Notes and response to “Affective Labor” by Michael Hardt

Hardt’s goal here is to briefly provide a schematic history of transformations in the capitalist economy that will buttress his theories of immaterial labor and positive biopower. This is useful as a foundation, and also makes some basic corrections to how he has been read:

“The claim that the process of modernization is over and that the global economy is today undergoing a process of postmodernization toward an informational economy does not mean that industrial production will be done away with or that it will cease to play an important role, even in the most dominant regions of the globe. Just as the industrial revolution transformed agriculture and made it more productive, so too the informational revolution will transform industry redefining and rejuvenating manufacturing processes through the integration, for example, of information networks within industrial processes. “

This argument usefully echoes earlier discussions in our class on how organizations of power layer over each other, as opposed to historical conceptions that accept epochal shifts.

On the other hand, Hardt still tends to project a biopolitically-smooth social space, even into periods before the emergence of the immaterial economy/biopower proper. In accounting for the transition from the Fordist model of industrial production to a Toyotist one, Hardt explains: “The mass production of standardized commodities in the Fordist era could count on an adequate demand and thus had little need to listen closely to the market.” He thus implies the key event in the transition was a kind of consumer rebellion on the demand side. This demand-side approach allows him to represent a diffuse and passive transitional process, spread across the entire population of citizen-consumers, prefiguring well the ultra-diffuse resistant forms that, for him, constitute a positive biopower in the current period.

Absent here is the uneven, violent, and sector-specific narrative of the breakdown of discipline in the auto factory in the late 1960s and early 70s. The spreading refusal on the shopfloor was not primarily expressed in political forms, and indeed could be referenced as a different prefiguration of biopolitical resistance (i.e. the application of sick-outs, the constitution of informal organizations for disruption). While this is a short piece that necessarily paints the story broadly, the Toyotist-phenomenon is key to his idea of the emerging hegemony of immaterial labor, and Hardt’s historical approach follows his political orientation.

More broadly, Hardt’s perspective (which here at least, echoes orthodox Marxism), that the elaboration of the new affective economy will necessarily open new spaces for struggle, walks a thin line. As he ends with, “the production of affects, subjectivities, and forms of life present an enormous potential for autonomous circuits or valorization, and perhaps for liberation.” It’s unclear what his “autonomous circuits” directly signify, but the ambiguity speaks to the very possible alternate reading that the new, flexibilized affective economy will simply be an engine for ever-more efficient recuperation, recognizing new forms of life and quickly incorporating them within the economy. His method is either strategic, moving to analyze new terrains of contestation as they emerge, or celebratory, promising that the latest innovations in the economy should be temporarily accepted, in the name of a future pay-off, of still as-yet-formless subversive potentials. The distance between these methodological poles is the political distance between diffuse resistance and diffuse social democracy, both of which deserve to be criticized.

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One response to “Notes and response to “Affective Labor” by Michael Hardt

  1. Whatever its importance as an historical episode, how significant can the factory floor disruptions, which occurred over a period of a decade or so, be, given the epochal scale of transformation Hardt is dealing with?

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