In 1996 or 1998 or so Timmy and Chris and me went to see someone speak who had been an active member and I think some sort of officer in the Black Panther Party. We sat close to the front and paid very close attention. At some point he mentioned something about the Communist Party, about how the Panthers and the CP were the only people who did certain types of work or something. I don’t remember the details. At the time I knew next to nothing about the BPP or the CP and had yet to develop much in the way of a sectarian response to stuff, as long as said stuff was in some sense radical (I now know only a miniscule amount more about these particular organization, but I’m way more sectarian).

In the Q and A afterward I asked some question along the lines of “you said something about connections between the Black Panthers and the Communist Party, can you say more about that?” The response felt hostile to me, it was something like “I did not say anything of the sort!” I tried to clarify, something like “maybe I misunderstood but I thought you said something about the Communist Party and I thought that was interest but you didn’t say very much” and after a bit of back and forth the speaker clarified a bit of what he meant. (Great story, I know.) I know he specified that the CP was focused on the industrial working class while the BPP was focused on the lumpenproletariat (I remember this because that was a somewhat new term to me then). At some point in the back and forth the speaker seemed to me to soften visibly.

What I think happened is that he saw us three white skinhead guys and took us a hostile audience at first, and took my question as redbaiting. We spoke to him briefly afterward, said “thanks for speaking, that was very informative.” He smiled and said “are you boys Marxists?” Timmy said he wasn’t sure and Chris and I gave enthusiastic affirmatives. He smiled again and said something like “that’s important stuff, I used to be a Marxist. It’s a good phase to pass through.”

I thought of this today while I was walking around thinking about the blog post I intended to write – this one actually, I was thinking about the content which follows below. Specifically, this post is yet another in what is now a tiresomely long list of occasional posts where I complain about and argue with Negri. As was I walking I thought, why do I do this? Why bother to write these? Why bother to read Negri’s stuff anymore?

I’m not sure, I just feel sort of compelled to do so. I think part of why is that Negri was a formative influence on me, and so on the one hand I find it useful to continue to engage with him even when I think he’s wrong and frustrating on a lot of points, in that it helps me get clearer on what I now think. (Along the same lines I used to know someone who was a Kierkegaardian who said that for several years he read _Stages on Life’s Way_ or whatever it’s called once a year, as part of assessing where he was at in his own life and how his views on things had changed.) On the other hand, Negri continues to be someone taken seriously by friends and comrades of mine who I take seriously, another reason why engaging with his work seems relevant. Another reason is that … well, like I said, Negri was a formative influence on me. Equally relevant here, Negri wowed me. Part of why I keep reading stuff by Negri is that I want to be wowed again, and particularly be wowed by him. Part of why I keep writing about this stuff and feeling cranky in doing so is that it all keeps failing to wow me, and that feels disappointing. Connected to this is a sort of looking for something else to be excited about in terms of at least ostensibly radical ideas – if I’m not wowed any more by what I’ve read by Negri, and so far what from what I’ve continued to read by him more recently I don’t think I’m going to be wowed by him again – I would at least like to be wowed by something. (As I think is clear, all of this is operating pretty much at a gut level rather than a head level – impulses not arguments.)

Anyhow –

Negri. More specifically his recently published book Reflections on Empire. I nearly bought it – if I had seen it at a bookstore I would have. Instead I got it out of the library and I’m glad I did so. That’s not to say it’s terrible – I like this one a good deal better than his recent Porcelain Workshop which I can honestly say I’m very nearly sorry to have bought, which I almost never say about books – it’s just that I already own a copy in Spanish. It turns out I’ve already read it. (In fact, I co-translated a section of it that was published elsewhere. [I didn’t have a hand in translating any piece of this book, just so that’s clear.] My books are mostly all packed up in the welter of boxes in my new apartment right now, but once I’m all unpacked I’ll find my Spanish copy and check if I have any other notes in addition to the ones here.) Since I’d already read it in Spanish, I didn’t feel the need to read all of it in English. I think this is why I liked it so much more than the Porcelain Workshop (I also think this is just a better book than that one). I also just recently got the new book of interviews with Negri, Goodbye Mr Socialism, which I’m about 1/3 of the way through. Notes on that to follow eventually, likely to take the same exasperated and disappointed character as the notes on Reflections On Empire.

Reflections consists of five “lessons” which are new sections on various conceptual topics such as the definition of biopolitics or the meaning of war. Between these lessons are previously published materials (though some are published here in English for the first time I think, like Negri’s essay on counterpower from the Colectivo Situaciones collection on that topic).

Wittgenstein remarks somewhere something to the effect that his work is a ladder and after you’ve climbed up it you no longer need it. I don’t want to say I’ve climbed up the ladder of Negri’s work to a higher level – though I did do so personally, which is to say I’m better off for having read _Empire_ etc and come out the other side. What I mean to say is that I don’t think that I’ve superceded this stuff so much as moved elsewhere. I might say I set the ladder of Negri’s work horizontally across different gaps in my own thoughts and concerns and walked across them to someplace else. I’m no longer in the conceptual field that this stuff is – the questions it poses and the answers it suggests are simply not mine much of the time. As such I’m not going to be synoptic with this book in terms of presenting Negri’s arguments clearly etc, as I don’t think it’s really worth it for me. I won’t be making use of much of this material anymore. Instead I’m just laying out all the stuff I like and dislike for my own use.

Here’s what I like very much:

1) The clear point that economy always involves regulation. Negri writes against “the liberal myth of the ‘invisible hand’ (…) There are always hands, active hands, and rules which may be more or less visible but which are always efficacious and manipulatory, operating in the market and everywhere in society.” (3.) State and economy intertwine, certainly under capitalism anyway. Negri also notes that in some moments of crisis the state is called to intervene precisely by free marketers.

2) The point of view from which “the struggle (…) constitutes every political reality.” (9.) Conflict and dynamism, clashing subjects, rather than stasis, predetermination, or objective logics.

3) the emphasis on the link between state and capital generally (mostly a statement of point 1, but put in more general terms by Negri in discussing the relationship between sovereignty and economy, for instance p33)

4) the criticisms of Soviet and Third-Worldist Marxisms (16)

5) the emphasis on capitalism as a social relation (32-33)

6) the invocations of operaismo (mostly Tronti) and subaltern studies; pity they’re only invocations

7) The nod of the head toward John Dewey and Sidney Hook on Dewey

8) The clear distinction that he uses biopower to refer to top-down power/power-over and biopolitics to refer to bottom-up power/power-to (73)

9) Identification of capitalism with command (though the point is made insufficiently that capitalism is a command relationship; Negri makes it sound like command prior to immaterial labor was external or more external to the capital relation, which blunts his own insight needlessly and foolishly)

(at least some of) what I dislike and/or disagree with:

1) Insistence on the relativization of the nation-state. This may be true and I don’t have an agenda either way but it’s not established in the book and the function it plays in the argument is unclear.

2) The insistence on immaterialization of labor. I think this argument is probably false and is certainly not established, plays an untenable function in the arguments/body of ideas Negri is presenting, and has problematic political content.

3) Treating the social factory as an epoch rather than an interpretive perspective (13); talking about the becoming-social of production and/or the becoming-productive of sites and activities which (by virtue of the ‘they have now become productive’ sensibility, though no argument is ever made) are held to have been previously unproductive. (44, “the setting to work of the whole society”, Negri elsewhere refers to the ‘becoming woman’ of production; see also 74)

4) A variety of claims made about the present which are not actually attributes of the present as distinct from earlier eras, including: the mobility and ‘metissage’ of the proletariat (22, on this see also Virno’s disagreement with Negri on the not-yetness of the multitude), the intermingling of first and third world (23, Dunayevskaya among others said this a long time ago), claims about international and global cooperation between states and capitals as an aspect mainly of the present (33, this is counter the recent trend in US history to take a transnational perspective on prior moments), claims like “the enterprise must have the ability to valorize the wealth produced by networks that do not belong to it” (64) which is precisely what all purchasers of labor power who then use that labor power must do,

5) Implied claims about the past due to claims marking the present off from the past, such as the notion that now because of immaterialization of labor adequate representation of the proletariat is impossible – the proletariat is _now_ a multiplicity (27), as if it could previously be adequately represented. This is a narrative of exhaustion of older possibilities – even though that exhaustion is celebrated and treated as a supercession – rather than a critical account of past approaches.

6) Playing fast and loose with Foucault in a way that doesn’t mark disagreements with or departures from Foucault’s arguments (26), this is not a problem of fidelity but of simply making it clear for those of us who are not well-versed in Foucault

7) Claims which are only trivially true made about immaterial labor – and, or because, they have an incredibly wide scope which is not acknowledged. For instance, with immaterial labor “the instrument is the brain”(28),“labour is (…) increasingly becoming cognitive activity” (68). As if brains were not active in manual labor. Marx’s – clumsy and illmade – point about bees vs architects is an example of this. As another counter-example, the tests around employers’ liability such as assumption of risk and contributory negligence were precisely based on the brains of workers and their immaterial capacities such as assessment of risk.

8) Claims about the supercession of the law of value, and attribution of this supercession to immaterial labor (29); Negri was making these claims well before he got into the immaterial labor stuff, which makes me wonder if he likes that stuff in part as a way to prop up a thesis he’s otherwise attached to. It also suggests that Negri’s understanding of the law of value – and its operation in the times when he admits it did operate – is limited. For instance, he writes as if there was no gap between actual labor time and labor time as measured, when he writes of the origin of “the discourse on the law of value” as
“tied to a specific phase in the organization of labour, a phase in which labour actually could be measured in the terms required by classical economic theory” (39).

9) Movement and ambiguity between the multitude as all workers and the multitude as immaterial laborers, likewise between all labor becoming immaterialized and a certain group of workers carrying out immaterial labor, likewise between immaterial labor as a whole range of activities and a sort of labor aristocracy or class vanguard of immaterial laborers. This is tied to inattentiveness to divisions within the working class. (For all the praise of subaltern studies, Negri seems singularly uninterested in subaltern labor, being only interested in hegemonic labor and laborers).

10) Moves that sound like a joke I like to make. The joke goes like this. Someone else says something, I say “I agree,” followed by something at best tangentially related in such a way that implies the person said what I said. Such as, you say “this blog is a bit dull,” I said, “I agree that the tremendously high caliber of my writing makes for slow going for novice readers.” For instance, Negri lays out the point that capital is a relationship, then talks about how freedom struggles have rendered the nation-state incapable of imposing control as if the latter followed from the former when actually it is an independent point. (32-33)

11) An overly one-sided understanding of the class relation, as if all agency is on the side of the proletariat. Negri writes for instance that “it is struggles within and against capitalist command that make history,” which is true but there is no recognition that history is also made by the attacks of sovereigns and capitalists (35)

12) Conflation of these three points: “the working class as an independent variable, independent of the capital relation,” “the working class, through its struggles [as] the motor of all development,” “the working class [as] defined by its subjective being.” (36). The first and third of these are tremendously important, the second is false, none of the three are identical.

13) Deduction of the political composition of the working class from the technical composition and starting accounts of past political compositions from past technical compositions(39-42), including the standard assertion of new historical possibilities – and possibilities which are of a wholly new order of newness.

14) Impoverished understanding of previous moments in the labor process and class composition. For instance, during what Negri thinks of as the era of the hegemony of the professional or skilled worker the sector(s) that Negri refers to as the mass worker, and which he later sees as becoming hegemonic, were highly active and organized – as well as mobile, hybridized, and having other ‘multitudinous’ qualities – notably in the US with the IWW. Negri also fails to recognize the continuity between later struggles of the mass worker (43, referring to struggles in the 1960s and 1970s) and earlier struggles. A few cases in point: the role during the CIO era of people who experienced unrest in the IWW; ties between the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and older radicals with experience during earlier cycles of struggles; Stan Weir as a conduit between earlier IWW sailors, 1930s merchant marine struggles, and later struggles in the 20th century. (On all of this I find Badiou’s work on fidelity to events, problematic as it is, much more useful than Negri. Negri sounds as if workers respond only to the immediate context of production and workers’ struggle spring up solely in response to and informed by the present, rather than indicating the role of past experience and memories of past struggles in shaping the action of the class in the present.)

15) Nonsense (on stilts) about real sumpsumption including two problems, which are the lack of definition of terms (such as ‘the social’ – exploitation shifts “directly to the social” [46], without defining what directly vs indirectly social might mean or how exploitation once was somehow less social or not social) and without distinguishing clearly what is meant by real subsumption as a marker of the present (as well as a slippage from real subsumption of labor in some locale to real subsumption of society). Likewise with the passage from disciplinary to control societies (for instance, “control passes more (…) through the imaginary and the mind rather than through direct discipline exercised over bodies”, 71. Really? Taco Bell includes a by the second measurement of the pace at which drive-through orders are filled. Isn’t that bodily discipline? And of course it includes minds as well, but so did all factory discipline.)

16) An assumption without argument that a new historical situation requires a new set of ideas to understand it. (45, 61.) This is on the one hand simply common sense – ‘things are different, we need ideas adequate to the present’ – but there are several problems. The claim is that in a new condition new ideas are needed. On what basis or using what tools is a new condition identified? The answer can only be ‘the old one(s)’, because the new one(s) are still yet to come – since we need to produce the new ideas in the face of the new present. But if the old ideas are sufficient to identify a new condition, why are they not sufficient to comprehend the new condition? And what is a new situation/condition anyway? This is the old Rorty point, about what differences make a difference and what ones don’t. In a sense, all situations are new and different. This moment in time is different from all others before it. And so is this one. And so is this one. And …. The statement “this moment in time is different from all others before it” is in some respects always – and trivially – true. Put differently, Negri seems to have in mind some idea of philosophical change in relation to other changes, but this idea is not clearly laid out and is not at all argued for. It’s simply assumed. The tremendous – and silly – irony here is that this is treated like it’s some important point about historical specificity and attentiveness to context – and it makes sense in a common sense sort of way, as most truisms do – but if made self-reflexive the point fails its own test. The injunction ‘in a new condition, seek a new method’ is itself a methodological or theoretical (or, meta-methodological/meta-theoretical) point, which is treated as valid in all contexts. Put yet another way, Negri’s point amounts to ‘in a novel circumstance, rethink your assumptions,’ which on the one hand has an obvious rightness but which is on the other hand itself an assumption and thus one which is either false (because this assumption is not to be rethought) or is itself subject to rethinking (and if this is so, then there is much less argument for all the theoretical scaffold-building that Negri engages in).

17) Foolish comments about basic Marxian terms like use value (61-62) and the reserve army of the unemployed as if it was not a part of the working class (76)

18) Way, way too kind to Lenin (148-158)