notes on 'The Fantasy of Equivalence'
story © Michael Betancourt, December 7, 2017 all rights reserved.
An erasure of ontological distinctions plays a crucial role in the commodification of human labor as an assumption of equivalence between not only differently skilled labor, but the products of that labor: that the variable quality of production does not figure into its valuations. This basis is innate to the question Karl Marx addresses at the start of his analysis, “Why is labor represented by the value of its product (commodities), and labor time by the magnitude of that value?,” which reveals equivalence as a foundational, even necessary part of the definition of capitalism. Although exchange value arises from social activity, it is at the same time dependent on the suspension of difference—equivalence reifies the commodity form as an abstraction apart from its materiality, a separation that recalls the aura of the digital—returning digital capitalism to its origins in the industrial labor. Marx’s analytic enshrines equivalence by setting aside distinctions between high and low quality, as well as between skilled and unskilled labor, in order to advance an abstraction of that productive process that depended on the assumption of the interchangeability of commodities, labor, and capital. His disregard for the material and qualitative differences between commodities mirrored the labor-intensive manufacturing processes of the period when he developed his critique: the concern with the productive capabilities of labor as a constraint on production provides a literal limit on quantity, valuation, and quality of the productive labor performed, for example, by the unskilled child labor employed in the factories Marx was considering. This issue—child labor—is an implicit and unacknowledged component assumption for his analytic, one that simultaneously passes without comment in its construction but that guides the conclusions he derives.
The necessary uniformity of labor-power for industrial capitalism is a reflection of the low intellectual demands made when Marx was formulating his critique. The contingent role of intellectual labor neither constrains, nor appears in his analysis. Human labor was simply an assumptive part of the entire process since there was no alternative to it. Marx’s historical elision of intelligence affirms how child labor neither understood its own role, nor the larger productive process itself. Conceptualizing his erasure of intellectual labor as a precondition enabling the aura of the digital links the minimizing of skilled production (it’s intelligence) to the fragmentation of those production into the assembly line:
The labor process. — Fixed capital. Means of labor. Machine. — Fixed capital. Transposition of powers of labor into powers of capital both in fixed and in circulating capital. — To what extent fixed capital (machine) creates value. — Lauderdale. Machine presupposes a mass of workers. [...] But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.
Marx, K. The Grundrisse (The Fragment on Machines) (London: Penguin Classics Reprint edition: 1993) 690-692.
The (literally) fragmentary character of his engagement with machines demonstrates the centrality of equivalence: the denial of distinctions between skilled and unskilled labor reduces human agency to only what is needed for the task at hand. This compartmentalization anticipates the fragmentation of labor into the assembly line and its later algorithmic modeling (automation) by digital systems. The role of the living labor in historical mechanical process is strictly limited by the increasingly compartmentalized nature of the labor involved; the shift into the assembly line and ‘rationalized’ production process had already been foundationally enabled by the limited role of human agency: the lack of skill that enables human labor to be interchangeable also means that its ‘intelligence’ is readily replaced by complex mechanical processes; the expansion of autonomous digital systems into ‘intelligent labor’ is simply an intensification of trends begun in the nineteenth century when Marx was developing his critique. By conflating the skilled with the unskilled, historical equivalence acts to deny the physical distinctions between differential production—a precondition for the denials of differences that enable “fake news.” The epistemological and ontological challenges offered by “fake news” originate with the structural denial of distinctions that sever human agency from labor, making the intelligent action of labor of uniform consideration. The denial of labor’s agency is also a denial of labor’s intellectual capacities reified in the productive processes and social behaviors that lead to digital capitalism.
The aura of the digital reveals equivalence in the refusal to recognize or consider physical constraints on digital technology and production as being costs/limits on value; it is readily apparent in the separation of human action from the autonomous processes it puts in motion by interacting with computer technology. In Towards a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism philosopher Katerina Kolozova explains this process as a realization of the earlier displacement of human labor in the productive process:
The cruelty of capitalism consists in the capacity to fully rationalize any suffering of the body as well as the relentless exploitation of all organic life. The absolute rule over humanity and its reason is no different than the rule of Hegel’s Spirit whose aim is not only the absolute subjugation of Nature, but also its destruction in the name of “pure reason.” This apocalyptic eschatologyal vision is explicityly advocated in the Phenomenology of the Spirit.
Kolozova, Katerina. Towards a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism (New York: Punctum Books, 2015) p. 66.
In denying labor’s autonomy and skill, the shift to automation reveals this denial as conceiving human labor as mechanistic; the transformation to automation begins with this erasure. Simultaneously conceiving of wages as ‘lost profits,’ and all human activity as a commodity awaiting valorization are logical outcomes from this equivalence. For historical conceptions of capitalism derived from Marx’s critique, the on-demand, autonomous production of digital systems might appear to be “free,” as being rendered almost without material cost—the efficiencies and labor savings offered by automation protects the aura of the digital’s claim of the digital as a magical realm of production-without-consumption—and at the same time a demonstration of the superstructural role of agnotology in maintaining digital capitalism’s dominance. This is a familiar fantasy in which digital technology is emancipatory, freeing human labor to pursue other ends. The difference between the roles played by digital expert systems governed by algorithms and the more complex machines (“artificial intelligence”) performing actions formerly specifically and exclusively the domain of living labor (facial recognition, transcription of speech, etc.) depend on the same underlying assumption that denies the importance of human labor. The elision of different skill levels that becomes the autonomous action of machines, and their interchangeability in production is a demonstration this equivalency. The transition from one type of productive labor to another (living to autonomous), as well as the assumed pseudo-identicality of their productive action, are mutually reinforcing and affirming dimensions of the same fantasy of equivalence that is fundamental to capitalism itself: that labor’s role in production can be separated from labor’s role as audience, market, and consumer—that the cyclical transfers of exchange do not depend on labor having a wage to spend on their production. The shifts to debt-based economy and (rentier currency) arises from the limited role that capitalism gives to human labor in the formulation of capitalism: the assumption of an absolute distinction between the laborer and the director of labor, a division that increasingly reveals itself as fallacy in digital capitalism.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt December 7, 2017 all rights reserved.
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