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#18: Critique and Truth

Keti Chukhrov /// The Critique of “General Intellect”

I. (T)he crucial moment for the folk tale is not that of the parole, that of its invention or creation (as in middle class art). But that of the langue; and we may say that no matter how individualistic may be its origin, it is always anonymous or collective in essence. – Fredric Jameson

The revolution is (…) is the moment in which criticism, hitherto unarmed, recognizes its arms in the proletariat. It gives the proletariat the theory of what it is; in return, the proletariat gives it its armed force, a single unique force in which no one is allied except to himself. So the revolutionary alliance of the proletariat and of philosophy is once again sealed in the essence of man. – Louis Althusser

The philosophy of post-operaism undertakes a fundamental revision of Marx: it displaces the notions of work and production, claiming that these are no longer capable of offering adequate descriptions of contemporary capitalism under post-industrial, post-disciplinary conditions. According to Paolo Virno, the principal feature of neo-capitalism is the immaterialization of labor; it displaces commodities with the emergence of a “general intellect,” which, in turn, must resist governance through economic and juridical machines, undertaking an “exodus” from the apparatuses of state and capital.

I. (T)he crucial moment for the folk tale is not that of the parole, that of its invention or creation (as in middle class art). But that of the langue; and we may say that no matter how individualistic may be its origin, it is always anonymous or collective in essence. – Fredric Jameson

The revolution is (…) is the moment in which criticism, hitherto unarmed, recognizes its arms in the proletariat. It gives the proletariat the theory of what it is; in return, the proletariat gives it its armed force, a single unique force in which no one is allied except to himself. So the revolutionary alliance of the proletariat and of philosophy is once again sealed in the essence of man. – Louis Althusser

The philosophy of post-operaism undertakes a fundamental revision of Marx: it displaces the notions of work and production, claiming that these are no longer capable of offering adequate descriptions of contemporary capitalism under post-industrial, post-disciplinary conditions. According to Paolo Virno, the principal feature of neo-capitalism is the immaterialization of labor; it displaces commodities with the emergence of a “general intellect,” which, in turn, must resist governance through economic and juridical machines, undertaking an “exodus” from the apparatuses of state and capital.

In his book “The Revolution of Capitalism” (in the chapter “Enterprises and Neomonadology”), Maurizzio Lazzarato speaks of a stage of capitalism in which exploitation no longer takes place through work and production, but in the virtual zone of collective world-making, in the space of intellectual co-laboration or co-operation, which is then appropriated by a company or corporation.

Thus, the act of disobedience in relation to this paradigm does not consist in the demands for improved conditions in the workplace or raises in pay, as is the case in the traditional workers or trade union movments. Instead, general intellect disobeys by rejecting the monopoly that companies would like to impose upon the socially owned commons (such as knowledge, language, art, and scholarship). In other words, in both Virno and Lazzarato, the displacement of the categories of work and exploitation can only help in the struggle against capitalism.

In the context of the position expounded above, we would like to focus on a number of questions that arise when one asks in how far this post-Marxist critique can be applied to post-Soviet Russia.

The philosophical and anthropological basis for emphasizing the importance of the proletariat as the class of struggle and universalization per se was not only that it was crucial to the most advanced industrial production techniques of its time, but also that it was dehumanization and oppression that made it into a generic class, the “oppressed” multitude.

This is why “general intellect” could be considered as a generic and universal term. It cannot just be ascribed to technological experts about to perform an “exodus” from companies and corporations, but must include all those how have the smallest coefficient or share in the ownership of that very same general intellect. Otherwise, it would be unclear why the intellectual cooperation and the social activity of the middle class (and this is what the employees of companies and offices actually are, at least if you put them in a global perspective) is any different from the liberal project of civil society in fully developed, “humanized” capitalism. In Lazzarato, “general intellect” is clearly an attribute of a definite social stratum of immaterial workers, whose very existence rests upon an old modernist assumption: namely, that it would still (and always) be possible to draw the line between invention and work (creativity and routine). If “general intellect” thus excludes those who have no access to its benefits, doesn’t it contradict its claim toward universalization?

II

The Soviet ideology of solidarity between intelligentsia and working class rested upon the former’s capacity for self-criticism. The middle class was to keep itself from becoming too complacent and enjoying its safe, cultivated lifestyle while the workers slaved away in coalmines and factories. Sadly, the Soviet dissident intelligentsia was completely uncritical in this regard. Since it was more critical of socialist ideology that of capitalist exploitation, it identified the very image of the body at work with the ugly “face” of the Soviet bureaucracy.

A very similar exclusion of work may have become relevant for the critique of capitalism in the highly developed countries of the EU. But in today’s Russia, the economy and models of immaterial “virtuosic” employment rise in direct proportion to an increase of its unexpected feudal traits. A large percentage of the working population still consists of underpaid migrants and many other dispossessed.

Moreover, in Russia, many of those who work in media agencies, advertising companies, and corporations actually come from liberal-dissident backgrounds. They feel that a plurality of mid-sized businesses offering immaterial cultural services would be a great alternative to the monolithic authoritarian corporate state. Many of them would certainly agree with the call for intellectual cooperation, and for an exodus from the state, and of course, they would also be willing to support demands for more inclusive, democratic reforms to solve the country’s many social problems.

However, the apology of negotiated reformism only remains in force for as long as the discussion revolves around this new middle class of “white collar workers.” As soon as anyone talks about the potential loss of its new hard-won lifestyle of comfort, any discussion of solidarity or human rights drastically comes to an end. Thus, all liberal attempts at critique – a critique in the tradition of anti-Soviet dissident criticism, as well the critical journalism of the Yeltsin era – have only confirmed the emergence and position of the middle class, while “the people” are surrendered to the Putin-team and their populist ideology.

Thus, we should ask again: can “general intellect” be reduced to the most advanced and effective form of production under capitalism, or should the notion be given a less pragmatic meaning that cannot be reduced to knowledge and qualifications, but more connected to the generic potential of “being human” in a universal sense. The cooperation of “the qualified” emancipates itself and heads for its exodus from the ideologies of capital and state. But art must take up a more avant-gardist position; it must take sides with those who are the most oppressed on the basis of the detachment from this same “intellectual cooperation.”

It may well be such a non-utilitarian, non-pragmatic element in the Leninist variant of Marxism that allowed the Great October Revolution to succeed.

Otherwise, we will always be talking about the potentiality and ideology of yet another bourgeois revolution, and not that of its socialist (or even communist) version. It may be that this is precisely why the territory of art allows so many new hybrids of Marxism and a new enlighted progressivism to flourish. As an example, one could name the concept of the “new bourgeois” in the project of artist, curator, and e-flux owner Anton Vidokle, who is basically a “revolutionary” of the middle class.

The “new bourgeois” understands Marxism as a leadership-ideology of the most progressive, educated, and cultivated parts of society, of those who are ready to work toward its good in the future.

Yet, if one really thinks about it, both Russian 19th century literature and the art of the Russian avant-garde were so radical because their fundamental gesture not only tried to extend the space of a common good (intellectual cooperation and the public good, e.g. culture), but also practiced the refusal of options of ownership – i.e. demonstrated contempt for private property.

The artists of the avant-garde were not afraid of working bodies, perhaps because the work these bodies had to perform may have been difficult, but it was no longer alienated. The artists of the avant-garde were also unafraid to use interfaces that were, at least superficially, uneducated, uncultured, or non-intellectual. For modernism, which was always an elitist project, on the other hand, this was a fundamental fear. Today this fear lives on, expressing itself in the Russian Ministry of Culture new-found taste for the aesthetic of high modernism. This is actually the flipside of its fake populism.

In The German Ideology Marx called for the supersession of labor as the factor that prevents “humanity” from developing fully in the personality of the worker. Creative human self-activity were to replace alienated (divided) labor and private property. The representatives of post-operaism make a correct description of the current situation, in which both creative activity and the ability of its invention have also been taken over by capital. But the question is whether this presumption requires a serious remodeling of Marx. Obviously, capital will always try to take over the more advanced and efficient means of production. The post-operaists mark a fundamental point of difference with Marx: in the name of “the communism of capital” (Virno), they exclude work or labor in its classical sense, even though exploitative wage labor still exists.

In today’s Russia, not everyone has access to intellectual cooperation. And even when it is accessible, it is difficult to see any form of creativity in the Marxian sense or in the spirit of the Russian avant-garde. Under these conditions, the Soviet experience takes on a new meaning and a new potentiality.

In the USSR, the lack of time to complete modernization, and the realization that some would have to work physically and others mentally or creatively did not entail a division of labor that gave priority to intellectual creativity over physical labor. Notwithstanding the achievements of science, technology, and art, the country of workers and farmers was ethically oriented toward those who (until the coming of communism) had been deprived of the chance to develop their capacities in full.

This is why I doubt whether immaterial workers could ever be at the avant-garde of protest. This social layer – even if it is precarious – still owns its means of production; its “general intellect” is very much its own. In Central Europe, immaterial workers are a progressive majority. But in Russia, many people remain entirely disconnected from such flexible forms of production. This is why it is high time for us – artists, intellectuals, and scholars – to stop lecturing with our pointers. We must learn how to slip into someone else’s skin, as our early Soviet colleagues and their predecessors did once upon a time.

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