The autonomist Marxist category of social labor and the city

The Italian workers’ rejection of rigid, authoritarian hierarchy, and impersonal, rationalized routines, and call for more flexible, cooperative social production forced capital into a paradigm shift. The industrial factory gave way to networked organization and production. The technological innovation of the personal computer, however, gave capital the means with which to extract surplus value, not from labor materialized in a product, but from labor based upon language. In other words, the new social laborer ushered in a new era of capitalist development known as post-Fordism and cognitive capitalism in which the very faculty of language is exploited for economic gain.

The theoretical basis for autonomist Marxism’s privileging of communication in contemporary configurations of capital is Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. In this text, the autonomist’s category of social labor in the form of Antonio Negri’s “socialized worker” (Books for Burning xl) and Maurizio Lazzarato’s “immaterial laborer” (“Immaterial Labor”) finds its precursor in Marx’s “social individual” who “steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor” (Grundrisse 705). Paolo Virno explains the quote’s importance for Marx:

This placing of labor activity ‘to the side’ of the immediate process of production indicates […] that labor corresponds more and more to ‘supervisory and regulatory activity’ (ibid., 709). In other words: the tasks of a worker or of a clerk no longer involve the completion of a single particular assignment, but the changing and intensifying of social cooperation. (62).

Production and its relationship to consumption have drastically changed. The goods being produced are no longer just material. The production of knowledge, technology, and advertising are just as important if not more so. The game-changer is that today an exchange of knowledge precedes an exchange of goods. Images and signs are sold before the product. Cognitive capitalism, as Lazzarato astutely observes, is obsessed, not with the production of the commodity, but with the creation of the “world where the commodity exists” (“Créer des mondes”). Virno describes the post-Fordist experience of cognitive capitalism as one in which the communication industry (he interchanges the term “communication industry” with “spectacle” and “culture industry”) “plays the role of industry of the means of production” (61). Machinery is no longer the primary productive force, but, rather, “linguistic-cognitive competencies inseparable from living labor” are (61).

What this means for the city is deindustrialization, the dependence on culture and technology to produce wealth, the sanitizing of public space, and the linking of art, urban planning, and politics.

Works cited

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emory. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Ed. Paul Virno and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 133-147. Print.

—. “Créer des mondes: Capitalisme contemporain et guerres ‘esthétiques’.” Multitudes 15 2004. Web. 14 Dec 2010. <<>>.

Marx, Karl. The Grundrisse. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Negri, Antonio. Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2004. Print.


5 thoughts on “The autonomist Marxist category of social labor and the city

  1. Steve – I’ve never had anyone put it quite like this. Surplus value from labor based on language. An immensely appealing idea. One the one hand, it explains deindustrialization and the increasing reliance of cities on culture for profit. It begs the question, though: “what kind of art / planning / politics stems from this kind of urbanization?” Surely not all of it is part of this “selling of place?”

    • Good point. Immaterial laborers who participate in the capitalist production of space contribute to the “selling of place,” but those aspiring to become living unpaid labor (when labor is “autonomous” and dispenses of the wage relation) have the potential to create art and aesthetics that break with predetermined norms and inspire new ways of doing urbanism. Creative activists worldwide are immaterial laborers who use the tools of cognitive capitalism in order to resist it. Thanks for your comment!

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