Hardt and Negri on Affective Labor

Negri, Antonio. “Dossier: Scattered Speculations on Value – Value and Affect.” Boundary 2. 26. 2 (1999): 77.


Hardt, Michael. “Affective Labor,”


In Antonio Negri’s essay on value and affect, he defines affect through four main distinctions: first, as “a power to act that is singular and at the same time universal,” that is “universal because the affects construct a commonality among subjects,” second, as a “power of transformation” and “force of self-valorization,” third, as “a power of appropriation, in the sense that every obstacle that is overcome by the action of affect determines a greater force of action of the affect itself, in the singularity and universality of its power,” and finally, he defines affect as an expansive power…a power of freedom, ontological opening, and omnilateral diffusion” (85-6). These four points for a definition of affect as power to act, transformative, appropriating and expansive, interprets affect as constructive of an immeasurable alignment among subjects, whether political or otherwise, into a manifestation of and investment in shared desires. Furthermore, Negri identifies the growing tendency in global capital to think of value in terms of affect, where affective labor creates an economy of desire. To Negri, this new economy “opens the way to a revolutionary political economy in which insurrection is a necessary ingredient” (88).

How are we to understand this economy of desire in the contemporary context of a growing service industry, where immaterial labor—labor of knowledge, access, navigating and manipulating information, providing customer and managerial services, educating, financing, consultancy, and caretaking—is quickly becoming the dominant mode of capitalist production? In Michael Hardt’s supplementary essay, “Affective Labor,” Hardt identifies this shift in the mode of production as, on the one hand, degrading affect, culture and human relations “to the level of economic interactions,” and on the other hand, producing a new dynamic of labor that “has become communicative, affective, de-instrumentalized, and ‘elevated’ to the level of human relations—but a level of human relations entirely dominated by and internal to capital” (96). In order to dominate affective labor, global capitalism proliferates shared subjectivities that negate the communitarian potentials of affective labor through the very circuits of shared communication, emphasizing difference and personal identity as a means of divide and conquer, instrumentalizing particular structural hierarchies of race, class, gender, tribalism, etc. to eliminate the liberating potential of affective labor. Yet throughout Hardt’s essay, it is the feminist critique of labor that is constantly invoked in order to understand affective labor, as gender analysis provides an adequate lens in which to comprehend affective labor as “women’s work,’ a mode of labor that produces biopolitical subjectivities, “entirely immersed in the corporeal, the somatic” producing immaterial affects—”the labor involved in the creation of life” (96, 99).
As a dividing principal, gendered ideologies of affective labor are everywhere present in development studies, especially of modernizationists who are uncritical of the potentials of development. Michael Cowen and Robert Shenton identify development studies within a genealogy of an imperial discourse aligned with civilizing missions, trusteeship and progress, identifying the antitheses of progress as John Stuart Mill’s “stationary state” (39), defined by custom, tradition, and the absence of choice. The ability to choose, then, is presented as the condition of possibility for an intentional break from custom, tradition and the “stationary state.” Yet, as Cowen and Shenton identify, there are in fact two such “stationary states,” the first, bound by custom and absent of choice, and the second, its direct opposite: “societies not bound by ‘custom,’ where tolerance and rational discussion flourish” (40). The development discourse then is not only gendered, in the sense that the non-civilized stationary state is stagnant, caught up in custom and tradition, while the good stationary state is rational, but it also proliferates a subjectivity furthermore imbricated within gender formations—that trustees must act rationally and freely “on the moral behalf of the ignorant and corrupt”, that agents must exorcize their so-called “unbound” traditional morality onto the “bound” corrupting morality of an Other.

Maria Saldana-Portillo offers a conception of development that is ostensibly gendered, coloring the “trustees” of first-world countries as embodying “unaggrieved masculinity” while “traditional society is feminized, rendered incapable of resisting ‘the more powerful nation’s’ penetration” (34). Aware of this opposition, modernization theorists emphasized cultural ways of thinking as possible stymies to development, and believed that only by shifting these traditional ways of thinking can development reach its full potential—in other words, new subjectivities must propagate, while traditional subjectivities must cease to be reproduced, before developmental progress. As Portillo says, “the manly ‘effective power’ of the colonizer teaches ‘thoughtful’ local people to desire it—to desire ‘an ability to wield modern technology,’ to emulate the father’s knowledge/power (34).

On the level of the individual, development ideologies then produce a gendered hierarchy where liberal ideals of agency, masculinity, autonomy and choice symbolize an ideal object of desire, and the passive, pre-modern, hyper-feminine Other symbolizes its direct oppositional. For the purposes of understanding divisive subjectivities within regimes of affective labor, this structural formation must be understood on the level of the subject who produces affect, as a means of understanding their own labor as falling within a passive, virtual, feminized mode of labor. Furthermore, understanding this formation must go beyond the measure of ideologies of individualism and liberalism, but rather, it must be understood as an affective aura of competition rather than solidarity through a hyper-class consciousness that emphasizes miniscule elitism. Ankie Hoogvelt, in Globalization and the Postcolonial World, discusses the trap of development for women who may take on this structural hierarchy: In exchange for belonging within international development, they get super-exploitation, a liberal discouragement to cease reproducing their own race, and new formations of patriarchy represented in managerial classes. Yet, even with the potentials of a “left world sisterhood” created by this super-exploitation, the division of labor also creates a hierarchy that leaves class-conscious individuals in antagonistic relation to the classes below them—the conception that hyper-exploitation is a least better than exclusion, and is only so far away from regular exploitation.

The ideological components of this division of labor is also present in the critiques of World Systems Theory, which Hoogvelt presents as “conceptualized in terms of global class relations which transcend national class structures” (58). Though the core-periphery model may be useful for understanding world class formations, it happens to ignore the major class divisions within nations themselves, where, in places like Vientiene in Laos or Phnom Penh in Cambodia, one can find expensive luxury European cars on every block, along with women cradling their children while sleeping on street corners. In other words, by understanding class formation as autonomous in relation to national borders, one can see the symbolic class structures (cars, malls, fashion) as creating divisions of miniscule elitism within a gendered structural hierarchy. Such divisions are reproduced through every day cultural capital, which Portillo identifies as the “ethical choices made by a risk-taking vanguard leadership,” such as “the choice of embracing technology…the choice of sheding feudal mind-sets…the choice to save money…the choice to be independent…the choice to invest capital in social overhead costs…the choice between clan and nation…and, most important, the choice to be productive rather than prodigal” (43-4).

The enormous potential of affective labor that Michael Hardt investigates can now be seen as on one hand, potential for liberation through human relations, and on the other, potential for even more direct antagonistic human relationships, where “women’s work’ is rearticulated in a classist and racialized discourse. Every human interaction thus becomes a new chance to reassess hierarchies, to reaffirm and rearticulate an already present hierarchy in miniscule elitisms. The potentials of affective labor as vitally increasing virtual or actual human contact and proximity, when seen alongside development discourse, reproduces division rather than solidarity, miniscule class antagonism rather than liberation. Proximity and higher levels of communication can thus create the conditions of possibility for further exploitation and class antagonism. After all, what better way to instill a racial formation in a child than to have them watch the “darker skinned” housekeeper eating dinner at a separate table—or better yet, for the child of that housekeeper, to watch the even lower-waged maids eating at an even smaller, even more separate table.

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