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.


1. Sean Cubitt:

"The vast resources of a shared legacy of those things no individual can function or exist without, but which no individual created or could create, such as language and mathematics."


2. 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 thought 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/space of the factory. Rather it invests life in general."



Matteo Pasquinelli:

"When in 1858 Marx used the expression (in English) ‘general intellect’, in the famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ of the Grundrisse, he was echoing the political climate of the March of Intellect and the power of ‘general social knowledge’ to, in his reading, weaken and subvert the chains of capitalism rather than those of old institutions. But it was specifically in a book of the utopian socialist, William Thompson, that Marx encountered the idea of the general intellect and, more importantly, the argument that knowledge may become a power inimical to workers, once it has been alienated by machines. Thompson’s book carried the optimistic title An Inquiry Into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Humane Happiness Applied to the Newly Proposed System o Voluntary Equality of Wealth and was published in 1824, the same year in which Owen launched the March of Intellect. The book contains probably the first systematic account of mental labour."



Maurizio Lazzarato:

"Twenty years of restructuring of the big factories has led to a strange paradox. In effect, what has been set up is the variants of the post-Fordist model both on the defeat of the Fordist worker and on the recognition of the centrality of living labour, everincreasingly intellectualised within production. In the big restructured undertaking, the work of the worker is a work which increasingly implies, at various levels, the ability to choose between different alternatives, and thus a responsibility in regard to given decisions taken. The concept of “interface”, used by sociologists in the field of communications, gives full account of this activity of the worker. Interface between different functions, between different work-teams, between levels of the hierarchy, etc… As the new management prescribes, today it is “the soul of the worker which must come down into the factory”. It’s his personality, his subjectivity which must be organised and commanded. Quality and quantity of labour are organised around its immateriality. This transformation of workingclass labour into labour of control, of management of information, into a decision-making capacity which requirtes the investment of subjectivity, touches workers in varying ways, according to their function within the factory heirarchy, but is nonetheless present as an irreversible process. Work can, thus, be defined as the ability to activate and manage productive cooperation. The workers must become “active subjects” in the coordination of the different functions of production, instead of being subjected to it as simple command. Collective learning becomes the heart of productivity, because it is not a matter of composing differently, or organising competences which are already codified, but of looking for new ones.

However, the problem of subjectivity and of its collective form, of its constitution and its development, has immediately become a problem of a clash between social classes within the organisation of labour.

We would stress that we are not describing a Utopian place of recomposition, but the terrain and the very conditions of the clash between social classes.

The capitalist must command subjectivity as such, without any mediation; the prescription of tasks has been transformed into a prescription for subjectivities, according to a felicitous definition of the team of researchers who have analysed “the caprices of the flow”.* “You are subjects” is thus the new command which rings out within Western societies. Participative management is a technology of power, a technology of constitution and of control of the “relationship of subjectivation”. If subjectivity cannot be limited to tasks of execution, it is necessary for its competences of management, communication and creativity to be compatible with the conditions of “production for production”. “You are subjects” is thus a slogan which, far from cancelling the antagonism between hierarchy and cooperation, between autonomy and command, reposes it at a higher level, because it mobilises and confronts itself with the individual personality itself, of the worker. First and foremost we are dealing with an authoritarian discourse: one must express oneself, one must speak, one must communicate, one must cooperate. The “tone” is exactly the same as that of those who were in executive command within Taylorist organisation; what has changed is the content. Second, if it is no longer possible to individualise rigidly tasks and competences (labour as it is imposed by the scientific organisation of labour), but if, on the contrary, it is necessary to open them to cooperation and collective coordination, the “subjects must be subjects of communication”, active participants within a work team. The relationship of communication (both vertical and horizontal) is thus completely predetermined within content and also in form; it is subordinated to the “circulation of information” and can only be one of its aspects. The subject is a simple relay of codification and decodification, whose transmitted message must be “clear and without ambiguity”, within a context of communication that has been completely normalised by the firm.* The necessity of commanding, and the violence which is co-natural to it, here take on a normative communicative form.

The management watchword “you are to be subjects of communication” risks becoming even more totalitarian than the rigid division between conception and execution, because the capitalist would seek to involve the very subjectivity and will of the worker within the production of value. He would want command to arise from the subject himself, and from the communcative process: the worker self-controls himself and self-responsibilises himself within his team without an intervention by the foreman, whose role would be redefined as a role of an animator.* In reality, entrepreneurs are tired of the puzzle presented by the necessity to recognise autonomy and freedom of labour as only possible forms of productive cooperation and the necessity (a life and death necessity for the capitalist) of not “redistributing” the power which the new quality of labour and its organisation imply. The new management only takes into consideration the subjectivity of the worker with a view to codifying it according to the modalities and finalities of production. What this phase of transformation still succeeds in hiding is that the individual and collective interests of the workers and those of the company are not one and the same."


Slavoj Zizek on the General Intellect as a Global Accounting Apparatus

Tere Vadén and Juha Suoranta:

"Based on a close texrual reading — a 'short-circuiting' — of Lenin, Zizek refers to the idea of general intellect as a huge 'accounting apparatus' without which, says Lenin, socialism is impossible. In the words of Lenin, to make socialism happen is to make this massive apparatus 'even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. ... This will be country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods, this will be, so to speak, something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society' (Zizek, 2006a.) For Zizek, this marks 'the most radical expression of Marx's notion of the general intellect regulating all social life in a transparent way, of the postpolitical world in which "administration of people is supplanted by the administration of things'". Zizek further notes that it is easy to criticise Lenin by referring to the horrors of the real socialist experiment in the Soviet Union, especially during Stalin's era, and the apparatus of social administrations which grows 'even bigger'. But as Zizek asks, 'Are, however, things really so unambiguous.' What if one replaces the (obviously dated) example of the central bank with the World Wide Web, today's perfect candidate for the General Intellect.?' (ibid.) What, indeed, if one replaces the example of World Wide Web with the world of open and free collaboration, including the servers and the power plants.' "


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.

See also: the concepts of Immaterial Labour ; General Cognition

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.