Commoners in Transition

Michel Bauwens, Andrea Fumagalli

The Political Economy of the Common: An Interview with Andrea Fumagalli

P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens in conversation with economics professor and coordinator, Andrea Fumagalli. 

Michel Bauwens: One of the early influences of the P2P Theory building which is at the basis of the work of the P2P Foundation, was the school of cognitive capitalism, with authors like Yann Moulier-Boutang, Carlo Vercellone, Andrea Fumagalli and others. Their work came out of the initial discoveries of the ‘autonomist’ school of thinking in Italy in the seventies, showing how capitalism was leaving the factory, and had become about everything we do in our lives. Andrea Fumagalli’s new book sharply distinguishes the common, a general counter-approach to neoliberalism and capitalism based on the self-organisation of life and work, as opposed to seeing the commons are merely shared resources. We interviewed Andrea on his new book, and its key notions of commonfare and ‘money for the commons’.

Michel Bauwens: First of all, Andrea, could you give us a bit of a summary of your life as an activist and researcher, and tell us how this latest book fits into your life’s work? And why you are using the concept of “common”, instead of commons?

Andrea Fumagalli: I started to get involved in politics and militancy in the second half of the Seventies when, in Italy, the so-called “1977 movement” reached its maximum energy. It was the long wave of the ’68 movements, but with outstanding characteristics. This movement was able to understand the ongoing transformation in the labour organization, due to the declining role played by big Tayloristic factories towards the rise of small firms networks (outsourcing and downsizing). This dynamic has highlighted the importance of a new worker figure, who was defined as a “social worker”, operating in the territory, as an alternative to the traditional figure of the “mass worker”, inside the factory, with the rise of new young subjectivity in terms of-refusal of salaried world and the claim of immediate happiness (against the ghosts of the austerity proposed by the so called “historical compromise”, between Christian Democrats and Communist Party) to face the crisis of the Taylorist-Fordist paradigm.

Self-organization, free culture and music, guaranteed income, creativity: this was the climate in which my generation (post ’68) began to take its first steps in the social and political context. I remember that expectations were high. I was particularly struck by the slogan of the refusal of work, aimed at imagining the right to choose a job rather than the obligation to work as a necessity imposed by the blackmail of need. The aspiration to self-determination of my life inspired my future activity, with the curiosity to understand the dynamics of social governance and the imposition of economic constraints. The analytical and methodological structures that seemed to be more adequate derived from the tradition of Italian “Operaismo” (Workerism) in the field of autonomous Marxism.

After I obtained a Ph.D. in economics, I began to study the transformation of the labour market and distribution mechanisms in the period called “Post-Fordism”. I took part in the first theoretical framework on basic income as “primary income” (remuneration of non-paid productive activity, instead of simply an assistantship measure against employment or temporary lack of income because of increasing precarity). Here began my research activity on the changes in the accumulation and valorization of contemporary capitalism: in the nineties as “cognitive capitalism”, now as “biocognitive capitalism”.

Radio Alice – the voice of the ‘movimento del ’77’, closed by the carabinieri in March 1977

MB: Most people will be familiar with (or intuitively understand) ‘cognitive capitalism’, but perhaps this is not yet true for ‘biocognitive capitalism’. Why this concept? Would you also tell us what you mean by ‘life subsumption’?

AF: After the global economic crisis of the early nineties, it was possible to acknowledge the dominance of a new socio-economic paradigm that was able to capture many of the characteristics of the new organizational and labour processes entailed by the post-Fordist stage.

Two main aspects arose as dominant and partially homogeneous in different economic structures and areas: the role played by knowledge in the accumulation process and the centrality of financial markets as source of finance of innovative activity (especially, those based on knowledge), and able to influence the income distribution as result of the liberalization and privatization of the public welfare system. From this point of view, financial markets started to play an increasing role in providing, in private, social services, by replacing the previous Keynesian welfare.

Therefore, in the nineties, it was better to use the term “Cognitive Capitalism”. The hypothesis of Cognitive Capitalism led to the end of the post-Fordist age, and better captures the links between the exploitation of knowledge and the accumulation of surplus.

The central role played by learning and network economies, typical of Cognitive Capitalism, underwent discussion with the beginning of the new millennium as a result of the explosion of the speculative bubble of “net-economy” in March 2000. The new cognitive paradigm is not able to guarantee the economic system from the structural instability that characterizes it. It is necessary that new liquidity could fuel the financial markets. The ability of financial markets to generate “value”, in fact, is based on the development of “conventions” (speculative bubbles), able to create trendily homogeneous expectations that push the main financial operators to invest (speculate) in some specific financial activities. In the nineties, it dealt with the Net Economy, in the 2000s positive expectations came from the development of the Asian markets (with China entering the WTO in December 2001) and from the real estate business. Today, it stretches to focus itself on the (in)efficiency and (un)sustainability of European welfare (and Euro stability). Independent of the type of dominant convention, contemporary capitalism is perennially in search of new social and vital drives which could be commodified and subsumed, until dealing with everything that has to do with the vital faculties of the human beings. That is the reason why, in the last few years, terms like bioeconomics and biocapitalism have started to be used.

It should be clear to the reader that the term that we use in the book derives from the crasis between Cognitive Capitalism and Biocapitalism: Bio-Cognitive capitalism as terminological definition of contemporary Capitalism.

The increasing role of “bios” in the cognitive process of accumulation is recently supported more and more by the acceleration of technical change towards the hybridization between “human” and “machine”. The new industries on the technological frontier are no longer informatics and digital but rather bio-technologies, bio-robotics, nano-technologies, Artificial Intelligence and big data, in which the strict separation between machinery and human activity is fading away: we’re witnessing the the machine becoming human and the human becoming machine.

MB: Tell us what you mean by ‘life subsumption’

AF: Bio-cognitive capitalism is characterized by the co-presence of formal subsumption and real subsumption at the same time.

Formal subsumption, implicit in cognitive bio-capitalism, has to do with the redefinition of the relationship between productive and unproductive labour, by making productive what in the Fordist paradigm was unproductive.

Real subsumption has to do with the dead/living labour ratio, as a consequence of the transition from repetitive, mechanical technologies to linguistic, relational ones. Static technologies, at the basis of the growth of productivity and of intensity in labour performance (size scale economies), switch to dynamic technologies able to exploit learning and network economies by simultaneously combining manual tasks and brain-relational activities. The result has been the increase of new, more flexible forms of labour, in which design and manufacturing stages (CAD-CAM-CAE) are no longer perfectly separable but more and more interdependent and complementary. In recent years, labour organization is increasingly conditioned by the use of algorithms, able to directly organize a work activity, apparently characterized by high degree of autonomy. Even the separation between manufacturing and service production becomes more difficult to grasp. They become inseparable within the production sector.

As far as material production is concerned, the introduction of new computerized systems of production, such as CAD-CAM and CAE, requires professional skills and knowledge that make the relationship between man and machine ever more inseparable, to the point that now it is the living labour that dominates the dead labour of the machine, but inside new forms of labour organization and of social governance. On the production side of services (financialisation, R&D, communication, branding, marketing, personal services), we are witnessing a predominance of the downstream valorisation of material production, accompanied by an expanding role played by new forms of automatization (based on algorithms) .

In the bio-cognitive capitalism, real subsumption and formal subsumption are two sides of the same coin and feed off one each other. Together they create a new form of subsumption which we can define as life subsumption. We prefer this term to that of subsumption of general intellect, as proposed by Carlo Vercellone, since we refer not only to the sphere of knowledge and education but also to the sphere of human relations, broadly speaking. This new form of modern capitalist accumulation highlights some aspects that are at the root of the crisis of industrial capitalism. This leads to the analysis of new sources of valorisation (and increasing returns) in bio-cognitive capitalism. They derive from the crisis of the model of social and technical labour division (generated by the first industrial revolution and taken to the extreme by Taylorism) and they are powered by:

“the role and the diffusion of knowledge which obeys a co-operative social rationality which escapes the restrictive conception of human capital.” 1

It follows that the certified labour time cannot be considered the only productive time, with the effect that a problem of the unit of measure of value arises. The traditional theory of labour value needs to be revised towards a new theory of value, in which the concept of labour is increasingly characterized by “knowledge”, “social reproduction” and is permeated with the human life and life time. We can call this step the transition to a theory of life value, where the fixed capital is the human being “in whose brain resides the knowledge accumulated by the company.” 2

When life becomes labour-force, working time is not measured in standard units (hours, days). The working day has no limits, if not the natural one. We are in the presence of formal subsumption and extraction of absolute surplus value. When life becomes labor-force because brain becomes machine, or “fixed capital and variable capital at the same time”, the intensification of labour performance reaches its maximum: we are so also in the presence of real subsumption and extraction of relative surplus value.

  1. C. Vercellone, “From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect: Elements for a Marxist Reading of the Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism”, in Historical Materialism, n. 15, 2007, pg. 31 [return]
  2. K.Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 725 [return]

In your book, you focus on the exploitation mechanisms of capitalism vis a vis the cognitive and ‘social reproductive common’. Can you summarize the main mechanism, but also, focus on the opposite?

Life subsumption needs a new system of social regulation and governance policy. To understand how life subsumption operates in a pervasive way it is necessary (even if not sufficient) to become aware of the contemporary forms of direct and indirect (subliminal) exploitation.

If the process of salarization (both direct and indirect) is still the way that, in part, promotes formal subsumption (i.e.: the salarization of care work, (re)production, learning, although it does not operate for other productive activities, such as consumption and social relations, as well as leisure and cultural activities are concerned), in bio-cognitive capitalism the technical division of labour and the separation between human being and machine are no longer the major factors that fuel the real subsumption. Productivity growth is increasingly dependent on the exploitation of dynamic economies of learning and networking, that is, on the increasing returns to scale that are fed with the passing of a time that is no longer measurable outside of certified labour performance. It’s no more the time of factory production, in which labour productivity was measured by chronometer applied to the times and rhythms of the machines. The learning and network activities (the birth and diffusion of knowledge) are intrinsically linked to subjectivity, expertise and individuality of the worker. The timing of learning and of networking – the time of the general intellect – become objectively unverifiable and therefore not directly monitorable.

It’s therefore necessary to redefine new instruments of control, able to overcome the discipline and establish forms of social control. Deleuze had already identified this step, starting from the analysis of Foucault:

“Foucault located the disciplinary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they reach their peak at the beginning of the twentieth. They proceed to the organization of large areas of imprisonment. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each with its own laws: first the family, then the school (“you are no longer in the family”), then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”), then the factory, sometime the hospital, and eventually the prison, which is disciplinary environment for excellence.” 1

Deleuze then added, with reference to the crisis of the seventies:

“We are in a generalized crisis of all imprisonment dispositives, from jail to hospital, factory, school and family. The family is an “internal structure” in crisis like all other internal structures, such as educational, professional and so on. The government does not stop to announce reforms which are deemed necessary. Reforming school reforming the industry, the hospital, the army, the prison, but everyone knows that these institutions are finished, at shorter or longer maturity. It is only to manage their agony and to keep people employed until the installation of the new forces that press upon us. These are the societies of control, able to replace the disciplinary societies. “Control” is the name Burroughs has proposed to designate this new monster, and that Foucault recognizes as our immediate future”. 2

Deleuze points out that in the society of control, the individual is not defined as a “signature” and “a number” but by “a code”: the code is a kind of password (access code), while the disciplinary societies are regulated by “mots d’ordre” (translated as order-words, or watchwords) both from the point of view of integration and from the resistance. The digital language of control is made of digits (codes) that mark access to information or rejection.

“We are no more in front of the couple mass/individual. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses statistical samples, data, markets or “banks”. 3

Society of control is the governance of life subsumption. It works through three main tools:

  1. The governance of individual behavior through the “debt”: today, debt is no longer only an economic and accountability term, but an indirect disciplinary tool (and therefore one of social control), able to regulate the individual psychology up to develop a sense of guilt and self-control. 4
  2. The second process of social control is represented by the evolution of the types of labour contract toward a structural, existential and generalized condition of precarity. The precarious condition today is synonymous with uncertainty, instability, nomadism, blackmail and psychological subordination aiming to survive. It is a dependency condition that does not manifest itself at the very moment in which it formally defines a labour contract, but it is upstream and downstream. It’s an existential condition that induces total forms of self-control and self-repression with even stronger results than those of the direct discipline of the factory. The precarious condition defines an anthropology and behavioral psychology that is as strong as labour becomes more cognitive and relational.
  3. Debt, on the one hand, and precarity, on the other hand, are the two main pillars that allow the current life subsumption of bio-cognitive capitalism to operate.

These two main elements favor an individualization of economic and social behavior, towards what Dardot and Laval call the “entrepreneurial man”, a sort of a neoliberalism anthropology which define a new subjective regime, which need to be addressed.

In order to induce subjective behaviors in line with the process of exploitation of life that underlies life subsumption, it is necessary, however, to introduce another dispositive of control aimed at the governance of subjectivity of individuals: the control of the processes of formation of knowledge (education system) and the creation of an ad hoc individualistic imaginary. When knowledge, the general intellect, becomes strategic, the basis of the process of capitalist accumulation and bio-valorisation, it is necessary not only to control it but also direct it. This process can take place along two mutually complementary directives, aimed at the administration of “things” (the first) and the government of the “people” (the second). First, we are witnessing the development of a governance technology (techne) as a tool that constantly minimizes (until eliminated) any element of critical analysis and social philosophy. The technical specialization creates “ignorance” in the etymological sense of the term, i.e. “no knowledge”. Second, we add the dispositive of merit and of individual and selective reward, a sort of mantra definitely established in the processes of reform of educational institutions (from kindergarten to university). The aim is to transform the different individuality (put to labour and to value) into individualistic subjectivity, perpetually in competition, and then self-vanishing.

In parallel, brandisation of life, in term of total commodification of life, leads to ensure that the individual transform itself in unique singularity, with wants and needs aimed more “to appear” rather than “to be”. The formal imaginary of appearance becomes an instrument of conformist identification, which is often hetero-directed and controlled. The powerful growth of social networks, with all their ambivalence and potential wealth, witnesses and certifies this process.

Thus, life subsumption allows to exploit subjective individuality, puts to value differences and diversity (gender, race, education, character, experience, etc.), by recombining them, into the external cage of debt and precarity, in a continuous and dynamic process of induced social cooperation.

    1. G. Deleuze, “L’autre journal”, n. 1, maggio 1990, now in G. Deleuze, Pourparlers (1972-1990), Minuit, Paris 1990, pp. 240-247: [return]
    2. Ibidem [return]


    1. Ibidem [return]


  1. M. Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man. Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, Semiotexte/Mit Press 2013. Please, note that, in German, the term“debt” (Schulde) has the same meaning of “guilt”.[return]

Given what we know about this, how can we achieve the opposite and develop the commons as an autonomous productive ecosystem, without expliciting the monetary aspects yet, which will be our next question.

In the last two chapters of the book (before the conclusions), I try to discuss the “pars construens”, by proposing a new field of social conflict, based on the proposal of the Commonfare and of the Money of Commonwealth (see next questions, for details). These two proposals, among others (more traditional), should create the conditions to define an autonomous and free space of life according to our desires, needs and dreams, whose aim is to experiment concrete (good) practices of eco-production of human beings in favour of human beings by minimizing the commodification of our lives and the destruction of the environment as it happens now in a context of life subsumption. These social experiments must contaminate the capitalistic sphere like a positive virus. I call them “instituent” practices of “subtraction”. The main problem is to promote the sustainability of these practices in presence of autonomous economic and social preconditions.

You posit an alternate money for the common. How would this work, how do we go about implementing it? What is wrong with the current attempts so far and what do you propose to overcome current weaknesses. Does it exist anywhere yet?

To define the Money of Common, we think some parameters should be stressed (Baronian, Vercellone, 2015):

  • Not to be cumulative and cannot become the subject of speculation. In consequence it must lose a part of its value over time. It is therefore a melting or burning money.
  • To be able to mitigate the dependence of workers from the economic constraints of the sale of their labour-force and therefore the wage relation, i.e. reducing precariousness.
  • To be able to allow, on this basis, to free up time and resources to develop alternative forms of cooperation based on the pooling of knowledge, and the results of the production, however, on exchange networks that exclude the logic of profit. Participation in the network in which the circulating money of the common constitutes adherence to these principles, whether they are individuals, of companies or institutional actors.
  • To be a non-property.

These four parameters imply that the way in which the money of the common enters in the economic process is not through exchange or financial activity (as mean of payment or store of value), but through the financing of production activity (be material or immaterial). It’s something totally different by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

More specifically, the money of the common can represent an alternative to the monetary and financial production economy if it is used firstly as monetary payment of the necessary work (not labour), or, may be, at the beginning, in a complementary way, able to increase the wages, paid in traditional money.

A financial production economy like cognitive bio-capitalism is at the same time a M-C(kn)-M’ and a M-M’ system.

In this framework, financial markets are able to create liquidity in order to finance investment activity and consumption and to directly intervene in income distribution. The result is an increasing degree of inequality, which is sustainable until the financial multiplier effect (via capital gains) on aggregate demand compensate the worsening of the same income distribution. It is an unsustainable condition, since financial markets cannot grow indefinitely. That is the macroeconomic role played by finance money.

The money of the common should be added to finance money and in alternative production system it should substitute it. That means that the money of the common should recreate a different economic circuit, in which material and immaterial production is no more financed by financial and credit market. And the simplest way is, from this point of view, to imagine a sort of community financial institution, able to generated no property money under the community supervision in a democratic way, which is irreducible and irreconcilable to the traditional financial hierarchies.

It is important that the rate of change with traditional currencies is fixed.

The aim of this alternative financial circuit is to provide financing for the developing of social services, production of use values (no profit organization), remunerating the social cooperation, the common. The production of human beings in favour of human beings, outside exchange-values, can represent, now and soon, a beginning experiment of alternative way of living, without depending on the external financial constraints. This framework meets some limits and problems.

The first limit has to do with the definition of economic boundaries. A crypto-currency with the characteristics of money of the common can be introduced in an economic system as mean of remuneration of labour and investment in favor of social cooperation only if the production cycle is constrained by space boundaries. From this point of view, a local money can play this role. It is necessary to start with experiments, which deals with economic activity that cannot be globalized. Social services, like education and training, transport, health, social security, culture and leisure, real estate, agricultural tourism and artisan activities together with some specific manufacturing production, whose filiéres are localized, could be good examples.

The second problem/limit lies in the managing of the financial institution of the common and of the issuing of the money of the common. Many alternatives are possible. That is a political aspect, whose solution has to do with the existing degree of bottom-up democracy and decision making apparatus.

We are aware that this alternative financial production model cannot, at the moment, substitute the traditional one. It is complementary. But it is able to open free space for a non-commodified and no-profit oriented production. It can be a chance for a production of the common. Since the common is just among us.

In your one but last chapter, before your end conclusions, you focus on commonfare, please explain. What language do you use for the subject of political and social change? Commoners, the precariat, the multitude?

In the transition from Fordist capitalism to bio-cognitive capitalism, two key points emerge, strictly connected to the role of the Welfare system and the social conditions of the reproduction of the labor force.

Welfare institutions today are directly productive activities. The share of capital understood as intangible (R&D, education, training and health) has exceeded the share of material capital, from the beginning of the 1980s in the US, and later in Europe. Nowadays intangible capital has become the determining factor in growth and competitiveness. Material capital tends to turn into human capital (the stock of knowledge, habits, social and personality attributes, including creativity, embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value). Thus, welfare conditions, if privatized and financialized, play a relevant role in the accumulation process as the primary productive factor. Market actors substitute states and public actors, favoring a process of segmentation among the population. Universality becomes an empty word.

The second point has to with the increasingly central role played by social production. For social reproduction, we mean the complex of interactions that are generated, in life, within the social environment. The content and the form of social reproduction, more clearly than in the past, deals with the material body, processed by bio-capitalism, and is inextricably linked to the time and the needs of life.

It deals with the overcoming of the distinction between production and reproduction. Traditionally, care work has been considered ancillary to the factory’s production work and unproductive, from the capitalistic point of view. Now, in contemporary capitalism, it has become a direct source of value, partially waged and partially unpaid.

The concept of social reproduction is paradigmatic of bio-cognitive capitalism. Therefore, it is necessary to introduce a new idea of welfare, what we call the commonfare (welfare of the commonwealth). Through the concept of commonfare we will be able to deal with two elements that characterize the current phase of the bio-cognitive capitalism, especially in the so-called western countries:

  • precarity and debt condition as dispostive of social control and dominance;
  • the generation of wealth that arises from social reproduction, cooperation and general intellect.

A redefinition of welfare policy should be able to respond to the unstable trade-off within the accumulation process of bio-cognitive capitalism: the negative relationship between precarity and social cooperation. It is necessary to remunerate social cooperation, from one side, and favor forms of social production, from the other.

Thus, commonfare is based on four pillars:

  1. Unconditional Basic Income as remuneration of the life put to labour and to value;
  2. The managing of both the common goods and the commonwealth
  3. Alternative sharing economy
  4. Commoncoin as money of the common

One of the critical points is the search of the subject of political and social change. I think that this question is badly formed. The problem arises from the observation that in bio-cognitive capitalism, the diversity of subjectivities creates value. There is no longer a single subject of reference. Using the workerist language, we could say that we are in presence of more technical compositions of labour and that their declination into a unique political composition appears today very difficult, if not impossible. From this perspective, the concept of class, inherited from the twentieth century, becomes inadequate. Other expression as “Commoners”, Multitude, “Precariat” could be more useful, if only because they are plural concepts. The term “Commoners” derives from a sequence of indistinct subjectivities, the term “Multitude” appears to be too general and vague. Maybe “Precariat” could be the best term, even if in the book we speak of precarious conditions. That means that the precariat is not yet a class, but could be in the future.

Do your conclusions offer us any hope and a path forward, and how optimistic or pessimistic are you about achieving this. What does the world look like if we succeed, and how if we fail?

The goal of the book is to define a path that, concretely, step by step, is able to increase our freedom of choice and self-determination of our humanity. I’m optimistic, because we have nothing to lose. The two main alternative to transform capitalistic society of the XX century have failed. At the moment, the revolutionary way, able to destroy the system as it happened in 1917, is not viable, but the reformist way is no more possible, since any political space of reformism is today totally subsumed by the capitalistic logic. Hence, it follows that a new possibility is given by the direct experimentation of small alternative circuits (“instituent” subtraction or decommodification), able to erode more and more (if enough autonomous and eco-socio-sustainable not to be captured by the sirens of the capitalistic market) increasing spaces to the capitalistic way of profiting.

The worst is already in front of us.

Andrea Fumagalli (born 1959) is professor of Economics at the Department of Economics and Management of the University of Pavia, where he teaches “Political Economy of the Knowledge”, “History of Economic Thought and “Theory of firm”. He teaches also “Alternative Economic Modelling” at IUSS-Pavia (Scuola Universitaria Superiore di Pavia) and has an assignment at the Department of Informatics at University of Bologna, where he teaches Microeconomics.

He was graduated in Social Economic Disciplines in 1984 and gained Ph.D in Economics in 1990 after studies in French (École des hautes études en sciences socials, Paris and Cepremap, Paris with Robert Boyer) and in Usa (New School for Social Research, New York, with Edward Nell).

Till 2016, he was the Italian representative of the European Project ISCH COST Action IS1202 “Dynamics of Virtual Work”, coordinated by Ursula Huws and Christian Fuchs (now over) and, at the moment, he is the Italian coordinator of European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 687922: “PIE-News –

He is active in Effimera Network, a site of “radical political discussion”.

Photo of Andrea Fumagalli – Festivaletteratura 2012 (Wikimedia Commons) 

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