Collectivity Marco Scotini

In his Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx seeks to define the sociohistorical basis of the working process as a special form of social relation, and denies the possible existence of subjects that are by nature independent. Subjects, that is, originating as autonomous from nature itself and not historically produced. For Marx, on the contrary, man manages to set himself up as an isolated individual, as a single being distinct from other beings, only within the social relations formed. In fact, this turns out to be possible solely when these relations are developed to such a degree as to help the individual to see social ties as instruments for his own private ends and as an outward necessity.

Essentially, we either reckon that man as a social creature can isolate himself “only in society,” or that the production at work in the isolated individuals outside society is nonsense, as is “the development of a language without individuals living together and talking to each other.” The polemical goal of these Marxist critiques is as much the theories of Smith and Ricardo as those of Rousseau, which, in formulating the model of individuality of “bourgeois society,” presuppose subjects that are by nature independent, originally autonomous within the “natural state.” Accordingly, they consider the individual not as the result of a complex historical process but as a point of departure which, once corrupted by society, ends up reduced to the object of a split which it is the task of politics to put back together again.

If the way of articulating the relation between individual and every type of group (state, nation, class, race, caste, etc) is one which diversifies, even in radical and conflictual ways, the forms of modern politics, the one which all these forms share is the classical presupposition of antagonism between natural state and political corpus, between individuality and collectivity and, consequently, between individualism and collectivism.

In Rousseau’s thinking, the political way in which people can join the freedom and equality of the natural state with the need for social life has to be based on a contract between each individual and society, in such a way that the individual renounces his unconditional freedom. At the same time, however, the individual rediscovers a condition of sovereignty becoming an active part of that unique being which has the power to give orders and make laws—the people. However, even prior to the “Social Contract,” the idea of collectivity to be found in Thomas Hobbes, as in many 17th-century apologists for state sovereignty, is one that is articulated between the two poles of “people” and “state,” as a ground-breaking moment in modern politics. Even in their different assumptions, to do with times and conceptions alike, these two terms found and feed the classical political doctrine even as far as the socialist and communist theoretical definitions of the state. At the root of the modern idea of “people” we find the individual, isolated, proprietary, pulled this way and that, competitive, and in never-ending conflict with all the others. The relation between individual and property is so radically interconnected as to reduce even his own body to proprietary shackles wherein to contemplate the possibility of this latter’s voluntary economic alienation. And this relation merely reconfirms the (private) power of the individual. So it is this constitutionally noncollective nature that forces the individual to become “people,” to delegate his own will to a knowledge that rises above him. The collectivity, which is impossible to realize immediately, becomes rather a goal to be reached through a renunciation of freedom by individuals. From this viewpoint, socialist theories do not sidestep such a scheme. The worker is seen as a work force capable of selling his own arms even if he does not then end up as the proprietor of the productive power which arises from the cooperation that belongs to the capitalist or the state. This is also why the collective dimension, essentially barred to individuals, is to be found outside and above it in the power of factory organization and then, conversely, in political resistance as class.

What would put an end to this way of conceiving of the collectivity would be just the features of the post-Fordist work force, and the break-up of political forms of representation. With the emergence of the “multitude” with regard to the “people,” the principle governing forms of associated life and public spirit would be considerably altered. The greater surpassing of the classical scheme would consist in the shift from a transcendent way of thinking about the collectivity to an immanent one. As we know, there is no “people” if there is no pact of submission combined with a delegation of the will of individuals to the command of the one: the sovereign or the state. If there is state, there is alsopeople.” On the other hand, beyond the merger of the uniqueness of the state’s power, there is fragmentation, disintegration, and chaos. As Hobbes wrote in De Cive: “The People is something that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed.”1 The centripetal unity of the people is guaranteed solely by this transcendence.

On the other hand, and regardless of its irreducible multiplicity, the multitude is a dimension that is nevertheless collective, not destined to merge with any general will. No transcendence incarnate in a separate sovereignty guarantees its cohesion. The multitude is thus asserted as an immanence of the rights and faculties of the individuals who refuse to converge into political unity, and escape from obedience and forms of representative democracy. As Paolo Virno wrote in A Grammar of the Multitude: “The contemporary multitude is composed neither of ‘citizens’ nor of ‘producers’; it occupies a middle region between ‘individual and collective’; for the multitude, then, the distinction between public and private is in no way validated. And it is precisely because of the dissolution of the coupling of these terms, for so long held to be obvious, that one can no longer speak of a people converging into the unity of the state [ … ] It is necessary, however, to recognize that the multitude does not clash with the One; rather, it redefines it. Even the many need a form of unity, of being a One. But here is the point: this unity is no longer the State; rather, it is language, intellect, the communal faculties of the human race. The One is no longer a promise, it is a premise. Unity is no longer something (the State, the sovereign) toward which things converge, as in the case of the people; rather, it is taken for granted, as a background or a necessary precondition.”2 Within post-Fordism, there is complete overlap between productive forces and the impersonal character of language and any other pre-individual reality. As Gilbert Simondon has just recently indicated, participation in the collectivity neither harms nor attenuates individuation; rather, it pursues it by empowering it.


1 / Thomas Hobbes, De Cive or The Citizen, ed. Sterling P. Lamprecht, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York 1949, chapter XII, section VIII.

2 / Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude for an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Semiotexte, Los Angeles 2004, p. 25.