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ESF: Another Venue is Possible: Negri vs Callinicos

J_walker | 16.11.2003 22:57 | European Social Forum | Analysis | Globalisation | Social Struggles

It’s certainly possible to level a critique of the social forum process as elevating certain individuals to movement stars, something the radical edge of the movement has always rejected for a variety of reasons. The Negri/Calliniocs debate was billed as exactly that however, a battle between two movement stars perhaps broadly representing the two major ideological tendencies within the anti-capitalist movement currently in contestation. The title of the debate was “Multitude or Working Class”.

Alex Callinicos is the head of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and it’s chief theorist in interpreting Trotskyism. Toni Negri was a major theorist of the movement of autonomy in Italy during the 60s and 70s, long time exiled in France and prisoner of the Italian state until this year, he was co-author of Empire with Michael Hardt and host of other books than make up the archipelago of what some call autonomist Marxism.

To begin with it could easily be suggested that the debate gave far more status to Callinicos that he really deserved. Negri is far more well known and a far more rigorous thinker though this account is certainly not a defense of all of Negri’s work, there are a thousand critiques to be leveled against him, the best of which surpass him rather than bring one back into the 50s style ideology and analysis of most Trotsykism. So this account is obviously biased in favour of Negri, but certainly doesn’t see him as the limit of the possibilities of the area of analysis he is part of.

The original space for the debate had a seating capacity of around 200 hundred. I arrived around 20 minutes early thinking I should be able to get it in, no chance, the space was quickly filled and there must have been at least another 1000 people waiting outside so a spontaneous protest began demanding the meeting be held outside, attempts were made to close the doors but they were kept open by the frothing crowd. After 20 minutes of chanting the organisers finally reneged and set up a PA system outside. The rock star approach was certainly slightly disturbing but also gave the space a quite amazing energy.

The debate began with Callinicos. The chief point of contention was obviously that of multitude or working class. Callinicos seemed to interpret multitude as excluding the working class in preference for a constellation of marginalities; students, migrants, intellectual workers, precarious workers (ie unemployed/part-time/low-wage) etc. citing a list from a pamphlet produced by the disobedienti. His counter point was “where is greviste (striker) in that list?”

Instead Callinicos cited the postal worker wild-cat strikes in England as a counter example, presuming that Negri was opposed to this kind of thing. Aren’t these exactly the communication workers Negri often elevates as the future of work. Ie the point that much work is now becoming more about relations than about specific material products, that is immaterial labour; call centres, services, hospitality, media, tourism, transport, communication, etc.

Negri’s speech was of course long and somewhat complicated but made essentially those points that work is no longer confined to the official working day but extends itself into all of life; going to and from work, consuming etc. “The factory is no longer the sole producer of value.” He also attacked the traditional Marxist conceptions of the relation of agricultural workers as being outside the working class and their analysis of women etc. Essentially the Trotskyist fetishisation of the factory and the blue collar, full time worker etc., as being the main agent of social transformation. The multitude was a “multiplicity of singularities”, that realized that value is produced across society and not just “at work”.

In fact Callinicos was so outclassed that in his rebuttal he had to make things up. He said “Negri thinks the history of the working class is horrible” which enraged Negri to which he responded saying he had said “the history of the working class has been both horrible and heroic” or something to that effect. Callinicos also stated that Negri thought the working day had been reduced to fierce stares from Negri. I don’t know what talk Callinicos was listening too because no-one had heard Negri say that. In fact Negri rebutted angrily saying that he thought exactly the opposite, that the working day had been extended beyond the hours spent at work, ie in communiting, shopping, consuming media etc. Anyone with a basic grasp of Negri’s concept of the “social factory” would know he says no such thing. Other SWPers asked questions, one saying “you said the peasantry are not part of the multitude”, to which Negri replied “no”.

So the question is are the SWP just stupid or conniving? Callinicos came off looking stupid by continually putting words in Negri’s mouth and by trying to find contradictions between multitude and working class that just didn’t exist. In fact it might be suggested that Negri would agree with much of what was said by Callinicos, Negri has just added a whole lot more. Callinicos has only managed to analyse one section of life for people these days. And this is perhaps why the ideology of the SWP has long been surpassed.

What Negri was saying are not new ideas, in fact he’s been saying a lot of it for the last 20 years. The problem remains that Trotskyism is completely unable to provide the necessary tools for analyzing how contemporary society is presently composed.

But is this the only block in the understanding that the concept of the multitude doesn’t exclude working people? Why did people keep thinking this when asking many of their questions? Perhaps there is some lack in how the ideas are being presented and maybe an over-emphasis on those new workers, those in the sectors of communication etc.

In the end it could easily be noted the tapering off of the applause for Callinicos and a definite appreciation for negri from a perhaps slightly over adoring crowd which i found a little disturbing.

The one question that might remain for the both of them is why they feel the need to create hegemonic categories such as “working class” or “multitude”. Perhaps it is necessary in order to bring together singularities in concert, or perhaps these categories have always been imposed more by intellectuals than those struggling at the base.


Short video below .One section of the video is not translated. Sorry have run out of time and computer access.