Feb 052014

Antonio Negri, The Winter is Over: Writings on Transformation Denied, 1989-1995. Ed. Giusseppe Caccia. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2013; 312 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58435-121-4.

Review by Matthew R. McLennan, University of Ottawa and Carleton University

One of the defining tasks of emancipatory political philosophy in our time has been to map and articulate the new sequence of economic, social, and political resistance which has opened since the collapse of actually existing socialism. Negri’s appeal as a contender to measure up to this task has arguably weathered the disappointment of Multitude, the sequel to 2000’s ambitious and widely influential Empire. When subtracted from his authorial partnership with Michael Hardt, Negri often emerges as a much clearer thinker with a firm handle on economic and political diagnostics, as recent publications continue to demonstrate.

Semiotext(e)’s 2013 collection The Winter is Over is a case in point. The text comprises an introductory essay and four sections of collected short texts from the period 1989-1995. Together they flesh out Negri’s diagnosis of a “thaw” in global politics. But this is not exactly the thaw celebrated by liberal thinkers of the epoch. Though actually existing socialism was indeed a kind of winter period in Negri’s analysis, the title of his book refers more to the years of counterrevolution following May 68 and the “hot autumn” of Italy 1969: the winter of untrammeled neoliberalism. It is rather a new springtime of genuinely communist thought and practice that Negri detects in contemporaneous events.

The introductory essay “A New Public” gives shape to the book’s four sections. It organizes them thematically around the emergence of a new form of political subjectivity and an efflorescence of experimentation with new political tactics, heralded by the French public service strikes of December 1995. The first section of the text develops the introduction by tracking the emergence, within the neoliberal winter, of the “socialized worker,” i.e. the labourer as enmeshed in the production of the totality of postmodern metropolitan life. The second section is more philosophical. It maps the decline of “weak thought,” for example that of Bobbio and the French “new philosophers.” However, it also addresses the contemporaneity of Marx and Nietzsche, and heralds the emergence of a thought measuring up to the 21st century (that of Deleuze and Guattari especially). The third and fourth sections, finally, are collections of dated if interesting “political statements”; the third explores the fallout surrounding the collapse of actually existing socialism, Bush’s “New World Order” and the Gulf war, while the fourth section compiles observations on the situation in Italy from Negri’s vantage point in exile.

In tracking the emergence of the socialized worker and her new tactics, Negri broadly accepts the thesis of sociological “postmodernity” in the global North—post-Fordism, the passage to a knowledge-based economy, bio-power, the passing of a disciplinary society to a society of control—however, like his friends Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Michel Foucault he “does not simply put up with it, but … assumes it as the universal base from which to promote a thinking of transformation.” (122) Inasmuch as labour in the Northern metropolis is increasingly immaterial and social/common in character, the composition of the working class has broadened out to include the intellectual, who traditionally stood at a troubled and troubling distance from the proletariat. In fact, in a surprising reversal, it is the intellectual qua representative of “mass intellectuality” who becomes the exemplary proletarian:

For the first time, finally, we intellectuals are able to begin to speak as members of the proletariat. Finally, the separation from labor is finished, a separation that made us feel strange and in some ways as though we were participating in the exploitation of the workers. Now we know that the work we do with our heads is nothing to be envied on the part of anyone else. On the contrary, our work alone is truly productive, and we intellectuals, as a community, are the ones who invent and configure the materiality of the world. And setting aside that small share of modesty that remains in us (and which never causes evil) we can also add: we intellectuals are, as a group, the exploited and the salt of the earth. (116)

Two decades later, with the restructuring of the university to overwhelmingly employ flexible and affordable adjunct faculty and online learning support staff, this statement rings ever truer. But Negri is careful, in his Prologue, not to give the impression that he wishes to retain the privileged status of the intellectual in an inverted form; rather, to be intellectually committed to “the movement of the radical transformation of reality” is to give oneself over to a “collective effort” of the masses, and “when the masses think, the intellectual dies.” (27)

The emergence of a new political subjectivity and new political tactics around the increasingly social character of labour is of a piece with this shift to intellectual proletarianization. But crucially, for Negri, it is also incipiently communist. The Parisian public service strikes of 95 are exemplary, inasmuch as classical labour actions broadened into the “metropolitan strike” (nicely unpacked by Jason E. Smith in his Introduction). For example, users of transportation “struck” in solidarity with transportation workers, if “struck” is indeed the correct term; essentially, through mass solidarity actions and novel form of resistance we see the emergence of a consciousness of the ineluctably social character of labour in the metropolis, and it is not so much on the factory floor as in the tissue of everyday life that workers direct their resistance. But for Negri, this indicates nothing less than a nascent articulation of the commons, which will occupy him during the first decade of the 21st century.

The labour of articulating the emergent subjectivity of the movement of socialized workers and its expression in practice is true to Negri’s abiding courage, if not his broadly Spinozist optimism. It is also philosophically and politically crucial from an emancipatory perspective, since it goes against the grain of the established narrative according to which the long winter of Soviet communism gave way to the happy Clintonite “end of history.” Situating The Winter is Over in Negri’s broader corpus, one sees that it is a kind of workshop wherein the task of the later Empire and Multitude—nothing less than an attempt to theorize postmodern empire and the emergent subjectivity that resists it—is drafted in careful, patient engagement with contemporary history.