Cognitive Capitalism

There are broadly three ways of thinking historically about capitalism. One draws on Marx’s value theory and pretty much treats capital as eternal. Its appearances may change but its essence is always the same, until the revolution, which strange to say never comes.

The second is able to think more historically. For example the regulation school came up with a convincing portrait of what it called the Fordist regime of regulation. In this version capitalism has stages, each of which are qualitatively different. But it tends to be troubled by the current stage, which can only be described negatively as lacking the attributes of the last. Hence it speaks of post-Fordism. In general, when change is described via modifiers, such as post or neo or late, one is not really thinking the specificity of an historical period, but merely saying that it is like or not like another.

The third approach is to try and define the specificity of the twenty-first century social formation. An excellent example might be Yann Moulier Boutang’s Cognitive Capitalism (Polity Press, 2011), a book which presents in English the results of a research program that has been going on in French for some time. As Boutang says, “cognitive capitalism is a paradigm, or a coherent research program, that poses an alternative to post-Fordism.” (113) It no longer takes Fordism as the norm, and it certainly does not get bogged down in theories of eternal capital. Its attention is on “new vectors of the production of wealth” (135)

This is a challenge, as not even capitalism’s biggest fans seem to have much of a clue how to describe it. Perhaps Francis Fukuyama was right, and there are no new ideas, just comedies and tragedies of repetition. But Boutang wants to step back from post-situationist thought, whether than of Baudrillard or others, for whom capital becomes an absolute, and all of politics foreclosed: “is this capitalism so absolute?” (3)

Perhaps it calls rather for a fresh analysis, “a kind of small defrag program for Marxism’s mental hard drive.” (8) “Are we, in particular, going to remain obstinately stuck to the perspective of the value of working time, of the utility or scarcity of resources, in order to measure a wealth that depends on the time of life and on the super-abundance of knowledge?” (4)

Boutang’s method is, like that of Terranova, shaped by the Italian workerist tradition, and its strong commitment to the point of view of living labor. Like them, his jumping off point is Marx’s Grundrisse, especially the ‘Fragment on Machines’, and particularly the concept of the ‘general intellect’. If Marx were to appear by time-machine in today’s California, he might find that at least some of the work being done there is no longer explainable via recourse to scarcity and physical labor. There has been another ‘great transformation’, as Karl Polanyi might call it. After mercantilist and industrial capitalism comes cognitive capitalism.

Industrial capitalism at its peal – what the regulation school calls Fordism – was characterized by cheap energy, foreign labor importation, cheap raw materials, full employment, fixed exchange rates, low or even negative real interest rates, price inflation, and wage rises in line with productivity. But rather than concentrate on the break-down of that system as the regulationists do, Boutang is more interested in the features of what replaced it.

Boutang is rather sparing with the term ‘neoliberal’, which is so often used now as a kind of linguistic operator to describe by contrast what this era is supposed to mean. The rise of finance is clearly a key feature of our times, but for Boutang neither economic ideology nor financial speculation is causative. The rise of finance is what has to be explained.

The explanation is an interesting one. With the conversion of intellectual activities into tradable assets, work dematerialized, and the contours of the company became unclear. Financialization is a way of assessing the value of production when production is no longer just about labor and things. Finance both predicts and actualizes futures in which private companies extract value from the knowledge society, where the boundaries of who ‘owns’ what can never be clear.

Cognitive capitalism has its problems, however. Ours is a time in which we witness the crash of unlimited resource extraction against limits. It is a time of “the revenge of externalities” and the predation of the “bio-fund” (20) when “the city turns into a non-city.” (22) The global urban crisis – what Mike Davis calls the Planet of Slums (Verso 2006) – is a witness to the exhaustion of positive externalities upon which capital has depended. Which would be another way of figuring what Paul Burkett, following Marx, sees as the resources both natural and human that capital uses “free of charge.”

Those are the problems cognitive capitalism appears completely unable to solve. What it did solve, after a fashion, is the problem of the network effect. Value creation now relies on public goods, on complex processes, and things that it is very difficult to price. Financialization is a response to that complexity.

Boutang follows Lazzarato in speaking of “immaterial labor” (31), a term I never liked, although not quite for the same reasons as some of Boutang and Lazzarato’s other critics. I think it is important to hang on to the materiality of information-based sciences and technologies. Indeed, information changes the way one thinks about what the ‘matter’ in materialism might be. For Boutang and Lazzarato, capitalism has changed in that “the essential point is no longer the expenditure of human labor-power, but that of invention power.” (32) Now the potential for future innovation is incorporated into pricing of future possibilities.

Immaterial labor is supposed to be an updating of Marx’s category of abstract labor, the aggregate of concrete labors that make up socially necessary labor time, or that labor time whose value is realized in exchange value when commodities are successfully sold. But perhaps there’s a more thorough rethinking of the role of information in production that is really called for here.

Boutang thinks that in its advanced centers – what the situationists called the overdeveloped world – a new form of capitalism has emerged. “We call this mutating capitalism – which now has to deal with a new composition of dependent labor (mostly waged) – ‘cognitive capitalism’, because it has to deal with collective cognitive labor power, living labor, and no longer simply with muscle power consumed by machines driven by ‘fossil fuel’ energy.” (37) Like the Italian workerists, the emphasis is on living labor, with the twist that for Boutang cognitive capitalism comes to be more dependent on it.

Cognitive capitalism is not limited to the ‘tech’ sector. As I argued in Telesthesia (Polity Press 2013), if one looks at the top Fortune 500 companies, it is striking how much all of them now depend on something like cognitive labor, whether in the form of R+D, or logistics, or the intangibles of managing the aura of brands and product lines.

Moreover, this is not a simple story of the exogenous development of the forces of production. This is not a revival of the ‘information society’ thesis of Daniel Bell and others, a theory which shied away from the complexities of capitalism. There’s a story here about power and hegemony, not just pure linear tech growth. It is interesting, for example, to watch a billion dollars or more being spent on American elections, to try to keep the fossil fuel industry’s state protections and subsidies, so that new kinds of tech intensive capital does not render it all obsolete. Boutang points towards a more complex way of understanding ‘capital’ than the Italians, for whom it is always more or les the same thing, and always purely reaction to labor’s struggles to make value for itself.

Boutang also wants to separate knowledge from information, and to avoid making a fetish of the latter. Knowledge-work is the way information is made. This is salutary. However, I wonder if it might not be the case that just as the dead labor congealed into fixed capital overtook living labor, so too the dead cognition reified into information systems might not have taken over from the living labor of knowledge workers. This might be what the era of ‘big data’ is really about. Perhaps after an era of ‘primitive accumulation’, based on the circuit K-I-K’, this has now been subsumed into the mature form of I-K-I’, where information systems shape living knowledge production to their form, and for the purpose of extracting more information, I-prime. Hence I am skeptical of one of Boutang’s key themes: “… the novelty we are witnessing is the centrality of living labor that is not consumed and not reduced to dead labor in mechanism.” (54)

It is certainly helpful, I think, to focus on knowledge as a kind of work, rather than to submit in advance to bourgeois categories, where one would speak of ‘intellectual capital’ without wondering where and how it was made. Boutang also takes his distance from the state-led schemes of the regulation school, who hanker for a return to something like an industrial world with Keynsian regulatory tools, and for whom finance can only be rent-seeking.

I would have liked to know more about the science + labor alliance policy that Boutang attributes to the French Communists in the postwar years. In Britain this was called ‘Bernalism’, after J D Bernal, its post effective advocate. What I find useful in that tradition is that, unlike in Boutang and others, it understands the problem as not one of new kinds of labor, but of labor’s potential alliance with a quite different class – what elsewhere I called the hacker class.

Given how different Boutang finds cognitive labor to be to physical labor, I question why it has to be thought as labor at all, rather than as the social activity of a quite different class. Boutang at least canvasses this possibility, in mentioning Franco Berardi’s idea of a “cognitariat” (97) and Ursula Huws of a cybertariat, but the least settled part of attempts to think the current mode of production seem to me to be questions of the classes it produces and which in turn reproduce it.

The symptom of this for me is the emergence of new kinds of property relation, so-called ‘intellectual property’, which became private property rights, an which were extended to cover an ever-wider range of information products. Boutang is aware of this: “One of the symptoms indicating that both the mode of production and the capitalist relations of production are changing is the importance assumed nowadays by institutional legal issues. Never has there been so much talk of property rights, by way of contesting them as well as by way of redefining them.” (47) Perhaps one could press this even further.

Of course, Boutang is not one of those who thinks the ‘new economy’ is somehow magically ‘weightless’. He points out that it does not eliminate material production so much as re-arrange it in space and time. “Not only are the parameters of space and time being radically altered, but the radical overhaul of representations that is underway affects the conception of acting and of the agent/actor doing things, as well as concepts of producing, of the producer, of the living and of the conditions of life on earth.” (48) While Boutang does not go there, I will: what it was not just a new stage of capitalism but a new mode of production? What if this was not capitalism, but something worse? I think it is a necessary thought-experiment, if the concept of ‘capitalism’ is ever to be a valid historical one. We need to have a sense of the conditions under which it could be said to have transformed into something else entirely.

Whenever one suggests such a thing, the counter-arguments quickly default to one or other ideological tropes. One is that if one thinks this is not capitalism, one might subscribe to some version of the California Ideology, and be oneself a dupe of various new age Powerpoint-slingers. But why does thinking one thing has ended automatically mean one must believe it was succeeded by something else? That does not follow at all. It points rather to the poverty of imagination of todays (pseudo)Marxists that can only imagine capital to eternal. They seem to have a hard enough time with Boutang’s thesis that it is in a new stage, so needless to say the thought-experiment in which something else succeeds it is literally unthinkable. Hence I would press even harder than Boutang on this: “does this not bring immediately into question the capitalist mode of production as a whole, and not just the dominant system of accumulation?” (115)

But I digress. Boutang takes a lively interest in the evident fact that in certain parts of the over-developed world, companies have. California ideology, and yet they have “discovered and invented the new form of value.” (49) He attempts to inventory them. Cognitive capitalism affects all sectors. Across the board new tech increases the power of immaterial. But tech change is no longer an exogenous resource, but the very thing accumulation aims at. Value production comes to depend on social cooperation and tacit knowledge. The complexity of markets means increasing efficiency can’t just be solved by economies of scale. Consumption has become a productive and part of research and development. Information now manages production cycles in realtime. There’s a plurality of inputs into most productions, including new kinds of labor. There are new spatial forms, including the clustering of production systems. There is a crisis of property rights, in parallel with attempts to capture positive externalities by successful firms.

Cognitive capitalism looks for spatial and institutional forms that allow it to capture value from things other than traditional labor, including all of those things that writers from Terranova to Trebor Scholz call non-labor or digital labor. Hence the rise of the network, as a third organizational form alongside the market and hierarchy. Networks are quick to identify resources when time, attention and care are what are scarce. ‘Labor’ becomes about connectivity, responsiveness, autonomy and inventiveness, and is hard to measure such labor in time units. (But is it still labor?)

What motivates this new kind of (non)labor besides wealth or power is libido sciendi, or the desire to know. “in cognitive capitalism we are witnessing the emergence of the systematic exploitation of a third passion – or desire – as a factor of efficiency in human activity deployed in an enterprise… What I am referring to here is the libido sciendi – the passion for learning and the taste for the game of knowledge.” (76)

Béatriz Préciado has a quite interesting critique of what she sees as the anti-corporeal and masculinist bias of such a way of thinking about what drives the contemporary economy. The passions might be a broader question, which is why in The Spectacle of Disintegration I went back to Charles Fourier and his theory of the twelve passions. It might be better to say that one of the things today’s economy is about is the productive use of all twelve of those passions, of which libido sciendi – or Lyotard’s parology – might be just one.

As Pekka Himanen showed already in The Hacker Ethic, there’s a quite different relation to both time and desire at work in what Boutang calls cognitive labor, and what I called the hacker class. They might at times be motivated by libertarian ideologies, but as Gabriella Coleman has shown, the actual ethnography of hackers reveals a more complex ideological field. Not that traditionally ascribed to labor, but not one entirely consumed with petit bourgeois dreams, libertarian or otherwise.

Following Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Boutang sees the development of work after Fordism as being about coopting the rebellion from work’s alienated form. “Work comes to dress itself in the clothes of the artist or of the university. The values of creativity only become capable of being exploited by an intelligent capitalism to the extent that they were promoted as a value, first experimentally and then as a norm of living.”(88) Hence, at least in part, “the ‘hacker’ individual is closer to the creative artist and the ivory-tower professor than to the risk-taker or the possessive individualist.” (90) This might not however take full account of the rose of the ‘Brogrammer’, product of elite American universities who studied programming rather than go to business school, and for whom tech is just a means to get into business. The ethnographic realities of class are always complicated.

Even so, while start-up culture is designed to shape a kind of petit-bourgeois personality, not everyone drinks that kool-aid. Many will discover that there is now a kind of second degree exploitation, not of labor per se but of one’s capacity to hack, to invent, to transform information. Who knows? Some might even question the split that this emerging mode of production forces between labor and creation, which was the basis of Asger Jorn’s very prescient situationist critique of political economy. For Boutang this new division is like that between the ‘free’ worker and the slave in mercantilist capitalism – which I must point out is a division between two different classes.

Perhaps one could even open up the question of whether the tensions within the ruling class point toward the formation of a different kind of ruling class. One part of the ruling class really insists on the enclosure of information within strict private property forms, while another part does not. One part has lost the ability to produce information goods strapped to physical objects and charge as if they were just physical objects. This is the case not just with things like movies or music, but also with drugs and increasingly with sophisticated manufactured goods. You can buy a pretty good knock-off of an iPad now for a fraction of the price.

And yet there’s a tension here, as there is another kind of value production that is all about the leaky and indeterminate way in which social knowledge gets turned into products. One could frame this as an instability for a ruling class which does not know which of these is more important, or whether both tendencies can really occur at once. Or whether it is even a split between different kinds of ruling class: one still dependent on extracting surplus labor power and selling commodities; one dependent instead on asymmetries of information and commanding the processes of social creation themselves.

In Boutang, the markets act as multiplier and vector for values produced by other means. “Like the giant Anteus, who could only recharge his strength by keeping his feet on the ground, cognitive capitalism, whose purpose is to produce value (and not commodities or use values), needs to multiply its points of contact with a society that is in motion, with living activity.” (108-109) Entrepreneurial intelligence is now about converting social networks into value. The entrepreneur is a surfer who does not create the wave. Here, like Marx, Boutang understands value creation as taking place off-stage, and made invisible by a kind of market fetishism. These days it is not the commodity that is the fetish so much as the great man of business. As if the world just issued fully formed from Steve Jobs’ brain. Cognitive capital is based on knowledge society, but is not the same thing.

There’s a tactical value in seeing cognitive and industrial capital as distinct. “The real challenge us thus to minimize as far as possible this phase during which cognitive capitalism and industrial capitalism can build anti-natural alliances in order to control, restrain or break the power of liberation of the knowledge society.” (112) Perhaps there are fissures between them that can be worked in the interests of the dispossessed peoples of all kinds.

In a lovely metaphor, Boutang talks about a ruling class that has figured out how to capture the productive labor of its worker-bees when they make honey, but is only just figuring out how to capture the value of their efforts at “pollination.” (117) What Boutang calls the knowledge society underlying cognitive capitalism is precisely that pollination, that practice of collaborative effort between humans and non-humans to make worlds. Hence: “Cognitive capitalism reproduces, on an enlarged scale, the old contradictions described by Marx, between the socialization of production and the rules of appropriation of value.” (120)

In ‘Escape from the Dual Empire’, I talked about the two-sided nature of this emerging mode of production, one looking for ways to commodify knowledge in the form of information to sell on the market, the other doing the same thing but producing military products for sale exclusively to the state. One could I think press further on this than either I or Boutang have done. The military origins of Silicon valley tend to be a bit invisible in Boutang’s account.

Boutang understands the precarity that arises out of the current, rather disorganized stage of the class struggle, and where “getting the multitude to work for free is the general line of cognitive capitalism” (133) Cognitive capital both depends on the pollinating efforts of a knowledge society built on a social-democratic pact and yet undermines it at every turn. “Knowledge becomes the raw material, but it now creates real ‘class’ divisions….” (131)

So far the only way of governing this mess that even partly works is, paradoxically enough, finance. “Finance can be said to be the only way of ‘governing’ the inherent instability of cognitive capitalism, even if it introduces new factors of instability…” (136) Hence “In the cognitive capitalism school of thought, flexible production and financialization are both seen as being subordinate to the achievement of permanent innovation (the substance of value).” (139)

The value of companies has become intangible, and accounting rules don’t quite capture the value of knowledge contained in the firm. Finance is a way of assessing and capturing the value of the externalities on which companies actually rely. Price is formed by forming opinion among traders. Financial markets are themselves part of long term capture of publics as a resource. “One could even argue that one of the main activities of cognitive capitalism is the production of different kinds of publics, of which the stock market public is not the least.” (145) This is an original and provocative thesis.

In a concluding ‘Manifesto for Pollen society’, Boutang notes that there is now “Wealth in society, but poverty of social organization…” (149) The “human cyborg” comes into being as cognitive capitalism acquits power over life itself. (150) For Boutang, the privatization of social cooperation is a regression. Particularly given the “urgency of the environmental question” one has to ask about the priorities of a mode of production that seeks more power over externalities for which it does not pay. (173) “The only thing that our magicians, pirates and conquistadors of finance have forgotten is that pollination requires the existence of bees!” (189)


McKenzie Wark

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