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

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As previously noted, the systemic properties derived from the hegemony of immaterial labour are completed and complemented by the debate on cognitive capitalism. Anticipating how Hardt and Negri’s theory of immaterial labour could be recast as a ‘globally pre-eminent social structure or régime of accumulation’, improving ‘on the putative hegemony of figures of labour’, Camfield also suggested that such a prospect ‘would probably reproduce the weaknesses of regulationist and social-structure-of-accumulation political economy, including a focus on institutional arrangements at the expense of the contradictory dynamics of capitalism itself’, and failure ‘to capture the articulation of different forms of accumulation’ simultaneously existing ‘in every phase of capitalist development’ (Camfield, 2007, p.38, footnote 89). The core of the cognitive capitalism debate consisting in the encounter between (Negri’s) Italian post-operaismo and French Regulation theory, Camfield’s comments could not have been more foretelling. Indeed, as shown earlier on in this chapter, cognitive capitalism falls prey to the shortcomings of both. Nonetheless, two specific conceptual features of the post-workerist account of contemporary capitalism require further elucidation. Firstly, the post-workerist use of the Marxian categories of formal and real subsumption is highly problematic (if not outright impressionistic). Without disagreement, these concepts do describe the division of labour and organisation of production during specific historical phases characterising the development of capitalist relations of production, and, conceptually, the logic of subsumption can be reversed, given the existence of favourable conditions. However, cognitive capitalism’s account and use of these categories lacks a full-blown conception of formal and real subsumption as dynamic processes potentially taking place in any kind of productive activity and at any historical moment (in accord with the processes of commodification discussed above, and the corresponding movement of activities out of unsocialised and into socialised labour and vice versa). To conceive of them as each merely characteristic of a particular historical phase, not only flattens out different levels of abstraction, but also fails to capture the ways in which they are imbricated, structured and differentially at play in the division of labour and organisation of production, both in specific productive processes as well as all the way through to the world economy. In addition to this impoverished understanding, these Marxian categories are deployed, within the cognitive capitalism debate, to characterise the capital-labour relation with respect to the ‘conflictual relation of knowledge to power that determines the development of the capitalist division of labour’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.15). However, this account neglects other important economic processes shaping the structure of industries and the adoption of innovation (both technological and organisational), such as competition, the international division of labour, capital accumulation, etc. These mutually reinforcing shortcomings inform cognitive capitalism’s account of crises as caused by the ‘tendential fall of... capital’s control of the division of labour’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.18), typically post-workerist in both its neglect of political economy and its ‘one-sided stress on the agency of living labor’ (Smith, 2008, p.35).

Echoing Hardt and Negri’s neglect of (Marxist) political economy (Thompson, 2005), these shortcomings derive from the old post-operaista habit of identifying the hegemonic figure of labour, projected onto the whole history of capitalist development through the analytical tools of Regulation theory and (a progressively debased post-)operaismo.

Secondly, the characterisation of the current stage of capitalism as dominated by the general intellect, the triumph of a post-Smithian division of labour, the inseparability of labour power from individual workers allowing for autonomy, and a return to formal subsumption, rests on a flawed conception of labour which, coupled with Negri’s (1991 [1979]) reading of the Grundrisse (Marx, 1993), leads to the rejection of value theory. In this account, ‘the activities in which the cognitive and immaterial dimension of labour is dominant’ are posited as witnessing the ‘destabilisation of one of the structuring conditions of the wage relation, that is to say, the renunciation – compensated by the wage – by the workers to any claim on the property of the product of their labour’. Therefore, in ‘cognitive-labour-producing knowledge, the result of labour’ would remain ‘incorporated in the brain of the worker and … inseparable from her person’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.33). However, while this fetishizes knowledge and irons out the Marxian distinction between labour and labour-power, echoing in many respects human capital theory and its understanding of education as a form of investment,89 it also glosses over that intellectual work can be fragmented, routinised and rationalised according to the imperatives of the capitalist labour process.90 Furthermore, positing ‘cognitive or knowledge labour (conception) and industrial labour (execution)’ as ‘independent forms of labour’, See Rolle, 2004, Pouch, 2004 and Harribey, 2004 for critiques along these lines. For human capital theory itself, see Schultz, 1961, for whom labourers ‘have become capitalists not from a diffusion of the ownership of corporation stocks, as folklore would have it, but from the acquisition of knowledge and skill that have economic value’ (p.3). More generally, see Fine, Rose, 2001 and Rose, 2006 for critical accounts of human capital theory and its ascendancy in the rhetoric and scholarship of the Washington and post-Washington consensuses.

Indeed, not only can intellectual work be subjected to the division of labour like any other activity under capitalism, but it is telling that Charles Babbage himself drew on Gaspard de Prony’s work to defend ‘what may, perhaps, appear paradoxical to some of our readers’ (and, maybe, post-workerists), that is ‘that the division of labour can be applied with equal success to mental operations, and that it ensures, by its adoption, the same economy of time’ (Babbage, 1835, ch.XIX, p.153). Gaspard de Prony was a French government official charged, in 1793, ‘with the Herculean task of superintending the production of a series of logarithmic and trigonometric tables that would facilitate the transition to the recently adopted decimal system’ (Rosenberg, 1994, p.39). Inspired by the chapter on the division of labour in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, de Prony divided the workload in different phases to be carried out by different groups of “computers” with different, and only the necessary, levels of mathematical knowledge for each phase, thus anticipating the Babbage principle and the basic principles of Taylorism (see Manacorda, 1976 for an account). Further, Braverman (1998 [1974]) has provided significant elements to understand how the principles underlying the division of labour could be shown to inform clerical work and its organisation, and Greenbaum (2004) has provided an account of the role of technology in the organisation of office work from the 1950s to the present.

potentially coexisting but with one dominating the other, ‘the validity of value theory is argued to depend on’ the prevailing ‘form of labour’ (Fine et al., 2010, p.80). Therefore, assuming the prevalence of a ‘relation of capital to labour... marked by the hegemony of knowledges,...

diffuse intellectuality, and... the driving role of the production of knowledges by means of knowledges connected to the increasingly immaterial and cognitive character of labour’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.16), the labour theory of value is rendered redundant. Thus, cognitive capitalism neglects the ‘important role’ of knowledge ‘in value production per se’, played through determination of the productivity and complexity of labour, with its ‘dualistic approach... precluding diverse forms of... interaction between conception and execution in deference to the necessary predominance of one over the other’ (Fine et al., 2010, p.80).

Thus, on the one hand, overstating the importance of knowledge for work in contemporary capitalism (as opposed to previous phases of capitalism and human history), cognitive capitalism mistakes quantitative shifts in the arrangement of different sectors of the economy for epochal qualitative change. Underpinning this flawed analysis, on the other hand, is the reading of the general intellect as a historical category (Smith, 2008, p.4), coupled with Hardt and Negri’s flawed understanding of Marx’s value theory as an ‘embodied theory of value’ (Cremin, Roberts, 2011, p.184). With this leading to the rejection of value theory on the grounds of the immeasurability of immaterial and biopolitical labour, both errors derive from Negri’s (1991 [1979]) (re)reading of Marx’s Grundrisse (1993) and, in particular, the Fragment on Machines as against Capital (1976, 1978, 1981). Interpreting the restructuring of the labour process in the 1970s through micro-electronics, automation, decreasing wages, fragmentation of productive units and increased labour market flexibility as capital’s response to the struggles of the operaio massa (mass worker) of Fordism, Negri claimed the spread of productive cooperation from the factory to the whole of society, the emergence of the operaio sociale (social worker) as a result of working class re-composition and, ultimately, the subsumption of the whole of social life (as opposed to the sole labour process) by capitalism (Corradi, 2011a, pp.203-207). Marking a break with the original operaismo of the 1960s, Negri’s reading of society and of the Grundrisse against Capital has dominated the last phase of operaismo, the post-operaismo of the 1980s and 1990s, and Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, thus enabling the reading of the recent restructuring of the labour process as (at least partial) confirmation of ‘Marx’s “general intellect” prognosis of the increasing scientific constitution of capitalist production through the erosion of its capitalist forms’ (Haug, 2010, p.212) (note, though, how in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy the general intellect is only brought up in critical discussion of the post-workerism of the 1980s and 1990s in Empire – Hardt, Negri, 2000, pp.29-30, 364-368 – disappearing in Multitude – Hardt, Negri, 2004 – and Commonwealth – Hardt, Negri, 2009 – where it is replaced by “the common”). Last in this line of permutations of Negri’s postworkerism, cognitive capitalism understates ‘the degree to which the general intellect’ operated ‘in Fordism’, overestimating ‘the extent to which it flourishes in contemporary capitalism’ (Smith, 2008, p.23). This is due to a one-sided reading of knowledge, science and technology in the form of mass or diffuse intellectuality, neglecting the factors undermining their dissemination and democratisation (restriction of access, commodification, de-skilling and re-skilling, etc., see Smith, 2008, pp.27-30). However, with ‘“the real abstractions of modernity” – value, money, capital’ – holding ‘with undiminished force in contemporary capitalism’, not least within the labour process, cognitive capitalism’s claims of a realisation of the general intellect ‘in anything like the manner Marx anticipated in communism’ and of reversals of the logic of subsumption are easily dispelled. Indeed, with ‘the real subsumption of the labor process’ occurring ‘whenever the substantive content of the labor process is subject to the valorization imperative’ (Smith, 2008, pp.30-31), the autonomy of labour celebrated by post-operaismo is yet to come.91 2.5.2) From the search of political actors to the neglect of real existing workers Upon closer inspection, Hardt and Negri’s characterisation of the historical development of capitalism through the succession of economic paradigms defined by the predominance of the agricultural, industrial, and then service sector of the economy, and cognitive capitalism’s own account of it as the succession of a mercantile, industrial and then cognitive capitalism, are very similar. While this is evident in the overlap of the features, content and periods putatively characterising each phase, at a deeper level both accounts reproduce and project onto the whole history of capitalism the standard arguments and class analysis of Italian operaismo and its later offspring, post-workerism. Indeed, despite its original commitment to the identification of an agent of social change in the production process, this approach has resulted, ultimately, in the successive elaboration of social figures with little bearing on the real working class, and the corresponding exclusive and strategic predicament of one of its sections, posited as “hegemonic”, against that of the whole. While this process has led postworkerism to become disconnected from the reality and condition of the (majority of the) working class, telling examples of the lack of radical character for workers of post-workerism itself can be found in the failed recognition of the socially devastating character of neoliberal restructuring, doctored by the characterisation of cognitive capitalism as age of the general Here Smith refers to Virno, 2007, but note how this applies equally (if not even more characteristically) to Negri, for the latter has been convinced of living in communism from the 1970s onwards, ‘even if it is only the “communism of capital”’ (Haug, 2010, p.214).

intellect, and the positions held by post-workerists on issues and debates relevant to social justice and economic democracy.

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