Continuous Crisis – Historical action and passion in Antonio Negri’s Insurgencies

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Judicial hermeneutics
The truism that history is written by (or rather, on behalf of) conquerors is more respectable now than ever before among Sunday supplement intellectuals.  The reason  (where it goes beyond a simple, resentful wish to damn historical analysis per se as ‘irrelevant’) seems to be that victors’ history is easily opposed to that of victims, that ill-defined class in whose name a towering moral authority can always be claimed.  If it does nothing else, Antonio Negri’s book on constituent power, recently published in English as Insurgencies, wrecks this convenient opposition.  Its Italian title translates as “constituent power: essay on the alternatives within modernity”: in the shadow of this concept, Negri outlines a modern social and political  counter-tradition which, though defeated again and again, never attains the saintly glow of victimhood, for it has never acknowledged its project to be finished with.  From Machiavelli’s citizen millitia to the LA rioters of 1992 [1.], these historical agents refuse to become patients represented by the politics of empathy.
Insurgencies was written during its author’s long period of exile in Paris, where he fled after the Italian State sent him to jail for 30 years for terrorist intellectual activity.  At least two points about the case are worth noting here.  First, Negri was only the most famous victim of a Communist Party and trade union-backed purge which saw tens of thousands of jail terms imposed in 1979-80 for such crimes as ‘subversive association’.  The logic of this crackdown could serve as a blueprint for future use of Britain’s new Terrorism Act, in force from February 2001.  By the end of the 1970s the Brigate Rosse  (Red Brigades) was a tiny organisation, a sparse network of closed urban cells increasingly isolated from their working-class supporters.  But the very fact of this invisibility was used both in the State’s propaganda and that of the reformist vanguardists [2.] themselves to suggest that terror was potentially everyhere.  Fear of BR cells’ immanent invisible presence served as pretext for the introduction of Emergency powers.  Widespread detention without charge, followed in most cases by long prison terms, all but physically eliminated a mass movement.  This movement had threatened the existing order with forms of violence very different from that practiced by the BR.[3.]  Second, the accusation that Negri was personally involved in organising BR operations was eventually dropped for want of even the shreds of evidence needed to convince Italian judges at that point.  Thus the 30-year jail term, confirmed by Italy’s post-Christian Democrat ‘Second Republic’ in 1997 when Negri returned to Italy and was immediately thrown back into Rebibbia prison, was based entirely on the judges’ attribution of ‘terroristic’ effects to the contents of his writing [4.].  This piece of judicial hermeneutics famously led Michel Foucault to remark that Negri was in jail ‘for being an intellectual’.
The Italian State is still anxious to keep Negri out of circulation: a request for “semi-liberty” was turned down last year.  However the ‘antagonist’ left seems less sure that his arguments still pack any subversive punch. Aufheben, for example, suggests that in isolation from ‘the movement’ he has fallen prey to an unjustified optimism with no empirical basis in social reality since the ’70s.  George Caffentizis of Midnight Notes sees him ineffectually flinging ‘theological curses’ at an indifferent capitalist machine. [5.]
The evident contradiction between the two groups of ‘engaged’ readers’ responses is one reason to ask whether Negri’s recent writing poses any threat to capitalist order (or rather whether it is of any use to subjects who wish to do so).  Another reason is the clear continuity between the work which led to his imprisonment and the ideas explored in Insurgencies.  In the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, theorists from the Italian ‘workerist’ and ‘autonomist’ movements (of which Negri is wrongly seen in the anglophone world as a kind of living paradigm) described the changing subjective forms of living labour, emphasising its independence from the ‘dead labour’ accumulated in capital and, in the transition from the ‘mass’ industrial worker to the ‘social worker’ who lives by ‘immaterial labour’, the extension of its power beyond the factory walls and into the (re)production of everyday life.  This theoretical work was grounded in a practice which linked wildcat strikes, absenteeism and industrial sabotage with housing occupations, free provision of services by utility and transport workers, and ‘proletarian shopping’: mass festive looting of supermarkets.  The opposition between constituent and constituted power around which Insurgencies is structured provides an  ontological and historical surface onto which these forms of labour-subjectivity can be ‘mapped’; to this extent the present work is also grounded in revolutionary praxis.  The problem is, what can this conceptual mapping contribute to the recomposition of an antagonist subjectivity all but shattered by 30 years of successful capitalist counter-revolution?

Self-insufficiency
The book begins with a brief survey of the inadequacies of various juridical theories of constituent power, the crucial and elusive concept from which its focus never shifts.  Next, constituent power is distinguished from the moment of Sovereignty (Carl Schmitt) (6.), the ‘state of exception’ which founds constitutional order.  Similarly rejected are Hannah Arendt’s idealist vision of strictly political freedom with nothing to do with ownership of wealth, and all attempts to base legitimacy on ideas of ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’.  Instead, Negri turns to Foucault for a concept of ‘power’ with which the terms ‘constituent’ and ‘constituted’ can be combined.  The French writer presents power as an ‘open, constructive’ relation between subject and procedure, non-teleological production of freedom and/or servitude.  Marx identified this ‘open’ production, whose determinations are historically contingent, never ‘natural’ or beyond human intervention, as the activity of living labour.  The remainder of Insurgencies attempts to understand its meaning in a world in which the face of labour has changed beyond recognition.
The five central chapters trace the historical antagonism between constituent and constituted power, beginning with Machiavelli’s Italian city-States then passing through the English, French, American and Russian revolutions.  In each of these episodes the productive force of human collaboration (constituent power) engenders a crisis in the order and the apparatus that captures, contains and exploits it (constituted power).  Eventually each conflict is ‘resolved’ in an enforced compromise, a new mode of capture: power is constituted once again, class subjects are recomposed at a new level of tension.  Revolutionary ‘victory’ generally means settling back into latent hostility after an interlude of open warfare, hopefully with the subaltern side enjoying more strategic autonomy than before.
A look at Revolutionary France’s three Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789,’93,’95) illustrates this process.  In 1789 ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are abstract, unproblematic notions based on a reading of Rousseau.  By 1793, however, these categories are weighed down with material specifications.  The citizen’s services and time can be hired out, but his person is not alienable property.  ‘”Public assistance is a sacred debt”‘, society owes subsistence to the ‘unfortunate’.  The social body is oppressed whenever a single one of its members suffers.  These concrete prescriptions ‘break with Rousseau’s ambiguity…the transcendental concept of general will is reversed’: social space is no longer a shared ideal in people’s heads, but ‘the direct terrain of its operativity’, the physical world of objects, needs and deires[7.].  Thus the text of 1793 expresses the brief political triumph of the ‘convulsive temporality of the Sansculottes’, the impatience of ‘multitude that does not want to be the populace / constituent power that does not want to be the bourgeoisie / freedom that doesn’t want any limit’ despised by Hannah Arendt [8.].
Inevitably, the document of 1795 reflects the reactionary politics of the intervening period, attempting to limit the effects of its predecessor.  ‘Equality’ is affirmed once more, but is explicitly ‘reconducted to the norm of property’, the individual’s ‘”right to enjoy and dispose of his goods, his revenues, the fruits of his labour and his industry”‘.  Yet the very form of this reaction confirms the fundamental success of 1793: ‘the dislocation of the point of reference from the abstract terrain of the general will to the concrete terrain of the law and the order of property.  The advancement of constituent power in society obliges the reaction itself to make manifest the social discrimination on which it is founded.’  Even as the propertyless Parisian multitude relinquishes control of the state machine, it dictates the terms for the future exercise of power.  From this moment onwards the political tends to become the social.  Command of material wealth is at stake in the work of ‘administration’.
Of course there would be little point in simply playing out this drama of crisis and restored order in a variety of settings as though the process were intrinsically meaningful.  As well as projecting the concept of constituent power onto an empirical plane, Negri’s selective narrative of the modern period traces a tendency which traverses and gives sense to the Italian, English, American, French and Russian episodes.  The ‘constituent principle’ itself is defined as ‘continuity of crisis between social productive strength and State legitimation’.  In reality there can be no alternation between emergency and normality, for there is no normality, only perpetual reinvention of crisis.  Modernity appears as a series of attempts by haphazardly constituted powers to mediate the force of the multitude and the upheaval it engenders.  Their attempts become increasingly desperate as techniques of mediation are successively undermined.  Britain’s universalisation of the North of Ireland ‘Emergency’ laws in the absence of any specified threat bears witness to the fact that (as Walter Benjamin announced long ago) in the course of the twentieth century a ‘State of Emergency’ has become the norm.  The question that follows from this quasi-commonplace, to which Insurgencies provides no solution (but offers methods and materials to be used in finding one), is, what kind of collective subject might inhabit or rather embody this perpetual crisis not as traumatic disorientation but as productive freedom?
The tradition traced by Negri from Machiavelli to the Sansculottes culminates in the industrial proletarian expression of constituent power defined by Marx.  ‘Capitalist reality’ is the only ‘totality of modernity’ from which constituent power can be liberated.  In his account of the genesis of the capitalist State Marx ‘confronts the riddle of the originary, constitutive violence of the social and political order’.  The development of law from primitive accumulation depends both on violence and on co-operation.  The violent appropriation of others’ labour — the meaning of ‘accumulation’ — is ‘naturalized’ as law when it reaches its greatest intensity.  Right is ‘the immediate superstructure of violence and its refinement’: the rising bourgeoisie needs the coercive power of the State ‘to regulate wages, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence’.  Thus law (or constituted power) appears as ‘a sort of average level of violence that overdetermines every social relationship’.  This process not only produces commodities and surplus value but reproduces the capital relation itself, the functions of the capitalist and worker (in the broadest sense of the word) as such.
Yet in order to achieve the momentum needed for expansion, capitalism depends on co-operative production.  Marx noted that 12 people working together produce far more than 144 solitary working hours; what’s more, the productivity of ‘association and contact’ increases as interaction becomes more complex.
Generalised labour co-operation was first organised by capital through the discipline of the factory code.  However, precisely the concentration of this authority and its separation from the workers themselves tends to reveal the latent antagonism between their co-operation and the enterprise’s command.  ‘By making the power of command and thus also the juridical sphere increasingly independent…capitalism destroys the relationship [between associative labour and command], determines its conditions of rupture, and prepares the liberation of co-operation from its antagonist link to capitalism’.
Marx traced the ‘self-making’ of workers’ collective subjectivity through co-operation in the 19th century English struggles over the length of the working day. Here Negri sees the evolution of constituent power as a real, independent material force, ‘an unsatisfied tension towards enjoyment, which wants to subtract itself from the block that capitalist objectification tries to impose and in this operation of self-subtracting…constitute itself’.  To the extent that this tension is unsatisfied, a contingent experience of self-insufficiency (not an essential ‘lack’ in the Lacanian sense) to be supplemented socially, it recalls the SPK theory of illness as social energy and weapon.  These passages also develop the allusions to Imagination as  productively erring desire in Negri’s book on Spinoza (The Savage Anomaly, trans. Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1981), written during his first period of imprisonment.
As living labour’s withdrawal from the embrace of the other which needs it but of which it has no need, this moment also marks the beginning of the end of the relation between constituent and constituted power.  The ‘self’-subtraction’ of the former from the latter coincides with the final convergence of ‘the social’ and ‘the political’.  This is no dialectical suicide pact between opposite terms.  ‘The political’, which the classical age had configured through social orders and modernity saw in terms of representation, is wholly absorbed into the dynamic of co-operative living labour’.  For Negri the materialsm and the ‘creative strength’ of Marx’s thought lies in his insistence that the abolition of ‘the political’ as an idealized separate category would ‘make it live as a catgory of social interaction.’
In the light of this discovery the experience of the USSR cannot be regarded as the historical anomaly, the essentially meaningless nightmare to which post-cold war narratives (whether triumphalist or melancholic) would reduce it.  For it was in Russia that the full subsumption of the political in the social was first played out in painful reality.  In fact the process has yet to be pushed as far elsewhere, as the survival of Western parliamentary ‘democracy’ as a self-sufficient and trivial spectacle, detached from all material conditions, goes to show.  Thus Negri is able to argue that ‘the soviet constituent experience, immediately after 1917, far from being limited to the socialist State, becomes the problem of the capitalist State.'(9.)  Within the USSR the ‘reformist practice of capital'(10.) confronted the constituent power of the soviets (for as long as the latter survived) without the distorting mediation of a separate ‘political’ sphere.   Capital ‘draws precious teachings’ from the form of the soviets’ institutionalization (not from institutionalization as mere fact): the soviet is integrated in the State ‘as participation in the organization of production, as support of the ideology of labour, as instrument of planning'(11.).  ‘Western’ capitalism has long since staked its survival on a similar incorporation: the ‘democratic imprisonment’ of worker subjectivity ‘in its vicious figure as commodity’, directly material (rather than political) recuperation of the ‘worker variable’ through participation in the organization of labour according to ‘capitalist finalities of production'(12.).
The first fragmented hints of this strategy appear in the Weimar Republic.  The subsequent (post-1929 and above all postwar) triumph of Keynesian planning sets it up more securely: in exchange for higher wages and recognition of labour as social protagonist workers’ ‘representatives’ in trade unions and social-democratic parties deliver rising productivity and acceptance of the horizon of capitalist expropriation.  A new phase of incorporation arrives with ‘postindustrial’ society, in which workers employed in ‘immaterial labour’ are granted an unprecedented degree of individual and collective control of the productive process, in exchange for an unreserved investment of (individual and collective) subjectivity in the corporate interest, a committment amounting to a 24-hour working day.  A key argument in Negri’s work, explored more thoroughly elsewhere, is that this capitalist strategy is a reaction to proletarian constituent power’s destruction of the Keynsian post-war settlement .  The May ’68 upheaval in France and continuous insurrection through the following decade in Italy broke the trade unions’ hegemony within the working class, interrupting the channelling of workers’ antagonistic energy back into the labour market.  Thus there is no longer any room for ‘communism within the strictures of capitalist planning'(13.), no use for the mediation of ‘civil society'(14.): the only possibilites left are subsumption without remainder of social life in the capital relation, or irreversible rupture of constituent from constituted power, detachment of all human activity from the wretched time-measure that prepares it for exchange.

Negri beyond Negri
Yet in spite of all this, Negri declares in his final chapter that ‘we are beyond Marx’. This is an unsettling gesture, since it is Marx who finds in living labour an adequate embodiment of constitutent power and creator of ‘the general social conditions through which it can be expressed'(15.).  The claim that Marx’s theory of the working class as historical carrier of constituent power ‘has now reached its historical limit’, repeated elsewhere in his writing (The Politics of Subversion, Polity Press Cambridge, 1989) has no doubt contributed to the skepticism regarding Negri’s recent work within ‘the movement’ from which, as an intellectual celebrity in Parisian exile, he was cut off.  However, the implications of such statements may not be as simple as they seem; in fact they may allow the author’s analysis to be applied beyond the limits of his intention.
It is not clear whether Negri is arguing that the proletariat per se is finished as a bearer of constitutent power, or whether the ‘historical limit’ is that of Marx’s particular formulation, which specified the waged industrial working class as privileged revolutionary subject.  The former option might appeal to ‘common sense’, but it presents certain problems.  To say that the proletariat is no longer an adequate bearer of constituent power would imply a preference for some other subject, but no such alternative is proposed in the book.  ‘Constituent power’ certainly cannot be made to stand as a subject ‘in itself’, taking the place of any more specific figure.  As the Italian, English, French and Russian episodes demonstrate, ‘constituent power’ is a function, a property which throughout history particular collectives have attained, embodied then relinquished in allowing their hegemony to take constitutional form.  Therefore for the term to be the name of any real subject is logically impossible; to call ‘constituent power’ the bearer of constituent power is absurd.
The refusal to name a completely new constituent subject for a world ‘beyond Marx’ leaves only one way Negri’s argument can be made to cohere.  Since the 1960s capital has fended off the threat posed by waged industrial workers’ subversion of the Keynsian settlement(16.) by simultaneously undermining those workers’ economic power and their composition as a collective subject(17.), cancelling forever Marx’s prophecy that they would carry out the final extrication of living from dead labour, constituent from constituted power.  However the defeat of one group of workers does not mean either the final triumph of capitalism , or that anyone other than the proletariat (in the sense of a class ‘without reserve'(18)), with no accumulated labour to fall back on, only the capacity to act as producer and destroyer) can be relied on to overthrow it.  An adequate theoretical understanding of the transformation of production, the spread of an immanent, intimate form of exploitation, is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the emergence of a proletarian constituent power capable of achieving autonomy.  Negri’s identification of this subject with the ‘immaterial labour’ of information workers in ‘advanced’ countries(19.) has been mocked or denounced from a variety of perspectives.  The strength of Insurgencies may lie in the fact that, rather than rehearsing this argument once more, it provides tools and criteria with which the contours of ‘post-industrial’ proletarian constituent subjectivity can be traced, leaving open the possiblity that the reader may perceive a figure very different from the one the author had in mind.
Of course, no simple definition of a constituent subject is given.  Rather, the book sets out a series of problems to be addressed in the process of deriving the idea of such a subject from social practice.  Certain attributes ascribed to the constituent ‘multitude’ could just as easily be claimed by radical liberalism: for example ‘diversity’ is invoked in opposition to ‘uniformity’, ‘equality’ against ‘privilege’ and ‘co-operation’ (familiar as the trademark of the ‘horizontal’ workforce of the capitalist utopian future) against ‘command’.  Which way such ambiguities are resolved — the meaning of ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ and ‘co-operation’ in this context — is decided by these terms’ alignment with others that ensure the incompatibility of the whole with capitalist ends(20.).  Insistence on ‘procedure/process against the deductive mechanism of substantial right and the constitutional machine’ implicitly undermines the idealistic legal basis of the modern State.  The attack is focused less on law-making (a historically contingent exercise, influenced to some degree by action from ‘below’) than on the transcendent abstraction of constitutional, judicial and ‘executive’ authority.  Frequent media  allusions to a ‘post-political age'(21.) refer to the sapping of national and local legislative powers in favour of precisely these mechanisms.
For instance much of the European Union’s orientation towards private ownership, competition and economic ‘flexibility’ is inscribed at the level of constitutional obligation rather than legislative policy.  Thus the officials carrying out these imperatives are able to present their work as merely ‘administrative’ rather than political, justifying their unelected status and the impossibiliy of contesting their activities within any sort of institutional framework.  If the present trasferral of powers from legislative to often supranational ‘administrative’ strata already tends towards the eclipse of the national State-form known to the last century, to equate it with the weakening of the State per se would be a dangerous mistake.  Moreover this realignment of authority cannot be understood other than as one inseparable aspect of the wholesale subsumption of social life in the capitalist time-measure.  The  catastrophe which Negri wishes on the State-form, on the other hand, results from a mode of activity irreducible to any external measure.  The future constituent subject cannot co-exist with the irreducible core of capitalism,  i.e.with exchange based on the abstraction and measurement of labour-time.
Thus far (22.) a series of oppositions has gone some way towards revealing what the emerging constituent subject cannot be.  The remaining ‘conditions for an authentic development of constituent power’, all invoked by Rosa Luxemburg (23.), attempt to lay the ground on which its positive contents could be defined.  First, it is ‘radically democratic’ in the sense understood by Machiavelli. In the course of the book it becomes clear that if the term ‘democracy’ means anything at all it can have nothing whatsoever to do with representation.  The chapter on the American revolution shows how the representative system was mobilized (by Madison in particular, see The Federalist, vol. 10) to ward off ‘the illusion that the principles…of popular control, of an always active constituent principle do not lead to catastrophe'(24.).  Later in a French context Emmanuel Sieyès identifies mediation as the essential characteristic of representative government.  The concept of limited and divided sovereignty mediated by elected representatives projects the division of labour mediated by money into the artifically separated ‘political’ sphere.
Some indication of the depth of Negri’s disenchantment, the rigour of his anti-idealism, may be read into the positive concept of non-representative democracy he is able to extract from the thought of John Caldwell Calhoun, the political theorist invoked by the American Confederate States(25.).  Calhoun’s case for dissenting States’ right to dissolve the Union opposes the notion (however hypocrytically stated) that ‘what is unjust for some is unjust for all’ to the banker Alexander Hamilton’s model of the constitution as indefinitely binding business contract.  The question is fundamentally temporal: one moment cannot represent another.  For Negri as for Calhoun, a subject’s present interests and power cannot be subordinated to a former reality, i.e. to the moment when authority was delegated or a contract signed.  Interest in a pact among constituent subjects is legitimated by the ability to impede its functioning, and the pact itself is legitimated by the consent of all subjects with this ability; hence a ‘simple arithmetic majority’ is no guarantee of right(26.).  Where all subjects with a material power of veto cannot agree (based not on ‘principle’ but on ‘economic calculation of affinity’, weighing the effects of the pact’s possible dissolution against those of surrendering a particular advantage), ‘the power of receding from the pact beomes…reactualized — because constituent power…appears at this point to be a negative power…the power of resistance'(27.).
Negri calls Calhoun’s position ‘radically appropriative’, in that a non-representational concept of democracy dependent on antagonistic subjects’ material power is preferred to the constitutionalists’ contractual model, modelled on the ideal obligation that guarantees commercial transactions.  Consequently this part of the argument points to the next two, the temporal and spatial horizons which situate constituent power within the scope of ‘absolute materialism'(28.).  The spatial element is exemplified in the American equation of freedom with ‘frontier’, and in English Revolutionary theorist James Harrington’s grounding of counter-power in control of land.  The temporal dimension is expressed in the explosive ‘time of the Sansculottes’, and in conflicts over labour-time from the nineteenth century to the present.  In a way the insistence that what revolutionary subjectivity must constitute is time and space themselves is a re-phrasing of Marx’s lesson that the ‘political’ is nothing other than the social.  This rigorously materialist foundation of subjective action is reinforced by an emphasis, particularly in the references to the militia, ‘the people in arms’, in the sections on Machiavelli and Harrington, on the necessity of a capacity for constitutive violence.
Yet this double horizon extends, once again, ‘beyond Marx’, in demanding that ‘politics’ not only be wholly social, but irreducibly ontological, in the sense that the multitude’s  action constitutes being.  It is called on to construct time and space, whereas capital can only attempt a posteriori to appropriate and command these things.  Negri’s repeated references to the ‘ontological function’ of constituent power as ‘second nature’ and ‘prosthesis’ recall materialist biologist(29.) Richard C. Lewontin’s formulation: social organization does not reflect the limitations of individual biological being (the so-called laws of nature), it is their negation‘.  Human individuals are able to defy gravity and fly, for example, and have access far greater stores of information than one person’s memory could contain (through printing, libraries, computers etc.) as a result of social action.
The final component of the ‘constituent’ assemblage returns us to the idea of a ‘counter tradition’ haunting the institutions of modernity.  No-one has gone further than James Harrington in conceptualizing this ‘latency’.  His attempt to give social, material content to the English revolution was defeated by the gentry in successive alliances with the yeomanry and the industrial bourgeoisie.  Yet he demonstrates that ‘constituent power can live beyond its own temporal defeat…as latency that traverses a world…where unjust social relations have triumphed…a world that will be destroyed by the constituent power of the multitude'(30.).  The historical cases covered by the book show again and again how new institutional arrangements, instances of constituted power, are able take over from the orders preceding them thanks to the constituent action of a multitude which must subsequently be contained in order to stabilize the new constitution.  This containment is the defeat of the constituent subject, yet the latter persists as ‘latency’ in a double sense: the recent social mutation, the new reality, is due entirely to its action, and it never stops seeking to break out of its confinement, to rise up again refusing the new restriction of its freedom.  (Hence the vigour with which ‘revolutionary’ governments, safely established as constituted power, act to hold down down ‘their own’ constituent multitudes.  The Bolsheviks’ murder of the Kronstadt sailors is an obvious example.)  This ‘latent’ survival of multitudes’ desire is mirrored on a conceptual plane by the persistence of an intellectual ‘counter-tradition’ in which Machiavelli, Spinoza, Marx and Foucault trace a ‘line of flight’ from Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s contractualism and Hegel’s dialectic.
When Negri asks whether ‘that concept of “latency”…[isn’t] the representation of a project that is not only defeated, but also definitively consumed’, the response can only be a complex one.  In its ‘latent’ form constituent power at least retains the practical and ontological ‘open-endedness’ that distinguishes it from constitution, in which, by contrast, particular cases are deduced mechanically from a given law (in the capitalist world, that of value).  But of course this openess is useless if the constituent subject cannot act to determine the disjunctive course of history.  Therefore the task for practice and theory is to discover how a constituent subject can act as historical protagonist without allowing its labour to accumulate, its power to be constituted as law.

The future turned upside down
Negri’s writing on Harrington contains one almost submerged indication of an area in which future work might discover an effective approach to this problem.  The 17th century revolutionary’s thought on ‘latency’, he observes, ‘marks a revival of Protestant ascesis in its most radical and even theologically founded dimension…constituent power as a sacred movemnent of renovatio, as an ever open possibility of the revolutionary process'[31.].  One of the main sources for the chapter on the English revolution, Christopher Hill’s magnificent The World Turned Upside Down, richly illustrates the political and social manifestations of this radical tendency within 17th century Protetantism.  Looking in detail at certain Leveller, True Leveller and Quaker factions as well as at Seekers, Diggers and Ranters, Hill shows that the very theological foundations of the mainstream ‘Protestant Ethic’ — characterised briefly as ‘an emphasis on the religious duty of working hard in one’s calling, of avoiding the sins of idleness, waste of time, over indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh’ — which obliged ‘the industrious middle classes in town and country…to impose regular, disciplined labour on the lower classes’ [32.], also generated a formidable ‘counter culture’, especially among low and supposedly idle social strata.
As early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, Libertines allegedly believed that ‘a man ought not to weary his body in travail and labour; for…the Holy Ghost would not tarry in a body that was weary and irksome’ [33.].  Official Puritan culture placed enormous emphasis on two things: predestined individual salvation or damnation, of which worldly wealth or poverty should be interpreted as a sign, and a personal, psychological relation to God, without the mediation of church ritual.  The combination of these two doctrines had an extraordinary power of psychological coercion, ensuring the more or less voluntary servitude of a majority of ‘yeomen, craftsmen, merchants [and] some gentlemen’ as the 17th century wore on.  Yet, writes Hill, ‘the mass of the lower classes remained resistant until coerced by the brutal economic pressures of the 18th century Industrial Revolution’ [34.].  Their resistance was not a result of the ‘turning upside down’ of Puritan doctrine, but it could draw strength from such an inversion.  From the interiorisation of religious experience, the primacy of faith over ecclesiastical or dogmatic authority, it is only a short step to the rejection of all worldly authority in the anarchistic thought of the Ranters Abeizer Coppe and Lawrence Clarkson.  Similarly, the doctrine of election (predestination) takes on an altogether different meaning in case of failure to agree who are the elect.  Put simply, if Heaven is no longer a reward for social conformity, and the blackmail of wealth as sign of salvation is rejected, there is no longer any reason to work for the enrichment of one’s ‘betters’.
Yet even Hill does not focus on the one element of 17th century revolutionary culture that secretly points to the 21st century future.  Radical Protestant sects exploited the socially explosive implications of the Calvinist doctrine of time.  In dramatic contrast to Catholic and Neoplatonic notions of a paradoxical continuity linking Earthly cycles of decay to Heavenly eternity (and therefore justifying the authority of tradition), Calvinism insists on the infinite gulf between Divine changelessness and fallen earthly time, which as a consequence of mankind’s sin is radically disjunctive.  Part of humanity’s punishment for Adam’s crime is the painful experience of temporal discontinuity, the impossibility of knowing the past or understanding the future.  To varying degrees, the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and rationalist middle-class radicals like John Milton drew the dramatic social and political conclusion that there is no intrinsic value in the past or in the present state of affairs as its product.  On this basis there is no reason to respect either religious or political authority or inherited wealth; but more than this, radical Protestant time is revolutionary because with every moment it abolishes the world that was, and requires that a new world be created.
Let us return to Negri’s almost subdued suggestion: Harrington revives ‘Protestant ascesis in its most radical and…theologically founded dimension’ [emphasis added].  What does this ‘ascesis’ refer to if not to the same thing which at the end of his book Negri mysteriously insists on calling ‘love of time’, proclaiming it to be the definitive quality of contemporary constitutent power?  Love of time is ascesis inasmuch as it means privation of continuity.  Or rather, not of continuity itself but of its ‘reliability’, its objective availability in the way that objects of study are made available to the subject of techno-scientific knowledge.  What remains when every such spatialized, sub-divided, representation of continuity is renounced resembles ‘tendency’ in Henri Bergson’s sense [35.]: continuity of transformation (or, in Negri’s terminology, of ‘crisis’) itself.  Motion, as Bergson proved, is indivisible, and what is continuously transformed is the very relation between subject and object.  This understanding of process (or ‘procedure’, which Negri privileges over ‘measure’ in absolute terms) undermines the basis for any ‘scientific’ interpretation of past events and any attempt to quantify and ‘manage’ risk.  ‘Ascetic’ love of time means forever being called upon to destroy and reinvent not only the world but oneself as well.
Revolutionary temporality conceived as ascesis or privation resonates closely with the image of ‘potentiality’ presented by Giorgio Agamben in a recent essay.  He identifies the problem of potentiality, of the verb ‘can’ [potere, which translates literally as ‘power’], inherited from Aristotle’s De Anima, as the paradox of ‘the existence of non-Being’: ‘”to have a faculty” means to have a privation’ [36.].  Potentiality or privation, says Aristotle, ‘is like a face’: not simple lack, but ‘the presence of an absence’.  If this were not true, if potentiality were known only through actuality and the abstract idea of its withdrawal, it would not be possible to see darkness, to hear silence.  This means that ‘active’ potentiality, an architect’s ability to build or a poet’s to write poems, is also essentially potential not to do, not to build or write.  Within this insight is concealed the source of the ‘new and coherent ontology of potentiality’ destined to replace that founded on the primacy of actuality, the call for which Agamben acknowledges as the redeeming strength of Insurgencies, in an otherwise highly critical account.  According to Aristotle, ‘if a potentiality to not-be originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such’.  Understood ‘in all its difficulty’, this text suggests that what is exhausted in ‘the act as such’ is not potentiality itself but the potentiality-not-to or impotentiality from which, until that moment, it is inseparable.  Thus potentiality is not annulled but ‘conserves itself and saves itself’ or, following Aristotle again, ‘gives itself to itself’ in becoming-actual.  Here at least is the metaphysical shadow of a constituent power which would neither pass into the spatialized stasis of constitution nor languish in perpetual latency, but would act in the material world without giving up its delicate opening to contingency, its coldly ascetic love of time.

[1.]Il potere costituente: saggio sulle alternative del moderno was first published in Italy in 1992, so obviously it was written before the uprising took place.  However Negri’s awareness of the imminence of such a manifestation within the tradition of constituent counter-power is made unmistakeably clear at the end of chapter 4 (on the American revolution).  For a very strong interpretation of the 1992 events as class revolt, see Aufheben No.1 (Autumn 1992), or: http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/aut_html/Aufheben/auf1la.htm
[2.] Both in the first years marked by the hegemony of Renato Curcio and during the later ‘militaristic’ period, the BR shed their own blood and others’ not for the sake of the abolition of capital or even of the Italian State, but merely in the hope of overthrowing the country’s Christian Democrat dynasty.  The extraordinary slogan ‘armed struggle in support of reforms’ makes satire redundant.  Curcio’s position is explained and the subsequent activity of the BR analysed on the basis of ‘inside’ knowledge, in A viso aperto, co-written with Mario Sciajola, Mondadori, Milano, 1993.
[3.] For more on the context of the Italian crackdown, see the essay Do You Remember Revolution, a first attempt at a history of Autonomia Operaio written in Rebibbia Prison in 1983 by a group of 11 Autonomia prisoners including Negri, most recently anthologised in English in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. Michael Hardt & Paolo Virno, University of Minnesota Press (Theory Out Of Bounds Series), Minneapolis, 1996.  For an extremely schematic account of the period and its relatio to the present situation, see my ‘Plague in this Town’ in Datacide 4.
[4.] The charges explicitly saddled Negri with moral responsibility for violence carried out both by the BR and by Autonomia Operaio.  The latter, a loose association of revolutionary subjects in which Negri played a key role, was far removed from the BR both politically and practically.  State agencies could hardly have been unaware of this division, but made a strategic decision to equate the two organisations in all public discourse.
[5.]  Aufheben’s comment comes in the context of a clear and insightful account of the earlier politics of Autonomia (whose historical perspective is distinguished from Negri’s more recent ‘errors’), the Situationist International and Socialisme ou Barbarie, entitled ‘The Theory of decline or the Decline of Theory (part 2)’.  Available in Aufheben No.3 (Summer 1994) or: http://lists.village,virginia.edu/~spoons/aut_html/Aufheben/auf3dec2.htm
Caffentzis’ article provocatively links Negri’s work to the recent fashion for ‘end of work’ theories among bourgeois liberal commentators.  It can be found at: http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/global/Papers/caffentzis
[6.] Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher who shares some comon ground with Negri, criticises Insurgencies for asserting that constituent power is fundamentally different from sovereignty without providing a clear account of the distinction.  It is true that no such evidence is offered; although this does not automatically disprove Negri’s claim, it does seem to point to a limitation.  The disagreement is too complex and too important to deal with in full here, given that the question of sovereignty has no direct bearing on the aspects of Negri’s book discussed here.  In any case, what Agamben is saying is not that sovereignty and constituent power are necessarily the same thing, but that they cannot be finally separated except by ‘a new and coherent ontology of potentiality’.  The great strength of Negri’s book, he acknowledges, is the force of it argument that a future constituent ‘politics’ must pass through precisely such a philospohical territory.  See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998, pages 43-44.
[7.] Antonio Negri, Insurgencies, trans. Maurizia Boscagli, University of Minnesota Press (Theory Out Of Bounds Series), Minneapolis, 1999, page 206
[8.] ibid.
[9.] Negri, 298
[10.]  Unless the Trotskyist hypothesis of an originally pure workers’ State which ‘degenerated’ at some later date is accepted it must be assumed that capitalist practices were at least present if not dominant in the USSR from the outset.  If this tendency only fully revealed itself with the reintroduction of Taylorism and one man management, these moves were essential elements of the drive towards industrialization which had always been the Bolsheviks’ priority.
[11.] Negri, 299
[12.] ibid.
[13.] ibid.
[14.]  The term ‘civil society’ has recently been widely used with reference to NGOs and non-violent ‘protest’ and lobbying groups.  This designation unintentionally reveals the complicity of these subjects as mediators between State institutions and subaltern multitudes — the paradigm for this role is of course the trade union.  A recent book co-written by Negri and American academic Michael Hardt shows how, media epiphenomena notwithstanding, the function of precisely this ‘civil society’ is disappearing with the ‘real subsumption’ of society in capital and the (trans-national) State.  See Labor of Dionysus, University of Minnesota Press (Theory Out of Bounds Series), Minneapolis, 1994.
[15.] Negri, 33
[16.]  The Keynsian ‘postwar settlement’ temporarily contained the threat posed to capital’s expansion by the struggles for income and against working time of the industrial ‘mass worker’.  Rising income and a range of social benefits (limited working hours, health services, a welfare system) were provided in exchange for rising productivity and labour’s active participation in capitalist ends through channeling of its antagonistim into the ‘demands’ of trade unions and social-democratic parties.  Workers broke free of this compromise through ‘upward wage rigidity’: the separation of steadily rising wages from the requirement for correspondingly rising productivity.  The brutality of the ‘restructuring’ with which capital has responded over the past 30 years testifies to the seriousness with which it regarded the threat it was faced with at the time.
[17.] The restructuring commonly referred to by the term ‘globalization’ involves the dissolution of the industrial ‘mass worker’s’ power through the use of new technology in European and American factories and the transfer of heavy industrial production to geographicala areas where labour is subject to ‘the blackmail of hunger’ as well as direct political repression.  A strong accounts of these processes can be found in issue 7 of Do Or Die under the title ‘Globalisation: Origin-History-Analysis-Resistance’.  An equally crucial part of capital’s self-transformation is the move to full exploitation of the aspects of life outside industrial production, known in traditional Marxist language as ‘social reproduction’.  This tendency is theorized by Debord as the emergence of the ‘integrated spectacle’, dividing the class which had formerly identified itself as the proletariat in two.  On one hand an ‘underclass’ subject to immanent policing and forced to procure bare survival ‘by any means necessary’ has appeared: this is the productive force behind the prodigious growth of the industries linked to ‘security’, imprisonment, illegal drugs and mediated fear.   Meanwhile, another component of the formerly self-conscious working class sees its ‘immaterial labour’ expropriated 24 hours a day, but is comprised of individuals who pig-ignorantly identify themselves as ‘atomized, middle class’ personalities.  An extremely prescient description of the beginnings of these phenomena is contained in Harry Cleaver’s Reading ‘Capital’ Politically, reisuued last year by AK Press.
[18.]  The notion of the proletariat as the class ‘without reserves’ (senza riserve) was fomulated by Amadeo Bordiga, the first leader of the Italian Communist Party in the period after World War 2 (long after his departure from the party).  In the words of Gilles Dauvé and François Martin (The Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement Antagonism Press c/o BM Makhno, London WC1N 3XX, or www.skatta.demon.co.uk), ‘The proletariat…is not the collection of the poor, but of those who are desperate, those who have no reserves…who have nothing to lose but their chains; those who are nothing, have nothing, and cannot liberate themselves without destroying the whole social order.’
[19.]  This is a recurring theme in Negri’s work of the last 20 years.  For a concise, recent statement of his position here, see the Part 3 of Labor of Dionysus  (see note 14,  above.)  Another of the numerous texts elaborating the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ is the essay Lavoro Immateriale e Soggetività, co-written with Maurizio Lazzarato (another key figure in the development of this concept), in the first issue (numero zero) of the Italian journal DeriveApprodi.
[20.] Thus the revolutionary subject is ‘machinic’ in Deleuze’s sense: the abstract machine ‘precedes’ concrete components, in that their nature is wholly determined by co-participation in it.
[21.]  Politics for a Post-Political Age is actually the title of a book by Geoff Mulgan, head of ‘think tank’ Demos and Blairite lickspittle extraordinaire.  An idea of his ‘communitarian’ utopia can be gleaned from the fact that in an earlier book he argued that television is an adequate basis for a social bond, a template for ethical consensus, to the point that not watching constitutes a sort of ‘elitist’ moral delinquency.  The universalization of small-town thinking that made Adorno shudder at the idea of a ‘global village’ becomes a positive value in Mulgan’s vision of the near future: ‘politics’ is to be replaced by a sort of post-modern return to village moralism, through the uncontested hegemony of ‘public opinion’ articulated by broadcast media.
[22.] Of course this division is introduced solely for the reviewer’s rhetorical convenience; the book itself is structured according to other imperatives.
[23.] Negri, 295 / R.Luxemburg, Scritti scelti, Milano, 1963, 567-85
[24.] Negri,159
[25.]  Negri confronts directly the claim that Calhoun’s thought must be worthless a priori as the politician and theorist was unequivocaly a racist and his arguments were presented ‘in the service of a slave order’.  He calls this a ‘ridiculous and hypocritical objection’, given that the very American constitution order against which his ideas were received as an outrage was itself founded on the slave order and on the genocide of the Native American Nations. Only through ‘a new constituent experience, in terms of counterpower’, he argues, ‘an experience and a struggle paradoxically Calhounian, will allow the African American people to conquer not only their formal freedom, but the economic and political capability to sit among the peoples of the Federation.’  Or in other words, the material power to impose their interests on and against those of (overwhelmingly white) capital, to sabotage the social functioning of the Union until they are able to seize and hold on to what they need.  (See Negri, 186.)
[26.] Negri,184
[27.] ibid.
[28.]  The term ‘absolute materialism was used by Antonin Artaud in his later writings, which search for a materialism and a permeable, multiple subjectivity capable of understanding qualitative difference (or in Henri Bergson’s sense, ‘tendency’) and therefore of surpassing the matter/spirit and subject/object oppositions.
[29.] The suggestion that, by contrast, most positive science is conducted on an idealistic basis is, of course, intentional.
[30.] Negri, 135
[31.] Negri, 134
[32.] Hill, 324
[33.] Hill, 326
[34.] Hill, 328
[35.] GDA <>

 

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