Céline Marty, “André Gorz’s Theory of Immaterial Work: revolution or metamorphosis of the industrial capitalism?”

In his last book The Immaterial : Knowledge, Value and Capital (2003), André Gorz explores classical and marxian political economy in the light of immaterial capitalism. It is defined as a new system of production where knowledge and human capital become the main productive force. According to Gorz, it destroys the economic categories of the industrial capitalism because this general intellect is not only the result of fixed work embodied in a machine – the capital –, but it is also a living labour existing before and after the production, that cannot be stored and quantified. Labour is no longer just the production of goods or commodities and the economic value may increase independently of the transformation of material base.

Nevertheless, immaterial capitalism tries to keep functioning the same as before by taking private ownership of the collective knowledge. In financialised and platform capitalism, information and communication technologies are used in conditions of exclusivity to exchange data. But this private ownership is not efficient enough to maintain monopoly over the general intellect : not only does it leak but its economic value decreases with the possibility of reproducing it over and over again.

Gorz interprets this as a crisis of capitalism that creates the possibility of overcoming it because digital creates new tools, such as the Internet or 3D printers, which can be used to subvert capitalism, because they allow us to satisfy our needs by ourselves, outside the market. But he also warns against the transformation of its domination over labour and consumption in a “postmodern capitalism”.

But is this immaterial economy so revolutionary? Production remains material, since some immaterial tasks use a lot of material technical and logistical work upstream and downstream the production. Furthermore, companies require the performance of specific human work that cannot be reduced to “knowledge” and create economic value by selling private data. Finally, the ecological crisis shows its material conditions and its limits.

From the industrial capitalism to the immaterial capitalism

Industrial capitalism entered a crisis at the end of the 70s when consumption was saturated while material production needed to continue to grow to maintain the rate of profit. Although it continues to stimulate consumption through obsolescence and advertising, capitalism also deploys new strategies to create value. Production and work have become dematerialised due to the integration of a range of human skills into machines. Knowledge, itself a product of previous knowledge and know-how, thus becomes a productive force. Of course the material labour did not disappear : it has simply been relocated to developing countries, meanwhile in our countries the provision of services, immaterial labour, tasks of product design and engineering, become the hegemonic form of labour.

Gorz distinguishes between two forms of knowledge at the heart of immaterial capitalism : the savoir ie tacit know-how which is acquired through practice and the connaissance ie technical and scientific knowledge, that can be embodied in the tools of production.  This last can be reified in fixed capital, computerised and reproduced ad infinitum, whereas living and experienced knowledge only exists in living work and is neither reifiable nor reproducible. Capitalism does not only seek to appropriate objective knowledge, which could result from its internal research, but it also targets the subjective knowledge of workers, by attempting to objectify them, through a formalisation of their expertise. Gorz considers knowledge as a living work, always carried out in situation, impossible to completely reify, quantify, formalise and store, impossible therefore to appropriate. He thus goes beyond the analyses of Marx and the post-operationalists Toni Negri and Yann Moulier-Boutang who interpret this general intellect as dead labour fixed in the machine in the form of technological knowledge produced by applied science. Consequently, the estimation of its value is uncertain : it is no longer effective working time.

In the industrial capitalist economy, all commodities have a common and quantifiable social substance – the abstract labour – and labour time determines their equivalence ratio – the exchange value. Knowledge does not work like that : it is worth by its intrinsic or use value and can be replicated ad infinitum. Its market value depends only on the possibility of making them scarce through privatisation. So the revolution of immaterial capitalism is not in the suppression of material labour but in the transformation of the accumulation of surplus value. The exchange value of a commodity no longer comes only from the living labour necessary for its production but from immaterial characteristics added to a contingent material support. Material labour is reshaped by this mode of accumulation. Since the knowledge can be dematerialised, it is no longer fixed to a material support which would be the exclusive property of capitalists: capitalism could no longer have a monopoly on scientific and technical knowledge as before. Furthermore, even if the market tries to assign it an arbitrary economic value, the productive potential of cognitive creations is impossible to predict. Knowledge can be shared for free, without having to go through the value-form, because it can be reproduced in unlimited quantities at a negligible cost.

The impossibility of reifying, measuring and comparing labour and value brings into crisis the traditional concepts of industrial capitalism : immaterial capitalism thus represents a paradoxical economy that relies on non-measurable, non-exchangeable and non-comparable values, but still manages to exchange goods and produce value, through an attempt to appropriate knowledge and information and communication technologies, without the value produced corresponding to a tangible material value. But it tries to maintain its private property to guarantee its profits.

The private use of this general intellect by immaterial capitalism

Immaterial capitalism appropriated knowledge, information and communication technologies to maximise its profits, through monopolistic brands, financial speculation and the valorisation of digital data. First, brand capitalism appropriates the property of the products derived from the general intellect : the immaterial dimension of products prevails over their material reality because the symbolic, aesthetic and social value takes precedence over the practical one. The large marketing, advertising and design sector create a symbolic value to products, which makes the branded good non-interchangeable. This brand capitalism values knowledge according to its capacity to monopolise its use, by intellectual property and corporate secrecy.

Second, financial capitalism is based on the exclusivity of financial information. The stock market value of a company is unpredictable because it is based on its future profits. Financial capital is concentrated on speculation and credit and speculates on raw materials and physical goods. Therefore, Gorz predicted the explosion of these speculative bubbles, which make “money by buying and selling hundreds of times a day nothing but fictitious money”. Financial assets are exchanged without any real correspondence with material production.

Finally, platform capitalism is also based on the sale of exclusive private data : digital platforms create value on the individual data that feed them: information on supply, i.e. the seller’s goods, and on demand, i.e. the consumer’s needs and preferences. The linking of this data, which is private and carried out by the platforms, produces the value, which is completely unconnected to material production. Information and communication technologies are then used to maximise the correspondence between production and demand and to extend the sphere of consumption by stimulating demand.

The immaterial capitalism : revolution or reorganization of production ?

According to Gorz, capitalism fails to control knowledge and information technologies. The knowledge is an common that the capital cannot keep private. Its content can be reproduced in unlimited quantities at little cost and used by everyone : it’s cumulative because it expands through exposure to the minds and expertise of others. The novelty of immaterial capitalism lies thus in the possibility of the emancipation of knowledge and its techniques from capital, because it is no longer reduced to a material private support. Knowledge is not produced by capitalism but by a social community that maintains and disseminates knowledge and socialises individuals with social skills. So its value does not come from its private appropriation but from its common character. Capitalism only captures it once it is produced by public institutions and social communities, through the patenting of products, the private publishing of research results and the formalisation of individual know-how.

By privatizing research, a company illegitimately privatises knowledge. His cost is highly uncertain, but it is also radically different from the cost of its reproduction, which tends towards zero: the unit cost of reproduction of an immaterial commodity is very low. In fact, the only way for capitalism to guarantee an exchange value to make its research investment profitable is to limit the free dissemination of the knowledge produced, by private property. Not only can this only temporarily hinder imitation or reinvention by other producers, but the lack of dissemination of knowledge reduces its productive potential.

Taking up the Marxist dialectic of the productive forces, Gorz considers that immaterial capitalism puts capitalist rationality in crisis while including new possibilities of emancipation: by exploiting a free common capitalism shows its incapacity to use it, because it can neither produce it nor maintain it. It then shows an economy of gratuity based on cooperative forms of production, exchange and consumption. Only a form of socialism that recognises its intrinsic value, independently of its contingent productive applications, can develop it, maintain it and preserve it from private interests. The knowledge economy is the opportunity for the advent of the society of culture which would develop non-instrumental activities, such as artistic and leisure ones. Universal basic income could replace the wage, obsolete in immaterial capitalism, to emancipate everyone from the economic market by untying employment from social protection. It would allow for the development of creative activities, which cannot be created and maintained by the market. Digital technology and new production tools that are more user-friendly, i.e. on a human scale, and more easily understood and mastered than the industrial technologies, such as 3D printers, allow for the de-professionalisation of production and knowledge. Makers and fablabs movements promote self-production outside the market. Computers as an instrument of knowledge, a technique of production and an instrument of coordination therefore make it possible to abolish the division of labour and the domination of producers by capital by making it possible to reproduce immaterial content rapidly and almost free of charge. The digital could be used according to sharing values to subvert capitalist rationality.

We can pursue Gorz’s project considering the emancipatory prospects of digital technology but also taking into account what remains material and industrial in the contemporary economy. Digital has indeed an ecological impact : every production, even that which seems immaterial, has material consequences in terms of resource use and waste generation and the ecological crisis demands that we become aware of this materiality.

La pubblicazione di questo articolo segue il convegno internazionale “Working in the Digital Age“, tenutosi nei giorni 24 e 25 marzo 2022 e organizzato nella cornice del progetto SN-DICAP Scienza Nuova. Digital CAPital (PI: Maurizio Ferraris) finanziato dalla fondazione CRT.



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