Getting closer to an actual draft of talk I agreed to give on “the common.” Regular readers of the blog may recognize pieces of prior posts here, sorry about that y’all, those posts have been part of me working my way up to/around to this.

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I’m going to talk about some recent writings by Antonio Negri and others on what they call “the common.” Before I get into that, though, please consider the images below. I’ll lay out some things that I think are interesting about these images.

From image left to right, featuring Panzieri, Tronti, Decari, and Negri

Each of these photographs takes an image out of its context and holds it up for our consideration in a new context.

Negri again

These image are, as Walter Benjamin put it, subject to “technical reproduction” which “can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.”

More Negri

These are electronically reproducible images (I got them off of the internet).

Even more Negri

Because these are electronic images, the speed at which these images can circulate across contexts is even more rapid than the type of photographic circulation Benjamin experienced and discussed in his era.

Negri yet again

To draw on Benjamin again, these images have an interesting quality as aesthetic objects.

To quote Benjamin, from each of these images “one can make any number of prints [such that] to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.”

Negri debating Alex Callinicos at the European Social Forum in 2003

(All my Benjamin quotes are from his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.“)

self-explanatory

I’ll come back to these images in a bit.

As I said before, I’m going to talk about some recent writings by Antonio Negri and others on what they call “the common.” As a short-hand, I will refer to this body of work as “post-workerism” and its adherents as “post-workerists.”[1.] In my view, there are serious problems with post-workerism. Post-workerism is marred by a confusion of the temporal or historical scope of its claims. Post-workerists make claims about what they take to be specific characteristics of the present as distinct from previous moments in history. They make these claims against the backdrop of and with resort to arguments developed in a philosophical register. A significant number of these claims about the present are false in the way in which they are posed, as claims unique to the present. The philosophical perspective developed by the post-workerists does little to help articulate historically specific qualities of the present.

In what follows, I first offer a brief survey of Antonio Negri’s remarks about what he calls “the common,” a key term in his recent work. I think address Negri’s claims about the relationship between the common and what he calls immaterial labor and/or biopolitical labor. I discuss how Negri sees all of this as unique to the present, and what rhetorical function is played by the claim about the present’s uniqueness. Next I present my argument that Negri’s categories fail to grasp unique qualities of the present. I engage in a reading of some of Karl Marx’s work to support my claims that Negri a lot of what presents as novel to the present has long been around. Then I argue that Negri’s political proposals in the present do not have the relationship to the present that suggests. I survey a few past analogs to Negri’s political perspective, in order to show how past radicals fit into Negri’s perspective, such that his philosophical work does not have the specificity and fine-grainedness that he thinks it has. I close with three brief reflections, first about the role of theory within Marxism, second on how Negri’s writing might be redeployed, and finally about an alternative set of prsoblems not really addressed by post-workerism.

Before I get into all that, let me come back to those photographs. Earlier I said some things that I said I thought were interesting about these images. Everything I said about those images is true of those images. Let’s say for the sake of argument that everything I said about the images really was interesting. Even in that case, it seems to me a mistake to say that I articulated anything interesting about those images in particular. In my opening remarks, if anything, I articulated interesting things about photography and electronically reproducible images as such, or at least about many photos and electronic images. What I said at the beginning of my talk was too general to say anything in particular about those particular images or any particular images. That’s why my opening remarks could apply to both images of Negri, of instances of social conflict, and of an adorable bunny. This parallels my claim about a lot of recent work by Negri. Negri articulates things that are true about the present not specific to the present. Much of what he says is true of social life as such or about capitalism as such. (As an aside, here are just few quick things that I think really are interesting about some of those images – they show moments from Antonio Negri’s life as a radical. They also show elements of some of the various social movements that Negri has been concerned with and involved in over the past four decades. And that bunny is so cute it makes my teeth hurt.)

Notes:
[1.] For my purposes here post-workerism is probably the best term, as it is the least odd sounding to people who are not familiar with this body of work, and is one way that these thinkers have been named. [CITATIONS.] “Post-workerism” is a translation of “post-operaismo,” which is the term I greatly prefer. I like this term because it marks the roots of Negri and others within a current of marxist thought in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s called operaismo, so named in part because of a left wing journal called Classe Operaio. Operaismo is an important strain of Marxism neglected within the English speaking world. I like the term post-operaismo in part because it indicates the roots that post-operaists have in operaismo. I also like the term post-operaismo because it indicates that Negri and others have moved away from operaismo, a move backward in my opinion.

As long as I am addressing terminology in this note, I want to briefly comment on two other terms which have been used to describe post-operaismo thinkers. One is “autonomia.” This term is clumsy, as it conflates recent thinkers with the so-called “area of autonomy”, a name for and a subject of discussion within Italian social movements in the 1970s. This term flattens that history, a history largely neglected in the Anglophone world, leaving out among other things the range of debates in Italian movements. [Pat’s dissertation, Steve’s articles.]

Another term for the post-operaist writers is “automimist Marxist.” The term autonomist marxism was coined by Harry Cleaver in his book Reading Capital Politically. In Cleaver’s use of the term, autonomist marxism is not a self-conscious tendency so much as a sensibility we can find across the marxist tradition. Among the elements of autonomist marxism are a view that the working class is autonomous from capitalism, in the sense that objective conditions do not in a strong sense determine working class subjectivity and agency. Autonomist marxism also emphasizes the autonomy of the working class from official institutions of the class, such as labor unions and socialist or communist political parties. Autonomist marxism also emphasizes the autonomy of sections of the working class from each other, such as working class women being autonomous from working class men, or black workers from white workers. In some versions of autonomist marxism, there is a denial of an autonomy of capitalism or capitalists. From this perspective, the working class is the engine of change in capitalism, the capitalist class is only ever reactive. I mention all this because often the term autonomist marxism is used only to refer to Negri and company. Autonomist marxism does have common elements (some of them quite problematic in my view), but it is not reducible to the post-workerists. In my view there are other autonomist marxists who are at least as interesting and politically important as the post-workerists. The post-workerists are the only autonomists marxists to engage in reflection on the philosophical theme of The Common, though other autonomists marxists (primarily the Midnight Notes Collective, the collective’s individual members, and people influenced by the collective) have made “the commons” a key term.

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