Monday, July 2, 2012

Souls without Work: On Post-Fordist Labor and Student Debt

The soul is now at work. This is the refrain of a certain set of post-Marxists—Bifo, Virno, Negri, etc—who query the paradigm of labor central to post-Fordist capitalism. Affective laborers, intellectual laborers, the cognitariat: for these new figures of labor, work becomes more than ever the ontological substratum of life. No longer is labor a heteronomous necessity. Rather, the incorporation of cognition and affection into the labor process renders that which we preserved as the human fully immanent to production. The organic composition of capital thus undergoes a dramatic mutation. Indeed, it is unclear if the analytics of constant and variable capital have any purchase any longer, insofar as brains are directly plugged into the machine. A thrilling narrative: Marxian species-being may erupt, at any moment, from the new centers of capitalist control, insofar as the heteronomy of capitalist coordination and command seems superfluous to the labor process. We’re already autonomous, if only we knew it.

I’ve always had problems with this narrative, and for a few reasons. The concern I want to address here relates to the formation of the cognitariat—that is, the apparatus that shapes the cognitive labor who realizes herself at the Google campus. The high theorists of post-Fordism tend to take the immanentization of cognition and affect into production as an accomplished fact: the cognitive factory calls upon a worker, who appears and is instantaneously enfolded into the social-productive fabric of the firm. That’s not necessarily untrue, but to focus solely on the unit of production elides the total cycle of social reproduction. At what point in the circuit of capital is this labor power formed? If capital has incorporated the soul into its labor process, where is labor power ensouled? Following Dalla Costa and Selma James on the social factory—a concept of course set to work by the line of post-Marxism I am critiquing—I want to suggest that cognitive laborers are ensouled outside of the actual unit of production. The composition of capital today presumes that the worker, even before she sets foot in the cognitive factory, has achieved a high level of technical competency, technical here including affective and intellectual skills. The level of presumed technical skill is, moreover, far higher than that which would previously have been presumed; that is, companies today comparatively invest less time in skilling their workers, in forming labor power, and so investing in variable capital. The site of investment in technical skill has been displaced to the cycle of reproduction, and this displacement of the site of investment has entailed a displacement of the subject responsible for such investments. Job skilling—or, in a post-Fordist paradigm, ensouling—now takes place outside of the site of production, at the university, and it is the student who is responsible for the costs of ensouling herself.

Putting this in Marx’s terms: The circuit of productive capital has externalized investment in variable capital. Marx describes the circuit of productive capital thusly: P (MP+L) - C' - M' - C' - P'. Productive capital, the means of production and labor, yields a commodity, the surplus value of which is realized as money, which is reinvested in more commodities to enabled expanded production. Over time, we have witnessed the transformation of the composition of productive capital P (means of production + labor). Between P and P', the capital that the firm invests in L has declined (human resources mumbo jumbo to the side) as the costs of valorizing L have been externalized and foisted upon the individual laborer. The point is thus not simply that variable capital tends to decrease in favor of constant capital in the organic composition of capital, as has been classically demonstrated regarding machination of production. The opposite obtains, I think: while the level of investment in enhancing L, in forming variable capital, might decrease for the firm, it remains the same (or increases) at a social level. But this investment is displaced from the circuit of production to the cycle of reproduction. Neoliberal governance intersects with this mutation to ensure that the subject responsible for this investment is the individuated student-laborer, not the collective social subject or the state. Prior to insertion within the circuit of productive capital, then, we have already worked, and worked on ourselves. We make ourselves potential-for-capital, to-hand should a capitalist decide to let us realize our values in the labor process.

The hyper-capitalized, neoliberal university is, ironically, a pre-capitalist economic form. It is a site in which (human) goods are valorized prior to incorporation within the circuit of capital—a valorization process presupposed by, but not immanent to, the processes of capitalist valorization and realization. I make this point so as to indicate the radical potentials that inhere in organizing around student debt. The one trillion dollars of debt confronting students in the U.S. indexes the displacement of the site and subject responsible for the formation of technical capacities required to valorize capital. The collapse of state schools has exacerbated this trend: if the state once absorbed part of the costs of the social valorization of labor power, the individual is now responsible, prior to entering the job market, for enhancing her technical skill set. Society—and especially the university—becomes a factory for souls. Yet, this does not mean that production has been rendered immanent to the social fabric. The one trillion of debt—a debt that is increasingly impossible to pay off—marks a yawning gap between individuated self-valorization (ensoulment, the increase in technical capacities) and the possibility of realizing these capacities through and for social production. There is a classical realization crisis taking place today, but it’s not one besetting big firms. Rather, it’s the neoliberal post-Fordist ensouled worker, the entrepreneurial self who invested first of all in herself, who cannot realize herself, her investment, her value, on the job market.

It’s this break—between the average technical capacity of an individual and her opportunity to set this capacity to work—that exposes how the cognitariat implies the precariat, how post-Fordism’s incorporation of the (pre-formed) human into labor processes implies its abandonment of large populations of would-be human workers. We need to catch up with all that this break implies. So far, student debt activism has adopted a rhetoric of the social contract: Students have indebted themselves with the understanding that they would be able to realize their investment in the labor market, that some agency would repair any break in the organic composition of social capital. This understanding is broadly Keynesian in its assumptions. But one trillion of debt for university education signifies, if nothing else proves it, capital’s movement beyond modalities of social-state embedding. The effect of neoliberal post-Fordism is not the putting-to-work of souls; or, at least, its broadest effects are irreducible to the 100,000 super-trained high-tech cats who generate 45989548 virtual ontologies before breakfast and signal our coming species-being. Rather, one trillion dollars of unresolvable debt is the halo of an immanent potentiality deprived of any means of achieving actuality, of potentiated souls unable to incarnate themselves in the social.

A new specter, then, haunts capitalism. The simplest point I want to make is this: A new student movement organized around unresolvable debt would have implications far beyond university financing. The break between auto-valorized variable capital and its ability to realize itself at work marks a crisis in the composition of capital. For this reason, the student debt movement has a generality and importance that extends beyond the university and could touch upon the general social terrain. The point is to make this articulation. Demands for debt forgiveness have provided a good slogan and inaugural program. However, when such demands are made on the state, we risk promoting a kind of retroactive Keynesianism; it might choose to perform a one-time absorption of the costs of social reproduction. This would leave the composition of capital mostly intact while simultaneously isolating the import of the student debt movement to the relationship between students and universities operating in a bad jobs climate. We need to stake out a position—cognitively and practically—in the broader terrain of social (re)production

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