A Virno Restrospective

Putting Virno in the context of our readings this week on anarchy (Colin Ward, Todd May, David Graeber) raised some questions about his uptake of Hannah Arendt’s categories (which she in turn derived from Aristotle, I believe).  Particularly in the Exodus essay (“Virtuosity and Revolution”), but also in his book (A Grammar of the Multitude), Virno wants to draw a sharp line (following Arendt) between production and politics: politics is a kind of “virtuoso” performance requiring the presence of others but leaving no end-product behind; production is (or was) indifferent to the presence of others and produces a final product.  And his point is that contemporary production not only incorporates aspects of “general intellect” in the form of technology in fixed capital (machinery), as Marx says, but also incorporates aspects of the general intellect in the performance of workers working together alongside the machines (that are themselves “doing” the work).  Post-Fordist work (under real subsumption) thus becomes a kind of virtuoso performance which therefore doesn’t involve an end-product.

But that, to my mind, diminishes the importance of what Marx also, elsewhere calls socialized labor: post-Fordist work does indeed involve virtuoso performance to some extent, in that it requires the presence (indeed, more: the cooperation) of others, responds to unforeseen circumstances, etc., as Virno says.  But that very cooperation (socialized work as a veritable force of production) also contributes value to the end-product, and therefore retains important features of productive activity, which Virno ignores.

And the same is true on the other side of the coin: under capitalism (as well as other circumstances) political action that is supposed to be virtuoso performance and thus produce no end product continues of course to require the presence of others, but it also generates and leaves behind a (more or less) permanent State apparatus as its product – and therefore retains important features of what is supposed to be the sphere of work.

As valuable as Virno’s notion of “exodus” is, his (or really Arendt’s) categorization risks obscuring both (1) the extent to which virtuoso-cooperative production contributes to surplus, and how such production could/should be self-organized rather than remain under the command of capital and (2) the extent to which political activity could/should be devoted to facilitating cooperative production relations themselves rather than constructing a State apparatus to enforce the commands of capital.

The University as Site of Struggle

The title of this post (echoing an early post) connects directly with our readings from Virno, it seems to me.  When labor-power appeared to be the main source of surplus-value, factories were the logical place to strike.  If Virno is right (and I think he is) that knowledge is a/the major/main source of surplus-value, then the university would be the logical place to strike or struggle – to prevent the privatization of knowledge and keep it part of the commons.

In this light, one might imagine trying to open the books on how a university licenses the patents its faculty produce, in order to examine the distribution of profits between the state/institution that owns the patents and the private firms that operationalize the knowledge and market the results.  But a more important next question would be how to make such public knowledge – owned by state institutions yet licensed to private enterprise – into truly common knowledge instead…

There’s mediation and there’s mediation…

Like Mark, I didn’t much care for the Mazzarella piece either, although it does raise interesting questions.  But what bothered me wasn’t so much his reference to “structures of representation and institutionalization” (what he actually referenced was a “subtle dialectic between emergence (immanence) and institutionalization (mediation) [as a] fundamental principle of social life” [722], which is not too different, it seems to me, from someone like Negri’s dialectic of constituent power and constituted power {not that I’m a great fan of dialectics}).  What I didn’t like was the middle ground he tries to find between Le Bon and the crowd and H&N and the multitude.  For one thing, he takes Le Bon too much at face value: despite what Le Bon says, language is not the product of a crowd, but of a multitude (the “language-community”), in which communication among individuals is “mediated” by the language-system without either (a) those individuals necessarily losing their individuality or (b) the system being imposed from the top down.  Crowds (in the strong sense) owe their existence to a leader, and participating in a crowd cancels out and homogenizes the individuality of the participants: their singularity is irrelevant to/extinguished by the crowd.  (We can debate the role of dictionaries and grammarians in attempting to control language from the top down, but language can work perfectly well without them.)  Mazarella also misses important aspects of Canetti, especially when he (M) opposes emergence to mediation [722 and passim].  What counts is not whether there is mediation or not, but the quality of the mediation.  A symphony orchestra performing classical music is top-down mediated – twice: the musicians are reproducing a pre-written score, and they are playing at the command of a conductor.  The performance of a jazz band improvising on a standard may be mediated by a chord-chart, but it doesn’t have to be mediated by a conductor or band-leader – and in free jazz, the performance is not even mediated by a chord-chart or familiar tune: it is “self-mediating” (self-organizing, emergent), produced (rather than reproduced) at the initiative of the musicians themselves, on the spot.  In other words, pace Mazzarella, a multitude can self-organize or self-mediate – and language, music, markets, and the internet are some of the vehicles by which this happens.


This juxtaposition of readings turned out to be very apt.  The slow-motion general strike is one version of what Harvey dismisses as a “termite theory” of revolution [124].  He claims that the term is not dismissive, but the terms of his argument [all of one paragraph, spanning 124-25] are revealing.  If the termite damage becomes too great, capital calls in the “exterminators (state power)” – and anyway, what guarantee is there that termite revolution will produce a “better form of society”?  But these are plausible objections to ANY and ALL anti-capitalist struggle, and therefore don’t constitute an argument against “termite revolution” in particular.  And by comparison, it SEEMS more likely (though without any guarantees) that the slow-motion general strike’s small-scale enclaves that ALREADY instantiate the direct-democratic and ecological values we strive for will more likely produce a form of society we’re happy with than a military or militaristic hierarchy designed to confront the power of capital head on and expropriate the expropriators by force.  Not that I’m against armed revolution per se, but it always begs the question of what to do with the revolutionary power-structure afterwards if it does win the day.  Harvey is certainly right about one thing, though – the structural dilemma of how the left can

fuse the need to actively engage with, but also create an alternative to, the capitalist laws of value determination on the world market, while facilitating the associated laborers’ ability democratically and collectively to manage and decide on what they will produce and how? [126]. 

But he is not open to as many possibilities as he might/should be.

What is remarkable about Harvey’s position as a Marxist (but less surprising as a geographer) is that he is willing to re-locate the site of struggle from the factory to the city – although he doesn’t have an easy time doing so, rhetorically speaking.  For how can “the exploitation of living labor in production… remain central” if we really DO give “equal status” to struggles against “secondary [sic] forms of exploitation” [129], i.e. “struggles against the recuperation and realization of surplus value from workers in their living spaces” in cities?

while the exploitation of living labor in production (in the broader sense already defined) must remain central to the conception of any anti-capitalist movement, struggles against the recuperation and realization of surplus value from workers in their living spaces have to be given equal status to struggles at the various points of production of the city.  [140]

It’s not clear to me that “equal status” and “remain[ing] central” are compatible.

The discussion of the slow-motion general strike may have clarified the argument in one important respect, regarding the difference between mere reformism and contributions to a proto-revolutionary general strike.  The transformation of a given institution should be both desirable in its own right AND seem likely to connect with other reforms to produce more wide-spread change.  They are both judgment calls (no guarantees) – but immediate desirability and prospective connectability are twin criteria that can’t be separated.