Thursday, January 1, 2009

Post-modern guru

Goodbye Mr Socialism. Radical Politics in the 21st Century. Antonio Negri with Raf Scelsi. Serpents Tail Press, London, 2008

The Italian intellectual, Toni Negri, who was once sentenced to jail in Italy for giving a theoretical defense of urban terrorism, is highly regarded in some circles. The blurb on the back of this book describes him as "one of the world's leading experts on Marxism" and as "a guru of the post-modern Left". He may well be the latter but is certainly not the former.

The opening chapter is a surprisingly indulgent justification of some of the things that happened in Stalin's Russia, even if this is part of the "Mr Socialism" to which he is saying good bye in this transcript of a question and answer session with another Italian intellectual. The other part is the whole idea of the factory proletariat, organised in trade unions and left wing political parties, as the agent of social change:

"the epoch of wages is finished and that the struggle has moved from the level of a fight between capital and labour regarding the wage, to a fight between the multitude and the State around the income of citizenship."

The "income of citizenship" is a clumsy translation of what is more usually called a "Basic Income" or, by the Green Party, a "Citizen's Income", defined in a lexicon at the end of the book as:

"a monetary payment distributed at regular intervals to all those who enjoy citizenship and residency for a certain period of time, which allows a minumum dignity of life . . . It is paid to those of working age, for the period that goes from the end of obligatory schooling to pension age or death."

Negri supports this as he sees the demand for it as "a refusal of work and of the wage relationship". If introduced other than as some tinkering with the tax and benefits system it would indeed undermine the economic compulsion to go out and work for an employer; which of course (apart from its cost) is why it is never going to happen under capitalism. In any event, as a goal, it is a poor substitute for "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs".

Negri does, however, have a point when he criticises those who look only to the factory proletariat as the agent of social change. This is only a section of the working class properly so-called and, in the developed capitalist parts of the world, is now less than 50 percent of the workforce. But, in placing his hopes in those with knowledge skills involved in non-material work (the "cognitariat" as he calls them) he would seem to be making the same mistake of wanting to rely on a section only of the working class.

Surely the point is that social change has to be up to the class of wage and salary workers as a whole, not just one section. Or perhaps this is what Negri means by the "multitude", which, if it is, comes across in English as a rather derogatory term to describe all those forced by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary.


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