The New Deal and the New Order of Capitalist Institutions (1972)


Selec­tions from a longer text in Ser­gio Bologna and Anto­nio Negri, eds., Operai e sta­to: Lotte operaie e rifor­ma del­lo Sta­to cap­i­tal­is­ti­co tra riv­o­luzione d’ottobre e New Deal (Milan: Fel­trinel­li, 1972).

To speak of the New Deal as a huge qual­i­ta­tive leap in the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ist insti­tu­tions – a leap that, pre­cise­ly because it func­tions at a cru­cial point in the plot1 of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety at a glob­al lev­el, has itself a spe­cial his­tor­i­cal impor­tance – seems to be a state­ment by now gen­er­al­ly tak­en to be whol­ly cor­rect. The mat­ter was already set­tled in the mind of its great­est pro­tag­o­nist [Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt] and in the ide­ol­o­gy cre­at­ed around him that enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly found­ed the “myth” of the New Deal’s “rev­o­lu­tion”; and, if every myth must have a real jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, this one lay in the effec­tive dis­man­tling of the sys­tem in the rapid course of a decade. No less sig­nif­i­cant, at this lev­el, is the bit­ter oppo­si­tion from var­i­ous posi­tions that the New Deal came to pro­voke; these were atti­tudes that then, and not acci­den­tal­ly, flowed back against it in a wide under­ly­ing con­sen­sus. Even the oppo­si­tion was to become New Deal­is­tic2 in a “me-too” fash­ion. In any case, one can rec­og­nize in the facts the irre­versibil­i­ty of the new order imposed or acquired by the New Deal. But how was this tremen­dous leap of the entire cap­i­tal­ist order reflect­ed inter­nal­ly? On what points did it hinge and along which lines did its upheaval unfold, even while it is still tak­en in gen­er­al shape as a giv­en fact, or, at the least, as a more than legit­i­mate work­ing hypoth­e­sis?

It’s clear that pass­ing to analy­sis, which alone might give us a defin­i­tive answer, our research would be strength­ened and sup­port­ed by an accom­plished artic­u­la­tion of the hypothe­ses. But it’s pre­cise­ly on this point that the use­ful­ness of what we might call tra­di­tion­al elab­o­ra­tion is atten­u­at­ed: instead of respons­es in terms of a glob­al polit­i­cal-insti­tu­tion­al sys­tem, we get either ide­o­log­i­cal gen­er­al­iza­tions or sec­tar­i­an respons­es, more sol­id yet lim­it­ed. The most inci­sive recent effort to offer a syn­thet­ic inter­pre­ta­tion of the peri­od, even if still with­in the lim­its of an analy­sis con­duct­ed in terms of ide­o­log­i­cal con­stel­la­tion, is that of Hof­s­tadter. There­fore, it’s from there that we can pro­ceed.

It seems dif­fi­cult to con­test Hofstadter’s the­ses in their neg­a­tive part, so to speak: for Hof­s­tadter, the New Deal was essen­tial­ly a “fresh start,” and, above all, a rad­i­cal rup­ture with the entire pop­ulist and pro­gres­sive tra­di­tion which, on first glance, it might appear close to. We shouldn’t mar­vel at the way that it man­ages to yoke togeth­er the whole mul­ti­col­ored world of that tra­di­tion – from bimet­allism to the KKK, from “muck­rak­ers” to the cam­paign for com­pe­ti­tion, from the strug­gle for social wel­fare to that for pro­hi­bi­tion, and, above all, in their most con­scious, his­tor­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant forms, from the “neona­tion­al­ism” of  Theodore Roo­sevelt to the “new lib­er­ty” of Woodrow Wil­son. That’s to say, it con­nects the social and polit­i­cal cli­mate of which it is an expres­sion, how­ev­er medi­at­ed. That is a cli­mate dom­i­nat­ed, accord­ing to Hof­s­tadter, by the already mas­sive pres­ence of social-eco­nom­ic forces, which can be read through small urban entre­pre­neur­ship and the fig­ure of the farmer, who became more active on the polit­i­cal scene the more dra­mat­i­cal­ly they strug­gled with con­tin­u­ous social upheavals brought about by the expan­sion of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion rela­tions. From this per­spec­tive, it’s no great leap to see how the true lin­eage of pop­ulism could gath­er, in the ’30s, the unequiv­o­cal fig­ure of Huey Long, the “lord” of Louisiana, or a vari­ety of Father Cough­lins, Rev­erend Smiths, and Doc­tor Townsends; and, as Hof­s­tadter notes, that pro­gres­sivism, so strong in the mor­al­iz­ing cam­paigns and protests in defense of com­pe­ti­tion and bal­anc­ing the books, tru­ly came out of the Repub­li­can “oppo­si­tion” to the New Deal.

Nat­u­ral­ly, all of this is of lit­tle direct inter­est to us. But it remains impor­tant inso­far as it lets us under­stand, or at least intu­it, just how much the old strat­i­fi­ca­tion of soci­ety was rev­o­lu­tion­ized in the span of years from the First World War to the “sec­ond” Roo­sevelt. To dis­cern it in its par­tic­u­lars would require extend­ed research, but the lines are clear all the same: it is the polar­iza­tion of an entire soci­ety toward a “pure” cap­i­tal­ist form. Con­cen­tra­tion of cap­i­tal on one side, and con­cen­tra­tion, enlarge­ment, and flat­ten­ing of labor-pow­er on the oth­er.3

This sweep­ing process took off in ’29 with an inten­si­ty pro­por­tion­al to the lib­er­ty with which it was per­formed. No one could see the point from which it might have start­ed: not the work­ers who, hav­ing struck down in ’20 the prospect of a direct assault on the state, now found them­selves with­out even the min­i­mal prac­ti­cal instru­ments of orga­ni­za­tion avail­able for imme­di­ate use. Not cap­i­tal, which was total­ly dis­ori­en­tat­ed, inca­pable of ful­ly explain­ing the rea­sons for the crash, search­ing, through Hoover, for “inter­na­tion­al” caus­es that con­vinced no one, and pre­cise­ly because of this, fear­ful of restart­ing accu­mu­la­tion along paths already tak­en. The years from the crash to Roo­sevelt were years of stalling: a para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, where every­thing was in move­ment and every­thing remained still. In oth­er words: the sit­u­a­tion couldn’t last indef­i­nite­ly. But pub­lic con­scious­ness itself couldn’t imag­ine [a way out], either a direct­ly cap­i­tal­ist ini­tia­tive of exit­ing the impasse dif­fer­ent­ly from what was hap­pen­ing that very same moment in Ger­many [i.e. the Nazis], or a work­ers’ ini­tia­tive dif­fer­ent from that of 15 years pri­or and the sit­u­a­tion of gen­er­al soci­etal break­down that brought the Bol­she­viks to pow­er.

From this emerged the New Deal. We have to acknowl­edge this, because there is an ele­ment of his­tor­i­cal truth con­tained in all these ide­o­log­i­cal the­o­riza­tions about the New Deal’s third way, or, if one prefers, about Amer­i­can “excep­tion­al­ism,” – pro­vid­ed, that is, that we remem­ber that this excep­tion had the same log­ic as every excep­tion in the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion: it will be sup­pressed, or it will be imposed as a gen­er­al rule, with all the force of a nat­ur­al law.

The New Deal’s ini­tia­tive meant a polit­i­cal ini­tia­tive that moves and devel­ops entire­ly from insti­tu­tions, from the state, from col­lec­tive cap­i­tal. When we see big finance, the Mor­gans and Mel­lons, Wall Street, the Cham­ber of Com­merce, and the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tures all put them­selves entire­ly at the dis­po­si­tion of Roo­sevelt, who leads the charge, we are not wit­ness­ing a pic­ture what­so­ev­er sim­i­lar to old rep­re­sen­ta­tions of invest­ment. Behind the resigned atti­tude of a Mor­gan in ’33, there is the aware­ness that the sin­gle cap­i­tal­ist, big as he may well be, does not suc­ceed – does not because he can­not – in see­ing with his own eyes any­thing beyond the pos­si­bil­i­ties and needs of his own prof­it, his own mar­ket. He can’t see the aver­age rise of prof­it or the mar­ket as a whole, which, at this lev­el of devel­op­ment, sig­ni­fies soci­ety as a whole. In order to see this and to gov­ern soci­ety, col­lec­tive eyes and arms are need­ed: and in this his­tor­i­cal moment, these are Roosevelt’s eyes and the New Deal’s “arse­nal.” In this moment, the cru­cial leap is made, or, at least, its imme­di­ate premis­es are laid. Lat­er, the old brawl between busi­ness and gov­ern­ment will start up again, but the fun­da­men­tals have already been decid­ed: there will be either ver­bal bat­tles, from the rear­guard in par­tic­u­lar, or, as we will see, they will have new caus­es. Either way, all will be car­ried out on the ground cre­at­ed by the New Deal and will often even extend it.

Roo­sevelt, for his part, is per­fect­ly aware of what is hap­pen­ing, and he comes to embody it rapid­ly, in spite of his pur­port­ed prag­ma­tism: “The truth of the mat­ter, of course, is that the expo­nents of the the­o­ry of pri­vate ini­tia­tive as the cure for deep-seat­ed nation­al ills want in most cas­es to improve the lot of mankind. But, well inten­tioned as they may be, they fail for four evi­dent rea­sons – first, they see the prob­lem from the point of view of their own busi­ness; sec­ond, they see the prob­lem from the point of view of their own local­i­ty or region; third, they can­not act unan­i­mous­ly because they have no machin­ery for agree­ing among them­selves; and, final­ly, they have no pow­er to bind the inevitable minor­i­ty of chis­el­ers with­in their own ranks.”4

Obvi­ous­ly, we’re not talk­ing about the dis­cov­ery of state inter­ven­tion: those who stop at this vac­u­ous gen­er­al­i­ty would risk mis­un­der­stand­ing, entire­ly of their own fault, and would have rea­son to object – like an Ital­ian expert of labor law – that, when seen real­ly on the insti­tu­tion­al and polit­i­cal lev­el, the New Deal was a direct heir of the neo-nation­al­ism of the first Roo­sevelt or even of the pol­i­tics of W. Wil­son, in the way that its effec­tive man­age­ment prac­ti­cal­ly con­tra­dict­ed Jef­fer­son­ian ide­ol­o­gy.

At the same time, we’re not seek­ing to sim­ply coun­ter­pose a “pos­i­tive gov­ern­ment” to a “neg­a­tive gov­ern­ment;” we’re deal­ing instead with a dif­fer­ent total func­tion and there­fore with a qual­i­fi­ca­tion of the New Deal’s “pos­i­tive gov­ern­ment” dif­fer­ent even in com­par­i­son to the “pos­i­tiv­i­ty” of pre­vi­ous inter­ven­tion­ism.  This dif­fer­ence also isn’t to be found in the charge of “empire,” with greater or less­er inten­si­ty of con­stric­tion, in regards to sin­gle cap­i­tal­ists, because from this point of view, there were far more sanc­tion­ing mech­a­nisms in the Sher­man Act or the Clay­ton Act, with its Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion, than in the NRA (Nation­al Recov­ery Admin­stra­tion) and its “codes,” of which tbe only unique (or qua­si-unique) for­mal guar­an­tee was bound up with the abo­li­tion of the Blue Eagle [in 1935], col­lec­tive capital’s cer­tifi­cate of mer­it giv­en to its own func­tionar­ies. Nor does the dif­fer­ence lie in the imme­di­ate con­tents of the inter­ven­tion, if it is true that between the con­crete admin­is­tra­tion of anti-trust leg­is­la­tion in the years of the New Deal and the declared aims of the NRA, or the “effi­ci­en­tist” impo­si­tion enact­ed in the course of the “sec­ond New Deal,” there was per­fect con­ti­nu­ity.

So just what are we deal­ing with? One lone, unadorned fact alone offers the key to an answer: in the space of one year, the more than 600 laws sanc­tioned by Roo­sevelt – con­tain­ing price fix­es, pro­duc­tion quan­ti­ties, wage con­di­tions, etc. – per­tained to 95% of Amer­i­can employ­ers! Here it is no longer a ques­tion of inter­ven­tion­ism but of the direct respon­si­bil­i­ty of the state, in the first per­son, for the entire pro­duc­tion of val­ue. Here, even in sym­bol­ic form, a whole series of tra­di­tion­al pre­sup­po­si­tions of the State and its rela­tion to soci­ety (and the econ­o­my) dis­cov­er, in the frame­work of an unin­ter­rupt­ed con­ti­nu­ity of pow­er, their own prac­ti­cal rever­sal.

In real­i­ty, if one real­ly wants to find prece­dents and prac­ti­cal ori­gins of the first New Deal mod­els, they should be sought in the brief, excep­tion­al expe­ri­ence of the War Indus­tries Board: and it is hard­ly acci­den­tal that here, in Gen­er­al Hugh John­son of the NRA or George Peck of the AAA, one can even iden­ti­fy them with spe­cif­ic per­sons. But it is real­ly this ref­er­ence to the mod­el of war indus­try man­age­ment, which is achieved by now and which impos­es itself out from here, that can spon­ta­neous­ly gen­er­ate the objec­tion that, because that was an episode, imposed by cir­cum­stances and lim­it­ed in time, the required leap made by the insti­tu­tions of the New Deal, and of which NIRA was with­out doubt a qual­i­fy­ing ele­ment, can also be traced back to a paren­the­sis, imposed by the no less dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion of the war and total­ly dom­i­nat­ed by the need to exit the crises how­ev­er pos­si­ble, the need to secure the recov­ery by what­ev­er means nec­es­sary.

It’s an idea that, in turn, might find ample con­fir­ma­tion in the fact that, between ’35 and ’36, a large part of insti­tu­tion­al con­struc­tion put in place in the pre­ced­ing years had to fall and that, there­fore, of this con­struc­tion, it was specif­i­cal­ly the NIRA that would not be brought back to life; yet this shouldn’t be acci­den­tal or sur­pris­ing, because it was then believed, and still is by many, to be a large­ly “failed” mea­sure.

There emerges here, in oth­er words, an inter­pre­ta­tive ten­den­cy to sep­a­rate, if not to oppose, recov­ery and reform with­in the over­all New Deal expe­ri­ence; a ten­den­cy that was nour­ished also by the dis­tinc­tion, to which we’ll return, between a “first” and “sec­ond” New Deal.

Even if one had, in gen­er­al, excel­lent rea­sons for doubt­ing every attempt to abstract­ly dis­tin­guish between “recov­ery” and “reform,” between con­junc­ture and devel­op­ment, how should one rec­on­cile these appar­ent­ly con­trast­ing ele­ments in this case? How to square the impor­tance of NIRA – here assum­ing for sim­plic­i­ty that exem­plary and sum­ma­ry moment of the polit­i­cal-insti­tu­tion­al leap – with the admis­sion (and in line with cur­rent view) not just of the exhaus­tion of its func­tion but tru­ly of its fail­ure, less than two years from its found­ing?

It does not seem dif­fi­cult to iso­late the path through which to exit this prob­lem of how to inter­pret the New Deal “rev­o­lu­tion,” as soon as one has got free of that abstract, and mere­ly insti­tu­tion­al, approach. In fact: what sig­ni­fies all that for­mi­da­ble artic­u­la­tion of the state over soci­ety, that flows down from the state as from the polit­i­cal heav­ens,

that coor­di­nates around a sin­gle cen­ter of grav­i­ty the entire process of social repro­duc­tion and its con­di­tions? This is, it’s said, the dis­cov­ery of soci­ety, of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety; the dis­cov­ery of a real dynam­ic that was grown through many con­vul­sions and that today shows itself before our eyes not just in all its com­plex­i­ty but also in all its ter­ri­ble sim­plic­i­ty; it is an active dis­cov­ery, that is an imme­di­ate need, of the neces­si­ty of orga­ni­za­tion and con­trol. But now it’s clear that, for the restruc­tur­ing to be effec­tive and func­tion­al, for it to con­sti­tute that new “eco­nom­ic con­sti­tu­tion­al order” of which Roo­sevelt spoke (in a much-not­ed speech to the Com­mon­wealth Club of Cal­i­for­nia), the entire struc­ture of soci­ety will be learned, in its real con­sis­ten­cy and real con­tra­dic­tions, beyond any “pop­u­lar” ide­o­log­i­cal residue. Now, the para­dox, if you wish, of the Amer­i­can sit­u­a­tion in ’31 is this: while cap­i­tal, that which is wrong­ly accused of incur­able indi­vid­u­al­ism, offers to soci­ety a com­pact polit­i­cal will and rich orga­ni­za­tion­al forms for pro­ceed­ing with “indus­tri­al reor­ga­ni­za­tion,” the work­ing class can­not “offer,” so to speak, any­thing of this sort: it cov­ers an eco­nom­i­cal­ly broad sur­face but one total­ly, or near­ly, with­out hand­holds. One can’t take into seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion the unions of the Gom­per­sian trades [i.e. the AFL], which gath­ered less than 3 mil­lion work­ers, an extreme­ly low per­cent­age of the total labor-pow­er of the fac­to­ry, true left­overs of a sit­u­a­tion in which union­ized work­ers were not just the heart but also – still – the rel­a­tive­ly restrict­ed elite of the pro­le­tari­at. Instead, after the rapid mas­si­fi­ca­tion of work­ers in pre­ced­ing years (the dis­ap­pear­ance of the pro­le­tari­at with­in direct rela­tions of fac­to­ry pro­duc­tion), and under the whip of the cri­sis, it became an urgent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty to recu­per­ate for soci­ety a com­pre­hen­sive and orga­nized fig­ure of the work­ing class.

If there was, with the New Deal, a leap made by insti­tu­tions, its char­ac­ter­is­tic inter­nal ele­ment was this need for a pub­lic rem­e­dy through the “eco­nom­ic” orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class. If NIRA was the “heart” of the 100 days [i.e. the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s admin­is­tra­tion], then para­graph 7(a) – that imposed by law the nec­es­sary con­di­tions for union­iza­tion5 and that the orga­ni­za­tions of indus­tri­al­ists them­selves had demand­ed in a moment of max­i­mum aware­ness (know­ing full well that, with­out a leg­isla­tive oblig­a­tion, each of them at the meet­ing would be “forced” to squeeze salaries to save their own cap­i­tal, there­by accel­er­at­ing the tail­spin of the Depres­sion) – is, in out­look, the heart of the entire New Deal.

So, what failed in ’35, when the NIRA was annulled, or bet­ter, what had not suc­ceed­ed to the degree demand­ed by the cir­cum­stances, was real­ly that para­graph 7(a). But it did not shift the fun­da­men­tal axis of the New Deal one iota: it didn’t shift it for the work­ers who also, in ’35, speak of the NRA as the “Nation­al Round Around,”6 but who togeth­er, for their own inter­ests, dri­ve more than the half the strug­gles of that year on the theme of union orga­ni­za­tion or, if you pre­fer, for the “respect­ing” of 7(a).  It did not shift for the New Deal that, in the same year, sub­sti­tut­ed 7(a) with the Wag­n­er Act, guar­an­tee­ing it on a larg­er scale. Of the lat­ter, one could say from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, that it was to be the “most sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure of the first and sec­ond New Deal, that which engraved itself most last­ing­ly on the struc­ture of Amer­i­can soci­ety.”7

It is of absolute­ly sec­ondary impor­tance, in this regard, that the Wag­n­er Act was not a direct Roo­sevelt ini­tia­tive or that Roo­sevelt had tak­en it up and sup­port­ed it only after it was approved by the low­er House. Those who are embar­rassed by this dif­fi­cul­ty prob­lem could speak of a “real cun­ning of rea­son.”8 It’s impor­tant to grasp its absolute­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic sig­nif­i­cance in this spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal phase. One is sim­ply deal­ing with the fact of union­iza­tion itself: from this point of view, the birth of the CIO, the jump from 3 mil­lion union­ized work­ers in ’33 to 7 mil­lion in ’37, to 41 in ’45, would seem above all – as in the cov­er, the recu­per­a­tion of a delay with respect to the con­di­tions of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion in oth­er coun­tries. But the fact of the mat­ter is that, at that lev­el of the system’s devel­op­ment (and with the cri­sis hav­ing at least served to impose aware­ness of this), union­iza­tion was, or least became, a direct­ly cap­i­tal­ist exi­gency and need.

We’re not craft­ing a “fan­tas­tic” or ide­o­log­i­cal sto­ry of the New Deal: capital’s needs are always, in the last analy­sis, hard eco­nom­ic needs. In this case, the imme­di­ate need was to resolve the enor­mous eco­nom­ic prob­lem of the cri­sis, even if the solu­tion came to con­di­tion, as a pro­jec­tion for­ward, an entire his­tor­i­cal phase of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Work­ers’ union orga­ni­za­tion – that is, the class of work­ers as seen through the eyes of cap­i­tal – is nec­es­sary because it – not by itself, if you wish; it is just one direct­ly Key­ne­sian face of the New Deal – could stim­u­late and guar­an­tee the recov­ery of devel­op­ment, mov­ing from the sin­gle ground­ing point it could find that would let it real­ize this in a sta­ble fash­ion. To put the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry of the Marx­i­an schema9 in rela­tion with the first, and to ensure this rela­tion, it is in fact nec­es­sary that the process begin again and that it will be guid­ed by the rise of demands, by pur­chas­ing pow­er: work­ers’ union­iza­tion in all branch­es of pro­duc­tion sig­ni­fies exact­ly that guar­an­tee of the rate of increase of salary in sin­gle branch­es of indus­try (whose down­ward rigid­i­ty has already been dis­cov­ered) and of the rise of the glob­al mass of wages.


[The protests of cap­i­tal] in fact project today noth­ing oth­er than results achieved by the New Deal. It isn’t a ques­tion of “ver­i­fy­ing” that hypoth­e­sis; only, if any­thing, of flesh­ing out its con­struc­tion. It would have to result in, on one side, the adher­ence of terms of the actu­al sit­u­a­tion to those con­struct­ed with­in the New Deal; and, on the oth­er, as new prob­lems that emerge and demand new solu­tions born from the inter­nal log­ic of that bal­ance. We might say that it is all the more pos­si­ble today to grasp the con­struc­tion of the New Deal as the open­ing of the “his­tor­i­cal phase” in the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety inso­far as it reveals itself, and its spe­cif­ic inter­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics, to be over. Because the Unit­ed States will now have to refer, in all like­li­hood, back to the ’50s when cap­i­tal, deter­mined­ly fol­low­ing its “tech­no­log­i­cal way” toward anti-work­er repres­sion, made the leap to the “era of automa­tion” and, con­verse­ly, spread wide the gap between the autonomous log­ic of the strug­gle of work­ers from that of their “orga­ni­za­tions.”10 As always, it is in the moment of cri­sis that the essen­tial fea­tures of the old order are revealed. This tran­si­tion is per­fect­ly real­ized in dialec­ti­cal form. That extra­or­di­nary Fordist intu­ition, hav­ing become through the New Deal the Grund­norm of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, assigns to the wage its role as the strate­gic share of rev­enue with­in the dynam­ics of the sys­tem, and to the work­ing class the con­crete func­tion of capital’s “mov­ing motor.” Yet the grand effort of “appro­pri­at­ing” the work­ing class, like the dai­ly appro­pri­a­tion of their labor-pow­er by cap­i­tal, could have no oth­er result than to ren­der the con­tra­dic­tions of the sys­tem even more inti­mate. Here is root­ed the cri­sis of that same order achieved through the New Deal, a cri­sis that can only col­lide with what [the New Deal] sought to claim as its most mature insti­tu­tion­al achieve­ment: the “func­tion” of the union.

For this rea­son, it might seem inter­est­ing to give a quick glance at more recent devel­op­ments; for this, the indi­ca­tions of a good enough man­u­al will suf­fice. There­fore, today, “cer­tain prin­ci­ples seem to be fixed. Among these are the right of labor to orga­nize for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, the duty of each par­ty to nego­ti­ate in good faith, the right of employ­ers to express their opin­ions in a non­co­er­cive way to their employ­ees, the lia­bil­i­ty of labor orga­ni­za­tions to suit, the recog­ni­tion of the dis­tinc­tive­ness of the supervisor’s posi­tion, deter­mi­na­tion of ques­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion by elec­tion, and pro­hi­bi­tion of polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions from cor­po­rate or union funds.” 11

The uncer­tain­ties still sur­round­ing cer­tain points – like indi­rect boy­cott, mass pick­et­ing – don’t shift the gen­er­al frame­work. But more inter­est­ing to con­sid­er are new prob­lems: these are the prob­lems born, we’d say, “from the exis­tence of third par­ty inter­ests: the total­i­ty of the pub­lic.” The so recent use of so old an idea isn’t acci­den­tal. It’s the most evi­dent index of a real dif­fi­cul­ty, born on prop­er­ly eco­nom­ic ter­rain, of the dynam­ics of these ele­ments to which were entrust­ed the task of the recov­ery.

We see in this noth­ing less than its basic insti­tu­tion­al shape, which is of inter­est to us now. The prob­lem comes to be posed in terms of a “monop­oly of labor.” It’s not the prob­lem, mind you, of the closed or union shop, that directs an entire cat­e­go­ry of work­ers under a sin­gle union. The Taft-Hart­ley Act, in this regard, may have been a reac­tionary moment, to the degree it sought to inter­vene on this point. But the uni­ty of the union in the com­pa­ny or in the cat­e­go­ry isn’t here in ques­tion; the uni­ty of rep­re­sen­ta­tion is even seen as a pos­i­tive fact. The co-involved prob­lems are indeed prob­lems of the exces­sive breadth of the bar­gain­ing and of the union. More pre­cise­ly – for the moment exclud­ing the imprac­ti­ca­bly dras­tic solu­tion of resub­mit­ting the unions to anti-trust law – the major open ques­tions were the fol­low­ing two:

1) What must the pub­lic polit­i­cal stance in the case that bar­gain­ing fails? This is the prob­lem that lies behind the final demand of the out­line of labor con­flicts pre­pared by the Rail­ways Act. One could arrange the out­line as one liked, one might extend it in all pos­si­ble ways, but at a cer­tain point, this [fail­ure of bar­gain­ing] had to come. It’s pre­cise­ly this that they sought to avoid: not because work­ers pres­sure for wage increas­es always requires open and offi­cial war in order to be heard (also because the strug­gle was always used con­scious­ly by the union, in the ini­tial bar­gain­ing phas­es, as a steam valve to reduce the pres­sure that built up past a point “ratio­nal­ly” pos­si­ble to obtain), but more sim­ply because a demand always con­tains some­thing wor­ry­ing. And more­over, the prob­lem, in its abstract terms, is irre­solv­able, or at the least, its con­flict­ual­i­ty can­not be elim­i­nat­ed. So in con­crete terms, the best solu­tion still seemed to be that of putting trust in the self-reg­u­la­tion of the mech­a­nism, only tak­ing care to han­dle it in a more “ratio­nal” man­ner or to once again extend the length of its pas­sages. But the dis­sat­is­fac­tion was obvi­ous, as the exist­ing balance’s slump betrayed aware­ness of its unsus­tain­abil­i­ty.

2) On the oth­er hand, the so-called pub­lic inter­ests don’t lie only in the “indus­tri­al,” i.e. in the exis­tence of cor­rect rela­tions between involved par­ties and of pro­ce­dur­al rules that could deter­mine the dynam­ics; nor were they only con­cerned to avoid block­ages of pro­duc­tion (which was a lat­er spec­i­fi­ca­tion of those inter­ests behind this peace). Today, one could say, they con­cern also the con­tents of these agree­ments. The prob­lem can also be expressed in these terms: “whether the pub­lic can leave the deter­mi­na­tion of some issues to pri­vate par­ties whose juris­dic­tion is indus­try-wide, or whose deci­sions are pat­tern-set­ting. These deci­sions may have such large con­se­quences toward infla­tion, impair­ment of the Amer­i­can com­pet­i­tive posi­tion abroad, increase of unem­ploy­ment, or oth­er results as to raise a ques­tion whether they should be made in a forum where only pri­vate par­ties, under con­straint to rep­re­sent their lim­it­ed clien­te­les, par­tic­i­pate in the deci­sion.”12

This is an increas­ing­ly press­ing prob­lem. How to con­front it? On one hand, by rein­forc­ing the tri­par­tite bar­gain­ing mod­el: if a gen­er­al inter­est is in play, it must be rep­re­sent­ed: and it can be done so indif­fer­ent­ly, either by the gov­ern­ment or by “neu­tral” tech­ni­cians.

On the oth­er, there’s the for­mu­la­tion of guide­posts “for the non-infla­tion­ary move­ment of prices and wages.” This is the most con­sis­tent strate­gic move, espe­cial­ly because, for the time being, it rec­on­ciles the desire for pub­lic inter­ven­tion with that of avoid­ing solu­tions that are mere­ly impo­si­tions or that are irreg­u­lar or ad hoc pres­i­den­tial inter­ven­tions. The guide­posts (whose prin­ci­ple is the equal­iza­tion of tax­es on wage increas­es in sin­gle branch­es of indus­try with the tax on the gen­er­al rise in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty) are con­tained for the first time in the 1962 report of the Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Advi­sors; it’s the Coun­cil of Kennedy.

In this case, the “new fron­tier” is that of the entire­ty of inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal: the “pol­i­tics of wages” and the repres­sion of legit­i­mate strug­gles by the “plan” already have noth­ing unique­ly Amer­i­can about them. The New Deal, test­ed in the high­est point of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment in a cru­cial moment, is by now behind them, and behind us all.


A few con­clu­sive remarks seem pos­si­ble on the basis of what has just been observed. What reveals itself is a series of con­tra­dic­to­ry move­ments in the rela­tion between bour­geois polit­i­cal ter­rain and the social process of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. The hori­zon of the New Deal would seem to be dom­i­nat­ed by a unique ten­sion. In effect, what pre­sent­ed itself, in still lim­it­ed dimen­sions, for the first time with the “leg­is­la­tion on fac­to­ries” – “that first con­scious and method­i­cal reac­tion of soci­ety against the spon­ta­neous­ly devel­oped form of the process of pro­duc­tion”13 – could then become a com­plete­ly devel­oped real­i­ty when all of soci­ety is direct­ly insert­ed into the pro­duc­tion process of cap­i­tal. In the same way that the leg­is­la­tion of fac­to­ries is already a leg­is­la­tion of cap­i­tal by cap­i­tal, of the vari­able part of itself, on the lev­el of the soci­ety-fac­to­ry it gives objec­tive ground­ing to leg­is­la­tion of the work­ing class by col­lec­tive cap­i­tal. It would not seem unjus­ti­fied to see in the New Deal a his­tor­i­cal­ly foun­da­tion­al point of pas­sage in this devel­op­ment.

How­ev­er, this process has its own dialec­tic. On one side, the machin­ery of the polit­i­cal state tends to increas­ing­ly iden­ti­fy itself with the fig­ure of the col­lec­tive cap­i­tal­ist and increas­ing­ly becomes the prop­er­ty of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and there­fore a func­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist. On the oth­er, how­ev­er, this “recu­per­a­tion with­in soci­ety… of the polit­i­cal func­tions of the state” nec­es­sar­i­ly par­tic­i­pates in the mys­ti­fy­ing appear­ances of a soci­ety divid­ed into class­es and in the mys­ti­fied rela­tion between cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion and bour­geois soci­ety. In fact: as “when the fac­to­ry becomes boss of all soci­ety… the fac­to­ry seems to van­ish,” as “the real ris­ing process of pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion presents itself as the for­mal process of ter­tiariza­tion,” so “the return of polit­i­cal and state func­tions inside the very struc­ture of civ­il soci­ety presents itself as a con­tra­dic­tion between state and soci­ety: the increas­ing­ly strict func­tion­al­i­ty of pol­i­tics and econ­o­my as the pos­si­ble auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal ter­rain from eco­nom­ic rela­tions.”14

We should also per­haps under­score now that this “appear­ance” is, or becomes, also a real process, a neces­si­ty. Here the New Deal enters it only rel­a­tive­ly: it was total­ly engaged in the “dis­cov­ery” of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. The dis­course bears on recent devel­op­ments: when, today, we see the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal vig­or­ous­ly con­firmed and con­struct­ed, while for some time now the state has become the sub­jec­tive prin­ci­ple of the impu­ta­tion of the process of social repro­duc­tion, in which we can dis­cern a defen­sive prin­ci­ple, a spy of a capital’s weak­ness on its own ter­rain, that found in the New Deal a his­toric point of depar­ture and the essen­tial terms of its own expli­ca­tion.

This weak­ness is a real­i­ty that cap­i­tal must learn on its own accord, through expe­ri­ence. The aware­ness of this is entire­ly absent in tech­no­crat­ic utopias of con­trolled indus­try, of which there were so many in the New Deal. When Berle and Means end The Mod­ern Cor­po­ra­tion (1932) by writ­ing: “The future may see the eco­nom­ic organ­ism, now typ­i­fied by the cor­po­ra­tion, not only on an equal plane with the state, but pos­si­bly even super­sed­ing it as the dom­i­nant form of social orga­ni­za­tion. The law of cor­po­ra­tions, accord­ing­ly, might well be con­sid­ered as a poten­tial con­sti­tu­tion­al law for the new eco­nom­ic state, while busi­ness prac­tice is increas­ing­ly assum­ing the aspect of eco­nom­ic states­man­ship”15 – this is the con­fi­dent and opti­mistic propo­si­tion of a new eco­nom­ic order. It’s fit­ting that the union, offi­cial­ly con­sti­tut­ed, enter into this process, because the new order los­es every ambigu­ous cor­po­rate residue, and presents itself instead as the orga­ni­za­tion of freely con­tract­ed sub­jects, a sys­tem of “coun­ter­posed pow­ers,” and dynam­ic democ­ra­cy.

Soci­ety-fac­to­ry, cap­i­tal­ist social plan: from the first his­tor­i­cal real­iza­tion of this move­ment is born the opti­cal illu­sion that fore­sees the “extinc­tion” of the expo­nen­tial accu­mu­la­tion of social vio­lence. What we can’t see imme­di­ate­ly, though, is how the social dif­fu­sion of dom­i­na­tion and the appar­ent “truce” between “pol­i­tics” and “econ­o­my” nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tains with­in in itself the con­cen­tra­tion of fac­to­ry despo­tism [to be spread] over all of soci­ety, the rela­tion of sep­a­ra­tion that must increas­ing­ly reunite author­i­ty with con­sen­sus.

But the expe­ri­ence ends by putting into cri­sis this opti­mism about a per­fect democ­ra­cy on eco­nom­ic ground: work­ers keep push­ing, even if in fits and starts, the terms of trade to their favor, doing so in a dis­or­dered fash­ion dan­ger­ous giv­en the over­all equi­lib­ri­um. We aren’t repropos­ing an updat­ed edi­tion of the­ses of the auto­mat­ic dis­cov­ery of con­tra­dic­tions: what is there of the auto­mat­ic in the work­ers strug­gles? Nor are we dis­cussing a myth­ic sys­tem of “high salaries”: high or low, in the end, in terms of what? The prob­lem is that of the func­tion of the wage. Between the New Deal propo­si­tion of the wage as the spurring moment of devel­op­ment and the actu­al gen­er­al­iza­tion of the pol­i­tics of income as the spe­cif­ic con­tent of the plan, there moves a true and prop­er his­tor­i­cal peri­od, a cycle of devel­op­ment. This is the hypoth­e­sis that we are propos­ing once again. To find its depth and proof, our research will have to prop­er­ly begin.

– Trans­lat­ed by Evan Calder Williams

  1. Translator’s note: “Plot” (tra­ma) should be tak­en in the dou­ble sense active in many of these thinkers of “the plan of cap­i­tal” (il piano del cap­i­tale): both an appar­ent­ly diachron­ic log­ic, like the dra­ma of a nov­el (or the his­to­ry of capital’s devel­op­ment), and a syn­chron­ic one, like a web of con­trol, or Alquati’s “flex­i­ble cage,” dis­trib­uted across capital’s ter­ri­to­ry. 

  2. TN: A for­mu­la­tion LFB uses again and again: newdeal­is­ti­ca

  3. TN: This sense of flat­ten­ing [empiat­ta­men­to] and the dif­fu­sion of social con­trol out beyond the fac­to­ry or state inter­ven­tion as such is fur­ther indi­ca­tion of LFB’s invest­ment in the plan-ori­ent­ed think­ing of clas­si­cal work­erism. 

  4. His com­ments are from his “Mes­sage to Con­gress on Estab­lish­ing Min­i­mum Wages and Max­i­mum Hours,” May 24, 1937. 

  5. Specif­i­cal­ly, col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. In the lan­guage of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act of 1935: “…employ­ees shall have the right to orga­nize and bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly through rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their own choos­ing, and shall be free from the inter­fer­ence restraint, or coer­cion of employ­ers of labor, or their agents, in the des­ig­na­tion of such rep­re­sen­ta­tives or in self-orga­ni­za­tion or in oth­er con­cert­ed activ­i­ties for the pur­pose of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing or oth­er mutu­al aid or pro­tec­tion.” 

  6. TN: LFB like­ly means “Nation­al Run Around.” See Richard Hof­s­tadter, The Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Tra­di­tion: And the Men Who Made it (New York: Vin­tage, 1989), 437. 

  7. F. Manci­ni, Intro­duzione a Il pen­siero politi­co nell’età di Roo­sevelt, Bologna 1962, 12. 

  8. Manci­ni, ibid. 

  9. TN: LFB is refer­ring to Marx’s dis­tinc­tion between depart­ment 1 (com­modi­ties to be con­sumed in the pro­duc­tion process) and 2 (com­modi­ties to be con­sumed in the repro­duc­tion process, i.e. “at home”) in vol­ume 2 of Cap­i­tal

  10. On the new cycle of work­ers’ strug­gles in the 1950s and on the ver­ti­cal drop-off in the work­ing-class use of the unions, con­nect­ed, albeit in a ques­tion­able gen­er­al frame­work, to the mass intro­duc­tion of automa­tion, see James Bog­gs, The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Note­book

  11. Emmette S. Red­ford, Amer­i­can Gov­ern­ment and the Econ­o­my (New York: Macmil­lan, 1965), 323. 

  12. Red­ford, Amer­i­can Gov­ern­ment, 326. 

  13. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 480. 

  14. Quo­ta­tions from Mario Tronti’s Operai e cap­i­tale [Work­ers and Cap­i­tal] (Turin: Ein­au­di, 1966), 52-53 in the orig­i­nal. My trans­la­tion 

  15. Adolf A Berle and Gar­diner C. Means, The Mod­ern Cor­po­ra­tion and Pri­vate Prop­er­ty, (New York: Macmil­lan, 1933), 357. 

Author of the article

(1940–2000) was an Italian militant and Marxist theorist active in Potere Operaio and other extraparliamentary left organizations. He taught at the University of Padua.