Capitalist Limits: from the Probability of Exhaustion to the Exhaustion of Probability

This essay was written for the book Brave New Work: A Reader on Harun Farocki’s Film A New Product. My contribution is not on Farocki’s film or his work per se, but it does respond to it. I’ve been a huge fan of his work for some time and it was a great chance to return some of his products — the themes of his work; organisation, work, energy, technology — with interest.



Charicature of Aleksei Gastev and the mechanisation of man

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a great wave of anxiety swept through the discourses on progress which were animating Europe. The discovery of fatigue corresponded to the new scientific theories of thermodynamics. Particularly significant was the simultaneous development of the understanding of energy conservation with the identification by Rudolf Clausius of the second law of thermodynamics – by which energy transfer within a closed system, from a warmer to a colder body, inevitably results in a net decrease in energy in that system and that overall, ‘the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum’.1 In terms implicitly related to the applications of technology and the organisation of human labour, science discovered the centrality of energy to the structure and movement of the universe, and the threat of inevitable energy loss, dissipation and decay.2

The nineteenth-century obsession with fatigue, both metaphoric and real, located in nature, in the body, and in the psyche the negative dimension of the considerable energies required to service the new productive forces unleashed by nature and harnessed by society.3

The discourse on energy conservation developed in many directions at once. As the first century of intensive industrialisation took its visible toll on the human population and the environment, social reformers began to pose the question of the exhaustion and ill health of the working population as a national problem. Whilst by a wider universal analogy, the perceived moral and physical decay of human society under modern conditions found an ontological correlation with the projected doom of the universe and order as a whole.4 Work appeared to have a natural economy by which an amount of energy input transfers an equal amount of energy to its product. Scientific materialism presented energy as the universal force motivating all matter both organic and inorganic, and produced a ‘model of nature drawn from the technical instruments that could harness its powers’.5 However, at the same time, when looked at systematically there was not only a marginal loss of energy, but overall, the system tended towards decline and energy loss. Through the study and development of a ‘science of work’ scientists and social reformers hoped to arrest the wastage and fatigue they saw resulting from industrialisation; the inefficient conversion of energy in the labour process both in respect of the workforce and the natural resources it consumed. Whilst the universe could now be conceived as a vast machine, man became a ‘human motor’ – ‘a thermodynamic machine capable of conserving and deploying energy’.6

Jules-Etienne Marey, Graphic registration of Muscular Shocks 1868

Jules-Etienne Marey, Graphic registration of Muscular Shocks 1868

The understanding of energy as universal suggested that all work, whether carried out by machines or the human touch, could be measured and compared through the derivation of an equivalent unit. Labour power, or Hermann von Helmholtz’s phrase ‘arbeitskraft’, became the fundamental measurement for describing the energy of the universe. Helmholtz’s system persuaded many scientists and social reformers of the impossibility of perpetual motion and thus, of the necessity of work. When universalised, labour power as an abstract unit became recognised as the central core of work beyond any particular content or craft of work. Moreover, nature came to be seen as an unlimited storehouse of energy awaiting release through productive work.7 With the discovery of this new and universal power came the enormous responsibilities of conserving and directing it. The German chemist, social reformer and popular scientist, Wilhelm Ostwald, worked towards the coordination of the elimination of waste as the central programme of social progress summed up in his maxim: ‘Don’t waste energy, valorise it.’8

Chronophotographic analysis of walking subject

Etienne-Jules Marey, Chronophotographic analysis of walking subject

If the proponents of the new physics identified in the physiological sphere a quantum (or universal measure) underpinning the entire motion of the universe – energy, Karl Marx identified a similar unit at the core of political economy and adopted the same term for it – labour power. It was the centrality of this unit which explained, for him, the process by which the accumulation of wealth was at the same time the accumulation of poverty: ‘Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and mental degradation, at the opposite pole […].’ Marx drew on the work of the Venetian monk Giammaria Ortes to formulate his own singular vision of the cruel equilibria of capitalist economy:

In the economy of a nation, advantages and evils always balance one another (il bene ed il male economico in una nazione sempre all, istessa misura): the abundance of wealth with some people, is always equal to the want of it with others (la copia dei beni in alcuni sempre eguale alia mancanza di essi in altri): the great riches of a small number are always accompanied by the absolute privation of the first necessaries of life for many others. The wealth of a nation corresponds with its population, and its misery corresponds with its wealth. Diligence in some compels idleness in others. The poor and idle are a necessary consequence of the rich and active.9

For Marx, the human wastage of social production based on the exploitation of man by man for the accumulation of surplus value was structural: built into the system itself.

If we consider capitalist production in the narrow sense and ignore the process of circulation and the excesses of competition it is extremely sparing with the realized labour that is objectified in commodities. Yet it squanders human beings, living labour, more readily than does any other mode of production, squandering not only flesh and blood, but nerves and brain as well. In fact it is only through the most tremendous waste of individual development that the development of humanity in general is secured and pursued, in that epoch of history that directly precedes the conscious reconstruction of human society. Since the whole of the economising we are discussing here arises from the social character of labour, it is in fact precisely this directly social character of labour that produces this waste of the workers’ life and health.10

If Marx was pessimistic, there were others keen to put the industry of the modern age on a scientific and more humane basis. The quantitative economy of energy informed many different initiatives which sought to improve and rationalise work in the second half of the nineteenth century, from efforts to improve workers’ health and reduce the number of workplace accidents, to those of reducing the working day and (often simultaneously) raising productivity and efficiency. This resulted in the establishment of national institutes for the study of productivity and labour in several European nations, particularly Belgium, Germany and France. In France, a Laboratoire de Recherche sur le Travail at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers was headed by Jules Amar. He studied fatigue extensively, developing techniques for the measurement of forms of work, optimum efficiency and the comparative yields of different labouring subjects. Having established that the different labourers, including prisoners, he studied were not unique, he argued that:

The yield of the human machine is variable according to the mechanical and energetic conditions of work. It depends on time, on speed, on the employment of this or that group of muscles which intensifies or reduces the expenditure of energy. It rises or falls according to the working subject and the greater or lesser contraction of the active muscles […] Thus, we see how the capable worker is able to economize his forces. If there is a science of work, there is also an art of work.11

Amar’s study of the mechanics of the human body led him to discover many of the basic tools of ergonomics. Building on the precise studies of movement pioneered by photographer Étienne-Jules Marey and others, Amar ‘used his theory to explore not only working with tools, but writing, playing musical instruments, engaging in athletics, sports and the military’.12 Motivated by the desire to reduce the amount of labour wasted, he sought to provide models through which work could be reorganised ‘methodically’ to achieve the maximum of work with the minimum of fatigue.13 Like many others working on similar premises, Amar’s studies remained mostly in the laboratory, where he recreated the world of toil of industrial work. However, Amar felt strongly that the proper place for the application of the science of work was in the workplace and that this could help to both increase output and resolve conflicts between labour and capital. Despite its influence at the state level, proponents of the science of work had difficulty persuading either employers or labour organisations of its beneficial objectivity.14 It was not until after the First World War that a thorough rationalisation of the workplace took place in Europe and this was largely under the auspices of the system developed in the USA by Frederick Winslow Taylor – scientific management or, as it was more widely known, Taylorism.


Taylor’s system involved the introduction of ‘efficiency’ throughout the workplace using time-and-motion studies to divide tasks into replicable units. To incentivise constant intervention into the labour process, the introduction of new machinery and the training of workers, wages were linked to productivity at the level of the individual worker, rewarding speed and output. Taylorism succeeded where the science of work had failed because it’s application offered a profitable form of rationalisation. Taylor had developed his methods not in a laboratory, but in the workplace itself. He travelled widely to different factories introducing his system, reorganising the work process and modifying the system as he went. Anson Rabinbach describes how Taylorism empowered management and withdrew control of the labour process away from the shop floor. Beyond any specific methodology or technique this shift of power amongst the workforce was the key to Taylor’s success.

Taylorism provided industrialists and managers with a means of breaking the resistance of workers’ organizations to technological progress, of rapidly training unskilled labourers for modern industrial plants, taking control of the factory out of the hands of paternalistic and conservative entrepreneurs, and putting it in the hands of competent, trained professionals – engineers.15



Taylorism met with a great deal of resistance, especially in France. At a famous strike at the Renault factory in Billancourt, Émile Pouget, the CGT leader, denounced the Taylor system as ‘the organization of exhaustion’.16 However, the system’s progressive aspects also seduced many trade unionists and Marxists. Despite describing Taylorism in 1914 as ‘Man’s Enslavement by the Machine’17, Vladimir Lenin, once the Bolsheviks were in power, expressed his admiration for Taylor’s system and sought to adapt it for the purposes of rapidly industrialising the Soviet Union.

The possibility of building socialism depends exactly upon our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet organization of administration with the up-to-date achievements of capitalism. We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our ends.18

The productivism embodied by Taylorist management was, in Rabinbach’s words, ‘politically promiscuous’. Its technocratic idealism found supporters across the political spectrum during a period which was characterised, despite the immense destruction of the First World War, by belief in an endless expansion of productivity and a ‘re-enchantment of technology’.

The vision of a society in which social conflict was eliminated in favour of technological and scientific imperatives could embrace ‘liberal, socialist, authoritarian, and even communist and fascist solutions’.19

One may reasonably find this instrumental application of technology and human machines far from enchanting. Many historical commentators dismiss Lenin and Bolshevism as inherently authoritarian, yet it is clear that whilst both Taylorism and Bolshevism shared authoritarian traits, even in anarchist Spain in the 1930s anti-authoritarian elements felt ‘compelled’ to adopt similar measures.

When revolution erupted in Barcelona in 1936, union militants of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) and the Marxist UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) inherited a backward industrial structure that they were compelled to modernize under difficult conditions of civil war in Spain. These militants – whether anarcho-syndicalist, Communist, or Socialist – copied elements from the Western and Soviet models of economic development and accumulation. While attempting to build the productive forces, they quickly encountered what I shall call workers’ resistance to work. The anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT, the most important working-class organization in Barcelona, were forced to jettison their theories of workers’ democracy and participation to make the rank and file work harder and produce more. The anarcho-syndicalists and Communists in the newly collectivized firms re-established piecework, initiated severe controls on the shop floor, and embarked on an intensive campaign that included both odes to Stakhanovism and socialist realist art.20

One interpretation of the different political perspectives which habituated themselves to the Taylorised organisation of labour is that it was not Taylorism per se which ideologically suited their ends, but that the pressure of the necessity of work and competition in a capitalist world economy required Taylorism to manage it locally. Taylorism is central to Harry Braverman’s study of the development of the labour process through the twentieth century. He asserts, ‘Taylorism […] is nothing less than the explicit verbalization of the capitalist mode of production’.21 For Braverman, Taylorism does not describe a period or phase of the capitalist organisation of production, but rather its continuity.

[I]f Taylorism does not exist as a separate school today, that is because, apart from the bad odor of the name, it is no longer the property of a faction, since its fundamental teachings have become the bedrock of all work design.22


Aleksei Gastev, How to Work, 1923

Aleksei Gastev, How to Work, 1923

According to Braverman, at a given point in the early twentieth century, Taylorism became hegemonic and generalised. That Taylor’s techniques became known in Germany simply as ‘rationalisation’ gives some sense of how its methodology has been absorbed and sets the terms which condition and structure the labour process, the organisation of work, and society more generally. Reviewing Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal study on the growth of the ‘salaried masses’ in Berlin in the 1920s, Walter Benjamin noted Kracauer’s observation of the phenomenon by which white-collar workers’ social arrangements took their cue from the efficacies of the organisation of production.

Their more indirect relation to the production process finds its counterpart in a far more direct involvement in the very forms of interpersonal relation which find their counterpart in this production process.23

In our own period, one could say that these tendencies have been further generalised – leaking into society at large – providing the framework and ratio for the reorganisation of manifold forms of social organisation.


Braverman’s study places the following question at the centre of his study of the twentieth century labour process: why does automation, the development of productive forces on a scale Marx must only have imagined, not make workers free, but rather both diminish their ‘skills’ and make them even more dependent upon work? In fact, rather than alleviating work for the worker, ‘efficiency’ intensifies work and empties it of content.

Whilst many (including the Bolsheviks) interpreted Marx as a productivist, Braverman argues that a thorough critique of automation remains at the core of his conception of the subsumption of labour under capital – the social relation which is henceforth built into capitalist technology – a relationship by which man is dominated by machines or ‘automatons’.

[…] the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content. Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour process but also capital’s process of valorization, has this in common, but it is not the worker who employs the conditions of his work, but rather the reverse, the conditions of work employ the worker. However, it is only with the coming of machinery that this inversion first acquires a technical and palpable reality. Owing to its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the worker during the labour process in the shape of capital, dead labour, which dominates and soaks up living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour, and the transformation of those faculties into powers exercised by capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by large-scale industry erected on the foundation of machinery.24

Braverman poses two questions which lead from Marx’s insights: first, how does this social relation develop, and secondly, how does the tremendous development of technology deepen this social relation and further its reality?

Despite the variety of means used in all the innovations we have been describing, their unifying feature is the same as that which we have noted at the outset of this discussion: the progressive elimination of the control functions of the worker, insofar as possible, and their transfer to a device which is controlled, again insofar as possible, by management from outside the direct process.25

Taylorism, or the capitalist form of development it generalised, in turn generalises management. From academic work to service work in Pret A Manger, tasks are measured, automated, an economy of input and output is established, targets are created and extended, decision-making is centralised, costs are cut and efficiency gains are constantly sought. These are not restricted to the manual sphere, but extend into the affective field. Yet a misguided notion is that this is at all new. I wish to argue in the strongest terms that this integration is both revolutionary and continuous. In our world Taylorism is built into the tools we apply in our work and the spaces we work in. Computers not only automate many formerly labour-intensive processes, such as filing, stamping, postage etc., but they also make many tasks regular, standardised and therefore equivalent. Our social communication outside of work is also templated, standardised and made ‘efficient’ in the same ways. It should be noted here that both the science of work and Taylorism originally applied themselves equally to blue-collar and white-collar work, to labour both manual and mental. Neither of these pioneering schools of thought was under any illusion that one is automated and regular and the other creative and flexible. In mental and manual labour, to model the labour process, whether through software, machines, building design, or training, facilitates standardisation and empowers management. As Marina Vishmidt writes:

What is the object of management? And who is asking? Management is first of all exerted upon resources, be these temporal or human, rather than upon autonomous entities that can either be reasoned with or present their own reasons.26

As such, at each phase of development capitalism seeks to remodel the relationship of the worker to his work, tending to reduce him to the status of an appendage, non-autonomous. The worker becomes not the operator, but the operated upon – successively alienated from his own capacities at each stage of a permanently developing social process.


By levelling out and equating one task with another, facilitating ‘deskilling’ across different branches of industry, the application of Taylor’s model in the 1930s also produced the mass worker – a vast unskilled workforce with common interests in higher wages and better conditions. Thus, far from resolving conflicts between capital and labour the innovations pioneered by Taylor concentrated them, contributing to the further intensification of the labour process under Henry Ford and Fordism which met its crisis in the 1960s and 1970s.


By the late 1960s a productivity and profits crisis was well underway. Industrial capital, in its tendency to expand in each cycle of accumulation, was finding that its investments required ever higher sums, whilst its profits were being challenged by the high wage demands of the increasingly militant and powerful mass working class established by Taylor’s and Ford’s innovations. Different shades of the political spectrum emphasise different aspects or moments in this crisis. The Italian post-workerists emphasise the disobedience and indiscipline not only of the mass worker, but also of women and students outside the factory (but still inside the ‘social factory’). Others emphasise the structural aspects of the crisis, arguing that the tendency for profit to fall had become terminal for a particular arrangement of capital and labour (i.e. Fordism). However, what is clear is that, just as in the mid-nineteenth century, the crisis was also ontological. In the 1970s capitalism and science suddenly discovered ‘Limits to Growth’, in the sense that the productivists rediscovered entropy. In 1972, the Club of Rome, a think tank consisting of former and present heads of state and UN officials published a report entitled The Limits to Growth.

Under the direction of a team of systems analysts based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology […], the report gave voice to the prevailing consensus that Fordist manufacture had entered a period of irreversible decline. But it also brought something palpably new to the analysis. If there was a crisis in the offing, it was not one that could be measured in conventional economic terms […] a crisis in productivity or economic growth rates – but rather a wholesale crisis in the realm of reproduction. For the Club of Rome what was at stake was no less than the continuing reproduction of the earth’s biosphere and hence the future of life on earth. The most visible signs of the impending crisis were therefore to be found in the existence of all kind of ecological disequilibria, exhaustion, and breakdown, from rising levels of pollution to famine and the increase in extinction rates. Using the latest developments in systems theory, the Meadows team sought to simulate the earth’s possible futures by looking at trends and interactions between five principle areas – population growth, industrialization, food production, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and pollution.27

As in the nineteenth century, a social and economic crisis took legible form in a natural environment marked by signs of chaos and an imminent exhaustion of resources. The attenuation of a particular model of development was correlated with the end of the world, even the universe. Capitalist society had again met absolute limits, against the contours of which it needed to reform itself. Yet again, it was a crisis of the future, for capitalist development had met a barrier to the projection of its existing reality into the future. In some sense it was a crisis of management itself. The new metrics developed by military and civil science and implemented by planners returned foreboding indications of a negative future.

Repeated runs of the simulation program pointed to one constant: the exponential growth of population and industry could not continue indefinitely without running up against the limits inherent in the other variables under study—namely, agricultural production, energy supplies, and pollution. Pointing out that 97 per cent of industrial production, including agriculture, was dependent on such fossil fuels as natural gas, oil, and coal, the report anticipated that continued economic growth would soon come up against insurmountable limits. These limits were of two kinds, consisting not only in the depletion of non-renewable resources but also in the steady environmental build-up of toxic, non-biodegradable wastes.28

Despite Cooper’s and others’ emphasis on the problem of the limit of resources, another way of reading the Club of Rome report is through its establishment of a limit to human population. One of the greatest fears of Western planners at this time was that the so-called Third World was growing, both in population and in consumer demand, at a rate that could not be accommodated by industrial output, at least not without a drop in the level of reproduction or a different distribution of wealth from the West to the rest of the world. Assessing the apocalyptic pronouncements of the early 1970s and the ‘energy debate’ which followed the publication of the Club of Rome’s report, George Caffentzis emphasises the struggle between classes which underlines its eschatological rhetoric.

This debate, with its apocalyptic overtones, indicates a crucial crisis for capital and its attempt to carry through a major reorganization in the accumulation process to overcome it. The Apocalypse is no accident. Whenever the ongoing model of exploitation becomes untenable, capital has intimations of mortality qua the world’s end. Every period of capitalist development has had its apocalypses. Here I’m not referring to the microapocalypse of death: everybody dies, and even if everybody dies at the same time (I mean everybody), what’s the problem? The earth becomes a cleared tape and why should the angels grieve?
I am talking about those functional apocalypses that mark every major change in capitalist development and thought. For the Apocalypse approached at other times in the history of capital, when (as in the last decade) the class struggle reached a level that jeopardized capital’s command.29

Capital’s response to this existential and environmental crisis was technical, but with wide-ranging social effects. Caffentzis frames the response firmly in terms of the relationship between entropy and work.

What of the ‘energy crisis’ and its apocalypses? The first thing to note is that the term ‘energy crisis’ is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the ‘work crisis’ or, better, the ‘work/energy crisis’. For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labour power) that creates it. Capital is not just a product of work. Capital is the process of work-creation, i.e., the condition for transforming energy into work. Energy has within it a restless activity, an unpredictable microscopic elusiveness, antagonistic, indifferent as well as productive of the work capital so desperately needs. Though the eternal cycle of capitalist reality is the transformation of energies into work, its problem is that unless certain quantitative levels are reached, the relationship expressed in the work/energy ratio collapses. If entropy increases, if the availability of the working class for work decreases, then the apocalypse threatens.30

Responding to these newly discovered absolute limits, in the environment and population, capital sought to develop zones of ‘low entropy’ – high technology, nuclear power and finance. Whilst entropy confronts science with the threat of a deteriorating sum of work, in any given system the use of information can countervail this tendency. The nineteenth century physicist James Clerk Maxwell developed a thought experiment which showed that it was possible to cheat the second law of thermodynamics temporarily. The experiment involved a chamber divided in two, separated by an insulated wall between which a ‘demon’ opens a door to allow only hot molecules of gas through to a favoured side of the chamber, causing one side to maintain heat and speed while the other cools down. This sorting by an intelligent agent thus decreases the overall rate of energy loss or entropy.31


By analogy, the crisis of the 1970s was resolved or postponed by reordering production and shifting investment into information technology. The rising costs of energy forced capital out of large-scale industry and into the new high-tech industries. Nuclear energy was presented as an alternative to carbon-based fuels, but as we now know it never really took their place, however, the introduction of nuclear energy did effect the restructuring of industry. Nuclear technology, like computer technology, involves vast investment in technical infrastructure and very little human labour. Rather than employing a large number of low-skilled workers to carry out replicable tasks, these new industries employed smaller numbers of highly skilled workers to operate enormously productive machines. Moreover, before the advent of home computing in the 1990s, the application of computing was less to realise the transformation of raw material into saleable commodities and more towards the reorganisation of and work on work itself. As Caffentzis argues, the application of information to the organisation of work allows more work to be forced out of the system. Moreover, the huge investments required by these new industries raised the costs of energy and pulled capital out of traditional industrial sectors which in turn inflated living costs for the mass of society, also forcing people to work harder across society as a whole.

Computing and the new information technologies also began to be deployed in the growing sector of international financial markets. As capital left large-scale industry, forced by the profits crisis to seek investment elsewhere, the phenomenon of financialisation grew together with the newly expanding insurance and real estate markets.

The developments of the 1970s can be discussed in terms of ‘autonomisation’. Autonomisation is a term encountered in Frederic Jameson’s work, specifically his article ‘Culture and Finance Capital’. However, the term also appears in the writings of the French left political theorists Jacques Camatte and Cornelius Castoriadis as well as in the work of the French group Théorie Communiste.

The term autonomisation has two significant insights, the first of which is related to the continuity of capitalist form from Fordism to financialisation via Taylorism which I have begun to sketch above. The second pertains to what Harry Braverman calls ‘habituation’ and that which breaks with it.

Following Braverman, Jameson extends his concept of autonomisation to describe and explain the process of financialisation and the exponential expansion of finance capital since the 1970s. Through finance, capital no longer passes through the classical equation M-C-M, but instead M passes directly to M Prime. Money literally makes money. Jameson observes:

In other words, riches transform into capital itself; this is the autonomisation of the process of capital accumulation, which asserts its own logic over that of the production and consumption of goods as such, as well as over the individual entrepreneur and the individual worker.32

In finance, autonomisation describes eloquently the multipolar way in which markets seek new vectors of profit, treating investments and debts as the material for many-sided bets and counter bets, spun off over and over as commodities to be traded, secured and resecured. The steep autonomisation of these processes can be seen in the recent scare stories over high-frequency and automatic trades. High volumes of trading are increasingly automated and take place at a speed beyond human perception – this circulating capital moves faster than human time – with all the threats that poses (May 2010’s Wall Street ‘flash-crash’).33 Here it is worth noting the feedback loop between computing and management. Charles Babbage was a big influence upon Taylor – so we can see already that the early theoretical foundations of computing informed the development of the intensive management of the labour process, and in turn IBM’s punchcard system, which made abstract labour time a ‘physical reality’ – a technical object – was developed after the Second World War as the model for early computing systems.



In this context, of interest is Matteo Pasquinelli’s recent research into Romano Alquati’s work on cybernetics (published in Quaderni Rossi in two parts in 1962 and 1963).34 Alquati attempted one of the first Marxist analyses of cybernetics. He saw cybernetics as an extension of the internal bureaucracy that monitors the production process of the factory via control information (informazioni di controllo).

Moreover, to outline a second pole of further possible research: feedback in a computational and cultural sense, if we follow Benedict Seymour’s recent argument, can be seen as deriving from the value form itself as a kind of ‘Ur-form of feedback’ – self-valorising value.35

Jacques Camatte, who had discussed finance in terms of autonomisation as early as 1974, describes an ‘autonomisation of the different products of capital – profit, interest and land rent’.36 Autonomisation, which is also ‘the runaway of capital’, becomes a threat, a tendency which threatens to negate capital’s very basis of accumulation – ‘the question that poses itself is how to know how to link the different autonomised movements that are self-autonomising so that it should not end up in the disaggregation of the totality’.37 Things fall apart. Camatte frames autonomisation as a historically consistent process for capital: ‘[…] for Marx each moment of capital becomes more or less autonomised capital.’38 In line with Camatte’s view, a recent text by two Brazilian academics writing about the financial crisis in the US theorises autonomisation thus:

Autonomisation refers to the ontological tendency that capital has to separate from and to undermine its own material basis of expansion […] The theory of autonomisation has at its core the understanding that the expansion of value constitutes a contradictory dynamic that has both self-enhancing and self-negating effects.39

Camatte understands the expansion of finance capital as a terminal form of autonomisation (money freed from production to self-augment – much like a perpetuum mobile). This challenges capital’s ability to pass through surplus value extraction – an escape from the law of value – only made viable by ‘anthropomorphosis’, the absorption of the totality of ‘human substance’ into capital: ‘the total development of capital as a finished structure, and better still, material community, allows it to escape this fiction because this is accompanied by the phenomenon of anthropomorphosis.’40 The advent of capital as subject – or ‘material community’ as described above – is suggested by Marx with regard to machinery and in the Grundrisse. ‘[…] the automaton itself is the subject and the workers are merely conscious organs, co-ordinated with the unconscious organs of the automaton.’41 Yet to apprehend this as a ‘final solution’, rather than a fatal contradiction,for capital is perhaps to fall for the integral systematic logic we have so far been trying to unsettle.


Many thinkers on the Left have tended to stress the discontinuous break that this crisis and its overcoming made with the past in the 1970s and after. The introduction of neo-liberal economic policies and their undead continuation as ‘zombie capitalism’ in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis can still be seen as a response to the consequences of Taylorism and Fordism. If the proponents of the science of work and Taylor tended to isolate the labour power of the worker as pure productive force outside any content of or interference from other social factors, in many ways so-called post-Fordism is simply a turning of the inside out – the extension of a Tayloristic logic to all that was previously considered ‘externalities’.

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s recent book, After the Future, revisits this moment of crisis and transformation in the organisation of work in capitalism. He, like many from the post-workerist Italian tradition, posits a decoupling of capitalism from the ‘law of value’, the dependence of capitalism upon labour time as the source of value:

Value can no longer refer to labour time, because unlike the labour of Marx’s era, the duration of immaterial labour is not reducible to an average social norm. Parallel to this, the denotive relation of the sign and meaning is definitely suspended in social communication.42

The assertion that capitalist value is the product of language is perhaps true at the level of appearance, but as we know, appearance frequently deceives and cannot necessarily adequately describe the totality of a system. As I have shown elsewhere, the loss of referent through two phases of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde art (the 1910s and the 1960s/1970s) corresponds not to the suspension of the law of value tout court, but to an initially temporary and then terminal decoupling of international money from the gold standard.43 Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in avant-garde art, the apprehension of industrial societies’ relations of production incorporates and returns the economy of gesture developed by the science of work and Taylorism. Artists realise the inherited power of the capitalist mode of production by appropriating forms of industrial commodity production in their work. Marcel Duchamp, for example, significantly intensifies the productive power of the practice of art by nominating and presenting industrial products as powerful works of art. Whilst Andy Warhol realises a quantitative expansion of art’s productive forces by adopting the efficiency of commercial production through screen-printing and appropriation, even industrialising his own persona and celebrity as so much product. Artworks thus return the products of industrial society through a ‘mimesis of the hardened and alienated’.44 In such cases there is both an acceleration and an absolute increase in the quantity and quality of art which it is possible to produce with a minimum of energy expenditure, but there are also decelerating effects on perception, forcing the viewer to redistribute his attention, a process by which ‘the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’’.45


By analogy, we could compare the problem of money making money to the prospect of the total automation of production. This is interestingly discussed in an article about the introduction of robots at Foxconn, the giant computer parts manufacturer based in China. The problem of full automation, or replacing workers with robots is posed as a political problem – China fears mass unemployment and opposition from soon-to-be unemployed workers.

Wang Mengshu, deputy chief engineer at China Railway Tunnel Group, says that labour-saving equipment isn’t always used even when it’s available. ‘If all the new tunnels were built with the advanced equipment, that would trim the need for the employment of about six million migrant workers,’ he says. ‘In certain fields we don’t want to have fast development in China, in order to solve the national employment problem.’46

However, there are other, more fundamental problems of the replacement of workers with automated robots. As George Caffentzis discusses in an article on the development of ‘SRA’ – self-replicating automata – in the early 1990s:

The surplus value of the SRA is zero simply because no labour power is absorbed in the production of the SRA. Already the dream of capital – production and profit without a struggle – begins to invert itself, for such SRA production does not, apparently, produce the surplus value that is essential to capital.47

This does not mean that new forms of high-tech automated machines are not useful to capitalism, for they can still be used to discipline and intensify the labour power employed. In the case of Foxconn, the announcement of the introduction of automation is most likely a strategy to pressure its workers to work harder and with more efficiency. Herein there is a fundamental contradiction for capitalism, for its constant improvement of technology reduces its need for workers, however, it needs workers because their labour power is the source of value. Capitalism both expels labour from the labour process and seeks to integrate it ever more fully. So, how does the incessant introduction of new technology effect the organisation of work? Franco Berardi’s description of contemporary capitalist work organisation tends to mirror very closely that of the atomisation and autonomisation initiated by Taylorism.

Labour has become fractalized. With the end of large industrial monopolies, new workers, now delocalized in the global peripheries, start resembling computer terminals, cells in the circulation of the commodity-sign. […] Each individual is a cell put in constant productive connection with others by the Web, which ensures a deterritorialized, fractal and fluid sociality. The cellular is the new assembly line, deprived of any carnal sociality.48

Berardi’s analysis poses the ‘present collapse of the imagination of the future’ as a limit for capitalist growth. He relates the explosion of the subprime mortgage bubble in 2008 to the ‘mother of all bubbles, the work bubble’. Automation throws up the prospect of the redundancy of work, but as we have seen, work is the necessity which capitalist production cannot do without. ‘We have been working too much during the last three or four centuries, and outrageously too much during the last thirty years.’49 Berardi contrasts the ‘energeticism’ of the left-wing activism of the past, with the potentials of subversion stemming from exhaustion.

I see a new way of thinking subjectivity: a reversal of the energetic subjectivation that animates the revolutionary theories of the twentieth century, and the opening of an implosive theory of subversion, based on depression and exhaustion.50

Exhaustion presents itself over and again as a threat to capital, yet Berardi’s inclusion of it in his own analysis appears both reactive and secretly affirmative. By affirming the ‘creativity’ and ‘autonomy’ of humanity, Berardi denies the constitutive effects of the shift from managed production to managed life.51 Creativity, increasingly framed as ‘productive’ within capitalism, is instrumentalised potentiality. True potentiality would actually permit negation and discontinuities, undoing and ‘the labour of the negative’. Even more dangerously, Berardi and others crucially elide capital’s own dependence on labour power and accept the mythologisation of financial markets. Despite Berardi’s emphasis on the ways in which capitalism has overcome its limits, drawing on Jean Baudrillard’s work, in a passage quoted by Berardi, it is possible to see that even in the new regime of accumulation inaugurated in the 1970s, and intensified by the augmentation of computing power in the 1990s and 2000s, capitalist political economy lives on and remains the referent for the vast outgrowth of surreal simulation known as ‘the financial markets’.

Capital no longer belongs to the order of political economy: it operates with political economy as its simulated model. The entire apparatus of the commodity law of value is absorbed and recycled in the larger apparatus of the structural law of value, this becoming part of the third order of simulacra. Political economy is thus assured a second life, an eternity, within the confines of an apparatus in which it has lost all its strict determinacy, but maintains an effective presence as a system of reference for simulation.52

For the French hedge fund trader and part-time philosopher, Elie Ayache, the purpose of the market trader in this new environment is to make the market. According to this argument, the market and prices in it become autonomous from value, it has become possible to make profits without reference to the social wealth created or negated. Though a relationship to actual material production can and must be made, for Ayache and other traders their trades are necessarily self-reflexive and self-referential.

The purpose of any derivative pricing model, advanced as it may be, is to value a given derivative after due calibration of the model parameters to the market prices of the reference derivatives. Those parameters are then assumed to be constant and this is how the dynamic replication of the derivative (which can involve as many hedging instruments as there are underlying risk factors) is set into place. Then again, reflecting on the meaning of the derivative and on the difference that it makes (for instance, the reason why barrier options were created over and above the vanillas) will lead to the thought that it was written in order to trade: more specifically, in order to play the variability of precisely that which was assumed to be constant in the setting up of its dynamic replication.53

With regards to the complex derivatives markets which developed in the late 1980s, Ayache asserts the ‘necessity of contingency’ as developed by the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. The necessity of contingency means chaos – the impossibility of successful modelling or prediction, even the end of probability as developed in Ayache’s book Blank Swan. The implications of this are of both philosophical and practical import, since the enormous power harnessed by data centres and power computing can be used to compute complexity at a level previously impossible. Something is fundamentally altered in a world where that world becomes a computable set of options and variables.


High-powered computing and the high-frequency trades provide and imply the computability of all positions in a market past, present and future. All the numbers or ‘positions’ become solid and mapped, and the trader is the one who moves through the solid sea. Since the algorithms automate, but need to be written to begin with, the trader becomes the ‘market-maker’ or ‘writer’ according to Ayache.54 The filling or anticipation of every position mean the dots of the future have forever already been joined and rejoined manifoldly, and between two competitors on a market with comparable computing resources, the game is again a zero-sum game – all play can be plotted infinitely into the future. Rather than a fluid ocean of possible trades, instead it is a three-dimensional concrete volume with no movement. Again, the most advanced development of scientific calculation plots a diagram of absolute limits. However, this static picture is only arrested temporarily, for the situation implies changes to the game and the game is to change the game, to produce the difference in prices rather than simply tracking them. Volatility is then the aspect which brings the possibility for difference to act in an otherwise computable environment. Traders no longer just track prices, speculate on minor differences between them and capitalise on fractional temporal advantage, they must begin to produce the volatility which will enable them to capitalise.

Both in the philosophical argument and in the writing strategy, I have avoided every naivety in thought and every comforting station, finding the disappearance of the market as the last contingency that it is necessary to think, especially in these days. This is the moment when the book, as a binder, and the market, as a domain, can no longer contain thought and when their non-naive recovery requires a total revolution.55

For Ayache, the very future – the possibility of the future which the vast technological advances that underwrite today’s high-speed markets imply – is a future which is open to difference, not simply different markets. This end, or we might say this exhaustion, of probability, means precisely the necessity of contingency as the necessity of thinking the end of the market. Whilst Ayache’s formulation of absolute contingency promises a future which has not yet been written, his derivation of a space of autonomy for the market amounts to a highly seductive mystification of the very real transformation of material and expenditure of bodies this entails. The high-speed development of computed markets inscribes unforeseen limits and entropy..Bound up in the ongoing relationship of capital to the exploitation of human labour – is the contingency the name of which Ayache dares not speak – a deliberate and authentic negation of the foreclosed logic of capital and capitalist limits tout court which could resist the transformation of all into the mirror of production.



1 Rudolf Clausius, The Mechanical Theory of Heat – with its Applications to the Steam Engine and to Physical
Properties of Bodies (London, 1879).
2 Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity (New York, 1992), pp. 3-4.
Ibid., p. 20.
3 T. J. Clarke has noted that the fear of such limits and of finitude itself was from its beginnings implicit in
modernity’s quest for infinite progress and integral to the necessity of ‘testing’ artistic limits within modernist art:
‘[…] modernity was always haunted by the idea that this moment of dreaming, of infinite possibility, was over.’ T. J.
Clarke, “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam”, October 100 (Spring 2002), pp. 154-74.
4 Anson Rabinbach, op. cit., pp. 45-6.
5 Ibid., p. 48.
6 Ibid., p. 55-8.
7 Ibid., p. 182.
8 Giammaria Ortes quoted in Karl Marx, Capital, vol.3 (London, 1991), p. 800.
9 Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 182.
10 Jules Amar, Le Rendement de la machine humaine (Paris, 1909), p. 83. Quoted in Anson Rabinbach, op. cit., p. 186.
11 Anson Rabinbach, op. cit., p. 188.
12 Ibid., p. 188.
13 Ibid., pp. 236-7.
14 Ibid., p. 239.
15 Émile Pouget quoted ibid., p. 241.
16 Vladimir I. Lenin, “The Taylor System—Man’s Enslavement by the Machine”, Accessed November, 2012.
17 Vladimir I. Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” (1918), Collected Works, vol. 27 (Moscow, 1965), p. 259. Quoted in Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York, 1974), pp. 8-9. See also Robert Linhart, Lénine, Les Paysans, Taylor (Paris, 2004). Available: Accessed November, 2012.
18 Anson Rabinbach, op. cit., p. 272.
19 Michael Seidman, Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts (Berkeley, 1991), p. 11.
20 Michael Seidman, Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts (Berkeley,
1991), p. 11.
21 Harry Braverman, op. cit., p. 86.
22 Ibid., p. 87.
23 Walter Benjamin, “An Outsider Attracts Attention,” in Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses, trans. Quintin Hoare (London, 1998), p. 112.
24 Karl Marx, Capital, vol.1 (London, 1991), p. 512.
25 Harry Braverman, op. cit., p. 212.
26 Marina Vishmidt, “Everyone Has a Business Inside Them”, Mute, vol.3 #3, Accessed November, 2012.
27 Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle, 2008), pp. 15-16.
28 Melinda Cooper, op. cit., p. 16.
29 George Caffentzis, “The Work/Energy Crisis and The Apocalypse”, Midnight Notes, (undated).
30 George Caffentzis, op. cit., p. 4.
31 See ibid., pp. 27-8 and Accessed January, 2013.
32 Fredric Jameson, “Culture and Finance Capital”, in Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 1 (Autumn 1997), p. 259.
33 This theme is explored extensively in a forthcoming issue of Mute magazine, see: Inigo Wilkins and Bogdan Dragos, “Destructive Destruction? An Ecological Study of High-Frequency Trading”, and Alberto Toscano, “Gaming the Plumbing: High-Frequency Trading and the Spaces of Capital”, Accessed January, 2012.
34 Romano Alquati 1963, trans. Matteo Pasquinelli, quoted in Matteo Pasquinelli, “Machinic Capitalism and Network Surplus Value: Towards a Political Economy of the Turing Machine”, unpublished. Draft, p. 6,
35 Benedict Seymour, “Short Circuits: Finance, Feedback and Culture”, Mute, vol.3 #1,
36 Jacques Camatte, “This World We Must Leave”, in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays (New York, 1998), p. 139.
37 Ibid., p. 139.
38 Ibid., p. 141.
39 Tomas Nielsen Rotta and Rodrigo Alves Teixeira “Marxian Theory of Financialisation of the U.S. Economy”,
40 Jacques Camatte, op. cit., p. 139.
41 Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 545.
42 Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, After the Future (Oakland, 2011), p. 115-6.
43 Anthony Iles and Marina Vishmidt, “Make Whichever You Find Work”, Variant issue 41, Accessed November, 2012. ; see also Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud (New York, 1990), and Melanie Gilligan’s essay which significantly develops this argument in the light of the 2008 financial crisis, “Notes on Art, Finance and the Un-Productive Forces”, Glasgow: Transmission Gallery,
Accessed November, 2012.
44 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (trans. Robert Hullor-Kentor), London, 2004, p. 28.
45 Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Illinois, 2009), p. 6.
46 Christina Larson “Migrant Workers in China Face Competition from Robots”, Accessed November, 2012.
47 George Caffentzis, “On Africa and Self-Reproducing Automata”, Midnight Notes, undated, p. 37.
48 Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, op. cit., “Baroque and Semiocapital”, p. 115.
49 Ibid., p. 138.
50 Ibid., p. 138.
51 I’m indebted here to Benjamin Noys’s critiques of Vitalism. Benjamin Noys, “The Poverty of Vitalism (and the Vitalism of Poverty)”, Accessed November, 2012.
52 Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, quoted in Franco Berardi, After the Future (Oakland, 2011), p.136.
53 Elie Ayache, “The next question concerning technology Part II: A World Inverted”, Wilmott (May 2007), p. 44.
54 ‘[…] my whole philosophical investigation of the market also takes place outside metaphysics, in what I have recognized to be the domain of writing or the domain of capacity, and that the market, in my philosophy, is also predicated on the necessity of contingency, that is to say, on the necessity that the pricing/writing thread (which proceeds by the saturation and surpassing of possibility through replication in context and then by the change of the whole context through the trading capacity of the derivative we are thus able to price by replication) always resurface from possibility, back up to the unending surface of pricing.’ Elie Ayache, “The French Theory of Speculation Part II: Necessity of the Future”, Wilmott, (March/April 2008), p. 45.
55 Elie Ayache, Accessed November, 2012


About anti

Anthony Iles is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of Art & Design, Middlesex University. A founder member of the Full Unemployment Cinema. A contributing editor with Mute / Metamute since 2005. He is the author, with Josephine Berry-Slater, of the book, No Room to Move: Art and the Regenerate City (Mute Books, London 2011), contributing editor to the recent publications, Anguish Language: writing and crisis (Archive Books, Berlin, 2015), and Look at Hazards, Look at Losses (Mute/Kuda, 2017) and a contributor to Brave New Work: A Reader on Harun Farocki’s Film A New Product. Recent essays have been published in Mute, Radical Philosophy, Rab-Rab: Journal for Political and Formal Inquiries in Art and Logos.
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1 Response to Capitalist Limits: from the Probability of Exhaustion to the Exhaustion of Probability

  1. Pingback: Brave New Work / Schöne neue Arbeit | saladofpearls

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