can realise themselves in the transformation of material nature. It goes without saying that I find this a problematic reading of Marx, but that concerned me less than what Honneth did with this argument, which was (if I understood him correctly) to say that the shift away from industrial manufacturing and toward the development of more service oriented labour undermined this “Marxist” notion of a critical standpoint, because labourers no longer produced any kind of visible, tangible thing: no (material) object, no self-objectification, no standpoint of critique in labour (at least, labour seen with reference to its role as an activity transforming material nature).
Now, as it happens, I don’t think Marx understands his standpoint of critique this way, so in a sense it doesn’t particularly disturb me to have someone argue that the transformation of nature provides no privileged normative standpoint from which other aspects of social relations might be judged. On that level, I don’t have a dog in this fight.
On another level, though, what a strange way to conceptualise historical transformation – to see the rise of service industries (which of course poses its own unique historical challenges, not least for forms of organisation) as some sort of fundamental qualitative transformation in the nature of capitalist labour: to think that it would somehow compel us to change, say, a structural determination of labour under capitalism, because it doesn’t produce a discrete material product, but instead provides some kind of “immaterial” service for other people. Of course, it may be easy for me to say this, because I understand Marx’s argument about “value” to be an argument about how capitalism revolves specifically around the production of a social substance – something that, moreover, Marx expressly says has no “material” component. From my starting point, it’s perhaps a bit difficult to see why the shift from producing physically distinct widgets to… widgeting for other people, would mark any necessary structural shift in the nature of capitalist labour. Again, I’m not trying to suggest that the concrete organisation of production or the qualitative characteristics of what is being produced makes no difference, or is irrelevant, or shouldn’t be analysed. I am, though, saying that pointing to the shift from industrial to service industries, by itself, doesn’t have any clear or immediate implications for the “labour theory of value” – which is expressly described as being about ways in which material production (a term that, itself, Marx defines extremely broadly, in ways that would comfortably accommodate ephemeral goods like services) comes to be “haunted” by an immaterial social essence that has nothing intrinsically to do with material production at all.
For the same reason, I’m unconvinced that this sort of shift tells us anything about the validity or lack of validity of Marx’s understanding of his own standpoint of critique. Of course, again, it’s easier for me to say this, because I don’t read Marx (by Capital, certainly) as grounding his critique in some sort of romantic valorisation of craft labour, as this was progressively being threatened by the rise of industrial production. In other words, I don’t see Marx criticising capitalism against the model provided by something pre-capitalist or non-capitalist, but rather as unfolding an immanent critique of contradictory tendencies within capitalism.
My laptop battery is about to die, so I have to post this. Apologies for the brevity and lack of development of this blurt – happy to be corrected by people who think I’m being unfair to Honneth (and, again, I am responding very specifically here to things said in one paper, at one conference – I am making no general claims about Honneth’s work). Also happy to explain what the hell I’m talking about, if this post makes no sense… :-)
But go read the discussion at Nate’s – it’s not covering exactly the same ground that I’m ranting about here, and it’s better developed… Running!!