A Grammar of the Multitude

Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude covers some of the same ground as the work of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri. The multitude, in contrast to older notions of the People or the proletariat, is a grouping without unity. People come together in the multitude, on the basis of what they have in common; but without becoming One, without subordinating their singularities or negating their differences. Virno, like Hardt and Negri, derives the concept of the multitude from Spinoza, and argues that this form of organization is especially suited to our postmodern, networked society (to what Hardt and Negri call Empire, and Virno — focused more closely on modes of production — calls “post-Fordist” society).

Many readers (myself included) have found Hardt and Negri’s utopian invocations of the multitude a bit vague; and it’s here that Virno’s book is especially useful. Virno offers a number of different perspectives on the multitude. Basically Virno argues that, in post-Fordist production, it is less “labor power” (the potential to produce) that is being mobilized by capitalism (which is the traditional marxist formulation) than it is what Marx called “general intellect,” or the entire range of human capacities and abilities, both mental and physical.

From one point of view this is quite horrific: it means that capital demands from workers, not just exertion for a set number of hours a day, but everything, all the time: our dreams and intuitions, our passions and pastimes, our leisure as well as our work. We can see this in the spread of notions of “intellectual property,” as well as in the ways that leisure time as well as work time is increasingly subjected to the full sweep of commodification and branding. And this totalization of what capitalism demands from the worker goes hand in hand with the strategies of “flexible accumulation,” with its emphasis on part-time work, overtime work, continual changes in roles, pressure for innovation in every activity, etc.: all of which not only relegates everyone (including “professionals” on the one hand, and the unemployed or underemployed on the other) to the status of being a worker, but puts all workers increasingly in the status of what Marx called the Industrial Reserve Army (no job is permanent, everyone is replaceable, etc).

These conditions produce the category of the multitude. Specialization, or the division of labor, is increasingly a thing of the past. In the post-Fordist world, everyone increasingly draws upon a generalized “sharing of communicative and cognitive abilities.” Labor becomes increasingly performative, in the sense that what produced is more the productive activities themselves, than the reified end products. (This corresponds to what Hardt and Negri call affective labor, and to what others call the service economy). This means that poesis (making) and praxis (political or collective activity) are unified, for perhaps the first time in human history. All industry is subsumed by the culture industry: it’s not that cars are not still being manufactured, but that every aspect of the automotive industry, from how work is done on the shop floor to how advertising gives automobiles their cultural cachet and signification, is controlled by technologies of information and communication, which involve human beings in depth, rather than just calling upon them for specialized forms of labor. “The communications industry,” Virno says, “plays the role of industry of the means of production.” There isn’t any such thing as the “hacker class” hypothesized by McKenzie Wark, because in effect everybody is a hacker, and all social activity is grounded upon hacking.

This still sounds pretty dystopian: capital now demands everything from me, 24/7, rather than just eight hours a day. But this is where Virno — more convincingly, to my mind, than Hardt and Negri — sees grounds for an inversion. He recommends strategies of “civil disobedience” and “exit”: forms of resistance that no longer rely on “the gloomy dialectic between acquiescence and transgression,” but simply shift the grounds of social activity elsewhere. (To my mind, downloading mp3s is a low-key example of what Virno recommends). But more importantly, Virno draws out qualities of the multitude that, even if originally elicited by capitalist exploitation, necessarily exist in excess to that exploitation. Capitalism works by appropriating the surplus that labor creates; but under the conditions of “general intellect,” produced by the post-Fordist economy itself, there’s a surplus that no regime of privatization is able to expropriate and contain. This is due, first of all, to the sheer fact that intellect is now “general”: creativity and expression are no longer personal and private. The more I express my own singularities, the more I reject conformity to externally imposed norms, the more I find that my own expressions are in fact collaborative: that they intersect with, call upon, presuppose, and interact with those of others. Just as hip hop producers are most original and creative when they work with — rework — samples drawn from prior songs. Property is theft. There really is no private language, as Wittgenstein said.

Virno analyzes this process in many ways. Drawing on Gilbert Simondon, he discusses the process of individuation in the multitude: the way I express my singularity in the commuunicative context of general intellect cuts across traditional divisions of private and public. Virno also analyzes categories such as the “idle talk” and “curiosity” so excoriated by Heidegger (who views them with horror and disgust as inauthentic ways of being of the ignorant masses), and shows how they might better be regarded as civic virtues, and sources of invention and renovation. And Virno considers the question of “the emotional tonalities of the multitude,” of the ways certain affects are not so much subjectively felt, as already built into our way of being in post-Fordist society (this discussion resonates strongly with some of the arguments made by Brian Massumi about pre-subjective affects: a subject I hope to go into more in detail at some future point).

I hope I’ve given some sense of the richness of Virno’s book, despite its brevity (barely over 100 pages). I’m still working through the consequences of his arguments. It’s only by delineating the new grounds of affect and subjectivity that characterize the post-Fordist, network society, that we can even begin to think about tactics of political transformation. This is what grounds my current work-in-progress on postmodern aestheticism, and I’ve found Virno’s book richly suggestive.

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