Autonomism Explained

by Rob Horning

11 June 2010


That’s a rather portentous title for a post and be forewarned that what follows will in no way live up to it. This 1994 essay “Autonomist Marxism and the Information Society” by Nick Dyer-Witheford, however, is the most lucid explanation of such ideas as immaterial production and the social factory that I’ve yet come across. It’s mainly a comprehensive summary of Antonio Negri’s early work from the 1980s (before he joined with Michael Hardt to write the more recent Empire and Multitude), and it lays out the basic arguments in relatively accessible prose—Marxist jargon is minimized, or at least defined when deployed. The crux of it is the claim that instead of “mass workers”—factory-oriented labor who fought for unions and wage increases and that sort of thing—the labor force is now largely made up of “socialized workers” in service industries who produce information, data, meanings, identities, affects, attitudes, and so on.

The degree to which this shift has occurred is a point of some contention. Are the new socialized workers proletarianized white-collar professionals—the formerly secure clerks who now live in the shadow of outsourcing? Are they merely design professionals and creative-class quislings who have no intention of ever really opposing capitalism, which grants them a satisfactory set of identities and lifestyles (including a nominally anticapitalist rebel pose) to indulge in? Are the “mass workers” still there, only rendered even more invisible than they had been during the more unionized decades of the mid-20th century by the glamor and novelty of information-society utopianism?
To put the shift another way, capital has now “subsumed” more aspects of our everyday life—that is, more of what we do in general and not just on the job is subject to or dictated by capital’s search for profit; more of life is commercialized, measured, converted into marketing data; more of what we do is driven by explicit market logic and a need to achieve “scoreboard”; more of our behavior is driven by an ideal of convenience, which introduces accelerated factory pace into our consumption, transforming it into consumerism. The apotheosis of all this is perhaps the “personal brand,” which turns our identity into a profit center, self-awareness into a commercial venture. Here’s how Dyer-Witheford puts it, presciently for 1994:

Deindustrialisation and demise of the mass worker are only one side of a process whose other face is an accelerated advance of capitalist organisation into new zones. Indirect labour in the scientific-technological infrastructure becomes as important as direct labour on the factory floor. Circulation—marketing, retail, finance arid banking—is precisely meshed with production, and itself becomes a major arena for profit extraction. The reproduction of labour-power—its education, recreation, training and, with biotechnology, its conception and gestation—is profoundly commodified. All these developments have appeared earlier. But now, facilitated by the tracking, integrative, and calculative power of information technologies, they reach a new pitch of intensity and inter-connection. One can no longer speak of a punctual site of production—the factory—as the privileged location for the extraction of surplus value, which instead proceeds at proliferating nodes within a giant metabolism of capital.

Hence the factory gives way to the social factory, which finds its apotheosis in online social networks, which archive our social behavior and provide a platform that turns our self-creation (our personal branding) into value production for capital (in the form of marketing data, product hype, new meanings and trends, entertainment goods, cooperative innovations, etc.).

Negri sees a problem for capital in its new strategy, in that socialized workers, who need to be networked to be exploited, can also turn the network against capital. Workers are no longer deskilled and docile; they are increasingly equipped with their own means of production and linked in cooperative groups with other workers who could ostensibly rebel against managers. Dyer-Witheford explains:

By informating production, capital seems to augment its powers of control. But it simultaneously stimulates creative capacities which remains autonomous from its command, and constantly threaten to over spill into rivulets irrelevant to, or even subversive of, profit. Indeed, insofar as the increasingly ’communicative’ texture of the modern economy discloses and intensifies the fundamentally ’socialised,’ cooperative nature of labour, it comes into friction with capital’s hegemony.

Hence we have peer-to-peer networks of distribution, open-source digital products shared in commons, social networks committed to social change and so on. Workers are increasingly autonomous from capitalist management and control—that’s where the theory gets its name. (Whether productive consumption—generating new meanings for products and sharing them, generating new trends, self-actualizing through lifestyle goods—is actually subversive is another point of contention.)

Dyer-Witheford calls attention to a Negri’s analogy that “communication is to the socialised worker what the wage relationship was to the mass worker.” This is, as Dyer-Witheford notes, “cryptic but suggestive.” It seems to mean that access to networks and attention and so forth are supplanting wages as the governing incentive of working life. Communication in labor processes could translate to greater autonomy, greater cooperation, and more meaningfulness in labor for workers. But it also means an end to the work-life divide—our social life becomes productive, and not necessarily on our own terms even if it is work we voluntarily perform. And autonomy may not automatically end capitalist subsumption; it may only serve to obscure how value is being appropriated through other means (owning the networks, the platforms, the data, the banks, etc.).

In the old days, wages were earned during work and spent during leisure, which was accordingly democratized in an earnest fashion in the 1950s and 1960s. Pre-ironic mass entertainment, tourism, etc. (My favorite example is resort motels.) Now the work-leisure divide is eroding, wages are stagnant, and people may start to be increasingly paid in “meaning”—in more flexibility, more autonomy, in more access to goods that allow them to create themselves, get attention and that sort of thing. Leisure and consumption have become a form of productive work—it generates useful marketing data if nothing else. This is sometimes heralded as “the end of work.” But we haven’t automated our way into a life of leisure—instead we’ve automated away wage-paying jobs and are all become independent contractors hawking our identity as product.


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