Saturday, April 07, 2012


Theoretical Saturday and I got one so long, that I will just print a little of it and post the link if you are interested in really reading this thingie.  It is entitlted  ‘Forward How? Forward Where?’ I: (Post-)Operaismo Beyond the Immaterial Labour Thesis'  and is written by Rodrigo Nunes.

It is taken from Ephemera.

‘Forward How? Forward Where?’ I: (Post-)Operaismo Beyond the Immaterial Labour Thesis


All accounts of the period known in Italy as the ‘Long 1968’, which lasted from 1969 to 1977, necessarily have to end with the brutal State repression brought upon the Italian
movement at the end of the 1970s. If one pays attention to the tone of these accounts, however, something odd stands out: the mass arrests and show trials appear more as an epilogue than as an end; like the Minotaur in Borges’ (1996) ‘The House of Asterion’, it feels as if, having nowhere else to move forward to, the movement had stayed put in the place where the State could hunt it down. In a sense, it is the inability to find common ways forward shown at the Bologna Congress that counts as the real end of those years.

The theory and history written in that period have enjoyed a revival in recent years, dating back to the publication of Hardt and Negri’s Empire in 2000. This is one of those cases where the production and circulation of ideas can be stripped of any semblance of necessity, and related to bare, happy contingence: Empire was so important not only because of its content – it remains arguably the most ambitious attempt at charting the present in terms of both what ‘is’ and what ‘could be’ – but because it came out at a moment where a new way of reading the present was in high demand. Those were the years of something that Empire itself, written as it was before the ‘Battle of Seattle’, did not directly predict: the resurgence of a powerful social movement in the global North, mostly embodied in the counter-summit mobilisations; and the growing capability of movements in the North and South to relay information and coordinate among them, generating the towering spectre of a ‘global movement’ capable of becoming a social and political force on a global scale. A ‘second superpower’, to use Chomsky’s (2005) coinage? Or, to employ a key concept in (post-)Operaista2 thought, a ‘new cycle of struggles’?

It is no coincidence then that Empire should have been so greedily embraced by sympathisers and detractors alike, and from there a lot of attention should have been transferred to other authors from the same milieu and with similar trajectories (Virno, Bifo, Lazzarato, to name a few); as well as to these trajectories and milieu themselves. For those who in those years would attend a meeting or action in the day and read (post-)Operaismo at night – or vice-versa – the fascination came not only from what the theory said, but how it had been produced. These were not angelic beings who had written about politics, these were political beings who were still doing politics when they wrote. At last, people like us.

Political discourse is of course never ‘pure’; in it are always mixed the personas of the scientist and the demagogue, the prophet and the partisan, the functions of description and persuasion, the affects of empathising and manipulating. So inextricably mixed, in fact, that it is normally in telling them apart that one or another reading of the same text differs. Much of (post-)Operaismo’s appeal was (and is) to a great extent due to both its unashamed one-sidedness, and to how much the texts are monuments of ongoing debates and struggles, living forces that a contemporary reader can conjure up or find herself in the middle of again. In short, much of the texts’ appeal lies in their context- dependence – both in terms of what they carry of unreflected in them, and of how much __________
in them is geared towards responding to immediate problems and needs. In other words, the immanence of this thought to a movement.
In what follows I wish to pay this context-dependence a double respect. Firstly, by being attentive to the conditions of production of texts and theory, and thus trying to avoid turning contingence into necessity, timeliness into atemporality. Secondly, by attempting to read the paths opened by (post-)Operaismo through the lenses of needs and expectations largely generated by the struggles of the last decade, and the generalised feeling of crisis and impasse that has grown in the last few years – when many people have felt as if they were living their own, never-ending Bologna Congress.

My starting point is to look at (post-)Operaismo in the ‘dominant’ form in which it has been received in recent years – the immaterial labour thesis as found, importantly but not exclusively, in Empire. In so doing I try to remain sensitive both to the intellectual and political history behind ideas and to their ‘minoritarian’ reconfigurations in other writings. Still, I am under no illusion about how much artifice there might be in this construction; it is up to each reader to decide how accurate and useful it is.

At first I try to trace a certain continuity between the immaterial labour thesis and the initial theoretical and practical wagers of Operaismo, in order to sketch out the internal mechanism of what I argue is a constitutive tension and oscillation in (post-)Operaista thought between subjectivism and objectivism.

What follows examines the immaterial labour thesis itself, in three steps. First, it lays out in general lines the claims that are made as to the emancipatory potential of immaterial labour; it then works backwards from these towards a discussion of how well they apply to the different forms of labour that are described as immaterial; and finally, it discusses what different meanings speaking of a hegemony of immaterial labour may have. My goal here is not a refutation of the basic elements of the thesis, but an attempt to, treating them as tools, sharpen their practical usefulness by refining their scope and exploring their political implications.

Finally, it must be said that this is the first instalment of three in a debate on the political significance of (post-)Operaismo today. In the second and third parts, to be published shortly, I develop more fully the weaving in of the themes of political practice and theoretical production, immanence and transcendence, subjectivism and objectivism; and then apply the conclusions drawn there to current debates on and experiences of political organisation, and how they relate to the challenges posed by a post-representational politics.

‘Before Our Very Eyes’

In the theoretical toolbox of (post-)Operaismo, three elements stand out. The first is the famous Copernican turn that inverts the dialectical relationship between capital and labour by posing the second as the active element to which the first finds itself obliged to react. This inversion necessitates the second concept, that of cycle of struggles: instead of a linear accumulation towards an inevitable triad of crisis, fall of the rate of
profit and defeat of capitalism, the struggle between labour and capital is always being pushed to a next level by periods of intensification of the former’s counterpower, which force the latter into restructuring measures aimed at dispelling the antagonist’s strength.

Finally, the concept of class composition is both part of this narrative and broader. Its basic idea is that to the objective, material determinants of the capitalist organisation of labour at any given moment (technical composition) there correspond certain openings, behavioural patterns, a certain subjectivity among workers from which the forms of political organisation and action that correspond to this moment can be read, at least in embryonic form. It is hence part of the Operaista narrative, in the sense that a given technical composition implies a certain political composition which leads to a new cycle of struggles, and thence to capital’s reaction – which in turn will lead to a new technical composition of the class, starting the cycle all over again. But it also goes beyond, since it provides, even if in skeletal form, a methodological instrument that subordinates theoretical enquiry to political practice, but grounds the former in the latter – and thus subordinates metahistorical constants to the experimental practice of contingence.

It is the double nature of the concept of class composition that provides us with a way of measuring the relative distance of Operaismo from a teleological philosophy of history. It is true that it breaks with the straight line of the accumulation of forces of the proletariat against capital, by reintroducing an element of contingence that is the affirmation of political subjectivity against the lifeless objectivism of orthodox Marxism – in this sense, it is clear there would be no Operaismo without Lenin. “[C]apitalist development runs along a chain of conjuncture”, says Tronti (2006: 99). These moments of conjuncture are, however, both the eruption of the untimely in history – unpredictable times of creation and opening of possibilities3 – and the affirmation of the proletariat as the metahistorical subject whose self-activity directs capitalist development; the rude razza pagana (‘rude pagan race’) becomes the secularisation of the Spirit that Hegel, via Plotinus, adopts from Christian Trinitarian theology. The Copernican turn is thus an inversion, merely displacing the active pole of the dialectical relationship, instead of exiting it altogether; and there is a telos in the movement of capital’s responses, in that it always reacts by increasing the socialisation of labour, hence increasing the power of the proletariat to attack the capitalist social relation from the inside (Tronti, 2006: 49-54).4 In other words, (post-)Operaismo will be more or less free from a Hegelian philosophy of history depending on where one places the emphasis. The conjunctural moments of opening and subjective affirmation yield an immanent process where enquiry provides the elements for potential (re)compositions, the possibility of an open-ended construction. The teleology of struggle-induced capitalist development reintroduces a linearity in the accumulation of proletarian force
and hence transcendence in the form of the necessary development of a metahistorical subject.5 The oscillation and tension between the two poles, however, is constitutive of (post-)Operaista thought; the mechanic of the oscillation is in the relay between the production of theory and political activity, which is to say, in the immanence of thought to movement.

Nowhere is this tension best expressed than in the constant reiteration of the topos of the beginning of a new epoch – something that is bound to ring familiar to ears accustomed to the discourse of more orthodox Marxisms. ‘Lenin in England’, in many ways the founding text of Operaismo, opens with: “A new era in the class struggle is beginning” (Tronti, 2006: 87). Empire, its best known offspring, opens with: “Empire is materialising before our very eyes” (Hardt and Negri, 2001: xi). One can recognise the origin of the topos in the Preface of Phenomenology of Spirit: at once a movement of historical and systematic completion, where a system finds its whole justification in itself by the achievement of its historical development – (self-)exposition and legitimation (Hegel, 1977).7 The political utility of such discourse is obvious: it not only provides legitimation both to itself and whatever political activity is already underway, but also affirms a break with the past that opens up a new time which can only be grasped in its own terms.

This move is repeated in Empire in a way that is by now quite well-known. It is here a matter of, following a methodology that the Negri of the early 1970s had already found in the Marx of the Grundrisse, identifying a tendency that both allows one to see into the future – “which seeds will grow and which wither” (Hardt and Negri, 2006: 141; Negri, 2003) – and to identify the points of leverage in the present that can lead there. In line with the basic tenets of Operaismo, then, Empire seeks the present forms of resistance as given (even if just latently) in what is variedly described as post-Fordist, postmodern or biopolitical production. This tendency is identified with the becoming- hegemonic of a form of labour – immaterial labour – and it is from this hegemony that the possibilities of resistance can be read, both as openings and as already existing behaviours.

There is unfortunately no time here to go deeper into the relations between subjectivism and objectivism, immanence and transcendence and theory and practice in
 (post-)Operaista discourse, which merit a study of their own. So before we move on, let us just raise two sceptical questions about the recurring theme of the new epoch.

The first is that determining an epoch is always a work of selection – naming in a given time what is essential and what is accidental to it (“which seeds will grow and which wither”), what makes it different from what came before. It is in this moment of abstraction, where the real is depurated of its messy plurality so that the actuality that underlines it can shine through, that teleology will tend to walk in through the backdoor, carrying objectivism by the hand. If the epoch we live in corresponds precisely to the culmination of the Operaista teleology of socialisation of labour, it is easy to endow it with an inertia where its ‘natural’ direction leads inevitably, objectively, to a conclusion that is no other than communism. The burden of agency in the dialectical relationship between capital and labour is shifted when it approaches its conclusion – it would be capitalist restructuring itself that now “works towards its dissolution” (Marx, 1973: 700).

The other question is: if the question of identifying the places “where the working class is strongest”8 entails determining where to focus political activity (as the most likely to yield results in the form of agitation and social unrest that maximises conflict), this means that the areas where the possibility of (or already ongoing) political activity is the strongest will always tend to appear as the poles of class recomposition. Is one not entitled to suspect that it is precisely this immediacy of the theory-practice relay, this immanence of thought to movement, that contaminates such theory to the extent that, whenever it speaks the language of universality (the present epoch), what it is doing is in fact reorganising reality from the perspective given not by a universal condition (the point of view of the class), but by the position of the theory in relation to the movement, and the movement in relation to everything else? In other words, not from the god’s-eye point of view (metahistorically, metaphilosophically) guaranteed by the proletariat’s condition as universal subject, but from the conic perspective of the movement’s (geographical, systemic, political) position.9

This is the crucial juncture where the thesis concerning the alleged hegemony of immaterial labour, ascribed the role of naming what is essential about the present condition, finds itself. Precisely because this is not theory for theory’s sake, but purports to be able to produce political effects, my method in dealing with the immaterial labour thesis will be to turn its Darstellung around. This means working backwards from the claims made about the potentials for resistance that the passage to post-Fordism (and the hegemony of immaterial labour) allegedly bring about, so as to understand what features of immaterial labour justify such claims; and then to examine whether these features are applicable to all the cases that one intends to include under the common name of immaterial labour. If they are not – that is, if the features of immaterial labour

that justify the claims made about the potential for resistance are not applicable to all forms of labour that are described as ‘immaterial’ – that still does not necessarily invalidate the arguments advanced, since it could be argued that such features, even if not universalisable, represent precisely what is ‘hegemonic’ about (at least certain forms of) immaterial labour. It is the idea of hegemony that must then be looked at: what is the nature of this hegemony? How is it exercised over other forms of labour, material or immaterial, and with what political implications?

The aim is not to invalidate any claims – one should always be very slow to invalidate claims about the possibility of resistance – let alone to prove or disprove anything: if a tendency is by definition what is not actual, but may be brought about, how can it be disproved? The question here is rather the extent of these claims’ applicability. And this applicability is exactly not to be understood exclusively as a theoretical, but first and foremost as a practico-political question about the present’s potential of resistance.

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