Class composition and the materialist conception of the subject – Antonio Negri 1979

The definition of class composition comes out of what we have already said. In every historical moment we find ourselves faced with a particular composition of the working class. This is obvious when one speaks of the organic composition of capital. In fact, when one speaks of the organic composition of capital one is speaking of the relation between the constant and the variable part of capital and the quantity of this relation, of its quantity, which the rate of exploitation implies, etc.; of everything contained in the organic composition of capital.

This relation is systematically modified by those that are the forms of capitalist valorisation, i.e., of the modification of the relative places in which the constant and the variable part find themselves. Moreover, the variable part of capital is linked to a series of phased, historically determined relations coinciding with capital’s very cyclicality. The variable part is qualified by the labour process, which is to say, by its capacity to develop labour-power and engage it in industry, in capitalist development, in relation to the type of relationship of composition determined within a historical period. Constant capital and variable capital, finally, needing to reproduce themselves, determine sequences that are social, that, for example, fix levels that are adequate to the labour necessary for the reproduction of this variable capital.

These social levels of reproduction as well are defined historically: i.e., a certain quantity and quality of needs determined around a certain type of variable capital over a specific period. The technical composition of the working class is the concept that is formed by these conditions. But to this must be added the political composition. That is, this historically changeable definition of working-class composition is not linked only to the objective factors of its organic relations and its reproduction. The composition of the working class is not only the result of a phase or a form of capitalist development, of the course taken by constant capital under these relations, but it is also continually modified not only by needs, but by traditions of struggle, by existential, by cultural modalities, etc.; which is to say, by all those political, social, moral facts that come to determine, alongside the structure of the wage, the structure of the reproduction of the working class.

Class composition mutates in time and in struggles, and it can change substantively; such that we can speak of figures of the working class, of a particular type of working class linked to particular epochs. Our entire discourse has for a long period been rooted in the difference between the professional worker and the mass workers, to the invention, to the discovery of the specific composition of the mass worker. I think it is entirely obvious that Taylorism, the rationalisation of production, what in Marxian terms can be called the entrance of large-scale industry, that this substantially modifies the political and technical composition of the working class. If, then, as began to happen, one goes on to view the new characteristics of struggle that this new type of worker determined; if one goes on to view the infinity of elements that defined this new proletarian figure in Turin (in the years that Turin changed, and from a small city in Piedmont became a large southern Italian metropolis) and one registers the enormous phenomena of change in class composition, then one also understands how this concept of class composition becomes extremely rich, as it permitted one to begin to define the referent of political action. I wouldn’t want it to be theoretically venturesome to claim that the concept of class composition is the only material basis from which to set out to speak of the subject. That is, a materialist conception of the subject is only given by passing through, filtering through class composition: only class composition provides us with the material and political complexity of the figure of the subject. A materialist analysis of the subject must pass by way of the analysis of class composition. 

(This is a short extract from the book length interview by Negri, Dall’operaio massa all’operaio sociale. Intervista sull’operaismo, Multhipla edizioni, Milan 1979)

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