Living Autonomy Today

Under Review: Gigi Roggero, The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, PA, 2011. Translated by Enda Brophy.

ProdLivingKnow                                                                                 The Production of Living Knowledge

Thought follows action. A new precarious generation of cognitive workers knows this all too well, for their struggles trace the crumbling edifice of both the university and the global economy that increasingly depends on knowledge, affects, and information for its operations. If we begin with these struggles, we can dare to know much more about how our present circumstances are shaped by the knowledge economy.

This is the provocative thesis of Gigi Roggero’s The Production of Living Knowledge, part treatise on the changing role of the university in contemporary capitalism, and part manifesto for a movement to expropriate the expropriators of the present economy, to build up autonomous institutions that organize our commonwealth, and to set sail toward a new society.

Roggero’s first book to be translated into English is the product of an extended, indeed nomadic, inquiry into transformations currently besetting the “global” university. Interviews and case studies are based in the U.S. and in his native Italy, but the book is hardly a comparative study. Instead, it is a partisan critique of the university as organizational setting and incubator for transnational processes undergirding a global knowledge-based economy. Roggero’s insights traverse national and academic borders far wider than his field sites, and instead emanate from his affiliation with Edu-Factory, a global research network, that explores struggles around knowledge production in and beyond the university.1

But what does it mean to think about the university as an institutional setting within a far broader lens of knowledge production? The point of departure for his analysis is that the transformations in the university cannot be understood apart from the global transformations in labor and capitalist accumulation. The book begins with the assertion that the university, riven with crisis, is an increasingly central and open field of contestation within a growing managerial, financialized, and marketized knowledge economy, in which minds and bodies are pitched in battle to determine the contours of autonomy and subordination in a new era of “cognitive capitalism.” By “cognitive capitalism,” Roggero (along with many others who’ve debated this term),2 seeks to describe the planetary nature of labor and property in an era in which knowledge, communication, and the circulation of information are commercially appropriated and made the sources of capitalist value at an unprecedented intensity. With the increasing centrality of knowledge in the production process, the cognitive capacities of living labor and technology more and more become the linchpin for the creation of wealth. As such, struggles in the circuits of production become all the more concentrated on the conflictual terrain of what Roggero terms living knowledge, a concept invoking Marx’s notion of living labor that describes the objective and subjective source of value in capital as well as the basis of its overcoming.

Cognitive Class Composition and Uneven Development

Roggero maintains that the becoming cognitive of labor (“cognitivization”) is not limited to any one sector or technical composition of workers and capital. Rather the concept is meant to describe the new relations of production and exploitation within labor processes that can be mapped all over the globe. Yet his analysis of cognitive capitalism risks overshadowing the manifold relations of work essential to the expansion of capital on a world-scale, i.e. the often-hidden continent of both waged and unwaged work at the lowest technical composition in most of the world. Thus, while “cognitive capitalism” describes relations of work and profit in relation to a high development of technology (wherever these sectors may be in the world), and concerns those workers whose experiences are most integrated into its productive circuits, readers must tread carefully through the evocation of “cognitive labor” throughout the book, which Roggero rightly describes as “deeply ambivalent.”3

The “cognitive” of contemporary capitalism more accurately describes a paradigmatic shift, albeit far-reaching, in the role of knowledge in the politics and composition of capital and labor. But it is the ambivalence that surrounds these debates on cognitive labor that also marks the potential impasse of this analysis. There are profound risks, reader be warned, in imputing cognitive labor as the frontlines of capitalist development (and consequently emphasizing its subversions as the frontlines of class struggle). For instance, it all too easily reproduces in our analyses of capitalism the very hierarchies and divisions of labor it is predicated upon. This would be a continual disavowal of the internal dynamics by which capitalist development is also a spatial-social process of underdevelopment. By elevating one sector, whose relation to capital is mediated by the highest development of technology, we risk losing sight of the unevenness and divisive exploitation that undergirds the global organization of work. While the notion of cognitive labor emphasizes commonalities in the way knowledge mediates relations of productions across the world, it cannot adequately grasp the global unevenness of capital-labor relations.

We should read The Production of Living Knowledge, then, both with an eye to the dynamism and revolutionary change that Roggero describes is sweeping this aspect of capitalism, but also remain attentive to the permanence of the waged-unwaged relation within the metamorphosis of the fundamental variables of accumulation on a global scale. This requires grappling with the contemporary international division of labor, even as its many borders are reorganized by cycles of struggles, indeed through a militant understanding of these reorganizations.

Throughout the book, and particularly in Chapter Two (“Coordinates of Capitalist Transition”), Roggero takes up the fundamental problem of hierarchies, segmentation, and exclusion as they enervate organizational attempts at autonomy. This is of crucial importance for his compositional reading of cognitive capitalism, and indeed, is a methodological tool that will be a weapon for any who seek to engage in militant research as part of their political activisms. Yet, while Roggero is keenly attuned to the problems of hierarchy–for example, where he discusses the metropolis as a space for the “multiplication of labor” as both a form of division and a space for struggle and transformation–there is also a tension between the global dimensions of his analysis and the geographic uneveness of this terrain.

Between Precarity and Autonomy

The book aims not to advance theses on cognitive capitalism, but rather to test its analytic reach in grasping the new characteristics of contemporary capitalism in order to understand the fault lines, tendency toward crisis, as well as struggles and subversions within. Roggero frames this inquiry through a genealogical reading of past struggles and ruptures that both imperiled the class compromise of Fordist-Keynesian capitalism of the 1960s and 1970s and fueled its development to the present flexible regime of accumulation. It is an historical eye to the period’s myriad refusals–of the time-space coordinates of a rigid and repetitive production rhythm in the factory along with students’ quest for autonomy from the apparatuses of the mass university–that enables Roggero to view the “ambivalent genealogy” of the new knowledge economy through the reorganization of contemporary cognitive work into flexible and precarious labor.

Both knowledge and precarity are key terms in the functioning of the present university system, for they describe the processes and products of devalued and hierarchized labor power according to the needs of accumulation, as well as regimented and individualized access. Student debt is central here, as is the dismantling of mass universities and other social entitlements, and corporatization amidst the deterioriating social wage. Within this troubled cauldron, one can see more clearly the political economy of struggles against the standardization and securitization of schools, as well as struggles for open access, free tuition, and the immediate organization of a new university: not a “global” university that is complicit in the border enforcements that prevent the full mobility of living knowledge, but a “university without borders” organized for autonomy and self-determination. As such, the question of political organization and transnational movement building through translation of struggles is key to Roggero’s discussion, particularly in the closing chapters of the book.

Having developed the conditions of labor and production within the hypothesis of cognitive capitalism, Roggero’s emphasis on the common (especially in Chapter 5, “Borders and Lines of Flight”) marks the double nature of constituted sociality and cooperation as productive of capital as well as the plane of antagonism and autonomy from it. A permanent and recurring crisis of accumulation marks this term, precisely due to changes in production and the new forms of cognitive labor that have emerged in recent decades. As the technical and social relations of knowledge production increasingly rely on a common that exceeds the organizing principles of private property, and as accumulation is less and less based on providing the organizational setting for social cooperation at the outset, capital is increasingly consigned to the role of corralling and disciplining cognitive workers, endeavoring to extract surplus value from their productivity in the form of monopolistic rent while simultaneously restraining the excess that escapes capitalist codification. Capital captures surplus value by controlling the manner in which self-organization is actuated, in order to “permit the decomposition of command downstream, or after the fact.”4

Roggero emphasizes then the subjective conditions of these workers, their relations, their forms of organization and life in contemporary capitalism, that perennially exceed the limits of capital’s disciplinary measures and put it in crisis. Viewed from this perspective, living knowledge, the subjective and always-in-struggle element in capitalist development, becomes a doubly productive force, both for capital as well as potentially for itself. This is the focal plane of conflicts and transformations in the field of knowledge constituted by the struggle between capitalist capture, measurement, and valorization on the one hand, and autonomy, cooperation, and self-valorization on the other. Thus Roggero brings together two seeming disjunctures: the increasing self-organization of knowledge work in the absence of formal organization, and the discipline and control of this labor in other aspects of life, through debt and precarious employment. That capital is reactive in relation to the dynamic conditions of knowledge production, that it must separate cognitive workers from their common–through the regime of salary and the political economy of knowledges–in order to reproduce itself, is a suspension of the dynamic in which capital takes initiative in the production process relative workers. The (always imperiled) adequacy of governance in containing living knowledge is merely the flipside of the coin of flexibility and the innumerable potential flight lines from this command.

These are the political stakes for Roggero’s book and the reason for its ultimate focus on the condition of subjectivity in the present context: the productive nature of subjectivity, its precariousness, and its possibilities of becoming unlinked from capitalist relations are entwined at the center of the project of becoming ungovernable and unmeasurable viz. capitalist command and value. Reading various struggles in the universities, Roggero sees the possible emergence of what he calls institutions of the common, the autonomous organization of living knowledge, the full-fledged cooperation and sociality that is self-organized to both refuse exploitation and resist its capture. This entails processes of de-hierarchization, reappropriations of social wealth, and the dismantling of borders that enforce differential inclusion in the knowledge economy. This also implies the possibility of transforming the university from a site of capture and accumulation of profit to a site of cooperation and shared autonomy. It is however a “plane of tension” marked also by the role of discipline, austerity, debt, and borders in policing the “double crisis”–that of the general capitalist economy and the university and the mutual relations between the two.

Roggero’s approach, of asserting the standpoint of workers’ ability to put capital into crisis as bound to the conditions of its development, has its precedents in the Italian workerists (Operaisti), whose political arsenal of heterodox Marxism evolved out of the protracted struggles in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy. Indeed, here as in elsewhere, Roggero has contributed considerably to the translation of this arsenal into contemporary debates about capitalism and class struggle.5 The starting point in The Production of Living Knowledge for analyzing the conditions of cognitive capitalism follow what Mario Tronti in 1966 asserted about the “mass worker” of the Fordist factory: “At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned.”6

Readers will find ensconced in this autonomist hypothesis Roggero’s political approach to the research for the book, which builds upon his mentor Romano Alquati’s notion of conricerca, or co-research. This is more than just activist-research or research “from below.” Roggero describes, “either it was the organization of workers’ autonomy, or it did not exist. [Alquati] had no populist ideal of horizontalism: the prefix ‘con’ meant to question the borders between the production of knowledge and political subjectivity, science and conflict. It was not simply a matter of knowledge but the organization of a threat. Conricerca was working class science.”7

The Production of Living Knowledge extends the reach of this tradition both in its decentering of knowledge and its reimagining of the metropoles of knowledge production through the lens of postcolonial critique as well as its incorporation of the experiences of a range of movement histories, from Black Power and anti-colonialism, to contemporary migrant organizing and recent graduate student campaigns. This constellation of political and methodological traditions affords Roggero a rare force to his analysis that takes from the realities of past struggles (both victories or defeats) the forward momentum of gathering steam without the fog of nostalgia. With this the “history of the present” becomes all the more illuminated by the non-linear and non-teleological ruptures of a multiplicity of subjects who, in combination, conspire against the limits of capital.8


“Knowledge comes from the struggle”

Above all, The Production of Living Knowledge clarifies many spectral issues and experiences signaled by the forms of governance and capture of contemporary capitalism. The book is a critique of the political economy of knowledge launched from the trenches of those whose labor power is simultaneously caught within and exceeds the confines of capitalist value. While Rogero makes this his central focus, he also offers along the way innumerable references to a much larger body of autonomist politics: for example, a politics of debt refusal, the autonomy of the common amidst the crisis of the private and the public, of the temporal dimensions of class struggle viewed from the perspective of workers, the fleeing from measure and capitalist capture, and the issue of the state, welfare, and its appropriation of our commonwealth. So too does he discuss the composition of living knowledge within spatial coordinates no longer confined by a center-periphery binary, but rather multiplied in the space-time of metropoles across the planet, where life, profit, exploitation, and the division of labor is organized. While this wrests the notion of cognitive capitalism from its presumed Euro-centrism, it does not adequately address its co-presence with the multiple regimes of labor that endure in most of the world.

Nevertheless, Roggero is a deeply global thinker committed to the project of living autonomy from an inventive mix of Operaismo and postcolonial thought (the mark of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe is easily traced throughout the text). With the translation and publication of Roggero’s The Production of Living Knowledge, the value of Mario Tronti’s classic dictum, “knowledge comes from the struggle” is rendered contemporary and also doubled: it is a continuing testament to the role of antagonism and conflict in the production of reality, but so too does it describe the very struggles that produce living labor and knowledge today.

  1. The Edu-Factory website houses its two webjournal issues (2011, 2010), the book Toward a Global Autonomous University (Autonomedia, 2009), and archives of its transnational mailing list (2008, 2007). Interested readers can find many entries that resonate with themes from Roggero’s book.
  2. See. e.g., two recent volumes: Peters, Michael A. / Bulut, Ergin (eds.) Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor (New York: Peter Lang) 2011; and Yann Moulier Boutang, Cognitive Capitalism (New York and London: Polity) 2012.
  3. Production of Living Knowledge, p.12
  4. Ibid., p. 114
  5. See also Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Roggero, Futuro anteriore: Dai “Quaderni Rossi” ai movimenti globali: Ricchezze e limiti dell’operaismo Italiano (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2002); Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Roggero, eds., Gli operaisti (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2005).
  6. Mario Tronto, Operai e Capitale (1966; 2nd exp. ed., Turin: Einaudi, 1971), 89, as quoted in Production of Living Knowledge, p. 6
  7. Gigi Roggero “Operaist Freedom — For Romano Alquati” on Edu-Factory, April 7, 2010 (translation by Silvia Federici), emphasis added.
  8. See Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).

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Malav Kanuga

Malav Kanuga is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, NY and editor of the publishing imprint Common Notions