Language, politics and human nature: An interview to Paolo Virno (Translation by Kevin W. Molin)

This interview was conducted in April 2001 as part of Pozzi, Roggero and Borio’s project that then produced the book “Futuro Anteriore”, a transcript of which can be found in Italian here.

Largely still untranslated into English, besides the two texts A Grammar of the Multitude (2004) and Multitude Between Innovation and Negation (2008), semiologist Paolo Virno is no doubt one of the key figures of the Italian post-Marxist strain. Speaking about his past experiences in such way that crosses between veiled ironies, reflections of the day or in retrospect, provocative re-appropriations and non-dialectical negations, this recent lengthy interview moves in a multitude of directions: from his own cultural formation, his involvement in militant activity and in several magazine projects, to the general intellect seen as a tug of war and a call to engage critically with our opponents. Virno spares little effort in analysing life within the changed paradigm brought by the emergence of post-Fordism, particularly in terms of its implications in forcing through a critical scrutiny of trite Marxist categories of class composition.

Translating Virno is no easy task, given the importance he attributes to language, playing around with multiple meanings. It is partly a failure if one wishes exactness. To use one of his own notions, a translation as any other creative act has a potential for ‘innovation’, whether in the doing or in the reception it seeks to expand, as well as an element of ‘negation’.

What has been your path of political and cultural formation, and how did you begin militant activity?

I became politically active in Genoa, where my family lived and I went to high school. Genoa was exposed to Turin’s influence, where the first occupations took place in 1967; then, in the summer of that year, secondary school students mobilised (more lively than those at University, which instead were in contact with traditional party organisations, UGI [Union of Independent Youth] and so on).

As secondary school students we then formed the Sindacato degli Studenti [Union of Students], which in the autumn of 1967 made the first strikes on issues already typical of 1968, the struggle against authoritarianism, solidarity with the Greek students after the coup d’état and whatever else.

So, this was the initiation. Some of those with whom I engaged in politics at the time have had the most diverse destinies: from Carlo Panella who now works for Mediaset in Italy, to Franco Grisolia who is a secretary for Rifondazione [Communist Refoundation Party], a Trotskyite till this day without any alternation (this is what is good about Trotskyites, that they keep up with it!).

The school year 1967-1968 was entirely Genoese, with this type of experience that was important for us like for many others, but done in a working class town of the industrial triangle, thus with relations with the factories of Sanpierdarena: in any case, working class reality weighed immediately on student matters. Instead, in the autumn of 1968, again because of my family’s movement, I came to live in Rome, and not much later I got in contact and relations with the group that later became Potere Operaio [Worker’s Power], which was then essentially based in the capital as the group from the scientific faculties, the one of the base committees at the Fatme factory. Especially the latter, between the autumn of 1968 and the start of 1969, was a mass experience that opened and closed some successful struggles, where the workers took home concrete things on piecework, time, rhythms and so forth.

In Rome Potere Operaio was not yet really called as such, and the decisive experience was then that of La Classe [The Class] from the spring of 1969 in Turin. These are years of Italian history in which there is a historiographical point to make, that is also a theoretical paradigm: while on 1968 you find thousands of voices and another thousand on 1969, you find few, or at least few attentive ones, to what happened between the summer of 1968 and the summer of 1969, which is rather the point of maximum maturity of the basic themes of the Italian revolution. It’s the year of base committees and autonomous disputes in large and medium sized factories. So, in the warm autumn happen the factory councils of 1969 etc., and we know about 1968: whilst this in between season, which is instead the laboratory, even from a theoretical point of view, the most paradoxical, the most complicated to understand, remains in general perfectly ignored, if it wasn’t for those few people who claim a critical tradition. Thus, I made contact with those people in my school’s base committees, which consisted in forms of collective closeness through basic themes, those of La Classe, that is, salary, working hours, this materialism against all histories of consciousness, anti-authoritarianism, raw things, stuff from Frankfurt, ineffable: instead, there was an intellectual radicalism, in reality even theoretical, that was however short-circuited immediately by material conditions. I enter Potere Operaio after the crucial episodes of the spring of 1969 in Turin, after the national convention of the base committees at the end of July, and thus at the end of August 1969 when, after the break with Lotta Continua [Continuous Struggle], it was just about time when Potere Operaio was really forming as an organisation. Like many others, I was struck by this theoretical and cultural openness, the fact that it took seriously the great bourgeois culture, it took seriously negative thinking, it took seriously classical philosophy and the great economy, Keynes, Schumpeter, in a situation in which both culture and the references current in the movement where what they were. Of course this caused some vices (narcissism, and whatever else), and obviously not all comrades of Potere Operaio read those things, this is not the point: but one thing is to pretend to have read Schumpeter or Keynes and another thing is to pretend to have read Mao’s Little Red Book.

Parodic and boastful behaviours have obviously existed there like everywhere else, although to be honest there is also a diversity of quality, which matters, in what people boast about. Thus, there was this openness about Marx and the struggles, in between great philosophy and great economy: Marx against Marxism in short, Marx as a sociological instrument, even empirical. It’s a discourse that then comes back again today, when it was argued within Luogo Comune [Commonsense] and other experiences, even with a certain bitterness, that the most futuristic pages of Marx, like those of “Fragment on Machines”, were achieved but without revolution, without crisis: the general intellect, the centrality of knowledge and communication in the social production of post-Fordism (or however you want to call it) have been achieved, to the extent that those pages become at most a breviary for the sociologist rather than a trendy discourse. But already then there was this consideration of several chapters of Das Kapital and of the Grundrisse and so on as congruous with what was happening day-to-day on a material basis. Besides, years later (skipping the chronological order) I lived in Milan the adventure, experience and luck to substitute Oreste Scalzone for a month in one of those improbable jobs he had, that is, as a subtitute for 150 hours at the Alfa Romeo factory in Arese. For a month I thus substituted the substitute, that is, Oreste. At the time I even carried out an intervention at Alfa Romeo, so I knew well all the vanguards, however those sort of lessons on the first book of Das Kapital (that was there textbook) were a curious thing: one can imagine the reading of the chapter on machines, the chapter on the working day, partly carried out with comrades, partly instead with whatever workers, not particularly politicised ones. This was however a sort of confirmation, some years after this general assumption of the workerist experience (towards the end of 1973), that is, the immediately applicable character or the most advanced pages of Marx to the material conditions of extreme modernity.

I was in Potere Operaio from the start to finish, from August-September 1969 until its dissolving and even beyond. First, in Rome, intervening during the warm autumn in the few Roman medium factories (such as Vox with 2000 workers near Tiburtina), then later with the territorial interventions in the neighbourhoods, with the occupation of houses.

There was the first episode in the autumn of 1971 with quite an ugly operation by Potere Operaio, which did a conference that got radicalised, there were themes of rupture with the crisis like we called it at that time, rupture with the flow of the crisis and forcefulness before there was a resettlement of capitalist organisation, all those things badly summarised at the time in the term ‘insurrection’: thus, there was a sort of political expedition that is the least desirable thing in regards to a reality like that in Turin, one of those quick things, a showdown within the group.

It was thus a thing that I don’t remember with pleasure, however for me it was important this first relationship both with the comrades from Turin and with the visual and perceptive impact of Fiat. This was the autumn of 1971.

I was again in Rome in 1972, I was more or less in the leading structures, in the board and the secretary of the Rome section. From March-April 1972 I was in the national executive. Groups ossified and all these things we know by heart happened. For example, I am not one of those who give a negative judgment on groups.

Give me credit on the fact that I could speak for two hours on the parodies, on the crap, on the recuperation of old models, etc.; having said this, I consider that after 1969 a specific problem was posed concerning political power, not a linear one (to put it in mathematical terms). In the most banal terms, one could say that the problem is to find a political outlet for a movement that for the first time (to say it with Gramsci against Gramsci) does not seek a revolution against Das Kapital but in accordance with Das Kapital: thus, not against misery and backwardness, but against the very relations of capitalist production and against its waged labour. It’s something that is unprecedented and that sought its own political forms; it was perceived as such within the management of trade unions, of FIOM [Federation of Employed Metal Workers], it was a general political debate.

In my opinion, positions like the one of Capanna in Milan (to speak of one of the most famous of the time, then obviously the debate in the middle of the 1970s would be different, it would be a debate about autonomy) were claiming: “no mass political movement, for heaven’s sake”, then they sidelined with the PCI [Italian Communist Party] and did ‘servizio d’ordine’ [stewarding at demonstrations] not much later for the UIL [Italian Union of Labour].

So, there was a problem there, which for me in its best versions has been elaborated and gathered within Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, and then in a certain measure and in their own way (a manner very different and far from my own) by Avanguardia Operaia [Worker’s Vanguard] and others. However, it seems to me an undue simplification (certainly historically but perhaps even from a political and theoretical point of view), even from a distance of many years, that we passed from the Eden of 1968 assemblies and base committees of the spring of 1969 to the small, barren and inconclusive rituals of groups: on this I would be more cautious and I would remember what was at stake. That then we failed with what was at stake, it is one thing; but that however there was something at stake with its own specificity, with its own discontinuity in regards to the linear development of linear movements, in my opinion it has to be admitted. This comes to my mind in relation to the fact that since 1972 I participated in one of these structures that are a bit funny, ridiculous and often lived ironically within Potere Operaio, that is, the executive branch.

Then there is the Rosolina Congress, the break, and I side with Piperno. I think that the discussion was not about being in favour or against the factory assemblies in Milan, there was a general consensus about them as a central reference in all its organisations, between all comrades, in all debates there was never any doubt; a theoretical and not merely a practical problem of how one does something or doesn’t, related to some specific subjective functions, in particular in regards to the use of violence.

At the time, the problem was: is there already someone in Italy who answers in a satisfying way to this political issue, organisational and even theoretical, that are the functions of rupture or however they want to call them? If it is so, obviously they can be delegated to those who already perform them in a form that is essentially satisfying, on the other hand the problem remains to elaborate how to do them, that is, the forms of these functions.

This was the debate. Of course, whoever claimed that they already existed said: “so then I work directly with the autonomous assemblies, somebody else will think about this”. Others did not think they absolutely didn’t exist, but that the manner in which these rupturing functions were elaborated were within a lineage substantially internal to the old working class movement, that is, a radical continuation of militant antifascism, of the red resistance, if you want an armed struggle for reforms (this could also be done, in the end the problem of the form of struggle matters but it’s not decisive).

Therefore, the debate in Rosolina was about this, and then of course about many other matters: class composition, the proceeding of the crisis, the rapidity of capitalist reorganisation, which of course was the very thing at stake in the Italian revolution.

I think (and this one instead is a historiographical and theoretical point) that in the 20th century there have been two failed revolutions, and those who say, like Tronti or others, that there has been one, the one that everybody knows about of the 1920s, are mistaken. There have been two failed revolutions and nothing can be understood of the century (to use the grandiloquent language Tronti is so fond of) unless you take account of both of them: one is the revolution in the West in the 1920s (in Germany and elsewhere), the other the revolution in its proper sense of the 1960s and 1970s, the first that is against the capitalist mode of production and not against backwardness and pauperism, and of which post-Fordism is substantially the great replication, the counter-revolution.

I’ll explain myself: by revolution I do not mean that many people shouted words of a revolutionary order, the carnival of subjectivity does not interest me. Either one says that all failed revolutions do not exist, and that might be said, it is a form of mental hygiene if you want; or, if the dimension of failed revolution is introduced, it is necessary to have a sober criteria (not attached to the shouting and humming of subjects at the time) of what constitutes a failed revolution.

In my view it is possible to speak of failed revolution, in a sober and objective manner, whenever there is a consistent and long period to time in which there is an impasse in political and social decision, in the places of production, in the popular neighbourhoods and in other delicate state institutions. This long impasse between two opposing social powers did exist in Italy (and sometimes more generally, in certain years and places of the capitalist West).

In this sense I speak of failed revolution, of revolutionary situation: I have absolutely no interest in convictions, in drunkenness, in inebriations, I speak of them in this sense. And for counter-revolution I do not mean a return to the Ancien Régime, a reconstitution of what already was there; I think counter-revolution like an inverted revolution, like something extraordinarily innovative and that, moreover, makes and utilises many of its own pressures, instances, ways of being and inclinations that feed by themselves the revolution.

Since the end of 1972 and beginning of 1973 onwards, I lived and engaged in politics in Milan: I worked at Alfa Romeo and Innocenti, I saw the dissolution of Potere Operaio and participated in the discussion, that was not even a banal discussion: some fragments (the most worthy, the least cramped) were in some way a debate on the prodromes of post-Fordism, or at least the prodromes of capitalism’s exit from Fordism (I remember for example Magnaghi’s contributions to the notion of ‘fabric diffusa’ [dispersed production] that soon after were printed in Quaderni del Territorio [Notebooks on the Territory], even the discussion with Toni).

The debate within Potere Operaio even had its high moments, charged with predictions on this transition. In it there was exactly the weakness and fragility of the political experience: the issue is of course the one of the appropriate time, the right time, if this way out of Fordism happens in an abrupt shift and within times decided by the capitalist side then the social framework, the framework of subjectivity is completely changed and you’ve lost; the problem is to remain within this shift, not to antagonise it in the name of the beauty of assembly lines. In short, the problem was to determine which was the sign of this shift: there is a delicate phase of transition and within it everything is at play. Therefore, I claim that even in the final phase, that is also the most livid and later the most charged of resentments, for many aspects the most detestable, there was a true core of discussion.

Subsequently I remained in Milan to carry out interventions at Innocenti, with the few that remained in Milan with Potere Operaio who had not yet sided with Autonomia, very few people. Then, when there was the second so-called occupation of Fiat, that of February-March 1974, I went to Turin where I had some good friends and good comrades, it was a reality that was more or less standing on its feet as a site of action; and then the struggles and the intervention on auto-reductions and so forth. In the summer or the start of the autumn of 1975 I returned to Rome, at first I thought provisionally, then instead for several reasons I ended up staying.

A mid season began in which there was no longer any organisation, in which there are new cycles of study and reflection, until the autumn of 1976 and the start of 1977. In that period there is actually a reflection back on 1968 and the 1968-1973 cycle, on the fact that the social labour power has another channels of formation, other subjective expressions. This discussion takes place within a group of Roman comrades that worked together for professional reasons; they had set up a centre of research that was called CERPET [Research Centre for Economic and Territorial Programming and Planning]. All these comrades returned to have a public role, make proposals, activities and work in Rome in 1977, but without any organised form. At this point, of course, there was also a modification in the history of Autonomia, which happened around 1975-1976 in Milan and which becomes precisely the new political form of a new class composition; while at the start, in the years between 1973 and 1975, it was something narrower, with more specific reasonings, from 1975 it really becomes the general form of a new class composition consisting in an educated labour power, mental labour, precarious labour, the new social working day. Therefore, the old causes for division within Autonomia go missing and of course you work with them, even if, I repeat, an organising group is missing, an organised subjectivity.

In 1977 you could really see the birth of something new. In this discourse that now we remade even in the 1990s I honestly believe that there isn’t one of those anachronistic dimensions through which you attribute to an earlier moment what you thought subsequently: I think there really was an illumination within the concrete course of the movement, a saying: “behold, this is the overcoming of Fordism, and it’s the overcoming of the Fordism that happens in the form of struggle”.

First the struggles, then the development: 1977 as the birth and debut of post-Fordism, the overcoming of Fordism. Something that however happened several times in the history of capitalist development, the IWW did the struggles in the 1910s, these are unskilled and unstable workers, and in a certain sense they are the outset of that which Taylor and Ford did in the 1920s with the systematic deskilling of labour. There was really an idea of refusal of work, a critique of waged labour, it ceased being the heart of the matter but only in a negative form: that is, there came to emergence, in alto-relievo, dense, positively, the life forms, the forms of existence, the mentalities, the forms of communication of the refusal of work. Therefore, the refusal to work for me has this purely antagonistic character; it showed and secreted its own richness.

The discourse on 1977 were immediately after at the centre of elaboration, in the least ephemeral parts of Metropoli and, for what concerns Lucio Castellano and me, in those two essays published in the Pre-print section that accompanied the magazine, in actual fact written by Lucio at the end of 1976 and by me in 1978. Metropoli was an elaboration hot off the press, but also of some breath, on those essential things that emerged from the conflictual inauguration of post-Fordism, that was the movement of 1977. In Metropoli there was a leitmotif, crushed of course and rather veiled by the articles on terrorism, that for obvious reasons had more clamour: a fundamental and recurrent theme is for example the ever-increasing centrality of language in the workplace, or the rupture with all mentalities associated with Fordism.

In between Potere Operaio and much earlier than Metropoli there was Linea di Condotta [Line of Conduct], only one issue came out, but it was a significant one for many aspects.

It was significant because it was an extreme attempt, conducted between the autumn of 1974 and the start of 1975, to reconnect together some of the splinters that followed the break-up of Potere Operaio.

Toni and the autonomous, to put it this way, had their highs and lows between 1973 and 1975, and besides the obvious relation of reading each other’s stuff there was no direct relationship. But the part of Potere Operaio that did not choose to be in Autonomia (let’s call it this way, even if on the terms I specified earlier) broke up in turn, in that process of infinite division that in biology is called decomposition (regarding corpses): then, there was Oreste and other comrades in Rome that differentiated their initiative, they tied more and more into a group, a radical fraction of Lotta Continua in Milan, in Sesto San Giovanni, the Magneti Marelli company and so on.

So, with Oreste and these others, some from Rome, there were even some in Turin, the relation was much closer, we had been on the same side in Rosolina, even the personal relation was more intimate and closer. Then, an attempt is made to produce a reflection together, through two or three conferences, meetings, and seminars. It was an attempt to say: “ok, when the weekly magazine ended in December 1973 Potere Operaio effectively doesn’t exist, however there could still be a new political form between us”.

The only issue of Linea di Condotta was located within this discourse, which then goes down in history because some important documents appear that cause Lotta Continua to break up their organisation, and some of these will later be part of Prima Linea [Front Line]. Those documents will be considered (with good reason, but certainly with a retrospective look) the general platform of a path that first with Senza Tregua [Without Respite] but then with Prima Linea reaches extreme conclusions.

The issue of Linea di Condotta, thinking about it, is very heterogeneous, very willing, these comrades’ collective will to make something significant happen is understandable: Magnaghi writes on it, Dalmaviva writes on it, I wrote on it, Daghini wrote on it, and of course it is written on, it goes without saying, by this splinter that soon will do Senza Tregua. This also explains why it is only one issue.

Was Marongiu still there?

I think so, but the paradoxical thing is that the vast majority of the Veneto section doesn’t follow Toni, so they remain at the stage of Potere Operaio. Like it happened to the Turin section, even more the one in Veneto closes itself in a local and regional reality: they carry on, things continue as before, in the University, in the small factories, not in the Petrolchimico factory that has always been the part of Veneto that instead sided with Toni (let’s just say like this to keep it simple).

In 1974, in fact, when you went to Turin there were people from Veneto and Florence. Fuori dalle Linee [Outside the Lines] had just come out.

We took them there. That was a very circumscribed event, there was simply the second occupation of Fiat and we thought to amplify it with this organ, this daily paper. And in addition we went to meet with the collectives from Veneto saying: “for these few days it wouldn’t be bad, with all the flaws political tourism has, if you also come to have a look”. They came very willingly, a bit like it happens on school trips, like it’s now done with Prague (and if Prague and the Fiat occupation were to be put on scales, I honestly don’t know where they would pend, it’s tourism on both sides, even if now it seems the only form of political action), but they only came for a week. In my opinion the not so stupid thing, even for what it’s worth, is that the printers of Potere Operaio in Florence, that until December 1973 had done the weekly magazine, were still ours and still working: it was asked to make a sort of free daily paper for four days that was precisely called Fuori dalle Linee, three or four issues came out. So-called articles (that were often aimless screams) were dictated on the phone to the people from Florence, they were printing them and then taking them to Turin by car to give them for the first round. Instead, those from Veneto kept going and actually stayed; perhaps they were still present through Marongiu in this only issue of Linea di Condotta, maybe not through writing but they felt it as theirs, and at the seminars that preceded the issue of Linea di Condotta, in which Piperno and Oreste attended, comrades from Veneto were most attached to the latter, as well Giairio, Marione, in short the old group. Later it was understood that Linea di Condotta was an end of the end rather than a beginning, and those from Veneto close themselves in their regional reality.

They remained then in this separate and regional dimension until when, I think in 1976 or even in 1977, they move closer to Toni and to Rosso [Red], whilst before they had broken with Toni in 1973 by remaining in the core body of Potere Operaio. So there is this intermediate situation, which corresponds to that year and a half or less in which I stayed in Turin.

As regard, then, the mid period previous to 1977, I’m in Rome since the end of 1975 or beginning of 1976 and I already said: reflections, discussions, no longer an organisational reality, a totally active presence, with total dedication to all the phases of the 1977 movement in Rome, this sense of total discontinuity manifesting itself in subjective forms, forms of production, prediction of post-Fordism, unity of labour and communication, and so forth.

So there was a change of paradigm, but I have to say lived in real time, not one that now or thinking about it in the 1990s one says: “at that time class composition has changed, the paradigm has changed, in actual fact three centuries of modern politics have gone in crisis, that is to say, modern political forms have begun, equivalent to what the 15th century had been as a foundation of political forms”.

It has not been just a reflection in retrospect, in the most part it happened in real time, hence the emotion of 1977, a strong emotion, because emotions that last are always (or at least often) linked to cognitive content, and there you can see really that it’s a change of paradigm.

Metropoli should have grown into a very large magazine, on all the areas of 1977, there are meetings with Toni and so on: then of course things go in a different way. It’s understandable, I’ve also done for several years an organising role and I think (I’ve just defended groups) that within organisation, even in its most tatty forms, light or heavy organisations, there’s always very worthy content; however, it is clear that whoever forms an organisation has the problem of continuity, influence, political struggle, etc., and despite having a radical theory, it’s less willing to gamble on it by ignoring tactical transitions, hegemonic transitions. So, the magazine is then made physically between the group in Rome, those without a party and without an organisation and Oreste, who instead had a small party and organisation, but who says: “I behave like you within the magazine”, something he in fact he did, and likewise those that more or less worked directly like De Feo and others. A magazine that became a media event, and it’s the first issue, because it was seized, because the only underlined articles are those on the 7th April that happened two months previous. Some of us are accused, I was there during the arrests of Oreste and Zagato at the base of Metropoli in Rome on that very 7th April, Piperno eluded the arrest through pure luck two or three times in that same day: he eludes it every time like in those Fernandel movies, he arrives right after the police arrived, from which then the legends, the infinite trickery and superior astuteness; I think that, however, like in the history that is greater than us, often this sort of judgment comes from an astonishing concatenation of strokes of luck.

So, the first issue of Metropoli is obviously concerned with the raids, there’s that article by Piperno, that was even reformist and Anglo-Saxon, that says: “the earlier they pay, the better”, but not in the sense of shooting them on the foot, but rather in the sense of “the earlier institutions correct themselves, the better”; not that this was his way of thinking but he had decided to play the part of the consistent liberal.

Thus, those were the articles, the media event of Metropoli. The second issue of Metropoli, after a year in prison, comes out in 1980, but it is once again patchily put together, with articles sent from prison, an issue not thought in its wholeness. Metropoli exists like an organ of reflection on post-Fordism, on the crisis of the society of work, on the new forms of subjectivity, on the year in which five issues come out, on a monthly basis, and it’s 1981: issues 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 come out. With all the flaws that are present in spurious situations, in which there are many traces of old paradigms that however coexist with the most vital intuitions, it’s still possible to find the core, the fulcrum of this reflection.

For example, I believe (but of course this is purely biographical) that the stuff that is not so significant, because judgments can differ, but objectively the most relevant, for example in the elaboration of Luogo Comune, have been the continuation, the sharpening, even with greater cultural and theoretical weight, of things that were all already expressed initially within Metropoli.

I go to prison, but late, in a deferred burst: I am arrested with Castellano, Maesano and Pace (who however eludes the arrest, again, I swear, not because of astuteness). We are arrested on 6th June 1979, then they make us come together on 7th April, we find the others again in the Rebibbia yard, we stay a few months there; then there’s the diaspora, that is, the Ministry orders each one of these convicts to a different special prison, because obviously, through lawyers, visits, despite there was a heavy handed regime, that had become a place where we worked out documents, letters to newspapers, we did political campaigns, there were internal struggles.

Then, there’s the diaspora, I go to Novara, Oreste goes to Cuneo, the other goes to Favignana, and the other still to another place. We start going round these special prisons, and we found each other not all but in part in the Palmi prison, inaugurated in the autumn of 1979, a prison only for political prisoners or totally politicised common people, a sort of ‘kesh’. Inside there was a curious situation, even quite spectacular, because everyone meets together. In fact, for the first period with comrades from Red Brigades or with Alunni or those of NAP [Armed Proletarian Cores], it was thought even to take advantage of this situation to set off a larger discussion, of a ‘constituent’ character: however, the problem is also that even there the most compromised among them, like Curcio, were in agreement, they understood they’d lost the key point, that is, the change of paradigm in 1977, the fact that young workers bore no relation to those of 1969; some instead didn’t get it. In any case, there was a general willingness since the start. However, they were in a period of full development of what they called the strategy of annihilation, in short let’s say the massification of armed struggle, and of course it’s too tight a knot this type of tactic, this passage you are going through, to have the mental slenderness to confront such a large discussion.

So, there was a good intention at the start, almost immediately left aside, and instead there was a greater deepening of a bruise in relationships. I was released, after not longer than a year in prison (11 months and a half), because they declassed my offence from composition to participation, and at that point I had already done in abundance preventive detention. Then I stayed out of prison for two years, the true year of Metropoli, the one in which it is a magazine, for better or for worse, but it is a magazine that is worth its name and not for its media appeal. What’s more it sells a lot, it only goes in bookstalls and never sells less than 15.000 copies: something that can be understood for the first issue, but that becomes significant for the subsequent ones.

To sum up briefly, my detention consisted in one year between 1979 and 1980, then two years of freedom in which I curated the continuous series of Metropoli in 1981, then two more years in prison, first-degree sentence to 12 years, a year of house arrest, which is a good way to simplify the transition in some respects towards post-Fordism in general, be it a micro-social aspect, or otherwise a passage from a disciplinary society to a society of control; the acquittal (together with many other accused of the 7th April) was in 1987, the confirmation in 1988.

Life is suspended, like it always happens when one is convicted, even when let on the loose, Italy’s changed, mentalities are completely modified, old forms of commonality and proximity are totally broken. In 1987 it’s decided with other people to try to understand the terms of our comeback, that is, to understand how all of which transformed the country in the years of counter-revolution had created a new type of human, besides of course different forms of production, that could by now begin to express themselves conflictually. It was thought it was reasonable to have an approach to post-Fordism that moved from a mixture (to use archaic terms) of structure and superstructure, the point of indifference, the point of perfect concision between what in jargon are called structure and superstructure. It was about looking for ways of being within dependent labour, judging that contemporary forms of dependent work cannot be understood adequately (in its very being productive as surplus value, of course) solely or principally with economic tools, and in a certain measure not even with merely sociological tools.

Contemporary work, because it produces surplus value and not because disembodied, calls for absolutely large equipment, in which are thrown in the middle its cultural forms, its emotive structures, its ethical and aesthetic convictions.

Paradoxically, post-Fordist subjectivity, to be grasped in its hardest core, among many things even more economically relevant, should have juxtaposed with this broadness of tools. There’s a nice quote by the great French epistemologist, Gaston Bachelard, who had said that the many problems and many paradoxes sparked by quantum mechanics should be treated with the most heterogeneous tools.

Quantum mechanics now requires, in philosophical terms, a Kantian concept, at times a Bergsonian concept, at others it requires a medieval concept, and it’s no big deal if they’re so different between them, the point is that it concerns explaining the one problem for quantum mechanics: as such it’s also for post-Fordist labour-power, for post-Fordist subjectivity (it’s not that this formulation makes me very happy, but it’s to understand each other quicker). This is the experience that brings to the collective book Sentimenti dell’aldiquà [Sentiments before the hereafter], that wants of course to be also a radical critique of weak thought, of Italian postmodernism that has been the ideology of winners, the ideology of the defeat of mass movements. Which however, like all true ideologies, has in itself a grain of truth, only that it’s not only deformed, but most of all apologetic, it tends to think that it’s like this and only it can only remain in such a way. Instead, the issue was to bring back the so-called postmodern thinking to its material basis.

The communication society that Vattimo talks about is the deformed and apologetic transfiguration of a real fact, that is, the surplus value produced through language. Thus, this was the dimension the book dealt with, then as usual the text was poor stuff, the background discussions sometimes are remembered with pleasure. So there’s an attempt to work even with different people, many of the usual ones, that are customary good ones, but also many different people. Seminars, discussions, the magazine, some of us work for Il Manifesto [The Manifesto] and try to make a manifesto within Il Manifesto, that is, to make its irrelevant cultural sections a bit more foolish in comparison with all the previous articles. From this the experience of Luogo Comune was born, four issues come out, but it’s a magazine in which the editorial aspect emerges, the discussion, seminars, etc. There was the obvious risk to make the mistake and say more than one thinks, allow me this play on words, because at times one decides consciously to say more than what would be cautious and prudent to affirm, thus to say more than one thinks, if anything to spark off discussion and self-critique: in reality it was an attempt to loosen up a set of categories that could call to account, this time not in allusive ways like at the end of the 1970s, but fully, precisely biting the live flesh of what’s new, the change of paradigm. And that however could prearrange a renewed organisational politics.

The first point is that whichever organisation, as always, is a culture: whoever does not grasp the materialist and material aspects of culture, that to say, that an idea is much more concrete than an ashtray or even a million euros, risks not understanding the issue of any organisational path. The problem was to produce, even quite artificially, frenetically, fabricating key words (general intellect, language and production, exodus), a mental landscape (what’s more concrete than a mental landscape?), in order to bring together some groups, some militant groups, and some militant groups of intellectuals. And that these could begin to draw some practical paths, with cautious experiments, on citizens’ income, on new forms of production, the modernised factory, non-factory labour, etc. Of course there are some difficulties, it takes long time, you have to hit your head and then try in a different way. But the preliminary condition was this web. We have tried first with various groups of militant intellectuals, but since 1991-1992 we have tried precisely with people from Veneto.

The way I read it (then anyone says and is polemic however they want), those from Veneto had two passages, not one: the first when they broke with the continuity with the 1970s and 1980s, and that for me is crucial, that was a moment of great vivacity that lasted several years, a creative one, they felt like gone past a context that was embittered, full of hatred, nostalgic and continuist, in the open ocean; then, instead, the second passage is much more recent, it’s of the last three years, in which they’ve thrown the workerist tradition out of the window, which is a whole other matter.

Of course, what’s the problem with the workerist tradition?

Like all traditions it deserves to be thrown out of the window, but the point is the following: is there something in it that allows us to think through, with maximum amount of radical critique and realism, a critique of post-1989 capitalism independently of utilising socialist realism?

If so, it is the only tradition of thought that in a certain sense had metabolised the Wall since the 1960s, and that perhaps has at least as many or more things to say now than it had in 1969. Only in this sense I speak in positive terms of the workerist tradition, not for its past, more or less noble but not even much: thus, for this capacity to hold together what others by now consider broken up.

The labour movement should be dropped because there’s been socialism, or viceversa a boorish continuity. The second passage that took place two or three years ago is one I understand, because it’s an overly uncomfortable issue, and above all that risks not giving you anything in concrete terms: it’s the central position, the strongest, the only true one, realistic, important from the point of view of understanding things, but if it doesn’t give you anything in political terms it’s useless. There’s then in fact this missed coincidence between tools that actually are the only ones, not within the world of the left and the extreme left, but rather the absolutely only ones that allow to understand in depth what’s happening in all its subtleties, undertones, complications and paradoxes: if however these tools don’t give you immediately something political, in political and organisational terms, you’re in a very uncomfortable position, you’re a wise naked man that stays for some time in the wind, then after a while someone else says: “well, it doesn’t matter”, and makes the second passage.

The second passage is not to attack the Marxism of the labour movement, we picked on that in Genoa in 1967, if for Marxism you had to mean that thing that was the labour movement, the problem wasn’t that. Their passage is similar to that of PDS [Democratic Party of the Left] (structurally similar, but with different content) in comparison with the workerist tradition, because workerism precisely does not allow them to capitalise anything in the short and medium term.

There’s all this history, even of theoretical production, at times even rather rarefied, we didn’t have problems bringing in Wittgenstein or Heidegger if we needed them, with the usual materialist instrumentalism of saying: “if that is useful for this thing, very well, it’s useful for this thing”.

So, there’s this even rarefied production, this theoretical production that between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s had however this finalisation that I call organisational, in a broad sense, then if anything they’re organisations totally unknown in comparison with all the known precedents, alright.

In my opinion this ended around 1994. Meanwhile, it’s understood that we haven’t been tenacious, clever and capable enough; however it’s also understood that there’s a real difficulty in Italy because the cycle of post-Fordist development, started off at the end of the 1970s, could now show the other side of the coin, conflict and forms of organisation, in so far as there have been a series of juxtapositions that somehow blocked and detoured it, the fall of the Wall, the crisis of the Italian political system, that for many aspects is a crisis that derives from deeper issues, it’s a crisis of representative democracy, thus something that in a certain sense would interest enormously a mode of thought like ours. However, it takes opposite forms, this crisis feeds other stuff, the party-business, “leghismo” [North Italian federalist right-wing ideology], etc. When, at a certain point, the other side of the post-Fordist coin could or should have shown itself, its conflictual side, this instead made a turn towards the right, or at any rate it remained like buried under the clamour of the crisis of the Italian political system; this, besides our obvious incapacity, at times even little seriousness, has paralysed for a bigger and more consistent reason this possibility to show the new potentials on the political and organisational level of post-Fordist subjectivity. Then there have been other impulses, more recent attempts to organise.

To speak at a personal level, around 1994 there is like the realisation, the seeing for ourselves something that probably could have been understood even a few years earlier: a political and organisational attempt in totally new conditions, as the result of the counter-revolution and putting itself in the extreme; at the border of counter-revolution it hasn’t worked, it stayed like mangled for a combination of reasons. The comrades that then made DeriveApprodi [DriftsArrivals] participate in Luogo Comune, so there’s continuity. From when Luogo Comune ceases to exist in 1993, one hour more, one hour less, closer or further away, a consistent part of those who made Luogo Comune collaborate or work with DeriveApprodi. There have been many small attempts of political initiative, even very recent ones, but in the whole for me it remains a valid judgment to claim there’s like a freezing, a delay, an inhibition like it happens in dreams, a slumber, and thus a long time before it can be show the other side of post-Fordism positively, conflictually, with the invention of new forms, new paths, new structures and theories of organisation.

Having said this, however, what I did it’s not very clear if it’s not taken into account that since always, and since 1978-1979 more and more centrally and heavily, I was engaged in doing philosophy.

I have always wanted to work on philosophical matters but as a critical Marxist, that is, I always thought that a fundamental problem was to work on a broad materialism, one that is capable of not leaving out of itself fundamental problems like that of language, communication and much more.

Thus, I’ve always worked on these things and of course in an incremental measure, until when they ended up becoming the principal aspect of my activity. It would then be difficult to speak of myself from 1979 onwards without keeping in mind that, even quantitatively, certainly qualitatively, I always dedicated great part of my time to working on philosophical problems and issues, writing and even publishing things where, in my opinion, the problem was born out of the black holes of Marxism, our Marxism, confirmed as outright catastrophic moments in the 1970s, in the overall wealth of the 1970s.

The first things were concerned precisely with this problem: is there a theory of knowledge in Marx? And if this theory of knowledge exists, if it exists or if it existed, does it concern things as they are or is there a way to know the tendency, to know the transformability of the existent? What are the categories to know not only exchange value, but also the leakages from exchanges value?

These were precisely the very first things, that then I placed in the most part in Convenzione e materialismo [Convention and materialism], which basically was written between 1980 and 1982, even if it came out in 1987 for the obvious reason I was in prison, and they later carried on. However, also with an intensity and a centrality to my own time and path, on which I don’t want to dwell on, but that is useful to straighten up right away all that I’ve said. Then, of course, many of these things are intersected, like for example the reflection on a category like that of the multitude, than in the 1600 was opposed to the one of ‘the people’, and from the one of ‘the people’ derive modern political theories. We have said in Luogo Comune: “bear in mind that it’s returning perceptible, pertinent to the current situation, the category of the multitude”.

The category of the multitude is difficult not to conceive and think of it without getting out a series of strictly philosophical questions: what are the linguistic games, the communicative forms of the multitude? What is the category of the individual, of the singular for the many?

The idea of the many makes one think of many singularities that cannot be synthesised in that one that is the State and the sovereign. Well, questions that can be thought (at least as such it seemed to me and as such I could do) through ethical problems and categories, philosophy of language, political philosophy.

Thus, the problem is that there are consistent points in which more theoretical and political reflection ties in with philosophical reflection, but there are also others in which it is not as such. My problem is in the end the one posed by someone who has never been pleasant to us, Engels; at a certain point he took issue to say: “alright, we’ve said some things about materialistic things on production, we’ve said some materialistic things on history: however, shouldn’t materialism have the ambition to cover all the field, thus to cover even the field of science, the field of nature, the field of the senses? Shouldn’t it also be a sensualism, a sensism?”

So, at times they intersect, see the example of the multitude, at other times I dedicated six years to think what could be the materialist status of language, which could be the relation between language and sensible life, which could be the relation between language and the material world. And here we are in certain aspects close and in other aspects far from the kind of political path that I spoke of earlier. I mention these things to say how realistically I divided up my time, especially from a certain point onwards.

There’s an aspect in your analysis that is surely central, that is, about researching the crucial points that are still open or not confronted by a political tradition that is neither exalted nor thrown away, but used to take what we need in order to form a critical re-elaboration in the present and towards the future. Workerism is a category that is here intended in the widest sense. Tronti, for example, claims instead that political workerism ought to be identified with the experience of Quaderni Rossi [Red Notebooks] and of Classe Operaia [Working Class]: after which, with the groups, in his opinion another history begins that has nothing to do with those experiences. In fact, despite there being many and sometimes important discontinuities, there also strong theoretical and political continuities with some paths of the 1970s, and even later ones. In regards to workerism Alquati has formulated a peculiar hypothesis, that is not only historiographical but that could be an important approach precisely in terms of identifying those big crucial points still open today. So, Romano claims that workerism moved within a specific polygon, trying to cope, with differing results, with each of its vertices. A vertex is represented by workers and their subjectivity, something that rarely those interviewed speak even just a little about, or they don’t confront it at all. The second vertex is given by culture, which, in terms of important critical aspects, for many (but certainly not for all) has ended up returning to be a culture that is explicit and humanistic, of Gramscian memory. The third vertex is politics and the political, the great black hole of the workerist experiences, in its multiple attempted pathways. The fourth, finally, is the question about generations and youth. In part you have already said this in your analysis, but to confront the issue in its entirety, which do you think are the bigger open crucial points, central today in the political re-elaboration of the strengths and limits of workerist paths?

The line from Fabrizio De Andrè comes to my mind: ‘if not totally right, almost nothing wrong’. To me it seems that workerism had given a consistency, a rich articulation to Marx’ idea of the general intellect.

This rich articulation can even be retraced, if you want, to some of its own characteristics and solutions: it’s the fundamental score of anything that’s played. For me the fundamental passage has been to work on the crisis (and the ambivalences of this crisis) of the law of value, succeeding in putting into focus quite well, at least in some moments, the double character, in force but not any longer true, of the law of value itself.

Thus, the labour time of the individual (abstract, empty, unqualified, etc.) is not any longer the principal source of the production of wealth, but it is still the unity of measure as it stands. This is a pattern that at times has been like a sort of mad person’s joke repeated more and more schematically; many times, instead, it has been articulated, filled with flesh and blood and it’s a fundamental tool.

And then there’s the general intellect, that as we know Marx mentions once or at most twice in the Grundrisse and who knows what he had in mind, if it was a polemic with Rousseau’s general will or something else entirely: and it’s only an allusion, when instead what was then an allusion is now a positive theory, complete, a general theory. That this theory then might be far away from being sufficient is one thing, but this is a very relevant production. I’m thinking most of all of the moment in which workerism strove not to read anymore the general intellect, like a fixed capital, which is Marx’s version, science and knowledge held in contempt, frozen, clotted in the system of automated machines.

In my opinion workerism, in a certain sense ever since 1969, then in a more conscious way later and in recent years, has instead really tried to think of the general intellect as living labour, and of course not like the erudition of the individual, the single worker may even never have ever read a book in his life, that’s not the point: the matter is that general intellect lives within a cooperative interaction, in very primary way, even more than in the system of machines. This is then a reversal in post-Fordist production even of what is very empirical and visible: the necessity is not to mobilise a particular knowledge, but the generic faculties of the human animal. So, one can speak of the general intellect as being diminished by workerism as intellect in general, the point is precisely that ‘in general’. Meanwhile, it’s been thought as living labour and not fixed capital; not that there is a general intellect as fixed capital, of course, I want to say that the qualifying aspect is the cooperative one, the relational one, the general intellect as an attribute of cooperation.

Without dwelling upon it, in my opinion this is its great strength, in relation to which the scientific term can be used, at any rate charged with realism and charged with effects of truth, with effects of comprehension of the existing.

The point in which workerism instead leaves only black holes is in terms of political theory; this seems to me beyond any doubt. In the course of time, from the 1960s, through the practical revolutionary experiments of the 1970s, then even later and still now, it has even done a good job of destruction, but it never succeeded every time it dared to go beyond.

Of course there have been important attempts, but the limit of workerism is to have never succeeded, not even in the slightest, to think in its entirety the actuality of the general intellect in terms of political theory, that is to say, to think the general intellect (connecting all things, I don’t want myself to also use the word ‘strategic’, it’s only for brevity in writing) as a base for a political theory. There are some things by Tronti, but then he defends himself, in these books, even in La politica al tramonto [Politics at dusk]: in some way he defends, even at the cost of defending Stalin, the fact that he entered the PCI in 1968. Cacciari did not even try this and thus works together with Di Pietro; Tronti, instead, cares about defending himself and so makes this discourse about 20th century politics. However, he puts it in a too generic way and therefore loses the specific point which is instead, eventually even in terms of guilt and workerist responsibility, to not have drawn from the analysis of class composition, its mutations, from the analysis of general intellect, a political theory that was finally a political theory beyond the state, without being a parodic anarchist theory.

There have been all these experiments, even in the 1970s, where there’s been the true setting of practical experiments on the organisational level, and where certainly Autonomia has constituted the general form in which the new proletariat organised. However, every time the thing was fixed in theoretical terms, either there have been terrible aporias that immediately paralysed it, or true returns to the past, true ticks worthy of comparison with general Strangelove on the political terrain. So, on the political terrain, there’s either aporia or Strangelove-ism.

This is said with a very mixed lookout. The thing I understand less in Alquati’s outline is the one on culture: if that remains valid for those who entered the PCI in 1968 then ok, they entered a party that conceived in such manner the relation between intellectuals and politics, so it was automatic that they conformed to it, even if with reservations. As regards instead to the part of workerism that has maintained a more petulant character, more autonomous, more foreign to traditional parties, there have been personal miseries, hitches, incoherence, and compromises, all that you want, but I wouldn’t say that it has reproduced a model of the organic intellectual.

The question is in different terms. The problem some have posed in the second half of the 1950s is the one you’ve highlighted earlier in your analysis, that is how to get out of that closed circle in which Marx, with terrible vision, goes on making a theory of capital and not of a possible exit from it. Facing this large hypothetical knot, some have moved around trying to break with that closed circle not only outside of Marxism, but also outside Marx himself: so there’s been an initial opening towards sociology, phenomenology, but also psychoanalysis and so forth. In actual terms, however, no one has ever posed the question of critically re-appropriating certain disciplinary fields that until then were neglected, such as the objectivism of orthodox Marxism, in a complex political synthesis that would go in the direction of a different science, that in a single enunciation then became working class science. All in all what prevailed, at least generally, even among those who revolved around or sympathised with workerist domains, was instead a model of explicit and humanist culture.

The question of general intellect: in your opinion, how much does it have a capitalist dimension and how much can it be overturned, or is it even in itself a discourse that transforms and moves away from capitalism?

Both of them. The recourse to these generic faculties of the human being is completely a capitalist source of production, knowledge and cognition; and still it’s obviously the only concrete and defined basis for an overturn. With a joke that can be understood within the workerist tradition, it’s what in Luogo Comune was called “the communism of capital”, referred to the socialism of capital that was spoken about in relation to the 1930s, Keynesianism, Fordism, etc., which are the answer to the 1929 crisis and even previously to 1917. The communism of capital means precisely that post-Fordism articulates in its own way that general intellect which would demonstrate how steadily realistic a communist overturn could be.

In the workerist tradition there’s always been this opposition between socialism and communism, not real socialism but an ideal socialism, the application of a universal and equal law of value and so on. However, the exclusive aspects of communism, critique of labour, critique of the State and other things, they seem precisely made but articulated instead in terms of production of surplus value.

In this sense, it’s two-faced. Among many things, I believe that contemporary capitalism, precisely in the post-Fordist sense, has the characteristic of translating in historical, social and even economic terms the most general characteristics of the human animal, which have always been true, also for Homer. So, what has always been true, that the human animal has always been like this, becomes true: that it is a linguistic animal, that it has a certain relation between sensible life and a life that is cognitive and intellectual, that has its own characteristics, that it doesn’t have a specific environment for example, in the same way that a tick has or an alligator or a chimpanzee have, but that has to do with an indeterminate world, in which it never finds its proper way round. These facts, which are even biological, are instead historical and empirical: in this sense they become true, they reveal themselves, they become manifest. It’s precisely what researchers call anthropogenesis: the very genesis of human beings, in their features distinctive from other species, which has always been true of course, only that it never presented itself as a simple concrete phenomenon, empirical, at times even economic. Thus, almost a biological constitution, let’s say, which instead becomes historical determination. This aspect is the great power of post-Fordist capitalism, which however has always been considered the basis of communism. Paradoxically, the idea is that man could live directly and without veils equal to the characteristics of his own species, without the veils of religion, traditional societies or present in the small countryside village where people live in the exact same way for three centuries, but could only live because he is an indefinite animal (so that we can use even a nice definition). Man as an indefinite animal, whilst all other animals have well specified instincts: the tree doesn’t exist for the bird, the branch only exists as a resting place precisely because well defined, the bird always knows what to do. Man is an animal that doesn’t know what he has to do; it’s the only animal that lives within indecision and uncertainty. Is it clear what general things these are? But think about how this living within indecision and uncertainty, this being an indefinite animal, is at the basis of post-Fordism. When people speak about relationality, linguistically, being ready to continuous innovation: what else are they speaking about, if not about the centrality of man as an indefinite animal? To get to the very root of human constitution as such is also the basis of the communist idea, depurated from the concerns of labour movements, from socialist stuff, etc. It’s a tug of war in which the rope belongs to all: this rope can be called general intellect, and when it’s pulled as it happens today almost completely by large businesses, by the production of surplus value, obviously it assumes certain characteristics. That is not to say that this rope remains exactly the same, when one of the two contestants pulls it harder it has certain characteristics, when it’s pulled by the other side it has different ones. To sum it up, this rope is called general intellect. However, post-Fordism sets into motion what has always been man’s underlying condition, its being an indefinite animal, the only indefinite animal, this to me seems realistic.

What can you tell us about Enzo Grillo?

We were friends with him in the 1970s, he was older, but we always stayed together. He was a great friend of De Caro, that we knew less because he was more to himself, instead Enzo was a chatterbox, a man of the dinner table altogether. Enzo is very well read, troubled by the fact that he knew everything and he found it impossible to write. Then I lost sight of him, I don’t think I met him ever again. At some point he really isolated himself, he retired at the age of forty, he went to live outside of Rome, he didn’t send his daughter to school and he was her own teacher. He began making some wonderful translations and he really knew everything. In fact, he tried to organise the dissertations of young people from Potere Operaio who went to University, so that they write thesis on things that to him seemed like they hadn’t been eviscerated and thus could be useful in their whole to working class science. The problem is that when time passes people become embittered, this is part of what makes the indefinite animal.

Grillo and De Caro gave a paper in 1973 at the Serrantini centre in Bologna, entitled “L’esperienza storica della rivista Classe Operaia” [The historical experience of Working Class magazine], and that circulated around mimeographed. From the few fragments that we’ve been able to read it seems like they critiqued that experience, which is in some ways taken up by others, even in the interviews we’re making, that is, a sort of implicit progressivism in certain workerist paths. This does not obviously concern everyone, but if, for example, you look at some aspects of Negri’s path (think of Posse as well as previous elaborations) you see the theory of the multitude (or even before called in different terms) that goes deterministically towards emancipated cooperation and towards which the only problem is the capitalist command that presents itself in the form of a simple parasitic crust, totally unnecessary. This idea of a linear history that always carries on and always improves comes back again.

They didn’t tell us, we’ve already won without noticing! At some point Toni, not that I know them well, should read with less impatience Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, which as we know are perfectly anti-progressivist. At times he mutters they’re taken from the Talmud, that’s not right, whereas there’s in it precisely an element of catastrophe as always possible. I wouldn’t call it progressivism, because that really contains the worst of the labour movement…

There’s a sort of objective immanence in the need for a communism destined to actualisation.

It is immanent, however its immanence doesn’t take away the possibility to reverse it at once, paralysis and catastrophe. But even when observing the most sociological thing, that is, one day of work at the Fiat factory in Melfi, you need to bear in mind the possibility of paralysis and catastrophe, that is, the very same things that might develop a radical transformation of existence can instead secrete the most radical evil; when you think about post-Fordist multitude or whatever you want, it’s necessary to introduce the category of ‘evil’ (clearly intended in a certain way), of the negative. So, the problem has been that workerism critiqued the dialectical method, because dialectics were something for cheats; not that Hegel was a cheat, but it was an unreliable tool. The critique of dialectics, however, in my opinion should not have lead to the critique of the negative, that is the possibility of catastrophe, that things might get totally screwed. I think that workerism and not Calvino were one of the few exportable things from Italy in post-Second World War times: it did some steps in this direction, but perhaps not sufficient ones. That is, there is the possibility to think negativity, evil, disaster, mess, the thing from which you can’t get away with, as something that has a non-dialectical form: it’s not that because you critique dialectics you also have to critique the negative. On this, in fact, an issue of DeriveApprodi will come out on the discourse about the multitude and the negative. The multitude can become fascist. You have to keep in mind that the multitude has within itself the immanence of communism, this can always be said, and I was also speaking about the communism of capital, just to mention how much it became visible to the naked eye…

However that immanence assumed a teleological aspect, an objective destiny of actualisation.

That same immanence is so undirected by necessity that it can result even in radical evil; I obviously use such expressions that I wouldn’t use in public, which are a bit theological expressions and it’s not clear what they mean, but anyhow let’s say the absolute negative, fascism. Marx wrote it in some part (perhaps in a letter to Engels): between the two contestants that confront each other in the long term, on the level of more generations and not merely a few years, it can’t be said if one or the other would win, a catastrophe might well happen. Some thinkers of the 20th century, Marxists but also non-Marxists, took care of it well and it’s a necessary notion. I repeat myself, necessary then even when you judge something that happens in Prague or at the Leoncavallo [Autonomous Social Centre in Milan]. The point to keep in mind is that, beyond the alternatives A and B, there could be paralysis, catastrophe, decomposition, and evil. It is one thing to think of evil in the category of ‘the people’, another thing entirely evil in the category of the multitude, you have to stress the specific forms of evil in the one and the other case, and in relation to the one and the other category: however, it’s evil, there’s this possibility. So, a non-dialectical evil, which would be something to treasure. Cacciari has tried it with those things on negative thought that, in part for a certain cryptic dimension, seemed even to suffer the hypnosis of this great bourgeois notion, like the one of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.: in his case there was this non-dialectical negative, but then it also married certain forms. There have been various attempts, but certainly there’s an open knot. Sure, Toni probably has this kind of Spinozan optimism, like he says, and of course this allows one to see also many things sometimes, to grasp aspects of tendency, it breaks with all the grief of the traditional labour movement that is always full of nostalgia, that would really like that Fordism would still exist. This attitude of Toni or of other parts of workerism allows getting even faster to the point, but then it does so at a high price.

A personality you’ve been close to is that of Lucio Castellano. How would you situate him?

He was intellectually very upbeat and unconventional. I was saying earlier that in the last Pre-print of Metropoli, that came out in 1981, but whose texts were actually already there since 1978, there was an essay of his on work and non-work, that was written in the autumn of 1976 and objectively it’s a very convincing and very foreseeing portrait of the main characteristics of post-Fordist labour and, in the immediate, of the 1977 movement. Then, like others, in the end, he had this anxiety on the black hole of political theory, the fact that there wasn’t a political theory. No one looks for the thing in which it’s said “the State, the Counties…”, no, I’m talking precisely about the most important core of political theory, that it didn’t exist: all the analysis of class composition, post-Fordism, the general intellect or still other issues, even before, they didn’t get to the end of a political theory. Of course, this took him to have a critical taste of the proper workerist paradigm. This transitional period we’ve lived in the past 10-15 years, in which many things were understood and many new categories could be proposed, but there was no relevant political consequence, this march in the desert, makes the space for the impossibility to keep going on psychologically: and so either, like it happened even to good comrades, like the younger ones for example from Veneto, you steer towards PDS because you cannot endure this condition, or, on the most solitary and intellectual level, you’re attracted by a change of paradigm that is also basically about letting go the workerist framework and searching for eclectic and somewhat spurious solutions on the terrain of political theory, since this is not given to you by workerism itself. This has been Lucio’s dimension in the beginning of the 1990s. He had finished writing a book just before the accident, it only needed polishing, and that was exactly the problem: if productions works as such, what political theory should correspond to it? There’s a gap: to this wealth of production corresponds no minimally worthy political theory. Wealth meant in all senses of the term, capitalist wealth, wealth as potential for antagonistic subjectivity. To the complex character that really keeps production in itself, the problem is that there’s a disgusting political theory, even in its critical versions. He had written this book, to which some old writings from Metropoli and also Pre-print were added. And then there’s a book about his memories. Then, the relation with Lucio wasn’t so good in the last years, we argued even within Luogo Comune. We did Metropoli together for a long time just between the two of us, because Piperno and Pace in 1981 were given their passports from the police with the proviso that they would go away from the country, because they could have been put on trial for crimes for which France had not extradited them; so, they took their passports and went to France, where they had all the difficulties of the exile. Lucio and me remained here; we did great part of those five issues of the magazine. Then, instead, in the period of Luogo Comune we weren’t any longer in synch, on the contrary there was a strong tendency to quarrel. He accused me of continuism; I instead accused him to simplify his life, in the sense that is made of the passage, the leap. The most complicated thing is actually the least continuist (of course that’s what I was saying), it was necessary to understand how many things had entered, for example, the concept of production, which previously did not belong to the concept of production: one can even say that production has no central relevance, but to see the same thing it’s one possibility. You can say: “lots of things that previously had nothing to do with work have become work”, or you can say: “work has become an inessential dimension”; you can say both things based on the same elements. So, there were some disputes on this. From the point of view of great moments, he has been inside seminars that have produced the collective book Sentimenti dell’aldiquà, then was present as one of the founders of Luogo Comune, he wrote and collaborated in the first issues of DeriveApprodi. Luogo Comune kept together people that were very different, something that contributed to its paralysis. However, the great moments like frequenting certain circles of discussion are pretty much more or less the same; even the period of the prison experience was absolutely the same, because we were all accused of the same things, we had the same profile case. Let’s say he worked almost exclusively on this theme of political theory, with the book (edited by Hopefulmonster) Il potere degli altri [The powers of others], then even on that text published posthumously by Manifestolibri [Manifestobooks]. Thus, the same words (general intellect as a political source rather than a fundamental element of production, the very word exodus) were also his own but he gave them a declension that was more anti-workerist than I thought proper, and certainly not for reasons of affection towards that tradition.

A somewhat much more complete question than the previous one. Technical composition, political composition and recomposition are three different categories that often are confused between each other or completely not considered by certain theories. Even in regards to the discourse on the general intellect some people (Toni, for example) end up looking mainly at the pretty static dimension of technical composition, interpreting it immediately as antagonist political composition, thus viewing the capacities to work as immediately revolutionary. Often subjective determinants are completely left to the side, the very ones upon which an analysis of political composition and a continuous path towards recomposition should be centred.

Perhaps this was a flaw (if we can call it this way) that Toni had even in 1969, it’s not something new. It derives from this attitude of his to be hasty, to see a tendency as already actualised and thus certainly to skip passages that make the problem of class composition one that is always tenuous, controversial and reversible. However, in my opinion, out of the necessity of being in France, after the defeat, after prison and then even now, Toni tried in the end to outline the margins of the scenery in its entirety rather than look at the centre of the scene, he tried to determine the field rather than see how it could then be passed through. Thus, he tried to show even the logical borders of the situation in which are in, occupying perhaps less energy than he could in the 1970s to the effective passages of class recomposition, trying to indicate the lodestars of the situation. And on this one can either agree or disagree, but the work done by the magazine Futur Anterieur has been important. The analysis of what they called immaterial labour, cooperation and so on, has been a good path; in parallel and independently from us, they had worked on the linguistic and communicative dimension of labour, with a critique of Habermas that touches upon the problem and distorts it with its own dichotomy. The fact is, they came to a halt there, and the same was for the forces they implicated, for the sort of collaborators not only from France that were in it. In my opinion, his attention is always more directed towards understanding, whether right or wrong, certain lodestars rather than truly confront processes of class recomposition, not addressing and often inhibiting their ambiguity and their character.

Which have been, in your opinion, the central names and authors that can be used to break politically with those closures of Marx’s theory of which we spoke earlier?

If anything the great authors are from the social sciences and from philosophy. I think it’s hard to speak of contemporary production without resorting to even an instrumentalisation of philosophy of language. Either we take ourselves seriously or we don’t: if we don’t take ourselves seriously then it’s simply a joke to say that language has been put to work (or however one wants to say it, this doesn’t matter); if we take ourselves seriously this means that some of the categories should be taken not exactly as they are, but retraced with a work of critique and, of course, even one of modification in who thought more in depth the linguistic experience, such as Saussure and Wittgenstein. However, this is not only a problem given by studies I’ve made and things I’ve written, I don’t want to break it up this way, but it’s a kind of necessary enlargement. There’s the great biology, the current one but also the one of the beginnings of the 20th century, that is important for the characteristics of the human animal as such (I deliberately make use of the term human animal for a materialistic reason): it’s as if this sort of essential core of the human animal had come to light especially with post-Fordism.

The Marxian definition of labour power has for the first time actually become true, which is explained by Marx as such: “the sum of all the physical and intellectual aptitudes” – it should be noted, aptitudes are in potentiality – “existent in the corporeal agent”; this definition in a certain sense has never been completely true until now. Therefore, if it is as such, even biology (in this strong sense, not in the sense of biologies) is important.

Then there’s a critical usage of opponents, often opponents are the best interlocutors. Luhmann can be said to be an opponent, no one can deny it; to me Hannah Arendt is an opponent, but many things can be drawn out from one who thought with her own head like Arendt, in terms of problematising, varying, correcting and conversing with them.

Certainly in philosophy, but even in the social sciences and in critical theory in general, some good opponents are worth more in a certain sense than allies that are either mediocre or with whom you are already in obvious agreement. Of course, the worst thing is an opponent that is innocuous, but a disquieting opponent, an insurmountable opponent gives you great possibilities. The same goes precisely for Hannah Arendt: I read her, I re-read her, there’s not even one sentence that I would subscribe to, but many things come out of this friction. The same of course goes for these philosophers of communication and language, I was already speaking of Wittgenstein and Saussure; the same goes for the biologists that think human beings as an indefinite animal, it’s a great strand. It’s important to choose good opponents. I think is important not Heidegger in general but just the one in Being and Time, that would take everyday life in mass society and analyses it as such, and thus brings out some categories that are truly philosophical categories, which however have apparently little to do with philosophy, like chatter and curiosity: these are good things, of course, to eviscerate against Heidegger himself, again we are speaking about opponents. I’d much rather keep a good list of important opponents.

What do you think about Arnold Gehlen?

Gehlen is important, sure: making use of these biologists like von Uexküll and these others, he elaborates to the greatest extent the idea of the human character as unprepared, indefinite, uncertain and undecided. What is it to post-Fordism? An animal that is indefinite (flexibility, plasticity), undecided (always ready for different alternatives), and so forth.

4 thoughts on “Language, politics and human nature: An interview to Paolo Virno (Translation by Kevin W. Molin)

  1. The first issue of a new series of Collegamenti (1977a: 5) expanded these criticisms. Here it was argued that the early ‘autonomous workers movement’ of factory militants had been highjacked by ‘old wolves in new skins’, whose antics in ‘imposing analyses and divining the most “correct”� and “revolutionary”� objective’ had alienated the movement’s original workplace and neighbourhood collectives ‘one by one’. That this had occurred was not simply due to the perfidy of Autonomia’s ‘micro-fractions’, however. Rather, its basis lay in the failure of the original workplace committees’ belief that the federation of similar bodies ‘factory by factory’ would eventually lead to ‘total control over production’ on the path to a ‘reborn republic of councils’ (ibid: 6). With such hopes dashed by the massive restructuring and layoffs that characterised much of Italian industry after 1973, space was opened within Autonomia for the rise of the ‘organised autonomists’ and their growing stress upon the overarching dimension of ‘political’ struggle. While the likes of Negri turned their back upon the large factories, Scalzone’s group had made little progress within them when touting their simplistic schemas that counterposed working class ‘right’ to working class ‘left’ (Collegamenti 1978: 81). A similar pattern would be repeated with the Movement of ’77 which, isolated from much of the traditional working class and under growing pressure from the state to reduce its dynamic to one of physical confrontation, increasingly lost the social dimension to its struggle. In such circumstances, this vicious circle was exacerbated by the preparedness of many in Autonomia organizzata to accept the state’s challenge, while extolling ‘the thematic of the party, voluntarism and the separateness of militancy’ to rationalise their right to a specialised leadership role within the broader movement (ibid: 85).

  2. Actually, this interview is from the project by Pozzi, Roggero and Borio that produced the book Futuro Anteriore back in 2002.

    • Thanks for pointing this out Steve. The link where I found the interview in seemed to suggest otherwise, but I’ve now double-checked and you’re correct indeed. The piece is also scattered around several other websites, I presume someone transcribed the CD-ROM or the authors did it themselves, there is no mention anywhere of the names online.
      I noticed you wrote a very good, lenghty article on Futuro Anteriore for Ephemera, which I recommend to any readers of this interview [ http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/7-1/7-1wright.pdf ].
      I’ve found also other translations from that same project by Pozzi, Roggero and Borio, as well as many other interviews with Italian theorists [ http://www.generation-online.org/t/translations.htm ].

      K.

  3. Thanks, K – and thanks for translating the interview. There is a recent book in English by Roggero, if you haven’t seen it …

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