Academic journal article New Formations


Academic journal article New Formations


Article excerpt

Abstract This essay takes up the work of Bernard Stiegler to evaluate and critique his use of Marx and Engels' notion of proletarianization in the context of new media, television, education and activism. The impact of technology and the notion of the general intellect is measured against Stiegler's worry about a 'short circuit' that threatens humanity and requires a 'new critique'. Talk of an 'attention economy' might be better understood if we deploy a wider Marxist notion of proletarianization in relation to class consciousness and struggh. Rather than a forlorn compfoint about the 'conspiracy of imbeciles' and the 'ruin' of public education, a more careful reading of Marx offers proletarianization as a resource in a struggle that is - abo but not only - a 'battle for intelligence'.

Keywords proletarianization, cretinization, technology, education, general intellect, critique


The future of Europe and the world must be thought from the question of the psycho-power characteristic of control societies, and whose effects have become massive and destructive. Psycho-power is the systematic organisation of the capture of attention made possible by the psychotechnologies that have developed with the radio (1920), with television ( 1 950) and with digital technologies ( 1 990), spreading all over the planet.

Bernard Stiegler1

There is a kind of unseemly scramble underway to cope with apparent changes in the technological and social composition of capital today. It is my argument that this scramble is symptomatic of a political failure and a danger that can be analysed with the help, albeit taken critically, of the work of Bernard Stiegler, and of course - as if it were necessary to even say this - with Marx. Stiegler's is an unorthodox Marxism, which is not always a bad thing. He diagnoses an 'indeterminacy rising out of an always-accelerating future' and this opens the space for a 'battle for intelligence'.2 A key concept relevant to this battle is quite an old one - a somewhat expanded notion of proletarianisation, building upon Gilbert Simondon's notion of collective, technical and human 'individuation',3 but derived initially from comments by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Stiegler calls 'proletarianisation' Marx's greatest contribution.

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels refer to the way in which the capitalist mode of production forces more and more people into dependency upon waged labour and they report how the lower strata of the middle class, 'the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, retired tradesmen generally, handicraftsmen and peasants' are sinking gradually into the proletariat. They explain that the 'diminutive capital' of these lower strata leaves them unable to compete with large scale Industry and this Industry also enforces the passing of specialised skills in the face of new methods of production.4 Finally, though the teleological trajectory here is not so simple, Marx and Engels stress that the rise of a proletarian consciousness and proletarian class interest, opposed to the bourgeois class and capital, signals the advent of a political struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie so as to inaugurate a world in which 'the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all'.5

Stiegler has both a narrower and a more generalised sense of proletarianisation than Marx and Engels, and he wants to rethink the contemporary situation in which we find our lives saturated by what he calls 'psychotechnologies' - for which often the shorthand is television and Google. It is of course unclear what demarcation lines mark out proletarian status or not. For Stiegler, the entire middle class seems to have become proletarianised, subject to the power of retentional devices that manage the contradictions of capital with 'cultural control', 'consumption' and which produce 'impotence' and 'self destructive transgressions [passages à l'acte]'.6 No doubt most data input jobs qualify as impotence-making - inclusive of academics toiling away in the teaching factory - but this designation of everyone as proletarian differentiates neither regionally nor historically with regard to class composition or cultural character. …

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