One component of my primary long-term scholarly project is to examine the ways in which the work of writing carries economic value. As I’ve noted previously, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). I think that’s a fairly useful definition and taxonomization, and it helps that it goes further than Reich’s use of the problematically limiting term “symbolic-analytic work” in the allowance it provides for “the production and manipulation of affect,” a form of work that rhetoricians are not unacquainted with. Here, immaterial labor is opposed to material labor — the production of consumable things — in a way that recalls the reductive oversimplification Richard Lanham draws between an economics of “fluff” (managing information) and an economics of “stuff” (manufacturing objects). I believe the immaterial labor students perform in the composition classroom certainly qualifies as economically valuable scholarly work, and I believe the same holds true for literacy education in general.
Which is what makes it interesting to me when Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander of the Nato Training Mission — Afghanistan (NTM-A) (the unit under which I’m working during my deployment here), writes that literacy “is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan,” and that it additionally serves as “the essential enabler that addresses not only life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.” To the best of my knowledge, most analyses of military economics have been focused on the market-oriented positive and negative externalities of military spending itself, and not on considering aspects of military actions as being inherently economic on their own. What happens, though, if we think about literacy education as immaterial labor in relation to LTG Caldwell’s note that in September 2010, “the NATO training mission ha[d] about 27,000 recruits from the Afghan army and police in mandatory literacy programs at any given time,” and that “[t]hat number [would] grow to 50,000 by [that] December and to about 100,000 by June of ”? Can we consider stability operations in general to be a form of immaterial labor, and if so, what do we consider to be the product — the economic output — of stability operations?
Maybe it’s a silly question: it depends on how far in the future one looks for the positive economic effects of having a stable government, one might well reply. (Although it does certainly call attention to the fact that government itself is partly an economic effect and not just an inhibitor, regulator, or controller, as much of popular neoclassical economic discourse would have us believe; but also not just an effect — the so-called mere superstructure — that vulgar Marxist orthodoxy would posit.) That reply, however, should call our attention to the problems with looking far beyond economic activities for their hypothetical economic effects, as we too often do with higher education, considering it only in terms of its long-term economic outcomes. Economic activity does not exist as economic activity solely because it has an outcome that can at some future point be exchanged on the market for cash value — in other words, because it can be commodified into a product. Understandings of economic value must be in terms of labor value as well as in terms of commodity value.