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Antonio Negri, The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor.

Antonio Negri, The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2009)

NEGRI BEGAN TO WORK on The Labor of Job while still in prison. As he explains in the preface, his confinement concentrated his attention on the inescapability of suffering. His careful reading of the Book of Job does not bemoan, in a cliched existential manner, the necessary link between human finitude and suffering. Instead, he sees in the struggle of Job against God a metaphorical foundation for human sociality and solidarity. "It is not the divinity ... that descends from above, but suffering and pain, which come from below, that construct the very being of the world."(93) Suffering is not borne in isolation, but is always witnessed. To witness suffering is to feel compassion, and to feel compassion is to stand with the sufferer against its cause. Negri thus claims to find in the Book of Job the core values for a new ethical foundation for the communist project.

Negri's argument proceeds from two assumptions: that the labour theory of value can no longer explain the functioning of the capitalist economy and that, as a consequence, the contemporary world lacks a universal measure of value, economic and moral. We exist in a world which is without measure, where only Power rules to maintain the given social structure. "Value has become immeasurable at the same time that all measure fails ... the fact that the criterion of measure is lacking does not remove the measured phenomenon. The suffering of the man who labours, who is sacrificed himself to wealth, remains."(10)

The truth or falsity of these assumptions directly affect the overall acceptability of Negri's argument. Yet, he does not provide empirical support for either, but proceeds straightaway to unpack their ethical implications through his commentary on Job. A wide-ranging interpretation it is, linking Job with Spinoza, with existing Jewish and Christian readings, with liberation theology, and with the future of communism. However, as a political and philosophical argument the book is only partially satisfactory.

There is no doubt that Negri's argument is bold, original, and worthy of careful consideration. It is often strikingly insightful and philosophically profound. As one works through the text one sees more and more clearly what Negri thinks is the "materialist" centre of Job's struggle. God is the faceless and nameless power that rules arbitrarily over human life ("The Lord giveth, and the lord taketh away"). The mortal human being stands mute beneath this power, executing its commands and hoping for the best, but always in the knowledge that the way things actually turn out is beyond his or her control. This relation to a faceless power does resemble the relation between the individual labourer and capital: market forces are known through their effects, but are unpredictable, and can consign millions to unemployment and misery without warning or ethical justification. The destitute worker does indeed stand like Job, dumbfounded, with no face to pin the blame on.

But Job does not stand silent; he revolts. He demands to see God; he demands an accounting from God. What is more, God appears. This moment of the book is crucial for Negri. When Job's revolt forces God to abandon his transcendence and account for himself, God becomes a face, matter, and thus ceases to be God, that is, ungraspable arbitrary Power. As soon as Power ceases to be arbitrary, it ceases to be Power. To make the real causes of suffering appear, in other words, is already a victory over them, because once out in the open, they can be overcome. "I have seen God, thus God is torn from the absolute transcendence that constitutes the idea of him. God justifies himself, thus God is dead."(97)

With the death of God, i.e., the appearance of the cause of suffering, a new basis to human society becomes possible--the positive basis of the creativity of collective labour as the real secret of world-constitution and happiness. Creativity is the real value of labour and the ethical basis upon which to mount political resistance to the contemporary Power of capital.

"But man reorganizes himself so as to resist the disease. Creation is the going beyond death.

Creation is the content of the vision of God. Creation is the meaning of life." (97) Thus, for Negri, the communist project can only be rebuilt today on the ethical basis of the affirmation of the creativity of labour, against its reduction to a mere tool of capital expansion, the handmaiden of money-driven science and technology. "The problem of the Book of Job is that of modernity--of the alternative between the totalization of the rule of technology and science over the world, and the liberation of a new subjectivity."(103) True as this opposition might be, it also raises two important problems. First, it stands in tension with his opening claim that the world today is without any measure of value. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it exposes the extreme ambiguity--if not moral vacuity--of his notion of creativity.

It is not clear to me how Negri can argue consistently both that the world is suffering from a crisis of the loss of all standards of measurement (economic, ethical, etc.) and, at the same time, that the main threat to the world is the "totalizing rule of technology and science." For what is capitalist science other than measurement in the service of productive "efficiency?" This standard has hardly disappeared; it has spread like a weed in spring. All forms of labour, not only industrial but also in the so-called "service" industries and so-called "creative" work like academic research and, indeed, the conduct of science itself, are more and more subject to time-measures calculated so as to maximize quantitative output. It seems to be more apropos of Negri's main thesis to claim that what the world suffers from is not a loss of standards of measurement, but the tyranny of one standard of measurement, money-value, to which all other forms of measure are subordinated.

Is the alternative to this tyranny of money-value rule a new communism based upon "creativity?" Perhaps, but before one accepts this move one needs to know far more about what exactly Negri means by "creativity." Does he mean the "creative capital" championed by Richard Florida? The undeniable creativity of Craig Ventner and his associates who claim to have "created" a synthetic life form? Capitalism is nothing if not creative, as Marx himself made unambiguously clear in his unforgettable paean to it in The Communist Manifesto. What Marx affirmed against capitalism was not, therefore, "creativity" in the abstract, but rather the conscious governance of human creativity by service to life-engendering ends--the overcoming of human suffering by democratically planning production for the sake of satisfying human life-requirements. I doubt Negri would disagree, but his sometimes soaring rhetoric needs to be brought down to earth if his argument is to inspire a practical politics.


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Author:Noonan, Jeff
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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