:: Article

Good Riddance Lenin!

By John Barker.

gms.jpg

Antonio Negri, Goodbye Mr Socialism, Serpent’s Tail, 2008

Goodbye Mr Socialism takes the form of an extended interview — some 230 pages — broken up into thematic chapters though the separations are suitably flexible, that most ambiguous of words, whose ambiguity is itself a theme. They were made in 2006 when Negri was 73 years old, and had not appeared in English until now. I’ve been interviewed myself recently for the first time, and with an engaged interviewer with no axe of their own to grind, it was a good experience. It’s obviously freer than what’s required in a work where you have to be as constantly coherent as possible, and in which references must be efficiently tagged. At the same time the important questions and contradictions that you’ve been thinking over for years perhaps, but which at the time of the interview have a more immediate relevance, can be made sense with the possibility of qualifying and sharpening as one goes along.

Toni Negri has been an important, sympathetic intelligence for most of my adult life. He has also shown a great courage over that time. In the 1960s and early 70s he was acclaimed as a wide-ranging academic in the academic world. By 1979 he was accused of being “morally responsible” for the violence of the Red Brigades, a highly infiltrated Bolshevik style urban guerrilla group with whom he would have little in common. His crime, which he repeats in this book, to say that resistance to state and capitalist oppression might involve violence, and that this was justified. This lead to many years of exile in France and imprisonment in Italy.

Earlier than that, his importance to me and people I knew was in giving a theoretical substance, grounded in the realities of class composition, to a non-Bolshevik (Leninist) communist politics, after the Situationists had given us the stylistic confidence to reject it. At a time when the Italian Communist Party was still a major force in Italy, and along with other intellectual comrades like Sergio Bologna (all heroically translated into English, printed and published by Ed Emery as a series of ‘Red Notes’), he turned the idea of the vanguardist party on its head. Workers did not need to be lead by an elite party whose main interest was in controlling them. Tactically it involved an analysis of class composition, one which at the time was pushing the development of capitalism itself. Such an analysis enabled this group to be remarkably prescient, understanding that the level of working class militancy and self-confidence was causing a crisis of discipline for capitalism, and that its response would be the world of the ‘free market’ in which there was no one to bargain with, and in which wages could be cut by attacks on the currencies in which they were paid. This ‘free market’ which has been a fantasy world for 30 years, is now crashing around our ears, and though he does not deal with the details of derivatives, hedge funds and ratings agencies (as well as finding the very question of value as problematic) he is very clear about what has been going on: when he talks of “the total domination of the real by capital.” And clear again about what will happen (remember this is 2006) when he says, “I believe that the aggressive neoliberal cycle is definitely terminated.”

Not so long after Negri’s real trials and tribulations were over, he suddenly became an international bestseller with the book Empire, co-written with Michael Hardt. A timely book in an attempt not just to analyze globalization, but to see it as an opportunity for communism. This is partly from the rather orthodox Second International Marxism argument that capitalism, as productive forces, must develop itself on a world-wide scale, but also from an analysis of the new class composition that emerged in the ‘free market’ era which happened to coincide with significant developments in those productive forces in the communications and computing sectors.

Since this time he has become something of a Prophet as David Graebner described him. Not, I should say a guru which would be truly banal, but a Prophet proclaiming the possibility of a new world. This is not in itself something derisory, and he is special in adopting this role. Its greatest quality is a powerful optimism. “We need to insist on the perspective of common right; we are on the verge of a new civilization,.” It is a real contrast to a bourgeois pessimism that is prevalent also in what he calls ‘the Left’. A ‘Left’ he defines as “the profound marriage between reformist socialism and bolshevism,” and which he repeatedly condemns. It is a rebuff also to a mirror-image pessimism which, armed with tick-boxes, talks of and emphasises only the imperfections of various struggles. Thus his celebration of the Seattle actions against the WTO while at the same time arguing that this was the beginning of a short cycle of struggle.

All this matters. Experiences of moments of victory are invigorating if they don’t become moments of regret and nostalgia, because they give substance to the hope that things can radically change through mass creative action. For my generation the experience of Portugal in 1974-5 despite its defeat gave a taste of what a communist society might be like; of how radical change, or ‘rupture’ as he calls it, can come as a surprise, and of how subversive that is, when crude notions of inevitability have been a stock in trade of most phases of capitalism. Kristin Ross has emphasized how this is the lasting significance of France in May ’68, a significance smothered by romanticizing, and most of all by blanking out the mass nature of worker action in response to an initial student uprising. Such a strategy was also employed in bourgeois accounts of what happened at Seattle, accounts which Negri dismantles. His own example of sudden change is what he calls the Madrid commune, that street response after the Madrid train bombings when the attempt by a semi-fascist government, certain to win the imminent election, to blame the bombing on Basque separatists, was overturned so that it lost the election. What is especially relevant to our own times at the end of the fantasy world of ‘the free market’, is that what happened in Madrid was a mass revolt against falsification. “It seemed,” he says,” a strange mix of technological elements, indignation and affirmation of the truth.”

All this does matter, but there are problems with the wider, societal claims he makes for the future. The first is a common intellectual problem which is placing too much weight on events and phenomena, and which, by making too big a deal of them, crushes the life out of them. This is the danger of making too much of Seattle or Madrid, of building a theoretical superstructure upon them. This is associated with a tendency to coin words with the intention that the words themselves overcome contradictions and proclaim new realities as if they were already realized. I find this especially problematic given that it is the use of words to replace actualities which is so characteristic of the free market fantasy world, something far more pervasive than Orwell’s “double-speak”. In the case of Negri the word ‘multitudes’ for example, while anticipating that working class composition is not what it was, proclaims a new solidarity by coining a word. It is not simply coining a word, but is built on assumptions that with more coined words give a new gloss to some developments in urban lab our. These are ‘immaterial’, sometimes called ‘cognitive’ labour; a ‘cognitariat’ class; and ‘precacity’.

As a celebration of the co-oparativeness of urban living, it is a proper optimism, one which confronts that reactionary view that we are naturally, egocentric competitors — one in which rare instances of road rage’ are highlighted as against the pragmatic give-and-take of city driving. “The very complexity of our life leads us to act in solidarity; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live,” he writes, and then describes it at its best in his account of the Paris transport strike of 2005. It is what is constructed on top of this that becomes problematic. At times this new ‘multitude’ as ‘’cognitariat’ sounds very like the bourgeois utopianism of Richard Florida’s creative class, which being socially and above all, sexually, liberated, wants to live in urban areas where such a lifestyle prevails. This is especially hard to take when Negri says that ‘the ‘multitude’ “subsumes class”. It rather subsumes real contradictions and the many assertions of heterogeneity of life and struggles, he also seems to be fighting old battles against lingering Leftist notions of the ‘mass worker’. Whereas in another part of the interview, which deals with the war against Bosnia-Herzegovina, he not only sounds like many of the old left with their fantasies of Serbia as ‘communist’, but slides over the three year bombardment of Sarajevo, with its strategy of random terror. He makes no mention of it while relativizing the war, but wasn’t Sarajevo exactly that heterogenous city of the ‘multitude’? And why too the hatred directed at it?

The concept of ‘immaterial/cognitive’ labour on the other hand, looks like the dressing up of an older reality: capital, is always trying to take the knowledge of workers and use it to their advantage, and to the detriment of the same workers. It is all well described by Harry Braverman in his Labour and Monopoly Capital, written 40 years ago. Many sectors of production and the logistics that allow them to connect involve both cognitive and material labour.

He then goes on to idealize cognitive labour, arguing that it is outside the time measurable by the boss, and that what was is new iabout this s that the ‘fixed capital’ – the machinery, equipment and so on – financed and controlled by capital, is being replaced by the individuals of the cognitariat whose “own brain is fixed capital.” It is the key element in the material basis for his optimism which comes from an orthodox Marxist “belief in the development of productive forces.” This is what should be the case in a non-exploitatative economy, but we can hardly ignore how much cognitive labour is engaged in the construction of new weapons; of ‘terminator’ seed technology, the ever larger surveillance industry, not to mention the sophisticated financial sector now descried as ‘casino capitalism’.

Complete coherence in the position of an activist intellectual like Negri, especially in such an extended interview, would be suspicious, rather like Baudelaire’s mistrust of the man who only drinks water. Elsewhere he is materialist, and I would say more accurate, when he says of this shift in what is ‘value’: “The measure of wealth is no longer that which was linked to the classic law of value and industrial development, but is more related to the control of populations and societies, to mechanisms of biopower.” Whereas in idealist mode he often glosses together cognitariat and the ‘precariat’, as if there were no essential difference between people called in to work check-out counters as and when needed, and those mobile and ‘flexible’ creative industry specialists (fetishized by Deleuze and Guattari as ‘nomads’) for whom it means working on short-term contracts. True, there is a multi-dimensional proletarianization of such labour: — “In short, the middle class isn’t what it used to be,” he says – but in this glossing over, he offers no serious class composition analysis of this multitude. May Day is his point of political representation of the ‘multitude’, a day when it shows itself for what it is. But in the UK at least, the policing and state propaganda has been so repressive to mass activity on this day, that it has revealed the gap between the precariat with little going for it, and still up for street action, and other radicals in a more privileged position and anxious not to get a police record or be held for hours by Rule 60 encirclement. The strategy has been to reduce the ‘multitude’ in this manner, so that the state and its media can then turn around and say, “There, we told you so, it is just a handful of people and they are just ‘troublemakers’.

Instead, Negri falls back on an analysis of ‘political composition’ in which he can theorize on “the political organization of mobile labour – flexible, cognitive, precarious etc. Mobility and flexibility have elements of unpredictability…” And this when we know that ‘flexibility’ as imposed means an increase in the intensity of labour, this unpredictability doesn’t seem like much recompense. Not when he offers no clue as to the nature of the political organization, not unless we fantasize of a strategy from another era with a different class composition, The Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World… Even when he does qualify – in that manner interviews allow for – he only says the obvious while stuck with the same abstract vocabulary. “Labour power doesn’t want to be precarious, but it wants to be free to be mobile and flexible if this is the case.” What he does provide, as a prophet should, is a unifying demand: the call for the citizen’s income. And this too matters, that the heterogenous multitude has claims to unify around.

The best thing about Negri’s book is that it too, can take you by surprise. When he talks about particular situations and is not tied down by that vocabulary, he is clearer and always sympathetic to people in struggle. It is what he says of Brazil that comes as the most helpful surprise. The interview was made two years ago, and perhaps it is in those two years that the Workers’ Party government has braked too hard on what was possible, but even in 2006 one might have thought he would not be sympathetic to it. For most of ‘the left’ it is ‘reformist’ and anti-working class, but Negri is able to see a strategy of a country unpicking itself from the model of dependency, and that this is something of a precondition which takes time. “The process of revolutionary rupture against social inequality was evidently postponed to search for a new international equilibrium, necessary for government to re-establish a certain measure of autonomy from capital.” Eurocentric as Negri unashamedly is, he takes on board without ideological judgement that this is probably necessary for Brazil in order for the rupture against social inequality to take place. At the very least he does not imply bad faith on the government’s part. This trust is grounded in the wider political culture of Brazil, which with its various forms of ‘participatory democracy’, has provided a solid base. It is this recognition which highlights of the book’s virtues. The abstract structures Negri can build, sometimes are enough to drive you up the wall, but the generosity of spirit that informs his prophetic confidence in the emergence of a genuine communist society is a tonic.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
johnphotprof.jpg

John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 10th, 2008.