Already with his concept of the socialised worker, Negri had rejected the central pillar of Marx’s economics – the relationship between value and labour. As the whole of society becomes a social factory, so the duration of labour becomes unquantifiable and it becomes impossible to reduce specific forms of labour into abstract socially necessary labour. As the 1980s and 1990s unfolded Negri underpinned his new politics with reference to two fashionable right wing theories – the idea of a ‘weightless economy’ developing out of a high tech ‘third industrial revolution’ and, more recently, extreme versions of globalisation theory depicting the death of the nationstate. Today Negri claims that ‘immaterial labour’ has taken the place of industrial labour as the hegemonic form of production that other forms of labour tend towards. Negri’s descriptions of contemporary production will seem unfamiliar to most workers: ‘A gigantic cultural revolution is under way. Free expression and the joy of bodies, the autonomy, hybridisation and the reconstruction of languages, the creation of new singular mobile modes of production—all this emerges, everywhere and continually’.
[Global corporations are anxious to include] difference within their realm and thus aim to maximise creativity, free play and diversity in the corporate workplace. People of all different races, sexes and sexual orientations should potentially be included in the corporation; the daily routine of the workplace should be rejuvenated with unexpected changes and an atmosphere of fun. Break down the old boundaries and let 100 flowers bloom!
Exploitation, in the Marxist sense of the pumping of unpaid surplus labour out of workers, has ended. Exploitation today means capturing the creative energies of a joyous, cooperating multitude – who may be inside or outside of the workplace. The domination of dead labour, such as machinery or computers, over living is finished because living (for Negri, intellectual) labour is now dominant. The tool of production is now the brain. Paul Thompson explains how Negri’s thinking parallels right wing accounts of the economic changes since the 1970s:
This appears to be remarkably similar to knowledge economy arguments, which we might briefly summarise in the following way. In the information age, capital and labour are said to have been displaced by the centrality of knowledge; brawn by brain; and the production of goods by services and manipulation of symbols. As a commodity, knowledge is too complex, intensive and esoteric to be managed through command and control. The archetypal worker in the new economy makes his or her living from judgement, service and analysis… As none of this is calculable or easily measured, it is the inherent property of the producer… This shifts the power balance to the employee, an increasing proportion of whom fall into the category of mobile, self-reliant and demanding ‘free workers’.
Thompson goes on to provide a detailed critique of the idea of immaterial labour. Even at the most immaterial end of the labour market, intellectual property regimes allow the commodification of knowledge. And such workers are still subject to exploitation and control centred upon the workplace.
Far from the workplace ceasing to be the centre of capital accumulation for the ruling class, it plays an increasingly important role in a world of labour intensification and tightening managerial control. The workplace is still the point at which fixed capital necessary for the production of most goods and services is centralised. And it is still the site where surplus value is extracted from workers – the central obsession of capitalists and states – and thus the point at which those opposed to the rule of capital should concentrate their efforts. Just like his vision of the weightless economy, Negri’s account of
globalisation is almost entirely unsupported by empirical evidence. He writes that: