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Empire vs. Multitude: Talking with Antonio Negri

When Toni Negri, now 78, writes and speaks, there is something Latinate in his linguistics, yet the discourse is clear, disciplined, lucid, and playful. His bearhug greeting is muscular and powerful, as are the workings of his formidable intellect. We need his kind of thinking, because the leftist models of the past no longer work and something new has to be invented.

His book Empire rode high on the US bestsellers list, but Negri doesn’t have a party, an organisation or battalions of followers. He says: “I find myself a bit isolated, because I am, and remain, an extremist. So anyone who wants to make a career, or establish a relationship with the world of normal politics, avoids getting involved with me.” He theorizes the past practices and future possibilities of revolution. Over the past 20 years he has written that “classes” have given way to “multitudes” as an analytical watchword. His detractors say the masses aren’t storming the barricades crying “We are the multitudes!”

This (Arab) spring seemed a good time to visit him, since the movement in the main squares of capitals around the Mediterranean was something like the multitudes in action, and Negri claimed so in newspaper articles. Hearing Negri live is very different from reading him in English translation. On the train to Venice, rumbling across the cavalcavia from Mestre, that heavenly space of earth, wind and water, it struck me that I have been translating Negri for 40 years now. I had a flashback to London in the early 1970s, when we were activists fresh out of university, living in a commune that was raided by the police. They were very struck with our print room in the basement (I still yearn for the chug-chug of a Multilith 1250 offset litho press and the acrid smell of fresh-minted pamphlets). A big map of Italy on the wall, because Italy was the heartland of working-class revolution in Europe’s factories.

They concluded that we were part of an international conspiracy, which in a way we were. They were particularly interested in a document found in my drawer, the conference papers of the organisation Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power), which revolutionised the way we understood class struggle, through the historical periodisation of labour struggles worldwide into cycles. Negri was one of the voices in Potere Operaio who theorised the “mass worker” leading the struggles of the 1970s. Inspirational stuff that set me to translating Negri, although my early efforts were carted off by the constabulary.

That political landscape of the “mass worker” employed in systems of measured day work, was populated by car workers, dockers, miners, building workers and their trade unions: an international cycle of labour struggles capable of toppling governments. That has all changed. The industrial capitalism based on factory working classes has given way to a new capitalism, based on financial services, on the digital economy, on the
creation and marketing of knowledge: “cognitive capitalism”. In the capitalist heartlands we no longer bash lumps of metal in workshops but manipulate, create and valorize digital data and networks. Facebook and Google are bigger than General Motors. The new masses, of “immaterial labor”, Negri’s “multitudes”.

As the wave of factory struggles subsided in defeat, Italy descended into its “years of lead” (anni di piombo), the political terrorism of the 1970-80s. Negri was imprisoned, together with hundreds of other autonomist leftists (autonomia operaia) in the first of the mass raids that began on 7 April 1979. He did four years of prison from 1979, exile in France from 1983, then more prison in Italy. Negri tells the story of those years inPipeline, and Diario di un’evasione. With the fall of the Soviet system, there was an urgent need for intelligent writing that could explain the new state of the world. Negri embarked on major work, co-written with Michael Hardt at Duke University, and published by Harvard, the trilogy, Empire (2000),Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009).

The idea of ’commons’

To sidestep the historical blockage that the Soviet experience imposed on communism, Negri is returning to the idea of “commons” which lies at its root. He addresses a twin reality of “commons”. Identifying the roots of the current economic crisis, he sees a capitalist “commons”, a unification and commonality (comunanza) of capitalist interests, particularly in finance. “Sometimes, with rather too free a use of words, people have called this ‘the communism of capital’. It is a ‘commons’ with which we have to come to account. And which we have to expropriate.” The fundamental concept of the Italian workerist tradition (operaismo) is that capitalism always maps its developments on the struggles and resistance of the workers. Today, as an outcome of the labour struggles of the 1970-80s, there exists a commonality of work characterised by the immateriality, cognitive contents, networking and communication implicit in all areas of work under capitalism. This requires a radical shift in how we conceive the organisation of social change. As Negri says: “Revolution is no longer a matter of capturing the ‘Winter Palace’, Bolshevik-style. Instead, what we have is these forms of the common, these forms of interaction, this capacity of networks, this plurality, this pluralism, this poly-contextuality which is becoming more and more broadly extended.”

But how can the anger, urgency and aggressiveness that we have seen across North Africa, and in Spain, Portugal and Greece, be organised? InCommonwealth Negri addresses this question. He calls the anger indignation, and traces it back to Spinoza, who says that in indignation we discover our power to act against oppression. But the problem is how to transform these moments of popular anger into durable institutions of people’s power? For Negri and his comrades, in this phase of capitalism the whole metropolis becomes the arena of production and resistance. We are ruled under a system that is “biopolitical” (with the whole of life as politics). Revolutionary theory has to be developed in the biopolitical context: taking Marx and immersing him in Foucault. So what is the job of revolutionaries? “Our task is to investigate the organizational framework of antagonistic subjectivities that arise from below, based on the indignation expressed by subjects in the face of unfreedoms, … exploitation and expropriation” (Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Commonweal).

Indignation would seem a flaky concept, yet as I write this the live-video stream from Syntagma Square, Athens, is showing thousands of demonstrators besieging the Greek parliament over the new austerity laws. On a big banner you see the word that symbolises this movement: (Aganaktismeni). The indignant ones. Like the Spanish indignados before them. Negri comes into his own.

He’s also very available. In the 1980s I translated and published a volume of Negri’s writings, Revolution Retrieved (Toni Negri, Revolution Retrieved: Writings on Marx, Keynes, capitalist crisis and new social subjects (1967-83), ed and trans Ed Emery and John Merrington, Red Notes, London, 1983), in collaboration with John Merrington . I still have a few copies left; selling them helps oil the wheels of revolution. Last week I discovered that the whole book has been scanned by the “Libertarian Communists” and posted on the net as a free download, which explains the zero sales of the past months. I asked them to take down those pages, but they haven’t. So, as a small present to you the reader, here are the instructions for your free download (An internet search for “Negri — Revolt at Trani Prison” leads directly to a downloadable pdf.). Enjoy it while it lasts.

When I went to interview Negri, I also planned to capture his funny stories from a lifetime as philosopher, theorist, activist, exile and prisoner. The outcome is 13 short films on YouTube; the first posting is “The Revolt at Trani Prison” (1980) (Racconti curiosi no 13: “The Revolt at Trani Prison”;http://youtu.be/zTY1Dow6MzU). Its tragedy and humor contain a small secret from the final paragraph of the trilogy. The heart and soul of revolution, he says, will be laughter. “Ours is finally a laugh of destruction, the laugh of armed angels which accompanies the combat against evil. In the struggles against capitalist exploitation … we will suffer terribly, but still we laugh with joy. They will be buried by laughter.” Or more poetically in Italian, Sarà una risata che vi seppellirà.

Watch the interview in Italian

Ed Emery is organizer of Universitas adversitatis, a web-based free university; he also translates books.

This article appears in the August edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found atmondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

 

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