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Massimo De Angelis, “Reflections on Tronti”

Reflections on Tronti

Massimo De Angelis

From the commoner


It has been suggested to me, in the corridors of the Historical Materialism conference held over the week end, that what distinguishes what we may call, broadly speaking, autonomist marxism with other marxist approaches is the argument that the “working class” is the agent of transformation that pushes capital on the defence and forces its “economic” development rather then, on the contrary, being capital that “overdetermines” the rest by means of its agency. This suggestion furthermore is accompanied by the claim that this view is false, since capital has “more power.” In my view, the insight of 1960s operaismo with respect to working class agency were not falsified in light of 1980s capital’s agency, they were simply temporally bounded. Class struggle, in a process-like manner, have at least two broad actors, not one, and their tragic-comic struggle develop through highs and lows for both sides, “scoring points” for both sides. The process of this historical development of struggle, this very process of “point scoring” for one or the other, is the stuff of capitalist development. The problem is that acknowledging this does not give us any hint of how to go beyond capital and the very specific form of struggle shaping its development.

And I think it is at this point that it is important to underline that what distinguishes “autonomist marxism” in its operaiste roots to other forms of marxism, is a specific theoretical attitude, one that takes the processes that traditionally we understand as “political” and “economic.” as one. Its unique political methodology is one that allows to ask research questions as part of a heretic research program, heretic because it sees the world from one side, that which is constituted within, against and beyond capital’s own value program, and thus its broad horizon is the end of capitalism and the begining of history. It is therefore a stand from where to ask questions as articulated to walks of struggle, rather than reading the processes making up our world as something that have already been explained away by some form of marxist theory.In yesterday’s talk at the Historical Materialism conference, the soft spoken Mario Tronti begun by suggesting that the key problematic for operaismo in the 1960s was posed by the question: “how to unite thinking and political practice withtin a class composition”? The class composition that they referred to then was of course the mass worker of the assembly line, those who not only did not love their work, but who hated it. Those whose political subjectivity the operaisti understood in terms of “refusal of work.” What the operaisti then forgot to understand as part of the class composition was how mass workers were articulated to reproduction loops, the unwaged work of women reproducing stressed out and drained labour power, the political subjectivity of the women movement that were just about to explode in kitchens, streets and popular assemblies and that contributed to bring the fordist mode of reproduction into crisis. In other words, they failed to understand how even then, in the mids of the 1960s, the “working class” was a plural and hierarchically divided social subject, a correction made later by a string of feminist writers.

But the question with which Mario Tronti begun his talk is still actual today, as reitereted in his concluding question at the end of his broad critical review of Italian operasimo: “how to articulate the analysis of capital with the organisation of alternatives” in condition of today’s capital globalisation? That is, within, against and beyond capital in the context of today class composition, today particular configuration of subjectivities, particular planetary configurations of social cooperation of labour (waged and unwaged)? This question is the horizon within which our thinking and our political practices have to be articulated. And of course, the experience of operaismo had its “glorious victories and glorious defeats.” all linked to particular approaches and particular contingencies. But the question remain: how to bring together thinking and political practices with the questions it generate within a particular class composition, the class composition(s) of our times?

It goes without saying that this methodological framework — as any other — does not garantee “correct” answers, or indeed does not necessarily generate useful questions. The research program of what is called post-operaismo for example, is very much within the general theoretical and methodological framework described above (”uniting theory and practice within a particular class composition”), but I have serious reservations with respect to its way to frame and address the problems at stake in today’s world, since I do not agree with its way to understand today’s class composition. The notion of the multitude (a la Hardt and Negri), is certainly a way to pose the problematic of class composition today. But this “whole of singularities” — as the notion of multitude is often referred to — is understood as “whole” by means of a specific social subject — immaterial labour — whose labour activities and forms of social cooperation are regarded as going beyond capital’s measure. In other words, in post-operaismo there is a messianic element that defines today’s class composition, one that sees the commons constituted by social cooperation of a plurality of subjects as given by the form of social cooperation of immaterial labourers. This is messianic immanence (or messianic “tendency.” if you believe this immaterial labour is a tendency waiting to actualise itself). The consequent political strategy is not based on the problematisation of how to constitute commons beyond capital and vis-a’-vis its strategies to impose its measures of human activities and consequent reproduction of division along the wage hierarchy (since in this approach these commons are already given by the forms of social cooperation of immaterial labour). Instead the political question becomes how to sezie the “administrative nexus” tying immaterial labour to capital, how to cut the umbelical cord keeping immaterial labour tied to a parasitic capital and releasing its full potentials.

The most relevant critique of this approach is twofold: first, more specifically, the fact that immaterial labour is not beyond capital’s measure, that capital continuously strategises ways to subjugate creativity, affects and intelligence to its measure, and that struggles over measure therefore are existing today on the realm of immaterial labour as they were — in different forms — on the assembly line of fordism. Second, more broadly, that capital has always relied on some forms of articulation and interrelation between “high” and “low” points of development, between extraction of absolute and relative surplus value, between “enclosures”/primitive accumuation and “accumulation” proper. It goes without saying that today it relies on new forms of these articulations.

But of course there is a rational kernel in the notion of multitude. When we take the notion of multitude and get rid of its messianic element that sees the common crossing the whole of singularities as given by a given quality of labour qua immaterial labour — what is left is a big puzzle. What is left is a heterogeneous proletariat divided in a wage(unwaged) planetary hierarchy for which free and enriching commons largely (although not uniquely) remain a project, something to be constituted and weaved together, rather than a given. Getting rid of the messianic element means to recognise that the common weaving across this multitude of subjects, is the struggle against the subjection to a mode of measuring of their life activities (whether material or immaterial) that pit one livelihoods against the other at different levels of the wage hierarchy. And when this is recognised, the problematic of our commons, rather than the commons of capital, is an open political problematic.

Two observations must be made at this point. In the first place, as I have argued before, this non-messianic presence of the multitude is something that has always existed in the history of the capitalist mode of production. We simply were not equipped to recognise it. The “equipment” emerged with the waves of struggles — from women to black movements, from gays and lesbians to peasants of the global south, from slum squatters to students — in the 1960s and 1970s that made it impossible for any serious observer of and participant in our world to avoid coming to terms with diversity and plurality, and its dignity and autonomy. From these struggles also emerged the recognition that the classic texts of Marxism were missing something out which was fundamental, such as the invisible work of reproduction. Second, this non-messianic notion of multitude, as mentioned, opens up problems, rather than solving them. If the revolutionary subject is composite, diverse and structured within a wage hierarchy (meaning, the relation with one another are some type of power relations), and the processes that recreate this structuration are processes of competition against one another through which we reproduce livelihoods, if, in other words, what reproduces hierarchy is the capitalist mode of commoning (producing in common) how do we go beyond it? Certainly not by assuming we are already beyond it, or that the tendency is going beyond it! The only way it seems to me is by the production of other social processes, of other modes of commoning. The movements that in the last two decades have increasingly posed the problematic of commoning, of doing things together, with their emphasis on processes rather than mainly on goals, seem to me to point at the right direction, at the right problematics. Once we reject messianism, the political problematics becomes one with the context and the contingent: in what other modes shall we produce in commons! How does our production in commons provides us with strength and power vis-a’-vis the alienating production in commons as defined by capital’s measure? The immanent reply to this question coincides with a process of political recomposition, for which we cannot be external observers, but internal co-producers.