[This post ended up being rather long, so I thought I'd break it up into two parts. Part II is here]
With Nate H, one of my favorite bloggers, and some others, I have been re-reading Mario Tronti’s “The Strategy of Refusal,” as well as other translated essays from Tronti’s Operai e Capitale and a few pieces by his Quaderni Rossi collaborator Raniero Panzieri. It is from these essays that the basic lines of Italian operaismo (“workerism”) emerge, and so, valuably, I can detect in them all that I find provocative and useful in the later work of Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri and other writers associated with Autonomia, but without the sometimes baroque post-structural stylings that can get in their way.
There are some excellent short pieces on Tronti collected over at Long Sunday. Essentially, in this and other essays from Operai e Capitale, Tronti argues that the communist and socialist parties in
I don’t know much about the history of Italy, but from what I’ve read of Steve Wright’s book on these writers, Storming Heaven, I do know that it’s important to situate this work in a period when, as a result of the Marshall Plan, a Keynesian state and adoption of Fordist-Taylorist production by manufacturers in the North, Italian capitalism had been largely transformed: the so-called “economic miracle.” Panzieri and Tronti, for instance, both make use of Marx’s notion of “social capital” from Capital Vol. III —not to be confused with Bourdieu’s conception—in which the individual capitalists aggregate into a class-for-itself, producing “capitalist communism,” or a mode-of-production characterized not by individual producers competing with each other but by a single, state-administered front which regulates and administers production in order to 1) ensure enough redistribution of profits that overproduction/underconsumption is avoided 2) neutralize revolutionary ferment on the part of the workers. “Social Capital” functions not only through the dialectic of the wage in the workplace but by direct command (capitalist planning) over the totality of society. Not only is it true that “Capitalist power seeks to use the worker’s antagonistic will-to-struggle as a motor of its own development,” but also:
The surpassing of State capitalism by a capitalist state is not something that belongs to the future: it has already happened. We no longer have a bourgeois State over a capitalist society, but, rather, the State of capitalist society.
One can see in this an echo of Kojeve’s idea of the end-of-history involving a confluence of the Stalinist U.S.S.R. and American capitalism, merging into a single, administrative social form.
In the face of such eventualities, Tronti wants to reground Marxist theory by way of what Yann-Moulier Boutang called a “Copernican inversion,” putting workers first and capitalist development second. It’s important to note that, even though Tronti is writing to and from a particular conjunctural moment within Italian capitalism, the Copernican inversion is not, pace Negri’s reformulation of it as having to do with a new epoch in capital, something that suddenly becomes true in the 60s, but something that was always true. Here’s the pith of the essay:
Rather, stopping work—the strike, as the classic form of workers’ struggle—implies a refusal of the command of capital as the organizer of production: it is a way of saying “No” at a particular point in the process and a refusal of the concrete labor which is being offered; it is a momentary ‘blockage of the work-process and it appears as a recurring threat which derives its content from the process of value creation. The anarcho-syndicalist “general strike,” which was supposed to provoke the collapse of capitalist society, is a romantic naivete from the word go. It already contains within it a demand which it appears to oppose—that is, the Lassallian demand for a “fair share of the fruits of labour”—in other words, a fairer “participation” in the profit of capital. In fact, these two perspectives combine in that incorrect “correction” which was imposed on Marx, and which has subsequently enjoyed such success within the practice of the official working class movement—the idea that it is “working people who are the true “givers of labour,” and that it is the concern of working people to defend the dignity of this thing which they provide, against all those who would seek to debase it. Untrue. . . The truth of the matter is that the person who provides labour is the capitalist. The worker is the provider of capital. In reality, he is the possessor of that unique, particular commodity which is the condition of all the other conditions of production. [italics mine]
With this formulation, Tronti, very much like Moishe Postone in his Time, Labor and Social Domination, unhitches Marxist theory from the work-glorifying productivism of previous Marxisms, not to mention those Marxist humanists who would characterize labor as the ontological ground of all human society, while at the same time critiquing any merely distributionist opposition to capital, those who would, in the manner of the actually existing socialisms of the time, redistribute the fruits of the capitalist mode of production differently but retain the relations of production of capitalism. Like Marx, he identifies capital with these relations of production—capital is the direct imposition of these relations of production, and not merely a parasitic force that attaches to pre-existing relations and siphons off the surpluses from them.
Furthermore, because “capital” (that is, labour, the relations of production) is itself merely the ossified, dead residue of working-class labour-power (that is, capital), Tronti can then characterize capitalism as, essentially, the working class’s relationship to itself, in which the class of capital (givers of labor) serves only a mediating role. The fixed capital in the form of machines, inputs, and accumulated money, are there for the taking, and in many respects, the working-class (especially if one expands the definition to include some supervisors and technicians) will have more understanding of how to access, utilize and seize this material than the class of capital. All the working class needs to do then is take charge of its own capacity, and its own dead products, and refuse the commands/relations of “capital.”
Leaving aside the considerable question of state power, the problem here, of course, is that the fixed capital, the machinery, etc. can’t be disentangled from the relations of production; as Panzieri indicates, “the relations of production are within the productive forces.”(Panzieri, “Surplus Value and Planning”). The working-class’s inequality to itself seems almost constitutive, unless of course there is a positive element, a constructive proposal of different relations of production, that goes along with this refusal. But even then, unless capital is destroyed, those new relations will merely make capital stronger.