I just finished reading Yann Moulier Boutang’s Le capitalisme cognitif (Cognitive Capitalism). Boutang is the editor of Multitudes, a French journal closely associated with Toni Negri. The basic thesis of his book — in accord with what Hardt and Negri say in Empire and Multitude — is that we are entering into a new phase of capitalism, the “cognitive” phase, which is as different from classical industrial capitalism as that capitalism was from the mercantile and slavery-based capitalism that preceded it. This is a thesis that, in general, I am sympathetic to. On the one hand, it recognizes the ways in which 19th-century formulations of the categories of class and property are increasingly out of date in our highly virtualized “network society”; while on the other hand, it recognizes that, for all these changes, we are still involved in what has to be called “capitalism”: a regime in which socially produced surpluses are coded financially, expropriated from the actual producers, and accumulated as capital.
Ah, but, as always, the devil is in the details. And I didn’t find the details of Boutang’s exposition particularly satisfying or convincing. To be snide about it, it would seem that Boutang, like all too many French intellectuals, has become a bit too enamored of California. He takes those Silicon Valley/libertarian ideas — about the value of continual innovation, the worthiness of the free software movement, and the possibilities of unlimited digital dissemination — more seriously, or at least to a much greater extent, than they merit. The result is a sort of yuppie view of the new capitalism, one that ignores much that is cruel and repressive about the current regime of financial accumulation...
Boutang is so excited by the “communist” aspects of networked collaboration, or general intellect, that he forgets to say anything about how all this “cognitive” power gets expropriated and transformed into (privately owned) capital — which is precisely what “cognitive capitalism” does. He optimistically asserts that the attempts of corporations to control “intellectual property,” or extract it from the commons, will necessarily fail — something that I am far less sure of. “Intellectual property” is an oxymoron, but this doesn’t mean that “intellectual property rights” cannot be successfully enforced. You can point to things like the record companies’ gradual (and only partial) retreat from insisting upon DRM for all music files; but this retreat coincides with, and is unthinkable without, a general commodification of things like ideas, songs, genetic traits, and mental abilities in the first place.
Boutang gives no real account of just how corporations, or the owners of capital, expropriate general intellect (or, as he puts it in neoliberal economistic jargon, how they capture “positive externalities”). He seems to think that the switch from mere “labor-power” to “general intellect” as the source of surplus value is basically a liberating change. I would argue precisely the opposite: that now capital is not just expropriating from us the product of the particular hours that we put in at the workplace; but that it is expropriating, or extracting surplus value from, our entire lives: our leisure time, our time when we go to the movies or watch TV, and even when we sleep. The switch to general intellect as a source of value is strictly correlative with the commodification of all aspects of human activity, far beyond the confines of the workplace. Just as the capitalist cannot exploit the worker’s labor per se, but must extract it in the form of labor power, so the capitalist cannot exploit general intellect without transforming it into something like “cognition-power” — and this is extracted from individuals just as labor-power is. When the division between physical and mental labor is made less pronounced than it was in the Fordist factory, this only means that the “mental” no less than the “physical” is transformed into a commodified “capacity” that the employer can purchase from the employee in a way that is lesser than, and incommensurate with, the “use” the employer gets from that power or capacity. Boutang makes much of the fact that cognition is not “used up” in the way that the physical expenditure of energy is; but I don’t think this contrast is as telling as he claims. The fatigue of expending cognitive power in an actual work situation is strictly comparable to the fatigue of expending physical power in a factory. And the stocking-up of physical power and cognitive ability over the lifetime of the workers entirely go together, rather than being subject to opposite principles... All in all, Le capitalisme cognitif buys into the current capitalist mythology of “innovation” and “creativity” way too uncritically — without thinking through what it might mean to detach these notions from their association with startups and marketing plans and advertising campaigns (and how this might be done). (As a philosophical question, this is what my work with Whitehead and Deleuze leads me to).