General Intellect

In his Grundrisse Marx employs a powerful image to indicate the kind of knowledge which constitutes the heart of social production: general intellect is the name he gives to the abstract knowledge on which the production of wealth and the reproduction of life rest. Marx writes: “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.” (Marx 1973: 706). This passage of the Grundrisse includes the last pages of notebook VI and the first ones of notebook VII, (ibid. 690-712) and has been referred to as “The Fragment on Machines” since the early 1960s when discussions concerning the concept of the general intellect began. As is generally known, Grundrisse is a lengthy, unfinished manuscript, composed by Marx in the years 1857-58. A limited edition of the manuscript was published in Moscow in two volumes, in 1939 and 1941 respectively. But since only three of four copies of this edition ever reached the “Western world” one can say that discussion prompted by the Grundrisse began only in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the manuscript was first effectively published in the German original only in 1953 by Dietz Verlag, Berlin. From the beginning the debate was heavily influenced by the reading of the text by the Italian workerist movement (Operaisti). The Operaisti (in primis Raniero Panzieri and Enzo Grillo, the latter also being the translator of the Grundrisse into Italian) were the first to give a completely new account of the text. According to the Operaisti, in the “Fragment on Machines”, Marx depicts a situation in which abstract knowledge becomes the main productive force on which the production of wealth rests. Marx writes: “In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour [a worker] himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather, the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth.” (Ibid. 705). The general productive force arises from social combination, the technological application of natural sciences, and scientific labour in general. Therefore, Marx writes: “The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself. As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value.” (Ibid. 105).

The interpretation of the Fragment on Machines developed by some workerists was all the more significant since it did not reduce the general intellect only to the dimension of fixed-capital.1 In fact, if general intellect is only understood as fixed-capital, the Marxian pages on machines cannot but prefigure a kind of humanism, in which the automated system of machines is going to replace human labour and, by the same token, to liberate human beings from the slavery of wage-labour. This kind of utopia has fed all kinds of socialist imageries and communist illusions even before the workerist reading of Grundrisse. Last but not least it has also nourished teleological interpretations of history based on deterministic ideas of the collapse of capital due to the force of its inner contradictions. However, we all recognise that this kind of transition towards a society finally liberated from wage labour has never taken place. Moreover, capitalism has even been able to intensify exploitation and the extraction of surplus-value from several other branches of human activity.

According to the workerists we have to give a much more controversial account of the meaning of the general intellect. In particular, we should not reduce it to fixed capital, that is to say, to the simple idea that under the new circumstances of capitalist production knowledge is encapsulated in the machines. Moreover, a new account of the meaning of the machine should also be developed, i.e. one that no longer considers the machine as an object confronting the human being. To limit these considerations to the seminal analyses of workerists, we should distinguish two main periods in the history of the interpretation of the Fragment on Machines: in the early 1960s and in the 1970s the fragment was interpreted, on one hand, as a powerful instrument for describing a situation in which human labour is going to disappear as a dominant factor of production. In this connection, human activity would be liberated from wage labour. On the other hand, by focusing on these aspects, workerists also emphasised the important role played by subjectivity (or “living labour”) in the Fragment. The transformation of the mode of production, the increasing role played by social cooperation and by knowledge, would lead to the emergence of a new class composition, i.e. to new subjects. In the 1970s the affirmation of the general intellect was interpreted as the possibility of the emergence of a new antagonistic subject, (this idea echoed, of course, the notion of the social individual present in Marx’s Fragment on Machines); a subject that was able to appropriate the wealth it was producing.

At the end of the 1990s it was already clear that the emancipatory force of the general intellect had failed to emerge. At the same time an antagonistic subject, which would be able to appropriate the common wealth, had also failed to emerge. In other words: the disappearance of labour-time as a measure of the production of wealth did not lead to the end of exploitation or to new forms of liberation. Rather, it had brought new, intensified forms of domination, misery for the masses, and wealth for small groups of capitalists.

From the 1990s a discussion began which was connected with political practices centred around the emergence of new social and political movements, and which emphasised the role of a new kind of intellectual subjectivity. This debate led to the most comprehensive and well-known analyses of the general intellect that are still at the forefront of contemporary discussions in political philosophy; discussions to which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have prominently contributed, above all with their seminal work Commonwealth (2011). Here, the general intellect plays the role of the most constitutive form of biopolitical production: a mode of production that no longer revolves around fixed capital, but rather on various forms of social interaction and of social communication. This involves language, and epistemological paradigms, but also affects and relationality. It includes all aspects that are productive and which refer to living labour and living subjects. Hence the general intellect becomes the very terrain of struggle since it is living labour that has to be continually governed in order to constitute a source of profit for capital. By the same token the general intellect is also the terrain where life, while being produced, constantly escapes various forms of government imposed by capital.

If capital exercises its domination over society through political forms such as bureaucracy, administration, finance, and monetary politicism, or by controlling communication, desires, affects, and so on, the question at issue is how the common wealth that is constantly produced by new subjects can be appropriated by those very subjects instead of by capital. In other words: in recent discussions the question of the general intellect is transformed into the question as to whether an appropriation of the common wealth is possible – which is the question of the constituent power of the common.



The term Workerism (English translation of the Italian word Operaismo) refers to a political and cultural tradition that can be traced back to political and theoretical practices emerging in Italy in the early 1960s. Workerism is nowadays a globally well-known current of thought. The publication of prominent works such as Empire (2001), Multitude (2005), Commonwealth (2011), and Assembly (2017) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has contributed tremendously to it. Moreover, the publication and translation into English and other languages of seminal works by other workerists such as Christian Marazzi, Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici, to name only a few, has established workerism on an international scale. Workerism is not a unitary political theory; it does not refer to a school of thought or to a single political subject. It is rather the encounter of multiple and diversified pathways in which we can recognize some common roots. Workerism pays specific attention to the function of subjectivity; it describes political and social processes as intrinsically ambivalent and considers the ideas of conflict, dissent, or transformation as crucial elements for interpreting the changes of our contemporary societies.

The attention workerists (operaisti) pay to the dimension of subjectivity can be traced back to the primary importance they have attributed to the notion of class composition since the beginning of the movement. This dimension was already important in the Italian workerism of the early 1900s. This was a kind of workerism imbued with the anarcho-syndicalist positions of Georges Sorel and the experience of the newspaper “Ordine nuovo” co-edited by Antonio Gramsci. It referred to the subjective figure of the professional worker, in which the handcrafted skill with its know-how still played an important role, although this professional worker was about to be integrated in the factory.

When the term workerism is employed today, one immediately thinks of the kind of political and theoretical experience which emerged in the Post-War years, or more precisely, in Italy in the early 1960s. Crucial works such as Workers and Capital by Mario Tronti, and the political work around the Italian journal Quaderni Rossi, which counted among its founders Raniero Panzieri, Romano Alquati, and Danilo Montaldi, can be considered as the pillars of the initial experience of workerism. If, on the one hand, the question of class composition and of subjectivity were still crucial in the new form of workerism of the 1960s, on the other the new workerism broke with the previous form since it introduced a new concept and practice centered on the idea of the refusal of work. In the workerism of the early 1900s there was still an idea of the pride of producers towards their own activity. This pride could not but disappear with the theorization of the refusal of work. This refusal was not only a political theorization, but the acknowledgement that the working class refused the work discipline imposed in the factories. Through political interventions in the factories, based on the method of “con-ricerca” (co-research, collaborative research), workerists could show that workers hated their work and refused their condition as workers. This refusal of work functioned as an impulse for political and social transformation. In this connection workerism was breaking with an ideology based on an ethics of work that has been the ideological cement of all socialist and communist traditions.

Workerists paid special attention to the great transformation of the capitalistic mode of production. In the 1960s and throughout the 1970s there were important changes of the mode of organization of work in the factories. A new class composition and a new subjective figure was about to emerge. The traditional figure of the professional worker was disappearing, since automated processes centered on the employment of machines were replacing it. The assembly line, a pillar of the Fordist mode of production, did not require a professional worker anymore, but rather an unskilled worker, who could perform repetitive, alienated and standardized tasks. This new figure of the worker, which emerged in this so-called Fordist stage of capitalism, was centered on the figure of the mass-worker, as the workerists called it.

While the transformation of the reality of capitalism was not at the center of the interest of the classical left wing political organizations, it was, in contrast, the main interest of groups of intellectuals, activists and researchers who conducted their first inquiries in the factories. These experiences contributed to the emergence of the current of Operaismo. The workerists looked at new forms of struggles that were invisible to traditional working-class organizations. Being unable to see the new forms of resistance, of alliances, of active struggle, the classical socialist and communist organizations could assume that struggles were simply not taking place, or that the working class was slumbering. On the contrary, the workerists were able to bring to light the multiplicity of new forms of struggle: refusal of work, sabotage, individual and collective resistance to the organization of the factory discipline. A new microphysical landscape of resistance was emerging. It was this new landscape that the irruption of 1968 couldn’t but enlarge. In fact, 1968 was the irruption of a new cycle of struggles, which were no longer based only on the opposition between the working class and capital, but also on conflicts involving several other issues: culture, imagination, language, forms of life, reproduction.

Until 1968, while analyzing the form of class composition, workerists had focused on the figure of the mass-worker. Mass-workers were migrants mainly coming from the South. The cultural stereotype, still persisting today, consisted in depicting them as “poor guys”, victims of modernity and of under-development. But the inquiries of the workerists produced a completely different account of the situation. To be sure, workerists also described the suffering and the state of deprivation of the migrants. But they also drew attention to the fact that these migrants were forced to move in the search for new forms of life, by desires, needs and curiosity, that gave them the power to flee from the misery of the peasant condition, even though this flight could also assume the guise of an illusory search for mass consumerism. These new subjects were not politicized and did not enter the classical political organizations. Reactionary forces as well as socialist and classical communist organizations targeted them as lazybones, opportunists, and reactionary subjects. In contrast, the workerists understood that behind these forms of “opportunism” there was a refusal of the work and its ethics, and also a refusal of the political and trade-union representation.

As a result, workerism was overturning a picture that had dominated the whole socialist and communist tradition. If the working class has always been presented as a victim, as a passive subject on which the development of capital imposes its own laws, if it has been reduced to an exploited labor force, the operaists were overturning this thesis by showing that capitalist development is subordinated to the working-class struggle. The logic is reversed. Movements, individual and collective resistance oblige capital to resist, to invent new forms of exploitation and new forms of organization of labor in order to bridle the force of living labor.

The mass-worker was a figure on the edge of a structural passage of capitalism. It was a thread stretched  between two processes: if the professional worker had been replaced by the mass-worker through the processes which brought about the factory, the introduction of automated processes, the decentralization of factories, and the diffusion of production in the whole of society were contributing to the disappearance of the figure of the mass-worker and to its replacement through the figure of the social-worker, i.e. the worker who no longer works  (or not only) in the factory, but is employed in different fields in the whole of society. This is what was at issue in several political interventions by Antonio Negri in the 1970s. In particular his long interview on workerism (Dall’operaio Massa all’operaio Sociale), published in 1979, brilliantly sums up the thesis. However, this new figure needed to be better defined. We could say that workerism becomes post-workerism when it starts reflecting on the passage from the social-worker to the definition of a new subject, a new class composition centered on the idea of the cognitive worker or cognitive labor. Post-workerism elaborated on this definition, involving the new characterization of labor activity as centered on cognitive labor. In this connection post-workerism starts analyzing the capitalist passage towards a post-Fordist society. To some extent post-workerism was fueled by the Italian community in exile in Paris, which gave birth, among other projects, to the political experience of the French journal Futur antérieur starting in the early 1990s, which also converged with many other intellectual experiences coming from French philosophical and political discussion.

Post-Fordism appears as the age of capitalism which was able to metabolize the critique and the antagonistic charge of the movements which struggled against Fordist society: the critique of wage-labor, the flight from the factory-prison and from the assembly line, “flexibility” as a keystone of the critique practiced by political movements in the 1970s, were assumed and reversed by the capitalistic counter revolution which started in the 1980s and which brought with itself new forms of exploitation. If flexibility in the 1970s signified the possibility to conquer new spaces of freedom, to liberate oneself from the slavery of the factory regime, then in the 1980s it became a new regime of exploitation that took the form of precarity, a political attack on the conditions of life of people. The passage from Fordism to post-Fordism was orchestrated by the capitalist counterrevolution; but it was orchestrated as an answer to the struggles of the political and social movements.

If the mass-worker was the political subject who determined the crisis of the Fordist society, post-workerism is nowadays struggling in order to define the new political subject who will be able to determine the crisis of the post-Fordist system.