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

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Indeed, however limited the engagement of mainstream economists as a whole with the Knowledge-Based Economy, specific ideas, concepts and theories from mainstream economics (such as the conceptualisation of knowledge as a public good or endogenous growth theory) have played an important part in nourishing the universe of, and the rhetoric associated with, the Knowledge-Based Economy, especially as received within the discourses of international institutions and of those attempting to defend the immanently public and open character of knowledge from privatisation. Further, following (if not partially inspired by) this appropriation of economic ideas from outside the discipline, a small group of economists have attempted to provide the concept of Knowledge-Based Economy itself with a foundation within (mainstream) economic theory, and to call for, if not already proclaim the existence of, the parallel development of an economics of knowledge. Amongst these, the work of Paul David and, especially, Dominique Foray (David, Foray, 2002, 2003; Foray, 2006) stands out, not least because of their prominence in earlier debates on the economics of science and the economics of innovation, and because of their pivotal role in influencing the research and policy agenda (and the rhetoric) of the OECD (1996, 2000). The chapter will demonstrate that, given the flawed understanding, within mainstream economics, of knowledge, the economy, and the relation between the two, there exist devastating criticisms of the mainstream version of the Knowledge-Based Economy and of the economics of knowledge attached to it, even to the extent of declaring their impossibility (Mirowski, 2009b, 2011), as gauged from the point of view of any contribution taking a different, even slightly more refined, view of the nature of knowledge, the economy, and their interaction.

Following my dissatisfaction with the mainstream version of the Knowledge-Based Economy, my engagement with the latter led me to attempt to come to grips with it and the issues involved through the lens of current debates on the labour process in relation to both contemporary capitalism and abstract thinking. In order to do so, I have studied what has come to constitute, and establish itself as, the most structured critical theoretical body of scholarship investigating the Knowledge-Based Economy and its dynamics. This, which is the object of analysis of the second chapter, originates in Italian post-workerist autonomist Marxism, especially as popularised and reframed as a theory of contemporary capitalism in the work of social and political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, 2004, 2009).

This body of work focuses on the concept of immaterial labour, understood as the labour involved in the production of immaterial goods and, more generally, the immaterial, informational and cultural content of commodities. From this basis, and the putative contemporary preponderance (or, in Hardt and Negri’s terminology, “hegemony”) of immaterial labour, systemic implications are drawn in service of a particular reading and understanding of what constitute, putatively, new mechanisms of capital accumulation and a new condition of labour (in relation to capital) within contemporary capitalism. This analytical endeavour has recently been completed and complemented by the literature on cognitive capitalism. The latter has developed as an explicit attempt to recast Hardt and Negri’s reading of contemporary capitalism in terms of Marxist economic theory and Marxian categories (Vercellone, 2003, 2006a, 2007a). This approach is of more recent vintage than Negri’s own theories (although, as will be demonstrated, it is on these that the cognitive capitalism approach is largely based). However, there are signs that it is increasingly attracting the interest, within and across the social sciences, of those wanting to address the KnowledgeBased Economy, its dynamics and processes from a critical perspective (see, for a collection of examples, Peters, Bulut, 2011). Further, and in tight connection with Hardt and Negri’s (2009) recent turn to the debate on the commons, the cognitive capitalism approach is garnering attention as a paradigm of reference within contemporary forms and manifestations of political radicalism (if not acquiring the character and status of counterpart to the KnowledgeBased Economy concept and, therefore, becoming a buzzword in its own right, even if radical, alternative, oppositional or whatever). Yet, upon closer inspection, both Hardt and Negri’s conceptualisation of contemporary capitalism and its recasting as cognitive capitalism appear strikingly paradoxical. Indeed, and despite the latter’s appeals to Marx, Marxism, Marxist economic theory and Marxian categories, in practice, they undermine the basis for, and logic of, a commitment to the purposeful use of Marxian economic categories to understand contemporary socio-economic dynamics, processes and structures. By contrast, the chapter will demonstrate that, given the persistence of capitalism and the enduring relevance of Marxian analytical categories, Hardt and Negri’s conceptualisation of contemporary capitalism and its recasting as cognitive capitalism are highly dependent on a misreading of Marxian value theory, a misreading of the current socio-economic dynamics, processes and structures shaping and structuring the economy, as well as a tenuous rooting of the analysis in Marxist politics and the lives, behaviour and practices of really existing workers.

At this point, following up on the interest in the labour process which led me to study Italian post-workerism, and pushed by my disagreements and dissatisfaction with the latter, I have deemed it necessary to study some of the theoretical issues raised by the role of computers, software, the internet and their attendant processes of informatisation in reshaping and restructuring work, exploitation, and the labour process itself. Indeed, as is widely recognised, these constitute the (socio-)technical basis and infrastructure of the Knowledge-Based Economy. Following from this, broader societal implications are usually drawn. Within conventional accounts of the Knowledge-Based Economy, computers, software and informatisation are understood as encompassed by, and enablers of, the rise of knowledgerelated investment, knowledge work and knowledge-intensive activities. Thus, their social ubiquity is itself interpreted as a confirmation of, and a major thrust behind, the shift to a Knowledge-Based Economy (Foray, 2006). Similarly, within the standard post-workerist account, the social ubiquity of computers and software is seen as entailing processes of informatisation and computerisation of work, which are then (mis)understood as making labour both “abstract” (for it is through computers and software that workers operate on symbols, procedures and algorithms, i.e. “abstractions”) and “autonomous” from capital (for this type of work is seen as implying the direct mobilisation of the linguistic and cognitive abilities of workers, with the former understood as inherently leading to cooperation and the latter as making the fruits of labour inherently inexpropriable) (Lazzarato, 1996; Hardt, Negri, 2000). In this intellectual climate and context, two questions have emerged spontaneously.

Since we (putatively) live in a Knowledge-Based economy, i.e. an economy in which knowledge and information are (posited as) the ultimate determinants of value and economic activity, can knowledge workers be understood as a class within contemporary society, if not the new productive class itself? Further, given the social ubiquity of software and computers within and without the labour process of knowledge workers themselves, to what extent and degree do these, together with the socio-economic processes of which they are dynamically part, lead to exploitative dynamics, relations and processes? With respect to the first question, there have been as many answers as there are conceptions of class and knowledge work and, although the general tendency is to respond positively to both questions, exactly how knowledge workers are identified and whether they are seen as exploited or not varies (for different summaries, see: Huws, 2003, ch.10; Fuchs, 2010a, 2010b). With respect to the second question, often in relation to the first but also independently of it, a (relatively) new concept has (re)appeared in current debates within and across business studies (Tapscott, Williams, 2008), the sociology of consumption (Ritzer, Jurgenson, 2010; Ritzer et al., 2012), and critical media studies (Fuchs, 2009, 2010a, 2010b). This goes by the (clumsy) name of “prosumption”, and refers to the whole range of activities, undertaken by consumers themselves, leading to the production of goods and services for consumption.

The third chapter of this thesis addresses these issues, questions and debates by looking at them through the prism of a close reading of the recent work of Sergio Bologna (Bologna, 2007; Bologna, Banfi, 2011) and Carlo Formenti (2011), two post-workerist authors critical of Hardt and Negri’s theories. Indeed, Bologna provides a reading of the changes affecting the contemporary workplace, not least those due to the informatisation of production and the consequent displacement of the workplace from its “traditional” locus. In this context, he elaborates a new social figure (the “second generation autonomous worker”), commonly understood as a valid (and empirically-grounded) alternative to Hardt and Negri’s immaterial labourer (Cuninghame, 2000). Formenti, on the other hand, reassesses the faults and merits of post-workerism and Hardt and Negri’s theories in light of, and relation to, the current debates over the politics of the internet, where the notion of prosumption is mobilised by both enthusiasts (see, for example, Tapscott, Williams, 2008) and critics (see, for example, Fuchs, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, and Formenti himself) to give material grounding to the socio-economic dynamics surrounding the internet. Viewing these debates, which are interesting in themselves, through the prism of Bologna and Formenti’s post-workerist dissent, has a twofold value. Indeed, and first, this endeavour allows assessing and discussing the questions mentioned above in their own right, although through the specific case study of post-workerist dissenters. Second, it also allows assessing critically the recent work (and theories) of these post-workerist dissenters, which has not yet been translated into English. Thus, the chapter will demonstrate the problematic aspects of understanding knowledge workers as a new class and of the concept of prosumption itself, while at the same time gauging the limits of postworkerist dissent. In the process, this will allow reaching a better and deeper understanding of post-workerist Marxism, and to test the mettle of the interpretative hypothesis on the latter developed in the second chapter.

However, at this juncture it is in order to clarify the reasons which have led to choosing the present form for this thesis, together with the methodological stance espoused in each of the chapters composing it. Indeed, and to begin with, the choice to structure the thesis around a set of related yet distinct self-contained contributions (as opposed to structuring it as a monograph) could be questioned on the grounds of its appropriateness for the tasks at hand, as well as on altogether logical grounds. Indeed, consider the following: this thesis author’s institutional location and intellectual background is in economics; this thesis has a primary focus on (more or less) heterodox topics and literatures, and it is critical in intent; and, in close connection with the previous point and with respect to the appropriate understanding of the contemporary relation between (mainstream) economics and the other social sciences, this thesis addresses various aspects of what has been termed economics imperialism – i.e. the extension of economic theory to subject matter previously understood as beyond the disciplinary purview of economics, resulting in the progressive (although restricted, restrictive and debased) (re)incorporation of the social within economic theory (Milonakis, Fine, 2009).

But, given these considerations, is it not contradictory to insist on criticising economics imperialism while simultaneously structuring this thesis’ own discourse as a set of related yet distinct self-contained contributions? Would it not have been more appropriate, given the tasks at hand and the clear aim to criticise economics imperialism, to structure the thesis as a monograph, systematically endowing it with a narrative running through it from beginning to end? These are not idle questions, for an important feature of economics imperialism could be seen as exactly the expulsion of narrative from the discourse of economics and, albeit unevenly, of the disciplines it “invades” and “colonises”. This is done in deference to mathematical modelling and it entails the sidelining of established methodologies and continuing traditions across both the study of particular topics and the social sciences in general, with this move being (mis)interpreted and (mis)construed as the ultimate hallmark of scientificity and analytical rigour. Thus, the structuring of this thesis around a set of related yet self-contained contributions could be seen as reproducing the form (if not the meme) of the traditional doctoral thesis in economics – generally structured around a collection of papers, as opposed to being infused with a narrative – and, therefore, as a blunted analytical weapon against economics imperialism. Further, and as consequence of the above, the structure chosen for this thesis could even be seen as leading the latter to be logically incoherent and internally contradictory, exposing this piece of work to the critique of having fallen prey, albeit unwittingly (though perhaps more irritatingly), to the very logic it seeks to demystify. Put otherwise: tu quoque, “heterodox” economist?

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