The Fragment on Machines

  • Frederick Harry Pitts
Part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series (MAENMA)


This chapter assesses the significance of Marx’s Fragment on Machines, a few pages of his notebooks for Capital, the Grundrisse, for the development of the postoperaist prospectus of incipient communism and capitalist collapse. It begins by evaluating how the discovery of the Fragment chimes with the analysis of empirical changes in capitalist labour to suggest a utopian scenario taken up increasingly on the contemporary left. It considers how Hardt and Negri’s ‘molecular’ understanding of history, focusing on immediate changes in the content of labour, elides the ‘molar’ continuities of the forms this labour assumes in exchange. The posing of successive paradigm shifts through which postoperaists like Bifo suggest measurement has been replaced progressively by control, command and violence, ignore what the value-form already dialectically conceals.

7.1 Introduction

In this chapter, I survey the significance of Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’, a short passage in his notebooks for Capital , the Grundrisse , for the postoperaist prospectus of capitalist collapse. The reception of this discarded and provisional outline of a future development of capitalism beyond a society organised around the expenditure of concrete labour-time and the rule of exchange-value allies , in this prospectus, with the assessment of novel empirical possibilities granted by the New Economy, producing an optimistic portrait of imminent collapse and incipient communism within the present. But, theoretically, this extrapolation from Marx’s Fragment of a crisis in the law of value – recoded elsewhere, as we will go on to see, as a ‘crisis of measurability’ – rests on the absence of any serious attempt to read the Fragment within the full unfolding of Marx’s value theory beyond the Grundrisse , in its highest stage of development – and that Marx committed to public consumption – in Capital. And, empirically, it reads far too much into the favourable unfolding of events in the direction of travel the Fragment specifies, suggesting the conditions Marx describes are of the here and now rather than the far-off future – if, indeed, at all. This chapter suggests that this is analytically and politically disastrous, emphasising perpetual change and novelty in a world where continuities of both form and content carry over.

In the first section of the chapter, I introduce the Fragment and chart its reception in both postoperaist literature and its currently fashionable ‘postcapitalist’ echo on the contemporary left – a modern manifestation I return to with greater critical focus in the Conclusion of this book. I then discuss how the Fragment’s conceptualisation of a breakdown in the law of value is mobilised to suggest the conditions for such a breakdown are present today, associating this with the Spinozist celebration of the constituent capacities of the multitude covered in the previous chapter. In the third section, I continue this thread by assaying the ‘affirmationist’ tenor of postoperaist pronouncements on the relationship of human activity and the limits placed upon it by capitalist social forms and relations. I also clarify the function of what Hardt and Negri characterise as ‘molar’ and ‘molecular’ ways of comprehending history, suggesting that a focus on the immediate intricacies of the latter obstructs any critical perspective on the overarching continuities of the former. Finally, I apply this to the contention, tied to the conceptualisation of a crisis of measurability that flows from the Fragment and is covered in greater detail in the next chapter, that, in the succession of paradigm shifts the molecular vantage point proposes, measurement comes to be replaced first by control, then command and then direct violence. This, I suggest, shows how, by emphasising novelty over impermeable negativity, and the unfolding forward force of history rather than its negative-dialectical inversion in on itself, postoperaismo misses that capitalism is and continues to be all these supposed historically specific forms of domination at once.

7.2 Fragment-Thinking

Like others through time, our political moment may well rest on the inheritance of a few slender pages from the oeuvre of Marx. The ‘Fragment on Machines’ (1993, pp. 704–6) is a small section of his Grundrisse , the notebooks for what would later become Capital. In it, Marx presents a future scenario where the use of machines and knowledge in production expands. Production revolves more around knowledge than physical effort. Machines liberate humans from labour, and the role of direct labour time in life shrinks to a minimum. Free time proliferates. The divorce of labour-time from exchange value sparks capitalist crisis. But this technological leap brings about the possibility of a social development on a massive scale. Freed from physical subordination to the means of production, workers grow intellectually and cooperatively. This freely generated ‘general intellect’ reinserts itself, uncoerced, into production as fixed capital . The worker is incorporated only at a distance, rather than as a constituent part of the capital relation. The potential for an incipient communism arises.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Fragment inspired postoperaist analyses of the New Economy and ‘immaterial labour’ . Popularised by Hardt and Negri’s bestseller Empire (2001), it wielded influence on early 2000s alter-globalisation struggles. Its echoes carried through, post-crisis, to Occupy and its intellectuals. And, as the left moved towards a state-oriented politics of populism and electoralism in the mid-2010s, it reached a peak, specifically in the UK. Postcapitalism (Mason 2015a), accelerationism (Mackay and Avanessian 2015; Srnicek and Williams 2015a; see also Negri’s response 2015), Fully Automated Luxury Communism (Bastani 2015): all owe their roots to the Fragment. In their name, the Fragment has gained a foothold in the popular consciousness. Media personalities accrue it broadsheet inches, directly (see for instance Mason 2015b) or by inference (Harris 2016; Jones 2016).

The most unexpected turn has been the uptake of ideas stemming from it in the UK parliamentary political world. Under Corbyn , Labour’s shadow treasury team has embraced an economic agenda of ‘Socialism with an iPad’ (Wintour 2015) and the basic income (Stewart 2016). Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell routinely invites leading postcapitalists and accelerationists to address policy workshops, such as the Labour Party’s ‘New Economy’ Shadow Chancellor’s Conference at Imperial College London in May 2016. The intellectuals disseminating Fragment-thought number among Corbyn’s leading supporters (see Mason 2016). This cross-fertilisation with the calculation of party policy marks high-water for the Fragment’s reception. It has wended a strange and unconventional route to prominence in which Marx is often a silent partner. It is one part of this route, in the work of Negri and the postoperaists, I seek to chart here.

To the Italian operaist milieu, the Fragment’s interpretation, Thoburn (2003, p. 80) writes, has been ‘akin to biblical exegesis’. This interpretation rests less on ‘reification of authorial truth’ than its ‘iteration’ in ‘different sociohistorical contexts as part of the composition of varying political forms’. Its early apogee was Negri’s 1978 Paris lectures on the Grundrisse , published as Marx Beyond Marx (1992). A political weapon from the start, it was not until Empire (2001) that its lasting sociohistorical iteration was set out. The New Economy drew Negri to conclude that the conditions described in the Fragment were already present.

In this way, postoperaist receptions of the Fragment seize upon contemporary transformations in work (Noys 2012, pp. 113–14). The positing of an already-existing crisis of measurability rests upon the advent of ‘immaterial labour’ (Lazzarato 1996). This puts to work elements formerly, we are told, extraneous to the production process. Cognitive, affective and cooperative capacities and free time factor in value production. What the Fragment foretells becomes reality.

Hardt and Negri define immaterial labour as transcending ‘the expropriation of value measured by individual or collective labor time’. This, of course, rests on an understanding whereby value was measured thus previously – which was never the case to begin with (see Chap.  8). Regardless, they inform us that, today, labour is no longer subject to capitalist control. It is a self-organised function of the ‘multitude’ . For Hardt and Negri, the multitude is what happens when the proletariat and the labour movement alters radically from its paradigmatic figure of the white, male manual worker to a multifarious, mobile body of so-called singularities (2001, p. 53). The multitude’s immeasurable productivity is enacted through communicative and affective networks. In this way, labour holds the potential of ‘valorizing itself’ through its own activity. ‘[H]uman faculties, competences and knowledge’ are ‘directly productive of value’, rather than requiring the superintendence of capital (2009, pp. 132–3). This, Virno notes (1996, pp. 22–3), is the current form assumed by what Marx referred to in the Fragment as ‘general intellect’.

Its autonomous activities, Lazzarato writes, are located in the ‘immaterial basin’ of ‘society at large’. This labour, then, is ‘not obviously apparent to the eye’, undefined by the four walls of a factory. It thus ‘becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time. In a sense, life becomes inseparable from work’ (1996, pp. 137–8). And, postoperaists suggest, this potentiates the crisis of value qua labour-time described in the Fragment. This is synonymous with the ‘crisis of measurability’ contested in this book.

In this chapter, I confront the postoperaist positing of the existing realisation of the Fragment. As we will see further in the next chapter, postoperaists elide the persistence of the real abstraction of value and the social relations of production it expresses and proceeds through. I challenge the assertion that the crisis and redundancy of value associated with the Fragment is realised. This is because we still, in a contradictory way turned against us, subsist through the value-form . Where postoperaists see a ‘communism of capital’ already existing, I contend that we live, work, starve and suffer still under its rule. An alternative strand of Marxist theorising – that of the NRM – brings its full horror home. But as we saw in Chap.  6, recognition of this negativity is necessary to develop the theoretical and practical tools to overcome it.

Read against the radically revisionist Marx exegetically defined by the NRM, there are two problems with the postoperaist account of the Fragment. The first relates to Marx himself. As Heinrich (2013) asserts, the Fragment’s temporary formulation fails against the standards of Marx’s own work as set out in Chap.  2. Its fragmentary status owes to this. The Fragment was one part of Marx’s working discarded as his theory developed in sophistication and coherence. The most complete statement of this theory is that we find in the still-unfinished iteration given in Capital.

Postoperaists have us believe value relates not to abstract social forms , but quantities of inputs and outputs. In this, their work bears out a disavowed productivist temptation towards the factory. In a brief critique , Moishe Postone (2012) assays Hardt’s suggestion that ‘the question of measurability is a function of the nature of that which is measured – material or immaterial’. Rather, ‘the question of measurability is, basically, one of commensurability’. This relates not to specific objects or practices , but ‘the social context within which they exist’. The grounds for ‘mutual exchangeability’ are ‘historically specific and social’. For instance, how two distinct items are rendered commensurable will change through time. Today, this is value, what Postone calls ‘a historically specific form of social mediation’ . This ‘crystallisation’ occurs in spite of any change in the material or immaterial basis of that which it mediates. We will explore this further in the next chapter.

Recognition of this socially mediated form destabilises the Fragment-interpretations hegemonic within new strands of popular Marxism. It shows that the situation set out in the Fragment is contrary to the development of Marx’s own theory. And his interpreters since do not do any better, the law of value they claim redundant rendered resistant to its purported ‘crisis’.

Postoperaist claims as to the realisation of the Fragment’s conditions in the present are possible not only by virtue of a misunderstanding of the value-form . They also elide the persistence of the social relations it conceals and implies.

As we have seen in Part 1, the NRM radically diverges from the Marx one finds represented in receptions of the Fragment on Machines. In the Fragment, Marx describes how the increase in machinery in the labour-process displaces human labour. This weakens the role of labour-time as the measure of human productive activity. In this it carries echoes of the ‘falling rate of profit’ account of crisis covered at the end of Chap.  5, with all the political and theoretical baggage this entails. In the scenario presented in the Fragment, these conditions cause the quantitative connection between labour-time and exchange value to break down. For postoperaists, this ‘ crisis of measurability’ or ‘ crisis of the law of value’ afflicts capitalism today.

The critique of political economy , therefore, is, as Bonefeld (2014) puts it, fully a critical theory of society as a whole. It refuses to accept at face value the objective forms taken by congealed social relations in capitalist society. It does not reflect the world back at itself with the same objectified economic and social forms that dominate us. In what follows, I suggest that postoperaist receptions of the Fragment do precisely that. And this complicity with the present state of things may account for the Fragment’s popularity with policymakers and media movers-and-shakers today. In the subsequent discussion, I return to the roots of this popularity to destabilise them. In so doing, I hope to contribute to the unfolding debate over the possibilities of a post-work, postcapitalist utopia in the present day.

7.3 The Communism of Capital

The modern tribunes of postcapitalism derive their wayward theorising from the postoperaist proliferation of Marx’s Fragment. But I suggest that readings of Marx that sit the Fragment front-and-centre are misplaced. They extrapolate from it a situation impossible in the present according to the letter of his value theory. Heinrich (2013) recommends we treat it as exactly what it is: a fragment. The scenario it presents remains untouched as Marx develops his theory of value towards Capital, which, as we have seen in Chaps.  2 and  3, and will explore further in Chap.  8, rests on much different assumptions about what value is and how it comes about.

Tony Smith (2013) suggests another basis on which to situate the Fragment within Marx’s wider body of work. Smith suggests that the Fragment describes a future communism, not a current capitalism. This would explain how radically the prospectus breaks with what we know of Marx’s theory of value as a theory of social form .

Problematically, modern popularisations of the Fragment run counter to this periodisation. As Caffentzis notes, what Marx sees happening at some point in the future, Negri sees holding in the here and now (2005, p. 89). This was not always the case. In Marx Beyond Marx , for instance, Negri suggests that communism is defined in the transition towards it (1992, p. 115), with no implication this transition is complete. It is underway, perhaps, but in no meaningful sense realised. Here, Negri suggests that only communism’s realisation fulfils the conditions the Fragment describes. It brings an end to the law of value , through ‘the negation of all measure, the affirmation of the most exasperated plurality – creativity’ (1992, p. 33). But, at this stage, Negri makes no intimation that this point has been reached.

But, by Empire , this ‘exasperated plurality’ reappears as the basis for a shift in stress from Marx to Spinoza . Drawing on the latter, Negri conceives creative desire immanently driving capitalist development towards Fragment-conditions. Empirical changes in the world of work express what we can call, following Beverungen, Murtola and Schwartz (2013), a ‘communism of capital’. Immaterial labour – creative, communicative, cognitive – ‘seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism’ (Hardt and Negri 2001, p. 294).

Earlier, in his Grundrisse lectures, Negri describes the Fragment as ‘the highest example of the use of an antagonistic and constituting dialectic’ in Marx’s work (1992, p. 139). But in the switch to Spinoza , the antagonism and the dialectic disappear. Only constitution remains. The difference relates to how Negri periodises historical transition. In Marx Beyond Marx , he characterises the Fragment as prophesising a ‘communism’ reached through the constituting power of working-class subjectivity. ‘Communism has the form of subjectivity’, he writes, ‘communism is a constituting praxis’. This is a movement in opposition to the present: ‘There is no part of capital that is not destroyed by the impetuous development of the new subject’ (1992, p. 163). But, by Empire , the struggle seeps away. The new subjectivity – that of the multitude – is in compliance, not conflict, with the present. This is because, by virtue of its immanent creative power, the present is in its own image. As such, the communism foretold in the Fragment is no longer subject to a struggle through which to attain it. It is, rather, a current with which one conforms. As we considered at the end of the last chapter, this shows how close postoperaismo remains to the productivist, teleological Marxist orthodoxy with which it auspiciously claims to break. Despite appearing as a countervailing intellectual trend to traditional Marxism, it ends up repeating many of its mistakes.

That postoperaismo insufficiently breaks with the conventional Marxism it claims to relates to the position of workers and class struggle in its theoretical worldview. In delineating a ‘communism of capital’, Negri pays lip service to the worker-led struggle of Tronti’s Copernican reversal (Cleaver 1992) that sits at the very inception of the operaist tradition encountered in Chap.  6. But the account of change and crisis in Empire ultimately writes history without it. Multitude and Empire move in syncopation – and, vice versa. Whatever happens in the world is a result of the unfolding of the multitude’s ‘creativity of desire’ (Hardt and Negri 2001, pp. 51–2) conceptually derived from Spinoza .

Here the ‘affirmationism’ that Noys (2012) skewers is plain to see. It illuminates the contemporary resonances of Negri’s interpretation of the Fragment’s present-day realisation. Take the ‘accelerationist’ current, with which Negri himself engages (2015, see also Mackay and Avanessian 2015; Srnicek and Williams 2015a). Here Fragment-thinking endows a nihilist optimism whereby whatever happens, however bad, is for the good. What accelerates subsumption and crisis (of measurability and otherwise) represents a liberation. Srnicek and Williams (2015b), for instance, herald a time where newscasters report firm closures and job losses not as tragedies, but victories. When the immanent driving force of multitude stands behind every twist and turn in capitalist misery, it is easy to see a silver lining to the fraying thread that links life ever less with labour. A crisis in social reproduction is misread as post-work possibility. How one sees this situation produces quite different politics. One emphasises human questions of how we access the things we need to live. The other places faith in robots and machines to liberate us from what we need to do to get them instead.

This myopia around work and production unwittingly reproduces the stale communism and social democracy operaismo originally sought to escape. On one hand, there is teleology. The orthodoxy stood sure in the knowledge that history unfolds precisely to plan: an inevitable collapse of capitalism propelled by outdated irrationality and technological change. Workers were expected to move with the current, rather than against it. But, as Benjamin wrote of the social democracy of his time in Thesis XI of his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1999), its conformism to what is ‘attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well… Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving’ (Benjamin, quoted in Noys 2012, p. 115).

As Noys suggests, a ‘key symptom’ of this conformism was the celebration of labour (2012, p. 115). This reappears again, today, in the affirmationist Fragment-thinking of postoperaists like Negri. It betrays a reverse productivism, whereby all change in capitalist hangs on the workplace. Only here, its end is posited as opposed to its liberation. Today’s postoperaist-inspired radicals hold post-work to be synonymous with postcapitalism . A kind of work, with a kind of worker, is taken to portend a new world. In this case, it is the ‘immaterial labourer’. This displays a traditionalist productivism inherited, as Caffentzis astutely notes, from Marxist-Leninism. Here, ‘the revolutionary subject in any era is synthesised from the most “productive” elements of the class’ (2013, p. 79).

But, in postoperaismo , this is augmented by a ‘Spinozist metaphysic’ that ‘affirms the productive force of humankind’, as Ryan puts it (1992b, p. 218). Everyone is the most productive element of the class, which is now ‘multitude’ . Spinozist monism, which suggests everything is as one, grants Negri a convenient alibi. Unremitting positivity greets a world wherein whatever happens results from a multitudinous ‘creativity of desire’. And the hypothesis that this is so is by its nature indisputable. Its only proof is what is. ‘History’ becomes synonymous with ‘multitude’ , and just as elusive. The political message echoes through bided time: sit back, and let teleology do the rest. Whatever you are doing is good enough. But is it? In the next section, I will evaluate the limitations of the kind of popular action Negri champions, and places at the heart of the supposed changes in labour and capital he and his followers posit.

7.4 Too Unlimited

As we touched on in Chap.  6, in eulogising the multitude’s capacity to create the world around it, Negri and other postoperaists end up affirming that world. This neutralises their ability to critically get to grips with a world in which human creativity is turned against itself. Noys’s concept of ‘affirmationism’ is important here. In realising the Fragment, for postoperaists like Negri the multitude’s actions wield an ‘affirmative’ dimension (Noys 2012). Capital is subject to its drives, we are told, which are the immanent motor of all change. This is as true when capitalism is working as when it is not. On one hand, globalisation responds to the border-hopping boundlessness of the nomadic multitude . The New Economy arises from the autonomous and cooperative creativity of that multitude . On the other hand, crisis springs from the multitude’s challenge to capital’s limits. As Noys notes, the crisis of measurability springs from an excess of life made ‘directly and immeasurably productive’ (2012, pp. 113–14). So the multitude both compels capitalist development, and its crisis. The positivity of this process is made clear in Empire . Hardt and Negri celebrate the immanent force of the multitude , writing that

Immanence is defined as the absence of every external limit from the trajectories of the action of the multitude , and immanence is tied only, in its affirmations and destructions, to regimes of possibility that constitute its formation and development… If Empire is always an absolute positivity, the realization of a government of the multitude , and an absolutely immanent apparatus, then it is exposed to crisis precisely on the terrain of this definition, and not for any other necessity or transcendence opposed to it. Crisis is the sign of an alternative possibility on the plane of immanence – a crisis that is not necessary but always possible… Since the spatial and temporal dimensions of political action are no longer the limits but the constructive mechanisms of imperial government, the coexistence of the positive and the negative on the terrain of immanence is now configured as an open alternative. Today the same movements and tendencies constitute both the rise and the decline of Empire . (2001, pp. 373–4)

The crisis, then, is in no way forced by the negation of the unfolding of capitalist social relations. Rather, it confronts capitalism with an excess of things already present within it positively. These elements are a positive part of its functioning – free time, productivity, value, creativity , desire, labour and non-labour – and of life, which under capital is nothing other than labour-power and its reproduction. In exceeding them, the multitude affirms (Noys 2012, pp. 113–14) what exceeds these limits and the limits themselves. And, by extension, it affirms the relations and things that usually proceed with reasonable bounds of those same limits. Which is to say, value, labour, capital and so on.

One reading might have the multitude affirming what meets the limits, but not the limits themselves. But this chicken-and-egg scenario implies the pre-existence of a constituted power . This suspends the Copernican Inversion, springing not from constituent power but something prior. Thus the undialectical core of the idea of constitutive power is exposed.

In a critique of Negri, Bonefeld (1994) restates how the perverted forms taken by the products of human practice dominate and cajole us. In Negri, only the provenance of that which pushes against the limits of valorisation is explained. The origin of those limits themselves is lacking. And it lies in perverted forms of human practice assuming alien power above and beyond us.

A dialectical orientation can grasp this. It comprehends the contradictory unity of, on the one hand, the conceptuality of abstract social form , and, on the other, the non-conceptuality of the struggle to subsist on the other. But Negri’s Spinozist immanentism sees only one, uncomplicated monad. It lacks the dialectical sensitivity to contradiction and mediation capable of accessing the nature of the limits it claims the multitude transcends. This relates to an understanding of history and its progression and periodisation centring on Hardt and Negri’s distinction between ‘molar’ and ‘molecular’ approaches. By advocating the latter over the former, Hardt and Negri are able to posit changes impossible in a capitalism that in many respects remains the same, in spite of alterations in the immediate content of labour.

Negri positively associates the multitude with the breaking of capital’s quantitative boundaries. But in embracing what challenges its limits, he loses critical focus on the nature of those limits themselves. This disregards how the perverted forms resulting from human practice continue imposing themselves anew. The activities that ebb at the limits of capital are one and the same as those that constitute those limits to begin with. Human practice takes the form of abstract labour in a society mediated by the exchange relation of value. This relates not only to an analysis of social processes at their most abstract. Rather, those processes express the essence contained, denied, within their appearance – which is to say, concrete social relations, of antagonism, coercion and separation from subsistence outside selling one’s labour-power .

Their elision in Negri’s account of the Fragment’s unfolding is curious. The conceptualisation of the crisis of the law of value is historicist in its presentation. The conditions that make it possible are embedded in a changing set of concrete realities. The crisis of measurability attends changes in the relations of production. And these are, for Negri, synonymous with the forces of production. Workers set the rules under which they labour. The Italian situation in the 1960s and 1970s is central to this prognosis. A constituent power -grab led to the breakdown of the Keynesian accord on wages and productivity. Operaists watched closely as wage demands rocketed and work refusal proliferated. Workers abandoned agreements submitting their productivity to capitalist command (Cleaver 2000, p. 68). This eventually resulted in a new kind of economy, immaterial and factory-free. For the postoperaists, the revolt of these forces was also a revolution in the relations of production. This is not a dialectical relationship, but one shared by two sides of the Copernican Inversion. Negri’s embrace of Spinozist immanence makes this clear. It gives a philosophical basis to render two as one. Where multitude leads, Empire not only follows, but moves as one. But the historical analysis remains more or less the same. The change is rooted in concrete circumstances, their form unconsidered.

But this historicity leaves postoperaismo no more capable of capturing capitalism’s overwhelming continuities. It emphasises only change. This is a deliberate choice. Hardt and Negri set out to distance themselves from a molar perspective (Hardt and Negri 2008, p. 50) that explains history along the lines of ‘large aggregates or statistical groupings’. This, they claim, results in a world portrayed as one of continuity rather than change, ‘a history of purely quantitative differences’ (2008, pp. 51–2). On the other hand, a molecular perspective is a qualitative approach revealing change rather than continuity. It refers to ‘micromultiplicities, or rather singularities, which form unbounded constellations or networks’ (2008, p. 51). This is the approach Hardt and Negri choose.

This molecular perspective moors accounts of the Fragment’s unfolding in a rejection of continuity. This is so on two counts. On one hand, it elides the persistence of the abstract rule of value. Hence measure itself is done away with. On the other, it elides the continuation of the social relations that undergird it. In other words, it ignores its antagonistic undertow in separation, hunger and dispossession.

The molecular vantage point allies in important ways with Negri’s reverse productivism. It permits the extrapolation from compositional changes in labour’s content systemic observations about capitalism. But the labour process is merely a carrier of the valorisation process (Arthur 2013). This implies the persistence of certain social forms and relations. The content of a given labour process matters less than the form it assumes at the level of capitalist reproduction as a whole. If a molar perspective is necessary to comprehend this, then so be it.

From the molecular perspective, crisis issues from the constituting movement of the multitude . The historically specific conditions under which this occurs owe to this immanent correlation. The multitude’s movements are those of capital, too. This is so ‘not for any other necessity or transcendence opposed to it’ (Hardt and Negri 2001, pp. 373–4). Value moves beyond measure because the multitude makes it so.

Understanding value as quantity rather than a social relation, this eschews the ‘molar’ dimension. Measurability is always in the condition of ‘crisis’ ascribed to it in Fragment-thought. Capital permanently confronts its inability to fully negate life’s concrete specificity in the value-form. For Negri, the challenge posed to measurability is historically specific. The multitude’s immeasurable productivity is a novel fact. Its ‘immeasurable powers of life’ express not an existential vitalism but the contemporary rise to prominence of a ‘multitude of singularities’ (Noys 2012, p. 112).

But the truth is that there was always an excess, with or without the multitude . There is a remainder of human dignity the value relation cannot contain through denial. This is a critical position Hardt and Negri consciously set out to refute in a missing insert from Empire (see Noys 2012, p. 110). Critiques of capitalist totality rally to the defence of principles ‘totally Other’ to it. But this ‘otherness’ implies antagonism and contradiction alien to an immanentist viewpoint. This renders out of bounds the positing of a humanity that constantly evades capture.

From Negri’s molecular and immanentist perspective, any excess is historically temporary. But, contrary to this periodisation, the domination of the particular by totality is permanent. The molecular resonates with pop-intellectual eulogies for a long line of ‘new economies’. It celebrates change, at the expense of critiquing capitalist continuities that must be overcome. Politically, this has us hang our hopes on the affirmation and acceleration of historical change, and not its halt-cord. Hence the bad political efficacy of the Fragment and its postoperaist reception on the left today, and its resonance with bourgeois celebrations of contemporary digital and creative labour as the harbingers of a new concord with work.

Reading history molecularly allows Negri to view the present through the prism of the Fragment. The rise of immaterial labour seems to realise the conditions Marx describes. But the ascription of novelty elides how value persists, and the social relations this implies. This extends to the positing of ‘paradigm shifts’. As Holloway (2002) asserts, Hardt and Negri alight upon this idea to explain social change. But parsing one from another – Fordism from post-Fordism, for instance – overlooks how common features carry over.

This parsing is easy when one sees all change issuing from the workplace. As Aufheben note (2007), these paradigms are defined along productivist lines. They pass by in accordance with superficial transformations in the content of labour. This overlooks the stability of the social form productive activities assume. It is this aspect that is crucial for Marx’s critique of political economy . Postoperaists focus on only the immediate guise taken by productive activity. But, to see the Fragment within the context of Marx’s work, focus must fall on the social form mediating this immediacy . What characterises capitalism is not the specific kind of productive activity that takes place. Rather, it is characterised by the forms taken by its results: value, money , capital. This is the specificity of the social formation in which we find ourselves, which is to say, capitalism. And understanding this is key to investigating it.

Bypassing this specificity, postoperaists conceive a capitalism they cannot grasp undergoing a crisis it cannot suffer. The same theoretical imprecision blights the new politics of ‘postcapitalism .’ Misunderstanding what capitalism is produces misunderstandings over the possibilities of its replacement. And this leads to bad politics. But these foreshortened forms of praxis stem from analytical weaknesses in the first instance, of which I say more in the next chapter.

7.5 Measurement and Violence

As I showed in the last section, faulty conceptualising follows from the molecular succession of paradigm shifts. Its immanentist and productivist analysis of change leads it down many blind alleys. Postoperaist attempts to explain capitalism’s reproduction after the unfolding of the Fragment demonstrate this. How does capitalism carry on once its forms of measure enter crisis? To answer this, postoperaists reach for a string of concepts – command, control and violence. They propose a transition from measurement to pure coercion. This suggests that the two are not already implicit within each other. This owes to a misreading of how value and social domination function in the first place.

The progression through command, control and violence mirrors the development of autonomist Marxism. The operaist–postoperaist transition centred on a changing interpretation of class struggle and capitalist development. The first-generation operaists saw a role for capitalist planning of production. This implied measurement, rationalisation, quantification and so on. But this related less to top-down control than capital’s reaction to class struggle. Mario Tronti’s so-called ‘Copernican Inversion’ was ground-breaking in this regard (Cleaver 2000, pp. 65–6). It placed workers as the prime mover in capitalist development. But, essentially, capital could still act in response, channelling production to its ends.

With Negri’s lectures on the Grundrisse came a bold contention to the contrary. An ‘empty form of capitalist command’ replaced the law of value (Negri 1992, pp. 147–8). The planning and regulation of production gave way to ‘a direct relation of force’, as Ryan puts it (1992a, p. xxix). The exchange relationship between the buyer and seller of labour power – in production a relationship of exploitation – passes over into a relationship of pure command over which the struggle is no longer economic but ‘purely political’ (1992a, p. xxix).

Later, Negri substitutes command for control. With Hardt, he follows Deleuze in positing a transition from disciplinary society to one of control. The former saw power enforced within the four walls of the factory, the prison and the school. In the latter, their carceral and exploitative logics seep out of their four walls into society as a whole (Deleuze 1990; Hardt and Negri 2001). The conduit for this is the disciplined subjects themselves. Rather than coming from without, at the hands of the capitalist, discipline comes from within. Foucauldian biopolitics meets the Spinozist ‘creativity of desire’ through which the multitude propels history. The immaterial labourer’s self-valorising self-production reappears as a consensual self-exploitation. Under ‘command’, power is extensified. But in the society of control, it is intensified, through subjectivity itself.

In a recent iteration, Bifo situates violence as measurability’s resolution in contemporary capitalism. Capitalist reproduction holds not through planning, command or control, but through brute force alone. Bifo writes, referring to the end of the Gold Standard under Richard Nixon, that

[a]fter Nixon’s decision, measurement ended. Standardization ended. The possibility of determining the average amount of time necessary to produce a good ended. Of course, that means that the United States of America, its president, Richard Nixon, decided that violence would take the place of measurement. In conditions of aleatority, what is the condition of the final decision? What is the action or process of determining value? Strength, force, violence. What is the final way of deciding something – for instance, deciding the exchange rate of the dollar? Violence, of course… There can be no financial economy without violence, because violence has now become the one single method of decision in the absence of the standard. (Berardi 2013, p. 88)

The problem with each of these novel replacements for measure is they imply measurement is not always already based in relationships of command, control and violence. This owes to the absence of a social-form appreciation of value in postoperaismo . Postoperaists see capitalist measure relating to a quantitative process of valorisation. Hence it enters into crisis when things cannot be counted. But value is a social relation, not a property of things. It appears as a relationship between things. But it contains within this appearance its essence in relationships between people. Postoperaists remain stuck with the objective economic forms of appearance .

Scrutinising the relationships between people clarifies the link between measurement and violence. The question central to the CPECTS is ‘why does this content take this form?’ (Bonefeld 2001, p. 5). But this is never posed, foreclosing a grasp of how measure and labour relate. The appearance of objective economic forms contains, sublated, that which it denies. Which is to say, historically grounded concrete social relations. These are the product of an original and sustained violence of brute physicality contained within the outward niceties of contracts and commodity exchange. They express the radical dispossession whereby whether we eat or starve is arbitrated by the coins in our pocket (see Marx 1993, pp. 156–7). The socially synthetic function of money and value considered in Chap.  3 rests in forceful separation. Continuously, people are deprived of independent individual and collective means to reproduce themselves (see Bonefeld 2014). The sale of labour-power is last resort. Only by means of this bloody fact do we live in a world of objective economic categories. Measure carries within it this background.

The continuous character of this dispossession institutionalises violence or the threat of it. It is present not only in the continually reproduced material and social preconditions of a world ruled by value. It is also present in the policing of the measures by and through which value manifests. Measurement is violence. Postoperaists posit its lapse into crisis and the replacement of one by the other only by wilfully eliding this. As Lukacs writes, the value abstraction ‘has the same ontological facticity as a car that runs you over’ (quoted in Lotz 2014, p. xiv).

We can see this dimension implied in the etymology of the word ‘abstract’. ‘Abs’ comes from the Latin for ‘away’, ‘tract’ ‘trahere’, or move. To ‘abstract’, then, is ‘to transport into a formal , calculative space’ (Muniesa et al. 2007). Even in the most basic and primitive instances of calculation, this meaning is significant. As David Graeber writes, the ‘violence of quantification’ (2012, p. 14) present in forms of debt ‘turns human relations into mathematics’. Violence might ‘appear secondary’ to measure, money and the abstraction it implies. But, writes Graeber , they have ‘a capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic’. This permits the exertion of force in their pursuit. Graeber uses the example of tribal ‘sister exchange’. The forceful removal of things from their context implicated in abstract measurement is clear:

to make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another, for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence. To make her equivalent to a bar of camwood takes even more violence, and it takes an enormous amount of sustained and systematic violence to rip her so completely from her context that she becomes a slave . (Graeber 2012, p. 159)

Problematically, Graeber’s method is to extrapolate from non-capitalist society insights about a very different social formation. But the link remains. The divergence rests in the fact that, in capitalist society, this violence is sublated in the value-form. But the exchange abstraction still ‘liquidates’ the concrete, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggest. It is disappeared, as surely as fate was held to dispatch with human subjects pre-Enlightenment (1972, p. 13). Measurement not only denies the concrete chaos of reality, transforming quality into quantity. It also denies the concrete social relations that undergird value. The capitalist state enshrines the rule of equivalence in law whilst implicitly threatening violence to enforce it. The sublated principle is negated but retained in the mode of denial. As Kunkel writes of the quantitative obligations of debt (2014, p. 116), ‘the violence wielded by mafias or the state enforces the abstraction’ by which value is ascribed to things, and by which money mediates relationship between individuals. Violence is measurement, and vice versa. It is not, as postoperaists suggest, an alternative to it in the form of command, control or outright force. Once again, change wins out analytically over continuity, to the detriment of critique and praxis. The idea that crisis is around the corner consoles us that change is afoot. If capitalism is seen as in a state of permanent crisis and uncertainty, the easy belief in its coming collapse seems far less tenable.

By seeing measurement as a functioning part of capitalism, postoperaists portend its breakdown. But, I argue in the next chapter, its death cannot be announced so brusquely. Postoperaists see capitalism as functioning perfectly until crisis comes. But this ignores the uncertainty capital must constantly confront, in creating, commensurating and circulating commodities, an aspect central to the analysis of productiveness and unproductiveness within the circuit of capital given in Chap.  9. And, I suggest, its persistence in light of this uncertainty indicates, contrary to Negri and his modern followers, that capitalism is far from done.

For postoperaismo , command, control and violence step in only when measurability breaks down. This elides the continuity of measurability’s crisis-ridden fragility. Pure quantity can never capture the chaos of reality, and nor does it claim to. Force is always needed to bend reality to its expectations and ease of measurement. This force often issues from the state, and from the law. And force undergirds that which is measured in the first place. Constant struggle marks the condition by which we cannot eat except by the buying and selling of commodities. Violence is meted out in support of it. What the molecular positing of change implies is that all this is novel. But it is not.

The Fragment’s scenario of a crisis in the law of value is thinkable only on the basis of a kind of functionalism. Postoperaists perceive breakdown in the functioning of something that, in normal conditions, ‘functions’ freely and without contradiction . But, where measurement sublates antagonistic social relations of production, contradiction , not function, reigns. Where capitalism seems to function, it teeters on the brink of a social basis that exists in the mode of being denied. It struggles to negate what is concrete in abstraction. This is a permanent crisis where postoperaists see only a recent one.

Key here is Negri’s attack on dialectics in the name of a Spinozist embrace of immanence and monism. With this disappears the ability to grasp contradiction . Things cannot be two things at once, or contain within them the essence of another. Form analysis is impossible. The strange situation whereby the results of human practice should assume transcendent forms of social domination slides entirely from view. Contradiction is mistakenly seen as relating to crisis, rather than capitalism itself. The ascription of crisis portrays a normal functioning broken by contradiction . Whereas in fact capitalism, to the extent it ‘functions’ in the way suggested, does so via contradiction . The same creativity and spontaneity on which human industry relies must be stifled and reshaped to fit within controllable and commensurable constraints.

Negri’s ‘molecular’ positing of a succession of self-contained paradigms, as Holloway notes (2002), has the effect of rendering his argument functionalist. All things in a given historical juncture must always correspond to the correct paradigm. Even crises come to play their part in their unfolding. The paradigm is a framework to which all parts of reality must fit. There is no room for contradiction , or conflict.

But capital always struggles to measure, and what is measured always struggles back. The value-form sublates the qualitative incommensurability of feelings, dignity, desires – but never totally. There is always an excess left over that cannot be captured. This is not a novelty of Empire. It is as true for the industrial factory, where sabotage and subordination was rife, as it is for the social factory. And, confounding paradigms, it is as true for Fordism as for so-called ‘post-Fordism’. This is where a ‘molecular’ micro-focus on the immediate forms taken by concrete labour fails. The forms of social mediation persist. And with them lasting contradictions Fragment-thinkers optimistically see as a sudden and liberatory crisis.

Marx’s critique of political economy is all about understanding the form productive activity assumes. Crucial here is abstract labour – and not immediate concrete labour. Changes in labour-time and the composition of the labour cannot create in themselves a crisis of measurability . It is comforting to contend an incipient communism is around the corner owing to such changes. But placing the Fragment on Machines in the context of Marx’s work as a whole gives little cause for comfort. Capitalism is characterised by categories of social mediation . They persist regardless of whether a worker uses a keyboard or a hammer, ideas or nuts and bolts. And in this is implied the persistence of means of measure and time discipline familiar to the pre-‘social’ factory. The social form assumed by labour in and through value’s practical abstraction wields an effect on the content of labour – so the ways of measuring a given kind of labour do not live and die by changes in that labour, but in fact restructure it to conform to its metrics.

This gives pause for thought to those projecting Fragment-inspired pipedreams. The epochal crisis they posit is no crisis at all. On their terms, capitalism is crisis, for all involved. No amount of Spinozist optimism is capable of coming to terms with the theory and practice required to change it. And, I conclude, we must look to elements of Marx’s work other than the Fragment to overcome this impasse.

7.6 Conclusion

Just as this chapter searched for the philosophical roots of the postoperaist attack on the law of value , this chapter has located its textual and exegetical authority. In dispensing with a Marxist dialectical method for Spinozist immanence , postoperaismo under the watchful eye of Antonio Negri retains only those parts of Marx for which it can find further use – in this case, the Fragment on Machines. But in abstraction from the development of Marx’s work as a whole the myopic reading of this small element of his oeuvre alone can only lead prospectors of a postcapitalist future down a blind alley. There is no direct relationship between labour-time and exchange value around which to hitch hopeful analyses of a coming liberation from capitalism. Such a prospectus hinges on a silence over money, abstract labour, socially necessary labour-time and a whole host of other concepts central to the NRM but largely neglected in postoperaist readings of the Marxian inheritance.

At a time where Fragment-thinking has filtered through from the pages of Empire to criss-cross the utopian contours of contemporary left thought, this is no minor exegetical or theoretical quibble, but one with real political consequence. The Fragment suggests we can let capitalism’s technological advancement unfold so as to break through the limits that stand between us and communism . Its adherents interpret the conditions for this to not only already be present today, but already in motion, fully realised. This induces us to comply with capitalist development and pliantly bide our time for utopia to arrive. For all its revisionist bluster, this is not so different to the hopes traditional Marxism invested in a profit-deprived capitalist collapse and the proletarian revolution to come. The difference consists in the absence of any such antagonism in today’s teleological pipedreams. The NRM, despite often refraining from explicit political commitments and the populist temptation to pick a side in the class struggle, suggests that capitalism will not go of its own accord, its abstract social rule historically specific but totalising. Working through abstraction, capitalism refashions what is real and concrete in the image of the value-form . The analysis of this form-determination, I will suggest in the next chapter, forecloses hope in the kind of ‘ crisis of measurability’ set out in the Fragment and on which postoperaist political aspirations rest.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frederick Harry Pitts
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Economics, Finance and ManagementUniversity of BristolBristolUK

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