Strange Common Places

By Massimo de Angelis, 9 September 2004

If cooperation and communication are the indispensable commodities of ‘post-fordist’ capitalism, can alternative ‘commons’ emerge from this hyper-alienated condition? Massimo De Angelis reviews Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life

Paolo Virno’s work is rooted in that tradition of Italian Marxism which emerged in the 1960s and is known as Operaismo (workerism) and which in the following decades developed into a variety of currents. In the English speaking world most readers are familiar with this tradition through the work of Antonio Negri, especially after the recent extraordinary success of his book co-authored with Michael Hardt, Empire. But this tradition is much broader, it weaves together substantial differences in tone and emphasis, as well as theoretical and analytical methodologies, and it has both roots and branches outside Italy, especially in the United States.

The main features of Operaismo that have remained with us through different mutations can perhaps be grouped around two general coordinates. First, there is the inversion of traditional Marxism, obtained through emphasising the subjectivity of ‘labour’ instead of that of capital. Capital is thus understood as a force that reacts to the struggles and subjectivity of labour, both by trying to disrupt its material basis (that is to disrupt ‘class composition’ – the politicisation of the relations of production), and by co-opting the creativity that comes from below. Second, unlike traditional Marxists who think that exploitation is the key problem of capital (hence redistribution the key pillar of revolution), the core of the workerist critique is to regard capital as a social force that reduces life to work. Exploitation is of course instrumental to this.

In Virno’s book, these two horizons are never spelled out in detail. But as a reference they run through the text from beginning to end – or, rather, from the end to the beginning. Perhaps the true starting point of this book is its last page, where Virno describes the movement of the 1960s and ‘70s as not an anti-capitalist but rather an ‘anti-socialist’ revolution. This was the first revolution aimed not against poverty and backwardness, but specifically against the means of capitalist production, thus, against wage labour. . . . [F]or a long period of time, both in the factories and in the lower income urban areas, in the schools as in certain fragile state institutions, two opposing powers confronted one another, resulting in the paralysis of political decision making. From this point of view . . . it can be maintained that in Italy and in other Western countries there was a defeated revolution. Post-Fordism, or the ‘communism of capital’, is the answer to this defeated revolution, so different from those of the 1920s. (110)

This defeat was brought about not only through the use of anti-terrorist laws to criminalise and repress the movement (laws of which Virno, among many others, was a victim) but also by capital’s cooptation of the constituent practices of those struggles. The creativity, initiative and refusal to work that characterised the movement became the raw material of ‘post-fordism’, a mode of doing things that, paradoxically, puts this refusal, as well as idle talk and communication in general, to work for capital.

Thus perhaps, the analysis of the multitude is for Virno the opportunity to study this cooptation, to study the ambiguity of the present condition, an ambiguity that combines tremendous elements of freedom with tremendous elements of servility. The multitude is the unifying term given by Virno to name ‘the forms of life and the linguistic games which characterise our era’.(97) The ‘multitude’ underlines plurality of subjectivities, whereas ‘people’ (and class in the traditional sense), evoke uniformity. To understand the complexity of this plurality, Virno divides this short book in four chapters, following the structure of the four seminars he held in January 2001 at the Department of Sociology of the Universita’ di Calabria.

The first explores the notion of the multitude in opposition to the notion of ‘the people’, and in terms of the Hobbesian dialectic between ‘fear and the search for security’. ‘The multitude is a mode of being, the prevalent mode of being today: but, like all modes of being, it is ambivalent or, we might say, it contains within itself both loss and salvation, acquiescence and conflict, servility and freedom.’(26) In this multitude’s mode of being, ‘one can observe with the naked eye a continuous oscillation between different, sometimes diametrically opposed, strategies of reassurance.’(35) The need for this reasurance is a result of the multitude’s departure from specific unifying gestures of social action or specific commons. Indeed, while the notion of the people starts from the many and reaches the One (that is the sovereign state, one people under one sovereign), the notion of the multitude begins with the One and arrives at the many. The One that is premised on the definition of the multitude however is a different starting point than the arrival point of the definition of the people. This One of the multitude is not community,(33) it is not the sovereign, or, as Marx would put it, the ‘illusionary community’. Instead, it is the common places of communication, language, in the more general sense. This does not mean this or that word or discourse, but rather what is common to all discourses and to all speech acts. ‘The connection between more and less, the opposition of opposites, the relationship of reciprocity’,(36-37) these language modes are, following Aristotle, commons in the sense that ‘no one can do without them’, from the ‘refined orator to the drunkard who mumbles words hard to understand, from the business person to the politician.’(36)

Language and communication are commons that help assuage the anguish within the multitude deriving from the experience of ‘being a stranger’, the feeling of not being at home. How is this strangeness produced and reproduced? Virno does not say. What he does say is that the common places of language are a refuge from this homelessness. But these linguistic commons are simultaneously the means of production specific to the multitude, what Virno calls, following a critical interpretation of the Fragment on Machines in Marx’s Grundrisse (Notebook VII), the General Intellect. In Marx, general intellect refers broadly to the collective intelligence of capitalist society, as objectified into a system of machinery. For Virno, ‘this aspect of the “general intellect” matters but it is not everything . . . the general intellect manifests itself today, above all, as the communication, abstraction, self-reflection of living subjects . . .[it unfolds] in communicative interaction, under the guise of epistemic paradigms, dialogical perfomances, linguistic games. In other words, public intellect is one and the same as cooperation, the acting in concert of human labour, the communicative competence of individuals.’(65) It is this cooperative interaction that post-fordist capitalism puts to work. For Virno this radical expropriation of human communicativity at least has the benefit of opening the way to a politics that is not about ‘seizing power’, ‘of constructing a new State or a new monopoly of political decision making; rather, it has to do with defending plural experiences, forms of non-representative democracy, of non-governmental usages and customs.’(43)

The second section develops the idea that the emergence of multitude puts into crisis the traditional ‘partitioning of human experience into labour, politics, thought’(26) as proposed in Aristotle and retrieved by Hannah Arendt. Here Virno reminds us that politics is not ‘life in some local party headquarters’.(51) Rather, it is the ‘genetically human experience of beginning something again, an intimate relationship with contingency and the unforeseen, being in the presence of others.’ So, unlike Arendt’s classical critique of contemporary politics which ‘has taken to imitating labour’ (the obvious example being the 20th century trade union), Virno proposes a symmetrical argument with respect to the multitude: ‘it is rather that labour has acquired the traditional features of political action . . . it is in the world of contemporary labour that we find the “being in the presence of others” . . . the beginning of new processes.’ Incidentally, this also would explain why the post-fordist multitude appear as a de-politicised multitude: ‘there is already too much politics in the world of wage labour . . . for politics as such to continue to enjoy an autonomous dignity’ (ibid).

Finally, the third section discusses the subjectivity of the multitude. Briefly, here Virno shows how idle talk and the subjective attitude of curiosity, which according to Heidegger are so distant from production and labour, become instead the substance of work in post-fordism. He also discusses the process or principle of individuation, arguing that individuals in the multitude are the final stage of a process, not its starting point. What precedes individuation is a ‘pre-individual reality, that is to say, something common, universal and undifferentiated’(76), such as the biological basis of the species, language and the prevailing relations of production. Elaborating on Simondon’s theses according to which the subject is constituted as the interweaving of pre-individual and individual elements, Virno recognises that the subject within the multitude is a site of struggle, a ‘battlefield’.(78)

Virno’s book is thus rich and dense in insights into our current condition, the condition of the multitude. I believe however that it runs up against two limitations. In the first place, it is an analysis of the mode of being of the multitude, not an analysis of the mode(s) of production of our current ‘forms of life’. When we look at the mode of being of the multitude through the lense of the mode(s) of production, the multitude appears to us not only as a plurality of subjects, sharing common places of language, but also as a plurality of subjects who productively communicate with, and therefore relate to, each other in a plurality of ways. How are they relating to each other, how is their activity articulated? In the context of the global factory (which articulates for capital a variety of waged and unwaged social forms of production, from slave labour to post-fordism), this question cannot be addressed by the term ‘post-fordism’. Capitalist global production includes all the possible ‘isms’ of production, and strives to put them all to work.

Secondly, when we refer to this articulation, we could certainly follow Virno and point to the ‘general intellect’ as the glue that holds all the different modalities of production together. And certainly ingenuity and know-how, communication and relational work are all involved in the design, definition, structuration and daily operation of global commodity chains. In today’s global factory however, a different type of articulation is also at play, namely the fact that different constituents (‘singularities’) of the global multitude produce and reproduce their livelihoods by threatening the livelihoods of others, of distant others, of ‘strangers’. In the global work machine of contemporary capital, the ‘stranger’ is not simply a condition of being, it is a result of a mode of doing, of a mode of articulation among the global plurality of singularities. Strangers are produced continuously by an incessant (real or virtual) competitive struggle in every sphere of life, and the more this is the case, the more neoliberal policies succeed in producing the context of our interaction on this planet. The multitude here is then also a name for class composition, that is the diverse range of cultural, social, technical characteristics which constitute the waged and unwaged subjects working for capital and whose struggles are the precondition for forms of social cooperation other than those capital dictates.

To be estranged, this ‘condition common to many’, our ‘inescapable shared condition’(38) is perhaps assuaged by finding shelter in the ‘common places’ of languages. But language is a poor refuge unless it is itself a moment of production of new commons, the basis of new social relations beyond those that produce us as strangers in the world. The refuge we seek is one for both the needs of the body and the relational desires of the spirit. In other words, left to their own devices, the common places of language do not create something new beyond the ‘post-fordist’ anguish. Hence we must pose the question of the production of commons that feel real, solid, concrete, convivial, nurturing both the body and the spirit, allowing us to (re)produce our livelihoods without at the same time threatening the lives of others. Perhaps the political challenge is to discover how from within the multitude, and on the basis of those pre-individual commons that Virno was talking about, there can emerge a social force that creates different types of commons. Perhaps this is already tentatively under way, in the democratic processes taking place within the alter-globalisation movement – the movement against capitalist globalisation and for other kinds of planetary interactions.

Massimo De Angelis <m.deangelis AT>  is senior lecturer in political economy at the University of East London. He is also editor of the web journal The Commoner http://www.thecommoner.orgInfo

Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Los Angeles, New York: Semiotext(e) NotesThe interested reader should consult Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto Press, 2002. For a contextualisation of this tradition within international autonomist Marxism, see the seminal introduction in Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, Oakland: A/K Press. For the introduction see