Negri Beyond Marx

Fourth and final section of chapter 7 of "Storming Heaven" by Steve Wright.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 18, 2023

In the late 1960s Negri, like other workerists of the time, had run the risk of subsuming the specificity of different working-class strata to those of the mass worker. His work in the second half of the 1970s, on the other hand, threatened to dissolve even this partially concrete understanding of class into a generic proletariat. As debate around the operaio sociale unfolded, the indeterminate nature of Negri's abstraction would become increasingly clear. Perhaps the gentlest critic would be Alquati (n.d.: 90-1), for whom the operaio sociale remained a 'suggestive' category; but even he, however, warned against the danger of constructing an ideology around a class figure which had yet to appear as a mature political subject. For Roberto Battaggia (1981: 75), writing in the pages of Primo Maggio, Negri's new subject was a category derived only by analogy from the mass worker, lacking as it did the latter's central characteristic: namely, a close bond between 'material conditions of exploitation' and 'political behaviours'. In reality, therefore, as a pot-pourri of different subjects 'with completely autonomous motivations', the notion of a socialised worker was of limited heuristic value. Such a line of reasoning would be pressed home by Vittorio Dini (1978: 5, 7), who considered the manner in which Negri had drained his conceptual apparatus of its content to be particularly damning. Earlier, Negri had indicated the historically determinate nature of this category; now, by deeming all moments of the circulation process as productive of value, he was to resolve workerism's longstanding tension around the factory-society relationship by theoretical sleight of hand. Similarly, the delineation of a new class figure, a project that required considerable care and time, had been accomplished simply by collapsing tendency into actuality.

Another disappointing aspect of Negri's new analysis of class composition was that part of it dealing with the PCI. Emphasising the frequently punitive nature of the Communist party's efforts to win the battle for hearts and minds within the workplace, Negri seemed unaware that this was only part of the picture. In particular, he overlooked what Lapo Berti (1976: 8) was to call the growing disjuncture between the 'behaviours of struggle and the "political" attitudes' of many workers formed in the Hot Autumn. In other words, the gulf between the continued practical critique of the organisation of labour evident in many factories, and working-class support for a party leadership which saw the existing relations of production as in the natural order of things. Insistent, instead, that the reformist project lacked any material basis in a time of capitalist crisis, Negri (1977b: 110, 117) was satisfied to paint the relationship between workers and PCI as one of pure repression, or else hint darkly at the parasitic nature of the workforce in the large factories. Closer to the truth stood one of the contributions to the June 1976 special edition of Rosso (1976c) devoted to the PCI. This elaborated upon the Communist intellectual Badaloni's portrayal of his party as the representation of one facet of working-class existence, that of the 'organised commodity' labour-power prepared to accept its subordina5e place in society. Even here, as the Comitati Autonomi Operai were to point out, only their contributions to the same issue had advanced any practical discussion of Communist policy and its implementation, particularly in that sector where the PCI already operated as a governing party - the municipal administration of some of Italy's major cities (Rivolta di classe 1976: 137).

Thus, despite the growing intricacy of Italian working-class politics in the late 1970s, the simplification of Negri's schema was to proceed apace. While he continued to reject traditional Marxist conceptions of crisis, Negri's own framework became no less catastrophic. 'The balance of power has been reversed', he wrote in a 1977 pamphlet which went on to become a bestseller:

[T]he working class its sabotage, are the stronger power - above all , the only source of rationality and value. From now on it becomes impossible, even in theory, to forget this paradox produced by the struggles: the more the form of domination perfects itself, the more empty it becomes; the more the working class refusal grows, the more it is full of rationality and value ... We are here; we are uncrushable; and we are in the majority. (Negri 1977b: 118, 137)

None of this is to deny the creative features of Negri's subjectivist reading of Marx. These ranged from his denunciation of the state capitalism found in the Eastern bloc and his search for a new measure of production beyond that of value, to his clear depiction of the revolutionary process as one based upon the pluralism of mass organs of proletarian self-rule. As a consequence of such triumphalism, however, these features of his work would be crippled. Devoid of the contradictory determinations of Italian reality, the promising notion again flushed out from Alquati (1976: 40-1) - of a working class ‘self-valorising’ its own needs within and against the capital relation lost all its substance to aspects. None of this is to deny the suggestive aspects of Negri's work. Unfortunately, these were again and again overridden by a framework that depicted class struggle as the mortal combat of two Titans (Boismenu 1980: 192). Despite, too, Negri's acceptance of the notion of difference as a positive attribute within movements of social change, his conception of the operaio sociale continued to filter out all the specific and contradictory discriminants within it, leaving only their common attribute as embodiments of abstract labour. Since the latter in turn held meaning only as a form of pure command, Negri's understanding of the problem of political recomposition came to be overdetermined by a stress upon violence. This emphasis, as the practice of much of Autonomia now showed, would prove no less impoverished - if profoundly different in culture and form - than that of the Brigate Rosse (Negri 1977b: 134).

One might reasonably suppose that to an outlook so infused with triumphalism, the relative ease with which Autonomia was to be crushed by the mass arrests of 1979-80 could only come as an immense shock. Rather than restoring a note of caution to Negri's thought, however, the Area's political defeat would serve simply to exacerbate the flattening out of his conceptual framework. Breaking in 1981 with the dominant group within the Autonomia of North Eastern Italy, Negri (1981b: 8) would accuse its exponents of holding fast to 'a Bolshevik model of organisation outside time and space'. This was linked to their embrace of a class subject - the mass worker - that was, 'if not anachronistic, at the very least partial and corporative'. In doing so, he argued, they had chosen to ignore 'a new political generation (not only children) which situates itself in the great struggles for community, for peace, for a new way of being happy. A generation without memory and therefore more revolutionary’. This line of argument had been developed more fully earlier that year in the pages of the journal Metropoli, where Negri had insisted that memory could only be understood as an integral moment in the logic of capitalist domination:

[T]he class composition of the metropolitan subject has no memory because it has no work, because it does not want commanded labour, dialectical labour. It has no memory because labour can construct for the proletariat a relation with past history. It has no dialectic because only memory and labour constitute the dialectic ... proletarian memory is only the memory of past estrangement ... The existing memory of 1968 and of the decade that followed it is now only that of the gravedigger ... the youths of Zurich, the Neapolitan proletarians and the workers of Gdansk have no need of memory ... Communist transition is absence of memory. (Negri 1981b: 50-1, 52, 53)

'Your memory', Negri (1981b: 8) had accused his former comrades, ‘has become your prison’. In his own case, however, this embrace of an eternal present simply meant the abnegation of past responsibilities. Surveying the defeat of the workerist tendency that same year – a defeat that had left Negri and thousands of other activists falsely imprisoned as 'terrorists' - Sergio Bologna would recognise the nature of this problem clearly:

I have a sense of both fear and repugnance when I see comrades who hate their past or, worse still, who mystify it. I'm not denying my past, for example my workerist past; on the contrary, I claim it. If we toss schizophrenia. (Bologna 1981: 17)

Tracing Negri’s passage to this dismal point beyond both operasimo and Marxism is a depressing task. Behind the evident haste that has characterised much of his work (Leonetti 1979: 4), there lies what Negri himself would later concede as

this damning pretence, that runs through all our writings; it is the language of the Marxist tradition, but it carries a residue of simulation that creates a distorted redundancy. (quoted in Portelli 1985: 12)

Such an aberration stemmed from that peculiar mode of thinking which Negri had inherited from the father of Italian workerism, Mario Tronti, and honed to perfection, a mode of thinking which took its starting point from real social processes only to rapidly turn in upon itself. Seeking for his part to avoid such a fate, Marx had abandoned the dazzling heights of conceptual flight displayed in the Grundrisse for the sombre, but historically specific, passages of Capital. Unconvinced by such a choice, Negri might have done worse than to heed the advice of Tronti (1971: 16) himself, who had once warned that 'A discourse which grows upon itself carries the mortal danger of verifying itself always and only through the successive passages of its own formal logic.'