Knowledge Work Under Cognitive Capitalism

What do the Austrian-born, self-styled “social ecologist” and management theorist Peter Drucker and the Italian autonomist Marxist scholar Paolo Virno have in common? At first blush, little beyond their Continental birthplaces. Steeped in different philosophical traditions and lifestyle habits, Drucker was vehemently anti-Marxist and accustomed to a comfortable middle-class existence, while Virno – together with other autonomists, the most famous of which is Antonio Negri – did hard jail time due to their political activities.[1] Drucker’s consultancy occurred within the corporation’s confines, while Negri, Virno and their associates directed their praxis at the street level, engaging with Italian workers. Yet this workerist movement was no less theorized, precisely from the “inside,” than Drucker’s own efforts to understand management’s role in a reconstituted form of capitalism. Negri, Virno, Mario Tronti and other autonomist theorists talked of “immaterial” and “social” labor – thus extending the Marxist concept of labor to discuss a form of capitalism based on the “general intellect,” a term adopted from Marx himself.[2]

Here, then, is the connection: Drucker and the autonomists simultaneously tried to pinpoint certain deep-seated and structurally transformative tendencies in Western capitalism, society and modernity to move to a form of postindustrial economy that focuses on the production and consumption of knowledge and symbolic goods as a higher-order economic activity that encompasses and affects the entire social fabric. Drucker used the label “post-capitalist society,” but his depiction of this new social formation’s contours strikingly parallels key tenets of cognitive capitalism. In this new capitalist phase, social knowledge, embodied in the general intellect and diffused throughout the workforce, is the key productive force (Virno 2004). In this paper, we argue that Drucker not only presages the autonomist notion of immaterial labor at cognitive capitalism’s heart; his work also points toward, but never fully develops, a theory of self-organized knowledge labor. This is the very thing that autonomists, including Negri himself, call for: the self-management of society’s intellectual resources.

Before we continue, we would like to offer the following parameters for what we mean when we speak of “cognitive capitalism,” a term sometimes used differently by different thinkers. From Michael A. Peters’ 2011 book, “Cognitive Capitalism, Education and the Question of Digital Labor”:

‘Cognitive capitalism’ is a general term that has become significant in the discourse analyzing a new form of capitalism sometimes called the third phase of capitalism, after the earlier phases of mercantile and industrial capitalism, where the accumulation process is centered on immaterial assets utilizing immaterial or digital labor processes and production of symbolic goods and experiences. It is a term that focuses on the socio-economic changes ushered in with the Internet as platform and new Web 2.0 technologies that have impacted the mode of production and the nature of labor.

The core of cognitive capitalism is centered on digital labor processes that produce digital products cheaply utilizing new information and communications technologies that are protected through intellectual property rights regimes which are increasingly subjected to interventions and negotiations of the nation states around the world. As Antonio Negri argues, ‘The originality of cognitive capitalism consists in capturing, within a generalized social activity, the innovative elements that produce value’ where ‘capitalist development and the capitalist creation of value and based more and more on the concept of social capture of value itself’ (2008, p. 64). It is a term that has obvious significance for the analysis of the future of education and specific application in the field of educational policy analysis.

The theory of cognitive capitalism has its origins in French and Italian thinkers, particularly Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, the work of Michel Foucault on biopolitics, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s trilogy Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth as well as the Italian ‘Autonomist’ Marxist movement. The Autonomist tradition had its origins in the Italian ‘Operaismo’ (‘workerism’) in the 1960s, incorporating the work of Emilio Vesce, Luciano Ferrari Bravo, Mario Dalmaviva, Lauso Zagato, Oreste Scalzone, Pino Nicotri, Alisa del Re, Carmela di Rocco, Massimo Tramonte, Sandro Serafini, and Guido Bianchini, amongst others. There are a series of networks that have developed over many years that strengthened relationships among these thinkers.

Backtracking through the earliest of Drucker’s writings, we find his concern with guaranteeing the income of waged workers echoed by contemporary autonomist calls for a universal basic income, as a transitional demand on the path to knowledge workers’ self-organization. In a nutshell, Drucker simply did not realize the radical nature of his own conclusions about capitalism’s transmutation and the generalization of intellective skill, let alone income guarantees and need for a truly “social” (or society-wide) form of knowledge management. Immaterial labor is Drucker’s missing link: this concept enables connections to be made between diverse types of knowledge workers – from elite software engineers to low-paid service workers – which he struggled to forge in his own writings, but so desired to make.

We see two main reasons for revealing the complementarity between Drucker’s prognostications and autonomist-inspired analyses of cognitive capitalism’s macro-dynamics. The first is to rectify neglect. Munro (2011, 8) shows that the immaterial labor concept has just “a marginal presence” within the management and organizational studies literature. Furthermore, the autonomists Hardt and Negri’s work, “has as yet had a very limited reception” within this field (Munro 2011, 11-12). Drucker provides the steppingstone to bringing the idea of cognitive capitalism into the broader management debate about the organizational (and social) consequences of flexibly specialized, post-Fordist production.

While Drucker had a keen eye for refining management technique, he was far from myopic, continually training his vision on knowledge-based shifts in capitalism’s social organization. Taking this leaf from Drucker’s book, the socioeconomic change wrought by the general intellect’s rewiring of the capitalist circuit is simply too important an issue to be relegated to the electronic journal Ephemera. To date, this is the sole management and organizational studies outlet for work by cognitive capitalism theorists (Morini and Fumagalli 2010; Leonardi 2010).[3] We want to catch the attention of critical and orthodox management scholars alike. We believe Drucker is the key to sparking the latter’s interest, especially in view of contemporary corporate social responsibility discourses throwing redistributive social justice back into the managerialist frame. Just as the provision of income stability to American wage-earners in the immediate postwar period features prominently in Drucker’s early musings in “The New Society” (first published in 1950), cognitive capitalism once again brings the issue of inter-class income redistribution to the fore.

Our second reason for disclosing the affinity between recent theorizations of cognitive capitalism’s key dynamics and Drucker’s prophetic analysis of capitalism’s transformation is this: to broaden the scope of what the management literature means by knowledge management. The seeds are right there in Drucker’s own work. The theory and practice of knowledge management has been roundly criticized – properly, in our view – by critical management studies (CMS) writers because it is technocratic, prescriptive and manipulative (McKinlay 2002; Alvesson and Kärreman 2001). We go one step further and say that orthodox knowledge management ignores bases of inequality, exploitation, and unpaid labor – principally social class and gender – that stem from society’s (private) property relations and power structures.

With the notable exception of Drucker, for whom capitalism’s class dynamics were a key concern, knowledge management is blind to these issues. Knowledge management practitioners would simply have the purportedly classless and genderless firm-bound knowledge workers submit to information systems designed to capture and codify their implicit knowledge (Fuller 2002). The promise is an enhanced organizational memory, not dependent on the workers’ ability to apply what they know or communicate it to others. The point is to limit risk, should the knowledge worker quit. While Drucker, too, had these prosaic staff-retention concerns, he periodically transcended them to consider the knowledge worker’s position and involvement in community life (the common, that is), and to consider what it means for capitalist production when knowledge (or the general intellect) is the primary productive resource. This aspect of Drucker’s work is a steppingstone to considering how to remunerate but also constrain the exploitation of knowledge workers – especially those not organizationally bound or subject to the wage-relation. An equality-minded CMS approach to knowledge management, we believe, must address these issues.


1. Negri and Virno were imprisoned in April 1979 for their role in the Italian autonomist movement, the roots of which lie in early 1960s Italian worker activism independent of formal labor organizations (parties and trade unions) – a form of self-organization labeled Operaismo. Virno was released after two years (Lotringer 2004, 11). Negri languished in jail until 1983, when, after getting enough votes to win an Italian parliamentary seat (a strategy also used by the Irish Republican Army to try to free Bobby Sands), he was released and then fled the country, only to return years later to serve a further jail term (Fleming 1991, x-xi).

2. For a useful account of Marx’s concept, see Virtanen and Vähämäki (2003, emphasis added), who translate Marx in the following way: “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge [das allgemeine gesellschaftliche Wissen, knowledge] has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of the social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree powers of the social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.”

3. Ephemera is an important venue for the airing of autonomist ideas; a February 2007 special issue on immaterial labor includes treatments of the Operaismo tradition and its latter-day variants.