Lazzarato (1996) Immaterial Labor


Since the 1970s the nature of work has changed so that it isn’t always recognized as work.  Much of the work performed today is immaterial labor and it involves new power relations in which workers, who are free, use their mental skills and personalities to produce information commodities.

NOTE: Lazzarato is not describing digital labor per se.  His focus is on power relations between post-Fordist corporations and information workers.  (Cote and Pybus 2011 use the term Immaterial Labor 2.0 to update his theory to encompass labor in the digital economy)


Immaterial labor hasn’t replaced material labor, it just extends it.  Immaterial labor is not easy to recognize because it doesn’t take place within a factory, but in society.  The commodity produced by immaterial labor is information and cultural content that produces ideology and consumption is not consumption of products but consumption of information.

There are two different aspects of immaterial labor:

  1. the information content of the commodity (computer work)
  2. the cultural content of the commodity (fashions, tastes, public opinion)

Definition: “immaterial labor…is…the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity. The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the ‘informational content’ of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers’ labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control…. On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the cultural content of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’ – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.” (Lazzarato, 1996, 2)

Workers need to feel autonomous and free but at the same time they must be productive.  So the modern corporation accomplishes this by controlling worker’s imagination and creativity for their own profit.  This model: “threatens to be even more totalitarian than the earlier rigid divisions between mental and manual labor… because capitalism seeks to involve even the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value” (135).

“It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time. In a sense, life becomes inseparable from work” (Lazzarato, 137)

This is a form of “living labor” where managers elicit cooperation from employees.  “Precariousness, hyperexploitation, mobility, and hierarchy are the most obvious characteristics of metropolitan immaterial labor” (136).


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