‘Critique of work / critique of politics’ – Mario Tronti (1980)

These are the new terms of an old question: worker centrality/autonomy of the political. Why is this an old question? Because worker centrality is an almost eternal problem for the class movement, for its struggles and its science. And the autonomy of the political is an almost eternal problem, both of thought and practice, for the bourgeois horizon. Except that with worker centrality we are at the heart of Marxist orthodoxy, with the autonomy of politics we touch the borders of heresy. Does presenting the two themes anew in terms of ‘critique’ not serve to reunite a theoretical approach in a dimension of continuity running from Marx to what follows?

            In politics every theoretical problem bears with it a practice either of the overthrow or of the control of social relations. Hence a situation of happy coexistence is established between practical activity of experimental understanding. One must take care to maintain an experience behind each conceptual phase. The true abstraction is that which allows itself to be traversed by things without allowing itself to be dominated by the facts. This is true also of political thought. Is it possible to reassess the form of political thought in an epoch of the crisis of forms? It is possible if the investigation into this new form is carried out successfully: not the intellectual who does politics, but the politician who studies. All taking place within a process of the recovery of politics at a higher level, like a conscious operation of a collective subject.

            One means to this end is to reappropriate critique in Marx’s sense: as the unveiling of appearances, as the analysis of processes, as a spirit of conquest of thought. 

            We apply this form of thought to the great subjects, to the ‘old’ subjects, workers and state. Of these there is a late story their great return, which runs from the early 1930s to the end of the 1960s. There is then the story of their organic crisis, of composition, of function, which takes place in the 1970s. And today there are these flashes of a new presence, of the factory struggles, of the reason of state. In an age of strong transition, the link between old and new subjectivity, the relations of production, the relations of power become increasingly confused. Between the two the weight and quality of the social grows and changes. We shall leave aside this aspect, which should be discussed separately. Let us isolate the two points, which perhaps cannot be isolated, neither from one another nor from everything else: work and politics. And let us link the internal connections, of movement, of development, and of crisis. A crisis precisely of work and of politics. Because, more generally, the critique should not aim at the triumph of ideologies, but at their crisis.

            Two examples: the French ideology and the German. That is, of the circularity, or the complexity that takes the place of antagonism. This ideological process of substitution of the categories for reading reality is part of a material attempt to manoeuvre the social composition, which is in turn a systemic reaction to the consequences of the long period of workers’ struggles and of the autonomy of the political. The real process saw a powerful process of socialisation of class antagonism. The operation of crisis aimed to be a sharp depoliticization of conflict. The consequence has been a sort of hidden and uninterrupted social revolution. It is at this point that the ideologies of crisis intervene to sustain the end (of the history) of power. In place of Foucault… Baudrillard. In place of Habermas… Luhmann.

            Forgetting Foucault

            Why – asks Baudrillard – does it escape Foucault that ‘power is dying (even infinitesimal power), that it is not just pulverized but pulverulent, that it is undermined by a reversal and tormented by a reversibility and a death…’ (Forget Foucault, p. 50). Even if Foucault unmasks all the final illusions or the incidental ones around power, ‘he does not tell us anything concerning the simulacrum of power itself’. Quite the opposite, inasmuch as it is the irreversible principle of organisation, as it ‘fabricates the real…ever more real’, this power becomes again a final principle, ‘the last term … the last tale that can be told; it is what structures the indeterminate equation of the world’. The trap of power, of which Foucault speaks, is not only a discursive trap. ‘What Foucault does not see is that power is never there and that its institution, like the institution of spatial perspective versus “real” space in the Renaissance, is only a simulation of perspective –it is no more reality than economic accumulation – and what a tremendous trap that is’ (pp. 50-1). We know that one never accumulates anything, that stocks devour themselves, that every type of accumulation is devasted in advance by the void, that impossible accumulation is the impossibility of displacement. In the depth of the system of production, something infinitely resists production itself.

And so it is. He had written a few pages earlier: ‘The production channel leads from work to sex, but only by switching tracks; as we move from political to “libidinal” economy (the last acquisition of ’68), we change from a violent and archaic model of socialization (work) to a more subtle and fluid model which is at once more “psychic” and more in touch with the body (the sexual and the libidinal) . There is a metamorphosis and a veering away from labor power to drive (pulsion)’ (p. 37). If we turn to the literal meaning of the term pro-duction, we find that original meaning was not that of materially fabricating, but that of rendering visible, to make visible, to make appear: pro-duce. Everywhere and always, what stands in opposition to ‘production’ is ‘seduction’.

            Taking up again the thread of the discussion, even in the depths of power there is something that resists the infinity of power itself. And so concludes Baudrillard, ‘we see no difference here between those who enforce it and those who submit to it: this distinction has become meaningless…’ (p. 51). Power is not, as in the traditional analysis, the unilateralism of submission, nor is it that magnetic infiltration into the social field of which Foucault speaks. ‘Power is something that is exchanged’ (p. 52). In the sense that it is accomplished according to a reversible cycle of seduction, of contestation, of cunning. ‘…power seduces’: it does so because of that reversibility that threatens it and upon which it plants a minimal symbolic cycle. ‘Dominators and dominated exist no more than victims and executioners … With power there are no antagonistic positions: it is carried out according to a cycle of seduction’ (p. 53).

            Precisely: in place of antagonism, circularity. The conflict does not decide who wins, power doesn’t command, politics is not a social mechanism, production is not the factory. Let us set aside how these relationships are defined positively. The ideological apparatus is not to be found in new words, but in the deformation of the old ones, in the presence here, of a void, which is to say, of an absence of thought.

            Critique or apologiathat is, the uncertainty of the theory of society

            It is the title of the concluding essay that Luhmann dedicates to the polemic with Habermas in Theory of Society or Social Technology. Luhmann says: I read the ‘or’ not in the sense of ‘aut’ but in the sense of ‘vel’ and the question mark as a symbol of uncertainty. But here advances the ‘risk that the uncertainty of the theory of society is resolved in overly violent simplifications’. One classical form of this simplification is the reference to political ‘power’. In this, theoretical uncertainty is translated into political opposition. But power is a category that is too indeterminate both in analytical and critical terms. From the time the concept became so expanded it became un-utilisable. This is the reason for the use of the word power, as a term of intimidation, once, against those who wanted to express themselves against power; today, against those who want to use it in favour of power. ‘If Habermas in these circumstances still speaks of power as if it were still a meaningful category or even of an established fact, he puts at risk the reference of his own conceptual development to a reality that is far more differentiated…. I maintain that entirely unnecessary hypotheses are dragged in here, which obstruct rather than serve the search for a universal regulative mechanism of intersubjective communication’ [my translations from the Italian].

            In truth – continues Luhmann – whoever seeks reason must still believe in power in some form or other. But reason and power are both unusable terms. Systemic theory has emancipated itself from these concepts because it is established on the relationship between world and system, ‘and so on the point of indifference between apologia and critique’. A critique of systems theory, which accuses it of conformity with power, fails to hit its intellectual level. Habermas’ ‘scientific’ critique is in truth a ‘political’ critique: 1) because, in using the concept of power, it draws on no scientific motivation but only political ones for its conservation; 2) because it presupposes an unequivocal direction between theoretical errors and political functions. But ­– concludes Luhmann – ‘it is a highly unlikely hypothesis that the theoretical positions of the system of science and the development of ideologies of legitimation could lead to such simple relations. The case of Marxism, precisely because it has already happened, will not be repeated’.

            Hence, politics is a field of explication of intersubjective communications, i.e. of simple social relations. The concept of power was a classical form of political simplification of social complexity, And Marxism read, expressed, and ended this theoretical procedure. Science has become politics on the basis of a distinction between those in favour and those against this power. But by this route one has left behind the search for universal regulative structures. The neutrality between critique and apologia is meant to put back in play a complex universe of scientific discourse. In reality, it restores a general ideology and masks it with the pretence of a complex thinking. 

            The post-Taylorist factory

            Now some comments on a chapter of Carlo Formenti’s booklet, La fine del valore d’uso [The End of Use-Value]. The reduction of the costs of machinery and the fine-tuning of the increasingly user-friendly access-languages to the machine, appear to shape the development of an easily available computer technology able to penetrate all social and productive articulations. ‘This capacity of diffusion of information technology is enhanced by the increasing osmosis of computing and means of communication, a process that offers the possibility to construct across the territory information technology “webs” for the elaboration of information at a distance (a phenomenon that French experts term ‘telematics’)…’ (p. 21). ‘The various parts of the system are connected by a web of communications that allow them to operate like the cells of a neural material. This model has a potential impact incomparably more innovative on the organigrams of capitalist command when compared with earlier forms of computation’ (p. 22). It is as a method of transformation of the productive process that computation achieves “political centrality”, even if the natural tendency is to its expansion and application to general state-administrative control. The introduction of the Digitron system for the assembly of the chassis at Fiat Mirafiori and the Volvo Kalmar has the aim to achieve greater flexibility of the productive cycle. Here it is not robotics but precisely information that operates as a ‘first step towards the substitution of the assembly line’ (C. Ciborra cited p. 24). And it is the ‘modular’ organization of the productive process that holds together, with all its political limits, the ‘algorithmic reduction of the decision-making process’, writes P. M. Manacorda (cited p. 26). Workers’ struggle and capitalist control advance the borderline of their confrontation. In place of a Taylorist regulation from above of the productive process, an automatic and diffuse control of job roles. In place of the planning of the work process evident in the physics of the assembly-line, a freeing-up of intermediate decision-making processes that give flexibility to executive jobs.

            As Formenti writes: ‘in the Taylorised factory, the mass workers had discovered the possibility of overturning the relationship of command and execution, opposing to the flow of production the rigidity of their own behaviour; for capital, to overcome this opposition means not only to change the form of control, but also to absorb the social knowledge produced by the new forms of struggle into its science. Information technology is not only the objectification of capital’s functions. It is also the objectification of the articulated struggles: the new modular organisation is planned bearing in mind the feedback of the autonomy of worker behaviour. We might say that the nervous system of the factory reacts to the functional disease of struggle, seeking to integrate in its system of communication the models of behaviour of work as a foreign body when it does not limit itself to the execution of its productive tasks. This is only possible if control disappears, makes itself invisible…’ (p. 25). ‘The information-control that management obtained in messages in everyday language produced by the old factory hierarchy, was dangerously “transparent”, revealing the relations of force; the new channels of information are “opaque”, completely absorbed in numerical machine language’ (p. 26). Would should not think, however, that ‘all problems of social relation have an easily available algorithmic solution’ (Manacorda cited p. 26). As Formenti argues: ‘Not even the most futurological functionary of capital has the naïve faith in the unlimited rationalistic power of machines; behind the formalisation of the decision-making process lies not the illusion that the working class will accept the rationalisation of capitalist command, but the project is to shift the balance of forces, by shifting the class struggle in the factory onto the terrain of the relationship between information, social knowledge and power’. 

            Will this then be the new terrain of conflict? And these the forms that conflict will tend to assume? From the fact of production a model of political action will start anew. Behavioural control through control of information, objectification of flows directed from above to below, opacity of command, introjection of power: the mode of activity alters through a revolution in communication. The language incorporated in machines doesn’t reflect the relations of force, it does not describe them, it does not mask them; it practices them, structures them, activating and maintains them. The set of relations between subjects in a mature epoch of society should perhaps be read through this point of flight. 

            We find ourselves before surrealist ideological results and unsettling real changes. One needs a sense of balance to neither leap ahead nor remain left behind. The labour of workers and bourgeois politics are two reality-concepts now at the outer limits of their historical existence and yet far from death. We must remain within this passage, pulling the strings of the discourse, holding together the extremities of the path, at once disenchanted and engaged. We have seen. There is a critique of work advanced by the technology of mature capitalism. And there is a critique of politics by the objectified technologies of power. The nexus labour-value breaks. The political mask of the common good is revealed. To acknowledge this fact is the first requirement. It is a case of progressive facts advanced by reactionary forces. But the systemic reaction was the answer to an unexpected horizontal extension of the workers’ assault. This is the terrain upon which it is possible to use a conservative critique. This is not indifferent to the search for a solution. Work cannot become the positive for the construction of a new civilisation. And the working class will need to look for a new, provisional place of centrality. Politics can no longer become a ‘general affair’. It must first end as ‘separation’. One cannot pass from bourgeois politics to workers’ politics without a break. To prepare this break of continuity is the other need. ‘If I speak of time, it is because it no longer exists’, said Appolinaire. How long until we say the same of the ‘time of politics’?

(translated MM)

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