“Let’s Take Back Knowledge, Let’s Take Back Life”: A Dialogue with Antonella Corsani


On the occasion of the recent publication of her book, Chemins de la liberté: Le travail entre hétéronomie et autonomie, we invited Antonella Corsani to explore the assumptions and implications of her research.1   

This book forms part of a critical perspective of the theses on cognitive capitalism – a concept that Antonella Corsani made significant contributions to as it was introduced into the theoretical-political debate – and it is written based on her experience of inquiry over the course of more than fifteen years, first in the movement of “intermittent” performing art workers, then in the movement of the Business and Employment Cooperatives (BEC).2 At the same time, it is also a wide-ranging study, that is both militant and theoretical, covering thirty years of critical and practical elaboration of post-operaista thought, and clearly and accurately reconstructs the birth in the 1990s and the subsequent articulation of the theses on cognitive capitalism. It is a study with the courage to evaluate the fundamental theoretical coordinates of a concept that has been central to the theory of radical movements. In doing so, the book is able to present a militant and rigorous, systematic and severe, vision of theory and political experience so as to explore the relationship between these various facets. I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss these questions with Antonella Corsani while she was writing her book. Once the book had been completed, I asked her to explain the intentions and suppositions that informed it. What follows is our discussion.

Emiliana Armano: Could you talk about the theoretical and political path that led you to write Chemins de la liberté? How did the project come about? How did it fit in between the contingency of your current research work at the university, and your previous militant studies and research? In what ways was it an opportunity to take stock of a collective journey?

Antonella Corsani: My theoretical and political path is not linear, it is made up of many bifurcations, even dead ends. Making sense of it involves going back, understanding mistakes, starting new paths, but always in search of paths towards freedom understood as autonomy. This path has been marked by the encounter of two experiences in France, that of the intermittent performing art workers fighting against the reform of the social protection system, against the risk of unemployment; and that of the movement of the Business and Employment Cooperative (BEC). These are cooperatives in which the working collective is made up of people who are formally employees, but are actually autonomous: the associated salaried entrepreneurs. In other words, the BEC is an enterprise without bosses and without a hierarchical division of labor. Coopaname, the largest BEC (850 members), is a true permanent political laboratory. After having turned BECs into “shared enterprises,” at the beginning of 2010, it opened a new major project: inventing “mutual labor organizations.” In this context, Marie-Christine Bureau and I have been cooperating with them for a few years, setting up something I call “co-research-action.” Chemins de la liberté is the place to hold these two stories up to the mirror, before then exploring new paths. Through the subjective narration of these two collective experiences, I talk about contemporary capitalism, understood as neoliberal cognitive capitalism, along with the possibilities of a non-barbaric exit from that system, something André Gorz had hoped for. A way out that follows paths toward freedom as autonomy that these experiences, particularly that of Coopaname, point to, and that certainly have no borders. By this, I mean that even if these experiences are configured in a local institutional framework, the paths they indicate are not limited to the borders of France. The inquiry participates in tracing paths. At the same time, I don’t think of co-research as militant research. My attempt is to affirm another epistemology and another practice of research in the social sciences. In this sense, my battle is also within the institutions of teaching and research, and it is feminist. My feminism has always been that of Carla Lonzi, that is, a feminism of difference, but difference understood as desire and as a political objective. In the field of knowledge production within the university environment, producing difference means, first of all, affirming, through practice and theory, another epistemology which, by freeing the sciences from positivist beliefs in neutrality and claims to universalism, affirms partial visions and the objectivity of situated knowledge. By renouncing the illusion, the claim, the divine myth of seeing everything and everywhere, it is a matter of learning to see with others, without claiming to see in the place of others, as Donna Haraway wrote in her beautiful essay “Situated Knowledges.” In this epistemological perspective, I see myself not so much engaged in militant research as in “involved research.” 3 The keywords, then, are responsibility for the consequences of acting and knowing, commitment as an epistemic value, and sharing knowledge as a collective practice. 

EA: I was struck by the fact that you question the notion of cognitive capitalism without prejudice, both as an analytical concept and as a political concept – does this stem from a desire to free criticism from icons? What fundamental steps do you identify in order to scan the critical reconstruction of the theses of cognitive capitalism and come to terms with it, identifying not only its strengths, but also its limits in its historicization during the different phases of militant research?

AC: I would like to insist only on its strengths. In the now distant 1990s, the first formulations of the cognitive capitalism hypothesis were launched by Lorenzo Cillario in Italy. In the debate at that time, Enzo Rullani developed a somewhat disorienting thesis: capitalism has always been cognitive, in the sense that capitalism is unthinkable without taking into account the role of knowledge – and in particular, but not only, scientific knowledge – within the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. But it is the contemporary forms of knowledge production and circulation, and the tensions and mismatches between capital and knowledge, exacerbated by numerical technologies, that reveal the unthinkable element of the past to us. This thesis thus forces us to rethink the history of capitalism, to provide ourselves with a new conceptual toolbox, and leads us to abandon, if we have not already done so as a result of feminist and post-colonial critique, any possible progressive reading of capital. Enzo Rullani also raised a question of fundamental importance: how can capital valorize knowledge, given the difficulties of abstraction required for knowledge to function as capital, and thus enter the circuit of abstract value, i.e. money? If we ask ourselves this question, we must necessarily change our way of thinking, construct new tools, analyze the processes of formal and real subsumption of the sphere of knowledge under capital…This then allows us to finally get rid of the debate over the neutrality of science, and above all it allows us to renew the theoretical and political tools to deal with the coming health crises, the ecological crisis, and their social consequences. If capitalism has therefore always been cognitive, I define the contemporary phase of cognitive capitalism as neoliberal, to signify the specific forms of governance of society and the forms of subjectivity. 

EA: Your reflection is wide-ranging on a series of important thematic axes that you identify, from the critique of the concept of cognitive capitalism to its relation with neoliberalism as a governing technique, to the definition of the post-Fordist transformation through the decomposition of wage labor. Referring to the broad debate that has developed in France in recent years, the book talks about gray zones and the end of the dichotomy between salaried labor and independent work. Annalisa Murgia and I first met and worked with you as part of the research network that addresses these questions. Do you think that this innovative elaboration can help us get out of the doldrums in which the identification of the subject is currently stuck, between precarity and self-employment? In your opinion, are there any possible points of contact with the figure of the “precarious-enterprise worker,“4 which has been important, especially in Italy, but not only there? 

AC: The gray zone of work is a category mobilized to describe labor relations that are irreducible to the binary logic that separates salaried and non-salaried work. The boundary between the two is given in most Western societies by the legal link of subordination: salaried work is therefore dependent and heteronomous work, non-salaried work is independent and autonomous, i.e. not subordinate. The gray zone can be understood as the manifestation of the crisis of both salaried labor and independent work, and their metamorphosis. More often, this zone is analyzed as an area that is not covered by law, occupied by a multiplicity of new precarious figures. These certainly include the precarious-enterprise figure in Italy, but also that of the salaried entrepreneur of the BEC in France. But the difference between the two is important. The BEC was created as resistance to the injunction to create one’s own enterprise – the BEC is a place of resistance to social policies and strategies of “uberization” of enterprises which give rise to the figure of the precarious-enterprise. BEC appropriates and perverts the neoliberal devices of precarious self-entrepreneurship, and appropriates and adapts the institutions of wage labor following the logic of copyleft that inspired it. In this sense, it organizes subversion within the gray zone. 

But the gray zone is also, and above all, a political concept developed by Primo Levi in his 1986 text, “The Drowned and the Saved.” The gray zone is one occupied by the prisoner-functionaries, an absolutely necessary figure for governing the concentration camps. Taking the risk of trivializing the concept, but following an indication given by Primo Levi himself – that is, using his theory as a more general theory of power – I have attempted to mobilize this concept in order to understand the neoliberal devices of government, where the exercise of government is understood by Foucault as “to conduct the conduct of others.” In this perspective, the gray zones of labor, inside and outside capitalist enterprises, can be understood as zones of production of a divided subjectivity, a schizophrenic subjectivity. For me, it is not so much a question of identifying a subject as of understanding the processes of desubjectification: that is, the individual and collective processes that allow us to dispose of subjectivity as it is produced. And it is exactly here that the question of subjectivity meets the question of autonomy.

EA: It seems to me that you set autonomy as one of the essential figures of autonomous and non-autonomous work. It is a central question that runs through your work, recalling the thought of André Gorz who read autonomy in heteronomy, both as an element of strength and as an ambivalent and contradictory aspect. Do you find theoretical and political similarities in the way the question of autonomy has been addressed in recent years by authors such as Sergio Bologna? It seems to me that for you and for him, autonomy and cooperation are not given as “déjà là,” but as a stake, a terrain of contention with the other party, a space of subjectivation to be achieved. Am I right? So freedom as autonomy in the Spinozist sense.

AC: Exactly. Sergio Bologna’s work on second-generation self-employment was very important to me. And we certainly share a major question: how autonomous is self-employment? Or what do we mean by autonomy of work, by cooperation and by autonomy of cooperation? It is precisely on this question that the distance from neo-operaista theories of cognitive capitalism seems irreducible to me. The neo-operaista theories of cognitive capitalism affirm the overcoming of the industrial basis of capitalism, cognitive capitalism is therefore thought of as a new phase of capitalism, following the industrial phase. The common matrix of these theses is a reading of the Marxian general intellect: in the historical phase of cognitive capitalism, the general intellect is immediately presented as living labor, as social cooperation, and the circulation of knowledge upon which the production of value as surplus value depends. The function of capital is no longer one of organizing and commanding labor, it is now simply capturing the productive power of society as a whole, and it is in this sense that capital is a parasite and profit becomes rent. These theses are abstract in this sense: the discourse of the autonomy of social cooperation does not hold up to comparison with facts, with experience. And the facts that emerge from the Inquiry are controlled autonomy, heteronomy in the determination of the aims of production and generalized competition between “human capital”, the facts are escape strategies along paths to be invented…

Autonomy is not a “déjà là [already-there],” autonomy is rather, as you say, what is at stake in cognitive capitalism in the neoliberal era. Here the autonomy of labor, salaried or not, is prescribed, incited, but no less controlled, limited, like the autonomy of the prisoner-functionary. Autonomy is under tension. And, if neoliberalism is, as Foucault teaches us, a government not of the economy but of society, which makes competition between self-entrepreneurs the regulating principle of society, it is a question of inventing schools everywhere where we can relearn freedom, freedom as autonomy, it is a question of inventing pedagogies of cooperation and autonomy. In some ways I would say that this is what some BECs, and certainly Coopaname, are: a pedagogy of autonomy and cooperation, of autonomy as an individual and collective process, autonomy not as a virilist myth of independence, but as interdependence.

EA: The perspective you outline is that of a new mutualism against the tendency towards individualization that is dominant in the current capitalist phase, where the role of inquiry and co-research is fundamental as a moment of subjectification for the production of the capacity to act. I really like this part of your book, the relationship with Alquatian-style co-research and inquiry, also understood as feminist self-inquiry. Could we talk here of the element that connects technical and political composition? And what affinities, continuities and divergences are there between your past experiences of inquiry with the “intermittents,” and your more recent ones with the Coopaname cooperative?

AC: This part of the book is its heart and pivot, inquiry is the method of desubjectification and invention of a new collective subjectivity, like feminist consciousness-raising. At the same time, inquiry is the method for escaping the indiscreet charm of idealism, of abstract thought that is thought by thinking and starting from the claim to see everything and everywhere. 

The intermittents in struggle, organized in the form of coordination, had elaborated, based on a self-inquiry involving hundreds of people, a New Model, that is, new rules for determining unemployment benefits, so as to guarantee continuity of income to the greatest number of situations of discontinuity of employment contracts. This model is characterized by a high degree of mutualization. In other words, unemployment benefits compensate for the wage inequalities determined by the market for cultural and entertainment products. To understand this struggle as one driven by a passion for justice, a remnant of utopian socialism, would be a mistake. Rather, it should be understood as a struggle specific to neoliberal cognitive capitalism. Neoliberalism operates in the sense of individualizing, of competing… mutualizing income is a way of defusing the factory “devices” of neoliberal subjectivity, but also of allowing for a multiplicity of external and critical artistic and cultural forms. In the case of the BEC, mutualization is instead thought of as the mutualization of labor. If the BEC acts as an instrument to free work (freedom to decide when, how, for whom, and with whom to work), the mutualization of work can respond to several objectives: to work otherwise, to allow diachronic and synchronic multi-activity, i.e. to allow everyone to “paint without being a painter”; to work less while working together, and finally to free oneself from work by reducing needs, thanks to mutualization. The definition of objectives and the way to achieve them are the subject of the inquiry as action research. For both intermittents and salaried-entrepreneurs, the inquiry is constitutive of the collective and is an instrument of desubjectification, but also of the positive affirmation of a new collective subjectivity. In this sense, at Coopaname, the gradual semantic passage from salaried entrepreneur to co-operator seems to me to translate into the emergence, admittedly still discreet, of a new collective subjectivity. 

EA: One last question, on the emergence of the most recent debate. I wanted to ask you how you read the transformation of subjectivity in light of the ecological and pandemic crisis. Bernard Stiegler’s latest work, published in French, concerns ecological research. Neo- and post-operaismo seem to be at an impasse as they continue to evoke the search for the subject, while continuing to think of it as a kind of invariant of history, in an almost unchanged relationship with nature, to put it in Marxist terms. Perhaps it is time to take stock of this aspect too, if only because the knowledge of life and the reproduction of biological and social life are at the heart of the dynamics of accumulation…What do you think?

AC: I agree with you. Take the neo-operaista theses on cognitive capitalism. We must certainly acknowledge the taking into account of subjectivity denied by economistic approaches to capitalism and its mutations, but this subjectivity is thought of as an invariant of history. This is because it lacks a category, experience, and the method of inquiry. This is exactly the same criticism that Edward P. Thompson made of Althusser’s theoretical system, of his concept of the “motor of history,” and finally of his idealism. Yet, inquiry is in the genes of operaismo…here the main point of reference continues to be Romano Alquati and his thought on co-research might offer a way out of this dead end.

But there is more: the neo-operaista theses say nothing about the nature of knowledge, everything works as if one could affirm the neutrality of science and technology. At the limit, one could understand that, having hypothetically eliminated the capitalist power of capture, of extraction of value (that is, of exploitation), one would have achieved paradise on Earth, even as the Earth is dying as a consequence of the “progress” of cognitive capitalism. No, one cannot content oneself with adding the word ecology into the discourse, just as one cannot add the variable of race or gender to resolve feminist and postcolonial critique; it is the trajectory of critical thought that must be changed.

And if you want to talk about cognitive capitalism, you have to analyze knowledge, technology, science, their trajectories, the way they are produced, and the destruction they cause, their impact, the conflicts around the knowledge that counts…all this is paradoxically absent from neo-operaista theses. Bernard Stiegler’s latest book has the title Qu’appelle-t-on panser? and the subtitle “La leçon de Greta Thunberg.” The question posed by Bernard Stiegler is whether science still thinks, and with a play on words, whether it still “panse,” i.e. whether it still “cures.” His vision of the anthropological, social, ecological, and political consequences of the digital revolution, of automatic reason, was extremely critical. This was his imperative, and to this end he experimented, not without difficulty and error, with territorialized forms of social relationships and economy based on the principle of re-appropriation of knowledge and the co-production of knowledge involving scientists and local populations. It is not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with Bernard Stiegler’s analysis, the question of the re-appropriation of knowledge is compelling, and cannot be reduced to a question of intellectual property. Collectively re-appropriating knowledge means regaining social control over the processes of knowledge production, being able to change trajectory. Greta Thunberg’s generation knows this, the new subjectivities are not those of the ’68 or ’77 generation. What is really at stake is life, and not all lives have the same value…It is therefore a question of rethinking capitalism and its history, starting not from the production of goods and services, but from the reproduction of life, following this the path traced by feminist criticism, I am thinking in particular of Silvia Federici, but also of many others… 


1 A preliminary version of this piece was published in Italian by the journal Machina in February 2021: see Emiliana Armano and Antonella Corsani, “Riprendiamoci i saperi, riprendiamoci la vita: Dialogo con Antonella Corsani,” Machina, February 10, 2021. The authors are grateful to Steve Wright for his suggestions concerning the translation.
2 The so-called “intermittent” performing art workers in France have developed a broad movement of social mobilization that anticipated the political demands of precarious and self-employed workers. Based on the results of a social inquiry around the hybrid figure of temporary cultural work, generated from the collaboration between movement militants and university researchers, Antonella Corsani and Maurizio Lazzarato published the book Intermittents et Précaires (Paris: Ed. Amsterdam, 2008) on the movement of intermittent performing art workers. In France, artists working in the entertainment sector are considered employees by labor law, although they may work intermittently and with a multiplicity of employers. In other words, although the subordination link is weak or poorly characterized and although they are not contracted to any one company, they are considered employees. Therefore, artists as intermittents benefit, like technicians in the entertainment sector, from protection against the risk of unemployment arising from periodic breaks in paid work. A BEC, meanwhile, is multi-activity cooperative and its sales are generated by the “independent activity” of all “salaried-entrepreneurs.” Every “project bearer” can ask to be supported by a BEC, then they can develop their business project under the wing of the BEC. When independent activity begins to generate turnover, the “project bearer” can benefit from the security of an employment contract. They become a “salaried-entrepreneur.” The BEC issues an invoice to the salaried-entrepreneur’s customers and pays a salary to the salaried-entrepreneur. But, the BEC also pays Social Security contributions and taxes. The wage is indexed to the turnover generated by every salaried-entrepreneur, who may choose how to declare working time. Finally, they may be associated and become a “salaried-entrepreneur-member,” sharing in the ownership and management of the cooperative. They can also choose to leave the cooperative structure to create their own enterprise, but this option is very rare. By this atypically shaped working relationship, the salaried-entrepreneur can benefit from social insurance while enjoying full autonomy and freedom in their activity.
3 Involved (implicated) research [recherche impliquée] is a way of naming a non-positivist and non-relativist epistemology. This concept was developed by Léo Coutellec. As he states in one text, the involved researcher assumes responsibility for the transformations that each act of knowledge produces. Involved research is always a collective practice, objectification is always inter-objectification. Knowledge is always situated. I would say that militant research, on the one hand, presupposes a value that preserves it, and on the other hand does not necessarily entail these epistemological concerns. It is clear that militant research can be involved, but not necessarily. Militant research is defined by its aims, involved research is rather defined by its epistemological posture and therefore by its means. See Léo Coutellec„ “Pour une philosophie politique des sciences impliquées: Valeurs, finalités, pratiques,” Écologie & politique 51, no. 2 (2015): 15-25.
4 Precarious enterprise worker is a loose translation of the Italian word “precario-impresa,” as subjectivity tending towards self-activation and self-promotion of one’s own resources. By this concept, the precarious condition is not only attributable to the forms of temporary and casual work defined by contractual conditions and employment instability, but more generally to the large set of situations of uncertainty which, beyond the contractual dichotomy between employment and self-employment, pushes the individual to take on the risk with a total investment in the production of his or her subjectivity. In this logic, the precarious human being must actively participate in the process of his or her own exploitation, but a “happy” one, willing to invent, risk, get involved, and go into debt for the sake of fulfillment and success. Boltanski and Chiapello, in The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso Books, 1999) argued that in the new spirit of capitalism, which is non-disciplinary, i.e. not based on obedience and procedures, the neoliberal ideology seems to subsume the anti-authoritarian instances of participation and self-determination, the needs for creative and imaginative expression, the criticism of the repetitiveness and alienation of work developed by social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. So, the desire to start from oneself and one’s own feelings as instances of possible power has been incorporated int the neoliberal rhetoric by bending them towards the realization of individual performance on the market. The broad social movement against precarity that developed in Italy in the 2000s primarily pivoted on this subjective meaning of precarity (as Cristina Morini and Paolo Vignola have reported in Piccola enciclopedia Precaria (Rome: Agenzia X, 2015).

Authors of the article

is an economist and sociologist. She defines herself as an “involved researcher.” Her latest book is Chemins de la liberté. Le travail entre hétéronomie et autonomie, published in 2020 by Editions du Croquant.

holds a PhD in Labour Studies at Department of Social and Political Sciences at the State University of Milan. Her recent publications include (as co-editor) Mapping Precariousness, Labour Insecurity and Uncertain Livelihoods: Subjectivities and Resistance (2017).