"The Soviets of the Multitude" — interview with Paolo Virno

This interview with Virno, conducted by Alexi Penzin (of chto delat), helped clarify some things for me about how the collectivity of the multitude is supposed to work in theory. The idea is still predicated on what seems to me a faith-based notion of the general intellect, but here the general intellect becomes a political organizational principle, leading to neo-Soviets that challenge the state’s monopoly on decision-making by co-opting its provisional functions.

1. Penzin describes artists as the ultimate expression of post-Fordist “living labor”: “contemporary art provides the quintessence of virtuosic practices: the subjectivity of the contemporary artist is probably the brightest expression of the flexible, mobile, non-specialized substance of contemporary ‘living labor.’ ” Interesting. This is part of my suspicion of performance artists, and narcissist art: at its core, it is an expression of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism perfected would consist of a world where we are all performance artist-entrepreneurs creating value through their innovative lives, all of which will be atomized and mediated and reprocessed within the various commercial/advertising social-media networks — a world where the perpetual making of personal subjectivity is the generalized productive process powering the economy. (A legitimate question is whether that is so bad — the question Virno, et al., pose by reconfiguring such uber-neoliberalism as a sort of communist liberation.) I think there is something sinister in the real subsumption of selfhood, the condition in which we can only have identity on such terms, as a mediated, reified consumer-good-like product — one that comes with a great deal of insecurity and unmitigatable risk. (Has there ever been an alternative?, cynics might ask.)

2. Penzin describes Virno’s view of subjectivity by way of Gilbert Simondon: “You take as a point of departure Gilbert Simondon’s conception of the collective as something that is not opposed to the individual but, on the contrary, is a field of radical individualization: the collective refines our singularity. Recalling Marx’s notion of the ‘social individual,’ which presupposes that the collective (language, social cooperation, etc) and the individual coexist, you elaborate quite a paradoxical definition of Marx’s theory as a ‘doctrine of rigorous individualism.’ ” Virno refers to Vygotsky. But the premise is the same before the I comes a primordial us. Vygotsky: “the real movement of the development process of the child’s thought is accomplished not from the individual to the socialized, but from the social to the individual.” Virno posits that this is an ongoing move that echoes throughout our lives: “We constantly have to deal with the interiority of the public and with the publicity of the interior.” This view of subjectivity corresponds to the idea of capitalist society providing the preconditions to experience a particular form of possessive individualism as subjectivity, one that is then represented in ideology as being “natural” and/or “rational.” We must be socialized into individualism, as paradoxical as that may sound. For Virno, virtuosic post-Fordist labor is the performance of this transformation, of the social becoming simultaneously individuated in a group of subjects working together: “The virtuosic execution stages this transformation. If we think of contemporary production, we must understand that each individual is, at the same time, the artist performing the action and the audience: he performs individually while he assists the other’s performances.” The emphasis on “performance” is not accidental — his theory basically posits the performance of the self’s individuality among others as the main mode of production, as the way post-Fordist production happens.

3. Penzin sums up Virno’s theory of “human nature” as permanent precarity under neoliberalism:

As you say, what we nowadays call “human nature” is the basic “raw material” for the capitalist production. “Human nature” interpreted as a set of “bio-anthropological invariants,” as a kind of potentiality referring to the faculty of language, to neoteny as the retention of juvenile traits in adult behavior, to “openness to the world” (i.e. the absence of fixed environment), etc. You state that these anthropological invariants become sociological traits of a post-Fordist labor force, expressing themselves as permanent precariousness, flexibility, and the need to act in unpredictable situations. Post-Fordist capitalism does not “alienate” human nature, but rather reveals it at the center of contemporary production, and by the same move, exposes it to apparatuses of exploitation and control. Former ways of easing the painful uncertainty and instability of human behavior through ritual mechanisms and traditional social institutions melt into air.

Neoliberalism takes some aspects of our species and configures them as mandatory atomization and competitive entrepreneurialism, as requisite and ongoing insecurity, as the “permanent revolution” of capitalism in action.

4. I wish I understood what this meant in practical terms: Virno says, “If examined as productive realities, the micro-collectives you mention have mainly the merit of socializing the entrepreneurial function: instead of being separated and hierarchically dominant, this function is progressively reabsorbed by living labor, thus becoming a pervasive element of social cooperation. We are all entrepreneurs, even if an intermittent, occasional, contingent way.” How exactly do these ad hoc collectives socialize the entrepreneurial function? Is he talking about nonprofits replacing for-profits? Or something more nebulous? If we are all entrepreneurs, what is wrong with neoliberalism harnessing that potential? What good is it to characterize creativity as entrepreneurial? That seems to imply zero-sum competition for economic resources via innovation, spurious or otherwise. Seems like cooperation would replace entrepreneurship rather than emulate it. I need someone to explain this passage to me — has something to do with these new work organizational forms as enacting an “enterprising subtraction from the rules of wage labor.” Seems like he is talking about free labor, collaborative consumption, crowdsourcing, wealth of networks kind of thing. The freely supplied labor of many is whittled down to something productive/useful that is “owned” collectively.

5. That’s how Penzin seems to develop the idea anyway:

under the conditions of post-Fordism, collective work can be organized through “subtraction” when the result of the work is inferior to the sum of the collective effort. This becomes a sort of exception, an unexpected innovation (“the whole is less than the sum of the parts”). On the other hand, if not considered in terms of products, such collective work produces a feeling of strong subjectivity and strength, valorizing each member of the collective.

The last bit is a hopeful assertion, it seems to me; that those whose effort is subtracted will still feel like a meaningful part of the team and affirmed in their individual contribution. Virno replies with a similar faith-based claim, that this mode of production creates a ghostly surplus, a sort of accursed share: “Nowadays, the quota of collective intelligence that is thrown away in the production of goods is not physically destroyed, but somehow remains there, as a ghost, as a non-used resource that is still available. The power that is freed by the sum of the parts, even if not expressed in its whole, meet a very different destiny. Sometimes it becomes frustration and melancholic inertia, or it generates pitiless competition and hysterical ambition. In other cases, it can be used as a propeller for subversive political action.” He just asserts that this energy exists, waiting to be unleashed or corralled or channeled or dissipated. It may very well be that the extra collective intelligence in social production is wasted, used up, extinguished, dissipated in the act of production and does not linger, does not generate a resource for resistance. This supposed energy is akin to Shirky’s digital surplus — a theoretical possibility that may not manifest itself.

6. Penzin and Virno have an exchange about real vs. formal subsumption of the general intellect. Penzin attributes to Virno the idea that formal subsumption has returned with post-Fordism, in contrast to the Negrian view that real subsumption has proceeded further, subsuming more of everyday life. “Referring to Marx’s dichotomy, you say that this means a return to ‘formal subsumption.’ Therefore, capitalists do not organize the whole chain of production process, they just capture, and commodify, spontaneous, ‘self-organized’ social collaborations and their products.” I think that is how understand the business model of social-media companies — they provide the playing field for self-creating labor that can be harvested for other purposes, made profitable for the field providers. Facebook is the social factory. Virno articulates it using a motif Zizek has also used: contemporary work conditions “order us to be spontaneous” — this contradiction, Virno calls formal subsumption. It seems to me that to the degree that this command is general, you get the sort of psychic maladies that Bifo talks about in his nutty e-flux articles. Living that contradiction is psychic precarity; it is a manifestation of capital’s impossible demands for endless innovation, endless accumulation, appropriating and devouring everything subjects need to sustain themselves spiritually (to get all metaphysical myself).

7. I thought Virno’s summation of his intellectual tradition was pretty compelling:

The critique of that modern barbarity that is wage labor, dependent on the employer, the critique of that “monopoly of the political decision” that is the State — these were our references in the 1960s and 1970s, and they still are today. These references made us enemies of the real and ideal socialism. From the beginning, our tradition longed for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the CPSU. It was divorced from the culture and the values of the “labor movement,” and this allowed it to understand the meaning of the labor fights against the wage. It recognized capitalism’s devotion to “permanent revolution,” to the continuing innovation of the labor process and ways of life, in order to avoid astonishment or lament, since the production of surplus value is no longer connected to the factory and sovereignty does not coincide any more with the nation-states.

He goes on to connect this with the new soviets, how they can work to dismantle the state. “The leagues, the assemblies, the soviets — in short, the organs of non-representative democracy — give political expression to the productive cooperation that has at its core the general intellect. The soviets of the multitude produce a conflict with the State’s administrative apparatuses, with the aim of eating away at its prerogatives and absorbing its functions.” I wish that came with specific concrete examples too. Does he mean the way Palestinian groups and the Taliban provide welfare services to win consent? Does he mean something more spontaneous and less tactical? Such a view can easily devolve into compassionate conservatism, where the state retreats from welfare-state functions but retains the monopoly on violence and power, using it to protect capitalist interests and the “level playing field” market and the legitimations that stem from it.

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