Tuesday 15 August 2023

Tronti's Defeatism

Farewell Mario Tronti, theorist of operaismo and a remaining source of inspiration for radical thinking and politics. But in an intriguing short interview given in 2015, he conveyed a message and a feeling entirely at odds with the optimism that infuses his best known work, Workers and Capital. That message was of his defeat, of our defeat, and ultimately his obsolescence and that of his politics. For a man who participated in some of the mightiest movements the working class in the West have ever seen, a movement that threw into sharp relief the question of "who rules" and came close to answering with "the workers do", the retreat from that high point to the gutter that Italian politics has become is enough to make a pessimist of anyone.

Tronti's pessimism speaks to us now because the left in this country has also been defeated. But is there anything we can take from his gloomy prognosis? Do these remarks tell us to give up, not least because Tronti talks approvingly of reading and studying reactionary thought? I would suggest not. He speaks of how operaismo and the workerist politics of Workers and Capital were situated in the moment of active and open class struggle, but that his error, and that of his comrades, was to mistake this for a revolutionary rupture. "The workers wanted a wage rise, not the revolution ... We saw red. But it wasn’t the red of a new dawn, rather that of the sunset." He says the experience taught him political realism and that the values of the left - progressivism, historicism, and Enlightenment - suppose too simple a set of solutions to the problems we face. As such, Tronti lately engaged with the world through the tinge of "serene desperation". Not least because what came of the revolutionary events of the 1960s was nothing that really challenged capitalism. Radicalisation (in Italy) led to some taking the dead end to terrorism, while for most it meant a generational turnover in the managerial class. Therefore we have two 20th centuries, the large and the small. The large was characterised by earth shattering events. The 1960s called time on that. And what came after was the small - a period of unoriginality, of low stakes politics, of (effectively) capitalism without class struggle. An endless present of stasis and decay.

Tronti does not rule out hope for the future, but just doesn't see it. He said,
This period is very confused. Everything carries on its own way. At the start of the twentieth century there was talk of a great crisis of modernity. Then it came. And now we’re up to our ears in it, we don’t know in what direction to go. So it’s stalled. You look without seeing.
This is what his realism tells him, but he also says that politics needs faith and passion. He said his communism wasn't grounded in science, but in hope. Implying that a new radical politics is possible through a fusion of the two, but without offering any direction to possible flashpoints. Tronti remarks that he's on a borderline, and like Walter Benjamin's angel of history with its eyes firmly fixed to the past his self-declared obsolescence suggested he had nothing more to say. "My father believed in a better world. He wanted to see it. Bless him. I say to young people: thank god I’m not your age. I’m glad that I’m going to see the back of this world. That’s what I say."

Not revelling in defeat, but a case of bluntly stating it. And a sense of how it put Tronti through the ringer. In the context of Britain, we've had our own defeats. The industrial losses of the 1980s. And more recently, the experience of Corbynism and its defeat from within and without. Tronti's diagnosis of a directionless society fits our predicament. There is no certainty about how to build a radical, insurgent class politics above and beyond the the defensive struggles foisted on the labour movement by the Tories and their deployment of inflation as a weapon. Stick with Labour, despite the dead hand of Starmerism? Go with the Greens and their limitations? Try and build something new? There is no guide to the way out of the impasse in Tronti, but maybe his warnings about faith and his (cautious) affirmation of realism offer a hint.

Thinking beyond Tronti, being resolutely realistic there are three observations we can make about the conjuncture in this country that suggests his rendering of defeat isn't entirely generalisable. Tronti's thought had to grapple with the decomposition of revolutionary consciousness, and later the political and industrial institutions of the working class in Italy. And then the seeming dispersal of our class as any kind of coherent actor. Like Italy, Britain underwent a similar process, but what differed was the Corbyn moment. Despite its problems, relative incoherence, and its structural tendency to compromise, it acted as a political magnet that, for an interlude, brought mass politics into the mainstream and came within a whisker of inflicting significant defeats on the Tories and the centrist/liberal establishment both. This didn't happen because people-in-general responded to the moral goodness of Corbyn and his politics, but because it spoke to the inchoate but consolidating interests of the rising class of workers. This had two aspects: a push back against the hostility shown working age people by the Tories and the neglect of the previous Labour leadership. And the political consequences of immaterial labour. The defeat of Corbynism, as painful as it was, took place at a moment of the continued consolidation and coming to consciousness of the so-called socialised worker. As such, despite Starmerism the left inside Labour, though muted, is stronger than it was before Corbynism. Street movements and mobilisations are more frequent and stronger. And the industrial battles of the labour movement are of a magnitude greater than anything seen since the early 1990s. The Corbyn moment has passed, but the return of socialist and communist politics has not.

Tronti was worried that latter day readers of Workers and Capital were wasting their time because the class organisation and class struggles it researched and reflected on were buried in the past. There were few lessons to learn in a context characterised by quietude. However, what links that work to the present are the contributions of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Antonio Negri - among others. The last's championing of immaterial labour, its embedding in new configurations of exploitation, and potentials for a new radical politics have been variously criticised as too hopeful and optimistic. An excess of Trontian faith, perhaps. But in the essentials, Negri is right. There are no guarantees in politics, only probabilities. His understanding of the reconstitution of the working class as immaterial workers and the consequences this has for the intertwining of subject, value, and interest formation has been borne out historically. His is not a hypothesis but increasingly a class reality his theory reflects and reports on. As such, where all Tronti could see was a messy and bewildering closure the increasingly strategic role immaterial labour plays in capital accumulation opens up new points of struggle and new directions for history.

This is why we need to think about our defeat differently to Tronti's defeatism. His was the mourning of a famous, epochal defeat. Our malaise, however, is the consequence of something that was and is significant, but not on the same scale. It was a bruise inflicted on something new, on a rising power pregnant with new potentials. As such our defeat need not be seen in Trontian terms. It does not have to be as debilitating. And, indeed, is proving itself not to be.

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Blissex said...

«Tronti was worried that latter day readers of Workers and Capital were wasting their time because the class organisation and class struggles it researched and reflected on were buried in the past.»

In the social-democratic past the middle and lower classes were allied in "producer" front with the difficult struggle to reclaim from the powerful upper class what had been extracted, in the form of better wages, pensions, lower housing costs and better social services.

Since Reagan and Thatcher in the neo-liberal present there has been an alliance between the upper and middle classes, as "consumers" (rentiers) with the much easier task to extract from the weaker working classes more asset incomes thanks to lower wages and pensions, and higher housing costs and shrinking social services.

The middle class agreed to this simply not just because extracting from those weaker is easier than reclaiming from those stronger, but also because the extraction could deliver larger benefits to them than the better wages and pensions and social services reclaimed from the upper class, also thanks to fantastic increases in debt to make those benefits liquid.

Now most (but not all) of the middle classes are completely dependent on extraction from the lower classes for improving their living standards, and will continue to support reaganism/thatcherism until the bitter end. Unfortunately for all, except for the upper classes that have salted away offshore most of what they have been extracting.

Blissex said...

«thanks to fantastic increases in debt to make those benefits liquid»

«Back in 2012, the UK firefighters union (FBU) commissioned a report on the banks, that I wrote jointly with Mick Brooks. We found that less than 5% of lending by UK banks went towards productive investment by companies. The rest went on real estate (mortgages) or lending to other financial institutions for speculation.»

«Another of Thatcher’s magic potions was ‘home equity withdrawal’ or remortgaging – drawing down the equity in the borrowers home for (mainly) consumption purposes – new cars, holidays, and so forth. Under the two Prime Ministers that preceded her, James Callaghan and Ted Heath, home equity withdrawal as a percentage of GDP growth was around 36% for both. Under Thatcher, this exploded to over £250bn across her premiership – a staggering 104% of GDP growth. To a significant extent, Thatcher grew the economy by unleashing easy credit, asset inflation (including house prices) and equity draw downs – ‘wealth creation’ indeed. [...] The critical point is that without these asset sales and home equity it is questionable whether the economy would have been growing at all.
The story of Blair’s New Labour is eerily familiar. Under Major, such withdrawals amounted to only 8% of GDP growth, perhaps reflecting the wider economic climate. But Blair did his homework and let loose – as did Thatcher – a wave of cheap credit, financial deregulation, house price inflation and an equity withdrawal-led consumption boom. Withdrawals under Blair’s leadership totalled around £365bn, that’s a full 103% of GDP growth over the same period.»

«Bottom line  —  almost the entire boom in property prices over the last 40 years has resulted from the availability of mortgage debt.»

Close to 40% of mostly quite affluent voters are very grateful to Thatcher, Blair and their successors (except Major and Brown of course).