Toni Negri: from the refusal of labor to the seizure of power

  • January 18, 2015

Intellectuals & Ideas

From the refusal of labor to the seizure of power, the Italian militant and theorist talks to ROAR about class struggle in the contemporary metropolis.

A few months ago, ROAR attended the annual Euronomade gathering in Passignano, which brought together dozens of activists and thinkers in the Italian post-workerist tradition. This year, Euronomade invited the Marxist geographer David Harvey to participate in the event alongside a number of other guests, including Michael Hardt and Srećko Horvat.

We sat down with the legendary Italian militant and theorist Antonio Negri to talk about the recent convergence between his work and Harvey’s, the centrality of the metropolitan terrain to contemporary social struggles, the fate of the global uprisings of 2011, the state of the movements in Europe today, and the significance of new political forces like Syriza and Podemos.

The interview was taken by Lorenzo Cini and Jerome Roos, with special thanks to Tommaso Giordani for the translation.


In recent years, there appears to be somewhat of a convergence between your approach and Harvey’s. What do you consider to be the most important overlaps in your work? And what do you see as the main differences or tensions?

It seems to me that there is a very clear and explicit convergence between Harvey’s positions and those of my own current of thought, most clearly on the contemporary transformation of productive labor, of living labor — that is, of labor capable of generating surplus value. If I may use Marx’s language from The Fragment on Machines, I would say that there is substantial common ground between Harvey’s work and my own in the analysis of the transformation of the forms of value, that is to say, in the step from value as connected to the structures of large-scale industry to the current situation, in which society is wholly subjected to the logic of capital — not only in the productive sphere, but also with regards to reproduction and circulation.

Italian workerism [operaismo] already developed such an analysis in the late 1970s, suggesting, at the time, new forms of struggle that would deploy themselves within the larger social sphere, because we had understood that the social had become a locus of value production. Already in those years, we identified the crucial shift in the locus of surplus production: a shift away from the factory and towards the wider metropolis. And this same shift appears to me to have become central to Harvey’s work. This is the essential point: from here, both the question of surplus extraction and the question of the transformation of profit into rent have become central in the critical analyses of contemporary capitalism that Harvey and I have developed.

What, then, are the differences? I believe it’s simply a question of genealogy, of the theoretical trajectory that has brought us to this shared analysis. I have reached these conclusions starting from the analysis of the transformation of the nature of labor, which is, in fact, the concept on which the entire workerist approach was based. In other words, I began from the workerist concept of the refusal of labor. With this idea, we meant two things. On the one hand, we took it as a rejection of the law of value as the fundamental norm of the capitalist order. On the other hand, we interpreted it in a more constructive way, as a call for the acknowledgment of new forms of productivity of work beyond the factory, at a wider social level. From this Marxian analysis of the internal transformation of labor, we arrived at the same conclusions at which Harvey arrived — and on which he developed a more thorough empirical analysis.

Starting from what you just said about the concept of productive labor, we would like to reflect with you on the forms and content of contemporary struggles. In your book Commonwealth, co-authored with Michael Hardt, you have written that today the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was once to the working class. In light of this change of paradigm, does it seem accurate to you to identify in the recent uprisings that have erupted in countries like Brazil and Turkey a set of struggles linked to questions about the production and reproduction of metropolitan life, instances of a new class struggle conducted at the metropolitan level?

Yes, very much so. Both the Turkish and the Brazilian struggles are clearly biopolitical struggles. How, then, can we link this biopolitical dimension to the new forms of labor we discussed before? This is a question with which Michael Hardt and I have been dealing ever since 1995, when we began working on Empire. It appeared to us that if labor becomes social labor, if production and capitalist oppression were swallowing up the social sphere, then the question of bios became an essential one. The set of struggles developing around the welfare state was becoming one of the central aspects of class struggle. This discovery became even more important once we understood that productive labor was not only (or even mainly) a material activity, but also (and mostly) an immaterial one. That is, an activity linked to caring, affection, communication, and what we can loosely call ‘generically human’ processes and activities.

It was this attention to the ‘generically human’ that helped us understand how the productive process had become fundamentally a biopolitical process. Consequently, the more politically significant struggles became those that deployed themselves on the biopolitical terrain. What did this mean in more concrete terms? We did not have an exhaustive and final answer. Yes, we had some intuition that one had to fight against, for example, the privatization of healthcare and education, but at the time we did not manage to fully grasp what was later revealed to us by the formidable struggles of 2011. It was those struggles that revealed the full articulation of the biopolitical discourse, that is, the new character of contemporary struggles. And it becomes very clear that the metropolis is its essential setting. This does not mean that it will always be so, but today it is certain that the metropolis is the crucial locus of this struggle.

The metropolitan strike in Paris in 1995 was essential in making me understand this. A city as complex and articulated as Paris completely supported the struggle, which blocked the city in its entirety, starting from transportation. That struggle expressed in a paradigmatic sense the cooperative and affective elements of the forms of conflict and knowledge that were emerging on the metropolitan stage in those years. It is not a coincidence that these aspects, linked to cooperation and to affective production, are still central in contemporary metropolitan struggles, which are fully biopolitical struggles.

The cycle of struggles that began in 2011 briefly hinted at the possible birth of a new constituent process. Today it seems that many of these movements are confronted with what you and Michael Hardt have called a ‘thermidorian closure,’ bringing about the re-establishment of the old regime. What is your analysis of the current state of these struggles, and what could have been done differently to prevent the present outcome?

To start with, we need to establish some differences. The Spanish mobilization, for example, has a force and a degree of political originality that is still evident today, and constitutes an important phenomenon that must also be seen as partly emerging from the tormented history of Spain in the twentieth century, from the civil war, through the incomplete democratic transition, to the failure of the Socialist Party.

On the other hand, there is a much more ambiguous phenomenon such as Occupy, which appears to be a mobilization of the so-called middle classes more than an expression of the cognitive working class. And yet, beyond these obvious weaknesses, even Occupy displayed an important degree of originality, especially in terms of the struggle developed on the issue of debt and financial capital.

Finally, there is the Arab process, which has monopolized our attention for a long time, and which — unfortunately — has had an absolutely tragic ending. Strictly speaking, the only ‘thermidorean’ outcome has been the Tunisian one, where an apparently democratic but substantially falsified order has now been established. For the rest, we have witnessed merely the beginnings of revolution, that is, a taking of the Bastille more than anything else. At any rate, I believe that this extremely articulated revolutionary process has many days ahead of itself and is, at the moment, still completely open.

So far, this revolutionary process has revealed the presence in the Arab world of new forces of freedom, of cognitive labor, that have tenaciously opposed the old military and feudal regimes. There is, however, still an enormous problem in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Iran, and it is the problem of the “medieval” nature of these states — states that are extremely reactionary and repressive. Thus I have the impression that the seed of revolt planted in 2011 in various Arab states resembles, in some ways, the European 1848: a moment of anticipation of a revolutionary process. I hope, however, that it does not have the same consequences that it had in Europe, where it also produced nationalist thought and practice, which eventually fueled the rise of fascism and national socialism.

In spite of this fear, I still strongly believe in a progressive dynamic of history, and I am confident that events of revolutionary rupture will, in the future, manage to break the feudal and reactionary political and social order of many Arab countries.

Let’s discuss the struggles in Europe today. Taking our cue from an article you wrote together with Sandro Mezzadra just before the European elections of 2014, and a follow-up piece you just published ahead of the Greek elections, we wanted to ask you whether you see the European dimension as the only one in which the movements can possibly act to advance a project of the common as a genuine alternative to the present capitalist crisis.

This is certainly the most timely and important political question today. Currently, in Europe, we are in the lowest phase of the cycle of struggles. I do not believe in the theory that, the worse the political, social and economic situation, the stronger the revolutionary movement. We are faced with a serious economic crisis that has had extremely negative consequences. The capitalist establishment has, for the moment, successfully exploited the regression and the domestication of existing struggles, and has managed with ease to control the post-Fordist productive transformation that hailed the defeat of the Fordist mass worker. Today, we are experiencing the consequences of our defeat in the 1970s, in the absence of a political organization capable of expressing the interests of the contemporary workforce and, more generally, of the contemporary productive society that emerged from that process of capitalist transformation.

However, in this negative situation, we still have to carefully consider if and how capital will be able to overcome the crisis. For example, I tend to agree with Wolfgang Streeck’s analyses, which examine the current crisis in the light of some 1970s literature such as that by Offe, Hirsche, and O’Connor, who saw the crisis of the times as a consequence of the falling rate of profit. This fall, however, is intimately linked to the devaluation of the workforce, to the incapacity of considering the workforce as a central player in development.

It is necessary to be very careful on a number of points. When one says that some instances of the common, certain demands of the struggle for the common can be, and have been, reabsorbed by and into the “management crisis” and into all those mechanisms of management of the common, one often ignores that this absorption into capitalist management is not a creative one. It is not, for example, akin to the assimilation of the working class that occurred in the Fordist and Keynesian paradigm, when this absorption did generate a rise in demand and manifested itself in a strong and energetic economy.

Today, we are faced by a capitalist contraction that leaves even those who operate the contraction breathless. In this context, we have to be extremely attentive, because the very real risk is that of giving a completely pessimistic reading to a situation that, of course, is characterized by an important crisis — but whose outcome is still completely open.

With this last question we would like to reflect with you on the innovation represented by a number of political phenomena that are occurring in some European countries at the moment. Do you see, in Europe today, a political organization capable of starting a constituent process and creating a transnational political project based on the communism of the 21st century — that is, a political project based on the practice of the common? And what do you consider to be the significance, in this light, of new political forces like Syriza and Podemos?

Before answering your question, I must confess that I have developed a problem in recent years. If I am asked to assess the struggles of 2011, I can’t help but concentrate my critical remarks on the question of horizontality — or of exclusive horizontality, at least. I have to criticize it because I think that there is no project or political development capable of transforming horizontal spontaneity into an institutional reality. I think, instead, that this passage must be governed in some way or another. Governed from below, of course, on the basis of shared programs, but always bearing in mind the necessity of having, in this passage, an organized political force capable of constituting itself and of managing this transformation.

I think that the present state of the movement forces us to be self-critical about what happened in 2011, and I think this self-criticism must focus on the question of political organization. We need to acknowledge, for example, that the Lista Tsipras experiment in Italy has been a tragic failure, even if I, together with Sandro Mezzadra and other comrades, welcomed it with faith and hope. However, on the other hand, it should have been clear, from the beginning, that with organized parties such as SEL or Rifondazione Comunista it would have been impossible to find political forms capable of channeling and allowing spontaneous forces from below to affirm themselves.

With Podemos, however, we are probably dealing with something different. Beyond the questionable ideologies around which Podemos constituted itself, I believe that — maybe because of the goodwill of its leaders, or perhaps thanks to the situation in which it finds itself — Podemos is infinitely more powerful than it is organized. It is producing, for the moment, an extremely interesting and active movement that might be capable of contributing to a healthy institutionalization of the struggles.

On this question of struggle at the institutional level and of political organization, I would like to conclude with two more general propositions. The first one is that after 2011 horizontality must be criticized and overcome, clearly and unambiguously — and not just in a Hegelian sense. Secondly, the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: the seizure of power. We have understood the question of power for too long in an excessively negative manner. Now we can reinterpret the question of power in terms of multitudes, in terms of absolute democracy — that is to say, in terms of a democracy that goes beyond canonical institutional forms such as monarchy, aristocracy and “democracy.” I believe that today the problem of democracy is best formulated and addressed in terms of the multitude.

Interview by Lorenzo Cini and Jerome Roos, translated from the Italian by Tommaso Giordani.

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Antonio Negri

Antonio Negri is an Italian militant and theorist in the post-workerist tradition. He is the author of many books, including his highly influential trilogy with Michael Hardt, Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine. He holds a PhD in International Political Economy from the European University Institute in Florence, where he studied the structural power of finance in sovereign debt crises. For more on his research and writings, visit jeromeroos.com.

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