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

Foucault reproaches classical political economists, especially Ricardo, Keynes and Marx, for analyzing labor as something abstract, passive and reduced to the factor of time (Foucault, 2008, p. 220). For Ricardo, labor is an issue of quantity, a factor of time inserted between capital and production, with the increase in labor signifying merely that more hours are offered to capital (either workers work longer hours or more of them are hired). For Keynes, labor is a factor of production, and what activates it is a sufficiently high rate of investment. For Marx, labor is the effect of produced value, an abstract capacity measured by time that is placed on a market which determines its monetary value. In spite of their different conclusions, Ricardo, Keynes and Marx are similar in their approach in that they separate labor from human reality and qualitative variables. Foucault sides with neoliberal economists, arguing that when labor does not appear in concrete terms, it is not the fault of real capitalism, but of economists who fail to grasp the concrete modulations of labor and their economic effects (Foucault, 2008, p. 221). (p.404)


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


On Foucault, Foucault

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