General Intellect: Social Control and Abstract Culture

But machinery does not just act as a superior competitor to the worker, always on the point of making him superfluous. It is a power inimical to him, and capital proclaims this fact loudly and deliberately, as well as making use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital.

—Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1

How things turn fascist or revolutionary is the problem of the universal delirium about which everyone is silent…

—Deleuze/Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Ominously as if he’d already seen the tendency within capitalism to strip itself of the human worker, to replicate its substance-as-virtual entity, replace it with a more efficient, uniform, controlled, and automated world of never-ending production, Marx in a section of the first volume of Das Kapital would state:

It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt. We would mention, above all, the self-acting mule*, because it opened up a new epoch in the automatic system.1

One could argue that at its core capitalism is machinic through and through, that its inherent tendency has always been toward automation and Autonomization. That its inherent mode of production and being is machinic self-organization, the complex operative program of becoming autonomous and independent of its parasitic relations with its progenitors – humanity.  Marx as if reading the current news on our coming fully automated society in which workers – both manual and knowledge workers, are displaced by the advanced systems of synthetic intelligence whose expertise in calculable decision making will shape the financial and governmental algorithmic control society we are entering:

The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the worker himself. The self-valorization of capital by means of the machine is related directly to the number of workers whose conditions of existence have been destroyed by it. The whole system of capitalist production is based on the worker’s sale of his labour-power as a commodity. The division of labour develops this labour-power in a one-sided way, by reducing it to the highly particularized skill of handling a special tool. When it becomes the job of the machine to handle this tool, the use-value of the worker’s labour-power vanishes, and with it its exchange-value. The worker becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. The section of the working class thus rendered superfluous by machinery, i.e. converted into a part of the population no longer directly necessary for the self-valorization of capital… (ibid.) [emphasis mine]

Marx himself will produce examples of such displacement during the first industrial revolution in which in England when the power-loom was replaced by automation 800,000 weavers were tossed onto the streets where they lived in papery and squalor. He’ll also mention colonial India where the English cotton machinery produced an acute effect. The Governor General reported as follows in 1834–5: ‘The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’ (ibid.)

Commenting on this Automatic System and the Society that promotes it Marx states:

Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is placed in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it. (ibid.)

Martin Ford documenting the rise of advanced technologies in our own time reminds us that as machines take on that routine, predictable work, workers will face an unprecedented challenge as they attempt to adapt. In the past, automation technology has tended to be relatively specialized and to disrupt one employment sector at a time, with workers then switching to a new emerging industry. The situation today is quite different. Information technology is a truly general-purpose technology, and its impact will occur across the board. Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive as new technology is assimilated into business models—and that transition could happen quite rapidly. At the same time, the new industries that emerge will nearly always incorporate powerful labor-saving technology right from their inception.2

In fact as he states it our situation could even be more dire: “the frightening reality is that if we don’t recognize and adapt to the implications of advancing technology, we may face the prospect of a “perfect storm” where the impacts from soaring inequality, technological unemployment, and climate change unfold roughly in parallel, and in some ways amplify and reinforce each other” (ibid.). As Marx would say in an earlier tract, Grundrisse:

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.3

This notion that society has “come under the control of the general intellect” pervades Marx’s conception of capital and knowledge. As Paul Virno stipulates Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’ “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.”4 Virno will explicate, saying,

Because it organizes the productive process and the ‘lifeworld’, the general intellect is indeed an abstraction, but it is a real abstraction, endowed with a material and operative character. Nevertheless, since it consists of knowledges, informations, and epistemological paradigms, the general intellect distinguishes itself in the most peremptory manner from the ‘real abstractions’ which were typical of modernity: those, that is, which give rise to the principle of equivalence. While money, i.e. the ‘universal equivalent’ embodies in its independent existence the commensurability of products, labor, subjects, the general intellect establishes instead the analytical premises for every kind of praxis. The models of social knowledge do not equate the various laboring activities, but present themselves as ‘immediate productive force’. They are not a unit of measurement but constitute the immeasurable presupposition for heterogeneous operative possibilities. This mutation in the nature of ‘real abstractions’/the fact, that is, that it is abstract knowledge rather than the exchange of equivalents which orders social relations*/has important effects at the level of affects … it is the basis of contemporary cynicism [since it] occludes the possibility of a synthesis [and] does not offer the unit of measurement for a comparison, it frustrates every unitary representation. (Virno 2002, 149/150; Virno 2004, 63/6)

Alberto Toscano commenting on the above passage tells us that “by turning our attention to the informational praxis that has become inseparable from the production of values in a supposedly knowledge- and affect centered economy, Virno is suggesting that the ‘general intellect’ (the collective potential for thought embodied in a cooperative multitude) qua real abstraction constitutes a directly politicized form of abstraction, which is now beyond equivalence and beyond measure, directly addressing the cooperative and socialized character of abstract knowledge. In other words, what is posited here is a real abstraction beyond the commodity form: a real abstraction that is driven not by the fetishized reality of commodity-exchange, but by the cognitive and intellectual cooperation within a ‘multitude’.”5

Marx claimed 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 such as advanced search and capture programs of Google, the analytic engines of FaceBook, etc., and the surveillance systems of advanced NSA algorithms that track and index behavior of terror abroad and domestic. 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’. (ibid.)

In our age of Big Data, Cloud computing, and the embarkation of ‘cognitive capitalism’ as it merges with algorithmic governmentality and social control of scientific and cultural knowledge as part of a machinic ‘general intellect’ (AGI) “abstraction enters into the very materiality of the production process and does not just concern the form of exchange” (Toscano, 13). With the rise of ICT’s (Information and Communications Technologies) and the migration of human knowledge into the tertiary storage systems of the trace (data) the synthetic intelligences emerging along with the interfaces that capture human attention and abstract it into the dividuum (Infosphere) in which abstractions operate on abstractions we are seeing the inhuman core of capitalist Autonomization.

In such a society of traces in which our desires and thoughts are captured as raw data and filtered through systems of high-speed computing that expose us not as flesh and blood humans, but rather as dividuals – digital avatars to whose electronic body (datafile) information can be inscribed and bound we’ve been incorporated into an automatic society of hyper-control founded on the hyperindustrial, systemic and systematic exploitation of our externalized digital memories. As Bernard Stiegler we’ll say of it: “All aspects of behaviour thereby come to generate traces (data), and all traces become objects of calculation” to be massaged within an abstract system of pure abstractions.6

For Marx the general intellect poses the question of knowledge by what we call tertiary retention (our exteriorized cultural and personal memories marked, inscripted, indexed, filtered, and analyzed in technological systems). Machinic retention therefore amounts to knowledge materialized for  production, but no longer by it: conception is separated from production. The materialization of knowledge thus conceived and concretized then constitutes the heart of the hyperindustrial economic dynamic, and ultimately leads us to Marx’s question of automatization as such. That these algorithmic entities or synthetic intelligences are not concerned with us as external flesh and blood creatures, but rather with our traces and externalized/formalized features as electronic-digitized products of capitalist production; as such, our tertiary memories can be objectified, mapped, and abstracted into cognitive capitalist organizational flows to be used by the techno-commercium for further profit and exploitation is central the inhuman process of automatization of knowledge in our time. What is left outside the technocommercium of the datafied matrix is the stupefied flesh of the human death machine of sociality we conceive under the sign of the Anthropocene.

*The spinning mule was invented in 1779 by Samuel Compton after the invention of the spinning jenny and the water frame. The spinning mule was used to spin different types of fibers. The way it works is the following: a sliver or a roving of wool passes between a set of rollers. The roller draws a part the wool fibers achieving a finer and smoother sliver. The roving then spurns on bare spindles which are mounted on a moving carriage. The moving spindles draw and spin the yarn but still without any tension and therefore achieving a strong yarn that can be spurned without being broken in the process. In 1834 Richard Roberts added a camshaft, quadrant and winding chain to the regular mule in order to produce a self-acting mule. The self acting mule was considered a huge invention because human assistance was not required and therefore became the most important machine in the textile industry in the nineteenth century. The self – acting mule could spin all type of yarns; very fine yarns as well as very coarse yarns.

  1. Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics) (Kindle Locations 7999-8002). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. Martin Ford. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Kindle Locations 175-180). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
  3. Karl Marx. Grundrisse (Kindle Locations 12143-12147). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  4. Paolo Virno, “General Intellect” in Lessico Postfordista, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2001.
  5. Toscano, Alberto. Rethinking Marxism: The Open Secret of Real Abstraction. Online Publication Date: 01 April 2008
  6. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)

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