Last Tango at Mirafiori

First section of chapter 7 in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 17, 2023

From the beginning, the development of Negri's arguments about the 'socialised worker' was to be inseparable from that of a new political tendency: Autonomia Operaia. Making sense of Autonomia as a whole is no simple matter. Ideologically heterogeneous, territorally dispersed, organisationally fluid, politically marginalised: Giorgio Bocca's (1980: 87) analogy of an archipelago is an apt one. Never a single national organisation, much less the mass wing of the armed groups, as certain judges would later charge, the 'Area' of autonomist organisations and collectives would begin to disintegrate almost as soon as it had attained hegemony within the Italian far left.

Autonomia had first crystallised as a distinctive political entity in March 1973, when a few hundred militants from around the country gathered in Bologna to take some provisional steps towards a new national organisation of the revolutionary left (Comitati Autonomi Operai 1976: 33). A number of those assembled in Bologna were members of the Negri wing of Potere Operaio; the majority, however had already abandoned the far left groups, angered by the latter's growing involvement in the unions and institutional politics. The words of the conference's introductory report neatly summed up the strategic orientation that 1.!_nited those present. In today's situation of crisis, it argued, 'The only path possible is that of attack' (ibid.: 40). Furthermore, such an offensive could only base itself upon those class needs that the artificial ideological divisions introduced by both the historic and new left tended to obscure. To articulate such needs, organisation was to be rooted directly in factories and neighbourhoods, in bodies capable both of promoting struggles managed directly by the class itself, and of restoring to the latter that 'awareness of proletarian power which the traditional organisations have destroyed' (ibid. : 43).

During the following 18 months Autonomia's programme was to strike a responsive chord amongst a small but growing number of Italian leftists. The decision of many Potere Operaio members to 'dissolve' into the Area was an example soon followed by a number of smaller radical groups. The most important of these would be the Gruppo Gramsci, itself a minor organisation with a certain presence in the left of Milan's union movement. Reconstituted as the Collettivi Politici Operai (Workers' Political Collectives), the group was to produce the most profound self-critique of any of the Leninist currents which entered Autonomia. In the words of the December 1973 issue of its paper Rosso, what was now needed was nothing short of a new form of political practice, one which broke with the 'logic' of far left groups and

the parochial language of political 'experts', who know the ABC - and even the L and the M - of Marxism-Leninism, without being able to speak concretely about ourselves and our experiences. (Gruppo Gramsci 1973: 96)

Rather than a politics which dealt with an abstract worker, 'male, adult, normal, unburdened by feelings and emotions; rational, a democrat or revolutionary, always ready to attend meetings on the history and tendencies of capitalism' (ibid.: 92), Rosso sought a new perspective which examined questions of sexual and emotional domination, of the nature of the family and the marginalisation of those deemed 'abnormal', through which 'the slavery of the factory and life imposed by capital manifest themselves'. It was to be this, the most libertarian of the major tendencies within the Area, that Negri and his closest associates would join the following year, and help to build into the strongest autonomist formation in the North.

Unlike Rosso, however, the majority of the autonomist collectives were to keep their eyes firmly upon the vicissitudes of the industrial workforce during 1973 and 1974. So too with Negri (1973b: 126) himself, whose major essay of the period centred upon the factory as 'the privileged site of both the refusal of labour and the attack upon the rate of profit'. In this respect, the most interesting aspect of the essay was to be its effort to clarify workerism's often posited relation between working-class struggle and the accumulation process. Potere Operaio had conceived the relationship between class composition and economic crisis in the blunt, mechanical terms of a zero-sum game between wages and profits. In 'Partito operaio contra il lavoro', Negri set out to detail what he had earlier termed that 'long' but 'qualitatively homogeneous' path linking disputes within the terrain of production to the problems faced by the reproduction of capital (Negri 1968: 65).

The possibility of capitalist collapse, and the place within it of working-class struggle, had first been raised in a systematic manner amongst workerists with Negri's exploration of 'Marx on Cycle and Crisis' . Although written before 1969's 'Hot Autumn' of industrial unrest, this essay presaged a number of the central themes later addressed by the tendency. In doing so, it represented operaismo's first attempt to offer a political reading of that part of Marx's critique of political economy traditionally most susceptible to the charge of objectivism. The piece's most interesting aspect, however, was its discussion of the efforts by John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter to offer a solution to the difficulties faced by capital in guaranteeing its own reproduction as a social relation. Following Tronti against Lukacs, Negri did not believe that such an undertaking was impossible for capital's 'critical awareness'; indeed, both Schumpeter and Keynes were able to perceive that capitalist development was an essentially open-ended process wracked with internal contradictions (Negri 1968: 57). Negri showed particular admiration for Schumpeter who did not shy away from the fact that the capitalist economy lacked any internal tendency towards equilibrium. Further, by grasping the moment of crisis as not only unavoidable, but 'a fundamental stimulus within the system’ that was 'productive of profit’, Schumpeter had glimpsed the relations of force between classes which underlay the apparently autonomous movement of economic categories (ibid.:54).

Negri's approach to the problem of crisis was expanded in 'Partito operaio contra il lavoro', a work which emphasised the profound changes to accumulation and class struggle which stemmed from the arrival of the real subsumption of labour to capital. Drawing upon both the Grundrisse and Marx's 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production', Negri (1973b: 109) grappled with the central tendency in capitalist development, namely 'the abbreviation of that part of the working day necessary to the reproduction of the value of labour power’. The division of the working day between necessary and surplus labour, he insisted, had become a struggle between two independent variables. Not only did the traditional disciplining mechanism of the industrial reserve army no longer function, with growing numbers of young people refusing factory work, but the wage increasingly assumed a rigidity indifferent to the needs of accumulation (ibid.: 123-4).

Such an argument, like so many others advanced by workerism, had little in common with conventional Marxist precepts. On the other hand, while Negri's notion of labour as an independent variable within the class relation closely contradicted the letter of Capital Volume I (Marx 1976: 770), it could yet claim support from Volume III of Marx's magnum opus (Marx 1981: 486). More important than the verification offered by sacred texts, however, was the eloquent testimony of the Italian economy's growing problems with productivity and profitability. Later, in Marx Beyond Marx, Negri (1984: 100-1) would clarify the nexus in the class struggle between necessary and surplus labour, arguing that through its rigidity in the labour process, the working class could cut into capital’s potential profit. In 'Partito operaio contra il lavoro', this tendency remained implicit to the depiction of the working day as a field of permanent civil war between the two major classes (Negri 1973b: 113-14). Instead of elaborating this point, however, the essay chose to build upon the analysis of Negri's 1971 work Crisi dello Stato-piano ('Crisis of the Planner-State'). Even as capital held to the firm as the heart of its valorisation process, it continually pressed towards a greater socialisation of labour, stretching beyond the simple extension of the immediate process of production, towards a complete redefinition of the category productive labour. The dimensions of this category, it concluded, could only be grasped in a historically specific sense, 'relative to the level of the advancement of the process of subsumption of labour to capital… we can now say that the concept wage labourer and the concept of productive labourer tend towards homogeneity' (Negri 1971: 127), resulting in the constitution of 'the new social figure of a unified proletariat' (ibid.: 129).

'Partito operaio contra il lavoro' was thus clearly a transitional piece in Negri's understanding of capital and class. By locating traditional workerist formulations within a discourse based upon the tendency outlined in the Grundrisse (Marx 1973), it already stretched a hand out towards the hypothesis of the 'socialised worker' [operaio sociale]. As with most transitional works, however, its author seemed not at all aware of the contradictions contained within the text itself. Negri did little, for example, to substantiate his historically dynamic definition of productive labour; what concerned him, rather, was the argument that, in the present conjuncture, the mass worker's attacks upon the rate of profit remained the rallying point of the proletariat as a whole. Factory and society, production and reproduction, were not yet identical, but continued to exist in a 'dialectical' relationship. Capital itself sought to maintain this relationship by attempting 'to isolate the fall of the rate of profit in the factory (and its agents) from the process of the socialisation of productive labour unfolding throughout society' (Negri 1971: 129). As a consequence, Negri was satisfied to conclude that the workers of the large factories, as the 'privileged subject of exploitation', remained 'absolutely hegemonic' politically and theoretically with respect to the rest of the class (ibid.: 128).

To Negri, encouragement for such a view was to come from the mass picket and occupation of FIAT's Mirafiori plant in March 1973. At the same time, his discussion of the 'Party of Mirafiori' did offer some insight into that notion of a socially homogeneous proletariat which, discarded in the latter days of Potere Operaio, would again soon become pre-eminent within his thought. If any limit existed, he argued, for the mass vanguard formed in the years since the Hot Autumn, it lay in the reluctance to venture beyond the factory gate and join with the struggle of appropriation in the social sphere. Seeking to surpass this weakness, Negri was to posit instead a drastic form of value-reductionism that obliterated all the distinctive features of those with nothing to sell but their labour-power. Taking up Potere Operaio's theme of the crisis of the law of value as a crisis of command over labour, Negri argued that the common basis for the recomposition of the class lay in a 'unity of abstract social labour'. This in turn overrode 'the "specific" problems of the various sectors of the social sphere (young people, women, marginalised elements etc.)' and the factory (Negri 1973a: 192, 193). The terrain of value, as Crisi dello Stato-piano had already argued, no longer assigned meaning in any terms other than those of power. Thus the peculiarities of the sites in which such organisation sprang up, and the content of the needs whose non-fulfilment prompted their formation, could only be subsumed to a project of 'counter-power' against the state. In this manner the Gordian knot of class composition, which could only be unravelled by slowly and carefully identifying the elements common to the often divergent sectors in struggle, was to be hacked away instead with the weapon of mass armed struggle. Writing in a 1974 essay dedicated to class strategy in a global context, Negri assured the reader that armed struggle

represents the only fundamental strategic moment - i.e. the only possibility of achieving a recomposition of the proletariat and a consolidation of the struggles, and destroying, along the way, capital's weapons of provocation, of repression and containment that are designed to isolate and newly compartmentalise the various class sectors. (Negri 1974: 53)

And yet, when Negri was not collapsing the intricacies of social conflict into a one-dimensional thematic of power, he did sometimes pursue lines of enquiry that placed emphasis upon the material contents of struggle. In 'Partito operaio contro il lavoro', for example, he would argue that the liberation of individual needs must now be considered an integral part of the class struggle:

Perhaps for the first time, outside of utopia or those formidable moments of enthusiasm which are insurrections, the objective that the class proposes today - in its intensity, in its totality - also encompasses the needs of individuals. Liberation cannot be left until Communism... The new needs introduced by the most recent generations of the working class are needs of liberation. Nothing is richer or finer than being able to connect the immediate needs of individuals to the political needs of the class. (Negri 1973b: 159)

Negri's position here is far removed from his views of 1971, when he had intoned that 'Today, the class's only real "enjoyment" lies in its relationship with class organisation and in the confrontation with the hateful apparatus of capitalist power' (Negri 1971: 138). On the other hand, Negri's new insight remained bundled in old theoretical baggage. For example, he continued to try and squeeze the whole thematic of needs into the paradigm of the wage. In his view, 'the historic structure of the wage' continued to be the privileged expression of 'the objective level of needs' through which the struggle both within and without the factory must be filtered (Negri 1973b: 143).