The Italian Job

Having initiated my most recent and most intense period of study with ‘French Theory’ (the obvious, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy, Sartre, Kojève, Althusser, Badiou, Ranciere) augmented by the Slovenian school of Lacanian psychoanalysis (most manifest in Zizek but also in Zupančič and Dolar) way back in 2006, I have been drawn further and further Left in political conviction, so that alongside Badiou and Ranciere I found myself happily digesting Robespierre, Lenin, the Frankfurt School, Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, more recent socialist work (Mészáros, Callinicos, Seymour) and even the state theorists (Jessop, Poulantzas). I am entirely comfortable with this Leftwards drift in my library and literary habits, especially when considering the Rightward-lurching social background against which it has happened. However, this intricate intellectual framework in which I pretty much live and move has so far lacked what is fashionably named ‘Italian Theory’, and this is the avenue down which my current investigations are taking me. True, I’ve been reading Agamben pretty thoroughly all along, and although inconsistent with much else that occupied me his focus on potentiality and bare life have long fascinated me at the philosophical level. Agamben, however, is something of a renegade with respect to Italian Theory, and is criticised by its more representative authors for having an apolitical approach to one of the most crucial objects of Italian study: biopolitics.

This difference is clearly demarcated by contrasting what Agamben and Virno do with Foucault. Agamben amplifies and sublimates Foucault’s essentially historicist version of biopolitics (from his lectures on the birth of Liberalism), raising it to the status of a metaphysical fracture grounded in the birth of Western philosophy. Virno, in contrast, downplays and minimises the impact of Foucaultian biopower, recasting it as a secondary effect of the commoditisation of labour power.

One might say that for Agamben biopolitics is an ontological consideration, in the manner of a Heideggerian destining of Being, which by dividing life from life has thoroughly shaped Western discourse and consciousness, effectively barring the possibility of a genuine politics. For Virno biopolitics is not the cause, remote or near, of the problematicity of contemporary life, but only a necessary consequence, almost what could be called an unavoidable byproduct, of Capitalism. Insofar as labour power, the generic potential or capacity to perform tasks, has been commoditised and sold on a labour market to capitalists who profit from the actual labour of workers, and insofar as this generic potential is indissociable from corporeality, then the management and disciplining of the worker’s body by capitalists is an inevitable side-effect of capitalism.

While not completely dismissing Agamben’s concern for the ancient philosophical severance of Zoe and Bios, it appears to me now that Virno’s version of biopolitics is the more intellectually persuasive account. Agamben is in danger of positing a historical continuity without rupture that overtheatricalises biopolitics at a level of transhistorical narrative, creating of it a great myth, a ponderous ontological drama undercutting all conversation. To be sure, the fracture of ‘life’ in the incipit of Western philosophy is decisive for every attempt to define or taxonomise life itself, but this problem covers too much with a term, biopolitics, intended as a specific and historicist intervention. Not only was Foucault’s term sharper and more defined, but Virno’s biopolitics is eminently traceable. No great leaps of transhistorical imagination are needed to read biopolitics as a consequence of Capitalism, and this usage at least participates in Foucault’s own paradigm, allowing that the greatest period of Capitalist expansion coincided with the explosion of Liberalism. Indeed a concern for the scope of the term is actually reflected in Agamben’s own inconsistency, for in places he appears to return at least partially to the thesis that biopolitics is, if not exclusively a feature of modernity, then concentrated and intensified there.

My own preference would be to suggest that biopolitics is prefigured or made possible in the transcendental, ontological sense which Agamben discovers in Aristotle and then in Roman Law, but this is not biopolitics as such until much later, when this discursive latency is activated by the intense focus on the potentiality of the body brought about by market liberalism. We can still pose questions, find counterexamples (precapitalist slavery, indentured servitude, feudalism) within such a framework since it allows for forces other than Capitalism to be, in limited and historical contexts, the cause of the actualisation of a biopolitical possibility inscribed into the fabric of Western societies. What concerns us today, and appears to concern even Agamben chiefly despite his melancholic search for archaic foreshadowing, is the intensification of biopolitical measures and disciplines concerning the body under Capitalist conditions.

Consequently I have set Agamben to one side, but within reach, of my investigation into Italian Theory. As might be guessed, I begin my involvement proper with Virno. One of the first things to strike me about his work is how it manages to synthesise a great deal of philosophical thought already traversed in other fields. It is illuminating to compare the following two passages, for example.

We made a critique of Marx, critique in quotes, saying that today the general intellect was no longer deposited in machines but rather existed and lived in the cooperation of living labor. We said it with the following formula: general intellect = living labor in place of fixed capital.


My thesis is that postfordism directly brings to light the background charcteristics of the human species. Postfordism is on the historical and social plane a historical and social repetition of the anthropogenesis. I believe that on the ontological plane or, as it were, in the plane of invariable, constant conditions of our species, of the human species, of homo sapiens, the theory of philosophical anthropology is fitting, at least in part, that says that the human being is, above all, nonspecialized.

We are poorest of the animals in relation to our lack of specialized instincts and lack of a precise, determined environment. In general, culture, society, conceals, hides this condition, creating forms of specialization for the non-specialized animal and creating artificial environments for the animal that has no environment. Then, we say that culture and society hide distinctive aspects of human nature. Postfordism, by contrast, is the first society and the first culture that does not hide those aspects, but rather – on the contrary, valorizes them, places them fully in the light. Think of the universal watchword, as much in Argentina, in Italy and in Korea as in Eastern Europe: flexibility. Flexibility in all the languages of the world means non-specialization. The same occurs with this ugly word globalization, that has, in all forms, as its truth the fact that human beings should live openly, explicitly as those beings that don?t have a well-defined environment. In this sense, postfordism, the contemporary experience, signals perhaps a true novelty because, for the first time, society and culture correspond explicitly to an ontological condition.


In this first passage, Virno is speaking in an interview about his political biography, his membership of the Italian workerists, the restructuration of Capitalism during the 1970s and the evolution of the concept of ‘general intellect’, inspired by the Fragment on Machines in Marx’s Grundrisse, then developed outside the context of machines (which incarnate fixed capital) to describe a series of human social competencies subject to commoditisation. Under Post-Fordism Virno witnessed Human sociality, virtuosity of praxis, linguistic ability and all that was generically ‘potential’ about the human (this focus on potentiality being another reason I do not shelve Agamben just yet) become more and more central to the labouring roles of the worker. This thematic is explored in more detail in his work A Grammar of the Multitude where he advances the position that it is precisely the ambiguity of this human potential which holds the key to emancipation from Capitalism.

According to Virno, when the generic capacities of the human constituting the general intellect come to the surface as specific abilities, then there are two things that can happen. Either there is the creation of a non-statal Public Sphere in which human capacities are deployed in the formation of new communities (Virno explicitly points to the internet as a formation in the name of the General Intellect) or there is a foreclosure of such a Public Sphere and the capacities of the human are immediately available only for commercial interests–a dire possibility which he sees presaged not only in the new ‘cultural’ industries but also in the very industrial workplaces and factories that, undergoing post-Fordist restructuring, had transformed the definition or content of labour so that it was no longer a question of producing (poeisis) end products but that of exercising (praxis) generic capacities such as communicating, adapting, remaining flexible.

This shift from poeisis to praxis—from producing to performing—coincides with the intensification of the politicisation of work, so that labour becomes inherently political; one is concerned in one’s being with what can and must be done to earn a wage and the question of finding or losing a job is no longer a concern with a specific portion of one’s life but a properly existential anxiety involving one’s entire field of potentiality, the shaping of one’s social body and the articulation of all of its latencies. Like Virno, I would argue that it is only here, in this historical event of the generalisation of labour power, that Agamben’s darkest ruminations on biopolitics take on their full significance. I have still-developing thoughts on this which will be posted at a later date.

However, at this stage the comparison I wish to draw is not with Agamben but a figure fairly distant from this milieu, and much closer to the ambit of my earlier theoretical compass, Adrian Johnston (reading Badiou).

In Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou confesses that the situation-specific socio-economic processes of contemporary capitalism form an immanent condition of possibility (as a “historic medium”) for his ontology of the pure multiple-without-One, of the infinite infinities of being qua being (l’être-en-tant-qu’être). The frenetic Heraclitian flows of perpetually mobile virtual capital, flows eroding any fixed and stable solidity, reveal something fundamental about being as such. In other words, the historical particularity of today’s late-capitalism, with its various desacrilizing effects, simultaneously discloses an essential aspect of the more-than-historical ontological domain.[..]

[T]he dynamics of capital present the opportunity for apprehending and appreciating intrinsic facets of the skeletal structure of subjectivity itself.


Badiou and Johnston are not particularly interested in Labour Power of course, but they are concerned with ontology and the overcoming of Capitalist conditions. What interests me primarily in this document (which constitutes the final chapter of Johnston’s Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, and is worth reading in full) is the way in which it is again conceded that contemporary Capitalism (‘late’ Capitalism, Post-Fordist Capitalism) lays bare the ‘skeletal structure’ of subjectivity. Which is to say, reading on, that the inbuilt capacities of the human being to become involved with and entwined with ‘Imaginary-Symbolic’ structures. For a Lacanian, such structures mean society, discourses, communication, shared feelings, communal memory and so on. So once again it is proposed that our time, this time in which we live, happens to be the time when the generic makeup of the human comes to the fore.

This is also emphasised in Zizek’s work when in reworking the Marxian concept of proletarianization as the desubstantiating of the subject he cites Marx’s ‘Hegelian’ concept of substanzlose subjektivitaet (in Tarrying With the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology, Duke Press 1993, pgs.10 & 25). The modern subject is stripped of social ‘substance’, of all the regional and idiosyncratic specificities of its embedded-ness in symbolic networks which would have provided (albeit inconsistent and incomplete) meaning to its existence, emerging as a Cartesian-like and kulturlos place-holder, its capacity to be this-or-that being its specific feature. Zizek likens this proletarianization to post-traumatic subjectivity, and indeed likens the meta-capacity of the substanceless subject to an a radical incapacity. It is of course part of Zizek’s most fundamental philosophical belief that the most penetrating insights into the makeup of the universe reveal its basic structure to be pathological, that existence itself is as it were a flaw. Yet this radical pessimism is to be found in inverted form in other Continental philosophies, such as Quentin Meillassoux, for whom the sheer pathological contingency of existence, the facticity of there being anything at all, is also reason for hope in the contingent arrival of universal Justice–it is not all ‘bad news’ to think this way.

I do worry that something is lacking in both the Autonomist and Johnston’s Zizekian idea that ‘late Capitalism’ uncovers something basic and transhistorical about human nature. The historicist in me, which I know is not always wrong, wants to shout about how this is a fine coincidence and just a little bit too convenient: that a renewed interest in delineating some kind of basic human structurality overlaps with a phenomenology of contemporary conditions. It is not particularly that we then owe something to Capitalism, indeed ever since Marx’s sometimes deeply appreciative insights we have seen that Capitalism’s ‘unbinding’ power was doubled-edged and that it would give rise to its own grave-diggers. What troubles me more deeply is the idea that ‘now’ is so important, and it makes me wonder how many other ‘nows’ there have been, giving rise to the ridiculous image of a series of thinkers arrayed throughout many disparate and heterogeneous histories each declaiming his or her own as the time in which the truth about the human being finally came to light. There is something here that, on the one hand, smacks of a kind of colonial abridgement of history as contained in the present moment as its ultimate form, and on the other hand, sounds like a Fukuyama-like End-of-History attitude. Within the Zizekian-Hegelian framework this is not necessarily a problem. Since reality is incomplete, there is no actual universally-valid ‘survey’ possible, nothing like what Merleau-Ponty called a ‘Kosmotheoros’ or Hegel called an abstract universality. The only real universalities are therefore concrete universalities, universalities which are first of all grounded in a particularity but which then do apply outside of their own particular domain in a universal manner. In a similar way, maybe my initial timidity over the idea of ascribing some kind of universally applicable foundational truth status to the human being as uncovered by the desubstantialising effects of post-Fordist capitalism is misplaced. Why not, after all?

The other thing about Zizek’s reading of the proletarianized modern subject is that his description of it may be one-sided, inasmuch as there is a tendency in his work to side with the position of the ‘objective social field’. And of course, from the vantage point of the social field, with its normative prescriptions of what a person is and what personhood involves (liberal idiosyncracy, be it the result of consumerist choice and individuality or genetic predisposition), the capacity of the proletarianized (or precariatized) worker naturally appears as incapacity. This is obvious enough when considering how a prominent left-wing philosopher (Merleau-Ponty, again) characterised proletarian capacity as the ‘potency of the impotent’ (le pouvoir des sans-pouvoir ). The fact it is ‘sans-pouvior’ from the point of view of the state (in the Badiouan sense of state, as the set of all constructible subsets of society) is precisely the point: the labouring flesh and brain, tongue and feelings of the worker belong to society without belonging to any determinate subset of society because their belonging is effectuated only by what they potentiate. Their potency appears not in a powerset, but only as extreme singularity, as a Badiouan ‘evental site’. All elements of the proletariat have no designated ‘place’ as such, only a generic, potentialized immediate-belonging-to-society. It is this peculiar topological quality, the immediation of the potential of the speaking body, belonging only to society itself but not to any of its subsets, which gives to the proletariat the ability to stand for the whole of society as did for example the tiers etat in the case of the French Revolution. Under Jacobin direction, it was the sans-culottes, lacking both the fashionable signifier of bourgeois membership (the culottes) and any (then) lawful claim to the social product, who became representative of the whole, able to speak for society itself. However, this was in a period in which the image of nationhood could also be mobilised in order to conceptualise society; the tiers etat declared itself identical to the nation, France, and it is ‘France’ who authorises the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Today the precarious proletarianized worker has to reckon with a fundamentally different kind of society, belonging to it through generic human capacities but not in any idealizable, romantic or easily ‘spiritualizable’ sense.

Despite initial worries, I continue to synthesise from my reading a theoretical direction which can continue to animate my ever-Leftward reading. Virno is full of surprises so far, and there are some very interesting moments where his work even reinvites Agamben back into the fold, with many qualifications of course. But it is in comparison with Badiou that I mostly want to proceed with reading Italian theory, Badiou being above all my bedrock point of reference in (post-postmodern, political) Continental thinking. The major point of comparison as opposed to contrast is the disinterest in the state, and the idea that we can confront or face the state without being somehow involved in it. This question always troubles me, and it probably shows through in my own inconsistency on the matter.

Laissez-faire IS State Regulation

There is a certain persistence of arguments, just as there is the persistence of a symptom1. While ceaselessly making the argument for what our opponents sneer at as a ‘planned economy’, and despite it being planned for equality, universality and justice, we are just as ceaselessly bombarded with the market-liberal claim that we should ‘just let human nature take its course’: that deregulation is the key to a fair and equitable society. Like me, you will have been deeply suspicious of ‘deregulation’, and probably doubly so at the invocation of ‘human nature’. You will have found a means to argue that deregulation is precisely an organised process in which society is actively mobilised in multiple compositions, varying forms and functions to bring about consensus.

You may have turned to Nicos Poulantzas’ or Bob Jessop’s State Theory in elaborating how the overzealous libertarian position (that ‘the State is the enemy of freedom’), and the instrumentalist-Marxist position (that ‘the State is the tool of the Capitalist class’), are both of them dead wrong. You might have pointed out that while the State in its overall function indeed smooths the operation of Capitalist society, Capitalism in itself is far too divisive to ensure any kind of permanent social stabilisation, and therefore it is only with a significant degree of autonomy from the short-term goals of Capitalism that the State manages to mediate with some degree of regularity.

You will have argued, with your usual critical acumen, that the State is not a power bloc but a differentiated series of relations. And finally, if you were up to the job, you would have nailed the argument with what might be called the factum civili, the fact that whatever form a socio-economic order takes, it takes this form because it is this form which is organised, propagated, and reproduced by the relational complex we call ‘the State’. Our lives are already regularised, legislated, educated, disciplined, oriented, shaped, coerced and deliberately normativised in particular forms, through manifold means, before we even consider the State as something standing ‘over there’. We are permeated by it.

Naturally, our adversaries (and even many of our friends and allies) consider the State in far narrower and impoverished terms deeply coloured by the disconnect between parliamentary politics and contemporary life, a deep fracture which it is the perpetual preoccupation of the media to confront us with. This is the picture they like to paint: We, the people, immersed in our daily lives, and on the other side of the insular moat, Westminster, with its many bureaucratic tributaries and tendrils encroaching on our lives with a creeping insidiousness. There is a certain terror in this image, a certain traumatic truth. But this image is not the State, and we must not reduce the meaning of the State to this. The fact that our lives are already organised, taking certain forms within historically defined choices, our selectivity, a certain degree of moral independence within a certain series of acceptations—the fact that our lives have, collectively, a certain disposition in advance of being ‘encroached upon’ by any particular governmentality—is due to the existence of the State proper. The State as a relation is society in relation to itself, it is in fact the whole of civil society in all its differentiated complexity and historical depth.

So now you’ve made this argument, this argument that there is, effectively, no escape from State, no elaboration of the modern society into a form that would exist without this broader sense of State as State-relation, and that the idea of ‘the withering’ or disparition of the State can therefore at best only mean the end of the Capitalism-smoothing State, that is to say, the end of the existing social order insofar as it serves to reproduce the Capitalist relation. You’ve taken your cues from state relational theory, which you see as an advance on a vulgarly instrumentalist form of Marxism, and in that respect you’re a Thoroughly Modern Millie. Well done. But as is often the case, the argument has been going on longer than you have. Antonio Gramsci, for example, was already honing a position on this in his prison notebooks:

The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene to regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political program, designed to change—in so far as it is victorious–a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic program of the state itself, in other words the distribution of the national income.2

Basically, you’re in good company with this argument. It’s not that ‘we on the left’ favour a planned economy as against an economy that ‘just happens’, as if it somehow spontaneously emerges as an evolutionary best-fit to the human profile. The point to be made, in fact, is that there is no such thing as an unplanned economy—the very term oikonomia, ‘rule of the household’, attests to that—just as there is no unplanned life. Major advances in many fields of our knowledge about ourselves in recent history have discovered that our lives are deeply regulated and codified on every level, especially including those moments in which we believed we were at our most spontaneous. This is not to say that outcomes are always planned, far from it. Neither is it to say that we always know what we are doing, or even that if we do know, that we always know that we know it. But it does mean that any dream of leaving things alone and letting nature take its course are the worst kinds of bad faith imaginable.

[1] The accompanying images are taken from the film Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a play by Tennessee Williams.

[2] Antonio Gramsci in Forgacs, D. (ed.) VI Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc: Some Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Economism, Part Two: Prison Writings 1929-1935, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, Schocken Books, New York