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  • Post-Fordist Semblance
  • Paolo Virno (bio)
    Translated by Max Henninger (bio)

The subject of these notes is "socially necessary semblance" under post-Fordism. By this little formula (of Marxian origin, by the way), I refer to the ensemble of mentalities, images of the world and of oneself, behaviors and beliefs which, while false (that is, semblances) nonetheless originate in and derive a certain legitimacy from certain quite real and persistent aspects of today's mode of production. It's not a question, in other words, of subjective errors produced by the dominant culture, but of representations forcefully suggested by a very concrete condition. What is needed is an identification of the grain of truth that sustains false semblance. Such an investigation aims at a materialist recognition of subjectivity as it exists within post-Fordist capitalism.

It would certainly be more comforting to assume that the illusions current today are the product of media propaganda and that they can therefore be refuted by means of a patient pedagogical project of clarification. Unfortunately this is not the case. There is a material basis for ideology, an objective foundation that reinforces and reproduces deception. To give a classic example: in the work of Marx, a considerable part of capitalist ideology is traced back to that rather concrete institution that [End Page 42] is … the wage. By being paid after labor has been made available, the wage in fact powerfully imposes the false belief that what is being remunerated is the work performed, when in fact what the capitalist purchases on the market is, for Marx, rather labor-power, the worker's pure psychosomatic capacity to produce. It is worth asking, then, what corresponds to the wage as an "ideological fact" in the era of post-Fordism: what are the contemporary foundations of socially necessary semblance? We will discuss three of many possible examples.

1. Self-employment

It's not difficult to identify the material conditions that substantiate the illusory conviction of a considerable number of subordinated workers that they are able to and/or have to behave as "their own employers." Here, I want to insist on only one aspect of this phenomenon: so-called self-employment has its concrete basis in what precedes productive activity properly speaking—that is, in the vicissitudes one has to confront before performing this or that job (or in the interval between one job and another). No workers believe themselves to be managing their own lives because of the way they work, but rather because of the way they come to terms with the labor market.

The time devoted to finding long-term employment (often quite a protracted period, riddled with brief and diverse jobs that are off the books, seasonal etc.) is at the heart of the "self-employment" experienced by post-Fordist workers. This protracted "search" is no longer an empty and passive intermediate period, but a genuine activity that requires initiative, open-mindedness, calculation, a sense of compatibility, and even some rudimentary analysis of "market tendencies." The person in search of employment ends up looking somewhat like a small stock broker, or a manager with public relations skills. Without the traditional mechanisms of job placement, it has become necessary to establish informal relations with the most diverse interlocutors. These relations, often rich with sticky psychological subtleties, require a certain amount of opportunism. And as Williamson teaches us, opportunism is the entrepreneurial skill par excellence.1

The concern with "keeping in touch," with "being around" (that is, eternally available), with "seizing the unexpected opportunity" is a general feature of a form of socialization that takes place before and between jobs. Here, an important hypothesis suggests itself: the diversification and fragmentation of forms of employment occurs against the backdrop of a substantially unitary socialization process. It is this [End Page 43] socialization process that the project of political organization needs to grasp, whatever form that project may take. A critique of the illusions related to "self-employment" is possible only if it involves a recognition (and a political evaluation) of the enterpreneurial skills required for surviving on the labor market, the habit of not having any habits, the capacity to metabolize innovation.

2. Professionality

This universally...