Radical media, politics and culture.

"Revolution is Ordinary," Some Recent Autonomist Books Reviewed

hydrarchist writes

Revolution is Ordinary
John Kraniauskas, Radical Philosophy, 115 (Sept. – Oct., 2002), pp. 40-42

John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto Press, London
and Sterling, 2002. viii + 237 pp., £15.99 pb., 0 7453 1863 0 pb.

Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian
Autonomist Marxism,
London and Sterling, Pluto Press, 2002. ix + 257 pp.,
£15.99 pb. 0 7453 1606 9 pb.

In his recent anthology of Lenin’s conjunctural writings of 1917, Revolution
At The Gates,
Slavoj Zizek insists on the present need for new ‘forms of
politcization’ of the social, now globalized by network capitalism, which
contemplate capitalism’s end. Zizek himself looks, not quite to Leninism as
such (a Stalinist invention), but to Lenin’s exemplary ‘full subjective
engagement’ in a moment of catastrophe he makes his own, which was as much
existential as organizational and theoretical. Zizek refers to this form of
political engagement as a ‘Leninist utopia’. Such quasi-normative
reflections on revolutionary enthusiasm as a mode of individualized being
and becoming (arguably, a culturalist intervention in the realm of the
political overcoded in the language of a philosophy of will) are widespread,

suggesting a shared experience of political crisis.

As their titles suggest, both John Holloway’s Changing the World and Steve
Wright’s Storming Heaven manifest this concern for thinking contemporary
revolutionary political subjectivity. However each turns against not only
institutionalized Leninism but also the exceptionalism of left-wing
political individualism in either its charismatic or party modes, in
different but salutory (that is, de-sacrilizing) ways. For Wright, the
figure of ‘militancy’ produced by Italian autonomist Marxism suffered from
the developmentalism inherent in most avantguardist politics; whilst for
Holloway, the struggle for power filtered through exception and/or party
reproduces categorial fetishism a form of ‘power-over’ that doing (the
fragmented sociality of practice present in resistance and struggle) that
revolutionary practice should in fact release, as ‘anti-power’. Whilst
Zizek, Badiou and others are keen to re-think the question of political
revolution in the absence of obvious agencies of social transformation, and
thus in somewhat compensatory fashion (‘more Will!’), Wright and,
especially, Holloway suggest that the very notion may have become

Two particular experiences of militancy emerge in Holloway and Wright’s
books, and both have proved to resonate strongly within the contemporary
anti-capitalist movements across the world. In Storming Heaven, which is a
history of theoretical ideas, Wright examines the Italian Marxism associated
with the far left ‘autonomy’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, present today
in the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as in the lesser-known, untranslated
work of PaoloVirno and Yann Moulier Boutang, amongst others. The continued
influence of this tradition – the work of Mario Tronti proves to be
especially important - is very evident in Holloway’s book too. Changing the
World, however, is especially marked – perhaps over-optimistically now - by
the experience of neo-Zapatismo in Mexico: the initial Chiapas armed revolt,
its modes of self-presentation, and its subsequent stubborn resistance.

In the words of Mario Tronti, the experience of Italy’s far left ‘Autonomia’
movement produced ‘many flowers, but little fruit’. Wright recounts this
history through the analysis of the writings of key intellectuals
(especially Raniero Panzieri, Romano Alaquati, Mario Tronti, Toni Negri and
Sergio Bologna), weaving it convincingly into the story of the journals and
papers which published their key theoretical and political interventions and
investigations (Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, the most famous, but also
Primo Maggio and Rosso) and the history of their political organisations
(the Italian Socialist Party, the Italian Communist Party, and Potere
Operaia, the Gruppo Gramsci etc.). With Autonomia having been eclipsed in
the 1970s by the influence of Eurocommunism, in its Togliatti-Gramsci
articulation, and in the 1990s by the predominance of the figure of Negri,
Storming Heaven offers up a possible re-constellation of Italian Marxism for
the English-language reader schooled in the concept of ‘hegemony’ that,
suprisingly, has its origins in the margins of the post-war Socialist Party
(Panzieri and Negri) allied to heterodox members of the Communist Party
(Tronti) – the former resisting integration with the Christian Democrats,
the latter resisting corporativist social democratization. The question of
the political representation and organisation of ‘labour’ in parties and
trade unions was thus fundamental to their theoretical production --
especially the postulate of labour’s self-organisation which leads to the
figure of its ‘autonomy’-- as well as to their rivalry and conflicts. Wright
expounds the political rationale of this history well. But there is another
story, which begins with the post-war economic miracle which transformed the
experience of the Italian working class: rapid industrialization and the
subordination of labour to the machinery of fixed capital, followed by the
increasing socialization of capital in the mid-1970s resulting (as elswhere)
from the emergence into dominance of post-fordist regimes of production and
the service industries. In Italy, however, this process was overdetermined
by a drawn-out and violent 1968, on the one hand, and considerable internal
migration, on the other. This is the history that produced the key concepts
and figures associated with Autonomia: the ‘factory’ and the ‘social
factory’, the ‘mass worker’ and the ‘socialized worker’, and more
particularly, ‘class composition’ -- that is, working class de-composition
and re-composition in and beyond the factory.

Wright tells this history well too. But the theoretical argument loses out.
The concept of class composition is not given the space and time it
deserves, so that its different political inflections as, we are told, they
appear in the work of Panzieri and Tronti, Negri and Bologna, for example,
are not sufficiently drawn out. This is perhaps a result of Wright’s
antipathy to theory. Theoreticism is a fault which he perceives in Tronti --
possibly the most inventive of the thinkers associated with Autonomia, at
least before Negri. However, without Tronti’s worker-centred philsophy of
history, conceptualized as ‘refusal’, the idea of class composition would
have been bereft of its particular autonomous political inflection. Like
Althusser, writing in the early 1960s, Tronti wanted to make a science of
Marxism. One way of characterizing his gesture is as an attempt to return
politics (Lenin) to the analysis of capital (Marx), countering what Gramsci
referred to as the Bolshevik ‘revolution against Capital’ that came to
define modernizing political Marxism in contexts of uneven development.

Capitalist development in Tronti’s view, and with it class composition, was
the result of bourgeois resistance to the power of labour, and could be
tracked in the tendential subsumption of labour to fixed capital in the form
of machinery and planning, the attempt to do away with the labour it
depended upon. In Wright’s words, class composition refers to ‘the material
structure of the working class’ as a force of production at the ‘nexus of
the technical and the political’; and Tronti et. al. traced its
transformations against the grain of its given modes of political
representation in parties and trade unions. The idea of the factory - where
in the labour process worker and capitalist meet, as value producing
variable and constant capital - was thus central to Autonomia thought, and
has remained so subsequently in, for example, Negri’s thinking of class
struggle within the social factory and empire. But, as Wright suggests, the
figures of the mass and socialized worker-militants become entrapped in the
negative – technological and modernizing - image of labour’s own historical
positivity; that is, in a developmentalism that focuses only on the workers
of the most ‘advanced’ sectors to the detriment of others. Uneven
development between capitals, so crucial to any conception of accumulation,
and uneven development between working classes, so crucial to thinking
revolution politically, have not troubled Autonomia theoretical production.

From Holloway’s point of view, both the factory and the model of class it
generates in the writings of Tronti and Negri have become fetishized
categories. Changing the World

contains a series of excellent critical readings -- of Lukács and the
Frankfurt School, of Negri and Hardt, of class composition theory, which
provides Holloway with his basic model of thought, and of the flight of
capital in crisis -- which turn on the two-faced character of fetishism:
doing and done, power-to and power-over. The story of value, for example, is
not only the story of the capture of doing as abstract labour (producing
surplus value and the accumulated as the ‘done’), but also the story of
capital’s fragility as it negates, in flight, the fundamental substatum of
social doing on which it depends, to produce ‘anti-power’. The experience of
capital is the experience of violent separation (the private appropriation
of the social through a continued process of primitive accumulation) and
inversion (the fetishized imposition of ‘power-over’, the ‘done’ over
‘doing’). The working class, in this account, is not a predetermined
positivity -- as it is, in Holloway’s view, in class composition theory --
but a product of ‘class-ification’ to be (and that is, continuously)
resisted. Struggle, criticism and resistance are forms of practical negation
of the ‘done’ beyond the impositions of identity-thinking. (Holloway quotes
Adorno: ‘Contradiction is non-identity under the aspect of idenity’.) In
other words, they are articulations of the grammar of denied subjectivity
present in ‘the scream’, Holloway’s founding figure of thought. The scream
existentially grounds the negativity of anti-power as ecstatic subjectivity:
it is indicative (negating the present) and subjunctive (in the name of the
‘not-yet’, as Bloch puts it). The struggle for power, for revolutionary
state power, in this view, is an articulation of reified identity-thinking
institutionalized in the party-form which has had catastrophic consequences
and is, says Holloway, to be ‘refused’. This is where the example of the
neo-Zapatistas in Mexico comes to the fore - not as an historical example,
unfortunately, but as an ethical imperative. Revolution, a key term in
Changing the World, becomes everyday, in Holloway’s anti-heroic account of
the realities of anti-power. One might even say that revolution is ordinary.

‘The unity of scream-against and power-to can perhaps be referred to as
dignity’, writes Holloway post-Chiapas. ‘Dignity is the refusal to accept
humuliation, oppression, exploitation, dehumanisation. It is a refusal which
negates the negation of humanity, a negation filled, therefore, with the
project of of the humanity currently negated.’ Changing the World presents
itself as an anti-academic work, contra what it calls the ‘pose of reason’
and ‘the thinker’, preferring rather to represent thought as born from
‘rage’. Hence the scream. But it is at this point that its ecstatic
two-dimensionality suturing future to present suffers from the lack of a
third: the presence of the past, or history. This produces an
over-rhetorical text that, in attempting to escape from academicism into the
essay form, in fact instrumentalizes the subjectivity it claims to
recover.Two very brief examples. First, the neo-Zapatista notion of
‘dignity’ re-articulated by Holloway as a radical humanist politics of
mutual recognition comes from a colonial and post-colonial repetoire
demanding of the state that it fully recognize and legitimate a particular
identity claim on behalf of the Indian population, and that this
population’s cultural and political customs be granted ‘autonomy’. Some
radical critics in Mexico, like the anthropologist Roger Bartra, have
suggested that such demands may in fact re-articulate racist
juridico-political norms imposed during the colonial period. Some reflection
here on the historicity of concepts may have helped historicize Holloway’s
will to defetishize. Secondly, if fetishism is real, as Holloway insists,
and grounded in ‘separation’ -- for example, the seperation of the political
and the economic under capitalism -- more reflection on the ‘real’
specificity of the political sedimented over time may have also illuminated
the state fetishism so important to his critique of revolutionary politics.
Holloway mentions Foucault in this regard, but what of the work of Abrams,
Taussig, Corrigan and Sayers?

In Storming Heaven, the logic of Wright’s historical account leaves little
room for sustained theoretical reflection. In Changing the World Holloway’s
insistence on theoretical and rhetorical argumentation displaces the
opportunity for the historical illumination of concepts. However, a
dialectical unity of history and its concepts would involve much more than a
simple synthesis of these approaches."