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Michael Hardt “Affective labor”

Hardt, Michael 1999. Affective Labor. boundary 2 26(2): 89-100.

It has now become common to view the succession of economic paradigms in the dominant capitalist countries since the Middle Ages in three distinct moments, each defined by a privileged sector of the economy: a first paradigm, in which agriculture and the extraction of raw materials dominated the economy; a second, in which industry and the manufacture of durable goods occupied the privileged position; and the current paradigm, in which providing services and manipulating information are at the heart of economic production. The dominant position has thus passed from primary to secondary to tertiary production. Economic modernization named the passage from the first paradigm to the second, from the dominance of agriculture to that of industry. Modernization meant industrialization. We might call the passage from the second paradigm to the third, from the domination of industry to that of services and information, a process of economic postmodernization, or rather, informatization. (90)

The term service here covers a large range of activities from health care, education, and finance, to transportation, entertainment, and advertising. The jobs, for the most part, are highly mobile and involve flexible skills. More importantly, they are characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, communication, and affect. In this sense, we can call the postindustrial economy an informational economy. (91)

The new managerial imperative operative here is “treat manufacturing as a service.” In effect, as industries are transformed, the division between manufacturing and services is becoming blurred. Just as through the process of modernization all production became industrialized, so too through the process of postmodernization all production tends toward the production of services, toward becoming informationalized. (92)

A first aspect of this transformation is recognized by many in terms of the change in factory labor – using the auto industry as a central point of reference – from the Fordist model to the Toyotist model. The primary structural change between these models involves the system of communication between the production and consumption of commodities, that is, the passage of information between the factory and the market. The Fordist model constructed a relatively “mute” relationship between production and consumption. 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. A feedback circuit from consumption to production did allow changes in the market to spur changes in production, but this communication was restricted (due to fixed and compartmentalized channels of planning) and slow (due to the rigidity of the technologies and procedures of mass production). (93)

Toyotism is based on an inversion of the Fordist structure of communication between production and consumption. Ideally, according to this model, the production planning will communicate with markets constantly and immediately. Factories will maintain zero stock and commodities will be produced just in time, according to the present demand of the existing markets. This model thus involves not simply a more rapid feedback loop but an inversion of the relationship because, at least in theory, the productive decision actually comes after and in reaction to the market decision. (93)

[…] immaterial labor – that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication. (94)

Robert Reich calls this type of immaterial labor “symbolic-analytical services” – tasks that involve “problem-solving, problem-identifying, and strategic brokering activities.” This type of labor claims the highest value and thus Reich identifies it as the key to competition in the new global economy. He recognizes, however, that the growth of these knowledge-based jobs of creative symbol manipulation implies a corresponding growth of low-value and low-skill jobs of routine symbol manipulation, such as data entry and word processing. Here begins to emerge a fundamental division of labor within the realm of immaterial processes. (95)

The other face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human contact and interaction. This is the aspect of immaterial labor that economists such as Reich are less likely to talk about but that seems to me the more important aspect, the binding element. Health services, for example, rely centrally on caring and affective labor, and the entertainment industry and the various culture industries are likewise focused on the creation and manipulation of affects. (95)

[…] embedded in the moments of human interaction and communication. This labor is immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible: a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion – even a sense of connectedness or community. (96)

Such affective production, exchange, and communication is generally associated with human contact, with the actual presence of another, but that contact can either be actual or virtual. In the production of affects in the entertainment industry, for example, the human contact, the presence of others, is principally virtual, but not for that reason any less real. (96)

Whereas in a first moment, in the computerization of industry, for example, one might say that communicative action, human relations, and culture have been instrumentalized, reified, and “degraded” to the level of economic interactions, one should add quickly that through a reciprocal process, in this second moment, production has become communicative, affective, de-instrumentalized, and “elevated” to the level of human relations – but, of course, a level of human relations entirely dominated by and internal to capital. (Here the division between economy and culture begins to break down.) (96)

By biopower, I understand the potential of affective labor. Biopower is the power of the creation of life; it is the production of collective subjectivities, sociality, and society itself. The focus on affects and the networks of the production of affects reveals these processes of social constitution. What is created in the networks if affective labor is a form-of-life. (98)

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