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As the veneer of democracy starts to fade…

on Paolo Virno

Paolo Virno offers a curious diagnosis of the times. In A Grammar of the Multitude (Semiotext(e), 2004), he writes of the communism of capital. It’s a thought that has some pedigree in Marx, who made a similar observation in his own time about the formation of the joint-stock company, which was capital’s way of pooling resources and escaping the confines of a narrow form of private property. The crisis of the thirties led to an analogous socialism of capital, with its hybrids of state and monopoly control.

One could see the recent struggles over the European Union, global trade agreements or the transnational mega-corporation as having a similar paradoxical quality. It takes an awful lot of communism to keep forms of private property, exploitation and accumulation afloat. This time the form of communism is rather different to the 1930s, less about hegemony and the state.

There is a quite conventional understanding of the current mode of production in Virno. He calls it post-Fordism. Like Antonio Negri, he sees its rise through his own experience in Italy as a left militant of the sixties and seventies, activity for which he was imprisoned. He sees the radical refusal of work characteristic of Italian workerist politics of the seventies as a precursor to the form labor takes today. Just as the commodification of agriculture produced vagabonds and highwaymen before it produced the urban, industrial working class, so too post-Fordism first produced the ‘metropolitans’, indifferent to factory labor, tinkering with new communication technologies and forms of urban existence outside the steady life of shift work. Unlike Angela McRobbie, he offers a somewhat masculinist take on this refusal, but it was nevertheless a real one.

Drawing on Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’, Virno thinks there is finally a “surpassing of the society of labor” (GM101) Virno: “Marx upholds a thesis that is hardly Marxist: abstract knowledge – scientific knowledge, first and foremost, but not only that – moves towards becoming nothing less than the principal productive force.” (GM100) In post-Fordism, there is a contradiction between production that draws on qualitative, creative knowledge yet which is still measuring everything in labor time units. Labor time no longer works as a measure, not least because of hidden, unpaid labor on which it depends.

For Marx, the general intellect was congealed into fixed capital, machinery and so forth, but for Virno it is living labor, also known as the mass intellectual (as in Berardi), or the multitude. The multitude is then addressed via the themes of the stranger, linguistic commonplaces, the publicness of the intellect, virtuosity of performance, individuation, biopolitics as labor power, opportunism and idle talk.

A multitude is not a people, meaning it is a plurality which doesn’t become a unity. The state creates a people as one, whereas the multitude was what Hobbes thought of more as a state of nature. (More on that later.) Before the state is the multitude; after the state there is the people as one. “It is a negative concept this multitude: it is that which did not make itself fit to become a people.” (GM23) The coherence of the multitude comes from the communal faculties of language and intellect, of generic shared experience.

Virno takes three approaches to the multitude, the first of which is from the point of view of fear and anguish. Security from fear is in the hands of a community; security from anguish can only be the province of a religion. Fear is relative, but anguish is absolute. But the divide between them has eroded. The state no longer provides comfort from dread. The unity of a people is bounded by fear and a state can secure them against that fear. The multitude lacks this division between an inside and an outside. The multitude is never at home, is always a stranger, even if there remains a “dangerous search for protection.” (GM35)

The multitude has its home in the commonplaces of language, such as the rhetorical figures of more-and-less, of opposites, or of reciprocity. The special places of discourse are perishing, leaving only the commonplaces. The feeling of homelessness and reliance on commonplaces go together. We are now always exposed to the world in its totality. We are all strangers.

The intellect is most often thought of as a private or individual capacity. Virno: “only one thinker takes exception to this long tradition according to which the ‘life of the mind’ is resistant to publicness; in several pages of Marx we see the intellect being presented as something exterior and collective, as a public good…. Marx speaks of a general intellect…” (GM37) Where for others the intellect belongs to solitary figure, a stranger to the community, the general intellect is a public of strangers.  “The multitude of those ‘without a home’ places its trust in the intellect, in the ‘common places’: in its own way, then, it is a multitude of thinkers (even if these thinkers have only an elementary school education and never read a book, not even under torture.)” (GM39)

The public life of the general intellect is far from utopian. Virno: “… if the publicness of the intellect does not yield to the realm of a public sphere, of a political space in which the many can tend to common affairs, then it produces terrifying effects. A publicness without a public sphere: here is the negative side – the evil, if you wish – of the experience of the multitude.” (GM40)

Contra Azuma, the multitude does not converge into a general will because it is already a general intellect. The generic cognitive and linguistic talents of the multitude are deployed within production and don’t become a public sphere or political community. The multitude surfaces both in post-Fordist production and the crisis of the state. “So then, the contemporary working class, the current subordinate labor-power and its cognitive-linguistic collaboration, bear the traits of the multitude, rather than of the people. However, this multitude no longer assumes the ‘popular’ vocation to state-ness.” (GM45) Drawing on Marx’s remarks about the workers of the American west in Capital ch. 33, the instinctive politics of the multitude is exodus from the institutions of the state.

A second way to see the multitude is as a break-down of the differences between labor (poesis), politics (praxis) and intellect. Labor is an organic exchange with nature that produces something. Politics is between social actors, not natural materials, and its result is not external to it. Post-Fordist labor absorbs attributes of politics, becoming a fusion of politics and labor. There is already too much politics in post-Fordist labor, the multitude doesn’t need any more: “political action now seems, in a disastrous way, like some superfluous duplication of the experience of labor… Politics offers a network of communication and a cognitive content of a more wretched variety than what is carried out in the current productive process.” (GM51)

Virtuosity is activity that finds its purpose in itself without settling into a finished product. It is also activity that requires the presence of other for a performance. Post-Fordist labor becomes like the virtuoso performance, which is already like politics, in being public and lacking a goal outside of itself: “all virtuosity is intrinsically political.” (GM53) The split between politics and labor falls apart. As in Hito Steyerl, post-Fordist productive labor becomes something akin to performance art.

The culture industry provided the model for post-Fordism. “Vituosity becomes labor for the masses with the onset of a culture industry.” (GM56) Where the peasant moves slowly; the worker quickly; in the cultural industry they wander. There’s no visible production of goods that can be measured. Virno: “while the material production of objects is delegated to an automated system of machines, the services rendered by living labor, instead, resemble linguistic-virtuosic services more and more…. Within the culture industry, even in its archaic incarnation examined by Benjamin and Adorno, one can grasp early signs of a mode of production which later, in the post-fordist era, becomes generalized and elevated to the rank of canon.” (GM58)

What Raymond Williams would have called residual forms of culture turned out to have emergent possibilities. “Capitalism… shows that it can mechanize and parcelize even its spiritual production, exactly as it has done with agriculture and the processing of metals. Serialization, insignificance of individual tasks, the econometrics of feelings, these are the recurrent refrains. Evidently, this critical approach allowed, in the peculiar case of the culture industry, for the continuation of some elements which resist complete assimilation to the Fordist organization of the labor process.” (GM59) Which then become the basis of post-Fordism.

Virno has an interesting take on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. “The spectacle, according to Debord, reveals what women and men can do. While money mirrors in itself the value of commodities, thus showing what society has already produced, the spectacle exposes in a separate form that which the aggregate of society can be and do.” (GM61) It contains and displays its conditions of possibility as well as its negation.

The spectacle, Virno says, “is human communication that has become a commodity… Thus, the spectacle has a double nature: a specific product of a particular industry, but also, at the same time, the quintessence of the mode of production in its entirety…What presents the spectacle, so to speak, are the productive forces themselves of society as they overlap, in ever greater measure, with linguistic-communicative competencies and with the general intellect.” (GM60) The culture industry is the industry of the means of production. “The culture industry produces (regenerates, experiments with) communicative procedures, which are then destined to function also as means of production in the more traditional sectors of our contemporary economy.” (GM61)

In post-Fordism, worker’s knowledge is actively sought rather than repressed. “By general intellect, Marx means science…” (GM64) But Virno pays attention to only one of the senses in which Marx thought science was becoming the driver of production. For Virno it is all about social cooperation, leaving out Marx’s insight into the increasing role of the natural sciences.

Production now depends on a hybrid of the spheres of labor, praxis and intellect. Intellect becomes a productive force and becomes public; labor becomes virtuoso and political. Virno is more interested in general intellect incarnated in living labor rather than “cast in iron.” (GM65) General intellect is not congealed in fixed capital but is elaborating itself in communicative action. The general intellect as the faculty of speech as such, not particular speech acts. It is a virtuosity without a script, a pure potential.

Trapped within the wage relation, the general intellect nevertheless exhibits certain pathologies. “The crucial question goes like this: is it possible to split that which today is united, that is, the Intellect (the general intellect) and (wage) Labor, and to unite that which today is divided, that is Intellect and political Action?… Rescuing political action from its current paralysis is no different from developing the publicness of the Intellect outside the realm of wage Labor, in opposition to it.” (GM68) Could there be a non-state, non-laboring, non-representative public sphere as an expression of the multitude? Could there be a transition from a servile to republican virtuosity, via civil disobedience, flight, exit, exodus?

In the spirit of Adorno and the Frankfurt school, it is often imagined that unhappiness and insecurity result from the alienation of the individual from a world of mass production and domination. Virno follows Gilbert Simondon in thinking of the collective as the condition of possibility for individuation, rather than its negation. Simondon draws attention to the pre-individual qualities of perception and language, to which Virno adds the prevailing relations of production. The interest here is not individuals, as if those always and already existed, but individuation. This is a process of subject-formation that is never complete. The relation between the pre-individual and individuation is an affective one. Both dread and panic are manifestations of its incompleteness, being respectively the fear of an I without a world and the anguish of a world without an I.

Oddly enough, it is by participating in the collective that the subject has the possibility of individuating. But for the multitude, the collective is not the site of the general will, but rather of the general intellect. The question is thus one of creating forms of post-political, non-representative democracy outside of the state. These emerge historically in post-Fordism, but may draw on deeper capacities of our species-being to individuate within, rather than against, the collective. “The ’many’ persevere as ‘many’ without aspiring to the unity of the state because: 1. As individuated singularities they have already left behind the unity/universality intrinsic to the diverse species of the pre-individual; 2. Through their collective action they underscore and further the process of individuation.” (GM80)

What Marx called the social individual is the multitude, made of language, of social cooperation. “It may seem paradoxical, but I believe that Marx’s theory could (or rather should) be understood, today, as a realistic and complex theory of the individual, as a rigorous individualism: thus, a theory of individuation.” (GM80-81) The question of biopolitics is thus for Virno all about labor power, as a generic potential to produce. “Only in today’s world, in a post-Fordist era, is the reality of labor-power fully up to the task of realizing itself.” (GM81)

Labor power is an unreal potential which is at the same time bought as a commodity. Labor power is a commonplace, not a proper noun. “Life lies at the center of politics where the prize to be won is immaterial (and in itself non-present) labor-power. For this reason, and this reason alone, it is legitimate to talk about ‘ bio-politics’. The living body which is a concern of the administrative apparatus of the State, is the tangible sign of a yet unrealized potential, the semblance of labor not yet objectified; as Marx says eloquently, of ‘labor as subjectivity.’” (GM83)

But under wage-labor, nihilism has entered production. It is no longer a question of modernization producing rootlessness, contingency, uncertainty, anomie as side effects of a rational core. Rather, productive activity uses those very effects as resources. “Nihilism, once hidden in the shadow of technical-productive power, becomes a fundamental ingredient of that power, a quality highly prized by the marketplace of labor.” (GM86) The result is the affective prevalence of opportunism and cynicism. The post-Fordist worker moves from one thing to another; negotiating rules of the game, responding to rules not facts. Money makes these things equivalent; the general intellect is always something else. It is a qualitative potential that forms the basis of all production.

This points to an intriguing revaluation of what for Heidegger was the idle talk of the inauthentic life, where the ‘one’ dominates, which Virno reads as the sphere of Simondon’s pre-individual. Where for Heidegger, idle talk deflects from the real task, for Virno, “this same lack of foundation authorizes invention and the experimentation of new discourse at every moment.” (GM90) Idle talk is performative and connected to curiosity, that perverse form of the love of knowledge. In curiosity, the senses usurp the place of thought, but for Virno as in Walter Benjamin this is an opportunity to expand human sensory capacities, distraction as means of scanning an artificial experience.

In a stunning expansion on his theme, Virno concludes that: “In the multitude there is a full historical, phenomenological, empirical display of the ontological condition of the human animal: biological artlessness, the indefinite or potential character of its existence, lack of a determined environment, the linguistic intellect as ‘compensation’ for the shortage of specialized instincts. It is as if the root had risen to the surface.” (GM98) This repetition of the natural in the historical is a theme taken up more fully by Virno elsewhere.

In Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (Semiotext(e), 2008), Virno touches on a famous (non) debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky on the question of a human nature. Virno does not share Chomsky’s optimism about the political consequences of the human animal’s innate linguistic capability. Rather, he stresses the instability of the human, its evil. But interestingly, this very instability does not imply the need for the state. On the contrary, criticism of state sovereignty has to rest on a frank understanding of the human as evil by nature, but where evil means the lack of specific habitat and living in culture as nature.

Our species-being is defined by the openness of the faculty for language. For Virno, language is marked by three properties: negativity, possibility and infinity. Negation leads to separation: you are not one of us, and thence a diminution of empathy. Possibility leads to excess and indeterminacy, things could always be otherwise. Infinity leads to an opening to the world and its incompleteness, thence to boredom. Language does not mitigate aggression. All three of these qualities of language can make it worse.

Humans are dangerous by nature because they can change their actions and habits. Both evil and virtue stem from the same deficit of instinct. Virno: “… truly radical evil, irrepressible and lacerating, is precisely and solely the evil that shares the same root as the good life.” (MB21) To give just one example: negation leads to difference: you are not one of us. But then the public sphere could negate that negation: you are not one of us, but difference could be the principle of togetherness. Useful institutions don’t repress or deny this indeterminacy of our species-being as language animal.

The institutions of the state are in decline. The problem is to exit from them and build others. Virno deploys what will turn out to be a non-dialectical understanding of the negative: figured as ambivalence, oscillation and perturbation, to find a path between the openness of species-being and the contingencies of the post-Fordist moment. “In what way can excessive drive and the opening to the world serve as a political antidote to the poisons that they secrete?” (MB24)

Why should anyone obey an institution anyway? Virno finds Hobbes somewhat paradoxical on this point. In Hobbes, the obligation to obey is both cause and effect of the state. Hobbes’ state of nature is one of pre-linguistic drives; for Virno, nature includes language. Whereas for Hobbes natural law is retrospective, an effect of the state; in Virno, language is natural and has its own tendencies to regulation. Hobbes’ civil state acts as protection from fear, but becomes a pseudo-environment. The connection between drives and language is hidden in Hobbes’ concepts of both nature and state. The articulation of drives with language is for Virno both natural and political.

The multitude is anti-state and hence a non-people, in that the people is what a state produces, then claims after the fact as its legitimating point of origin. The fragility of the state reveals itself in the state of exception, the crisis moment that breaches its pseudo-environment and restores an opening to the world. For Chantal Mouffe and other thinkers of the political as necessarily leading to the state, the state of exception is a moment of fear, where the unruly multitude reappears as natural disorder and drive. For Hobbes, there is no rule before the imposition of the state. Virno draws rather on Wittgenstein, for whom there are habits and regularities in the performance of language and the application of rules already, prior to the state. Rules don’t have rules for their application, or for the application of that application, and so on to infinity. There is always something other, and prior, to the rule.

Hobbes based obedience on overcoming a state of nature; Wittgenstein posits a preliminary regularity rooted in the characteristics of the language animal: questioning, answering, negating, postulating, thanking, hating, praying. Virno: “… the concept of regularity indicates the threshold at which language grafts itself repeatedly onto pre-linguistic drives and reorganizes them profoundly… Far from anchoring the application of the rules to the exit from the state of nature, Wittgenstein places natural life at the very heart of historically determined institutions.” (MB34)

The prize here is a theory of the institution without the state and its sovereignty, but one which does not duck the question of aggression by claiming a benign state of human nature. For Virno there are already, in the nature of our species-being as language-animals, forms of regularity about the application of rules to cases. This might matter if the post-Fordist era is indeed one of a permanent state of exception, even if it appears as an era in which states become hyper-aggressive and vigilant as a result of their crisis.

The crisis of the state comes from an inability to sustain a separate pseudo-environment of political rules apart from regularities. “Regularity, which the institutions of the exodus metabolize, is ambivalent, even perturbing: the opening to the world, negation, the modality of the possible, present themselves, at one and the same time, both as maximum danger and as an authentic resource for warding off evil.” (MB38) Rule, against the background of regularity, as both instrument and object of control, is the political equivalent of the linguistic animal: “Sometimes aggressive, sometimes united, prone to intelligent cooperation, but also to the war between factions, being both the poison and the antidote: such is the multitude.” (MB40)

In the post-Fordist era, coherence of the multitude is not the unity of the state, but rather than of the trans-individual of Simondon and the general intellect of Marx. The multitude needs worldly institutions that metabolize ambivalence and oscillation rather than unilateral decision. It needs institutions that don’t make a pseudo-environment but are open to the world. Institutions that might restrain evil rather than exacerbate it, or imagine they can expel it.

Language is a pure institution that renders all other institutions possible. Language is both more natural and more historical than all other institutions. It is insubstantial, has no positive reality to language, and is a field of negations. Could there be, based on language, a “…non-representative, insubstantial, Republic based upon differences and differences between differences?” (MB51)

The form such an institution might take is a ritual form. Ritual has to restrain two extremes: acts without power and power without acts. Ritual has to deal with deficits or excesses of meaning. Ritual is a way of resisting chaos by adhering to it. This might be something like the binding property of the institutions of religion. It might be something like the immunity that Robert Esposito

writes about, which restrains evil but does not claim it can defeat it. There’s no anti-Christ, but no Messiah either. But this means (a theme found also in Donna Haraway) living without innocence. There’s no pure state to achieve or return to. Rather it is a safeguarding of oscillation between regularity without rules (nature) and rules without regularity (state).

Such institutions might deploy the powers of negativity, possibility and infinity that are attributes of the language-faculty of our species-being. From negation comes the negation of the negation, civil society, or the embrace of the stranger. From possibility comes not only the delirium of what might be, but also the tempering talk of what might not be. From the infinite comes not only the absolute but ambivalence toward repetition without end. The problem with the state is that its claim to sovereignty creates a pseudo-environment that closes openness to the world.

This is I think already a powerful line of argument, deepened even further in When the Word Becomes Flesh (Semiotext(e) 2015) and Déjà Vu and the End of History (Verso 2015). There, Virno unfolds a view of our species-being as a language animal and memory animal, able to see and know the ontological conditions of possibility for the faculties of acting and speaking in the world alongside particular acts and statements. It becomes a rather unique philosophy of natural history.

Here I would like to just mention some caveats. Firstly, it seems rather old fashioned to speak only of the human and not the multi-species muddle we actually exist in and as. And rather than language I would prefer to open up some other categories that define the human as indefinable, whether it be play (Huizinga), ornament (Jorn), or the passions (Fourier). Moreover in its lack of definition, the human might not be a unique species, but one of many that plays and is open to the world. That world might be less eternal and unchanging were Virno to think about natural history a bit more broadly than Chomsky naturalistic materialism of a universal grammar. The Anthropocene makes even nature historical and temporary.

Secondly, one might ask if post-Fordism is much of a way of defining the present moment. It might be less Adorno’s first-hand discovery of the culture industry and more JD Bernal’s first-hand discovery of the application of science to production that is the fulcrum moment of the mid twentieth century. The world of the contemporary media and its idle talk grows more out of the latter than the former. The state may be in crisis more because of a technical infrastructure that assumes some of its functions than because of language-based labor. That language-based labor is more an exceptional experience of the over-developed world than a general characteristic. One might also question the fetish of living labor in workerist thought, and ask whether ritual also calls for an embrace of dead labor. But this would mean thinking a bit more about labor. For Virno, intellectual labor, with no end product, “places Marx in an embarrassing situation.” (GM54) But only if one thinks it as still the product of the worker rather than the hacker. The former walks fast, while the latter wanders, remember. That might be a different relation to production and property altogether.

All the same, Virno’s project of bringing together a conceptual matrix appropriate to the historical moment and which has a speculative grasp on its natural conditions of existence seems like a very timely one as the veneer of democracy starts to fade.

McKenzie Wark

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