Immaterial Labor

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Citation: Maurizio Lazzarato (1996) Immaterial Labor. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Immaterial Labor
Tagged: Philosophy (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), digital labor (RSS), immaterial labor (RSS), post-fordism (RSS), postindustrial (RSS), autonomist marxism (RSS), theory (RSS)


In this article (translated from Italian by Paul Colilli and Ed Emory), Maurizio Lazzarato sets out to describe the idea of "immaterial labor... the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity"

  • the "informational content" of work involving computers
  • the "cultural content," the activity not typically considered work that defines tastes, norms, and "public opinion"(132,3)

Lazzarato plots a transition in this immaterial labor towards "mass intellectuality" and its widespread growth starting in the 1970s, arguing that we should abandon dichotomies between "mental and manual labor" or "material labor and immaterial labor" to see how the "labor process" incorporates both.

The Restructured Worker

Lazzarato starts with post-fordism, where workers have greater agency and responsibility, who is an "interface... between different functions, between different work teams, between different levels of the hierarchy." In this model, workers are applying their interests and judgment to prioritize and shape their own actions, what Lazzarato calls "the worker's soul." In this model, work is "the capacity to activate and manage productive cooperation" and a "collective learning process" (134, 5).

In this environment, argues Lazzarato, "the capitalist needs to find an unmediated way of establishing command over subjectivity itself." In other words, if companies give up on telling workers exactly what to do, then companies need to shape or control people's motivations and creativities to organize their collective actions towards the company's ends: "it becomes necessary for the subject's competence in the areas of management, communication and creativity to be made compatible with the conditions of 'production for production's sake'" (134,5). The "tone" of Taylorism remains, but the means change. Lazzarato says that this highlights a dilemma for companies, who must support autonomy of workers while also meeting the requirements of production. He identifies Human Resources research and management, along with computer and media systems as the systems that mediate companies' engagement with this dilemma (136,7).

Lazzarato argues that this model "threatens to be even more totalitarian than the earlier rigid divisions betwene mental and manual labor... because capitalism seeks to involve even the worker's personality and subjectivity within the production of value" (135,6).

"Immaterial Labor" in the Classic Definition

Lazzarato argues that the work of immaterial production("audiovisual production, advertising, fashion... software, photography, cultural activites") (136,7) call "classic definitions of work and workforce" into question, because they bring together intellectual work with manual labor with "entrepreneurial skills in the management of social relations and the structuring of that social cooperation of which they are a part" (136,7). Nor does this production happen in factories, but in networks of "reproduction and enrichment" (136,7). The reult is an independent "self-employed" worker, "an intellectual proletarian" marked by "precariousness, hyperexploitation, mobility, and hierarchy" (136, 7). In this context of ad-hoc creative cooperation, the unit of analysis is not the factory but the project.

Lazzarato also notes that "in this kind of working existence it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time.... life becomes inseparable from work" (137,8). Lazzarato calls it "living labor."

In this context, managers:

  • manage social relations
  • elicit social cooperation

In this context, the divide between production and consumption is reshaped into a new kind of relationship, where the activities of consumption and development in consumer tastes and public opinion are themselves a form of immaterial labor. Furthermore, when cultural products are "consumed" they are not destroyed, but in fact "enlarges, transforms, and creates the 'ideological' and cultural environment of the consumer", transforming the person who uses the products (137, 8).

The Autonomy of the Productive Synergies of Immaterial Labor

Lazzarato argues that immaterial labor occurs when companies co-opt a wider capacity for social labor ("takes it on board and adapts it" 137, 8). Lazzarato makes an argument about classical economics versus system theory, suggesting that if we move beyond them, we can define "a space for radical autonomy of the productive synergies of immaterial labor" (139,10). In effect, Lazzarato argues that social production offers the possibility of a "silent revolution" beyond capitalism.

The Cycle of Immaterial Prodution

Lazzarato argues that role of communication is the key distinguishing feature between Fordism and post-Fordism. Consumption becomes "consumption of information" (140,1).

Large-Scale Industry and Services

Lazzarato describes how older forms of labor are transformed in post-Fordism:

  • Postindustrial enterprises "are founded on the manipulation of information." Rather than surveilling the inside of the factory, it focuses on "the terrain outside the production process" (140,1)
  • Service sectors are growing value by developing the "relations of service." Lazzarato notes that in this context, "the product is defined through the intervention of the consumer, and is thereforein permanent evolution" (140,1)
  • Immaterial labor, which "produces first and foremost a social relation", "continually creates and modifies the forms and conditions of communications, which in turn acts as the interface that negotiates the relationship between production and consumption" (142, 3). In this context, "the audience... tends to become the consumer/communicator" (143,4)

The Specific Difference of the Immaterial Labor Cycle

In this section, Lazzarato argues that the subjugation of networks and "productive synergies" of immaterial labor to capitalist logic "does not take away the autonomy of the constitution and meaning of immaterial labor" but instead "opens up antagonisms and contradictions" (144,5). Because audience reception, a creative act in its own right, becomes part of the product, companies must struggle to control and subordinate that creative response (144,5). Secondly, companies find themselves under pressure to conform to public values as they creatively respond.

"for economics there remains only the possibility of managing and regulating the activity of immaterial labor and creating some devices for the control and creation of the public/consumer by means of the control of communication and information technologies and their organizational processes" (144,5)

Creation and Intellectual Labor

Lazzarato concludes by calling into question major theories of creativity, whether Simmel's idea of fashion, or Bakhtin's division betwen material and immaterial labour.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This paper offers a profoundly helpful link between trends in political economy towards postindustrial, post-fordist, post-Taylorist economic models and trends in HCI and data analysis towards the behavioural sciences, especially in the areas of online creativity. Great parallel reads would be Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behaviour, Work's Intimacy, and Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design.