Occupy: Struggles for the common' or an 'anti-politics of dignity'? Reflections on Hardt and Negri and John Holloway.

Author:Harrison, Oliver


Some years ago, writing in this journal Martin Spence (2010) argued that, because of its specific Italian heritage, the body of thought labelled autonomism' had become 'misleading'. The reason for this lay in the diversity of its authors, ranging from Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri, to Harry Cleaver and John Holloway. We might add here the inclusion of others, such as Werner Bonefeld and Simon Clarke, and Massimo De Angelis and Nick Dyer-Witheford. For his own purposes, Spence (2010) replaced the category of 'autonomism' with that of open Marxism', arguing its usefulness as an appropriate tag for the field as a whole' (Spence 2010: 99). In some ways this was an unusual move. After all, as indeed Spence also noted, the more familiar tendency has been to subsume open Marxism under the category of autonomism. Alex Callinicos (2005), for example, argued that John Holloway's Change the World Without Taking Power (2002) was, alongside Hardt and Negri's Empire (2000), 'one of the key texts of contemporary autonomist Marxism' (Callinicos 2005: 17). Despite this, Callinicos did not see their respective approaches as 'identical'.

It remains odd that, on the one hand we accept the differences between these respective positions and yet, on the other, proceed to subsume them under one or another generic label. Whilst sympathetic to De Angelis' (2005: 248) claim that this debate is 'fallacious and divisive', I will nevertheless mirror the argument of Bonefeld (2003), arguing that the temptation to conflate autonomist with open Marxism should be avoided. To substantiate this argument, here I will critically reflect on the theory of revolutionary subjectivity in Hardt and Negri and John Holloway, and do so by applying their theory to the Occupy movement (1) of 2011. For many commentators both of these theories can be charged with either vagueness, abstraction or excessive theoreticism, and this problematises their more practical and concrete implementations (Bieler and Morton 2003: 475; Callinicos 2005: 18; Harvey 2010: 212; Susen 2012: 292, 302). Yet, as I will show, in the case of Occupy there is a clear opportunity to placate such critics, and as such also demonstrate that whilst each theory shares some underlying commonalities, there remain important differences as to how useful their theories are for understanding this movement.

In the first part of this article I contextualise each theory in relation to earlier works, and then outline the nature to each theory. Here it should become clear that, whilst both theories argue that revolutionary subjectivity is one that both refuses and transcends capitalist social relations, in theoretical terms there are clear differences of emphasis on how they articulate such a practice. In the second part of the article I show how such theoretical differences translated into the more practical task of interpreting Occupy's struggle, both in tactical and strategic matters. In short, whilst I will argue that Holloway's emphasis on the diversity and banality of Occupy's scream was important, and so too was his more dialectical approach apt for providing a more measured understanding of both the nature of Occupy's 'crack' and indeed the subjectivity that opened it, it is his approach that falls short in a number of ways. Occupy's innovative use of the assembly corresponded closely to how both Hardt and Negri and Holloway envisage the construction of revolutionary subjectivity, but the latter's explicit emphasis on situating this struggle in relation to transformations in forms of production adds further substance to this claim, particularly with respect to its use of new social technologies and wider possibilities of institutionalising its struggle.

Operaismo and form-analysis

Hardt and Negri's theory of revolutionary subjectivity must be understood in the context of Negri's earlier work on the issue, particularly via his involvement in the Operaismo current of Italian Marxist theory in the 1960s, and his later development of his theory throughout the 1970s. Following Tronti's (1979: 1) insistence that labour insubordination drives capitalist development, one of the most important conceptual developments during this period was that of 'class composition--the idea that specific forms of worker subjectivity must be informed by an analysis of both its technical and political characteristics. Whereas in technical or objective terms this subjectivity is structured by the form of its labour, in political terms its subjectivity is characterised by its needs, consciousness and the organisational form of its struggle (Cleaver 1992; Negri 2005). Negri developed the theory of 'self-valorisation as a means of concretising this dynamic, theorising revolutionary subjectivity not only as the refusal of capitalist command but also its inventive capacity for furthering this struggle in new and innovative ways. Thus, whereas its 'negative' measure was based on the 'spaces' opened via the refusal of work, its 'positive' measure was determined by the extent to which such spaces were 'filled, occupied', [and] attacked' (Negri 2005: 260). For Negri, self-valorisation constitutes a completely different form of social wealth: the valorisation of human needs premised on advancements in the composition of social labour (Negri 2005: 184; cf. Harrison 2011: 35).

Holloway's theory of revolutionary subjectivity would also emerge through earlier works, particularly his engagement with debates concerning the nature of the capitalist state (Holloway and Picciotto 1978). Holloway emphasised the importance of understanding the form and content of the capitalist state in direct relation to the form and content of class struggle (Clarke 1991: 9-18; Holloway and Picciotto 1978: 30). Here, as Bonefeld et al. (1992) explain, the concept of 'form' assumes a specific character in the sense that an object's mode of existence 'exists only in and through the form(s) it takes' (Bonefeld et al. 1992: xv; Holloway 1995: 166). Understanding the notion of form in this way is crucial, not simply for unearthing an object's hidden content but more importantly its very constitution. In terms of the relationship between capital and labour, capital can thus only exist in and through the form of alienated labour; a process that, crucially, cannot be isolated from class struggle--understood as a social relation, capital is class struggle (Holloway 1991a).From this perspective all of Marx's major categories --including value, labour, class, etc.--must be opened, understood as 'aids to understanding historical processes', articulating 'an open world' based on 'categories that conceptualise the openness of society' (Holloway 1991b: 233, 1991c: 71, 1993: 76, 82; Holloway and Susen 2013: 31).

Multitude, exodus and the common

In Negri's co-authored work (Hardt and Negri 2000, 2004, 2009) his theory of self-valorisation remains central, although reconfigured on the basis of changes in class composition. In technical terms Hardt and Negri argue that capitalist production is predominantly 'biopolitical' because it involves not just the production of the 'means of life' but 'social life itself' (Hardt and Negri 2004: 146, 2009: 299). More specifically, much labour today is 'immaterial' in the sense that it encompasses 'ideas, symbols, images, languages or codes, to its more "affective" dimensions such as the generation of ease, well-being, satisfaction or excitement' (Hardt and Negri 2004: 108; 2009: 382). The new social subject of biopolitical production is the multitude, understood in at least two senses. Firstly, in sociological and political terms the multitude is defined by the form of its productive activity, and whilst it remains a class concept due to the depth of capitalist subsumption it is much more inclusive than the working class (Hardt and Negri 2004: 106). In a second, more philosophical sense the multitude refers to a continual disruptive presence, one that has always 'refused authority and command, expressed the irreducible difference of singularity, and sought freedom in innumerable revolts and revolutions' (Hardt and Negri 2004: 221).

For Hardt and Negri the technical changes in class composition offer possibilities for the multitude's future political re-composition, and once again here the theory of self-valorisation returns to the fore, particularly for rethinking the nature of social (or commonwealth. Whilst Hardt and Negri accept that immaterial labour remains as exploited as its industrial predecessor, they claim that the former has the potential for a radical autonomy; one that can dispense with the need for centralised oversight and, more importantly, continually 'exceeds the bounds set in its employment by capital' (Hardt and Negri 2004: 147, 2009: 140). Hence, for Hardt and Negri immaterial labour is characterised by a productive excess beyond what capital can successfully subsume, and the reason for this is because its capacities exceed work and spill over into life', and simply, capital can never capture' all of it (Hardt and Negri 2004: 146, 2009: 151,152).

In the technical sense the excessive nature of immaterial labour is pooled into what Hardt and Negri call 'the common', defined in both natural and cultural terms: 'not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, [and] the modes of sociality that define our relationships' (Hardt and Negri 2009: 139). From the common a new immanently revolutionary subjectivity can thus emerge; yet, as established earlier, objective conditions alone do not ensure this process. In other words, whilst in this context the 'negative' measure of self-valorisation refers to 'resisting capitalist command and attacking the bases of capitalist power', its 'positive' measure is developed through the multitude's capacity for 'exodus': throwing off capital's 'corruptive' influence, exploring the multitude's singular differences and, ultimately,...

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