The Meaning of Capitalist Development

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 8, 2011

Despite the postwar cycle of accumulation, many within the Italian left continued to see the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘development’ as polar opposites. Their view, expressed in the impeccably orthodox terms of the contradiction between relations and forces of production, was of an Italy held back by the stagnant forces of local capital, yet vulnerable to the proclivities of a crisis-ridden international economy. If others in the PCI and PSI rejected such an interpretation, and conceded the reality of Italy’s ‘miracle’, they did so from a starting point which denied the inextricable connections between economic growth and the logic of capital, embracing technological development instead as an autonomous and innately progressive force. One of the most important marks of Quademi Rossi’s political realism, by contrast, was to be its rejection of this false dichotomy. ‘One could say’, Panzieri (1975: 170-1) told a meeting of editors in August 1961, ‘that the two terms capitalism and development are the same thing.’ Now, however, development meant neither a generic ‘progress’ nor ‘modernisation’, but merely the extended reproduction of both the capital relation and the class contradictions which followed in its train.

Only a year before, in the same article which had acclaimed the role of young workers in bringing down the Tambroni government, Panzieri had depicted the ‘clerical-fascism’ of that regime as symptomatic of ‘the capitalist refusal of any perspective of development, as oppression, blackmail, imbalances, unemployment, poverty’. The most important element behind this dramatic about-face was Panzieri’s encounter with the essay ‘La fabbrica e la societa’, Tronti’s first sustained contribution to Quademi Rossi’s attempted ‘Marxian purification of Marxism’ (Tronti 1971: 36). The central purpose of his piece was to delineate the enormous changes that the generalisation of relative surplus value in the form of social capital had wrought within capitalist society. The emblematic case was that of mid-nineteenth-century Britain, where individual capitals had found themselves forced, both by ‘the collective capitalist, with the violent intervention of the state’, and the struggle of the working class, to shorten the length of the working day. As Marx (1976: 340-416) had demonstrated in the first volume of Capital, the response of British industrial capital had been to intensify the extraction of surplus value through ‘decomposing and recomposing’ the ratio between living and dead labour. This revolution in production techniques had greatly encouraged the development and eventual predominance of large-scale machine-based industry (Tronti 1971: 48, 53). Apart from prompting parallels with Italy’s own postwar burst of industrial expansion, Marx’s account of the arrival of the ‘specifically’ capitalist mode of production raised important questions as to the relationship between class struggle, development and forms of exploitation. The lesson to be drawn from the British example, Tronti argued, was that

the pressure of labour-power is capable of forcing capital to modify its own internal composition, intervening within capital as essential component of capitalist development. (ibid.: 47)

Such a dialectic had continued after the introduction of a ‘normal’ working day. If working-class pressure forced ‘the incessant development of the productive forces’ upon capital, this process simultaneously entailed ‘the incessant development of the greatest productive force, the working class as revolutionary class’ (ibid.: 57). Here, too, capital faced the necessity of reorganising production, since ‘it is only within labour that [capital] can disintegrate the collective worker in order to then integrate the individual worker’. Even if successful, however, each attack upon labour ultimately displaced the class antagonism to a higher, more socialised level, so that ‘production relations become increasingly identified with the social relation of the factory, and the latter acquires an increasingly direct political content’ (ibid.: 54).

Tracing the dimensions of this process of capitalist socializsation was Tronti’s second aim in ‘La fabbrica e la societa’. Already in History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs (1971: 91, 90) had argued that ‘the fate of the worker becomes the fate of Society as a whole’, since the factory contains ‘in concentrated form the whole structure of capitalist society’. According to Tronti, however, the advent of large-scale industry had seen the factory not only stand over society, but absorb it completely:

When capital has conquered all the territories external to capitalist production proper, it begins its process of internal colonisation indeed, only when the circle of bourgeois society – production, distribution, exchange, consumption – finally closes can one begin to talk of capitalist development proper ... At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the Relation of production, the whole of society becomes an articulation of production; in other words, the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society. It is on this basis that the machine of the political state tends ever-increasingly to become one with the figure of the collective capitalist, becoming increasingly the property of the capitalist mode of production and thus a function of the capitalist. The process of capitalist society’s unitary recomposition, a process imposed by the specific developments of its production, can no longer tolerate a political terrain that is even formally independent of the network of social relations. (Tronti 1971: 51-2, 56)

While the subsumption of all social relations to capital brought with it the generalisation of the wage relation, the advancing proletarianisation of new social layers assumed a mystified form. ‘When all of society is reduced to a factory, the factory – as such – seems to disappear’, and with it ‘labour-power itself as commodity’. This was only one of the topsy-turvy effects bound up with what Tronti called the social factory. No less important was the manner in which the state’s assumption of the role of collective capitalist took the semblance of ‘the possible autonomy of the political terrain from economic relations’ (ibid.: 52, 53). In Volume III of Capital, Marx (1981: 428) had explained such obfuscations as inherent to the capital relation, and indicated as one of the functions of science the reduction of ‘the visible, and merely apparent movement to the actual inner movement’. For Tronti (1971: 55), this stripping away of phenomenal forms could only be achieved by examining ‘the state from the point of view of society, society from the point of view of the factory, the factory from the point of view of the workers’. Here, as before, can be found an echo of that Lukacs (1971: 21) who in 1919 had written that ‘the Marxist method, the dialectical materialist knowledge of reality, can arise only from the point of view of a class, from the point of view of the struggle of the proletariat’. On the other hand, there was no celebration in ‘La fabbrica e la societa’ of the arrival of social reality’s ‘full consciousness’ along with proletarian self-awareness. In its ‘ferocious unilaterality’ Tronti’s class science was to be no less partial than that of capital; what it alone could offer, however, was the possibility of destroying the thraldom of labour once and for all (Tronti 1971: 53).

The path to capital’s demise was the final element developed in Tronti’s essay. ‘The machinery of the bourgeois state’, he stated in conclusion, ‘must today be smashed within the capitalist factory’ (Tronti 1971: 59). It was a pronouncement that rested firmly upon the line of argument built up by Panzieri after 1956, but the manner in which Tronti proposed its realisation was characteristically novel. In the essay’s most difficult passage, Tronti dwelt at length upon the political implications which arose from the twofold nature of labour under capitalism, which Marx himself had considered to be ‘the whole secret of the critical conception’ (Marx and Engels 1965: 199). It was mistaken, Tronti held, to picture the working class as a force which defeated capital from the outside, when in fact the commodity labour-power constituted ‘the truly active side of capital, the natural site of every capitalist dynamic’ (Tronti 1971: 56). To bring class rule to an end,

the working class must discover itself materially as part of capital, if it wants to counterpose all of capital to itself; it must recognise itself as a particular aspect of capital, if it wants to be the latter’s general antagonist. The collective worker counterposes itself not only to the machine as constant capital, but to labour-power itself, as variable capital. It must reach the point of having total capital - and thus also itself as part of capital - as its enemy. Labour must see labour-power, as commodity, as its own enemy ... [so as] ... to decompose capital’s intimate nature into the potentially antagonistic parts which organically compose it. (ibid.)

The most interesting aspect of this argument was that, without ever saying so explicitly, its solution for surpassing capitalist social relations pointed in a completely different direction to that traditional quest for workers’ self-management of production which then informed the politics of the other editors of Quademi Rossi. If, like all of Tronti’s discoveries, that of the struggle against labour was derived through a process of logical deduction, it none the less brought back into the open an alternative Marxist approach to the problems which the parcellised labour of large-scale industry posed for those forced to endure it. And whilst it never became an explicit pOint of contention with Panzieri, Tronti’s advocacy of antagonism between labour and labour-power was an early warning sign of the vast cultural chasm which would soon divide Quademi Rossi in two.

With the appearance of ‘La fabbrica e la societa’ in the second issue of Quaderni Rossi, Tronti rightly established himself as one of the most penetrating minds of Italy’s heterodox left. In emphasising that relations of production were first and foremost relations of power, he was able to recover the political spirit of Marx’s critique of political economy, while his identification of the political contradiction within the commodity form gestured towards a genuinely new anti-capitalist strategy. At the same time, ‘La fabbrica e la societa’ bore within it a number of ambiguities and misconceptions soon to be transmitted to workerism itself. The most striking of these concerned the essay’s central theme of the socialisation of labour under ‘specifically’ capitalist production, and the implications of this for the delineation of the modern working class. In unravelling this process, Tronti (1971: SO) had placed great store upon that ‘scientific conception of the factory’ presented in Lenin’s youthful study of The Development of Capitalism in Russia. There the factory had been understood not in an empirical sense as any establishment employing a large number of workers, but rather as one based specifically upon ‘the employment of a system of machines for production’ (Lenin 1977: 458-60). That Tronti would himself assign a strategic weight within the social factory to both large-scale industry and the workforce engaged within it was far from surprising; like the rest of Quaderni Rossi, he then agreed with Panzieri’s assessment that

the subversive strength of the working class, its revolutionary capacity, appears (potentially) strongest precisely at capitalism’s ‘development points’, where the crushing preponderance of constant capital over living labour, together with the rationality embodied in the former, immediately faces the working class with the question of its political enslavement. (Panzieri 1980: 61)

All the same, Tronti seemed unable to reconcile this unambiguous championing of the workers in large factories with the notion of the social factory. In his next essay, he described the former as ‘a social class of producers and not a group of miserable oppressed’ prone to the ‘unforeseen acts of disorderly protest’ typical of a proletariat (Tronti 1973: 120). How did this sit with his earlier argument that now ‘the entire social production becomes industrial production’ (Tronti 1971: 52)? While it seems reasonable to assume that such talk implies the broadening of the category productive labour beyond the direct labour process, nothing of the sort was to be forthcoming in Tronti’s work of the 1960s. With Panzieri, the ‘scientific conception of the factory’ was stretched to encompass ‘the development of industry at a determinate stage of the development of capitalism’ (Panzieri 1975: 256, my emphasis; Mancini 1977: 81-2). In Tronti’s hands, by contrast, the notion of working class continued to refer exclusively to the employees – and only those engaged in manual labour at that – of Italy’s largest firms. Thus if in one sense such reductionism served to focus attention upon the factory in a manner rarely seen within the Italian left since Gramsci’s notes on ‘Americanism and Fordism’ (Sechi 1974: 14, 37), it also drained of meaning the workerist image of an ever-broadening proletariat within the ‘social factory’. Having argued that the factory, rather than simply ‘a construction that houses men [sic] and machines’, was ‘precisely the highest degree of capitalist production’ (Potere Operaio 1973b: 5), the majority of workerists would, for the rest of the decade, catch little more than a glimpse of the world outside the immediate process of production.