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On General Intellect - Paulo Virno

Virno discusses Marxs undeveloped concept of the general intellect, an idea that has become central to man autonomist readings of Marx see!ing to understand postfordist "i#e# post industrial$ capitalism "%,&&& 'ords$# Marxs 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 18 8, in the midst of a !reathta"ing series of political e#ents, these reflections on the !asic trends of capitalist de#elopment are not present in any of his other $ritings and in fact seem alternati#e to the ha!itual formula. %ere Marx defends $hat can hardly !e called a Marxian thesis. %e claims that, due to its autonomy from it, a!stract "no$ledge & primarily yet not only of a scientific nature ' is in the process of !ecoming no less than the main force of production and $ill soon relegate the repetitious la!our of the assem!ly line to the fringes. (his is the "no$ledge o!)ectified in fixed capital and em!edded in the automated system of machinery. Marx uses an attracti#e metaphor to refer to the "no$ledges that ma"e up the epicentre of social production and preordain all areas of life* general intellect. (he de#elopment of fixed capital indicates to $hat degree general social "no$ledge has !ecome a direct force of production, and to $hat degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself ha#e come under the control of the general intellect and !een transformed in accordance $ith it. General intellect* this +nglish expression of un"no$n origin is perhaps a re)oinder of ,ousseaus #olont- g-n-rale, or a materialist echo of the .ous Poieti"os, the impersonal and separate acti#e mind discussed !y /ristotle in 0e /nima. Gi#en the tendency for "no$ledge to !ecome predominant, la!our'time !ecomes a misera!le foundation* the $or"er steps to the side of the production process instead of !eing its chief actor. (he so'called la$ of #alue 1that the #alue of a commodity is determined !y the la!our time em!odied in it2 is regarded !y Marx as the architra#e of modern social relations, yet it crum!les in the face of the de#elopment of capitalism. .onetheless capital continues undeterred to $ant to use la!our time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces there!y created, $ith the aid of the organised $or"ing class mo#ement, !ecause the latter turned $age la!our into its o$n solid reason for !eing. /t this point Marx suggests a radically different hypothesis for emancipation from the more reno$ned ones exposed in other texts. 3n the Fragment the crisis of capitalism is no longer due to the disproportion intrinsic to the mode of production !ased on the la!our time of indi#iduals, nor to the im!alances related to the full $or"ings of the la$ of #alue, for instance to the fall of the rate of profit. 3nstead, the main lacerating contradiction outlined here is that !et$een producti#e processes that no$ directly and exclusi#ely rely on science and a unit of measure of $ealth that still coincides $ith the 4uantity of la!our em!odied in the product. /ccording to Marx, the de#elopment of this contradiction leads to the !rea"do$n of production !ased on exchange #alue and therefore to communism. 3n Postfordism, the tendency descri!ed !y Marx is actually realised !ut surprisingly $ith no re#olutionary or e#en conflictual implication. ,ather than a plethora of crises, the disproportion !et$een the role of the "no$ledge o!)ectified in machines and the decreasing rele#ance of la!our time ga#e rise to ne$ and sta!le forms of domination. 0isposa!le time, a

potential $ealth, is manifested as po#erty* forced redundancy, early retirement, structural unemployment and the proliferation of hierarchies. (he radical metamorphosis of the concept of production itself is still tied do$n to the idea of $or"ing for a !oss. ,ather than an allusion to the o#ercoming of the existent, the Fragment is a sociologists tool!ox and the last chapter of a natural history of society. 3t descri!es 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 $or"er, the $hole indi#idual $ill produce. (hat is the indi#idual $ho has changed as a result of a large amount of free time, cultural consumption and a sort of po$er to en)oy. Most of us $ill recognise that the Postfordist la!ouring process actually ta"es ad#antage in its $ay of this #ery transformation al!eit depri#ing it of all emancipatory 4ualities. What is learned, carried out and consumed in the time outside of la!our is then utilised in the production of commodities, !ecomes a part of the use #alue of la!our po$er and is computed as profita!le resource. +#en the greater po$er to en)oy is al$ays on the #erge of !eing turned into la!ouring tas". 3n order to ta"e hold of the conflict of this ne$ situation $e need to le#el a fundamental criticism at the Fragment. /ccording to Marx, the general intellect & i.e. "no$ledge as the main producti#e force & fully coincides $ith fixed capital & i.e. the scientific po$er o!)ectified in the system of machinery. Marx thus neglects the $ay in $hich the general intellect manifests itself as li#ing la!our. (he analysis of Postfordist production compels us to ma"e such criticism5 the so'called second'generation autonomous la!our and the procedural operations of radically inno#ated factories such as Fiat in Melfi sho$ ho$ the relation !et$een "no$ledge and production is articulated in the linguistic cooperation of men and $omen and their concrete acting in concert, rather than !eing exhausted in the system of machinery. 3n Postfordism, conceptual and logical schema play a decisi#e role and cannot !e reduced to fixed capital in so far as they are insepara!le from the interaction of a plurality of li#ing su!)ects. (he general intellect includes formal and informal "no$ledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and language games. (houghts and discourses function in themsel#es as producti#e machines in contemporary la!our and do not need to ta"e on a mechanical !ody or an electronic soul. (he matrix of conflict and the condition for small and great disorders under the s"y must !e seen in the progressi#e rupture !et$een general intellect and fixed capital that occurs in this process of redistri!ution of the former $ithin li#ing la!our. Mass intellectuality is the composite group of Postfordist li#ing la!our, not merely of some particularly 4ualified third sector* it is the depository of cogniti#e competences that cannot !e o!)ectified in machinery. Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in $hich the general intellect is manifest today. (he scientific erudition of the indi#idual la!ourer is not under 4uestion here. ,ather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as producti#e resources5 these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the po$er of a!straction and relation and the tendency to$ards self'reflexi#ity. General intellect needs to !e understood literally as intellect in general* the faculty and po$er to thin", rather than the $or"s produced !y thought & a !oo", an alge!ra formula etc. 3n order to represent the relationship !et$een general intellect and li#ing la!our in Postfordism $e need to refer to the act through $hich e#ery spea"er dra$s on the inexhausti!le potential of language to execute contingent and unrepeata!le statements. 6i"e the intellect and memory, language is the most common and least specialised concei#a!le gi#en. / good example of mass intellectuality is the spea"er, not the scientist. Mass intellectuality has nothing to do $ith a ne$ la!our aristocracy5 it is actually its exact opposite.

3n so far as it organises the production process and the life'$orld, the general intellect is certainly an a!straction, !ut a real one $ith a material and operati#e function. %o$e#er, the general intellect comprises "no$ledge, information and epistemological paradigms, so it also sharply differs from the real a!stractions typical of modernity that em!odied the principle of e4ui#alence. Whilst money, as the uni#ersal e4ui#alent, in its independent existence em!odied the commensura!ility of products, la!ours and su!)ects, the general intellect esta!lishes the analytical premises for any "ind of praxis. (he models of social "no$ledge do not turn #aried la!ouring acti#ities into e4ui#alents5 rather, they present themsel#es as immediately producti#e force. (hey are not units of measure5 they constitute the immeasura!le presupposition of heterogeneous effecti#e possi!ilities. (his change in the nature of real a!stractions entails that social relations are ordered !y a!stract "no$ledge rather than the exchange of e4ui#alents, $ith significant repercussions on the realm of affects. More specifically, it constitutes the !asis of contemporary cynicism 1i.e. atrophy of solidarity, !elligerent solipsism etc.2. (he principle of e4ui#alence used to !e the foundation of the most rigid hierarchies and ferocious ine4ualities, yet it ensured a sort of #isi!ility in the social nexus as $ell as a simulacrum of uni#ersality, 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 )ustice all clung to it. Whilst determining $ith apodictic po$er the premises of different production processes and life' $orlds, the general intellect also occludes the possi!ility of a synthesis, fails to pro#ide the unit of measure for e4ui#alence and frustrates all unitary representations. (odays cynicism passi#ely reflects this situation, ma"ing a #irtue out of a necessity. (he cynic recognises the primary role of certain epistemic models in his specific context, as $ell as the a!sence of real e4ui#alents5 he repeals any aspiration to transparent and dialogical communication5 from the outset, he relin4uishes the search for an inter'su!)ecti#e foundation to his praxis and $ithdra$s from reclaiming a shared criterion of moral )udgement. (he cynic dispels any illusion of prospects of egalitarian mutual recognition. (he demise of the principle of e4ui#alence manifests itself in the cynics conduct as the restless a!andonment of the demand for e4uality. (he cynic entrusts his self'affirmation to the un!ound multiplication of hierarchies and ine4ualities that the centrality of "no$ledge in production seems to entail. 7ontemporary cynicism is a form of su!altern adaptation to the central role of the general intellect. /ccording to the tradition that goes from /ristotle to %anna /rendt, thin"ing is a solitary acti#ity $ith no exterior manifestation. Marxs notion of general intellect contradicts this tradition* $hen spea"ing of general intellect $e refer to a pu!lic intellect. We can identify at least t$o main effects of the pu!lic character of the intellect. (he first one concerns the nature and form of political po$er. (he peculiar pu!lic character of the intellect indirectly manifests itself in the state through the hypertrophic gro$th of the administrati#e apparatus. (he heart of the state is no longer the political parliamentary system !ut the administration. (he latter represents an authoritarian concretion of the general intellect, the point of fusion !et$een "no$ledge and command and the re#ersed image of social cooperation. (his indicates a ne$ threshold, !eyond the long de!ated gro$ing rele#ance of !ureaucracy in the political !ody and the priority gi#en to decrees o#er la$s. We are no longer confronted $ith $ell'"no$n processes of rationalisation of the state5 on the contrary, $e no$ need to oppose the accomplished statalisation of the intellect. For the first time, the old expression reason detat ac4uires more than a metaphorical significance.

(he second effect of the pu!lic character of the intellect concerns the #ery nature of Postfordism. Whilst the traditional process of production $as !ased on the technical di#ision of tas"s 1the person ma"ing the pinhead did not produce its !ody etc.2, the la!ouring action of the general intellect presupposes the common participation to the life of the mind, the preliminary sharing of generic communicati#e and cogniti#e s"ills. (he sharing of the general intellect !ecomes the actual foundation of all praxis. /ll forms of concerted action !ased on the technical di#ision of la!our are therefore cramped. /ccomplished under a capitalist regime, the end of the di#ision of la!our translates into a proliferation of ar!itrary hierarchies and forms of compulsion no longer mediated !y tas"s and roles. (he effect of putting intellect and language, i.e. $hat is common, to $or", renders the impersonal technical di#ision of la!our spurious, !ut also induces a #iscid personalisation of su!)ectification. (he inescapa!le relationship $ith the presence of an other entailed !y the sharing of the intellect manifests itself as the uni#ersal re'esta!lishment of personal dependency. 3t is personal in t$o respects* first, one is dependent on a person rather than on rules in#ested $ith an anonymous and coerci#e po$er5 second, the $hole person, the #ery attitude of thought and action, in other $ords, each persons generic existence is su!dued 1to use Marxs expression for the experience of the indi#idual $ho reflects and exemplarily exhi!its the !asic po$ers of the human species2. Finally, our 4uestion is $hether the peculiar pu!lic character of the intellect, $hich is today the technical re4uirement of the production process, can !e the actual !asis for a radically ne$ form of democracy and pu!lic sphere that is the antithesis of the one pi#oting on the state and on its monopoly on political decision. (here are t$o distinct !ut interdependent sides to this 4uestion* on the one hand, the general intellect can affirm itself as an autonomous pu!lic sphere only if its !ond to the production of commodities and $age la!our is dissol#ed. 8ne the other hand, the su!#ersion of capitalist relations of production can only manifest itself through the institution of a pu!lic sphere outside the state and of a political community that hinges on the general intellect. (ranslated !y /rianna 9o#e (his text $as pu!lished in 6essico Postfordista 1Feltrinelli* :;;12 (ibliograph /ristotle 8n the soul, http*<<!<a<aristotle<a8so<. Marx, =arl 1>?@, Grundrisse, 6ondon* Penguin 9oo"s.