This is not intended to be a forensic analysis of the concept, just some notes on what seem to be key features of the concept, mainly drawing on Paolo Virno’s work on the General Intellect. It all starts with a passage in Marx where he builds on the idea that knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, becomes productive for capitalism at one remove from the human labour process as it is embedded and embodied in machines. This has consequences for human labour since, as the labour process becomes intensified via knowledge and machinery, the position of many workers becomes more precarious through deskilling, technology substitution and becoming surplus to requirements.
However, as the capitalist means of production develops the knowledge component of the means of production, this is not limited to scientific forms of knowledge. It also includes the all the forms of knowledge developing socially within the institutions of the capitalist system by workers. Marx refers to this as the ‘general intellect’ developed through social life and which becomes, under the conditions of capitalism, “a direct force of production”.
A key point here seems to be that the general intellect is not necessarily or inevitably contained within and restricted to its development as a force of production, i.e. in the service of the system of production and its legitimation. The general intellect has the potential, presumably under certain conditions, to become critical of the system and its role within the system.
Containing as it does science and other forms of knowledge, including common sense, art and cultural production generally, the general intellect can be both a force in production (of commodities for the market) and also a source of material for the process of commodification as well. The process of the commodification of knowledge that can be sold as a factor in production or as a commodity bought for its use value is well known. It is under conditions of post-modernity that this process fully explores the potential for commodifying culture and experiences. Free, leisure and private time, i.e. outside of the labour process of production, becomes another sort of labour, the labour of consumption, of enjoyment, of status building and maintenance, and so on. In this way culture and all aspects of the life-world are brought into the web of capitalist economic and social relations.
What is learned, carried out and consumed in the time outside of labour is then utilised in the production of commodities, becomes a part of the use value of labour power and is computed as profitable resource. Even the greater ‘power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into labouring task. […] The ‘general intellect’ includes formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’. Thoughts and discourses function in themselves as productive ‘machines’ in contemporary labour and do not need to take on a mechanical body or an electronic soul. The matrix of conflict and the condition for small and great ‘disorders under the sky’ must be seen in the progressive rupture between general intellect and fixed capital that occurs in this process of redistribution of the former within living labour. (Emphasis added).
But, as noted above, the general intellect is not irrevocably tied to the process of production and consumption.
Mass intellectuality is the composite group of Postfordist living labour, not merely of some particularly qualified third sector: it is the depository of cognitive competences that cannot be objectified in machinery. Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity. General intellect needs to be understood literally as intellect in general: the faculty and power to think, rather than the works produced by thought – a book, an algebra formula etc. (Emphasis added).
Some insight is given into this potential for mass intellectuality to become radical and how this can be promoted in an address given in Barcelona January 2009 by the activist, writer and curator Marco Baravalle. He points out that a great deal of cultural work in Venice, in the private galleries and museums, is done without a wage by interns, often doing other badly paid jobs as well in the tourist industry. In both cases they are employed, paid and unpaid, for their knowledge at various levels.
Today, in Venice, on the side of the technical composition, we are facing that famous full exploitation of life (quoting Paolo Virno and others) that involves language, affects, creativity, relationships.
The typical type of worker exploited by the ‘culture factory’ in Venice is
… white, female, young, qualified (usually with a master’s degree in arts or human sciences), employed in a second job linked to touristic economy and with a lot of experience of not remunerated labour in other cultural institutions (the system of trainings). This not remunerated labour is a plague that can last far beyond the end of the educational career of the worker, in a perverted system in which the illusion of a hiring in the cultural factory, pushes the young precarious to work more and more for free.
And, rather in the way Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism) demonstrates capitalism’s abiliy to exploit seemingly anti-capitalist tendencies, either by commodifying them or subverting them in the cause of legitimating itself, Baravalle notes:
… living in a culture factory means to face a kind of capitalism eager for uniqueness, authenticity, alternative ways of life, etc. A kind of capitalism that tends to parasite informal cultural production and peculiar forms of life in order to trigger monopoly rent, in order to make money out of real estate speculation, for example. This process of putting to value the collective symbolic capital is based on the necessity to find new marks of distinction attached to a place, included those formed by local resistances, media-activists and social centres.
The process is parasitic because it is merely a process of:
… capturing, trapping and exploiting what subjectivities creates. Postfordist capitalism, with its articulated devices of governance, is characterized by a total incapability of creating . That’s why it is correct to describe the capitalistic process of valorisation of the immaterial dimension as parasitic.
And herein lies one of the contradictions that is capable of producing a critical consciousness within the general intellect. What is needed, according to Baravalle, are:
… institutions of the common [whereby] the institutionalisation of our spaces and practices responds to the need of collectively organizing something that is more than a personal action and that can break the process of capitalistic governance and valorisation.
This needs a clear analysis and bringing in to mass intellectuality a recognition of how the culture factory works. We need to
… look at the latter as a factory, [as a] means to underline the importance of the relationships of production that structure it. It means to study who’s taking advantage of the value socially produced in the metropolis and who’s being exploited and how it happens. But it means also to analyze the power of the different types of metropolitan workers to reclaim that socially produced value, it means to be aware of the existing subjectivities and to empower them, or to work with the goal of creating and organizing new ones.