An interview with Mario Tronti exploring the ramifications of the demonstrations surrounding the London G20 and other topics.
Even if it is ritualistic, even if it is yet again the hope that there will be movement within social conflicts, there is no circumventing the question, what kind of movement it was that we experienced against the G20 summit in London and against NATO in Strasbourg. Much has already been written and said. Newspapers and televisions have described it as a protest that emerged in response to the effects of the global economic crisis. Its composition is not that of the classical organized subject of the workers’ movement. The question is thus: Is a movement that acts outside of the traditional representational spheres (without any ties to trade unions or parties), automatically a movement outside of politics, or does it just conduct a different kind of politics? In short: Is the criticism against those who accuse this movement of not being able to transcend the symbolic gesture of anger and frustration too narrow-minded? We asked Mario Tronti.
Tonini Bucci: What kind of movement is the one that we saw against the G20 in London?
Mario Tronti: Maybe it makes sense to compare it to today’s major rally of the CGIL in Rome. Here we see a horizontally expanded world of work currently mobilized and organized by a large trade union. That’s the tradition, right? Even if there are many new features, not least the presence of migrants and a youthful kind of publicity, the world of work exists and is a protagonist, or at least has the will to continue to be a protagonist in Italian history. And then there are the effects of the crisis. Conflict has again emerged with the G20 off the back of the more or less effective measures that the European countries, the USA and others are deciding upon. To me that is a consolation. The demonstrations we have seen in other countries in the last few days are different from today’s. Here there is an organized force that makes an intervention and there are forces of movement. Given that the Anglo-Saxon countries are more exposed to the crisis, there is a different type of movement. I also don’t get the impression that this is still the antiglobalization movement. This is something else.
Bucci: The antiglobalization movement had its own structures, a network of relations that ensured a certain continuity in-between the calendar of protest events. In London a movement appeared that was very interested in the power of pictures, action and the symbolic gesture. There is even the return of ‘maschinenstuermerischen’ influences. Certainly someone will use this in order to talk about terrorism or to criminalize the protest, but it is not worth talking about it. The problem is different. Can we be satisfied with smashing the windows of a bank or is there a problem with the lack of political direction?
Tronti: There are some anarchist characteristics. The problem of political form that social protest should take is a general problem that also affects us, we can talk about that later. Here the problem explodes in a glaring way. They don’t think about the political form but reject it and would also reject it if it appeared. This is a different type of movement to whom the symbolic gesture is certainly very important. However, I get the impression that this symbolic gesture stems from their interpretation of the crisis that is not precise, at least not in my view. I believe that today we need a minimum of analytical clarity about the crisis. The idea that it is the fault of excessive financial operations on the side of capital, is not true. The banks become the enemy that is criminalized. On the other hand, other responsible forces that I think are just as important if not more important, are silently ignored. This neoliberal phase was not the result of the will of financiers. They just used it to their advantage. It was a systemic decision made by collective capital. There was a point where real capital made a decision in favor of finance. It is not that the bankers alone are at fault as the ‘innocent’ corporate bosses currently portraying themselves as victims want us to believe. The good against evil. On the one hand those who work and on the other the speculators. This is a trap in which would should not fall. That is why an analysis of the crisis is so important.
Bucci: In short, this is a systemic crisis. Low wages on the one hand and excessive financial operations of the economy on the other. Without a sober analysis, isn’t there the risk of aiming for the wrong targets in political struggle?
Tronti: The protest follows the wrong targets. Labor – precisely because it suffered in the previous phase of neoliberal globalization – was utilized for flexibilization and precarization. It didn’t get what it was owed. From this a crisis emerged because wage incomes and the growth of consumption could not be maintained in balance. Wages were pushed down too much. The imbalance between wage incomes and capital income was even too excessive for capital. They overdid it with wage cuts. This is why what we are experiencing appears also as an overproduction and underconsumption crisis. The social contradiction did play a role in the eruption of the crisis. That is why it is important to bring the force of labor back into the game, in order to make it visible and to show that it is not demobilized.
Bucci: This is a difficult operation in two respects. Firstly with respect to culture. For decades we have been told that labor is no longer central and that individual and collective identities constitute themselves through consumption. But there is also a political problem. Precisely when the economic crisis of capital reached its lowest point our political ability to organize is also at its lowest point. Where should we begin?
Tronti: Seeing this sea of individuals today (at the CGIL rally at the Circus Maximus in Rome), the mass (we used to refer to the working class mass), was reassuring. Yet, this was also a demoralizing moment. These people can earn so much more than we give them by defending their interests, as culture, as organization. There is an imbalance.
If somebody were to say the working class on longer exists, this would be a new discourse – this is the discourse of the moderate Left. However, here the problem is that the working class mass does exist but that not only does it have no image, it also has no political direction or leadership that corresponds to it. We have to thank the CGIL that it remains the only force that is still capable of organizing an appearance of this sort, knowing full well that there is a limit to trade union intervention. It cannot transcend certain limits, even if it wanted to. Even if it at certain points it is forced to become the political subject, then only because it operates as a defense mechanism for workers. What we do need is a more offensive expression. If one could only organize the mass against something…even in the daily cash receipts of the trade unions there is more resistance than any targeted aggression. An opponent in crisis should not have deserved condemnation. It is not enough to say that we won’t pay for their crisis. Crises are also triggered in the interest of capital. They are instruments of restructuring, of creative destruction. I cannot yet see a political direction or leadership of movement or the identification of a real opponent.
Bucci: The union cannot do this. In the best case it remains stuck at the point of the economic antagonism. The political leadership is absent, isn’t it?
Tronti: Labor needs to resurface as that which has been swept under the carpet in the last years. Labor hardly existed anymore. Not only as a political subject but also as a social presence. It appears as if this is a system that functions without labor. We have to make it clear again that this system only exists because of labor and that crisis occurs because this labor is undervalued and underpaid. A greater political discourse is necessary. We have to give labor a political definition. The very rigid class structure of society that stems from the class struggles of the 20th century is not an entirely negative thing, although we have to concede that the working class has lost some of its subjectivity. Work has expanded horizontally and shows a less partial diffusion than the former working class subject. At the same time it is a more global, more collective and less partial subject. The working class was basically a limited affair unable to become ‘the people.’ Today on the other hand, in its contemporary expression, it encompasses everyone: fixed, precarious and autonomous labor (this usually means nominally self-employed workers). Basically almost everyone works and everyone is a worker. That makes it possible to become one people, a people of workers.
Bucci: Maybe contemporary labor has lost density, maybe it is more fragmented, but it has gained in circulation, hasn’t it?
Tronti: Yes, that is why political organization is confronted with the problem of how to organize on this broader, less concentrated but more diffuse terrain. Here we have to find a new organizational form.
Bucci: The paradox is that politicians competed for a long time to declare labor dead. Today however we are discovering that labor is certainly not dead, but politics is. Is that right?
Tronti: That is the great contradiction, there is no doubt about it. Labor doesn’t do politics anymore. Not because labor doesn’t exist anymore but because politics hardly exists anymore. Actually, it’s opposite exists – antipolitics. This is what is encompassing many of the working classes. If you don’t find your way to politics, it will get you. Or you find it in such distorted forms in the secluded, indifferent and self-referential political classes of today that are incapable of looking at the world the way that it is.
If there is no politics, then you end up frustrated and everyone reacts as well as they can. Some kidnap a banker, others attack the bank…this is not about looking at the protests in a condescending way. Nobody can afford to do that. The problem is that there is no politics.
These things happen precisely because there is nothing else. They fill a vacuum. If the world of work goes out on the street, it possesses a great visibility and power of recognition. One thing I have to say very clearly though: The great demonstration of 2002 in defense of article 18 (protection against redundancies) that the CGIL organized under Cofferati (the former general secretary and the current centre-left law and order mayor of Bologna), was the highpoint of mobilization. Since then there has been a rapid decline. We should make sure that this isn’t repeated. We need to cultivate pressure from the street. Certainly, we should reopen conflict without wasting energy and experiencing immediate defeat. But the problem is how to do this after these large mobilizations, how not to diminish, but to remain on this level.
Bucci: Is that an appeal to the antagonistic left?
Tronti: This pressure has to be transformed into a subject, forces need to be condensed, but not everything can be treated equally. I think that labor is not part of the political program of many on the left. Labor is a decisive point. Either you give it a prominent role or organize the other contradictions that exist around it. Otherwise you will provoke incomprehension as to why you are throwing everything together. In the end you become the working class left, the gender left, but also the environmental left and so on until you throw rights, protection and worldliness all into one and mix it up… the problem is that you need a centre. If there is no centre, then there is no organized form and you end up with a ‘para- movement’ (paramovimentismo).
This interview appeared in the Italian newspaper Liberazione on May 5th.
This version translated into English from the German translation by Emma Dowling.
Originally posted: June 2, 2009 on the now defunct Class Against Class website