The Fetishism of Quantified Labor
The discovery that the apparatuses of production were organized as signifiers of labor's commodity form has important implications for our understanding of the constitution of liberal capitalist society by labor. In his legendary analysis of the fetishism of commodities, the founding charter for Western critical theory, Marx contends that commodity producers grasp their social dependency upon each other only through the moment of exchange. The agents' discovery of the social character of their labor through the trade of products causes human labor to appear under an absurd guise: as the comparative exchange value of products. In Marx's account, not only do the mutual relations of the producers take the misleading form of a social relation between things, but the category of social labor in general disappears from the producers' sight. In his view, liberal capitalism has the peculiarity that it structures social relations by abstract labor at the same time that it effaces abstract labor as a category of social consciousness. Even the classical political economists, by his reading, never identified abstract labor as such but contented themselves with comparing quantities of labor. These brilliant articulators of capitalist logic had "not the least idea, that the merely quantitative difference between kinds of labor presupposes their qualitative unity or equality, therefore their reduction to abstract human labor."
For Marx, the categories of recognition arise from the process of production and exchange depicted only in terms of its most fundamental mechanics. In his discussion of the fetishism of commodities, Marx temporarily suspends his prior characterization of the production process under capitalism and defines it only by the circumstance that articles are produced for the purpose of exchange. Indeed, at this point in his exposition Marx resorts to the counterfactual premise that the economic agents are independent commodity producers who handle the exchange of their own products: "Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they
exchange their products, the specific social character of the producer's labor does not show itself except in the act of exchange." This simplification allows Marx to reason from the social horizon of the marketplace, in which officially free and equal owners are associated by exchanging their commodities in terms of values that appear imposed by an objective necessity from without. The experience of production itself, the use of concrete living labor, is not theorized as a process generating the agents' misrecognition of the governing categories of capitalism.
Marx's emphasis upon the generation of the forms of understanding out of the "deep structure" of the exchange of labor gives rise to several questions which the unveiling of the symbolic apparatuses of production on the shop floor can address. The economic agents, in point of fact, are not all independent producers separated except at the moment of exchange: capitalism from its inception required workers to dispose of their living labor by entering into social relations of subordination to employers. Why, then, are the agents' "mutual personal relations" in the performance of labor "disguised under the shape of social relations between products"? Can Marx's simplified model of independent commodity owners who labor in isolation be applied to explain the development of the categories of recognition among dependent wage laborers? The meaningful arrangement of micro-apparatuses on the shop floor suggests that workers acquired the categories of their culture, not from the deep structure of relations of exchange, but from the discernible shape of procedures on the surface of production. Not in the fleeting moment of concluding a wage contract but in the minute details of work itself, in the ongoing experience of systems of payment, accounting, and time discipline, did the dependent British workers learn that human practice revolves around the imagined exchange of labor materialized in a product. Workers in Germany learned to think of their concrete exertions as the expenditure and transmission of a quantity of labor power that appeared to them as a measurable thing with a commercial metric attached to it by the external force of the market. In both countries, the subordination of workers in the factory did not simply appear as the direct personal domination of the employer but came into view as an effect of the impersonal workings of the transmission and circulation of quantified labor. In each country, both workers and employers pursued their interests within shared forms of
understanding of labor which neither group alone had created and which confronted both as a prior fact.
Marx's presentation of the fetishism of commodities gives rise to still another issue. In focusing on the fetishization that took place behind people's backs via the market, he depreciated the fetishization of labor as a commodity on the shop floor. In his view, once production is structured to become a mere means of exchanging commodities, the labor process appears to obey natural technical imperatives and relations between producers are structured as instrumental relations. Marx's descriptions of capitalist factories endow the machines themselves with the ability to dictate relations between producers on the shop floor. For Marx, of course, the emergence of technological determinism at the work site is only an effect of the historically unique institutions of capitalism and is in the end, therefore, socially structured. But the use of labor is socially determined at a remove, by the underlying commercial structure which makes of production a mere means for the exchange of commodities. In Marx's account, if the use of labor inside the capitalist factory appears determined by technical imperatives, this is not an illusion but a local reality.
In the realm of the factory itself, Marx mistook as a simple technical outcome or as a set of relations between things what was in truth a set of human relations structured by communication about labor's commodity form. The configuration of procedures on the shop floor in conformity with varying cultural assumptions about labor shows that the fetishism of commodities emerges not just in the marketplace but in the process of production, not just in the exchange of labor but in its use. The factory producers mistook the form of labor as a commodity as an objective force controlling the enactment of their life activity because they were enmeshed in minute procedures structured as signifiers of labor's commodity form. As they engaged in the order of practice, they treated themselves and their fellow agents as if they were things, bearers of objectified labor. This "objectivating attitude" was not a simple correlate of production for
exchange, but was sustained by the communicative function of unobtrusive procedures in the execution of work itself.
The disclosure of signifying practices on the shop floor helps to specify the historically unique mode by which culture shaped human activity in nineteenth-century capitalism. At the outset of this study, we saw that Marshall Sahlins aptly demonstrated how non-capitalist societies have used the instrumentalities of production to communicate a symbolic schema. They have incorporated kinship distinctions, which shape society into a functional whole, into the minute procedures of work. But these kinship principles for social relations are also supported by a transcendent cosmology. The principles, received from the gods, stand above production so that the preservation of the social relations based upon them appears as the very motive of production. In the liberal capitalist factory, by contrast, the structuring form of labor as a commodity was neither explicated nor solemnized through transcendent norms or through principles standing above the sensible processes of production and exchange. The reproduction of culture did not rely upon a sacred cosmology to make its preservation appear as an end in itself. The purpose of social life was nothing more than the production of commodities. In noncapitalist societies, the unspoken principles and assumptions of sacred tradition may comprise the undisputed foundation of social life; in the liberal capitalist order, it is not the unspoken parts of enunciated laws or acts of
religious ritual but the symbolic form of instrumental practice itself that represents the supreme domain of the culturally undisputed. Nineteenth-century economic theorists and demagogues could put concepts of labor into words for their own, fleeting purposes. But capitalist culture at work did not depend upon its verbal articulation, for the logic of practice did not have to refer to something greater than itself.
The nationally specific understandings of labor as a commodity appeared to the producers in Germany and Britain as natural appurtenances of the capitalist order. Even when spokespersons for the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century called for the supersession of capitalism, they did not question the particular form in which labor was designated a commodity in their country; that form acted as a reference point for their nationally distinctive visions of socialist society. In noncapitalist societies, that which is unquestionable about social arrangements is merged with the structure of the natural universe. In the nineteenth-century factory, by contrast, the undoubtable fundament was merely the representation of human labor as an objectified and natural thing: the unquestionable procedures of conduct appeared to the agents as if they were attached, not to nature outside of humankind, but to the nature of humankind; not to objects outside of people, but to people as objects. The institutions of the factory are grasped as human creations, but human agency is misrecognized in the guise of quantified human labor. In noncapitalist society, utilitarian action is hidden under the guise of disinterested conduct that conforms to transcendent norms. In this setting the very haziness and incompleteness of the discursive tradition are part of its usefulness, because they make it pliable enough to legitimate unforeseen strategies. In noncapitalist society, practices that appear to serve nothing but noninstrumental goals actually disguise the pursuit of profit. In the nineteenth-century factory, the reverse occurs: the very practices that appear to serve nothing but the pursuit of profit actually conform to a communicative logic. Because the reproduction of the specification of labor as a commodity did not depend upon its legitimation as part of the sacred but could appear as a mode of strictly instrumental conduct, it was less vulnerable to the questioning that occurs with the disenchantment of the modern social world.