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Following from this, interest in the KBE and the development of an EK within economics are to be understood as the opportunistic appropriation of ideas that have been “in the air” since at least the 1960s. This, complemented by the sloppy reception of concepts from economics (irrespective of their meaning, intellectual origins and functions within economics), has provoked the enthusiasm of those wanting to defend knowledge from privatisation. The present chapter has intended to show how such hopes and sentiments are derived, and provide reasons as to why they are misplaced.
Chapter 2 – Historical Immaterialism: From Immaterial Labour to Cognitive Capitalism76 2.1) Introduction The protean nature of capitalism is a permanent invitation to renew its theoretical analysis.
Thus, the need to understand the changing socio-economic dynamics and processes structuring and shaping its contemporary material reality runs across debates in the social sciences. While a major shift towards the service sector and the (putatively) increased importance of the role of knowledge are widely recognised, their implications have commanded a wealth of contrasting interpretations. In radical accounts of capitalism, these shifts have not only come to be taken as representing a new phase in the development of capitalism, but they are also taken to put into question a whole series of categories hitherto taken for granted. For example, the implications of such shifts for the distinction between mental and manual labour, together with the meaning of concepts such as work, free time, profit, rent and exploitation, are seen as having become unclear in a world where material production seems less important. This chapter considers the way in which these issues have been addressed by Italian post-workerist autonomist Marxism, which has recently come forth and established itself as one of the most radical accounts of the KBE and its dynamics.
Such an analytical project has developed and consolidated in the first decade of the new century, finding a cornerstone in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy comprising Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009). With its three volumes, respectively, concerned with outlining the changing nature of contemporary capitalism, the new social subjectivities active within it, and the political prospect of “the common”, the trilogy has aimed to update Marxist political thought in light of French post-structuralism while, in the process, also framing the evolution of its authors’ thought (and post-workerism itself) in response to its own internal logic, the critiques it received, and political contingency. Underpinning each volume, the concept of immaterial (or biopolitical) labour is meant to provide ‘a socio-economic foundation in the contemporary world for the philosophical and political elements’ of Hardt and Negri’s thought (Camfield, 2007, p.21). Indeed, by drawing and elaborating upon the Italian and French autonomist Marxist underworld of the 1980s and 1990s, Hardt and Negri’s trilogy has canonised the debate on immaterial labour and the attendant interpretation of the putative reconfiguration of capitalism born from the ashes of previous post-workerist thought surviving around the journal Futur Antérieur (Hardt, Negri, 2000, pp.28-29; Dyer-Witheford, 1994, 2001;
The pun in the title of this chapter comes from Di Fede (2000) and Tronti (2011). All direct translations from Italian and French are my own and, unless otherwise stated, emphasis is always in the original.
Bowring, 2004). Subsequently, this experience has given way to the publication of the journal Multitudes, with first issue appearing in 2000 and still published today, and it is within and around this journal that the debate on cognitive capitalism is born and has been developed, in resonance and close connection with Hardt and Negri’s trilogy and theory of immaterial labour. Although distinct, the two debates have grown in parallel, strengthening and mutually informing one another, coalescing into a post-workerist theory of contemporary capitalism.
The latter posits the increasing autonomy of the contemporary social process of production from capital and, ultimately, portrays contemporary capitalism as suspended, i.e. surviving in form and appearance, yet undermined in practice and substance by its own functioning, dynamics, and modality of operations. Accordingly, this post-workerist reading of contemporary capitalism also proposes and prospects a rethinking of political economy along “biopolitical” lines, which it perceives as consistent with Marx’s commitment to grounding social theory in the changing historicity of its object of analysis (i.e. capitalism, together with its nature and functioning) (Negri, 2003; Hardt, Negri, 2004, 2009).
However, sharing common intellectual roots in the last phase of Italian operaismo (for accounts of which see Turchetto, 2008 and Wright, 2002), and later in the post-operaista underworld of the 1980s and 1990s (both under the leading light of Negri himself), the debates on immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism are plagued by mutual shortcomings. These can be traced back, in many ways, to Negri’s (1991 ) (re)reading of Marx’s (1993) Grundrisse and consequent rejection of value theory, his reading of contemporary capitalism, and the various sleights of hand and selective and casual use of sources in Hardt and his trilogy (Hardt, Negri, 2000, 2004, 2009). Drawing on all of this, the present chapter interprets the debates on immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism as the latest reincarnation and endpoint of Negri’s post-operaismo.77 Thus, and ultimately, this chapter aims to shed light on the apparently paradoxical nature of a theory which, despite appealing to Marx and Marxism to decipher contemporary capitalism and its dynamics, undermines in practice the basis for, and logic of, such an analytical endeavour. The chapter will do so by demonstrating that, while capitalism, its logic and functioning persist unabated, it is post-operaismo which is itself in a state of what might be termed “suspension”; specifically posturing as a radical and critical account of contemporary capitalism rooted in Marxist political economy and the tradition of the original This chapter and thesis adopt Tronti’s periodisation (2009, p.7), whereby the classical operaismo of the 1960s is understood as spanning from the birth of the journal Quaderni Rossi in 1961 to the death of the journal Classe Operaia in 1967. As a result, the phase of (post-)operaismo starting in the 1970s is interpreted here as initiating the movement, under Negri’s leading light, from the classical operaismo of the 1960s, through Negri’s (1991 ) (re)reading of the Grundrisse (Marx, 1993), to contemporary post-operaismo (and the corresponding debasement of the original proposal of the classical operaismo of the 1960s). But see also footnote 93.
Italian operaismo of the 1960s, yet undermining its own analytical and political ambitions in practice and substance by the development of its very own (flawed) analysis.78 To address and refute the post-workerist reading of contemporary capitalism, the following sections will discuss and critically review the debates on immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism as follows. Section 2.2 maps the evolution of the concept of immaterial labour through its gestation, redefinition and expansion, as well as the systemic implications characteristically drawn from it. Section 2.3 discusses how the cognitive capitalism debate cumulatively builds on that of immaterial labour, completing and complementing it as a socio-economic foundation for post-workerism and its reading of contemporary capitalism. In the process, intra-paradigmatic discussion about the location of (the) cognitive capitalism (debate) with respect to Regulation theory, post-operaismo and post-Fordism will be addressed, not least by assessing the (failed) attempt to depart from these through recasting the debate in Marxist terms. Section 2.4 discusses the prospects for capitalism and political economy deriving from the post-workerist reading of contemporary capitalism, highlighting Hardt and Negri’s rhetorical turn to concepts from (mainstream) economics within their intervention in the debate on the commons. Lastly, section 2.5 will discuss the shortcoming of both the immaterial and cognitive capitalism debates, give an account of their intellectual sociology, and assess them with respect to broader debates and trends across the social sciences. This threefold analysis will emphasise how post-workersim has become increasingly disconnected from the real functioning of capitalism and the positive understanding of it allowed by the tools and concepts of Marxian political economy, the real experiences of the working class, and the political project of Marxist political economy itself.
2.2) Immaterial labour As canonised by Hardt and Negri, the concept of immaterial labour synthesises and updates the post-workerist and autonomist Marxist body of work guided and inspired by Negri’s earlier attempts, from the 1970s onwards, to identify the ‘new revolutionary subject that would This reading consciously mobilises the Hegelian philosophical notion of “dialectical suspension”, or “sublation” (Aufhebung), as appropriated by Marx (see Smith, 1993 for an account). For Hegel, ‘to sublate (aufheben) has a twofold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it means to put an end to … Thus what is sublated is at the same time preserved’ (Hegel, 1969, p.107). Therefore, in the language of dialectical thought, “dialectical suspension” indicates a ‘contradictory movement’ where, ‘in the progression of forms, the substance of earlier forms is both negated by and contained within the new, more complex form that develops out of the old content’ (Best, 2010, p.77). Thus, with ‘Hegel's term Aufhebung’ connoting ‘overcoming and preservation at once’ (Smith, 1993, p.152, footnote 45), “suspension” ‘expresses the contradictory state of both putting an end to the earlier form and carrying it forward’ (Best, 2010, p.77). Although the words “sublation”, “supersession”, “suspension” and “transcendence” have all been ‘used as … English equivalent[s] of Hegel’s “Aufhebung”’ (Saad-Filho, 2002, p.116, footnote 45), and although “sublation” has been probably the most prominent, the word “suspension” has been preferred here for its capacity to express ‘adequately … the dual movement of negating and carrying forward’ (Best, 2010, p.224, footnote 3).
succeed the “craft worker” and the “mass worker” and restart the cycle of struggles posited by the autonomist Marxist tradition’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2001, p.70). The purpose of this section is to show how, in the process of this canonisation, the concept has undergone significant redefinition and expansion, allowing the derivation from it of a systemic understanding of contemporary capitalism (although this has remained incomplete until the more recent debate on cognitive capitalism).
2.2.1) From shifting definitions … Hardt and Negri’s theory of immaterial labour posits the increasing loss of centrality of ‘the labor power of mass factory workers in the production of surplus value’ on behalf of ‘intellectual, immaterial, and communicative labor power’; in doing so, it responds to their perceived necessity for ‘a new political theory of value’ to conceptualise ‘this new capitalist accumulation of value at the center of the mechanism of exploitation’ and ‘potential revolt’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000, p.29). Thus, to identify the composition of living labour in contemporary capitalism, and as starting point of Empire’s analysis, Hardt and Negri refer to the concept of immaterial labour which, as they acknowledge (2000, p.461, note 17), has been originally proposed by Maurizio Lazzarato (1996). The latter defines ‘immaterial labor... as the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity’, and considers this definition itself as the culmination of earlier ‘research... concerning the new forms of the organization of work... combined with a corresponding wealth of theoretical reflection’ allowing for ‘the identification of a new’ ontology of work and the ‘new power relations it implies’ (Lazzarato, 1996, p.133). While it is understood as ‘an initial synthesis of these results’ attempting ‘to define the technical and subjective-political composition of the working class’, Lazzarato’s definition encompasses two different aspects: ‘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... skills involved in direct labor’ increasingly involve ‘cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication). On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities... not normally recognized as “work”... involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion’ (Lazzarato, 1996, p.133). Therefore, according to Lazzarato, the re-shaping of the labour process by ICTs and the incorporation and increasing importance for capitalist social relations of production of activities previously located outside the sphere of capital (or at least considered to be so), would be at the heart of a corresponding redefinition of (the character of) labour in contemporary capitalism.