Book of the Week: Adam Arvidsson on Ethics and the General Intellect, 3

We continue the pre-publication of Adam Arvidsson’s second chapter of The Ethical Economy.

In this excerpt, Adam discusses the concept of the General Intellect, which he also defines here.


Indeed, the main productive advance of capitalism, for Marx, and for Adam Smith before him, was that it makes possible new forms of productive cooperation. In the Grundrisse and later in Capital it is clear that the concentration of capital in machinery and large factory systems makes possible new more complex forms of social organization in which the productive energies of the multitude are organized in new and more efficient ways. The contribution of machinery is thus both material and immaterial. Indeed, in the Grundrisse it seems that this reorganization of social cooperation constitutes the main productive contribution of machinery and hence the chief source of what Marx called relative surplus-value. […..] This immaterial productive contribution of machinery is what Marx calls General Intellect. General Intellect consists in a number of competences that are inscribed in the social environment organized by capitalist machinery, and hence available freely to its participants, by virtue of their existence as ‘social individuals’. These competences can be cognitive, as in technical or scientific knowledge, but they are also social and affective, as in knowledge about how to organize the production process or how to interact and function in the factory. The point to stress at this point is that General Intellect is the outcome of the re-mediation of social interaction performed by capitalist machinery in the factory. But it is by no means controlled by capital. On the contrary, the free availability of General Intellect in the social environment of the factory means that capital cannot exercise a monopoly over this productive resource. It can be employed for autonomous or even subversive purposes. General Intellect thus contains the potential for an overcoming of the forms of discipline from which this phenomenon originally emerged.

Many have argued that it was this potential autonomy at the heart of the system of advanced capitalism that drove the intensification of capitalist discipline, which marked the Fordist regime. The aim of Fordist social engineering was to reduce the potential for autonomous appropriation of general intellect and to collapse this resource coincide with the medium by which it had been made possible. The aim of Taylorist scientific management was to render productive cooperation on the shop-floor entirely directed by the machine-system by means of which it had been organized. The aim of Fordist marketing was to ensure that consumer needs and habits were predictably dictated by advertising and, latter, television. Within this order value-producing labour was defined as those practices that repeated the tasks set forth by this over-coding of General Intellect: the repetition of an isolated number of tasks in the factory, with no spontaneous interaction or communication permitted; the enactment of the structure of needs transmitted by television advertisements (as in Dallas Smythe’s ultra-Fordist theory of the ‘audience commodity’); the meticulous execution of bureaucratic tasks that saved Eichmann from any ethical responsibility for the crimes he helped to perpetrate.

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