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Boffo, Marco (2013) Interrogating the knowledge‐based economy: from 

knowledge as a public good to Italian post‐workerism. PhD Thesis. SOAS, 

University of London 


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MARCO BOFFO Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD in Economics Department of Economics SOAS, University of London Declaration for PhD thesis I have read and understood regulation 17.9 of the Regulations for students of the SOAS, University of London concerning plagiarism. I undertake that all the material presented for examination is my own work and has not been written for me, in whole or in part, by any other person. I also undertake that any quotation or paraphrase from the published or unpublished work of another person has been duly acknowledged in the work which I present for examination.

Date: 3rd of December 2013 Signed: Marco Boffo Abstract This thesis offers a critique of the reception of the Knowledge-Based Economy concept within both mainstream economics and contemporary Marxist debates. The first chapter analyses how this concept and attendant discussions have recently prompted mainstream economists to provide it with foundations within economic theory and advocate the development of an economics of knowledge. Given the fallacious understanding, within mainstream economics, of knowledge, the economy, and their interaction, the chapter demonstrates the flawed nature of the mainstream version of the Knowledge-Based Economy and the economics of knowledge as judged from the standpoint of any contribution holding different views on knowledge, the economy, and their interaction. The second chapter addresses the reinterpretation of the Knowledge-Based Economy as cognitive capitalism elaborated within Italian post-workerist autonomist Marxism. The latter theorises the preponderance of immaterial labour within contemporary capitalism, and has been recently recast in terms of Marxist economic analysis. Following the persistence of capitalism and the continuing relevance of Marxian analytical categories, the chapter demonstrates how the conceptualisation of contemporary capitalism as cognitive capitalism hinges on a misreading of Marxian value theory and its relation to the economy, and weakened links of the analysis with the politics of Marxism itself. The third chapter investigates issues related to the social ubiquity of networked computers, which is increasingly understood as driving new processes of class formation within capitalism and as instantiating new forms of exploitation considered, under the label of “prosumption”, as simultaneously more pervasive and less alienating. The chapter investigates these issues through the prism of recent work of Italian post-workerist Marxists critical of the cognitive capitalism debate. The chapter demonstrates the theoretical flaws inherent in both understanding technology as a vector of class formation and the concept of prosumption, while also deepening the critical understanding of Italian post-workerism elaborated in the second chapter.

Table of Contents

Declaration for PhD thesis


Table of Contents

Acronyms and Abbreviations



Chapter 1 – Debunking the Knowledge-Based Economy and the Economics of Knowledge..24 1.1) Introduction

1.2) The Knowledge-Based Economy and the Economics of Knowledge

1.3) Knowledge as a public good and the rationale for patents

1.3.1) A social dilemma …

1.3.2) … and its imperfect solution

1.4) A contradictory scenario

1.4.1) The divergence of rhetoric and policy in practice

1.4.2) The challenges of historicity

1.4.3) A new bottle for old wine

1.4.4) Knowledge as aporia

1.4.5) Endogenous growth theory, or knowledge as aporia continued

1.5) Conclusion

Chapter 2 – Historical Immaterialism: From Immaterial Labour to Cognitive Capitalism.......74 2.1) Introduction

2.2) Immaterial labour

2.2.1) From shifting definitions …

2.2.2) … to systemic implications

2.3) Cognitive capitalism

2.3.1) Completing the paradigm

2.3.2) In search of a third historical capitalism beyond the Knowledge-Based Economy and post-Fordism

2.3.3) A theory of the historical development of capitalism

2.3.4) An account under the influence

2.4) Capitalism suspended?

2.5) All that is material melts into air: a critique of immaterial and cognitive reason.......97 2.5.1) Misunderstanding capitalism and (Marx’s) value theory

2.5.2) From the search of political actors to the neglect of real existing workers...........106 2.5.3) From the neglect of political economy to the rhetorical use of economics...........110 2.6) Conclusion

Chapter 3 – Between the “Domestication” of Work and “Prosumption”: Whither (Post-) Operaismo Beyond Hardt and Negri?

3.1) Introduction

3.2) The point is to change it: Bologna’s eleventh thesis.

3.3) Against utopianism 2.0

3.4) Farewell to the working class? Or the limits of post-workerist dissent

3.5) Conclusion



–  –  –

EK – Economics of Knowledge ESK – Economics of Scientific Knowledge ICTs – Information and Communication Technologies IPRs – Intellectual Property Rights KBE – Knowledge-Based Economy NSI – National Systems of Innovation OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development SIC – Standard Industrial Classification TRIPS – Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights UNDP – United Nations Development Programme UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation U.S. – United States


After four years of research in London, I want to express my gratitude to those who have helped and supported me in a variety of ways throughout this period of my life. I want to begin by thanking my supervisor, Professor Ben Fine. My desire to study under his supervision was the main reason pushing me to apply to SOAS, and I deem myself extremely lucky and privileged for having had this opportunity. Professor Fine has undoubtedly taught me the craft of research, and his intellectual curiosity, engagement and determination have been inspirational for the writing of this thesis. In addition to this, he has also been extremely friendly, generous, supportive, trusting and understanding, and the actual experience of being supervised by him has exceeded by far all the expectations I could possibly have had prior to enrolling in the PhD programme. For all of this, I shall be forever grateful. I also want to thank the members of my supervisory committee, Professor Alfredo Saad-Filho and Dr Paulo dos Santos, from whom I have received great help and support. Both have read and commented on parts of my research, giving me immensely useful advice when I most needed it. In particular, they have also been extremely supportive in two key moments of these past four years: Dr Paulo dos Santos has spent a great deal of time discussing with me many of the themes of my research during its very first stages, when I was still getting acquainted with SOAS and assaying my own ideas; Professor Alfredo Saad-Filho has been extremely supportive, not least by giving me great advice and transmitting to me his enthusiasm, as I began looking for a job in the heat of the writing-up of this thesis fearful of bleak employment prospects (luckily, this belief has turned out to be unfounded). I also want to thank the department of Development Studies in general, and Professor Christopher Cramer, Dr Jonathan Di John and Dr Thomas Marois in particular, for having accepted me within their community as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Also, Dr Jens Lerche kindly accepted to discuss with me, albeit at a very late stage of my research, some of the ideas that have gone into this thesis, and I want to thank him for his availability, helpfulness and intellectual input. More generally, I want to thank the PhD communities and the members of the departments of Economics and Development Studies at SOAS, together with my students in the tutorials for the courses of Theory and Evidence in Contemporary Development (2010-11, 2011-12) and Political Economy of Development (2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13). These communities, together with the people who constitute them, have provided a great intellectual and human environment in which to conduct research and learn the basics of teaching. Further, they are part and parcel of the unique intellectual environment that has made SOAS famous in the world and a special place for me in particular.

Various parts of this research, together with several of my ideas, have been presented to (or otherwise submitted to the attention of) audiences outside of SOAS. Therefore, I want to thank the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato and its Gruppo Lavoro for having given me the opportunity to present my research to them. In particular, I want to thank Professor Mario Tronti (the President of the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato), Dr Pasquale Serra (one of the members of its Executive Committee and Scientific Board), and Dr Valentina Prosperi (a friend and a member of the Gruppo Lavoro). Valentina deserves a special mention for having organised the meeting with great care, and for having enthusiastically pushed for it to happen in the first place. I also want to thank Enzo Modugno at Il Manifesto for having accepted to discuss some of the themes of my research over e-mail and Skype, for having encouraged me to pursue my theoretical reflections on the topics of this thesis, and for putting me in contact with Benedetto Vecchi at Il Manifesto; Benedetto Vecchi must also be thanked for having accepted to host some of my reflections on the cultural pages of Il Manifesto itself. More broadly, I want to thank the participants to the conferences of the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy, not least those who have commented directly on my work, together with the broader intellectual community and networks attached to them. I also want to seize this opportunity to thank and remember the late Professor Fernando Vianello. I met him when I was a young student, disappointed with orthodox economics and thirsty for alternatives, and he showed me that there were other ways to be an economist, other ways to engage with the economy and the practical and intellectual problems it raises, and, ultimately, other ways to study economics itself. He was the first person to read and comment on the research project which gave birth to this thesis and, while I cannot say how he would have reacted to the latter in its present form, his encouragement, intellectual honesty and rigour have provided me with intellectual and moral guidance in my early steps as a researcher. His absence, together with that of our conversations in person or via e-mail, is deeply and sorely felt.

Otherwise, many friends have supported me during these years, and I want to thank all of them for this. They are scattered between Italy, England, Brussels, Portugal, the United States and Mozambique, and while I cannot mention and thank each one of them individually in print, I am sure they all know who they are, how they have helped me during these past four years, and how they are important for me. However, Kevin Deane needs to be mentioned specifically: not only is he one of my best friends, but he has also helped me a great deal with this thesis, not least by discussing many of its themes (especially during the writing-up phase) and sharing with me his deep knowledge of formatting. Last but certainly not least, I want to thank my parents and my brother. Throughout these years, they have provided me with their indefatigable and selfless material, intellectual and affective support, and none of what I have done thus far would have been possible without them. More recently, their efforts have been completed and complemented by those of my partner, Chiara. Chiara has supported me in many ways, selflessly and tirelessly, during every single moment of the writing up of this thesis, possibly the hardest phase of any PhD. Without her love, generosity and altruism, and without the support, comfort and confidence that she provided me with, finishing this thesis would have been a much harder and stressful process than it turned out to be. It is with the hope and the promise of more exciting and relaxed times for the two of us that I close this thesis.

To my parents.


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