image of eclipse

Abolition and the General Intellect - Stefano Harney

'As the result of his experience during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness ... complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation.'

Psychiatric evaluation of Jose Padilla, 'prisoner in the war on terror'

I would like start this essay with two questions. What is the form of capitalist production today? Who is the enemy of that form? Here are my answers. The form of capitalist production today is governance. The enemy of this form is the prisoner.

Those who understand governance as some kind of contemporary extension of governmentality do not, I believe, understand governance. Those who understand the prisoner as some kind of contemporary manifestation of homo sacer do not, I believe, understand the prisoner. The prisoner is guilty. And governance knows only this. Perhaps this does not seem like a promising, or even correct, position from which to launch a politics against capitalism today. But please allow me the chance to explain myself. To do this we will have to look again at two important terms in the workerist tradition, immaterial labour, and the General Intellect, and especially we will have to look at what I will call the pre-history of these terms.

But first we must talk about the prisoner. The prisoner brings governance into existence today, but not directly, not as Marx understood the criminal producing the criminal justice system, nor as Foucault understood the prisoner producing as a disciplinary order. Instead there is something about the prisoner that is before Marx, but after Foucault. Because today the prisoner inherits something that has long been hers already. She inherits blackness, which as Fred Moten notes, is a kind of freedom drive to which black people have traditionally had a privileged relation for historical reasons.

But here is the point. In the past this blackness and its freedom drive brought into being what Moten calls simply regulation.' Today we might say this freedom drive especially in the body of prisoner brings into being something we will call simply 'interests.' By being said to be without interests the prisoner of the war on drugs, on welfare, on immigration, on terror, brings interests into being in productive form. Or more precisely the prisoner brings into view a new realm of production and accumulation based on interests. The form of this realm will be governance, but the substance of governance itself is unknown to governance. Governance starts only in the negative, where it posits a lack of interests. Its substance comes when this stance yields interests from this absence, and profit from this identification.

But why does governance not work on the prisoner? Or to put it the other way around, why is the prisoner not made directly productive? (And he is not! Prison industries are not productive and prisons no longer resemble other institutions.) Well, to answer these questions and to learn something more about the blackness of the prisoner today, and also therefore to learn something more about blackness, and about the freedom drive, to learn why freedom today means at least in part to be without interests (and thus why it also means prison) we have to give workerism a kind of inheritance.

First however we need to add that of course interests existed before 'the prisoner without interests.' And what else could you call Jose Padilla? He was not less than human but more, able to exist in the eyes of governance, without interests. Yes of course democracy existed, and human rights, and movements too. But today we see that this socialism of interests on the grounds of private property is as productive as was once the socialism of capital on these same grounds.

Protection of this vital productivity is what transformed Jose Padilla from an animal in the eyes of the state into an alien, and this is why he was to be not just punished but feared, not just beaten but mentally incapacitated. The torture of the war on terror is not primarily focused on minds, moods, and cultures because this is an advance in technique, or a legal constraint. But because of the advent of governance. In the face of governance, the movement of movements, as Gigi Roggero and Sandro Mezzadra have noted, seems not to know itself, or rather I might say comes to know itself through its interests, which is to say through its work under the production and accumulation regime of governance.

This is a desperate situation in which even the advances of workerist and post-workerist thought seem turned against us, as for instance in the cultural industries, or in the practice of critical thought in the university. Against this form of production and accumulation through governance, I would like to pose the possibility of what I would like to call debt at a distance as a principle of association, something more problematic than inheritance. From this debt at a distance I think it follows that abolition becomes the logical demand of this association.

To do this we must do three things. First, we must trace the pre-history of immaterial labour. Next we must stand the General Intellect back on its feet. And then we must identify this debt at a distance in workerist thought, if we are to retrieve what we need from this thought, at time, I believe, when we need it most. But we cannot have it alone.

The pre-history of immaterial labour

Toni Negri says 'the new face of productive labour (intellectual, relational, linguistic, and affective, rather than physical, individual, muscular, instrumental) does not understate but accentuates the corporality and materiality of labour.' And it is important to remember that immaterial labour is what I would call, meta-material, a deepening and dispersion of labour and its command, not an escape from it.

Still the term has been subject to a great deal of misunderstanding and appropriation, misunderstanding from orthodox Marxists who tried to accommodate it to the division of productive and unproductive labour or manual and mental labour. And it has been appropriated by those looking to name their own struggles despite some important cautions issuing for instance from the work of Matteo Pasquinelli on the immaterial civil war, and the work of Arianna Bove and Erik Empson on the dark side of immaterial labour. In any event, no matter the conclusion, the focus on educated but precariously waged, European and American workers risks staging history all over again.

Against this tendency, a certain pre-history of immaterial labour might be useful, but more than that it can start us on the path to this debt at a distance, and to abolition.

CLR James taught us something important about the pre-history of immaterial labour. It started in places like the West Indies where labour was accumulated within a world economy not for its mass physical abilities alone but for its cognitive and affective capacities. In an innovative account of the plantation economies of the West Indies, James made the enigmatic statement that the slaves ran the plantations. He did not mean to soften the horror of chattel slavery with this comment but to point to the interdependencies that the slaves developed. They worked not only in the fields, but in the ports, with the sugar refining machinery, and in the houses of the slave-owners. They had to communicate in all the European languages of the colonial West Indies. They had to communicate across African languages. They had to manage the supply chain of commodities from Barbados to Liverpool, from Port of Prince to Paris, and often were involved in an even more complex set of international trade relationship that include enslaved humans, rum, guns, and West and East Asian spices, plants, and animals. To say nothing of currencies, precious stones, metals, and gold and silver. James notes that it was the slaves who knew how to fix the sugar machinery, how to communicate, how to value, how to imagine new connections and new species. And it was the slaves who provided whatever continuity, community, and affect existed on these islands, as the slave-owners came and went and overseers retreated into the brutality of their roles, and the slaves did this within a world-wide market of goods, languages, values, and sentiments. This is to say nothing of the world of affect the slaves created within the master's house and church, a mass alienation of affect unlike any feudal servitude. This was at a time, James notes, when European peasants and workers were often still tied to their bell towers.

The mass intellectuality that arose from this immaterial labour in the West Indies was first and foremost organisational. The limits of abstraction imposed by chattel slavery produced a racism that persistently rendered this organisational virtuosity vulnerable. Nonetheless these bundled affective and cognitive capacities were sufficient to produce the Haitian Revolution, a revolution that cannot be understood without the insights James provides on the first immaterial labourers who produced it. Here what we mean by organisational is precisely what is necessary to the situation. James always said that workers throw up the organisations that they need. The success of the Haitian Revolution was based on the pool of common understanding already in place among slaves thanks to the way they had been thrown together into this world economy. Neither the cane farm nor the bullwhip can explain this revolution.

And for our purposes this pre-history allows us to say that the subjects of immaterial labour may lie elsewhere today too. If the slaves produced abolition, to say nothing of new forms of capitalism, through their immersion in immaterial labour on these plantations, should we not seek this estranged inheritance today in more global ways?

Mario Tronti helped us to see thirty years ago that the worker sells more than himself, that even then the effort bargain was already a biobargain as I have called it. But this biobargain today is even stranger. Because what appears as a self-dispossession, and oppositely as Christian Marazzi says also as upkeep of constant capital in the body, is on closer view a bargain one has no right to make.

The biobargain only appears as the trading away of life to capitalist production. It is really of course, more than ever, the trading away of other lives to capitalist production. This is so in the following way. It may be remarked that with the proliferation of immaterial labour, the old strategies of the bargain around absolute surplus versus relative surplus become reversed, or at least entwined. Now it seems one can once again be asked to work all the time and the more that work involves labour-saving devices and arrangements, the more this absolute surplus strategy seems to apply. Andrew Ross's study of the use of the artist's sensibility in the soft-ware firm is a key illumination here. One never stops being an artist and thus never stops designing soft-ware under this labour process, under this strategy of absolute surplus. (This I think is why there are so many national strategies to increase the number of workers who first must understand themselves as students, a similarly absolute category.) And not only as Michael Hardt points out do work regimes that have long pursued the tension between relative and absolute become infused with immateriality, but all work starts to hold the fantasy of the absolute, the limitless resources of common linguistic, affective, and cybernetic combinations dance before those who bring the labour process, just out of reach.

But we can go further and when we do we see that, despite this biobargain, the problem of the refusal of work as the refusal of oneself may not be the problem. Recall the pre-history of the biobargain, of immaterial labour. The slaves enter chattel slavery as a race. It is not helpful to say only that racism became the justification of chattel slavery, or indenture, or sexual exploitation. What the slave has to offer is race, difference on a world scale. The slave is productive even before she is put to work, and work is already a reaction to that productivity, and a vicious one. Other productive differences lead to this world historic moment, a moment of history and politics, not development. But the point is that because difference came first, slaves were a class for themselves before they were a class in themselves. Any action of the slave was an action for the class, because of race. It was impossible to take responsibility for one's labour because that labour belonged to the race. Witness the absurdity of buying oneself into freedom. The only responsibility was to the race, to abolition. Now, this pre-history of immaterial labour needs to be addressed in the question of the biobargain and refusal. With immaterial labour, it is not one's labour, or oneself that is to be refused, but labour in general, the labour of others, and labour in itself, offered for sale as if it came from the individual worker. This can obviously not be done based on the more recent history of refusal.

Randy Martin uses the figures of leverage and arbitrage to try to give a sense of the way finance collects bodies that labour and offers them new principles of social legibility. To offer to leverage cultural expression, public opinion, mood, or human time and space is to arbitrage labour in common. It is to sell a service whose capacities do not belong to you. Randy Martin's extension of this into finance, and war, helps us understand this.

Another path may be through affect, and the beyond the human, a feminist refusal. I want to try to cut a path next to these, through the figure of the general intellect, back into its pre-history as a way to think about such a politics, a politics of abolition, a politics drawing from this debt at a distance.

The organisational source of the Haitian revolution points to something else. Immaterial labour must be linked to the general intellect. And this pre-history of immaterial labour must equally be linked to a pre-history of the General Intellect, and the link here helps us to bring into view this debt at a distance.

Standing the general intellect on its feet

Much has been made of the importance for workerist thought of a passage from the Grundrisse in which Marx talks about what he calls in English the general intellect. I cannot rehearse it all here. Should this be understood today more as commons or as what Sartre understood as the practico-inert? I tend to think the latter.

But what is important today about the general intellect, I believe, is that it is self-referential. The general intellect differs from mass intellectuality in this way I think. The general intellect is about itself. Now this seems quite important to me. What are the main resources of the general intellect today, and how are they accumulated?

In many ways they are the resources invented by the slaves. Democracy, multiculturalism, diversity, human rights, liberty, criticality, strategy, creativity, fraternity, equality, humanity these are the main resources of the general intellect today in both their cognitive and affective registers. Anyone who teaches in university business school knows this. The stereotype of the business school as a propaganda machine for the profit motive is entirely misplaced. It is factory that puts to work democracy, criticality, and humanity. It is the business scholar who is quickest to say that business is culturally diverse, discursive and ironic, and in need of democratic and liberatory impulses today. The business school is the home of the enlightenment today. Let us not console ourselves by confusing the fact that this is a contradictory position with the naïve assumption that it is a cynical position, unless by this we mean the use of cynicism too in business.

Now, who really put these resources into global circulation? Michael Hardt is right to make the connection between the movement of movements and Bandung, and Richard Wright. And we should go further. The origins of the general intellect in its dominant aspect today are overwhelmingly in the Global South and its Northern fault lines. The global circulation of these resources originates in the anti-colonial movements, including their communist inflections, in civil rights movements, and in the allied art and expressions of the Global South and its Northern interpenetrations.

But it is one thing for these resources to be put into circulation as part of a mass intellectuality, and it is another for them to become productive resources of the general intellect. For this we needed another social invention, and we got it in the 1970's. We got the full emergence of the critique of the enlightenment (already promised from Mao to Malcolm X). It took the form of being 'the class beyond interests,' a critique of enlightenment class. But it brought into being 'the class without interests' in the eyes of the state and the hands of capital, and made possible the surfacing of interests as the mark of the productive subject. The science of the interested subject of production is governance.

The so-called terrorist, whether Puerto Rican, Italian, or Palestinian emerges as a subject with whom one cannot negotiate, one who wants the destruction of civilization, one who like the suicide bomber today is said to be inscrutable politically rather than personally as in the older orientalism, or indeed an older terrorism, where that terrorism was still politics by other means. The new criminal, who cannot be rehabilitated but is violent and without redemption soon joins the terrorist without interests. But what really begins to produce this subject as a class subject, as a class of those without interests is the way their struggle came to highlight, foreground, and develop those with interests. This class of the interested subjects of production comes into view against the terrorist-criminal, stabilized in the form of the prisoner, not politically but economically, as the citizen investor, the citizen consumer, the citizen self-manager, the citizen lifelong learner, and the citizen debtor. But this class is disciplined by the prisoner, and reminded of its interests today by the threat of war, war declared against those at risk of being without interests, drug addicts, welfare mothers, enemy combatants. From here the next step is to put this class of interested subjects to work through their interests, and to work on their interests.

The mode of production called governance

Fred Moten and I have written elsewhere about governance today and its relationship to blackness, so here I will summarize only part of that here, the protocols of governance. Governance no doubt continues to exist as the lining up of the soul with politics. But equally there can be no doubt this is an inadequate account today. Today it is vital to be able to talk about work to do work, and even more vital to be able to talk about others working in order to work, and not only to talk but to sense and desire others working too.

Where does one get the capacity for this? Well we have said one can draw from this general intellect whose pre-history in the Global South was aligned to capitalist production by the emergence of the interested subject who sought to put this pre-history to work, using the circuits of capital to make it more and more self-referential.

Now, this process of accumulation cannot stop. More is needed from the Global South, hence the prominence of the governance discourse in Africa, and more is needed from the interested subjects, hence the prevalence of the biobargain. But from the perspective of management, interests are not easily taylorized. A machine for prospecting interests must be developed, the machine of governance, powered by a science of governance, and operated by immaterial labour.

Not surprisingly, NGO's are the research and development departments for this science of governance, where prototype machines are built. Think of the ethos of the NGO. The NGO worker wants not to present the interests of others (although of course often he does) but to provoke in others the self-identification of interests, to help them find their voices. The techniques for this are valuable, and find there way into business more generally as for instance in corporate social responsibility and its techniques of extraction of interests.

But the supreme site of governance is in self-management. Self-management differs from management not by being more participatory and collective, but by the rate at which new interests in quality, design, discipline, and communication can be generated and introduced into the workplace. This auto-generation of interests at the heart of governance is compulsory. We must hear your opinions, have your feedback, and include your point of view. And when representation becomes the obligation of all in the workplace, the university, and the community, democracy is put to work.

More than that, the comparison made possible by governance, the self-management of a general equivalent that it implies, the self-referentiality it practices expands the social field, arrays society against us as completed, where everyone is taken into account. And anyone who is not does not wish to be heard and included, and is without interests, is fit only to be kept away from these circuits, in prison.

How then to act not just against one's interests, but against interests, against the accumulation of democracy, criticality, and humanity in the regime of governance? How could the freedom drive remain fugitive from this society put to work? To begin to answer these questions we must take up the debt.

Debt at a distance in workerist thought

Now, these pre-histories I noted earlier are not a matter of coincidence, but nor are they a matter of simple influence, inheritance, or continuity. The matter is more profound. Because if one considers all of the major problematics of workerist and post-workerist thought, one quickly discovers that they are all pre-figured in black radical thought. Empire, exodus, measurability, social reproduction and affect, and as I have already suggested immateriality and refusal, all find their prefiguration in the black radical tradition.

As Fred Moten has written, when Marx wondered what the commodity would say if it could speak he came as close as he ever would to identifying the proletariat. The commodity that could speak, the very most possible internal critique of capital that was at the same time the very most possible outside and thus never communist in the proper sense of its immanence to capital but always communist in its total antagonism to it. Speech, language, desire, body all in antagonism to this condition of being a speaking commodity. The black radical tradition in its New World, Atlantic, diaporic registers appears externally as intractable resistance to the capitalist work regime including its new form as what Maurizio Lazzarato has called capital-life. But it also maintains itself internally by an absolute excess to this resistance that is no longer about capital at all, as Cedric Robinson helps us understand, but prior to it, and after it. And it is this priority and futurity that shows up in the form of debt at a distance.


A governmental power beyond the nation-state? A generalized ability to exercise terror against a population? A reaction to a multitude that cannot be reduced to class, nation, race or gender? Many critics could not imagine this. But not only is it imaginable from the perspective of the black radical tradition, it has been the basic condition of politics against which this tradition has worked, and worked to produce the reactions that have become empire. If one thinks about the condition of the African chattel slave, this slave does not confront nation-states, nor institutions alone, but a general global terror. If one thinks about the fugitive slave, this fugitive does not conceive of her freedom only in terms of nations or even races, but in ways that will give birth on the one hand to what will be called the biopolitical and on the other hand what Negri will call value-affect beyond measure. This is to say the drive for freedom exceeds in ambition any forms of oppression that it confronts, making it both dangerous and productive of new oppressions. Empire is the generalized form of what begins in this specific but generative antagonism. Recognizing this debt is not only important however for bringing the problematic of empire into focus, but really for bringing into focus the more vital concept of multitude which is nothing other than the generalisation of the condition of blackness as not-race, not-nation, not-gender, not-state against which all of these are arrayed in containment. One need look no further than the biographical beyond of slave narratives in this regard, where a conception of the multitude begins to emerge in inadequacy of geographical, historical, and cultural coordinates for capturing the freedom drives of these life stories, and even in the inadequacy of freedom itself which seems to require fugitivity.


This tension of fugitivity and freedom under empire helps to make productive other aspects of the problematic of empire, the controversial claim that there is no outside to empire, and related strategy of exodus. The notion of an exodus from capitalist relations, extending the idea of a refusal of the biobargain with the strategy of flight seems to be difficult to think against the idea that empire has no outside. But the fugitive faces just this condition and keeps with him the tension of fugitivity and freedom to make this escape. This question of how to refuse not work but one's life when life itself is the work of the race is the internal dimension of this original exodus. The practice of fugitivity, the escape that goes nowhere but remains escape, is a key theme in the black radical tradition.

If empire and exodus have been hard to imagine for critics of post-workerist thought, and hard to realize as fully operating problematics for post-workerists themselves in their defence, the problematic of being beyond measure has been even more unstable, leading as it does into two other key problematics, the question of affect, and back to the question of an immaterial tendency and its pre-history.

Immeasurability and affect

Can we imagine capitalism now as the real command economy? This is an important problematic of workerist and post-workerist thought. Implicit in the biobargain is the recognition of the miserable base of the wage as measure, and the rise of command in place of the bargain. Here freedom and necessity, like absolute and relative surplus strategies, seem to be reversed. Not the freedom to sell labour out of necessity, but the necessity to sell labour out of freedom, in order to realize freedom, to know it.

But this regulation of the freedom drive through the imposition of work beyond measure is prefigured. Who was discounted, not counted at all, and stolen? Who was given powers beyond measure in the same moment of theft, powers of magic, of sexuality, of sociality? Who was not separated body from potential in the labour process? The answer is the first immaterial labourers. And the answer from the first immaterial labourers was measure. Not the measure of the line but the measure of ensemble, even on the line, even chained to the line. It was the answer that measure and affect were bound, that one could not be used against the other, that one could not exist without the other. This is the freedom drive in search of the collective organisation of affect, after its alienation, after the care of the white child.

The reason I think this is important is because today a new regime of production and accumulation, the regime of governance, is itself indebted at a distance to this tradition, and especially to coming together, again, of this debt at a distance to blackness as it appears in the figure of the prisoner.

Let us come back to Jose Padilla. He is held in isolation because of his ability to communicate with others beyond interests, and beyond measure, forced to wear noise-blocking headphones and blacked out goggles whenever he left his cell. He is rendered mentally incapacitated out of fear of his ability to live beyond interest, with others. He is judged in the end, through this incapacitation, to be beyond his own interests, proving the original case. He was guilty. His case called out for abolition. He called out for abolition.

Finally we can see what it means 'not to cooperate.' Finally this means a dumb insolence of real cooperation. The prisoner does have a secret.

*This essay was first given as a guest lecture at the University of Edinburgh. I would like to thank my comrades in the Queen Mary Front.

That this war is beyond sexual contact, as Rosalind Morris says in a recent article in Social Text, seems to me to have to do with the beyond human of he or she who can seem to exist without interests.

I mean here the abolition not of prisons, but of the prisoner herself.

Tronti notes that the worker brings not only living labour, the active aspect of capital, but socialization and the class relations too. Similarly, Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Della Costa extended the biobargain through all the labour leveraged to produce the moment of the sale.

Paolo Virno holds cynicism in a new light for us, but we must add that business has for twenty accumulated cynicism as a resource for the recycling of the commodity.

A similar argument could be made about the first immaterial labour and the character of the general intellect from which it drew. The Russian Revolution and the revolutionary period of organised labour in the US and Europe up to that point source the first immaterial labour, management, and especially scientific management.

Randy Martin distinguishes these at-risk populations from the risk-embracing citizens of the economy, and I think one could say the class without interests produces both these conditions, produces the original scale of risk.

See the work of Gerard Hanlon on corporate social responsibility as an extractive industry.

I will leave aside here the direct influence of James and his circle in Detroit on workerism, as well as that of Fanon.

I take the term black radical tradition from Martin L. Kilson, particularly his late work with the

I do not have space here to discuss the historical privileging of this circuit of labour except to say it would be capitulation to governance, to interests to say that this makes less of other global circuits.

Ruth Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Joy James are the key figures in the analysis of blackness, the prisons, and abolition. And it is possible to take this analysis to a world scale.

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