This text was an oral presentation made at the meeting of the Francophone international discussion network [réseau] this past December. It is an integral part of the debate on technology and revolution that began in IP #44, a debate that has continued on this site. We have retained the basic form of the oral presentation, just as it was made in Paris.
Why are we discussing this issue? In his text of May 5, 2005 [published as “New Technologies and the Visibility of the Revolutionary Project” in IP #44], R.V. says: “New technologies bring about a qualitative upheaval in the level of the growth of productivity, and thus in the possibility of a world without scarcity, where everyone can receive according to his needs and give according to his abilities…. The visibility of a project of a society freed from the laws of capital, which prevent such an outcome, would thus be enhanced. It is easier to dream of a world where goods are free when the necessary effort to satisfy human needs is being reduced at an accelerated rate, and when that becomes visible. But it is especially on the new social practices made possible by modern technologies that I would like to insist. … I believe that there are two essential conditions: the first is situated at the qualitative level and consists in knowing how to recognize the authentically non-commodity, therefore non-capitalist, character of these practices; the second is situated at the quantitative level, and consists in seeing reality and the importance of its repercussions on social life within a temporal perspective of several years or even decades.” (1)
Among the questions raised by R.V.’s text, an essential problem, “new” for the réseau, although one discussed for a number of years in publications like Multitudes and Futur antérieur, is that of the “free” reproducibility of software, of music, the whole issue of the free distribution of goods, made possible by new technologies. To use his own metaphor: it is as if one dug a well, and the oil gushed out in unlimited quantities. This kind of production/distribution without additional cost in terms of human labor could make the revolutionary project more “visible,” because it is synonymous with a possible abundance here and now. There are several issues that arise from this question: a) does “free” software escape the law of value? b) the growth of immaterial labor within capitalism; c) its implications for the processes of subjectification; the way in which the productive subject comes to conceive him/herself as a revolutionary subject (its implications for class consciousness; d) the role of revolutionaries.
Does the production of digitalized goods “escape” the law of value because that production/reproduction entails no additional cost in terms of variable capital? If that is the case, what happens to the law of value, what role does it still play? In other words, does software (and in particular “free” software) have value?
Let me address this question in the most global terms: first, with respect to software, and more generally immaterial labor. The notion of exchange value entails a relation of equivalence between commodities, an equivalence based on socially necessary labor time (one measurable in monetary terms). The production of software therefore has an exchange value. By contrast, the copies do not, because their “production” entails no supplementary human labor. I therefore agree with Sander on this point. The production of software, and immaterial labor as a whole, therefore, constitutes an expression of the trajectory of capitalism towards valueless production. The growing gap between use value and exchange value is the distinctive hallmark of decadence. In the ascendant period, the production of use value and exchange value went hand in hand; in decadence, the production of use value (material wealth) accelerates, while the exchange value contained in these products diminishes (towards zero in the case of software that can be copied). That growing gap is the source of extremely violent tensions: the destruction of stocks of commodities, wars, unemployment. It results from the introduction of science and technology into the very heart of the productive process. If the introduction of technology into production is a source of value, it nonetheless destroys more value than it creates: it eliminates immense quantities of paid socially necessary labor, and consequently eliminates or reduces the exchange value of a growing number of products. That tendency, though it has destructive consequences, also has a positive side: the very trajectory of capitalism tends to make exchange value obsolete, and creates – within the relations of production – a tension, a contradiction, that calls for its resolution through a system of production no longer based on the operation of the law of value.
With respect to software, capitalism reacts by attempting to privatize, to make function “like capital,” what is not. The means are the legal “protection” of source codes that prevent the modification of software, licenses, patents, attacks on free software. That has made it possible to “commodify” software, to make it “seem as if” each copy had a cost. And that has made it possible for certain companies, like Microsoft, who have a monopoly (or a quasi-monopoly) to make enormous profits. But those profits are not, as is the case in the classical Marxist sense, the realization of a surplus-value (unpaid labor). Those huge profits are not an attenuation of the tendential fall in the rate of profit. The rate of profit is linked to surplus-value, that is to say, the ratio of paid to unpaid labor. In the case of software, that surplus-value is low, in the economic, Marxist, sense of the term, except, perhaps, for the original “piece” of software. That profit, which is called surplus-profit to distinguish it from the ‘normal’ profit that the capitalist obtains directly by exploiting labor, is therefore a way for capitalism to ward off the operation of the law of value (On this point too, I am in agreement with Sander).
More generally, the question of free software is linked to the growth of immaterial labor within capitalism, an issue adumbrated by Marx, and developed most recently by Maurizio Lazzarato and Toni Negri. Marx provides us with an indispensable framework: “But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.” (2) Or “ To the degree that labour time – the mere quantity of labour – is posited by capital as the sole determinant element, to that degree does direct labour and its quantity disappear as the determinant principle of production – of the creation of use values – and is reduced both quantitatively, to a smaller proportion, and qualitatively, as an, of course, indispensable but subordinate moment, compared to general scientific labour, technological application of natural sciences, on one side, and to the general productive force arising from social combination [Gliederung] in total production on the other side – a combination which appears as a natural fruit of social labour (although it is a historic product). Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” (3)
What is new, with the predominance of immaterial labor (like science and technology) is the possibility of sharing without loss, of reproduction without cost, of natural accumulation without debt with respect to past labor. This is the case for philosophy, for science, and it is the case for software, free or not. The paradox is that capitalism more and more depends on certain aspects of such immaterial labor (science, technologies) to continue the accumulation process: the very condition for the development of capitalist accumulation, the condition for the development of wealth which remains based on the exploitation of living labor, more and more comes from immaterial labor, whose very nature is based on antagonistic principles (i.e. sharing without loss, reproduction without cost, natural accumulation vis a vis the past). To limit the effects of that contradiction, capital has developed the system of patents, and the licensing of intellectual property. “The battles over intellectual property are not limited to knowledge in the domain of health, and assume greater amplitude as the new information and communication technologies radically modify the conditions of the production and diffusion of all knowledge. The cost of the reproduction of software being virtually nil, only a “police” regime of control over respect for intellectual property rights can block the free circulation of knowledge, even as the extension of the duration of those “rights” slackens the rhythm of invention.” (Corsani & Lazzarato, in Multitudes) Within such a perspective, free software (that is, unfettered from the point of view of copying, utilization, transformation) is integrally linked to the very nature of immaterial labor. And the growth of the weight of immaterial labor in the global production process “prefigures” both the dissolution of the capitalist mode of organization, and the future social mode of organization, when humankind will have constituted itself into a “social body.” “An economy of abundance does not mean that wealth is created without cost. On the contrary, the costs are exorbitant.”
Do we then share the position of Lazzarato and Negri: “At a time when capitalist control of society has become totalitarian, the capitalist entrepreneur sees his constitutive features become purely formal: in effect, he henceforth exercises his functions of control and surveillance from outside the productive process, because the content of that process increasingly belongs to another mode of production, to the social cooperation of immaterial labor.” (“Immaterial Labor and Subjectivity”) My own answer is: there where we see the possibility of contradictions, potential new fault lines, these thinkers already see islands of post-capitalist society, the constitution of a new society. I pose the question within the framework of immaterial labor because it seems to me that it clarifies the debate over free software, which is simply an aspect of immaterial labor. Some of the debates that we have had turn on the fact that if digitalization makes possible reproducibility without cost, it is linked to the utilization of computers, and other products, that themselves must be paid for. My answer to that argument is that no one is questioning that we live under capitalism, and that everything that we have, consume, even at the least cost, is integrated into a society based on profit, scarcity, and money. However, the growth of immaterial labor within capitalist production itself cannot simply be reduced to that fact. That would be to foreclose the question before even raising it.
Now, to the impact of all this on subjectification. R.V.’s claims about free software pertain to the question of new social practices: “… whatever the degree of interpenetration with the capitalist world, whatever the effort to control them that they encounter, they constitute a qualitatively new reality, one that is different from commodity relations.” (IP # 44, p. 22) According to R.V., these forms of cooperation show that “commercial exchange and the pecuniary search for profit are not the only motivations making it possible for humans to socially act and live together ….” (Ibid.) Those practices will expand as the network of those who utilize the Internet expands. Moreover, R.V. acknowledges that “non-commodity practices are only one part of the reality of the Internet, which, moreover, has become an indispensable means of trade and of the organization of companies and governments.” (Ibid.) He poses the question: “Can these practices contribute to the generalization of a revolutionary anti-capitalist consciousness?” (Ibid., p. 23) And the answer seems to be yes.
Once again, it seems to me that we need to situate this discussion in the following framework: how can the growth of immaterial labor have an impact on the development of consciousness? It’s not just a question of hackers, or of those who use the Internet for “new social practices.” But rather of understanding the impact of the evolution of the productive forces on the new fault lines, the new social ruptures; their impact on a possible generalization of class consciousness. If “direct labor as such cease[s] to be the basis of production … if the product ceases to be the product of isolated direct labor, and the combination of social activity appears, rather, as the producer …” ( Marx, Grundrisse, p. 709), and if the creation of wealth comes to depend less on labor time and the amount of time elapsed, as opposed to the power of the agents set in motion in the course of the labor process, there will be profound consequences at the level of subjectivity; with respect to the transformation of the subject in his/her relation to production. That transformation of subjectivity does not only concern hackers who experiment in the pleasure of “co-creating,” of “developing,” software without any barrier of code, and whose activity, as R.V. points out, refutes the idea that the individual can only be motivated by the quest for profit, or the desire to prevail in a competitive struggle. That transformation of subjectivity does not only concern the millions of Internaugts, who surf, who communicate for free, who collaborate P2P, the examples of which R.V. has cited. The generalization of immaterial labor has other consequences, that affect the collective worker, the new subject, in a much more general way. On the one hand, immaterial labor is the product of human intelligence. Once again, we need to point to a paradox: capital, in order to accumulate, which requires the subjugation of man, is in more and more need of the products of the intelligence of that same man. On the other hand, the fact that direct labor shrinks in importance has as one of its consequences that the very terrain on which the antagonism between capital and labor plays out multiply and diversify: the sites of resistance and revolt are multiple and heterogeneous, transversed by relations to the organization of labor itself and by social divisions; those who have never been integrated into social labor, and who probably never will be, constitute themselves into a subject against (capital), not on the basis of strikes or labor stoppages, but where they are, at the very sites where they live, and can thereby wield their power. The revolutionary process of the transformation of subjectivity will be propelled forward and will integrate all these factors.
Once again, I want to distinguish my position from those that assume that the process of the transformation of the subject in his relation to production has already occurred, as is the case for Lazzarato and Negri: “If labor tends to become immaterial, if its social hegemony manifests itself in the constitution of the ‘general intellect,’ if that transformation is constitutive of social subjects, who are independent and autonomous, the contradiction that opposes this new subjectivity to capitalist domination … will not be dialectical but from now on alternative. That is to say, this type of labor which seems to us to be both autonomous and hegemonic no longer needs capital and the social order of capital to exist, but immediately poses itself as free and constructive. When we say that this new labor power cannot be defined within a dialectical relation, we mean that the relation that it establishes with capital is not just antagonistic; it is beyond antagonism, it is alternative, constitutive of a different social reality. The antagonism presents itself under the form of a constituent power that reveals itself as an alternative to the existing forms of power. The alternative is the work of independent subjects, that is to say, they constitute themselves at the level of power [in the sense of puissance] and not just power [in the sense of pouvoir]. ” (4) (“Immaterial Labor and Subjectivity”) Or: “Free software makes possible the liberation of the forces of social cooperation within the market and within capitalist institutions, but as forces that resist them and which can only be subsumed by capital at the cost of the loss of their creative power [puissance].” (Ibid.) By way of response: as I’ve indicated, it seems to me that the growth of immaterial labor under developed capitalism has multiple and diverse effects on the collective worker (including those who will never have experience of the labor process). Class consciousness, under the form of puissance will be fed by all these effects, and not just by Negri’s “mass intellect.” However, that consciousness can only be defined in a dialectical – that is to say, contradictory – relation to capital. What will save us from digitalization? We can only applaud those hackers who prevent the patenting or licensing, i.e. the privatization, of a given discovery. That they devote all of their intellect to the development of free software, that they make no distinction between work and free time, is admirable. But the question remains: what will save us from digitalization? This is no witticism. The future society will benefit, will take full advantage of the possibilities provided by digitalization to archive, to foresee, to organize. But humankind, and its future, cannot be reduced to a better program, to better calculation. Man can be charted digitally: you can make predictions about sicknesses that an individual my get based on quantifiable factors. And we may soon have a genetic identity card, based on “cracking” the human genome. All that is both promising and frightening. But the debate takes us beyond all that. Humankind is not digitalizable, because it is first and foremost subjectivity, desire, intentionality. And those features are not subject to a plan or measurable on a bar code. According to R.V., the visibility of the revolutionary project will be augmented by abundance. Perhaps. Probably. But the goal of the proletariat is not to produce abundance, but because that abundance will make it possible for humankind to do something other than “produce,” something other than the development of technologies. By that, I mean that the vision of a world of objects, abundant though they may be, the vision of a world where there is even cooperation and the common use of resources, is not enough either to ignite the process of transformation of humankind’s relation to production or as a basis for a future society. We revolutionaries must emphasize that the trajectory of humankind is not reducible to the digital. That, quite apart from all the progress represented by digitalization, with its possibilities for genuine planning, there remains and must remain something specifically human: the unforeseeable, subjectivity, man (finally!) become the subject of his own history. And that, no one (not even hackers) can determine in advance. It is a “humanist” vision of communism, as the finally, possible, realization of man.
There is something “new” in the new technologies, but there is also a continuity in the way in which technology masters man. Certain philosophers (Heidegger, for example) have grasped this, and constitute a reference point for those who think about the questions raised by technology: “The thought that counts calculates. It submits to calculation ever-new possibilities, ever richer in perspectives and at the same time more economical. The thought that calculates gives us no respite, propelling us from one task to another. The thought that calculates never stops, never withdraws into itself. It is not a meditative thought, a thought in search of meaning.” Or: “The organizations, the apparatuses, and machines, of the technical world have become indispensable – though greater for some, less for others. It would be mad to launch a frontal assault on the technical world, proof that one wanted to condemn that world as the work of the devil.
We depend on the objects with which technology provides us, and which we endlessly perfect. However, our attachment to technical things is now so great that we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, their slaves. But we can be otherwise.” You can take it from here.
But we revolutionaries are the only ones to have forged a link between the new technologies, “valueless” production, the growth of immaterial labor, the perspective of communism, and a critical look at the relation between technology and humankind. If we do not develop this critique, no one will do it in our place.
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