Labour Theory of Value in Cognitive Capitalism

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* Article: Life put to work: Towards a life theory of value. By Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli (translated from the Italian by Emanuele Leonardi). Ephemera, special issue on Digital Labour, 10(3/4): 234-252



"Starting from the recognition that only a ‘labour theory of value’ is able to provide a measure of the value of the surplus, in this essay we’d like to pose the question of how the labour theory of value must dynamically adjust to the capitalist system and the succession of different modes of accumulation.

Specifically, we focus on structural changes that have invested and partially modified the process of enhancing the transition from industrial-Fordist to ‘bio-capitalism’, at least in that area of the world where this transformation has established itself and is present. It is in this passage that the labour theory of value - intended primarily as a theory of value-time work - requires a redefinition that is able to grasp the qualitative changes that have overtaken and undermined the traditional theory of value labour. In particular, it will be considered a specific form of value creation: one linked to the concept of affective labour. Finally, in the last and final section, we discuss the hypothesis of the theory of life-value, nodding briefly to the related theoretical problems in view of a future research agenda."


Transformations of biocapitalism and effects on the labour theory of value

"The advent of biocapitalism entails an adjustment of the process of valorization. From this perspective, the main points to emphasize are the following:

• The production of wealth and value is no longer based solely and exclusively on material production, but is increasingly based on immaterial elements, namely on intangible ‘raw materials’, which are difficult to measure and quantify since they directly result from the use of the relational, emotional and cognitive faculties of human beings.

• The production of wealth and value is no longer based on a uniform and standardized model of labour organization, regardless of the type of good produced. Rather, production is performed through different methods of organization, characterized by a network-structure whose implementation is due to the development of technologies for linguistic communication and transportation. As a consequence, the traditional, hierarchical and unilateral factory-form is replaced by still hierarchical structures that are displaced throughout the territory along subcontracting productive chains, marked by cooperation and/or hierarchy.

• The previous Fordist phase was characterized, at the productive level, by the following references: seriality, standardization, specialization of labour and tasks. At the level of exchange, it privileged mass-markets and orientation to the product. At the level of labour organization, it stressed the centrality of managerial command and an obsessive focus on the processes of execution (a reflection of the systemic denial of the workforce relationality). The current phase presents different peculiarities: life itself is put to work and the role of working relations is emphasized, directly incorporated within the productive activity. Thus, economic management assumes as its object living life rather than static life. In this context, the value of labour becomes increasingly vague, ever-changing, dependent on a variety of subjective evaluations.

• The new organizational culture of enterprises is centered around the concept of ‘human resources’. In fact, some new organizational models refer to the need to embody knowledge within enterprises. However, this knowledge is not explicit or objective, but rather relational: it encompasses the dynamic of a subjective knowledge that is ‘deeply rooted in action and in the engaging commitment to a specific context’. Cognitive labour organizations are interested not only in explicit knowledge, but also and more importantly in subjective (tacit) knowledge, everybody’s opinions (Nonaka, 1994), and everything that relates to ‘motivation’ (even drive-led motivation).

• In biocapitalism value lies, first and foremost, in the intellectual and relational resources of subjects, and in their ability to activate social links that can be translated into exchange value, governed by the grammar of money. Thus, what is exchanged in the labour market is no longer abstract labour (measurable in homogeneous working time), but rather subjectivity itself, in its experiential, relational, creative dimensions. To sum up, what is exchanged is the ‘potentiality’ of the subject. Whereas in the Fordist model it was easy to calculate the value of labour according to the average output and professional skills based on workers’ education and experience, in bio-capitalism the value of labour loses almost any concrete definitional criterion.

• Intellectual labour is more autonomous than material labour. However, this is not a natural, originary and immutable given. In the course of capitalist history, this higher autonomy finds possible explanations in the particular development of labour organization and production, especially in specific historical phases (intellectual labour directing and organizing material labour). Is this explanatory narrative still valid today? Nowadays, are not biocapitalist production and labour organization showing different features? What exactly does the distinction between intellectual and manual labour mean? In order to grasp their actual function, it is necessary to express both kinds of labour in a ‘determined historical form’ rather than by means of a general category. As a consequence, the condition of a proper analysis of value is a critique of this intellectual-material separation that actually appears as scarcely representative of a social reality more and more concerned with the subsumption of every difference. The complexity of the world is atomized and made functional to a productivity criterion.

• Another conceptual separation, fundamental in the Western tradition, is that of mind and body. Nonetheless, nowadays we witness a progressive melting down of dichotomies3 (which is not, per se, a negative trend) and, simultaneously, we note that existence has become entirely productive. Therefore the body (a controlled, monitored, artificially hygienist body) is explicitly incorporated into productive mechanisms. It follows the creation of new and unprecedented market niches: plastic surgery, fitness and body building, nutritionism, beauty industry. The ‘sexualization of bodies’, which is so evident today, appears as cold, putatively technical and neutral. Nevertheless, those bodies at work fully belong to the realm of the deactivation of affects and desires or, to better specify, to the channelling of both human drives toward the market. The hegemony of the productive function, actually lacking any reasonable legitimacy, continues to establish the rhythm of an undisputed productivity that extracts added value from everything, including the already mentioned knowledge, working experience and existential savoir-faire. In the name of the market, contemporary capitalism tries to reconnect yet another historical separation, that of soul and body.

• Working performances change both quantitatively and qualitatively. As for the material conditions of labour (quantitative aspect), we witness an increase regarding working hours,4 an overlapping of labour tasks, the impossibility of distinguishing between working- and life-time and a deeper individualization of industrial relations. Moreover, working performances are more and more immaterial. Relational, communicative and cerebral activities become increasingly interrelated and central. Those activities require education, skills and attention. In this context, the separation of mind and body, typical of the Taylorist labour organization, tends to disappear in an inextricable mix of working routine and intense participation into the productive process. This subjection is no longer disciplinarily imposed by a direct chain of command. Rather, it is most often internalized and developed through form of subtle conditioning and social control. As a consequence, contractual individualism ends up representing the juridical and institutional framework within which the process of individual imitation-competition tends to become the guide-line of working behavior.

• The role of knowledge becomes crucial. In fact, the traditional creation of value by means of material production is supplemented by the creation of value by means of knowledge-production. In both cases, the ‘labour’ factor is decisive and its subordination to capital ratifies, through exploitation, the necessary condition in order for profit to realize itself.

• The ‘unpaid labour’ of women (Picchio, 1997; 2000), namely the work of reproduction and care, is configured as an interesting archetype of contemporary production. Once the analysis is focused on the dis-measure of labour within the current cycle of accumulation, then unpaid labour can properly show its (striking) exemplary characteristics. First, because we realize, when attempting to measure the value of social reproduction (domestic work, care, relational services), that this value is greater than the sum total of paid work. Secondly, and more importantly, because unpaid labour perfectly describes a process that represents the essence of working performances in their generality, since we define the current phase of capitalism as based on an anthropogenic model – production of men by means of men – (Marazzi, 2005), where life must work for production and production must work for life (Hardt and Negri, 2000). From this perspective, nowadays the value produced by labour structurally exceeds its monetary retribution. To put it differently, when the productive process incorporates knowledge and affects, desires and bodies, motivations and opinions, then it is clearly evident that what is actually sold is not entirely paid."

Problems with the Labour Value under Biocapitalism

"The first problem concerns how to measure the value of labour. In fact, it closely relates to the productivity of the general intellect and of relational activities (conceived as sources of the process of value creation in biocapitalism).

The second problem deals with the ‘source’ of the value of labour. It refers to working performances, on the one hand in the context of the dichotomy between the necessity of social and relational cooperation and its exploitation by means of learning and networking economies, and, on the other hand, the privatization of knowledge and the control of individual working performances (Hardt and Negri, 2000). As for labour organization, this contradiction assumes the form of a demand for social cooperation and, simultaneously, a hierarchical imposition organized around the individualization of bargaining and the income blackmail (whose condition of possibility is a widespread social insecurity). Therefore, cooperation and hierarchy are the cornerstones that regulate labour relations in the contradictory and unstable framework provided by biocapitalism. It is in this context that arises the question concerning the tendential melting down of the distinction between working- and life-time. Here, we are witnessing a process of assimilation between labour and life which generates a potential contradiction within the working subjectivity itself, creating idiosyncrasy and instability in the basic organization of individual lives. This contradiction recalls the dualism between man and machine, especially in a situation, such as the biocapitalist one, in which the mechanical productive tool increasingly tends to be incorporated in the brain/body, namely a non-transferable element of individuals and immediately internal to labour-power itself. Moreover, the relationship between concrete labour (whose peculiar production is use value, potentially ‘creative’) and abstract labour (determined by capitalist conditions of production) generates at the same a potentiality for freedom and autonomy and a necessity of repression and brain lobotomization.


It is necessary to subdivide the analysis in three phases: value generated by the diffusion of knowledge, namely linguistic-cognitive labour (knowledge theory of value); value generated by affective and reproductive labour (affect theory of value); value generated by symbolic and imaginary labour, especially in the process of branding (image theory of value).

In the context of the present essay we exclusively focus on the question concerning affective value."


"The labour theory of value must be rethought and newly modulated. It can no longer be considered as the ‘objective’ measure of value. The temporal unit of measurement tends to become the life of human beings generally intended. Secondly, the value produced and then measured through prices is generated by social conflicts that, in turn, emerge from the behavior of working subjectivities involved in the process."

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