It sort of veers in a different direction by the end, but Žižek’s new LRB essay is actually a pretty lucid explanation of the terminology from autonomist Marxism, sewing the jargon together in a cohesive whole. Here’s his quick summary of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude argument:
Only with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (production of ideas, texts, programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is ‘hegemonic’ in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘commons’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.
Žižek argues that profit in contemporary capitalism comes not from commodity production and circulation but from being able to privatize the commons by force and extract rents through regimes of intellectual property enforcement and that sort of thing. He offers Microsoft as an example, but for me the paradigmatic example is Facebook, which collects rents (indirectly, from advertisers and data collectors) for hosting our “social graph” and tries to embed itself into our everyday social practices.
Later in the article Žižek sounds less like Negri and more like Wright Mills when he starts describing the disappearance of the 19th century entrepreneurs and the emergence of the white collar classes, the salarymen, the managerial demiurge. Since immaterial production is a collective thing, different salaries for different people can’t be justified by their differing levels of productivity or the relative rarity of their skills, as neoclassical economists would have it. Instead, wage levels are determined by preexisting status, which tends to be arbitrary.
The evaluative procedure that qualifies some workers to receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency.
So much for meritocracy. The middle class, then, consists not of a bunch of hard-working burghers but of people who inherited their political privilege (winners of the family lottery) and learned how to leverage it or learned how to adapt themselves so they could serve as ideologically useful token success stories. They pull in “surplus wage”—a term that doesn’t seem very useful to me, but which is supposed to mean the amount over the sustenance wage that capitalism presumably would drive everyone’s wages to, ceteris paribus. The “surplus” idea seems to muddy the water; the point is that pre-existing class status determines pay in corporate structures, which try to calibrate the size of the middle class relative to the potential for mass unrest. Make as few middle managers as necessary to forestall revolt, and pay them enough to feel special and indebted to the status quo system.
What’s more, Žižek, drawing on Jean-Pierre Dupuy, claims that success has to seem arbitrary to us, basically to make us to depressed to rebel. If success could be deserved, earned, we would have reason to be outraged when hard work doesn’t beat status. As it is, we can always mistake privilege for luck. Žižek interprets the rise in protests recently as partly attributable to would-be meritocrats discovering there is no meritocracy and their modicum of inherited privilege no longer makes the grade. They won’t get their “surplus wage” but will be precarious like everyone else.