Communism as a Continuing Constituent Process

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Composition A XXI, 1925
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Composition A XXI, 1925

Francesco Raparelli: In The Labor of Dionysus (co-written with Michael Hardt), you insist on the centrality of the “prerequisites of communism” in describing the contemporary mode of production, by which you mean language, affects, and mobility, which have become pillars of capitalist valorization. Rather than invalidating this analysis, the crisis which exploded in 2008 seems to have confirmed it. Do you agree?

Toni Negri: Yes, I think so. That book was an attempt to summarize elements of the analysis of work and its transformations, which had begun several years earlier, starting with the collective research in Potere Operaio. It was a critique of the traditional workers’ movement, founded on the deep change in the political and technical composition of the working class. In particular, radical changes in the processes of subjectivation appeared. Student struggles, especially after 1986 (as I would begin to sort out in Fine secolo), subsumed many aspects of the workers’ struggle at the time. Similarly, IT and digital work became increasingly central during these struggles. Already in 1986, and then in 1994-95 in France, the enormous conflicts which erupted – from knowledge to health, city services to pensions – stood on the terrain of reproduction and were articulated in metropolitan centers. It is clear that the post-2008 crisis continues to adhere to this new context. Further: it is a crisis which tries to establish a form of governability, as always happens in these cases, over a radical modification of the productive subject.

FR: In an essay on Lenin, Lukács maintains that there can be no historical materialism without grasping the actuality of revolution as the entire backdrop of the epoch. Such actuality now seems nowhere to be found. And yet, as we said, today more than ever the “prerequisites of communism” distinguish the mode of production. Faced with the barbarism of the crisis and war, is revolution once again the only alternative?

TN: Certainly every mediation has failed between the level of command as configured today in its financial dimension and the general context in which living labor operates. With this failure, it is clear that only a revolutionary process can be the solution for such a radical and insurmountable contradiction. And yet we require clarity on what, today, revolution means. Already in my writings from the 1980s there was a certain attention to the active behaviors, the production of subjectivity that emerges from the new proletarian condition. I believe that speaking of revolution no longer means – because it is now a definitive fact – speaking about the rupture between command and resistance, forms of fixed capital and the liabilities living labor activates in confronting command, and therefore about the rupture with the dialectic. This is no longer the central problem. The problem is understanding which behaviors, levels of organization, and capacities of expression the new proletariat has. Because, when we say “there is no solution except revolution,” we say something that is at this point banal. The problem is not knowing if it is necessary, but rather knowing how it is necessary and how it is possible. Excluding every reformist solution today means more than ever insisting on a processural solution, defined by the construction of institutions of real counter-power. The other element to keep in mind, beyond the processural form, is the fact that this process develops entirely on the terrain of reproduction. Production is subordinated to reproduction, the factory to society, and the individual to the collective which takes form in society. We find ourselves confronted with the necessity of building institutions of the common, not as the ultimate result of the revolutionary process, but as its very condition. From this point of view I think that we can speak again of the actuality of revolution, and speak of it in the present, rather than as the actuality of something to come.

FR: The theme of the State is back in vogue on the contemporary scene (from Bolivarianism to the populisms on the European Left). And further, the necessity, for subalterns, of “taking the State.” It is a forceful reprise of Gramsci, often read through the lens of Togliatti. Can there be a communist experience – even more so in the era of the globalization of processes of valorization – without a radical critique of the State-form?

TN: Clearly the radical critique of the State-form is necessary, but in many ways it is also superfluous. I mean this in the sense that, if what we said earlier is true, i.e., that a complete break with mediation is a given, then the very function of the State can no longer be recuperated in reformist terms: it is simply an oppressive function. From this point of view, the State is something parasitic; as such, it can no longer occupy a place within revolutionary reflection. That said, however, we need to be careful, because the problem is not the use of the State as such. In any phase of transition, we cannot but utilize the general instruments offered by the State. In order to overturn them, clearly; in order to strip away, little by little, the (oppressive) power that they are laden with in themselves. The true enemy is thus the fetishism of the State. There are positions today, no longer reasonable, which in considering the uses of certain public functions – expressed in the constitution of the State – fetishize the sovereignty and autonomy of state power, and in this way dramatically compromise the freedom of the struggles. A fetishism of vanguards over the real movements – the only ones who transform the social. It needs to be specified, then, that behind the fetishism of the State there are always two ideologies or behaviors: one is the vanguard, while the other is anarchy, immediacy, messianic opening. It is these references which truly need to be done away with.

FR: Your own communist militancy grew out of the extraordinary struggles of the “mass worker,” and then encountered, already in the late 1970s, the “social worker”: a new proletarian figure which was the result of education, the expansion of welfare, and the struggles for the refusal of work. This same figure, in the middle of the crisis, is presented under the sign of precarity. On this terrain, what does communist militancy mean?

TN: It means managing to transform the suffering of need, of lack, into the construction of a desiring “we.” In the flexibility and mobility imposed by the neoliberal regime, individual suffering increases. The collective, instead, must be brought firmly into the contemporary “working condition.” Social democracy was incapable of grasping, in the form of welfare and the work that was behind it, the necessity of accentuating the collective, the whole, and the fact that singularities live in the relation among them. Today a new communist spirit can arise in the re-discovery of a cooperative collective! Clearly material steps are necessary for understanding how to proceed from need to desire… and I think of the old formula: appropriation, institution, and seizing power. Appropriation is the pressure exercised on salary and income. The next moment is institutional: recognizing ourselves and acting as a “we.” It is a fundamental step, in no way reducible to immediacy or pure consciousness-raising. Then there is the problem of seizing power, which is not a mythical thing and is entirely different from what we have known: because it is putting into action a continuous constituent process, one that never gets hung up on pre-established institutional forms. Instead, it is always opening institutions to new capacities of consensus, cohesion, and cooperation. And today all of this must take place on the terrain of reproduction. Last fall something tremendous happened: the women’s demonstration in Rome. It was innovative precisely because it was not simply a demonstration against gender violence, but a fundamental declaration against the exploitation of women understood as an element inseparable from all forms of the political, as it presents itself today. This is the biopolitical terrain on which we move.

– Translated by Dave Mesing

This article is part of a dossier entitled The Return of Communism

Author of the article

Antonio “Toni” Negri is a Marxist political philosopher, widely known for his book Empire, co-authored with Michael Hardt, and for his work on Spinoza. In 1969 he was among the founders of Potere Operaio, which he left in 1973 to become one of the main leaders of Autonomia Operaia. After moving to Paris, he taught at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis) and the Collège International de philosophie, alongside philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. His most well-known politico-philosophical writings, often co-authored with Michael Hardt, come from his time in France: The Labor of Dionysus, Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. The first part of his autobiography, released in 2015 by Ponte alle grazie (Milan), is entitled Storia di un comunista.