Magic tools

by Rob Horning

16 September 2011


Karl Smith speculates that the information age has brought on the “rise of the generalist,” by which he means that “the returns to specialization are falling.” I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at, but I think he means that the division of labor is not working out anymore for those who end up in some highly specialized niche, assuming it ever did. Specialization wasn’t ever particularly beneficial for the specialist, who was plugged into an industrial process and lost sight of the general process. Capital made such workers forgo the ability to be generalists—only those who had accumulated sufficient sums of capital could perch themselves at the lofty position overseeing the whole production process. As Harry Braverman details in Labor and Monopoly Capital, specialized workers were typically deskilled (Smith puts this cheerfully as “each person could become more suited to that task and learn the ins and outs of it”), while management amassed the general knowledge required for manufacturing processes so that workers lost their bargaining power and became interchangeable. I’m having trouble, I guess, figuring out when things were ever good for those obliged to specialize in this way; I’m guessing Smith is thinking of specialized workers not as individuals so much then as abstract laborers as a class, whose wages were better before technology eliminated or made exportable many of their positions and eroded their bargaining power even further. Now, as Arnold Kling has suggested, “if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.” Being a “generalist” may be a matter of playing hide-and-seek with management about the particularities of your job function or selling yourself (a la neoliberalism’s mandate of perpetual personal branding) constantly as a jack-of-all-trades virtuoso whose skills can’t be fully enumerated. (So a corollary: If a “fair wage” can be assigned to your position, your position can be eliminated. All the good things you are doing for the company must so elude quantifying that both you and your employer can feel you are getting the better of the bargain.)

The reason Smith’s post caught my attention, though, was his concluding line: “Even if you stop and think for a minute about all of the things that your computer or now even your phone can do, are you now wielding the most generalized tool ever conceived?” This reminded me of a passage in Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, (which I just finished, an effort I am struggling to justify to myself). in “Lesson Seven: The Theory of the Wage,” Negri makes a great deal out of Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse—a section that in Negri’s interpretation outlines how technological development will change work relations to the point where worker-management antagonisms become unmistakable, and the transition to communism will begin as workers become all-sided “social individuals” and their praxis is communism embodied. (Or something like that. It’s complicated.) Negri pretty much block quotes the entire “Fragment” in chunks, including this bit:

In machinery, objectified labour itself appears not only in the form of product or of the product employed as means of labour, but in the form of the force of production itself. The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. In another respect, however, in so far as fixed capital is condemned to an existence within the confines of a specific use value, it does not correspond to the concept of capital, which, as value, is indifferent to every specific form of use value, and can adopt or shed any of them as equivalent incarnations. In this respect, as regards capital’s external relations, it is circulating capital which appears as the adequate form of capital, and not fixed capital.

I don’t know if that reads as mumbo jumbo to someone who hasn’t been steeped in Marxist arcana, and the meaning of all those abstract terms is hotly debated. But I quote it here because I think it corresponds with the point I take Smith to be making. Marx argues that machines, as fixed capital, become part of the total composition of capital that doesn’t generate the profit, to the extent that they are confined to a specific use value. But capitalists still need to increasingly use machines, because they improve productivity and reduce labor costs and allow for partial appropriation of the “social brain.” Information technology appears to resolve the potential problem here, because it is a machine that appears to improve productivity without being so inflexible that it can’t be adapted quickly to new labor processes. It is not “condemned” to a specific purpose but fulfills the ideal of being “indifferent to every use value” and can be adapted to whatever is profitable at a given moment. It is not attached to any of its functions; it is programmable with skills that it can be made to immediately forget. It isn’t sentimental about what it has mastered. The handheld computers that Smith mentions are ideal “generalized tools” for capital—making that partial appropriation of the “social brain” made possible by specific-use machines more general, assimilating an ever widening set of skills to capital and making their embodiment in particular workers superfluous. Marx adds that the worker is moved to the side of the production process and becomes “watchman and regulator,” while “the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body” becomes the source of wealth for capitalists. The way I understand this is that the “magic” we attribute to our devices is a reflection of how our collective productive power as a social body has been alienated, reified (or fetishized, if you prefer) and sold back to us as, say, an iPad. The devices measure the extent of our social power but also the thoroughness with which it has been appropriated, taken away, subjected to capitalist control in accordance with how capital structures social relations. 

Negri seems to find hope for communism in all this, announcing it in cryptic passages like this:

At this stage, the capitalist appropriation of society is total. The subjectivity of capital has been violently activated. Machines and science have constituted and produced it. But the separation within the category has not been suppressed. The antagonism must reproduce itself at the highest level of power. The displacement of antagonistic dialectic must be totally revealed and operate fully at this stage.

I don’t really know what that is supposed to mean, but I think it is an extrapolation of this stirring passage in the “Fragment,” which I find pretty inspirational too (I bolded what I think is the key):

The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

Capital is spurring the technological developments that it must then mystify (as magic devices, for instance) in order to subjugate us, to keep us willing to work for wages even after wages no longer make sense as a measuring rod for the value we produce. But the value being produced—and this is the point cyber utopians and p2p enthusiasts seem to insist upon—is immense and uncontainable within capitalism’s structures. Firms can’t harness and exploit it as profits they can claim, as commodities they can circulate. Instead, the foundation is blown sky-high. Maybe so.


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