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Nonetheless, irrespective of its coherence with Formenti’s own commitment to Marx against the excesses of post-workerism, the concept of prosumption also functions paradigmatically in Formenti’s account of networked capitalism, allowing him to portray the latter as having terminally neutralised class conflict in the West. Indeed, with value production and exploitation posited as having moved beyond the direct point of production and overflowed into consumption and reproduction activities, the Western working class is portrayed as “locked-in” to exploitation just as consumers are “locked-in” to corporate walled gardens through use of closed platforms and applications, happy and exploited (as the title of Formenti, 2011 has it). Implicit in this portrayal is the (conceptually and historically flawed) presupposition of the unproblematic translation of the dynamics that structure the technological domain into those that structure the historical domain, if not their homology.
This is due to the convergence and superimposition of the theoretical and intellectual sources mobilised, implicitly and explicitly, by Formenti. Indeed, and firstly, Formenti takes for granted the common wisdom of popular writing on technology, unwittingly absorbing from it the concept of lock-in of technical standards (see footnote 135). Thus, Formenti’s reasoning, albeit inadvertently, echoes the homology established between the technical and the historical domains by David, who drew from Georgescu-Roegen (1976) the concept of the irreversibility of physical processes as inspiration for his own early work on technical change (David, 1975), only to recast it later, in the reformulated form of path dependence, and as a companion law governing the (irreversibility of) historical processes and institutions (David, 1985). Secondly, Formenti’s reasoning echoes closely the McLuhanite belief that the medium and, therefore, technology shape being and consciousness, though not the other way around. 166 Lastly, Formenti’s reasoning reproduces, albeit in negative terms, the close fit and homology established by operaismo between the historical forms of the productive process, revolutionary figures (or otherwise identified agents of social change) and the forms of struggle and organisation. Thus, while other factors of Formenti’s analysis (such as the ideological mutation of the left, the heterogeneity of knowledge workers as a class, and the role of the world factory taken on by China) can be seen as having relative purchase, ultimately, it is the adoption of the concept of prosumption, together with its interaction with Formenti’s other theoretical and intellectual sources, which allows Formenti to displace the However, see Lucas, 2012 for a critique of this viewpoint, emphasising that the relations between networked computers and users are better understood in terms of their mutual interactions, their social, economic and cultural implications, and also their embedding into the broader socio-economic processes and structures (re)producing their specific historical character and content.
class alliance he identified as revolutionary in his earlier work from networked (Western) capitalism to China. Formenti’s uncritical acceptance of the concept of prosumption is unsurprising, given his admitted acceptance of the analysis of the Negrian consensus (which, however, is itself surprising, given Formenti’s vigorously and acutely manifested awareness of its shortcomings), and the convergence of the latter and contemporary debates on prosumption within critical scholarship. However, this acceptance of the analytical validity of the concept of prosumption and its paradigmatic use allow Formenti’s analysis to dismiss Western working class behaviour as irrelevant, displaying a similar strategic disdain to that of the Negrian consensus for contemporary working classes (although targeting Western working classes as a whole and privileging class alliances in the developing world, as opposed to targeting traditional forms of work in favour of the multitude). Thus, what Formenti identifies as a ‘frankly “operaista” opinion’ (Formenti, 2011, p.138), rather than providing an alternative to the Negrian consensus, is simply a reversal of the latter’s one-sided positive reading of cognitive capitalism presented as forswearing of Formenti’s own original enthusiasm for knowledge workers as avant-garde. However, it is underpinned by the same substantive reasoning.
3.5) Conclusion This chapter has provided an assessment of Negri’s critics of old turned into contemporary dissenters with respect to the Negrian consensus guiding the cognitive capitalism debate.
While both Bologna and Formenti are often praised within Italian critical debates, not least because of their pivotal roles in earlier phases of the history of (post-)operaismo, this chapter has focused on showing how their analyses share with the object of their critiques much more than is usually recognised. Indeed, in pure post-workerist fashion, Bologna conflates different levels of abstraction (the historical and the logical), with the effect of reducing social relations of production and the (evolution of the) capitalist mode of production itself to, respectively, specific modalities of deploying labour and organising the labour process, on the one hand, and (the succession of) specific forms of exploitation, on the other. Although analytically flawed, and irrespective of the weight of own-account work and the validity of the concept of second generation autonomous worker, this allows Bologna to identify a segment of the labour force as typical of a specific epoch in the development of capitalism, portrayed as a “new” central actor of social change (as opposed to traditional workers, depicted as agents of the “old”). Considered that Bologna is himself a second generation autonomous worker (or, more prosaically, an independent worker), it is hard for the shrewd reader to resist the temptation to interpret this analysis as self-predicament writ large as a cross-section of society. Similarly, Formenti’s caustic critical analysis of the history, trajectory and development of (post-)operaismo, together with his attempt to revive a commitment to the use of Marxian categories to analyse contemporary capitalism and its dynamics, are significantly undermined by his acceptance of the concept of prosumption. Mediated by the latter, much of the analysis of Hardt and Negri and of the Negrian consensus which Formenti has kicked out of the door comes back in surreptitiously through the window. Irrespective of all of this, though, the concept functions as vector for the shift to China of a “revolutionary” class alliance which Formenti had previously identified for the West, and for the portrayal (or redefinition) of the latter as happy and exploited. Thus, rather than presenting an alternative to the Negrian consensus more in line with Marxian political economy and the original operaismo of the 1960s, the reflections of these post-workerist dissenters highlight further the state of suspension in which post-workerism survives. Thus, the battle for the heritage of operaismo itself stands reduced to nothing more than the struggle amongst competing spasmodic searches for revolutionary actors. However, all of these are animated by the same debased understanding of the processes of class recomposition and its disconnection from both broader political economic factors and a more complex, valid, even coherent, understanding of Marx’s political economy.
The critiques of post-workerist dissenting voices presented in this chapter may seem harsh, and the debate over the heritage of operaismo sterile in times of depressed labour struggles.
However, the post-workerist attitude towards the “traditional” (or Western) working class seems even more paradoxical in light of the powerful resurgence of issues, themes and, ultimately, political struggles very similar to those which were at the heart, if not outright constitutive, of the original Italian operaismo of the 1960s. These are attested in Italy by the recent resumption of conflict at FIAT (a locus classicus of operaismo) through the attempts of its Chief Executive Officer (Sergio Marchionne) to redefine the Italian system of industrial relations (Garibaldo, 2011; Gruppo Lavoro del Centro per la riforma dello Stato, 2011).
Similarly, the recent controversies surrounding the ILVA steel plant in Taranto, threatened with closure due to its environmental and health hazards (Donadio, 2012), recall the early operaista engagement with similar issues in Porto Marghera (another locus classicus of operaismo, see Wright, 2002). Indeed, it is precisely because of the weakness of workers’ movements and the crisis of representation of their interests (together with the aggravation of both during the current crisis) that a resurgence of the classical analysis of operaismo could (and should) be called for. However, if post-workerist dissent dissatisfyingly displays similar shortcomings to the Negrian consensus, a new generation of writing in the tradition of classical operaismo (both in terms of method – conricerca, that is, militant enquiry carried out through direct involvement with workers and trade unions – and classical locus of analysis – FIAT and its place and role in the system of Italian industrial relations) has recently appeared on the scene (Gruppo Lavoro del Centro per la riforma dello Stato, 2011). Although it is too early to judge its role in the context of the fortunes of (post-)operaismo, one cannot but share Mario Tronti’s (2011) high hopes for it.
This thesis has been largely a work of criticism. However, and significantly, this is not how it was originally intended. Indeed, the analytical ambitions and interests leading me to undertake this research project, together with the specific path followed during its course, were inspired by the aim of providing an answer, albeit a critical one, to questions and concerns similar to those animating much of the scholarship assessed throughout this thesis. These relate to the appropriate determination and conceptualisation of the socio-economic foundations of the KBE, the development of an understanding of what the latter imply in terms of labour process analysis, exploitation and class dynamics, as well as the appropriate conceptualisation of the place and role of software, networked computers and their attendant processes of informatisation in contemporary capitalism (not least with respect to their consequences for the capital-labour relation). Yet, genuine engagement with the theories discussed (together with their origins, trajectories and implications) and the issues they address has led me to develop a critical outlook on the KBE and the debates commonly associated with it. At this juncture, it is appropriate to reflect on whether this is a product of the existing scholarship (which would then invite the rectification of the latter’s flaws and deficiencies, its extension, or the provision of (yet) an(other) alternative version and understanding of the KBE), or whether it is a product of the research questions themselves. On the grounds of what has been argued and demonstrated throughout this thesis, there is good reason to lean towards the second option. This has several implications for my future research and for future scholarship more generally, and this conclusion will address them by way of venturing on a more speculative exercise than the chapters that have preceded it and rather than offering a mundane summary of what has gone before.
To begin with, as demonstrated at several junctures and in different ways throughout this thesis, the concept of KBE immediately brings to the fore the issues of continuity and change across socio-economic systems and, ultimately, the issue of historicity. However, as demonstrated in the course of this thesis, closer inspection of the claims of historical novelty attached to both the KBE and its post-workerist version, cognitive capitalism, fall short of rigorous scrutiny. Once recognising the obvious claims for the transhistorical nature of knowledge, science and technology as determinants of socio-economic development, rather than speaking of a KBE, it is more appropriate and useful to address the historicallydetermined character of the use, production, reproduction and accumulation of knowledge (together with that of science and technology), of the economy (together with its institutions, dynamics, processes and structures), of the mutual relations of co-determination between these domains of social life, and of the social relations embedding them. This, in turn, shifts the intellectual tasks at hand to the identification of the specific historical character and content of the knowledge, science and technology base of any given society, together with its relations with, and embedding in, both its immediate socio-institutional context and the broader systemic framework and logic provided by capitalist social relations of production.
This thesis has demonstrated how, albeit in different ways, this represents a stumbling block for the theories discussed and criticised. Indeed, the mainstream version of the KBE (together with the grievances of those opposing the privatisation and commercialisation of knowledge) is built on the characterisation of knowledge as a public good, that is, on what are understood to be intrinsic and timeless properties of knowledge (i.e. non-rivalry and non-excludability), which are then (mis)construed as underpinning the current stage of the material organisation of economic activity as a whole. However, such an analytical starting point precludes from the outset awareness and the appropriate treatment of socio-historical specificity, together with its embedding in the dialectic between the contextual and the systemic (in both its concrete manifestations and abstract logic).