Marx writes: “The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one [(the automated system of machines) Virno addition, trans.] created by large-scale industry itself. As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. (Italics and brackets from Nicolaus’s English translation, trans.)” (Grundrisse: 705). In the “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse, from which I drew that citation, Marx upholds a thesis that is hardly Marxist: abstract knowledge-scientific knowledge, first and foremost, but not only that-moves towards becoming nothing less than the principal productive force, relegating parceled and repetitive labor to a residual position. We know that Marx turns to a fairly suggestive image to indicate the complex of knowledge which makes up the epicenter of social production and at the same time prearranges its vital confines: general intellect. The tendential pre-eminence of knowledge makes of labor time a “miserable foundation.” The so-called “law of value” (according to which the value of a product is determined by the amount of labor time that went into it), which Marx considers the keystone of modern social relations, is, however, shattered and refuted by capitalist development itself.
It is at this point that Marx proposes a hypothesis on surpassing the rate of dominant production which is very different from the more famous hypotheses presented in his other works. In the “Fragment” the crisis of capitalism is no longer attributed to the disproportions inherent in a means of production truly based on labor time supplied by individuals (it is no longer attributed, therefore, to the imbalances connected to the full force of the law, for example, to the fall of the rate of profit). Instead, there comes to the foreground the splitting contradiction between a productive process which directly and exclusively calls upon science, and a unit of measurement of wealth which still coincides with the quantity of labor incorporated in the products. The progressive widening of this differential means, according to Marx, that “production based on exchange value breaks down” (Grundrisse: 705) and leads thus to communism.
What is most obvious in the post-Ford era is the full factual realization of the tendency described by Marx without, however, any emancipating consequences. The disproportion between the role accomplished by knowledge and the decreasing importance of labor time has given rise to new and stable forms of power, rather than to a hotbed of crisis. The radical metamorphosis of the very concept of production belongs, as always, in the sphere of working under a boss. More than alluding to the overcoming of what already exists, the “Fragment” is a toolbox for the sociologist. It describes an empirical reality which lies in front of all our eyes: the empirical reality of the post-Fordist structure.