“A Work of the Self on the Self…”: Krahl and Intellectual Labor

SDS members prior to a demonstration in Frankfurt, September 1967 (Roland Witschel/dpa)


Hans-Jürgen Krahl is one of the most important figures of the German ’68. A banal observation, and yet one that signals a profound necessity. His multiple theoretical urgings, the intuitions and cutting polemics that he knew how to stir up – above all, the famous one against Habermas, to which we will turn shortly – must always be read in their contact [in attrito] with the facts of the student revolt, on the one hand, and the fundamental restrictions on German democracy by the Notsstandsgesetze (1968 German Emergency Acts) on the other. This necessity counts as a point of general method. As Marco Bascetta has written, Krahl’s thought is entirely “pragmatic agitation,” a labor within “contingency” 1: theory leaps from practice to thought, so to speak, seizing concepts from below, and distinguishes them within historical development from the perspective of political conflict. A method, therefore, that works out and distinguishes the forms of coercion which have accompanied the reformist evolution of German ordoliberalism, and yet which also, departing from the material analysis of struggles, increasingly reopens the theoretical field.

What stands out in this method is the result of a fecund reading of the Grundrisse. Krahl uses Marx’s method by doing it, which is indissociable from concrete history: Capital is a horizon from which to extract, with theory, “the generative motor of categories of analysis,” and with politics, “the project of revolution that living labor constructs within the structure of capitalist production.” 2 This theoretico-practical double movement is concentrated, as we know, in the concept of constitution, which Krahl defines in dynamic terms. Constitution is the nexus, the open historical-political relation where capitalist production and class struggle plays out. 3 Krahl’s polemic with the Frankfurt School is already present at this level. Krahl’s understanding of neocapitalism is inscribed with contradiction, but his axiomatic never arrives at finality, balancing again and again conflicts and aporiae. Inside of the clash is thus where the movement of the real, constituent force lives. But we can put it even better: Krahl’s theoretical dispositif begins with the word production, confronting it with the real and then returning to theory. At the beginning it is a matter of grasping the dispositif of dominion – its precise constitution – and at the end of the circle, of opening research on its dynamic—constituent force. The level of the real thus proves irremediably and positively broken in two: capital and labor. From here one begins:

The problem is posed if Marx succeeded in determining the dialectic of labor, i.e., of social labour, not only as suffering which capital valorizes, but also as productive force of emancipation that negates capital; this is to say that in Marx it is demonstrated that the forces of production likewise represent means of emancipation as such. 4

With this claim, we gain some further precision. Krahl was probably one of the most important critics of intellectual labor in the societies of advanced capitalism. Once again, to understand this point, it is necessary to begin from 1968. And once again, it is banal to observe that one of the fundamental ciphers of the student contestation was the polemic against the eminent figures of public and academic debate at the time. Through 1968, and within anti-authoritarian critique, what is actually exhausted is the last chapter of the history of that European intelligence which, while on the one hand had built up a formidable evaluation of industrial society, on the other had tended to retreat with terror from its own forecasts. Particularly in Germany, where the final results of the Frankfurt School – from which Krahl himself comes – forced them to catastrophically veer between “tragic ethics and reformist adjustments,” 5 as Marco Bascetta again notes. Krahl’s disagreement with Habermas is entirely captured by this point. According to Krahl, the distinction between discursive reason and instrumental reason provokes two theoretical distortions: on the one hand, it impoverishes the Marxian notion of practice, reducing it to a model of “solely technical” rationality; on the other, it hypostasizes the sphere of communicative action as an “idealistic, free communication of the spirits of a parliamentary utopia […] mediated by symbols agreed upon by the subjects.” 6 The “misery of critical theory,” as Krahl puts it. Habermas systematically erases social relations and exploitation. He reduces the interplay to a mere discursive act free from dominion. How much richer instead is the Marxian concept of practice, whose force resides in its structural ambiguity! “Objective activity” in Marx is never the simple performance of labor – “instrumental action of the immediate organic exchange between man and nature” – but is at once also relation, intellectual and political development, and concrete intersubjectivity. In other words, practice includes, according to Krahl, “the relationship of subjects with one another” as “emancipated subjects.” 7

Clearly then the critique of intellectual labor cannot simply be reduced to anti-authoritarian polemic, nor can we limit it to a diagnosis of the theoretical limits of the later Frankfurt School, or even read it as the helpless recognition of the subsumption of the society of letters by the cultural market. Krahl’s polemic, indeed, is much more acute insofar as it recognizes new functions for intellectual labor. We will return to this below. For now it is enough to note that, in this sense – although Nicolas Martino’s suggestion elsewhere is intriguing – I do not think it is possible to read Krahl in continuity with Luciano Bianciardi’s “counter-narration of the Italian economic boom.” 8 In La vita agra or Il lavoro culturale there remains an indignant denunciation of the fall from social prestige for the men of culture: Bianciardi’s critique is regretful for a lost position, nostalgic, dismayed, distressed – sometimes sublimated in an ironic and bitter smile, and other times exploding into an impotent rage.

Krahl instead escapes from the trap of the crisis of intelligence, by reading the new forms of cultural labor explicitly in productive terms, and thus often anticipating them. In doing so he is much closer to the Franco Fortini of Verifica dei poteri or, later on, to some of the positions taken by Lucio Castellano, a reference which Martino himself has accurately emphasized:

It is not therefore a defense of the separate and traditional role of the intellectual and artist, but on the contrary its de-legitimization that opens new perspectives of emancipation, as Lucio Castellano will recall several years later in an article for the journal Metropoli, where he writes “the change that we are living through materially is different, because power is not concentrated but dispersed, and the first thing that it puts in discussion is the possibility of governing, the role and status of the knowledge of intellectuals”; and again, “intellectual labor can represent that of the worker by directing it; at the moment it becomes productive in itself, it can no longer represent anything or anyone.” 9

At this point there is a second consideration which renders our initial assumption less predictable: from the viewpoint of thought, what does 1968 mean? Can we risk a qualitative definition, one that is neither simply chronological nor one which stops at the analysis of militant history? Or at least: what was Krahl’s ’68? We need to understand 1968 as a moment of critique of the traditional workers movement and its different cultural traditions. A critique which however was based on the profound change of the technical and political composition of the working class: “With the advance of the socialization of capital,” Krahl writes, “of productive labor and the technological scientification of production, even the industrial proletariat in the strict sense tends to increasingly represent a moment of the complex labor process and less and less the totality of productive labor.” 10 Socialization, science, and technology: these are the three keywords of the problem.

Here the question of the intellectuals takes on a particular value. Because it is starting with 1968 that we witness a series of fundamental phenomena: the subsumption of many aspects of traditional worker struggles by student struggles; the progressive definition of an unprecedented centrality of conflicts that insist on the terrain of reproduction and are articulated at the metropolitan level: knowledge, health, and urban services; the new centrality conquered by labor in services, information technology, and the first forms of digital labor; the putting to work of the cognitive capacities of subjects, and so on. 1968 therefore expresses a radical change of the processes of antagonistic subjectivation, and consequently a major change in the composition of the productive subject.

Krahl knew how to grasp this nexus, cultivated in many experiences of heretical European Marxism, in his own way: cultural labor is increasingly determined as common, salaried, alienated, and exploitative by industry. From this major premise, what follows is the refusal of the traditional figure of the committed intellectual, by now inscribed in a trajectory of progressive proletarianization:

The components of scientific intelligence can no longer themselves be understood, in the sense of the bourgeois enlightenment, as possessors of the intelligibility of Kultur, as producers of higher rank, of metaphysical rank – and this also applies for the unproductive sciences, which do not escape the process of technological transformation. It is precisely this situation […] which explains the petit-bourgeois attitude assumed from the beginning by the anti-authoritarian consciousness of emancipation. The nostalgic memory of the emancipative content of the revolutionary bourgeoisie and just exchange has provoked […] a regressive fear for the technological expropriation of their intelligible possession of bourgeois culture. While technical intelligence takes on entirely ahistorical forms of consciousness, humanistic intelligence mourns the loss of its fictitious property in bourgeois culture, on which it knows an irrevocable sunset has risen. 11

Yet, at the same time, it is within this new technical qualification, entirely organized by the cycle of capitalist reproduction, that science, knowledge, and cognitive capacities take on a new productive centrality, and the subjects who are their bearers, consequently, take on a new political centrality. Krahl’s Theses on the General Relation of Scientific Intelligence and Proletarian Class Consciousness represent the opportunity for sketching a reading of the relationship between production and class struggle in a context that is increasingly exposed to the immaterial transformation of labor.

Intellectual Labor as Fixed Capital

According to Krahl, in late capitalism the labor of workers, controlled and organized in the factory, is no longer the main source of valorization. The process of the production of value now depends directly on the state of scientific development, technology, communications, and the loss of free time. This fundamental transformation responds positively to subjectivity. While traditional leftists continued conceiving the economic process with the centrality of the factory, 1968 reveals a new political landscape that extends inside of the metropolitan fabric. The new productive figures of techno-scientific labor, including students, therefore represent space for the construction of an antagonistic subjectivity, which Krahl defines in terms of a proletarian class consciousness.

In order to understand Krahl’s definition of class, we must look within his still idealistic-dialectical language, which is fundamentally a typical Frankfurt School language. Let’s acknowledge then a family resemblance. Indeed, these theses should be read alongside other European texts from the same period. The concept of constitution is determined in the differential dialectic of production and class struggle, as we noted. But then it is the same theoretico-practical movement that workerist inquiry was discovering in Italy in terms of the technical and political composition distinction, or in the historico-critical analysis of E.P. Thompson’s magisterial The Making the English Working Class. In all of these examples, class is “not a thing” passively determined by a specific level of the development of productive forces, but rather a “relation,” an “active process” put into motion by subjects and contexts. 12

There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing. This was not Marx’s meaning, in his own historical writing, yet the error vitiates much latter-day “Marxist” writing. “It,” the working class, is assumed to have a real existence, which can be defined almost mathematically – so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production. Once this is assumed it becomes possible to deduce the class-consciousness, which “it” ought to have (but seldom does have) if “it” was properly aware of its own position and real interests. There is a cultural superstructure, through which this recognition dawns in inefficient ways. These cultural “lags” and distortions are a nuisance, so that is easy to pass from this to some theory of substitution: the party, sect, or theorists, who disclose class-consciousness, not as it is, but as it ought to be. 13

Class functions in the same way for Krahl. Again, as Bascetta notes: “in the fully socialized mode of production which has made science the principle productive factor, the problem of the subject of social transformation requires new eyes,” and these new eyes are to be found in “the interweaving between productive materiality and relational procedure [materialità produttiva e modo relazionale].” 14 This means that the construction of a new space of antagonistic subjectivation happens inside the new relation that it produces by starting from “the substitution of living labor by the work of science and technology.” In other words: the political subjectivation that Krahl looks for is always technologically informed, but precisely because it functions around that central contradiction that occurs between the socialization of capital and private appropriation, between the real process of the production of wealth and the measure of its distribution.

The application of technique and science to the productive process has reached a stage of development so as to threaten to blow up the system. In other words, it has led to a new quality of the socialization of productive labor that no longer tolerates the form of objectivation imposed on the same labor by capital. 15

What determines this structural instability needs to be understood. Why does the socialization of productive labor no longer tolerate the forms of objectivation imposed by capital? As Paolo Virno has written, 16 when technology and science become the fundamental productive forces, what counts in labor is all that belongs essentially “to the interaction of the totality of the living,” those “general aptitudes” such as “the faculty of language, disposition to learning, the capacity for abstracting and relating, access to self-reflection, etc.” Virno continues,

Marx conceives the General Intellect as “scientific capacity objectivated” in the system of machines, and therefore as fixed capital. In this way he reduces […] the public character of the Intellect to the technological application of natural sciences to the productive process. The decisive advance consists in giving greater importance to the side for which the General Intellect presents itself finally as the direct attribute of living labor, the repository of widespread intelligentsia. 17

The General Intellect is a faculty, “or more exactly that faculty which makes possibly any particular composition, as a virtuous execution.” 18 According to Virno the nature of this labour entails that it is irreducible to fixed capital. On this point, however, we must be clear. Krahl’s point seems to be the inverse: it is precisely because the interaction and general aptitudes of the totality of the living constitute fixed capital that the critique works. But we can put this even better. Intellect is now indissolubly linked to labor. In other words, it is occupied, hindered, and deformed by the specific relation of power of the cycles of capitalist reproduction. This means two things: first of all, the General Intellect is “the basis of a cooperation which is wider than a specific sector of labor.” 19 But, second, this excess of labor immediately proves “heterogeneous” with respect to the “technical and hierarchical division” that the real subsumption of society imposes on social production, precisely because entire portions of fixed capital are now indissolubly re-appropriated and internal to the cooperation, interaction, and relations between an essentially free subjectivity.

The production of subjectivity, which Krahl always wanted to keep strictly in contact with “the experience of struggle,” 20 enriches itself here as a machinic and cultural extension, a hybrid of science and life, knowledge and experience, political construction and relation. But what counts more is that the relation between variable and fixed capital, man and machine, is inverted: “the machine,” as Toni Negri and Michael Hardt have written, “is integral to the subject, not as an appendage, a sort of prosthesis – as just another of its qualities; rather, the subject is both human and machine throughout its core, its nature.” 21 At this point, all of the forms of the indirect normativity of command over labor collapse, and the capitalist relation is configured in terms of control aimed at the (predation and) extraction of value produced independently from the given social relation.

The Intellectual as Entrepreneur of the Self

We can now return to the critique of intellectual labor. From what has been written to this point, it should be clear why the simple denunciation of the alienated universe of the cultural industry no longer holds. Frankfurt School critics, as is well-known, defined cinema, radio, TV, and publishing markets as factories of the soul – analyzing them through the model of the assembly line – and defined their products as serial, mechanized, and parcelized commodities, indifferent to any qualitative difference. Such a critique, however, as Virno again notes, at best ends up identifying aspects “which reject [refrattari] the complete assimilation of the labor process.” But this is a sterile and self-contradictory hypothesis, at least insofar as it does not see how it is the anti-functional or non-functional which constitute “the central and propelling core of social production.” 22 This is a tendency that is instead already clear in Krahl’s Theses, precisely because here the analysis remains rooted inside the new organization of labor: it does not seek margins, remainders, pockets of purity, but acts on the excesses, broken limits, and advances by implementing the capacity of social production. “How to evaluate,” Krahl writes, “the forms of declining scientific intelligence […] without ignoring the new historical quality of science as a productive force?” 23 This is the question, and the answer lies in identifying the motor of production in the General Intellect, and connecting this intuition to proletarian and student struggles. Krahl thus pointed at an original path for the organizations of the workers’ movement. 

Accordingly, the research to complete must make itself concrete. It is essential to renew the analysis of the objective roles of scientific and cultural knowledge, which are now internal to capitalist production, in order to overturn them in political practice. This is not a general dequalification of intellectual labor, we insist, but on the contrary, exactly its full requalification which functions even when – as Manfredo Tafuri noted in the same years – “it appears as the expropriation of positions of social privilege.” 24 Analyzing intellectual labor is therefore possible only on the basis of the real mediations through which new functions of control over labor-power are organized, and by subsequently reversing the results of theoretical analysis in elements of political practice. The use of science and technology as productive factors is in fact a necessity for the cycles of capital reproduction as well as an essential space of control over class movements. As Tafuri put it in 1970,

Reading a concrete tendency towards material homogenization, which passes through the processes of social re-structuring and capitalist productivity, in the current conditions of intellectual labor—this means recognizing in the massification and mobility of roles, in the loss of traditional privileges reserved for the intellectual laborer, in the distance – which already happens in the phase of scholastic and university preparation – from the contents of their own labor, in the extraneity which finally even the intellectual is obligated to experience in confronting the capitalistic organization of her own work, some of the positive conditions from which to restart an overall program of attack. 25

Krahl’s Theses move in the same direction. In this sense, we can say that in many ways they anticipate and overcome a good part of current hypotheses for the critique of neoliberalism. In particular, the very widespread claim of a deep analogy between the schema of the entrepreneur of the self, often derived from Foucauldian analyses, and the “parody of self-realization” that neoliberalism acquires in putting to work the communicative, cognitive, and intellectual capacities of singularities, does not hold up to a reading of Krahl’s Theses. Although they start from a critique (in many ways sacrosanct) of the regime of visibility and self-disciplining to which knowledge workers are subjected, as well as the growing availability of free labor (understood as a form of accumulation of skills and competencies which fill out the stock of human capital to sell on the market), and more generally the techniques of the self modeled on neoliberal management, such approaches 26 appear one-sided when confronted with Krahl’s text. Indeed, precisely insofar as they remain materialistically determined by the “contradiction between socialization and private property” which is determined at the moment when essential quotas of fixed capital are incorporated into the techno-scientific nexus produced by social interactions, the 1969 Theses discard any nostalgia towards idealistic transfigurations of abstract labor – “the bourgeois appropriation of Kultur” – and open the theme of the subject as antagonistic practice:

Intellectual labor, insofar as it is translatable into industrial activity, is on the one hand increasingly struck by the misfortune of being productive labor and, on the other hand, insofar as it is translatable into technique, is conformed to the norms of value in a way that is increasingly adequate to capital. Yet the destruction of traditional cultural consciousness opens the way to processes of proletarian reflection, to the liberation, that is, from the idealist fictions of property, and this also makes it possible for scientific producers to recognize in the products of their labor the objective and hostile power of capital, and in themselves, the exploited. 27

Here the determinism of the extractive machine of socially produced surplus value is truly broken. The fundamental aspect of “technologized, monopolistic capitalism,” Krahl says, is located in the “fact that social wealth and civilization are formed on the basis of material production,” rendering “the association of free men an objective, historical possibility.” 28 Today we would say that the political subjectivation which traverses cognitive production functions, in a way certainly more appropriate to Foucauldian arguments, always in two senses. It is not simply a matter of the management of the soul, but of a work of the self on the self – always together subjection and subjectivation, domination and freedom, whose equilibrium, however, breaks down exclusively “on the basis of the practical experience of political struggle.” Krahl defined his hypothesis in the terms of a “concrete utopia.” 29 But what seemed difficult to identify then seems clearer today. On the one hand, the positivistic schema of analytic sciences and social technology no longer contain the excess of the dynamics of subjectivation, and impose a regime of permanent crisis. And on the other hand, it seems increasingly legitimate to ask along with Hardt and Negri,

If the form of labor is tending toward being completely immaterial, if the world of production is now describable in terms of what Marx called “General Intellect,” then living labor points toward the space on this terrain for the political recomposition of antagonism. Why not reappropriate the immaterial nature of living labor? Why not call the private property of the means of production theft – a thousand times over because exercised also on our immaterial labor, on the most profound and indomitable nature of humanity? 30


— Translated by Dave Mesing



1 Marco Bascetta, “Preface,” in Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Attualita della rivoluzione: Teoria Critica e Capitalismo maturo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1998), 8.
2 Antonio Negri, “Karl Marx’s Grundrisse.”
3 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “Produzione e lotta di classe,” in Attualita della rivoluzione: Teoria Critica e Capitalismo maturo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1998), 189-223.
4 Ibid., 193.
5 Bascetta, “Preface,” 9.
6 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “La miseria della teoria critica di un teorico critico: Una risposta a Jürgen Habermas,” in Attualita della rivoluzione: Teoria Critica e Capitalismo maturo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1998), 112.
7 Ibid., 199.
8 Nicolas Martino, “Do you remember Bianciardi?”
9 Nicolas Martino, “Pier Vittorio Aureli e il valore del lavoro intellettuale,” Il manifesto 7/16/2016.
10 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “Tesi sul rapporto generale di intellighenzia scientifica e coscienza di classe proletaria,” in Attualita della rivoluzione: Teoria Critica e Capitalismo maturo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1998), 137.
11 Ibid., 149-150.
12 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 17.
13 Ibid., 10.
14 Bascetta, “Preface,” 16-17.
15 Krahl, “Tesi sul rapporto generale di intellighenzia scientifica e coscienza di classe proletaria,” 136.
16 Paolo Virno, L’usage de la vie et autres sujets d’inquietude (Paris: L’eclat, 2016).
17 Ibid., 230-231.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., 232.
20 Krahl, “Tesi sul rapporto generale di intellighenzia scientifica e coscienza di classe proletaria,” 139.
21 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 14.
22 Virno, L’usage de la vie et autres sujets d’inquietude, 229.
23 Krahl, “Tesi sul rapporto generale di intellighenzia scientifica e coscienza di classe proletaria,” 132.
24 Manfredo Tafuri, “Lavoro intellettuale e sviluppo capitalistico,” Contropiano 2 (1970), 279.
25 Ibid., 280.
26 For example, see the issue of Aut Aut edited by Dario Gentili and Massimiliano Nicoli, “Intellettuali di se stessi: Lavoro intellettuale in epoca neoliberale,” Aut Aut 356 (2015).
27 Krahl, “Tesi sul rapporto generale di intellighenzia scientifica e coscienza di classe proletaria,” 148.
28 Ibid., 144.
29 Ibid., 151-152.
30 Hardt and Negri, Labor of Dionysus, 21.

Author of the article

(Palermo 1978) is a philosopher who works in the fields of political philosophy, architecture, and urban conflicts. He is Maître Assistant Associé at the ENSA in Paris-Malaquais, teaching assistant at Sciences-Po, and also teaches at the ESA-Paris and Paris-Nanterre.