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.