[by Lenora Hanson]

“Despite all this action [in finance] the profits in this series remain fictitious capital: ‘a title to value—just as paper money’ (Capital 3: 600). The activity no more produces new value than would my selling you a ten-dollar bill for twenty bucks, even if I promise to wash your car at a later date. “
Joshua Clover,  Value,Theory,Crisis

When Joshua Clover joined our discussion with the “Immaterial Labor and the University in Crisis,” workshop series, it was ostensibly under the theme of talking about student debt. After all, it is Clover’s distinction to be the only professor indicted under criminal charges for participating in the “Davis Dozen” sit-in at a U.S. Bank branch in Davis, California in early 2012. (An indictment that condescendingly suggests he was responsible for corrupting the innocent minds of youths, rather than taking part in an action organized by all its participants.)

Perhaps it was because Clover would have been preaching to the choir, given that a self-selecting group of attendees at this meeting were already intimately familiar with their own student debt. Or perhaps it was because Clover himself seemed largely disaffected by the charges and the slap-stick show of lawsuits that have devolved after the arrest. But in any case, our conversation cut to the quick of some of the more pressing problems of which student debt is a symptom in some regards; at least if we take Clovers’ argument about debt as a result of struggle in the sphere of profit that is induced by a shrinkage in the production of value to be true.[1]

Of course, this isn’t to say that student debt isn’t a huge part of the moralizing paradigm of late-stage capitalism. The construction of individual guilt and the individualization of disciplinary practices coincide in very real ways within higher education; a perfect storm of specialization laden with judgments about not having made a better disciplinary choice, matched with a “divide and conquer” logic inscribed into the very act of applying and qualifying for loans. While it’s an important problem to document and analyze in order to combat the specious assessments of student protests as all about “freedom of speech,” “academic freedom,” or some other consensus-style politics, Clover was adamant that this facet be kept separate from a Marxian analysis of economic productivity. Student debt is a problem, but it’s not a problem because student and other intellectual labor has somehow gained what he’s called a “Virgil-ean” capacity of producing surplus-value today.

So this was the key point that we really ended up discussing for much of the evening, essentially bringing us to a crucial and potential limit to immaterial labor theory at our second meeting! According to Clover’s essay, “Value, Theory, Crisis,” that we read, it is important not to see this as strictly a discursive limit, however. For him, the transformations and expansions in, and catastrophes induced by, financialization and speculation signal the grinding halt of a capitalist system whose capacity to capture value has decreased since around 1973. This suggests a different historical understanding of the turn to financialization than we get in the dominant interpretation of immaterial (or insert intellectual, knowledge based, affective, etc.) labor; here, it is a last gasp or last resort, not a new turn in capitalism’s successful makeover. This is particularly important to Clover’s assessment of the “crisis” in the humanities as signaling a real end and not strictly a turn or re-envisioning. As he writes, “here is no real question of “saving the humanities” or restoring the public dispensation, any more than there is a question of saving United States hegemony; the social surpluses on which ideological support for such matters was built are gone. Organizing around these goals may be optimism of the will; it is delusion of the intellect.” Goodbye Mr. Public Education.

Where Clover does turn a kind eye to theories of immaterial production is with the “non-dude” theorists within and outside the autonomia tradition. Thinkers like Silvia Federici, Mariarosa Della Costa, and Selma James argue importantly that affective and social labor of the kind that has always been marginalized and un- or underpaid is analytically important for understanding the ways in which necessary labor is not necessarily productive labor. In other words, that upon which capital depends does not have to produce value in order for it to be a key supplement to the system of value production. This point is obviously worth considering within the scope of the term “autonomist” in that it carves out a very distinctive zone of labor that is both inscribed within and yet outside surplus production. Care work and organized self-care become very important places for thinking about the possibilities of communism then. Although, here again, Clover was insistent upon the limited efficacy of envisioning reappropriations within the sphere of affective, immaterial labor that do not also restructure the very basic relations of wage labor and exploitation. Revolutions in “necessary” labor would be utopian revolutions, he suggested, placing a limit on the usefulness of creating enclaves of cooperatives, autonomous universities, and other such entities. Or, as a piece by Alberto Toscano later recommended by Clover puts it, this is a strategy stuck in “the space-time of much of today’s anti-capitalism [that] is one of subtraction and interruption, not attack and expansion.” Good, but not good enough, since, by definition, a reorganization of “necessary labor” does not affect the fundamental contradiction between the production of value and the exchange of profit.

One key thing that we probably want to think about moving forward is the efficacy of “immaterial labor” within our own context. From my personal vantage point, immaterial labor contributes an immense power to my understanding of the political possibilities of organizing within higher education, and the possibilities of intervention outside a world in which we all make a mass exodus from this machine of higher education and withdraw to other forms of labor. (Which, of course, we may already see go on in a more atrophied, slower exile after graduate school anyway.) The question, and I think it’s an important one, is, do we take immaterial labor to be an ontological theory that transforms intellectual work into a productive sphere into which we are situated to intervene, or is it an analytic that is rhetorically useful for political organizing that allows us to self-identify as workers? Is it descriptive or productive? And if contradiction and transformation of the kind Clover emphasizes, through Marx, is still where economic conflict occurs, how does one organize and think of labor within the context of the university? Do we think of ourselves as “unproductive” and begin to try and plot revolution from the vantage point of a lumpenproletariat with a wealth of cultural capital?

I think that the discussion with Joshua really brought the stakes of that question into stark relief for me. I hope that we can carry this conversation, which unwittingly became an advanced repartee to our future discussion of the “autonomous university,” into our session next month with Brian Holmes.

[1] Clover was kind enough to explain this more clearly and eloquently than I’ve described above in a later email exchange, where he wrote: my argument is that (the ascent of) debt is a transformation in the sphere of circulation (being a way (a) to speed turnover time via liquidity, and (b) to extend longer connections to future sources of valorization in production, and (c) a way to appropriate a part of revenue (not new surplus value) in interest and fees) and it is a consequence of changes in the sphere of production (the declining profitability of manufacturing, which leads to struggles for profit elsewhere, and leads to not-currently-productive investments, what Harvey calls “spatial and temporal fixes.”)

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