Immaterial Labor

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From the Wikipedia:

"Immaterial labor is an academic term used to describe the affective and cognitive commodities produced by work that exist outside the traditional wage-based consideration of labor as a material-commodity-producing activity, as well as the activity of producing this new form of commodity.

Studies of immaterial labor have included analysis of commodities produced by work amidst the internet, although immaterial labor is understood as a concept pre-dating digital technologies, specifically in the performance of gender and domestic roles, and other aspects of affective and cognitive work.

Themes commonly associated with immaterial labor in the context of the internet include: digital labor, commons-based peer production, and user-generated content production, which might include open source, free software, crowdsourcing, and flexible licensing agreements, as well as the collapse or copyright amidst the ambiguities of sharing creative works in the digital age, digital care work, and other conditions produced by participation in social environments within the digital, knowledge economy." (


Aras Ozgun:

"For Hardt and Roggero, the definitive characteristic of the hegemonic productive force in post- Fordism is its ‘‘social’’ constitution*/its open, shared, collective, and cooperative form. The linguistic, informational, cognitive, and affective constituents of immaterial production are necessarily collective social resources, and these are what immaterial labor also reproduces in the course of capitalist production. In its postindustrial moment, the capitalist contradiction evolves into a new track; the productive force which capitalist production relies on at this moment can only be ‘‘productive’’ for capitalism to the degree that it can produce and circulate ‘‘commons’’; its productivity diminishes when it is appropriated and restricted as ‘‘property.’’ For Hart and Roggero, post-Fordism is marked by this paradox and, as such, capitalism today has to develop new techniques of rent extraction and new property and production relations, such as licensing, branding, freelancing, crowd sourcing, and so on." (


Michael Hardt:

"The passage toward an informational economy involves necessarily a change in the quality of labor and the nature of laboring processes. This is the most immediate sociological and anthropological implication of the passage of economic paradigms. Information, communication, knowledge, and affect come to play a foundational role in the production process.

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.[4] 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).

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. This industrial context provides a first sense in which communication and information have come to play a newly central role in production. One might say that instrumental action and communicative action have become intimately interwoven in informationalized industrial processes. (It would be interesting and useful to consider here how these processes disrupt Habermas's division between instrumental and communicative action, just as in another sense they do Arendt's distinctions among labor, work, and action.[5]) One should quickly add, however, that this is an impoverished notion of communication, the mere transmission of market data.

The service sectors of the economy present a richer model of productive communication. Most services indeed are based on the continual exchange of information and knowledges. Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we might define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labor—that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication [6]. One face of immaterial labor can be recognized in analogy to the functioning of a computer. The increasingly extensive use of computers has tended progressively to redefine laboring practices and relations (along with indeed all social practices and relations). Familiarity and facility with computer technology is becoming an increasingly general primary qualification for work in the dominant countries. Even when direct contact with computers is not involved the manipulation of symbols and information along the model of computer operation is extremely widespread. One novel aspect of the computer is that it can continually modify its own operation through its use. Even the most rudimentary forms of artificial intelligence allow the computer to expand and perfect its operation based on interaction with its user and its environment. The same kind of continual interactivity characterizes a wide range of contemporary productive activities throughout the economy, whether computer hardware is directly involved or not. In an earlier era workers learned how to act like machines both inside and outside the factory. Today, as general social knowledge becomes ever more a direct force of production, we increasingly think like computers and the interactive model of communication technologies becomes more and more central to our laboring activities.[7] Interactive and cybernetic machines become a new prosthesis integrated into our bodies and minds and a lens through which to redefine our bodies and minds themselves.[8]

Robert Reich calls this type of immaterial labor "symbolic-analytical services"—tasks that involve "problem-solving, problem-identifying, and strategic brokering activities."[9] 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 symbolic 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.

The model of the computer, however, can only account for one face of the communicational and immaterial labor involved in the production of services. The other face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human contact and interaction. This is the aspect of immaterial labor that economists like 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 focussed on the creation and manipulation of affects. To one degree or another this affective labor plays a certain role throughout the service industries, from fast food servers to providers of financial services, 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. Categories such as in-person services or services of proximity are often used to identify this kind of labor, but what is essential to it, its "in-person" aspect, is really the creation and manipulation of affects. Such affective production, exchange, and communication is generally associated with human contact, with the actual presence of another, but that contact can be either actual or virtual. In 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.

This second face of immaterial labor, its affective face, extends beyond the model of intelligence and communication defined by the computer. Affective labor is better understood by beginning from what feminist analyses of “women’s work” have called “labor in the bodily mode.”[10] Caring labor is certainly entirely immersed in the corporeal, the somatic, but the affects it produces are nonetheless immaterial. What affective labor produces are social networks, forms of community, biopower.

Here one might recognize once again that the instrumental action of economic production has merged with the communicative action of human relations. In this case, however, communication has not been impoverished but rather production has been enriched to the level of complexity of human interaction. 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.) In the production and reproduction of affects, in those networks of culture and communication, collective subjectivities are produced and sociality is produced—even if those subjectivities and that sociality are directly exploitable by capital. This is where we can realize the enormous potential in affective labor.

I do not mean to argue that affective labor itself is new or that the fact that affective labor produces value in some sense is new. Feminist analyses in particular have long recognized the social value of caring labor, kin work, nurturing, and maternal activities. What are new, on the other hand, are the extent to which this affective immaterial labor is now directly productive of capital and the extent to which it has become generalized through wide sectors of the economy. In effect, as a component of immaterial labor, affective labor has achieved a dominant position of the highest value in the contemporary informational economy. Where the production of soul is concerned, as Musil might say, we should no longer look to the soil and organic development, nor to the factory and mechanical development, but rather to today's dominant economic forms, that is, to production defined by a combination of cybernetics and affect.

This immaterial labor is not isolated to a certain population of workers, say computer programmers and nurses, who would form a new potential labor aristocracy. Rather immaterial labor in its various guises (informational, affective, communicative, and cultural) tends toward being spread throughout the entire workforce and throughout all laboring tasks as a component, larger or smaller, of all laboring processes. That said, however, there are certainly numerous divisions within the realm of immaterial labor—international divisions of immaterial labor, gender divisions, racial divisions, and so forth. As Robert Reich says, the U.S. government will strive as much as possible to keep the highest value immaterial labor in the United States and export the low value tasks to other regions. It is a very important task to clarify these divisions of immaterial labor, which I should point out are not the divisions of labor we are used to, particularly with regard to affective labor.

In short, we can distinguish three types of immaterial labor that drive the service sector at the top of the informational economy. The first is involved in an industrial production that has been informationalized and has incorporated communication technologies in a way that transforms the industrial production process itself. Manufacturing is regarded as a service and the material labor of the production of durable goods mixes with and tends toward immaterial labor. Second is the immaterial labor of analytical and symbolic tasks, which itself breaks down into creative and intelligent manipulation on one hand and routine symbolic tasks on the other. Finally, a third type of immaterial labor involves the production and manipulation of affects and requires (virtual or actual) human contact and proximity. These are the three types of labor that drive the postmodernization or informationalization of the global economy." (

More Information

  1. Digital Labor
  2. Affective Labor
  3. Biopower


Dowling, E., R. Nunes and B. Trott (2007), 'Immaterial and Affective Labour Explored', Ephemera 7 no. 1, pp. 1-7.

Dyer-Witheford, N. (2005), 'Cyber-Negri: General Intellect and Immaterial Labour', in T.S. Murphy and A.K. Mustapha, The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Resistance in Practice, London: Pluto, pp. 136-62.

Lazzarato, M. (1996), 'Immaterial Labour'. Available from: