Issue 12: Independences

Sylvère Lotringer

Reading time: 17 minutes



Nosotros, la multitud

Philosopher Sylvère Lotringer, placing us in the post-Fordist era of immaterial work and in relation to the Italian labor movement Autonomía Operaia​, contrasts Paolo Virno’s idea of the “multitude” with that approached by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in «Empire».

We, The Multitude

Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude is a short book, but it casts a very long shadow. Behind it looms the entire history of the labor movement and its heretical wing, Autonomia Operaia, Italian “workerism” (operaismo) which rethought Marxism in light of the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. For the most part, though, it looks forward. Abstract intelligence and immaterial signs have become the major productive force in the “post-Fordist” economy we are living in and they are deeply affecting contemporary structures and mentalities. Virno’s essay examines the increased mobility and versatility of the new labor force whose work-time now virtually extends to their entire life. The “multitude” is the kind of subjective configuration that this radical change is liberating, raising the political question of what we are capable of.

Operaismo has a paradoxical relation to traditional Marxism and to the official labor movement because it refuses to consider work as the defining factor of human life. Marxist analysis assumes that what makes work alienating is capitalist exploitation, but operaists realized that it is rather the reduction of life to work. Paradoxically, “workerists” are against work, against the socialist ethics that used to exalt its dignity. They don’t want to re-appropriate work (“take over the means of production”) but reduce it. Trade unions or parties are concerned about wages and working conditions. They don’t fight to change the workers’ lot, at best they make it more tolerable. Workerists pressed for the reduction of labor time and the transformation of production through the application of technical knowledge and socialized intelligence.

Ideologically, Operaism was made possible by the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, which revealed the true nature of bureaucratic socialism. It became clear that the Soviet Union wasn’t the Workers’ Country, but a totalitarian form of capitalism. Around that time the first large emigration of Italian workers from the impoverished South to the industrial North proved even more unsettling. Instead of submitting to the new system of mass production, young unskilled workers (“mass-workers”) bypassed established tradeunions, which privileged skilled workers, and furiously resisted the Ford assembly line. The Operaist movement took off in 1961 after the first massive labor confrontation in Turin. Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks), its first publication, analyzed the impact the young mass workers had on the labor force and the new “class composition” that emerged from recent capitalist transformations. Classe Operaia (Working Class), published in 1964, formulated a new political strategy, the refusal of work, challenging capital to develop its productive forces with new technology. This “strategy of refusal” (a seminal essay by Mario Tronti) was applied “inside” capitalist development, but “against it.” It anticipated the post-68 analysis of capital by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze in Anti-Oedipus (1972), and brought Italian social thinkers and post-Structuralist French philosophers together in the mid-70s. What mass-workers objected to most was the transfer of human knowledge to the machines, reducing life to “dead labor.” There was an existential dimension there, but active and creative. Their effort to change labor conditions was unknown to classical Marxism, mostly preoccupied with mechanisms of oppression and their effect on the working class.

It took the inventiveness of Italian social thinkers to turn this cursory account of the workers’ desire “to become independent landowners” into an anticipation of the postmodern multitude. While Hardt and Negri consider this kind of Exodus “a powerful form of class struggle,” Virno cautions that desertion was “a transitory phase,” an extended metaphor for the mobility of post-Fordist workers. A nuance, maybe, but significant. Unlike Hardt and Negri, Virno refrains from turning exile, or the multitude for that matter, let alone communism, into another splendid myth.

Breaking away from the orthodox and populist Marxism of Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party, young Operaist intellectuals learned from the workers themselves what the reality of production was. They helped them create their organizations and confront the system of production. This pragmatic and militant aspect of workerism sets Italian social thinkers apart. They opposed the hegemony of the Italian C.P. and Gramsci’s strategy of small steps (the “war of position” within civil society) which led to Eurocommunism and the “historic compromise” with the governing Christian-Democrats (conservatives). Operaists were the first to question the centrality of the proletariat, and call for a reevaluation of the categories of class analysis. The notion of “changing class composition” introduced by Sergio Bologna allowed them to re-center the revolutionary struggle on the “new social subject” just emerging at the time both from the factory and the university. [1] The “Troubled Autumn” of 1969 was marked by the powerful offence of mass-workers to obtain equality in salaries. Various workerist groups joined together to create a new organization, both a group and a magazine: Potere Operaio [Workers’ Power] through which the reformulation of Marxism became seminal for the entire autonomist movement. In 1974, the clandestine line of the Red Brigades clashed with the open forms of collective organization within Potere Operaio and led to the group’s self-dissolution.

The workers’ formidable pressure to control the cycle of production met with serious provocations from the secret services and the Christian-Democratic government, starting with the bombing of Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969. Hastily attributed to the anarchists by the government, it justified an intense police repression of workers’ organizations. This “strategy of tension” tore Italy apart and sent shock waves well into the 70s, verging on civil war.

In 1975 Potere Operaio was replaced by Autonomia, a large movement involving students, women, young workers and the unemployed. Their rhizomatic organization embodied every form of political behavior anti-hierarchical, anti-dialectical, anti-representative— anticipated by Operaist thinkers. Autonomia was libertarian, neo-anarchistic, ideologically open and loosely organized by regions, it was respectful of political differences. Autonomist groups only cooperated in common public actions. Experimental and imaginative, the mass movement was a far cry from the tight terrorist groups taking “armed struggle” into their hands. In 1977, an autonomist student was murdered by the fascists in Rome and Autonomia exploded into the “Movement of 1977”. [2]

Accused of being a shadow command for the “armed wing of the proletariat,” all the autonomist leaders, including Negri, were arrested and jailed in April 1979. Others, like Piperno and Scalzone, went into exile (not by their own choice). Paolo Virno, was on the editorial board of the influential autonomist magazine Metropoli and spent two years in jail before being cleared of all charges [3]. (Twentyfive years later many autonomists are still in prison).

Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire makes no explicit reference to this period of social and political creativity, there is a good reason for that. The US American Left at the time was siding with Eurocommunism and considered Autonomia with suspicion. And yet the theses Negri defended then were hardly different from those he is developing today. So what has changed?

Unfortunately, few people will realize that the multitude isn’t just a philosophical concept lifted from Spinoza—the democracy of the multitude—that it has a history under another name, and has been the object of vibrant collective experiments. They will never suspect either that the issues raised at the time are being picked up again, and that some kind of intellectual renaissance is presently occurring in Italy. What has been resurfacing recently in the United States with Empire isn’t just another American cultural fad (“Empire” replacing “Globalization”) but a bold and controversial social laboratory for the present. Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude is another sign of this return.

In “The Strategy of Refusal,” published in 1965, Mario Tronti warned against focusing too much on the power of capital, or assume that it curbs labor power to its own ends. Workers are a class for themselves before being a class against capital. It is always capital that “seeks to use the worker’s antagonistic will-to-struggle as a motor for its own development.” [4] Empire develops the same argument: capitalism can only be reactive since it is the proletariat that “actually invents the social and productive forms that capital will be forced to adopt in the future.” [5] It was the Italian workers’ stubborn resistance to the Fordist rationalization of work, and not mere technological innovation, that forced capital to make a leap into the post-Fordist era of immaterial work.

Revisiting the tumultuous years of Autonomia, Virno realized that their struggle hadn’t achieved their goals. The political confrontation only had a “semblance” of radical conflict, he says, because what autonomists were claiming wasn’t really subversive in itself, just an anticipation of the post-Fordist mutation. Autonomists simply “had the misfortune of being treated [by those who still identified with the declining Fordist paradigm] as if it were a movement of marginal people and parasites,” which it was not. And yet, Virno now estimates that it was just an “angry and coarse” version of the post-Fordist multitude. Autonomia was a defeated revolution, to which the post-Fordist paradigm was the answer.

But what kind of an “answer” is it? And in what way does the post-Ford era achieve what Autonomia failed to do by more direct means? The new proletariat didn’t replace the working class, but extended it to all those whose labor is being exploited by capital. In the post-Fordist economy, surplus value is no longer extracted from labor materialized in a product, it resides in the discrepancy between paid and unpaid work—the idle time of the mind that keeps enriching, unacknowledged, the fruits of immaterial labor. The multitude is a force defined less by what it actually produces than by its virtuality, its potential to produce and reproduce itself. So is it really a gain over what existed before? Workers used to work in servile conditions, leaving them just enough time to replenish. Now their entire life is live labor, an invisible and indivisible commodity. Today all the multitude does is monitor signs on a screen. But machines are not “dead labor” anymore, they are part of the workers’ “life labor” which now plugs into the “general intellect” disseminating knowledge across the entire public sphere. The more creative and adaptable the workers are—the more self-valorizing—the more surplus of knowledge they can bring to the community at large. The multitude is a by-product of the technological mutation of the productive process. In the post-Ford era, human communication has become the basis of productive cooperation in general. In purely social terms then, Virno is right. This is what autonomists were trying to achieve when they advocated “non-guaranteed” labor and nomadic ways in order to evade labor slavery and experience life to the fullest.

But is it also true in political terms? The multitude is a new category in political thought. But how “political” is it compared to the Autonomia movement? It is, Virno suggests, open to plural experiences and searching for non-representative political forms, but “calmly and realistically,” not from a marginal position. In a sense the multitude would finally fulfill Autonomia’s motto—“The margins at the center” through its active participation in socialized knowledge. Politics itself has changed anyway. Labor, politics and intellect are no longer separate, actually they have become interchangeable, and this is what gives the multitude a semblance of de-politization. Everything has become “performative.” Virno brilliantly develops here his major thesis, an analogy between virtuosity (art, work, speech) and politics. They all are political because they all need an audience, a publicly organized space and a common language in which to communicate. And they all are a performance because they find in themselves, and not in any end product, their own fulfillment.

The contemporary multitude not being a class, it can’t build a class consciousness of its own, let alone engage capital in a class struggle. And yet its very existence as multitude, distinct from “We, the People” (always predicated on the State) speaks of “the crisis of the form-of-state” itself. A Grammar of the Multitude dwells at length on the changing nature of contemporary forms of life, but it doesn’t elaborate further on this crisis of the nation-state, simply attributes it to the “centrifugal character of the multitude.” It is at this point that Empire comes in.

Empire is a powerful political synthesis of the momentous transformations that are relegating parties and nation-states to a subsidiary role. Advanced capitalism is de-regulating markets, forcing modern states to transfer their sovereignty to a superior entity, an “acephalous supranational order” made of a pyramid of transnational corporations, trans-political organizations and advanced capitalist nations led by the only remaining superpower, the United States. (The United States may well be imperialistic, but it is not Empire). Sovereign states losing their power of mediation, a new constitutional process is beginning to emerge, allowing for enforceable international regulations to proliferate and more complex forms of hierarchy and inequality to replace the traditional antagonism between state and society, ruling class and proletariat. As a result the kind of multitude Hardt and Negri have in mind is of a fairly different order than Virno’s. Empire isn’t an “epochal shift” brought about by post-Fordist economy and the imposition of a transnational universal order, it is another concession extracted by the entire multitude fronting for the old working class. Empire, still rising, already harbors the seeds of its own destruction.

It is a bold claim that aims to shake Empire at its very foundation. Placing Virno’s multitude at the heart of Empire opens up an entirely new political paradigm, while conveniently keeping class struggle as the motor of history. The dwindling of the nation-states, though, could well have weakened the revolutionary movement, but Hardt and Negri are emphatic that the “new social class” was indeed bolstered by the emergence of supranational structures. So they wouldn’t oppose globalization, actually welcome Empire as Autonomia praised America. Clearly, they needed an oversize enemy to build up the defeated Italian movement into a global counter-power.

For Hardt and Negri, the multitude is this new social class that removes itself from nations and parties to meet head on the challenge of Empire. “In its will to be-against and its desire for liberation, [the multitude] must push through Empire to come out the other side.” [6]

The other side, of course, is so much better. The problem is that a multitude capable of doing such a feat doesn’t exist—or doesn’t exist yet. At best, it remains a taunting hypothesis, and a promising field of investigation for whoever wants to follow the lead. [7] But the idea that capital could simply be “destroyed” by such an essentialist notion is a bit hard to swallow. Unlike the industrial proletariat, the postmodern multitude doesn’t make up “a workers’ army.” The “other side” belongs, poetically, to the panoply of endangered ideologies. That an alternative to the contemporary imperial order is “necessary”—the multitude must push through like a battering ram—doesn’t make its existence any more tangible. But Hardt and Negri are already busily thinking “how concrete instances of class struggle can actually arise, and moreover form a coherent program of struggle, a constituent power adequate to the destruction of the enemy and the construction of a new society. The question is really how the body of the multitude can configure itself as a telos.” [8] The telos, in other words, precedes the multitude, and for the most part replaces it.

What is exciting, actually, in Empire, is the question it implicitly raises by globalizing the multitude, not the assumption that it is “the productive force that sustains Empire and calls for and makes necessary its destruction.” This war is purely mythical, and so is the destruction of capital. That’s why their confrontation quickly takes on an allegorical dimension, a war between two principles. The multitude being as immaterial as the work it produces, it is dressed, Hardt and Negri write, “in simplicity, and also innocence.” It is prophetic and productive, an “absolutely positive force” capable of being changed “into an absolute democratic power.” Even its will to destruction would eventually become “love and community.” Evil Empire, on the other hand, the con-enemy, is just an “empty shell,” a giant with clay-feet, vicious, abusive, controlling, a predator always engaged in “an operation of absolute violence”. The functioning of imperial power,” Hardt and Negri conclude, “is ineluctably linked to its decline.” [9] Why call for a counter-power then?

Because History can’t wait. There is a question that keeps coming up again and again throughout Negri’s writings: the irreducibility of the moment of decision. Without a telos, a big narrative, a decision would mean nothing anyway. Empire involves an original kind of class struggle: a struggle looking for a class. For Virno it would be just the reverse: a class looking for a struggle. But Hardt and Negri already know what kind of class they are looking for. Their real purpose is to jump-start the revolutionary machine. They quote Spinoza: “The prophet produces its own people.” They want to produce their own multitude, but they are not exactly sure it will work. They even admit it candidly: “It is not at all clear that this prophetic function can effectively address our political needs and sustain a manifesto of the postmodern revolution against Empire…” [10] A postmodern revolution, no less. The class struggle was postmodern too.

Virno doesn’t have any telos up his sleeve, no ready-made program for the multitude—certainly not coming out “the other side.” It’s been tried before, didn’t turn out so well. Why should a “postmodern revolution” be any different? Anyone who cares for the multitude should first figure out what it is about and what could be expected from it, not derive its mode of being from some revolutionary essence. The ultimate goal of Virno’s inventive inventory is “rescuing political action from its current paralysis.”

Virno may be onto something when he suggests that Post-Fordism is “the communism of capital.” It doesn’t say that there is no more fights in sight, that post-Fordism brought us “communism.” Fights should be expected, but not a war that would allegedly destroy the enemy. A combat rather, meant to strengthen some forces present in capital, and join them with other forces in order to form a new communist ensemble. This is what Virno has been attempting to provide: the description of a combat, a cartography of virtualities made possible by post-Fordism, elements in contemporary life that could eventually be mobilized. The problem is not to destroy capital or Empire—destroy, they say—but bolster one’s own power. What is a body capable of?

“The communism of capital”: there is as much communism in capital as capital is capable of too: abolition of work, dissolution of the state, etc. But communism in any shape or form would require equality, and this, capital is incapable of providing it. Post-Fordism therefore can only satisfy the demands of a virtual communism. A communality of generalized intellect without material equality. How “communistic” can that be? And can this virtual communism be enough to turn subjected “people” into a freer “multitude”? This is what Empire is claiming to achieve, but the multitude isn’t exactly thriving beyond the First World, or below. In under-developing countries the new labor class is finding freedom through uprooting and over-exploitation. Inequalities everywhere are growing exponentially, and so is cynicism, not especially of the creative kind.

This is no reason for disenchantment. One of the virtues of Autonomia is that it was never afraid of claiming out loud: “We are the front of luxury.” At the time the exploited proletariat was still considered to be the repository of revolutionary wisdom. But only those who are free from slavery can dare imagine what being really free would be. It is a luxury that we should be able to afford: the luxury of imagining a future that would actively bring together everything we are capable of. These virtualities are present within capital in ambivalent and reversible features that are just waiting to be liberated. Immaterial workers are mobile and detached, adaptable, curious, opportunistic and cynical, also toward institutions; they are inventive and share knowledge through communication and language; they are mostly de-politicized, also disobedient. The multitude is an “amphibious” category that can veer toward “opposing developments,” or come to nothing, so a combat is constantly raging—not with Empire, within itself. A combat that first “defines the composition of forces in the combatant,” [11] not its victory over an exterior enemy.

Capital affords us to project ahead, work it from within, knowing all too well that it will be quick to instrumentalize any creative move, turning it into binary oppositions, however radical thay claim to be, proven recipes that failed repeatedly because they have become inadequate to think the complexity of the contemporary reality. The paradoxical positions autonomists have assumed in relation to work, or the strategic embrace of Empire by Hard and Negri, are part of a luxury of thinking ahead, unimpeded, which has become such a precious commodity in a world squeezed between mediocrity and self-satisfied gloom.

Capital doesn’t have to be “destroyed.” It is self-destructive enough, but not the way Hardt and Negri imagined it. Because it never stops provoking resistance to its own rule.

Capitalism itself is revolutionary because it keeps fomenting inequality and provoking unrest. It also keeps providing its own kind of “communism” both as a vaccine, preventing further escalation, and an incentive to go beyond its own limitations. The multitude responds to both and can go either way, absorbing the shocks or multiplying the fractures that will occur in unpredictable ways.

A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of capital…

*This text is an edition of the foreword written by the author for the book Grammar of the Multitude by Paolo Virno, edited by Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents.

[1] Sergio Bologna, “The Tribe of Moles” in Italy: Autonomia. Post-Political Politics, ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (New York: Semiotext(e), III, 3, 1980), 36-61.

[2] Cf. Bifo, “Anatomy of Autonomy” en Ibid., 148-170.

[3] Virno is now Dean in the Ethics of Communication at the University of Calabria where he gave in 2001 the three seminars that make up Metropoli.

[4] See Mario Tronti, “The Strategy of refusal,” in Italy: Autonomia. Post-Political Politics, ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (New York: Semiotext(e), III, 3, 1980), 28-35.

[5]  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 268.

[6] Ibid., 218.

[7] See Christian Marazzi, “Denaro e Guerra” [Money and War] in Andrea Fumagalli, Christian Marazzi & Adelino Zanini, La Moneta nell Impero (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2003). The crash of the new economy signals the resistance of the multitude to the financialization of the general intellect. Also see Breit Nelson, The Market and the Police: Finance Capital in the Permanent Global War (Unpublished).

[8] Ibid., 403-4.

[9] Ibid., 413, 344, 361, 63, 361.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] On “war” and “combat,” see Gilles Deleuze, Critical and Clinical (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 132.


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