Halbwachs, in his study of the life conditions of the worker (published in 1912), shrewdly pointed to the fuzzy boundary between agriculture and industry. Agriculture, we usually assume, deals directly with nature – but as Halbwachs points out, there is hardly a bit of nature in agriculture as we actually know it – from the soil that has been changed in its chemical and geological composition over generations of work, to the organic products that are themselves constantly being changed and adapted by human ingenuity, to finally finished products like cheese and bread, the making of which takes place in buildings, and through gestures that are essentially no different from those employed in making glue. [See Halbwachs 1913, Vol. 1, 26]
Halbwachs’ emphasis on the “gestes” of labor is a welcome attempt to uncover what is partially mystified in Marx’s ‘materialism’. When Marx speaks of labor, he begins with a direct relationship with nature – although this is, in a sense, a fiction, as he tacitly concedes. What he is really writing about is a regime of routines. Although in some vague sense there is a connection, here, with the materialist tradition running from Epicurus through La Mettrie, in my opinion there is nothing in Marx that is as metaphysically musty as his ‘materialism’, which arose as a counter to an ‘idealism’ that has few real correlates outside of philosophy departments. Marx’s ideas could well be agreed to by, say, a Buddhist who could nevertheless insist that all of life is an illusion. Whether it is an illusion or not does not really affect Marx’s articulation of the capitalist system.
Here, in any case, is Marx on the primary labor scene:
“Labor is firstly a process between persons and nature, a process wherein the person mediates, regulates and controls his metabolic exchange with nature through his own act. He encounters natural matter as a natural force. The natural forces inhering in his embodiment, arms and legs, head and hand, he puts in motion, in ordr to assimilate natural matter in a form useable for his own life. When he effects the nature outside of him through this movement and changes it, he changes, at the same time, his own nature. He develops the powers slumbering within it and submits the play of their forces to his own purposiveness. We have to do, here, not with the first animal instinctive forms of labor. Lost in the circumstances of the primeval background in which human labor had not yet completely discarded its first instinctive forms is the moment when the laborer appears as the seller of his own labor power on the commodity market. We are assuming labor in a form, wherein it is exclusively appropriate to human beings.”
That appropriateness, famously, excludes the labor of animals as labor. Their routines – just like the routines of machines – lack purposiveness – although I don’t want to be too philosophisch here – since when Marx fills out this purposiveness, he is evidently talking about the imagination: “A spider commits operations that are like a weaver’s, and a bee, through the building of its wax cells, shames many a human architect [Baumeister]. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best bees is that he builds the cells in his head before he builds them in wax.”
There are a couple of things to note about this passage. Of course, it maintains an old Western hierarchy of thought over action – but this is not really important for me here. It could, of course, be claimed that the omnibus drivers of Paris, who, in the 19th century, were forced to work 14-18 hours driving their buses were working horses who, similarly, were being worn out – and who similarly assimilated the design of the routes in Paris through which they pulled the buses. Or could claim that if one designs a machine to weave the drapery, the product of that weaving, the drapery, will go to market in the same circumstances as the human weaved drapery. It will still be valorized. This claim has been made to show that the living human labor upon which Marx is basing claims about valorization is a secondary distinction, rather than a primary one.
But this is to conflate Capital and the Robinsonaids he mocks. The weaver who uses a shuttle is already using a machine. Or the ditch digger using a shovel. At some point in the process of production, the machine was actually built from real materials – carbon, steel, etc. – that did not hop out of the ground of themselves – and even in the finest robotic factories in Japan, it is subject to human monitoring. Furthermore – to flip the terms around – the notion of mechanization falls, peculiarly, on the working class. Few economists ask whether, in fact, the capitalist could be a machine. There is, obviously, a lag at the moment in the computerization of upper management services because the upper management has guild like features that fight against the obvious rationality of the move. And it would be an odd economist who would suggest that an expert system computer be granted stock options. Why not?
Work is never going to go beyond its social recognition as such, in Marx. The one tie to a transhistorical property is to the imagination. I will take that reference to the imagination as both the starting point for the distinctly human – which may or may not be shared by animals and machines, but which is recognized, in human society, solely with relation to humans - and the moment against which the capitalist system, in its de-skilling or routinizing tendency, works against. A routine is both an act of the imagination and contains within itself the antithesis to the imagination. And once we have down the fact that the act of recognizing human work is tied to the imaginative capacity of the human, one is equipped with the critical tools to sniff out self-interested social contradictions having to do with how humans are treated in different economic regimes - for instance, in the denial that housework is work. Etc.
Now, let's build on this...