Les années de plomb

On Toni Negri and his intention to return to prison in Italy

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This article was originally published in Dagens Nyheter in Swedish In a 1980 interview in which Michel Foucault was considering the public role of intellectuals in contemporary society, he thought of the example of Toni Negri. “C’est vrai, nous ne sommes pas dans un regime ou on envoie les intellectuels a la rizere, mais, au fait, dites-moi, vous avez entendu parler d’un certain Toni Negri? Est-ce que, lui, il n’est pas en prison en tant qu’intellectuel?” (1)

On one hand, Foucault’s comments point toward the scandalous fact that a democratic country like Italy that values the freedom of speech and thought could condemn someone like Negri for his role as intellectual. On the other hand, however, what is perhaps even more interesting in Foucault’s observation is that Negri presents an anomalous example as an intellectual. In effect, Negri has created an original and powerful model for being a public and political intellectual in these last decades of the 20th century.

If one were to look only at the newspaper accounts, Toni Negri’s biography could read something like a Hollywood movie script, full of adventure, scandal, intrigue, revolt, imprisonment, and escape. In the Italian press in particular, Negri has been accused of all kinds of classic intellectual crimes, from being an evil genius to the moral corrupter of youth. Certainly the lives of few intellectuals in our era have followed such a trajectory, and few have encountered the same degree of notoriety, glamour, and tragedy for their activities as intellectuals. If we look only from this perspective of media and spectacle, however, we will understand little of the intellectual and political substance of Negri’s journey through the past forty years. His life has indeed been an adventure, but it has been a collective adventure of real intellectual and political engagement.

The anomaly of Negri’s trajectory as intellectual should be traced back to the early 1960s and his stellar academic career at the University of Padua. He was promoted to full professor at an extraordinarily young age in the field of “dottrina dello Stato” (State theory), a particularly Italian field that deals with juridical and constitutional theory. He has always considered himself a communist but was never a member of the Italian Communist Party. In fact, his work was already in the early 60s engaged in a critique of the official European communist and socialist positions from a leftist, workerist standpoint. A long essay written in 1964, “Il lavoro nella costituzione” (Labor in the Constitution), was at the center of his intellectual development during this period. In it, Negri recognizes the foundational role of labor in the constitution of liberal democratic societies: both in terms of the formal constitution (the Italian Constitution, for example, begins “Italy is a democratic republic founded on labor”) and in terms of the material constitution of society and social production. Labor is incorporated into the social welfare State as it is incorporated into capital. From this point of departure, Negri develops a Marxist critique of the State and capital that involves centrally a critique of labor itself. This is how we can recognize most clearly Negri’s departure from the traditional communist and socialist political line of the period. The official left celebrated and affirmed labor as the means toward liberation, or even as liberation itself. Rather than a liberation of work, however, Negri argued for a liberation from work. Work itself is a disciplinary regime that must be attacked and destroyed by workers.

One of the distinctive features of Negri’s engagement, beginning from these early years, is that for him intellectual projects always involve collective and collaborative activity. Even the formation of concepts is a group activity, and over a period of years an extended group of intellectuals will all develop a set of concepts along different but coordinated lines of articulation. Journals have often served as the mechanism for facilitating such collective intellectual projects. In the early 60s Negri joined the editorial group of Quaderni Rossi, a journal that represented the intellectual rebirth of Marxism in Italy outside of the realm of the communist party. The philosophical framework developed in the context of the journal came to be known as “operaismo ” (workerism) and one of its central political concepts was “the refusal of work,” which did not refer to a refusal of creative or productive activity but rather a refusal of work within the established capitalist relations of production. The other conceptual centerpiece of ” operaismo” involved a project of the autonomy of the working class both from capital and from the traditional representative and State structures including trade unions and parties. Negri’s practical political activity in the 1960s culminated with his participation in “Potere Operaio” (Worker Power). In many respects Potere Operaio was typical of the groups born of the atmosphere surrounding 1968 that existed throughout Europe and United States. As in comparable organizations elsewhere, the group involved the merging of radical student and worker movements outside and critical of the political parties and unions. Specifically, Potere Operaio sought to put into practice the concepts of the refusal of work and working class autonomy that Negri and others had theorized.

In the next period of his intellectual activity, Negri and his colleagues moved well beyond the paradigms of 1968. In the 1970s, Negri’s work continued to focus on labor and the critique of the State, but the primary site of analysis shifted outside of the factory walls. Earlier Negri and his colleagues had centered their analyses on the working class (by which they understood male industrial factory workers), but now they developed a broader notion of proletariat that was meant to refer to all those whose labor is commanded and exploited under the rule of capital. They conceived their analyses and practices as moving out of the factory and into society. In these years Negri developed a theory of the “social worker” that tried to grasp the new subjective figure of social production and revolt. In effect, this intellectual project drew into question the conceptual division posed by the traditional Marxist conceptions of productive and unproductive or productive and reproductive labor along with the traditional political divisions between waged workers, unwaged workers, and the unemployed. The primary political consequence of these theories was to recognize all the various figures of social production, the entire proletariat conceived in this broad sense, as capable of revolt. Negri’s theoretical work in this period culminated in Marx Beyond Marx, a reinterpretation of Marx’s work that extended it beyond the limits of Marx’s own time and vision.

After Potere Operaio dissolved in 1973, Negri participated in Autonomia Organizzata (Organized Autonomy), a loosely coordinated network of local organizations throughout Italy. Autonomia was decidedly opposed to the notion of vanguard party and centralized leadership, posing instead the autonomy of local groups. Negri insisted that political organization had continually to pose the problem of centralization and democracy. In past communist revolutions, the centralized party management of power has always at a certain point strangled the proletarian organization of powers, and at that point the revolution has come to an end. In this sense Negri argued for Autonomia to be an anti-party, a decentralized and open political network of organization.

In this period too, and from this same terrain of social struggles, the Italian terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades were formed. The entire horizon of political activity in Italy became more complex and violent in the 1970s, the so-called “years of lead.” One can certainly distinguish between terrorist and non-terrorist political practices, and it is important to do so, but it is also important to recognize that there was a broad continuum of the use of violence in this period, both against property and persons. The mass demonstrations had taken on a more violent character as had the police repression of them. Negri continually opposed the terrorist groups, and advocated instead other forms of political engagement.

After the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro the prominent Christian Democratic politician in 1978, the Italian government enacted a series of emergency measures and redoubled its police efforts against the terrorist and non-terrorist political groups alike. On April 7 1979 Negri was arrested along with numerous others who had participated in Potere operaio several years earlier. The prosecuting magistrate claimed that this organization had been the source of political violence throughout the 1970s and that Negri was the secret leader of a vast clandestine constellation of terrorist organizations — despite the fact that his efforts of political organization had run in the opposite direction and toward more decentralized models. The emergency measures provided that Negri and thousands of others could be held for an extended period without being charged or coming to trial. When Negri did finally come to trial four years later, the original allegations of his masterminding terrorist organizations had been dropped. The judges prosecuted him instead primarily on the basis of his writings, holding him “morally” and “objectively” responsible for actions on that basis.

In 1983, while his trial was still going on, Negri was elected to parliament as a representative of the Radical Party and was consequently released from prison. In parliament he argued for the rights of the political prisoners and against the emergency measures used by the government to prosecute them. Amnesty International too denounced the irregularity of the imprisonment and trials. After only a few months, however, the Chamber of Deputies voted to rescind Negri’s parliamentary immunity and send him back to prison. At that point, instead of returning to prison, Negri fled by sail boat to France, where he remained in exile for the next fourteen years. His trials continued without him and he was convicted in absentia.

Imprisonment and exile undoubtedly posed difficult conditions for Negri. Prison presented physical hardships, but exile, perhaps even worse, separated him from the intellectual and political contexts in which he had always worked. Negri, however, made of necessity a virtue. This third period of his intellectual production contain some of his most significant philosophical contributions, from his widely-renowned study of Spinoza written in prison to his recent, massive study of the concept of “constituent power,” which deals centrally with Machiavelli and the revolutionary moments in England, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. In one respect one might say that the central project of Negri’s thought through this entire period has been to bring together (or perhaps reveal the existing resonances between) the political thought of Italian operaismo with the new French philosophy of authors such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. Thus, for example, operaismo’s project of the refusal of work encounters Foucault’s notion of resistance to disciplinary society and Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of lines of flight. As a result of this encounter, of course, all of these concepts come out changed. We are thus given a new version of “post-structuralist” philosophy that is clearly politically engaged. At the same time, however, Negri has continued the lines of thought that have run throughout his work. In the collaborative work that he and I have done, we focus on the recent changes in labor practices and capitalist command, extending the tradition of State critique to the conditions of postmodernity. Currently we are finishing a book on Empire that articulates the cultural, political, and economic logics of contemporary world order.

The French government continually refused Italy’s extradition requests regardless of the party in power, but the conditions of his residence while always vague prevented him from being involved politically. He did nonetheless manage to insert himself into the Paris intellectual scene. In the 1980s he began teaching at the Université de Paris VIII (Saint Denis) and the Collège International de Philosophie. And once again, a journal functioned as the primary mechanism for generating a collective intellectual endeavor. He has been the central motor behind the journal Futur antérieur, which began publishing in 1990 and brought together in a coherent project a broad coalition of the French left that has often been divided by sectarian differences. He constructed around himself in Paris a huge and articulated machine of intellectual collaboration and exchange.

Last Summer, after fourteen years in Paris, Negri decided to leave the Parisian intellectual milieu and return to Italy and prison. His primary objective was to urge the Italian government to find a collective political solution for the hundreds of those like himself who remain in exile or in prison for their political activities in the 1970s. The parliament is now considering two such solutions: an “indulto,” a commutation that would strip sentences of the added years given for political crimes and reduce them to the normal sentences for common crimes; and an amnesty that would allow all those now in exile or prison to reenter Italian civil life. Negri believes that, given both the recent changes in the Italian government and Italy’s future integration into the new Europe, it is time to turn the page on the political activities and repression of the 1970s. The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Dario Fo, who like Negri played an important contestatory role on the Italian radical left in the 1970s, is perhaps also an indication that is time to leave behind the conflictiveness of those years and to recognize clearly the intellectual achievements that have been clouded for so long by ideological blinders.

Negri’s second motive in returning is to rediscover a political life for himself in Italy. It is a distinctive feature of the model of the intellectual he presents that he constantly searches for a radical life in synch with the times. After the long and fruitful parenthesis in the Parisian milieu, he now hopes to reinvent the kind of radical, political engagement that he had previously enjoyed. Looking back over the various shifts of his thought and life, one can see how courageous he has been at numerous points to leave the comforts of his life behind and begin again from scratch, from a position of poverty. It is extraordinary that now, at 64-years-old, he has the energy to build again a radical life and a collective political project from zero. We know many radical intellectuals from the 60s who have settled comfortably into government, university, and business positions. In comparison Negri is an anomaly and a model. He did not remain a 60s radical (as if preserved faithfully in ice) nor abandon his political aspirations — rather he changed with the times, always seeking to reinvent the role of the public and political intellectual. In each era Negri has sought to discover the revolutionary possibilities of the present.

Louis Althusser once said, “A communist is never alone.” This points toward a second defining feature of the figure of the intellectual that Negri presents. His intellectual activity is always collective and collaborative, always seeking out social and political engagement. This is why even when he chooses to place himself at extreme personal risk or in a position of poverty he never adopts an ascetic figure. The collective and collaborative nature of the political project always insure that it is a project not of renunciation but of joy — a joyful adventure of political and intellectual engagement. This is the model of the radical intellectual he presents for our time.

Note 1 – Michel Foucault, “Le philosophe masqué” in Dits et écrits, volume 4, Paris, Gallimard, 1994, p. 105.