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«      Boffo, Marco (2013) Interrogating the knowledge‐based economy: from  ...»

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In its genuine attempt to break with the orthodox Marxism of the Italian Communist Party of the 1950s and 1960s and bring back communist politics to a class-based practice, the main merit of operaismo has been to use ‘analytical instruments rediscovered in Marx’s texts … to interpret the processes underway in Italy’ through development and use of ‘new and original interpretative categories’ (Turchetto, 2008, p.287). Focusing on class self-awareness and articulation within the labour process (through elaboration of the distinction between technical and political class composition) and, ultimately, on the analysis of cycles of struggle, it posited an active role for the working class in determining the dynamic of class struggle, capitalist development and accumulation, with labour process restructuring as capital’s response to workers’ unrest and refusal of work. Thus, the elaboration, in rapid succession, of the concepts of the operaio massa of the 1960s (the mass worker of the Fordist model), the operaio sociale of the 1970s (the social worker of the “diffuse factory” of the Italian Veneto and North-East), the mass intellectual of the 1980s and early 1990s, all the way up to the knowledge worker, the multitude, and the immaterial or biopolitical labourer of the noughties, responds to this logic. Nonetheless, despite departing from orthodoxy through reviving the politics and analysis of the labour process, operaismo followed a trajectory of descent of its own. From the original operaismo of the Quaderni Rossi to the post-operaismo of the 1980s and 1990s, its proposition underwent progressive debasement, becoming in the process ‘a blocked form of thinking’ (Turchetto, 2008, p.298), although consolidating as ‘a powerful apparatus of recognition’ whose function is ‘more linguistic than theoretical, and evocative as opposed to genuinely propositional’ (Turchetto, 2008, pp. 285-286). Indeed, as part and parcel of the last great throw of the working class dice in Italy, operaismo was caught between a period when it was extremely prominent at the highest points of the cycles of struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, and the rapid decline of these after the subsequent tide of repression (also entailing the incarceration of many of the thinkers and organisers of operaismo itself, such as Negri, among others). Thus, progressively moving away from an analysis of the labour process fully fledged in a political economy of capitalism, operaismo ended up reducing its analysis and politics to the continual attempt to identify, in each historical phase and contingency, as if unable to process defeat and under the hold of a “compulsion to repeat”,92 the hegemonic figure of labour able by virtue of its centrality in the production process to become the This comment is to be understood as an explicit reference to the Freudian concept of “compulsion to repeat”, which indicates the psychological phenomenon whereby individuals are compelled indefinitely to re-enact or repeat traumatic events and their circumstances. See Freud, 2003 [1920] for the first elaboration of this concept.

transcendental political subject in struggle against capital. Rooted in this tradition, the multitude and the hegemony of immaterial labour represent the culmination of a series of political subjects identified, after the defeat of the cycle of struggles of the mass worker and from the operaio sociale onwards, under Negri’s leading light.93 Thus, both the immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism debates recast the method and analysis of the later phase of operaismo (and subsequent post-operaismo), previously confined to national cycles of struggle, at the level of the whole historical development of capitalism and of the global economy, somewhat paralleling the diaspora of those operaisti fleeing Italy in the wake of judicial repression (such as Negri himself, for example). In doing so, the shortcomings are amplified: with the working class reduced (at best) to one of its segments through superimposition of analytical categories, a degraded view of work, workers and struggles of the past and in non-hegemonic sectors ensues, with the consequent idealisation of work of the present and its prospects in terms of quality and liberational potential (and with the ‘basic traditional models of political activism, class struggle, and revolutionary organization’ automatically discarded as ‘outdated and useless’, Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.68).94 As a result, this perspective obscures the persistence, plurality, and co-existence of forms of exploitation and struggle, despite evidence and trends negating the supposed greater autonomy of labour from capital;

this, in turn, isolates post-operaismo from the condition and reality of the majority of working people (similar critiques were made of the Futur Antérieur phase of post-operaismo also from within Autonomist Marxism, notably by Caffentzis, see Dyer-Witheford, 2001 for discussion;

but, despite the redefinitions of the concept of immaterial labour discussed in sub-section 2.2.1, they have remained unheeded).

Thus, the ‘search for an economic actor inside the hidden abode of production, who is then required to be a transcendent political subject with the responsibility of changing the whole society, creates an impossible practical and theoretical burden’, causing post-workerism to ‘ignore the real insights that can be generated from Marxist political economy, but reproduce See Corradi, 2011b for an account of the diverging paths of the operaisti in light of the failure of the struggles of the mass worker in the early 1970s. While Negri and those holding the autonomy of the social ventured on the search for new social subjects, those holding the autonomy of the political (such as, for example, Tronti) re-entered the Italian Communist Party. However, and despite their contrasting attitudes towards the latter, both positions held the extinction of value in light of the primacy of social cooperation or political command over the (capitalist) relations of production, not least at the point of production itself. Note, though, that Tronti has subsequently significantly revised and criticised his own position on the autonomy of the political (Corradi, 2011b).





These features are especially evident in the neglect of those workers (often, although not exclusively, located in the global south), whose work is essential to build, produce and maintain fully functioning the material infrastructures buttressing cognitive capitalism and immaterial production (to use postworkerist terminology). This infrastructure comprises activities ranging from the production of the hardware and consumption goods supporting “immaterial” products and informational goods, to call centre work (Gaudillière, 2008; Huws, 2003).

what is, arguably, its weakest point – the gravedigger thesis’ (Thompson, 2005, p.92).

Moreover, the lack of radical character for workers of this approach is nowhere as evident as in its cavalier treatment of neoliberalism and corresponding characterisation of cognitive capitalism as age of the general intellect. Indeed, post-workerism presents financialisation as ‘capital’s attempt to make its cycle of valorisation more and more autonomous from a social labour process that it does not subsume anymore’ (Corsani et al., 2001, p.14), and portrays the ‘social crisis of the Fordist wage’ and compromise as deriving from the ‘destabilisation of the Fordist organisation of work and the institutions of disciplinary society’ following ‘the formation of a diffuse intellectuality’ and ‘the reaffirmation of the cognitive dimensions of labour’ (Vercellone, 2007a, p.27, note 37). However, this can be done only at the significant price of neglecting the active role of class conflict from above, the role and place of the state within it, and the concrete political processes and policies paving the way for neoliberal restructuring and the rise of finance since the 1970s. Moreover, this neglect betrays how the post-workerist focus on class struggle from below and its portrayal of capitalist restructuring as merely and always reactive, are not only one-sided, but also mere conceptual abstractions, mobilised ex post facto as explanatory variables within voluntaristic readings of social conflict.

Thus, any social change, irrespective of its historical dynamics and effects, can be presented as the victorious outcome of workers’ struggles. However, while this is conceptually incorrect, it is also devoid of the radical character for workers which post-workerism claims for itself, as shown at least on two concrete occasions. First, the post-workerist advocacy for a basic universal income (as opposed to a call for de-commodification through expansion of free public provision, and a politics of full employment and redistribution of work) has played an important part in preventing the movement of the unemployed from joining forces with trade unions in France at the time of the debates preceding and surrounding the adoption of the 35hour-working-week measures (Husson, 2004).95 Secondly, Moulier Boutang has been an Of course, post-workerists are not the only proponents of basic income (see, for example, Standing, 2011). While motivations for advocating for the latter vary, post-workerists see it as a ‘programmatic political demand of the multitude’ following from the ‘generality of biopolitical production’. Thus, they hold that, since in ‘the passage to postmodernity and biopolitical production, labor power has become increasingly collective and social’, ‘the distinction between production and reproductive labor fades’ and ‘the entire multitude produces, and its production is necessary from the standpoint of total social capital’. Therefore, the ‘demand for a social wage extends to the entire population the demand that all activity necessary for the production of capital be recognized with an equal compensation such that a social wage is really a guaranteed income’ (Hardt, Negri, 2000, p.403; similarly, see Gorz, 2003).

Furthermore, basic income is seen as a necessary element of a politics of inclusive citizenship (Hardt, Negri, 2000, p.403) which, if ‘extended beyond the national realm to become a global demand’, could ‘become an element of a project for the democratic management of globalization’ (Hardt, Negri, 2004, p.136). It is also seen as an instrument which would be ‘necessary to save capitalist production’ from the current crisis, because, since granting ‘the multitude autonomy and control over time is essential to foster productivity in the biopolitical economy’, ‘ensuring that the entire population has the basic minimum for life is in the interests of capital’ (Hardt, Negri, 2009, p.310). See also Fumagalli, Lucarelli, enthusiastic supporter of the project of establishing a European Constitution, which he saw as a step forward in the direction of federalism bypassing the national state and, therefore, an instance of internationalism and proof of the existence of the Empire (despite the denunciation, coming from the French federalist left, of the socially regressive nature forming the hard core of the constitutional project, see Husson, 2004).

2.5.3) From the neglect of political economy to the rhetorical use of economics After having assessed post-operaismo with respect to its internal logic and conceptual misunderstandings as well as its intellectual sociology, it is important to analyse and locate its trajectory with respect to broader debates and trends across Marxist political economy, the social sciences, and society. Doing so highlights how its departure from Marxist political economy, together with its acceptance (mediated by postmodernism) of contested categories from mainstream business discourse and economics, has resulted in the distancing and disconnection of its political and research programmes from those of the original operaismo of the 1960s and its roots in the (Marxist) analysis of the labour process. Thus, despite much professed radicalism and a claimed Marxist analytical standpoint privileging labour in opposition to capital, post-workerism has ended up providing a perspective practically, methodologically, and politically subaltern to neoliberalism, as epitomised by Hardt and Negri’s recent turn to the politics of the common and corresponding rhetorical use of economics (Hardt, Negri, 2009).

With respect to Marxist political economy, post-operaismo has an origin in specific positions in the labour process debate and the debate on productive and unproductive labour. Regarding the first, the positions of the original Italian operaismo of the 1960s anticipated, through the contributions of Raniero Panzieri (collected in Panzieri, 1976a), Braverman’s (1998 [1974]) reflections on the non-neutrality of machines and forces of production within the labour process and capitalist development, as well as the critiques of Marx(ism) and Braverman on the grounds of a neglect of the agency of labour and class struggle, especially at the point of production, both crucial to account for capitalist dynamism and development, through the contributions of Mario Tronti (collected in Tronti, 2006 [1966, 1971]). The movement leading to contemporary post-operaismo, starting with the last phase of Italian operaismo in the 1970s under Negri’s leading light, resonates with the shift in labour process research from an analytical framework inspired by Marx and Braverman to one inspired by Foucault, focusing on 2008 for a defence of basic income as necessary for the stabilisation of (a financially unstable) cognitive capitalism (understood as the current regime of accumulation) through increasing both productivity and demand via, respectively, enhancing network and learning processes, on the one hand, and consumption, on the other.



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