A brief introduction to cognitive (bio)capitalism

Cognitive capitalism is in many ways a very complex concept, which I first came across in Moulier-Boutang’s book Cognitive capitalism (2011). To understand it, you need to be able to break away from certain old ideas associated with capitalism. That is why there are also critics who quite rightly ask whether it is really capitalism any more or whether it is something completely new. I will write about this topic later, but let us accept the idea that it is capitalism.

What is it then? I think that Moulier-Boutang’s definition of mutating capitalism describes the situation well. Cognitive capitalism is therefore about capitalism having to come to terms with a new composition of dependent labour, which is still mostly wage labour, of course, but also something much more. This new group is therefore made up of a collective cognitive labour force, of living labour, and no longer simply of muscle power used by machines (Moulier-Boutang 2011, 37). At this point, it should be understood that cognitive work is not just about technical excellence, research or whatever. In many ways, it is simply about putting human capacities to work as well as exploiting the networks of human interaction.

Maybe Fumagalli can help us to describe the topic of ours. In cognitive biocapitalism, financial markets, knowledge and various relations act as engines of accumulation. They form one coherent body in which the distinction between ”real” and ”financial” becomes impossible. Working time and living time become mixed, the non-productive and productive sectors become inseparable, and the relationship between production and reproduction and consumption begins to blur in the same way (Fumagalli 2011, 8). It is this mixing of work and leisure time that is certainly familiar to many people. With the advances in communication technology, it’s so easy to check yet another email at home. But it’s not just about technology. As work becomes more social and knowledge-based, it becomes harder to leave the ’tools’ at work. Work issues may still plague you in your spare time, but no one is paying for that. Which brings us to the next feature of cognitive capitalism.

It is noteworthy that many social institutions are still based on the idea that these different areas are separate. A good example of this is the debate on unemployment and social security. In Finland at least, the law is very sensitive to interpreting an unemployed person as an entrepreneur if you do anything in your free time that could be interpreted as an earning purpose. But it is precisely the changed reality of production that poses a major problem for us here. Almost anything can be productive and there is no longer a clear boundary between work and leisure. And we no longer have workers detached from their means of production. We all have our own brains, which no one can lock away. When production is socialised to the extreme (not in the socialist sense) it is difficult to perceive where production begins and ends. So how could one measure the productivity or work done by an individual in that chain? 

These are questions that politicians have not taken seriously and continue to live happily under the paradigm of industrial capitalism. For example, an unemployed person might get into trouble for having a YouTube channel or a blog, if even a little bit of money flows through it. Subsidies may stop, even if the individual does not earn much of anything from it. Of course, there are certain conditions attached to this which I will not go through here but a “mechanism” is there. This means that the line between hobbies and work may become blurred and the individual has to be careful with these things. This in itself may have the effect of suppressing the ’flows’ and ’networks’ essential to cognitive capitalism, if, when deciding on benefits, the world is seen as if, for example, the internet were just another factory and not something else. This is one of the reasons why I am politically in favour of a basic income: to prevent these essential dimensions of the economy from being choked by the old industrial paradigm. But many people find it difficult to put their thinking in a position where they dare to see the old world disappearing into the mists of history. They want to continue doing business with the devil they already know.

In cognitive biocapitalism, it can be said that the dichotomies typical of industrial Fordist capitalism begin to disappear. According to Fumagall, it is a question of overcoming the distinction between production, circulation and consumption. Consumption, for example, can be both a communication and a self-marketing (Fumagalli 2011, 12-13.) A new kind of map must therefore be created for the analysis of this economic system (or the politics of it). The old divisions no longer work. The main differences with the former are that this capitalism is based on the production of knowledge by knowledge and the production of the living by the living, whereas under industrial capitalism accumulation took place in physical capital and under mercantilist capitalism it was a matter of accumulating money as such (Moulier-Boutang 2011, 50, 55). The accumulation of capital value is thus seeking new ground, but it is capitalism all the same, because the money put into circulation is expected to grow and is based on the appropriation of the surplus value created by labour. Or this last argument was the one that could be challenged if you wanted to, but more on that later.

Productive activity is therefore increasingly based on immaterial elements. According to Fumagalli, when production is based directly on human relations, emotions and brain capacity, a situation arises in which the process of value creation loses its measurability, which is typical of material production (Fumagalli 2011, 10). The loss of quantifiability – both in terms of time and production – thus creates extreme difficulties in establishing wages on the basis of any kind of ’law’. Of course, wages can be defined in one way or another, but the question of their relation to the production of value is not as clear-cut as if we were dealing with factory work, where a certain amount of goods go out and people do a certain amount of work, and so on.

In cognitive biocapitalism, we are also confronted, according to Fumagalli, with the death of the Weberian entrepreneur, characterised by the combination of the functions of ownership and management of the firm, which were already disappearing in the era of industrial Fordist capitalism. Moreover, Fumagalli points out that the Galbraithian techno-structure, which derived its legitimacy from the design of innovations and the organisation of work, is also in irreversible crisis. The new mode of management of today’s corporations is based on money markets and speculative functions, while delegating the organisation of production to the workers (Fumagalli 2011, 9.)

Fumagalli also writes how cognitive capitalism, based on learning and the network economy, ran into difficulties in the early part of the new millennium when the Internet bubble burst. It revealed that the new cognitive paradigm, which had emerged from the innovations in transport, language and communication of the 1990s, could not as such protect the socio-economic system from the structural imbalances that characterise it.  (Fumagalli 2011, 7-8.) Moulier-Boutang describes the same event as the progress of constant innovation and the knowledge-based economy, as industrial capitalism rushed to throw holy water on its rival and gravedigger (Moulier-Boutang 2011, 7). There is room for further analysis, but here I will limit myself to making the point that capitalism should not be seen as a single monolith with a single will. Its various paradigms have their own interests to watch over, and within those interests are a multitude of self-interested individuals.

So what should we learn from all this? First, that something in the economic continents has changed radically from the world before. The current leaps forward in AI (e.g. chatGPT) will not slow this down, but may still reshape the landscape in many ways. Software based on linguistic algorithms can structure information quickly and in many cases replace customer service. This means another transformation of the labour market. And this is not the only one. If the same software is also able to write code (or to speed up the process of writing it), it will also revolutionise the IT sector, which has hitherto been seen as the sector of the future. As a cautious prediction, this biocognitive capitalism will therefore increasingly shift its focus to humanity as such and its exploitation for added surplus value. 


Fumagalli Andrea 2011. Translated Ovan Sabrina. TWENTY THESES ON CONTEMPORARY CAPITALISM (COGNITIVE BIOCAPITALISM), Angelaki, 16:3, 7-17

Moulier-Boutang Yann Moulier 2011. Cognitive capitalism. Cambridge UK, Maiden USA. Polity press