Subsumption and Antagonism . Operaismo and Critical Theory : the missed encounter that shaped the fate of Autonomous Marxism.


What follows is the transcript of Vincent Chanson, Alexis Cukier and Frédéric Monferrand’s HM paper, which they have kindly allowed me to publish. As with the other proceedings that I have posted from HM, it should be stressed that this is the transcript of their talk, not an article. Please ignore any typos etc. you might find and focus on the excellent content.

Vincent Chanson, Alexis Cukier, Frédéric Monferrand

Subsumption and Antagonism .

Operaismo and Critical Theory : the missed encounter that shaped the fate of Autonomous Marxism.

In this intervention, we would like to offer something like a conceptual genealogy of the theoretical as well as political problem of subsumption and antagonism by tracing it back to the debates within the German and Italian Extra-parliementary Left of the late 60’s. Our hypothesis is that these movements, organically linked as they were to the Frankfurt School and Operaismo provided different, sometimes opposite, answers to a common problem: does the integration of capitalism and society means the end of class struggle as the main manifestation of negativity? We would like to show that the missed encounter, which the death of H.-J. Krahl symbolises, between the Frankfurt School and operaismo on this particular issue somehow determined the aporias Autonomous Marxism is facing nowadays.

The first reason to open a dialogue between these two traditions is that they share a common ancestor: Lukacs, who, with the concept of reification, short-circuited the differentiation Marx operated in the exposition process of Capital between the critique of commodity fetishism and the critique of the subsumption of labor under capital, that is, between the demystification of commodity relations’ form of appearance on the one hand, and the strategic analyses of the material conditions of class conflicts on the other. In History and class consciousness, reification indeed refers both to the capitalist subsumption of the whole of society and to the mystification that accompanies this process. Consequently, Lukacs argues, only the proletariat, as the contradictory self-consciousness of the commodity, can claim a proper knowledge of the totality and thus an historical title to its overthrowing. But this politico-speculative solution only works out if one introduces an element of exteriority to the false totality, namely, the vanguard Party, strangely hermetic in Lukacs, to the reified forms that shape all social practices. How does one conceptualizes the intertwining of society’s real subsumption under capital with antagonism once Lukacs’ leninist solution became problematic?

Three solutions seem possible. The classical operaist one, which argues that the contradiction between worker and capital remains the only insoluble one for the capitalist mode of production. This is the solution that communization theorists try to actualize today. The Frankfurt school one, which argues either that real subsumption renders any conflictuality unauthentic (Adorno) or that the working class has been fully integrated, so that the antagonistic subject has to be found within the margins of society. This marcusian solution has recently been explored anew by various autonomist movements. Finally the post-operaist solution, which claims that the capitalist totalization of society, from the Factory, to the University, from culture to the family, means that every social practice now produces value. It is this third solution that we’d like to confront with Krahl’s insights about the intellectualization of labor, in order to suggest an alternative way of articulating the themes of real subsumption and antagonism. To do so, however, implies to begin with a short restitution of the analysis of Late Capitalism one finds in Pollock and Panzieri.

1 – State Capitalism or Neocapitalism?

In 20 years of distance, Pollock and Panzieri both undertake the critique of the orthodox marxist axiom according to which Capitalism cannot achieve a state of equilibrium without negating itself into Socialism.

According to Pollock, State Capitalism, even though he presents it as a mere “ideal-type”, actually consists in a new phase of Capitalism, for it presupposes two historical conditions. Technically, State Capitalism implies the development of industrial production on a large scale and the elaboration of rational tools of measure and orientation of consumers wants. It thus aims at preventing the very possibility of economic crises by adjusting production to consumption through a rational plan. Institutionally, now, State Capitalism is characterized by the separation between capital’s property and management and by the subsequent transfer of power from individual capitalists to the State as a “collective capitalist”. Consequently, the market disappears as a form of mediation between production and consumption. Commodities no longer objectify socially necessary labor-time, or abstract labor, but rather political needs of control, or abstract domination, imposed by the fraction of the dominant class which rules the State Apparatus. Exploitation and fetishism – the two main “pathologies” of Capitalism according to Marx – are replaced by pure political dictatorship over needs.

The historical experience of National Socialist Germany is central here, but this tendency concerns, in varying degrees, Late Capitalism in general, including liberal as well as Soviet regimes of accumulation. The pollockian idea, actually already articulated by Lukacs, that capitalist domination turns more and more “weberian” and leads to an “administrative capitalism” will prove seminal for the whole Frankfurt School tradition. Here lies the objective basis for the relativization of class domination in aid of a mythical-dystopian genealogy of Western rationality, from the domination over nature to Late Capitalism, that one finds in The Dialectics of Enlightenment.

For Pollock, however, planned capitalism does not imply the complete integration of social conflict, but rather its translation from the economy to the political-bureaucratic sphere. In Sate Capitalism, the main contradiction is no longer that between workers and capital, but between Society and the State, the former being reduced to an “integrated unit comparable to one of the modern giants in steel, chemical or motorcar production.”1 When the whole of society becomes a rationally state-planned fabric, class struggle opposes those who own the means of political command and those who are commanded and resolves around the following issue: who decides what needs are to be fulfilled and how?

In Surplus-Value and planification, Panzieri seems to follow Pollock when it comes to thematizing the becoming-planed of what he terms Neocapitalism. The objectification of science in the production process, the growing importance of finance capital, the regulation of competition through the constitution of monopolies and the concentration of credit in banks – all these phenomena render historically obsolete the opposition between a socially anarchic and a technically despotic division of labor that 2nd and 3rd International Marxism rested on.

According to Panzieri, these transformations do not announce the agony of Capitalism, as both leninists and reformists would have it, nor do they suggest its dissolution into a State-centered mode of production, as Pollock argues. They rather allow for a proper understanding of the fact that Capitalism’s totalization process is carried out by planification. In other words: planification, not market competition, really singularizes capitalism as a coherent, unified mode of production. As Marx explained in Capital, Volume I, chapter XIV, capitalism indeed only emerges as such once it really has subsumed the process of production, that is, when it restructures the whole labor process according to the requirements of relative surplus-value extraction. But the irony is that such an achievement precisely mystifies capitalism’s specificity. When the valorization process absorbs the labor process, material means of production seem to be “naturally” value producing, and the technical rationality reified in machines appears as some transhistorical feature of the productive forces. In this perspective, identifying Socialism with the liberation of such forces from the constraint of market social relations proves to be the mere reflection of real subsumption: a second-order fetishism.

Now, Panzieri argues, the main vector of real subsumption precisely is planification. Capitalist planning is the immediate unity of workers’s cooperative capacities alienation within the system of machines on the one hand, and the appropriation of these capacities by the capitalist, on the other. Real subsumption dispossesses workers from their skills and knowledge, but this dispossession is not that of an essence, as the young Marx would have it, but rather of a political power, now exerted by the capitalist. Consequently, planed capitalism does not imply the migration of conflicts from the economy to the bureaucratic sphere, as Pollock would have it, but rather makes visible the inherently political, indeed antagonistic, character of the social relations of production themselves. As the various “working inquiries” led by the Quaderni Rossi group are supposed to show: not only workers, in their every-day working activity, are driven to demystify the reified forms of the valorization process, they are also driven to exceed their individual revolts and trade-unions demands into a political struggle for power.

To put it in a nutshell: the exportation of despotic planning from the factory to society, from the production process to the circulation process, retroactively reveals class struggle within the factory and working class “counter-planning from the Shop-floor” as the only factor of crises capitalism cannot integrate.

2 – Politicizing non-identity

State Capitalism” and “Neocapitalism” approaches both put to the fore the issue of the subjective figure of social negativity in Late Capitalism. Adorno’s intervention within this theoretical conjuncture is highly original, for it consists in an attempt to conceptualize negativity as such, without reference to any identifiable subject.

Indeed, many Adorno’s texts refer to the pollockian account of an historical era characterized by state domination and bureaucracy. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, for example, Horkheimer and Adorno claim that life under capitalism has become completely administered. Culture Industry, mass consumer society, bureaucratic control over mass movements and singularities and the taylorist planning of the work process all lead to a standardized experience of the social. Capitalism is not only characterized as a system of exploitation but also as a devaluated “form of life”. The notion of “Administered life” thus allows for an extended critique of what Marx termed “commodity fetishism”.

Inasmuch as value-form abstraction becomes the core of all social experience, one cannot simply refer Adorno’s critique of the “totally administrated world” to the pollockian thesis of the primacy of political domination. Adorno indeed maintains a strictly capitalist relations of production-grounded domination concept. In this perspective Adorno’s key concept of “Non-Identity” denotes in quite a utopian-speculative way everything that disturbs Value-Form Fetishism.

Antagonism here is less revolutionary-strategic oriented than micrologically informed : The phenomenology of “Damaged life” does not reveal any virtual struggle for Worker’s Power but rather those rare moments of negativity which resist the capitalist modes of subjectivation. The inversion of the once revolutionary persona of the producer into that of the mere consumer and the intertwining of the psyche with ideology, sustain the class gap. Atomized individuals are now facing the actually existing false totality. Adorno’s very reluctance to interpret the various upheavals of his time – students revolts, counter-culture, anti-imperialist and feminist struggles – as revolutionary paradoxically makes him a coherent Marxist. For someone like Marcuse, these movements prove that Capital has externalized its contradictions. For Adorno, on the contrary late capitalism tolerates no such externalization. He thus paves the way for the formulation of a question that, according to Krahl, the traumatizing experience of Fascism prevent him from straightforwardly asking: “how can a totally capitalist society can contradict the process of production of capital?”2

Now, this is precisely the issue Tronti rises in Workers and Capital. In this seminal book, Tronti reformulates Panzieri’s account of planned Neocapitalism in a somewhat Adornian way. It is true, he argues, that what we are now experiencing in the social world is nothing but the ensemble of mediations through which social capital reproduces itself as a totality. In Tronti, “the social” is not what is foreign of the factory. It is what constant capital materializes (infrastructures, cities, means of transport and communication) and what the productive cycle of capital unifies. Exchange and distribution connect people and at same time, realize the value embodied in the commodities they share. Consumption and everyday interactions reproduce and socialize labor-power. Society now objectifies social capital, or, in Tronti’s words: society as a whole is nothing but a mediation of the relations of production.

This almost structuralist paradigm, in which the social whole appears as an articulation of production, consumption and exchange as distinct moments of capital’s reproduction, allows for a surpassing of some of the major themes Adorno put to the fore. True enough, the capitalist totalization of society implies an extended form of fetishism: when society objectifies capital, capital identifies itself with social life in general and thus disappears as a specific mode of production. But this mystification contains a moment of truth: inasmuch as what workers face in Society is their passive constitution as variable capital, they become totally foreign to this Society as well as to themselves as labor-power providers. The most alienated workers are the most revolutionary ones. This integration of the proletariat within Capital indeed implies that social capital dramatically depends on its ability to channel working class’ growing refusal of its commodity status. The highest level of capitalist development is also the weakest link of the chain, so that the Frankfurt’s school critique of Mass-consummer society is to be supplemented by a political analysis of the Mass-Worker revolutionary potential.

But, Adorno would argue, when the Universal realizes itself in the form of domination, the definition of the Working class as a Universal class loses all critical impact. This is precisely why Tronti argues that the proletariat is not revolutionary when it posits itself as the carrier of society’s general interest, but, on the contrary, when it claims its particularity within and against Capital. In this perspective, the whole point of revolutionary organizing is to empower the self-negation of the proletariat as labor-power provider. And this self-negation is, at the same time, an affirmation of its non-identity to the capitalist objectification of the whole of Society. Then, and only then, can damaged life be recomposed into an antagonistic Class.

3 – Towards a differentiated concept of real subsumption.

Those engaged in the cycle of struggles of the 60’s and the 70’s who came after Tronti’s theorization of antagonism and real subsumption had to face the following alternative: either radicalizing the “social factory” thesis in such a way that abstract labor ends up encompassing all social practices, or elaborating a differentiated concept of real subsumption in order to grasp the various segmentations that hierarchically divide the working class.

The first branch of this alternative is the one developed by post-operaïsm theorists. Their main point is that Marx’s insightsabout the “General Intellect” in the Grundrisse, define the contemporary feature of what they consequently term “cognitive capitalism”: the objectification of science and technology within the production process on the one hand, and the high skills required in order to manipulate cybernetics machines, on the other, paradoxically increase workers’ autonomy within and outside the workplace. The very capitalist attempt to contain the mass-worker demands (flexibilization of the workforce, externalization of productive units, forced migration, part-time jobs and so on) has turned real subsumption upside down: capital cannot organize the cooperative abilities of the contemporary communicative worker it itself gave birth to. It is no more correctly defined as a relation of production, but as a mere means of control, for it only survives though the theft of the value produced in and by the common. In this perspective, Marx’s Labor-theory of value is obsolete, for commodities do not objectify labor-time anymore, but rather the cooperative web that connects the immaterial workers of the world.

Here, one should stress that in the “fragments on machines” Marx distinguishes between the material wealth produced thanks to the enrollment of science in production, and the correlate fall in the volume of value that wealth objectifies. Inasmuch as value expresses socially necessary labor time, the rise of concrete labor’s productivity provoked by the scientifization of production simply means that the same amount of value is now objectified in a largest number of use-values. It is only if one confounds use value with value, concrete with abstract labor, that one can argue that the emergence of the “General Intellect” thats Capital’s ability to self-valorize and reduce it to a mere parasite.

Now in its attempt to surpass Marx’s Labor-Theory of value, post-operaits revive the traditional Marxist claim that the development of the Productive Forces mechanically leads to communism that Panzieri opposed. They end up providing us with a picture of post-modern capitalism that kind of looks like the Pollockian thesis of State Capitalism – opposing a productive social fabric to a despotic collective capitalist. This homogenization of the material conditions of production prevents one for theorizing the divisions within the oppressed.

The second branch of the alternative, now, is embodied by Hans-Jurgen Krahl, who tried to build a differentiated concept of capital as a social totality. Leader, strategist and theorist of the SDS (Socialist German Students Federation), one of Adorno’s most gifted students in the Institut fur Sozial Forschung, Krahl’s theory settles upon a critical dialog with Adorno (see the episode of Krahl and comrades occupying the ISF in 69 and Adorno calling the police on activist students). His main book, Konstitution und Klassenkampf wasalmost immediately translated in italian and played an important role in the development of Autonomia. According to Krahl, Adorno’s idea that negativity took shelter in non-identity as well as Tronti’s strict localization of antagonism within the factory are equally politically one-sided. His reevaluation of the antagonistic potential of labor and his attempt to recognize non identity’s actualization in various instances of the social whole, place him at the meeting point of Critical Theory and Operaismo.

Evaluating the student protests in the context of late capitalist industrial metropolis, Krahl asks: can we interpret anti-authoritarian consciousness as a form of class consciousness? Krahl’s operaist methodology here consists in apprehending Late Capitalism from the viewpoint of the new types of conflicts it generates. His argument unfolds in three moments : 1) the student movements embodies the emergence of the Collective Worker on the political scene. 2) This collective worker is the subjective antagonistic figure of the integration of intellectual labor to Capital’s reproduction process. 3) Through this mediation, the student movement can still be connected to the dialectic of reification and self-realization that defines the two-fold character of labor.

Real subsumption here does not amount to an homogenization of all the spheres of the totality, or even to an universalization of the proletarian experience, but rather to a differentiation of the antagonistic forms that mediates the labor/capital contradiction. Social conflicts can thus be interpreted as heterogenous forms of expression of the emancipatory virtualities of the collective worker. It also rises the issue of what political strategies or form of organizing are to be articulated in order to allow for the various segments of the extended proletariat to come together on the basis of their respective autonomy.

What post-operaism termed “cognitive capitalism” is neither the sign of an anticipation of communism, nor does it imply the homogenization of the proletariat but rather the economical and political integration of various types of workers within a fundamentally contradictory Collective Worker, inherently divided by the contradiction between labor and capital.

Considering Krahl’s intuitions as a synthesis of adornian and operaist presently still valid analysis and as an alternative path to post operaism, we can suggest that real subsumption in contemporary capitalism multiplies and increases the possible political instantiations of non identity and social negativity. In this perspective two points seem worth stressing: 1) the proletariat; defined as the value producing class, is but one embodiment of the antagonistic collective worker 2) Other and diverse forms of antagonistic subjectivities can politically express labor as the an organized force that oppose capital from within.

1 Friderich Pollock, ”State Capitalism”, in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 77

2 Mario Tronti, ”Marx, Labor-Power, Working Class » in Workers and Capital

Vincent Chanson, Alexis Cukier, Frédéric Monferrand


About HR

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