Italy: Autonomia (13) – Paolo Virno

Paolo Virno

Paolo Virno was active in Potere Operaio until its dissolution in 1973. He was actively in the movement of 1977 and with Oreste Scalzone and Franco Piperno, founded the Metropolitan magazine. Two years later, the editorial group of the magazine was jailed on charges of belonging to the Red Brigades. A three-year period of custody was followed by a sentence in 1982 to 12 years in prison for “subversive activities and creation of an armed group” (though the charges of belonging to the Red Brigades did not materialise). Virno appealed and was released pending trial in the second instance. In 1987 he would eventually be acquitted, along with Piperno. His experience during these years were informed the organization of the Luogo Comune publication, devoted to the analysis of life forms within post-fordism. (Wikipedia)

We share below an essay that aims to criticise a “politics of needs” divorced from a critique of labour and capital, followed by an interview that Virno gave to il manifesto, forty years after the movement of 1977 in Italy.

Dreamers of a Successful Life

Paolo Virno

The practices and the languages adopted by the Movement seem to suggest an alternate type of socialization, different than that based on the exchange of equivalent values. The “technical-scientific intellect”, “off-the-books” labour, the feminist movement, young proletarians, etc. may be seen as parts – not reducible to any whole – of a composite praxis in which production and emancipation are intertwined. This praxis cannot be understood through an identity principle founded on categories of commodity. As far as social change is concerned, what counts more and more is not the commonly accepted definition of labour force, but rather all the aspects of the activity of these individuals who find themselves in opposition to that definition. What counts is the qualitative consistency, profoundly varied, of their “doing”. To understand this proliferation of the concrete and the different within socialized labour requires a constellation of materialistic concepts which are totally detached from that universality characteristic of the “general equivalent” and which are not used as the bases or synthesizing elements for the actual processes of liberation. Thus it is the empirical-perceptible determinateness of human labour, the specific qualitative richness of labour’s use value, which constitutes an autonomous and powerful means for understanding the totality of the production process. The directly social dimension of labour – within which dimension there is no further distinction between “complex” and “simple” labour, though the concept of immediate production is modified – makes of use value, of physicality, a criterion for understanding which is not at all retrograde, but rather, in the end, “post-Galilean”, that is to say, more significant than the quantification and the equivalent-assigning which prevail in exchange systems.

Men and women, factory workers and marginal workers of every species, the partly employed and the partly unemployed, all derive from their articulated presence within the system of production a welter of insights, techniques, and testes that are antagonistic to the assigning of value. Dreamers of a successful life perceive in the process of labour the means to escape from their dreamland; in the tangible – yet blocked and incomplete – separation between production and the assigning of value, they perceive the principal route for a dialectic of liberation. However, it happens – and here one may think of the parabola traced by the “great disorder” of 1977 – that the new level attained by the socialization of labour may not come to be manifested in the milieu from which it sprang, that is, in the production of material goods and in the scientific apparatus needed for such production; labour agitation has not affected the forms of the production process, and has not been able to attack in a wide-ranging and significant way the link between the functioning of capitalist management and the functioning of coordination as exercised by the “generalized intellect”. One finds – and one will doubtless find for a long time to come – a striking gap between a movement which re-produces itself daily in the process of labour and the self-expression of that movement, which quite often is situated “elsewhere”. 

“Out of delicacy I have forfeited my life” or: The painful myth of a “pure socialization” 

The consequence of this “impasse” is that the rethinking for purposes of emancipation of the relationship between labour and socialization, instead of arriving at a transformed and enriched conception of production, gives rise to an extraordinary burgeoning of ideology, the principal characteristic of which is a pining for a “pure” socialization, detached from the sphere of material activity and by design not related to the historical forms by which nature is appropriated. If bodies continue to be measured, their equivalents determined, if they continue to be mortified by the capital-labour exchange, then the possibility of reaching a non-mutilated socialization seems to lie in an indefinite expansion of interpersonal relationships, brought about through interaction: agitation, behaviour, needs, languages.

Work and interaction, of “instrumental action” and “communicative action”, are seen – in this confused pot of ideology – as two totally separated poles, without any reciprocal connection: on the one hand the praxis of labour, divided down the middle but conceived under a single heading as the imparting of value (and thus””as far as the activity of the individual is concerned””totally devoid of relationships, operating as monolog); on the other hand, free relationships based on dialog between people who grant each other “reciprocal recognition” as bearers of petitions for emancipation. In short: in the realm of production, a sanctioning of the uncontested hegemony of exchange value; in the realm of distribution only, a rediscovery of use value.

In fact, the distinctive aspect of this fantasy-land socialization is a sort of “struggle for recognition” on the part of unhappy minds: unrepressed individuality must be embraced with all needs and desires by other individualities, if only on the letters-to-the-editor page of the newspaper. Antagonism is de-materialized and constantly reduced to the pastime of critical reflection on the inauthenticity of daily life; in the background looms the all-powerful category of commodity-form (the crisis of which is not perceived in the realm of production), which constrains and inhibits reciprocal recognition in relationships based on domination. What is required for interaction between individuals to flow freely is, in reality, the maintenance of that universality and equivalence of values promised by the system of equivalent exchange – but these promises are always betrayed by the essential inequity of the selling and buying relationship which prevails between capital and the labour force. In short, “pure” socialization, which is irrelevant or inadequate in defining the praxis of labour, boils down to the demands for a “fair exchange”, or one which will not make the warm-blooded interior space of individuals seem worthless. 

The point if this: If one cannot detect in the fabric of agitation the ready possibility for a socialization which is no longer regulated by the marketplace, but instead based directly on labour, taken as the possession of the power and the skill to produce, or labour “as subjectivity” – then it is inevitable that the relationship between labour and socialization should continue to be mediated by the distribution aspect. A “just” exchange thus represents a final, twisted illusion that the abstract form in which wealth is produced is being reconciled to the disparate natures of individuals, who aspire to a communication-circulation freed from domination relationships. So there is no reason to be astonished that this version of socialization comes into being already “separate” – with agitation and liberation campaigns constituting an autonomous universe – it does not even conceive the need to define – precisely by means of violence – the separation between antinomical elements present in production. 

The ideology of liberation, frozen in the purity of those guarantees which have been given to workers, is not capable of envisaging the degree of liberty which can result from the use of violence as a function specific to the further socialization of labour. 

Needs and ideology. The Heller case 

Also entwined in the distribution perspective appear to be “theories of needs”, variously construed within the movement. What is almost always ignored is the more or less complete lack of autonomy of the “system of needs”, that is the dependence of the system on the historical form of labour. This oversight is found even in the most penetrating authors.

Ms. Heller, for example – and the example is significant because of the weight which her theses have carried with our comrades – has detected, in the various connotations with which Marx employs the term “need” the clear presence of a “judgemental” approach in economic critiques: according to Heller, actual “determinations of value” are at the bottom of the principal Marxian categories. “In his works,” Heller writes, “the principal tendency is to consider concepts of need as extra-economic, historical-philosophical categories, that is, as anthropological categories of value, and as such, not susceptible to definition within the economic system.” These needs, then, precisely because they burst out of and transcend the narrow boundaries of those concepts found in political economics, constitute the foundations necessary for a superior organization of production.

But this transcendental conception of needs, which become the true privileged seat of subjectivity regained, cannot help but pay the price of its ethical and anthropological origins. The system of basic needs, precisely because it is situated in a space structurally different than that occupied by the “real abstractions” of capitalist society, becomes rather ineffective as a means of critiquing from within the full weight of economic categories, and instead is limited to coexistence with these categories, bringing no substantial changes to them.

Heller, unlike many of her readers, carefully refrains from confining the new needs to some unspecified expansion of consumerism and instead strives to read them in relation to a reconsidered appreciation of the goal- and planning-oriented nature and labour. Nevertheless, she cannot help feeling that the “counter-economy”, to which her writings implicitly refer, in no way undermines the universally prevailing system of wage-earning labour; rather, she limits herself to defining marginal spaces within which a renewed “system of ethical conduct” can be cultured. Ethical Marxism, even in the most up-to-date versions, cannot avoid papering over the relationship which exists between critiques of capitalistic economic forms and the composition of subjectivity, preferring to consign the latter to a “theory of values”. More generally, the pretence of deducing the transformed form of labour in a “society of confederated producers” through studying the articulation and the quality of social needs amounts to repeating the point of view found in the great bourgeois ideologies and applying it to the specific theme of the transition to communism. Quite early, Hegel and Smith pointed unhesitatingly to the infinite multiplication and specification of needs as the distinctive trait of post-feudal society. Thus they turned from the marketplace to labour: the omnipresent exchange of products is such that the individual no longer works for his own concrete need, but for the abstraction of a generalized need; consequently labour too becomes abstract and generalized. The quality of the need conditions the quality of the labour; the abstraction of need is precursor to the abstraction of labour; the modern form taken by the distribution of wealth determines, for Hegel and Smith, the form of the production of wealth.

From the beginning, the anthropology of need has celebrated its rites in the domain of distribution: this fate has befallen Heller as well, for she limits herself to creating a mirror image of the classical figure of “homo oeconomicus”, replacing this character with the equally anthropological model of an individual rich in radical needs. 

Labour and needs: Toward a critique of the movement 

Marx, in fixing the relationship between needs and labour, reverses the order of the sequence and locates the genesis of needs within the structure of abstract labour: “Inasmuch as labour is labour to earn wages and its immediate goal is money, a general wealth is set as its object and aim … Money as goal here becomes the means for the general labouriosity. People produce general wealth so that they can gain possessions of its token.” If the immediate goal of abstract labour is not this or that particular product but rather “the general form of wealth” (money), then it is clear that social needs no longer represent either the point of departure or the point of arrival for the process of production; instead they constitute a “middle term” in the route travelled by “money as capital”. Needs themselves are seen as needs for a general equivalent. And, given that this general equivalent is the specific product of paid labour, the “system of needs” necessarily tends to reproduce that particular link between individuals and general wealth which is established precisely by the capitalist form of labour. Therefore: the needs of paid labour consist in the reproduction of paid labour. 

When the accent is placed emphatically on the antagonistic immediacy of needs one loses sight precisely of that “expanded reproduction” of the prevailing social relationships, of the labour force taken as goods, which is implicit in the “system of needs” that has evolved from the abstraction of value. Thus one neglects the “coercion to repeat” which is inherent in the general equivalent. Then the smug and unanalytical adoption of one’s own existential radicalness – silent or vociferous, it hardly matters – as a pole of inevitable conflict comes near to being a labour of Sisyphus, a flight which “always amounts to a forced repetition of the state from which one fled.”

In the same way, as far as collective processes are concerned, the “Americanization” of the behaviour of non-working class labour and the extremist struggles opposing industrial reform and defending the old class organization can be seen as two from among the many possible examples of a “radical needing” in which is inscribed a priori the reproduction of domination. Other examples: the forms of agitation by which needs are manifested come under discussion as a matter of course. Is it necessary to repeat that Carniti’s hard-nosed brand of labour unionism is a hand-me-down from the ruling class? And that even the most extreme forms of agitation cannot redeem a content that is subaltern? That one can prepare oneself for full employment, while still being less advanced than the young proletarian who has many jobs, all precarious, all interchangeable, and who wants nothing to do with a permanent position?

To represent the collection of needs which the movement exhibits as a pluralistic, evenly-weighted set of elements without hierarchy is an illusion that has no sense: there is always hierarchy, and one must find what the principle is that regulates and classifies. To this end, Marxian arguments show clearly the necessity of discussing the theme of needs in terms of the all-important form which labour activity assumes. This necessity prevails whether the perpetuation of capitalistic relationships of production or the exact opposite is being considered. Either one or the other: either needs are ordered by money and abstract labour, or they are filtered and arranged in a hierarchy. In accordance with all the ramifications of the social aspect of the labour process, which is no longer measurable in terms of the law of value. Obviously, to take the productivity of the “social individual” as a critical parameter for needs does not mean resorting to any very idealistic “regulatory idea”; on the contrary, what organizes the chain of needs here, elevating some and pushing others into the margin, is not the future of the utopian society, but the present reality of a divided production in which there exists, on the material level, a different and highly efficacious coalition of the forces of production, amounting to a new principle of synthesis. In short: from the reality of a broadened concept of labour stems a hierarchy of needs oriented toward emancipation, a hierarchy which is antithetical to the one mandated by the general equivalent. 

The social work-day, the individual, the body 

In the composite structure of the social work-day, in its inhomogeneous and fragmented articulation, time does not pass evenly. Time is not always the empty and abstract index for assigning value, a unit of measure in itself. The simultaneous presence – and the rather haphazard combination – of work as “coordination” and “supervision”, together with embryonic elements of counter-economy, submission to the machine or nomadism among many and various precarious activities, establishes a pluralistic perception of time, a diversified perception deeply marked by the “space” of the experience. Unremunerated social cooperation, or what little of it is found today – and that seeming something of a fetish – as a potent aspect of human labour, restores to production time body and quality, feeling and relationships, the pleasure of understanding and the desire to organize with the greatest possible tactical intelligence one’s own hatred. Within this “diachronic zone” of the work-day is also situated the problem of hedonism, of realized happiness, of the restored power of the category of the individual, beyond any ideological parody of the self.

In the experience of production – as rich as it is conflict-ridden – of a young worker or a young engineer, in that externalness of the particular assigned task, in that internalness where the consciousness of cooperation lies, the potential “full significance” of the individual no longer appears as an effect of the poverty of social relationships – as in precapitalistic economic organizations – but rather the result of the acknowledged universality of these relationships. Hatred and scorn at “working under the boss” express the potential for an immediate correspondence between the production activity of the individual and that of the species; thus the possibility for an automatized appropriation in the external realm and a full appreciation of “internal nature”, that is, precisely of the individual and his or her body. If capitalistic society conceals the connection between labour and nature (“The bourgeoisie has good reason to attribute a supernatural creative force to labour”, as Marx said) – subsuming the connection beneath the rubric of productive labour, in which productivity is something purely social – on the other hand the connection is rehabilitated in “qualitative” time, which infiltrates the work-day, pointing to the contradictions in it.

The natural corporeal reality of individual, his or her socially enriched senses, instead of constituting the tedious and superfluous empirical zone in which value is produced, suggest a different criterion of productivity, no longer based on the blind necessity of self-preservation or “time-saving”, but rather on the variegated time of conscious planning activities.

Which, after all, is what Marx alluded to when he spoke of the composer of music and the work of art as anticipations in terms of form of production without domination. 

Translated by Jared Becker

(From Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, semiotext(e), 1980 and also available at

1977, the Debut of the New Era: an Interview with Paolo Virno

“1977 is the conventional way of dating it, but the social subjects and forms of struggle we still remember today had arisen already before that.” That is how Paolo Virno, one of the most important philosophers in Italy and a leading figure in one of the 77 movement’s most widely-followed reviews, Metropoli, remembers these events. “In Milan there were the young proletarian circles, the demonstrations over the killings of Zibecchi and Varalli, and the mobilisations against black-market employment. And the subjects bursting onto the public stage also included factory workers. The 10,000 new employees at FIAT, for the first time including a lot of women and people with degrees, were also part of ’77. In June ’79 they blockaded the Mirafiori FIAT plant with the same vigor with which it was occupied in 1969 or 1973. At that moment there was a general acceleration, which asserted itself in an extreme way, embracing the whole spectrum of the labour force. And that year this all exploded: the clamorous subjective anticipation of a new order, which while subversive in coloration later took on the oppressive connotations of the neoliberal-capitalist productive order.

What did the movement anticipate?

77 was a debut. The new figures of labour power based on cognitive production and linguistic cooperation made their appearance, together with a reorganization of the working day that at that time had a subversive coloration. This was not the first time that a movement of struggle anticipated the future: in the 1910s in the USA there were the great unskilled workers’ struggles that preceded Fordism. We can take another case even before that, in seventeenth-century England: the vagabonds who were chased off the land, and not yet integrated into the manufactories, posed a major social threat. Similarly, 1977 is also two-sided: on the one hand it is a raw material of behaviours, affects and desires that took on rebellious contours and became a productive force, a present state of things. On the other hand, it is the tracks on which power and conflict run today.

Which of the characteristics of the labour force that arose in that time are still relevant today?

With its very sharp conflicts, 77 anticipated what really counts today. Marx defined this as a general intellect, which is no longer deposited in fixed capital but in living subjects. Consciousness, affects and intellect exist as interactions and as the linguistic cooperation of living labour. This upheaval signals an overcoming of Marx’s own blindness: for him, labour time is a residue and what really counts is the consciousness and the intellect that are shackled in the system of machines. The reproduction of life, and the productive qualities of labour power itself, are not just the ones that develop within the sphere of labour. If companies are going to produce surplus value, then they need people who have grown up in an environment that extends beyond the office or the shopfloor, precisely in order that they might be more productive within these workplaces.

Which of the subject’s faculties are put to work in this process?

I have focused on three fundamental elements of human nature: the infantile characteristics that persist throughout our lives, i.e. neoteny; the lack of a specific environmental niche for the human species, where it can settle in full security; and a high degree of potentiality, attested by the language faculty, i.e. something which is plastic and indeterminate, very different from languages. 77 was the first worldly, neotenical, and potential movement that drew strength from these faculties and did not have the problem of constraining its impulses. Up till that year, the institutions had defended themselves from these facts of human nature. After, and up to our own time, the institutions secured ownership over them and transformed them into a spur for social production and the motor of institutional forms. Today, neoteny has been turned inside out, taking the form of flexibility and an uninterrupted formation. The lack of a specific environmental niche has become mobility and polyvalence.

In what way has the neoliberal counterrevolution altered these characteristics?

These things all persist into our own time, though their traits have turned into their opposite. But I still believe that the flourishing of minute hierarchies, of limitations, of bottlenecks, expresses the end of the capitalist-dominated division of labour. Today, the technical division of labour is in large part dysfunctional, and it has become a way of colonizing the public character of the ethical, emotional, and affective tensions within the labour force. The changeability and unpredictability of these tensions have been transformed into true and proper job descriptions. And yet it is difficult to consider these tensions in labour power’s use value except in terms of their relationship with the wider world. The basic condition is the potential and need to share fundamental conditions like intellect and language. The segmentation of the so-called transindividual aspect of labour power is much more accentuated than the division of labour would have demanded in its own time. The greatest of potentials continually run into vicious circles. Yet this is a disciplinary overhaul necessitated precisely by this familiarity with the potential that would otherwise explode the productive order. So, looking at some of the forms of struggle that are possible today, we can read them as a historical document of what happened forty years ago. The centrality of these elements in our own time refutes any claim that we were representing a “second society” of the excluded. On the contrary, what was setting in motion was in fact a “first society,” in the moment of establishing itself. And that is the society we have today.

From then till now, no general social action capable of overthrowing the new productive, affective, and political order yet been identified. Why is that?

That is the important question posed already in the 1990s, when we believed that the winter of our discontent was already behind us, and we began to see the civil — because rebellious — side of the new productive reality. But that was not how it really was: for then came Berlusconi. Since 2007 we have been bogged down in the global crisis and we are witnessing a further moment in which possibilities are closed.

What are we lacking today, in terms of being able to define a concrete alternative?

The union minimum: conflict over material conditions, like working hours, wages or income. This terrain is the starting point, and yet it has become extremely complicated. It is difficult to conceive of a conflict waged by women working in a call centre that does not go hand in hand with the construction of embryonic new institutions. Today you need a new Paris Commune just to avoid lay-offs or to secure a 30 euro a month pay rise. What seems like the first step in a conflict always entails an experimental invention of post-state institutions.

Why did 77 reject the forms of political representation, such as they had been understood up till that moment?

The crisis of representation is irreversible. In Europe and not only there, genuine forms of fascism are emerging: it is a no man’s land that can be inhabited by the whole array of different and rival impulses. 77 was one of the forms this took, and the movement saw it in real time, when [Luciano] Lama [leader of the CGIL union confederation, a PCI member] and his stewards were chased out of La Sapienza university. This was a fundamental change, linked to longer term processes which put an end to the state monopoly on political decision making. Even so, it is an optical illusion to think that the crisis of representation is a predicate of one side alone, i.e. a virtue of the anti-capitalist movements. Populism is another marker of its irreversible decline. In fact, this decline responds to a fundamental phenomenon, and it has become the amniotic fluid in which European fascisms and populisms are growing. They are the horrible twins of the sparks of liberation, the malign version of things that belong to us. 

In what moment was this rejection of representation expressed?

In disobedience, for example. This theme became almost our “constitution.” It put in doubt what Hobbes had defined as a form of accepting command even before accepting laws. There can be no law that demands you do not rebel. In ’77 disobedience challenged obedience; and that comes before any concrete legislative measure. That was an extremely violent year. But once we look beyond the fetishisation of violence that built up at that time, we see that the movement expressed a right to resist the new configuration of post-state institutions. Violence is not counterposed to state and military violence. You assume a right to resist in order to defend something that you have built. That was the significance of the photo of Paolo and Daddo [two students wounded by police opening fire on a protest march in Rome’s Piazza Indipendenza] that Tano D’Amico took on 2 February 77

And what had you built, that you wanted to defend so strenuously?

Ius resistentiae defends something that it has already built: the works of friendship, a public friendship that produces forms of life, and which consists of cooperation and forms of general intellect and living labour. In 77 the category “friendship” ceased to be a parasitical one. The friend-enemy pairing was unravelled, and friendship was understood as an extensive cooperation. It is capable of constructing embryos of institutions, forms of life that deserve to be defended at any cost. As a form of violence, ius resistentiae is no more moderate than the violence which the women from the Smolny, the college for the “noble maidens” of Petrograd, directed against the Winter Palace.

How, then, do you take the first step?

Cultivating one’s own incompleteness, making it receptive and virtuous. It is necessary actively to make yourself available and to wait for the unforeseen. And this depends on precarious and intermittent labour’s capacity to make itself felt, indeed forcefully so. Faced with the expectation that the unpredictable will indeed happen, political philosophy has to sit and wait. For me the furthest frontier, the peak of theoretical reflection is the equivalent, in our own time, of what the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were in the USA. If I have to think of something that resembles post-77, and 77 put to work, I think of them.

Do you remember any particular occasion from that year?

The demo that came closest to having an insurrectionary character was the one in Rome on 12 March, a march without slogans or banners that took place after the killing of Francesco Lorusso in Bologna the previous day. I remember that I was in front of the Justice Ministry in Via Arenula, I turned round and I saw an old man walking along, rather tired. It was Umberto Terracini, a founder of the PCI, an anti-fascist and president of the [post-World War II] Constituent Assembly. This was the man who intervened, in French, at the first congress of the Comintern in Moscow, earning a rebuke from Lenin, who considered him too extremist “Plus de souplesse, camarade Terracini!” For Terracini it was natural that he should walk along with that march. It was a very touching moment.

(From the Verso Books Blog, translated by David Broder)

For other writings by and on Paolo Virno, see the collection at

Further Readings:

Italy: Autonomia (1)

Italy: Autonomia (2)

Italy: Autonomia (3)

Italy: Autonomia (4) – Franco “Bifo” Berardi 

Italy: Autonomia (5) – “Bifo” and Radio Alice 

Italy, Autonomia (6) – Raniero Panzieri 

Italy: Autonomia (7) – Mario Tronti 

Italy: Autonomia (8) – Mario Tronti 

Italy: Autonomia (9) – Antonio Negri 

Italy: Autonomia (10) – Sergio Bologna 

Italy: Autonomia (11) – Franco Piperno 

Italy: Autonomia (12) – Oreste Scalzone 

Autonomia (13) – Paolo Virno 

Italy: Autonomia (14) – Félix Guattari 

Italy: Autuonomia (15) – Feminism 

Italy: Autonomia (16) – Feminism: Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James 

Italy: Autonomia (17) – Feminism: Leopoldina Fortunati 

Italy: Autonomia (18) – Feminism: Silvia Federici

Italy: Autonomia (19) – Feminism: Carla Lonzi

Italy: Autonomia (20) – Porto Marghera: the last firebrands

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