I just finished reading Yann Moulier Boutang’s Le capitalisme cognitif (Cognitive Capitalism). Boutang is the editor of Multitudes, a French journal closely associated with Toni Negri. The basic thesis of his book — in accord with what Hardt and Negri say in Empire and Multitude — is that we are entering into a new phase of capitalism, the “cognitive” phase, which is as different from classical industrial capitalism as that capitalism was from the mercantile and slavery-based capitalism that preceded it. This is a thesis that, in general, I am sympathetic to. On the one hand, it recognizes the ways in which 19th-century formulations of the categories of class and property are increasingly out of date in our highly virtualized “network society”; while on the other hand, it recognizes that, for all these changes, we are still involved in what has to be called “capitalism”: a regime in which socially produced surpluses are coded financially, expropriated from the actual producers, and accumulated as capital.
Ah, but, as always, the devil is in the details. And I didn’t find the details of Boutang’s exposition particularly satisfying or convincing. To be snide about it, it would seem that Boutang, like all too many French intellectuals, has become a bit too enamored of California. He takes those Silicon Valley/libertarian ideas — about the value of continual innovation, the worthiness of the free software movement, and the possibilities of unlimited digital dissemination — more seriously, or at least to a much greater extent, than they merit. The result is a sort of yuppie view of the new capitalism, one that ignores much that is cruel and repressive about the current regime of financial accumulation.
There, I’ve said it. But let me go through Boutang’s argument a bit more carefully. His starting point, like that of Hardt and Negri, and of Paolo Virno as well, is what Marx calls “General Intellect” — a concept that only comes up briefly in Marx, in the “Fragment on Machines” which is part of that vast notebook (never published by Marx) known today as the Grundrisse; but that has become a central term for (post-)Marxist theorists trying to come to grips with the current “post-Fordist” economy. (Here’s Paolo Virno’s discussion of general intellect). Basically, “general intellect” refers to the set of knowledges, competencies, linguistic uses, and ways-of-doing-things that are embedded in society in general, and that are therefore more or less available to “everybody.” According to the argument of Virno, Mauricio Lazzarato, Hardt and Negri, Boutang, and others, Post-Fordist capitalism has moved beyond just the exploitation of workers’ (ultimately physical) labor-power, and is now also involved in the appropriation, or the extraction of a surplus from, all this embodied and embedded social no-how. Rather than just drawing on the labor-power that the worker expends in the eight hours he or she spends each day in the workplace, “cognitive capitalism” also draws on the workers’ expertise and “virtuosity” (Virno) and ability to conceptualize and to make decisions: capacities that extend beyond the hours of formal labor, since they involve the entire lifespan of the workers. My verbal ability, my skill at networking, my gleanings of general knowledge which can be applied in unexpected situations in order to innovate and transform: these have been built up over my entire life; and they become, more than labor-power per se, the sources of economic value. Corporations can only profit if, in addition to raw labor power, they also appropriate this background of general intellect as well. General intellect necessarily involves collaboration and cooperation; it arises, through, and is cultivated within, the networks that have become so important, and of such wide extent, in the years since the invention of the Internet. In this way, general intellect can be thought of as a “commons” (as Lawrence Lessig and other cybertheorists say), or as the overall framework of what defines us now as a “multitude” (rather than as a particular social class, or as a “people” confined to a single nation, as was the case in the age of industrial capitalism and the hegemony of print media).
All this is well and good, as far as it goes. While I would note that the phenomena described under the term “general intellect” have not just been invented since 1975, but have existed for a much longer time — and have been exploited by capitalism for a much longer time — I don’t doubt that they have been so expanded in recent years as to constitute (as the dialecticians would put it) “a transformation of quantity into quality.” (See my past discussion of McLuhanite Marxism). Let’s provisionally accept, then, Boutang’s assertion that enough has changed in the last 30 years or so that we are moving into a new regime of capitalist accumulation. The question is, how do we describe this new regime?
It’s the form of Boutang’s description of this transformation that I find problematic. He says that the new cognitive capitalism is concerned, not so much with the transformations of material energy (labor-power) into physical goods, as with the reproduction of affects and subjectivities, of knowledges and competencies, of everything mental (or spiritual?) that cannot be reduced to mere binarized “information.” I don’t really disagree with this, to the extent that it is a question of “in addition” rather than “instead.” But Boutang leans a little too far to the opinion that “cognitive” or virtual production (what Hardt and Negri call “affective labor,” and what Robert Reich calls “symbolic analysis”) has displaced, rather than supplemented, the production and distribution of physical goods and services. The source of wealth is no longer labor-power, he says, nor even that dead labor-power congealed into things that constitutes “capital” in the traditionally Marxist sense, but rather the “intellectual capital” that is possessed less by individuals than by networks of individuals, and that is expressed in things like capacity for innovation, institutional know-how, etc.
Boutang claims that this “intellectual capital” [a phrase I hate, because an individual’s skills, knowledge, etc. is precisely not “capital”] is not depleted daily (so that it needs to be replenished) in the way that physical labor-power is under industrial capitalism; rather, it is something that increases with use (as you do more of these things, you become better at them), so that the process of replenishment (learning more, gaining skills, improving these skills or virtuosities through practice) is itself what adds value. Also, this “intellectual capital” is an intrinsically common or social good, rather than a private or individualized one. It can only be realized through network-wide (ultimately world-wide) collaboration and cooperation. For both these reasons, the appropriation of this “general intellect” is a vastly different process from that of appropriating individual workers’ labor-power. All this is exemplified for Boutang in phenomena like online peer to peer file trading, and in the open source software movement — he sees collaborative production in the manner of Linux as the new economic paradigm.
Now, I am in favor, as much as anybody is, of violating copyright, and of open source (for things like academic publications as well as for software); but I do not believe that these can constitute a new economic paradigm — they still exist very much as marginal practices within a regime that is still based largely on private property “rights” and the extortion of a surplus on the basis of those “rights.” [I should say, as I have said many times before, that I am happy for my words to be disseminated in any form, without payment, as long as the attribution of the words to my authorship — to use a dubious but unavoidable word or concept — is retained]. Boutang is so excited by the “communist” aspects of networked collaboration, or general intellect, that he forgets to say anything about how all this “cognitive” power gets expropriated and transformed into (privately owned) capital — which is precisely what “cognitive capitalism” does. He optimistically asserts that the attempts of corporations to control “intellectual property,” or extract it from the commons, will necessarily fail — something that I am far less sure of. “Intellectual property” is an oxymoron, but this doesn’t mean that “intellectual property rights” cannot be successfully enforced. You can point to things like the record companies’ gradual (and only partial) retreat from insisting upon DRM for all music files; but this retreat coincides with, and is unthinkable without, a general commodification of things like ideas, songs, genetic traits, and mental abilities in the first place.
Boutang gives no real account of just how corporations, or the owners of capital, expropriate general intellect (or, as he puts it in neoliberal economistic jargon, how they capture “positive externalities”). He seems to think that the switch from mere “labor-power” to “general intellect” as the source of surplus value is basically a liberating change. I would argue precisely the opposite: that now capital is not just expropriating from us the product of the particular hours that we put in at the workplace; but that it is expropriating, or extracting surplus value from, our entire lives: our leisure time, our time when we go to the movies or watch TV, and even when we sleep. The switch to general intellect as a source of value is strictly correlative with the commodification of all aspects of human activity, far beyond the confines of the workplace. Just as the capitalist cannot exploit the worker’s labor per se, but must extract it in the form of labor power, so the capitalist cannot exploit general intellect without transforming it into something like “cognition-power” — and this is extracted from individuals just as labor-power is. When the division between physical and mental labor is made less pronounced than it was in the Fordist factory, this only means that the “mental” no less than the “physical” is transformed into a commodified “capacity” that the employer can purchase from the employee in a way that is lesser than, and incommensurate with, the “use” the employer gets from that power or capacity. Boutang makes much of the fact that cognition is not “used up” in the way that the physical expenditure of energy is; but I don’t think this contrast is as telling as he claims. The fatigue of expending cognitive power in an actual work situation is strictly comparable to the fatigue of expending physical power in a factory. And the stocking-up of physical power and cognitive ability over the lifetime of the workers entirely go together, rather than being subject to opposite principles.
Boutang seems to ignore the fact that the regime of “intellectual property” leads to grotesque consequences such as the fact that an idea that a Microsoft employee might have when she is taking a bath, or even when she is asleep (consider all the stories of innovative ideas that come to people in dreams, like Kekule’s discovery of the “ring” structure of benzene) “belong” to the corporation, and must be left behind if and when she moves on to another job. (Let me add that it is just as absurd to assert that an idea that I come up with from a dream “belongs” to me as it is to assert that the idea belongs to my employer. All ideas come out of other ideas; nothing I do is independent of all the store of “general intellect” that I draw upon).
Boutang also seems to buy into many other of the myths of cognitive capitalism. He endorses the idea that the “flexibilization” of employment (or what in Europe is often called “precarization”) is on the whole a good and progressive thing: it “liberates” workers from the oppression of the “salariat” (I am not sure how to translate this word into English — the “regime of salary,” perhaps?). Boutang goes so far as to point to the way “new economy” corporations in the late 1990s gave out stock options in lieu of higher salary as a harbinger of the way things are being rearranged under cognitive capitalism. This seems entirely wrong to me, because it is only a subset of highly skilled programmers, and executives, who get these options. As far as I know, the people who wash the windows or sweep the floors at Microsoft or Google do not get stock options. (I don’t think the people who sit at the phones to answer consumer complaints do either).
Not to mention that you’d never know from Boutang’s discussion that over a billion people in the world currently live in what Mike Davis calls “global slums”. William Gibson is right to say that “the street finds its own uses for things”; and there are certainly a lot of interesting and inventive and innovative things going on in the ways that people in these slums are using mobile phones and other “trickle-down” digital technology. (See Ian Macdonald’s SF novel Brasyl for a good speculative account, or extrapolation, of this). But all this goes on in an overall situation of extreme oppression and deprivation, and it can only be understood in the context of the “hegemonic” uses of these technologies in the richer parts of the world (or richer segments of the societies in which these slums are located).
Also, Boutang needs to account for the fact that WalMart, rather than Microsoft or Google, is the quintessential example of a corporation operating under the conditions of cognitive capitalism. Walmart could not exist in its present form without the new technologies of information and communication — it draws upon the resources of “general intellect” and the force of continual, collectively-improvised innovation for everything that it does. Also, and quite significantly, it focuses entirely upon circulation and distribution, rather than upon old-style manufacturing — showing that the sphere of circulation now (in contrast to Marx’s own time) plays a major role in the actual extraction of surplus value. Yet WalMart shows no signs of unleashing the “creativity of the multitude” in its workings, nor of replacing the “salariat” with things like stock options for its workers. On that front, its largest innovation consists in getting rid of the central Fordist principle of paying the workers enough so that they can afford to buy what they manufacture. Instead, WalMart has pioneered the inverse principle: paying the workers so little that they cannot afford to shop anywhere other than at WalMart. It might even be said, not too hyperbolically, that WalMart has singlehandedly preserved the American economy from total collapse, in that their lowered prices are the only thing that has allowed millions of the “working poor” to retain the status of consumers at all, rather than falling into the “black hole” of total immiseration. WalMart is part and parcel of how the “new economy” has largely been founded upon transferring wealth from the less wealthy to the already-extremely-rich. But this is a process that Boutang altogether ignores; he writes as if “neoliberalism” were some sort of rear-guard action by those who simply “don’t get” the new cognitive economy. In fact, though, neoliberalism is no mere ideology: it is the actual “cognitive” motor of cognitive capitalism’s development.
Boutang even buys into the neoliberal program, to the extent that he maintains that the role of financial speculation in the current postfordist regime is largely a benevolent one, having to do with the management of the newly impalpable sources of value in the “cognitive” economy. He denies that financial speculation increasingly drives economic processes, rather than merely reflecting them or being of use to them. He needs to think more about the functioning of derivatives in “actually existing capitalism.”
All in all, Le capitalisme cognitif buys into the current capitalist mythology of “innovation” and “creativity” way too uncritically — without thinking through what it might mean to detach these notions from their association with startups and marketing plans and advertising campaigns (and how this might be done). (As a philosophical question, this is what my work with Whitehead and Deleuze leads me to).
The book ends, however, with an excellent proposal. Boutang argues for an unconditional “social wage”: to be given to everyone, without exception, and without any of the current requirements that welfare and unemployment programs impose on their recipients (requirements like behaving properly, or having to look for work, or whatever). This social wage — he gives a provisional figure of 700 euros per month, or about $1000/month at today’s exchange rates) would be paid in recompense for the fact that “general intellect,” from which corporations extract profit, is in fact the work of everyone — even and especially outside of formal work situations. Boutang spends a lot of energy showing how this proposal is fiscally feasible in Europe today, how it would rejuvenate the economy (and thus lead, in the long run, to enhanced profits for the corporations whose tax payments would finance it). What he doesn’t say, however — and perhaps does not recognize — is that, even though this proposal is perfectly feasible in terms of the overall wealth of the world economy), if it were really adopted universally — that is to say, worldwide, to all human beings on the face of the planet — it would severly disrupt the regime of appropriation that he calls “cognitive capitalism.” This is yet another example of bat020’s and k-punk’s maxim that (reversing a slogan from May 1968) we must “be unrealistic, demand the possible.” The unconditional social wage is entirely possible in terms of what the world can economically afford, but it is “unrealistic” in terms of the way that “cognitive capitalism” is structured. Demanding it pushes the system to a point of paradox, a critical point — at least notionally.