“Politics” distinguishes itself from the “political,” which has as a characteristic that of contemplating, alongside the state, other holders [titolari], other subjects of political reality. Here then is a history of these subjects that is anything but over.
— Mario Tronti1
Written towards the end of what we might call the “second period” of Tronti’s reflections, that of the so-called “autonomy of the Political,” sandwiched between the more famous phase of Operaismo and the – almost completely unknown to the Anglophone world – “third period” political theological phase, that of the twilight [tramonto] of the political, the short text translated here will come to many Anglophone readers of Tronti as a surprise. The heretical Marxist, the author of Workers and Capital who analyzed the development and dynamics of the “mass worker” and argued that the working class was the dynamic element of capitalism – within and against – but always shifting capital on (every innovation a failed revolution), and that the political form of capital was determined by the intensity and form of the struggle, now shifts the theoretical framework onto another, much more historical level: the longue durée of the capitalist state from the 16th century.
In the first phase of his work, Tronti confronted the theoretical and political problems that stemmed from the dynamics of industrial capital spreading at breakneck speed throughout the Italian peninsula in the 1950s and ‘60s, neo-capitalism (as it was known at the time), alongside the massive extension and concentration of the working class in terms of condition and unification of desire – and of the need to organize this spontaneity. In the second phase, the international crisis of capital in the late-‘60s and ‘70s revived, for Tronti and others, questions of past capitalist responses to economic and political crisis, bringing the state into relief. As Tronti argues in a number of texts throughout the 1970s, with the crisis of capital of 1929, with the “Great Transformation” discussed so insightfully by Karl Polanyi, capitalism would never be the same again. The role of the state, of politics – of bourgeois politics – would be that of stabilization. So, whereas capitalism is crisis, as so many have argued since Marx’s day, the state is order.2 It is this conjuncture – capitalism and state, crisis and order – that becomes the focus of Tronti’s thought from this period, driven by the concrete shifts on the ground that confronted the working class and its organizations. In the rest of this brief introduction, I shall try to outline the reasons for this shift.
The “very gist, the living soul, of Marxism – a concrete analysis of a concrete situation”3; so why, precisely at this time – that of the crisis of the international capital of the 1970s – does Tronti decide that this “concrete situation” can best be analyzed through a study of the development of the “political” and of the bourgeois state (which are by no means synonymous, as we shall see) since the 16th century? Why is this the period in which Tronti decided to compose his first and only monograph, on Hegel of all people (Hegel Politico, 1975), an edited volume on the English Civil War (Stato e Rivoluzione in Inghilterra, 1977),4 and a subsequent four-volume edited anthology, of excerpts and critical essays on the leading bourgeois theorists from 1500-1800 (Il Politico, 1979-1982 – from which the translation below is drawn)? It should be noted, first of all, that this is by no means all that he worked on during this period – he continued to write on current affairs, such as the relationship that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) should maintain with extra-parliamentary movements and parties, the role of the Christian Democratic Party (DC) in the state-system, as well as more general articles on the nature of the political,5 and studies of more recent phases of capitalist restructuring such as the New Deal and Weimar.6 Alongside the important studies of the contemporary situation, he also sat on the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party during the period of the “Historic Compromise.” Hence, although his work was not restricted to the study of the early history of the bourgeois state, it is clear that during this period, from the mid-1970s till the early ‘80s, much of Tronti’s theoretical work was focused upon the bourgeois state since the 16th century, and that this decision he saw as essential to renewing the theoretical and practical tools of the workers’ movement and its party. Why? What was the question to which this course of study was to provide an answer, the problem to which this would be a solution? And what of these problems, these questions, is alive today after – or within – the Great Recession?
One path towards an answer would lead us through the fraught territory of the “autonomy of the political,” the infamous term first discussed in a lecture in 1972 (published only five years later), and that sparked Tronti’s investigations into the longue durée of the state. Whereas the “autonomy” traced here was developed through an analysis of the structure and function of the state following the Great Crash (but also the transformation of the Soviet State under Lenin was a persistent reference point), we will see that this proved to be just the first step towards a longer analysis of the political in which the bourgeois state – as theorized by Hegel and returning to the fore in the 1930s – was simply the highest or latest incarnation of the political.7
Let us begin, then, by briefly outlining the – frequently misunderstood – problem that Tronti encountered in this period. Doing so will help us understand why the history of the bourgeois state, from its origins in the 16th century, becomes so important for Tronti at this specific historical moment; it will also serve to correct some of the misunderstandings that have bedevilled many subsequent interpretations, standing in the way of an adequate theoretical and practical interpretation of the question of the autonomy of the political.
The first thing to note is that the series of reflections that would converge on the idea of the autonomy of the political, did not come fully formed and, arguably, never did find a definitive formulation.8 The autonomy of the political can be best described as a field of forces, of unresolved tensions that circumscribe a problematic theoretical and practical space that stems from a concrete conjunctural intuition: that once capitalism ceases to be a progressive force, i.e. when it ceases to be able to integrate the working class through a reformist moment of wage increases and heightened consumption (as during the so-called Fordist-compromise), the command of the state by bourgeois parties permits the strategic use of crisis – most notably under Thatcher and Reagan – to restructure the working class, fragmenting and isolating it geographically, sectorially or within the space of production, thereby permitting the process of the reproduction of capital to be re-established on a new and more advanced terrain of integration.9 This intuition of the active role of the state in the reproduction of capitalwould be developed further, in a series of analyses of the relation between economic crisis and the political to an investigation into the history of the bourgeois state since the Great Depression.
The autonomy of the political identifies a phenomenon of the Great Transformation. It accounts for how the bourgeoisie, confronted with economic crisis, used the state to restructure society from above, in tandem with capital. This is a necessity driven by crisis and by the combined and uneven development of capital and of its state, of the mechanisms of the state, sometimes in advance (as during the New Deal), more often retarded with respect to capitalist development (as in the Italy of the 1960s-‘70s); of the different articulations of fractions of capital with one another; and of capital and its state in relation to the level of development of its great antagonist, the working class. The question of the autonomy of the political is the question of the mechanisms at the disposal of capital10 to mediate between, to manage and to coordinate its fragments, its advances and delays, and its antagonist – a function that is initially called upon when the mechanism of development breaks down. The question to which the autonomy of the political is an answer, is not only – as so many left critics have described it, and despite evident ambiguities and rhetorical excesses11 – that of the proper relation of the Party to the class or to the state, or – for that matter – of the class to the state (although it is also this). The problem is not merely that of the correct form of political participation; the problem is also how to count politically within the bourgeois state.12 More specifically, the reality of the 1970s posed a problem with two component parts: given the autonomy of the political – “a fact of capital … I repeat, so that people stop pretending not to understand”13 – how can the workers’ movement make use of this autonomy in order to intervene at the level of the state?
In order to clarify what we mean by this problem with two elements, we can perhaps think of it in analogy with the New Economic Policy. With the Soviet Union coming out of revolution and civil war, the question for Lenin was one of rebuilding the economy and even rebuilding the class subject of the revolution, the working class, decimated by violent conflict and industrial collapse. The NEP was, as Lenin himself conceded, a step back, a “strategical retreat”;14 it was the conscious use of capitalist tools – private ownership of the means of production – for socialist purposes. Capitalism was to be let back in, was to be allowed to grow and, in growing, strengthen, but in so doing it would also rebuild the proletariat that had been “declassed” by the previous period of economic defeat and political and military conflict, and rebuild the productive forces – but this time, it would do so to defend the revolution. The question was: “who will take the lead?” Rereading the Lenin of these years alongside Tronti, the similarities in tone and form are extraordinary:
The whole question is who will take the lead. We must face this issue squarely – who will come out on top? Either the capitalists succeed in organizing first – in which case they will drive out the Communists and that will be the end of it. Or the proletarian state power, with the support of the peasantry, will prove capable of keeping a proper rein on those gentlemen, the capitalists, so as to direct capitalism along state channels and to create a capitalism that will be subordinate to the state and serve the state. (Lenin15)
[We must] elaborate a medium term strategy, that is, to get to the point of being able to lead the process of adjustment of the state machine to the productive machine of capital… it is a case of going so far as to consciously take hold of the process of modernization of the state machinery, to even manage not the reforms in general, as one says in the usual jargon, but in particular that specific reform that is the capitalist reform of the state. (Tronti16)
We can speak, only half in jest, of a New Political Policy, the use of the autonomy of the political, that eminently bourgeois invention brought in most recently to save capital from its crisis (in the ‘20s and ‘30s), in order to advance the workers’ movement. This is the problem and the challenge that Tronti tries to develop in this period.
I do not want to make too much of this analogy,17 but I think it is useful when trying to make sense of the problem and the task Tronti set himself at this time. It was not, therefore, to provide a new, even if heretical Marxist theory of the state – the lack of which was a widespread topic of discussion at this time – that Tronti developed the notion of the autonomy of the political. Instead, this notion served both to make sense of the specific practice of the capitalist state after the Great Transformation and was a call to a pragmatic engagement with those tools in order to bend them to different ends. The autonomy of the political is the subjective stance of the bourgeois state, used to further its interests; Tronti demanded that it should be appropriated by the working class and bent to its interests. So it is not a question of a new Marxist Theory of the State, which had been lacking (although that too); but, crucially, a Marxist Practice of the State is what was called for. Only a thorough understanding of the machinery of state and of the political could enable one to effectively operate it – but a call for an “art of politics, that is, of particular techniques for the conquest and conservation of power,”18 was by no means a ‘“politicist-abstract” departure from the more “political-conjunctural” focus of the militant interventions of the 1960s’ – as the parallel with the NEP makes plain.19 In the final text in the book L’Autonomia del Politico, Tronti writes:
I am struck (given that we are speaking of the subjectivity of the State, [i.e.] of capitalist interests) that to some it has appeared that the properly subjective moment, in particular, that of the working class had disappeared from my discussion. We must certainly correct this impression: in the background of this argument, there is a carefully hidden interlocutor who pulls all the strings of the matter… It is true: every movement in the relationship between capital and power has a class relationship between capital and its antagonist at its origin …20
He goes on to argue with respect to the change in the state-form in the 1930s, much in the same way as does Antonio Negri21 – one of the most fierce adversaries of the notion of the autonomy of the political – that one cannot understand the particular solution given to the Great Crash without the rupture of 1917. That solution – as Tronti argues – is that which leads to the autonomy of the political, of the state as agent called to compensate for the failures of capital, to try to stabilize, re-start, re-model development, and redirecting investment between more or less advanced industrial sectors – in short, to mediate, recompose, decide and to organise the institutionalization of the class compromise that alone could save capitalism from itself and from its great antagonist. For analogous reasons, we can say that Lenin – as well as Roosevelt (in the New Deal) and Keynes – could be said to have understood the historical necessity for the autonomy of the political for the re-establishment of order on a new footing. It is here that we encounter the specificity of the political: the political in its autonomy is a theory of the reproduction of order after crisis and a theory of the means to intervene in the process of the reproduction of order. Both of these operations come under the heading of the “political,” without being reducible to it.22For this reason, Tronti privileges bourgeois theorists (including social democratic ones) who developed a theory and practice of the state to guide the autonomy of the political for the reproduction of capital, in the same way that Lenin turned to “bourgeois specialists” to run the machinery of state and large-scale industry; and it is for this same reason that Marx, who was faced with a liberal state, ceases to be a theoretical and practical reference point for thinking the new political mechanisms for the reproduction of capital.23 The autonomy of the political in the bourgeois state is precisely “in order to be able to intervene” in the reproduction of capitalism after its crisis, to re-establish conditions of development and exploitation. Tronti argued that the mechanisms of its autonomy should instead be grasped by the organization of the working class, “in order to be able to intervene” in the reproduction of capital, after its crisis, to establish conditions for a “new idea of the state,” because “one cannot introduce new masses into an old state.”24 There is no easy way to do this, no easy delegation – whether to party or to class for that matter; each concrete situation calls for a concrete analysis and the flexibility to act on the basis of the results of that analysis. The analysis always starts from the relations of class forces that determines the relative strength of the contenders and, hence, circumscribes the level of autonomy of action. An additional level of autonomy may be given by the relation to the state, to the political form of reproduction. The question is not whether or not the political operates independently of, autonomously from material conditions – it does not; the character and quality of that autonomy is governed, circumscribed by very concrete material conditions. For example, we have already indicated how, though a “great transformation,” the state became a renewed principle of order emerging from a very concrete crisis of reproduction. It did so by reproducing the class relation through, firstly, a class compromise between the two great contending classes the relative strength of which would circumscribe the relative levels of autonomy (in the New Deal / Fordist compromise) and, later, through a careful deployment of crisis, one that re-established the conditions of growth through the intensification of relative and absolute surplus value (shift to floating exchange rates / end of dollar convertibility, oil shocks, Volker shock, war on organized labour, etc.). The question for Tronti was: what are the conditions for achieving a level of autonomy, in practice, that can be exercised in order to intervene within the reproduction of class relations in a form more favorable to the working class. His answer was that it was necessary to understand and to appropriate the bourgeois mechanisms of autonomy experimented in the course of the twentieth century.25
To return, then, to our starting point. Why did Tronti feel the need to spend much of the 1970s, at the same time as that he was arguing for the appropriation – in theory and practice – of the bourgeois autonomy of the Political, i.e. of the mechanisms for the reproduction of capitalism, by the workers’ movement, carrying out an analysis of the political over the longue durée?
The hypothesis is that precisely with the 1930s the return of the political, call it what you will, of the autonomy, of the primacy, of the anticipation of the political, the opening – that is – of a new classical phase of politics is accompanied by a history of the State on the grand scale [in grande], where the origins of modern bourgeois power – unity and concentration, sovereignty and violence, the machine and the prince – are once again decisive. Naturally there are great changes: new paths, ideological apparatuses, grand solutions to mass organization, and the planned control of economic contradictions. But in this phase I would like to underline and hold to the common ground of correspondences and echoes [richiami] between the two periods, that of the origins and that of the great crisis, between the long process of the transition to capitalism and the epoch of the “great transformation.” From here stems the almost obligatory choice of classical political thought, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the terrain of study of living problems and the encounter with the model of political revolution, as the intersection of conditions for the passage to capitalism. At the same time, the setting to work, in practice, of the relationship between the economic crisis and the political exit from the crisis. I do not want to claim that everything holds together. But at a time when the “organic” has become a bad word, to lay claim to the organic nature of a course of study might be useful. Not in order to go against the current but to demonstrate that, in addition to studying, one can also understand.26
What I particularly want to highlight in this rich passage is the clear statement that the political is not the state – it is not only the state, but even precedes it and may – and sometimes does – become concentrated in it.27 This process of the original coming together of the political in the state is what Tronti calls, in an almost identical formulation to that used by Louis Althusser at this time, an “originary accumulation of the political.”28 This is the period of the formation of national states that accompanied but is irreducible to the transition to capitalism. So, while it is clear from the origins of modern politics that politics and the state were thrown together violently in an originary accumulation of the political, in the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we encounter the bourgeois fear of the breaking apart of this unity, when the state loses the monopoly on the political – either to the working class and its organizations (even the reformist ones such as trade unions), to large corporations, to international bodies, or even to markets.29 Carl Schmitt’s sensitivity to the gradual erosion of sovereign authority and the ever-increasing threat of potestas indirecta makes him a privileged interlocutor for Tronti, for while the discussion of the political is one concerning the “complex path of the sometimes contradictory relationship between the political and the state,” Tronti is looking to this relationship of the political to the state so as to take stock, “in Marxist and Leninist terms, of the possibility, the probability of an original way to power.”30
So, have we answered our question? Why did Tronti dedicate so much time in the 1970s to the study of the bourgeois state over the longue durée and concern himself with the transformations of the political over the same period? It is because he contended that it was only a detailed study of the bourgeois state since its origins in the 16th century, which marks the start of an epoch within which we continue to operate, and of the – frequently contradictory – relations between the political and the state over this period, that could provide the workers’ movement with sufficiently sophisticated analytical and practical tools to begin to grasp the mechanisms for the appropriation and the transformation of the state. The 1930s signalled a reprise of the political after a century in which it had, for much of the time, been subordinated to the economic; this came together with a return of the “grande storia” of the state – the conjuncture again of “political maneuvering of the class struggles” through the “political control” over the social, and the “new political management of a new economic cycle;”31 to study this reprise of the origins of bourgeois power, with all the novelties that intervened in the meantime, could provide the working class with analytical and practical tools for the transformation of the state, so that it could truly “count politically.”
I do not believe that we are at the end of the history of the state. The political, the new political subjectivity strikes at it, transforms it, it does not smash it, it does not break it. As we run we will once again feel the bite of the state. We may as well grasp the reins and attempt to tame it.32
What then of today? Today, after the end of the long twentieth century of the European workers’ movement, when once again the state is assailed by numerous, even more powerful potestas indirectae; when the subjectivity of the state seems ever more closely aligned with that of international capital, what can Tronti’s work on the autonomy of the political still teach us? It continues to confirm that this autonomy is indeed “a fact of capital” and that without a workers’ movement capable of appropriating those instruments of the state for itself, the political is forced to migrate to another terrain, one where it may be better served; recognizing, at the same time, that by so doing, it will have left an instrument of inestimable power for the sole use of those whose interests are the reproduction of capital and exploitation. What Tronti allows us to think is the different and changing articulations of the political, of how it can intersect with and be pulled from the state; how it can serve to re-establish order – its function of stabilization within capitalist crisis – as well as the potential for it to be appropriated to reconfigure the reproductive mechanisms for the purposes of other subjectivities and interests, antagonistic to those of capital; but always, within capital, it is the quality of its autonomy that will determine its function and effectiveness in intervening in the process of reproduction. When that autonomy diminishes, or is too clearly subordinated to specific interests, its effectiveness is eroded – think of the Great Recession, of the way that the state has been subordinated not to international capital in general, but to finance capital, eroding both consumption as well as productive investment, rerouting cheap monetary flows into share buy-backs stoking the stock market and real estate bubbles while exacerbating geopolitical and economic instabilities, while evacuating the state of the means to serve further rounds of reproduction and stabilization, leaving capital open to its always threatening crisis and without its principle of order.
The position Tronti leaves us in is perhaps an unsettling one; but he leaves us with a great lucidity about our condition and the analytical tools to begin to think possible new articulations of the political and – perhaps – eventually to avail ourselves of them.
I would like to thank Giorgio Cesarale and Alberto Toscano for their careful reading and perceptive comments to the introduction and translation. Unfortunately, I have not been able to resolve all the issues that they have raised.