Review. The machine has swallowed up our leisure, our friendships and romantic relationships, the process of learning and training, the human body in its physical and cerebral reality, and health and the reproduction of life. All of this, to Fumagalli, makes up “bio-cognitive capitalism.”

In the cruel grip of ‘laborism’

Previously considered an exotic proposal, basic income is now garnering an unexpected level of interest in the lackluster campaign ahead of Italy’s March 4 elections. Berlusconi spoke of a “dignity income,” hijacking the original meaning of the term, which was introduced in a campaign by Libera and the Basic Income Network Italy. The 5 Star Movement, in turn, has made the “citizenship income”—actually a grim form of workfare and forced labor—a rallying cry for their supporters, numbering over 25 percent of the electorate.

After decades of hostility to this idea, “guaranteed minimum income” has gained acceptance on the left as well, becoming a headline promise of the Potere al Popolo program, although it’s understood as a means of fighting poverty and not, for example, as a redistribution of the wealth produced by human beings connected by digital platforms 24 hours per day. The last legislature approved a “social inclusion income” (REI) as an aid of last resort, subject to the obligation of undergoing job training, reserved only for the breadwinner of the (many) families that are in conditions of serious poverty.

The interest shown toward basic income is always tied to the obligation of working, irrespective of what this work would actually consist of. This inseparability is a result of anthropological pessimism and a hatred of people’s individual autonomy. Publicly praising an income that is not connected to any work at all is inconceivable. No one can be free from the blackmail of having to find work, even as jobs are increasingly poorly paid and precarious. At most, one might receive a few hundred euros: the REI pays from €190 up to €450 for a family of up to five children. In return for that, you must work until you bleed. And then what? That’s it. Those with precarious jobs are caught in the trap, and they can never escape.

This hellish situation is cogently explained by Andrea Fumagalli, one of the most informed and sensible economists, who despite difficult times has introduced into the Italian debate the idea of an “individual basic income” that would be completely unconditional (except for nationality), to be paid for one’s entire life. In his Economia Politica del Comune (“Political Economy of the Commons,” DeriveApprodi, 235 pages, €18), Fumagalli reconstructs the economic and productive setup which is making the political problem of the basic income a necessary and unavoidable one today. The element that is making this discussion indispensable is the transformation of the system of production and of capitalist value judgments, moving toward one based on life and not just on wages.

This transformation, as the economist from Milan underlines, is a radical one: previously, human life would be engaged in production for a limited period of time (eight hours per day), but now it produces 24/7, regardless of whether one wants to or not. In practice, this also takes place outside of the employment relationship in which labor force is sold in exchange for a wage. And what’s more: people are producing value for others without even being aware of it. An example of this involuntary expropriation is Facebook: the more we scroll through our timeline on our smartphone screens, the more we produce data which will be used for customized advertising.

It seems improper to consider this entertainment activity as work. But that is exactly what is happening every day: work has been transformed into a game that enriches the “unicorns” that dominate the market from the heights of their enormous capitalization on the stock market in Wall Street, or in Beijing. “Labor-value,” Fumagalli writes, “is being replaced more and more with life-value.” One’s whole life becomes an object of exploitation. New forms of production arise out of the affections, the attitudes, the styles and the mentalities of real people in the flesh. This machine has swallowed up our leisure, our friendships and romantic relationships, the process of learning and training, the human body in its physical and cerebral reality, and health and the reproduction of life, thanks to new bio-medical techniques. All of this, according to Fumagalli, makes up “bio-cognitive capitalism.”

What, then, is actually producing such incalculable value? “The enterprise of human and social relations,” what Marx in his time called “social cooperation.”

This “cooperation” includes that between us and the platforms: for instance, the app we use to order a Japanese dinner brought to us by a Deliveroo rider on a rainy night after 8 p.m. We, who are ordering, and him, who is delivering the products, are cooperating for the profit of the intermediary that puts us in touch with a restaurant.

This old law of capitalism is always at work in the glossy world of digital capitalism. The tendency to eliminate any reference to “jobs” (the “riders” are doing it as a “hobby,” or so they say) does not, however, eliminate the real production of profit that is obtained by the theft of something that is common to all men and women: productive power, abilities or faculties, life itself.

This form of the political economy of the commons is what is feeding the new mechanism of accumulation, expropriating living human beings of their value. This description of “neo-work,” a term used by Fumagalli, captures an important aspect of contemporary thought, which has located the center of politics in subjectivity and its particular manifestations. This awareness is present in feminism, in the philosophy of “biopolitics,” in psychoanalysis and in the economic debate, to name just a few places. Fumagalli performs a rigorously Marxian analysis, and locates the problem in the crisis of “labor-value.” So-called “laborism” is the manifestation of a culture that has attributed an objective character to value, independent of individual or collective subjectivity.

“Labor” is considered to be the instrument that measures the value produced by a human being. However, since the mode of production is based on “the commons,” that claimed objectivity cannot be considered valid anymore. Fumagalli does not question the fact that labor produces value—rather, he questions the ability of capital to quantify and measure the contribution of labor in the calculation of the wealth produced. “Labor” is no longer “the measure of things”—to such an extent that nowadays production takes place through activities that lie outside the exchange of labor for a salary.

The problem is that such activity should also be paid. This is where a basic income, of which Fumagalli is a leading theorist, comes into the picture. This income is not a salary in exchange for labor, nor the recognition of a “merit.” It is the affirmation of an already-existing production, and of the redistribution of the immense wealth produced by the new workforce.

Fumagalli’s book is highly meticulous and detailed in making this point, and should be seen as a guide for deconstructing all the versions of a basic income that would tend to imprison a human life that is already hurt and exhausted by the search for the ever-more-miserable jobs available.

In a scenario of increasing fragmentation and isolation, as we are witnessing the implosion of subjectivity overburdened with debt, a (basic) income is the prime instrument—the preliminary one, and certainly not a cure-all—for rejecting the blackmail of work and starting a conversation about the self-determination and liberation of human life.

For this, it is not enough to fight the battle only within the framework of “official” employment activity. The fight should be brought to all the areas of life that are being employed for production, and against all those who want to exploit human life by forcing it, by promises and threats, to run the gauntlet of so-called “active policies,” which give little more than breadcrumbs in exchange for submission, without even the possibility of redemption.

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