Traditional Marxism and intellectual production, Part 2

(A continuation of part 1.)

If we look only at recent Marxist research on intellectuals, we essentially find two bodies of theory, neither of which is entirely satisfactory. On one hand, we have studies that consider the class position of intellectual workers (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1976, Meisenhelder 1986) or that look at labor relations within academic institutions (Bousquet 2008). Such studies are often quite informative, as far as they go, but generally fail to investigate the form or content of intellectual knowledge. A second much more ambitious project, that of Italian “workerist” Marxism, tries to retheorize knowledge at the very center of capitalist production, arguing that we are in a new era of “cognitive capitalism” in which the main objects of production are “knowledge, information, communication and affect” (Hardt 1999:91), rather than industrial commodities as such. This project draws attention to shifts towards a service economy, to an increasing emphasis on commodified knowledge, to an “informatization” of the production process, and to an emphasis on producing subjectivity and “affect” (or “feelings”) for consumers. Unfortunately, it is a body of thought characterized by hyperbole, by claims to have diagnosed a new epoch of capitalism, and by insistent allegations that most past categories are obsolete. Maurizio Lazzarato, for instance, dismisses Marx’s classical distinction between mental and manual labor (1996:133), arguing that “the fact that immaterial labor produces subjectivity and economic value at the same time demonstrates how capitalist production has invaded our lives and has broken down all the oppositions among economy, power, and knowledge” (142). This entails the view that intellectual labor has been almost completely generalized around the globe. Indeed, Lazzarato argues that as capitalism has figured out new ways to reappropriate and refunctionalize mass struggles against work, as capitalism has taken advantage of the masses’ desires to be cultural producers, “a new ‘mass intellectuality’ has come into being” (133).

Certainly there is some reality to the trends diagnosed by the immaterial labor theorists; a shift to services is important, as is the capitalist project of selling and packaging knowledge and experience, as is the digitalization of work and leisure. But when these arguments are overemphasized, I would argue, we are inhibited from analyzing what continues to be particular to traditional intellectual institutions by framing them overhastily as a relic of an earlier era’s “modernist” disciplinary knowledge. When they analyze universities, they often characterize them as the new epoch’s factories, as the emblematic institutions of today’s capitalism. This makes it particularly hard to account for the fact that “immaterial labor” theory is, especially in the United States, a product of the university left. A more sober theory of intellectual production, I would argue, should make it easier to analyze not only the moments of outright corporate colonization of university systems, but also the local determinations and blindnesses of left intellectual projects that have become subject to the university’s specific imperatives. Without knowing it, in my view, the immaterial labor theorists (and notably the edu-factory project) succumb to an almost Lukacsian excess of dialectical conviction: like Lukacs, they have an unexamined faith that radical theory can and must be articulated with radical praxis. I would argue that it is, in fact, helpful to de-dramatize our theory of intellectual production, admitting that intellectual labor is just one kind of labor among others, with its own specific politics and subcultures. And contemporary intellectual labor, I would argue, is not always immediately functional within capitalism; the university is not yet an entirely marketized or commodified institution. But academic subcultures have their own problems; part of what we gain from a more specific study of intellectual production is the realization that the university system has quasi-autonomous left subcultures, like the ones that avidly read Italian Marxist theory. These subcultures at once enable fantasies of radicality and prevent them from being realized.

All this said, I do agree with the immaterial labor theorists that there is something historically specific, at a large scale, about contemporary intellectual production. Not every society, as far as I can tell, has a mass institutional apparatus dedicated to the production of knowledge as an end in itself. Such a fetish of knowledge for its own sake, in my view, is structurally implicit in the globalization of technoscience and of the university, both of which have dramatically expanded since the Second World War. Such an expansion can be documented quantitatively (Schofer and Meyer 2005), and has received a governing ideological framework in the form of a discourse on the “knowledge society.” It is a discourse that is patently politically convenient for neoliberal economic interests, but one which has also taken root in civil society organizations: UNESCO’s director general wrote in 2005 that

“The upheavals stemming from the Third Industrial Revolution – that of the new technologies – have produced a new dynamic as the training of individuals and groups, scientific and technical advances and modes of cultural expression have been constantly evolving since the mid-twentieth century, notably in the direction of growing interdependence… Can we today imagine any use of biotechnologies that disregards the cultural conditions of how they are applied? Or a science heedless of scientific education or local knowledge? Or a culture neglectful of educational transmission and the new forms of knowledge? The notion of knowledge is central to these changes. Knowledge is today recognized as the object of huge economic, political and cultural stakes, to the point of justifiably qualifying the societies currently emerging.” [UNESCO 2005:4, my emphasis]

There are at least three main things that characterize the contemporary global fetish for intellectual production. (1) Knowledge has become  “the object of huge economic, political and cultural stakes.” (This does not mean, however, that it has become the primary factor in production.) (2) “Knowledge” is thus mythicized as a fantasy object, as an end in itself, and given privileged ideological elaboration by policymakers and social scientists. (3) Intellectual production also becomes a structural compulsion, which people in intellectual institutions can enact without needing to explicitly endorse or believe in. Intellectual production, in other words, is not only a massive empirical phenomenon, but also a native obsession, an inhabitable mythology, in short a culturally particular end in itself, by turns conscious and unconscious.

All these claims would need further elaboration.