What possibilities presently exist in the public sphere?

Maurizio Lazzarato

Published in no. 23 of the journal Atlantica. Translated by Nate Holdren from the Spanish version. Edited for G-O by Erik Empson, September 2005

When we try to imagine possible actions in the public sphere of postfordism we find ourselves in a completely new situation. The modern distinctions between instrumental action (action to attain a certain result, which, for reasons of simplicity, we identify with labour in the following text), political action (action in response to the action of others) and artistic action (action in the resultant work remains linked to the open and indeterminate creative process) have ceased to exist.

The conditions for economic production, artistic creation, and political action have entered into a zone of indifference where they appear linked through a series of reciprocal presuppositions. I believe that the new situation is based on the fact that labour no longer represents a special, distinct practice, structured according to other criteria and methods that are not those of artistic and political practice. Labour tends to express itself through the powers of desire, the powers of thought and the application of generic human faculties: language, memory, ethical and aesthetic competencies, and the capacity for abstraction and learning. In this way, from the formal point of view, labour not only produces commodity-objects but also social relations, forms of life, and modes of subjectification.

In contemporary philosophy and sociology, the crisis of the concept of action only describes the result of a secular struggle directed against wages for labour, that is to say, against the fact that the activity of the majority of the population remains reduced to the execution of imposed tasks (for instrumental action) for ends external to the workers themselves.

In Postfordism not only have there been radical changes in the conditions that define political action, labour, and artistic creation, but also in the modes of subjectification corresponding to these forms of action of the worker, the citizen, and the artist.

In the capitalist and socialist west, labour has long represented not only the form of the "productive subject" but also the hegemonic model of subjectification that sustains identity, the meaning of belonging, and worldviews. Socialism and capitalism have used labour and social classes as forms of regulating, organizing, and creating hierarchies in society.

Beginning in the 1970s, the struggle against economic exploitation has been accompanied by a radical refusal on the part of women, youth, immigrants, diverse minorities and people of the third world to accept a 'becoming' based on the 'majority' model of 'male, white, professional, between 35 and 50 years old, citydweller...'. In this period, actions undertaken against forms of subjection that affected everyday life - classifying individuals into categories, apportioning to them certain forms of perception, sexuality and affect with the end of reproducing the workforce - played an increasingly important role. From then on the system of classes as a model for action and subjectification had entered into an irreversible process of dissolution and crisis. The coherence that work assured between economic production, political action, and modes of subjectification has changed to with the appearance of a multiplicity of new behaviours, forms of life, objectives and worldviews, that characterize what we call the multitude. The multiplicity and heterogeneity of forms of life and modes of subjection no longer tend to remain expressed through the generality and abstraction of social classes.

In order to understand the new forms of action presently possible we have to abandon this phenomenon of the 1970s, though without ingnoring it. The new forms of action, expressed by social movements or more molecular practices, articulate with the same strategy what had before stayed separated in the society of work. In France, the struggles of the unemployed, health workers, workers in the spectacle (media workers), and micropolitical practices in general, simultaneously speak of alternative economic actions, political aspirations, and common strategies against the apparatuses of subjection that in turn seek new forms of subjectification.

These social struggles and 'invisible' behaviours imply at the same time molar confrontations with the apparatuses of power and strategies of withdrawal, struggle, and trickery. In the same sense, they alternatively articulate strategies of separation and 'mediation', as being also of negotiation and rupture. These behaviours appear and disappear in public space following logics that escape the rules of 'representation'. Using the terminology of Hirscham we could say that they employ - in an unforeseeable manner - both senses of the French word 'voie': as much 'exit' (in withdrawal and struggle) as 'voice' (in controversy). Their objectives are not representations or the seizure of power (neither violently in accord with the communist tradition nor pacifically in accord with the social democratic tradition) but rather the constitution of new social relations and new sensibilities.

The multitude acts in a new public sphere governed by political mechanisms that function through representation and that organize themselves following the principles of universality. The 'citizen' and the 'worker' are forms of individualization totally external to the actions of the multitude. There is no place in the sphere of representation for women, the unemployed, precarious workers, homosexuals, immigrants, and all those that do not fit a universal but rather a singularization, and do not operate toward a general reorganization but rather toward a transversality that seeks to determine the passages and translations among different forms of life and behavoirs.

This brief phenomenology of action in Postfordism raises more questions than answers. How can we define a space divided into different practices all directed toward singularization? Where is the 'common ground' for the multitude? How can we establish a public space that would be favorable to the parallel development of multiplicity and singularity? What types of new relations exist between molecular and molar strategies?

The strange revolution of 1968 placed political action and aesthetics in labour, eliminated the separation between life-time and labour-time, displaced the distinction between execution and creation, and redefined the relation between factory and society. It definitively undermined the role of the wage as subject of production and politics. Paradoxically, this is precisely the point at which we have to begin in order to be able to define the conditions of action possible in Postfordism, and especially in order to analyze phenomena like unemployment and poverty. We risk misinterpreting the definition of possible action if we do not begin with the destructuration of the society of labor, which desired and practised subjectivity across a multiplicity of actions and themes.

In the capitalist west, poverty and unemployment are not the result, using the language of Keynes, of an economy of scarcity but rather of an economy of abundance. Poverty and unemployment are not the result of an insufficient development, but rather an excessive one. They are not the result of the lack of norms and regulations, but rather of the powers and influence of the market and the State.

The struggle against instrumental action demonstrated that it was possible to withdraw labour from the domain of necessity and transfer it to the domain of creativity. The reintroduction of necessity through unemployment, insecurity in labour, and poverty, proceeds from a political will to dominate, because businesses, markets, and the state can only find their legitimacy in necessity. In what other way can we explain the fact that from the beginning of the 'crisis' of the 1970s wealth has doubed in the western countries at the same time that unemployment, poverty, and precarity of work have become mass phenomena? The market, businesses, and the state impose modes of coordination that limit the variety of forms of cooperation and ignore the nature of the productive forces of the multitude: they only function through the production, distribution, and consumption of 'scarce goods'. But, can knowledge and intelligence, the motors of the future economy, define themselves as 'scarce' goods? Only the will to accumulate, the will of businesses and the state to control the production and circulation of knowledge, could define these "products" as commodities or scarce goods. The problems of unemployment, precarity of work, and poverty can only resolve themselves when the 'information economy' structures itself according to the economic principles of 'abundance'; in other words, based on the free production, free circulation, and collective appropriation of this production which simultaneously implies the most singular and most social aspects of everyone.

The two problems are strongly linked, what is at stake is precisely the form of creativity, activity, and modes of expression. From this point of view, the actions of the worker, the citizen, and the artist have experienced a complete metamorphosis.

1 Neither Habermas' distinction between 'instrumental rationality' and 'communicative rationality' nor Hanna Arendt's distinction between 'employment, labor, and action' can explain these new forms of action.

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