November 30, 2009

The Fourth Alienation

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts the young Marx analyzes how private ownership of the means of production imposes on humans a four-fold alienation: from the process of production, from its products, from other producers, and from ‘species-being’ (Gattungswessen). While the first three stages of this process have been subject to great exegesis, the last, the fourth alienation, has been neglected. In the Manuscripts this notion of species-being is cryptic, fugitive, tantalizing, a bit nebulous. It is, however, clear that Marx did not mean by species-being simply human existence as a biologically reproductive group. It is rather, the power to collectively transform this natural basis, making “life activity itself an object of will and consciousness.” Witnessing the titanic processes of nascent factory capitalism Marx alludes to human species-being as something created by cooperative organization of labour, the increasing power of humans to affect their natural environment, the emancipation of women, “cosmopolitan” urban centers, and the application of science as technology to industry. Despite the suggestive richness of this concept, which opens onto some of the very dimensions of feminism, race and ecology Marxism is often taken to task for neglecting, species-being had a checkered career.

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Talk given in the “Future of the Commons” series, University of Minnesota, Oct 29, 2009.

accompanying slides

  1. It is a pleasure to be participating in a series whose topic is so important and so timely. Talk of commons has become, well, common on the left in recent years. Today, that talk is being tested in crisis–an economic crisis, yes, but one in which the immediate pain of job losses, housing foreclosures and global wars overlays even deeper problems of ecological and energy sustainability. This therefore is a prime time to review what the concept of the commons has so far meant for contemporary radicalism, its strengths, its limitations, and its possible development. I will attempt this review largely by a critical look at some of my own work on the topic, recognizing that this work on the commons is entirely part of a collective, common, intellectual project: the talk is entitled “The Circulation of the Common.”
  2. The concept is old, going back to the common lands of feudal Europe enclosed in primitive accumulation from the 15th to the 18th centuries, a process then exported around the planet by colonialism. But its revived usage dates back about a decade now to the anti-or alter-globalization movements at the turn of the millennium. Faced by the onrush of privatizing, deregulating, and expropriating planetary capital, activists, and theoreticians in an array of struggles found in the image of the common a point of intellectual and affective inspiration. From land wars in Mexico or India to ‘creative commons’ initiatives of digital culture to attempts to avert ecological calamity, on the streets of Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, resistance to the second enclosures of neoliberalism spoke of itself as a defense of the commons.
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June 2007

It has been eight lean years for the movement of movement since its Seattle high point of 1999. Since September 11th 2001 many activists’ energies have been directed to opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq, other conflicts in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and abuses of civil liberties and media truth. But the war on terror has also had a deadening effect on oppositional hopes and imagination. Or so it seems to me, an academic in Canada whose political energies have recently been absorbed opposing his university’s making tanks for the US Army. Comrades are engaged in labour organising, post-carbon planning, the self-organisation of the homeless, municipal elections and other projects. But the optimistic sense of another world as not only possible but probable, imminent, has given way to something more sombre. Even in this no-longer-frozen North, the upsurge of popular movements and governments in Latin America is an inspiration. Otherwise, however, horizons have contracted.

Global capitalism appears – by profit levels – robust. Cascading ecological calamities, suddenly peaking oil, another 9/11, or an uncontrolled unwinding of US-China relations could all destabilise the world system. But not only are such scenarios contingent; it is uncertain they would be to the advantage of progressive movements. Neo-fascists, fundamentalists and martial law capitalists could be the beneficiaries, unless intellectual and organisational preparation lays the ground for a better alternative.

It therefore seems important to renew the discussion of what we want: to think through not just what we are against, but what we are fighting for (and hence who ‘we’ are), and to consider what might be plausibly achieved in present circumstances. Many movement activists and intellectuals are currently addressing this task, here and in other forums. My contribution will be to propose and discuss ‘commonism’.

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Originally published in Engineering Culture: On ‘The Author as (Digital) Producer.
Edited by Geoff Cox & Joasia Krysa (New York: Autonomedia, 2005).

The advent of ‘Academia Inc.’, aka ‘Corporate U’, is no longer an ominous prospect but an accomplished fact. Over the last twenty-five years, the universities of advanced capitalism have been metamorphosed, the shell of the ivory tower broken, and higher education firmly entrained to market-driven economic growth – in particular, to the development of high-technology industries. Universities are now frankly conceived and funded by policy elites as research facilities and training grounds for the creation of the new intellectual properties and technocultural subjectivities necessary to a post-Fordist accumulation regime. Academic traditionalists and faculty activists alike have clearly identified the dangers of this development: while the formal liberal democratic protections of academic autonomy – from tenure to civil rights guarantees – remain in place, opportunities for the practical exercise of such freedoms contract, as programme funding, research grants and curricula structuring are determined by their utility to the knowledge-for-profit economy (Newson & Buchbinder 1988; Aronowitz 2000; Ruch 2001; Slaughter 1999).

Warranted as such condemnations are, they often, however, overlook an obverse aspect of Academia Inc., a verso of which their critiques are actually symptomatic. For recent years have seen the emergence within universities of new movements and modes of struggles against marketisation, provoked by cognitive capital’s expropriation of the university, mobilising the very constituencies of students and faculty commercialisation has summoned into being, and reappropriating the same technologies – especially digital networks – for which Academia Inc. has been an incubator. Continuing a discussion of these ambivalent dynamics begun several years ago in my Cyber-Marx, and recently independently renewed by Tiziana Terranova and Marc Bousquet, this essay examines the changing configuration of academia through the lens of some theoretical categories of autonomist Marxism: ‘general intellect’, ‘cognitive capitalism’, ‘immaterial labour’, ‘biopower’ and ‘multitude’ (Dyer-Witheford 1999; Bousquet & Terranova 2004). Its analysis is inevitably coloured by my situation as a professor of information and media studies in a mid-sized Canadian university, but I hope to extrapolate general tendencies relevant to a European as well as a North American context; I say ‘hope’ in all senses of the term, since my ultimate argument is that the success of business in subsuming universities paradoxically opens the campus to intensified confrontation between cognitive capitalism and the emergent forces of what I term ‘species-being’ movements.

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July 24, 2006.

First Published in Werner Bonefeld, Ed. Subverting the Present, Imagining the Future: Class, Struggle, Commons. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2008.


The web page of aut-op-sys, a major site for the discussion of autonomist Marxism, takes as its introduction a classic text of the tradition in its English language variant. This text first appeared in the US journal Zerowork, and defines the concept of ‘class composition’:

Capital’s ‘flaws’ are not internal to it and nor is the crisis: they are determined by the dynamics of working class struggle. To be understood, that dynamics and cycle of struggles requires an analysis that must operate at four, interconnected and necessary levels.
First is the analysis of the struggles themselves: their content, their directions, how they develop and how they circulate…
Second, we study the dynamics of the different sectors of the working class: the way these sectors affect each other and thus the relations of the working class with capital…
Third, we consider the relations between the working class and its ‘official’ organizations, that is, the trade unions, the ‘workers’ parties’, welfare organizations, etc…
Fourth, all these aspects have to be related to the capitalist initiative in terms of general social planning, investment, technological innovations, employment and to the institutional setting of capitalist society…

Through these interdependent levels of class analysis we can understand the relations between the working class and capital. They enable us to specify the ‘composition of the working class’. (Zerowork)

The full statement, including expansions of each point, can be found in a collection by Midnight Notes (1992: 108-114). Noting that the statement was written in 1975, aut-op-sy (nd) asks:

How well does it stand up today, in the face of the dramatic shifts that have reshaped the worlds of waged and unwaged work since that time? What does mass struggle mean in a period when the mass worker seems to have lost its centrality? What do the struggles of women mean when the family and the welfare state have continued to fracture? What does the circulation of struggle mean at a time when millions are fleeing their place of birth? What does communism mean in the face of the ‘socialist’ bloc’s collapse and the emergence of a global ecological crisis?

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