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…

Harvey (arrgghh!) and Holland (phew!)


OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece.  The Harvey chapters had me wanting to give up on the left.

The Harvey chapter on Occupy Wall Street is 99% ressentiment. He rails obsessively against the powers that be. They are evil, and we must resist. He gives no attention to what we are, what we are capable of, what kind of potentials the 99% has. In the chapter it seems we can only be good by negation, because we are not the 1%, and the 1% is evil. This is precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche decries in Beyond Good and Evil because, he says, it blinds us to our own powers.

Harvey characterizes people in Occupy as gathering together to talk about…the powers that be, about what the 1% is doing and how we can oppose them (p. 161). He says those that gathered wanted their opinions heard and their needs attended to (p. 162). He entirely misses the unique power of the movement: in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece, and also in NYC. The key was that people gathered not only to speak to, make demands on, and oppose the 1% (many did, to be sure), they also gathered to encounter each other.  Holland does well to emphasize the ways participants made real an alternative democratic society, though food provision, libraries, and general assemblies. So many participants did not come to make demands on the liberal-democratic state, because they knew, as Holland puts it, that the system was hopelessly corrupt (or, as the Spanish put it, que se vayan todos, (echoing the Argentinians ten years before)). So many came instead to ask each other what alternative they wanted to begin building together. The Greeks said this loud and clear in the First Declaration of the assembly in Syntagma:

For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

I guess we can’t give Holland too much credit for stressing this.  It was crystal clear and hard to miss.  How Harvey fails to see it is a mystery.  Ostrich-like.

But the thing I like most about the Holland is what I think D&G are particularly vital for now, what H&N pick up to a degree and what Virno’s idea of exodus gets at very well: that we absolutely must turn toward ourselves now.  We must wean ourselves from our obsession with the apparatuses of capture and their endless power to contain us.  We must leave off rubbing ourselves raw against the bars of our cage.  We must begin paying far more attention to what we can do, to the kinds of worlds we can make on our own, that we are already making on our own.  We must withdraw from capitalism, from the state, in a thoughtful and critical manner (lodge yourself on the strata, learn them, and then experiment with escapes), and we must, at the same time, begin-and-continue building the other worlds we want instead.  These other worlds must spread by contagion, as in Holland, or as I like to say, with Spinoza and Calvino, they must grow and spread according to their own internal drives.  Withdraw-and-create; exodus-and-invention.  Importantly, and true to D&G, I think, Holland hopes for a tipping point beyond which capital and the state begin to wither away because they are no longer necessary.  I share this hope, and I am currently trying to argue that this vision is something D&G offer that Ranciere doesn’t, despite the many strengths of the latter.

Speaking of spreading, though, I would push back on Holland on at least one point that I think is not insignificant.  He implies in several places that OWS was somehow a starting point from which similar movements spread.  That is true within the States perhaps, but I think it is important to remember that OWS was a very late comer in a wave of such democratic desire that washed across the world.  Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries; Greece and Spain; Israel; Chile; all were at a full boil while NYC looked on.  The Spanish (May) had been loudly pleading with the US for months to join their revolution when OWS finally got off the ground (September).  I remember thinking, that September, that finally something had begun in the US (though I wrongly expected it not to amount to anything).  It is very important not to narrate the Greeks, Spanish, Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. into the background.  They were the first, the loudest, the most creative, and the best.  They faced the more dire political and economic situations.  They deserve pride of place in the narrative about the democratic uprisings of 2010 and ff.  OWS should be celebrated energetically, but it should also, to an extent, always stand humbly in the shadow of the other extraordinary movements that came first.  Sometimes America is last and least.