The Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism. New Research Perspectives. an Introduction

By Lucarelli, Stefano; Vercellone, Carlo | Knowledge Cultures, July 2013 | Go to article overview

The Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism. New Research Perspectives. an Introduction


Lucarelli, Stefano, Vercellone, Carlo, Knowledge Cultures


1. From Knowledge-based Economy to Cognitive Capitalism

At the beginning of the second millennium, a group of scholars coordinated by Bernard Paulre proposed to the attention of the so-called French Regulation School the notion of "cognitive capitalism" to specify the transformations that affected, after the crisis of Fordism, the regime of growth that characterizes the developed economic systems. As suggested by such group of scholars:

The new mode of regulation must be characterized in terms of cognitive capitalism. We affirm the idea that the dynamics of transformation which dominate the waged societies is characterized by the fact that today growth is mainly based on knowledge. [...] We move beyond the research program on post-Fordism, in fact we develop the hypothesis of a new phase of capitalism that corresponds with the exhaustion of industrial capitalism and the transition to cognitive capitalism. (Corsani et al., 2002: 1. Our translation).

During the first decade of the new millennium the cognitive capitalism hypothesis opened up new research perspectives. Following Paulre (2004), the objective of cognitive capitalism theory is to address the role of knowledge in understanding the evolution and transformation of contemporary capitalism. As Vercellone (2007: 14, note 3) stresses, i) the notion of "capitalism" defines the enduring element in the change of the structural invariants of the capitalist mode of production; ii) the term "cognitive" emphasizes the new nature of labor on which value production in new capitalism rests.

To understand the specificity of the cognitive capitalism thesis, we must first of all dissipate the theoretical misunderstanding that assimilates it to a variation on the theories of knowledge-based economy. To do so, in this section we will begin by characterizing certain fundamental limitations of the contemporary theorizations of knowledge. Subsequently, we will show that the thesis of cognitive capitalism rests on a method of analysis that is able to perceive the meaning and stakes of the current mutation of the place of knowledge in the economy, on the basis of the primary role played by historical transformations in the capital/labor relation.

1.1. Limitations of the Contemporary Theories of Knowledge

Contemporary theory perceives knowledge either as the object of a new sub-discipline (the economics of knowledge) or as the index of a shift to a new stage of economic development (the knowledge-based economy). Two series of closely associated critiques can be addressed to these theorizations.

The first critique concerns the tendency to approach the question of knowledge by starting from general theoretical models that would be valid at all times and in all places, and are founded on a separation between the economic domain and that of social relations. This tendency to reject the historicity of economies is particularly clear in Howitt's work. In his view (1996, 2004) nothing really new characterizes the place of knowledge in economic growth. The only real novelty resides in the current capacity of theory to better discern its functions and primary role, neglected by former theories of growth. In short, the historical novelty is not to be found in a new phase of capitalism or even in the shift to a knowledge-based economy. It is to be found exclusively in the formation of an economics of knowledge, that is, of a sub-discipline of the science of economics specialized in the study of the mechanisms governing the production, distribution and appropriation of knowledge. This is the way Howitt (2004) interprets the birth and development, through gradual improvements, of the theories of endogenous growth, without any reference to the historical transformations in the accumulation of capital and the wage relation. In this kind of conception the theoretician seems to ignore or deny the importance of the underlying structural changes that provide the foundation for the emergence of a new field of research. …

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