You say goodbye, I say hello

Issue: 122

John Cooper

Antonio Negri, Goodbye Mr Socialism: Radical Politics in the 21st Century (Serpent’s Tail, 2008), £8_._99

This collection of interviews with Antonio Negri provides some insights into one of the most important thinkers on the anti-capitalist left. Negri is the co_author, with Michael Hardt, of Empire and the subsequent Multitude, two texts which explicitly linked themselves to the rising anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the century and aimed to provide philosophical underpinning to the political aspirations of the activists involved.

As the title Goodbye Mr Socialism indicates, however, a key plank of Negri’s project has been to argue that socialist politics belong to a bygone age, and he has instead associated himself with autonomist currents in the movement. Thus he maintains in the first interview that “the history of socialism, of real socialism in particular…is not a monster; it is a product above all of our weakness, of our capacity to hurt ourselves. It was indeed a failure but a very special failure.”

He wants to reclaim the idea of communism in the 21st century, understood as the “common capacity to reproduce the social in freedom”, as opposed to the apparently statist tradition of what he calls “real socialism”. For Negri, communism is the “only alternative to postmodernism and [is] the beginning of a new great cycle of civilisation”.

If this is rather vague, further into the collection we get a better insight into his thinking when it comes to envisaging a new society coming into being. The 1999 Seattle anti-capitalist demonstrations were “the affirmation that capitalism is not necessary and that there exist other ways of living, political-economic alternatives to capitalism. Seattle represented that consciousness…’Another world is possible’.”

Moreover, the anti-capitalist movement itself could only take place because of real changes in society since the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to Negri, the “information revolution” led to a change in the nature of work, with “immaterial labour” coming to predominate. For the “new working classes and the movements that follow”, labour “escapes capitalist measure”, giving rise to a recognition by that “I am productive outside of my relations with capital”, something which no longer has “anything to do with capital as a physical structure in the hands of bosses”.

The multitude, as Negri calls this new collectivity, simply has to assert itself through its cognitive labour power, which is itself already “characterised by autonomy, independence, and cooperative capacity”. This is quite different, he claims, from the traditional left which “manages to imagine only a seizure of power, that is, putting itself in the place of the capitalists in order to manage the reality of economic development”.

But he is never really clear about the multitude and how it is to assert its power, sometimes simply referring to the desire for “exodus” and the world being on the verge of something new. At best, he puts his faith in the myriad movements for “another globalisation” and celebrates their resistance. At worst, as his boosterism about the immaterial labour of the “information economy” implies, he appears to suggest that work today has a liberating potential, with “precarity that liberates and precarity that limits the horizons of life”. However, as well as being somewhat incoherent conceptually, the notion of immaterial labour just does not fit the reality of work today.

Aside from this main theme, there are also some interesting reflections on Iraq and the “war on terror”. While he maintains that the US-led invasion “constituted the definitive point of a project of a monarchical approach to global order”, he also holds that, although “the Leninist conception of imperialism and of inter-capitalist contradictions was pertinent in his time, today it appears to be superannuated”. Thus it may still be possible to talk about inter-capitalist contradictions, but these are “secondary in the construction of global power”—a notion which he calls “Empire”.

However, here Negri simply repeats the rhetoric of neoliberal globalisation in claiming that a new global order is being constructed beyond the contradictions of inter-state and inter-capitalist conflict. And, as with the concept of the multitude, the notion of a “monarchical” project is ambiguous, allowing him to claim that the invasion of Iraq was an exceptional form of unilateralism, as opposed to the standard “police actions” in Afghanistan and previous wars which enjoyed greater support within Empire.

It would seem to be difficult to claim, as he does, that “within Empire the tendency is therefore toward the formation of continental and subcontinental potentates” (ie regional blocs of power) without some understanding of imperialism, but this is exactly his approach. Perhaps this conceptual confusion can explain his position on the European Union, which he contemplates becoming “the new democratic mediator within this new global constitution”. Bizarrely, he even claims that the French “no” vote on the proposed EU constitution “had the nationalist socialist stamp of the left”, as only a “united Europe can construct a space in which the proposition of a truly revolutionary project makes sense”.

Similar problems come to the fore in his discussion of contemporary Iran, where he proclaims that “probably the only chance at freedom for the Iranian people is that of struggling, together, against the clerical regime and for globalisation”—but what he means by “globalisation” here is not at all clear.

There are some positive aspects to this collection, particularly Negri’s often vivid and poetic descriptions of the broad range of social struggles that have erupted over the past decade. For example, he points out the “extreme importance, culturally unifying and politically militant, of the expressions of hip hop” in the movement in France during 2006, which were “characterised by a persistent rap that was anything but monotonous… Rap is the soundtrack of the revolt of the hybrid multitude”.

However, in order to change the world you have to understand it as well. This collection reveals that Negri falls far short on this point.