Friday, August 03, 2007

Defending Negri

The piece from Virtual Stoa I linked to yesterday was on Johann Hari on Antonio Negri, and referenced vintage Gene on Negri , which in turn referenced vintage David Aaronovitch on radical chic.

The Aaronovitch article is great. It opens:
I had to laugh, albeit bitterly. In the publisher's blurb for Tariq Ali's forthcoming Bush In Babylon, it is being claimed that the book - a polemic against the occupation of Iraq - will 'stand apart from the morass of sycophantic books now being presented', by 'eschewing the fashionable lurch to the Right by some former leftists'.

This 'morass' of pro-war literature has somehow slithered past me unseen. In the bookshops I visit the politics sections are dominated by Chomsky and Pilger (the negative Marx and Engels of the new far-Left), and staff recommendations seem to attach themselves exclusively to anti-Bush polemics.
"Chomsky and Pilger, the negative Marx and Engels of the new far-Left", I like that phrase.

The article goes on to look at other examples of radical chic: the fashion for the Iraqi "resistance", the rehabilitation of the likes of Kathy Boudin, and so on.

But the bit I want to take issue with, quite a minor part of the article, is where Aaronovitch takes on Negri:
There are echoes of this moral cockeyedness in the recent accolades accorded to that darling of the anti-globalisation movement, Antonio Negri, co-author of the deeply fashionable and completely impenetrable book Empire. A former leader of an illegal group called Potere Operaio, Negri repeatedly endorsed violence as a political means, while his group stockpiled weapons and firebombed the offices of rival parties.
Now, Negri is certainly guilty of spouting a lot of nonsense in his recent writings, and a lot of Empire is shit, but to relate the fashionable status of this nonsense to his alleged violent past is unfair. More to the point, reducing him to a caricature of a leftist terrorist, as Aaronovitch does here, is both unfair and either dishonest or ignorant.

First of all, it is important to place the violence of Potere Operaio in the context of the extraordinary violence of Italy in the 1970s, the anni di piombo ("years of lead"), which amounted to a civil war in Italy. This was the period inaugerated by the Piazza Fontana bombing (a fascist bomb attack blamed on the left, for which 4000 leftists were arrested, including Giuseppe Pinelli, whose "accidental death" in police custody inspired Dario Fo's play) and the Golpe Borghese fascist coup attempt (which involved senior military and police officers). It was the period of the Italian state's "strategy of tension", through violent means, including by proxy via the far right, who slaughtered many in atrocities blamed on the left. (In fact, analysis has shown that two-thirds of the violence of that period was of the far right, only a quarter of the far left [source: diplo].)

This is the context of the "illegality" of Potere Operaio and its stockpiling of weapons (if indeed it did stockpile weapons). Potere Operaio, and the wider autonomist movement of which it was a part, did involve itself in violence, incuding bank robberies and rioting. The fireboming of a rival mentioned by Aaronovitch is the Primavalle Fire, an arson attack on the fascist MSI. However, the autonomists was sharply critical of the terrorist/"urban guerrilla" strategy of the Red Brigades (BR), particularly after the Brigades went underground in 1974. The autonomists
"had always attacked the BR as a crudely anachronistic, Marxist-Leninist throwback to the 'Partigiani' (Partisans) of World War Two, which only played into the hands of the state. Reactions varied from the ambiguous ("They are comrades who have got it wrong") to Negri's "syphillis of the movement". [source: libcom]
The autonomists believed that only the mass action of the overwhelming majority of the workers could overthrow capitalism, not the violence of a vanguard acting in the name of the working class. Consequently, they devoted their attention, not to violence, but to factory committees, radio stations, squatted social centres and so on.

In fact, they underwent a rapid political evolution, of which Negri was a key thinker, from the political parties of the parliamentary left to "workerism" (an orientation to factory workers to "autonomism" (a libertarian emphasis on the autonomy of working class people). The shift from workerism to autonomism was signalled by the disbanding of Potere Operaio in 1973 and the growth of Autonomia Operaia. In other words, they moved in the opposite direction to the Red Brigades, who were committed their first lethal attack in 1974.

However, Negri was framed as the theorist behind the Red Brigades. On April 7 1979, Negri and other former Potere Opera militants were arrested.
"The prosecuting magistrate claimed that this organization had been the source of political violence throughout the 1970s and that Negri was the secret leader of a vast clandestine constellation of terrorist organizations -- despite the fact that his efforts of political organization had run in the opposite direction and toward more decentralized models. The emergency measures provided that Negri and thousands of others could be held for an extended period without being charged or coming to trial. When Negri did finally come to trial four years later, the original allegations of his masterminding terrorist organizations had been dropped. The judges prosecuted him instead primarily on the basis of his writings, holding him "morally" and "objectively" responsible for actions on that basis." [source: everything]
Negri, who was actually sentenced to death by the Red Brigades while he was in prison, continued to develop intellectually, moving away from Marxism, towards poststructuralist thught, and also towards religion. Thus, even if he had been guilty of the crimes he was alleged to have committed, the Negri of the '70s was a very different person from the Negri of Empire.

Aaronovitch, in short, is repeating the libel visiting upon Negri by the Italian state. Interestingly, the original architect of this lie was in fact the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which loathed Negri for leading workers away from Stalinism.
In particular, Magistrate Pietro Calogero, a PCI supporter, developed the 'Calogero theorem', effectively 'guilt by association', to prosecute the far-left intellectual Antonio Negri on terrorism charges. In fact, the 'autonomist' groups that Negri was a part of, though they did in the end provide many recruits to the Red Brigades, were divided over the use of terrorism, with Negri clearly opposing. That did not matter to the PCI-affiliated Calogero, for whom the opportunity to frame Negri on terrorism charges was too tempting. Negri's ultra-leftism was seducing the younger militants away from the PCI, and for this crime he had to be jailed.

'The left entered the criminal justice system through the struggle against terrorism', explained Antonio Negri from the prison cell Calogero put him in. 'It is the left that led the enterprise of political repression in the late 1970s.' 'Which left are you talking about?', he was asked. 'The Communists.'

The influence of the Italian Communist Party seems remarkable, except that it was a fiercely conservative organisation, defending the state and the family against the attacks of the new left radicals. [Source: Spiked]
And, of course, Aaronovitch was a member of the Communist Party at the time, in fact part of the Eurocommunist current which worshipped the Italian Communist Party. While an anti-Stalinist now, some Stalinist habits die hard.


As a post script, I don't want to defend Empire (co-written with American academic Michael Hardt), but it also worth pointing out that its making of Negri as a " darling of the anti-globalisation movement" is largely based on lazy reading (or, more likely, reading the dust jacket) of that huge tome, not helped by its very unpenetrability. Empire is not an anti-globalisation book or an "anti-imperialist" book (in the sense that Chomksy/Pilger are "anti-imperialist"). In fact, it is a critique of certain anti-globalisation and "anti-imperialist" positions, based on the idea that what Negri calls Empire, the current form of globalization, is fundamentally qualititively different from the imperialism Lenin, Luxemburg and others analysed at the start of the last century. Negri also praises the globalization from below that is caused by Empire.

Links: Negri in the NYRB; the lowdown on Negri from Notbored; Negri on Italian terrorism; Negri replies to his accusers; Sergio Bologna on the autonomist movement; AWL on autonomism; James Heartfield: The biggest scandal in Italian politics; Tobias Abse's sophisticated hatchet job on Negri.

Previous: Negri on Cuba; Aaronovitch on the squaddists.


Transpontine said...

Furthermore,Potere Operaio was not an illegal organisation, even if some of its members may have committed illegal acts PO was not proscribed. It is part of the slander against Negri and others that PO only pretended to dissolve itself but actually continued as a secret terrorist hand behind the Red Brigades etc - nonsense obviously. Empire is a difficult read (unlike Multitude, which is more accessible), but I don't go along with the anti-thought brigade that ridicules this. Despite being marketed and reviewed as some kind of anti-globalisation manifesto it patently does not pretend to be so. In fact Negri and other post-autonomists imply that globalisation is a positive thing driven from below (by migration, global immaterial labour) which capital chases to catch up with.

J.B said...

very good entry; i've actually written something based on the limited reading of Negri i've undertaken in my blog.