Just now I thought of a resonance between this fun bit of interbloggal conversation that’s started up and some things Paolo Virno has written (which means a point of contact or resonance between stuff I used to be super into and stuff I’m trying to get more into, the latter being more historical).

In an interview Virno remarked

“he biopolitical is only an effect derived from the concept of labor-power. When there is a commodity that is called labor-power it is already implicitly government over life. Agamben says, on the other hand, that labor-power is only one of the aspects of the biopolitical; I say the contrary: over all because labor power is a paradoxical commodity, because it is not a real commodity like a book or a bottle of water, but rather is simply the potential to produce. As soon as this potential is transformed into a commodity, then, it is necessary to govern the living body that maintains this potential, that contains this potential. Toni (Negri) and Michael (Hardt), on the other hand, use biopolitics in a historically determined sense, basing it on Foucault, but Foucault spoke in few pages of the biopolitical – in relation to the birth of liberalism – that Foucault is not a sufficient base for founding a discourse over the biopolitical and my apprehension, my fear, is that the biopolitical can be transformed into a word that hides, covers problems instead of being an instrument for confronting them. A fetish word, an “open doors” word, a word with an exclamation point, a word that carries the risk of blocking critical thought instead of helping it. Then, my fear is of fetish words in politics because it seems like the cries of a child that is afraid of the dark…, the child that says “mama, mama!”, “biopolitics, biopolitics!”. I don’t negate that there can be a serious content in the term, however I see that the use of the term biopolitics sometimes is a consolatory use, like the cry of a child, when what serves us are, in all cases, instruments of work and not propaganda words.”

In his book Il ricordo del presente Virno remarks that

“Each time that it seeks to procure labour power, capital runs into a living body. This last, in itself, does not count for anything from an economic perspective, but is the ineliminable tabernacle of what certainly does matter: “labour as subjectivity”. The living body, without any dowry other than pure vitality, becomes the substrate for productive capacity (…) The non-mythological origin of the dispositif of knowledges and powers that Michel Foucault defined with the term biopolitics without a doubt finds its mode of being in labour power. Here, the practical importance assumed by potentiality as potentiality in the capitalist relations of production; its inseparability from immediate corporeal existence”, is the exclusive foundation of the biopolitical point of view. (…) life as such [is] taken charge of and governed (…) because it forms the substratum time of a faculty, labour power, which possess the autonomous consistency of a use value. The productivity of labour in act is not in play here, but rather the exchangeability of the potential for labour. By being bought and sold, this potentiality carries the receptacle from which it is inseparable, that is, the living body; more, it shows itself as an accomplished object of knowledge and government (of innumerable and differentiated strategies of power).”

Virno continues, “In giving the wage, the capitalist seeks to buy labour power, or “labour as subjectivity”, not the living body (…) the life of the worker has no price (…) Potentiality and life are consubstantial, but not identical: as such it is the appreciation of the first is effected together with the devaluation of the second.”

For Virno this – biopolitics – is exclusively a matter of capitalism. In the final lines quoted above Virno implicitly (I suspect knowingly) deals with a category that Agamben uses a lot, though Virno doesn’t mention it, the category of bare life (life with no qualities at all but its mere fact of being alive, not being dead, a category which for Agamben is closely linked to the power to kill and to actual killing or acts of violence which may kill; Virno basically says here that this category is inseperable from capitalism). It strikes me that Virno is wrong in an important way in these passages, in that he claims that all of this is an effect of capitalism, that biopolitics is a subcategory of capital. That seems false and unreasonable.

That said, Virno none the less makes a point that is very important to me, which is that capitalism is always-already biopolitical in at least one definition of the term. This is basically what I tried to argue in the thing I wrote on Hardt and Negri which was part of my parting with post-operaismo in its periodizing impulses (this topic was a key preoccupation of mine when I started this blog and this blog is one of the main places where I worked out what I thought on all that). Hardt and Negri make a claim to an era of biopolitical production, a claim which is not sensible if taken strictly – that there is biopolitical era of capitalism as opposed to a non-biopolitical one (again depending on the meaning of the term “biopolitical,” Hardt and Negri’s doesn’t work for their purposes). I tried to argue in two different ways in the paper I linked to and in this that capitalism involve biopolitics (or a biopolitics) from its inception, and in the second I further argued – or just cited Agamben claiming – argued that biopolitics pre-dates capitalism.

That is, capitalism is a mode of biopolitics (or a set of different modes of biopolitics, the history of which is worth investigating), as opposed to Virno’s claim that biopolitics came about via capitalism. (Again depending on the meaning of the terms.) Put differently, “biopolitical” is a larger or more general determination than “capitalist” (the latter taken as an adjective). As Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, “Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient.” “Biopolitics” is one such determination, at least as Agamben defines it – which he recognizes- and as Negri defines it – which he seems to not recognized. (The rest of the Marx quote is in comment 58 here.) Part of the arguments about slavery and about housework that I want to make – or rather, to parrot – is a similar one to the point about the generality of the determination “biopolitical,” that is, that “capitalist” is a more general determination than has been often recognized.

Two notes to self, two more Marx quotes I’d forgotten to return to. The first I didn’t plan to return to but it’s relevant or at least resonant with the discussion at WP’s about the body as property. Marx quotes Wilhelm Schulz, “To develop in greater spiritual freedom, a people [ein Volk] must break their bondage to their bodily needs — they must cease to be the slaves of the body.” (Quoted in this post on the Paris Manuscripts. And this one, from this post: “Since actual labour is the appropriation of nature for the satisfaction of human needs, the activity through which the metabolism between man and nature is mediated, to denude labour capacity of the means of labour, the objective conditions for the appropriation of nature through labour, is to denude it, also, of the means of life, for as we saw earlier, the use value of commodities can quite generally be characterised as the means of life. Labour capacity denuded of the means of labour and the means of life is therefore absolute poverty as such, and the worker, as the mere personification of the labour capacity, has his needs in actuality, whereas the activity of satisfying them is only possessed by him as a non-objective capacity (a possibility) confined within his own subjectivity. As such, conceptually speaking, he is a pauper, he is the personification and repository of this capacity which exists for itself, in isolation from its objectivity.” The latter is about capital as a mode of production of bare life, producing the proletariat (a mode of bare life, insofar as it is object).

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