George Caffentzis, "The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery?"

hydrarchist writes:

"The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery?

A Critique of Rifkin and Negri"

Constantine George Caffentzis


The last few years in the U.S. has seen a return of a discussion of work that
is reminiscent of the mid-1970s, but with a number of twists. In the earlier period, books like Where Have All
the Robots Gone?
(Sheppard 1972), False Promises (Aronowitz 1972)and Work in America (Special
Task Force 1973), and phrases like "blue collar blues," "zerowork" and "the refusal of
work" revealed a crisis of the assembly line worker which expressed itself most dramatically in wildcat strikes
in U.S. auto factories in 1973 and 1974 (Linebaugh and Ramirez 1992). These strikes were aimed at negating the
correlation between wages and productivity that had been the basis of the "deal" auto capital struck
with the auto unions in the 1940s. As Linebaugh and Ramirez wrote of the Dodge Truck plant wildcat involving 6000
workers in Warren, Michigan between June 10-14, 1974:

Demands were not formulated until the third day of
the strike. They asked for "everything." One worker said, "I just don't want to work." The
separation between income and productivity, enforced by the struggle, could not have been clearer (Linebaugh and
Ramirez 1992: 160).

This clarity met an even stronger clarity in the auto capitalists' decades-long
campaign to reassert control over the work process in their plants and assembly lines. These capitalists did not
hesitate to destroy these very plants and assembly lines in order to save themselves. "Rust belt" and
"run away plant" became the phrases of the business press when describing auto and other kinds of factory
production in the 1980's; these phrases flowed almost seamlessly into "globalization" and "robotization"

in the 1990s. The unprecedented result of this campaign was that full time weekly "real" wages in the
U.S. manufacturing industry had fallen almost 20% while the work time had actually increased. But in the mid-1990s
books like The End of Work (Rifkin 1995), The Labor of Dionysius (Negri and Hardt 1994) and The
Jobless Future
(Aronowitz and De Fazio 1994), and phrases like "downsizing" (New York Times

1996) and "worker displacement" (Moore 1996) have revived themes associated with the crisis of work at
a time when the power relation between workers and capital is the inverse of the 1970s. Whereas in the 1970s workers
were refusing work, in the 1990s capitalists presumably are refusing workers! In this paper I will show that these
books and phrases are misleading in claiming that "scientifically based technological change in the midst
of sharpened internationalization of production means that there are too many workers for too few jobs, and even
fewer of them are well paid" (Aronowitz and De Fazio 1994: xii), or that "technological innovations and
market-directed forces...are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world" (Rifkin 1995: xvi), or, even
more abstractly, that the "law of labor-value, which tried to make sense of our history in the name of the
centrality of proletarian labor and its quantitative reduction in step with capitalist development, is completely
bankrupt..." (Hardt and Negri 1994: 10).


Jobs and the Manifold of Work

A "jobless future" and a "workerless world" are the key phrases of this literature, but before
we can examine the cogency of these phrases for the present and near future it is worthwhile to reflect for a minute
on the notions of job and work that they imply. "Job" is the easier of the two. It has a rather unsavory
etymological past. In seventeenth and eighteenth century England (and even today), "job" as a verb suggested
deceiving or cheating while as a noun it evoked the scent of the world of petty crime and confidence games. In
this context, a "jobless future" would be a boon to humanity. But by the mid-twentieth century "job"

had become the primary word used in American English to refer to a unit of formal waged employment with some fixed,
contractually agreed upon length of tenure. To have a job on the docks differs significantly from working on the
docks; for one can be working somewhere without having a job there. The job, therefore, rose from the nether world
of political economy to become its holy grail. The mystic power of the word "job" does not come from
its association with work, however. Indeed, "to do a job" or "to job" were phrases describing
a "crooked" way to refuse to work and gain an income. "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs," became the shibboleth
of late-twentieth century U.S. politicians because the "job" emphasized the wage and other contractual
aspects of work in capitalist society which were crucial to the physical and mental survival of the electorate.
Hence a "jobless future" would be hell for a capitalist humanity, since it implies a future without wages
and contracts between workers and capitalists. Although its salience is unmistakable, the job marks off, often
quite conventionally and even with dissemblance, a part of the work process; but there is no one-to-one correlation
between jobs and work. The same work process can be broken down into one, two or many jobs. Consequently, "work"

and its apparent semantic cognate "labor" seem to have a greater claim to reality. Therefore, the "end
of work" denotes a more radical transformation than a "jobless future," because there were many
periods in human history when societies were "jobless"--e.g., slave societies and subsistence-producing
peasant communities--but there were none, Eden excepted, that were workless. Before one can speak of the end of
work, however, one should recognize that here has been a conceptual revolution in the last political generation
concerning the meaning of work. For a long period of time, perhaps coincident with the formulation of the collective
bargaining regimes in the 1930s and their collapse in the 1970s, "work" was synonymous with "the
job," i.e., formal waged work. But since then a vast manifold of work was discovered (Caffentzis 1992; Caffentzis
1996/1998). This manifold includes informal, "off the books" work which has a wage but could not be officially
deemed contractual because it violates the legal or tax codes. This dimension of the manifold tapers into the great
region of purely criminal activity which in many nations and neighborhoods rivals in quantity and value the total
formal job-related activity. Even more important has been the feminist "discovery" of housework in all
its modalities that are crucial for social reproduction (e.g., sexuality, biological reproduction, child care,
enculturation, therapeutic energy, subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, and anti-entropic production). Housework
is the great Other in capitalist societies, for it stubbornly remains unwaged and even largely unrecognized in
national statistics, even though it is increasingly recognized as crucial for capitalist development. Finally,
there is ur-level of capitalist hell which collects all the coerced labor of this so-called "post-slavery"

era: prison labor, military labor, "sex slavery," indentured servitude, child labor. By synthesizing
all these forms of work, we are forced to recognize an intersecting and self-reflective manifold of energetic investments
that dwarf the "formal world of work" in spatio-temporal and value terms. This vast emerging Presence
as well as the inverse manifold of its refusal has transformed the understanding of work profoundly, even though
many seem not to have noticed. It certainly puts the jejune distinctions between work and labor (Arendt), between
bio-power and capitalism (Foucault), and between labor and communicative action (Habermas) into question while
forcing a remarkable expansion of class analysis and an enrichment of revolutionary theory beyond the problematics
of planning for factory system of the future. Most importantly for our discussion, this Manifold of Work problematizes
the discussion of work and its supposed end at the hands of technological change.

The End of Work

Unfortunately, the notion of work that is often used in the "end of work"
literature is often antediluvian and forgetful of work's capitalistic meaning. This is most clearly seen in Rifkin's
central argument in The End of Work. He is anxious to refute those who argue that the new technological revolution
involving the application of genetic engineering to agriculture, of robotization to manufacturing and of computerization
of service industries will lead to new employment opportunities if there is a well-trained workforce available
to respond to the challenges of the "information age." His refutation is simple.

In the past, when a technological revolution threatened the wholesale loss
of jobs in an economic sector, a new sector emerged to absorb the surplus labor. Earlier in the century, the fledgling
manufacturing sector was able to absorb many of the millions of farmhands and farm owners who were displaced by
the rapid mechanization of agriculture. Between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, the fast-growing service sector
was able to re-employ many of the blue collar workers displaced by automation. Today, however, as all these sectors
fall victim to rapid restructuring and automation, no "significant" new sector has developed to absorb
the millions who are being displaced (Rifkin 1995: 35).

Consequently, there will be a huge unemployment problem when the last service
worker is replaced by the latest ATM, virtual office machine or heretofore unconceived application of computer
technology. Where will he/she find a job? There is no going back to agriculture or manufacturing and no going forward
to a new sector beyond services. Rifkin applies this scenario to a global context and foresees not millions of
unemployed people on the planet in the near future, but billions.

The formal logic of the argument appears impeccable, but are its empirical
premises and theoretical presuppositions correct? I argue that they are not, for Rifkin's technological determinism
does not take into account the dynamics of employment and technological change in the capitalist era. Let us begin
with a categorical problem in Rifkin's stage theory of employment. He uncritically uses terms like "agriculture,"
"manufacturing" and, especially, "services" to differentiate the three developmental stages
of a capitalist economy as indicated in the passage quote above and in many other parts of The End of Work. One
cannot fault Rifkin for making an idiosyncratic choice here, since major statistical agencies like the U.S. Bureau
of Labor Statistics also employ these categories to disaggregate employment, production and productivity in the
last few decades. The core metaphors that helped shape this trichotomy are rooted in a distinction between material
goods (produced on the farm or off) and immaterial services and in the spatial distinction between farm, factory
and everywhere else (office, school, store, warehouse, road, etc.) This trichotomy allows for a rough and ready
economic typology, with "the service industry" generally functioning as something of a fuzzy default
category. But it is one thing to use a category ex post facto and another is to use a category in a projective
way (either into the past or the future). Rifkin's somewhat Hegelian scheme sees technological change as the autonomous
moving spirit that transforms one stage to another until it comes to a catastrophic halt in the present "service"

stage of history. Yet when we look at capitalistic societies in the past, this neat series is hardly accurate.
For example, was seventeenth and eighteenth century England agricultural? The "service industry" in the
form of household servants in the larger agricultural estates at that time was quite substantial, but these servants
often worked as artisans (manufacturing) and as farm hands (agriculture). Moreover, with the rise of cottage industry
agricultural workers or small farmers also doubled or tripled as manufacturing workers on the farm. Finally, throughout
the history of capitalism we find a complex shifting of workers among these three categories. Instead of simple
the move from agricultural to manufacturing, and manufacturing to service, we find all six possible transitions
among these three categories. The vast literature on the "development of underdevelopment" and on the
many periods of capitalist "deindustrialization" abundantly illustrates these transitions which were
clearly caused not by some autonomous technological spirit, but by historically concrete and ever varied class
struggles and power relations. A machine introduced by capitalists to undermine industrial workers' power can lead
to these workers losing their employment and becoming "service workers" or becoming "agricultural
workers" according to a complex conjucture of forces and possibilities. There is no evidence from the total
history of capitalism that there is only a linear progression that ends with the last service worker.

Rifkin's schema is further undermined if we examine its future projection.
After a look at the wide variety of applications computer technology in the service industry (from voice recognition,
to expert systems, to digital synthesizers), Rifkin ominously concludes: "In the future, advanced parallel
computing machines, high-tech robotics, and integrated electronic networks spanning the globe are going to subsume
more and more of the economic process, leaving less and less room for direct hands-on human participation in making,
moving, selling, and servicing" (Rifkin 1995: 162). But here the very defaulting function of the category
of service makes its future projection problematic for Rifkin, since it will not stay in a single place in logical
space in order to be reduced to measure zero by technological change. Let us consider one of the standard definitions
of what constitutes service work: the modification of either a human being (giving a haircut or a massage) or an
object (repairing an automobile or a computer). How can we possibly project such a category into the future? Since
there are no limitations on the type of modification in question, there is no way one can say that "advanced
parallel computing machines, high-tech robotics, and integrated electronic networks spanning the globe" will
be able to simulate and replace its possible realizations. Indeed, the service work of the future might very well
be perversely defined (at least with respect to the constructors of these machines) as modifications to humans
and objects that are not simulateable and replaceable by machines!(1)Just as today there is a growth in the sale of "organic," non-genetically
engineered agricultural produce, and "hand-made," garments made from non-synthetic fibers, so too in
the future there might be an interest in having a human to play Bach (even if the synthesized version is technically
more correct) or to dance (even though a digitalized hologram might give a better performance according to the
critics). I would be surprised if such service industries do not arise. Could they "absorb" many workers
displaced from agricultural or manufacturing work? That I do not know, but then again, neither does Rifkin. Rifkin's
inability to project his categorical schema either into the past or into the future reveals an even deeper problem:
his inability to adequately explain why technological change takes place in the first place. At the beginning of
The End of Work Rifkin rejects what he calls "the trickle-down-technology argument"--i.e., the view that
technological change in one branch of industry, though causing unemployment there, eventually leads to increased
employment throughout the rest of the economy--by appealing to Marx's Capital and Grundrisse. Rifkin's
view of Marx can be surveyed in this extended passage:

Karl Marx argued that producers continually attempt
to reduce labor costs and gain greater control over the means of production by substituting capital equipment for
workers wherever and whenever possible...Marx predicted that the increasing automation of production would eventually
eliminate the worker altogether. The German philosopher looked ahead to what he euphemistically referred to as
the "last...metamorphosis of labor," when "an automatic system of machinery" finally replaced
human beings in the economic process...Marx believed that the ongoing effort by producers to continue to replace
human labor with machines would prove self-defeating in the end....[as] there would be fewer and fewer consumers
with sufficient purchasing power to buy their products (Rifkin 1995: 16-17).

This use of Marx is part of a new and widely noted trend among social policy
analysts on the U.S. Left, broadly considered. But this revival of Marx's thought is often as selective as is the
use of Smith and Ricardo on the Right. (2) In Rifkin's case, he definitely gets the broad sweep of Marx's views on technology
right, but with some notable omissions. The first omission is of workers' struggles for higher wages, for reduced
work, for better conditions of work, and for a form of life that absolutely refuses forced labor. These struggles
are the prime reasons why capitalists are so interested introducing machinery as weapons in the class war. If workers
were docile "factors of production," the urgency for technological change would be much reduced. The
second omission is Marx's Ricardian recognition that every worker permanently replaced by a machine reduces the
total surplus value (and hence the total profit) available to the capitalist class as a whole. Since the capitalist
class depends upon profits, technological change can be as dangerous to it as to the workers. Hence the capitalist
class faces a permanent contradiction it must finesse: (a) the desire to eliminate recalcitrant, demanding workers
from production, (b) the desire to exploit the largest mass of workers possible. Marx comments on this eternal
tension in Theories of Surplus Value:

The one tendency throws the labourers on to the streets
and makes a part of the population redundant, and the absorbs them again and extends wage-slavery absolutely, so
that the lot of the worker is always fluctuating but he never escapes from it. The worker, therefore, justifiably
regards the development of the productive power of his own labour as hostile to himself; the capitalist, on the
other hand, always treats him as an element to be eliminated from production

(Marx 1977: 409).

Capital's problem with technological change is not the loss of consumers,
but the loss of profits.

Marx's most developed discussion of this story is to be found in Part III,
Capital III: "The Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit." There he recognizes that
a tendency towards the total replacement of humans by an "automatic system of machinery" must continually
be met by "counteracting causes" or else the average rate of profit will actually fall. These counteracting
causes either increase the mass of surplus value (e.g., raising the intensity and duration of the working day),
or decrease the mass of variable capital (e.g, depress wages below their value, expand foreign trade), or decrease
the mass of constant capital (e.g., increasing the productivity of labor in the capital goods industry, expand
foreign trade) or some combination or these disjunctive possibilities (Marx 1909: 272-282). Contemporary US capitalism
appears to be applying the maximal synthesis of these counteracting causes while the European capitals are being
more selective. There is no inevitable capitalist strategy in the drive to overcome workers' struggles and prevent
a dramatic decline in the rate of profit. These struggles can lead to many futures--from the reintroduction of
slavery, to a dramatic increase in the workday, to the negotiated reduction of the waged workday to the end of
capitalism--depending on the class forces in the field. But there is one outcome that definitely cannot be included
in the menu of possible futures as long as capitalism is viable: Rifkin's vision of "the high-tech revolution
lead[ing] to the realization of the ago-old utopian dream of substituting machines for human labor, finally freeing
humanity to journey into a post-market era" (Rifkin 1995: 56). For capitalism requires the stuff of profit,
interest and rent which can only be created by a huge mass of surplus labor, but the total replacement of human
work by machines would mean the end of profit, interest and rent. Although Rifkin seems to agree with much of Marx's
analysis of the dynamics of capitalism, Marx's fatal conclusion is carefully kept out of the sanguine scenario
presented at the last part of his book. Rifkin lays out a future that would combine a drastic reduction in the
workday along with a "new social contract" that would provide financial incentives (from "social"

or "shadow" wages to tax benefits) for working in "the third sector"--the independent, "non-profit"
or volunteer sector between "the public and private" sectors. This sector can become the "service
industry" of the 21st century, since it "offers the only viable means for constructively channeling the
surplus labor cast off by the global market" (Rifkin 1995: 292). That is, it absorbs workers who do not produce
surplus value, and provides them with a wage for non-surplus-value creating work. In other words, Rifkin's vision
of the "safe haven" for humanity is a form of capitalism where most workers are not producing profits,
interest or rent. He contrasts this vision with a future where "civilization...continue[s] to disintegrate
into a state of increasing destitution and lawlessness from which there may be no easy return" (Rifkin 1995:
291). But how viable is Rifkin's social Chimera with its techno-capitalist head, its ample, woolly third-sector
body, and its tiny surplus-value producing tail? There are proportions that must be respected even when dealing
with futuristic Chimeras, and Rifkin's cannot exist simply because the head, however technologically sophisticated,
cannot be nourished by such a tiny tail. The capitalism resulting from Rifkin's "new social contract"

is impossible, for it is by definition a capitalism without profits, interest and rents. Why would capitalists
agree to such a deal after they trumpeted throughout the Cold War that they would rather blow up half the planet
than give up a tenth of their income? This "impossibility proof" is so obvious that one can not help
but asking why Rifkin invoked Marx so directly at the beginning of The End of Work only to completely exorcise
him at the end? Is he avoiding reference to the unpleasantness of world war, revolution and nuclear annihilation
that his earlier reflections stirred up? Is he trying to coax, with veiled Marxian threats, the techno-capitalist
class into an act of suicide camouflaged as a new lease on life? Answers to such questions would require a political
analysis of the type of rhetoric Rifkin and his circle employ. I forgo this effort. But it is worth pointing out
that Rifkin's chimerical strategy is not totally mistaken. After all, he is looking for a new sector for the expansion
of capitalist relations. He mistakenly chose the "non-profit," volunteer sector, for if this sector is
truly "non-profit" and voluntary, it cannot be a serious basis for a new sector of employment in a capitalist
society. (And there is no way to get out of capitalism via a massive fraud, however tempting that might be). But
Rifkin's intuition is correct. For the Manifold of Work extends far beyond the dimension of formal waged work and
this non-waged work does produce surplus value in abundance. If it is more directly and efficiently exploited,
this work can become the source of an new area of surplus-value creating employment through the expansion of forced
labor, the extension of direct capitalist relations into the region of labor reproduction and finally the potentiation
of micro- and criminal enterprises. That is why "neoliberalism," "neo-slavery," "Grameenism,"
and the "drug war" are the more appropriate shibboleths of the Third Industrial Revolution rather than
the "non-profit" third sector touted by Rifkin, for they can activate the "counteracting causes"

to the precipitous decline in the rate of profit computerization, robotization and genetic engineering provoke.

Negri and The End of the Law of Value

Rifkin can, perhaps, be indulged in his half-baked use of Marx's thought.
After all, he did not come out of the Marxist tradition and his previous references to Marx's work were few and
largely in passing. But the themes Rifkin so clearly presented in The End of Work can be found in a number of Marxist,
Post-Marxist, and Post-modern Marxist writers, often in a much more obscure and sibylline versions. One of the
primary figures in this area is Antonio Negri who developed arguments supporting conclusions very similar to Rifkin's
in the 1970s, but without the latter's Marxist naiveté.. His The Labors of Dionysius (with Michael Hardt)
which was published in 1994 continued a discourse definitively begun in Marx Beyond Marx (Negri 1991, originally
published in 1979) and continued in Communists Like Us (Guattari and Negri 1990, originally published in 1985). (3) In this section
I will show how Negri's more sophisticated and Marxiste analysis of contemporary capitalism is as problematic as
Rifkin's. It is hard to discern Negri's similarity to Rifkin, simply because Negri's work is rigorously anti-empirical--rarely
does a fact or factoid float through his prose--while Rifkin's The End of Work is replete with statistics and journalistic
set pieces on high-tech. Negri does not deign to write plainly of an era of "the end of work." He expresses
an equivalent proposition, however, in his theoretical rejection of the classical Labor Theory or Law of Value
with hypostasized verbs. In the late 20th century, according to Negri, the Law is "completely bankrupt"
(Hardt and Negri 1994: 10) or it "no longer operates" (Guattari and Negri 1990: 21) or "the Law
of Value dies" (Negri 1991: 172).

This is equivalent to Rifkin's more empirical claims, but the equivalence
can only be established after a vertiginous theoretical reduction. Negri's version of the classic labor theory
of value has as its "principal task...the investigation of the social and economic laws that govern the deployment
of labor-power among the different sectors of social production and thus to bring to light the capitalist processes
of valorization" (Hardt and Negri 1994: 8), or it is "an expression of the relation between concrete
labor and amounts of money needed to secure an existence" (Guattari and Negri 1990: 21) or it is a measure
of "the determinate proportionality between necessary labor and surplus labor" (Negri 1991: 172). The
Law of Value was alive in the 19th century, but just like Nietzsche's God, it began to die then. It took a bit
longer for the Law to be formally issued a death certificate, however. The bankruptcy, inoperativeness, and death
of the Law of Value simply mean that the fundamental variables of capitalist life--profits, interest, rents, wages,
and prices--are no longer determined by labor-time. Negri argues, as does Rifkin, that capitalism has entered into
a period that Marx, in his most visionary mode, described the "Fragment on Machines" in the Grundrisse
(Negri 1991: 140-141) (Rifkin 1995: 16-17). Let me chose just one of the many oft-quoted passages in this vision:

The development of heavy industry means that the basis
upon which it rests--the appropriation of the labour time of others--ceases to constitute or to create wealth;
and at the same time direct labour as such ceases to be the basis of production, since it is transformed more and
more into a supervisory and regulating activity; and also because the product ceases to be made by individual direct
labour, and results more for the combination of social activity....on the one hand, once the productive forces
of the means of labour have reached the level of an automatic process, the prerequisite is the subordination of
the natural forces to the intelligence of society, while on the other hand individual labour in its direct form
is transformed into social labour. In this way the other basis of this mode of production vanishes (Marx 1977:

The development of "automatic processes" in genetic engineering,
computer programming and robotization since the 1960s have convinced both Negri and Rifkin that the dominant features
of contemporary capitalism are matched point-for-point by Marx's vision in 1857-1858. The major difference between
Negri's work and Rifkin's The End of Work is that while Rifkin emphasizes the consequences of these "automatic
processes" for the unemployment of masses of workers Negri emphasizes the new workers that are centrally involved
in "the intelligence of society" and "social labor." Whereas Rifkin argues that these new "knowledge
workers" (e.g., research scientists, design engineers, software analysts, financial and tax consultants, architects,
marketing specialists, film producers and editors, lawyers, investment bankers) can never be a numerically large
sector and hence are no solution to the problems created by this phase of capitalist development, Negri takes them
as the key to the transformation to communism beyond "real socialism."