Fragments on the Machines

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The discovery of Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’

Matteo Pasquinelli:

"Sophisticated, materialistic notions of mental labour and knowledge economy were already offered at the dawn of the Victorian age and they were already given very radical interpretations. Marx addressed the economic roles of skill, knowledge and science in his Grundrisse, specifically in the section that has become known as the ‘Fragment on Machines’. There Marx explored an unorthodox hypothesis which was not to be reiterated in Capital: that because of the accumulation of the general intellect (particularly as scientific and technical knowledge embodied in machinery),labour will become secondary to capitalist accumulation, causing a crisis of the labour theory of value and blowing the foundations of capitalism skywards. After 1989 Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ was rediscovered by Italian post-operaismo as a prescient critique of the transition to post-Fordism and the paradigms of a knowledge society and an information economy. Since then this esoteric fragment has been mobilised by many authors, including those outside Marxism, as a prophecy of different economic crises, especially since the Internet bubble and 2000 Nasdaq stock market crash. The way Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ has reached even the debate on artificial intelligence and post-capitalism is a philological adventure that is worth recapitulating.16 The Grundrisse is ‘a series of seven notebooks rough-drafted by Marx, chiefly with the purpose of self-clarification, during the winter of 1857–8’. The notebooks frequently reveal the method of inquiry and subtext of Capital, published a decade later. Yet the Grundrisse remained unpublished until the twentieth century, which means that its reception entered Marxist debates almost a century after the publication of Capital. The Grundrisse was published for the first time in Moscow in 1939 and then in Berlin in 1953. A partial Italian translation started to circulate in 1956. The complete English 45translation was to become available only in 1973,twenty years after the German edition. The denomination ‘Fragment on Machines’, to define specifically notebooks 6 and 7 ofthe Grundrisse, became canonical due to the editorial choice of Raniero Panzieri, who published their translation under the title ‘Frammento sulle macchine’ in the 1964 issue of Quaderni Rossi, the journal of Italian operaismo. In the same year Herbert Marcuse drew upon notebooks 6 and 7 in his One Dimensional Man, while discussing the emancipatory potential of automation. In 1972, in a footnote in Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari also refer to them as the ‘chapter on automation’. In 1972 they were partially published in English as ‘Notes on Machines’ in the journal Economy and Society. In 1978 Antonio Negri gave an extended commentary on the ‘chapter on machines’ in his Marx Beyond Marx seminar in Paris (on the invitation of Louis Althusser), reading it against the background of the social antagonism of the 1970s. But it was only after the Fall of the Berlin Wall that Italian operaismo rediscovered and promoted the ‘Fragment on Machines.’ In 1990 the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno drew attention to the notion of general intellect in the journal Luogo comune. Paying ironic tribute to the Spaghetti Western, he was already warning about the cycles of the concept’s revival: Often in westerns the hero, when faced by the most concrete of dilemmas, cites a passage from the Old Testament. ... This is how Karl Marx’s ‘Fragment on machines’ has been read and cited from the early 1960s onwards. We have referred back many times to these pages... in order to make some sense out of the unprecedented quality of workers’ strikes, of the introduction of robots into the assembly lines and computers into the offices, and of certain kinds of youth behaviour. The history of the ‘Fragment’s’ successive interpretations is a history of crises and of new beginnings. Virno explained that the ‘Fragment on Machines’ was quoted in the 1960s to question the supposed neutrality of science in industrial production, in the 1970s as a critique of the ideology of labour in state socialism and, finally, in the 1980s as a recognition of the tendencies of post-Fordism, yet without any emancipatory or conflictual reversal, as Marx would have wished. Whilst Marxist scholars aimed for greater philological rigour in their reading of the general intellect, militants updated its interpretation in the context of current social transformations and struggles. Post-operaismo famously forged new antagonistic concepts out of Marx’s general intellect, such as ‘immaterial labour’, ‘mass intellectuality’ and ‘cognitive capitalism’, stressing the autonomy of ‘living knowledge’ against capital. A lesson worth recalling from the Machinery Question, however, is that the issue of collective knowledge should never be separated from its embodiment in machines, instruments of measurement and Kulturtechniken. The employment of artificial intelligence in the twentieth century has abruptly reminded everyone that knowledge can be analysed, measured and automated as successfully as manual labour. Scholars have wondered where the expression ‘general intellect’ came from, as it appears only once, in English, in the Grundrisse. Virno thought he detected the echo of Aristotle’s nous poietikos and Rousseau’s volonté générale. As the ‘Fragment on Machines’ follows strains of argumentation that are similar to chapters 14 and 15 of Capital on the division of labour and machinery, it is not surprising that the missing sources can be found in the footnotes to these chapters of Capital. These common strains of argumentation are, fundamentally, Babbage’s theory of machinery, and it is by following Marx’s reading of Babbage in chapter 14 of Capital that the notion of general intellect can be reliably traced back to William Thompson’s notion of ‘knowledge labour’."