In the Trenches with General Intellect
I went to Mexico City over Thanksgiving to visit my wife, who is hard at work on complicated project involving a penal reform initiative there. The photos scattered through this post are from my visit, but have little to do directly with what I’m writing about.
I had lots of time to read and managed to whip through a couple of books while there, one about Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars in the early 1800s (a grim story), and the other, Paul Mason’s remarkable and highly readable Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso 2012). Mason’s book does a great job of putting the uprisings of 2011 in a longer-term historical context, as well as helping to emphasize that they are far from over (the past week’s new uprising in Egypt served as a loud exclamation point on this larger argument!). It complements in a fascinating way another short book I read the week before I left by Franco “Bifo” Berardi called The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Semiotext(e) Intervention Series No. 14). In fact, at one point Mason quotes Berardi from an essay he co-wrote with long-time cyber-theoretician Geert Lovink called “A Call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software,” labeling Berardi as the “figurehead” of “autonomism,” and crediting it as the political theory that most influenced the exploding horizontalist social uprisings of the past year.
The Marxian concept of General Intellect has been inspiring to me for a while already. I wrote about it at length in Nowtopia, using the concept to contextualize the myriad ways people take their time and technological know-how out of market relations to begin producing a social and technological foundation for a post-capitalist life. The concept goes back to Karl Marx’s Grundrisse and “the Fragment on Machines” which has been heavily plumbed in the past couple of decades for its prescient analysis of the stage of capitalism we seem to be in now, more than a century after Marx first described it. The most commonly quoted piece of it is this: “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.”
Paolo Virno wrote a much-cited essay on Marx’s concept of General Intellect wherein he criticizes Marx’s limitations on behalf of a Postfordist, autonomist sensibility:
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 labor. The analysis of Postfordist production compels us to make such criticism; the so-called ‘second-generation autonomous labor’ and the procedural operations of radically innovated factories … 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 labor and do not need to take on a mechanical body or an electronic soul.
Mason and Berardi both address General Intellect in their recent books, in interesting ways. Mason makes the simple but important point that people now “know more than they used to.” He attributes it to the proliferation of new technologies, the Internet especially, and the many portable devices that have allowed it to become part of the daily life of people across the world. Mason tends to overemphasize what we might call “technological enabling” in explaining the changes in the world lately. No doubt there are many more ways to access much more of the accumulated knowledge of humanity now than there were a generation ago, and that is a big help to an evolving population and to the diffusion of complex ideas.
But I would argue that the technology is secondary to the spreading political sensibilities that favor horizontalism vs. hierarchical structures, the increasingly commonsense idea that everyone has the capacity to contribute usefully to whatever is being done. The emergence of assemblies across the planet during the past two years, with their consultative and participatory styles, is the best evidence that something quite different is emerging beneath the lumbering collapse of the status quo. It is becoming instinctive for people to assemble themselves on an ad-hoc basis rather than building elaborate bureaucratic structures (such as political parties or unions); by doing so they have so far retained a remarkable flexibility and creativity in confrontations with the powers-that-be. That said, it is also true that there have been no definitive victories yet in terms of overthrowing life as we know it… at the same time, the millions of people who have been transformed as they participated in occupations, protests, demonstrations, etc. over the past couple of years are still alive. They weren’t slaughtered in the tens of thousands as they were after the Paris Commune in 1871, or in the millions during WWI after the widespread “Great Unrest” class wars of the 1905-1913 period.
Credit to Paul Mason for introducing the “Great Unrest” period to my awareness—I’ve been very aware of the hot class war in San Francisco from the turn of the 20th century to the 1917 entrance of the U.S. into WWI, but didn’t realize it was a nearly global phenomenon. He also makes an important analogy between that period (he is using 1908-1913) and its flourishing humanism, individualism, and cultural ferment, and our contemporary era. It’s a cautionary analogy since his point is that few involved in the bacchanalian, ribald, tradition-busting subcultures of the 1910 period could imagine that the whole of Europe would soon descend into the barbarism of WWI, much as we today have a hard time imagining the world becoming smaller again, more closed, harsher and less tolerant, or even the possibility of another globe-spanning war.
Berardi has a chapter in his book called “The General Intellect Is Looking for a Body,” and he sounds a contrary note about the liberatory prospects for the general intellect: “… even if the general intellect is infinitely productive, the limits to growth are inscribed in the affective body of cognitive work: limits of attention, of psychic energy, of sensibility.” This is part of Berardi’s longer effort to understand the transformation of work during the Postfordist era: from the life-killing rhythms of industrial factories to the fragmented, fractal, and recombinant bits of labor time that we occasionally sell to enterprises embedded in global flows of signs, symbols, fashion, software, brands, etc. But immaterial work is not all-dominating, as Berardi tends to have it in his analyses, given that as Mason correctly points out, the world’s labor force nearly doubled since the late 1980s, with millions in China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, east Asia, Africa, and South America all entering into global production, leading to a stagnation or fall in real wages in the U.S. and Europe.
Berardi became very depressed after the non-event of Y2K (hilariously he calls it “the most horrible night of my life” because he’d staked everything on claiming it would wreak havoc and nothing happened), and the near collapse of political movements after 9/11, writing elsewhere that after the unprecedented demonstrations on February 15, 2003, there might never again be a political movement capable of physically taking to the streets. When the Arab Spring and Occupy movements erupted in 2011, he was happily repudiated by reality, and wrote the aforementioned collaborative essay with Geert Lovink. Paul Mason quotes it in his book:
There is only one way to awake the lover that is hidden in our paralyzed, frightened and frail virtualized bodies. There is only one way to awake the human being that is hidden in the miserable daily life of the softwarist: take to the streets and fight.
Mason is also addressing the new social subjects who emerged during the 2011 uprisings:
But what we’ve seen since 2004, above all in the events of 2009-11, are revolts led by fragmented and precarious people. They have used the very technologies that produced the atomized lifestyle in the first place to produce communities of resistance…
When I wrote about the so-called Oakland General Strike I was making a similar point. While it wasn’t a “general strike” as understood from past shutdowns of the Bay Area or elsewhere, it was a mass strike of tens of thousands of people who for the most part are not the old working class, but rather the new one, the precarious, temporary, irregular one—still people who need money to make ends meet, but whose relationship to steady employment is haphazard at best. They are often employed in the service sector, but that can be making espresso as likely as software, and in either case, without any certainty of a steady job.
Berardi’s important, if depressing, contribution to this conversation, has been his emphasis on the social outcome of all this precarization of work.
Social subjectivity seems weak and fragmented against the backdrop of the financial assault. Thirty years of the precarization of labor and competition have jeopardized the very fabric of social solidarity, and workers’ psychic ability to share time, goods, and breath made fragile. The virtualization of social communication has eroded the empathy between human bodies… Since the 1980s, precarity has provoked a process of desolidarization and disaggregation of the social composition of work. Virtualization has been a complementary cause of desolidarization: precarization makes the social body frail at the level of work, while virtualization makes the social body frail at the level of affection.
The fragmentation of working class communities achieved by the global restructuring of the past few decades has left most people more isolated than ever. Berardi deconstructs the near-universal enthusiasm for our supposed “connectedness” by making a sharp distinction between connecting and conjoining—the former requires homogenized, standardized systems of message creation and transmission (email, facebook, etc.) and a heavily capitalized and energy-subsidized infrastructure, while the latter involves the meeting of misshapen bodies in real space and time, with the full panoply of sounds, smells, intonations, winks and nods, et al, that create deeper relationships than can ever be approached by electronic communication.
Mason is more optimistic about the outcome of network communication, arguing that it “leaves a residue of collaboration.”
…This understanding of the intangible, hidden value inside the network relationship has begun to permeate not just commerce and work, but protest. When doomed graduates, precarious workers and the poor use social networks to coordinate protests, they are waging a human fight-back against the atomizing effects of the modern marketplace.
One of the key challenges in these moments between upheavals is to dissect the relationship between liberation and cooptation that resides in nearly all our daily acts. No matter how much we might want to escape the bounds of capitalism and the logic of submission, our most subversive acts sometimes embody also the logic we are trying to escape. The most obvious example is the incessant clamor to “shop responsibly” as though we could alter the world by buying the right products, instead of understanding that every time we are reduced to “consumers” we’ve already lost the battle. But even when we engage in political efforts to fight evictions, overturn the domination of private cars, resist agribusiness, etc., we can discover that our projects are also reinforcing larger assumptions about how life should be carried on, how we reproduce ourselves within the institutional framework of this society.
Berardi again gets to an essential dilemma we face:
The prospect open to us is not a revolution. The concept of revolution no longer corresponds to anything because it entails an exaggerated notion of political will over the complexity of contemporary society. Our prospect is a paradigmatic shift: to a new paradigm that is not centered on product growth, profit, and accumulation, but on the full unfolding of the power of collective intelligence.
And this in turn brings us back to the notion of the general intellect. We know more now than we did a generation ago. We know more about how to organize ourselves within complex and highly technologically mediated relationships, maybe more than any previous constellation of people on earth. And maybe, just maybe, we’re becoming aware of the insane speed-up and intensification that has been imposed on our lives by the virtualization of communication, the imposition of a 24/7 economy that requires full attention at all times. The slower pace offered by bicycling, by growing and/or preparing your own food, by stopping to talk to neighbors in the street, by occupying public spaces in assemblies and taking as long as it takes to hear everyone out—all of these are examples of a human pace taking the deliberate steps it will take to derail the empty frenzy of modern life whose main purpose is to keep us dazed and confused, wondering why we’re missing out when everyone else is having such a good life.
Actually the good life is there to be produced, but not as isolated individuals. It’s only something we can do together.