11.14.2008

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Sylvère Lotringer on Paulo Virno's A Grammar of the Multitude

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(This is an excerpt Sylvère Lotringer's Forward. Courtesy of Wood's Lot)

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A Grammar of the Multitude
For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life
by Paulo Virno
Foreword by Sylvère Lotringer

Translated from the Italian
Isabella Bertoletti
James Cascaito
Andrea Casson
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FOREWORD: 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, 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 (workerism) 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.

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In the mid-30s the leftist philosopher Simone Weil experienced the appalling abjection of the assembly line first hand by enlisting in a factory. She wondered whether Lenin or Stalin could ever have set foot in a work place and celebrated workers' labor. "The problem is, therefore, quite clear," she concluded in Oppression and Liberty after renouncing Marxism and breaking up with the organized workers' movement. "It is a question of knowing whether it is possible to conceive of an organization of production" that wouldn't be "grinding down souls and bodies under oppression."1 It was too early to achieve this goal through automation and her efforts remained isolated. It finally took the Italian Operaists in the late 50s to pick up where she left off.

Ideologically, Operaism was made possible by the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, which revealed the true nature of bureaucratic socialism. To young Italian intellectuals on the left of the left (among them Toni Negri and Mario Tronti) 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 trade-unions, 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.

In Daybreak, Nietzsche summoned European workers to "declare that henceforth as a class they are a human impossibility and not just, as is customary, a harsh and purposeless establishment." And he exhorted that "impossible class" to swarm out from the European beehive, "and with this act of emigration in the grand manner protest against the machine, against capital, and against the choice with which they are now threatened, of becoming of necessity either slaves of the state or slaves of a revolutionary party..." This celebration of exile can be found in Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's Empire, a best-seller among American Marxist academics and art critics ("A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration...") as well as in Virno's A Grammar of the Multitude, which it complements in its own way. This call retroactively found its model in the unorthodox and mobile migrant labor force of the Wobblies (International Workers of the World) who organized immigrant workers throughout the United States in the 1920s. (Hence the paradoxical fondness of operaists for the American workers' movement and America in general). Migration as a form of resistance also recalls Marx's essay on modern colonization, laborers in Europe deserting famines or factory work for free lands in the American West.2 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 (European laborers worked in East Coast factories for a decade or two before moving on). 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.

Autonomist theory is found in many places, including the United States, but the movement developed most powerfully in Italy where the 60s' movement extended well into the 70s. 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 head on through strikes and sabotage. 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, cornerstone of the entire socialist tradition, 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.

To Read the Rest of Lotringer's Forward and Virno's A Grammar of the Multitude