Cambridge Conference

At King’s College, Cambridge, England, April 29, 2006

Started out my trip by going to Cambridge to attend a conference on “Class Composition, Immaterial Labor and New Social Subjects”, which was ironically held under the bemused gaze of a bust of John Maynard Keynes.

What became clear even before the conference, but really sharpened as it proceeded, was how problematic the terms are, and how disparate the attendees were with respect to their emphases. I’m glad I went but I have to say it was a rather disappointing gathering. I was very glad to meet Steve Wright, Nick Dyer-Witheford and his wife Anne, Phoebe, Michel Bauwens, Richard Barbrook, and a variety of other interesting people (Bauwens and Barbrook both have posted comments on the conference at I rather enjoyed the first day of the conference since I was so committed to engaging with the material and other conferees, but after a couple of days have passed, Eddie and I have had a chance to digest it, and I have to conclude that on balance it was pretty weak.

I won’t go through every presentation piece by piece. I think Steve Wright gave a good overview of the theme, and by so doing he demonstrated how much trouble we were in. Here’s a chart he put up to show something of the genealogy of the conference’s intellectual and political roots.

By the end of his own talk he conceded that his attempt to circumscribe the “˜tendency’ we were discussing was incomplete and moreover, that even if it weren’t, that it could not be an adequate framework for a rigorous understanding of our world. Later he was overheard suggesting that the World Systems writers like Arrighi and Wallerstein had at least as much relevance for figuring things out as do the seminal contributors to “autonomous Marxism” (or whatever you want to call it), since a number of theorists were lost in jargon and abstractions.

Steve Wright, author of the important Storming Heaven.

He was followed by Yann Moulier-Boutang, who gave a presentation that I found tediously academic, though he tried to bring in to the discussion large swaths of the world population that have been left aside by the workerist theories with their roots in mid-1960s Italy, and Marx before that. Both Wright and Boutang failed to leave time for discussion in their half-hour segments which produced some howling objections when conference convener Ed Emery unceremoniously pre-empted any discussion on the grounds of the tight schedule he had done so much to plan.

I had been dismayed back in December when he told me I was not welcome to present at this conference, even though I felt I had a lot to offer. It seems my lack of academic credentials and general antipathy to a highly theoretical approach to the topic precluded me. OK, I decided to come anyway. But as the weekend progressed it became clear that that early rejection was a premonition of an overly self-important and really authoritarian approach to this conference. I found a number of the talks, especially on the 2nd day, to be laboriously academic and weirdly tangential to what I thought the conference would focus on. We weren’t able to stay to the very end when there was a more open round-table discussion scheduled” we were sure it was going to explode since there had been a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction all weekend. I wonder why the conference had to be so rigid, academic, and closed, instead of curious, open, and diverse. I suspect it has a lot to do with Ed Emery’s decisions. (Too bad, because I liked him personally. He just seems to be a bit lost in an old-style class politics that I” and I think many other attendees” thought we were collectively trying to overcome with some fresh thinking”¦ he did demonstrate a great ability to create moments of convivial pleasure like this one where he is poling us along on the nearby river, “punting” during lunch on Saturday.)

At least a third of the talks made discussion of “Basic Income” their main focus, a concept that traces its roots to a 1970 proposal by Potere Operaio for a Salario Garantito. After a young Japanese scholar finished his talk about it on Sunday morning, Emery stood up to announce with a beatific glow that he could feel a “revolutionary program” taking shape at the conference. I was not alone in my astonishment as many people glanced around in disbelief at this odd assertion. Italian economist Andrea Fumagalli filled in for Toni Negri on Friday night and re-presented his talk on Sunday, trying to show with some impenetrable charts that a capitalist economy that is generating a surplus from “social labor” (in which he included those of us who spend time critiquing capitalism, since after all this is a function that capitalism needs to progress) could direct that general increase in social wealth to paying everyone a basic income, not as means-tested charity or as direct compensation for specific activities, but as an unconditional right of existence. And that such a reform would make sense from capitalism’s point of view because it would act as a Keynesian boost for demand, while also serving the needs of revolutionaries who must escape the strict blackmail of capitalism to create the spaces and initiatives that can begin to reshape life.

I’m not hostile to a politics that seeks to break income from work; I also consider it essential in terms of transitional demands in this time of growing precariousness and insecurity. Demanding jobs or work is painfully obsolete, and even if it could succeed on its own merits, would only leave people back in the dead-end subordination of a new wage-labor deal. So as demands emerge in the face of growing immiseration, I do hope they are for direct income and shared wealth instead of for jobs or work. But I found the theoretical efforts on basic income presented at this conference unconvincing and more like wishful thinking than any real demonstration of the coherence of the demand. Even if there is now a social factory in which we all contribute to an aggregate profitability (which seems true enough), the way money and work is organized still leads to a fetishized dynamic in which some workers are paid and taxed, as are specific businesses, and then the government redistributes those revenues through payouts to whatever public goods and services (including, potentially, basic income) it deems necessary.

The politics of this demand are daunting at best, and as one person suggested in a (typically polemical) question, why fight for basic income instead of fighting to overthrow capitalism itself? Isn’t the social pressure required to extract such a huge and basic concession worthy of greater goals than a new stabilization of capitalist society? The other preponderant problem for this demand is rooted in the nation-state and the wide disparity of conditions among different countries and regions. A meaningful basic income would have to span the globe and include everyone unconditionally. Such a structural feature implies a globe-spanning state to administer it, no? Without that, as one participant aptly noted, wouldn’t a basic income in some places and not others just serve as a further magnet to the impoverished? And to respond to that wave of immigration wouldn’t it increase pressure to produce a “fortress Europe” as he put it? Curious problems without answers. Of course radical change always begs difficult problems, it goes with the territory, and should not automatically disqualify anything from being considered.

The implication of a new global state echoes the argument of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, wherein they claim that we are in a new period of history and that we must go through Empire to the other side, a global society beyond capitalism. Empire has already gone through a lot of critical evaluation, which I will leave you to find elsewhere. But the ideas that they develop, also in their later volume Multitude, were oddly absent from this conference where you might have thought they’d be more central. In fact, the enthusiastic embrace of the early core of Operaismo (Workerism in English) has the strange effect of obliterating from view at least two crucial points that ought to be central to any contemporary revolutionary politics, leaving them unspoken, unrecognized, and invisible.

First of all, the problem of useless work. You might expect a conference dedicated to discussing, among other things, General Intellect, cognitive capitalism and the creation of new subjects (or subjectivities) would make the basic stupidity of so much work in the world a central point. Except for Harry Halpin’s animated denunciation of 90% of computer programmers as the “stupid ones” (compared to the 10% of programmers who actually create most of what works in software), there was no mention of the larger division of labor, what is done, by whom, or crucially, why. The other big elephant in the room going unnoticed by this very academic crowd, was ecology. All the focus on class, wages, structures of production, shape of work, etc., and not a single reference to the unfolding ecological disaster to which this kind of obliviousness is an essential contributor.

Harry Halpin

For me, there are two keys to unlocking the relative sterility and confusion of this whole line of inquiry: the refusal of stupid work and the embrace of an ecological rebuilding our urban life. The abolition of capitalism and class society is an abstract way of proposing the general liberation from stupid and self-destructive, ecocidal work. The concept of “exodus” which runs through some of the key texts, from Hardt & Negri to Virno and Berardi, didn’t come up much here. But exodus is real practice in many places by many individuals. The refusal of work is one of the pillars of the radical workerist movement’s early decade or two. The intelligent rejection of the limits of wage-labor is the positive flipside of the precariat experience. It might have started out as a liberatory exodus but as capitalism embraced labor market flexibility a growing insecurity on all workers was imposed, turning the exodus against the escapees.

But the answer to this imposed desperation is not to succumb to capitalist blackmail but to redouble an insistence on a self-directed life, a new organization where we can decide what to do, how to do it, to whom the benefits of our work go, and so on. To leave unchallenged the pernicious capitalist division of labor is to go on producing the ecological catastrophes that already urgently need remedial efforts. We are not only not taking meaningful action in that direction, but at a conference like this we carried on as though there was no problem at all, just the need to expand the struggle for social wealth. Fumagalli even presented uncritically an economic framework utterly dependent on growth, with no nuance or further attempt to unravel what that might mean in a post-capitalist world.

At the bar on Saturday night, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Emma Dowling and David Harvie.

Andrea Fumagalli and Massimo de Angelis at the bar.

Emma Dowling gave one of the talks I liked best in the conference, because she was trying to explode the idea of this broad category of immaterial labor. As a high-end waitress in a state-of-the-art restaurant she started out by giving us a version of her introductory rap to a table of hungry patrons. In it she showed how her own emotional talent was a crucial job skill, and then as she went on to unpack her labor process we learned that nearly every detail of her demeanor and performance was scripted in a 25-point system of patented values by the entrepreneur who invented her chain. I loved it as a demonstration of that overriding truth of modern work: nearly anyone can learn to do the physical tasks, but not everyone can “really believe” in their work (or have ability to create that impression at least), not everyone can maintain a “professional attitude” in the face of daily frustrations and their own personal lives. The skill most in demand by capital in the “service industry” is our ability to subsume ourselves fully under the terms imposed by our work, by capital. Massimo de Angelis and David Harvie followed her (and the three of them helped break the iron logic of the conference’s overly rigid scheduling by bunching themselves up and sharing their discussion time, which was still limited) with an assertive presentation about how tightly measured affective labor is, using their own academic work as an example. Harvie detailed the absurd measurements imposed on his work life, e.g. there are 3.5 hours allocated to prepare for a one hour lecture, etc. If he/the teacher/the worker cannot meet that schedule the additional time required simply comes unremunerated from his personal life. Or he can quit. From the two papers our vague notions of the immeasurability of immaterial labor were debunked. But without adequate time to hash it out and further discuss it their arguments didn’t alter the conference or other speakers’ continuing assertion of immeasurability in this period of capitalism.

Nick Dyer-Witheford, author of the brilliant CyberMarx, gave a good talk which drew an analogy between the “cellular form” of capitalism (the commodity) and the cellular form of communism” or commonism” which is the commons, i.e. goods and services produced not to sell but to share. In conversation with him later we grazed across a notion that the kinds of commons-producing that we can already see going on in daily life need a push from a central, state-like entity to help galvanize and extend their logic more fully. If you think about all the ways that the state subsidizes private business, privatization of common wealth, and obstructs cooperation and mutual aid with bureaucracy and legal impediments, it’s hard not to fantasize about how quickly and thoroughly we might transform a lot of our material lives with institutional support and aid. But of course there are no states whose mission is not first and foremost the preservation and extension of capitalism and the social relations that allow for further capital accumulation.

Anyway, I could probably write more, but you get the drift. It was certainly worthwhile going, though perhaps not in the way I expected. I kind of accepted my offer to speak being rejected as an indication that I’d find a lot of the conference over my head, and that the work this crowd is doing would make my head spin. Were that it were so! On the contrary, I’m more sure than ever of my book project and that it is a unique contribution, but not just to this arcane and small political tendency.

I had hoped to discuss the idea of class composition in the way that I’ve been thinking about it and planning to write about it in my book. I can’t summarize my whole work here, but quickly, I think most people don’t identify with a class identity. Instead they reject class as a meaningful category. And that’s not a problem, but actually indicates the early stages of a whole swath of (actual) workers who are working to supercede the limitations of wage-labor and the narrowing of themselves as “just” workers. In various activities and pursuits, they are recomposing the working class outside of wage-labor and in ways that might actually start creating the basis for a classless and ecologically sound human society. And those activities are actually a lot of work, but unpaid and strictly geared towards creating a commons as Nick Dyer-Witheford described it. (This is not to say that all these incipient efforts aren’t eminently co-optable and turned against themselves by becoming reintegrated into the logic of the market, but that’s part of my book too…)…

Anyway, I’ll leave it there, since this is obviously already too long a blog entry. It may well be that there was a mini-revolt at the end of the conference that I missed entirely, so I hope if anyone reads this and wants to add on to the narrative, or to contradict or embellish my account, they will do so!

3 comments to Cambridge Conference

  • Ed Emery

    12 May 2006


    Dear Chris,

    You express personal hurt that your paper was not accepted for the Cambridge
    conference. You should not take it personally. Twenty other papers were also
    not accepted.

    You suggest that the organisational style of the conference was due to some
    authoritarian streak in my personality. The conference style was the
    entirely conventional style of an academic conference. At 20 minutes per
    speaker plus 10 minutes for discussion, as advertised on the website.

    It was deliberately chosen in order to generate a good number of
    high-quality presentations that could then be processed into a published
    book that could be made available to a far wider public.

    That process is now under way. If anyone wants to judge the quality of the
    presentations, they can read them on the conference website (above).

    [You will find an identical (and equally productive) style at our Donkey
    Conference at

    While I am on-line I might as well address Richard Barbrook’s contribution
    in Metamute. I find it unhelpful, and unworthy of what was a good and
    hardworking conference. I suggest that readers read his article and judge
    for themselves. It can be found at

    There is a curious and pervasive air of hostility to our Cambridge
    conference – as can be found in Metamute’s factually inaccurate and
    dismissive phrase (ibid.): “With the high-priests (Negri and Lazzarato)
    jumping ship early on…”. And Nate Holdren’s “that sucks”.

    I have no problem with the hostility – this is politics, after all. It
    should, however, be balanced against the fact that many participants have
    written to me expressing their delight and enthusiasm for our conference.
    Perhaps some of them will eventually express themselves on-line.

    Meanwhile I would offer my own criticism of the conference, as conveyed by
    one of our young musicians at the evening Session: “It was a shame that all
    these intellectuals talked so loudly during the music, and particularly
    during the singing”.

    The next conference in this series will be held in two years time, on 25-27
    April 2008.

    Anybody wishing to join the conference mailing list should write to me at:

    With best regards,

    Ed Emery

  • Nate

    Great review Chris. I was at the Leicester conference just afterward w/ a number of folk who’d also been at Cambridge, I think all of whom were less than pleased. That sucks about the rejection of your piece. Is it written up somewhere you can post, or could you email it to me? I’d love to read it.

  • Pete

    Steve’s a great guy. Hopefully I’ll get to see him again when I’m next in Melbourne.

    Just found this interview with him by Wildcat:


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