General Intellect

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The "General Intellect" is a notion taken from Marx' 'Fragments on the Machines', to discuss the primacy of the cooperation of minds as productive factor, rather than the labour time of the workers. It may also refer to the socially embodied intelligence, for example in our physical and cognitive machinery and social organization.


George Por:

"What was "Collective Intelligence" in the cognitive and evolutionary contexts, becomes "general intellect," in the language of political economy. The difference is not only semantic. The general intellect embodied in the collective knowing of the society, in all the ways of its knowing, has always been a force that shaped the creative capacities and daily life of people and organizations.

"Marx suggested that at a certain point in the development of capital... the crucial factor in production will become the ‘development of the general powers of the human head’; ‘general social knowledge’; social intellect; or, in a striking metaphor, the 'general productive forces of the social brain’." (Dyer-Witheford, 1999)

A more attentive reading of Marx' Grundrisse, his notes for Das Kapital that was published after his death, reveals that it's not only the social intellect, not only the gifts of the social brain that flow into our 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..." (Arvidsson, 2006)


Adam Arvidsson:

"In a striking passage in the otherwise unreadable Grundrisse (a collection of notes never intended for publication) Marx argues that this ability to organize cooperation, what he calls General Intellect, will eventually become the most important factor of production, dwarfing the contribution of the direct labour of the workers themselves. Marx throught of General Intellect as embodied in machinery, but also in the social and affective relations that prevailed within the factory environment. It was furthermore a generally available means of production, available to everybody by virtue of their inclusion within the factory environment, their existence as ‘social individuals’. The main contribution of machinery and technology, was thus that it unleashed a genuinely social productive force in the from of new and more efficient forms of cooperation. Today the transmission belts of Marx’ steam-driven factories have become the internet. But the principle is the same. New information and communications technology increases productivity primarily because it enables new forms of cooperation. But this General Intellect is no longer confined to the time/spece of the factory. Rather it invests life in general." (

More Information

  1. Essay on the General Intellect and mass intellectuality by Paolo Virno, at
  2. Carlo Vercellone: The General Intellect and Cognitive Capitalism], Elements for a Marxist reading.
  3. Christian Marazzi: The Privatisation of the General Intellect.

Key Books to Read

Adam Arvidsson. Brands: Meaning and Value in Postmodern Media Culture, London; Routledge, 2006

Paolo Virno. A Grammar of the Multitude.

Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy.