General Intellect, Exodus, Multitude

Interview with Paolo Virno for Archipélago number 54

June 2002, Rome. Translation from the Spanish version by Nate Holdren.

We have known Paolo Virno for a few years, through fragmented readings of his classic articles: Virtuosismo y revolución:notas sobre el concepto de acción política* (1993) [*1] and Do you remember counterrevolucion (1995). With time his name began to circulate more frequently. First, as a consequence of the meteoric diffusion of the more celebrated work of his colleague, Toni Negri and, later, due to an interview - polemical in its effects - conducted by Flavia Costa and published the same year in the newspaper Clarín. [*2]

The preparations of our interview with Virno had begun more or less by that date. The link was a common friend: Sandro Mezzadra, intellectual and Italian militant, and co-editor - together with Virno - of the journal DeriveApprodi. Virno is a political militant with a long trajectory in the Italian workerist autonomy, founder of various political journals and author, of the following titles, among others: Convenzione e materialismo. L´unicitá senza aura (1986); Mondanitá. L´idea di "mondo" tra esperienza sensibile e sfera pubblica (1994); Parole con parole. Poteri e limiti del lenguaggio(1995); Radical thought in Italy, compiled with Michael Hardt (1996); and Il ricordo del presente, Saggio sul tempo storico (1999).

At the time of this interview he had just published his last book, Gramática de la multitud, Para un análisis de las formas de vida contemporáneas (2002), the conversation we had with him revolves around this work.

Paolo Virno, Neapolitan, fifty years old, lives a block from the Piazza di Fiori, one of the most beautiful in Rome. The first time we visited his home we had the pleasure of trying his specialty: homemade pasta. While he cut the tomatoes and ground the basil, he began to relate part of his life and to do philosophy in the style of Sor Juana: “while stirring the pot.”

The following day, in thirty-seven degree heat, he received us again, in the afternoon, for many hours of conversation. This resulted in a chat that Virno initiated with another of his not so well known specialties: the philosophy of language. From there the opening was marked by one of the fundamental concepts of his work: as Aristotle says, the animal that has language is a political animal simply due to this capacity. Now we begin with the questions:

Before anything else, we wanted you to tell us a little about your political and intellectual biography.

As with many others, my youth, my adolescence, was marked by the insurrection of 1968. I lived in Genoa, went to high school and immediately political experience began, that new politics that one breathed in the air and that, as you said yesterday, corresponds to an idea of public happiness. Politics and happiness walked hand in hand during the class struggles in 1968. If it had expressed itself in synthetic form, this was the fundamental axis: in this moment large separation between happiness and the struggle against capitalism was recomposed. So, whoever felt it necessary to fight for happiness understood that they should fight against capitalism, and the inverse: one could not fight successfully against capitalism if it was not in the name of a full life. I insist: it is a little like what you said yesterday about the Argentine experience, that it is necessary to have something more than the right kind of chains in order to be able to struggle well: it is necessary to have a positive reality that can already be discerned, in the name of which to struggle. Later, my family moved to Rome where I entered into contact with the workerist comrades, the tradition of the Quaderni Rossi(*3), those comrades that were to found Potere Operaio (*4); I had a lot of luck because in the world of marxist-leninists, of thirdworldists, by pure chance I, a boy, very young still, encountered a type of thought that, by contrast, had no great interest in marxism but yes for Marx, that took the pages of Marx and put them in direct contact with the workers’ struggles. Also, workerist thought, in place of reading the Red Book of Mao, read the grand classics of bourgeois thought: Keynes, Schumpeter, also Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, Carl Scmitt. Another advantage of this type of political thought was that it considerered as the objective of our time the abolition, the elimination, the refusal, of waged labor as such: it posed the existence of waged labor as the great barbarity of our time.

Then, I began political militance in Potere Operaio which in 1968 was the revolucionary heir of Quaderni Rossi that had been born at the beginning of the 1960s. It carried out interventions in the factories of Rome, among the students, and later I moved to Milan and to Turin, undertaking political work around the great factories of the North: Alfa Romeo in Milan and FIAT in Turin. Potere Operaio, had a short and happy life, but in all ways short, because in 1973 the group terminated itself. Starting from this moment I participated in the history and life of the movement without belonging to any organization.

The other grand Italian event that influenced me and my friends and that caught us completely [unawares] was the so-called Movement of ‘77 (*5). We considered the Movement of ‘77 as a new beginning: the rise of the figures of social labor that was the result of capitalist restructuration; that is to say, that did not defend itself from capitalist restructuration but rather took the restructuration as its point of departure. This point of departure was constituted by mass intellectual labor, precarious labor, intermitent labor, etc, and it is a very important fact that postfordism commenced in Italy (*6) with the revolt of those that would be the productive subejcts. In 1977, other comrades of the old Potere Operaio and I decided to found an important, significant journal that would reflect on this new beginning, on this radical modification of mentality, of the forms of thinking, of the forms of life that, we said, projected to us something beyond the epoch of labor. The journal was called Metropoli and the friends with whom we did it were Oreste Scalzone, now in refuge in France, Franco Piperno, and others. In 1979, within the framework of the repressive operation counter to the Italian movement, Metropoli as a journal was criminalized and we were seized and jailed together with other comrades of the so-called “7th of April judgment”, the judgment of Toni Negri (*7).

The jail time, shared with many comrades, began with some elements that recall the political jail of the fascist era but, at the end, a jail in which there was much discussion and much theoretical elaboration. The best philosophical seminars that I had in my life were in prison. Never in the university did I find anything similar. I did three years, total, in jail, total, of preventive prison, before the judgment. The first judgment, in the first instance, condemned me to twelve years with the charge of subversive association and constitution of an armed band, but my band had no name: it was not said that that I was a leader or a militant, for example, of the Red Brigades; it was a band without a name. Anonymous. In the judgment, and this is funny, the band is called simply “O”, to indicate “Organization”, but, I repeat, an organization without name, without identity.

I went free awaiting the second judgment. In this second appeal I and many others who were charged were absolved. From twelve years we passed to absolution. After being absolved, and this was already in 1987, I decided, in addition to the philosophical labor that I had begun to seriously undertake meanwhile, to take up political activity again. This new beginning in political activity coincided with the journal Luogo Comune (*8). Luogo Comune and, more generally, the analysis of the figures of social labor and forms of life, was born in the discourse of the emotions.

The hypothesis was this: if it is certain that postfordist labor has at its center communication - culture in the most full sense of the term - then, it is necessary to commence analysis starting from certain emotions, but not emotions in the psychological sense, but rather emotions understood as forms of being, forms of being in the world, and we began to discuss the negative feelings: before all others, opportunism, later cynicism and finally fear. We believed that opportunism understood as mass emotion, signified that each individual worked in contact with many distinct opportunities, opportunites understood in a technical sense.

Whoever labors in postfordism has to be familiarized with the most distinct options. Then, a typical bad moral feeling like opportunism had been put to work as a technical virtue. This meant, at the end of the 80s, trying to understand how in work there were many things at play that before had been seen as the time of non-work. As, in fact, the limit, the border-line between work and non-work had been weakened or even was, in part, disappearing. Luogo Comune, placed, later, in the center of its attention the famous - or at least famous for Italian operaismo - Fragment on machines from Marx’s Grundrisse and, above all, the concept of general intellect (*9). We made a critique of Marx, critique in quotes, saying that today the general intellect was no longer deposited in machines but rather existed and lived in the cooperation of living labor. We said it with the following formula: general intellect = living labor in place of fixed capital.

The intention was to create an organizing network, or to produce ideas, as a necessary condition for taking up again a discussion of practical politics. In this it was a failure. The noble motive of the failure was that the subjects of postfordist labor had found, in a little more time, a political representation in the new right, because the new right - Berlosconi and at first the Liga Nord - in some manner represented the mass intellectuality and also the crisis of representative democracy; it did so in a perverse, bad manner but in some manner it achieved that representation. On the other hand, in the past there had been examples of this: reactionary parties of workers, reactionary parties of peasants; in Italy, with the new right, we had the reactionary party of mass intellectuality.

This is the noble motive, the more concrete motive for the failure. But there was also a certain incapacity on our part for taking up again political activitiy in new conditions, with new subjects. In Luogo Comune we were all, or almost all, people linked to the old struggles and to the old methods of organization. There were three very beautiful theoretical seminars at the beginning of the 90s, in Paris, with the comrades from Future Anterieure (*10) that were developing some thematics about work, similar to ours: I’m thinking of Toni Negri, obviously. Then, our discussion in Luogo Comune on General Intellect as living labor, found an accord with the analysis of Negri, Lazzaroto, and others on immaterial labor.

A specialty of Lugo Comune was, by contrast, the discussion of exodus. By exodus was understood as a radical politics that does not want to construct a new state. In the end, it is only that and, then, is far from the model of the revolutions that want to take power, to construct a new state, a new monopoly of political decision; to the contrary, it is - in every case - to defend power, not to take power and, also the things that you said yesterday when you were speaking on the university - of the richness of relations - this positivity of experience as something that later deserves to be defended but that, in the meantime, should be [seen as] something already constructed in terms of sociability, productive relations, knowledges, networks of our part.

Exodus and General Intellect were an attempt to take up again an organized practical politics; it was, then, together with the comrades from Veneto - who are the current Disobedienti (*11) - an attempot that was not accomplished due to large and small motives, due to our incapacity. After Luogo Comune, I participated in DeriveApprodi (*12) which is the child, the immediate consequence. Luogo Comune was born, as I already said, with the discussion over the feelings, that took the form of a book that is called Sentimientos del mas aca.* With DeriveApprodi a problem presented itself, of how to translate, to transform, the discussions of General Intellect, multitude, exodus, into concrete forms of struggle. For this, after three years we wrote a document titled IWW - Industrial Workers of the World - which is the name of an old revolutionary union in the United States. [*13]

This documented tried to start from the more concrete problems of precarious labor. And it moved [across] the chambers of work and non-work: grassroots unionization as necessary condition for “leaving the symbolic dimension” [*14] Our problem was and continued being how to leave the symbolic dimension, this symbolic dimension that prevailed also in Genoa. That is to say, in Genoa there was a meeting of the “powerful of the earth”, the movement reacted, but reacted on the symbolic plane, this was also the limit of the Social Centers and of forms of counterculture, of alternative culture.

For this, we had a discussion over forms of sturggle. Forms of struggle to invent, because in postfordist reality the strike frequently is no good or is not sufficient; over all it is necessary to mobilize the chainworkers: the workes of McDonalds, of the cleaning businesses, etc. Then it is necessary to invent a form of struggle equivalent to the old strike. This was maybe the most significant intention of DeriveApprodi with this document on grassroots unionism [*15].

Fine, that’s it, in broad strokes, those are the stages of my experience. I have to admit that in the last twenty years an important part of my time was dedicated to philosophical work, centered upon classical questions of philosophy: language, temporality, the question ‘what is historical time?, how is time made historical?’ I always thought that this philosophical work had a relation with political activity because I consider elaborating a non-reductionist materialism to be an important condition for the critique of capitalism, for the struggle against capitalism. Then, I understand philosophy as a materialism “shoulder to shoulder” in relation with the political. However, I have to admit that it is a mediated relation, in the last instance. Naturally there exists also a certain distance and I have lived after prison exactly this distance between philosophy and politics; it lived in my very body sometimes as a schizophrenia. A large part of my time was spent on philosophical writing, later I would put on the other mask and do political things, even if it was not for a political journal but, another context, another field. Then, I divided myself between the writing of philosophical books that sought contribute to the foundation of a new materialism, on problems like our relation with death, nature, time, and a political praxis. It is possible that in the last years it’s been more philsophical than political; on the other hand, each one of us is formed by habitual practices: if one dedicates very much time to philosophical work, this changes you. Then, one has to bear in mind a double face: for philosophical moments, for political moments, for my time, for my activity. Two faces related but an immense, inevitable distance.

We wanted to converse a little over some of the things that you have come to consider and, in particular, over the manner in which you expound in your book, Grammar of the Multitude. In the first place, we are interested to know how the notion of multitude functions in your theoretical and political development. We have found that the use that you make of this category in Grammar... develops a very original dimension - we call it the ontological. Something thus like “the multitude is as much a fount of the good as of the bad”. The fact is that the term has circulated, especially from the perspective of radical rereadings of Spinoza that present the question in less ambivalent terms, in a manner more unilateral, more linked “to the good” - we would say - than “to the bad”. Now, being that your reading of the multitude is also part of the “polemic” between Spinoza and Hobbes, over the state and sovereignty, we wanted to ask you more concretely: what do you understand by bad? How do you come to think a link between the bad and the multitude?

The multitude is a form of being; and for the expression form of being I understand something fundamental, basic, in relation with the world, with others, with life. Naturally, each form of being is ambivalent: the important thing is to understand that this ambivalence of all forms is referentiable to the fundamental form of being. Take the example of opportunism. The opportunism of the postfordist multitude is something bad today, because it signifies the acceptance of domination. The decisive point is that the insurrections of the multitude, the struggles for liberation of the multitude, commenced by this sensibility for the possible, or it should be, for distinct opportunities.
Then, it is a same familiarity with the possible, that can transform itself into something bad if it leads to servility, corruption, opportunism but, at the same time, the same proximity to the possible, the same sensibility for the possible, typical of the multitude, can also construct struggles. The point is that the bad just as the good both derive from the same nucleus, from same form of being. For example, the thought of the traditional left condemns, criticizes opportunism and thinks that the good consists in not having more than a relation with the possible, but rather in having newly a well defined life.

Our idea was, in contrast, that the multitude in every manner has a form of being bound to the possible, to the contingent. This sensibility for the contingent can lead to corruption and opportunism or can lead to revolt, but always at the base of the corruption as at the base of the revolt is the sensibility for the possible, the contingent. Ambivalence of the multitude. Another example: the multitude does not seek to represent itself politically; that is to say: no more representative democracy. But this distance, this indifference for representative democracy does not exclude the presence in the multitude of many small Petains (the French general that, in the epoch of the Nazi occupation of France, collaborated with Germany) and many small Petains can control the multitude, and then, again, the possibility of the bad is totally present. We, in number four of Luogo Comune, came to hypothesize a postmodern fascism that feeds itself precisely on the forms of being of the multitude. [*16] We did not say that this fascism existed: it was a discourse carried to the limit, a hypothetical discourse, but that stated: “the problem of fascism is not the classic problem of the 30s, there are forms of fascism that base themselves exactly upon the contemporary multitude and its comportments”. this was the discourse over the good and the bad: the use of the word ambivalence. The multitude is a form of being starting from that which can be be born one thing but also the other: ambivalence.

If this ambivalence of the multitude founds itself on an ontological nucleus that created some possibilities as their oppositves and if it is possible to find in the long history of the political and of modern political philosophy the recurrence of this ambivalence (as in the case of the “Spinoza-Hobbes polemic” we spoke of a moment ago, but also in the case that now you mention, the fascism of the 30s and the present “postmodern fascism”), why do you affirm, then, in Grammar of the Multitude, that postfordism is a properly ontological regime?

It’s a good question, a good question. My thesis is that postfordism directly brings to light the background charcteristics of the human species. Postfordism is on the historical and social plane a historical and social repetition of the anthropogenesis. I believe that on the ontological plane or, as it were, in the plane of invariable, constant conditions of our species, of the human species, of homo sapiens, the theory of philosophical anthropology is fitting, at least in part, that says that the human being is, above all, nonspecialized.

We are poorest of the animals in relation to our lack of specialized instincts and lack of a precise, determined environment. In general, culture, society, conceals, hides this condition, creating forms of specialization for the non-specialized animal and creating artificial environments for the animal that has no environment. Then, we say that culture and society hide distinctive aspects of human nature. Postfordism, by contrast, is the first society and the first culture that does not hide those aspects, but rather - on the contrary, valorizes them, places them fully in the light. Think of the universal watchword, as much in Argentina, in Italy and in Korea as in Eastern Europe: flexibility. Flexibility in all the languages of the world means non-specialization. The same occurs with this ugly word globalization, that has, in all forms, as its truth the fact that human beings should live openly, explicitly as those beings that don’t have a well-defined environment. In this sense, postfordism, the contemporary experience, signals perhaps a true novelty because, for the first time, society and culture correspond explicitly to an ontological condition.

This would be a synthetic response to the good question. Then, the multitude is not only a social subject, but rather it is that form of being human in which the ontological condition emerges explicitly in the empirical plane, in the social plane. Multitude is only the other face of exodus: men and women that do not want to conquer power, but rather than in each case want to extinguish it, annul it; they do not want to construct a new state, they want to extinguish it, to annul it. The multitude also lacks the unitary characteristics of the people. It possesses, as a political category, anthropological and ontological aspects, I think more in Hobbes than in Spinoza. In Hobbes the multitude is understood not solely as poltical category, but rather also as ontological category because for him in the form of being of the many, of the multiple, the human condition emerges as such.

People as historical regularity and multitude as moment of rupture in which there can emerge this ontological level that, at the same time, is ambivalent, that is to say, that does not determine but rather destroy determinations. This is, then, a return of - and to - the multiple. If we follow you well, these cycles had been halted in the present conjuncture: that which was fully ontologized. Starting from this radical historical singularity of postfordism we have, on one hand, exodus as the line of flight and of emancipation, and on the other, the threat of the very anthropological potentialities that confront us as the foundation of contemporary capitalist domination. And, if we follow your reasoning, here, in this last aspect, there appear the Foucaultian category - in principle - of biopower, to which you dedicate some polemical pages in the Grammar... There you specify in a very strict manner the legitimacy that you grant to this notion and you deny the generalized use of it. Then the question should be the following: can you specify your objections with the use of the category of biopower?

Yes, the use that Toni (Negri) and Michael (Hardt) make ...

And also Giorgio Agamben...

Agamben is a problem. Agamben is a thinker of great value but also, in my opinion, a thinker with no political vocation. Then, when Agamben speaks of the biopolitical he has the tendency to transform it into an ontological category with value already since the archaic Roman right. And, in this, in my opinion, he is very wrong-headed. The problem is, I believe, that the biopolitical is only an effect derived from the concept of labor-power. When there is a commodity that is called labor-power it is already implicitly government over life. Agamben says, on the other hand, that labor-power is only one of the aspects of the biopolitical; I say the contrary: over all because labor power is a paradoxical commodity, because it is not a real commodity like a book or a bottle of water, but rather is simply the potential to produce. As soon as this potential is transformed into a commodity, then, it is necessary to govern the living body that maintains this potential, that contains this potential. Toni (Negri) and Michael (Hardt), on the other hand, use biopolitics in a historically determined sense, basing it on Foucault, but Foucault spoke in few pages of the biopolitical - in relation to the birth of liberalism - that Foucault is not a sufficient base for founding a discourse over the biopolitical and my apprehension, my fear, is that the biopolitical can be transformed into a word that hides, covers problems instead of being an instrument for confronting them. A fetish word, an "open doors" word, a word with an exclamation point, a word that carries the risk of blocking critical thought instead of helping it. Then, my fear is of fetish words in politics because it seems like the cries of a child that is afraid of the dark..., the child that says "mama, mama!", "biopolitics, biopolitics!". I don't negate that there can be a serious content in the term, however I see that the use of the term biopolitics sometimes is a consolatory use, like the cry of a child, when what serves us are, in all cases, instruments of work and not propaganda words.

One thing that interested us in the Grammar... is the form in which you derive, from the General Intellect, the idea of a “non-remunerated life”. There you develop a dialectic starting from the productive character of life in “itself” that announces that all distinction between laboral and extra-laboral fields is formal, to the degree in which the time of present value production involves all the fields of vital reproduction. In this fashion, postfordism appears as a moment “without possible political economy”, or, taking the metaphor of Marx, as an object whose anatomy does not illuminate itself starting from the power of visibilization that previously was attributed to the categories of political economy and that, now, following what you state, what had been granted to other notions...

Yes, because postfordism transforms the human capacities that previously had to do - in every case - with ethics and asthetitcs into an instrument of labor and, naturally, transforms these human capacities into an instrument of economic valorization. But in political economy there are no categories for economically valorizing these capacities, therefore, there is a paradoxical situation: the wealth of nations to say it like Adam Smith or, in other words, the economy, is produced with modalities that are no longer thinkable, conceivable, with the categories of political economy. This is a paradox with a difficult solution. But exactly this paradox explains perhaps why there is such a great difficulty, in many countries such as Italy, of organization and struggle: because in labor enters much of life and it is very difficult to politically organize “life”; this is the problem.

In my opinion, the question of the equivalence between “non-remunerated/remunerated life” wants to demonstrate that today we should identify a distinct idea of wealth. At bottom, that which is in play is not the distribution of wealth, but rather the definition of wealth, a definition that in the last instance is not economic and that it is possible to see exactly in today’s transformed postfordist economy. Those who do not work but are in relation with others, think and have an experience of the city or, at least, of the places in which they live, and those who work, there are obviously monetary differences, of wages, but the type of capacities are similar.

The fact of considering those who are today without work as also productive modifies the very idea of social wealth. This naturally is difficult and poses a real problem, of what organization is possible, of the organization that could manages to turn the unity of labor and non-labor, life and production against capitalism. This is all much more ambitious with respect to the struggles of the traditional workers’ movement but, exactly for that, it is much more complex: a theory of organization today includes in itself all the major problems of philosophy: Lukacs also said this in History and Class Consciousness but, we say, that today this is even more certain.

Do you think it’s possible to sustain this point of view of exodus in the regions of the third world such as, for example, Latin America? We ask you this because starting from the events of December, in Argentina, there have been very polemical voices over the possibility of extending this thesis to contexts in which the struggles and the resistances must deal with an extreme, corrupt, and decomposed, neoliberal state, that don’t seem like the states of Western Europe. Above all was the critique of the Argentine philosopher Nicolás Casullo, that to maintain exodus, in our country, we should look not to the multitudes, but rather to the state itself.

It is not only an Argentine problem, also Italy or in France there exists the temptation to consider the National State as a refuge, a salvation in the face of globalization. Considering the National State as the place of possible exodus in the face of globalization, its violence, its laws. But this - in Argentina, as in France and Italy - is a complete illusion, a daydream that always run the risk of turning into a nightmare. Exodus is not nostalgic, but to consider the National State as refuge is nostalgic. Exodus is not a step back, but is rather leaving the land of the Pharaoh; the land of the Pharaoh was until one or two generations ago the National State, today it is the Global State, and the National States are like empty shells, like empty boxes and, for that, upon them is made an emotive investment but, naturally, that is very dangerous because it runs the risk of transforming sooner or later into xenophobia or, in every manner, into a rabid and subaltern attitude at the same time: rabies and subalternity together.

I want to be more clear: we shouldn’t speak more of Argentina, France or Italy, we should speak of Palestine. All of us are in Jenin. As much as you hope that the sooner a Palestinian state can be created the sooner it is possible to save lives, but in the conceptual plane I think that the creation of a new state is a disaster that would not have any power, that will have none of the prerogatives of the ancient national states: it would mean solely the fact that the prisoners, if not tortured, would be mistreated in their mother tongue, but it does not seem to me that that would be a grand conquest. The grand occasion that still was given after ten years, in the epoch of the first Intifada, was that of constructing a not necessarily statist or state-centric form of organization. All of the national states today, those that exist or those that are being founded, are the caricature, the parody of what the National State was as bearer of all rights. We all know that most of the economic, scientific research - not to speak of military - functions are in another place. I understand perfectly but it is a new form of ambivalence. Exodus is necessary but can also take a reactionary form.

In Argentina, all these polemics gave place - in a context of assemblies, piquetes, and much mobilization - to a debate “of and over” university intellectuals: does immanence dissolve the idea of “critical distance” attributed to the figure of the intellectual? After the experience of the 70s there appears a self-requirement of distance as condition itself of thought but, these last times, those who live this experience of politicization, in the street reclaim the “remaining at the margin” and a certain incapacity of thinking “from outside” of those new phenomena. What is, in your judgment, the possibility of articulating the function of the intellectual with the demands for a point of view immanent to these new experiences of struggle?

I don’t think that immanence impedes a critical view, an analytical view. Nor does immanence impede proposing new words and new concepts, nor should immanence should be a sad thing such that we should - together with Catholic priests - eulogize transcendence. By contrast, we are convinced that immanence is that which permits seeing better and farther, that there does not exist a view more panoramic than that which is situated in the plane, in a territory. It will not be perfected from a geometric point of view that requires, in contrast, a view from the height of a mountain, but from the point of view of the political geometry it is thus: only those who accept a certain opacity can look far. The view without the opacity of immanence is deceptive, as deceptive as when in the desert one has visions. And it is thinking in oneself, in one’s friends, in the biography of each one us, in the things that one saw, in what one did and in those that one was not accustomed to doing, where there is born the saying of “multitude” and no longer “people”. Clearly one must also see the books that we read, the materialist theoretical positions, all what was desired, but recounting also a material experience, a direct experience.

Intellectuals, yes if are in agreement with their books - Marx, Hobbes, this, the other, (and me, more than for Foucault I have preferences for Wittgenstein because I am occupied with the philosophy of language), the decisive thing with books for materialists and communists is the Christian phrase “the word made flesh”. [*17] All of materialism is there: the rest is chatter. This means understanding, on each occasion, as a concept, an abstraction, the “word” incarnates itself. [*18] Then, it can be that the question of the multitude was a question of political philosophy, from 1600, but the decisive thing is when and how it is incarnated. Now I have a question: Among the cultivated Argentine comrades Walter Benjamin is read?

(Laughter.) Yes, of course...

Ok, that’s good, the Theses on the philosophy of history by Walter Benjamin, at bottom, seems to me to become in this sense, in this direction: that a present moment links, says Benjamin, in constellation, with a moment very far but with which there is a species of precious similarity.That is decisive in order to not be progressivist or, as Borges said, all true authors choose their own predecessors.

The same goes for movements: the struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s are not necessarily the predecessors for you, it can be an episode further away or also an episode which occurred in another place; the same goes for the Italian movement. It is not certain that the predecessor of the anti-global movement was the movement of the ‘70s in Italy, it could be a thing much further away, it could be the Paris Commune. Or rather: the intellectuals transform themselves into a very large problem from the political point of view when, as in all countries that I can imagine imagine, it decisively leads to mass intellectuality. By mass intellectuality I understand the fact that one labors with the faculties of the mind. The knowledge of something at an “erudite” level is not important, what matters is the use of language, thought, of common capacities for abstraction. When labor is thus, it’s clear that the intellectuals in a restricted sense, the “high” intellectuals, little role as political leaders. I don’t know if I am being clear: or rather, the degree of feeling of mass intellectuality is tightly determined, in general, by the “high” intellectuality, at times more than by the political leaders of the parties. In Italy, for example, the problem of intellectuals in postfordism is set out with the so called “weak thought” or postmodern thought. [*10.8] Weak thought was developed by philosophers with theories that offer an ideology of the defeat after the end of the ‘70s and played a role for immediate political leaders, for that there is a specific problem over the theme of intellectuals that does not have to be left aside precisely because it entails that the multitude and the “high” intellectuals that have a public voice and that can transform themselves at times into immediate political leader of the multitude, of a multitude that does not trust any longer in the parties and, in every case, receives direct influence on the part of the intellectual.

Another Argentine philosopher, and a friend of the journal, Horacio Gonzalez, commented on an interview of yours that ran in a daily newspaper in Argentina and that started, in part, the discussion to which we made reference, which developed, in an unforeseen manner, in the written press. This discussion, impelled by Horacio, and inspired, at the same time, by your ideas on the multitude, consisted in refusing, in some fashion, the antagonism between people and multitude. Following him, it is necessary to strive to find dialectical forms that make possible a politics in which the “people” does not mean to say, in a direct and mechanical manner, state domination but rather refers to a common national memory, that is to say, to all those elements theorized by Antonio Gramsci and his pages on hegemony. In the end it goes a little toward the reflection that you brought about in us, on the multitude and politics.

It seems to me that the position of Gonzales is very similar to that of Ranciere of whom I have read a writing recently published in the French review Multitudes, which maintains that there exists a dialectical relationship between people and multitude. In my opinion, the burden of proof is on the side of Ranciere and Gonzales: they are the ones who should show that what is dialectical is conceptually and practically possible. In their position I respect very much the demand for a memory, of having in some fashion a tradition, of having shared memories and, clearly this, the shared memories, the tradition that we are able to have, is that of popular struggles of workers, proletarians. But: the multitude is really a new form of political existence and, in some senses, anthropological and for that it is a subject with sufficient potentiality to incorporate many of the good memories of the aspirations of the people. It can take charge of the demands for liberty that lived in the class struggles in which the working class expressed itself and, above all, comported itself as people. Again there appears the discourse of Walter Benjamin: the capacity to actualize the past relating it to the present. I respect that: I am not a postmodern in the sense of considering memory and tradition as disagreeable things; to the contrary, I think that no one can even undertake a strike for ten minutes without a grand tradition at their backs, and the multitude would be a poor thing if it was only a solitary crowd, the solitary mass, if it was the individual without spaces, without places, without times. All to the contrary: the multitude is also a combination of memory and a sensual enjoyment of places, of histories that those places tell us, that those places have, that a certain “neighborhood” of Buenos Aires or a certain “quarter” of Milan contain. If that didn’t exist, the multitude would be a poor thing, it would be a sociological - in the worst sense of the word - discourse.

Our last question returns a little to your work... We have been interested very much in tracing the concept and the use that you make of the notion of virtuosity. Do you consider virtuosity as the essence of a politics in the autopoetic sense of the multitude? How do associate all that with the actual Italian conjuncture in which, as you said a little while ago, the new right of Berlusconi maintains itself in power based on its capacity to “represent” the multitude?

One more time: ambivalence. In its most important meaning, viruosity means that many jobs today don’t have as their conclusion a definite physical product, and many jobs are similar to the act of a pianist, which is an act that leaves nothing behind but rather is valued for the performance for itself. The important thing is that virtuosity always was considered the model for political action. Or rather, to say that today labor has transformed, at least in some of its components, into virtuosity, means to say that postfordist labor absorbs in itself many of the characteristics that previously characterized political praxis. Aristotle said had said that the forms of life of the human being were three: labor (poiesis), politics (praxis) and theoretical life (pure thought). Well, I believe that another of the great innovations of postfordism and the multitude is that there exists a confusion and a superposition among these three forms of life: labor contains in itself many aspects of thought and politics. I say politics in its most anthropological aspects: relation with others, expounding in the view of others, to have to deal with the contingent and the unforseen; these are political categories that today are transformed into categories of labor. Then, there is a superposition, a confusion, among the three classic forms of life of our tradition and that is very important. At bottom, the concept of virtuosity tries to point out this superposition. Cleary Berlusconi, the new Italian right, the new international right, when it wins it is because it gives an organized political expression as if there were virtuosos, in the sense of virtuosity. That is certain but it pertains to this more general ambivalence of which we were speaking before.


1. “Virtuosity And Revolution: Notes On The Concept Of Political Action”, Tr.

2. The piece in question here is Paolo Virno, ”De la violencia a la resistencia” online at
<> - tr. english version here

3. Quaderni Rossi was a legendary theoretical journal of marxist orientation that circulated in workerist fields, where were undertaken, “a workers inquiry”. It was founded by Raniero Panzieri in 1959. Between ‘63 and ‘66 a split occurred in the original group. From that split emerged the journal Classe Operaia lead by Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, and Antonio Negri, among others, an expression of the growth of the Italian workerist current.

4. Potere Operaio of a neoleninist orientation, was the first workerist mass organization that structured itself at the national level. Its action oriented itself toward the factories and the universities. The first group was formed in Venice, in 1967. In the autumn of ‘69 it constituted the national groups. In ‘73 it dissolved.

5. The movement of ‘77 is fully considered in one of Virno’s classic articles: “Do you remember counterrevolution?” Following Virno, the movement of ‘77, formed by “student workers and worker students” and precarious workers of all types taking the fluidity of the labor market, which determined common attitudes, as their own. They transformed the increase of the area of nonwork and precariousness into a collective journey, in a conscious migration from the labor of the factory. It broke the nexus between labor and socialization. Virno would later use this experience to ground a reflection upon exodus as a strategy that takes account of the nomadism (estranged from a fixed place of work, that comes to be only an episode in the biography more than a “perpetual chain”) characteristic of this movement.

6. Following Virno, postfordism emerged in Italy with an inverted ‘77: it is capital, now, that authorizes the tendencies of mobility, refusal of the ethic of work, and flexibility in order to restructure, upon these dynamic bases, new apparatuses for its proper reproduction.

7. The 7th of April of ‘79 Toni Negri was accused of being the head of a single organization that consists of a political wing (Autonomia Operaio) and an armed wing (the Brigate Rosse). He was accused also of being the organizer of the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro and of “armed insurrection against the state.” Thirty other people were detained at the same time.

8. Luogo Comune: political journal published between November of 1990 and June of 1993. They put out four issues. In addition to Virno, other collaborators on Lugo Comune, included Giorgio Agamben, Franco Piperno, Antonio Negri, Sando Mezzadra and Sergio Bianchi.

9. Fragment on machines and General Intellect. The fragment on machines is a text by Marx published in Notebook VI of the Grundrisse. There, in a few short pages Marx affirms that “capital works toward its own dissolution as dominant form of production” to incorporate general scientific labor, technological application of the natural sciences, social structuring of global production. General Intellect is a category extracted from the original text of the same fragment which says “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.” [Marx, Grundrisse, p. 706, Vintage Edition - tr.] From here derives the notion of “mass intellect” or “intellect of the masses” that Virno uses in the interview.

10. Future Anterieure: journal founded by Toni Negri during his exile in France.

11. Disobbedienti: current Italian political organization composed, among others, by the dissolved Tute Bianchi and the Youth for Communist Refoundation.

12. DeriveApprodi: theoretical and political journal founded in 1992, coedited by Virno and others. Now it is a publishing house. [A good deal of material from DeriveApprodi is reprinted in Spanish in the journal Contrapoder, available online at - tr.]

13. The Spanish version of this interview reads 'International Workers of the World'. The Italian text Virno is discussion is called 'Immaterial Workers of the World', as reference to the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant union from the United States. The text 'Immaterial Workers of the World is online in Italian and in Spanish - tr. [To read the editorial of the DeriveApprodi 18th issue called 'Immaterial Workers of the World', click here]

14. I am unclear on how to translate the phrase “syndicalizacion de base”. For now the insufficient ‘grassroots unionization will have to do. In Italy there are unions called ‘base unions’, the COBAS. I am not sure whether Virno intends here this particular form of union organization, or simply ‘more unionization at the grassroots level’. - tr.

15. Sindicalismo de base

16. See Tesis sobre el nuevo fascismo europeo - tr.

17. In Spanish the phrase is “el verbo que se hace carne”, literally “the verb that makes itself flesh.” I have translated the phrase here as the more typical English phrase - tr.

18. “verbo”, literally “verb” - tr.

19. See “Weak Thought between Being and Difference” by Adelino Zanini, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Virno and Hardt. - tr.

* Thanks to Sebastian Touza for help on idiomatic phrases.Thanks to Veronica Gago and Diego Sztulwark (Colectivo Situaciones) together with Marcelo Matallanes, who made this material available to us.

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