Blog Post

Extended Reading Notes: Grundrisse and the Machinery of 'Surplus' WOC Labour

I spent some time today reading Marx’s Grundrisse. It had long been on what I mentally refer to as my ‘bad little Marxist, why haven’t you read this’ list, not only because I’m interested in materialism in general, but because the discussion of machinery has been tremendously influential, particularly for some of the autonomist Marxists with whom I both respect and fundamentally disagree with on some levels.

While machinery is said to “save labour” (325), Marx tells us that what actually happens is a saving, or reduction, of only a particular kind of labour: “necessary” labour, or that which is necessary to the “maintenance and reproduction of the individual” (332). “Surplus” labour, that which extends above and beyond the necessary, and from which capitalists generate wealth, is increased, and the size of the workforce and their wages decreases.

Autonomist Marxists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri build on this section, as well as the highly social nature of networked labour and communication, to suggest that there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of both labour and labourers. Contemporary workers, they argue in Multitude, are forced to “informationalize, [to] become intelligent…communicative…affective” (109). In calling into being these affective, intelligent subjects, however, Hardt and Negri also contend that capital sews the seeds of its own demise. Capital’s increasing reliance on “social labour”, they assert, “leads directly to the proposition of the multitude as constituent power” (350). By creating more affective and intelligent workers, in other words, the labour force is better able to communicate with one another, and form bonds based upon a common experience of struggle.

Silvia Federici, however, responds to these claims with two critical and damning complications: not only, she notes, do Hardt and Negri neglect the fact that industrial production is still required, that there is “a continuum between the computer worker and the worker in the Congo who digs coltan with his hands trying to seek out a living” (n.p.), but they also fundamentally neglect the gendered nature of  ‘immaterial labour’. Women have, after all, long worked in highly social, affective, and largely unapid forms, such as housework and reproduction. Socialist and materialist feminists have repeatedly demonstrated that “capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor…it [is] not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations” (n.p.).

So the question I came to Grundrisse with today was what, if at all, I might do with Marx’s take on machinery in the digital context while also accounting for the gendered (and racialized, heteronormative, cis-normative, ableist, ageist, etc.) components of affective digital labour. And I do think it still gets us somewhere. The rise of digital media does indeed extend the amount of surplus labour many of us undertake. What we need to better account for, then, is the fact that the workforce (and their ability to even recognized as a workforce) is by no means equally impacted.

Take, for instance, this piece by Jessica Marie Johnson, detailing the depressingly common under-citation of women of colour (WOC) online. In addition to producing surplus labour in the form that Marx is speaking about (that is, waged, contracted conditions), many WOC devote time to producing online content. Many of them do so without payment. And it’s great! (Here’s a list of some of my faves: Black Girl Dangerous, Racialicious, Angry Black Woman.) Yet they’re far more likely than others, including white women, to have that content circulated without any accreditation.

The under-citation of this stuff has, let’s be clear, very material effects. When one’s work circulates without this recognition, one is less likely to be asked to submit material to a site which will pay for it, or to be offered other paid and unpaid opportunities for work and social recognition. When one points out that one is being undercited as a WOC, one can also expect violence in response, ranging from death threats to accusations of separatism and divisiveness (such as the truly horrible white feminist hashtag, #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity--great discussion of that here).

Here’s another example, which many of you might be familiar with: When biologist DN Lee refused to submit her work without compensation to a blog, she was viciously and publically attacked. And here’s, at least to me, where affect comes into it: because she is a woman, especially because she is a woman of colour, it seems Lee was expected to extend her work day without compensation out of love for her field and/or her potential readers (who, by reading her work, would generate capital for the content owners, but not the writer).

And though I’m loathe to repeat it, I also want to dwell for a moment on the fact that the term whore was used in the attacks against Lee. Because although obviously an expression of misogyny, it also takes me back to my reading notes from the other day, where I was considering the erotic attachment many (particularly women) are expected to feel toward their own work, particularly when it’s digital (and often unpaid or underpaid). When Lee asked for payment, she violated this expectation, and the accusation comparing her to a sex worker suggests as much: she was supposed to want this labour, desire it as women (particularly WOC) are expected to desire, and when she didn’t, she was deemed a sex worker, thereby rhetorically aligning her with a population that has often been attacked for monetizing a relation ‘meant’ to be built upon love, desire, and pleasure for its own sake.

It isn’t, then, just that digital machinery extends surplus labour time and decreases compensation. It does, of course. But it does so in fundamentally uneven ways, drawing more heavily upon labour forces whose work has historically been considered alternatively yet doubly “surplus” (in the sense of generating wealth without requiring payment). And part of the way it does so is by rationalizing this inequity using the language and mechanisms of affect.  Perhaps, then, Johnson’s plea for feminists to learn to love one another “harder” is part of what we might consider a larger struggle to better understand and alter who and what it is we are loving when we work and play online.


Tomorrow (or the next day, depending on how much labour finishing the next section of my LTP draft proves to be tomorrow), I’ll be continuing these thoughts by considering what has, up to this point, been my almost exclusive focus on love as an affect. Is this justified? Am I being overly influenced by the awesome critiques of do-what-you-love rhetoric which are circulating right now? Let’s think and talk about it together soon.


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