“The Common in Revolt”, by Judith Revel and Antonio Negri
What follows is a quick, unrevised translation I did of a piece I’ve just noticed, in Italian, on the UniNomade website. I hope it’ll be of interest as it also speaks to themese discussed in our July 17 colloquium at Khanya College.
From UniNomade 2.0 (uninomade.org), August 13, 2011
THE COMMON IN REVOLT
by Judith Revel and Antonio Negri
It did not take much imagination, once the analysis
of the current economic crisis had been brought back to its causes and social
effects, to foretell urban revolts akin to jacqueries.
Commonwealth1 had predicted that already in 2009. What we did not expect, on the contrary, is
that in Italy, in the movement, this prediction could be rejected. It seemed in
fact, we were told, ancient; they told us, instead: now is the time to rebuild
broad fronts against the crisis and establish within the movements forms of
organization-communication-recognition to address political representation.
Well, now we are nonetheless facing movements that
express themselves in more or less classic insurrectionary forms and yet are
everywhere, thus uprooting the old geopolitical grammar within which someone
stubbornly kept thinking. What we have is, therefore:
1) A new proletariat, made of precarious and unemployed workers, joins the middle
classes in crisis. These are diverse subjects unifying in unusual ways in the
struggle, asking, as in the countries of the Southern Mediterranean, new, more
democratic forms of government. The political dictatorship of the Ben Alis and
the political-economic one of our fake democracies may not be equivalent –
although for decades the latter have accurately built, supported, and protected
the former – but by now the urge for radical democracy is everywhere and marks
a common of struggles emerging from different sides, blending and intertwining,
cross-breeding one another’s demands.
2) The very same social forces, those suffering from the crisis in societies with class
relationships by now definitely controlled by financial regimes within mixed,
manufacturing and/or cognitive economies, are moving across different terrains
(first movements of workers, students, and precarity more generally; now
complex social movements of the “acampados” kind) with equal determination.
3) The resurgence of movements of pure refusal is crisscrossed by a societal
composition as complex as ever, stratified both vertically (i.e. middle classes
plunging towards the excluded proletariat) and horizontally (i.e. in relation
to different sectors of the metropoles, torn between gentrification and – as Saskia
Sassen notices – “Brazilianized” zones, where clashes among gangs start leaving
the marks of AK-47 bullets on the walls of those neighborhoods where the sole –
dramatic, entropic – alternative to organized struggles is organized crime).
The current English revolts belong to this third kind and are quite similar to the ones that some
time ago have affected the French banlieues: a mix of anger and desperation, fragments of self-organization and
crystallizations of other kinds (neighborhood associations, networked
solidarities, soccer fans’ clubs, etc.) expressing by now the unbearability of
lives turned to rubble. The rubble, surely unsettling, these revolts leave
behind them is not in the end so different from what the everyday lives of so
many men and women is made of today: shreds of life in one way or another.
How can we open a discussion on these complex phenomena from the standpoint of thinking the
common? What we argue below has the mere intention to open a space for debate.
First and foremost, it seems to us that we need to debunk some interpretations voiced by the mass
media of the ruling classes.
They argue, to begin with, that these movements we are discussing should be considered, from a
political point of view, in their “radical” diversity. Now, it is obvious that
these movements are politically diverse. But to say that they are “radically”
so is simply idiotic. All these movements are, in fact, radically characterized
not only because they oppose Ben Ali or other dictators, whatever is the case,
or because they denounce Zapatero’s or Papandreou’s political betrayal, or
because they hate Cameron or refuse the impositions of the European Central Bank.
They are, rather, characterized as radical because all of them refuse to pay
for the consequences of the economy and the crisis (nothing would be more
mistaken than considering the crisis as a catastrophe striking a fundamentally
sane economic system; nothing would be more terrible than nostalgia for the
capitalist economy before the crisis), which is to say the huge movement of
wealth that is now taking place to the benefit of the powerful, organized as
they are in the political forms of the Western regimes (democratic or
dictatorial, conservative or reformist alike…).
These are revolts born, in Egypt, Spain, or England, out of the simultaneous refusal of the subjection,
exploitation and plunder this economy has prepared for the lives of entire
populations of the world, and the political forms within which the crisis of
this biopolitical appropriation has been managed. And this is also true for all
the so-called “democratic” regimes. Such a form of government appears only
preferable for the seeming “civility” with which it masks the attack on the
dignity and humanity of the existences it crushes, but the vanishing of
political representation is now at the point of collapse. To argue that there
are – according to the criteria of Western democracy – radical differences
between the representativeness of Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Cameron’s Tottenham or
Brixton, is simply to denying the evidence: life has in both cases been so violated
and plundered that it cannot but explode in a movement of revolt. Not to talk
of mechanisms of repression, which are bringing England back to the times of
primitive accumulation, to the jails of Moll
Flanders and the factories of Oliver Twist. To the mugshots of youth in rebellion posted on the walls and the
screens of England’s cities one should really juxtapose large sized prints of
the swinish faces (a variant of the PIGS2?) of the bankers and
financial corporate bosses that have turned entire communities to that
condition, and keep fattening their profits out of this crisis.
Let’s go back to the newspaper’s trivia. They also say that these revolts are different from an
ethical-political standpoint. Some would thus be legitimate, as in the Maghreb
countries, because there the corruption of dictatorial regimes has led to miserable
conditions; the protests of the Italian students or the Spanish “indignados”
would still be understandable because “precarity is bad”; the revolts of the
English or the French proletariat are, instead, “criminal” as they are
allegedly marked by mere looting of other people’s property, hooliganism and
All this is largely false, because these revolts tend – with all the differences among them, which we don’t
deny – to have a common nature. They are not “youthful” revolts, but revolts
that understand social and political conditions that increasingly large layers
of the population consider entirely unbearable. The degradation of the working
and social wage has gone beyond the threshold identified by classical
economists and by Marx with the level of workers’ reproduction, which they
called a “necessary wage”. And now, we dare the journalists to argue that these
struggles are produced by excesses of consumerism!
Here comes a first conclusion. These movements can be defined as “recompositional”. They actually
penetrate populations – be they workers guaranteed up to now or precarious
ones, unemployed or those who have only known odd jobs, improvisation and
off-the-books activities – exalting their moments of solidarity in their
struggle against destitution. Declining middle classes and the proletariat,
migrant and not, manual and cognitive workers, retirees, housewives, and youth
are joined in poverty and the struggle to oppose it. Here they found conditions
for a united struggle.
Second, it is immediately apparent (and this is what mostly terrifies those who assume
consumerist characteristics in these movements) that these are not chaotic and
nihilistic movements, that they are not about burning for burning’s sake, that
they don’t just want to sanction the destructive potency of an unforeseeable “no
future”. Forty years after the punk movement (which on the other hand was, in
spite of the stereotypes, passionately productive), these are not movements declaring
the end, recorded and internalized, of every future; they rather want to build
the future. They know that the crisis affecting them is not due to the fact
that the proletariat does not produce – either under a boss or in the general
condition of social cooperation by now underpinning processes of capture of
value – or does not produce enough, but is happening because they are robbed of
the fruit of their productivity; which is to say, they are forced to pay for a
crisis that is not their own; they have already paid for healthcare, retirement
and public order systems while the bourgeoisie was accumulating for war and
expropriating for its own profit. But mostly they know that there’s no way out
of this crisis until they, the rebels, don’t handle the power mechanisms and
the social relations that regulate those mechanisms. But, one may object, these
are not political movements. Even if – the critics add – they expressed
politically correct positions (as it has often happened for the North-African
insurgents or the Spanish “indignados”) these movements are prejudicially
outside or critical towards the democratic order.
Of course, we would like to add: it is difficult if not impossible to find, in the current
political order, passages and paths through which a project attacking the
current policies for overcoming the crisis can take place. Right and left are,
almost always, alike. For the former the wealth tax should hit incomes of
40-50,000 Euros, for the latter of 60-70,000 Euros: is this the difference? The
defense of private property, the extension of privatization and liberalization
are in the agendas of both sides. Electoral systems are by now reduced to the
pure and simple selection of delegates from the privileged strata, and so on
and so forth. These movements are attacking all this: are they political or not
when they do so? These movements are political because they position themselves
on a constituent, not a claim-making, terrain. They attack private property
because they know it as the form of their oppression and rather insist on the
constitution and self-management of solidarity, welfare, education – in short
of the common, because this is by now the horizon for old and new powers.
Of course no one is so stupid to think that these revolts immediately produce new forms of government.
What, nonetheless, these revolts teach is that “the one is now split into two”,
that the seemingly flawless solidity of capitalism is by now only an old
phantasmagoria, which in no way can be brought back together, that capital is
immediately schizophrenic and the politics of the movements can only locate
itself within this fracture.
We hope that those comrades who believed insurrections to be an outdated tool of autonomist
politics will be able to reflect on what’s going on. It is not by wearing
ourselves off waiting for parliamentary deadlines but by inventing new
constituent institutions for the common in revolt that we can understand
together what is to come.
1= Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
2=PIGS: acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, the crisis-ridden economies of Southern Europe.