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

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The first two stages of this historical account, together with their conceptualisation of the division of labour and the role of knowledge within it, share elements of similarity with standard Marxist accounts of the development of capitalism, as well as with Braverman’s (1998 [1974]) and Marx’s (1976) accounts of the subsumption of labour and knowledge by capital (although with reductionist overtones). The peculiarity of this account of the historical development of capitalism, together with its characterisation of the stage of cognitive capitalism, would reside in the identification of a break in the logic of subsumption of labour by capital, and the subsequent qualification of the new century as ‘post-Smithian’. Indeed, given an understanding of ‘Fordist growth’ as the ‘historical outcome of the industrial model’ anticipated by Adam Smith ‘in the famous examples of the manufacture of pins’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.19, footnote 16; similarly, Vercellone, 2006a, p.13), the social crisis of Fordism is seen, within the cognitive capitalism debate, as forebear of a relation of labour to capital characterised by the autonomy of knowledge and labour, implying a reversal of the processes of real subsumption and entailing a historical change in the division of labour overtaking the principles famously laid out by Adam Smith. While Vercellone’s description of a post-Smithian or cognitive division of labour and its consequences (2007a, 2006b) remain at a conceptual level, a more concrete definition is given by Moulier Boutang (2008, p.161), for whom the ‘cognitive division of labour rests on the cooperation of brains working on’ networked computers, in a context where the pervasiveness of non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods, externalities and network effects undermines both markets and hierarchy as mechanisms to organise cooperation. The reader should not hesitate to note the similarity between Moulier Boutang’s account and aspects of the accounts provided by Foray, 2006 and Benkler, 2006 – on which see the first chapter of this thesis – and even some aspects of the account provided by Bologna, 2007 – on which see the third chapter of this thesis.

2.3.4) An account under the influence Vercellone’s aim to recast the debate in Marxist terms explicitly claims a legacy of Marx’s thought for its ability ‘to offer an interpretative paradigm’ useful to account ‘for the transformations of the division of labour’ and the resulting trajectories of societal transformation (Vercellone, 2007a, p.16). Thus, for Vercellone, and with specific reference to the features of contemporary capitalism identified within the cognitive capitalism debate, Marx’s thought offers: a) a critique of the Smithian division of labour where ‘the polarisation of knowledges and the split between intellectual and material tasks are no longer considered [as] natural [and] necessary consequence of the development of the productive forces’; and b) ‘a conception of technical progress... not limited to underlining’ its impact ‘on the productivity of labour and economic efficacy’ but, rather, one stressing the importance of ‘the relations between knowledge and power which have structured the evolution of the technical and social division of labour’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.17; similarly, Vercellone, 2006b).

Nonetheless, despite this claimed Marxist legacy and the stated intention to depart from postoperaismo, Regulation theory and the debate on post-Fordism, their continuing influence is pivotal in allowing for the identification of a reversal of the processes of subsumption. Firstly, this clearly transpires from the use of post-workerist terminology and concepts (social crisis of Fordism, diffuse factory, diffuse intellectuality, etc.), allowing for the reading of cognitive capitalism as the age of the general intellect and crisis of the labour theory of value.85 These obvious roots in post-operaismo and profound debt to Negri’s (1991 [1979]) (re)interpretation of Marx’s (1993) Grundrisse and Fragment on Machines not only shape cognitive capitalism’s account and understanding of both the present and the future of capitalism, but also of its past, regardless of historical and terminological accuracy and at the price of reductionism. For instance, this reaches an obvious logical contradiction in the redefinition of the putting-out system as ‘diffuse factory’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.15, footnote 6).86 Secondly, the influence of Regulation theory is also clearly evident in the use of its terminology and concepts, as well as in the openly stated dialogue with its research programme (Corsani et al., 2001; Fumagalli, See Vercellone, 2011 for his acknowledgement of how the cognitive capitalism debate and its conceptualisation of ‘the transition’ from the ‘class composition of the mass worker’ to ‘that of immaterial and cognitive labour’ draw inspiration from the ‘teachings’ of operaismo (Vercellone, 2011, p.16). While this acknowledgement runs somewhat contrary to Vercellone, 2007a, which posits cognitive capitalism as a break with the post-workerist and regulationist interventions on post-Fordism, it should also be noted how the real influence is Negri’s post-operaismo, and not operaismo as a whole (see section 2.5).

The concept of diffuse factory is closely related to that of social worker (operaio sociale), both part of the conceptual toolbox elaborated by Negri and Italian autonomist Marxism (Wright, 2002, chapter 7;





Palano). Originating from the changing relationship between society and factory identified by Mario Tronti as a consequence of the increasing socialisation of capital (Palano), the deployment of such concepts was integral to the idea that, since the restructuring of production had “diffused” the wage relation outside the factory walls (meaning that more and more activities were performed under capitalist relations of production), the whole territory and the whole of society (thus not only those workers productive of surplus value) had become productive of value, and were therefore exploited by capital, with the consequent displacement of conflict from the labour process to society as a whole. But, if the diffuse factory is the outcome of the increasing socialisation of capital, accompanied by the breakdown of Fordist methods of production and technological and organisational restructuring in response to the struggles of the mass worker (with the industrial districts of the Third Italy often taken as exemplary of these dynamics), redefining the putting-out system as diffuse factory is not only historically incorrect, but also an obvious internal contradiction, which can be motivated only through Vercellone’s claimed reversal from real to formal subsumption as characteristic of contemporary cognitive capitalism.

Lucarelli, 2007). However, and more profoundly, this influence is manifest in how the cognitive capitalism debate echoes Regulation theory’s shift from a critical analysis of capitalism and economic growth with an attachment to Marxism to a quasi-religious exercise in search for the new growth regime able to succeed Fordism (see Pouch, 2004, p.152; see also Husson, 2008 for a critical account of Regulation theory and its involution). Furthermore, given its attachment to emphasising class compromise and workers’ involvement in the change to, and establishment and functioning of, new regimes of accumulation, Regulation theory ended up forcefully reading post-Fordism and the restructuring following the putative breakdown of Fordism as also beneficial for workers, with the corresponding inability to decipher the full extent of the damages of this transition for the working class itself (see Rolle, 2004, pp.163Although Vercellone (2011) criticises the Regulation school for its reading of the Fordist class compromise as if it were an ex ante compromise, when in reality it was the ex post outcome of highly conflictual dynamics, the regulationist attitude mentioned above still has a clear emphasis on cognitive capitalism’s reading of the current stage of capitalism as entailing greater and increasing autonomy of labour from capital, even though class compromise is replaced by (an abstract and one-sided notion of) class conflict as primum movens.87 Thirdly, consonance and resonance with the debate on post-Fordism is evident in the similarity between the latter’s claims of a return to craft and its benefits for labour (see Tomaney, 1994 for a critical account), and the reversal of the logic and processes of subsumption claimed within the cognitive capitalism debate. Not without a hint of malice, it could be said that the claimed reversal of the logic and processes of subsumption is not substantively new or different from the claimed return to craft, only this time expressed with Marxian terminology and reframed as a theory of the historical development of capitalism. Lastly, a striking similarity between the cognitive capitalism debate and the debate on post-fordism can be identified in the parallel existing with the work of the proponents of the flexible specialisation thesis. Indeed, the latter posits social struggles as the ultimately decisive factor in the choice of technique of production and industrial organisational form (with flexible specialisation posited as a viable alternative alongside industrial mass production), and in setting course and direction of technical change more broadly (see Sabel, Zeitlin, 1982, 1985 and Piore, Sabel, 1984 for the first classical references in this literature; but see also Fine, 1997, pp.76-86 for critical assessment). Thus, the only difference between the two debates is that, while in the cognitive capitalism debate the breakdown of Fordism is understood as opening a third historical phase following the second, industrial stage of capitalism dominated by mass This is in line with Fumagalli and Lucarelli’s (2007) distinction between ‘institutional’ and ‘conflictual’ regulationists (that is, the proponents of cognitive capitalism) on the grounds of the latter’s attachment to the ‘capital-labour relation to explain the mutations of the structures on which capital accumulation rests and of the institutions which ensure its enlarged reproduction’ (p.21).

production, for the proponents of flexible specialisation it re-opens a possibility (i.e. the adoption of flexibly specialised forms of production) which has always existed throughout the entire history of capitalism (see Zeitlin, 2007 for an account of this approach to the history of capitalism, characterised by a rejection of teleology and the adoption of evolutionary branching points, punctuated equilibria, or industrial divides).

Prior to the publication of Commonwealth (Hardt, Negri, 2009), Vercellone’s identification of a reversal of ‘the move from formal to real subsumption’ demarcated clearly his ‘understanding of cognitive capitalism from Hardt and Negri’s account of the tendency to real subsumption in Empire [2000] and Multitude [2004]’ (Toscano, 2007, p.4). Indeed, in the latter account, the autonomy of immaterial labour stemmed from the contradiction between social relations of production and the development of the productive forces, an account similar in many respects to the post-workerist interventions in the debate on post-Fordism (this is unsurprising, given Negri’s and Futur Antérieur’s previous involvement in the latter debate, and it partly explains Vercellone’s tirade against the adoption of the concept of post-Fordism by post-workerists in Vercellone, 2007a). On the contrary, in Vercellone’s analysis, the autonomy of labour follows from a reversal of the processes of subsumption and the power relations inherent in the production process, rather than from an inescapable logic of history. Nonetheless, even if at odds with Empire’s (Hardt, Negri, 2000) and Multitude’s (Hardt, Negri, 2004) almost teleological reading of history, Vercellone’s conclusions are very similar to the structural implications for contemporary capitalism derivable from the theory of immaterial labour underpinning Hardt and Negri’s work. Furthermore, while true for Empire (Hardt, Negri, 2000) and Multitude (Hardt, Negri, 2004), the differences discussed above are less significant, if not null, with respect to Commonwealth (Hardt, Negri, 2009). Indeed, in the latter Hardt and Negri (2009, p.230) signal ‘the return movement from real to formal subsumption’ corresponding, ‘in certain respects, to the recent reappearance of many antiquated, parasitical forms of capitalist appropriation’. Thus, for them, since ‘the extraction of value from the common is increasingly accomplished without’ capitalist intervention ‘in its production’, ‘exploitation of labor power and the accumulation of surplus value should be understood in terms of not profit but capitalist rent’ (p.141) (for more on Hardt and Negri’s notion of “the common” and how this constitutes, albeit implicitly, a flawed intervention in the debates on the commons, see below).

However, in Hardt and Negri’s typical fashion, although Vercellone (2003, 2006a) and Moulier Boutang (2008) are both referenced several times (Hardt, Negri, 2009, p.406, footnote 16;

p.409, footnote 59; p.417, footnote 16), and although Vercellone is directly quoted and thanked, the expression cognitive capitalism never appears in the substantive content and analysis of the book (despite Negri’s review of Vercellone, 2003 in Negri, 2003 – also addressed in footnote 83 of this thesis), nor is the shift from their earlier position acknowledged.

2.4) Capitalism suspended?



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