Toni Negri – II

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Commentary on the recently published third volume of the Italian philosopher's autobiography

From Genoa to Domani

From Genoa to Domani. story of a communist is the third volume of the autobiography of Toni Negri, the philosopher who paid for his ideas with long years in prison. Dedicated to Judith (Revel), a brilliant scholar and companion since her years in prison in Rome, this book is an account of both her life and her work, from 1997 to 2000, both illuminated by the triple constellation of Spinoza, Communism and Operaism. .

In the first two volumes, the author described his formative years in the ranks of the operaist movement in Italy, the rise of social struggles in the 70s-80s, the emergence of terrorism – which he would oppose in vain – his first imprisonment (four years and middle!), his election, still imprisoned, as deputy, and his exile in Paris.

This third volume begins with his decision, in 1997, to return to Italy, despite the prison sentence that awaited him in his country, in the hope that his return would spark a debate that would lead to a general amnesty for the (thousands of) prisoners Italian politicians. It was an act of courage and generosity such as is rarely seen... The philosopher was received at Fiumicino airport by "a fair of policemen, dogs and journalists" and immediately imprisoned in the Prison of Rebbibia in Rome.

The writer Erri de Luca will pay him a moving public tribute on this occasion: “Dear Toni Negri, who preferred prison in Italy to universities halfway around the world (…) I want to thank you first of all for your sacrifice. You honor a country that prides itself only on accounting exercises.”

The optimistic philosopher's dream of amnesty turned out to be an illusion, and Negri ended up sentenced to eight and a half years in prison... Empire (Record), with his friend Michael Hardt. We know the main - controversial - theses of this book: the Empire is the global capitalist market, which no longer recognizes national borders; its main adversary is no longer the industrial mass worker, but the immaterial, cognitive worker, often precarious, who has a vocation to become hegemonic. Negri himself noticed the excessive optimism of this work, and even considered not publishing it… In fact, it was a great success, transforming the imprisoned philosopher into an international “star”. After two years, he was eligible for parole, under constant police surveillance, with nightly searches of his home.

Prevented from developing a political activity, he observed with hope the events in Italy: the “white shirts” movement, and the huge anti-globalization demonstration in Genoa in 2001 – repressed in blood by a real state war against the social movement. Only in 2003, he was finally released – it's finite guys! – after having served a total of eleven years in prison. Disappointed by the retreat of the fights in Italy and in conflict with his former followers, he decided to return to Paris and settle, with his partner Judith, in France.

Having finally recovered his passport, he could now travel, an old dream come true. He will make many trips to Latin America, especially to Brazil and Venezuela, “more to learn than to talk about me”. Hugo Chavez paid homage to him as one of the inspirers, through his book on constituent power, of the Bolivarian Revolution. He will also be invited to China, where he will have a (disappointing) meeting with representatives of the CPC Central Committee. While he admires Shanghai's impressive postmodernism, he can't help but think that "CCP Thermidor developed capitalism before he developed democracy"...

In 2004, his second book with Michael Hardt is published, Crowd (Record), which will also provoke much debate and controversy. Francis Fukuyama is quick to proclaim that the crowd Negri speaks of is “a barbaric horde that wants to destroy the civilized world”… - precarious, sometimes the set of workers, material and immaterial, women, oppressed races. In Negri's eyes, the multitude is the new form that operaismo assumes, it is the universalization of Italian Theory of the 1960s-70s.

Hostile to all forms of nationalism, Negri proudly states: “I never deviated from internationalism in my life as a communist”. This led him to place a lot of hope in Europe, to the point of joining the “Yes” in the French referendum on the new (neoliberal) Constitution of Europe, in 2005. But it was necessary to participate in a “Yes” meeting in the company of Julien Dray and Daniel Cohn-Bendit? “This is something my friends on the left never forgave me”…

Commonwealth

It was in this context that he wrote a pamphlet, Goodbye, Mr. Socialism (Ambar), which he later rejected as “sad” – the harshest criticism, in his Spinozist vocabulary… But in 2009 another great work appeared with Michel Hardt, Commonwealth [common welfare, Record], denounced by the Wall Street Journal as a dark, evil book. This theory of common it is, for them, a “Marxian ontology of revolution”, and a first step towards a political program of the multitude. He sees the Italian movement in defense of water as a very common, a notable example of this Commonwealth. Like the previous ones, this book would be very successful, but the year 2010 is, for Negri, a annus horribilis: his Italian friends and disciples, organized in the movement Uninomad, decide to exclude him, and try an “opportunistic and cynical” approach with… Danny Cohn-Bendit and the German Greens.

In August 2013, Negri celebrates his 80th birthday. This dogged optimist recognizes that communism has yet to win, but he wants the younger generation to fulfill this mission, and he wishes them good luck!

from senecute

The last part of the book is entitled from senecute (from old age). It is a kind of philosophical reflection on his experience as a communist inspired by Spinoza, Marx and the French post-structuralists (Deleuze-Guattari, Foucault) and hostile to Rousseau, Hegel and the Frankfurt School. Against the melancholy and pessimism of the latter – a kind of negative pole for Negri – he proclaims, with Espinoza, the strength of hilarites, the liberating power of laughter and spontaneity, without which the revolution cannot breathe.

Advanced age does not prevent Negri from thinking and writing: his latest book with Michel Hardt, Assembly (2017), proclaims the superiority of social movements over parties, and of direct democracy over representative democracy. The organization par excellence of this form of democratic exercise is the assembly. To move from local organizations to a regional, country or continent scale, Negri and Hardt propose federative structures and “assemblies of assemblies”. But how to constitute such structures without any form of representation?

As a supporter (critic) of the Frankfurt School, I am far from sharing Toni Negri's philosophical options. But, in my opinion, the main problem with the book – and with most of the writings of this great thinker of our time – is the absence of a deeper reflection on the ecological crisis. He perceives it as an “insurmountable difficulty”, and asks some questions: should I make an act of contrition for not having understood that the ecological crisis was leading humanity to catastrophe?

He remembers conversations with his friend Guattari about ecology, and he wonders whether the young people who accuse him – he and his generation of Marxist militants – of being prisoners of a productivist ideology are right or not. These (unanswered) questions occupy three of the 432 pages of the book… Fortunately, ecological issues and climate change are a little more present in his latest book, Assembly.

Num post Scriptum rather… melancholy, entitled “Easter 2020”, Negri concludes: we have been defeated – il combustibile si esaurito. He finds that workers, as a class, are divided and relatively powerless. However, he does not renounce resistance and struggle: in the crisis, we must end the era of sectarianism and divisions. The watchword of the present is: “All together”! As a horizon, the Communist Workers' International. These are the last words of this fascinating work.

*Michael Lowy is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), author, among other books, of Walter Benjamin: fire warning(Boitempo).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

To read the commentary on the previous volume, go to https://aterraeredonda.com.br/toni-negri/

 

Reference


Tony Negri. From Genoa to Domani. Story of a communist. Michele's cure di Girolamo. Milano, Ponte alle Grazie, 2020, 442 pages.

 

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