An Interview with Paolo Virno (by Alexei Penzin) // The Soviets of the Multitude: On Collectivity and Collective Work

Published at Manifesta Journal, # 8, 2010.

Paolo Virno is one of the most radical and lucid thinkers of the postoperaist political and intellectual tradition. Of all the heterodox Marxist currents, postoperaismo has found itself at the very center of debates in contemporary philosophy. Its analytics of post-Fordist capitalism refer to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, to Heidegger and his Daseinsanalysis, to German “philosophical anthropology,” and to Foucault and Deleuze with their problematization of power, desire and control apparatuses. Subjectivity, language, body, affects or, in other words, life itself, are captured by this regime of post-Fordist production. These “abstract” concepts and discourses have entered the reality of contemporary capitalism and become fundamental to it, as real, functioning abstractions. Such theoretical suggestions have launched enormous polemics over the last two decades.

Collectivity and subjectivity are two poles of the contemporary “culture industry.” Virno proposes to rethink the meaning of this Adornian notion. “Culture industry” is a model for the whole network of production in the post-Fordist economy in which each subject-producer is a “virtuoso.” In fact, in the actual conditions that have led to the disappearance of the standardized molds of the industrial Fordist epoch, there has been a profusion of performances without any pre-established scripts. This is one of the reasons why 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.” However, there is still the need to identify its antipode, which classically is the collectivity.

To outline the opposite pole of subjectivity, I questioned Paolo Virno about the use of the term “multitude”—as a new political articulation of labor that avoids a repressive unification in the One (the State, nation, or a cultural “grand style”)—in order to understand how it is possible to think its mode of unity, how new forms of micro-collectives work and how one might explain their explosive proliferation and creativity.

It is particularly interesting for me to ask the following questions not from a post-Fordist position, but rather from the post-socialist world, being myself part of a collective initiative that works in a space between theory, activism and artistic practices. In the post-socialist zone, new forms of labor (as well as poverty, extreme precariousness and anomie), which replaced the Soviet ancient régime under neo-liberal slogans with furious, destructive negativity, presented themselves as urgent or necessary components to the “transition to free market and democracy.” We witnessed the atomization and fragmentation of post-socialist societies, the horrifying violence of “primitive accumulation” (Marx) in the 1990s, followed by the violence of “primitive political accumulation” (Althusser) as the rebirth of some mutant form of a repressive State in the 2000s. Maybe we should break up forever with the historical past of State socialism with its pompous glorification of monumental collectivity. However, is it really the case that, in the end, State socialism has to become the “communism of capital,” to use Virno’s words? Virno’s contribution is especially pertinent to understanding whether these new developments are forcing us to recall those revolutionary political institutions after which the Soviet Union was named: the soviets, or workers’ councils, which served as tools for democratic self-organization. This is the context in which we finally came to discuss “The Soviets of the Multitude.”

The Soviets of the Multitude- On Collectivity and Collective Work pdf

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