Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins

General Intellect

Roberto Nigro

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.



Karl Marx. 1973. Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin Books.


1] Fixed-capital can be understood as means of labour. Together with the material of labour and living labour it constitutes one of the essential moments of the labour process itself. Marx explains that: “the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery” (Ibid., 692).


Roberto Nigro

Roberto Nigro is full Professor of philosophy at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. His areas of research and teaching interest include aesthetics, political philosophy, and cultural theory with a special focus on French and Italian contemporary philosophy and the legacy of German philosophy in contemporary thought.