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

The biopolitical mechanisms of work described by Foucault in their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manifestations, then largely dependent on the state, by now have become increasingly driven by transnational forces that are changing the nature of work worldwide. It is in order to describe this new world of labor that Hardt and Negri and Virno redeployed the concept of biopower. The question is to what extent they have succeeded, and whether they have managed to deal with concrete labor practices, as Foucault insisted any application of the concept of biopower should. Hardt and Negri, and to a lesser extent Virno, are enthusiastic about the turn to immaterial labor.3 Unlike Foucault, who remained diagnostic and neutral, if not critical, Hardt and Negri adopt a theoretical perspective from which a number of vastly diverse facts about contemporary work appear as either positive or at least with positive potential. (p.409)


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


On Foucault, Foucault

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