Between Disobedience and Exodus

Interview with Paolo Virno by Flavia Costa

Translated from Spanish by Nate Holdren

Perhaps it is distance, combined with a doubtlessly original thought, is what allows us Paolo Virno to see a link, a principle of comprehension, that unites the Argentinian cacerolazos with antiglobalization protests. "There is a line that connects the Argentinian revolt with the protests in Seattle and Genoa in 1999 and 2001", he affirms. And he adds that, beyond the singular, the Argentinian case shares with the antiglobal movement the eruption of a new political subject, the multitude, which emerges with the postfordist mode of production and resists delegating its powers to the state. "Unlike the people," explains the Italian philosopher, "the multitude is plural, it refuses political unity, it does not transfer rights to the sovereign; its resists obedience and is inclined to form non-representative democracy."

Currently a professor at the University of Cosenza, Virno's ideas have been formed at the intersection of the philosophy of language and political theory, poetic experimentation and Marxist workerist militance. Together with Giorgio Agamben he founded the journal Luogo Comune. Today he is referent for the "new left" together with Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, the authors of Empire, the poetic political manifesto that has already had over a dozen editions. Here Virno responded to questions from Cultura.

Flavia Costa: In your last book, Grammatica della moltitudine (Grammar of the Multitude, tr), you affirm that to understand contemporary social behaviors it is necessary to return to the notion of "multitude", which today replaces the "people" as fundamental historical subject. When and why does thus mutation from people to multitude occur?

Paolo Virno: The decisive fact was the end of the fordist factory and its assembly line, and the arrival of intellect, perception, and linguistic communication as the principle resources of production. Saying that work today has become communicative means that it absorbs the generic human capacities that, until recently, unfolded during time outside of work. Aesthetic tastes, ethical decisions, affects, and emotions converge today in the world of work, and thus it becomes difficult to distinguish between "producer" and "citizen", "public" and "private". In this indistinction the multitude affirms itself.

FC: You followed events in Argentina attentively. Do you believe that the protests, with a strong anti-political sentiment, are an example of "multitude in action"?

PV: Certainly: multitude in action. The Argentinian revolt laid bare the most sensitized zone of so-called globalization. The other side of the moon. A line connects Seattle and Genoa, through an anti-state and anti-political sentiment that is proper to the multitudes. On the other hand, certain images remind me of the Paris Commune of 1871. Not because there are comparable events, but rather because they make me think of a phrase from Marx: "This is the political form finally discovered". He warned that they were at the time facing a form of atheist, materialist miracle: the advent of something absolutely unforeseen, a new form of life. And he saw also that it was necessary to create a thought and a praxis equal to the task of this new reality. Thus the revolts of Seattle, Genoa, or Buenas Aires reveal the existence of new forms of life and subjectivity, and challenge us to create new political forms that harmonize with them.

FC: What does a "non-representative democracy" mean? Put differently, what political exit are you beginning to see for these multitudes?

PV: In speaking of non-representative democracy I am not referring to a form of simplified democracy, of direct democracy, of assemblies. I think for example of the post-Genoa social forums of citizens, that assemble diverse collectives and individuals that organize themselves to think about alternatives to problems; I think of the laborious avenue of re-appropriation and re-articulation by the multitude of the knowledges and powers that until now have been congealed in the administrative apparatuses of the State.

FC: If the key to the epoch is the passage from Fordism to postfordism, what happens in countries like Argentina, where Fordism was precarious; where today, more than communicative work, the dominant trait is a dreadful level of unemployment?

PV: Yes, each case is particular, my impression is that where Fordism was precarious there was a passage to postfordism without the Fordist precedent. A central element of the new mode of production, as much in the Third World as in Germany, is the existence of a chronic unemployment that trains a large mass of workers for flexibility, the availability that the just-in-time system demands. The true training for postfordist production does not take place in the school but rather when the potential worker looks for work. It is there that he or she becomes opportunistic, adabtable, not fixed: when the worker acquires the aptitudes that the new mode of production requires.

FC: You say that the multitude is "ambivalent." What is the danger in this ambivalence; what is the "salvation"?

PV: To say it is "ambivalent" alludes to those distinctive characteristics of the multitude that can manifest themselves in opposite ways: as servility or as liberty. The multitude has a direct link with the dimension of the possible: each state of things is contingent, no one has a destiny - understanding by destiny the fact that, for example, no one is sure anymore that they will have the same job for life. This contingency is structural in this epoch and can have opposite developments: it can favor opportunism, cynicism, the desire to take advantage of the occasion in order to prevail over others; or it can express itself as conflict and insubordination, defection and exodus from the present situation.

FC: What do you understand by exodus? Because today this word for us has a special meaning: a great quantity of Argentinias leave the country, and even immigrants from neighboring countries are returning to their countries.

PV: No, I am not referring necessarily to a territorial exodus, but rather to desertion in one's own place: the collective defection from the state bond, from certain forms of waged work, from consumerism. Some authors, like Albert Hirschman, affirm that sometimes in protests, the voices don't manage to reach a change and are then only able to leave the game, run away. For that it is not only necessary to destroy certain things but also to construct, to have a positive proposal, so that exodus will no remain a solitary act.

FC: In relation to the changes in subjectivity, you have written in different texts that the human today is a stranger, a child, a lover of "common places". How do these three modes of being and inhabiting our epoch relate?

PV: The three things go together. Humanity is no longer available as a substantial ethos, or rather, a repertoire of repetitive uses and customs that reassure us and order our praxis. Due to this, one no longer feels "at home" anywhere. One is a permanent stranger. Thus there arrives at the first level the biological condition of the species: lack of specialized instincts, constant disorientation, a high degree of uncertainty. As in infancy, this is a stage of learning that today takes on a chronic character. Infancy, which loves repetition (the same story, the same game), extends into the technical reproducibility of art and of all experience. And we come thus to the "common places". When we use this expression today, we understand a banality, a stereotype. But is original meaning is different. Aristotle called "common places" those forms of fundamental discourse that are present in each enunciation, like the relation between before and after, reciprocity. These logical forms are the skeletal structure of the mind. To the "common places" there are opposed the "special places", the discourses that function only before a specific audience. Well then, the stranger as much as the child, in order to orient and protect him- or herself from the unforeseen counts only on the generalized structures of the mind, which is to say, the "common places". The "special places", over which the traditional ethics are articulated, are today disappearing or becoming empty simulacra.

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