The Labour of
Abstraction: Seven Transitional
Theses on Marxism
Capitalism is an object of high abstraction, the common is a force of higher abstraction
Karl Marx’s notion of abstract labour identified the inner engine of capitalism, that is, the transformation of labour into a general equivalent. In the so-called introduction to the Grundrisse,1 Marx put abstraction at the centre of “the method of political economy,” and ten years later this methodology would innervate his analysis in Das Kapital.2 In Marx the concrete is a result, a product, of the process of abstraction.3 Capitalist reality, and specifically revolutionary reality, is an invention: The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception.4 Abstraction is both the tendency of capital and the method of Marxism. In addition, Alfred Sohn-Rethel5 spotted the strict relation between the abstraction of language, the abstraction of commodity, and the abstraction of money. Operaism then took abstraction and sewed it again upon the jacket of the proletarian: abstraction is the movement of capital and also is the movement of the resistance to capital. Antonio Negri specifically set abstraction at the centre of the method of antagonistic tendency as a process of collective knowledge: the process of determinate abstraction is entirely given inside this collective proletarian illumination: it is therefore an element of critique and a form of struggle.6 The idea of the common was born as an epistemic project.
- Karl Marx, “Einleitung” (Manuscript M, 1857), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Moscow: Verlag für fremdsprachige Literatur, 1939). Translation: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1993).
- Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1 (Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meissner, 1867). Translation: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1981).
- See also Evald Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982).
- Marx, “Einleitung” (Manuscript M, 1857), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, 101.
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (London: Macmillan, 1978).
- Antonio Negri, Marx oltre Marx: Quaderno di lavoro sui Grundrisse (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1979). Translation: Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (New York: Autonomedia, 1991), 66.
Capitalism has evolved into further monetary and technological abstractions (techniques of financialization and algorithmic governance)
Contemporary capitalism has evolved along two main vectors of abstraction: monetary abstraction (financialization) and technological abstraction (the algorithms of the metadata society). Expressed within Marx’s diagram of organic composition of capital,1 this means: capital’s technical composition has evolved toward the algorithmic abstraction of networks (data governance), its value composition toward the monetary abstraction of derivatives and futures (debt governance). As Michael Hardt says: Finance, like money in general, expresses the value of labor and the value produced by labor, but through highly abstract means. The specificity of finance, in some respects, is that it attempts to represent the future value of labor and its future productivity.2 Algorithmic trading, or algotrading, is a good example of the combined evolution of these two machinic lineages and a good measure of the desperate state of investment capital. From another point of view, on the ground of the new forms of cybernetic labour, Romano Alquati3 tried to combine this parallel evolution in the notion of valorizing information (merging the notions of cybernetic information and Marxian value). In 1963, Alquati had already described a cybernetic factory that, like digital networks today, was able to absorb human knowledge and turn it into machinic intelligence and machinic value (in this way feeding fixed capital). Capitalism started then to show the profile of a global autonomous intelligence: Cybernetics recomposes globally and organically the functions of the general worker that are pulverised into individual micro-decisions: the Bit links up the atomised worker to the figures of the [economic] Plan.4 In Alquati’s factory we are already visiting the belly of an abstract machine, a concretion of capital that is no longer made of steel.
- Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1 (Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meissner, 1867). Translation: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1981), 762.
- Michael Hardt, introduction to Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2008), 9.
- Romano Alquati, “Composizione organica del capitale e forza-lavoro alla Olivetti,” part 2, Quaderni Rossi, no. 3, 1963.
- Ibid., 134.
Abstraction is the form of both cognitive capitalism and biopower
The notion of biopolitical normativity was introduced by Michel Foucault in his 1975 course Les Anormaux. Across modernity Foucault identified a form of power that was not exercised through techniques of repression of sexuality but through a positive production of knowledge about sexuality. Foucault distinguished so between the domains of Law and Norm: The norm’s function is not to exclude and reject. Rather, it is always linked to a positive technique of intervention and transformation, to a sort of normative project....What the eighteenth century established through the discipline of normalization...seems a power that is not linked to ignorance but a power that can only function thanks to the formation of a knowledge.1 As a matter of fact Foucault’s notion of normative power was inspired by his mentor Georges Canguilhem,2 who had derived the idea from the neurologist Kurt Goldstein3 and then applied it to the social sciences. Specifically, in Goldstein’s work the normative power was the ability of the brain to produce new norms in order to adapt to the environment or respond to traumas. As in Gestalttheorie, Goldstein believed that the normative power of the brain was based on the power of abstraction, that is, the ability to generalize forms and invent new ones. Foucault started his first book4 with a strong critique of Goldstein, later transforming the power of abstraction into a proper epistemology of power. Biopolitics was born in fact as noopolitics—and the essential problem that besets the politics of life is still the politics of abstraction. The paradigms of both biopower and cognitive capitalism should be described as the exploitation and alienation of the power of abstraction.
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About the Author
Matteo Pasquinelli is a philosopher. He wrote the book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008) and lectures frequently at the intersection of philosophy, media theory, and life sciences. His texts have been translated into many languages, and he has contributed to journals and newspapers such as Springerin, Multitudes, Fibreculture, Theory Culture & Society, Leonardo, Lugar Comum, Rethinking Marxism, Open!, Libération, Il manifesto, and Der Freitag. Together with Wietske Maas he wrote the Manifesto of Urban Cannibalism. At NGBK Berlin he is co-curating the forthcoming exhibition The Ultimate Capital Is the Sun. His work can be seen at http://matteopasquinelli.com.