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#3 Emancipation of-from Labor

Michael Hardt // Who is Toni Negri?

This text is based on an article first published in Dagens Nyheter in Swedish in 1998.

The anomaly of Negri’s trajectory as intellectual should be traced back to the early 1960s and his stellar academic career at the University of Padua. He was promoted to full professor at an extraordinarily young age in the field of “State theory”. A long essay written in 1964, ” Il lavoro nella costituzione ” (Labor in the Constitution), was at the center of his intellectual development during this period. In it, Negri recognizes the foundational role of labor in the constitution of liberal democratic societies: both in terms of the formal constitution (the Italian Constitution, for example, begins “Italy is a democratic republic founded on labor”) and in terms of the material constitution of society and social production. From this point of departure, Negri develops a Marxist critique of the State and capital that involves centrally a critique of labor itself. This is how we can recognize most clearly Negri’s departure from the traditional communist and socialist political line of the period. The official left celebrated and affirmed labor as the means toward liberation, or even as liberation itself. Rather than a liberation of work, however, Negri argued for a liberation from work. Work itself is a disciplinary regime that must be attacked and destroyed by workers.

In the early 60s Negri joined the editorial group of Quaderni Rossi , a journal that represented the intellectual rebirth of Marxism in Italy outside of the realm of the communist party. The philosophical framework developed in the context of the journal came to be known as ” operaismo ” (workerism) and one of its central political concepts was “the refusal of work,” which did not refer to a refusal of creative or productive activity but rather a refusal of work within the established capitalist relations of production.

In the 1970s, Negri’s work continued to focus on labor, but the primary site of analysis shifted outside of the factory walls. Earlier Negri and his colleagues had centered their analyses on the working class (by which they understood male industrial factory workers), but now they developed a broader notion of proletariat that was meant to refer to all those whose labor is commanded and exploited under the rule of capital. They conceived their analyses and practices as moving out of the factory and into society. In these years Negri developed a theory of the “social worker” that tried to grasp the new subjective figure of social production and revolt. In effect, this intellectual project drew into question the conceptual division posed by the traditional Marxist conceptions of productive and unproductive or productive and reproductive labor along with the traditional political divisions between waged workers, unwaged workers, and the unemployed. The primary political consequence of these theories was to recognize all the various figures of social production, the entire proletariat conceived in this broad sense, as capable of revolt. Negri’s theoretical work in this period culminated in Marx Beyond Marx, a reinterpretation of Marx’s work that extended it beyond the limits of Marx’s own time and vision.

After Potere Operaio dissolved in 1973, Negri participated in Autonomia Organizzata (Organized Autonomy), a loosely coordinated network of local organizations throughout Italy. (see “What is to be done?” Nr2 Autonomy Zones) In this period too, and from this same terrain of social struggles, the Italian terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades were formed. It is also important to recognize that there was a broad continuum of the use of violence in this period, both against property and persons. After the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro the prominent Christian Democratic politician in 1978, the Italian government enacted a series of emergency measures and redoubled its police efforts against the terrorist and non-terrorist political groups alike. On April 7 1979 Negri was arrested along with numerous others who had participated in Potere operaio several years earlier. The prosecuting magistrate claimed that Negri was the secret leader of a vast clandestine constellation of terrorist organizations. When Negri did finally come to trial four years later, the original allegations of his masterminding terrorist organizations had been dropped. The judges prosecuted him instead primarily on the basis of his writings, holding him “morally” and “objectively” responsible for actions on that basis.

In 1983, while his trial was still going on, Negri was elected to parliament as a representative of the Radical Party and was consequently released from prison. After only a few months, however, the Chamber of Deputies voted to rescind Negri’s parliamentary immunity and send him back to prison. At that point, instead of returning to prison, Negri fled by sail boat to France, where he remained in exile for the next fourteen years.

This third period of his intellectual production contain some of his most significant philosophical contributions, from his widely-renowned study of Spinoza written in prison to his recent, massive study of the concept of “constituent power,” which deals centrally with Machiavelli and the revolutionary moments. In one respect one might say that the central project of Negri’s thought through this entire period has been to bring together the political thought of Italian operaismo with the new French philosophy of authors such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. Thus, for example, operaismo’s project of the refusal of work encounters Foucault’s notion of resistance to disciplinary society and Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of lines of flight. As a result of this encounter, of course, all of these concepts come out changed. We are thus given a new version of “post-structuralist” philosophy that is clearly politically engaged.

in 1997 after fourteen years in Paris, Negri decided to leave the Parisian intellectual milieu and return to Italy and prison. His primary objective was to urge the Italian government to find a collective political solution for the hundreds of those like himself who remain in exile or in prison. Negri’s second motive in returning is to rediscover a political life for himself in Italy.

Negri did not remain a 60s radical (as if preserved faithfully in ice) nor abandon his political aspirations — rather he changed with the times, always seeking to reinvent the role of the public and political intellectual. In each era Negri has sought to discover the revolutionary possibilities of the present.

Louis Althusser once said, “A communist is never alone.” Negri’s intellectual activity is always collective and collaborative, always seeking out social and political engagement. This is why even when he chooses to place himself at extreme personal risk or in a position of poverty he never adopts an ascetic figure. The collective and collaborative nature of the political project always insure that it is a project not of renunciation but of joy — a joyful adventure of political and intellectual engagement. This is the model of the radical intellectual he presents for our time.

PS/D.V: Toni Negri and Michael Hardt have been working together since 1996. In 2000, they completed their most well-received work to date, “Empire”, which the feuilleton of the FAZ has called “the new Communist Manifesto”.

In this work, they were able to develop a Marxist theory that does not only apply to the conditions of contemporary society’s structure, but also as a positive manual for revolutionary action. This book has had a decisive impact on the self-consciousness of a broadening “movement of movements”, and became the main theoretical basis for forming an international network of anti-corporate, radical-democratic globalization.

Toni Negri’s theory is extremely influential because it answers one of our time’s most desperate demands – the continuation of revolution, regardless of all of the failures of the past.

Toni Negri was pardoned by amnesty in 2003.

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