Only the unlimited accumulation of power could accommodate the unlimited accumulation of capital.Hannah Arendt
The dominance of the credit system and its subsequent 2008 collapse has created such profound social devastation byway of systematic dispossession and social exclusion that philosophy has largely reacted by returning to an examination of human subjectivity. Rather than look to the kinds of systemic modes of exclusion that largely define the fate of those who experience the most extreme economically induced violence from race, gender and immigration status to of course class, this kind of philosophical inquiry asks what are the systematic structural forms imposed on the social individual that produce these subject positions and how do they work? This is important because there is much more than mere exclusion at stake. Rather the very structure of the mechanism of finance capital and its co-dependency with social life, including non-economic social relations, needs to be examined. Financialized structuring of society produces and reproduces social exclusion based on identity differences (including geographical globalised differences), and therefore the problem is not a matter of redistribution as the very mechanics of the system itself relies on the production and reproduction of inequality in differential variants. It is well known that Lazzarato has written extensively about subjectivity in neoliberal debt based societies, addressing how the combination of the neoliberal process and financial crisis has produced a certain kind of subject, that is, the indebted subject or a guilty subject as the bearer of the predication of certain kinds of curtailment of life activity. A self-imposed reformed life necessary to prove one’s worthiness of their ‘promise of reimbursement’ turns every individual into a capitalist managing their lives, or what Lazzarato calls an ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self.’ Morality is here essentially policed by way of credit. However here I am engaging in an entirely different project. Rather than focusing on what kind of subject is produced as a social manifestation of a kind of governance, I aim to show how the subject is the place where we can locate the impact of financial domination because the subject has become implicated, with all of its internal contradictions, as co-dependent with financialization itself through the particular subjective pressures imposed by technology that paradoxically also marks the possibility for emancipation from these very constraints.
It was during the first world wide economic crisis known as the panic of 1857 that Marx wrote the Grundrisse. The Grundrisse itself was written in a panic as Marx worked quickly due to the urgency he felt to have his work read in direct reference to the economic crisis as it was unfolding. However the Grundrisse is not only useful today because it is a direct application of Marx’s reaction to financial crisis, but more pointedly, because it is the text where Marx develops his concept of the subject. In fact, in this text, finance capital is found to be systematically co-dependent on subjectivity through the specific framework imposed by technological structuring. It is through technology that the subject becomes at once personal and impersonal playing out the stakes of the metaphysical subject embedded in the history of philosophy on the level of capital.
Kant, by using the word subject to describe a universal aspect of human consciousness, provided modern philosophy with its foundation. Not only did Kant give the subject its modern ethical meaning in terms of individual moral responsibility (individuals who are the political bearers of rights), but for Kant this moral subject is inherently tied to his construction of the transcendental subject. The transcendental subject being the subject who interprets the world through a priori cognition that creates the very conditions of possibility of experience. What is at stake for Kant was not at all trivial; the ability for subjective structure to exist outside of experience is a matter of the very possibility of human freedom. While Kant could not in the end prove the existence of human freedom, what he did prove was that it is impossible to rule out freedom and thus we must go on ‘as if’ we are free subjects even when there are ‘things’ outside of one’s mind that determine the limits of our capacity to reason. Without this commitment to living ‘as if,’ for Kant, everything worth living for would be taken from humanity. Why should we continue to live if it is only for the purpose of fulfilling causal determinacy? Our actions would be deprived of all intentionality and thus ‘soul.’ Bataille emphasizes this dynamic by subverting the relationship between sovereignty and subjectivity: the subject for Bataille is concerned with the “encounter with the thematic of sovereignty and the law implicit in the idea of a liberation of the subject, and of the subject as ‘he who frees himself,’ therefore remains repressed.” The subject is thus bound up with the exertion of power in the form of two opposed determinations; the subject is a site of the conflict between power coming from outside and power coming from within as well as the internal conflicts occurring on each side. By holding on to this genealogical development of the subject, I will look at how Marx’s use of the term subject in the Grundrisse provides us with an important vantage point for understanding more clearly the stakes of subjectivity in our neoliberal world. The credit system plays a hegemonic role in neoliberal economies and demands very different (largely temporally different) subjective contingencies in order to function. Thus it is my purpose to understand what structures the subject under these conditions where the externalization of human labour is not objectified in the commodity but rather placed in technological infrastructure.
As Negri argues in Marx Beyond Marx, there are two subjects in Marx: the non-human subject that is capital as value form, and the subject of the working class, an antagonistic subject that exists in an entirely different temporal field than that of capital. The working class subject carries a latent subjective potential for freedom since the working class, so long as it is reduced to wage labour, cannot actualize life outside of intensive exploitation and thus remains overdetermined by being subject to value form and thus not subjectively positive or free. En lieu of this, in the Grundrisse, the collective subjectivity of the working class is developed as a bearer of a concept of freedom byway of technological innovation. The progressive historical function of capitalist machinery and technology is found to produce historically specific potential forms of subjective freedom that could not exist otherwise, but also cannot be fully realized within capitalism itself. In this instance the concepts of freedom and un-freedom are completely bound to the machine and technology. What then is the relationship between the ‘crisis of value’ (the subject of capital) in Marx’s Grundrisse and the ‘crisis of the subject’ (the human subject) under financial capitalism? I propose that a way to answer these questions is to examine the ontological implications of the general intellect a concept used by Marx but once in the Grundrisse, yet has come to form a major tenant of Marxist thought. General intellect was commonly used in Autonomist Marxism to describe a socially constituted ontological condition generated through technological innovation. It is a condition that is at once produced by the self-moving subject of capital (value form) while simultaneously producing the very conditions for freedom on the side of the human subject.
Marx describes his famous alienating process as experienced by the worker already in his 1844 Manuscripts in three different ways. In the first instance, the worker becomes alienated from the product of her labour. Secondly, the worker is alienated from herself through taking orders rather than working in an autonomous manner. This second instance is the disruption of the Cartesian pure subject that requires mind body dualism - the body is displaced from the mind. Finally, comes the worker’s alienation from engaging in self-actualizing creative activity, from filling a prescribed role rather than acting on one’s own creative intuitions. While on each level alienation is increasingly general and speculative, we find the alienating feature is not produced by the performance of the task itself (that we become the kind of person who does the task), but rather by one’s subjective relationship to the task (the task displaces us from our sense of self). The concept of alienation will thus be important for our understanding of the general intellect since the general intellect is a socially constituted form of objectified labour. It is a force that constructs the relationship between the individual and the social, byway of past labour embedded in technology that goes on to produce certain kinds of subjects upon their interaction with the technological apparatus. The general intellect is thus structurally very similar to the socially constituted objectification of labour that is inherent to the structuring principle of alienation. However, Marx’s work on alienation in his early manuscripts differs from the way alienation is used in his mature critique: it does not contain the element of the machine, and it is clear to us that machinery forms a more radical intensified form of alienation.
Before we move on, it is significant to note that it is while developing his analysis of circulation in the Grundrisse that Marx first introduces the concept of the subject. Basically, circulation organizes, connects or ties separate moments of production and in so doing circulation therefore creates the very social conditions of reproduction. It is these social conditions that in turn give rise to the subject necessary for a mode of production. This subjective position is ambivalently produced; on the one hand, one actively produces their subjectivity by engaging in labour, and on the other hand are themselves subjected by the quasi-independent nature of their own product (material or immaterial) and the corresponding socially constituted relations. It thus becomes clear that there can be no subject without the externalization of human power, while alienation begins only when this process of externalization or objectification becomes a process of domination over the human labourer or user of technology. That is, requires a socially constituted domination that un-apparently mediates this externalization. The social relations the individual finds herself embedded in thus constitute value; value form is nothing other than social form.
Through focusing on Marx’s mature critique but using the Grundrisse to reinterpret Capital, Postone revaluates what he calls ‘traditional Marxism’ with a reinterpreted concept of alienation at the heart of his reading. Postone looks to a reinterpretation of alienation as a key philosophical concept that describes how both social powers and knowledge in capitalism ‘are constituted in objectified forms.’ The independent nature of these objectified forms function as abstract social domination regulating the very individuals who have constituted them. This of course is beginning to sound very useful for us in terms of a theory of general intellect. Further, here Postone’s reinterpreted concept of alienation becomes central to the critique of our current capitalist society since he depends on alienation as marking the difference between trans-historical concepts in Marx and historically specific objects of capitalism. With alienation as implicit in the process and not historically specific, we will find differing corresponding objects of capitalism over time produced in relationship to the subjective experience of alienation. As Immanuel Wallenstein insists, “to be historically specific is not to fail to be analytically universal.”
Further Postone insists, also following the Grundrisse, that Marx does not locate the subject within the human or in humanity, rather the subject is again identified with capital itself as a historical Subject, to use Althusser’s capitalization of the ‘S’ in order to indicate the “Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, namely, God.” It is not surprising that Marx replaced Hegel’s definition of Geist word for word in his definition of Capital that Postone sums up as “the self moving substance that is the subject of its own process.” In insisting on the replacement of Geist with Capital, Marx initiates the replacement of idealism with materialism, materializing the subject itself through the ‘real’ abstraction of capitalism. In this reading the working class subject, or human subject is a latent subject that emerges in its very conflict with, and in complete alterity from the subject of capital. The working class becomes subject only through its ability to escape the domination of the value form. As Tronti points out, the possibility of an autonomous subject in the working class is based on its separation from itself as wage labour. The working class subject must emerge from its economic determination and become a political subject ‘outside’ and against the subject of capital.
The general intellect, a result of the inclusion of science and technological objects into the capitalist process, creates a subjective contradiction that could not otherwise exist. While capitalism has always based itself upon the implementation of science and technological objects, it goes without saying that the use of technology has intensified in the 21st century. The general intellect helps us to understand how subjection to the machine is not merely the enslavement of acting as a mechanical component of the machine combined with the subject as linked to an exterior object to together create a higher unity as described by Deleuze and Guattari: rather there is a more complicated subjective process occurring in neoliberal financialized capitalism, bound up with the function of knowledge and intellect due to a temporal mediation of the construction of knowledge, its embedment in technology and the corresponding disciplinary function of the technology acting back on society that reaches social life outside of the production process (when we are not working are lives are constantly mediated by technology). As a result we find the possibility for a general intellect that produces a free society and general intellect that produces a profoundly un-free society. At its most simple, the general intellect according to Marx is the “general social knowledge or collective intelligence of a society at a given historical period” objectified in the machinery of fixed capital. To further follow Marx, here the appearance of objectified labour functions as the “accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain … absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital.” Objectified labour, under the conditions of the machine then describes exactly the physical manifestation of the general intellect itself. The general intellect is thus the vital content informing mechanic fixed capital, that is not only a force of production, but also the necessary condition for production to take place. By naming the general intellect Marx exposes how a problematic implicit in the alienation of labour, in its submission to the machine, could in the future lead to the emergence of a new dominant mode of production that otherwise would be unreadable; that of neoliberal financial capitalism where the production process is not limited to the working day due to the technological discipline over generalized social life. In this way, by naming the so far absent concept, the general intellect, Marx, makes comprehensible a different problem than that of mere labour and fixed capital. Much like when he applies the word ‘surplus value’ to classical economics description of profit, rent and interest, in effect changing the entire problematic of classical economics, the insertion of the word general intellect ultimately renders conscious a key concept underlining the experience of the subject in financial capitalism with its cognitive mode of generating surplus value from ever deteriorating wages, and the corresponding domination over ‘free time.’ But what is the role of the general intellect, a dynamic inherent in the relationship between subjectivity and technology, under the technological pressures of financialization imposed through derivatives and other highly mediated representations of capital? In order to answer this question we might turn to a reading of ‘fictitious capital’ the term Marx used to theorize debt capital, which is necessary for the workings of finance.
Fictitious capital is a term used by Marx in Capital Vol. III to describe how capital generated through credit is self-valorising capital that paradoxically suspends capital valorisation. Instead of using the commodity as the site of mediation that in real time constitutes the valorisation of capital through market exchange, fictitious capital generates more money from mere money through the accumulation of interest rates and the corresponding postponement of actual valorisation of capital. The function of fictitious capital problematizes more pointedly Marx’s labour theory of value because here capital is accumulated without valorisation through reproducing value as the signifier of future labour (rather than past labour), essentially insured by the subjectivity of the debtor (the debtor becomes the kind of person who can pay interest rates through self imposed austerity). That is, capital fictitiously multiplies itself through debt contracts. The debtor and the creditor both essentially make use of the same capital, thus one form of this capital must be fictitious (this is even multiplied so that we find many agents fictitiously using the same capital). Fictitious capital, while relies on labour as a variable (as the only way to valorise capital), nonetheless produces value without valorisation. This absence of valorisation, usually insured by the commodity form, is displaced and comes to bear on the subjectivity of the debtor because this is the site that confirms future labour. Importantly, the temporal shift in labour’s contribution to value form theory, from past labour to future labour as the site of what gives capital its ability to reproduce itself, means that the subject becomes the bearer of the value form. If past labour is objectified in the commodity form, future labour is objectified in the subjectivity of the debtor. In fictitious capital the human subject bears the un-valorised value of fictitious capital and thus must become an active agent seeking its valorisation through seeking future labour. As we have seen, value form is what Marx had indicated was the non-human subject of capital, however, within the dynamics of fictitious capital the non-human form of value is imposed on and bared by the human. Fictitious capital is today produced through complex technological apparatus’ that construct highly sophisticated derivatives made up of embedded past cognitive labour and thus through general intellect.
In Capital Vol. I the non-human subject is the subject of a process to the extent that it acts independently as a structuring apparatus constructing corresponding social relations. This independent actor (value) has three different forms: money, commodity and capital. Hence for Marx, this subject is not located in the human, but in ‘capital’ as the absolute ‘other.’ In fictitious capital, when the separation of the two subjects in Marx collapse (value form is bared by the human subject), are we not seeing something like the formation of a ‘de-centred’ subject? That is the misrecognition mediated through a temporal lapse between the self in the ‘other’ that forms ‘self-consciousness’ in Hegel and the ‘formation of the subject’ in Lacan. In this way the two subjects in Marx could be considered the pre-subjective elements that, only through their interaction with one another construct the internal differentiation of subjectivity. It thus takes fictitious capital to bring together these two subjects that had once been mediated by the commodity allowing for their independence and thus dual nature. When Marx’s two subjects confront each other we find a decentred subject. A subject where our consciousness of self is experienced as other, as Hegel claims, function as a site of struggle for recognition where through the temporal mediation of one paying attention to the self then looking towards the other “one becomes an individual subject only in virtue of recognising, and being recognized by, another subject.” As in Marx’s mature critique that sees the mode of production as it’s object rather than bourgeois society the ‘other’ for the working class subject is no longer the bourgeois but rather the ‘impersonal’ mode of production of value form.
The temporalizing function of general intellect will thus be important here since it is the very temporal disjunction that gives meaning to its subjective effect (the temporal disjunction between self and other is crucial to the structure). To solve the problem of traditional Marxist critique, that according to Postone fails to differentiate historically specific objects from trans-historical processes, Postone understands capitalism as 'temporal domination'. Each mode of production has its own temporal field that dominates how we are able to use our time, and how our time is used by capitalism through the implementation of differential ‘time zones’ to human life based on geographical and anthropological differences. To give a concrete example, in Taylorism the difference in the dominating effects of this new mode of capitalist production with regard to the previous mode can be attributed to a difference in temporality. The productive capability of what can be done in an hour under Taylorism is distorted from Newtonian linear time (or abstract time) through pushing workers to produce much more in an hour than ever before, and, in this way, creating an hour that carries different temporal stakes and therefore a different dominating function. Or, to draw from another example, in dominant financial states the combination of both cognitive and precarious work produce subjects who must constantly improve their human capital. Every element of one’s taste and every expression of self is immediately marketed or constructed with the purpose of marketing oneself in the first place. The way time is used for the purpose of capital accumulation here is completely different from the time of wage labour since in this case one must first dedicate their activity (time) to constructing a marketable self or subjectivity before one can even expect any form of pay. The increasingly large ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed in dominant financial centres must be constantly dedicating their activity to framing themselves as employable, without any return of subsistence and with an ever decreasing welfare state, if one at all. This of course means value as such cannot be fully grasped through an analysis of wage labour. We then need to put into question Marx’s labour theory of value. This is also argued on the basis of the functioning of fictitious capital were value-producing labour becomes implicated in subjectivity itself through its reliance on future labour.
The general intellect, the presence of a past labour embedded in the machine, will play a key role in this temporal re-conceptualization of labour theory of value, since the general intellect itself is a form of temporal domination; labour becomes subjected to the imminent necessity of the past labour embedded in machinery. Thus the changing nature of wage labour can be attributed to capitals corresponding control over the labour process. The intensification of the use of objectified cognitive labour (combined with manual labour) objectified in the general intellect allows for the conditions that rely on outsourcing manual labour, while increasingly creating precarity and unemployment for both the working class and the decreasing middle class in dominant countries where we find financial centres. While the outsourcing of manual labour means the intensification of Fordist and other labour based work in periphery countries where the wage is intensively devalued. When past labour (such as general intellect) and future labour (Subjective commitment to their use of fictitious capital) act as over-determining features of capitalist domination what then happens to the present?
When the extended labour of intensified productivity brought to be by the exponential growth of collective knowledge becomes filtered through fixed capital, as in the case of the machine, the worker here becomes merely the conscious linkage between “numerous mechanical and intellectual organs.” The power of labour becomes, in Marx’s words, “transposed into power of capital;” that is the productive power of labour into fixed capital. This is the very process of the movement of living labour into objectified labour, as labour in the form of fixed capital becomes labour that exists outside of the living as an object. While with fictitious capital we find the opposite dynamic; we have objectified labour first that depends on future living labour. Thus we can say that here fixed capital is “robbing labour of independence by means of the machine.” At this moment objectified labour becomes a power in the form of capital ruling over living labour. Objectified labour is thus the active subsumption of living labour. The machine is then not a means of labour, but works to posit the activity of the worker as an appendix to the object (the machine). In machinery objectified labour does not merely appear as a product, but as the force of production itself. This process of embedding the general intellect into the machine has a retroactive function in constituting the subjectivity of the worker. As Marx explains.
The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters the production process as a means of production proper.
We find that our relationship to knowledge here is an alien one; knowledge is something that becomes external and following Marx, “living labour as subsumed under self-activating objectified labour. The worker appears as superfluous to the extent that his action is not determined by capital’s requirements.” It is the general intellect that is at the centre of this contradiction that leads us to utopic and dystopic ideal consequences of the machine. For the general intellect, insofar as it is the measure of social knowledge embedded in the machine, liberates men from work - no longer do we need to work, the machine can do it for us! On the side of the emancipatory potential of the machine, we find an increase in socially available time that can be used for, as proclaimed by Marx “freeing everyone’s time for their own development.” However, the use of free time as a place where the subject could develop themselves in neoliberal financial societies has largely been turned into the very site for further realization of value. Free time is over-determined by what Adorno and Horkheimer refer to as the ‘cultural industry’ and consumerism, as well as to developing ones ‘human capital.’ Human capital referring to the attributes that make one marketable or employable, such as cultivating ones level of education, knowledge, social networks and even the development of ones taste. The subjective pressures imposed by neo-liberalism puts free time to work as the site were we develop our own individual marketability, which is tied up with consumerism. Consumer culture, while no longer necessarily relies on ‘consumption’ par-se, but rather mere participation in social life (such as through social media), is transposed as rather the means of framing one’s personhood. This is clear in debt-based societies where the free time of the debtor is spent creating the kind of subject that is able to pay the debt back (the subject who self-imposes austerity on their own lives, i.e. chooses not to ‘invest’ in certain kinds of ‘human capital’ such as healthcare in order to make a minimum payment). In neoliberal societies it is thus difficult to locate freedom in one’s disposable time since this so called free time is dedicated to subjective transformation dominated by the logic of the market.
This paradox of what constitutes free time is evident in the function of the general intellect. While the general intellect has the power to free our time, it is in capitalism the very place that humans become hyper-subjected to the machine, echoing Babbage’s scientific desire for the intensity of productivity of the human gesture. The danger here is that the human gesture pushed to this intensity dialectically puts subjectivity at great risk. Much like how politics under neoliberal conditions is overdetermined by economic priorities, we see the subject over-determined by the priorities of the general intellect. Rather than subjects acting on the general intellect in order to free up their time the general intellect controls the time of the worker as if they were merely a component of the machine; rather than controlling the production process, the production process controls us. However, the machines are themselves are active only because they are nothing but the objectification or materialization of the use of the human brain, intellect and idea. This is precisely the function of financial technology; the technological component of derivative operations that make fictitious capital possible, subject the ‘owner’ of fictitious capital (debtor) to the subjective positioning required to ‘insure’ their capacity for future labour. The dependant variable of fictitious capital itself is future labour implemented as a structuring force through collective ideas.
This process is collectivized, not only because we collectively institute certain mechanical innovations, but also because the machine (containing objectified labour) uses this power to create value back on the members of society. The temporal lapse within this structure functions to mediate the subject through its own technological products creates an indirect subject opposed to a pure subject. In philosophical terms this would describe a latent collective subject that appears in the form or the manner of a system of machines that embody general intellect. It is then the temporal disjunction of the general intellect from the living labour that produces a new contradiction, which previously did not already exist. This new contradiction culminates in the suppression of the individual subject by the general intellect. This function is in opposition to the privilege granted to the individual in neoliberal ideology: thus we can say that the neoliberal privileging of the individual is the ideological inversion of the real social relations of financial capitalism today. Many people really believe that their wages or their pay is in direct relationship to their independent right to them (i.e. they earned it and thus have a right to the money in their bank), yet in reality income is not only social in the sense that wealth is distributed structurally, but is overtly social in terms of individual control over the actual pay once it is already received. This occurs by way of financial products such as derivatives that collect together pensions and mortgages tying up individual income in socially constituted financial technological apparatus; then at the level of the state, through taxation and austerity. While on the one hand this is an intensification of capital's immanent logic, on the other hand it is a simplification of the social nature of capital, which is now no longer hidden but transparent and obvious.
Much like the formation of subjectivity at work in the general will of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, machinery confers on intellectual activity with the same logical structure of ‘generality.’ While ‘will’ and ‘intellect’ are entirely different concepts, each with a separate onto-political history, there is a clear structural homology between the formation of general intellect and to quote Balibar, de Libera and Cassin, “the way The Social Contract establishes a strict correlation between the figures of the “citizen” who is a member of the sovereign (or, in other words, the author of the law) and the “subject,” who finds freedom in absolute obedience to that same law thanks to the “total alienation” of individual wills that gives rise to a general will.” Here we find the category of generality suppresses the sovereign side of Bataille’s dual relationship between the sovereignty of the subject and the subjection of the subject. Yet, Rousseau’s individual is one that implies not only a preconceived yet to be socialized (naturally independent, autonomous) individual, but a preconceived equal individual who is in “anticipation of ‘civil society.’” It is thus important to note that generality is not trans-historical but something that can only be achieved in a society that has overcome capital. Positing the subject as one that once was but is no longer dependant on the value form that independently structures social relations and thus individual subjectivity through acting as the ‘other’ for the human subject in the process of recognition in capitalism. If we understand more clearly the philosophical underpinnings of the inner working of subject formation through a deductive analysis, from Kant’s transcendental subject to Negri’s examination of the non-human subject in Marx, this should enable us to avoid misunderstanding the nature of subjective domination in neoliberal societies and the corresponding possibility for subjective freedom. As we have found, the kernel of possible freedom in the general intellect formed through a subjective construction at the level of capital (value form clashes with human subjectivity to create a de-centred subject) can never actualise itself in our neoliberal society as there is nothing free or emancipatory about spending our time creating collective knowledge. We cannot find freedom in the general intellect so long as we are dependant on value form. Could we then conclude that only the total alienation of the individual intellect from the value form gives rise to the general intellect in the free sense?
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Rebecca Carson is a writer based in London and New York. She is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University in London where she is completing a dissertation on Debt and the Problem of Time. She regularly contributes to Through Europe, a publication for art, politics and critical theory.