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Autonomism: The Politics of Antonio Negri

Bradley Hughes

January 1, 2003

Marxism No. 1, 2003
A new mass movement has arisen since the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle.1 It is in this context that there is renewed interest in the politics of autonomism, associated with anarchist movements, and particularly the views associated with Antonio Negri. Antonio Negri is an Italian revolutionary who has recently been released from the Rebibba prison in Rome, Italy. While incarcerated, he and Michael Hardt wrote the book, Empire, that is being hailed as a new Communist Manifesto and has received wide acclaim in left circles.2
Empire makes several problematic claims. According to the authors, the working class is no longer capable of leading revolutionary upheavals, and mass movements are no longer able to communicate or inspire each other. Alternatively, students and the most marginalized members of society are the ones best able to resist both capitalism and what Negri and Hardt see as the agents of capitalism, the trade unions and reformist political organizations. Beyond this, Empire tends to the glorification of violence.
There is much appeal to the idea that the most oppressed sections of society are the ones most deserving of justice and most able to fight for it. When people look at the huge inequalities under capitalism, it is to their credit that they look to the most oppressed to fight back and that they believe that the poorest deserve most to inherit the world. The huge impatience that people have for change can lead them to try to find ways to go around the seeming slowness of traditional organizations like trade unions or reformist organizations such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and social democratic political parties.
However, the ideas that Negri puts forth will not help the anti-capitalist movement move forward. While on the surface attractive to the left, this perspective can only sow confusion, or worse, as happened in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, produce strategies that will set us back. While new to many in the anti-capitalist movement today, these are not new ideas on the left. When movements rise and many people throw themselves into politics, they tend to resurrect old strategies. Much of Empire draws on the ideas of the earlier works of Negri and the autonomist current of which he was a part. To understand the attraction of autonomism today, it is useful to consider the late 1960s and early 1970s in Italy. We therefore need to briefly cover the events of the time and the failure of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) as a revolutionary alternative.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw mass student uprisings and mass strikes sweep across Europe.3 One of highest points of struggle, and the movement perhaps most threatening to capitalism, occurred in Italy.4 As elsewhere, there was a student revolt in 1967 and 1968. This was followed by a strike wave in 1969. The far left organizations of the time were well organized amongst university students and young factory workers. Students would commonly go to the factories to agitate amongst the workers, and in turn, large organizing assemblies of young workers were organized on the university campuses.
There were three main far left organizations: Avanguardia Operaia (Workers’ Vanguard), Lotta Continua (Struggle Continues) and PDUP (Party of Proletarian Unity for Communism). In the mid 1970s, collectively the far left was able to mobilize rallies of 20-30,000 in some cities.5 During this period Italy was governed by the notoriously corrupt Christian Democrats. Party and state existed as much to provide rewards for political elites as to defend Italian capitalism. By the 1975 election, the combined left vote was 47 percent while the Christian Democrats only received 35 percent. Within five years, however, the organizations of the far left were destroyed and the working class confidence that had allowed them to build was vanquished.6
There are two main reasons for this. The first and most important reason was the role of the PCI. By the 1970s this had long been a completely reformist organization. The second and related reason, was the lack of political clarity among the far left parties.
The PCI had been shut out of any electoral success since the 1950s. The upturn in struggle had benefited the PCI electorally much more than the far left organizations that were participating in coalition with it. At the same time the Communist dominated trade union confederation, the CGIL, had absorbed many of the shop floor militants that had arisen in the many strikes.7 For its part, the PCI had tremendous influence on many Italians looking for a better world. The PCI, however, used their influence within the trade unions to help capitalism survive the crisis, rather than bury it.
In the 1976 parliamentary elections the PCI received 34.4 percent of the vote.8 But they squandered the opportunity to urge the Italian working class to prepare for revolution and the struggles ahead. Instead, they offered the Christian Democrats the “Historic Compromise”, a plan that would secure their support for the “Government of National Solidarity”. Their reasoning was that the coup against leftist President Allende in Chile demonstrated that left parties had to cooperate with their respective bourgeois governments to avoid repression by the military.9 Their support for the government’s austerity measures involved using the trade unions to dampen resistance to the government. Workers were encouraged to make sacrifices in an attempt to save capitalism from the economic crisis it had created.10
The second reason for the catastrophic decline of the revolutionary left and working class confidence in Italy was the weakness of the far left itself. In the lead up to the elections the three far left parties believed that they could use their share of the votes to become partners in a coalition government with the PCI. They believed that in this situation they would be able to put through a program of reforms. Instead, the votes for the Christian Democrats rose and the far left combined received only 1 1/2 percent of the vote. The PCI, which was more interested in electoral power then in a left program, abandoned the far left parties and formed a coalition with the bosses’ party, the Christian Democrats. This saw the far left go into crisis and their organizations began to fragment and decline.11
Despite the electoral illusions of the left parties, the struggle continued. In 1977 there was a new student movement that also included increasing numbers of unemployed youth. Within this milieu a loose federation of revolutionary collectives formed called Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy).12 In a situation where the Communist Party held the allegiance of the majority of workers, and the struggles were led by students and the unemployed, it is no surprise that there was conflict. The politics of the autonomists proved unable to surmount this problem.
Enter Antonio Negri, the main theorist of the autonomists. His background was in Operaismo, “workerism”, a brand of Marxism that focused on the conflict between labour and capital in the workplace. This was a reflection of a very confident working class that had been defying both the bosses and, often, the trade union leadership. The main thrust of this perspective was the idea that the improvements in capitalism through the welfare state were all brought about by working class resistance.13 Negri’s contribution was to argue that exploitation takes place, not just at work where profit is extracted from workers, but throughout society. In an illogical theoretical leap, he concluded that everyone who is not a direct owner becomes a member of the working class and profit is made from their labour. The industrial “mass worker” is thus replaced by the “social worker.” This new working class includes students, the unemployed and the most marginalized sections of society. In contrast, the unionized, comparatively well-paid industrial workers are seen as being part of the capitalist class. Negri writes:

Some groups of workers, some sections of the working class, remain tied to the dimension of the wage, to its mystified terms. In other words, they are living off income as revenue. Inasmuch, they are stealing and expropriating proletarian surplus-value — they are participating in the social labour racket — on the same terms as their management. These positions — and the trade union practices that fosters them — are to be fought, with violence if necessary. It will not be the first time that a march of the unemployed has entered a large factory so that they can destroy the arrogance of salaried income!14

This theory was used to defend the clashes between autonomists and trade unionists. It did nothing to win organized workers from the influence of the Communist Party and the trade union leadership. The theory of the autonomists also included a glorification of violence that in the end was only to aid the repression of the state.

Proletarian violence, in so far as it is a positive allusion to communism, is an essential element of the dynamic of communism. To suppress the violence of this process can only deliver it — tied hand and foot — to capital. Violence is a first, immediate, and vigorous affirmation of the necessity of communism. It does not provide the solution, but it is fundamental.15

At the same time as the autonomists were advocating violence for its own sake, the Red Brigades were becoming bolder as a result of the retreat of the mass movement. They kidnapped and killed the Christian Democrat leader, Aldo Moro, and also attacked trade union leaders who they felt were collaborating with the state. The autonomists organized “P-38 comrades,” so named after the hand guns they used. They would fire at the police from within otherwise unarmed demonstrations.16
The politics of individual violence was never large enough to present any real political threat to the state; but it was certainly sufficient to justify vicious repression of the left by the state. The far right and the state collaborated to take advantage of the tactics of the autonomists and their isolation from the organized working class. They began planting bombs that they then blamed on the radical left. This helped to isolate the far left even further. In the resulting repression the Red Brigades were destroyed and hundreds of activists were jailed or fled the country.17
The employers were quick to take advantage of a situation where the far left was isolated from the organized working class. At the same time, the PCI collaborated with the state. Their passivity and collaboration allowed employers to attack the most militant workers in the factories. Fiat, for example, provoked a strike by firing 14,000 workers in the most active factories and bringing in scab labour. The PCI was initially passive, and was then unable to lead a successful fight back. The strike ended in defeat and 23,000 workers lost their jobs.18
It is worth looking at Negri’s major revisions to Marxist theory at this time. He rewrites the theory of economic crises, reducing such events only to the conflict between workers and bosses. He incorrectly argues that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall stems directly from the revolt of labour against profit.19 Negri’s focus here on rebellion against capitalism as the major force is also shown in his argument that wages are determined solely by workers’ struggle.20 This ignores the control that owners can put on wages by increasing unemployment through massive layoffs. Growing unemployment can sap the confidence of workers by making their employment more precarious and heighten the risks of struggle. This is exactly what was going on in Italy (and internationally) in the 1970s as the capitalists regained control over a very militant working class. Without this understanding, the declining and stagnating wages in the 1980s and 1990s become impossible to explain.21
Another illustration of Negri’s departure from a Marxist analysis is his theory that labour is the source of all wealth.22 This is not true: nature is also a source of wealth. An emphasis on labour as the primary force in class struggle is also reflected in his theory of economic crisis. He sees the need for capital to drive down wages in order to make up for a declining rate of profit as limited, and resisted by workers’ struggles. In this resistance to the needs of business Negri sees “the autonomy of the working class from the development of capital.”23 It is true that there is a limit to how far wages can be driven down and hours of work driven up. But it is a limit very far below the living standards of the 1970s.
The point here is not to berate Negri for straying from the one true Marxist way. However these theoretical modifications resulted in practical mistakes in organizing. The lack of political clarity on the part of the Italian revolutionary left regarding the nature of the capitalist system, and the role of the working class within it, contributed to the crisis of the left and to the defeat of the Italian working class.
There are a number of conclusions that result from Negri’s analysis. He sees anyone who is dominated by capital as a “worker”. If every part of everyday life is part of social exploitation, class struggle is everywhere. “To be communist today means to live as a communist.”24 This moves the focus away from the point of production, away from the workplaces, and therefore away from the working class where it is at its strongest point in its ability to challenge the basis of capitalist power. Instead, the left’s attention is shifted to consider a plurality of movements that can challenge capitalism in a long list, with each one as important as the rest.
The emphasis on violence and opposition to workers’ organizations such as trade unions meant that when, in late 1977, the autonomists saw a rise of sabotage in the factories and armed demonstrations, weakness was interpreted as strength. Rather than seeing such acts as the desperation by a minority as there was generalized decline of the militancy of the majority, these isolated acts were taken as signs of a movement going from strength to strength.

The balance of power has been reversed. . . the working class, its sabotage, are the stronger power — above all, the only source of rationality and value. From now on it becomes impossible, even in theory, to forget this paradox produced by the struggles: the more the form of domination perfects itself, the more empty it becomes; the more the working class resists, the more it is full of rationality and value. . . . We are here, we are uncrushable, and we are in the majority.25

But regardless of the verbal radicalism, the militants were a small minority. They were crushed and the form of domination chosen by the Italian ruling class saw them in nearly complete control until the demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa in July 2001. If a theory bases everything on class struggle and resistance, it can be very appealing. Such ideas can seem to describe the state of the world very well when the level of struggle is increasing; but they provide no guidance to action or strategy when struggles subside, as they inevitably do at certain points along the road to revolutionary change.
To really challenge capitalism means that we need to understand the mechanisms of the system. We must especially understand that as long as capitalism survives the capitalist class can always regain the upper hand because of its control over the economy. Although it is not in complete control, capitalist employers are able to increase unemployment and divide and weaken the working class, and they can chose their battles in order to dampen down militancy. There is also a strategic question posed about the relationship of politics to action. We need more than just rebellion — we need a political movement that can seize power away from the capitalists and run society as a whole.
This brings us back to Empire. The themes outlined above in Negri’s philosophy continue into his work with Michael Hardt. Empire presents a novel re-conceptualization of a new world order which claims to transcend the Marxist theory of imperialism. Turning the Leninist conception of imperialism as the ‘highest stage of capitalism’ on its head, the authors contend that capitalism has evolved beyond imperialism into a new period of “Empire”, a decentralized world network of power which organizes capitalist relations while obviating inter-imperialist rivalry. According to the authors, the power behind Empire are the transnational corporations. These,

directly structure and articulate territories and populations. They tend to make nation-states merely instruments to record the flows of the commodities, monies, and populations that they set in motion. The transnational corporations directly distribute labour power over various markets, functionally allocate resources, and organize hierarchically the various sectors of world production. The complex apparatus that selects investments and directs financial and monetary maneuvers determines the new geography of the world market, or really the new bio-political structuring of the world.27

According to Negri and Hardt, political power and sovereignty continue to exist, but they now reside in the institutions and structures of Empire. In contrast to imperialism,

Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command. The distinct national colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow.28

This new power is created by the multitude. “The proletariat actually invents the social and productive forms that capital will be forced to adopt in the future.”29
This latest phase of capitalism, we are told, transcends imperialism and nation state rivalry. In its place we have an interconnected, decentred network of power. The examples they give of how this is coming about include the WTO, “humanitarian” wars, the coalition that fought the Gulf war, and the war against Serbia. Within these bodies and coalitions, however, there exists a hierarchy that reflects the real power of various states and the rivalry among them. So the WTO is dominated by the US, and the wars were dominated by the US and Britain. At the same time, Empire is a “smooth space” without centres of power. This is an example of the lack of concrete analysis that characterizes the entire book; everything is dealt with in such generalities.
And the agent of resistance is equally general. The class struggle in Empire is not fought by the working class. Instead it is the multitude that resists Empire. The concept of the “multitude” is not so different from Negri’s earlier “social worker”. The multitude is comprised of everyone who is dominated by capital and therefore the agent that will overthrow its rule. Such a mass act of rebellion will not take place by insurrection or a coordinated mass movement. After all, Empire lacks centres of power, so there is nothing, in a sense, to rise up against.
When these elements are put together it paints a picture of a very different world than the one that Marxists usually talk about. The world of Empire is one where all resistance is equal and equally powerful. It does not matter who is involved or what the resistance is or where it is located. Negri and Hardt further argue that resistance can no longer build on other struggles. The examples they give are the Intifada, the 1992 revolt in Los Angeles, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and the strikes in France and South Korea.
But are these uprisings really as isolated as the authors claim? The Intifada has inspired solidarity marches all over the globe while the Zapatista uprising is part of the inspiration for the current anti-capitalist movement. Most obviously, after this book was written, the anti-capitalist movement has spread from one demonstration in Seattle to a mass movement around the world that mobilizes at every meeting of the institutions of the ruling class. The connections drawn from the anti-capitalist movement to the so-called war on terror served to inspire the birth of a new anti-war movement in the US and internationally.
If the world is as Negri and Hardt describe it, controlled by the universal rule of capital without any centre, then how can we fight back? Not easily. Any idea of strategy is right out the window, because there is no centralized power to contend with. This also means that the revolutionary practice of building solidarity, linking one struggle with another, is no longer an important goal. Nor is there a need to tack and turn, reorienting strategic priorities of resistance. Nothing could be further from reality. If, for example, it was not for a shift in the anti-capitalist movement, changing focus to struggle against the war and state-sanctioned racism after September 11, the movement would have hit a dead end.
Empire ends with a set of general demands: global citizenship; a social wage or guaranteed income; control over language, communication and production; and a call for a new militant who represents no organization or set of ideas but expresses the joy of being communist by joining the multitude. This is not a guide to action. Nor does it provide any ideas about what a new society could look like.
Empire builds on the ideas of the autonomists that arose during the huge upturn in struggle a quarter of a century ago in Italy. Those ideas failed the movement then. Rewriting them in obscure post-modernist jargon today adds nothing to the movement but confusion and a recipe for fragmentation.
1 Thanks to Tithi Bhattacharya and Julie Devaney. Much of this article relies upon the analysis of Alex Callinicos, “Toni Negri in Perspective”, International Socialism, series 2, 92 (Autumn 2001), pp. 33—61.
2 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Harvard University Press: 2000); Ed Vulliamy, “Empire Hits Back”, The Observer, (July 15, 2000)
3 Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London: 1998)
4 Harman, Fire Last Time, p. 191
5 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 35
6 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 35
7 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 36
8 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 36
9 Harman, Fire Last Time, p. 205
10 Harman, Fire Last Time, p. 37
11 Harman, Fire Last Time, p. 36
12 Harman, Fire Last Time, p. 37
13 Harman, Fire Last Time, p. 37
14 Quoted in Jack Fuller, “The New Workerism: The Politics of the Italian Autonomists”, International Socialism, series 2, 92 (Autumn 2001) p. 74
15 Quoted in Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 38
16 Tom Behan, “The Strategy of Tension,” Genoa — La Lotta Continua (London: Socialist Worker, 2001), p. 26
17 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 39
18 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 39
19 Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx (South Hadley, MA, 1984) pp. 91, 101.
20 Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, p. 131
21 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 41
22 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 41
23 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 41
24 Callinicos, “Negri”, p. 43
25 Quoted in “Negri’s Class Analysis: Italian Autonomist Theory in the Seventies,” Reconstruction, 8 (Winter/Spring 1996)
26 Abbie Bakan, The ABC of Socialism (Toronto: 2000), pp. 51—62
27 Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 32
28 Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. xii
29 Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 268

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