Nineteenth-Century Cognitive Capitalism?

Some of my research lately has been focusing on 19th-century technologies and economies and their relationship to the 19th-century birth of composition studies. I’m particularly interested in the ways that the economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution and American slavery intersected with composition pedagogies and the progression and development of higher education. I’ve also been teaching about the history of the digital and its relation to labor, and participating in a reading group working our way through Marx’s Capital volumes 2 and 3, and so there are a number of ideas coming together for me right now. I’ll share more on the topic of the economics of slavery later as I read further in that domain, but tonight I’m thinking about Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” from the Grundrisse and what 19th-century cognitive capitalism might have looked like, depended upon, and made possible. Already, of course, I’m anticipating the objection that I’m dehistoricizing and decontextualizing a 21st-century concept and thereby making a foolish category error. Well, fair enough. I’ll at least think through that category error. The first objection might be that there wasn’t enough of a “general intellect” (though Marx was imagining it) for there to be a cognitive capitalism in the days when capitalism itself was still young. (I date capitalism’s broad emergence and supercession of mercantilism from 1776, the year Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.) The idea of cognitive capitalism and a general intellect rely both upon a widespread system (network?) of capital and a widespread system of educating a workforce or populace (the two are necessarily distinct in the 19th century).

So we have this intersection I’m imagining coming into being that for me comes out of the passage from Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse where he writes,

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. 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; to what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

Machines are “the power of knowledge, objectified.” Elsewhere I’ve talked about imagining the classical economic factors of production—land, labor, and capital—transformed under cognitive capitalism (or, I think more precisely, under our present system of intellectual and affective economic activity) into material-technological capital (computers and algorithms and networks replacing land as the new sites of production), intellectual and affective labor (the work humans perform at those sites), and intellectual and affective capital (the relations and building blocks and books and documents and programs that humans work with and on at those sites). So Marx’s “Fragment” is where I imagine those transformations emerging from.

Lots of other folks have traced that genealogy as well. I find Paolo Virno’s work particularly helpful here, particularly in his 2007 essay on “General Intellect” (Historical Materialism 15.3) where he responds to Marx’s “Fragment.” He begins by summarizing Marx’s argument that “precisely due to its autonomy from production, abstract knowledge (primarily but not only scientific knowledge) is in the process of becoming nothing less than the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious and segmented labour of the assembly-line to a residual position. What is at stake is the knowledge objectified in fixed capital and embodied or enmeshed in the automated system of machinery” (Virno 3): Marx calls this abstract knowledge the “general intellect.” So this is already helpful, and I think the connections to our contemporary circumstance are perhaps obvious—but I want also to keep them in mind in their 19th-century context. What were the necessary preconditions for developing the “general intellect”?

Virno moves on to note that according to Marx there’s a “contradiction between a productive process that now directly and exclusively relies on science [or knowledge] and a unit of measure of wealth that still coincides with the quantity of labour embodied in products” (4) and that contradiction leads to mismeasure, imbalance, and ultimately to crisis. (That crisis would be generalized small-c crisis and also the Crisis associated with the Cambridge Capital Controversy and Piero Sraffa.) Virno further summarizes Marx’s argument that “What is learned, experienced and consumed in the time of non-labour is then utilised in the production of commodities, becoming a part of the use-value of labour-power and computed as profitable resource. Even the greater ‘capacity to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into labouring task” (5). So intellectual and affective labor becomes embedded in commodities and capital and also generalized: again, this should be familiar from our contemporary discussions of ‘playbor’ and the vanishing distinction between work and leisure time in digitally networked activities and the economic “third person criterion” (if you can pay somebody else to do it, it’s labor). But again, I’m interested in what these things might have looked like in their own 19th-century historical context when connected to the emergence of composition as a discipline, in my problematically backwards-looking dehistoricizing way.

(David Harvey somewhere makes a complaint about Jonathan Sperber’s excellent recent biography of Marx that to see Marx only as a 19th-century figure is to entirely miss the importance of his economic contributions. I entirely agree.)

The criticism Virno offers (which I think is perhaps readily apparent in many of the literature in post-Fordism that followed Virno) is that “the general intellect—that is knowledge as the main productive force—fully coincides with fixed capital, that is the ‘scientific power’ objectified in the system of machinery. Marx thus neglects the way in which the general intellect manifests itself as living labour” and so “conceptual constellations and logical schemata that cannot be reduced to fixed capital play a decisive role, since they are inseparable from the interaction of a plurality of living subjects. The ‘general intellect’ comprises formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical inclinations, mentalities and ‘language-games'” (5). There we go: it’s not just the machines, Karl; it’s not just the algorithms, Silicon Valley. That’s an easy shot to take, and it’s ground well-trod to argue for such terrain as the necessary domain of the rhetoric and the composition. But beyond that, the caution I need to keep in mind is that this suggests an argument for (unfortunately pleonastically) a generalized general intellect, not specific pieces of intellectual capital or aggregated moments of affective labor. We’re moving here back into distinguishing between concrete and abstract labor and capital, back into the careful vocabulary and analyses of Capital volume 1—which don’t seem to play well in this sense with the Grundrisse.

More to follow.

Nineteenth-Century Cognitive Capitalism?

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