Metaphysics of capital: productive labor as a proper capitalistic relation of power

Mikołaj Ratajczak


Capital is the one metaphysical problem that still deserves a philosophical investigation, but the dialectical critique of “metaphysical subtleties” of the commodity form should be supplemented by an analysis of the metaphysical form of the productive labor. In my paper I would argue that the introduction and sustenance of the division between productive and unproductive labor is the proper capitalistic form of power and control, one that is characterized by a deep metaphysical core: productive labor is the actualization of a potential to work that can be actualized – productively and effectively – only by capital. This aporetic and self-presupposing structure determines the process of the subsumption of labor and life under capital: together with the universalization of the commodity form, labor is being understood as potentiality that cannot but be actualized by capital. The potentiality–actuality relation, used extensively by Marx (the very notion of “Arbeitsvermögen”, labor power, is also translatable as a “potentiality to work”) can therefore be used as a conceptual tool for a philosophical critique of political economy: in place of a potentiality that can only be actualized productively or unproductively (i.e. valorizing capital or not), the task is to think a different relation between general labor power and actual labor performed. This perspective assumes a special significance in the neoliberal regime of accumulation: although capital has always bought labor force (potential to work) and not the actual work, the neoliberal dispositives of labor control separate the moment of setting social practices as potentiality to work to be actualized by capital and the actual buying of labor power – a process we can observe in such new forms of employment as crowd working, portfolio work, casual work, work-for-labor, zero-hour contracts and the management of grants and projects within the New Public Management paradigm.
Using Marx’s so-called “unpublished sixth chapter”, Results of the immediate production process, together with ideas present in contemporary Italian political philosophy (especially in the writings by Paolo Virno and Giorgio Agamben) I would like to present a philosophical critique of the notion of productive labor as a proper metaphysical notion – as a potentiality that can only exist by being actualized in the process of capital’s valorization, a structure that Agamben has described in his recent work on the concept of effectiveness. This in turn will help me to expand Virno’s investigations into new forms of labor in late capitalism, which are nothing else than actualizations of the general human dispositions to communicate, think, memorize and express ideas. The neoliberal regime of labor exploitation and control will, in effect, be analyzed as a dispositive to transform the general, ontological potentiality of human species into a potentiality that must be actualized by capital alone.

Capital - metaphysics - productive labour - unproductive labour - potentiality - creative-intensive labor - post-operaismo - Marx - critique of political economy