Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spectres of labour

Someone insisted I give an account of the meeting on modalities of political power, which discussed dual power and Negri and immaterial labour, and so on. I said it would be ugly, because I totally lack grounding in Negri, but I'll give it a shot before I head off for the afternoon sessions. And, if anyone dares to dissent, I'll give them a shot to the back of the head. First up was Alberto Toscano with a discussion of dual power (some of it reproduced here). The concept of dual power has experienced increased profile due to the uprisings in Latin America, where it is routinely bruited in the literature (see this, for example). But its use today is somewhat different to the way in which it was conceived in its original form, during the "tumultuous interregnum" between the revolution of February 1917 and that of October 1917. Lenin stressed, to the consternation of most of his Bolshevik comrades at first, the unprecedented situation in which alongside the Provisional Government, there existed another form of government embodied in the soviets. The prevailing historiographical obsession with the precise nature of the Bolshevik "seizure of power" obscures the way in which power was already sundered in two. This dual power (better termed "dual sovereignty" by Trotsky - see chapter 11 of his History of the Russian Revolution for an account of instances of dual power) can only exist as an emergency for the existing regime, because all power wielded by the soviets is incompatible with parliament. The model of soviet power is the Paris Commune, with the direct recall of officials and the active involvement and initiative of the masses. It not only produces a different locus of power, which could potentially be coopted and integrated under duress, but a different form of sovereignty. Tellingly, Trotsky considered dual sovereignty a form of "dual impotence", not a situation that merited continuous elaboration - it is inherently linked to civil which, being a deeply undesirable state of affairs, needs to end quickly. It was possible only in a revolutionary situation, and it should terminate with a revolution rather rapidly, precisely to reunify sovereignty.

Yet, today, Venezuelan activists like Roland Denis uses the term "dual power" to describe a permanent strategy (as quoted in the linked article): "The old slogan of ‘dual power’ (bourgeois and working-class) valid for the summit of the revolutionary movement today becomes a permanent strategy in accord with the need for the organization of a socialized and non-state power." The origins of this reconceptualisation of dual power are in Negri's engagement with Lenin. Negri, though hostile to dialectics, criticises Lenin's account of power as un-dialectical. Negri maintains that the workers' movements of the Sixties and Seventies introduced a new form of power, a "dialectical absolute" allowing "dual power to spread over a long period, as a struggle that upsets the capital relation by introducing into it the worker variable as the conscious will of destruction." I think this is based on Negri's account of "immaterial labour" - in which the increasingly hegemonic paradigm of work is that centred on the production of intellect and affect, so-called "immaterial" commodities. Like the industrialised working class of the 19th Century, it constitutes a minority of actual production, but threatens to become the dominant paradigm. This production of value erodes the distinction between working life and life as such, since an idea or a solution can occur to one while in the shower or on the crapper. Further, this form of value production constitutes a plenitude that the capitalist cannot ever wholly appropriate: we are all constantly producing value which we share and cooperate over in a proto-communist fashion. For example, bloggery is a form of value-production which capitalists try to capture with advertising deals and Comment is Free offers, but they can never fully penetrate it any more than they can other, more private forms of value-production. As such, the new paradigm practically demands what Negri calls "extremist gradualism": the slow but insistent destruction of capitalist social-property relations, and their replacement by eminently sensible communist networks of cooperation. This is civil war over a much longer duration, only occasionally punctuated by direct physical violence.

There have been excellent critiques of this account of value and 'immaterial labour' - David Camfield has written such in Historical Materialism 15.2. Peter Thomas extended this argument in the next contribution, 'Lenin as Bipolitician'. Biopower is one of those concepts elaborated by Foucault that I think I get the gist of. In previous forms of government, the body was something given, to be worked around and accomodated to, rather than decisively shaped by power. In modern sovereignty, the body is disciplined, constructed, remade, even destroyed (from potty training all the way to eugenics and genocide): the subject's very existence is even called into question by modern power. So, Negri offers a biopolitical version of Lenin, in which the latter is valorised as an organiser of the social body, giving form to the flesh of resistant subjectivity, rather than as the messianic figure he cuts in Badiou and Zizek (hardly much to choose between these two, really?). Lenin, it is emphasised, was able to produce organic forms that were adequate to the existing state of industry, the flesh of social life etc. So, from the late 1960s in Italian autonomism, we get not a focus on the strategic limits and weaknesses of capitalism, but of the strongest points of workers' subjectivity. For Negri, this strong point is workers' capacity as a constituting power itself, beyond its capacity for integration into the state or into the creation of surplus value. This raises the possibility of "organic sovietism". Thomas says that this reading of Lenin isn't even particularly new, however: it is actually the reading that the Bolsheviks' had of Lenin when he wrote his April Theses. He is misunderstood by Negri as a proponent of a "good form" of political power - as if his conception of dual power was to valorise 'living labour' versus parasitic capitalism and state power. Lenin, by contrast, was clear that soviet power was itself precisely a form of state power, a form of sovereignty. The source of power is the initiative of the masses, but this is still codified, institutionalised, federalised and disciplined. It is not merely an anarchistic dissolution of ordering, mediating structures. Lenin's critique of sovereignty is immanent: it is its irresponsibility and insusceptibility to the will of the masses that is criticised, not its existence as such.

Vittorio Morfino outlined the Spinozist metaphysical origins of Negri's conception of the 'Multitude'. My notes are not great for this part, because I didn't understand the argument that well, but it's roughly as follows. For Negri, there are two forms of power, 'potestas' and 'potentia': constituted and constituting power. The former is the current order and the latter is the inherent power of the multitude. For Negri, the only metaphysical horizon is that of potentia: the infinite is the organization of human liberation, and potentia is its telos. The relationship between potentia and time is not thinkable in terms of a philosophy of history - it is not a sequence of historical epochs completed by the emergence of potentia. Rather, for Negri, there are two times: the time of illusions, power, the constituted order; and the time of potentia, collective praxis etc. The first time is void, and the second is full, exuberant, living. The transition is not a historical one, but an ontological one: that is, the transition is between wholly different modes of existence, not between different historical stages. In Negri's eschatology, the multitude as the bearer of potentia becomes the "democratic living god" under communism. If I follow this argument properly, the revolution in Negri's philosophy would be much more like the Scientific Revolution than the Russian Revolution - a prolonged but profoundly transformative paradigm shift rather than a temporally concentrated overthrow of existing social relations. By elaborating and renewing modes of power that are adequate to the social flesh, the multitude can gradually attain communism and complete liberation by edging out capitalist power and making it redundant. Supposing there isn't complete nuclear annihilation in the meantime.