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Servile work and the politics of reproduction

Marx is disturbed by the strong resemblance between the activity of the performing artist and the servile duties, which, thankless and frustrating as they are, do not produce surplus value, and thus return to the realm of non-productive labour (54).

In A Grammar of the Multitude, Virno attempts to ground his own theory of virtuosity in work in Marx, and notices Marx’s apparent discomfort that his theory analyses artistic work and “servile” work in the same way. What is it that makes “servile” work servile? The distinguishing feature seems to be that it is work that is never finished, but rather work that has to be continually done again. That is to say, servile work is reproductive work, or what Arendt calls the work of animal laborans, the never-finished work of maintaining the human animal. Arendt hates this sort of work because it doesn’t produce anything that outlasts the animal: it does not create something new, or, in Greek, it is not poiesis.

What Virno misses, though, in his attempt to show the new importance of virtuosity in the post-Fordist economy, is that, while it’s true that neither reproductive nor virtuosic work are poiesis, neither is productive work in capitalism. Marx is very clear that productive labour is not about the creation of things when he writes that

workers, indeed, are productive, as far as they increase the capital of their master; unproductive as to the material result of their labour. In fact, of course, this ‘productive’ worker cares as much about the crappy shit he has to make as does the capitalist himself who employs him, and who also couldn’t give a damn for the junk (Grundrisse).

What makes the production of things capitalist production is that these things are only produced inasmuch as they are the material form of value; and one of the features of value that make it the motor of capitalism is that it is, in principle, unlimited: you can always have more value, and indeed the capitalist is compelled to attempt to acquire more value. While reproductive labour is never finished, neither is productive labour, in the capitalist sense.

So rather than Virno’s focus on new forms of virtuosic labour, perhaps we should embrace the similarity that worried Marx, and consider reproductive labour as the paradigm of virtuosic labour. Reproductive labour is immediately interpersonal, in the way Virno believes virtuosic labour is, because it always involves, in some sense, the labour of a human being on a human being (themselves or someone else). Thus reproductive labour is intrinsically political, although – just as Virno argues has happened with virtuosic labour – this political potential has been restricted in the interests of capital, as reproductive work is split off into a separate domestic sphere, and the workers within this sphere have been divided into separate homes (the gendered character of this division is clear, and the role of race in the division is also fairly evident, whereas neither division is visible at all in Virno’s characterisation of virtuosity; I believe Federici has made similar criticisms of Virno and other theorists of immaterial labour).

The intrinsically political character of reproductive labour is a decisive inversion of Arendt’s hierarchy, which placed animal laborans (reproductive labour) on the bottom, and vita activa (politics) on the top; along with this comes a very different understanding of politics, and of agency, in which political agency is intrinsically material, rather than floating above it in a separate realm of appearance. Virno’s work on the relationship between affects and language is useful in thinking about what a materialist theory of political agency might be like, but it’s undercut by the residual Arendtianism of his account of post-Fordist labour. Better, perhaps, to turn to James and Dalla Costa’s “Woman and the Subversion of Community,” where the desire to reclaim the intrinsic intersubjectivity of reproductive labour from its capitalist division is clear:

The question is not to have communal canteens. We must remember that capital makes Fiat for the workers first, then their canteen….

We want them to know that this is not the canteen we want. Nor do we want play centers or nurseries of the same order! We want canteens too, and nurseries and washing machines and dishwashers. But we also want choices: to eat in privacy with few people when we want, to have time to be with children, to be with old people, with the sick, when and where we choose. To “have time” means to work less. To have time to be with children, the old and the sick does not mean running to pay a quick visit to the garages where you park children or old people or invalids. It means that we, the first to be excluded, are taking the initiative in this struggle so that all those other excluded people, the children, the old and the ill, can re-appropriate the social wealth; to be re-integrated with us and all of us with men, not as dependents but autonomously, as we women want for ourselves.