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

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Yet, and in response to the potential contradiction raised above, two sets of reasons leading to privilege the present form for this thesis can be offered. First, it must be stressed how a critical historical narrative demystifying the Knowledge-Based Economy concept already exists. This is readily found in the work recently carried out by Philip Mirowski, on the one hand, and Benjamin Coriat, on the other hand, together with their respective associates (Mirowski, Van Horn, 2005; Mirowski, Sent, 2008; Mirowski, 2008, 2011; Coriat, 2002a, 2002b; Coriat, Orsi, 2002; Coriat et al., 2003; Coriat, Weinstein, 2012; Orsi, 2002; Orsi, Moatti, 2001; Orsi, Coriat, 2005, 2006). As discussed in greater length and detail in the conclusion of this thesis, this body of work stands out for its ability to highlight the shallowness of the foundations for the concept of Knowledge-Based Economy, not least by emphasising the historical (co)evolution of the socio-economic institutions, structures, dynamics and processes underpinning the use, production, reproduction and accumulation of knowledge (together with science and technology) in advanced capitalist economies.

Nonetheless, and however much I agree with Mirowski’s and Coriat’s recent work and historical understanding of the incorporation of knowledge within capitalist dynamics, to use their account as a base for an alternative narrative could have been itself contradictory (at least for the purposes of the present thesis, but see the conclusion for considerations on the possibility of integrating and extending their more recent work). Indeed, Mirowski (1989) rejects Marx’s value theory (but see Caffentzis, 2007 for an attempt to refute Mirowski’s reading), and Coriat originally hails from workerist labour process theory (1976) only to shift soon thereafter to regulation theory (1979, 1990) – of which he is one of the forefathers – and, ultimately, to accept and praise post-fordist Japanese methods of production (1991) (although his more recent contributions, commended above, can be seen as marking a phase of reradicalisation in his work). In light of all of this, to base a rebuttal of Italian post-workerism as the one proposed in this thesis on a narrative borrowing from Mirowski and Coriat could have been seen as deeply contradictory, and probably more so than the potential contradiction suggested in the previous paragraph. Thus, while this thesis does not intend to replicate (or, at least for the time being, extend) Mirowski’s and Coriat’s recent work, it seeks to complement it in two ways: by providing an understanding of the mainstream version of the KnowledgeBased Economy together with its points of contact with the broader rhetoric attached to the latter concept outside of the discipline of economics, not least in light of economics imperialism and the contemporary state of economics; and by paying close attention on how radicalism and left-leaning scholarship have reacted to the concept of Knowledge-Based Economy and its scholarship. The first theme is explored in the first chapter, not least by offering a close reading of those contributions more directly seeking to derive a characterisation of contemporary capitalism from the classical characterisation of knowledge offered within mainstream economic theory. The second theme is explored in the second and third chapters in relation to, respectively, Italian post-workerism and its internal dissent (together with the issues of whether knowledge workers constitute a new class, and whether prosumption is an appropriate category for the study of contemporary capitalism). Albeit related, these are self-enclosed issues that commanded separate treatment.

A second set of reasons inducing to structure the thesis in its present form derives from what I have found to be problematic aspects of narrative itself with respect to the Knowledge-Based Economy concept and its relation to the economy. This is not to appeal to the cynical rejection of, and suspicious scepticism towards, narrative as bestowed upon academia by the postmodern proclamation of the “end of master narratives” (Lyotard, 1979b). If anything, and quite to the contrary, it is to denounce how such postmodern hubris (if not a narrative in itself?) has instead resulted in (and masked?) what can be likened to a veritable explosion of narratives. Indeed, the original intentions and motivation in preparing this thesis were exactly those of providing an alternative critical account of the Knowledge-Based Economy, not least by studying the socio-economic dynamics attached to software and computers as a specific case study of the former conceptualisation of contemporary capitalism. Yet, in reviewing and making sense of the existing literature, both mainstream and critical, it soon became clear to me that, as already stated at the beginning of this Introduction, the Knowledge-Based Economy is but one amongst many competing portrayals of society and/or the economy, where the latter are (mis)construed as post-industrial, post-Fordist, informational, learning, weightless, or simply “new” (Huws, 2003; Kenway et al., 2006; Carlaw et al., 2006). In addition to this, and more to the point, the literature on the Knowledge-Based Economy has characteristically focused on asserting what is its nature, how it is distinctive, and how and why this is significant. But, given that there can be as many conceptions of the Knowledge-Based Economy as there are conceptions of knowledge, the economy, and of their interaction, this has resulted in a proliferation of narratives, where particular and select aspects of reality (sometimes having relative purchase, sometimes merely contextual or altogether imaginary) are generalised and magnified into descriptions of contemporary capitalism as a whole.





Further, not only has this happened at the expense of sound theoretical conceptualisation and pushing the analysis in the wrong directions and beyond what is justifiable, but it has often had the effect of distracting from (if not outrightly masking, although in complex ways) the real nature and dynamics of contemporary capitalism, undeniably rooted in finance (as painfully evident in light of the current crisis). But, having reached these conclusions, to propose yet another version of the Knowledge-Based Economy, even if critical, inevitably appears as a complicit participation in the proliferation, if not cacophony, of competing and incommensurable narratives discussed above. It then seemed more fruitful to take part in a more fine-grained exercise of debunking, such as the one offered in the chapters of this thesis.

However, all of the above raises the issue of the methodological stance adopted in each chapter. Having chosen to structure the thesis as a set of related yet self-contained contributions, it has seemed appropriate to let the issues addressed in each chapter dictate the methodological stance best suited to address them. In the first chapter, my main motivation is to caution those positioned outside the mainstream of economics (be they economists or not) against welcoming the elaboration of a mainstream version of (and vision for) the Knowledge-Based Economy as a move of the mainstream towards greater pluralism and increased realism (along the lines proposed by Foray, 2006 and David, Foray, 2002, 2003, for example). An equally powerful motivation is easily found in the intent to caution the same constituency against the use of concepts and conceptualisations drawn from economics and which have come to permeate the broader rhetoric conventionally attached to the KnowledgeBased Economy outside of the discipline (e.g. the conceptualisation of knowledge as a public good), since these are inappropriate to understand the social character of knowledge and to defend the latter from commercialisation. Given these motivations, it has seemed adequate to adopt a broad pluralistic heterodox approach, in the intent of convincing those otherwise attracted by the Knowledge-Based Economy concept of its lack of foundations and of the necessity to build broad alliances against the mainstream. Otherwise, the second and third chapters address issues directly related to the Marxian research programme (such as exploitation and class, for example), as well as scholarship and interpretations of particular phenomena which, in various ways, are increasingly coming to be seen as improving on, if not ultimately sanctioning the obsolescence of Marxian and Marxist political economy. Thus, these two chapters adopt a methodological stance distinctly and firmly located within Marxist political economy and which takes Marx and his own work seriously, for the main motivation behind these chapters is to sound a warning against abandoning Marx’s value theory when interpreting the workings of capitalism.

In summary, this thesis does not have the pretension (nor the presumptuousness) of addressing all of what has been said (or that could possibly be said) about the KnowledgeBased Economy. Rather, it provides a reading of the latter that is relevant to some of the concerns that the Knowledge-Based Economy concept raises, together with the socioeconomic dynamics and processes usually associated to it, as judged from the perspective of economic analysis and theory. This is done from a general point of view in the first chapter, and with a specific focus on Marxian economic theory in the second and third chapters.

Nonetheless, the thesis also addresses broader themes and concerns than those strictly related to the Knowledge-Based Economy, for which the latter provides an interesting example and a useful case study. Indeed, and first, this thesis is animated by the aim of investigating the conditions and methods for the appropriate conceptualisation of the dynamic interaction and (co)evolution of the economic, the material, the social, the political, the ideal, and the cultural.

In tight connection to this, a second major thrust of this thesis lies in the aim to investigate the appropriate conditions and method for the rigorous dialogue between and across disciplines.

This is extremely important, for, while concepts from mainstream economics (such as knowledge as a public good or externalities) are increasingly borrowed from outside of the discipline (and even by radical critics, as demonstrated in the first and second chapters of this thesis), this happens in a context in which economics itself has not been shy in expanding beyond its traditional boundaries and “colonising” the subject matter of other disciplines (Fine, Milonakis, 2009). Further, this has recently been complemented and paralleled by the ambitions of sociologist who, hailing from the sociology of scientific knowledge, have moved to provide their own reading of economic phenomena, dynamics and processes (see, for an introduction, Barry, Slater, 2002a, 2002b). Yet, as will be shown in the following chapters, the picture that emerges from the discussions on the Knowledge-Based Economy (and cognitive capitalism) is one of both opportunistic and naive borrowing of concepts, rather than one of rigorous interdisciplinary dialogue. Thirdly, the material and subject matter covered in the thesis offer insights about the issues of change and continuity between and within different socio-economic systems, as well as the role played in these dynamic processes by technology and (its embedding in) historically-given social relations. While the intellectual route followed in this thesis is not the only one that could have been taken, the path of my research led me to assess these literatures, scholarship and authors in their own right, not least because they are influential (or increasingly so) irrespective of whether or not they shed light on the KnowledgeBased Economy. In essence, this thesis remains agnostic about what the Knowledge-Based Economy is (if not altogether sceptical about the existence of such a thing). To reiterate, it would be natural to expect anyone embarking on research on the latter, even from a critical perspective, to assert what is its nature, how it is distinctive, and how and why this is significant. Indeed, this is characteristic of the research addressed in this thesis. However, while this thesis refrains from such endeavour, what it demonstrates is that the answers provided to research questions along these lines have been unsatisfactory. This raises the issue of whether we need better answers or better questions. On the ground of what this thesis demonstrates and the doubts that it raises, however tentatively, speculatively and to be confirmed by future research, it seems appropriate to suggest that we are in strong need of better questions.

Chapter 1 – Debunking the Knowledge-Based Economy and the Economics of Knowledge 1.1) Introduction The notion that we are “now” living in a Knowledge-Based Economy has been circulating in various guises, with the portrayal of the economy as post-industrial at first, then informational, or simply “new”, since at least the 1960s. Furthermore, this has been accepted in the mainstream of many social sciences, to the point of having become a cliché. However, such conceptualisation of the economy has come to the fore only recently within economics itself.



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