Foul imposition alone

'Bare life' as allegory of labour-time

You must raise your right Hand over your right Eye—if there be another Luddite in the Company he will raise his left Hand over his left Eye—then you must raise the forefinger of your right Hand to the right Side of your Mouth—the other will raise the little finger of his left hand to the left Side of his Mouth & will say, What are you?  The answer, Determined. He will say, What for? Your answer, Free Liberty.
—Police informer's letter supposedly describing Luddite password system, c.1812

    Wherever capitalism exists, 'labour-saving technology' will always mean more work done in less time, so that still more work can be imposed in the time left over. The machine-breakers of the industrial revolution understood this perfectly, although bloody state reprisals forced them to carry out their 'practical criticism' in obscurity. Almost 200 years later Police attention has long since turned elsewhere, yet this basic axiom remains all but unspeakable, a public secret even as the effects of its application permeate social reality to an unprecedented degree.

    Bearing such a supposedly counter-intuitive formula in mind is a pre-requisite if capital's present tendency towards the integration of all lived time into the time of value-production is ever to be understood.

    A recent public statement on behalf of Rome-based autonomous media movement Telestreet emphasizes the inseparability of technological forms from the struggle over the organization of time, even in a case like television, generally presumed to be far removed from the 'factory floor'. Like any commodity's hypothetically isolated use-value, the TV programme's particular content is subordinated to its participation in a more general division and accumulation of social potentiality.

    Audience-mechanics no longer serve in the manufacture of consent, but in the saturation of time and of social attention, which are limited resources... Television, as a biopolitical explosive, is no longer used as a vehicle of ideology, but to occupy and to organize social time. Disinformation isn't a problem of content (why not Indymedia in every house instead of the TV News?). No, it is a problem of attention-time, of the impossibility of situating any act of confrontation in the context of a flow that is already saturated.

    The enclosure of social time, however, is not simply a matter of states and corporations—subjects collectively identified with 'capitalism'—seeking to shut down potential counter-attack. Not only can the actors' outlines not be defined so sharply, the stakes of the process far exceed existing institutions' self-defence. In all its apparently disparate instances, the gradual alignment of living duration's contours with those of value-production represents a forced march towards the end of history as hallucinated on capital's own solipsistic terms, the dream of its perpetual self-motion as means of emancipation from dependence on living labour.

    As a tendency, such 'absorption' may be as old as capitalist science and the factory. Today, however, it has advanced so far as to appear as a diffuse, 'low level' actualization of Giorgio Agamben's political-ontological category 'bare life'. Agamben sets out this concept with reference to the bodies in Nazi laboratories and concentration camps, and to 'experimental life' in contemporary hospitals. Most recently he and others have used the term to describe the physical and juridical exposure of the 'unlawful combatants' held at Guantanamo Bay. Alongside these limit cases, it is important to consider emergence of a less 'pure', more commonplace form of 'bare' working life for at least two reasons. Firstly, because 'bare life' is of little interest as a poetic image to be applied haphazardly to disparate phenomena: Agamben proposes it as a precisely situated term in an immanent alignment of life, law, exception and power. Secondly, because it seems useful right now to reiterate that, within this 'biopolitical' conjunction, the concept of bare life is by no means incompatible with a materialist understanding of history in terms of conflict over 'value', work and time.

    Agamben takes as a starting point the classical Greek distinction between two terms, elided in their single translation into Latin as 'vita', and in modern European languages as 'life'. The Greeks distinguished 'zoē', which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods)' from 'bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group.' Both Plato and Aristotle defined 'political' life, i.e. qualified, linguistic life, susceptible to being called 'good' or 'bad', precisely by its difference from simple material subsistence. In the modern period, however, 'politics' has steadily made the administration of material, 'biological' life (corresponding, despite the adjective, to the Greek zoē) its object, as Foucault's writing on 'biopolitics' demonstrates. For Agamben it is crucial that this shift not be mistaken for an abrupt, unproblematic welcoming of 'biological life' into the realm of 'politics'. Rather, it bears belated witness to the complex tension in which the two forms of 'life' have always existed interdependently, notwithstanding the Greek philosophers' attempt to separate them. Undifferentiated (zoē has no plural) material or 'bare' life is absolutely excluded from the politically, linguistically qualified world, yet it is maintained in a relation to this world by this very fact of its (continuously renewed) expulsion, on which the possibility of political and linguistic qualification is itself founded. However vigorously politics concerns itself with biological 'life', meanwhile, the latter remains alien to it as the object of this concern. This undecideably liminal relation of inclusive-exclusion could also be expressed thus: the life designated as 'bare life' is not an original form of simple, natural life, but life already actively (and continuously) alienated from political, linguistic or 'subjective' qualities.

    The structure of life-time occupied by 'work', in the empirically dilated but logically restricted sense considered here, corresponds to that of 'bare life' in a specific way. This form of lived duration (or activity) is alienated from particular qualities except through the mediation of (qualitatively indifferent) value. In other words, it is maintained in relation to the qualitatively differentiated world solely through the mechanism of its alienation from that world, whose specific constitution (in its present form) depends on this inclusive exclusion. Or, alternatively, work-saturated life is alienated from 'subjective' temporality, except in the (continuous) present of its being transformed into object.

    An obvious limit to this correlation seems to lie in the contrast between capital's obligation to foster labour-power's survival and reproduction (surplus-labour time is defined precisely by its excess over the labour necessary for this purpose) and the definition of bare life by its essential, unlimited exposure to death. For Agamben biopolitical bare life is identical to that of the homo sacer in Roman law, who is ineligible for sacrifice but may be killed by any citizen at any time. The limit of Foucault's account of biopolitics, he suggests, is that it seems to oppose life-administration to the 'sovereign' decision over life and death, rather than recognizing each as the secret condition of the other. Or, as the German (and international) Socialist Patients Collective/Patientsfront (SPK/PF) states more forcefully: 'The word "biopolitics" (from Greek bios, meaning life) turns the facts of the matter upside down. Wherever there is talk about "biopolitics", the real issue on stake is DEATH politics, the politics of extermination.'

    But employment's autonomy from Death should not be deduced too quickly from the fact that most of the working class is allowed to go on living most of the time. Precisely because capital takes charge of the worker's survival, its fostering of life is always a virtual decision over his or her death. The blackmail of starvation has always been the most reliable means of ensuring that workers not only accept gratefully but compete amongst themselves for whatever work happens to be offered.

    The SPK/PF goes further, making bare life's exposure to death the privileged instance of value-production. The 'neomorts' imagined by W.Gaylin, legally dead but kept 'warm, pulsating and urinating' as living storage for transplantable organs, lose the mystique of 'extreme' ethical crisis when considered as force of production. 'Closeness to the means of production continues to determine class antagonism', but 'in quite a different way... The earth with its "raw materials" is no longer the means of production. The new means of production is human life and its 'body organs (100 billion brain cells each, the most valuable raw material). And the relations of the production are the medical norms, the doctors' norms, memorized and recorded in the computer programs.' In 'a great dialectical reversal... everyone is totally valuable, dead or alive... the process of alienation is being accelerated, concentrated, is made to reinforce itself (die Entfremdung wird potenziert). The valuable thing is no longer gold or a diamond, but the "biomatter man..."'. In this alienated disposal (i.e. work, minus all residual superstitutions of 'utility') of the human body's attributes, -- organs, cells, thought, language -- subject to sovereign medical decision, the bare life of proletarian/patient biomatter becomes indistinguishable from 'means of production'. Calling the site of this indistinction 'bare working life' need not mean glibly proclaiming that work equals death. A more urgent problem would be: how does the zone of life-death indistinction (or, rather, capital's indifference to life and death as attributes of its objects) come to be integrated into the production of vaue? What does this vanishing point of living and dead labour, where availability (as something like a Heideggerian 'standing reserve') and control of worker/patient 'matter' suffice to animate the machinery and bring forth surplus, mean for present and future conflict over labour-time?

    The SPK/PF statement dismisses the question, proclaiming that biomatter has superseded abstract labour time as measure of value. However, different conclusions (perhaps still coherent with SPK/PF practice) might be drawn, if all activity and matter itself are rigourously understood to be modes of duration, in Bergson's sense. Unbeknownst to Bergson and almost all 'Bergsonians', this conception is perfectly coherent with Marx's demonstration that machinery as 'means of production' is nothing more than an 'objectified' or 'dead' concentration of formerly-living labour. In this case it becomes clear that the extraction of surplus value directly from human biomatter 'as means of production' is no less an expropriation of living-duration (i.e. labour-time) than is the operation of a car factory. The kinds of extraction administered by doctors, security biometrics and lifestyle technicians only penetrates bodies more deeply and subtly than ever previously imagined. Moreover, crucially for capital, 'abstract labour time' becomes even more abstract, less dependent than it ever on the worker's subjective activity, and thus less vulnerable to slacking or sabotage. Finally, it should be remembered that the duration-matter equation works both ways. In these terms, modes of duration such as memory, thought, language, sociality are nothing but a disembodied form of the 'biomass reserve' described by the SPK/PF. This becomes obvious when they appear in ultra-objectified form as the 'communication skills' or 'social skills' upon which so many emerging work-forms depend. Capital's valorization of these skills is mostly unpaid, yet as they are both 'beyond measure' and endlessly measurable they are ideally suited to disciplinary purposes: every worker can perpetually be identified as communicatively 'defective', requiring indefinite extra 'training' and observation.

    'Turn your illness into a weapon!', the SPK/PF has continued since the 1960s to demand. 'Communication skills' and 'social skills', as objectified, expropriated forms of bare human duration, urgently require that such weapons be forged. It is not enough to 'withdraw' your sociality, presumed to be neutral in itself, from the circuit of value: because the very form of 'communication' is determined by expropriation, communication itself must be deformed.

Matthew Hyland
December 2003
an unfinished outburst