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 (Department of Arts) and is adjunct research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society of Western Sydney University. In the last decade his work has particularly centered on the relations between globalization, migration and political processes, on contemporary capitalism, as well as on postcolonial theory and criticism. He is an active participant in the "post-workerist" debates and one of the founders of the website Euronomade. With Brett Neilson he is the author of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013) and of The Politics of Operations. Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2019). He is currently coordinating the Horizon 2020 project PLUS (“Platforms, Labor, Urban Spaces”).