[Part I is here]
If you’re like me, the characterization of labor capacity as absolute (rather than determinate) negation in Tronti will start to remind you of the myriad readings of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that seem de rigueur for European philosophers/theorists (Agamben, Badiou, Deleuze, Derrida and Zizek, among those that I’m aware of, all discuss the story and the character). If you read Marx on labour-capacity, the connection to Bartleby is rather unmistakable. Bartleby (and his less-remarked cousin, the Carpenter, in Moby-Dick) is a perfect exemplification of the antinomies of the working-class subject as both all-containing potentiality and absolute, immiserated de-qualification— in Marx’s words “Labour as object absolute poverty, labour as subject general possibility of wealth.”
Marx’s distinguishes two “moments” of labor; a negative moment:
As such it is not-raw-material, not-instrument of labour, not-raw-product: labour separated from all means and objects of labour, from its entire objectivity. This living labor, existing as an abstraction from these moments of its actual reality (also, not-value); this complete denudation, purely subjective existence of labor, stripped of all objectivity. Labour as absolute poverty: poverty not as shortage, but as total exclusion of objective wealth. (Grundrisse, 295-296)
And a positive one:
Labour not as an object, but as activity: not as itself value, but as the living source of value. [Namely, it is] general wealth (in contrast to capital in which it exists objectively, as reality) as the general possibility of the same, which proves itself as such in action. (296)
And, in conclusion, their synthesis:
Thus, it is not at all contradictory, or, rather, the in-every-way mutually contradictory statements that labour is absolute poverty as object, on one side, and is, on the other side, the general possibility of wealth as subject and as activity, are reciprocally determined and follow from the essence of labour, such as it is presupposed by capital as its contradiction and as its contradictory being, and such as it, in turn, presupposes capital. (296)
I think that the two-fold character of labour here goes a long way in explaining the problems and potentials in implementing, as militant praxis, the viewpoint of Tronti’s essay. In both Agamben’s and Zizek’s reading of Bartleby, there is the perverse belief that one can, by exarcerbating this “absolute poverty”, by reducing oneself to an ontological zero-degree, reach the Arcimidean point from which a destructive potential is gained. The trick, in Agamben, is not to fight the extension of bare life throughout the social field, but to generalize it. In weakness, strength, etc. The Christological resonances are well-remarked.
And yet, as much as this conception makes me uncomfortable (a kind of latent miserabilism), I can’t but help find myself attracted to it also. Although it’s not without the hints here and there of condescension which mark Melville’s ambivalent view-point, the show-stopping passage from Moby-Dick quoted below is, in many respects, a perfect description of the proletarian as social individual, the proletarian as prefiguration of communism, the proletarian for whom deskilling and dequalification, after “[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away,” allow her or him, as absolute self-determining plasticity, to lay claim to the entire spectrum of human ability, experience and possibility:
Thus, this carpenter was prepared at all points, and alike indifferent
and without respect in all. Teeth he accounted bits of ivory;
heads he deemed but top-blocks; men themselves he lightly held
for capstans. But while now upon so wide a field thus variously
accomplished and with such liveliness of expertness in him, too;
all this would seem to argue some uncommon vivacity of intelligence.
But not precisely so. For nothing was this man more remarkable,
than for a certain impersonal stolidity as it were; impersonal, I say;
for it so shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things,
that it seemed one with the general stolidity discernible in the whole
visible world; which while pauselessly active in uncounted modes,
still eternally holds its peace, and ignores you, though you dig
foundations for cathedrals. Yet was this half-horrible stolidity
in him, involving, too, as it appeared, an all-ramifying heartlessness;--
yet was it oddly dashed at times, with an old, crutch-like, antediluvian,
wheezing humorousness, not unstreaked now and then with a certain
grizzled wittiness; such as might have served to pass the time
during the midnight watch on the bearded forecastle of Noah's ark.
Was it that this old carpenter had been a life-long wanderer,
whose much rolling, to and fro, not only had gathered no moss;
but what is more, had rubbed off whatever small outward clingings
might have originally pertained to him? He was a stript abstract;
an unfractioned integral; uncompromised as a new-born babe;
living without premeditated reference to this world or the next.
You might almost say, that this strange uncompromisedness in him involved a sort of unintelligence; for in his numerous trades, he did not seem
to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been
tutored to it, or by any intermixture of all these, even or uneven;
but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.
He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one,
must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers.
He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful,
multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior--
though a little swelled--of a common pocket knife; but containing,
not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers,
cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.
So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver,
all they had to do was to open that part of him, and the screw was fast:
or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were.
Yet, as previously hinted, this omnitooled, open-and-shut carpenter,
was, after all, no mere machine of an automaton. If he did not
have a common soul in him, he had a subtle something that somehow
anomalously did its duty. What that was, whether essence of quicksilver,
or a few drops of hartshorn, there is no telling. But there it was;
and there it had abided for now some sixty years or more.
And this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him;
this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing;
but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes;
or rather, his body was a sentry-box and this soliloquizer on guard there,
and talking all the time to keep himself awake.
The ways in which this “man without qualities” is, at the same time, a pure potentiality, becomes clearer in the later play-like scene where Ahab casts him in the role of God. In any case, I think this passage supports CLR James’s claim that the true protagonist of Moby-Dick is the ship’s crew, trapped as it is between the intellectual domination of Ishmael and the directly political-theological domination of Ahab.
I started thinking, again, about all of these matters when, with Suzanne Stein and many other local poets and writers, I watched Fassbinder’s truly devastating Berlin Alexanderplatz at the SFMoMA this summer. I’m not sure I can think of any other film that displays such a range of affects. It seems to cover the whole spectum of human and inhuman feeling. Franz Biberkopf is, in many respects, a character like the carpenter above. His actions are seemingly without premeditation; he contains within him a spectrum of affects, from the most earnest sentimentality to the most terrifying rage. [It’s hard not to suspect that James Gandolfini based his portrayal of Tony Soprano on Biberkopf—not only are Gandolfini and Lamprecht matches for each other physically, but the alternately brooding and delicate mannerisms are nearly identical]. As an allegorical figure for either the German working-class or, more generally, the German people, he yields himself, in merely opportunistic ways, to the manipulations of the Nazis, of organized crime, and he flirts with anarcho-syndicalism. In each case, he remains rather indifferent to the ideological content of the group. He is self-actualized, but this self-actualization can’t be easily conceived in terms of any identifiable want or desire. He is “a stript abstract, an unfractioned integral.” As above, Fassbinder’s portrait of the German proletariat is, like Melville’s, not without its condescension.
What Biberkopf can’t bear, it seems, is his dependence upon another. But this is never phrased as a positive demand, only as a reaction to circumstance. There’s no small amount of Sartrean existentialism here. As a figure of radical autonomy, Biberkopf reacts murderously when he is enchained to other characters (Eva, Reinhold) through an exchange of women. Despite his refusal of work, what he never manages to refuse is the subservience of his girlfriends. His autonomy, in this sense, forces him into the role of pimp. He is unable to give a positive character to his autonomy—to negate the negation, if you will—and so proletarianizes those he loves and who love him. At every step of the way, his entry into society, and into the market, comes always by way of an exchange of women, even though, what he wants, in the end, is the refusal of work, a refusal of the market of exchange and value which objectifies him and those he loves. As a member of so-called lumpenproletariat—who as Silvia Federici and others demonstrate, should really be conceived of as part of the working-class proper—Franz finds that the informal economy of crime and prostitution mimics the logics of the formal economy. Given the staggering growth of global unemployment over the last 30 years, the portrait that BA provides seems important, since any resistance to capitalism will have to engage this group as a figure both of radical autonomy and radical dispossession.
Biberkopf already knows what he wants. Or rather, what he wants is beyond knowledge—it just is. He has no goals, no need of ideology. Working-class strategy is already inherent in him, but what he lacks is the tactical, constructive force which will allow him to actualize his own hatred of work.
The following scene, when Franz and his friend and partner-in-crime Willy go to a meeting of anarcho-syndicalists, makes this pretty clear. What I take from the film is that some synthesis of the two positions below would be necessary if Biberkopf is to avoid the fate—that is, Nazism—which befalls him, and by extension, the German working-class. Somewhere between voluntarism and spontaneism, Marx with just enough Nietschze to get you through to the other side:
[After hearing a rousing speech, Franz and Willy meet an old syndicalist who is walking his bicycle trough a rubble-strewn interior.]
Syndicalist: Come on. Tell us what work you do.
Franz: Oh, I get around. I do this and that. I don’t actually work. I let others work for me.
Syndicalist: So you’re an entrepreneur with employees. How many do you have? And what are you doing here anyway, if you’re a capitalist?
Franz (ringing the bell on the anarchist’s bicycle): I want to reduce
Syndicalist: That’s just an excuse.
[Willy gets on a swingset in the ruined interior. Starts swinging.]
Franz: What do you mean? Haven’t you noticed I’ve got only one arm? That’s the price I paid for working. And that’s why I don’t want to hear anything about honest work.
Syndicalist: I still don’t understand, buddy, why you don’t work. If you don’t have an honest job, you must have a dishonest one.
[Franz and Willy get on a seesaw]
Franz: There you are. He’s caught on at last. Come over here, Willy. That’s it: dishonest work. Your honest work is slavery. You said so yourself just now. That’s what honest work is, and I learned my lesson.
Syndicalist: Okay, so you don’t work. But you don’t seem to be on welfare either.
Franz: No, I’m not on welfare either.
Syndicalist: Then I’d just like to ask, though it’s none of my business, what you’re doing here.
Franz: I was waiting for that question. You were talking just now about damned wage slavery, and saying that we are all outcasts with no room to move.
Syndicalist: Yes, but you weren’t listening properly. I was talking about refusing to work. But to do that, you’ve got have a job first.
Franz: And that’s what I refuse to do.
Syndicalist: That doesn’t help us. You might just as well go to bed. I was talking about a strike, a mass strike, a general strike.
Franz: And that’s what you call direct action? It’s just talk. Talk and more talk, yet you go to work and make the capitalists stronger.
Syndicalist: You idiot.
Franz: Hey. You make shells for them, which they later use to shoot you dead. And you want to teach me something? Do you hear that, Willy? Boy, it bowls me over.
Syndicalist: I ask you again what work you do.
Franz: And I tell you again: nothing! Not a lick. You can all kiss my ass, because I shouldn’t do any work, according to your theory. I’m not boosting any capitalists. And I don’t give a damn about your bitching and strikes, and what you keep going on about, what’s supposed to happen someday. I don’t give a damn. You’ve got to stand on your own two feet. What I need, I do myself. I’m self-sufficient.
Syndicalist: Just try to go it alone. Alone, you can’t do anything. We need militant organizations.
Syndicalist: We have to set up militant organizations. That’s what we have to establish: militant organizations.
Franz: Organizations. I’d like to know what’s going on in your head. I’d really like to know that. On the one hand, you preach and say you’re against every system, against any kind of order and all organizations. On the other hand, you want to set up militant organizations. Don’t you see there’s something wrong in your head? Can’t you see that?
Syndicalist: Words are wasted on you. You can’t think straight. You’ve got a mental block. You don’t understand what’s important for the proletariat: solidarity. That’s what’s important.