(The following is a guest post by Nate Hawthorne, author of the weblog What in the hell...)
Thanks very much to Angela for being the impetus behind getting this Tronti symposium going. I'm enjoying it a great deal. In what follows I deal with a few issues that I am concerned over in relation to a few different thinkers and within Marxism generally. Some of this may well repeat things I have said elsewhere. (One of the prices of friendship is that one sometimes runs out of interesting things to say, or simply forgets what one has said to whom, and so one repeats oneself to one's friends. If this is so here, I apologize, and apologize as well for the length of this post. I hope that at least in this instance affection beats boredom in the interpersonal emotional game of rock-paper-scissors.) There are also many other things I wish I could address, and which are I think related to the concerns I deal with here. I can't do so here due to limits of time, length and ability, and so relegate these matters to future conversation, reading, and discussion. There's also a great deal in Tronti that I like very much. I don't spend much time on it here because I'm trying to work out other problems with what I like less.
Tronti begins “The Strategy of the Refusal” with a gesture common in Marxism, that of positing the uniqueness of capitalism: “the effective development of the productive power of labour begins when labour is transformed into wage labour, that is, when the conditions of labour confront it in the form of capital.” I take 'effective development' to mean something like 'increase of.' I'm not entirely sure what Tronti means by 'productive' when he says that labor becomes more productive under capitalism. Since I didn't understand it, and since I don't like not understsanding things and tend to dismiss that which I don't like, I at first thought this was something I could just leave out in my selective read of the piece. I no longer think that's the case.
Tronti writes that “Capitalist power (...) rests on a real domination over society in general,” in a fashion which “requires a society based on production. Consequently production, this particular respect of society, becomes the aim of society in general. Whoever controls and dominates it controls and dominates everything.”
This seems to me to say that capitalism is the domination over society in a fashion which requires the domination of production over society. Capitalist domination over society occurs via the medium of command over production. How does production become a level by which to move the rest of society, though? To my mind this occurs because capitalist economic production is the production of capitalist command, directly over production and over society by producing production as a privileged site. The precise mechanisms for this process are a bit more than I can adequately express (particularly in the sense of the ongoing [re]production of that capital relation - I find Marx's remarks on so-called primitive accumulation/enclosure, the 'bloody legislation' etc, fairly convincing as an account of the initial historical genesis of this situation).
Generally, though, this condition - the domination of production by the capitalist and of society by production - is so because capitalist production is generalized production aimed at a final product which takes the commodity form. In this sense, then, labor under capitalism clearly become more productive in the sense that it produces more commodities, and produces more capitalist command (surplus value, especially as it accumulates the reproduction and expansion of capitalist command over labor).
I think it's this sense of the productivity of labor which is important for Tronti's argument. Labor's productivity of command over labor is the reason why Tronti can hold that the working class is the condition of capital. He writes, “the person who provides labour is the capitalist. The worker is the provider of capital,” because the worker is the owner of labor power, “the possessor of that unique, particular commodity which is the condition of all the other conditions of production.” Because labor power is the conditon of capital, the working class can cease to labor, of its own volition. (In a sense this is a version of the idea that capitalism is the result of alienated labor, the product not of itself but of the working class. The end of capitalism will not come via asking the capitalists to cease to be capitalists, and asking them to change forgets that their power is power stolen from us. This is also a version of the old workers' movement truism that the boss needs us but we don't need the boss. This is a slogan not really believed in by many Marxists, who hold that only capitalism could have provided the proto-working class with what are taken to be the salutuary traits of the working class.) If this were not so, the end of capitalism could not take place as a result of the self-activity of workers, but only by the actions of capitalists and as such would be even less likely than it appears at present.
There's something here that I'm unsure about, though I'm not sure where or what exactly this something is. I think it's a problem with the context and/or source of labor's productivity. Let's see ...
In the context of capitalist production, labor power, the ability to work (and anything can be work), is the commodity one sells in exchange for a wage. Labor is the act in which capitalists consume the commodity labor power, in an act of productive consumption which produces, among other things, labor as capital (variable capital). Labor power is the condition for labor: obviously, the productive consumption of labor power can not occur without the existence of labor power. The process of labor (the capitalist consumption of the commodity labor power, and in the process the body and mind which bears/composes this commodity) produces commodities of a total value greater than the purchase price of the commodity labor power. That is to say, on average, the worker is paid a wage for a quantity of time, a quantity of time during which the worker produces commodities worth more than the wage that the worker is paid for this quantity of time. That difference is surplus value.
It is also important that the product of labor takes the form of a commodity. A commodity is something that one gets access to via a wage (either directly, such that one has a job and gets wages, or indirectly, such that one receives a share of the wage of someone who receives wages - a receiving which is itself subject to coercion of the sort analyzed by feminists such as the people involved in the Wages For Housework movement). Inability to access a large portion of needed and wanted somethings (use values) is the condition which creates labor power as a commodity. That is to say, labor's product taking the form of commodities reproduces labor power as a commodity. Labor (re)produces labor power as a commodity, and must if capitalism is to continue (to accumulate, to retain and expand command).
In this sense, then, the refusal of labor should also be (or include or articulate itself alongside) the refusal to be produced/produce ourselves as a commodity. I'm not sure if this means a plurality of approaches (not unlike the 'diversity of tactics' idea which prevailed in counter-globalization activist circles from 1999 until at least 2001), or if it means that the refusal of labor, carried out at a high enough level, itself turns into an attack on or undermining of the commodification of labor power. In either case, it all sounds well and good, but is a difficult organizational problem, much more so than it is a metaphysical or conceptual problem or problem of consciousness. Tronti's recognition of this is to my mind one of his chief virtues: “What is generally known as class consciousness is, for us, nothing other than the moment of organisation.”
I'm not sure what to say about this, about matters of organization. I think this is where the most important questions reside, in Tronti and in general. I'm hesitant to say much because I don't want to simply repeat my own prejudices at length. In brief, though: I dislike Tronti's 'party' talk and am unsure what to make of his repeated exhortations to political power and its seizure. I suspect this has roots in Tronti's Leninism, and perhaps in Lenin's polemics against 'economism', which were, I think, also polemics about organizational form. The perspective is that the party is superior to the union rather than the other way around, a position I disagree with but am not sure how to articulate in a satisfactory fashion other than to say that I can't see how the former can exist without articulating itself in relation to the state (I think it is no accident that Tronti refers to the condition required for revolution, that of “the workers having power in their own right and deciding the end of capital,” as the existence of “the workers' State within capitalist society”). Jodi and I have plans to read more Lenin together and I'm reading the rest of Workers And Capital with Eric and Alex, in the hopes to have more to say on this regarding Tronti and organization generally.
In any case, Tronti writes:
“The capitalists have not yet invented - and in fact will obviously never be able to invent - a non-institutionalised political power. (...) The capitalist class does not exist independently of the formal political institutions, through which, at different times but in permanent ways, they exercise their political domination: for this very reason, smashing the bourgeois State does mean destroying the power of the capitalists, and by the same token, one could only hope to destroy that power by smashing the State machine. (...) In order to exist, the class of capitalists needs the mediation of a formal political level (...) no capitalist class exists without a capitalist state.”
The capitalists need the state to be, and for Tronti historically the capitalist state's genesis is the moment when and process by which the capitalists came to be a class politically - a class-for-itself as opposed to only being a class-in-itself. (This is also, incidentally, a moment where readings of Marx and Foucault can dovetail nicely: the state is an organ for the command which allows the consumption of purchased labor power, the setting of workers to work, and is also an organ for both the phyogenetic and continually modulated ontogenetic production of labor power as commodity, via enclosure, discipline, and many of the host of phenomena that fall under the terms biopower and biopolitics.)
By contrast, “quite the opposite is true of the working class: it exists independently of the institutionalised levels of its organisation.” This suggests that for Tronti there is a non-state mode of working class politics, such that my hesitations over the term 'party' may be unfounded or overstated, Tronti's Leninism may be so heterodox that my objections to Leninism are unwarranted applied to him. I'm not sure, but I doubt it.
“the proletariat is nothing more than an immediate political interest in the abolition of every aspect of the existing order. As far as its internal development is concerned, it has no need of "institutions" in order to bring to life what it is, since what it is nothing other than the life-force of that immediate destruction. It doesn't need institutions, but it does need organisation (...) to render the political instance of the antagonism objective in the face of capital; (...) in order to shape it into a rich and aggressive force, in the short term, through the weapon of tactics. This (...) is necessary for the seizure of power.”
It must be noted here that for Tronti tactics is the domain of - and in a sense a synonym for - the party. And the goal is still 'the seizure of power.' The working class doesn't need institutions, so perhaps it doesn't need the state. But the organizational form is the party and the goal is still the seizure of power, a term which in the mouths of Marxists I always hear as “the conquest or taking control of the helm of the state.” If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...
The question I end with, unhappily unresolved (though Tronti's later relation to the PCI suggests an answer to a suspicious mind like mine), is this: when Tronti says “smashing the bourgeois State does mean destroying the power of the capitalists, and (...) one could only hope to destroy that power by smashing the State machine,” does this mean an anti-statist politics (politics that includes the state form as such, like the capital form, within the set of that which that politics is against), or a politics against the present state? If the answer for Tronti is the latter, then the next question is what those of us interested in the former take up and leave behind in our reading of Tronti. In either case there are pressing organizational questions with regard to immediate, short-term, and long-term objectives, (and correspondingly at varying geographic levels) all of which are distressingly large and poorly answered in prior historical moments.