He's Not Beyond Good and Evil

By Nina Power, 9 October 2008
Image: Theo Michael, The Animal in Capitalism, 2009

Paolo Virno’s latest book contends that the question of human nature – good or evil? – is suddenly topical, thanks to ‘immaterial labour’. But, if true, how useful is this insight?, asks Nina Power

Seen from a certain angle, the history of political theory is always, and at the same time, a set of claims about human nature. For several decades, however, on each side of the political spectrum, the tendency has been to worry that the very concept is a limitation at best and a mistake at worst – isn’t the image of man the very thing that prevents us from thinking properly about structure or process? Didn’t Marx only really start talking about capitalism once he’d shrugged off the humanist idealisms of his youth? ‘Human nature’ seems a clumsy, old fashioned thing, redolent of outdated philosophies and dubious biology.

Paolo Virno, arguably one of the finest thinkers to emerge out of Italian postworkerism, begs to differ, however, in several rather ingenious ways, linking current research on mirror neurons to Aristotle’s theses on praxis, Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule following to Freud’s writings on jokes. But this is no happy account of the curious little wordy biped. On the contrary, for Virno, Homo sapiens is, if anything, constituted entirely negatively: ‘the animal whose life is characterised by negation, by the modality of the possible, by regression to the infinite’ (p.18). Against the phenomenological idea of the world as a kind of background and source for all our other possibilities, Virno understands the world as a space of natural conflict, a source of perpetual confusion and a constitutive disorientation. If we are to return to a kind of natural political theory, Virno would want us to understand that this is, above all, an unhappy naturalism.

In an article from the first issue of the Italian journal he co-founded in 2004, Forme di Vita, Virno states that:

the content of the global movement which ever since the Seattle revolt has occupied (and redefined) the public sphere is nothing less than human nature.i

In the first section of Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, he similarly reminds us that:

it is not wise to turn one’s philosophically sophisticated little nose in the face of the crude choice between: ‘man is by nature good’, and ‘man is by nature bad’.

It is not, then, in the false choice between Hobbes’ Homo Homini Lupus Est (‘man is a wolf to his fellow man’) and an optimistic Rousseauean romanticism that the space of politics lies, but in the ‘problematic’ temperament of the human animal that is, according to Virno, potentially always ‘evil’. Virno turns the questions of classical conservatism into the blueprint for a post-Marxism which understands that the global struggle is motivated by ethics as much as exploitation, by the search for the good life as much as the struggle against bosses.

Unlike the more opaque pronouncements of A Grammar of the Multitude, also published in English in 2008, it is in the Forme di Vita piece that Virno lays out the explicit stakes of his political project. The distinguishing trait of the movement is

the extremely tight entanglement between ‘always already’ (human nature) and the ‘just now’ (the bio-linguistic capitalism which has followed Fordism and Taylorism).ii

This, in a nutshell, is Virno’s wager – that it is only now, when the differential traits of the species (i.e., that which separates us from other animals, namely verbal thought, the transindividual character of the mind, neoteny, the lack of specialised instincts) are the ‘raw material’ of capitalist organisation, that we can return again to the question of a politics of human nature. Thus the problem of the ‘natural’ emerges contingently, that is, at a certain historical moment, yet as if for the first time. Virno reminds us of Marx’s claim from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

It can be seen how the history of industry and the objective existence of industry as it has developed is the open book of the essential powers of man, man’s psychology is present in tangible form.iii

But the difficulty here for Virno is identifying the cracks in the edifice – what separates the exploitation of human capacities under ‘biolinguistic capitalism’ the resistance to such forms of exploitation? Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s rather formalistic apparatus in Empire involves a kind of flipping of the switch; if only the multitude could just appropriate their currently exploited cooperative potential, everything would be just as it is, yet, at the same time, completely transformed. Virno’s take on the concept of the multitude is subtler, though rather minimal given the title. Presumably the concept sat well with the marketing department.

Theo Michael images for nina power

Image: Theo Michael, Abstract Evil, 2009

The contemporary multitude is, then, perhaps the first truly historico-natural being. Or is it? The idea that bio-linguistic capitalism is all that new or all that paradigmatic has been contested in several ways. Firstly by those who argue that immaterial labour still represents only a small portion of total labour, and secondly, by those who argue that the distinction between material and immaterial labour has never been all that clear (and furthermore that the old Taylorist idea that ‘you are not paid to think’ is far more characteristic of most contemporary labour, immaterial or otherwise, than any exploitation of fundamental human capacities). Steve Wright, among others, has further pointed out that ‘affective’ labour – denoting those jobs that directly involve care, compassion and kindness (or at least their simulacra), from housework to reproduction to the sex industry – have long accompanied and indeed made possible the labour we associate with more manly, ‘proper’ work.iv The so-called ‘feminisation of labour’ (the increased participation of women, the centralising of those affects associated with ‘women’s work’) might be a kind of belated recognition of certain labour processes that have been going on for a very long time indeed, not to mention the way in which women’s relation to the job market has historically tended to operate. As Silvia Federici notes, simply, ‘women always had a precarious relation to waged labor’.v

Nevertheless, let’s accept for the time being that Virno is onto something, that the multitude

exhibits, in its very mode of being, the peculiar historical situation in which all the distinctive traits of human nature have earned an immediate political relevance. (p.64)

Thus political anthropology takes the place of class struggle by conceding that class war has wormed itself all the way down to the cerebral cortex. It is as if for Marxist reasons – i.e., the shift in the characteristic of the labour process in our mode of production – we must once again become Feuerbachians, concerned far more with generic human capacities than the antagonisms of the working day.

But, unlike Feuerbach, Virno resorts less to a kind of vague humanism than to recent biological research into two main areas relating to human development: neoteny (the retention of formerly juvenile characteristics produced by the retardation of somatic development) and mirror neurons (the neurophysiological phenomenon whereby when we see someone performing an action, the same neurons are activated in the frontal lobe of the observer, demonstrating a kind of original intersubjectivity that precedes the constitution of the individual mind). But rather than take the relative openness of our species and our apparent inability not to empathise with others as the basis of political optimism, Virno reminds us that

every naturalist thinker must acknowledge one given fact: the human animal is capable of not recognizing another human animal as being one of its own kind. (p.181)

The problem of evil, with which Virno begins the collection in his discussion of Hobbes, rears its disconcerting head once again: and it is language and its essential negativity that causes the problem. The Nazi camp guard is capable of ‘not-recognising’ the Jewish captor by the force of the linguistic negative: this is not a man. As Virno argues:

Negation [...] certainly does not obstruct the activation of mirror neurons; but it renders the signification of these neurons as something ambiguous and reversible. The Nazi officer can consider the old Jewish man to be ‘not human’, even if he fully understands the old man’s emotions by means of simulatory identification. Verbal thought destabilizes intraspecies empathy: in this sense, it creates the condition needed for what Kant has called ‘radical evil’. (pp.183-184).

As with all theories of evil, however, there’s a danger of reifying it, of turning it into something far beyond the reach of any explanation whatsoever. As much as Virno seeks to distinguish himself from Chomsky’s attempt to link the human desire for autonomy to the innate creativity of language and thus avoid any optimistic theory of human nature, he ends up with some horrifically bad examples of evil, using, of all things, the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to describe the ‘oscillation’ between the good life and its opposite. One might think that a materialist explanation of the appalling organisation of the evacuation and the racist and classist discrimination towards those who lacked cars and money to leave might be more useful here than any discussion of ‘evil’. The appalling events that supposedly took place in the Superdome (rape, murder, mass violence) were, after all, fabricated for a media eager to believe that poor black people are barely civilised, while the very real material constraints of the situation (overcrowding, lack of access to bathrooms) hardly point towards some kind of essential Hobbesian darkness.

Still, one cannot be too enamoured with the world as it is. Unlike the optimism of claims he makes elsewhere about the ‘global movement’, however, Virno is in these essays much more cautious:

the multitude is negation, and the negation of negation, the uninhibited ‘it is possible that it might be’ and the limiting ‘it is possible that it might not be’. (p.65)

The problem here is the amount of work done by the related concept of exodus. If the production of value is somehow spread across society as a whole, if the working day bleeds into the hedonistic night, if capitalism has managed to monopolise all basic human capacities, then the only ‘way out’ might start looking like a quick dash across the desert. Or, alternatively, like more minor and rare forms of ‘innovative action’ that break rules, thus indicating the inherent transformability of all linguistic games. After all this discussion of evil and negation, Virno switches register and object in the shift from the broader discussion of human nature and evil, to a much more specific reading of certain kinds of inappropriateness as a mode for action. The bulk of the book, in fact, is made up of series of comments of that peculiar form of rule breaking known as joke making. Here Virno takes his cue from Wittgenstein’s claims regarding the difficulty of rule following, as well as Freud’s reflections on jokes (although, it should be noted, without accepting any of the arguments for the role of the unconscious). There is a translation difficulty here: Witz covers not only jokes, but wit and other forms of word play (which might explain why many of Freud’s examples that Virno takes up here are not very funny). That aside, Virno takes the complicated set-up and audience of the joke to constitute a ‘diagram’ of ‘innovative action’, that is, as a model of praxis. The third party witness to the joke partakes of a kind of state of exception, and thus witnesses the creation of a new model of action. This argument, as lengthy as it is in the book, is strangely unconvincing, depending on a strangely withdrawn notion of the spectator (following Kant and Arendt) which doesn’t seem vastly different from doing nothing at all, but perhaps the multitude can’t do without some degree of spectacularisation after all.

Although Virno shares many of the same terms with his post-autonomist comrades – multitude, immaterial labour, exodus – he comes at them with very different sources. Not the antihumanist Deleuzo-Foucauldianism of the resolutely anti-naturalistic Hardt and Negri, but via much more classical figures – Aristotle, Schmitt, Hobbes, Wittgenstein – linking these effectively to contemporary debates in linguistics and neurology. As an intervention into current debates about capitalism, language and politics, it is relatively coherent for all that, but it suffers, as we are all supposed to (maybe), from excessive generalisation, from an over-emphasis on the generic biolinguistic traits that constitute the species (even if it is only now that we can realise it). Concepts of the generic have in fact been making quite a comeback of late: the return to the early Marx in Badiou’s concept of ‘generic humanity’ and in Rancière’s ‘generic intelligence’. Virno has much to contribute to this debate with his fierce philosophical, linguistic and political armoury, but he’s unlikely to bring much cheer to whatever is left of what Virno calls the post-Seattle ‘global movement’, even if they do, as he acknowledges, understand both ‘the arena of struggle and its stake’.vi Elsewhere he writes:

The global movement ever since Seattle resembles a half-functioning voltaic battery: it accumulates energy without rest but does not know how and where to discharge it.vii

This is really the heart of the problem: all this energy but very little systematic analysis. The supposed historical specificity of the possibility of making generic claims about human nature says very little about how we got to where we are, nor where we go from here. Virno is usually careful not to privilege one kind of work or worker over another:

When I speak of a ‘mass intellectuality’, I am certainly not referring to biologists, artists, mathematicians, and so on, but to the human intellect in general, to the fact that it has been put to work as never before.viii

Nevertheless, by pitching his discussion of ‘innovation’ and ‘negation’ at such a level of abstraction, Virno runs the risk of turning a diagnosis into a template, not for activists, but for those who seek to turn a profit from such an understanding of biolinguistic capitalism.

Nina Power <> is a lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University


Paolo Virno, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008


i ‘Natural-Historical Diagrams: the "New Global" Movement and the Biological Invariant’, trans. Alberto Toscano, Diacritics, forthcoming, Winter 2008 (originally from Forme di Vita, 2004).

ii Ibid.

iii Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844’ in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone & Gregor Benton, London: Penguin, 1975, p.453.

iv Steve Wright, ‘Reality Check: Are We Living in an Immaterial World?’ at,

v Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labour: A Feminist Viewpoint’ from, See also David Graeber’s ‘The Sadness of Post-Workerism or Art and Immaterial Labour Conference: A Sort of Review’, where he makes the more forceful point that: One could, even, start from the belated recognition of the importance of women’s labor to reimagine Marxist categories in general, to recognize that what we call ‘domestic’ or even ‘reproductive’ labor, the labor of creating people and social relations, has always been the most important form of human endeavor in any society, and that the creation of wheat, socks, and petrochemicals always merely a means to that end, and that – what’s more – most human societies have been perfectly well aware of this.One of the more peculiar features of capitalism is that it is not – that as an ideology, it encourages us to see the production of commodities as the primary business of human existence, and the mutual fashioning of human beings as somehow secondary. From, uploads/2008/04/graeber_sadness.pdf

vi Paolo Virno, ‘Natural-Historical Diagrams’, op. cit.

vii ‘Interview with Paolo Virno’, conducted by Branden W. Joseph. From,

viii Ibid.