Capital’s power appears to be stable and solid. … the balance of forces appears to be weighted against the workers… and yet precisely at the points where capital’s power appears most dominant, we see how deeply it is penetrated by this menace, this threat of the working class.
Can I say Tronti cannot just be dismissed. His argument is very complex and rich; his argument in “Struggle Against Labor” is so absolutely precise and full it demands a reading. And, I think, Postone’s critique of Hardt points to a potential for synthesis of a reconstructed Marx’s value theory with autonomism or workerism. I want to explore that potential briefly by looking at Tronti’s argument in his piece, which, according to the poster at Libcom.org, is “One of the existing English language excerpts from Tronti’s influential book Operai e capitale”
Tronti begins by asserting
“No worker today is disposed to recognize the existence of labor outside capital.”
By labor, Tronti means the worker’s own activity. Thus no worker considers her own productive activity as anything but activity of capital. Tronti argues this is the logical precondition of the capitalist mode of production; it is a point of no return for human activity. This lack of recognition of its own activity as its own is, in Tronti’s argument, an expression of working class passivity, which, Tronti argues, is a spontaneous act of refusal by the working class from the logic of capitalist relations of production:
this passivity is recognized as an elementary, spontaneous form of refusal by the working class. For mass passivity always follows after the political defeat of the class, caused by its official organizations; alternatively, it follows a leap forward in capitalist development, in the appropriation by capital of socially productive forces. We all know that these two objective preconditions of working-class passivity have been combined in the past few decades.
In its spontaneous passive attitude toward its own activity, there is no pride in labor among the working class and no illusions regarding the dignity of labor and the laborer. Paradoxically, this passivity forms the core proposition of antagonism to the capitalist mode of production itself: To understand capital, the working class need only grasp the intolerable character of its own activity; to overthrow capital, it only need overthrow its own activity. Tronti argues in its struggles the working class does not merely confronts capital, it confronts its own labor as capital, as the enemy.
This very view is echoed in Postone’s argument in Time, Labor and Social Domination, that Marx did not critique capital from the standpoint of labor, but capitalist labor itself. Tronti’s assertion that the working class is hostile toward its own activity, lends credence to Postone’s definition of Marx’s theory. This parallel becomes even more clear when the argument of the two are laid side by side with regards to traditional views of Marxists. Says Tronti:
“The “pride of the producer” they leave entirely to the boss. Indeed, only the boss now remains to declaim eulogies in praise of labor. True, in the organized working-class movement this traditional chord is, unfortunately, still to be heard – but not in the working class itself; here there is no longer any room for ideology.”
“The [...] transhistorical understanding of labor, presupposes that a structural tension exists between the aspects of social life that characterize capitalism [...] and the social sphere constituted by labor. Labor, therefore, forms the basis of the critique of capitalism, the standpoint from which that critique is undertaken.”
In contrast to the traditional presentation of the relation between labor and capital, in both Tronti’s and Postone’s argument there is no pride in labor in the daily life of the working class; nor a critique of capital from the standpoint of labor in Marx’s theory. In Postone’s interpretation of Marx and in Tronti’s interpretation of the worker’s empirical life labor is capitalist labor and nothing else. The object of the worker’s practical activity and Marx’s theory is to critique, not capital on behalf of labor, but this capitalist labor. How these two interesting insights into Marx’s theory and the practical activity of the working class have remained apart is a big question.
I would contend they have been held apart by a critique of Marxism itself that has not yet been completely realized.
The difference between a critique of capital from the standpoint of labor and a critique of capitalist labor itself is essentially political; which is to say, a critique of capital from the standpoint of labor is merely a political critique, while a critique of capitalist labor is inherently anti-political.
Tronti, even in this fine piece, still succumbs to the political view:
“[The working class] has to recognize itself as political power, deny itself as a productive force.”
This statement is really quite ambiguous. What does Tronti mean by the working class denying itself as a productive force? Moreover, what does it mean for the working class to recognize itself as a political power? Tronti makes the argument in this piece that “No worker today is disposed to recognize the existence of labor outside capital.” If this is true, he is essentially arguing the working class does not recognize its own activity as its own. Tronti seems to be making the argument, as I argued against Ollman, the working class is incapable of recognizing itself — even in the form of recognizing is activity as its own. Tronti uses the phrase “disposed to recognize” in this context, which might imply this is a choice by the worker not an inherent incapacity. In his argument the working class might choose to recognize itself as a political power, while not recognizing itself as a productive force.
The problem even here, however, is that if the working class can recognize itself as a political power why can it not simply take control of its own productive activity — that is, the total social capital of society? In this case, denying itself as a productive force would be nothing more than denying capital the employment of the total social capital of society as a mere means for producing surplus value. If this is an accurate restatement of Tronti’s argument, we are led back to the “traditional” Marxist interpretation of the task of the proletariat: to seize the state power and employ this power to free itself from capitalist relations of production. This is precisely the “critique of capital from the standpoint of labor” both Tronti and Postone criticize.
What makes me think this restatement of Tronti is flawed is that later in his argument Tronti asserts:
“The working class must cease to express the requirements of capital, even in the form of its own demands: It must force the bosses to put forward demands, so that the workers can actively, that is on an organized basis, reply ‘No!’”
“Demands” here can only be interpreted as “all demands”, both economic and political, which is to say the only demand is for the abolition of capital and the state. Once stripped of its ambiguity, Tronti’s argument is not for the working class to seize state power, but abolish it, i.e., the working class must recognize itself as the new society already present within the old one. The strategy of refusal is nothing else if not the refusal to recognize not only capital, but its political expression as well – the state. This idea is already expressed in both the Tea Party, with its refusal to recognize the alleged need for deficits during capitalist crises, and in the Occupy with its refusal to recognize the alleged need for austerity during capitalist crises. Taken together the refusal to recognize the requirements of fascist state policy is expressed as poles of political opinion within the class.
Tronti demands this division within the class be overcome in such a way that offers both capital and the state only a resounding “No”: “No” to deficit spending and “No” to austerity. Tronti’s strategy of refusal must result in the working class saying “NO!” to every alternative offered by the capitalist state and capital. It follows from this that all debates within the class over alternatives like austerity versus deficits are resolved in the answer “Neither! We will not accept your austerity and we will not accept your deficits. We will only accept the abolition of capitalist labor.”
And this is where Postone’s critique of the autonomist argument made by Hardt scores a direct hit on the target: It is not until value is reconstituted solely as a function of capitalist relations of production and no longer materially necessary that the possibility emerges for the abolition of capitalist labor itself. This is the great contribution of Postone: he offers a theoretical argument that makes Tronti’s strategy of refusal realizable.
In turn, Tronti gives Postone the revolutionary subject he lacks in his own argument: the worker, but not as a “worker”; rather this worker is already disposed to identify her labor with capital. To throw off capital, she need only throw off her own labor and appear in history as herself, a social individual. This throwing off of her own labor is not possible until her labor appears on the historical stage as an anachronism; until, as Postone argues,
“The system of wages, considered from the standpoint of material wealth [...] only appears to be remuneration for labor time expenditure.”
This is possible only when labor itself is no longer necessary, and not a moment before. But Postone’s argument is that labor continues to appear to be necessary long after it is no longer.
If you read Tronti’s “Struggle Against Labor” side by side with Postone’s critique of Hardt in the South Atlantic Quarterly journal, you can see in their synthesis the potential for a sword that cuts the Gordian Knot of working class direct action. It is the demand that extracts the working class from the false choices offered by fascist state policy: between inflation and unemployment; endless deficits and cruel austerity.
It is the demand for nothing less than abolition of labor, a reduction of hours of work until the needs of the working class are satisfied, and this demand must become the working class’s single demand no matter the consequences for capital and its state. In Tronti’s words,
“If the alienation of the worker has any meaning, it is a highly revolutionary one. The organization of alienation: This is the only possible direction in which the party can lead the spontaneity of the class. The goal remains that of refusal, at a higher level: It becomes active and collective, a political refusal on a mass scale, organized and planned.”
The destructive potential of “No!” was on full display in the first two years of the Obama administration when the GOP, to rally its troops in face of repudiation by the voters in the 2008 election, played the “Party of No” in the 2010 elections. The tactic threatened to swamp the GOPoseurs themselves as new elements turned on the Washington GOP to the point of threatening Washington itself with default on its debt. The disruptive power of “No!” predicted by Tronti appeared ominously enough for capital in the very elements it raised to tighten its grip on the fascist state. It appeared just as ominously within the Occupy as a movement, which offered no demands on the existing state and which could, therefore, not be placated by satisfaction of their demands. As Tronti wrote:
This today is the only possible means of overcoming working-class passivity-overcoming the spontaneous form which this passivity presently takes – while furthering its political content of negation and revolt. The first organized “No!” of the workers to the first “demands” of the capitalist class will reverberate as a declaration of total class war, a historic call to the decisive phase of the struggle, the modern version of the classic revolutionary slogan; Proletarians of All Lands, Unite!