Going in the Wrong Direction or Mephistopheles: Not Saint Francis of Assisi

Submitted by redtwister on December 16, 2005

Toni Negri's work is enormously attractive, not only for its own merits, but because it responds to a desperate need. We are all looking for a way forward. The old state-centred model of revolution has failed catastrophically, reformism becomes more and more corrupt and barren, yet revolutionary change is more urgent than ever. Negri refuses to give up thinking and rethinking revolution: that is the great attraction of his work.

The problem is that Negri leads us in the wrong theoretical direction.

Negri, and now Michael Hardt who joins him as co-author of Empire, seek to develop Marxist and revolutionary theory as a positive theory, rather than a negative theory. This has important consequences, theoretically, politically and in terms of the analysis developed in Empire.


Behind the analysis of Empire lies a theoretical movement, a rigidifying of the autonomist impulse. It is to this that we must turn before looking at the analysis itself.

Autonomist Marxism came on the scene with a furious energy, which can be seen in the oft-quoted passage by Tronti: 'We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class' (1964/1979, p. 1).

The force of autonomist theory is that it starts explicitly from the subject, from the working class. It proclaims itself to be a theory of struggle, rather than a theory of the framework of struggle, as mainstream Marxism had become. It sees working class struggle as the driving force of social development, the key to the changing forms of capitalism. It suggests a way of thinking about society in terms of our potential rather than in terms of the oppressive power of capital, and thus immediately opens up the perspective of a revolutionary transformation of society through the unfolding of our creative energy. Where orthodox theory closes, the autonomist impulse opens.

There has, however, always been a tension at the heart of the autonomist project. On the one hand, struggle is negative, struggle-against, a constantly shifting, never-defined against-ness, always moving against-and-beyond the definitions of capitalist oppression. A theory founded in struggle must be a negative theory, a theory of negation. This does not mean that it is not important to understand the changing forms of class struggle, but a theory of struggle implies that these must be understood as just that, changing forms, forms which do not stand still, which cannot be pinned down and defined, forms of struggle which constantly negate themselves, forms which do not contain, but overflow. Like struggle itself, a theory of struggle is negative, open, anti-definitional.

In the actual development of autonomist theory[i], on the other hand, there has always been a tendency to seek a positive understanding of struggle. Depite the 'Copernican inversion of Marxism' (Moulier 1989, p. 19) which autonomism represented, the theoretical assumptions of orthodox authors (Della Volpe and Lenin, for example) continued to influence autonomist theorists. The result has been a tension in autonomism between the restless negativity of struggle and the defining thrust of positive theory. Thus, for example, the method of the workers' inquiry has been confronted with the problem of its relation to sociology, and the autonomist-inspired investigation of the real conditions of class struggle has often evaporated into industrial sociology and technology studies. Thus too, much practical and theoretical energy has been dedicated to the question of the definition of the working class and of the current class composition, when the working class, conceived as struggle, is undefinable. Again, there has at times been a tendency to rigidify the concept of class composition, to generalise from the experiences of a particular group of workers and project it as a model for judging all class struggle. There has been a tendency too to neglect the mutual interpenetration of capital and anti-capital (conceptualised by Marx in terms of fetishism, a category to which autonomist theory has paid little attention), and consequently to conceive of the subject of struggle as external to capital, to think of the working class as a pure subject, and of the communist militant as the purest of the pure. All this does not mean that the autonomist approach should be abandoned. On the contrary, the restlessness of struggle constantly sharpens the starting point of the autonomist impulse, but it does so against a positivisation of theory that repeatedly threatens to blunt it. In other words, autonomist approaches have often failed to develop the negativity of the initial impulse to its radical imlications (cf. Bonefeld 1994, p. 44).

It is perhaps above all Toni Negri who has been concerned to establish autonomism on a positive, ontologically secure basis, especially in recent years. In The Savage Anomaly (Negri 1991) Negri turns to the study of Spinoza in order to provide a positive foundation for a theory of struggle. In doing so, he follows, surprisingly perhaps, in the footsteps of Althusser, who turned to Spinoza to give support to his theorisation of capitalism as a process without a subject (cf. Holland 1998). Negri does not conceptualise capitalism as a process without a subject, but the subject that emerges is a peculiarly abstract, dead subject. In this work, he insists, through his discussion of Spinoza, that social development, or, more precisely, 'the genealogy of social forms', 'is not a dialectical process: it implies negativity only in the sense that negativity is understood as the enemy, as an object to destroy, as a space to occupy, not as a motor of the process' (1991, p. 162). The motor of the process is positive: 'the continuous pressure of being toward liberation' (1991, p. 162). His concern is to develop the concept of revolutionary power (the potentia of the multitude) as a positive, non-dialectical, ontological concept. Autonomy is implicitly understood as the existing, positive drive of the potentia of the multitude, pushing potestas (the power of the rulers) onto ever new terrains.

To treat the subject as positive is attractive but it is inevitably a fiction. In a world that dehumanises us, the only way in which we can exist as humans is negatively, by struggling against our dehumanisation. To understand the subject as positively autonomous (rather than as potentially autonomous) is rather like a prisoner in a cell imagining that she is already free: an attractive and stimulating idea, but a fiction, a fiction that easily leads on to other fictions, to the construction of a whole fictional world.


The problems inherent in the positivisation of the theory of struggle become clear in Hardt and Negri's Empire.

In Empire, the authors analyse the current terrain onto which working class struggle (the potentia of the multitude) has pushed capital. Empire is seen as the new paradigm of rule: 'In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial centre of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentred and deterritorialising apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command. The distinct national colours of the imperialist map of the word have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow.' (2000, pp. xii-xiii) There is a change in sovereignty, 'a general passage from the paradigm of modern sovereignty toward the paradigm of imperial sovereignty'. In the latter, it is no longer possible to locate sovereignty territorially in the nation state, or indeed in any particular place. Even the United States, although it plays a particularly important part in the network of power, is not the locus of power in the same way that the imperialist powers of the earlier age were. One implication of this would seem to be that it no longer makes sense to think of revolutionary transformation in terms of the taking of state power.[ii]

In this new paradigm, there is no longer any place of rule, and consequently no longer any inside or any outside, no longer any possible external standpoint. Empire is an all-embracing system of rule, the latest re-formulation of what Negri had earlier characterised as the 'social factory' or 'integrated world capitalism (IWC)'.[iii] This does not mean that all possibility of resistance or change has been obliterated. On the contrary, the autonomist impulse is still central to the argument. Hardt and Negri insist that Empire is to be understood as a reaction to the struggles of the multitude. 'The history of capitalist forms is always necessarily a reactive history.' (2000, p. 268) Thus, 'the multitude is the real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude - as Marx would say, a vampire regime of accumulated dead labour that survives only by sucking off the blood of the living.' (2000, p. 62)

The autonomist impulse is still alive, yet it is almost smothered by the weight of positive theory. It is in the concept of 'paradigm' that the positive concept of class struggle and of class composition becomes focussed. The argument of Hardt and Negri focuses on the shift from one paradigm of rule to another. This shift is characterised primarily as a shift from imperialism to Empire, but it is also variously described as a move from modernity to post-modernity, from discipline to control, from Fordism to post-Fordism, from an industrial to an informational economy. What interests us here is not the name, but the assumption that capitalism can be understood in terms of the replacement of one paradigm of rule by another, one system of order by another.

Hardt and Negri are not alone, of course, in this paradigmatic approach. Another approach which relies heavily on the notion of a shift from one paradigm to another and which has had great influence in recent years is the regulationist school, which analyses capitalism in terms of a shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist mode of regulation. The paradigmatic approach has obvious attractions as a method of trying to understand the current changes in the world. It permits one to bring together many apparently disparate phenomena into a coherent whole. It allows one to paint an extremely rich and satisfying picture in which all the millions of pieces of the jigsaw click into place. This is immensely stimulating, for it suggests a whole series of correspondences that were not obvious before. It is also very attractive to academics because it suggests a whole world of research projects which can be completed with no jagged edges.

The problem with a paradigmatic approach, however, is that it separates existence from constitution. It rests on a notion of duration. Society is painted as being relatively stable during a certain period, and in this period we can recognise certain solid parameters. A paradigm creates a space in which we can say the world is so. A paradigm identifies. It may be argued that identification is necessary for thought: that is so, but, unless the identification bears its own negation, so that it is no more than the recognition of a fragile and evanescent moment torn by its own contradictions (us), then a world of order is created, a stability that reifies. A paradigm paints an orderly world of correspondence. The negative impulse which is the starting point becomes converted into a positive science. The working class refusal (Tronti 1965/1979) is slotted into a world of order. Although Hardt and Negri insist that order must be understood as the response to disorder, it is in fact difficult for them to avoid the predominance of order that a paradigmatic approach implies. As the title of the book implies, their tale is told through an account of order, not through disorder. Although they insist that refusal is the driving force of domination, refusal is in fact relegated to a subordinate place: it is only in the closing pages of the book (2000, p. 393) that the authors say, 'Now that we have dealt extensively with Empire, we should focus directly on the multitude and its potential political power.'

The paradigmatic approach takes classification to extremes. There is an eagerness to capture the new, to classify it, label it, make it fit into the paradigmatic order. There is almost indecent haste to declare the old order dead and proclaim the new. 'The King is dead! Long live the King!' As soon as one system of rule is in crisis, the new system of rule is proclaimed. 'At this point the disciplinary system has become completely obsolete and must be left behind. Capital must accomplish a negative mirroring and an inversion of the new quality of labour power: it must adjust itself so as to be able to command once again.' (2000, p. 276) The adjustment to the new command is assumed as reality, not just seen as a project: this is the substance of the new paradigm, this is Empire.

The desire to make everything fit, to see the new paradigm as established, leads easily to an exaggeration that often seems quite unreal. Thus, 'autonomous movement is what defines the place proper to the multitude. Increasingly less will passports or legal documents be able to regulate our movement across borders.' (2000, p. 397) Or: 'there are no time-clocks to punch on the terrain of biopolitical production; the proletariat produces in all its generality everywhere all day long.' (2000, p. 403)

The paradigmatic approach shades into functionalism. In a world of correspondences, everything is functional, everything contributes to the maintenance of a coherent whole. Thus, for Negri and Hardt (as earlier for Negri)[iv], crisis is not so much a moment of rupture as a force of regeneration in capitalism, a 'creative destruction'. Thus, 'as it is for modernity as a whole, crisis is for capital a normal condition that indicates not its end but its tendency and mode of operation.' (2000, p. 222) Or: 'the crisis of modern sovereignty was not temporary or exceptional (as one would refer to the stock market crash of 1929 as a crisis), but rather the norm of modernity. In a similar way, corruption is not an aberration of imperial sovereignty but its very essence and modus operandi.' (2000, p. 202) Although the project of the book is very clearly one of rupture, the method adopted seems to absorb the possibility of rupture, to integrate movement into a photograph. A paradigmatic approach inevitably involves a freezing of time.

The functionalism extends to the understanding of sovereignty and the state. The authors interpret Marx's view of the state as a functionalist one. Referring to Marx and Engels' characterisation of the state as the executive that manages the interests of capitalists, they comment: 'by this they mean that although the action of the state will at times contradict the immediate interests of individual capitalists, it will always be in the long-term interest of the collective capitalist, that is, the collective subject of social capital as a whole.'(2000, p. 304)[v] Thus, the system of modern states succeeded in 'guaranteeing the interests of total social capital against crises' (p. 306), while in the postmodern age of Empire, 'government and politics come to be completely integrated into the system of transnational command'. (p. 307) The political and the economic come to form a closed system, an 'integrated world capitalism'.

It is entirely consistent with this paradigmatic approach that Hardt and Negri are very explicitly anti-dialectical and anti-humanist in their approach. Hegel is repeatedly dismissed as the philosopher of order rather than seeing him as being also the philosopher who made subversive movement the centre of his thought. Dialectics is understood as the logic of synthesis[vi] rather than as the movement of negation. It is quite consistent with this that the authors insist on the continuity between animals, humans and machines. They see themselves as carrying on 'the antihumanism that was such an important project for Foucault and Althusser in the 1960s' and quote with approval Haraway's insistence upon 'breaking down the barriers we pose among the human, the animal and the machine'. (2000, p. 91) Postmodernism gives us the opportunity to 'recognise our posthuman bodies and minds, [to] see ourselves for the simians and cyborgs we are' (2000, p. 92). In the new paradigm 'interactive and cybernetic machines become a new prosthesis integrated into our bodies and minds and a lens through which to redefine our bodies and minds themselves. The anthropology of cyberspace is really a recognition of the new human condition.' (2000, p. 291) The problem with this approach, surely, is that neither ants nor machines revolt, neither ants nor machines refuse to labour. A theory that is grounded in revolt has little option but to recognise the distinctive character of humanity.

Surprisingly, perhaps, given their general project, Hardt and Negri have no concept of capital as class struggle. It is not that they do not attach importance to class struggle; it is rather that they do not understand capital as class struggle. There is a tendency to treat capital as an economic category, reproducing in this (as in other points) the assumptions of the Marxist orthodoxy which they so rightly attack. Thus, in apparent contradiction of their insistence on understanding the shift of paradigm as a response to class struggle, they assert that 'in addition to looking at the development of capital itself, we must also understand the genealogy from the perspective of class struggle' (2000, p. 234 - my emphasis) - thus implying that the development of capital and class struggle are two separate processes. The actual analysis of 'the development of capital itself' is in terms of under-consumptionism rather than the antagonism between capital and labour. The barriers to capitalist development all 'flow from a single barrier defined by the unequal relationship between the worker as producer and the worker as consumer'. (2000, p. 222) In order to explain the movement from imperialism to Empire, they follow Rosa Luxemburg's under-consumptionist theory that capitalism can survive only through the colonisation of non-capitalist spheres. 'At this point we can recognise the fundamental contradiction of capitalist expansion: capital's reliance on its outside, on the non-capitalist environment, which satisfies the need to realise surplus value, conflicts with the internalisation of the non-capitalist environment, which satisfies the need to capitalise that realised surplus value.' (2000, p. 227 - my emphasis) According to the authors, capital finds a solution to the exhaustion of the non-capitalist world by turning from the formal subsumption of the non-capitalist sphere to the real subsumption of the capitalist world. It is after this explanation of the passage from imperialism to Empire that it is pointed out that 'we must also understand the genealogy from the perspective of class struggle' (2000, p. 234 - my emphasis).[vii]

The consequence of understanding class struggle and capital as being separate, and of seeing the 'fundamental contradiction of capitalist expansion' as being something other than capital's dependence upon the subordination of labour, is that there is no understanding of the way in which the insubordination of labour constitutes the weakness of capital (especially in capitalist crisis). In this book, as in all of Negri's analyses, there is a clash of Titans: a powerful, monolithic capital ('Empire') confronts a powerful, monolithic 'multitude'. The power of each side does not appear to penetrate the other. The relation between the two sides of the capitalist antagonism is treated as an external one, as is indicated, indeed, by the authors' choice of the word 'multitude' to describe the opposition to capital, a term which has the grave disadvantage of losing all trace of the relation of dependence of capital upon labour.

It would be quite wrong to take Negri as standing for all autonomist authors (or indeed to try to classify autonomism as a homogeneous 'school'). What Negri draws out and takes to its extreme is the positive understanding of class struggle that is present in many autonomist writings, and, by doing so, he tames the initial vigour of the autonomist impulse, converts it into a matter for academic discussion.

Politically, the emphasis on the power of the working class movement has an obvious appeal. Nevertheless, the understanding of labour and capital in terms of an external relationship leads to a paradoxical (and romantic) magnification of the power of both. The failure to explore the internal nature of the relation between labour and capital leads the analysis to underestimate the degree to which labour exists within capitalist forms. The existence of labour within capitalist forms implies both the subordination of labour to capital and the internal fragility of capital. To overlook the internal nature of the relation between labour and capital thus means both to underestimate the containment of labour within capital (and hence overestimate the power of labour against capital) and to underestimate the power of labour as internal contradiction within capital (and hence overestimate the power of capital against labour). If the inter-penetration of power and anti-power is ignored, then we are left with two pure subjects on either side. On the side of capital stands Empire, the perfect subject, and on the side of the working class stands: the militant. Hardt and Negri's discussion of Empire ends with a paean to the militant: 'the militant is the one who best expresses the life of the multitude: the agent of biopolitical production and resistance against empire.' (2000, p. 411)

The example of communist militancy which they propose in the closing paragraph of the book (2000, p. 413) is the perfect embodiment of the Pure Subject: Saint Francis of Assisi! 'There is an ancient legend that might serve to illuminate the future life of communist militancy: that of Saint Francis of Assisi. Consider his work. To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society. The communist militant does the same, identifying in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth.'


A joke, a provocation? Perhaps, and yet it is more than that. The idea of Saint Francis of Assisi as the example of communist militancy is the repugnant culmination of positive thought. For over a hundred years communism has suffered the nightmare of the Pure Subject: the Party, the working class hero, the unsullied militant. To resurrect the image of the Pure Subject, just when it seemed at last to have died the indecent death that it merited, is not just a joke, it is grotesque. We hate capitalism and fight against it, but that does not make us into the embodiment of good fighting against evil. On the contrary, we hate it not just because we adopt the common condition of the multitude, but because it tears us apart, because it penetrates us, because it turns us against ourselves, because it maims us. Communism is not the struggle of the Pure Subject, but the struggle of the maimed and schizophrenic. Unless we start from there, there is no hope.

Our struggle is negative, our thought can only be negative. Our struggle is a refusal, a NO, a NO to capitalism and therefore a NO to our capitalist selves. We are not a Pure Subject, we are not God, the Party or Saint Francis of Assisi. There is no way, then, that we can stand above the distortions of capitalism and say how the world is. The world is not, there is no being, there is only doing, a doing torn asunder in such a manner that the done takes on a life of its own and appears to be, as Marx points out in chapter one of Capital. To try to establish an ontological basis for Marxist theory is to take one's stand on fetishised social relations, to destroy Marxism (cf, Martínez 2001). A theory of struggle is necessarily anti-ontological, a theory turned against being, a struggle to recover theoretically the doing which being oppresses. Critique, in other words: the negation of being to recover the social doing which is our only true potentia.[viii]

No, not Francis of Assisi (with or without his sainthood): it is Mephistopheles who must be our guiding darkness - Mephistopheles, the spirit who always negates. It is negation that drives us forward, negation that is the substance of hope, the stuff of dreams, the heart of struggle (cf. Bloch 1964). Negri and Hardt's book is often stimulating and exciting, even sensible, yet much of what they propose is smothered in their own generalising positivity. The result is claustrophobic. Enough of Polybius, Machiavelli, Spinoza and Harrington. Bring back Joachim of Fiore, Abiezer Coppe and William Blake. Let us rant!

'Now the sneaking serpent walks

In mild humility,

And the just man rages in the wilds

Where lions roam"

(William Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell")


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Bloch Ernst (1964) Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie (2 Bde) (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)

Bonefeld Werner (1991) 'The Reformulation of State Theory', in Bonefeld and Holloway (1991), pp. 35-68

Bonefeld Werner (1994) 'Human Practice and Perversion: Between Autonomy and Structure', Common Sense no. 15, pp. 43-52

Bonefeld Werner and Holloway John (eds) (1991) Post-Fordism and Social Form (London: Macmillan)

Guattari Félix and Negri Antonio (1990) Communists Like Us (New York: Semiotext(e))

Hardt Michael and Negri Antonio Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press)

Hirsch Joachim (1978) 'The State Apparatus and Social Reproduction: Elements of a Theory of the Bourgeois State', in Holloway and Picciotto (1978), pp. 57-107

Holland Eugene (1998) "Spinoza and Marx", Cultural Logic, Volume 2, Number 1, Fall

Holloway John (1992) "Crisis, Fetishism, Class Decomposition", in W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn y K. Psychopedis (eds), Essays on Open Marxism, Pluto Press, Londres, pp. 145-169

Holloway (2002) Change the World without taking Power. The Meaning of Revolution Today.(London: Pluto)

Holloway John and Picciotto Sol (eds) (1978a) The State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Edward Arnold)

Holloway John and Picciotto Sol (1978b) 'Introduction: Towards a Materialist Theory of the State', in Holloway and Picciotto (1978a), pp. 1-31

Martínez José Manuel (2001) 'Marxismo y Ontología', Bajo el Volcán no. 3

Moulier Yann (1989) 'Introduction', in Negri (1989), pp. 1-44

Negri Antonio (1989) The Politics of Subversion (Cambridge: Polity)

Negri Antonio (1991) The Savage Anomaly (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Red Notes (1979) Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis: Italian Marxist Texts of the Theory and Practice of a Class Movement: 1964-79 (London: Red Notes)

Tronti Mario (1964/1979) 'Lenin in England', in Red Notes (1979), pp. 1-6

Tronti Mario (1965/1979b) 'The Strategy of the Refusal', in Red Notes (1979), pp. 7-21

Wright Steve (2002) Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto)

[i] For an excellent account, see Wright (2002).

[ii] Hardt and Negri do not make this point very explicitly, but it certainly seems to be implicit in their approach. See for example p. 307: 'The decline of any autonomous political sphere signals the decline, too, of any independent space where revolution could emerge in the national political regime, or where social space could be transformed using the instruments of the state. The traditional idea of counter-power and the idea of resistance against modern sovereignty in general thus becomes less and less possible.'

[iii] See Guattari and Negri (1990).

[iv] See the discussion in Holloway (1992, p. 164).

[v] For a critique of the functionalism of this interpretation, see Hirsch (1978) and Holloway and Picciotto (1978b).

[vi] For a critique of the understanding of dialectics in terms of synthesis, see Adorno (1990).

[vii] For a criticism of Hirsch's reduction of class struggle to the status of a 'but also', see Bonefeld 1991.

[viii] For a development of some of these ideas, see Holloway (2002).