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Access, Resources, and Classes in the History of Capitalism: A Theory of Social Stratification from a Cognitive Materialist Perspective

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Abstract

This article aims to apply some concepts from cognitive materialism to the sociological problem of social stratification in capitalism, both in theoretical and abstract terms and through concrete historical examples. After discussing the necessity for a theory of social classes, a division is presented between two types of resources: those physical intensive, and those which are knowledge intensive. At the same time three alternative conditions of access to these resources are theorized: exclusive access (applicable to physical or intellectual property), non-exclusive access, and no access. Combining the different types of resource with the different types of access, we obtain a proposal for a theory of classes, which we apply, in a simplified and schematic way, to various periods. Thus, we analyze social strata in the transition from feudalism to mercantile capitalism, the subsequent transition to industrial capitalism (in which we distinguish two clearly differentiated stages), and finally, in the current transformation into informational capitalism. © 2016, Unified Theory of Information Research Group. All rights reserved.
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Date of Acceptance: January 27, 2016
Date of Publication: April 8, 2016 CC-BY-NC-ND: Creative Commons License, 2016.
Access, Resources, and Classes in the History of Capitalism:
A Theory of Social Stratification from a Cognitive Materialist
Perspective
Mariano Zukerfeld* and Guillermina Yansen**
CONICET, e-TCS, CCTS (Universidad Maimónides), Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires,
Argentina, *marianozukerfeld@e-tcs.org, **guillerminayansen@e-tcs.org, www.e-tcs.org
Abstract: This article aims to apply some concepts from cognitive materialism to the sociological
problem of social stratification in capitalism, both in theoretical and abstract terms and through con-
crete historical examples. After discussing the necessity for a theory of social classes, a division is
presented between two types of resources: those physical intensive, and those which are knowledge
intensive. At the same time three alternative conditions of access to these resources are theorized:
exclusive access (applicable to physical or intellectual property), non-exclusive access, and no ac-
cess. Combining the different types of resource with the different types of access, we obtain a pro-
posal for a theory of classes, which we apply, in a simplified and schematic way, to various periods.
Thus, we analyze social strata in the transition from feudalism to mercantile capitalism, the subse-
quent transition to industrial capitalism (in which we distinguish two clearly differentiated stages), and
finally, in the current transformation into informational capitalism.
Keywords: Social classes, Informational Capitalism, Materialism
1. Introduction: The Need for a Theory of Social Classes
It is difficult to imagine a more natural subject for a social scientist than social stratification:
natural in terms of being proximate, but also indomitable. In the first sense, it is clear that the
organization of society into groups whose members present certain affinities between them,
as well as particular divergences, is a universally accepted phenomenon. In fact, social strati-
fication is one of the few themes in which social science finds it easy to make contact with
the average person in the street. In the everyday speech and practice of this individual (who
knows little to nothing of Durkheimian solidarity, Weberian typologies of action, or Marxist
surpluses), the notion of class pulsates. Hence, every subject who appears before his/her
gaze triggers an instantaneous and profound examination: their wealth and power, their work
and their way of looking at the world will be weighed up and they will end up being inscribed
ineffably in this or that region of the class register.
But the problem of social classes is also natural, we claim, because it is far from having
been overcome by social sciences. In effect, despite this theme having been approached by
all the classics there is not yet anything resembling a consensus around the problematic. An
analysis of the extensive bibliography about the specifics of this question is not within the
remit of this text (cf. Yansen 2012). However, we should point out that our intervention is not
accidental. It emerges from a period in which the notion of class and, indeed, the idea of so-
cial strata, have been blurred in the social sciences and humanities. In this era of networks,
rhizomes, multitudes, social movements, citizens, etc., class divisions are dealt with deroga-
torily, as a hindrance coming from outmoded totalizing theories; as a simplification that com-
mits outrage against the diverse multiplicity of Being. Naturally, it is the history of capitalism
(and of its classes), which explains these trends and not the other way around.
This article is organized as follows. This introduction is the first section. The second is
theoretical and it is three-fold. First, it sketches out our theoretical perspective, cognitive ma-
terialism. Second, it offers our perspective regarding the periodization of capitalism and, in
particular, deals with the characterization of the present stage, informational capitalism.
209 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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Third, it discusses one of the notions we want to redefine, that of cognitive workers. Howev-
er, some readers, i.e. those exclusively interested in the topic of social classes, can happily
skip this second section and jump to the third one. In the third section, drawing on cognitive
materialist concepts, different types of resources and access to them are presented, in order
to put forward an abstract and atemporal schema of social classes. From this point on in the
paper the historical analysis of classes is developed.
In the fourth section we focus on the transition from feudalism to mercantile capitalism,
while the fifth is dedicated to the classes in mercantile capitalism. The classes of industrial
capitalism, subdivided into two phases, are discussed in the sixth section, while in the sev-
enth we concentrate on the present stage, informational capitalism. Finally we present our
conclusions.
2. Cognitive Materialism, Informational Capitalism, and Cognitive and Informa-
tional Workers
In previous papers we have presented an analysis of capitalism based on a particular theo-
retical framework, one that we call cognitive materialism (Zukerfeld 2010a, b). Naturally, ex-
plaining this perspective in detail exceeds the scope of this article. However, some definitions
are sketched here.1
2.1. Cognitive Materialism
Cognitive materialism holds the basic assumption of every materialist philosophy: all and
only material objects are real.2 Now, according to cognitive materialismand starting to de-
part from other emergentist materialisms- matter comes into three forms: M, E and Kn. We
use M to refer to the set of entities that have a mass and volume; E for energy and Kn for
knowledge. M and E (M/E onwards) are the physical entities. Knowledge, which only exists in
a material bearer, is a non-physical but material entity. Thus, there is no knowledge as an
immaterial entity, only as an emergent property of M/E. This, from the point of view of
knowledge, becomes a bearer”.
It is evident that the bearer of any knowledge conditions several of the ontological, eco-
nomic and legal properties that such knowledge assumes. For example, that the idea of a
Wheel (a conceptual object, non-real” according to Bunge 1981) becomes knowledge (a
material object, real) as an individual mental representation, as a reification in a determinate
object, or as a codification in a text (three different bearers), confers very varied possibilities
to this knowledge, of, as the case may be, being transmitted widely, being considered useful,
or falling into oblivion.
Now, one of the central ideas of this perspective is that of studying capitalism on the basis
of the stocks and flows of different types of M/E on the one hand, and of knowledge on the
other. This comes from the fact that each one of these entities is subject to a specific type of
capitalist regulation: a broad group of institutions regulate access to M/E (physical private
property is the most well-known); meanwhile, a bundle of rights govern access to
knowledge (the varied forms of intellectual property are the most common).
1 This section was expanded in order to respond to the insightful suggestions of an anonymous re-
viewer.
2 We follow Mario Bunge in this regard: “An object is real if, and only if, it influences, or is influenced
by, another object, or is composed exclusively of real objects” (Bunge 1981, 23). Material objects (en-
tities) are defined by the fact that they are changeable (Bunge 1981, 20), in opposition to immaterial or
conceptual objects. In turn, matter is the set of material objects. It is not unusual to split materialist
philosophies between emergentist and physicalist (or reductionist). Cognitive materialism is a kind of
the former, which claim that matter organizes itself in systems with emergent properties. This means
that the properties of a certain level cannot be reduced to the properties of another level. Certainly, we
do not share Bunge´s perspective concerning social sciences.
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Whereas we adopt the mainstream concepts and typologies of M/E, we understand
knowledge in a very different and much broader sense than the usual ones.3 The core of
cognitive materialism is to distinguish different kinds of knowledge regarding their material
bearers. Thus, we have developed a typology, which includes biological, subjective, inter-
subjective and objective forms of knowledge.4 Finally, the picture of the flows and stocks of
different types of knowledge for a certain time and place results in a system that we call
Cognitive Materalist Configuration (CMC).
Of course, knowledge is translated all the time from one type to another, gaining and los-
ing something in each translation. And certainly, different kinds of knowledge are always
producing excesses and contradictions. Therefore, the knowledge system is always unsta-
ble, always “becoming” (werden in German).
Now, let´s focus on one particular type of knowledge, that is, Normative Intersubjective
knowledge (see footnote 4). It is a very particular kind of knowledge, since it encompasses
the regulation of both knowledge and M/E. And, as was said above, it does that mainly
through two kinds of institutions: physical property and the agglomeration of institutions we´re
now accustomed to calling intellectual property.
Normative Intersubjective Knowledge, therefore, regulates the whole CMC. As the reader
has probably noted, the notions of CMC and normative intersubjective knowledge are to
some extent equivalent to the old Marxian concepts of Productive Forces and Social Rela-
tions of Production, respectively. Although there are many differences between our proposal
and Marxism, we want to mention one aspect in common: the dynamic of capitalism is ex-
plained, ultimately, by the contradiction between the productive forces/ cognitive material
configuration and the social relations of production/normative intersubjective knowledge.
When this contradiction is sharp, the latter adapts (usually through sinuous and complex
ways) to the former, resulting in a brand new stage of capitalism. This leads us to the next
sub-section.
2.2. Stages of Capitalism and Informational Capitalism
In our view, the proper way to define a stage of capitalism is to present its cognitive material-
ist configuration. In other words, while periods should be treated as totalities, they can´t be
reduced to one single contradiction, no matter how important this contradiction is. Its stocks,
flows and translations of different kinds of knowledge should be carefully analyzed5. We have
tried to do this in previous studies, and come to the conclusion that capitalism should be un-
3 But, what do we understand by knowledge? Evidently, we use this term in a much broader sense
than is usual. Knowledge is an emergent system. That is to say, it only exists upon some physical
bearer in which it is based, but it´s not reducible to it. Likewise, knowledge represents negative entro-
py. M/E is finite and limited, it is not created, nor can it be destroyed, only transformed (as the laws of
conservation indicate). Knowledge, however, is born and expands, but it can also die. Thus, with a
certain license, it could be said that M/E has an immanent existence while knowledge is transcendent.
In economic terms, knowledge is that whose consumption does not run out (it is non-rival, infinitely
expansibleas Jefferson puts itor has zero subtractability). The human individual, the human col-
lective, the biological human and non-human, and the inorganic that has been shaped by flows of
social knowledge, all these are forms of knowledge.
4 Biological knowledge includes the genetic, endocrinological and neural information flows of living
beings. Subjective knowledge includes the explicit and implicit memories of an individual´s mind.
Intersubjective knowledge rests on social groups. It comprises five sub-types: linguistic (knowledge
about codifying, decodifying and creating codes), recognition (knowledge of others and of the self; the
glue of social networks, akin to social capitalor know who), organizational (knowledge that arises in
any form of division of labor or other activities), axiological (intersubjective beliefs and values) and
normative (regulations internalized by people and usually enacted by law; physical property and
intellectual property are the two main types of normative intersubjective knowledge). Objective
knowledge encompasses, on the one hand, technologies (among them, digital technologies); on the
other, information. As is well known, information and, particularly, digital information, has marginal
costs close to 0. We call this replicability of Digital Information.
5 As the reader has probably noted, here we are trying to highlight the relevance of two Hegelian no-
tions: negativity but, more emphatically, totality.
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derstood in three stages: Mercantile, Industrial and Informational (Zukerfeld 2010a, b). How-
ever, since this article is devoted to the specific subject of social classes, we are going to
oversimplify this point.
As was pointed out above, one key element necessary to understand the shifts in the his-
tory of capitalism is that of the contradiction between the totality of knowledge flows and
stocks and one particular kind of knowledge: normative (which is, of course, a part of the
totality and not an exogenous variable6). Normative intersubjective knowledge includes, at
least, physical and intellectual property. Regarding mercantile and industrial capitalism we
are going to limit our comments to the scarcely discussed role of intellectual property while
regarding informational capitalism, we are going to expand a little bit more our description.
Of course, this characterization of stages aims to be nothing more than an input for the dis-
cussion of social classes in each period.
2.2.1. Mercantile and Industrial Capitalism
In the hundred years spanning from the second half of the 15th century to the first half of the
16th century, a series of profound changes in Western civilization took place. From high
school we have been instructed about the facts and years that marked the end of Middle
Ages: 1453, the capture of Constantinople by the Turks; 1492, the arrival of Columbus to
America; circa 1450, the invention of the Gutenberg press; around 1517, the Protestant
Reformation. Besides specific facts and years, there is some consensus about the speeding
up of merchant activities in those 100 years, giving rise to Mercantile capitalism. Now, in the
middle of that period, and right in a region where merchant capitalism was flourishing, an
unprecedented event took place. A fact that does not receive attention in any high school
history book, nor in college books on the history of capitalism. This is the Venice Act of 1474,
which established the first modern regulation of patents, fostering the attraction and diffusion
of valuable knowledge to that Kingdom.
When we turn to study Industrial capitalism, the period starting in the third quarter of 18th
century, and despite the fact that the origins of this phase have been much more widely re-
viewed than the above, we find the regulation of access to knowledge is again neglected in
the grand narratives. Rivers of economists ink have been devoted to other normative regula-
tions: the enclosures of physical resources, the double freedom of labor power; and also to
technological knowledge (machinery) and physical resources (coal). Mountains of books are
filled with the importance of axiological knowledge (the Enlightenment, Contractualism, Polit-
ical Economy) and modern science. However, as discussed elsewhere (Zukerfeld 2014), by
the time of the Industrial Revolution, England was the first and only country that had stabi-
lized the regulation of copyright and patents (in the contemporary sense). Through some
Acts (Statute of Monopolies, 1623; Act of Anne, 1709), but specifically through some key
rulings (Liardet v. Johnson, 1778; Baker v. James, 1753, among others), England developed
clear laws framing the notions of author, inventor and public domain. Although the process is
far from linear, it is clear that regulation of access to knowledge had a close link with the
launch of Industrial capitalism.7
2.2.2. Informational Capitalism
During the second half of the 20th century, the CMC of industrial capitalism was dramatically
transformed. M/E flows were modified, particularly by the oil crisis of 1973. New productive
processes capable of being less physical intensive were in need. Regarding biological
knowledge, humans learned to read the language of life from 1953 (double helix of DNA),
and to write in this language from 1973 (genetic engineering): business and axiology were
6 The idea that the terms in a contradiction are the totality itself and a particular part within it is ex-
tremely important, due to it being specifically opposed to non-Hegelian inspired Marxisms, which tend
to lose the notion of totality.
7 The most obvious (although challenging) link is that of the patent system. See Mokyr (1985) and
especially, Crafts (1985). Also the rise of the notion of authorship and copyright law is extremely rele-
vant. See Chartier (1999).
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shaken by this change. In turn, subjective knowledge rose dramatically through the expan-
sion of formal education creating a massive amount of cognitive workers, and multitasking
abilities were increasingly developed. Intersubjective knowledge presented various changes.
The pyramid disciplinary organization went into crisis: from schools to firms, institutions
evolved towards new flexible (regarding space and time) organizational forms. This is related
to changes in axiological knowledge. Speed, flexibility, connectivity, ephemerality and Diony-
sian values began their ascension. Recognition knowledge also underwent profound trans-
formations: the industrial opposition between society and individuals became a relationship
between networks and nodes (or “dividuals”). Finally, objective knowledge brought various
well known changes. Increasingly powerful digital technologies for processing, storing and
transmitting digital information spread. Digital information grew partially due to the fact that
more and more entities became capable of being translated into digital forms. For instance,
some 90% of the money in the world today is digital information. The opportunities for cost-
less reproduction and fast circulation became enormous. On the other hand, software be-
came the most powerful means of production of the new stage.
To summarize, we understand, partially relying on Christian Fuchs8, Manuel Castells9 and,
to some extent, the advocates of Cognitive capitalism,10 that industrial capitalism evolved into
informational capitalism.11 For the sake of operationalization, here we are going to limit our
8 In several respects, Fuchs´s concept of (transnational) informational capitalism is akin to ours: he
draws on dialectics, retrieves and updates the notions of class and exploitation, and criticizes non-
materialist conceptions. (See, for instance, Fuchs 2010; 2011). However, we have some minor differ-
ences. Among them, as the main text shows, our class scheme is slightly different to his.
9 The term informational capitalism was coined by Castells (1996). Although we follow his theory in
many aspects, we also depart from it in many ways. First, informational capitalism is for Castellsin
the vein of Bella combination of two variables: a mode of development (informationalism) and a
mode of production (capitalism). On the contrary, for us it is a third stage of capitalism, after mercantile
and industrial (following here the cognitive capitalism perspective). Second, according to Castells,
informational capitalism is the economic side of the “Network Society”. So he adds cultural and politi-
cal elements as external to informational capitalism. On the contrary, we understand capitalism as a
totality, which is cultural no less than economic, political no less than technological. Of course, this is
the opposite of the idea that one sphere (i.e. economic) determines another (i.e. cultural). Productive
processes are the key, but they have to be understood as producing not only merchandise, but also
subjectivities, affects, values, and so on. Third, Castells perspective does not take into account the
role of intellectual property in order to grasp this new stage.
10 We follow cognitive capitalism theory in three aspects: the aforementioned idea of a third stage, the
analysis of capitalism as a totality and the focus on intellectual property. However, we have several
important differences. First, the adjective cognitive is not clear at all. As discussed elsewhere (Zuker-
feld 2008) every stage of capitalism has relied on new knowledge, and on the institutions regulating
this knowledge. So, it makes no sense to call this stage “cognitive”. Moreover, these authors do not
discuss the relevance of knowledge and, particularly of what we call now “intellectual property” in pre-
vious stages. Indeed, ideas like that of a “second movement of enclosures” (lands in the first one,
knowledge in the second) obliterate the chance of linking IP to previous phases of capitalism. This is
why these authors are not concerned, for instance, with the decisive role that English patent regime
had in the launch of the Industrial Revolution. Second, the association between knowledge and the
concept of immaterial is exactly the opposite perspective to that adopted from a cognitive materialist
standpoint. This, of course, applies also to Gorz, Negri, Hardt and other authors. Third, the lack of
empirical evidence mentioned in the main text is, from our perspective, a serious defect. Fourth, the
intellectual tradition which ultimately inspires cognitive capitalism is that of Italian autonomism and
French post-structuralism: Negri, Lazzarato and, more deeply, Deleuze and Foucault. On the contra-
ry, our perspective is ultimately Hegelian, as the reader has probably already noticed.
11Of course, there are various additional valuable concepts and authors that characterize this stage of
capitalism. Lash (2002); Poster (2006); Zizek (2009); Rifkin (2000); Schiller (1999), among others.
Persuasive as they are, all of them tend to support their claims with philosophical, political or rhetorical
arguments. Thus, empirical bases are mostly absent, let alone statistical ones. Moreover, no one in
this group has assessed the relevance of (what now we call) IP in previous periods of capitalism. In
other words, those authors (contrary to the previous group) hold that the regulation of knowledge is
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brief characterization to a specific but paradigmatic issue: informational productive process-
es.12 These can be defined around four features:
i) The main means of production are digital technologies (from notebooks to
smartphones), digital information (software, data, etc.) and networks that combine
both of them (internet).13
ii) The consumption of physical inputs by unit of output (physical intensity) is many times
lower than in industrial productive processesas the proxy14 in figure 1 shows.
Figure 1: Consumption of energy inputs in Industrial and Informational Productive Processes. (US,
2011, as % of Gross Output). Source: Author´s elaboration based on KLEMS statistics from Bureau of
Economic Analysis.
The low weight of energy per unit of output implies that knowledge takes the lion´s share in
these productive processes. To some extent, this is related to the role of digital technologies
and digital information. Nevertheless, other forms of knowledge (subjective and inter-
subjective) are just as important.
iii) The output consists, mainly, of some specific goods.15 Somewhat following Hal
Varian (Varian 1995) we name them Informational Goods (IG).16 We understand there
are three types of IG. a) The IG1, which are informational goods in the strictest sense,
have the particularity of being purely made of Digital Information. Software, music,
really important in this stage, but not previously. Not only IP regulations, but knowledge itself is seen
as a critical resource only for this stage.
12 Notice that productive process encompasses but exceeds work. Indeed, some of them occur in
leisure time. Also, a productive process (capitalist or not) results in the production of goods, services
and subjectivities.
13 The Internet, as a combination of various layers of digital technologies and digital information is a
key to understanding informational productive processes today. Specifically, the current open Internet
architecture based on TCP/IP protocols is a cornerstone of those processes.
14 For the industrial processes we have used the data on manufacturing. For the informational pro-
cesses we have used the sum category ICT of KLEMS, which consists of computer and electronic
products; publishing industries (including software); information and data processing services; and
computer systems. This proxy has many shortcomings. For instance, it does not measure the human
energy used in the processes, but it is enough to root our point in an indicator.
15 That is: goods, and not services. For a discussion of this common confusion found in many of Bell’s
unaware followerslike Hardt and Negri—see specifically Hill 1999 or, more broadly, Castells 1996,
chapter 4.
16 Varian coined the term Information Goods. But he is only concerned with what we call here Primarily
Informational Goods. Additionally, Varian does not recognize a change of stage in capitalism and,
moreover, he thinks that neoclassical economic theory does not need any major revision.
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images, text, etc. are included in this group. b) The IG2, process, transmit or store DI
as the main distinctive feature. Chips (and computers which depend on them), DI
storage devicessuch as DVDs, and DI transmission applianceslike semiconductor
silicon- are examples of IG2. c) The IG3 refer to the resulting products of
biotechnological applications: the pharmaceutical industry, genetically modified
organisms, etc. Informational goods are more or less sensitive to the replicability of
digital information depending on the relative weight of digital information in their
productive processes.
iv) As is implicit in the lines above, intellectual property is much more relevant regarding
those productive processes than physical property.
Returning to normative intersubjective knowledge, in industrial capitalism, physical property
was the main institution. Patents, copyrights and so on certainly played a role, as we are
going to highlight later on. However, as the production function of industrial productive pro-
cesses was dominated by matter/energy, their main regulation was physical property. This
institution was laboriously built as the main legal, philosophical, economic and cultural tool of
the period. But the institutions of industrial capitalism were found lacking in their ability to
deal with informational production processes. Not only physical property but especially the
institutions regulating knowledge in industrial capitalism were revealed as insufficient. Pa-
tents, copyrights, trademarks as we used to know them were molded to meet industrial pro-
duction processes, not informational ones. They were not devised to enclose informational
goods or to regulate the key productive processes of the stage.
Therefore, a central task in order to stabilize informational capitalism was (and still is) a
readjustment of normative intersubjective knowledge (“social relations of production”) to the
changes in CMC (“productive forces”); beyond the adaptation of physical property and other
institutions, it became particularly necessary to organize the exclusions and inclusions
around certain types of knowledge and goods, digital information and informational goods
respectively. In previous studies we have tried to empirically demonstrate that a powerful part
of the readjustment took place through the massive and systemic expansion of intellectual
property law (Zukerfeld 2010b).
2.3. Cognitive Workers, Informational Workers, and Knowledge in Class Analysis
One of the concepts we are going to use in our scheme of classes is that of cognitive work-
ers. Since similar terms have a widespread use in the literature, it´s necessary to differentiate
the meaning given here from that of other authors.
Indeed, in the fields of mainstream economics and management the concept of
knowledge work has been widely used and measured (Machlup 1962; Drucker 1969; Porat
1977; OECD 1981, 1986, 1996, 2009; Cutcher-Gershenfeld 2000; Nonaka and Takeuchi
1999; Fruin 2000; Dordick and Wang 1993; Davenport and Prusak 2001; Kim 1996; Boon,
Britz and Harmse 1994). Despite the usual lack of analytical definition, these jobs are sup-
posed to involve advanced academic qualifications and to be related to the manipulation of
symbols (Reich 1993).
On the other hand, and from a different theoretical standpoint, the concept of immaterial
labour has become very fashionable (Lazzarato and Negri 2001; Negri 1999; Virno 2003;
Lazzarato 1996, 2006). In a nutshell, it includes several forms of labour associated with digi-
tal technologies, but also the so-called affective labour (that of the nurse, typically, but also
professional services, the entertainment industry, etc. See Hardt and Negri 2000).
Both conceptsknowledge work and immaterial labourshare some problems from a
cognitive materialist perspective. First, they tend to neglect the relevance of knowledge activ-
ities in previous stages. Thus, they identify a type of work, which has existed across different
stages of capitalism with only the current stage. Second, they are not defined in a materialist
way. Third, as a consequence of the first flaw, these concepts tend to understand that this
kind of work lies in the present stage within the services sector.
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Now, in this article we are going to use the term cognitive work to refer to the kind of work
in which the share of knowledge used exceeds that of physical energies, as discussed in the
next section. Cognitive work is, within our theoretical framework, an abstract and ahistorical
category, which can only be analyzed through its concretization in a particular stage. On the
other hand, to refer to the specific kind of cognitive work that characterizes informational cap-
italism, we will resort to the notion of informational work. It encompasses the workers that
use a digital technology as their main means of production (IG2) and whose main products
are flows of digital information (IG1). Thus, these definitions distinguish the universal and
abstract category (cognitive work) from its particularization in a certain stage (informational
work) and both are rooted in materialist definitions.17
However, the relation between knowledge and social classes has been discussed beyond
concepts such as knowledge workers or immaterial labour.18 Indeed, Poulantzas (1973,
1975), Wright (1979; 1989; 2015), Bourdieu (1985, 2001) and others have tried to bring the
Weberian idea of different kinds of (what we call here) knowledge as valuable resources into
the Marxian scheme. Although an analysis of these theories lies beyond the limits of this pa-
per (instead, see Yansen 2012), some shortcomings of these approaches are touched on
here.
The most obvious of these limitations is that intellectual property, that is, the legal barrier
to access to knowledge is not considered by the aforementioned authors. On the contrary,
our perspective claims that the history of capitalism, and especially its shifts of stages, is
linked to the history of what today we call “intellectual property”. In the same regard,
knowledge typologies are absent. That is, we are assuming that, for example, “goods of or-
ganization”, “goods of qualification” and “social capital” are different forms of knowledge. The
authors themselves do not make that explicit, but this is our reading and we have integrated
this into our typology (intersubjective organizational knowledge, subjective knowledge and
intersubjective recognition, respectively). Thus, these authors do not develop the idea of the
relevance of knowledge for a scheme of social classes explicitly enough.
3. The Proposal: Classes from an Abstract Perspective
Going back to cognitive materialism, we need to highlight that both entities (M/E and
knowledge) combine in a variable way in two types of resources: goods and subjects.19 In
such a way that every good (and every subject) is linked to capitalism in two ways: both by
some form of regulation of their physical aspect and also in some way relative to their cogni-
tive side.20 To extrapolate these ideas into a theory about social stratification we must clarify
some notions about different types of resources and access to them.
3.1. Types of Resources: PIR and KIR
Evidently the resources contain variable proportions of M/E and knowledge, as a result of
which the weight of both regulatory methods will be varied. Both types of rights are applica-
ble to a book, for example, but those pertaining to intellectual property, those related to the
cognitive aspect, are usually more economically relevant than those pertaining to ownership
of the pages, covers, etcin other words the physical property of the material object itself.
17 For a development of the concepts of informational work and informational sector, see Zukerfeld
(2013).
18 Other authors have coined specific notions of knowledge classes for informational capitalism. Prob-
ably the most cited is Wark´s (2004) Vectorialist and Hacker classes. However, this scheme cannot
take into account the several other classes that shape capitalist societies.
19 This assertion, of course, implies a rupture with the humanist traditions of modernity (including that
of Marx).
20 Of course, the ownership of both aspects (material and cognitive) of a resource canand usually
doesfall on distinct legal subjects: whoever buys a car becomes the owner of the material aspect,
while one or more signatories continue being owners of the patent rights and brands that pertain to
various parts of the vehicle. At the same time, whoever is title-holder of the authorship rights of a song
is not necessarily owner of the CDs on which the music is recorded.
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On the other hand, intellectual property carries less weight in the case of a table (generic) in
which the most relevant regulation is that related to physical ownership of the physical object.
Now, beyond resources in general, for our objectives it is necessary to take into account
the productive resources, that is, those which are utilized as the means of production. We
would like to analyze two kinds: M/E or physically-intensive productive resources (PIR); and
knowledge-intensive productive resources (KIR). But, how do we understand which aspect is
the more or less relevant?
Although the question seems intuitively simple, it is actually complex in analytical terms.
There are two variables, which can be confidently used to differentiate PIR and KIR:
i) The relative costs of M/E and Knowledge contained in each unit of the resource, that
is to say, the proportion of production costs for the resource in question.
ii) The proportion of effective use of the M/E and Knowledge of the resource in question
in the production process in which it functions as a means of production.21
Two further clarifications are necessary with regard to these conceptualizations. The first is
that we are discussing proportions of M/E and Knowledge, and not absolute quantities. This
implies that there could be KIR that contain and use lower magnitudes of knowledge than
some PIR in cases when the former have recourse to tiny quantities of M/E. Returning to the
example of the productive process in which a worker uses a computer merely for the purpos-
es of inputting data, here the worker is a KIR, because in spite of the fact that the cognitive
mass put into motion by his or her activity is very small, the expenditure of energy is even
lower. A contrasting case would be a highly qualified sportsperson bearing a great deal of
knowledge who could be a PIR due to the expenditure of vital energy predominating in the
particular productive process they are involved in.
The second clarification points to the idea that this conceptualization can only be made in
a historically situated way, which is to say synchronic and comparative. A manual worker at
the beginning of the 20th century (who we imagine exhausting their vital energy to the limit
and with a cognitive heritage marked more by experience than by the complexities of a pro-
longed apprenticeship) is a PIR, while a cognitive worker of the period, such as a journalist,
is a KIR. This does not mean that if the comparison were made in a diachronic way that the
result would be the same: the manual worker of the 20th century compared to a hunter from a
prehistoric tribe is, of course, a knowledge-intensive resource. For this reason the classifica-
tion only holds for historically determined situations.
21 The variable of costs refers here to the productive process of the origin of the resource, while the
variable of effective use refers to the productive process of the destination. A significant limitation to
the use of costs as an isolated variable lies in the fact that, as is well known, the effective use can vary
in relation to the proportions in which the resource was produced. This is particularly common where
the resources are subjects: in these cases it’s possible that they were created as a KIR but that they
end up being applied in productive processes in which they function as a PIR. But there could also be,
as technological constructivism demonstrates, divergences between production costs and effective
use when the resources are commodities. For example a computer, a KIR due to its production costs,
can be utilized as a typewriter (a PIR).
Inversely, defining PIR and KIR based on their effective use has the drawback of losing sight of ob-
jective aspects: to continue with the example of the computer, the fact that in one given productive
process it is utilized as a PIR does not remove its objective potential to be put to use as a KIR, let’s
suppose by another worker as the case may be. The same occurs with subjects: their objective cogni-
tive foundation, their unutilized skills can be exploited.
How do we resolve this tension? In practical terms, maintaining both variables. Given that in most
cases they coincide, there are no difficulties in classifying the resources. But in those cases where
they diverge, we turn to an intermediary concept: the potential use of a resource. This refers not only
to the current use of the resource, but also to the possible uses within the productive process it is in-
serted into. This potential outlook includes, indirectly, the question of production costs, which configure
a certain objective potential for use as PIR or KIR.
217 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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3.2. Types of Access: Exclusive, Non-Exclusive, and No Access
We will now move on to look at the types of access22 to these productive resources. In addi-
tion to the exclusive regimes through which subjects either do or do not have access to
goods, these goods can be regulated by intermediary methods. In effect, goods canand
usually dohave one (or two) of their aspects regulated under a non-exclusive regime (in
other words, not privative). For example, a recently published book in a public library has its
material component covered by State public property even though its intellectual aspect is
subject to copyright law. The reverse happens in the case of the generic table mentioned
earlier: the stored-up knowledge this contains is within the public domain, while its material
aspect is subject to private ownership. In a more systematic way, if we imagine the relation-
ship between a determined subject and any productive resource it is useful to present three
situations, three types of access.
The first is exclusive access: it relates to the property forms in which the subject is owner
of the resource and utilizes the possibility of excluding third parties as a means of obtaining
an economic advantage. Physical private property and intellectual property are some current
forms of this type of access, although not the only ones.
The second is non-exclusive access: it relates to the possibility of the use of a resource of
which the subjects using it are either not the title-holdersbut have acquired a use-right, or
being the title-holder use it for themselves, without obtaining profit from the use of third par-
tieswithout availing themselves of the possibility of exclusion as a means by which those
third parties are be subsumed within it.
The third is the condition of no access: this usually indicates situations in which the sub-
ject gains access to the resource in question in invalid or proportionally insufficient quantities
to be able to have an effect on a determined productive process. The condition of no access
implies that the resource is not useful for the subject in question to differentiate themselves
from other subjects and to compete for consumer goods by virtue of this resource. In excep-
tional circumstances, this category refers to situations in which the subject gains access to
the resource, but for whatever reason doesn’t use it as a means of production in any signifi-
cant way.
The main argument of this paper is that, combining these forms of access, which include
but exceed ownership, with the two types of resources, which broaden the typically consid-
ered variables, we can obtain a potential model of diverse social groups. A model that, at the
same time, gives an account of the complexity without losing the antagonistic dimension that
confronts owners and non-owners of resources, and which also allows us to think about the
various historical stages of capitalism.
3.3. The Abstract Schema of Classes
In effect, combining the three modalities of access to both types of resources we can obtain
an abstract and, within capitalism, a-historical schema of social classes. This is a preliminary
but fundamental step before observing how each category takes a particular and variable
physiognomy, how history moulds it and reshapes it again and again in its transformation.
We will look at not only how these classes have adopted different forms and roles throughout
history but also how they have been variously described by authors from heterogeneous time
periods and geographical locations. Each period will see the rise of some classes at the
same time as the silent or explosive decline of others; the period will lend its name to some
of them, and at the same time those classes will name the period after themselves.
Naturally, the distinction between an abstract schema of social classes and a concrete
one is not a novel innovation of this paper. However, a contribution that we do seek to make
is to take a step towards the systematization of this distinction and to theorize about what is
invariable and what is contingent in the history of classes in capitalism. That said we could
consider the schema presented in Table 1.
22 The idea of using the notion of access to property in relation to social stratification is in line with
Zukerfeld (2009) and, in the final analysis, takes inspiration from Rifkin (2000).
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Access to Physical Intensive Resources
Non-exclusive
No Access
Access to
Knowledge
Intensive
Resources
Exclusive
2.Cognitive
capitalists
3.Cognitive
rentiers
Non-exclusive
5.Self-
employed
workers
6.Cognitive
workers
No access
8.Physical
(manual)
workers
9.Excluded
workers
Table 1: Classes in capitalism (prepared by the authors)
At the most general level, we must distinguish between those who obtain their income from
some form of exclusive access or property and those who earn it from selling their labor
power.23 The former group, who we generically call capitalists, includes, in addition to capital-
ists strictly defined (1), two sub-groups of the same: cognitive capitalists (2) and phyisical
capitalists (4). Additionally the extended capitalist family includes two types of rentier: cogni-
tive (3) and physical (7) (the latter, unlike the former, do not in any way participate in the pro-
ductive processes to which they lend their resources). For their part, the workers include
principally the cognitive workers (6) and physical workers (8), but there are also self-
employed workers (5) and excluded workers (9). The numbers in brackets should be widely
referred in the following pages. We agree with several theories regarding the fact that rela-
tions of exploitation link capitalists and workers, as a whole.24
Perhaps it would be advantageous to specify the scope of each of these abstract catego-
ries.25 However, due to space constraints, we prefer to allow the historical transformation to
help us trace the contours of each. Throughout the remainder of this paper the reader will
repeatedly see in parentheses the numbers that identify each one of the classes from our
abstract schema. In doing so we will relate determined concrete groups situated in specific
coordinates with the generic classification we have presented.
23 This scheme focuses on the productive processes where monetary exchanges take place. Unpaid workers
(such as domestic workers and voluntary workers of digital media) are subsumed to the class of who pays his/her
bills. This does not mean that these workers are not exploited and, even, exploited by capitalists. However, we
tend to think that classes should be defined according to the productive process that allows subjects to reproduce
their material life.
24 The topic of exploitation is a crucial but complex one that we can´t tackle here. Capitalist exploitation comes in
two forms: physical and cognitive. However, it is not the case that cognitive exploitation occurs regarding cogni-
tive labor and vice-versa. Both are frequently used in each kind of productive process. We are currently working
on this topic (Zukerfeld 2015).
25 For a more detailed description, see Yansen 2012.
219 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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4. From Feudalism to Mercantile Capitalism
To understand capitalism we have to start from the feudal mode of production that preceded
it. To do this, we turn back to the schema presented in Table 1, but with some caveats. The
first is that we are not yet dealing with classes, given that we maintain the Marxist idea that
classes, in the strictest sense, appear with capitalism (Marx and Engels 1970 [1846]; Gid-
dens 1979). The second is that as a consequence, specifically capitalist social groups (1, 2
and 4) do not appear in any significant way. However, social groups composed of rentiers
and workers do appear. The third is that, once we bear the typology from Table 1 in mind, it
is helpful to complement it by giving an account of specific periods with other charts that al-
low us to visualize the relative power and quantity of the different strata.
It is usually claimed that the fundamental contradiction in the feudal mode of production, is
between the feudal lords and the serfs (Marx and Engels 1970 [1846]). While the former are
merely physical rentiers (7), landowners and warlords, and removed from the productive pro-
cess, the latter are a specific form of physical worker (8), especially agrarian workers. Put
simply, in a rural economy the serfs carry out tasks which are based much more on the con-
sumption of their energies than on the application of their mental faculties. However, this
fundamental contradiction is very far from being sufficient to understand the social stratifica-
tion of the period.
Meanwhile, the apex of the feudal pyramid belongs as much to the landowners as it does
to the proprietors of the soul; as much to feudal powers as to ecclesiastical powers. In fact,
the friendships and conflicts, the circulation and splits between them populate the surface of
the history of feudalism. Here a fundamental feature of our schema appears: the religious
structures, as much as those of the feudal estate, base their power on the monopolization of
resources: here not the land or military forces (which come to them as an added extra), but
knowledge. Indeed, the clerical strata are nothing more than cognitive rentiers (3), wealthy
proprietors not only of knowledge related to the afterlife, but also a broad range of secular
knowledge; legal proprietors of a good part of knowledge as a whole.
More important is to show that, with the transformation of feudalism, between the lords
and the serfs new lateral categories increasingly emerged. Categories that share an origin:
they begin as serfs who in some way manage to make themselves wholly or partially inde-
pendent from their lords. Some of these serfs, with the consent of the local noble, become
small-scale independent farmers, exploiting communal or even privately-owned parcels of
land. These proprietor or smallholder peasants from the commons who have a non-exclusive
access both to cognitive as well as physical resources are a type of self-employed worker (5)
in our schema.
That said, other serfs, far from receiving the consent of their lord, flee the estate and take
refuge in the cities. There, some remain without distinctive cognitive resources, and offer
their physical energies as day-laborers (8). Others fall into vagrancy (9). But a large quantity
of these escaped serfs, or rather their children and grandchildren, will arm themselves with
practical knowledge. Their families and their bodies will put these valuable skills to use in
order to put clothes on someone else’s back. At some point, guild organization will be born
as the legal form that will regulate those cognitive monopolies,26 and at least three types of
individuals are integrated into it. At the bottom of the corporative pyramid are the apprentic-
es, dispossessed of physical resources to strike out on their own, but with increasing
knowledge. They will become, therefore, the cognitive workers (6) par excellence of this pe-
riod. The clerks succeed them in rank: having certificated skills and, usually, acquiring some
26 Marx puts it thus:
The competition of serfs constantly escaping into the town, the constant war of the country against the
towns and thus the necessity of an organized municipal military force, the bond of common ownership
in a particular kind of labour, the necessity of common buildings for the sale of their wares at a time
when craftsmen were also traders, and the consequent exclusion of the unauthorised from these
buildings, the conflict among the interests of the various crafts, the necessity of protecting their labori-
ously acquired skill, and the feudal organization of the whole of the country: these were the causes of
the union of the workers of each craft in guilds. (Marx and Engels 1970 [1846], 69)
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tools, they will have a certain level of independence (5) that will make them equivalent to free
proprietor peasants. At the top of the guild hierarchy will be, of course, the masters. Holding
the title to craft knowledge and with the ability to exclude, they are the ancestors of the cogni-
tive capitalists (2). Of course, the relative fluidity of movement between these areas of arti-
sanship makes the separation of these groups into strictly separated classes unjustifiable.
We are dealing with groups with often contradictory interests between and among them, but
also with a series of vigorous instrumental and affective connections as well as the bonds of
tradition.
But to understand the progressive transformation of feudalism into mercantile capitalism, it
remains to observe the appearance of a key element: the merchant class. Given that ex-
change was geographically limited, confined to the city and its environs, those who would
liberate it were destined to expand the world. Indeed, the merchant class of this period is
characterized by handling physical resources in space, by transporting them towards itself
and its commodities. This class still hasn’t managed to make these materials and energies
submit themselves to its domination in the factory (as the capitalists will); but it does manage
to transport itself with them, ploughing the seas and oceans, bringing back marvels from the
Orient and from the Indies.27 Shaped by many factors, itself shaping others, it is through the
action of this class, along with a multitude of other factors of course, that mercantile capital-
ism starts to take shape.
Before moving on, we here present a graphical summary (which seems static but should
be understood in relation to the transformation we have suggested) of the social groups from
the period we have discussed. The intended purpose of this is to arrange the stratification of
social groups from this period in relation to the criteria proposed by this paper, emphasizing
by visual means the existence of a determined hierarchy and its respective relationship to
power. If, in turn, we were to think about the chart that represents the typology in an abstract
way, we can observe that there are still no strictly capitalist classes and so category 1 would
be empty. Note that in this chart we represent, to the left, the social groups distinguished by
their access to PIR, while to the right we locate those that owe their status to their access to
KIR.
Table 2: Social classes towards the end of the feudal period (prepared by authors)
5. From Mercantile to Industrial Capitalism
Mercantile capitalism as a category is not clearly defined. Leaving to one side the clarifica-
tions that Sombart, Braudel and other authors introduce, it suffices here to note that the term
27 It is tempting to paraphrase Marx and say that where mercantile capitalism takes shape we are fac-
ing a formal subsumption of physical resources, and that only when industrial capitalism makes its
triumphal entry will this subsumption be real.
221 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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underlines the vigorous activity, or rather, the economic leadership of the mercantile groups
(a kind of physical capitalists). More precisely, it aims to highlight the systematic and rational
profit motive, which drives them. However, naming this period “capitalism” is a risky busi-
ness, since the capitalist organization of production appears at the end rather than the be-
ginning of the period. For our practical means, we will use the term mercantile capitalism to
refer to the period between the decline of the feudal mode of production and the consolida-
tion of industrial capitalism; roughly between the 15th and the middle of 18th centuries. In
fact, rather than seeing it as being a period of stabilization of a new order, in our perspective
it is more useful to understand it as a period of transition, of preparation of the forces that
would lead to industrialism (although, clearly, this was not an inevitable result); in other
words, as a period of primitive accumulation. In this period the clear division between capital-
ists and workers, with their respective varieties, took shape. At least five intertwining pro-
cesses must be named: i) the privatization of the land, particularly through the process of
enclosure of communal land; ii) the breaking up of the guild crafts; iii) the fall of the monar-
chic/feudal order; iv) the ascent of instrumental rationalism, especially around modern sci-
ence; v) the emergence of intellectual property laws. Here we can only develop some of the-
se, but the rest must not be overlooked.
The process of privatization of the landthe enclosuresthat began in England between
the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, was focused on the countryside,
and was stimulated (in the case of England) by the blossoming of the wool industry. This
process meant, above all, the eviction of the peasants who were previously relatively inde-
pendent (5). These free peasants in some cases became the agricultural proletariat, rural
workers, employed by the other class that, although it had existed in earlier epochs (Marx,
1909 [1867]), was now gaining strength: that of the landed proprietor, physical capitalists (4)
who organize agricultural production with a view to attaining profit. This whole process, par-
ticularly the equalization of the landowners, was favored, among other factors, by the rela-
tionship between contracts stipulated by long terms (Marx suggests that 99 years was most
common) at fixed prices, the depreciation of goldoccasioned by the arrival of vast quanti-
ties of the metal brought from the Americasand the rise of cereal prices.
Of course, at the root of these expulsions, legal or not, violent or peaceful, lies the ten-
dency of the nobility to became active rentiers, maximizing the profit they could obtain from
their land (7), renting it to the free farmers instead of leaving it in the fallow economic state of
the commons. As is well-known, the landed nobility did not only drag the collectively owned
land into the world of commodities; they appropriated for themselves the land owned by the
church and the monarchy at the same time as these institutions were losing power. Naturally,
this process eroded not only one aspect, but the entire feudal order itself. The relations be-
tween lords and serfs, the organization of mercenary bands, the non-commercial bonds be-
tween subjects, etc., were inexorably dissolving. Regardless, here we are still in a transitional
stagethus the ambiguous term that gives its name to this sector: they still remain the nobili-
ty (we are not yet dealing with subjects that have attained their land in the clamor of the mar-
ket); in the subsequent period they will simply be landowners.
But returning to the peasants freed both from feudal shackles and from the means of pro-
duction, a large bulk of them could not be absorbed by agricultural production. It is precisely
these masses who gave the impetus to capitalist manufacturing as Marx has shown in detail.
That is, manual workers dedicated to more or less basic artisanal activities; but manufactur-
ing workers after all, dependent on the means of production (especially on the raw materials)
belonging to other social subjects: the manufacturing capitalists (4). These are a type of
physical capitalist for the simple reason that their ability to exclude lays in the physical re-
sources, and not in any knowledge they hold. In fact, these capitalists have no reason to
possess any skills relating to the productive process, and in many cases are much more
closely related to the merchant than to the master craftsman. Particularly at the beginning of
the 18th century, these manufacturers assume the initial organization of capitalist production.
They adopt, in general, the putting out system, a system in which workers produce in their
own homes or in workshops without yet being placed under the direct control of the capitalist.
Of course, this source of production contributed to and benefited from the blossoming growth
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of the aforementioned commercial capitalists (4) who handled the buying and reselling of the
manufactured goods. The development of this group is inseparable from a new group of ren-
tiers: the mercantile financiers (a type of financial rentier) (3). This group is so significant that
for some authors (Braudel 1985) it is their emergence that marks the beginning of capitalism.
In any case, the fact of having originated in merchant capital does not impede the class that
gave birth to it from transcending, or from establishing a relationship of control over other
capitalist classes.
However, this is not enough to understand the transformation of classes in this period. On
the one hand, it must be added to the map of knowledge intensive activities, which are usual-
ly urban. Within these, the most notable phenomenon is the progressive breaking up of craft
guild organization. This process becomes effective in the subsequent period, through the
well-known Le Chapelier Law in France (1791) and the Combination Acts in England (1799
1800). What falls apart, of course, is not so much the monopoly over certain knowledge
contrary to capitalist rationalitybut the link, more contradictorily still, between guild masters,
journeymen, and apprentices. The former, and perhaps the second too, established them-
selves as artisanal capitalists. The legal bearers of secret knowledge, possessors of special-
ist skills, they use that ages-old knowledge to set up workshops from which magical com-
modities now flow. In contrast, the old apprentices, but also some day-laborers arrived from
the countryside managed to appropriate certain techniques, becoming artisanal workers (6).
That said however, the form in which the cognitive capitalists became holders knowledge
which they unfairly retained was by means of securing patents, and much later on, of copy-
rights. Actually, in the period between 1474 (The Venetian Patent Act) and 1653 (The Eng-
lish Statute of Monopolies), positive regulations began to take shapeno longer concessions
at the grace of the king, at least in theoryon exclusive and temporally limited rights over
technical knowledge: patents. Starting from 170910 (The Statute of Queen Anne, in Eng-
land) a particular type of intellectual property right over literary works would be defined,
namely copyright.
Therefore, it is important to stress that the process of commodification of the land and
other physical intensive resources takes place simultaneously with that process related to
knowledge. In both cases, capitalist regulation of access appears, setting the boundaries of
inclusions and exclusions. And in both cases these regulations open the way for divisions
between subjects who do and don’t have access to different types of resources. At the same
time, there is another parallelism that contributes to the formation of the physical capitalist
and cognitive capitalist classes: what happens to the monarchy—and to a certain extent to
some of the aristocracywith regard to physical resources, happens to the church with re-
gard to knowledge. From having almost absolute control over these in the previous period,
they now find themselves entangled in a series of battles that, increasingly, end in defeats.
Some of those defeats are a consequence of the Protestant Reformation.28 But the most sig-
nificant are those associated with the rise of modern science, and in a more profound way, of
instrumental rationality. We are not particularly interested here in the content of those scien-
tific advances, but rather the fact that these effectively disputed the church’s privileged claim
to knowledge. The clerical class, as cognitive rentier, was wounded, and its European flock
of faithful souls was proportionally reduced. However, the overseas conquests of the crown
amply compensated for these defeats. Actually, in spite of the loss of the monopoly over
cognitive resources and the emergence of other suppliers to the European market, the con-
tribution of a large volume of “demandersfor Christianity contributed to maintaining the eco-
nomic health of the clerical class.
28 It is significant that one of the factors that precipitated the reform movement was the scandalous
use of the cognitive monopoly: the sale of all kinds of indulgences, privileged seats in the celestial
theatre, and other divine commodities.
223 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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Table 3: Social classes in mercantile capitalism (prepared by the authors)
6. From Industrial Capitalism to Informational Capitalism
The analysis of the development of classes over this extended period requires, at least, a
division. Firstly we will discuss the period between the first industrial revolution and the dis-
semination of Taylorism; a “long 19th century” that runs from approximately the last decades
of the 18th century to the first decades of the 20th. Following this we look at the period from,
approximately, the 1930s until the 1970s.
6.1. The Long 19th Century
Between the end of the 18th century and the first decades of the following century not only did
a whole series of decisive revolutionary events take place, but also the most virulent eco-
nomic transformation that humanity had ever witnessed: the industrial revolution (Hobsbawm
1988). Machines spread, man dominates raw materials and energies, productive processes
are rationalized and the quest for profit plants its flag firmly into every summit. Capital and
labor finished freeing themselves from their feudal ties, and the dichotomization between
these classes becomes hardened. More specifically, industrial capitalism implies, above all,
the antagonism between the industrial capitalists (4) and the industrial workers (8). This
means, in both cases, subjects that profitthe former, or work, the latter, with different levels
of access, and exclusionto physical intensive resources.
Indeed, mechanized industry gradually destroyed in its path all possibility of competition
from those sectors of physical and cognitive capital that didn’t rise on the wave of the mod-
ernization of production, most of all in the urban environment, but also gradually in rural are-
as. So both small manufacturing capitalists, landowners and merchants as well as the small
artisanal capitalists, in sum, the entire group of physical and cognitive capitalists from the
previous stage, who yesterday fought against the feudal fetters, today merged into the great
class of physical (industrial) capitalists. Others perished on the way, becoming a part of dif-
ferent elements of the mass of physical workers, and only some would manage to survive.
Thus, while in the cities the industrial capitalists progressively implemented mechanization
and appropriated a large proportion of available raw materials, in the countryside the agrari-
an physical capitalists had to join the old nobility that acquired the form of modern landowner
(7)rentier par excellence of the current stagefollowing suit by taking for themselves a
good part of the land.
In a parallel way, the industrial working class (8) (Marx 1909 [1867]; Coriat 2001)the
class of physical workersexpands its ranks at the same time as losing the monopoly over a
significant part of its cognitive resources to capital. In fact, the introduction of machinery
means, primarily, the transference and objectification of workers’ knowledge into objects ca-
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pable of being appropriated by capital (Marx 1857/58). As Coriat (2001) states, the manufac-
turing industry inevitably had to make use of people who held knowledge of production in
order, later, to be able to take control of the results. The machine, in contrast, permitted this
link to be skipped, as it imitated and systemizedby plagiarism rather than extraction (Zu-
kerfeld 2010b)—the knowledge of the worker.
In this way, mechanized industry brings with it, on the one hand, the use of an unskilled
labor force, utilizing the incorporation of women and children into the productive processes
“cheap labor” (Marx 1909 [1867], 504)—on the other hand it forces out a section of the labor
force that would go on to form another section of this industrial working class, the so-called
reserve army of labor, that only periodically participates in production.
A description centered on industrial workers must not obscure the fact that ‘physical work-
ers’ includes many workers from the service sectorsthat grow on a daily basis in the tumult
of the large citiessuch as messengers, transport workers, domestic workers and so on, as
well as many others in rural areas. As a group, they all share the fact of working fundamen-
tally based on their physical energy, assisting the knowledge stored up in the machines.
The totality of these movements will have as their result the brutal elimination of the class
of self-employed workers (5), up until now made up of smallholding farmers and the inde-
pendent craftsperson who had survived in the cities. This class of workers is extremely di-
minished in this period and will not swell in size again until well into the next period, principal-
ly with the influx of self-employed professionals.
However, although very inferior quantitatively speaking in this period, new classes of capi-
talists and cognitive workers begin to acquire a new dimension. It is accepted that still, and
up until the second half of the 20th century, regulation of knowledge clearly differentiated be-
tween industrial creationsor economic goods, and artistic and literary spheresor cultural
goods.
In this way, we find, on the one hand, a modest kind of individual inventor connected to
the industrial revolution (2), whose profits were based on the patenting of diverse types of
machinery: James Watt and his steam engine; James Hargreaves and the Spinning Jenny;
Richard Arkwright and the Water Frame; Samuel Crompton and his Spinning Mule are some
examples. It would be years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, where this class would
flourish.
In addition, another group of cognitive capitalist exists (2), dedicated to the artistic or liter-
ary spheres or that of cultural goods in general, incipient information industrialists. In fact
books, newspapers and magazines, but also plays, etc., become a necessity for the cities, at
the same time as the first laws of obligatory primary school education are passed, which little
by little expand the market for the production and consumption of these goods.
Schools and the books that circulated at that time imbued increasingly more social sectors
with varied types of knowledge, not least among them the values and norms of industrial
society (Zukerfeld 2010b). Also the political and administrative classthe Weberian bureau-
craciesteachers, architects and other professionalsworking both for the States and for
capitalist businessesform part of this still nascent cognitariat, a group of intellectual work-
ers (6). This stratum of capitalists and their workers represent a much larger number than the
stratum of inventors, although not more important.
In summary, a group of intellectual workers at the service of a still modest but not incon-
siderable cognitive capital (although also belonging to state organizations) slowly develops
during the period under analysis. By the beginning of the 20th century we will find cognitive
classescapitalists and workersalready well developed.
Finally we must observe the enlargement of the excluded (9) sector. This is fed, in this pe-
riod, by the lowest category in the Marxist reserve army of labor: pauperism. “Pauperism is
the hospital of the active labor-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army”
(Marx 1909 [1867], 707), and is composed of invalids, workers of a non-working age, the
chronically ill, mutilated, etc, in sum, degraded people that, for the most part, have been dis-
missed from their own jobs. In this way pauperism, a typical feature of this epoch, joins the
ranks of the lumpenproletariat of the previous period, which has not disappeared.
225 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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6.2. Maturation and Decomposition of Industrialism in the 20th Century
As we have indicated above, this period begins between the two World Wars and concludes
with the global economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Generally speaking, the so-called Thirty
Glorious Years constituted a period of stabilization of the salaried society, with the hallmark
of the welfare state that, utilizing Keynesian policies, mediates capital-labor relations (Castel
2010; Coriat 2001; Hobsbawm 2011; Offe 1995). Of course, the period continues to be
hegemonized by the industrial capitalists, as a concretion of the physical capitalists (4).
However, it is appropriate here to mention some widely known transformations.
Firstly, in this period, the class of white-collar workers, as a prototype of cognitive workers
(6)technicians, professionals, scientists and administrators, but also politicians, teachers
and workers in the entertainment industrytakes on an unusual quantitative leadership role
(Mills 1969 [1951]; Lipset and Zetterberg 1963; Bell 1973). A significant proportion of them
would find a home, naturally, in the service sector, which grows progressively in this period;
but another, sizeable, portion would locate itself in the industrial sector, in the heart of the
factories, in a context in which access to primary and secondary education continues ex-
panding and in which college and university education begins to take off. This tendency is, in
general terms, shared by all industrialized countries (Meyer and Schofer 2006; Windolf 1992;
Barro 1991). In fact, the children of the working class now find themselves in a position to be
able to abandon the family tradition of manual work, to join the ranks of the cognitive working
class (Castel 2010), which means the shift of a substantial mass of workers from category (8)
to (6).
But, we said, also within the factories. Actually, first Taylorism and then Fordism or the
model of mass production which developed to complement it, had a serious impact on the
productive processes and the nature of work, decreasing the presence of physical or blue
collar workers (8) and increasing that of the cognitive workers (6). In this trajectory, the loss
of the monopoly over productive knowledge that industrial workers had previously held took
shape. Certainly, the scientific organization of labor produces transference of said
knowledge, from the subjectivities of the workers into the codification of corporate property in
procedural manuals. Later the assembly line and the conveyor belt would meanas we had
identified in the case of industrial machinerythe transference of the same to the machines,
imposing a strict working rhythm onto the workers. Thus, while the diversification and in-
creasing complexity of industrial productive processes advanced, work in the factories de-
pended less and less on the physical energies of the workers and increasingly on machines
and the knowledge of cognitive workers.
Secondly, in this period, many workers, above all of the cognitive variety (liberal profes-
sionals, Bell 1973), but alsoalthough to a lesser extentphysical workers (taxi drivers, gas
fitters, etc.), would converge in the class of self-employed workers (5). Although the growth
of this class can be located, primarily, towards the end of the 20th century, we can observe
that in the current period it has begun to slowly expand again.
Thirdly, the excluded (9) class is greatly reduced and re-signified thanks to the aforemen-
tioned welfare state. What we can call the marginalized class persists. The terms “marginal
mass” (Nun 2003) or “marginal pole” (Quijano 1971), although with differences, refer to a
mass of unemployed people who, both in urban and rural areas, seek refuge in subsistence
activities such as waste collection, street selling etc. All are precarious activities that require
only a negligible level of access to PIR and KIR, but that actually experience certain con-
tainment by the State (Castel 2010).
Fourthly, the cognitive capitalist class (2), as in the previous period, is still constituted by
capitalists who profit from two different kinds of knowledge: those who profit from knowledge
with an industrial application, and those who profit from artistic or literary works. The former
and the latter, the stratum of inventors and individual authors identified previously, start to
grow as corporate actors and to invest an ever increasing quantity of resources (in their R&D
departments in the case of the former, see Drahos and Braithwaite 2004).
tripleC 14(1): 208231, 2016 226
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Thus, on one side the industry of radio, music, books, cinema and television, reaching
mass audiences by the end of the period, ascends vertiginously. On the other, the chemical
(with its diverse facets) and pharmaceutical industries boom as well.
Next, it should be noted that in this period, many of the aforementioned cognitive capital-
ists incrementally start to position themselves as the pure capitalist class (1) that is as cogni-
tive and physical capitalists combined. The Ford Motor Company for example, starts to have
its physical assets closely connected to the ownership of industrial property rights: brands,
designs, patents. Or AT&T industries that on one side is based on an enormous quantity of
patents and rights over telecommunications, and on the other on USD $5 billion worth of
physical resources, and was the most capitalized company in the world in the 1930s (Johns
2009, 405412).
Finally, in this period there is a development of the two types of rentier that merit a more
detailed analysis than we will give here. Paradoxically, the most pertinent aspect is that they
merge and to a certain extent become part of the same class, the analog financial rentiers (3
and 7). That means, the financialization of the economy by means of the mass expansion of
shares, government bonds and other financial instruments, partially dilutes their origin of the
assets. In the secondary market, the holders of these instruments don’t differentiate if their
rights pertain to cinematographic works or mineral resources. We label them with the adjec-
tive “analog” to highlight that their operations depend on technologies of processing and stor-
ing information of the following type: the telegraph and the telephone, paper and the type-
writer, the pen and the banknote. This, of course, will change in the subsequent period.
7. Social Classes in Informational Capitalism
This section covers a period that begins halfway through the 1970s and takes us up to the
present day.
The first classes that concern us here are, naturally, the cognitive workers and capitalists.
These take the specific form of informational workers and capitalists (6 and 2). What do we
mean when we refer to informational work? An activity in which the worker has a PC, Tablet,
Netbookor something similaras a principal work tool and whose principal output in the
productive process is an informational good that basically produces digital information (Zu-
kerfeld 2013). Informational work has been measured particularly in the USA and it has been
found that at the beginning of the millennium it already occupied the greater part of the work
force (Apte and Nath 2007; Wolf 2006). Definitively, in its activity, access to physical owner-
ship over the productive resource par excellence (digital technologies, with falling prices for a
constant capacity) doesn’t carry great costs or importance, except for their own cognitive
resources applied during the productive process and now objectified in an informational
good, regulated fundamentally by intellectual property.
An important point in relation to this type of workerand that is related, among other
things, to the ambivalence of their main instrument of laboris that their cognitive resources,
in contrast with the previous stage, aren’t necessarily acquired in formal institutions, or ra-
ther, that these skilled workers don’t necessarily have formal qualifications. The instrument of
labor itself is a powerful tool for the incorporation of informal knowledge (through tutorials,
videos, forums, etc.) In the same way, the previously mentioned ambivalence of this tool is
manifested in its potential to construct networks of recognition, or social capital in Bourdieu’s
terminology (1985). At the same time, it is important to note thatunlike the workers of the
previous stage, liberal professionals and physical workers in the service sectors
informational workers have a smooth path to freelance work (5). Certainly, the falling prices
of the means of production such as the computer, is a defining factor. But not only that: the
infrastructure that an informational worker requires (space, energy, devices of a different
nature like modems, telephones, etc.) is easily assimilated into either the domestic environ-
ment itself or a less costly (in relative terms) space. Naturally, the conditions of the infrastruc-
ture, although in different proportions, are also modified in the case of companies.
In the capitalist sphere, the most profitable economic activities are concentrated in the ex-
clusive form of intellectual property, but in addition, these are the most diverse: the pharma-
227 Mariano Zukerfeld and Guillermina Yansen
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ceutical and biotechnology industry, the audiovisual and music content industry, software
production and informatics services; all these productive areas come together in the stratum
of informational capitalist (2), that is constituted as a hegemonic fraction of capital during this
period. Said heterogeneity and unity corresponds, naturally, to the marriage that the institu-
tion of intellectual property had managed to consummate between knowledge with an indus-
trial or technological application and artistic knowledge, that up until the decade of the 70s
had not combined. Indeed, just as the access to goods regulated by private property loses
significance in the face of access to knowledge for the informational worker, this type of capi-
talist is not concerned with monopolizing physical intensive resources, but rather, and above
all, cognitive intensive resources. In this regard, Nike is a good example, not owning “a single
factory, or machinery, equipment or real estate property” but only intellectual property (Rifkin
2000, 32).
That said, if a company like Nike represents the ideal type of informational capitalist, the
case of the Ford Motor Company represents the ideal type of pure capitalist (1). Indeed, a
significant layer of capitalists base their profits on patents, or more generically, on intellectual
property rights over their products or parts of them and, at the same time, on the sale of the-
se articles. So it is that Ford (but also Sony and others) own both factories and R&D labora-
tories. A particular characteristic that capitalists assume in this period is that if, to some de-
gree, they need the industrial workers, they have a much greater need for the informational
worker, and consequently their research departments. In fact, the product lifecycle is an im-
portant factor: the profits of these capitalists come much more from new and innovative
products than from the prolonged sale of a standardized product.
The quantitative growth of informational workers takes place in a simultaneousand
complementaryway alongside the quantitative growth of physical workers, particularly a
fraction of precarious manual workers (8) and the excluded (9), radically increasing the polar-
ization between these classes (Castells 1999; Rifkin 2000; Zukerfeld 2010a; Fuchs and
Sandoval 2014). The well-known fact that Nike´s subcontractors utilize child and semi-slave
labor to lower their costs points to this relationship between, informational capitalists and
workers on the one hand and precarious manual workers, on the other (Rifkin 2000, 75). This
is a stratum of “vulnerablephysical workers (Castel 2010) concentrated in the marginal ele-
ments of the productive processes, although not completely excluded from them. In contrast,
the excluded (8) (Castel 2010; Nun 2003), in the present stage take the concrete form of the
chronically unemployed and structurally impoverished. This social class, unlike the vulnera-
ble group, “are superfluous, they are not needed” (Nun 2003), but they also manifest an unu-
sual quantitative explosion (Castells 1999). Naturally, the watershed between these two
classes is very diffuse. Although nation states in different locations and decades adopt vary-
ing attitudes regarding these sectors, the most pertinent difference compared with the previ-
ous period is that the capitalist productive processes make do without them. Thus, whether
we’re dealing with subsidized poor or those completely without assistance, the productive
apparatus experiences them more as a dead weight than as a source of energy.
Lastly, it remains to emphasize that digitalization increases global integration of the cogni-
tive and physical rentiers, between sectors and nations. No longer are there analog rentiers,
but rather digital rentiers who deal in informational goods. Of course, the possibilities of an
acceleration of the monetary multiplier which digital technologies bring are huge, and en-
courages “rentierism” to move rapidly from one productive sector to another.
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Access to Physical Intensive Resources
Exclusive
Non-exclusive
No access
Access to
Knowledge
Intensive Re-
sources
Exclusive
1.Capitalists
2. Informational
Capitalists
3. Digital
Rentiers
Non-
exclusive
4. Industrial
Capitalists
5. Self-
employed
(Informational
and not)
6. Informa-
tional Workers
No
access
7. Digital
Rentiers
8. Precarious
Manual Work-
ers
9.Excluded
Table 4: Social classes in informational capitalism (prepared by the authors)
8. Conclusions
This paper has attempted to put into motion a series of new categories. Here at the end of
our trajectory we consider it appropriate to point out some of its limitations. Indeed, to be able
to give an account of the historical and conceptual exercise which we have attempted, we
have evaded a whole series of important debates. For example, we did not engage with oth-
er theories about class and we only mentioned in a very incomplete way which ideas we
have borrowed from those theories and which not. We have not included any a review of the
literature about social stratification and our historical references have been brief, simplistic
and overly accommodating. Likewise, we have avoided the issue of exploitation, its different
kinds according to cognitive materialism and its links with social classes. With these and oth-
er issues we have treated certain questions as axiomatic when in fact they should instead
have been presented as hypotheses, given that they are open to many alternative perspec-
tives. However, this has been a consequence of choice rather than absolute necessity. We
do not abnegate the task of engaging in quotations, interpretations and research critiques; in
fact it is an activity that we do occasionally practice and that we will return to in some future,
more extended, version of this paper. Nevertheless, in this instance we preferred to concen-
trate on outlining a proposal, rather than tracing the divisions and contours of the arguments
proffered by others. A proposal that, with all its limitations, seems applicable to different his-
torical situations. Whether it is able to do so effectively is for the readers of this paperand
future, more specific papersto judge.
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About the Author
Mariano Zukerfeld
Mariano Zukerfeld is a CONICET researcher, Doctor of Social Sciences (FLACSO), Master of Political
Science and Sociology (FLACSO) and Bachelor of Sociology (UBA). He is the assistant lecturer on
the Informatics and Social Relations program in the Faculty of Social Sciences, UBA and head lecturer
on the Master’s in Science, Technology and Society (UNQ) and the Master’s in Intellectual Property
(FLACSO). He currently coordinates the Team for Studies on Technology, Capitalism and Society (e-
TCS) in the Centre for Science, Technology and Society (CCTS). Centro Ciencia, Tecnología y
Sociedad (CCTS), Universidad Maimónides. Valentín Virasoro 732 (C1405BDB), Ciudad Autónoma
de Buenos Aires.
GuillerminaYansen
Guillermina Yansen has been a CLACSO grant-holder and is currently a doctoral fellow with CO-
NICET. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology (UBA) and a Master’s degree at FLACSO Argenti-
na. She teaches Informatics Social Relations and Sociological Theory in the Faculty of Social Scienc-
es at the UBA. She is a member of the e-TCS team, as well as various research projects at the Uni-
versity of Buenos Aires. Centro Ciencia, Tecnología y Sociedad (CCTS), Universidad Maimónides.
Valentín Virasoro 732 (C1405BDB), Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires.
... Puntualmente en el campo de la producción musical, el continuo abaratamiento de las tecnologías digitales permite a los músicos hacerse de los medios de producción, que por sus costos solo estaban hasta hace tres décadas atrás al alcance de empresas discográficas y/o de grabación sonora. Esto implica una serie de novedosas formas de trabajo a través de tecnologías digitales en relación con varios aspectos, que desdibujan la línea divisoria entre, el músico como trabajador informacional o como "cuentapropista" emprendedor, (Quiña, 2018;Zukerfeld y Yansen, 2016), el músico amateur y el profesional, en especial gracias al uso de estudios caseros y de tecnologías digitales hogareñas (Woodside y Jiménez, 2012). ...
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El objetivo del siguiente trabajo consiste en analizar el proceso de estetización de los valores de uso en la cultura de consumo contemporánea. Para ello toma como punto de partida la discusión sobre la globalización cultural para determinar el carácter específico que adquiere la estética mercantil bajo las nuevas condiciones de reproductibilidad digital. Para ello se van a discutir tres grandes cuestiones. En primer lugar, el carácter específico del proceso de estetización actual que contrasta con las manifestaciones del estilo que han aparecido con anterioridad; en segundo término, la relación existente entre el proceso de desterritorialización digital en el capitalismo tardío junto con la aparición de una estética mercantil globalizada. Para terminar, por último, con un análisis sobre la influencia sobre los objetos de consumo derivadas del mundo digital a partir del caso de dos plataformas virtuales como Airbnb e Instagram.
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