Fredric Jameson: Wal-Mart as Utopia
Fredric Jameson's latest work, recently released as An American Utopia (which is currently 50% off), sees the renowned literary critic and theorist grappling with what the social basis for a new utopian project could, or should, be. In it he proposes the idea of a new citizens' army which will form an alternative power structure from the state.
But, this isn't the only time that Jameson has tried to think through this predicament. In this extract from Valences of the Dialectic, Jameson proposes the logistical-might of Walmart as the foundation for a new society.
This is the point at which I wish to propose a model for Utopian analysis that might be taken as a kind of synthesis of these two subjective and objective approaches. I want to develop two examples of this kind of interpretation, which will be what I want to identify, not as the Utopian method as such, but at least as one possible method among others: and these examples will draw on history and theory respectively. My theoretical example will be drawn from the now burgeoning field of manifestos for a politics of the “multitude”; my historical example will however propose a new institutional candidate for the function of Utopian allegory, and that is the phenomenon called Wal-Mart. I trust that this proposal will be even more scandalous than Lenin’s celebration of monopoly, all the more so since information research tells us that an enormous percentage of Wal-Mart shoppers are themselves sharply critical and even negative about this corpo- ration (and that the critics also shop there.) The negative criticisms I think everyone knows: a new Wal-Mart drives local businesses under and reduces available jobs; Wal-Mart’s own jobs scarcely pay a living wage, offer no benefits or health insurance; the company is anti-union (except in China); it hires illegal immigrants and increasingly emphasizes part-time work; it drives American business abroad and also itself promotes sweatshops and child labor outside the country; it is ruthless in its practices (mostly secret), exercises a reign of terror over its own suppliers, destroys whole ecologies abroad and whole communities here in the US; it locks its own employees in at night, etc., etc. The picture is unappetizing, and the prospects for the future—Wal-Mart is already the largest company, not only in the US but in the world!—are positively frightening and even, particularly if you have a bent for conspiracy theory, dystopian in the extreme. Here, rather than in the trusts and monopolies of Theodore Roosevelt’s time, is the true embodiment of the Marxist-Leninist prophecy of concentration and the monopoly tendency of late capitalism; yet as its commentators observe, the emergence of this entity—like a new virus, or a new species—was not only unexpected but also theoretically unparalleled and resistant to current categories of economic, political, and social thinking:
Wal-Mart is something utterly new ... carefully disguised as something ordinary, familiar, even prosaic ... Yes, Wal-Mart plays by the rules, but perhaps the most important part of the Wal-Mart effect is that the rules are antiquated ... At the moment, we are incapable as a society of understanding Wal-Mart because we haven’t equipped ourselves to manage it. (WME, 221–222)
What we must add to this, however, is the reminder that there is a type of thinking which can deal with this strange new phenomenon lucidly, at the same time that it explains why traditional thought is unable to do so: and that is the thinking called the dialectic. Consider the following analysis:
That kind of dominance at both ends of the spectrum—dominance across a huge range of merchandise and dominance of geographical consumer markets—means that market capitalism is being strangled with the kind of slow inexorability of a boa constrictor. (WME, 234)
And if this sounds like mere journalistic rhetoric, we have the observation of a nameless CEO who flatly affirms of Wal-Mart—“they have killed free- market capitalism in America” (WME, 233). But what is this peculiar contradiction but the contemporary version of what Marx called the negation of the negation? Wal-Mart is then not an aberration or an exception, but rather the purest expression of that dynamic of capitalism which devours itself, which abolishes the market by means of the market itself.
This dialectical character of the new reality Wal-Mart represents is also very much the source of the ambivalence universally felt about this business operation, whose capacity to reduce inflation and to hold down or even lower prices and to make life affordable for the poorest Americans is also the very source of their poverty and the prime mover in the dissolution of American industrial productivity and the irrevocable destruction of the American small town. But this is the historically unique and dialectical dynamic of capitalism itself as a system, as Marx and Engels describe it in the Manifesto in pages which some have taken as a delirious celebration of the powers of the new mode of production and others as the ultimate moral judgment on it. But the dialectic is not moral in that sense: and what Marx and Engels identify is the simultaneity of “more and more colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together” along with the most destructive negativity ever unleashed (“all that is solid melts into air”). The dialectic is an injunction to think the negative and the positive together at one and the same time, in the unity of a single thought, there where moralizing wants to have the luxury of condemning this evil without particularly imagining anything else in its place.
So it is that Wal-Mart is celebrated as the ultimate in democracy as well as in efficiency: streamlined organization that ruthlessly strips away all unnecessary frills and waste and that disciplines its bureaucracy into a class as admirable as the Prussian state or the great movement of instituteurs in the late nineteenth-century French lay education, or even the dreams of a streamlined Soviet system. New desires are encouraged and satisfied as richly as the theoreticians of the 1960s (and also Marx himself) predicted, and the problems of distribution are triumphantly addressed in all kinds of new technological innovations.
I enumerate a few of the latter: on the one (informational) hand, there is the evolution of the UPC or the so-called bar code, one of what Hosoya and Schaeffer call bit structures, and which in general they define as “a new infrastructure in the city, providing unprecedented synchronization and organization in seeming formlessness. Bit structures reorganize the pattern of the city and allow its destabilization.” The bar code, meanwhile “reverses the balance of power between retailer and distributor or manufacturer,” via the introduction, in the early 1970s, of “a whole new generation of electronic cash registers,” which were now able to process the mass of information registered on the bar code from inventory to customer preferences: technological innovation pioneered, according to the oldest logic of capitalism, “as a remedy to a time of stagnation that forced competing manufacturers to cooperate.” The Utopian features of the bar code project it as something like the equivalent, in the world of commodities, of the Internet among human subjects; and the reversal of dominance from production to distribution somewhat parallels the emergence of the ideologies of democracy in the social realm.
Yet on the side of the material object, there is another relevant development, as fundamental as this one but quite different from it, and that is the invention and emergence of containerization as a revolution in transport, whose multiple effects we cannot explore further here. This spatial innovation would be something like the response to demography and over- population in the social realm, and also leads us on into a dialectic of quantity and quality. Indeed, both these ends of the so-called supply chain demand philosophical conceptualization and stand as the mediation between production and distribution and the virtual abolition of an opposition between distribution and consumption.
Meanwhile the anarchy of capitalism and the market has been overcome and the necessities of life have been provided for an increasingly desperate and impoverished public, exploited by its government and its big businesses over whom it is scarcely able to exercise any political control any longer. Anyone who does not appreciate this historic originality of Wal-Mart and its strengths and accomplishments is really not up to the discussion; mean- while—and I say this for the Left as well—there is an aesthetic appreciation to be demanded for this achievement, an appreciation of the type Brecht reserved for one of his favorite books, Gustavus Myers’s History of the Great American Fortunes, or which we might today be willing to grant the manipulations and strategies of those arch-criminals the Russian oligarchs. But such admiration and positive judgment must be accompanied by the absolute condemnation that completes the dialectical ambivalence we bring to this historical phenomenon. Nor is Wal-Mart itself wholly oblivious to its own ambivalence: after avoiding journalists altogether for fear of letting slip damaging facts, its publicity people now come to expect mixed feelings in which the harshest criticism will inevitably be accompanied by celebratory concessions (WME, 145–146).
I am tempted to add something about the ambivalence of the dialectic itself, particularly with respect to technological innovation. It is enough to recall the admiration of Lenin and Gramsci for Taylorism and Fordism to be perplexed at this weakness of revolutionaries for what is most exploitative and dehumanizing in the working life of capitalism: but this is precisely what is meant by the Utopian here, namely that what is currently negative can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the valences which is the Utopian future. And this is the way I want us to consider Wal- Mart, however briefly: namely, as a thought experiment—not, after Lenin’s crude but practical fashion, as an institution faced with which (after the revolution) we can “lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus,” but rather as what Raymond Williams called the emergent, as opposed to the residual—the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the Utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia.
I now need briefly to address two further but extremely pertinent objections to this paradoxical affirmation, before moving on to a Utopian exercise of a rather different kind. First, it will be said that Wal-Mart may be a model of distribution but it can scarcely be said to be a model of production in the strict sense, however much we might talk of the production of distribution, etc. This cuts to the very heart of our socioeconomic contradictions: one face of which is structural unemployment, the other the definitive outstrip- ping (dated in the US from 2003) of “productive” employment by retail employment. (Computerization and information would also have to be included in these new contradictory structures, and I think it is evident that Wal-Mart’s special kind of success is dependent on computers and would have been impossible before them.) I want to look at this from the perspec- tive of the dictatorship this retail company exercises over its productive suppliers (or “partners,” as Wal-Mart likes to call them); it is a devastating power, in which the giant firm is able to force its suppliers into outsourcing, into a reduction in quality of materials and product, or even to drive them out of business altogether. It is worth noting that this power could be exercised in exactly the opposite way: “using its enormous purchasing power,” Fishman suggests, “not just to raise the standard of living for its customers, but also for its suppliers”(WME, 181). (The example is the proposal that Wal-Mart impose ecological standards on the Chilean salmon fisheries it has itself virtually created; one might imagine a similar positive dictatorship over working conditions and labor relations.) It is a Utopian suggestion, to the degree to which the valences of this power—from retail monopoly to the various producers—could be reversed without structural change.
But I also want to suggest that—as at the end of Eisenstein’s Old and New (a.k.a. The General Line; 1929), where the aviator and the peasant swap roles, the worker becoming an agriculturist and vice versa—it seems possible that the new system offers a chance to suppress this opposition altogether— this binary tension between production and distribution, which we do not seem to be able to think our way out of—and to imagine a wholly new set of categories: not to abandon production and the categories of class in favor of consumption or information, but rather to lift it into a new and more complex concept, about which we can no longer speculate here.
The other objection has to do with the profit motive itself: after all, the very driving force of Wal-Mart is that it is a capitalist industry, and the failures of socialism all seemed to lie in the slackness encouraged by the command economy, in which corruption, favoritism, nepotism, or sheer research ignorance led to the scandals in which, famously, the basements of the GUM were filled with illimitable quantities of identical lampshades that no one wanted to buy. All socialism seemed to be able to offer as a counter- force to the profit motive were the famous “moral incentives” Che invoked in Cuba, which require repeated mobilizations and exhausting campaigns, in order to reinvigorate failing supplies of socialist enthusiasm.
What has to be observed here is that Wal-Mart is also driven by moral incentives: the secret of its success is not profit but pricing, the shaving off of the final pennies, so fatal to any number of its suppliers. “Sam valued every penny,” observes one of the founder’s colleagues (WME, 30), and it is a fateful sentence: for this imperative—“Always Low Prices”—is in fact driven by the most fundamental motive of all, the one Max Weber described as the “Protestant ethic,” a return to that thrift and obsessive frugality which characterized the first great moment of the system and which is recaptured (with or without its religious component) in the hagiography of Sam Walton and the heroic saga of his company. Perhaps, then, even the explanatory appeal to the profit motive is essentialist and part of an ideology of human nature itself projected from out of the necessities of the initial construction of capitalism. It should be added that Marxism is not psychologically reductive in an essentialist way, and asserts, not determinism by greed or acquisitiveness, but rather the determination by the system or mode of production, each of which produces and constructs its own historical version of what it would like to call human nature.
Now I need to describe with more precision the theory and practice of this new type of Utopia my account of Wal-Mart seems to presuppose. Indeed, the discussion will assert that theoretical approaches to it are sometimes to be found in positions explicitly characterized as “anti-Utopian.” This is the case with our next example, which will turn on the now well-known concept of the multitude, as developed (borrowing a term of Spinoza) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their books Empire and Multitude. It is worth noting that their own specific denunciations of Utopianism, while consistent with a good deal of poststructuralist doctrine, have the immediate political and historical reference of Stalinism and of the historic Communist parties coming out of the Leninist tradition (despite the latter’s own internal critique of Utopianism from Lenin on). Here Utopia is identified with slogans of historical inevitability and of “tomorrows that sing,” the sacrifice of present generations for some future Utopian state, and particularly with the party structure.
As for the concept of multitude itself, it seems to me, however flawed, to constitute an attempt to provide a new and more serviceable substitute for older theorizations of collectivity and collective agents, such as those of “the people” (in populism) and of social class (in workerisms that excluded gender and race, and even sometimes the peasantry, from their narrow political definitions). Every new approach to collectivity is on my view worth welcoming in an atomized and individualistic society (but I will come back to individualism in a moment). The older collective concepts were also clearly flawed in their own very different ways; at the same time that they expressed the social reality of the emergence of new forms of collective agents or subjects. But I will not here enter the debate on multitude, since I am rather trying to identify a methodological innovation. In order to do so, however, I will not draw on the massive and complex books of Hardt and Negri, but rather on a briefer intervention in this discussion, a luminous exposition of some of the consequences of this new theoretical position (which is by now a new tradition) by one of the most remarkable philosophical minds of the era, the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, still too little known over here.
His book A Grammar of the Multitude may be read as a series of notes on the changes the concept of multitude should be expected to bring to the phenomenology of everyday life in postmodernity (not his word) and indeed to our attitudes towards and evaluations of those changes. I will not touch on all his themes and intentions here, but essentially on the book’s revision of certain standard Heideggerian positions which are still very much with us today, in liberal as well as in conservative culture, and indeed in Western bourgeois daily life in general.
You will recall that Heidegger called for a purgation of the decadent habits of bourgeois comfort by way of anxiety and the fear of death; and that he saw modern life as dominated by inauthenticity and urban collectivity. You may also remember the four forms of degradation into which Dasein’s daily life is alienated in the daily life of modernity, namely, “das Gerede, die Neugier, die Zweideutigkeit, das Verfallen,”17 or, as the translations of Sein und Zeit have it, “idle talk, curiosity, ambiguity, and falling” (or “falling prey”). It is essentially these categories, and the very concept of inauthenticity, that Virno has it in mind to revise (leaving Nazism and the later theories of technology out of it, as we will also do).
What is important to grasp, however, is that these diagnoses of “modernity” are not specific to Heidegger; they are part and parcel of a whole conservative and anti-modernist ideology embraced by non-leftist intellectuals across the board in the 1920s, from T. S. Eliot to José Ortega y Gassett, by traditionalists from China to America. This ideology expresses a horror of the new industrial city with its new working and white-collar classes, its mass culture and its public sphere, its standardization and its parliamentary systems; and it often implies a nostalgia for the older agriculturalist ways of life, as in the American “Fugitives,” in the idealization of English yeoman farmers, or in the Heideggerian Feldweg. It is unnecessary to add that this ideology is informed by an abiding fear of socialism or communism, and that the corporatisms that dominate the political life of the 1930s, from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, from Nazism and Italian fascism to Fabian social democracy, are from this perspective to be seen as so many compromises with such traditionalism as it resists the so-called modernities of the age of so-called mass man.
Those compromises have, to be sure, now for the most part entered history (leaving contemporary social democracy in some disarray, it may be added, in a situation in which free-market fundamentalism is so far really the only serviceable new practical-political ideology); but I want to argue that the general social attitudes of the older conservative ideology I have just outlined (and of which Heidegger is only the most extraordinary philosophical theorist) are still largely with us and still intellectually and ideologically operative.
I will do so by returning to the issue of representational Utopias I raised earlier. Indeed, the standard way of dealing with the social anxieties that inform the old anti-modernist ideology has been to accept it while assuring us that in whatever future “more perfect society” all of the negative features it enumerates will have been corrected. Thus, in these pastorals, there will be no social insecurity to generate anxiety (and even death will be postponed), idle gossip will presumably be replaced by a purified language and by genuine human relationships, morbid curiosity by a certain healthy distance from others as well as an enlightened awareness of our position in the social totality, “ambiguity” (by which Heidegger means the lies and propaganda of mass culture and the public sphere) will be cured by our more authentic relationships to the project and to work and action in general, and Verfallenheit (our loss of self in the public dimension of the man, or the inauthenticity of “mass man”) will be replaced by some more genuine individualism and a more authentic isolation of the self in its own existential concerns and commitments. Now these are all no doubt excellent and desirable developments; but it is not hard to see that they are also essentially reactive: that is to say, they constitute so many obedient replacements of the reigning negative terms by their positive opposites. But this very reactivity of the Heideggerian response tends to confirm the priority of the negative diagnosis in the first place.
It may also be confirmed by current dystopian visions in which the multi- dimensional fear of all those unknown others who constitute “society” beyond my immediate circle of acquaintances is once again, under post- modern or globalized conditions, concentrated into the fear of multiplicity and overpopulation. Clearly an ancient tradition of satire from the Hebrew prophets onward rehearsed this horror of the collective other in the form of the denunciation of a sinful or fallen society; just as philosophical speculations such as Descartes’ assimilation of the other to the automaton expressed the scandal in a different way from its theological version (the stream of soulless employees going to work across London Bridge in The Waste Land ) or from journalistic “culture critiques” of alienation. The science fiction of the 1960s, particularly with John Brunner’s classic tetralogy, gave non- ideological expression to various figures of social crisis, dissolution, or degradation; while the image of soulless clones or brainwashed zombies expressed some more overt denunciation of the unreformable stupidity of the modern democratic masses. Yet even in these expressions of crisis, the symptoms (pollution, atomic war, urban crime, the “degradation” of mass culture, standardization, impoverishment, unemployment, predominance of the service sector, etc., etc.) remained differentiated and gave rise each to a different kind of monitory representation. It is only in postmodernity and globalization, with the world population explosion, the desertion of the countryside and the growth of the mega-city, global warming and ecological catastrophe, the proliferation of urban guerrilla warfare, the financial col- lapse of the welfare state, the universal emergence of small-group politics of all kinds, that these phenomena have seemed to fold back into each other around the primary cause (if that is the right category to use) of the scandal of multiplicity and of what is generally referred to as overpopulation, or in other words, the definitive appearance of the Other in multiple forms and as sheer quantity or number. Predictably, the representational response to this crystallization has taken the twin positive and negative forms of a vision of “sprawl,” as a seemingly dystopian urbanization of enormous sectors of the older global landscape, and of a retreat into precisely those pastoral visions of smaller collectivities evoked above. Few have been those who, like Rem Koolhaas, with his embrace of a “culture of congestion” and his projection of new and positive spaces within which overpopulation can joyously flourish, have seized on a strategy of changing the valences and of converting the gloomy indices of the pessimistic diagnosis into vital promises of some newly emergent historical reality to be welcomed rather than lamented.
It is indeed just such a strategy that I will want to find at work in A Grammar of the Multitude, whose themes may now be briefly (and incompletely) passed in review. For the insecurities of both fear and anxiety (sharply differentiated in Heidegger), Virno substitutes a wholesale attack on bourgeois security as such, to which we will return, only observing that security is also a spatial concept (related to Heideggerian “dwelling”) and posits some initial physical separation from my neighbor which is also ideologically interrelated with concepts of property (in that sense, only the rich are truly secure, in their gated communities and their carefully policed and patrolled estates, whose function lies in occulting and repressing the existential fact of collectivity itself ). The operator of the transvaluation recommended here, from anxiety to affirmation, is the Kantian notion of the sublime, which incorporates fear within its very jouissance; yet the practical consequences of such a transformation will also transform the pathos of Heideggerian homelessness into the animation of Deleuzian nomadism, as we shall see.
Nomadism, however, would also seem to characterize contemporary labor, in a situation in which, the economists solemnly warn us, no one should any longer expect to hold down a single lifelong job (they do not generally add the increasingly obvious supplement, namely that many should not expect to hold down any job at all). Virno’s discussion of con- temporary labor, which undertakes to challenge and to dismantle the traditional Aristotelian distinction (revived by Hannah Arendt) between labor, politics, and philosophy, would also seem to aim at a Utopian restructuration of the whole notion of alienation, as it has been degraded from Marx’s early analysis of industrial labor into some all-purpose cultural characterization. The Hegelian notion of externalization, of which Marx’s concept was both a critique and a restructuration, itself constituted a kind of Utopian celebration of handicraft activity and production, no longer rele- vant in the industrial era. Virno now proposes a notion of production as virtuosity, a concept which redeems the old 1960s ideal of an aesthetization of life, as well as resituating in a more positive way the even more contempo- rary denunciations of contemporary society in terms of the spectacle (Debord) and the simulacrum (Baudrillard).
We must first note the specificities of labor today, as Virno outlines them, drawing the ultimate conclusion from the movement of all modern philosophy from categories of substance to categories of process. Modern (or perhaps I should say postmodern) work is a matter of process, an activity for which the end has become secondary and the production of an object a mere pretext, the process having become an end in itself. This is comparable to virtuosity in the aesthetic realm, and indeed we here meet an unexpected avatar of the old left dream of an aesthetic disalienation of the world, from Schiller to Marcuse and the sixties. Yet this one will have none of the saving graces of the older aestheticism, it will be a culture of minding the machines, a post-work culture, an activity of language-sharing and linguistic co- operation. This move then also entails the resituating of labor—hitherto ambiguously differentiated from both private and public spheres (it is not private life, but its framework is still owned by the capitalist and not open to the public)—within some new space from which the opposition between private and public has disappeared, without the reduction of one to the other.
This last is now a “publicness without a public sphere,” a transforma- tion which in its turn entails a series of other Utopian consequences. For one thing, so-called mass culture is itself transformed, becoming “an industry of the means of production” (GM, 61). Its clichés and commonplaces are now an enactment of collective sharing and participation, and come to have the redemptive innocence of childhood repetition: indeed, at this point, Virno sketches out what might be a theory of the cultural equivalent of that theory of General Intellect, which, drawing on Marx’s Grundrisse, has been so crucial in the way in which Italian philosophy today has sought to disclose the profound socialization and collectivization of late-capitalist social life and work. In this context, then, where science and language have soaked into the everyday and permeated all the pores of our daily life, making every- one an intellectual (as Gramsci famously put it), a henceforth globalized mass culture and omnipresent communication themselves have a very dif- ferent significance. The multitude has its own new kind of linguistic and cultural literacy, everywhere on the globe: there are no prehistoric peoples, no premodern survivals: tribals listen to their portables and nomads watch their DVDs; in mountain villages without electricity as well as in the most dismal refugee camps the dispossessed follow world current events and listen to the vacuous speeches of our president. Yet in that dedifferentiation of culture and politics which characterizes postmodernity, it must also be understood that such “publicness without a public sphere” also grounds and prepares what Virno calls “the feasibility of a non-representational democracy” (GM, 79).
It is evident that within this extraordinary reversal of the traditional judgments on mass society and its “degradations,” Heidegger’s existential inauthenticities will also be transformed. To the existential philosopher’s enumeration (idle talk or gossip, curiosity, ambiguity, and Verfallenheit) Virno adds two more—opportunism and cynicism—which have perhaps attracted more explicit and fulsome condemnation in recent times. Perhaps it is increasingly obvious that gossip, as in Proust, is preeminently the mark of a human age and of the preponderance of the human other over the former relations between man and nature. But curiosity—particularly in the classic form of voyeuristic envy analyzed so long ago by St. Augustine— is also to be accorded its Utopian transfiguration. Benjamin’s paradoxical defense of “distraction” may now be reread as the designation of a new type of perception within a world of habit and numb routine:
The media trains the senses to consider the known as if it were unknown, to dis- tinguish “an enormous and sudden margin of freedom” even in the most trite and repetitive aspects of daily life. At the same time, however, the media trains the senses also for the opposite task: to consider the unknown as if it were known, to become familiar with the unexpected and the surprising, to become accustomed to the lack of established habits. (GM, 93)
As for opportunism, very much in the spirit of Hegel’s defense of utilitarian- ism, it marks the indispensable emergence of the tactical and strategic coup d’oeil, the capacity to size up and evaluate the situation itself, the makings of a new and intensified sense of orientation in this new world of the Utopian masses: “opportunism gains in value as an indispensable resource whenever the concrete labor process is permeated by a diffuse ‘communicative action’ and thus no longer identifies itself solely with mute ‘instrumental action’ ” (GM, 86). As for cynicism itself, today at the very center of liberal political reflection, it clearly also develops a new and original stance with respect to the knowledge of the way in which our system functions, renouncing “any claim to a standard of judgment which shares the nature of a moral evaluation” (GM, 88) and thereby, according to Virno, repudiating the very principle of equivalence on which moral judgments themselves are founded. Cynicism thereby abandons the universalism of equivalence (read: exchange value) for that new kind of multiplicity that traditionalists call relativism, but which is a new effect of the multitude rather than some inherited philosophical position. With these few remarks, Virno opens up the whole urgent problem of cynical reason today for some original retheorization.
If “ambiguity” designates Heidegger’s anxiety about the degradation of language in the modern world of mass culture and universal literacy, Verfallenheit characterizes the more general way in which, according to him, the inauthentic Dasein is abandoned to the collective order and “falls prey” to the “world” of others, in which it forgets itself and loses its individuality—that is to say, for Heidegger, its existential solitude and that isolation in which it can alone know its freedom, its “being-unto-death.” This loss of self in the crowd, the submersion of individuality in the multitude, has been the central indictment proposed by counterrevolutionary ideology since its invention, knowing its high points in the grisliest mob scenes of the French Revolution (and in their analysis by Le Bon and Freud as the overcoming of the rational ego by collective irrationality), as well as in deplorable outrages to private property in practically any large-scale revolt you can instance.
And this is also the way our bourgeois tradition has from time relatively immemorial observed the crowd or the mob—that is to say, from a safe distance, and deploring the excesses and the way in which its subjects run to and fro aimlessly, shouting and gesticulating, released from the constraints of law and decency, and as it were under the spell of a kind of shamanistic possession. What Virno has to tell us about this is extremely timely: these inherited pictures and prejudices, he argues, suggest that our traditional view of what we like to call modernity (First World bourgeois capitalism) presupposes our emergence as individuals from some inchoate pre-individualistic mass, and our fear of being resubmerged back into a post-individualistic “multitude” in which we will again lose everything we have painfully achieved as individual subjects. The multitude is on the con- trary the very condition for individuation, it is alone in the multitude and the collective that we arrive at our true singularity as individuals. We must abandon the habit of thinking of a host of things—language, culture, liter- acy, the State, the nation—as goals to be achieved in some arduous yet beneficent process of modernization. On the contrary, they are long since all achieved, everyone is modern, modernization has been over for some time. “Unity,” Virno tells us, “is no longer something (the State, the sovereign), towards which things converge, as in the case of the people; rather it is taken for granted, as a background or a necessary precondition. The many must be thought of as the individualization of the universal, of the generic, of the shared experience” (GM, 25).
The premise of unity articulated here is, to be sure, based on that under- standing of General Intellect alluded to above: the recognition of an immense expansion of the cultural sphere in late capitalism or post- modernity, the generalization of knowledge (very much including science) in that end of nature and the natural, that tendential humanization of the world implicit in Marx’s “universalization of wage labor” and the approach of a genuine world market. It also casts a different light on the politics of difference, which has a meaning after the totalizations of capitalism that it could not possibly have had in early capitalist (or precapitalist) thought and experience. Even the unification of groups in some great collective project must necessarily work differently after the consolidation of a system of nation-states than it did when the very construction of the nation, incomplete, was a heroic and a progressive process.
So much, then, for some of the constitutive features of this new world of the multitude, which we are to train ourselves to welcome as the first fresh stirrings of the very storm of Utopia itself. The last-mentioned aspect of the multitude’s curiosity, however—“the lack of established habits”—will bring us back to the second theme I wanted to explore in Virno’s book, and that is found in the very opening remarks about security and shelter. For established habits are also a security and a shelter, and perhaps the most fun- damental feature of the new situation from which that new thing, the multitude, emerges, can be addressed in that way, as some new and utter absence of security and shelter, as some new homelessness no longer to be reminded with nostalgia or bourgeois comfort, with Heideggerian “dwell- ing” or the protection of the State—a new and permanent crisis situation in which we are all refugees whether we know it or not. What we are calling the multitude is then the population of those refugee camps as they supplant the promise of suburbs and the mobility of freeways which have become permanent traffic jams.
Virno associates two kinds of actions with this new multitude, Utopian or not. The first is civil disobedience, the refusal of the State, to which can already be opposed the self-organization of the camps and bidonvilles them- selves, which have fallen below the State’s radar. The second is his version of Deleuzian nomadism, namely emigration, as the latter hovers above modern Italian history (in Gianni Amelio’s great film Lamerica , for example) but also reappears in the very last chapter of Capital, where the European laborers are seen to desert the old country for the American East Coast, only in a few years to “desert the factory, moving West, towards free lands. Wage labor is seen as a transitory phase, rather than as a life sentence” (GM, 45). The camps, the frontier: such is the deeper unseen reality of the world of the multitude which Virno asks us to embrace in Nietzschean fashion, not as some forever recurring of the present, but as the Eternal Return of the future and of Utopian possibilities to be celebrated as though we had chosen them in the first place.