Labor and Art

        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

After a morning bath, Dick, the man whose business is ‘ferrying and giving people casts about the water [the river Thames in London],’ offers the narrator of News from Nowhere, William Guest, to be his guide in the new world. Guest hesitates for a moment: ‘I fear,’ he says, ‘I shall be taking you away from your work.’ But Dick doesn’t think so. ‘Don’t trouble about that,’ Dick replies, ‘it will give me an opportunity of doing a good turn to a friend of mine who wants to take my work here. He is a weaver from Yorkshire, who has rather overdone himself between his weaving and his mathematics, both indoor work, you see; and being a great friend of mine, he naturally came to me to get him some outdoor work. If you think you can put up with me, pray take me as your guide.’ This conversation, found in chapter 2 of William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890), shows work as joyful and sensuous labor. Labor isn’t any longer a means of life but it has become life’s prime want. I think, it is important to realize how labor is placed here at the center of human praxis and not a word is said about its outcome. In fact, unequal forms of labor are exchanged because the way how humans conceive labor has overcome the capitalist regime of value. This is my topic here.

To illustrate labor, and art, overcoming the (capitalist) regime of value let me begin by quoting a Marx’s fragment included in ‘The Elementary Form of value considered as whole’ of section 3 of the first chapter of the first book of Capital. Here Marx compares the elementary form of value (einfache Wertform) with the elementary form of the commodity (einfache Warenform). Marx writes:

Every product of labor is, in all states of society, a use value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch in a society’s development that such a product becomes a commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labor spent on the production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of the objective qualities of that article, i.e., as its value. It therefore follows that the elementary value form is also the primitive form under which a product of labor appears historically as a commodity, and that the gradual transformation of such products into commodities, proceeds pari passu with the development of the value form.

What I find challenging about this fragment is Marx’s insight that spent labor becomes one of the objective qualities of the product or commodity in a particular historical epoch. We know well the insights from which Marx was developing the argument which set the starting point of his labor theory of value. In the subsequent chapters of Capital’s first book this elementary form of value will signify capital and surplus value, just as it will presuppose the commodity form of labor power. As a way to challenge some assumptions which conceive spent labor, in a conventional manner, as the natural form of all human labor as it materializes or recognizes itself in a product, I would like to rethink Marx’s analysis in its reverse form. I recognize that Marx already did this, for example in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. In this pamphlet Marx advanced a critique of labor and value that I think we should take seriously. There we find the traditional banner of the communist movement: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’ In a time in which we are experiencing immense changes in the labor process, from the rise of technological devices that have freed ‘us’ from hard work to the comeback of old and even pre-capitalist forms of exploitation, it would be useful to reconsider our approach to labor and value. I envisage a society beyond capitalism as also a society beyond value – exchange value as I understand it.

There is no doubt that human labor is a process realized in a useful article or, in Aristotelian terms, human labor means simply the application of means to ends. However, it is doubtful that the labor process should be reduced to a socially equal magnitude involving every form of labor. What I am referring to now is, of course, not human labor as such but its account as the amount of labor (i.e., its duration and intensity) required for a commodity to be produced. This reduction, to which labor is subjected, can only be historically contingent and artificially created. If we go back to Marx’s paragraph quoted at the beginning we find firstly a transhistorical definition of labor: ‘The product of labor = use value’. This, of course, does not exclude other forms that may be useful for humans though they are not the product of human labor, e.g., air. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx pointed out that ‘Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor which is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.’ Secondly, Marx also defined a historically contingent form of labor, one in which ‘the product of labor = commodity’. This occurs when labor spent to produce useful objects is incorporated in the produced object as its value. Thus when Marx writes that ‘the labor spent (verausgabte Arbeit) on the production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of the objective qualities of that article, i.e., as its value,’ one could assume that at the social level any antagonistic movement contrary to this verausgabte labor would suppose an erosion of the socially constituted current form of value, namely the refusal to assume that human labor should be expressed objectively (gegenständlich) in the finished product or useful object. At this point, one should be able to differentiate between the bare fact as it appears, for example the labor process of my cultivating potatoes, and its actual social relations, since it certainly makes a difference if I am cultivating potatoes working as a slave, for a wage or for my own consumption or pleasure. Nevertheless, as a matter of fact, these three determinations of labor are different historical developments of a basic form of appropriation of the products of labor, either for the sake of my own profit as an individual producer or for the benefit of someone else, the lord or capitalist. Each of them represents a form of proprietorship at different stages of its historical development. Again in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx wrote that: ‘Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as the material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the social labor.’ (My italics.) In this passage Marx questions the legitimacy of considering not only the means of production but also the products of labor in terms of private proprietorship whose simplest form could be formulated as follows: ‘It is mine because I have spent labor on it, which in the end enables me to sell it’. However, Marx argues that also within the co-operative society we may count the contribution of the individual producer as an exchange of equal values. Accordingly, writes Marx, ‘the individual producer receives back from society… exactly what he gives to it.’ ‘In spite of this advance,’ Marx continues, ‘this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.’ With respect to this, the real challenge would be then to think labor not in terms of an ‘equal standard’ but exactly as its opposite, i.e., in terms of its inequality. This inequality means, according to Marx, that in a higher phase of communist society ‘labor has become not only a means of life (Mittel zum Leben) but life’s prime want (Lebensbedürfnis).’ The difficulty now consists of how to imagine labor, which can not be reduced to an equal standard, as life’s prime want.

One way to think about this is beginning, as Marx did as he explained the labor process in chapter seven of the first book of Capital, with a transhistorical definition of labor as an exchange with nature. ‘Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate,’ Marx writes. The exchange between humans and nature presupposes the presence of a sensuous body, surely one of the main questions of aesthetic theory and a good way to begin reconsidering labor since humans, as Marx put it, oppose ‘to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of [their] body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to [their] own wants.’ However, Marx’s interest here is to presuppose labor ‘in a form that stamps it as exclusively human,’ that is, away from those ‘primitive instinctive forms that remind us of the mere animal.’ In this respect, Marx argues that ‘what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.’ Some authors have insisted on this aspect of human labor to show how Marx retained the view of human labor as essentially creative. The comparison between the architect and the bee is in fact an ancient topos which underlines a particular effort. Bees were venerated in the Aegean and Near East cultures as goddesses. Thus, if the work of the free imagination would come to define humans as such, its opposite, i.e., labor under the conditions of capitalist exploitation and alienation, would mean the degradation of our humanity. However, just like the general productive condition of human beings on earth does not say anything about the specific historical conditions in which human labor actually comes into presence, underscoring human imagination as such does not bring us any further. We may then concede that Marx’s definition of labor as an exchange with nature simply enabled him to describe the labor process in its elementary form as purposive labor, i.e., embracing both its means and its ends. Though very useful as a point of departure, this elementary definition of labor is no more than that, a preliminary approach that should facilitate our analysis of the concrete conditions in which labor occurs and can occur. This means that any useful definition of human labor lies in the comprehension of the concrete conditions which determine labor and make it possible. Therefore, if we agree that the capitalist mode of production makes up our present state of history, the way to overcome it implies necessarily not only its understanding but also the acknowledgment that we are obliged to start from its inside. To illustrate this I will make some comments on William Morris’s understanding of art and labor since I think it could help us to envisage a form of labor beyond capitalism.

According to William Morris, three traits characterize labor: 1) The work must be worth doing, or nothing should be made by man’s labor which is not worth making, or which must be made by labor degrading to the makers – which points to the necessary usefulness of labor as opposed to the ends of capitalism, surplus value and profit; 2) the work should be of itself pleasant to do – having in mind that in the capitalist mode of production labor as wage-labor means forced labor; 3) Work done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious – for example, as Morris says, ‘anxious about the next week’s subsistence’. It is clear that these three traits arise from a critical understanding of the capitalist mode of production. Art, according to Morris, was also characterized by these traits since art cannot be conceived as an independent social sphere but is necessarily influenced ‘by the conditions of labor of the mass of mankind’. ‘Furthermore,’ Morris claimed, ‘I want you to think that as on the one hand it is possible to satisfy this claim, so on the other hand it is impossible to satisfy it under the present plutocratic system, which will forbid us even any serious attempt to satisfy it: the beginnings of Social Revolution must be the foundations of the re-building of the Art of the People, that is to say of the Pleasure of Life.’ We find in this statement a broad definition of what art was for Morris, namely not the accustomed outcome of artistic skills as we take them for granted after centuries of development of the so-called ‘fine arts,’ but the expression of man’s joy in labor. However, to reach this condition it is necessary first to think labor outside of the categories of political economy. In his conference ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’ (1885) Morris gave a sharp critique of the mystifications typical of the political economy:

It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it – he is "employed," as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only "industrious" enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself – a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others.

Paraphrasing Marx we find here a good definition of labor as means of life. By contrast, placing labor outside of political economy should enable us to reach exactly its opposite, i.e., labor as life’s prime want or, in Gullì’s words, a radical poetic ontology. As Gullì sees the ontology of labor, labor is neither productive nor unproductive but ‘the human activity that goes with life itself’, i.e., labor ‘can be grasped as the power that moves and shapes the entire spectrum of the social’. (See his Labor of Fire, 2005.) In a similar vein, Morris wrote that ‘a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.’ And this is what the notion of art according to Morris embraces, namely the expression of man’s joy in labor. This pleasure or joy consists of three basic aspects: variety, hope of creation and self-respect. By variety Morris means the variety of jobs to be done by a person, by the hope of creation the idea that you do some worthy work, while self-respect connotes that you feel that you have done a useful thing. We are confronted again with the potentiality that humans possess to shape their own world which, of course, includes a critical disposition towards it. ‘Joy’ in this sense implies not only a form of rationality regarding concrete aims but also, and even more importantly, the presence of a sensuous body. But as I said above, this is not sufficient to characterize a renewed form of labor. For example, Morris was ambiguous in his appraisal of the Middle Ages which system of the guild-craftsmen he saw as forerunner of the socialist society. ‘It was this system,’ he claimed in his conference ‘Art Under Plutocracy’ (1883), ‘which had not learned the lesson that man was made for commerce, but supposed in its simplicity that commerce was made for man, which produced the art of the Middle Ages, wherein the harmonious co-operation of free intelligence was carried to the furthest point which has yet been attained, and which alone of all art can claim to be called Free.’ In fact, we can see Morris close to defending a system in which producers would reap the fruits of their labor in a manner that recalls the claims of the so-called ‘ricardian socialists’. Morris would add to this that getting the full proceeds of labor should go along with labor becoming desirable and pleasurable. Apart from this, Morris’s claim that art can only be founded on the joyful labor of people remains a powerful intuition.

Now, I would like to illustrate this joyful dimension through a reading of a small fragment of conversation with the Brazilian musician Cartola, one of the pillars of the traditional ‘samba’ in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The sincerity and naivety with which Cartola carried on with his laboring supposes understanding labor outside the regime of value. During an interview with the broadcast TV Cultura, Cartola tells the story of a samba he composed, ‘Que Infeliz Sorte’ (‘What Bad Luck’). Cartola, already well-known as a musician and composer in the ‘morro da Mangueira’ where he lived, at the time a growing slum in Rio, got an offer in 1931 to sell the recording rights for ‘Que Infeliz Sorte’. Cartola recognizes that at the time he knew nothing about the music business in the city. Cartola did barely live from his labor as a musician carrying on a bohemian lifestyle, although his sambas where widely played by acclaimed singers like Carmen Miranda during the 30s. It was at this time that Cartola did win some reputation as a samba composer. The story of ‘Que Infeliz Sorte’ goes as follows: Cartola tells how somebody in the name of Mário Reis, a popular Brazilian singer mostly famous for his radio broadcasts, approached him and asked, if he (Cartola) would like to sell a samba. Cartola’s response is astonished: ‘What? Buying samba? Are you crazy? (…) Who wants to buy samba? What is that, buying samba?’ Finally, Mário Reis persuaded Cartola to sell that samba. One could see this ‘transaction’ as a mere economic negotiation if we take for granted that both parties, buyer and seller, are economic actors. But is truly doubtful that in 1931 Cartola was fully aware of the economic (i.e. capitalist) dimension of his labor as a musician. In fact, from 1933 on, after some of his sambas reached commercial success in the city, he decided to compose exclusively for the samba school he helped to established in the slum, getting marginalized from the music industry. In 1946 Cartola even disappeared from the music scene only to be found by a journalist some years later working washing cars in the neighborhood of Ipanema. It was in 1974, at 66 years old, that Cartola got his first solo album recorded. If we assume that Cartola was not using the notions of political economy, i.e., samba as the outcome of his spent labor, his question, what it means to buy samba, attains a completely different dimension. Cartola was simply exercising his labor ontologically, in Gullì’s sense, as part of the rich cultural milieu of the slums where transactions between people cannot be reduced to economic terms. On the contrary, the selling of a samba usually seen as the recognition of Cartola as great author, really meant the attempt to incorporate Cartola in the realm of political economy as a labor force for the cultural industry. After his ‘rediscovery’ in the 50s Cartola became more or less involved in the music business and, consequently, celebrated as one of the greatest composers of Brazilian music.

We have seen how Morris was essentially moving in the right direction, i.e., detaching labor (and art) from the categories of the political economy to redirect its praxis to the production of objects both useful (thus not profit oriented) and beautiful. In this sense, beauty was for Morris not a mere appendage to achieve commercial success but an intrinsic quality of usefulness – his utopian novel News from Nowhere is full of such references. In the other direction, Cartola provides a good example of how labor is continuously hijacked by capitalist political economy. However, Morris’s inconsistencies regarding the outcome of labor and its proceeds bring us back to the beginning of my discussion, and pose a question that has remained unanswered, namely how can we figure out labor, its outcome and value, in a post-capitalist society? My own intuition would be to consider rejecting the regime of value by exploring an unknown terrain. In this terrain individual labor vanishes in a flux of endless production. As essential human trait labor still continues, even its pragmatic understanding as concrete labor does not disappear; but its outcome, which cannot be a commodity anymore, does not exist separately from labor itself as it happens in the realm of political economy with consumption. In a post-capitalist society the outcome of labor can only come to mean new laboring. The outcome of labor becomes labor itself. The material wealth of the world shifts therefore from an immense accumulation of commodities to an immense accumulation of life.

I am grateful to Tony O’Brien for his beautiful and useful comments.


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