Multitude and Working class
Maurizio Lazzarato interviews Paolo Virno
Maurizio Lazzarato: Could you define the similarities and the differences between the notion of ‘multitude’ as it’s been conceived in the history of philosophy and the use that we make of it today? Is there continuity of rupture between the concept of ‘multitude’ and the concept of ‘working class’? Can the two concepts be integrated or do they refer to two ‘different politics’?
Paolo Virno: There are some analogies and many differences between the contemporary multitude and the multitude studied by the political philosophers of C17th.
At the dawn of modernity the ‘many’ coincided with the citizens of city state republics that preceded the birth of large Nation States. Those ‘many’ made use of the ‘right of resistance’, the ius resistentiae. Such right does not mean in the banal sense, legitimate defence: it is something more complex and refined. The ‘right of resistance’ consists in asserting the prerogatives of a singular, of a local community, of a craft guild, against the central power, whilst preserving forms of life that have already been affirmed, and protecting already entrenched habits. Thus it entails the defence of something positive: it is a conservative violence (in the good and noble sense of the term). Perhaps the ius resistentiae, i.e. the right to protect something that already exists and seems to deserve to last, is what brings most together the C17th multitudo and the post-fordist multitude. Also for the latter, it is surely not a question of ‘seizing the power’, of building a new State or a new monopoly of political decision but rather of defending plural experiences, embryos of non-state public sphere and innovative forms of life. Not civil war, but ius resistentiae.
Another example. It is typical of the post-fordist multitude to provoke the collapse of political representation; not as an anarchist gesture, but as a realistic and quiet search for political institutions that elude the myths and rituals of sovereignty. Hobbes had already warned against the tendency for the multitude of adopting irregular political organisms; “nothing but leagues and often mere meetings of people lacking a unity geared towards some particular design or determined by obligation of one towards another.” (Leviathan Chapter 22). However it is obvious that non-representative democracy based on the general intellect has an entirely different significance: nothing interstitial, marginal or residual: rather the concrete appropriation and rearticulation of knowledge/power that is today congealed in the administrative apparatus of the States. But let us come to the capital distinction. The contemporary multitude carries in itself the history of capitalism. Moreover it is one and the same with the working class whose primary matter is constituted by knowledge, by language and by affects.
I would like to dispel an optical illusion. It is said: the multitude signals the end of the working class. It is said: in the universe of the ‘many’ there is no longer a place for blue overalls, that are all the same and constitute a body that is insensitive to the kaleidoscope of ‘differences’. Whoever says this is wrong. And it is an unimaginative mistake: every twenty years there is someone who declares the end of the working class. Even though the latter is, neither in Marx nor in the opinion of any serious person, identified with a specific organisation of labour, a specific complex of habits or a specific mentality. Working class is a theoretical concept, not a souvenir photo: it indicates the subject that produces absolute and relative surplus value. The notion of ‘multitude’ is counterpoised to that of ‘people’ rather than to that of the ‘working class’. Being multitude does not impede the production of surplus value. On the other hand, producing surplus value does not at all entail the need to be politically a ‘people’.
Of course the moment the working class ceases to be a people and becomes a multitude many things change: starting from the forms of organisation and of conflict. All becomes complicated and gets paradoxical. How easier it would be to tell ourselves that now we have the multitude rather than the working class…but if simplicity is desired at all costs, we might as well down a bottle of red wine.
Moreover there are passages in Marx where the working class loses the physiognomic features of ‘people’ and acquires those of ‘multitude’. One example: let us think about the last chapter of the first volume of Das Kapital where Marx analyses the condition of the working class in the United States (Chapter 25, ‘the modern theory of colonisation’). There we find great pages on the American West, on exodus and on the individual initiative of the ‘many’. European workers driven out of their countries by epidemics, famine and economic crisis, go to labour in the large industrial centres on the east coast of the USA, mind you: they stay there for several years, only several years. Then they desert the factory and move towards the west, towards the free land. Wage labour presents itself as a transitional episode rather than a life sentence. Even if only for twenty years, wage labourers had the possibility of spreading disorder in the iron laws of the labour market; by abandoning their own initial condition, they determined the relative scarcity of labour and thus wage increases. By describing this situation, Marx offers a vivid portrait of a working class that is also multitude.
Translated from the Italian by Arianna Bove