For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"A Biopolitics of Immaterial Labor"

by Just, Daniel (2016)


This article examines Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri?s and Paolo Virno?s use of Michel Foucault?s notions of ?biopower? and ?biopolitics? with respect to today?s hegemony of immaterial labor, i.e. work without an end product. In spite of relatively infrequent references to work, Foucault formulates these notions in markedly economic terms: biopower is inextricable from work because, unlike punitive power that represses and disciplines life, it cultivates life by fostering an efficient, productive and active population. Drawing attention to a shift in emphasis in Hardt and Negri?s and Virno?s accounts of work and biopower ? from a diagnostic analysis of labor practices to immaterial labor?s latent political possibilities ? it is argued in the article that what gets lost in this shift is Foucault?s insistence on questioning the role of work in modern society. Work is not an inherently valuable activity, but, as current contradictions that have emerged with immaterial labor demonstrate, a product of mechanisms which endow it with its present status as the central organizing principle of both social and personal life.

Key Passage

While neither Society Must Be Defended nor The Will to Knowledge takes economy as its primary subject, they both discuss biopower in markedly economic terms. Originating in the rapid increase in production and resources in the eighteenth century, which brought relief from the profound threats of death by famine and epidemics to which humanity was hitherto exposed, biopower complemented this material development by providing an awareness of the sudden realization of what it meant to be ‘a living species in a living world’: to have ‘probabilities of life, an individual and collective welfare, forces that could be modified, and a space in which they could be distributed in an optimal manner’ (Foucault, 1978, p. 142). Areas as diverse as health, demography and sexuality were part of this recalibration of power along the lines of economic efficiency and productivity that became the driving force of modern society. From that moment on, resources would be an object of explicit calculations and mechanisms of human life an issue of production, efficiency and productivity. Power would no longer deal with legal subjects over whom coercion is exercised with the ultimate authority of death. It would deal with living beings and their usefulness to the economic welfare of the population as a whole. (p.403)


Foucault, Negri, Hardt, Biopower, Immaterial Labor, Vimo


On Foucault, Foucault

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