Slavoj Zizek: The Privatization of General Intellect

When, due to the crucial role of general intellect in the creation of wealth through knowledge and social cooperation, forms of wealth are more and more out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, the result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual and relative transformation of the profit generated through the exploitation of labour – its transformation, namely, into rent appropriated through the privatization of general intellect. Let us consider the case of Bill Gates. How did he become the richest man in the world? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of the products that Microsoft is selling, in fact one can even argue that Microsoft is paying its intellectual workers a relatively high salary; which means that Gates’s wealth is not the result of his success either in producing better software for lower prices than his competitors or in exerting a more ruthless exploitation over his hired intellectual workers. If it were, Microsoft would have gone bankrupt long ago: people would have massively chosen programs like Linux, which are free and, according to specialists, of better quality than Microsoft. Why, then, are millions still buying Microsoft? Because Microsoft imposed itself as a quasi-universal standard that almost monopolized the field, a kind of direct embodiment of general intellect. Gates became the richest man in a couple of decades by appropriating the rent for allowing millions of intellectual workers to participate in the new form of general intellect that he privatized and controls. Is it true, then, that today’s intellectual workers are no longer separated from the objective conditions of their labour (they own their laptops, for example) – which is Marx’s description of capitalist alienation? Yes; but, more fundamentally, no: they are cut off from the social field of their work, from a general intellect that is not mediated by private capital.

– Slavoj Zizek, The Relevance of the Communist Manifesto

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