by Antonio Negri
Some American and European comrades have asked me, Why didn’t you have an Occupy movement in Italy? Why is the No TAV movement the only expression of social struggle? The No TAV, despite their strong success, despite their original expression of post-modernity class war, lacks the characteristics of the Occupy movements: an extension of social change, the power to remove old hierarchies, and, above all, a shared and “common” political dynamic open to radical political upheavals.
But here’s another paradox: what sense does this question have now? The Occupy movements seem already dead. The Arab springs have mostly been crushed by military coups and civil wars, or have ended up producing Islamic regimes that seem to forecast the repression of freedoms and political practices only just discovered – the continuation of the status quo under a different name, possibly even worse than the old theological-political dictatorships. In Europe, movements have been suffocated by the unhealthy atmosphere brought over by the economic crisis, while in the States they are just about to be swallowed by the political structures that nowadays dominate the electoral deadlines.
Maybe there’s another way to look at it. The Occupy movement, where it existed – and even though it might have been defeated – has refreshed the dynamics of political action, has uprooted the foundation of constitutional programmes, has imposed a new image of democracy: one that puts the “common” at its centre, in its heart and at the horizon of every social project. Of all movements, Occupy seems the one closest to the experience of the Paris Commune: it’s marked a shift that cannot be reversed; despite its defeat, it’s opened a world of possibilities that will define the world to come. From this point of view, it has won: it’s created a new political grammar of the common. We cannot go back to before Occupy.
So, to get back to the point: why didn’t we have an Occupy movement in Italy? It’s not a matter of trend – that’s irrelevant. But it’s important to answer this question if we want to understand the political agenda that we’ll have to live with in future months – an agenda of which we cannot ignore the immediate, concrete impact on our existence, lifestyle, dreams and desperations.
Probably, we didn’t have Occupy in Italy because most Italian movements still haven’t grown out of the 19th century Socialist horizon: their continuity, and the weight of their tradition, suffocates the new regime of desires, aspirations, experimentations (that we have previously called the powers of the common) that new generations bring with them when they get into politics. This continuity has turned Italy into a country where the tradition of movements, despite the bitter repressions, has managed to survive and pass over struggle knowledge and skills; but at the same time, it has paradoxically prevented new experimentations from taking place. The precious legacy of struggles cannot become property: if it does so, it starts suffering – like it has done in the past – and becomes concealment, silence, blindness.
Over their long history, Italian movements have expressed themselves, either at the same or at different times, mostly in three “places” of political practice: factories, universities and social centres.
Now then, in factories they have often been crushed by improvident alliances which they themselves attempted with Socialist organisations within the workplace. Very rarely has the ideology of productivity been accepted as the enemy to fight in factories; when it has, we have forgotten it. The change in labour between the 20th and 21st century hasn’t been identified for what it actually is (and the movements of 30 years ago made it bright and clear): a radical change, from the “mass” worker to the “social” worker; from material work to “non-material”, linguistic, cooperative, affective work, until we reach the state of the hegemony of the cognitive worker. Socialist and factory unions have very often kept looking at work as a “common good”, that is, nothing more or less than the “right measure” of capitalist exploitation.
In schools and universities movements have never really managed to incarnate, materialise and organise a real demand for freedom of knowledge, even when fighting against the principle of “merit” (and rarely have they fought against it effectively and openly). Rarely have they tried to build the struggle around the issues of study, formation, qualification as programmes of political construction of the common. They have very often stranded around the defense of free public education, being completely unable to protect school and universities from being dismantled – they have become the main tool of social production in practice. Reformism is never a good thing. Sometimes, if we make the effort, we can understand it when it desperately tries to salvage what can be salvaged; but one hates it when reformism becomes an accomplice of the politics of the worst: subjugation, downgrading, discipline, exploitation, disgust; and all to save a State that seems not very concerned at all about saving its own “citizens”.
As for social centres, they have been fundamental, in particular in the post-repressive phase between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 90s; but they have often lost any political perspective that wasn’t in the interest of their own survival and reproduction. Social centres have mostly been places, tools, products of a season of struggle that successively continued with other tools despite the defeat of the 70s; but they have often become an end to themselves, the only horizon in sight being their wish to continue in any possible way. Many of them have therefore subdued to entrepreneurial activity, losing any political perspective. They have lost all ability to act; it doesn’t seem a coincidence that many of them have lately chosen institutional lines, both on a local and national level. On a local level this analysis might seem unjust, and in many cases it is. But the question needs to be asked all the same: are we certain that the “slow food” model is adequate to the challenges and gambles the crisis poses? Or that “good” entrepreneurship is enough to forget the slaughtering game that’s been played outside our walls, in our lives?
So then, we have these three “historical” places of social autonomy that have enabled resistance and organisation, experimentation of practices and action modes; three places that, precisely for being “historical” seem more and more inadequate today. Three places that too often look like antique pieces in our memory, embalmed heritages: fig leaves too flimsy to face the strong breeze of reality. Three places that have become “common goods” just like in churches, workplaces, schools and business; where “common good” simply means a good that is close to us, that can be shared within our family. The common, if it’s not the product of a specific dynamic, reduces to this: a series of commons with certain popular consent, like the defense of nature, of good life, of genuine things, of good taste. They often get misrepresented by praise of the Ancien Régime: good old times, how good they were! Before Europe, before machines, before technology, before modernity, before globalisation, before the factory worker, before mass consumerism. Hurray: let’s go back to Peppone and Don Camillo, to the dignity of factory work, to an Italy that lives on little and works a lot, to dance halls. For goodness sake, let’s leave this absurd and lethal nostalgia to the Church and the Northern League, or to what remains of the old Communist Party (that keeps surviving its own death).
Not happy with this, many social movements have taken a twisted and dark path; they have accepted the blackmailing on the question of “violence”, on the evaluation of representative democracy and its institutions; they have been blind in the face of the corruption that infested them. Did we really need the last sentence on Genoa to understand on which side the violence was? To understand the rotten game played by all those who, in the face of a growing movement (growing at the same pace as the social distress, desperation and anger of those who cannot make it any more) carried on blackmailing at every riotous slogan with their “yes to violence, no to violence”?
Many within social centres have looked for political alliances with the decaying political parties and have made alliances with trade unions that have had the exact opposite result to what they had wished: they only pushed the unions towards more extreme corporate positions, denying any possibility of social welfare or alliances with precarious workers. Many of them have even judged the Arab springs, the English riots and other forms of self-organisation as negative stages, political regressions, an un-political spontaneous mess. Are we sure it wouldn’t have been better to try to understand before judging? Or were we so obsessed with our survival that everything else became secondary?
…Until the latest reversals: many now complain they didn’t reason enough on the blackmail they suffered “on the question of violence”; they complain that being so involved in the social dynamics made it impossible for them to be detached and critical of the ‘minor setbacks’ they continuously suffered; now they are wondering whether to reclaim “mass illegality”…it seems just a moan, like the other one we’ve been hearing in the last few months and that leaves us astonished: God is violent!
For someone who’s been through all this from within the movements, this phase looks very similar to the one that followed the dismantling of the 1968 groups at the beginning of the 70s. Just like for social centres coming from the anti-globalisation movement, even then, in 1973-74, the small parties survived themselves. Some of them were swept away at the elections, some threw themselves at the mercy of the media and other initiatives. The world of working class and social struggles carried on without them. That’s how the autonomous movements emerged, starting from those years, and showed its huge capacity of resistance and innovation (resistance leads to innovation), at least until 1977. After then it survived as an ethic and as an organisational model for the defeat of movements, and this is where we go back to the beginning of our analysis.
Today is about reinventing that model. Its limits – too much individual spontaneity, too much mass violence – already seem overcome by the new movements, which are widespread and culturally converging (it’s not a coincidence that the few accidents that recently took place happened among cultural workers). The new movements are politically oriented towards the building of the “common”. This is what we want to call Occupy.
We need new protagonists. We propose a widespread autonomy of movements, we know that the search for new goals and unified experimentation of new struggles is the first phase to realise. The “precarious strike”, the “minimum guaranteed universal benefit”, the urgent outbreak of new working struggles around wages, the practice of effective responses to the capitalist offensive on debt, the social defence of welfare, etc: these are the fundamental roots from which to grow unified search and struggles. Organise the poor and the working class, together, not for wages only, but for welfare; organise students and people in debt of all backgrounds, not just to give them support but to demand a minimum guaranteed universal benefit; organise migrants and pensioners together, because it’s not just citizenship that concerns the first, and not just pension rights that concerns the latter, but the entire biopolitical organisation of existence.
The autonomous movements must redirect their struggles towards the political goal of a new make-up. And this cannot help but be the expression of a constituent power that can radically transform the organisation of life within work and within society.
[Thank you Toni for permission to post this here]
The writer is an Italian Marxist sociologist, revolutionary philosopher and teacher. He is best known for his co-authorship of Empire. He is also a founder of the group, Potere Operaio (Worker Power) in 1969 and was an active member in the group Autonomia Operaia.