Virno on Micro-Collectives

In an interview with Alexei Penzin, amongst many other insights, Paolo Virno argues that the kind of micro-collectives characteristic of post-Fordist production, i.e., immaterial labour (see Chukhrov), “socialize the entrepreneurial function” to foster the kind of “social cooperation” that works against the monopoly of the state (86-87):

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. (86)

In other words, such groups work together to make stuff, but they also work against (↑) the state monopoly on power (↓).

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. (ibid.)

Entrepreneurship ceases to be a way for the state to drive workers (↓) — and the prerogative of enterprising individuals — and instead enables them to work together (↑ or rather ↔).

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 [87] 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. (86-87)

The model for such micro-collectives are artists’ collectives, artists being the “virtuosos” of immaterial labour, exemplifying what Penzin calls “the flexible, mobile, non-specialized substance of contemporary ‘living labor'” (81).

Two definitions:

  • “institution”: “Institutions constitute the way in which our species protects itself from uncertainty and with which it create rules to protect its own praxis” (85); the State has no monopoly on institutions.
  • “general intellect” (a.k.a. the “social brain”): the human capacity for “public or interpsychical” cognition through communication (“thinking with words”). It is the “main productive force of matured capitalism” (84), i.e., work is now virtual — hence the phrase immaterial labour. It could also constitute the “foundations of a [non-stately] republic” (84).

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. (87)

This “radically new form of democracy” is non-representative. It doesn’t work through a parliament but through soviets, i.e., workers’ councils, as “tools for democratic self-organization” (82) [soviet, совет, Ru. “council, advice, harmony, concord”]. It suggests the possibility of a “democracy of the multitude,” of a “public sphere that is no longer connected to the State” (90). So,

the monopoly of decision making can only really be taken away from the State if it ceases once and for all to be a monopoly. [Thus, t]he public sphere of the multitude is a centrifugal force. (90)

Of course, we must avoid “the cancerous metastasis of the State,” i.e. bureaucratization, centralization, and “the glorification of labor,” i.e. collectivization, that happened in Soviet Russia (90). Communism need not signal a massification (→ a people’s revolution). And we must remembers that micro-collectives represent “both a danger and a salvation”: they could signal a fragmentation of society (-) or its politicization (+). Communism can instead signal a democracy of the multitude (→ the soviets of the multitude)


Chukhrov, Keti. “Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality.” E-flux 20 (Nov. 2010). Web.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labour.” Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emery. Generation Online. 6 Mar. 2008. Web.

Penzin, Alexei. “The Soviets of the Multitude: On Collectivity and Collective Work.” Interview with Paolo Virno. Mediations 25.1 (Fall 2010): 81-92. Web.

4 thoughts on “Virno on Micro-Collectives

  1. Pingback: Paolo Virno in English « Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel
  2. Would you say that the university in its knowledge production mode functions (or can be used to function) in such a way?

    • I think yes, if the best of old (academic freedom, collegiality, knowledge networks, pure research, etc.) meets the new (knowledge networks [again], the permeability of the university to markets and other collectives, new technologies, interdisciplinarity, etc.) in the university. Hence the duality of the U 2.0 ( — and elsewhere here).
      The challenge is to combat the new managerialist putsch we are facing in many parts of the settler colonies, which would reduce academic work to what is econometrically evaluable and economically valuable, and destroy career paths for academics in the name of flexibility (for the managers) and siloing research.

  3. This is one of the reasons why contemporary art provides the quintessence of virtuosic practices the subjectivity of the contemporary artist is probably the brightest expression of the flexible mobile non-specialized substance of contemporary living labor. However there is still the need to identify its antipode which classically is the collectivity…To outline the opposite pole of subjectivity I questioned Paolo Virno about the use of the term multitude as a new political articulation of labor that avoids a repressive unification in the One the State nation or a cultural grand style in order to understand how it is possible to think its mode of unity how new forms of micro-collectives work and how one might explain their explosive proliferation and creativity. ..AP On an empirical level the specificity of contemporary production saturated by mass intellectuality both in mainstream currents of business and cultural industry and on the side of alternative or resistant political and cultural forms consists of the formation of relatively small collectives workgroups research teams organizational committees various collaborations initiatives etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s