Paolo Virno on Collectivity and Individuality

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Excerpted from an interview by Alexei Penzin of Chto Delat in Mediations Journal:

Collectivity as a Precondition for Individuality

Paolo Virno:

"Lev S. Vygotskij’s thoughts on the collective, on the relation between the collective and singularity:

His main idea is that the social relation precedes and allows for the formation of the auto-conscious “I.” Let me explain: initially there is an “us”; yet — and here lies the paradox — this “us” is not equivalent to the sum of many well-defined “I’s.” In sum, even if we cannot yet speak of real subjects, there is still an inter-subjectivity. For Vygotskij, the mind of the individual, rather than an incontrovertible departing point, is the result of a process of differentiation that happens in a primeval society: “the real movement of the development process of the child’s thought is accomplished not from the individual to the socialized, but from the social to the individual.” Gradually the child acquires the collective “us,” which we can define as an interpsychical dimension, turning it into an intrapsychical reality: something intimate, personal, unique. However, this introversion of the interpsychical dimension, this singularization of the “primordial us,” does not happen definitively during childhood: it always repeats itself during adulthood. Experience is always measured — either in an insurrection, a friendship, or a work of art — through the transformation of the interpsychical into intrapsychical. We constantly have to deal with the interiority of the public and with the publicity of the interior.

This means that the human nature cannot be defined through the observation of a single member of its species, of his own perceptions, affects and cognitions. Instead, the human nature consists of a set of relations established between a plurality of individuals. To be more precise: instead of connecting given singularities, this “set of relationships” constitutes these single individuals as such. Human nature is located in such a thing that — not belonging to any individual mind — only exists in the relation between the many. To speak of human nature means to develop a philosophy of the preposition “between.” (

A critique of Community discourse

Paolo Virno:

"The thought of “community” carries a basic defect: it neglects the principle of individualization, that is, the process of the formation of singularities from something all its elements share. The logic of multiplicity and singularity is not sufficient, and we need to clarify the premise, or the condition of possibility, of a multitude of singularities. Enouncing it as a provocation: we need to say something about the One that allows the existence of many unrepeatable individuals. The discourse about the “community” prudishly eludes the discourse about the One. Yet, the political existence of the “many” as “many” is rooted in a homogeneous and shared ambit; it is hacked out of an impersonal background.

It is with respect to the One that the opposition between the categories of “people” and “multitude” clearly emerges. Most importantly, there is a reversion in the order of things: while the people tend to the One, the multitude derives from the One. For the people, the One is a promise; for the “many,” it is a premise.

Furthermore, it also mutes the definition of what is common or shared. The One around which the people gravitate is the State, the sovereign, the volonté générale. Instead, the One carried on the backs of the multitude consists of the language, the intellect as a public or interpsychical resource, of the generic faculties of the species. If the multitude shuns the unity of the State, this is simply because the former is related to a completely different One, which is preliminary instead of being conclusive. We could say: the One of the multitude collimates in many ways with that transindividual reality that Marx called the “general intellect” or the “social brain.” The general intellect corresponds to the moment in which the banal human capacity of thinking with words becomes the main productive force of matured capitalism. However, it can also constitute the foundations of a republic that has lost the characteristics of Stately sovereignty.

In conclusion, the thought of the “community,” even if laudable in many respects, is an impolitic thought. It takes into account only some emotional and existential aspects of the multitude: in short, a lifestyle. It is obviously important, but what it is fundamental to understand is the work and the days of the multitude as the raw matter to define a well-rounded political model that moves away from that mediocre artefact of the modern State, which is at once rudimentary (regarding the social cooperation) and ferocious. What is fundamental is to conceive the relation between the One and the Many in a radically different way from that of Hobbes, Rousseau, Lenin or Carl Schmitt." (

On the Importance of Institutions and the State

Paolo Virno:

" I believe that the concept of “institution” is also (and perhaps mainly) decisive to the politics of the multitude. Institutions constitute the way in which our species protects itself from uncertainty and with which it create rules to protect its own praxis. Therefore, an institution is also a collective, such as Chto delat/What is to be done?2 Institution is the mother tongue. Institutions are the rituals we use to heal and resolve the crisis of a community. The true debate should not be between institutional and anti-institutional forces; instead, it should identify the institutions that lay beyond the “monopoly of the political decision” incarnated by the State. It should single out the institutions that meet the “general intellect” referred by Marx, that “social brain” that is, at the same time, the main productive force and a principle of republican organization.

The modern central state is facing a radical crisis, but it has not ceased to reproduce itself through a series of disturbing metamorphoses. The “State of Permanent Exception” is surely one of the ways in which sovereignty survives itself, indefinitely postponing its decline. The same applies to what Marx said about joint-stock companies: these constituted “an overtaking of private property operated on the same basis of private property.” To put it differently, joint-stock companies allowed the overcoming of private property but, at the same time, articulated this possibility in such a way that they qualitatively reinforced and developed that same private property. In our case, we could say: the state of permanent exception indicates an overcoming of the form of the State on the same basis of its “statuality.” It is a perpetuation of the State, of sovereignty, but also the exhibition of its irreversible crisis, of the full maturity of a no longer statal republic.

So, I believe that the “State of Exception” allows us to reflect on the institutions of the multitude, about their possible functioning and their rules. An example: in the “state of exception”, the difference between “matters of right” (de jure) and “matters of fact” (de facto) is so attenuated that it almost disappears. Once more, the rules become empirical data that can even acquire a normative power. Now, this relative distinction between norms and facts that nowadays produces special laws and such prisons as Guantanamo can suffer an alternative declension, becoming a “constitutional” principle of the public sphere of the multitude. The decisive point is that the norm should exhibit not only the possibility of returning into the ambit of facts, but also to its factual origin. In short, it should exhibit its revocability and its substitutability; each rule should present itself as both a unit of measure of the praxis and as something that should continuously be re-evaluated." (

On the role of Micro-Collectives

Paolo Virno:

"Micro-collectives, workgroups, research teams, etc. are half-productive, half-political structures. If we want, they are the no man’s land in which social cooperation stops being exclusively an economic resource and starts appearing as a public, non-stately sphere. If examined as productive realities, the micro-collectives you mention have mainly the merit of socializing the entrepreneurial function: instead of being separated and hierarchically dominant, this function is progressively reabsorbed by living labor, thus becoming a pervasive element of social cooperation.

We are all entrepreneurs, even if an intermittent, occasional, contingent way. But, as I was saying, micro-collectives have an ambivalent character: apart from being productive structures, they are also germs of political organization. What is the importance of such ambivalence? What can it suggest in terms of the theory of the organization? In my opinion, this is the crucial issue: nowadays the subversion of the capitalistic relations of production can manifest itself through the institution of a public, non-stately sphere, of a political community oriented towards the general intellect. In order to allow this subversion, the distinctive features of post-Fordist production (the valorization of its own faculty of language, a fundamental relation with the presence of the other, etc.) demand a radically new form of democracy. Micro-collectives are the symptom — as fragile and contradictory as they may be — of an exodus, of an enterprising subtraction from the rules of wage labor." (