Immaterial Labour Isn’t Working
Auto Italia South East
20 April - 12 May 2013
Review by Tom Snow
To inaugurate Auto Italia’s one year residency at a temporary space in King’s Cross the collective have collaborated with London-based artist Huw Lemmy to organise a series of events focused on the neo-Marxist concept of ‘immaterial labour’. Most often attributed to Italian Autonomia scholar Maurizio Lazzarato and his well-known essay ‘Immaterial Labor,’ appearing in English in the mid 1990s, the term has become a key analytical concept in the development of contemporary labour and social theory during the era of ‘post-Fordism’. Two terms: Autonomia is an Italian movement beginning in the 1970s, claiming that autonomy from both the State and Capital is the only meaningful direction in which humanity can move if it is to arrive at any sort of social equality. Post-Fordism is the debated theory that suggests the nature of labour has developed beyond the physical practices associated with the industrial factory and now consumes a greater portion of the intellect as a reproductive function.
For Marx, capital could be accumulated through offsetting labour-value with labour-costs, at which point the commodity produced in the factory could be sold for profit on the market. In short, the worker could sell his time and physical labour in order to earn a wage; the capitalist could sell the product produced for a profit. For Lazzarato the term ‘immaterial labour’ accounted for both the growing information-orientated and cultural concentration of commodity production as well as changes taking place in the way labour is utilised in the contemporary work place during the late twentieth century. Lazzarato writes, ‘Manual labor is increasingly coming to involve procedures that could be defined as ‘intellectual,’ and the new communications technologies increasingly require subjectivities that are rich in knowledge’. Rather than a strict separation between work and leisure time, contemporary forms of capitalist production demand the participation of the imagination and new forms of cognitive knowledge, which in turn collapse the distinctions between earning a wage, or laborious tasks in general, and relaxation. This could be accounted for in several ways, such as the occupation of intellect in the work place, but also, from a consumerist perspective, the idea that immaterial labour produces both desire and economic value simultaneously.
Certainly theoretical formulations such as these remain problematic. Are we, as writer Mark Fisher pointed out during a panel discussion on May 4th, to become nostalgic for Fordist modes of production and campaign for a return to the industrial factory floor’ Probably not. Also, is the term adequate to account for the rise and quotidian impact of the Internet - an aspect Auto Italia claim to be particularly interested in exploring. As the manner in which work, or that which can be considered as work, continuously affects individual lives in a variety of ways, both intellectually and economically, analytical tools must shift too. If ‘immaterial labour’ is a position of analysis, a formulation to aid our understanding of contemporary political and social conditions, then issue may similarly be taken with the title of this project. What exactly isn’t working about ‘immaterial labour’’ Isn’t the point that immaterial labour is at work’ In which case shouldn’t we revert to the famous Leninist question, what is to be done’
Part of the project’s ambition is to work through such issues at the invitation of academics, intellectuals and other thinkers. As the Novara Media duo pointed out during their discussion, ‘immaterial labour’ is not an immutable term. In fact the meaning of the term might prove to be in crisis as much as that which it is meant to signify. Here, perhaps, is the clever semantic twist of the title. To state that ‘Immaterial Labour Isn’t Working’ may also suggest the inadequacy of the theoretical formulation and call for terminology as much as practice to be rethought in order to understand to the political orientations of our daily lives as fully as possible.
It is the merit of this project, and many like it all around London, that attendance to events is free of charge, providing a space for discussion amongst audience members as much as speakers. If the term ‘immaterial labour’ signifies the dissolving of intellect and labour into one another, then, as another Autonomist Paolo Virno argues, it is only when political-action is realised equally as day-to-day practice that the social body can begin to describe a space of liberation. The basis of political-action must be dialogue, and that dialogue must aim to include as many voices as possible to stand any chance of progress. As Kate Cooper and Marianne Forrest assure me, Auto Italia plan to utilise the space at King’s Cross during the year that follows in order to carry on asking these sorts of questions and begin to give form to such description.