Facing a new 17th century

Interview with Paolo Virno

Translated by Nate Holdren from the Spanish version on La Insignia

"If we identify the new figure of global sovereignty with the Clinton years, calling this figure Empire, we risk rendering ourselves speechless when Bush enters the scene. I think that only now, with the Iraq war, does the true period "after the wall" begin, that is to say, the true far-reaching redefinition of political forms. Only now does the "constituent phase" begin. It is terrible, certainly, but it has open possibilities, although it will only be because in this phase does the movement of movements come to act," says the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno.

From Naples, Virno has been a militant since the agitated years of Italy in the 70s. From this perspective he has woven his theoretical production and undertaken his philosophical preoccupations. His books in Spanish (Virtuosismo y revolución, Gramática de la multitud and El recuerdo del presente) and the recently published Palabras con palabras (Paidós) gives an account of this journey. On this occasion he reflects on the global conjuncture, starting from the forms of struggle capable of questioning the global conjuncture, for emancipation, or, as he puts it, the good life.

Veronica Gago: What are you referring to when you speak of a "constituent phase" of political forms that grew "after the wall"?

Paolo Virno: The Iraq war, the Israel-Palestine catastrophe, the slaughter in Madrid, the crisis of the postfordist economy, the indebtedness of whole subcontinents, the question of copyright of information and knowledge: these are the questions, it seems to me, that press everyone, each in a way, to invent new political forms. From here will be born the new nomos of the earth, the new global order. To have believed that the 90s - and in particular the Clinton administration - already delineated a point of arrival was an error.

VG: What is your perception of the present "European situation"?

PV: As for Europe, the victory of the left in Spain and in France is certainly important for the movements, to the degree that it can be used to develop the conflict of precarious labor. I distrust a juridical-illuminist idea of Europe. Europe is a battlefield, the field where favorable relations of forces are made to mature. What is, in this sense, the challenge for the global movement? To put itself forward as a candidate - in actions, we should understand ourselves well - as the only political subject capable of attempting an "armistice" with Islamic terrorism. And, in addition, as the only political subject capable of presenting a far reaching proposal (and exactly for this reason a realist proposal) on public debt, the abolition of private property over social intelligence, the Palestinian question. In sum: the movement has as its objective the prevention of the birth of what has been called - hastily - "Empire".

VG: What do you believe has been the global movemnt's capacity to intervene, up till now?

PV: The global movement, from Seattle forward, appears as a battery that functions halfway: it accumulates energy without pause, but it does not know how where to discharge it. It is faced with an amazing accumulation, which has no correlate, at the moment, in adequate investments. It is like being in front a new technological apparatus, potent and refined, but ignoring the instructions for its use. The symbolic-mediatic dimension has been, at the same time, a set of favorable occasions and limits. On the one hand, it has guaranteed the accumulation of energy, on the other it has impeded its application, or deferred it to infinity. Every activist is conscious of this: the global movement has not managed to even impact (incidir) - I understand impact (incidir) with the image of a corrosive acid - the present capitalist accumulation. The movement has not placed into play a combination of forms of struggle capable of converting the conditions of precarious, intermittent, atypical work into a politically subversive power (potencia).

VG: Why such an impossibility?

PV: The question should be: from where does the difficulty arise? Why have the rate of profit and the functioning of constituted powers not been significantly affected after three years of disorder? Why this paradoxical "double bind", on the basis of which the symbolic-communicative is an authentic propulsive spring and, at the same time, a source of paralysis? The impasse that torments the global movement derives from its inherence in the current relations of production. It should not be seen as due to its otherness or marginality, as some consider. The movement is the conflictive interface of the postfordist labor process. Exactly for that (and not despite that), it presents itself in the public stage as an ethical movement. Let me explain: contemporary capitalist production mobilizes, for its own benefit, all the attitudes that distinguish our species - abstract thought, imagination, affect, aesthetic appreciation, etc. For fifteen years it has been said and repeated, I believe with good reason, that postfordism puts life itself to work. This is a simplifying formula, I agree: but we maintain the idea, taking more precise analysis for granted. Now, if it is true that postfordist production appropriates "life", that is to say, the combination of specifically human faculties, it is rather obvious that insubordination against it takes note of these same facts. To life included in flexible production there is counterposed the instance of a "good life". And the search for the "good life" is, precisely, the theme of ethics.

VG: And what would be the political implication of this ethical challenge?

PV: Here is the difficulty and, at the same time, the challenges are really interesting. The primacy of the ethical is the direct fruit of the material relations of production. But this primacy seems, in principle, to depart from the same thing that has provoked it: it is
an ethical movement that interferes with the way in which today surplus value is formed. The labor power that constitutes the heart of globalized postfordism - precarious, flexibilized, with a permeable border between employment and unemployment - defends some very general principles concerning the "human condition": freedom of speech, co-participation in the common good that is knowledge, peace, protection of the environment, justice and solidarity, aspiration to a public sphere in which the singularity and irrepeatability of each singular existence would be valued. The ethical instance, which also has roots in the social workday, plans to a high degree without also altering the relations of force that live inside it. Anyone who distrusts the ethical charge of the movement - for neglecting the class struggle against exploitation - is mistaken. But it is also mistaken to delight, for speculative reasons, in this ethical charge, considering that it leaves categories like "exploitation" and "class struggle" out of bounds. In both cases, the decisive question escapes: the polemical nexus between the instance of the "good life" (incarnated in Genoa and Porto Alegre) and life put to work (axis of the postfordist enterprise).

VG: In your work you have theorized the idea of a "postmodern fascism". Do you consider this reflection useful for characterizing the present configuration of powers at the European or imperial level?

PV: In speaking of "postmodern fascism" I don't refer so much to the ferocious face of the states and governments, so much as to the always possible entanglements in the interior of the multitude. It is a limit-concept to indicate the negative possibility that lives alongside occasions of liberty. For example: the taste for "differences", that is to say, the tendency to valorize everything that is unique or irrepeatable in the singular life. It is exactly this taste and this tendency that can be inverted perhaps as a proliferation of minute hierarchies, where "difference" comes to signify being subordinated to someone.

VG: In your words, we are on the edge of a new 17th century, in the sense that it was then, by means of the civil and religious wars, that the central concepts of modern politics were invented. What, in this new 17th century, are the principle alterations that you observe with respect to the sovereign configurations?

PV: There are a series of open questions. Above all, the fact that productive cooperation (based on social knowledge, collective intelligence, communication, science) is by far more powerful than the state apparatuses. The state seems like a typewriter next to the sophisticated computer that is the "general intellect" (as Marx called the social brain as pillar of modern production). The problem of our 17th century is this: how to make it so that this general intellect ceases being the principle productive force of capitalism and leads - based on a new public sphere - beyond the epoch of the State? In second place, there is the crisis of political representation. The transfer to the parliaments and the State, transfer of the capacity to decide politically, has always functioned with a collection of isolated "citizens" and atomized individuals as its presupposition. Each one participated in the public sphere through a delegation. Today, by contrast, each singular life presents itself immediately as a node of a "network", part of a full and articulated social cooperation. The cooperative - and because cooperative, public - quality of this experience is not delegable. It escapes political representation. Put another way, the crisis of this "monopoly of political decision" that is the State expresses the crisis of private property in which there are anomalous goods like information, knowledge, language, and thought at play. The problem is how to construct organisms of non-representative democracy that reabsorb for themselves the power/knowledge concentrated today in the state administration. Finally: in our epoch, human praxis adapts in the most direct and systematic way the combination of requisites - linguistic faculty, self-consciousness, affect - that make praxis human. In other words, postfordist capitalism has "human nature" as such as its primary material. The aspects that distinguish our species don't remain at the second level, as a background or implicit presupposition, but rather stand out, appear in full relief, leading to what are in play in social struggles. In our 17th century the principle problem is: what is the political form to give to the basic prerogatives of the species homo sapiens?

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