General intellect

Paolo Virno

Entry in Zanini and Fadini (eds) Lessico Postfordista (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2001). Translation by Arianna Bove

Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’, a section of the Grundrisse, is a crucial text for the analysis and definition of the Postfordist mode of production. Written in 1858, in the midst of a breathtaking series of political events, these reflections on the basic trends of capitalist development are not present in any of his other writings and in fact seem alternative to the habitual formula.

Here Marx defends what can hardly be called a ‘Marxian’ thesis. He claims that, due to its autonomy from it, abstract knowledge – primarily yet not only of a scientific nature - is in the process of becoming no less than the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious labour of the assembly line to the fringes. This is the knowledge objectified in fixed capital and embedded in the automated system of machinery. Marx uses an attractive metaphor to refer to the knowledges that make up the epicentre of social production and preordain all areas of life: general intellect. ‘The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it’. General intellect: this English expression of unknown origin is perhaps a rejoinder of Rousseau’s volonté générale, or a materialist echo of the Nous Poietikos, the impersonal and separate ‘active mind’ discussed by Aristotle in De Anima.

Given the tendency for knowledge to become predominant, labour-time becomes a ‘miserable foundation’: the worker ‘steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor’. The so-called law of value (that the value of a commodity is determined by the labour time embodied in it) is regarded by Marx as the architrave of modern social relations, yet it crumbles in the face of the development of capitalism. Nonetheless capital continues undeterred to ‘want to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created’, with the aid of the organised working class movement, because the latter turned wage labour into its own solid reason for being.

At this point Marx suggests a radically different hypothesis for emancipation from the more renowned ones exposed in other texts. In the ‘Fragment’ the crisis of capitalism is no longer due to the disproportion intrinsic to the mode of production based on the labour time of individuals, nor to the imbalances related to the full workings of the law of value, for instance to the fall of the rate of profit. Instead, the main lacerating contradiction outlined here is that between productive processes that now directly and exclusively rely on science and a unit of measure of wealth that still coincides with the quantity of labour embodied in the product. According to Marx, the development of this contradiction leads to the ‘breakdown of production based on exchange value’ and therefore to communism.

In Postfordism, the tendency described by Marx is actually realised but surprisingly with no revolutionary or even conflictual implication. Rather than a plethora of crises, the disproportion between the role of the knowledge objectified in machines and the decreasing relevance of labour time gave rise to new and stable forms of domination. Disposable time, a potential wealth, is manifested as poverty: forced redundancy, early retirement, structural unemployment and the proliferation of hierarchies. The radical metamorphosis of the concept of production itself is still tied down to the idea of working for a boss. Rather than an allusion to the overcoming of the existent, the ‘Fragment’ is a sociologist’s toolbox and the last chapter of a natural history of society. It describes the empirical reality as it is seen. For example, at the end of the ‘Fragment’ Marx claims that in a communist society, rather than an amputated worker, the whole individual will produce. That is the individual who has changed as a result of a large amount of free time, cultural consumption and a sort of ‘power to enjoy’. Most of us will recognise that the Postfordist labouring process actually takes advantage in its way of this very transformation albeit depriving it of all emancipatory qualities. What is learned, carried out and consumed in the time outside of labour is then utilised in the production of commodities, becomes a part of the use value of labour power and is computed as profitable resource. Even the greater ‘power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into labouring task.

In order to take hold of the conflict of this new situation we need to level a fundamental criticism at the ‘Fragment’. According to Marx, the general intellect – i.e. knowledge as the main productive force – fully coincides with fixed capital – i.e. the ‘scientific power’ objectified in the system of machinery. Marx thus neglects the way in which the general intellect manifests itself as living labour. The analysis of Postfordist production compels us to make such criticism; the so-called ‘second-generation autonomous labour’ and the procedural operations of radically innovated factories such as Fiat in Melfi show how the relation between knowledge and production is articulated in the linguistic cooperation of men and women and their concrete acting in concert, rather than being exhausted in the system of machinery. In Postfordism, conceptual and logical schema play a decisive role and cannot be reduced to fixed capital in so far as they are inseparable from the interaction of a plurality of living subjects. The ‘general intellect’ includes formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’. Thoughts and discourses function in themselves as productive ‘machines’ in contemporary labour and do not need to take on a mechanical body or an electronic soul. The matrix of conflict and the condition for small and great ‘disorders under the sky’ must be seen in the progressive rupture between general intellect and fixed capital that occurs in this process of redistribution of the former within living labour.

Mass intellectuality is the composite group of Postfordist living labour, not merely of some particularly qualified third sector: it is the depository of cognitive competences that cannot be objectified in machinery. Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity. General intellect needs to be understood literally as intellect in general: the faculty and power to think, rather than the works produced by thought – a book, an algebra formula etc. In order to represent the relationship between general intellect and living labour in Postfordism we need to refer to the act through which every speaker draws on the inexhaustible potential of language to execute contingent and unrepeatable statements. Like the intellect and memory, language is the most common and least ‘specialised’ conceivable given. A good example of mass intellectuality is the speaker, not the scientist. Mass intellectuality has nothing to do with a new ‘labour aristocracy’; it is actually its exact opposite.

In so far as it organises the production process and the ‘life-world’, the general intellect is certainly an abstraction, but a real one with a material and operative function. However, the general intellect comprises knowledge, information and epistemological paradigms, so it also sharply differs from the real abstractions typical of modernity that embodied the principle of equivalence. Whilst money, as the ‘universal equivalent’, in its independent existence embodied the commensurability of products, labours and subjects, the general intellect establishes the analytical premises for any kind of praxis. The models of social knowledge do not turn varied labouring activities into equivalents; rather, they present themselves as ‘immediately productive force’. They are not units of measure; they constitute the immeasurable presupposition of heterogeneous effective possibilities.

This change in the nature of ‘real abstractions’ entails that social relations are ordered by abstract knowledge rather than the exchange of equivalents, with significant repercussions on the realm of affects. More specifically, it constitutes the basis of contemporary cynicism (i.e. atrophy of solidarity, belligerent solipsism etc.). The principle of equivalence used to be the foundation of the most rigid hierarchies and ferocious inequalities, yet it ensured a sort of visibility in the social nexus as well as a simulacrum of universality, so that, in an ideological and contradictory manner, the prospect of unconstrained mutual recognition, the ideal of egalitarian communication and this and that ‘theory of justice’ all clung to it. Whilst determining with apodictic power the premises of different production processes and ‘life-worlds’, the general intellect also occludes the possibility of a synthesis, fails to provide the unit of measure for equivalence and frustrates all unitary representations. Today’s cynicism passively reflects this situation, making a virtue out of a necessity.

The cynic recognises the primary role of certain epistemic models in his specific context, as well as the absence of real equivalents; he repeals any aspiration to transparent and dialogical communication; from the outset, he relinquishes the search for an inter-subjective foundation to his praxis and withdraws from reclaiming a shared criterion of moral judgement. The cynic dispels any illusion of prospects of egalitarian ‘mutual recognition’. The demise of the principle of equivalence manifests itself in the cynic’s conduct as the restless abandonment of the demand for equality. The cynic entrusts his self-affirmation to the unbound multiplication of hierarchies and inequalities that the centrality of knowledge in production seems to entail.

Contemporary cynicism is a form of subaltern adaptation to the central role of the general intellect. According to the tradition that goes from Aristotle to Hanna Arendt, thinking is a solitary activity with no exterior manifestation. Marx’s notion of general intellect contradicts this tradition: when speaking of general intellect we refer to a public intellect. We can identify at least two main effects of the public character of the intellect.

The first one concerns the nature and form of political power. The peculiar public character of the intellect indirectly manifests itself in the state through the hypertrophic growth of the administrative apparatus. The heart of the state is no longer the political parliamentary system but the administration. The latter represents an authoritarian concretion of the general intellect, the point of fusion between knowledge and command and the reversed image of social cooperation. This indicates a new threshold, beyond the long debated growing relevance of bureaucracy in the ‘political body’ and the priority given to decrees over laws. We are no longer confronted with well-known processes of rationalisation of the state; on the contrary, we now need to oppose the accomplished statalisation of the intellect. For the first time, the old expression ‘reason d’etat’ acquires more than a metaphorical significance.

The second effect of the public character of the intellect concerns the very nature of Postfordism. Whilst the traditional process of production was based on the technical division of tasks (the person making the pinhead did not produce its body etc.), the labouring action of the general intellect presupposes the common participation to the ‘life of the mind’, the preliminary sharing of generic communicative and cognitive skills. The sharing of the ‘general intellect’ becomes the actual foundation of all praxis. All forms of concerted action based on the technical division of labour are therefore cramped.

Accomplished under a capitalist regime, the end of the division of labour translates into a proliferation of arbitrary hierarchies and forms of compulsion no longer mediated by tasks and roles. The effect of putting intellect and language, i.e. what is common, to work, renders the impersonal technical division of labour spurious, but also induces a viscid personalisation of subjectification. The inescapable relationship with the presence of an other entailed by the sharing of the intellect manifests itself as the universal re-establishment of personal dependency. It is personal in two respects: first, one is dependent on a person rather than on rules invested with an anonymous and coercive power; second, the whole person, the very attitude of thought and action, in other words, each person’s ‘generic existence’ is subdued (to use Marx’s expression for the experience of the individual who reflects and exemplarily exhibits the basic powers of the human species).

Finally, our question is whether the peculiar public character of the intellect, which is today the technical requirement of the production process, can be the actual basis for a radically new form of democracy and public sphere that is the antithesis of the one pivoting on the state and on its ‘monopoly on political decision’. There are two distinct but interdependent sides to this question: on the one hand, the general intellect can affirm itself as an autonomous public sphere only if its bond to the production of commodities and wage labour is dissolved. On the other hand, the subversion of capitalist relations of production can only manifest itself through the institution of a public sphere outside the state and of a political community that hinges on the general intellect.


Aristotle On the soul

Marx, Karl 1974, Grundrisse, London: Penguin Books.

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