Published by the English journal Radical Philosophy and translated by French Les Mondes du Travail, Matteo Pasquinelli’s essay investigates the relationship between Marx and computing pioneer Charles Babbage and, after decades of speculation, traces the origin of the expression general intellect that has been discussed as a 19th-century prophecy of the crisis of the knowledge society and the rise of artificial intelligence.
Matteo Pasquinelli, “On the Origins of Marx’s General
Intellect”, Radical Philosophy, 2.06, winter 2019.
→ Download PDF (English)
French translation by Stephen Bouquin and Antonella
Corsani, “Sur les origines du General Intellect de Marx”,
Les Mondes du Travail, n. 24-25, Nov. 2020.
→ Download PDF (French)
An 1828 caricature by cartoonist William Heath from the series ‘March of Intellect’ depicts a giant automaton advancing with long strides and holding a broom to sweep away a dusty mass of clerks, clergy and bureaucrats, representing figures of the old order and obsolete laws. The automaton’s belly is a steam engine, its head is made of books of history, philosophy and (importantly) mechanics. Its crown reads ‘London University’. In the background the goddess of justice lies in ruins summoning the automaton: ‘Oh Come and Deliver Me!!!’ Upon closer observation, the caricature appears to ridicule the belief that the technologies of industrial automation (already looking like robots) might become a true agent of political change and social emancipation under the command of public education. Heath’s series of satirical engravings was originally commissioned by the Tories to voice their sarcasm regarding a potential democratisation of knowledge and technology across all classes. Nonetheless, by dint of his visionary pen, they became an accidental manifesto for the progressive camp and the invention of the future.
Initiated as a campaign in England during the Industrial Revolution, the March of Intellect, or ‘March of Mind’, demanded the amelioration of society’s ills through programmes of public education for the lower classes. The expression ‘March of Intellect’ was introduced by the industrialist and utopian socialist Robert Owen in a letter to The Times in 1824, remarking that in recent years ‘the human mind has made the most rapid and extensive strides in the knowledge of human nature, and in general knowledge.’ The campaign triggered a reactionary and not surprisingly racist backlash: The Times started to mock the ambitions of the working class under headlines such as ‘The March of Intellect in Africa’.
As a campaign for progress in both literacy and technology, the March of Intellect was part of the so-called ‘Machinery Question’, that is, the public debate in England on the massive replacement of workers by industrial machines in the first half of the nineteenth century. The response to the employment of machines and workers’ subsequent unemployment was also the demand for more education about machines, which took the form of initiatives such as the Mechanics’ Institute Movement. 1823 saw the establishment of the London Mechanics’ Institute (later to become known as Birkbeck College). In 1826, Henry Brougham, future Lord Chancellor, founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to help those without access to schooling. In the same year the London University (later University College London) was founded. Though often going unacknowledged, a good part of the British academic landscape as it stands today emerged out of the epistemic acceleration of the industrial revolution.
In 1828 The London Magazine endorsed the March of Intellect for the benefit of the ‘general intellect of the country’, a country which, thanks to mass education, would understand the need to reform a decaying legislative system. 6 When in 1858 Marx used the expression (in English) ‘general intellect’, in the famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ of the Grundrisse, he was echoing the political climate of the March of Intellect and the power of ‘general social knowledge’ to, in his reading, weaken and subvert the chains of capitalism rather than those of old institutions.
But it was specifically in a book of the utopian socialist, William Thompson, that Marx encountered the idea of the general intellect and, more importantly, the argument that knowledge may become a power inimical to workers, once it has been alienated by machines. Thompson’s book carried the optimistic title An Inquiry Into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Humane Happiness Applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth and was published in 1824, the same year in which Owen launched the March of Intellect. The book contains probably the first systematic account of mental labour – followed by Thomas Hodgskin’s own account in Popular Political Economy (1827) and Charles Babbage’s project to mechanise mental labour in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832). Afterwards, because of the decline of the Mechanics’ Institutes and tactical decisions within the workers’ movement, the notion of mental labour encountered a hostile destiny in the Machinery Question.
So when in the twentieth century authors began to analyse the so-called knowledge society and thought they were discussing for the first time forms of symbolic, informational and digital labour, they were actually operating in an area of political amnesia. Marx was partly responsible for bringing about this amnesia. He engaged with Thompson’s and Hodgskin’s political economy, but considered their emphasis on mental labour as the celebration of individual creativity – as the cult of the gifted artisan, the ingenious toolmaker and the brave engineer – against labour in common: in Capital, Marx intentionally replaced the mental labourer with the ‘collective worker’ or Gesamtarbeiter. Marx’s refusal to employ the concept of mental labour was due to the difficulty of mobilising collective knowledge into campaigns on the side of workers. The substance of knowledge and education is such that they can only be summoned for universalist battles (for the ‘general intellect of the country’) rather than partisan ones on the side the proletariat. Besides, since The German Ideology, Hegel’s notion of absolute spirit appeared to be the antagonist of Marx’s method of historical materialism: Marx transposed his famous anti-Hegelian passage ‘life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’ to industrial England, in order to claim that labour is not determined by knowledge, but knowledge by labour.
Traditionally, for Marxism, the distinction between manual and mental labour evaporates in the face of capital insofar as any kind of labour is abstract labour, that is, labour measured and monetised for the benefit of producing surplus value. What follows shares this traditional starting point, but goes on to depart from orthodox Marxist positions. I wish to consider that any machinic interface of labour is a social relation, as much as capital, and that the machine, as much as money, mediates the relation between labour and capital – what could be termed a labour theory of value mediated by machines. Thinking with, as well as beyond, Marx, I want to stress that any technology influences the metrics of abstract labour. For this purpose, this essay traces the origins of Marx’s general intellect in order to reconsider unresolved issues of early political economy, such as the econometrics of knowledge, that are increasingly relevant today. In the current debates on the alienation of collective knowledge into corporate AI we are, in fact, still hearing the clunky echoes of the nineteenth-century Machinery Question.