Some tentative thoughts on “the social factory”

Some tentative thoughts on “the social factory”

Prairie Fire

Antonio Negri is best known as one of the authors of Empire, a terrible tome that became popular for a minute among trendy First Worldists. However, Negri is also known for his theory of the social factory. According to Antonio Negri, there are three distinct phases of capitalist development. And, along with these phases, three distinct types of working class. The “professional worker” is the first type. The “professional worker” is the main form from the middle of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of the World Wars. The second type is the “mass worker.” The “mass worker” is the main type from 1918 to the late 1960s. The third, contemporary type is the “socialized worker.” (1)

According to proponents of this theory, in the era of the socialized worker, production is dispersed throughout society. No longer is production concentrated in factories that are distinct from other areas of society. All of social life mingles with production such that production can no longer be isolated from other social activity. Thus, all of society becomes the “social factory.” Labor power and capitalist command are dispersed throughout society to such an extent that all of society should be seen as a single, great act or moment of production. The extraction of surplus value is no longer limited to the workplace. Rather, the reproduction of capital and extraction of value is bound up with every waking hour of human life. Capitalism has transformed so that it is not just a majority that is exploited for some of the time. Rather, according to this view, in today’s capitalism, at least in the First World, everyone is dominated and exploited the majority of the time. Marxist dichotomies break down, according to such a view. There is no geographically isolated point of production. All of society is a social factory. Material and immaterial labor breaks down in the social factory. As does the dichotomy between base and superstructure. Such are the implications of the social factory theory.

Another consequence of this theory is that there is no sharp distinction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. As Negri states, “[t]he proletariat is everywhere, just as the boss is.” There is no stable distinction between the immaterial labor of the socialized worker and the productive activity of “the boss.” Rather, to be in society is to be a producer. Instead, according to this view, humanity itself is oppressed by an ever-present, totalitarian system, the social factory. (2) Here, the social factory theory intersects with Marcuse’s thesis of one dimensionality and Foucault’s analysis of power. Humanity in every aspect of life is reduced to a cog in the machine of production. The subject is always already determined by a malicious system of control. The principal adversary in such schemes is not a ruling class, but a shadowy totalitarian system. Instead of the proletariat facing off against the bourgeoisie, humanity faces off against a formless ghost.

There are two main, interconnected problems with this outlook. 1) The first problem is that the social factory outlook does not reflect reality. 2) The second problem is that the social factory outlook lacks all explanatory and predictive power. In other words, it is not scientific. Thus such an outlook provides no guide to action.


What is correct about the social factory view is that it tries to account for the obvious changes in production in the First World over the past century. Obviously production does not exist in the First World as it once did. Factories no longer dominate the lives of First World peoples. In fact, only a small percentage of people in the First World work in factories anymore. A far greater number are employed in management, services, distribution, etc. This can be described in Marx’s terms as a decline in the percentage of the population engaged in productive labor. For Marx, productive labor is labor that adds to the total social product.

This has been described as the rise of First World mall economies. Many First World economies can be described as a mall writ large. Nothing is produced at the mall. Yet people are employed managing, transporting, distributing, securing, etc. goods that are produced elsewhere but are sold at the mall. It is the influx of goods from outside the mall that keeps the mall afloat. Production is going on outside the mall, in the Third World. These goods are not secured through “fair exchange” since the mall doesn’t produce anything to begin with nor does it exchange services with those who do. The goods that keep the mall economy up and running are secured through imperialism. Obviously, like all abstract models, this is a big oversimplification. However, it makes an important point about global trends and the relationship between the non-productive segments of the First World and the productive segments of the Third World.

The shift in First World employment from productive labor to non-productive labor is noteworthy because Marx saw the paradigmatic case of exploitation as the exploitation of those engaged in productive labor. What Marx considered exploitation no longer is widespread in the First World. First World workers have seen rising incomes, higher standards of living, greater access to and more varied leisure time, greater diversity of life options, greater social mobility, more and more access to capital for much of the past century. This, plus the fact that there has been nothing even close to a First World, socialist revolution, has led Leading Light Communists to rightly conclude that the First World working class is no longer the revolutionary subject that Marx described as having “nothing to lose but its chains.” In fact, the First World lacks a significant, revolutionary subject entirely; there is no First World proletariat.

Homogenization of the population has occurred, but not the way that the social factory theory explains. Instead what has occurred is that First World countries have become relatively homogenized blocks that do not contain antagonistic class contradictions. Instead of the extension of the revolutionary agent in the First World, the size of the revolutionary agent has contracted. Engels referred to this process as the “bourgeoisification” of entire countries. The First World working class is part of the global bourgeoisie. Because antagonistic contradictions have been so reduced within First World countries, and even between First World countries, writers like Francis Fukuyama have declared that the end of history has been reached. Similarly, critics such as Richard Rorty are happy that First World society has reached its current liberal, post-modern, ironic peak. Life options, fantasies, and pursuits once reserved only to the ruling classes have been democratized within the First World. This multi-dimensionality of life thrives as First World peoples have more access to leisure time today than past generations had. Such exists, however, at the expense of the Third World.

Prediction, Explanation, Action

The capitalist system is a causal nexus that reproduces itself. The scientific approach is to isolate aspects of this process in order to better explain and predict social change. Science isolates production from other human activities within the system. Science isolates the base from the super-structure. Science isolates the phenomena of exploitation from other oppressions. Science isolates oppression that takes place at work from oppression that takes place in the context of the family, for example. Science describes as much of the system as possible quantitatively. Hence, science measures exploitation within populations. Science describes other mechanisms of oppression mathematically, such as unequal exchange or unequal distribution. Science takes a rigorous approach to distribution and justice. All of this is at the very heart of revolutionary science, Leading Light Communism. While Marx’s categories need updating, the social factory theory is no answer. Instead of approaching the processes of capitalism scientifically, the unscientific, social factory theorist mystifies these processes and mixes them altogether into a single, mysterious, mushy whole. Scientific terms such as “exploitation,” “production,” “labor,” “oppression,” even “proletariat,” become stripped, with only the vaguest meaning remaining. The mushy world of such theories provide no answer to what Mao called the question of first importance: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” According to the social factory and similar theories, there are no distinct friends just as there are no distinct enemies. In order to really make revolution, one has to align the necessary social forces for radical, progressive change. Such theories replace our distinct concepts of social forces with a mushy whole. There is no social enemy or class enemy, there is only a mushy, shadowy and ever-present system that serves everyone and no one. There are no winners and losers in such theories. Such theories let the First World off the hook. They blame the victims of the Third World for their own oppression. Thus such theories give no guidance to revolutionaries. Instead, they are used to justify anything-and-everything opportunism and movementarianism. Such a theory is a non-theory. It provides no direction. Such theories are immobilizing in terms of making real revolution. Lenin taught that without theory, practice is blind. Instead of a scientific analysis of how capitalism works or how to destroy it in the concrete, such theories are little more than a dystopian just-so story about a totalitarian system so mysterious that it cannot be understood except in obscurantist metaphors, a fantasy of the First World “left” to justify its meager existence. The social factory and similar theories have little, if any, scientific power. By contrast, the Leading Light Communist movement is blazing a new trail with real science and real revolution.


1. These thoughts are a response to the following question:

“Dear Leading Lights,

The Autonomists believed that ‘workers’ in first world countries produce surplus value while even outside of the factory – through creation of cultural objects, thorugh ruminating about how to solve problems at work, and so forth. Can this theory of the social factory account for any profits perhaps created by workers in the first world, thus being exploited? Or is it a sham?”

2. Anti-capitalists movements. December, 2001.

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