Notes on Virno, the Multitude, and the Web

Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning. From the point of view of “what” is done and “how” it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment. It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. -Virno (Grammar of the Multitude, p. 103)

I’m deep into my second comprehensive exam, so I’m going to self-servingly post some notes on various things I’m reading. (Feedback is most welcome.) Though Paulo Virno only mentions the Web once in In Grammar of the Multitude (p. 43), the four lectures that comprise the book are of deep relevance to the political economy of social media, particularly in situating them in the broader historical trend toward post-Fordist production.

Let’s start by unpacking that phrase “post-Fordism.” Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s innovations in assembly line production in his automotive plants. The assembly line had profound social consequences in that it made the tasks of each worker so repetitive and simplified that anyone could do them. That is to say, the assembly line created a de-skilled workforce. Fordism is also generally linked to Taylorism, which refers to Fredrick Taylor’s attempts to introduce scientific rationality in the workplace through time-and-motion studies and pay-for-performance.

In the most basic sense, we can talk about post-Fordism as the de-rationalization of production. Mechanization and automation (we should also add in outsourcing) reduce the need for workers to play a direct role in material production. Instead, the workforce (of the developed world) is increasingly engaged in designing, operating, and maintaining the machines (or other humans) that produce material commodities. In the paradigm of mass automation, productivity is dependent not on maximizing labor time and improving its efficiency but on freeing individuals to contribute to what Marx (1857-61/1939-41) once called “the general intellect” (i.e., the common stock of communicative and intellectual resources that can be used to serve further innovation). That is to say, the general intellect is the means of production of the means of production (Virno, p. 61).

The transition away from physical labor also involves an expansion of productivity beyond the rationalized confines of the workplace. Virno argues that while production was once exclusively the domain of labor (as Marx described), the mere fact of our existence now involves participation in the social mechanisms of productions. That is to say, with our every actions, we now are constantly creating value for capitalist enterprises (even if we are completely unaware of it). Virno concludes (p. 103) that it no longer even makes sense to talk about labor time and non-labor time:

The old distinction between “labor” and “non-labor” ends up in the distinction between remunerated life and non-remunerated life.

Here’s where Virno becomes useful in analyzing social media. When Virno is talking about the entirety of our lives being made productive, he focuses on our contributions to language and our existence as vectors of communication. Acknowledging that most people lack the expertise to directly contribute to the kinds of scientific knowledge that improves automated production, Virno focuses on the bare fact of speech—the capacity for language ( “parole” in French)—noting that, at minimum, language makes us each channels of communication. In contemporary Web parlance, we might say that each individual is hub for the transmission and proliferation of memes (many of which, of course, may have little bearing on the material production that preoccupies most of those coming out of the Marxian tradition, like Virno).

Clearly, those seeking to exploit the Web are intensely focused on this idea of turning individuals (“nodes” if your so inclined) in vast communication networks. Viral marketing epitomizes this cynical reduction of humans mere vectors of communication—all the better if the person remains unaware that they are serving this function: less resistance. For example, several years ago Ray-Ban produced a bunch of amateur-looking YouTube videos of people doing tricks with Ray-Ban sunglasses. The branding in the videos was subtle and it was not obvious that they were intended to be a commercial. The videos were widely shared, each racking up around 5 million views. In this case, Ray-Ban was clearly using individuals to spread a message (i.e., Ray-Bans are cool. Buy them.), but many of these individuals were probably completely unaware of the message they were spreading or the value they were producing for the Ray-Ban brand.

Most information exchanged on social media, however, isn’t as cynical or centrally-planned. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. allow us to act as producers, consumers, and conduits all simultaneously. Sometimes observations or ideas from unlikely sources go viral because they have a certain utility or resonance in the current historical moment. The constellation of open-source, open-government, open-publishing, etc. movements are all based on a generalized faith in the capacity of communication’s ability to improve efficiency, accountability, quality, etc. The fundamental premise of these movements, and of post-Fordism, more broadly, is that when circuits are open important ideas/observations rise to the top (and, thus, sometimes improve productivity).

Breaking with Marx’s teleological and deterministic worldview, Virno argues that the post-Fordist moment is characterized by ambivalence, meaning that, while the communicative and intellectual capacities of the masses (i.e., the so-called “multitude”) are currently subject widespread exploitation by capitalist enterprise, it is legitimate to entertain other ways in which these capacities might be directed.

Virno seeks a foundation for an alternative to post-Fordist capitalism, but this is complicated by the fact that the old foundations for resistance to capitalism have eroded. The de-individuation (i.e., all worker were equally de-skilled and non-specialized) that formed the heart of Fordist labor organization also provided the fundamental basis of working-class solidarity. Post-Fordism, on the other hand, emphasizes individual creativity and uniqueness, so that production no longer offers the same universality of experience. Given this loss of solidarity, society is becoming increasingly classless (though no less unequal). Yet, Virno argues that the situation is not hopeless because there is a new sort of post-Modern solidarity to be found in the universality of our socialization—a universal socialization that, ironically, celebrates difference and individuation.

I think Virno (and his supporters) are right to situate the Web in the broader context of post-Fordism; however, I have three related critiques of Virno’s analysis: 1.) Virno retains what Ritzer and others have called “a productivist bias.” There is very little to discussion of how consumption factors into post-Fordism and whatever indirect references exist are to the Frankfurt School, which (as Virno rightly notes) does not seem to capture or anticipate our present reality. In any case, Virno (p. 59) is ultimately using the theories of Frankfurt School to analyze various modes of cultural production and not consumption. What Virno misses is that, in the current paradigm, consumption has been reintegrated into production. Treating the two separately no longer makes sense (and, perhaps, never did). This is made clear when examining social media. It is very difficult to delineate where production ends and consumption begins. Both are really part of the same (prosumption) process. 2.) The priority given to economic relations in Marx’s dialectical materialism still seems to persist in Virno’s ostensibly post-Marxian framework. In fact, Virno defines contemporary social life almost exclusively in economic terms. And while he does argue that economics and politics implode in the post-Fordist era, his concept of politics is more philosophical than sociological. He is concerned with the abstract form of politics (as imagined by the Ancient Greeks) and not so much with culturally and historically specific struggles (save for his one pet case, Italy’s failed revolution of 1977). This critique should not be overstated. Virno certainly has made the Gramscian turn in some ways. He argues that the multitude take a variety of (better or worse) configurations under the same economic conditions, but his high level of abstraction in examining economic relations tends to give the impression that post-Fordism will unfold uniformly across national and demographic boundaries. However, these boundaries remain very real and different groups and state apparatuses will react to post-Fordism differently. 3.) Virno’s tendency to focus on abstract categories—overlooking national and cultural divisions—leads to what is, perhaps, an overly optimistic view of the multitude. Particularly, his claim that there is solidarity in the uniform socialization experienced by the multitude seems to utterly ignore persisting divisions on the basis of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, etc. Virno wants the basis for universal epistemology, but it seems to me that only a white male philosopher could be in such a position of privilege to imagine socialization being all that uniform across these categories. In the day-to-day lives of individuals, economic relations just do not have the salience Virno affords them.

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