Student Movement, 1974: "Let's make the bosses pay for the crisis."
Here’s the question: How did Italian autonomist Marxism come to provide a more-or-less common vocabulary for the globally networked activism of the tactical media generation? Why are its core concepts still so widely debated in Europe, in the Anglophone countries and in Latin America?
The answer can’t be reduced to the appearance of a theoretical best-seller, Empire, hot off the presses just after Seattle in the year 2000 (even if that was clearly a factor). Nor does the Internet boom explain the prominence of a theory embracing the multiple and dispersed nature of contemporary social movements (even though Harvard U.P. felt compelled to put Hardt & Negri’s book online). Nor should one be satisfied with the idea that the Italian exiles in Paris absorbed and repoliticized the most challenging theorists of May ‘68, namely, Michel Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari (even though they did just that). Activism and the theoretical fashions of the university are not necessarily linked. In fact there is often a gaping chasm between them. I’d suggest that the relevance of Autonomia stems from its particular attention to the ways that its concepts interface with the continually evolving forms of communication and organizing, as well as its relatively high sensitivity (so rare among Marxists) to the role that aesthetic figures can play in the mobilization of particular groups or categories. Someday it would be great to do a case-by-case study of the ways this whole current developed and bifurcated over the last fifty years. What I want to do now, by way of introduction for North Americans who are not familiar with this work (or have only read Empire and its sequels) is just to indicate some key texts and to show how autonomist thinking fits into the mesh of what I have been describing as eventwork.
To get back to origins, read Mario Tronti’s “Strategy of Refusal” (1965) in the Autonomia anthology published by Semiotexte (and recently reissued). The degree of class conflict posited here is going to be shocking for anyone with little experience of Marxism – but go ahead, imagine that another world is possible, then start thinking of how you might get there. The working class, Tronti says, “is, at one and the same time, the articulation of capital, and its dissolution. Capitalist power seeks to use the workers' antagonistic will-to-struggle as a motor of its own development. The workerist party must take this same real mediation by the workers of capital’s interests and organize it in an antagonistic form, as the tactical terrain of struggle and as a strategic potential for destruction.” This means that capital derives its power – and its very substance – from the productive capacity of the workers, which it organizes or “articulates” into forms such as the assembly line (or today, the more complex chain of just-in-time production and distribution). Workers’ autonomy would consist in articulating this productive power differently, so as to use it against the capitalist class. For Tronti, this was the role of the revolutionary party: “An autonomous working class political power is the only weapon that can block the functioning of capital's economic mechanisms. In this sole sense the workers’ State of tomorrow is the party of today.” However, tomorrow was to look very different.
What we now know as autonomous Marxism was initially concentrated, as an intellectual debate, in a series of journals and newspapers of the Sixties and early Seventies (Quaderni Rossi, Classe Operaia, Potere Operaio). The militants writing in these journals went through the “hot autumn” of students’ and industrial workers’ strikes in 1969, which inaugurated a cycle of struggles that went on to 1973. They focused on the profile of the “mass worker,” who was the homogeneous, deskilled subject of rationized production under the rule of the Keynesian “planner-state.” Although they were on the fringes of the Party, throughout that time these intellectuals could still consider themselves communists. The “historic compromise” between the Italian Communist Party (the biggest in Western Europe) and the Christian Democrats, prepared across the first half of the decade and sealed in 1976, put an end to that for the key theorists (although not for Tronti himself). What emerged from 1973 onward was “Autonomia Operaia” (or Workers’ Autonomy) around the central figure of Antonio Negri, and the broader current of “Autonomia Difusa” (or Diffuse Autonomy) whose most remarkable figure was Franco Berardi, known as Bifo. This moment marks the beginning of Autonomia properly speaking.
While breaking with the bureaucratic forms of the communist party, all the autonomist theorists took on board the cultural concerns of of the New Left (particularly feminism, which was especially virulent in macho Italy). They now theorized a “social worker” whose struggles were determined not only by the specific routines of the factory, but rather by the entire capitalist environment in which both labor and reproduction took place. This was exactly the period when Foucault, in France, was writing about “biopower” as the statistical control of a population through the manipulation of its environment (by means of cultural frameworks as well as laws and other regulatory devices). Toni Negri, in the text “Domination and Sabotage” (1977 – included in the Semiotext anthology), relates this micro-control of subjectivity to the emergence of a “crisis-state” that can no longer make any claim to ensure a stable and balanced form of development, as Keynesian planners had claimed to do, but instead must continually readjust each fragment of the economy to meet every unexpected shock, relying on a fine-grained financial control over the circulation of individual commodities, as the neoliberal Milton Friedman was then proposing. For Negri, this febrile activity of the crisis-state (to which we have now become accustomed) was a direct response to the force of grassroots sabotage effecting an active disarticulation or de-structuring of capitalist society, just as Tronti had called for. In other words, it was the “self-valorization of the working class” (or people’s growing capacity to articulate their own time, according to their own measures) that provoked the responses of crisis-management. “Good working class theory rejoices at this,” Negri wrote. “But, being responsible people, we must recognise the enormous weight of suffering, of inhumanity, of barbarities that all this brings with it.” It’s pretty amazing to read these reflections from the historic crisis of the Seventies, today when we are embroiled in yet another breakdown of the economy to which the state has no coherent response.
In another text from that same period, entitled “The Tribe of Moles” (also 1977), the autonomist labor historian Sergio Bologna gets even closer to the characteristics of social control in a financialized society. He hows how the communist party perfected this control, in its need to achieve a compromise with the social democrats while avoiding the use of repressive force. Instead, they effected a carefully engineered transfer of responsibility from the state to civil society, which was encouraged to treat the collective consequences of austerity policies as matters of individual morality:
“The Communist Party in Bologna, on the other hand, has developed and experimented practically with a more mature State-form, a form which is more in line with mass social-democracy in a period of transition. A State-form in which it is the masses themselves who act as judge and jury, judging who is deviant and who is not, who is productive and who is not, what is socially dangerous and who is not. Now it is to be the factory mass meetings that expel the extremist; the mass tenants’ meeting that decides to expel the young hooligan; and the college assembly to expel the ‘undesirable’ student with his pistol and iron bar... Once you have the collective acting as judge and jury, then the institutional forms of the law (wigs and robes etc) have only a ratifying function: they take delivery of the hostage, the tumour that has been driven out of the otherwise healthy body.”
Again, what we see is an extremely direct, palpable and up-to-date description of the internalized rationality of self-control that Foucault called “governmentality.” This kind of insight is why a recent Canadian commentator, Mark Coté, speaks of the autonomists as constituting an “Italian Foucault.” Of course, there was much communication between intellectuals in France and Italy at that time, and the Italians read Foucult. Yet the difference is that autonomists did their analyses collectively, at grips with contemporary social struggles.
Like Toni Negri, Sergio Bologna was able to correlate the moralizing trend promoted by the communist party with the new emphasis, coming from the Carter administration in the US, on freedom as a political value. In their eyes, the struggle between labor and capital takes place on all fronts, and I immediately global. In the face of radically emancipatory processes at the grassroots level of society, the state responds by a codification of freedom in economic terms that legitimates repression on the basis of a socially imposed criterion of individual self-interest. That’s still the formula of governmentality in our time. The relevance of autonomous Marxism today has everything to do with this prescient apprehension of the trends that would restructure all the advanced capitalist societies from the Eighties onwards, giving rise to what we now recognize as neoliberalism. The specific difference of the autonomist theorists is that they did not do their work in highly abstract terms, nor even less, retrospectively. Instead they addressed the conditions that everyone could see around them, and sought to formulate them in a language that could be appropriated and used in daily life.
1977, when the two texts I have just referred to were published, was the year of a massive youth and counter-cultural insurrection in Italy, which seemed for a time to be on the verge of a full-scale revolution. The state, however, was able to focus the national debate on the armed fractions of the movement, whose violence it had provoked and simulated over the course of several years by means of a number of deadly bombings of public places, which subsequently were proven to be the work of fascist elements connected directly to the military and security services. On April 7, 1979, a wave of arrests began, resulting in the imprisonment of large numbers of militants and intellectuals. A relatively large number also took flight to Paris, where they ultimately received political asylum from the new Mitterrand government, due to pressure brought by intellectuals such as Félix Guattari. This moment of defeat, dispersal and disarray was crucial for autonomist theory. Once when I was walking round Barcelona with Paolo Virno, he told me that he and his comrades actually held seminars together while in prison. When they came out, the world around them had totally changed: it was already the age of Thatcher, of Reagan, and soon of the entrepreneur and media-magnate Silvio Berlusconi. The autonomists wanted revenge on the state for destroying their movement, Virno explained. But the price of this would be entirely changing their theories to match the new conditions.
What they would create was a theory of “post-Fordism,” or what mainstream economists call “the knowledge-based economy.” Going forward with Tronti’s notion that working-class revolts forge the basic productive innovations that capital must attempt to integrate and subsume, they analyzed flexible labor regimes as a kind of frozen precipitate of the refusal of industrial work and its associated life-style in the Sixties and Seventies. A key text is Maurizio Lazzarato’s “Immaterial Labor” (1996). Though much maligned because of a poor choice of words for its central concept (work itself is always embodied and can never be “immaterial,” though its means and products may be), the text is nonetheless an extraordinarily searching analysis of contemporary labor processes. It starts out like this:
“The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the ‘informational content’ of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers’ labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication). On che other hand, as regards the activity that produces the ‘cultural content’ of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’—in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion. Once the privileged domain of the bourgeoisie and its children, these activities have since the end of the 1970s become the domain of what we have come to define as ‘mass intellectuality.’ The profound changes in these strategic sectors have radically modified not only the composition, management, and regulation of the workforce—the organization of production—but also, and more deeply, the role and function of intellectuals and their activities within society.”
The final point is crucial for political organizing. In a society where large fractions of the population work directly with information, ideas, communication, aesthetic forms and affects, the intellectual can no longer claim a superior or even separate position. With no privileged access to knowledge, s/he can neither dispell a false ideology nor reveal a true one. Instead, s/he must furnish something that can be directly useful to the other workers, and that can be reelaborated and enriched by them through their own practice. This “something” is, above all, a heightened awareness of one’s particular position with the complex edifice of capitalist production/consumption, and, most importantly, a realization of the particular degree of autonomy that one’s own skills and inventive capacities can potentially offer, if they are twisted away from the patterns imposed by capitalist exchange.
Milano, Maydy 2004: "The metropolis is a beast, let's cultivate micropolitics for resistance."
Paolo Virno’s own writing generalizes these insights philosophically. His key insights derive from a reading of the “Fragment on Machines,” where Marx analyzes the role of techno-scientific knowledge in industrial production. For Marx, this knowledge – which he called “general intellect” – was crystallized in increasingly efficient machinery, which reduced the direct input of labor power and tended to make the worker into the mere “watchman and regulator” of automated processes. Ultimately, in Marx’s vision, this trend would lead to the dissolution of capital as a coercive force, since there would be no necessary link between production and labor time, and therefore, no way of determining an hourly wage as the benchmark of all other prices and values. Virno’s question is simple: why have we seen no sign of this dissolution, despite the tremendous technological progress of the postwar period? And why do knowledge workers, in particular, find themselves subject to increasingly arbitrary rules and constraints, when they might have expected to discover expanded freedoms?
In “Virtuosity and Revolution” Virno explains that the formerly separate realms of work, intellectual contemplation and political action have all been fused together in the alienated performance of arbitrary rules – in short, in the kinds of middle management positions that are so broadly occupied by the sons and daughters of the former working classes. Work of thi type, for Virno, is a kind of servile artistic performance that takes place in public and that acts on publics, but that subordinates the inherently shared resources of general intellect to the privatizing imperatives of capitalist command. What disappears here is any possibility of political action:
“The peculiar publicness of Intellect, deprived of any expression of its own by that labor that nonetheless claims it as a productive force, manifests itself indirectly within the realm of the State through the hypertrophic growth of administrative apparatuses. Administration has come to replace the political, parliamentary system at the heart of the State, but it has done this precisely because it represents an authoritarian concretion of general intellect, the point of fusion between knowledge and command, the reverse image of excess cooperation.... What we have here is no longer the familiar process of rationalization of the State, but rather a Statization of Intellect.”
In response to this state control over intellectual faculties, which subjects them to arbitrary rule, Virno proposes an exit from the eternal race to outperform your neighbor at work, and a new coalition between ideas and political action. What this is really about is a principled form of self-organization, not coordinated on the basis of price-signals as the neoliberal theorists like Hayek and Friedman propose, but one that aims instead to reorganize the environment in such a way that everyone can derive greater use-values from social cooperation. For Virno, this “exodus” would replace the administrative state with what he calls a “non-state public sphere,” or a Republic.
How would it actually work? Rather than being structured by arbitrary rules, the new public sphere would gain form and consistency from the emulation of exemplary actions: “What is exemplary is a practical initiative that, exhibiting in a particular instance the possible alliance between general intellect and Republic, has the authoritativeness of the prototype, but not the normativity of command.” Curiously enough, this is exactly how contemporary activism works: groups of people extract themselves from the ordinary division of labor, cooperate in their free time, and organize political actions which are meant not only to be just in the aims they strive for, but also admirable and desirable in all the means – that is, all the processes of cooperation – that lead them toward such ends. In short, contemporary activism is prefigurative of the non-state public sphere, and for that very reason, it is contagious: whether in the counter-summit protests of the turn of the century, or in the even more extensive general assemblies of the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement. Since their break with the communist party in the mid-Seventies, the Italian autonomists and their increasing numbers of friends and collaborators have theorized exactly this kind of social movement. Without necessarily using the term, they have clearly been the theorists of eventwork.