Toni Negri, opera artist



After each defeat Toni Negri was already throwing himself into resuming communist gioia [joy], as the setback does not mean that the dream is over, but rather that the subversive subversive forces will soon rise to the surface again.

Late Friday afternoon, under the impact of the abominable news from Gaza, in this new phase of ethnic cleansing in Palestine and the fact that we are witnessing in real time an ongoing genocide, reeling and almost overcome by hopelessness, I went to get some air. As I walked, I felt strongly and clearly an intense feeling of the power of life (always collective), of our material base, much more abundant than all these horrors and injustices. “We are the force.” That night, on the other side of the Atlantic, Toni Negri left at the age of 90, after a full existence, intensely dedicated to struggle and thought. I can't help but consider that it was a message from my friend saying goodbye.

Born in the 1930s in poor, peasant Veneto, he is immediately struck by clashes between life and death projects. His father, founder of the Communist Party (PCI) in the region, is murdered by fascists when forced to drink castor oil. His brother, an Italian soldier, disappears in the war and his brother-in-law, partisan anti-fascist, inspires him decisively. Toni Negri was active in Catholic Action youth and later joined the Socialist Party, directing its local section. Always articulating the passion to know and transform, Antonio is the youngest Italian university professor, at the University of Padua, where he holds the chair of State Theory. And it was at this time that he immersed himself in “operaismo”.

The working class is accommodated, so many said in the 1950s and 1960s. Whether on the left or right (with inverted signs), its domestication is marked by the unprecedented social achievements of the post-war period. Some small dissident groups (in relation to the PCI) reject this approach and propose to investigate, on the factory floor, the new conditions and their contradictions.

Subvert, not interpret the world

Around the magazines Quaderni Rossi [Red notebooks], and then Working class [Working class], practices of workers' research take shape, which Romano Alquati calls agree [co-research]. Your objective? Produce knowledge with and for the struggle, fueling actions from below, outside existing parties and unions. A proletarian science. Research is not an objective method, but a subjective one, of building relationships and autonomy: the search is not the interpretation of the world, but the organization of its subversion.

How to discover and strike at the decisive points of value extraction and, in this way, show the sides of the bosses’ arrogance and vulnerability? Proletarian perspectiveism. Bourgeois society, “operaismo” maintains, is marked by permanent class antagonism and its constant confrontations. Mario Tronti then proposes an inversion of Marx. Before, capitalist development was the beginning and then came working subjectivities. Big mistake! Things must be put in their rightful place and for that to happen a total change is necessary: ​​in the beginning it was (and is) the workers' struggle. A Copernican revolution.

The starting point is in the everyday moments of refusal, rebellion and sabotage against the power of capital and how this is expressed in the factory. Proletarian creative action is the engine, at the same time, of capitalist progression and its crisis. The investigation embodies a resumption of knowledge, without intermediaries and mediations, to outline a fighting strategy. This led to the formation of an intervention network in factories in northern Italy, in particular Turin, which will inspire other groups in large cities or industrial hubs, such as Milan, Venice/Porto Marghera and Rome. Before 1968, the collectives linked to these magazines disbanded, but this year's mobilizations ended up indicating the shrewdness of these fighting trends announced throughout the decade.

Unfortunately very little known (and this is a result of the sinister and effective repression), the Italian 1968 lasted more than a decade (until the arrests of 1979). It begins in the spring of 1968 and continues in the hot autumn of 1969, when five and a half million workers on strike declare: “the factory is our Vietnam”. New demands arise, such as equal salary increases for all and the end of divisions by category and function, which are expressed in strong absenteeism and opposition to the intense pace of work.

The refusal of work constitutes its existential horizon: there lie the bases of the first experiences of autonomy and its organization, which announce a program of workers' power. “Let us take this wealth, let us take it all”. This call indicates a perception of waste and destruction (for example, with atomic bombs and military industry) of the immense wealth that the working class produces and an understanding of work in the form of a waste of free time, a factor in poor living, eating and to sleep. Not going to work is connected to preserving your existence.

The factory is our Vietnam

In the operaist lexicon, class composition is understood as an analysis of the organization in the factory – social, political and organizational forms of the proletariat, its subjectivity in the midst of the production process. This involves contesting the union, its role as mediator in agreements with employers, being part of the capitalist dynamics as a negotiator of the price of labor and, furthermore, an instrument of control. Society and its workplaces are experienced as places of confrontation between work and its refusal.

Toni Negri proposes the concept of mass worker to account for these transformations, linking it to a new knowledge of the class. Workers' committees are created, eligible even without union membership. The only way in which the movement recognized itself was in its direct democracy based on the assemblies system, with direct, provisional, binding and revocable mandates. Hence Rosa Luxemburg, previously very little known, broke out, just as the advice of Antonio Gramsci or the Paris Commune is remembered. A clear anti-institutional/state option: without mediation, breaking with certain vocabularies and apparatuses of the left, the party as a guide or the dictatorship of the proletariat, above the movement.

The achievements at the plant were concrete (days off, salary adjustment, reduction in overtime), but there was a desire for more/everything. This new direction is felt by groups and potere operaio ([Worker Power], founded by Toni and comrades) will subsequently dissolve (and transmute into Worker autonomy). The refusal to work, elaborated since the previous decade, radically gained this new generation in the seventies. Amidst the restructuring of production, flexibilization of the labor market and precariousness of jobs (a response to the uprisings), a new scene made up of hundreds of collectives, committees, assemblies and occupied places proliferates. From the mass worker to the social worker (precarious, in services, universities, suburbs and small companies), theorizes Toni Negri.

Self-organization incorporates deeper and more concrete meanings and practices, with the self-constitution of solidary proletarian communities and their invention of exchanges, production and life alien to the bourgeois way (private property, its time and its values), inspired by the classic worker mutualism. Autonomy in the first sense, that of determining its rules, pointing to an organization of everyday basics, that is, eating, sleeping, talking, loving each other, creating together. Workers' power no longer rhymed with taking over the state apparatus, but now gains materiality and other layers with the multiplication of liberated zones of collective life.

Communism now or never

This outpouring of struggles, from factories to neighborhoods, manifests itself in expropriations, self-reductions and occupations. The basis for the massification of self-discounts comes from struggles in the workplace, as in the case of transport, initiated by the mobilization of Fiat workers, back in 1969, in their dispute for the reappropriation of time. In the mid-seventies, it was practiced in a few hundred thousand homes – in rent, transport, gas or electricity (that is, they do not pay the prices set by companies and owners, but rather what is paid by the movement).

At certain times, supermarkets are forced to offer discounts or their products are expropriated. In others, they are cinemas, record stores and others in city centers. The factory becomes the entire city, the metropolis. A new ferment emerges with student-workers and feminists (an uprising in the uprising, questioning everything from the Marxist division between productive and unproductive work to the strong patriarchal traits of the revolutionaries themselves), unemployed and “marginal”, precarious workers and counterculture.

In Milan, shortly afterwards, the Circoli del Proletariato Giovanile [Youth Proletariat Circles]. They take possession of abandoned places (factories, warehouses, houses, apartments or old churches) and invent social centers, which spread to other cities. Urban communes, with kindergartens, outpatient clinics and self-managed clinics, supply networks and good doses of self-reductions. Incubators of existence-struggles. “Communism now or never”.

It is interesting to note how in another context this “spirit of the time” marks José Celso Martinez Correa, who perceives 1968 (and beyond that moment, the rebellions, in the theater and other spheres) as an irruption of the “here and now”. In his frequent trips to Brazil after being released from prison and exile (that is, the period from 1979 to 2003), Toni Negri was at least twice in Workshop Theater and it is strong and symbolic that these two beautiful figures from the celebration of collective life have left us in a short space of time in this year 2023.

This “wonderful ferment” was, possibly, the point at which we came closest to a revolution in so-called advanced capitalism, leaving decisive marks on those who participated – see how influential the reflections of those who lived through this ferment, such as Silvia Federici and Bifo, are today , among so many people. But he will be brutally interrupted by repressive forces.

Repression enters the scene

In Bologna, in March 1977, called by the PCI mayor claiming to be at war, a thousand police Heavily armed [police officers] accompanied by tanks vacate, first the university area and then the collective spaces of the movement (including the Alice radio and magazines), all breaking and confiscating.

Finally, they reach the homes of many militants and dozens are arrested – a state of siege to crush, as in Prague in 1968, this spring. After the murder of Aldo Moro the following year, the process accelerated. In Padua, major police operations targeted some people of greater public prominence and the Institute of Political Sciences was incriminated, leading to the arrest of Toni Negri in April 1979. The publisher Feltrinelli went so far as to burn the books published collectively.

Part of a new – and giant – repressive wave, with accusations of armed insurrection against the State: through exceptional courts, forty thousand are accused, fifteen thousand imprisoned and six thousand convicted, totaling thousands of years in prison. Methods of opposition to organized crime are activated, in the form of “repentant”, restriction of defense rights, isolation and special prisons. Such urgent legislation, unlike the first phase (from 1969 to 1973), is supported by practically the entire political sphere represented in Parliament, including the PCI. The subsequent fight against the mafia in the eighties maintains and extends emergency legislation against “political subversion”.

Toni Negri was released when he was elected deputy in 1983. Envisioning the revocation of his parliamentary immunity, he chose to escape. He lives fourteen years in exile, interrupted by his return to Italy, to reopen the possibilities of general amnesty for prisoners – it doesn't work and he endures a few more years in prison, partly at home; he had been sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison, later reduced to 18 years. A striking trait of this revolutionary is his unshakable hope and abundant energy for new beginnings.

After each defeat, the game was on to resume the game. gioia communist [joy], because the setback does not mean that the dream is over, but rather that the subversive subversive forces will soon rise to the surface again – in the image of the revolution by Marx, of the mole that digs tunnels and prepares, slowly and constantly, the uprising for coming. In prison, he revives and vibrates with Spinoza, Job and Leopardi.

Spring always comes back

Another reinvention takes place in Parisian exile, in collaborations with Deleuze-Guattari and others, in sociological studies on the Sentier neighborhood [equivalent to São Paulo's Bom Retiro], struggling nurses and telecommunications workers and in the elaboration of constituent power, following the “against the State” lineage of Machiavelli-Espinosa-Marx (and Lenin). And, once again, it seeks reconstruction, at the moment of the dissolution of the socialist bloc (and, soon after, of the globalization debates): mobilizing the thought-struggle of the productive movements of living work.

Operaismo and all these co-research experiences are the soil and basis of his subsequent interventions, in particular the sequence Empire-Crowd-Commonwealth-Declaration-Assembly with Michael Hardt, his great partner of recent decades. “We must be able to combine at all times our knowledge about the enemy and reflection on the elements that constitute our strength”. The mutations of capitalism and the struggles of the multitude of singularities – Império anticipates a certain spirit of Seattle (and the anti-globalization movement, crushed by repression in Genoa in 2001), as the duo was already connected with the Zapatista insurrection and some other signs.

Toni is excited, in this century, by the tute bianche, the new cognitive proletariat of relationships and care, the strength of migrant exoduses, the cycle of new South American governments, the movement of squares (Occupy, Tahrir, Plaza del sol and so many) and global revolts (2013, Taksim and more), the yellow vests and the metropolitan strikes. “Spring always comes back, always new” – according to the final excerpt “May eternity embrace us”, from the third and final volume of his autobiography.

Communism is always a “practical” issue. A concrete, material possibility and not an abstract or distant value. Revolution is not an ideal but a task, not a choice but an ethical necessity. It means working collectively, building relationships, being together, organizing from below – the desire to produce and an act of love. In this apocalyptic present of overlapping crises, a burning planet and imperial-patronal wars everywhere, Toni calls for (and bets on) the creative power of the crowd.

As your/our friend Michael Löwy said, the melancholy and pessimism of the Frankfurt School function as a negative pole for Antonio Negri, who opposes them with bodily engagement, the vivacity of laughter, humor and spontaneity (Rosa, again) and the absolute democracy of the fighting class. The common source of vibrant life. Active maestro [active teacher], old man He transmitted throughout his Spinozian existence the ecstasy of struggle, the ethical passion of subversion and faith in liberation. Life is movement: as he said, another immense recent loss, the quilombola poet, farmer and thinker Nego Bispo – beginning, middle, beginning.

*Jean Tible is a professor of political science at USP. Author, among other books, of Wild Politics (Glac editions & n-1 editions).

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin Brazil.

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