Creating a new public sphere without the State

Interview with Paolo Virno by Héctor Pavón 24th December, 2004

Translated from Spanish by Nate Holdren.

Paolo Virno maintains that we live in an epoch of crisis that, as occurred in the 17th century, requires rethinking every concept and category. He wagers on a democracy of the “multitude” that no longer should take power but rather should create a new public sphere that disregards the State and valorizes the individual. [In] his last book, When The Word Becomes Flesh*, he returns with scientific and philosophic reasons to a materialist vision of life.

“The future can be charged with promises but can also be full of terror.” Here, with brute realism, Paolo Virno – Italian philosopher and a main contemporary thinker in Europe and in some Argentine intellectual circles – refers to the present. “I want to elaborate a materialist philosophy that takes as its point of departure the fact that the human being is a linguistic and political animal, as Aristotle said. The biological condition of our species provokes the fact of speaking and doing politics. The materialism that I propose seeks to unite nature and history,” says Virno, as a declaration of principles. Marx, Hobbes, Spinoza, Deleuze and Simondon are his canonical references. Among his books is Grammar Of The Multitude, which outlines his political-philosophical ideas and shows him to be a key author for understanding the readings of “multitude” made by another better known Italian: Toni Negri. But Virno questions the postulates of Empire and Multitude, written by Negri and Michael Hardt, for he considers the idea of Empire as analysis to be “premature”. Virno’s name began to be heard in Argentina around the cacerolas** in December 2001. When he linked these events with the protests in Seattle and Genoa, his interpretations received as many polemical responses as supporting opinions. Now When The Word Becomes Flesh is being published in Argentina (by Tinta Limón and the Cactus group). This is a complex book of profound philosophical reflections on language, human nature, the concept of multitude and Ludwig Wittgenstein. From Rome he spoke of his philosophic passions in a friendly and generous manner.

Héctor Pavón: We live in a new epoch that, as such, needs new values, new concepts. But who thinks them, who constructs them?

Paolo Virno: This is the problem of new political forms. I think that we are in a situation rather similar to that of 17th century Europe, when all the categories, all the concepts that now seem obvious, trivial, and common, were invented. At that time the idea of the central nation state was created, and concepts such as sovereignty and the obligation to obey were invented. My impression is that we are going through a period when all of these concepts are in crisis, and others are being constructed. Who constructs them? This is a very good question. We should not think that philosophers or thinkers are the ones who invent political concepts, because this is a conception of the political taken from the worst of Plato or the worst Illustration. These concepts emerge little by little within collective experiences, by trial and error. A new mode of being in the public sphere is emerging, a mode that is characterized by the fact that the state has become old and inadequate, like the typewriter compared to the computer.

HP: The present seems full of fear, of anguish, of the known and the unknown; it is an era of uncertainty. Where is the exit: in philosophy, art, psychoanalysis, politcs?

PV: I believe that fear is a diffuse feeling, characteristic of our epoch. It is a fear in which two previously separate things become merged: on one had, fear of concrete dangers, for example, losing one’s job. On the other hand, a much more general fear, an anguish, which lacks a precise object, and this is the feeling of precarity itself. It is the relationship with the world as a whole as a source of danger. These two things normally were separated. Fear for a determinate reason was something socially governable while anguish over precarity, over finitude, was something that religions or philosophy tried to administer. Now, by contrast, with globalization these two elements become one. We should note that when I have fear of a concrete danger I also feel all of my precarity with respect to my life, the world as such, and the meaning of my life. We experience in social situations – like the crisis in Argentina two years ago, or the life of immigrants that come to Europe – at the same time a concrete social economic problem and a relation with the world that appears to us with all its drama. I believe that what could constitute a remedy, a cure for this anguish and fear, is the construction of a new public sphere. I understand by public sphere new forms of life that no longer have obedience to the state and the obligation to waged labor in a work stripped of its meaning that is beneath what women and men can do with their intelligent collaboration. A new public sphere where singularity itself can be valorized, without converging toward a type of transcendent unity that is something of the sovereign, the state.

HP: You have said that today the objective of politics is happiness. An expression that could seem poetic, but what is its social interpretation?

PV: In speaking of happiness, many people perhaps thinks of that article of the United States Constitution that speaks of the right to be happy. I think above all of the use that Hannah Arendt made of the expression public happiness. It is difficult to think of a happiness that is a secret possession, a private good. Happiness is something related with the fact that our mind, mine, yours, is always as such a public mind, social, and can only realize itself when it is in relation with its fellows. The idea that we are minds in ourselves, complete, and that only in a second instance do were place ourselves in relation with others seems to me to have little credibility, it is false. And so I think that the state of well-being that we call happiness is something that can and must come with time. I think that in ’68 in Europe or in the US or in Latin America, on occasion we were personally happy. There is a point in which what happens around us and what happens in our most intimate feelings has a very strong relationship. The nexus between politics and happiness has been denied for a long time in the name of asceticism, of the separation between the public and the private, but there comes perhaps the moment to think of a new link between the two.

HP: The union between nature and history is the basis of your materialist philosophy. How do you understand this union and what political implications does it contain?

PV: I believe that by human nature it is necessary to understand the set of invariant conditions that are always true and that constitute the base on which our lives change. There exist fixed conditions, constants that are always the same that permit a certain mutability in the human being, large changes in modes of production, customs, cultures. When we speak of a new epoch, we speak of how these invariant conditions – that is human nature, like the faculty of language – emerge in one manner or another, like the “always present”, the truly perpetual, in a historical society that changes. We understand human nature to be a set of conditions that are open to history, temporality and mutability; this set of conditions can be reduced to the fact that we are linguistic animals and that we are not born knowing what to do, but rather that we learn. In globalization, precarity, instability, the absence of a determinate environment, which is an element of human nature, becomes also a social characteristic, a sociological characteristic. For immigrants, for example, the fact of having to modify multiple times in their life their working knowledges, or rather, an element that had always been true, acquires a particularly strong visibility.

HP: When you refer to the virtuosity of people and their actions, are you thinking of particular models? Where are virtuosos found today? In which world or discipline?

PV: At one time, when someone said virtuoso, they thought of the great ballerina, the great pianist. For me, the characteristics of the virtuoso is much less artistic, much less sublime, today it is found in mass intellectual labor and in the postfordist economy, based on communication, culture, information. Frequently at work – in postfordist work – it is necessary to improvise, to know what to do in an unforeseen situation: the characteristics of the virtuoso don’t end in an object: rather than something that is an end in itself, it is a relationship with the one who listens, with a public. These characteristics today are present in industrial labor. They have been socialized.

HP: The historian Jacques Revel says that we fear the future, we seek refuge in the past and overestimate the present. Are we living in a present that resists being past?

PV: I believe that a certain fear of the future is due to the end of the idea of progress, the idea that the future could be better than the present. Now we are faced with a totally contingent future. That is to say that it can be charged with promises but also be full of terrors. It is as if we lacked an ethics, a habit of how to face a future that is not guaranteed by the idea of progress. This is why there is a certain fear of the future. I have the impression that there is a total concentration on the present itself and that in order to order it and comprehend it, figures of the past are evoked. It is a matter, however, of an evocation that functions as an attempt to try something new in the here and now.

HP: You don’t believe that the cycles of capitalism and empire, or imperialism, are a déjà vu – this figure that you worked with in El recuerdo del presente?

PV: It can appear as a déjà vu only because contemporary capitalism evokes human nature as such, but in a very particular historical configuration: exploitation. On the other hand, in contemporary capitalism there is precisely this union between that which is always worthwhile and that which is worthwhile only now but can also be modified. This is where the impression of déjà vu arises from. Capitalists have always said: we are an economy linked to human nature. This is true and false at the same time, in the sense that with capitalism, when one speaks of labor power one refers to some human gifts that were always present in an absolutely particular mode that in fact is not the only possible one.

HP: The British historian Seton Watson has said that the Balkan people produce more history than they consume. Can this idea be extended to all of humanity? Does the world produce too much present and memory?

PV: Absolutely. It’s an excellent phrase. In El recuerdo del presente I claimed the opposite of what Fukuyama said about the end of History. We are living in a situation of excess of History. What does this excess consist of? Certainly many historic events happen, but the excess consists of the fact that in these historic events the human capacity to make History becomes a historical object. That is to say, our historicity, the capacity of being able to make History has become an object of praxis. For example, we make and we have History because we have language and because we are potential beings. These two things, our potentiality and our linguisticity, i.e. conditions of History, today come to be the raw material of the globalized economy. The worker should be open to potentiality, should be communicative. In place of speaking of the end of History, I spoke, together with Seton, of an excess of History or a hyperhistory. We lack an ethics and a politics adequate to this excess, and that is why there is a situation of anguish, of fear. There is uncertainty with respect to political forms, there is a crisis of the State but there is no already defined alternative. Why? This excess of History constitutes a disproportion with respect to our habits, our ethics, and our political categories.

HP: You said that the concept of multitude can have a certain familiarity for liberals because it values individuality. But don’t you think that it will also frighten them, because it leads to a communist multitude?

PV: Absolutely. The liberal idea of the individual and the singularity of the multitude are like twins, but also opposites. They are very similar, but with profoundly distinct meanings. Because the liberal thinks that the individual is the primary element and then tries to understand how the individual acts in relation to others and to the state. From the point of view of the multitude, the individual, the singularity is the result of a process. This is why we can speak of an old philosophical concept, the principle of individuation of which the singularity is the fruit, the result of a process of individuation, of differentiation. All of us, you, me, are irrepeatable singularities, but this is so because we arise, on the contrary, from universal common elements. Both of us, you and I, have characteristics that pertain to the whole species: the faculty of language, of thought, that later singularizes. As such, the individual is a result of common and universal elements.

HP: The multitude says no to representative democracy and proposes a participative democracy. But all modes choose governors. They vote in Argentina, Spain, the US… the people still vote.

PV: Certainly, they vote. They vote as they do other things that don’t count very much. The problem is not to not vote but rather to construct forms of democracy that are adequate to these productive forces. Contemporary production has come to a point that is much more complex, much more mature than the administrative and legislative apparatuses of states. The question, then, is what type of democracy. It is not a matter of simplified democracy, assemblies, direct democracy, but rather the contrary. Non-representative democracy should be translated into politics, into new institutions, as can already been seen on the level of global production. In saying non-representative democracy it is easy to think of the myth of direct democracy, which naturally is a beautiful myth. But it gives the idea of a simplified and elementary politics. This is why the question is what is adequate to the complexity of social production in which all the cognitive and communicative capacities of the human animal are valorized, which Marx named with the beautiful expression “General Intellect”, the social brain which is a pillar of modern production.

HP: With respect to the taking of power you have called those who return to this idea “enemies”. Who incarnates the role of enemy?

PV: I think the problem of the political enemy still exists. It demonstrates, on the other hand, that we are no longer in an easy sweet world. The multitude does not have the problem of taking power, it has the problem of limiting it and making the state decline, constructing new institutions and a public sphere outside of it. From this point of view there is an enemy, but it’s more like the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus in the Bible, who pursues an exodus, a flight. It is not a matter of a flight in space. It is a flight in the sense of exiting from the categories of state institutions. There is an enemy, but it is not the enemy that is confronted and has constituted the model for civil wars or is behind the idea of taking power. It is an enemy that hobbles, sabotages the construction of non-representative democracy, new communitary experiences.

HP: Does the multiculturalism that runs through the West help the formation of the multitude, or is it an obstacle to it?

PV: The multiculturalism that counts is the one that is given within experiences of social struggle and the construction of a new public sphere. A species of Kantian multiculturalism runs the risk of being like a good electoral proposal. One can speak of a virtuous but impotent multiculturalism. To me what seems important, by contrast, is a discourse over singularities. And singularity, not of the liberal type but rather of the multitude, is exactly the result of many factors, some of which are multicultural. But what counts is each One with all of its irrepeatable character that is the fruit of being, in every case, a Chinese immigrant in California or an Italian in Argentina. But each One is the aspect that counts, the valorization of its singularity. Rereading Marx, today after the crisis and end of socialism, of the dictatorial and odious regimes that were real socialism, what comes to mind is that he is in many aspects a thinker of singularity and its valorization. There are phrases in which Marx says: the individual must be valorized in the face of all abstraction above it. A phrase that today could be taken as a liberal one, when in reality it means the opposite.

HP: And the future of the working class? What is its role inside the multitude?

PV: The working class exists. Only in the mode of being multitude and not that of the people. It should not be believed that the multitude says goodbye to the working class. The working class is a scientific concept. It means who ever produces profit, surplus value. The socialist and communist movement thought of the working class in terms of the people, something compact, unitary, that at bottom wants to constitute a new State. In my opinion the working class today thinks in terms of multitude, of rich singularities, but it is always a matter of the working class.

HP: And after the invasion of Iraq, does real History begin, the “after the Berlin Wall”?

PV: Yes, exactly like that. I think that the '90s were years of waiting, an interregnum, while the true post-Wall period began recently with Bush and the invasion of Iraq. What a terrible theorist of the political, Carl Schmitt, called the nomos of the earth, the global order. The redefinition of this order began with the war in Iraq, not with Clinton in the '90s which was an intermediary place, a period of waiting, like an intermission.

HP: You don’t think that the Bush government shows where the heart of Empire is and who its leader are?

PV: Yes, I think that it demonstrates fully what is decisive in political thought: the relation of force. The fact that politics has been spoken of for some years without thinking more on the relation of force only demonstrates that politics has not come to be thought, to really be spoken about. Personally, as for the concept of empire, I have many doubts because it seems to me an attempt to photograph the post-wall situation of the end of socialism, taking the Clinton administration as the model. What new words should we adopt to name the new global order? What will we understand exactly starting from the post-Iraq development, in the next few years, in the relations with China. How to say it? Since recently we have faced the beginning of a redefinition of the forms of global domination. It is very premature to situate this, for example, in “Empire”.

HP: You belong to an Italian generational group that struggles for the revolution. The state repressed you, you were imprisoned. Are you disillusioned with the world we live in today? Would you prefer to have lived in another epoch?

PV: No. I say without reservation that this is my present. That does not mean approving of the world as it is. I consider it extremely rich and interesting, despite being dramatic and tragic too. I think that recently something like what was for some time called communism has become actual, a question of common sense. Not something extremist. What is to be done, what political and social forms is to be given to human nature? I return to a phrase of Walter Benjamin who said something like this: “To criticize the present, to feel the horror for some of its aspects but to belong to it without reservations.”

HP: For you, what is the meaning of the word revolution today?

PV: Perhaps we could do without the word revolution because this model was that of taking power and constructing a new State. It may be better to speak of exodus. I think that the model of exodus is a rich one. Exodus means, more than taking power or subduing it, exiting. Exiting means constituting a distinct context, new experiences of non-representative democracy, new modes of production. It offers a third possibility, and I am not speaking – please! – of the “Third way” but rather of a politics of the extinction of the state being positively constructive, opposing the word republic to the word state. This means constructing a non-statal republic with a movement that emerges more from exodus and positive experiments than from revolutions in the classical sense. The latter were an intelligent activity for many generations, but lead to the idea of constructing a new state. The point is no longer a monopoly over decision, which is to say multitude: many, plurality.

HP: Have you continued to observe Argentina after the crisis of 2001, with this new government?

PV: Yes, I have tried to keep myself as informed as possible. And in this new government what has interested me a great deal is how it could function. Because it contains an ambivalence. Is it possible that it could open, even involuntarily, constitutional spaces to the movements of struggle that were given during the crisis? And, naturally, in other aspects, it is a government that should reconcile itself with the global order, with globalization. It is a two-front government, like Janus. I am very interested in understanding concretely the conduct of this government. I remain for the moment with this word in my mouth: ambivalence. But I try to understand more.

*In Italian and Spanish the title of the book is literally “When the verb becomes flesh” [tr]
** Marches by crowds beating on saucepans. [tr]

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