The Multiplication of Labor: An Interview

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAView­point: The mobil­ity of labor was a clas­si­cal theme of work­erism, but today the pol­i­tics of immi­gra­tion brings mobil­ity into rela­tion with the bor­der, the transna­tional flows of labor encoun­ter­ing the bound­aries of deten­tion cells. The United States is framed geo­graph­i­cally and polit­i­cally by the porous for­eign trade zones of con­tainer ports and the shame­ful repres­sion of undoc­u­mented immi­grants in Ari­zona and beyond. Your recent book with Brett Neil­son, Bor­der as Method, or, the Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of Labor, brings a work­erist approach to bear on these ques­tions. What does the pro­lif­er­a­tion of bor­ders tell us about con­tem­po­rary global cap­i­tal­ism?

San­dro Mez­zadra: The mobil­ity of labor was indeed part and parcel of the very “envi­ron­ment” within which work­erism took shape in the early 1960s in Italy. Inter­nal migra­tion from the South of the coun­try was chal­leng­ing the polit­i­cal cul­ture of the labor move­ment in the North, pro­foundly trans­form­ing the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class and at the same time reshap­ing the terms of the “South­ern ques­tion.” There’s a book by Luciano Fer­rari Bravo and Alessan­dro Ser­afini (Stato e sot­tosviluppo. Il caso del Mez­zo­giorno ital­iano, “State and under­de­vel­op­ment. The case of the Ital­ian Mez­zo­giorno,” Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1972) that nicely cap­tures the rel­e­vance of these processes from the point of view of work­erism. Ret­ro­spec­tively one could even say that the very con­cept of class com­po­si­tion, one of the found­ing aspects of work­erism, reflects in its dynamic char­ac­ter the con­sti­tu­tive role of labor mobil­ity in cap­i­tal­ism, not merely from the point of view of analy­sis of exploita­tion but also from the point of view of the sub­jec­tive prac­tices and strug­gles of labor.

On the other hand, espe­cially in later years (I am think­ing of the work by Yann Moulier Boutang in the 1990s but also of my own engage­ment with migra­tion), the mobil­ity of labor has come to be con­sid­ered as a con­tested field in his­tor­i­cal as well as con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. Once you con­sider cap­i­tal­ism in the long run and in the global dimen­sion that char­ac­ter­ized it since its incep­tion, it is easy to see that labor mobil­ity has been a cru­cial “resource” for cap­i­tal, but at the same time it has also been a prob­lem. This means that mul­ti­far­i­ous lim­its to and attempts to “tame” the mobil­ity and “free­dom” (I remem­ber Marx in using the quo­ta­tion marks) of labor have char­ac­ter­ized the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism. This is a point where peo­ple like me, com­ing from work­erism, meet some of the most inter­est­ing devel­op­ments in his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of labor (just think of “global labor his­tory”), Atlantic stud­ies (the names of Mar­cus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh come to mind here), and post­colo­nial crit­i­cism (for instance the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty). The crit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of past expe­ri­ences of labor mobil­ity (from the Mid­dle Pas­sage to inden­tured labor, from the trans­plant­ing of coolies to “guest worker” regimes, just to men­tion a few) leads us on the one hand to empha­size what I was call­ing before its con­tested nature, focus­ing on the prac­tices of resis­tance and strug­gle that have char­ac­ter­ized even the most bru­tal forms of “forced” migra­tion. On the other hand it com­pels us to chal­lenge the idea of “free” wage labor as a kind of stan­dard for cap­i­tal­ism. And it has impor­tant impli­ca­tions for the way in which the polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­ity of labor is imag­ined and con­structed.

Once you look at the mobil­ity of labor as a con­tested field, as a field of strug­gle, the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion you were men­tion­ing is not that para­dox­i­cal and excep­tional. What mat­ters is to focus on the speci­fic “bal­ance” between mobil­ity and immo­bil­ity of labor that char­ac­ter­izes cap­i­tal­ism today. In the pro­duc­tion and man­age­ment of this “bal­ance” some of the most impor­tant strug­gles of our time are played out, and they provide a cru­cial angle on the trans­for­ma­tions of power and exploita­tion as well as on the chang­ing nature and com­po­si­tion of labor. To put it briefly, what is at stake at the bor­der is the pro­duc­tion of labor-power as a com­mod­ity – as well as of the sub­jects con­structed as “bear­ers” of labor power, as Marx would have it. Race and gen­der are always at play in such a pro­duc­tion of sub­jec­tiv­ity, which involves even asy­lum seek­ers inso­far as the “man­age­ment” of their move­ments is part and parcel of wider migra­tion and bor­der regimes. This is the angle from which Brett Neil­son and I ana­lyze the pro­lif­er­a­tion of bor­ders in many parts of the world today in Bor­der as Method. While in crit­i­cal bor­der stud­ies there has been a ten­dency in recent years to empha­size exclu­sion, we pro­pose revers­ing the gaze, and ana­lyz­ing even walls and camps as part of shift­ing regimes of “dif­fer­en­tial inclu­sion.” If you allow me to be brief again, behind this there is an attempt to move away from the idea that exclu­sion is the priv­i­leged (if not the only) form of vio­lence and dom­i­na­tion nowa­days, empha­siz­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of “exclu­sion” and “inclu­sion,” and thus con­test­ing the view of inclu­sion as an unal­loyed social good.

Clas­si­cal work­erism antic­i­pated many of these themes by turn­ing its atten­tion to the African-Amer­i­can work­force, a major source for its the­o­riza­tion of mobil­ity. From the occa­sional appear­ance of George Raw­ick to the writ­ings of Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bino on Mal­colm X and WEB Du Bois, the black lib­er­a­tion move­ment served as a sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal point of ref­er­ence. What did these move­ments con­tribute to the devel­op­ment of work­erist the­ory?

Let me say first of all that the US expe­ri­ence of labor strug­gles as a whole has been very impor­tant for the devel­op­ment of work­erism. If you keep in mind what I was say­ing before regard­ing labor mobil­ity, it is easy to under­stand that for instance the Indus­trial Work­ers of the World has played a cru­cial role in shap­ing the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion of work­erism, becom­ing a kind of “polit­i­cal myth” whose influ­ence is still strong today. Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bino was piv­otal in fos­ter­ing this inter­est in the his­tory and present of the US work­ing class, also due to his rela­tion with George P. Raw­ick. In an essay just pub­lished in South Atlantic Quar­terly (112/3, sum­mer 2013), Gam­bino explains that it was Raw­ick who sug­gested him to read Du Bois’ Black Recon­struc­tion “on the eve of 1968” dur­ing his first visit to the US. The pub­li­ca­tion of Rawick’s From Sun­down to Sunup in 1973 in the series “Mate­ri­ali Marx­isti,” edited by Toni Negri and Ser­gio Bologna for the pub­lisher Fel­trinelli, was an impor­tant out­come of these transat­lantic rela­tions. The trans­la­tor of Rawick’s book was Bruno Car­to­sio, who would play in later years (through and after the expe­ri­ence of the jour­nal Primo mag­gio) an impor­tant role in the devel­op­ment of Amer­i­can stud­ies in Italy, along with other schol­ars who were trained in the envi­ron­ment of work­erism (such as Fer­di­nando Fasce, to men­tion just one name).

As far as I remem­ber from the years of my own intel­lec­tual and polit­i­cal train­ing, the late 1970s and early 1980s, such names as Du Bois and C.L.R. James were cir­cu­lat­ing a lot in “auton­o­mist” cir­cles, while Mal­colm X was con­sid­ered a stan­dard read­ing. Nev­er­the­less, I have the impres­sion that the black lib­er­a­tion move­ment was more impor­tant from a his­tor­i­cal point of view and as a polit­i­cal point of ref­er­ence, as you say, than for the devel­op­ment of the main con­cep­tual tools of work­erism. My own engage­ment with “black Marx­ism,” with African-Amer­i­can rad­i­cal­ism, and par­tic­u­larly with W.E.B. Du Bois (see for instance the col­lec­tion of his essays and speeches I edited for the pub­lisher il Mulino in 2010, Sulla linea del col­ore), has been prompted on the one hand by the promi­nence of migrants’ strug­gles since the early 1990s in Italy, and on the other hand by a grow­ing unease pre­cisely with some aspects of work­erism. What I was say­ing before regard­ing mobil­ity and the mul­ti­far­i­ous attempts to tame and even block it comes out, among other things, of the read­ing of the African-Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence through the lens pro­vided by the writ­ings of Du Bois. The title of the book on migra­tion I pub­lished in 2001 (Diritto di fuga, “The right to escape,” ombre corte) was also inspired by what Du Bois writes on the “great migra­tion North” of African-Amer­i­cans: “back of that stream,” Du Bois writes already in The Philadel­phia Negro (1899), “is the world-wide desire to rise in the world, to escape the chok­ing nar­row­ness of the plan­ta­tion, and the law­less repres­sion of the vil­lage, in the South.” But read­ing Du Bois, and reflect­ing upon the African-Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence, was also impor­tant for me to chal­lenge what I was more and more expe­ri­enc­ing as the lim­its of an image of labor con­structed by work­erism upon a cer­tain idea of “homo­gene­ity.” Du Bois’s analy­sis of “the wages of white­ness” in Black Recon­struc­tion, to put it with David Roedi­ger, was cru­cial for me in this regard. On the one hand it helped me to think about the rela­tion between speci­fic sub­ject posi­tions and the “com­mon­al­ity” of labor within the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class, posit­ing it as a fun­da­men­tal the­o­ret­i­cal as well as polit­i­cal prob­lem. On the other hand, it prompted a reflec­tion on the Marx­ian con­cept of labor-power, going beyond the idea of “free” wage labor as a stan­dard for cap­i­tal­ism (as I was already say­ing) but also con­sid­er­ing race (and by exten­sion gen­der as well as other cul­tural and social ele­ments) as orig­i­nally shap­ing the way in which sub­jects are con­structed as “bear­ers” of labor power.

You have described the con­cept of the “ten­dency” as one of the most pre­cious con­tri­bu­tions of work­erism. In “Cri­sis of the Plan­ner-State” (1971), Negri coun­ter­posed the ten­dency to both “the sim­ple emer­gence of an unavoid­able his­tor­i­cal neces­sity,” and “a his­tor­i­cal rule of thumb, lack­ing any speci­fic con­tent.” Start­ing from an anti-tele­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of his­tory as a process with­out a sub­ject or goals, he added that cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment gen­er­ates an antag­o­nis­tic mass sub­ject whose goal is the system’s destruc­tion. But later the ten­dency would be “real­ized” in the hege­mony of emer­gent forms of labor, alongside a con­ver­sion of log­i­cal cat­e­gories like for­mal and real sub­sump­tion into a lin­ear, his­tori­cist peri­odiza­tion. Do you see a way to reclaim the con­cept of the ten­dency, in a way that can coun­ter pro­gres­sivist, and poten­tially Euro­cen­tric, nar­ra­tives of his­tory?

As you may know, the cri­tique of any lin­ear under­stand­ing of the “ten­dency” has been an impor­tant part of my work in the last years, mak­ing my posi­tion within the “post-work­erist” debate quite pecu­liar. If you take for instance the con­cepts of for­mal and real sub­sump­tion, I have tried to chal­lenge any sim­ple ren­der­ing of their rela­tion in terms of a kind of nec­es­sary “tran­si­tion” from the first to the lat­ter, empha­siz­ing what Marx him­self writes about for­mal sub­sump­tion as the “gen­eral form of any cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion process.” This led me to focus on the mul­ti­far­i­ous ways in which for­mal sub­sump­tion (with the speci­fic extrac­tion of “absolute sur­plus value” through exten­sion of the work­ing day char­ac­ter­iz­ing it) repro­duces itself within any cap­i­tal­ist “tran­si­tion.” This is part of the prob­lems that Brett Neil­son and I inves­ti­gate through the con­cept of the “mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of labor,” empha­siz­ing the con­sti­tu­tive het­ero­gene­ity of liv­ing labor as well as the artic­u­la­tion of dif­fer­ent labor regimes and forms of exploita­tion. This is an approach that leads us very far away from attempts to locate the “hege­mony” of a cer­tain sec­tion of labor that have unques­tion­ably char­ac­ter­ized the devel­op­ment of work­erism and more recently “post-work­erist” debates (which does not mean to deny of course that under speci­fic con­di­tions there are strug­gles that are more rel­e­vant than oth­ers).

It is impor­tant to say that speak­ing about the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and het­ero­gene­ity of labor does not mean for me and Brett cel­e­brat­ing “dif­fer­ence” or even “frag­men­ta­tion.” It rather points to the exis­tence of a myr­iad points of poten­tial con­flict and strug­gle, while at the same time re-qual­i­fy­ing the prob­lem of a polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion of strug­gles within and against the cap­i­tal rela­tion. Against this back­ground, I am con­vinced that the con­cept of ten­dency retains its impor­tance and valid­ity once it is shaken free of the “pro­gres­sivist” and “his­tori­cist” aspects that you rightly men­tioned. In “Cri­sis of the Plan­ner-State,” and even more in Marx Beyond Marx (his read­ing of the Grun­drisse), Negri empha­sizes very much the fact that there is an open­ing in the work­erist con­cept of ten­dency that you don’t find in stan­dard Marx­ist inter­pre­ta­tions of the “laws of devel­op­ment” of cap­i­tal­ism. And this open­ing is pro­duced by the con­sti­tu­tive role of antag­o­nism in the very for­mu­la­tion of the con­cept of ten­dency. I could put it so: there is a famous pas­sage in the Grun­drisse where Marx writes of capital’s ten­dency to trans­form “every limit” it encoun­ters in “a bar­rier to be over­come.” Empha­siz­ing the impor­tance of this “encoun­ter” with the “limit” pro­vides us with a gen­eral frame­work within which the con­cept of ten­dency can be reframed. To iden­tify the most impor­tant “lim­its” in a given his­tor­i­cal and “geo­graph­i­cal” sit­u­a­tion gives impor­tant hints in order to antic­i­pate the “points of attack” of cap­i­tal and the kind of strug­gles that are bound to acquire a strate­gic impor­tance. At the same time, and again in a local­ized and his­tor­i­cally sen­si­tive way, the con­cept of ten­dency con­tin­ues to be impor­tant also from the point of view of the com­po­si­tion of liv­ing labor and of the dynam­ics of strug­gles, in an attempt to antic­i­pate the emer­gence of speci­fic strug­gles and the modal­ity of their poten­tial con­ver­gences, in ways that often lead to the pro­duc­tion of new “lim­its” to cap­i­tal and to the chance of a rup­ture.

Let’s turn to the chang­ing nature of work today. You’ve expanded the empha­sis of post-work­erist the­ory beyond “imma­te­rial labor” to extrac­tion and logis­tics – the forms of labor which, in the global sup­ply chain, make finance and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion pos­si­ble. Why are these forms of labor sig­nif­i­cant? Should they be under­stood as a hege­monic form of class com­po­si­tion, or do they rep­re­sent a chal­lenge to that notion?

The arti­cle you are refer­ring to, again co-authored with Brett Neil­son, came out this year in Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy, and is part of an attempt to con­tinue and even inten­sify our col­lab­o­ra­tive work after the writ­ing of Bor­der as Method. We take the shat­ter­ing of old spa­tial hier­ar­chies and the emer­gence of new geo­gra­phies of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment and accu­mu­la­tion in the cur­rent global cri­sis as a point of depar­ture for a deep­en­ing of our inves­ti­ga­tion of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. At the risk of over­sim­pli­fy­ing a more com­plex argu­ment, we con­tend that the deep het­ero­gene­ity of cap­i­tal­ism across diverse geo­graph­i­cal scales (and within each of these scales) should not be con­sid­ered to be in con­tra­dic­tion with the exis­tence of com­mon fea­tures and log­ics of cap­i­tal­ism itself. It is pre­cisely the ten­sion between these two dimen­sions that mat­ters, both for an inves­ti­ga­tion of the chang­ing nature of exploita­tion and accu­mu­la­tion and for an under­stand­ing of the sub­jec­tive stakes and strug­gles of “liv­ing labor.” It is a ques­tion we are try­ing to inves­ti­gate by look­ing at lively debates on “vari­eties of cap­i­tal­ism,” on the pro­posal to “plu­ral­ize cap­i­tal­ism,” and on the con­cept of “var­ie­gated cap­i­tal­ism,” intro­duced by geo­g­ra­phers like Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore and which is quite sug­ges­tive from our point of view.

Finance, logis­tics, and extrac­tion play cru­cial roles in defin­ing (and in pro­duc­ing) what I was call­ing the com­mon fea­tures and log­ics of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. They are much more than sim­ply “sec­tors” of eco­nomic activ­ity, and espe­cially look­ing (as we try to do in the afore­men­tioned essay) at the inter­twin­ing between them sheds light on processes and trans­for­ma­tions that go well beyond any eco­nomic “sec­tor” shap­ing soci­ety as a whole. If you take for instance finance and extrac­tion, it is easy to grasp the role of finan­cial cap­i­tal in dri­ving invest­ments in min­ing projects in many parts of the world and in deter­min­ing the prices of com­modi­ties them­selves. But once the con­cept of extrac­tion is under­stood in a less lit­eral sense, it can be used in order to qual­ify the way in which finan­cial cap­i­tal itself works, which means extract­ing value from social coop­er­a­tion, in terms that led Anto­nio Negri, Carlo Ver­cel­lone and other “post-work­erist” the­o­rists to speak of a “becom­ing rent of profit” (see for instance A. Fuma­galli and S. Mez­zadra, eds, Cri­sis in the Global Econ­omy: Finan­cial Mar­kets, Social Strug­gles, and New Polit­i­cal Sce­nar­ios, Los Ange­les, CA: Semiotext(e), 2010).

You are right when you say that in a way we are try­ing to look at the mate­ri­al­ity of finance and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion through the angles of extrac­tion and logis­tics. But while we insist on the impor­tance of strug­gles aris­ing within extrac­tion and logis­tics (and we have had plenty of them in recent years in many parts of the world), we are also very far from imag­in­ing a kind of “hege­mony” of these forms and fig­ures of labor within the con­tem­po­rary com­po­si­tion of class. This is not only because of what I was say­ing before in gen­eral terms about the lim­its and pit­falls of the search for hege­monic fig­ures of labor – which leads us to look at the con­cept of “imma­te­rial labor,” which you were men­tion­ing, as a kind of “his­tor­i­cal” con­cept that opened a new and very impor­tant field of research and debate on labor after the cri­sis of Fordism but has been super­seded by mate­rial cir­cum­stances and the­o­ret­i­cal debates. It is also due to the fact that the oper­a­tions of extrac­tion and logis­tics, as well as of finance, are not merely depen­dent on the labor directly employed in these “sec­tors.” They are rather so deeply rooted in the space they con­cur to pro­duce, and in the social life within this space, that effec­tively chal­leng­ing them is not pos­si­ble with­out the involve­ment of a mul­ti­tude of sub­jec­tive fig­ures of labor, let’s say with­out a sub­ver­sive politi­ciza­tion of social coop­er­a­tion.

This is to say that our work def­i­nitely chal­lenges the notion of class com­po­si­tion. But we are far from the idea of get­ting rid of it! We rather tend to rad­i­cal­ize the impor­tance of keep­ing the conun­drum of class com­po­si­tion open, which is the prob­lem of the polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion of liv­ing labor, of the mate­rial con­di­tions that make cer­tain strug­gles capa­ble of hav­ing at the same time a dis­rup­tive, an expan­sive, and a “recom­bin­ing” power. When you con­sider some of the most impor­tant mass strug­gles of the last months, from the upris­ings in Tunisia and Egypt to what is hap­pen­ing in Turkey and Brazil, you are really con­fronted with pow­er­ful instan­ti­a­tions of what I was call­ing a sub­ver­sive politi­ciza­tion of social coop­er­a­tion. You see the power of this but you are also puz­zled by the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of lines of flight within such move­ments, by the chal­lenge they posit to any estab­lished way of under­stand­ing the pol­i­tics of rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. If the notion of class com­po­si­tion is still valid today, it is pre­cisely because it helps us to live through such move­ments keep­ing the prob­lem of a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics open. Again, the notion of class com­po­si­tion is not the solu­tion. It is rather a conun­drum that we have to con­stantly re-qual­ify through research and polit­i­cal prac­tice.

To con­clude, a ques­tion for the ambi­tious: what meth­ods of inquiry and co-research are ade­quate to today’s global work­force?

This is really a ques­tion for the ambi­tious… And it is easy, although no less true, to say that there is no sin­gle answer to it. In an essay writ­ten some years ago (“Rep­re­sent­ing global labor,” Social Text 25/3, 2007), Michael Den­ning con­tended that that it was more dif­fi­cult for Marx than it is for us today to imag­ine the work­ers of the world “con­sti­tut­ing an inter­con­nected global labor force shar­ing a com­mon sit­u­a­tion.” This is true, although there is a need to repeat that the ways in which this com­mon sit­u­a­tion is lived and expe­ri­enced are pro­foundly het­ero­ge­neous even within a sin­gle met­ro­pol­i­tan area. Sim­ply put, I think that this gap between het­ero­gene­ity and com­mon­al­ity should fig­ure promi­nently in any attempt to invent new meth­ods of co-research on the com­po­si­tion of liv­ing labor today. Prac­tices of mobil­ity and migra­tion are par­tic­u­larly impor­tant here, because they provide us with a sub­jec­tive angle from which to ana­lyze the pro­lif­er­a­tion of bor­ders that cut and cross spaces, lives, social coop­er­a­tion and labor. In Bor­der as Method we try to ana­lyze the ten­sions and con­flicts criss­cross­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of bor­ders well beyond geopo­lit­i­cal lines of demar­ca­tion between states, pro­vid­ing some con­cep­tual tools use­ful to iden­tify the sites where these ten­sions are more intense (be it within a city or a spe­cial eco­nomic zone), giv­ing rise to what we call bor­der strug­gles. In a way, I could say that the bor­der, in the exten­sive use of the con­cept that we pro­pose, is a site where the het­ero­gene­ity char­ac­ter­iz­ing the con­tem­po­rary com­po­si­tion of liv­ing labor and the com­mon­al­ity of social coop­er­a­tion touch upon each other and are vio­lently sep­a­rated. And this means that it pro­vides a priv­i­leged angle (although def­i­nitely not the only pos­si­ble one) on the prob­lem that I was propos­ing as cru­cial for any prac­tice of mil­i­tant co-research today.

Author of the article

teaches Political Theory at the University of Bologna, has long been engaged in activist projects, and is an active participant in the "post-workerist" debate (see particularly Euronomade). Among other books, he is, with Brett Neilson, author of Border as Method.