Fillip 19 — Spring 2014

The Labour of 
Abstraction: Seven Transitional 
Theses on Marxism 
and Accelerationism

Matteo Pasquinelli

Capitalism is an object of high abstraction, the common is a force of higher abstraction

Karl Marx’s notion of abstract labour identified the inner engine of capitalism, that is, the transformation of labour into a general equivalent. In the so-called introduction to the Grundrisse,1 Marx put abstraction at the centre of “the method of political economy,” and ten years later this methodology would innervate his analysis in Das Kapital.2 In Marx the concrete is a result, a product, of the process of abstraction.3 Capitalist reality, and specifically revolutionary reality, is an invention: The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception.4 Abstraction is both the tendency of capital and the method of Marxism. In addition, Alfred Sohn-Rethel5 spotted the strict relation between the abstraction of language, the abstraction of commodity, and the abstraction of money. Operaism then took abstraction and sewed it again upon the jacket of the proletarian: abstraction is the movement of capital and also is the movement of the resistance to capital. Antonio Negri specifically set abstraction at the centre of the method of antagonistic tendency as a process of collective knowledge: the process of determinate abstraction is entirely given inside this collective proletarian illumination: it is therefore an element of critique and a form of struggle.6 The idea of the common was born as an epistemic project.

  1. Karl Marx, “Einleitung” (Manuscript M, 1857), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Moscow: Verlag für fremdsprachige Literatur, 1939). Translation: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1993).
  2. Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1 (Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meissner, 1867). Translation: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1981).
  3. See also Evald Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982).
  4. Marx, “Einleitung” (Manuscript M, 1857), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, 101.
  5. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (London: Macmillan, 1978).
  6. Antonio Negri, Marx oltre Marx: Quaderno di lavoro sui Grundrisse (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1979). Translation: Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (New York: Autonomedia, 1991), 66.
Capitalism has evolved into further monetary and technological abstractions (techniques of financialization and algorithmic governance)

Contemporary capitalism has evolved along two main vectors of abstraction: monetary abstraction (financialization) and technological abstraction (the algorithms of the metadata society). Expressed within Marx’s diagram of organic composition of capital,1 this means: capital’s technical composition has evolved toward the algorithmic abstraction of networks (data governance), its value composition toward the monetary abstraction of derivatives and futures (debt governance). As Michael Hardt says: Finance, like money in general, expresses the value of labor and the value produced by labor, but through highly abstract means. The specificity of finance, in some respects, is that it attempts to represent the future value of labor and its future productivity.2 Algorithmic trading, or algotrading, is a good example of the combined evolution of these two machinic lineages and a good measure of the desperate state of investment capital. From another point of view, on the ground of the new forms of cybernetic labour, Romano Alquati3 tried to combine this parallel evolution in the notion of valorizing information (merging the notions of cybernetic information and Marxian value). In 1963, Alquati had already described a cybernetic factory that, like digital networks today, was able to absorb human knowledge and turn it into machinic intelligence and machinic value (in this way feeding fixed capital). Capitalism started then to show the profile of a global autonomous intelligence: Cybernetics recomposes globally and organically the functions of the general worker that are pulverised into individual micro-decisions: the Bit links up the atomised worker to the figures of the [economic] Plan.4 In Alquati’s factory we are already visiting the belly of an abstract machine, a concretion of capital that is no longer made of steel.

  1. Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1 (Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meissner, 1867). Translation: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes 
(London: Penguin, 1981), 762.
  2. Michael Hardt, introduction to Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2008), 9.
  3. Romano Alquati, “Composizione organica del capitale e forza-lavoro alla Olivetti,” part 2, Quaderni Rossi, no. 3, 1963.
  4. Ibid., 134.

Abstraction is the form of both cognitive capitalism and biopower

The notion of biopolitical normativity was introduced by Michel Foucault in his 1975 course Les Anormaux. Across modernity Foucault identified a form of power that was not exercised through techniques of repression of sexuality but through a positive production of knowledge about sexuality. Foucault distinguished so between the domains of Law and Norm: The norm’s function is not to exclude and reject. Rather, it is always linked to a positive technique of intervention and transformation, to a sort of normative project....What the eighteenth century established through the discipline of normalization...seems a power that is not linked to ignorance but a power that can only function thanks to the formation of a knowledge.1 As a matter of fact Foucault’s notion of normative power was inspired by his mentor Georges Canguilhem,2 who had derived the idea from the neurologist Kurt Goldstein3 and then applied it to the social sciences. Specifically, in Goldstein’s work the normative power was the ability of the brain to produce new norms in order to adapt to the environment or respond to traumas. As in Gestalttheorie, Goldstein believed that the normative power of the brain was based on the power of abstraction, that is, the ability to generalize forms and invent new ones. Foucault started his first book4 with a strong critique of Goldstein, later transforming the power of abstraction into a proper epistemology of power. Biopolitics was born in fact as noopolitics—and the essential problem that besets the politics of life is still the politics of abstraction. The paradigms of both biopower and cognitive capitalism should be described as the exploitation and alienation of the power of abstraction.

  1. Michel Foucault, Les anormaux: Cours au Collège de France, 1974–1975 (Paris: Seuil, 1999). Translation: Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975 (New York: Picador, 2004), 50.
  2. Georges Canguilhem, Le Normal et le Pathologique (Paris: PUF, 1966). Translation: The Normal and the Pathological, introduction by Michel Foucault (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1978, and New York: Zone Books, 1991).
  3. Kurt Goldstein, Der Aufbau des Organismus (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1934). Translation: The Organism (New York: Zone Books, 1995).
  4. Michel Foucault, Maladie mentale et personnalité (Paris: PUF, 1954). Translation: Mental Illness and Psychology (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

Abstraction is the spinal cord of the 
perception of the World (and the Self)

Abstraction is the base and form of sensation, and therefore of the sensed body and sensed world. Already a century ago Gestalttheorie showed that the visual perception of a figure is based on the brain’s holistic power to generalize points and abstract lines, which is also an inferential power of the organism’s sensient organs. Perception and perceptual consciousness depend on capacities for action and capacities for thought; perception is...a kind of thoughtful activity, the most recent school of enactivism reminds us.1 Perception is always a hypothetical construction (or abduction, as Charles Sanders Peirce would say). From Buddhist philosophy to Baruch Spinoza and contemporary neuroscience,2 the mind finally emerges as a swarm—a collective cooperation and abstraction of singularities (atoms, cells, neurons, etc.) producing the “tunnel effect” of the body and the Self.3 Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the mind to reorganize itself after it is damaged, but it is also the intrinsic “dysfunction” of the mind and its openness to chaos. If the atomic swarm recomposes itself in a different way, new forms of Gestalt emerge, for instance, as hallucination, dream, imagination, invention. Abstraction must be considered an organic and logical collective power of the mind that precedes language, mathematics, and science in general: it is the power to perceive in detail and recognize an emotion, to project the Self beyond its physical limits, to change habits to recover from a trauma, or to invent a new norm to adapt to the environment.4 It is also the power, of course, to manipulate tools, machines, and information. Abstraction is deeply rooted in life and time. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari5 remind us that the primeval artistic gesture of the human was an abstract line: as noticed first by Wilhelm Worringer, primitive art begins with the abstract.6

  1. Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), vii.
  2. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston: Reidel, 1980). 
  3. Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
  4. Kurt Goldstein, Der Aufbau des Organismus (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1934). Translation: The Organism (New York: Zone Books, 1995).
  5. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980). Translation: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 496.
  6. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Munich: Piper, 1908). Translation: Abstraction and Empathy (New York: International Universities, 1953).

Eros is the cruel abstraction of the Self

There is no opposition between life and knowledge, as Georges Canguilhem vigorously emphasizes: We accept far too easily that there exists a fundamental conflict between knowledge and life, such that their reciprocal aversion can lead only to the destruction of life by knowledge or to the derision of knowledge by life....Now, the conflict is not between thought and life in man, but between man and the world.1 As Mario Tronti reminds us, conflict is an epistemic engine: “Knowledge is tied to struggle. Who truly hates, truly knows.”2 The millenary schism between mind and body, and particularly between eros and abstraction, still haunts interpretations of cognitive capitalism. Many radical philosophers lament the de-eroticization of the body by digital labour, information overflow, and a hypersexualized mediascape (Giorgio Agamben, Franco Berardi, Bernard Stiegler, et al.). As a political response, they appear to suggest simply the “erotic insurrection” of naked life. Still, if biopower is a machine of abstraction, resistance is not about reclaiming more body, more affection, more libido, etc., but about recovering the alienated power of abstraction, that is, the ability to differentiate, bifurcate, and perceive things in detail, including our own feelings.3 Against the common reception of the philosophy of desire, Reza Negarestani4 has noticed that Deleuze opens his book Difference and Repetition5 by proposing a fundamental connection between difference and cruelty. Abstraction must not be understood as a drive against “life” but as the violent gesture of any being against its own Grund (identity, gender, class, species, etc.). In Spinoza, indeed, joy and love mark the passage to a greater perfection. “Human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the ape,” Marx once suggested.6 No matter how anthropocentric they may sound, on the contrary, Marx’s words may insinuate anastrophically the step toward a post-human stage: “Alien anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the human.”

  1. Georges Canguilhem, La Connaissance de la vie (Paris: Vrin, 1965). Translation: Knowledge of Life (New York: Fordham University, 2008), xvii.
  2. Mario Tronti, Operai e capitale (Turin: Einaudi, 1966).
  3. On the irony of the dispositif of sexuality that makes one continuously desire “sexual liberation,” see Michel Foucault, La Volonté de savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1976). Translation: The Will to Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1998), 159.
  4. Reza Negarestani, “Differential Cruelty: A Critique of Ontological Reason in Light of the Philosophy of Cruelty,” Angelaki 14, no. 3 (December 2009).
  5. Gilles Deleuze, Différence et Répétition (Paris: PUF, 1968). Translation: Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
  6. Karl Marx, “Einleitung,” (Manuscript M, 1857), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Moscow: Verlag für fremdsprachige Literatur, 1939), 105. Translation: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1993).

The power to accumulate, the power to restrain, the power to accelerate

Politics is a tactics and strategy of temporality (that is, of the invention of time). In this regard Marx has been accused of two opposite errors: the messianism of kairos (“Marx has secularized the messianic time in the conception of the classless society”1) and the quantification of kronos, or measurement of surplus value in clock hours (Marx still belongs to Aristotelian tradition of the measurability of the being, remark Hardt and Negri2). In between there is the most elegant attempt ever made to compress the whole gear of industrial capitalism in one short formula, that is, the equation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall,3 which will become the first diagram of accelerationism: Which is the revolutionary path?...To withdraw from the world market?...Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization?...Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to accelerate the process, as Nietzsche put it.4 Operaism has repeatedly criticized Marx’s formulation of the organic composition of capital for being encircled within the perimeter of the industrial factory and not including the whole metropolis. After breaking the cage of the organic composition of capital, however, Italian theory (especially Agamben5) has rebuilt a new cage under the notion of katechon, that is, “the force that restrains the evil” according to the eschatology of the Apostle Paul. More recently, the katechon has been taken by Paolo Virno as the ambivalent model for the “institutions of the multitude.”6 Against the claustrophobic double-bind of the katechon, the accelerationist hypothesis attempts to breathe again the air of the big Outside.

  1. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, 1940, draft, in Selected Writings, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 354.
  3. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, vol. 3 (Hamburg: Meissner, 1894), 317. Translation: Capital, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967).
  4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’Anti-Oedipe (Paris: Minuit, 1972), 239. Translation: Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).
  5. Giorgio Agamben, Il tempo che resta: Un commento alla Lettera ai Romani (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2000). Translation: The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
  6. Paolo Virno, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (New York: Semiotexte, 2008), 62.

From general intellect to alien intelligence, or the subject of abstraction

Operaism’s ontology of antagonism often maintained a humanist position within an anthropocentric tradition;1 indeed, capitalism is an inhuman force, a force that aims to exploit and overcome the human. Nonetheless, any project of autonomy should be framed too as the becoming post-human of the working class itself, as there is no original class to be nostalgic for. Capital properly thought is a vast inhuman form, a genuinely alien life form (in that it is entirely non-organic) of which we know all too little. A new investigation of this form must proceed precisely as an anti-anthropomorphic cartography, a study in alien finance, a Xenoeconomics.2 Speculative Marxism can be defined as the shift from the paradigm of cognitive capitalism to a paradigm that describes capitalism as alien intelligence: “The history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from the enemy’s resources.”3 Here no fatalism or dualism is intended: the political autonomy of the General Intellect4 too has to transform itself into a very Alien Intelligence. The subjectivity of abstraction has to establish new alliances with non-human and machinic forces. Specifically, Marx’s tendency of the rate of profit to fall eventually has to find its epistemic twin. In this sense, Marxist accelerationism5 appears to be about not a mere catastrophic acceleration of capital (as in the works of Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Nick Land) but an epistemic acceleration and reappropriation of “fixed capital” as technology and knowledge. Accelerationism is therefore the project of a sort of epistemic singularity beyond the self-organization of cognitive workers. Collective intelligence has to organize itself specifically into a hostile intelligence—also in the sense of inoculating the host as a malignant parasite. An alien intelligence is not concerned with any orthodoxy; it proliferates and organizes its own heresies.

  1. For example, see Franco Berardi, “Time, Acceleration, and Violence,” e- flux journal, no. 27 (September 2011),
  2. Alex Williams, “Xenoeconomics 
and Capital Unbound,” Splintering 
Bone Ashes (blog), October 19, 2008,
  3. Nick Land, “Machinic Desire,” Textual Practice 7, no. 3 (1993).
  4. Paolo Virno, “Citazioni di fronte al pericolo,” Luogo Comune, no. 1 (1990). Translation: “Notes on the General Intellect,” in Marxism beyond Marxism, ed. S. Makdisi et al. (New York: Routledge, 1996).
  5. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” in Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside, ed. Joshua Johnson (Miami: Name Publications, 2013).
About the Author

Matteo Pasquinelli is a philosopher. He wrote the book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008) and lectures frequently at the intersection of philosophy, media theory, and life sciences. His texts have been translated into many languages, and he has contributed to journals and newspapers such as Springerin, Multitudes, Fibreculture, Theory Culture & Society, Leonardo, Lugar Comum, Rethinking Marxism, Open!, Libération, Il manifesto, and Der Freitag. Together with Wietske Maas he wrote the Manifesto of Urban Cannibalism. At NGBK Berlin he is co-curating the forthcoming exhibition The Ultimate Capital Is the Sun. His work can be seen at

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