Cognitive Capitalism

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This interpretation stresses that we are in a third phase of capitalism, where the accumulation is centered on immaterial assets. It follows the earlier phases of mercantile and industrial capitalism.

Cognitive capitalism theorists believe that it is centered around the accumulation of immaterial assets, especially related to the information core of products, which are protected through Intellectual Property Rights, i.e. legal means such as patents. These patents, as they are used by brands, in sectors such as pharma, agribusiness and software (Microsoft), then allow for the creation of a surplus value resulting from monopolistic rents. The contradiction of cognitive capitalism is that the products themselves are generally cheap to produce, so they have to be kept in a state of artificial scarcity through IP protection. Cognitive capitalism is associated with the process of a private appropriation of the Information Commons.

For related interpretations, see the theory of Vectoral capitalism, which sees the Hacker Class, which produces use value but cannot realize its exchange value because it doesn't own the vectors of information (the means of distribution such as mass media), pitted against the Vectoral Class, which does own the vectors.

Finally, the interpretation of Netarchical Capitalism, argues that because of the distribution of the means of production (networked computer), which undermines both the monopolies of cognitive capitalists (through the creation of an Information Commons, and the Vectoral Class (through the distributed nature of the internet), is paving the way for netarchical capitalists, who enable, but also own, the participatory platforms.


Summarized by Ed Emery:

"We can offer the following elements towards a definition of cognitive capitalism:

(a) The production of wealth is no longer based solely and exclusively on material production but is based increasingly on immaterial elements, in other words on raw materials that are intangible and difficult to measure and quantify, deriving directly from employment of the relational, affective and cerebral faculties of human beings.

(b) The production of wealth is no longer based on a standardised and homogenous models for the organisation of the labour process regardless of the types of good produced. Production in cognitive capitalism takes place through a wide variety of labour-process models made possible by the development of new technologies of linguistic communication and transportation, and particularly characterised by forms of networking.

As a result of this restructuring of labour processes the traditional unilateral hierarchical form of the factory gradually comes to be replaced by hierarchical structures that are organised territorially via producer chains of sub-contracting suppliers, characterised by cooperation and/or command;

(c) The way in which work is done alters both quantitatively and qualitatively. In the material conditions of labour there is a marked increase in working hours. Often there is also a piling-on of additional tasks, a tendency for the the separation between work time and life time to disappear, and a greater individualisation of work relations. Moreover the nature of work itself comes to involve more and more elements of immateriality. Relational activities, communicational activities and brain activity becomes increasingly present and important. These activities require training, skills and attention: we move beyond the separation between mind and brawn typical of Taylorised work.

(d) The subjection of the worker within the production process is no longer imposed in disciplinary fashion by direct command (foremen etc); most of the time it is introjected and developed through forms of conditioning and social control. Individualised contractual relations are the order of the day, and this tends to introduce individual competitiveness into people's working behaviours.

(e) The role of knowledge becomes fundamental. To the creation of value through material production is added the creation of value through the production of knowledge. Cognitive capitalism means that the production of wealth takes place increasingly through knowledge, through the use of those faculties of labour that are defined by cognitive activity (cognitive labour), in other words principally through immaterial cerebral and relational activities.

(f) Precisely because of its individual nature, cognitive labour demands a high degree of relational activity, as the instrument for the transmission and decodification of its own brain activity and accumulated knowledges:

Cognitive abilities and relational activities are two faces of the same coin and can be regarded as indivisble. They are the basis of General Intellect, in other words the form of diffuse intellectuality which Marx discusses in his Grundrisse.

(g) Cognitive capitalism is also necessarily a networked reality. In other words it is not linear, and the hierarchies which it develops operate within the individual nodes, and between the various nodes, of the network."


Enzo Rullani

Summarized by Matteo Pasquinelli, in: The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage:

"The digital revolution made the reproduction of immaterial objects easier, faster, ubiquitous and almost free. But as the Italian economist Enzo Rullani points out, within cognitive capitalism, "proprietary logic does not disappear but has to subordinate itself to the law of diffusion." Intellectual property (and so Rent) is no longer based on space and objects but on time and speed. Apart from copyright there are many other modes to extract rent. In his book Economia della conoscenza Rullani writes that cognitive products easy to reproduce have to start a process of diffusion as soon as possible in order to maintain control over it. As an entropic tendency affects any cognitive product, it is not recommended to invest on a static proprietary rent. More specifically there is a rent produced on the multiplication of the uses and a rent produced on the monopoly of a secret. Two opposite strategies: the former is recommended for cultural products like music, the latter for patents. Rullani is inclined to suggest that free multiplication is a vital strategy within cognitive capitalism, as the value of knowledge is fragile and tends to decline. Immaterial commodities (that populate any spectacular, symbolic, affective, cognitive space) seem to suffer of a strong entropic decay of meaning. At the end of the curve of diffusion a banal destiny is waiting for any meme, especially in today's emotional market that constantly tries to sell unique and exclusive experiences.

For Rullani the value of a knowledge (extensively of any cognitive product, artwork, brand, information) is given by the composition of three drivers: the value of its performance and application (v); the number of its multiplications and replica (n); the sharing rate of the value among the people involved in the process (p). Knowledge is successful when it becomes self-propulsive and pushes all the three drivers: 1) maximising the value, 2) multiplying effectively, 3) sharing the value that is produced. Of course in a dynamic scenario a compromise between the three forces is necessary, as they are alternative and competitive to each other. If one driver improves, the others get worse. Rullani's model is fascinating precisely because intellectual property has no central role in extracting surplus. In other words the rent is applied strategically and dynamically along the three drivers, along different regimes of intellectual property. Knowledge is therefore projected into a less fictional cyberspace, a sort of invisible landscape where cognitive competition should be described along new space-time coordinates. Rullani describe his model as 3D but actually it is 4-dimensional as it runs especially along time.

The dynamic model provided by Rullani is more interesting than for instance Benkler's plain notion of "social production" but it is not yet employed by radical criticism and activism. What is clear and important in his perspective is also that the material can not be replaced by the immaterial despite the contemporary hypertrophy of signs and digital enthusiasm. There is a general misunderstanding about cognitive economy as an autonomous and virtuous space. On the contrary, Rullani points out that knowledge exists only through material vectors. The nodal point is the friction between the free reproducibility of knowledge and the non-reproducibility of the material. The immaterial generates value only if it grants meaning to a material process. A music CD for example has to be physically produced and physically consumed. We need our body and especially our time to produce and consume music. And when the CD vector is dematerialised thanks to the evolution of digital media into P2P networks, the body of the artist has to be engaged in a stronger competition. Have digital media galvanised more competition or more cooperation? An apt question for today's internet criticism." (

More Information

  1. Check of P2P Foundation blog archive for more articles on cognitive capitalism.
  2. Self-organisation and cooperation in cognitive capitalism, special issue of Solaris magazine, at ,
  3. A critique of the thesis by Siliva Federici and George Caffentzis, at

Key English-language Books to Read

The theory of cognitive capitalism has its roots in mostly French and Italian thinkers. Therefore, we are able to present a number of specific books in French, but English books on the subject are less precise in regard of this concept.

Book in progress by Adam Arvidsson: The Ethical Economy Book Project

Jeremy Rifkin. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where all of Life is a Paid-For Experience

(what if the new capitalism produced a new kind of feudalism? Indeed, as products are increasingly replaced by immaterial experiences, and are licensed rather than sold, then this means that consumers will no longer ‘own’ anything, merely a right to use it, and that those without means will be excluded from access to these networks)

Nick Dyer-Whitheford. Cyber-Marx, cycles and circuits of struggle in High-Technology Capitalism. Univ. of Illinois Pr., 1999.

(“well-researched overview on contemporary Marxist responses to the information age" - Soderbergh copyleft essay)

Class Warfare in the Information Age. Michael Perelman. Palgrave.

(“shows how class conflict remains a contemporary issue")

The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. By Richard Sennett. Norton & Co, 1998.

(vignettes which show the contradictions inherent in the postfordist model of capitalism, and the high personal price to be paid by its employees / French: “Le Travail sans Qualite", Albin Michel, 2000)