[OPE-L] Melancholic Troglodytes Report on Immaterial Labour Conference

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu May 11 2006 - 07:42:36 EDT

Another _Mute_ article. Concerns a recent divide among autonomist
Marxists.  Sorry -- but I don't have time now to re-format.

In solidarity, Jerry


The Archipelago of Immateriality

Published on Mute magazine - Culture and politics after the net
The Archipelago of Immateriality
By mute
Created 08/05/2006 - 4:55pm
By The Melancholic Troglodytes, et al.
Last weekend Mute visited the dreaming spires of Kings College, Cambridge
for the conference 'Immaterial Labour, Multitudes and New Social Subjects:
Class Composition in Cognitive Capitalism'. With the high-priests (Negri
and Lazzarato) jumping ship early on, the conference struggled to bridge
the divide between the historical legacy of the rigorous and innovative
Autonomist and Post-Autonomist movements and the acolytes who inherit, but
don't advance on, some of their key interests : immaterial labour, the
multitude and the common. Over the next few weeks we will be collecting
some short responses to the conference. The Melancholic Troglodytes kick
off claiming that some Autonomist Marxists are openly making overtures to
neo-social democracy and Richard Barbrook, whose response follows,
concurs, but commends them for it!

Response 1.

By The Melancholic Troglodytes

The Melancholic Troglodytes felt there were two fundamental and
interrelated problems with the Immaterial Labour Conference [henceforth
ILC]: first, the mode of organising was (at best) a Zone of Bourgeois
Development (ZBD), and second, the content of Autonomist Marxism seemed
impoverished. We will elaborate on these two problems below:

Problem of organising

Neo-Vygotskians have made a distinction between two different ways of
organising, the Zone of Bourgeois Development (ZBD) and the Zone of
Proletarian Development (ZPD). The Zone of Bourgeois Development (ZBD) is
a convergence space for modern science, technology and academia. Its
endpoint is the creation of instrumentalist knowledge and bourgeois
individualism. Its historical midwives were rationalism, positivism and
empiricism. The ZBD has three main characteristics, namely, organisational
dualism, organisational fetishism and organisational religiosity.

The ILC is not a party or a permanent organisation; it was just a weekend
conference and a semi-permanent network of associates. Therefore it
suffered more from organisational dualism than fetishism or religiosity.
Organisational dualism manifests itself in a number of dichotomies as for
instance the one between intellect and emotion which Leninist, Anarchist
and Social Democratic parties have historically resolved through the
mind-body metaphor. The mind or brain (the party’s central committee)
takes care of decision making whilst the rank-and-file provide the
emotional demiurge for enacting the committee’s decisions. It leads to
the creation of specialisms and control of one-way (monologic)
communication by experts.

Melancholic Troglodytes were not expecting anything other than a ZBD at
Cambridge. We went there fully cognisant of what we were getting ourselves
into. If you want a ZPD (characterised by Joint-Dialectical activity and
organisational Heterogeneity and organisational Carnivalesque) you have to
create it yourself. However, we were expecting a competent ZBD- one that
delivers according to its own limited and anaemic criteria of
communication and development. Sadly, we felt we did not even get that.
What we had most of the time was a Zone of Bourgeois (under) Development.
The reasons for this failure are connected to the second major problem of
the ILC.

Impoverishment of thought

Autonomist Marxism is finished! That is not to say it was once a
revolutionary trend because it was always enmeshed in leftism. But in the
1960s and parts of the 1970s it had life, ideas, dynamism and a real
connection to the class struggle. Since then its various factions have
become guardians of theoretical orthodoxies and keener to defend their
territory than say or do anything new. Autonomist Marxism which made some
genuine attempts to break free of structuralist Stalinism has today
collapsed back onto the Leninist terrain. One faction - what we witnessed
at Cambridge- has become the post-structuralist Stalinist wing which is
now openly making overtures to neo-social democracy. The other faction
(Negri, etc) is gravitating toward wishy-washy post-modernist
Leninist-Trotskyism and is also making overtures to neo-social democracy
but more covertly.


It saddens Melancholic Troglodytes to see this degeneration. We used to
rely on Autonomism for a good deal of our thinking, since no one group can
solve all the complex problems of the class struggle alone. We will
continue to read and perhaps even learn from Autonomism in a limited way.
But no amount of trendy vocabulary and no amount of super-celebrity
performances can hide the fact that Autonomism as a viable project is now
well and truly dead. Perhaps the onus is on the rest of us to create an

Response 2.

by Richard Barbrook

Kautsky in Cambridge

‘How was the conference?’, Simon asked. ‘Very interesting’, I
replied. ‘The Autonomists have finally come out of the closet as
reformists!’ At the opening session of the Immaterial Labour conference
in Cambridge, Andrea Fumagalli had told us that Toni Negri and the other
gurus of the movement now advocated a commendably pragmatic political
programme: a guaranteed income for all citizens; employment rights for
precarious workers; the democratisation of the European Union; and more
environmental protection. ‘As left-wing members of the Labour party’,
I pointed out, ‘we can no longer criticise the Autonomists. Their
policies are also our policies!’

I continued, ‘It’s particularly good to see that – after 25 years
– the Autonomists have at long last aligned their practice with their
theory.’ Back in the early-1980s, Simon and I had both diligently
studied the Red Notes booklets which had first made available the key
texts by Negri, Tronti and their comrades to an English-speaking audience.
What was then so striking about the writings of the Autonomists was their
engagement with Marx’s critique of political economy. Unlike their
Althusserian and Trotskyist peers, these Italian leftists did have
something intelligent to say about the neo-liberal restructuring of
capitalism. However, at this point, the Autonomists’ admiration for
Marx’s theory didn’t extend to his practice. Far from being social
democrats, they took pride in their revolutionary intransigence.
Autonomism was the extreme left of the Ultra-Left.

‘What was the comrades’ reaction to Andrea Fumagalli’s speech?’
Simon asked. ‘As you might have guessed’, I replied, ‘it didn’t go
down very well with most of his audience. For the old school, it was a
betrayal of the holy precepts of Autonomism. For the younger generation,
it was a bit like going to see Johnny Rotten and discovering that he had
always been a Bee Gees fan!’ ‘What did they expect?’, Simon
exclaimed. ‘It was obvious that Autonomism was reformist right from the
beginning. Haven’t they ever read Negri’s article on Keynes from the
mid-1970s? If you – correctly – point out that ‘effective demand’
is a euphemism for working class struggle, then you’re arguing in favour
of social democracy!’

‘Maybe’, I mused, ‘their horrified reaction proves that the
revolutionary image of Autonomism was always more important than its
theoretical achievements? It can’t be an accident that its acolytes
prefer reading the Grundrisse to Capital. If they carefully studied the
chapter on the Factory Acts in Volume 1, they would realise that Marx
himself was a social democrat!’

‘So was your visit to Cambridge worthwhile?’, Simon enquired. ‘Back
in the early-1980s, we might have disagreed with their politics, but we
always enjoyed going to their conferences.’ ‘Of course’, I
responded. ‘It’s not just our politics which have converged. Do you
remember the cyber-communism article which I wrote in the late-1990s for
the McLuhan conference in New York? At the time, it was meant as a
satirical piece: America invented the only working model of communism in
human history – it’s called the Net! Well, you’ll be pleased to hear
that there were two excellent papers at the conference which put forward
the same argument.’ ‘Very good’, Simon said. ‘But do you think
that anyone outside the academic Left is listening to what was said?’
‘I do hope so since the conference was – rather appropriately –
being held in Keynes hall at Kings. Looking at the current state of the
Labour party, it certainly needs some fresh ideas. Maybe – as in the
1930s – Cambridge can again provide them?’ My comrade smiled somewhat
sceptically, ‘I look forward to that day!’ ‘You never know’, I
joked, ‘in a couple of decades time, we could be going to a similar
conference in the Negri hall at Kings!’ ‘After Blairism’, Simon
announced, ‘Autonomist reformism!’ ‘We should drink to this
future!’, I concluded – and so we left for the pub to continue the
conversation over a few pints…


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