The Human Machine and Contemporary Capitalism


Capitalism has always subordinated human activity to machines. In the last thirty years, however, there has been a qualitative change in the nature of this relationship. The machine has increasingly ceased to have a physical existence outside of the brains and bodies of the workers and it has, instead, become integrated into the organic structures of the working-class itself. The aim of this article is to analyse the nature and effects of this change and consider some means by which this condition can be resisted. This article engages throughout with the work of the thinkers associated with post-Operaismo, who have been active in developing ideas in this area.


Let us first consider how Marx conceptualised machines. For Marx, the machine (or fixed capital), though in one sense the technical means by which the proletariat produces surplus value, is also the congealment of the social knowledge of humanity. Machines do not spring from nature, and are rather the “organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified” (Marx 1973: p. 706). In this way, knowledge, or the ‘general intellect’, can be accurately described as a direct force of production when objectified in a system of machinery. The conditions of social life therefore “come under the control of the general intellect and [are] transformed in accordance with it” (p. 706). In a similar fashion, workers operating technological apparatuses become appendages to the machine. In contrast to the tool, which the individual worker animates through his or her own skill, the machine comes to posses the strength and skill of the workers and “is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it…The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite” (p. 693). Machines oppose the workers as an alien property, and subordinate living labour to objectified labour.


However, Marx’s conception of the machine, though providing some important analytical insights, cannot in itself explain the relationship between human activity and machines in the current, post-Fordist, stage of capitalism. Production is no longer primarily or exclusively based on physically identifiable machines, the “locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc.” which Marx describes. Instead, knowledge, information, affect, and communication have become direct sources of productive wealth without becoming physically congealed and objectified. In this way, the human faculty of thought is put to work. Paulo Virno’s adaptation of Marx’s concept of the general intellect is important in this regard: “It seems legitimate to maintain that, according to the logic of economic development, it is necessary that a part of the general intellect not congeal as fixed capital but unfold in communicative interaction, under the guise of epistemic paradigms, dialogical performances, linguistic games” (Virno 2004: p. 65). The machines that now command live labour and make the worker produce are not to be found in physically identified objects, and are instead located within the workers themselves. It is in this way that humans can be described as becoming machinic (Marazzi 2011, Pasquinelli 2011). Capital, through the flash of the computer screen or the ring of the mobile phone, can at any moment activate the machine within the workers (i.e. their linguistic and communicative ability). The human machine, understood in this sense, is never turned off.


The absorption of the machinic into the working-class themselves necessitates a fundamental change in the way capital interacts with the organic structures of the human body. In the Fordist stage of capitalism, which was characterised by operative, repetitive and material labour, the bodies of workers were worn out through their engagement with machines. Once the body was worn out, the worker was either replaced (by a fitter worker) or repaired (through the accessible health services, which emerged with the welfare state). However, these mechanisms for the maintenance of the working-class are no longer sufficient for post-Fordist capitalism. Instead, in this stage of capitalism, a clash develops between the abilities of humans and needs of capital, leading to the rewiring, reformatting and upgrading of human brains and bodies. The nature of labour in post-Fordist capitalism, with the immersion of the worker in the hyper-stimulating information flows, reacts back on the functioning of the brain. Franco ’Bifo’ Berardi argues that it has become increasingly necessary for capital to inhibit sensibility, i.e. the ability to interpret signs which are non-verbal and which cannot be codified into binary systems. This form of communication, which deals with empathy and emotion, is dangerous to contemporary capital as it slows down the flow of information, thus undermining the productivity of the worker. By inhibiting sensibility the human machine becomes fully integrated into communicative-productive systems, resulting in the smooth and rapid production and exchange of symbols, signs and abstract codes (Berardi 2011). This new condition moves far beyond a change in what people think (in terms of ideological conditioning) and instead involves a change in how people think.


How can the condition described above be resisted? Guy Debord observed in 1957 that “the passions have been sufficiently interpreted; the point now is to discover new ones” (Debord 2006: p. 43). The hitherto existing passions have not simply been interpreted, however, but also denied. The insertion of the machine into the organic structures of humanity must therefore be resisted on an emotional level, with innovative passions being collectively cultivated. Experimental forms of behaviour and intense sensation become ways of disrupting the productive-communicative systems of capitalism. In this sense, an outburst of emotion represents the post-Fordist form of sabotage, the ‘wooden shoe’ of the new bionic working-class. Although this is a project that could conceivably be attempted in the virtual sphere, it is clear that a collective element in the corporeal sense is fundamental. The physical appropriation of space by real existing human beings provides the basis for the development of precisely those forms of behaviours and types of feeling that capital attempts to suppress (such as sensibility). Establishing collective ambiences conducive to the cathartic and emotional expulsion of the machine from the body is therefore an important aspect of resistance to contemporary capitalism.





  • Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’, After the Future (Edinburgh, 2011)
  • Debord, Guy, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations’ in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology  (Berkeley, 2006)
  • Marazzi, Christian, Capital and Affects, The Politics of the Language Economy (Los Angeles, 2011)
  • Marx, Karl, Grundrisse (London, 1973)
  • Pasquinelli, Matteo, ‘Machinic Capitalism and Network Surplus Value: Notes on the Political Economy of the Turing Machine’, (2011)
  • Virno, Paulo, A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles, 2004)

One thought on “The Human Machine and Contemporary Capitalism

  1. An article I wrote, “Memories of the Future,” on a time when there actually was still a future. Engages with a number of recent writings on the subject by Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Slavoj Žižek, T.J. Clark, Owen Hatherley, Chris Cutrone, Max Ajl, Asad Haider, Salar Mohandesi, Ben Lear, and Malcolm Harris, which have been published by AK PRess, Zero Books, Jacobin, New Left Review, and others. Thought you might be interested.

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