Chronicles of Insurrection: Tronti, Negri and the Subject of Antagonism

By Toscano, Alberto | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Chronicles of Insurrection: Tronti, Negri and the Subject of Antagonism


Toscano, Alberto, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


Once I went to May Day. I never got workers' festivities. The day of work, are you kidding? The day of workers celebrating themselves. I never got it into my head what workers' day or the day of work meant. I never got it into my head why work should be celebrated. But when I wasn't working I didn't know what the fuck to do. Because I was a worker, that is someone who spent most of their day in the factory. And in the time left over I could only rest for the next day. But that May Day on a whim I went to listen to some guy's speech because I didn't know him.

Nanni Balestrini, Vogliamo tutto

Force ... is itself an economic power.--Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1

Before Empire, behind the multitude

Though much work has been carried out to rectify, whether critically or affirmatively, a dehistoricized understanding of the political content of the theses forwarded in books like Empire and Multitude, there remains a strong tendency--at times enabled by their own rhetoric of rupture and transformation--to treat the recent works of Hardt and Negri as a kind of theoretical UFO, or better a time-machine emancipated of all nation and class coordinates, visiting us from a vibrant future that the authors insist in describing as our present. Behind the seemingly apologetic and impressionistic character of the figures of Empire and the multitude lies a long, punctuated history of theoretical work and political practice aimed at testing the validity of Marxist categories in light of empirical transformations in modes of production and reproduction, tendencies in class composition and shifts in the forms of capitalist domination, driven by political struggles and economic reconfigurations in post-war Italy. (1) Behind the non-dialectical pairing of Empire and multitude, one needs to discern the figures of a far more classical albeit 'mutant' antagonism between capital and labour, of the kind formulated in what can loosely be defined as the 'workerist' (operaista) and 'post-workerist' (post-operaista) development of critical Marxism beginning with the work of Raniero Panzieri and the Quaderni Rossi journal, and then gaining greater prominence chiefly in the writings of Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri, whose intellectual production of the sixties and seventies will concern me here.

My aim in this article is to explore the following question: What drives the move from the 'workerist' dialectic of antagonism and its capture, through the insurrectionary unilaterality of worker's autonomy, all the way to the recent theories of exodus? In order to sketch an answer to this question, we need to investigate the juncture between the political-economic logic of capital and the revolutionary logic of separation--of communism as separation. (2) In the epoch of what Marx referred to as 'real subsumption', wherein all labour and production processes take place within the ambit of capitalist relations, it is only an organized act of antagonistic separation that, from the vantage point of operaismo, can elicit the emergence of living labour as a collective subject capable of appropriating a production process founded on the exploitation of its capacities. As Negri remarks, capitalist 'totality is a texture in which we find ourselves and in which we must separate ourselves in order to exist--but it is the intensity of the separation, the force with which antagonism is recognized, that constitutes us as singularities--as subjects'. (3) The open paradox of the workerist 'tradition' (to adopt a term whose intensely problematic character has been highlighted by Sergio Bologna) and of the political philosophy of the multitudes that has followed in its wake--which is of course a paradox faithful to some of the key insights of Marx--is precisely the twin affirmation of an integral immanence of capitalist relations to the social (of a thoroughgoing socialization of production) and of the radicalization of the antagonism between capital and labour. …

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