Class composition refers to the present condition of the working class in all its ambivalence and potential. The working class exists in various determinate conditions, conditions which are nevertheless always changing.
There’s the technical composition – the labor process as it currently functions – and the political composition – the forms of organization and resistance that operate in and against the labor process – and there’s a relationship between the two. As I take the point, like say in Panzieri or in Marx’s comments on machinery in v1 of capital, the technical is political in the sense that technical changes are aimed at domesticating specific arrangements of working class organization. In a sense, then, generally speaking the technical composition at any given point in time is determined by a prior political composition.
A while back I compiled a set of links on the topic, in case anyone’s interested. For now, I’d like to start with a quote from Sandro Mezzadra, from a conversation between him and Colectivo Situaciones. Mezzadra says, “the category of class composition, in the tradition of operaismo, has always been at the same time analytical and political”. In other words, the categories of class composition analysis aim to understand and (or, to understand in order) to intervene.
Mezzadra notes that in a sense within operaismo class composition replaces the idea of class consciousness. “It could be said that the relation between technical composition and political composition of the class replaces, in a way, the traditional relation between “class in itself” and “class for itself”, that is, the relation within which classical Marxism opens the space for class consciousness and the party as a separate subject. In this sense, it seems to me that operaismo produces a very important innovation within the Marxist thought of the political: the political is no longer something separated from the processes of “social” (or “economic”) struggle, it no longer pertains to the sphere of “consciousness” (…) this new conceptualization of the political has much also to do with a new conceptualization of the “economic” as such, of the “productive process of capital”, in a way the brings us – potentially – to call into question the representation of the processes of subjectification in terms of hierarchies constructed symmetrically to the categories of capital.” In other words, done in a certain way and followed far enough, class composition analysis calls into question the idea of deriving a form of working class organization from the arrangement of capital. Put in a different idiom, if we agree with Agamben and Virno and Aristotle in saying that politics is a matter of forming the good life, then our capacity for the bad life – selling our bodies and time as the commodity labor power – is derived from our capacity for the good life, not vice versa.
Mezzadra continues, “in the decade of the 1970s, the mass worker is for operaismo motor of each possible process of class subjectification and this hypothesis is confirmed by the big factory struggles – in Italy and in the international cycle – of the end of the decade. (…) I think that all the discussions of the last thirty years in operaismo have been marked by the search for a new figure of this type. (…) To me it seems that even in the way in which Toni Negri raises the question of immaterial labor there is still a search for this hegemonic function, based on the centrality of that immaterial labor has in the structure of social production.”
One thing I’ve begun to wonder about is how class composition analysis differs depending on the observer. That is, if one is aiming to find – and to produce, and to lead – a hegemonic class figure, the class composition will look different than if one has other aims. Put differently, the two functions of the thought of class composition that Mezzadra identifies, the analytical and the political, are not wholly separable. The analysis is partially aimed at producing its object/subject. Negri refers somewhere to inquiry/knowledge production that is simultaneously the organization of struggle. This knowledge and organization will then, obviously, differ depending on one’s organizational proclivities.
In the introduction to the new collection Books For Burning, which reprints five Negri pamphlets written between 1971 and 1977, Tim Murphy writes “the composition of the class (…) changes in Negri’s analysis, and his categories change accordingly.” (pX.) Presumably Murphy means that the actual composition changes, in its nexus of technical and political, but it’s not clear how all of this works – is there a change in the world to which Negri’s categories change in direct correspondence? I think this is something like what Murphy means (and how Negri sees his work), but that strikes me as unsatisfying.
The Glossary at the front of the book refers to the professional worker, the stage of class composition that characterized the time of the Bolsheviks. The entry states that the “hierarchical structure of the soviets and the party corresponded to the hierarchical composition of the working class itself.” (p xxxiv.) This echoes comments Michael Hardt has made, and Negri’s remark somewhere that the Bolshevik party was the price of the class composition of that time. (I got this from Steve Wright, I can’t remember where Negri says it.) This sounds fishy to me. The hierarchical composition of the working class? Hierarchy of who over who? Presumably at least some of those on the receiving end of those hierarchies were less comfortable than some others at the time, and I for one think that the Bolshevik organization model reproduced an intra-class hegemony of some class sectors over others. There seems to be little place generally in Negri’s work for intra-class hierarchy as a political or organizational problem.
Interestingly enough, in his 1997 introduction to the Italian edition of the book, Negri notes that one of the goals of the pamphlets was “to legitimate a kind of leadership within the seventies movement.” (p xxxix.) Two pages later, Negri writes about the importance of asking “which organization will then be adequate to this new composition” of the working class. There seem to me to be some problems with this: first, the grammatically singular here suggests that there is one best organizational form. Second, ‘adequate’ is left undefined. Adequate to what? To communism, obviously, but that has different meanings depending on one’s sense of what world we’re after and what ideas we have about getting there. For instance, the path will look quite different depending on whether or not one sees it involving the conquest of state power.
Jon has a project on post-hegemony and I’m quite excited to read the finished product. In particular I wonder what a post-hegemonic account of class composition would look like. Mezzadra gestures toward this. I suspect it would entail a pretty thorough revision of the categories and methods of analysis, since the concept of hegemony operates (in at least some versions of class composition analysis) in the register of the technical, the political, and the end goal of the interventions accomplished using the framework of class composition.
At the same time, I think it’s important to ask in what register(s) does the condition of post- come about? Is post-hegemony a condition in which hegemony has lost a prior efficacy and advisability? (In the way that business unionism in the US has been descending into crisis for years, because the deals between the unions and the bosses and state which underwrote that model of organization have been increasingly reneged upon by the bosses and politicians.) Or is it post-hegemony in the sense that we now see our way clearly past hegemony, in a sense that entails a criticism of prior organizational form and theories predicated on hegemony? To my mind the latter is essential, particularly for understanding the flaws of operaismo and its legacy. Negri has, in some sense, at least partially begun to move beyond a thought of political hegemony via his ideas of multitude. But this move is predicated on a historical narrative that implicitly approves of hegemony for prior moments, and I suspect that this historical narrative is bound up with the lingering aspects of hegemony in his work today – and moments of objectivism and determinism.