I’ve been reading through a few of Jason Read’s old blog posts and came across one from 2011 on “The Affective Composition of Labor.” In it, he has a really clear definition of class composition, which clarifies the stakes of the project of ‘autonomous marxism’ for me.
First, he notes that the ‘autonomous hypothesis’ – first outlined by Tronti, then later elaborated in Hardt and Negri’s Empire – that resistance precedes and prefigures exploitation has significant limits. The limits of this thesis are similar to the problems identified in the sociological/anthropological studies of resistance, especially coming out of cultural studies in the 1970s, 80s, 90s: if everything is resistance, why isn’t anything changing?
After noting the limits of the autonomous hypothesis, Read offers a different angle, a different entry point, that holds on to the thesis but decentralizes it. He offers the concept of ‘class composition’, because it offers more of a conceptual problem than just a political assertion. Which, taking the political movement of autonomism and transforming it into an area of study 1) as a kind of Marxism, 2) as having emerged from and inspired actual, material struggles, and 3) as moving beyond the figuration and invocation of politics, is essential for maintaining any sort of praxis oriented around autonomy.
He clarifies the concept of class composition: “can be broadly defined as an examination of the social, technological, and political composition of class, the structure of work, its relations of command and hierarchy, as well as the political articulation of the class, its cohesion and antagonism.”
Further, “Class composition makes it possible to understand the autonomist hypothesis as something other than a great battle, or a Manichean dualism. Working class struggle reshapes the social and technological conditions of labor, which in turn becomes the source of new conflict.”
Perhaps this is obvious to some, but I’ve always found the concept to be a bit enigmatic. Read’s definition rather significantly moves beyond the problems of the subjective composition of labor (who composes the working class?) and includes the structure and power relations of work. This move helps me understand why, for example, Mezzadra and Neilson can shift from the study of borders and migration – raising the problem of the multiplication of the figures of labor as a central problematic, and thus the challenge of class composition (in terms of who?) – to the study of logistics (how?).
Read’s broader purpose in the post is to draw attention to the “affective composition of labor” and thus “the way in which every labor condition, every particular conjuncture in the mode of production, involves a production and a reproduction of hope, fear, joy, and sadness, distributed not just across the activity, and its monetary reward, as I have outlined here, but also across the social relations, the joys of comraderie and cooperation, and political relations, the sadness and envy of hierarchy. As such it is also transformed by the political and technological transformations examined in (classical) class composition.”
The concepts offered by Read here – a clarification of ‘class composition’ and the ‘affective composition of labor’ – are highly suggestive for me in thinking about migrant labor in Singapore.
- Who composes labor in Singapore? In what industries?
- How do migrant laborers come to Singapore? How does the recruitment agency pathway and indebtedness intersect with affective concerns, especially the production and reproduction of (or maybe expression of) hope and fear, futurity, etc of the workers?
- How might debt function as a counter-measure to the organization of migrant labor? In other words, debt is individualizing and seems to assist in the fracturing of a laboring class that is more than 25% of the total population in Singapore. How might this work, empirically?