Autonomia Reading Group Session 3: The Refusal of Work

This week’s reading for the Bingham Autonomia series consisted of Tronti’s “The strategy of Refusal”  and Selma James’s and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community”. The Bingham group have posted up some notes here, whilst Hilary Malatino has further explored the genealogy of the refusal of work  and the ways in which these currents exist in the contemporary politics of the left.

As these two commentaries have already highlighted, from our position now, the two articles which we have read for this session dovetail neatly. The social relations of capital rely upon unwaged reproductive labour in the social factory as much as in the industrial factory. The refusal to “collaborate actively in capitalist development, the refusal to put forward positive programs of demands”. Both look to move beyond the party and examine social relations, and social conflict, through the eyes of its producers in both their waged and unwaged forms. Indeed, as Michael Denning argues in a recent article what unites us is not the wage (indeed a guaranteed wage is fast becoming the exception rather than the norm throughout the world) but rather our precaritisation and dispossession from the means of subsistence and production.  In recognising that ‘there is a class even in the absence of the party” (Marx, in Tronti), previous forms of organising such as the labour movement and the ‘party’ are challenged. The task now is to recognise the new forms in which our struggles are articulated and the terrain upon which they are inscribed.

Precarity, Social Labour and the Refusal of Work

Under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited

Michael Denning, NLR

I’d agree that the refusal of work is one of the key “Autonomist gestures” but how is this translated into political action? Tronti is dismissive of the general strike as a “romantic naivete” and develops this to critique the official labour movements endorsement of the dignity of labour and demands for its “fair share” of the produce (written at a time when many of the ledt wing parties in Italy were endorsing the “historic compromise” between capital and labour). Looking towards future readings this scepticism of the general strike as means to take power, rather than create crisis, is echoed in the invisible committee’s concept of the “human strike”. In a time of mass unemployment and precarious labour what does the refusal of work look like? Where are the (as Tronti so poetically puts it) “New Barbarians of the proletariat”?

Dalla Costa and James analysis of unwaged labour which occurs in the household resonates with some of the reading I have been doing regarding precarity and immaterial labour in the past week. As well as household work we help to (re)produce society, produce immaterial commodities and invest them with meaning in our everyday life. From helping make parts of cities “cool” (See the Berlin Left’s intensification of its anti-gentrification campaigns) to developing new niche scenes (the “hipster” scene in Shoreditch perhaps?) or micro-musical genres (witch house anyone?) we are involved in producing unwaged cultural capital in many different ways. Even our facebook data is mined and sold as marketing information, returning to us in the form of personally targeted ads. In the 21rst century of more widespread immaterial labour surrounding the production of signs, meanings and emotional affects the refusal of work seems broader than downing tools at the sight. Anti-gentrification struggles, internet piracy and counter-cultural trends all seem to suggest partial connections to the refusal of work yet, ultimately, are prone to recuperation and commodification. Leading us back to Tronti and his (sometimes unconvincing) argument that our struggles are the real motor of capitalist development.

A Lenin for 2011?

Finally it’s worth highlighting the leninist roots of some of the currents which came together within autonomia. Tronti is clearly pro-leninist arguing the “subjective leap forward” for the capitalist driven by a Keynes inspired fusion of state planning and economic development is as important as Lenin has been for the working class. What is the Leninist legacy? can anything be salvaged from it? Slavoj Zizek clearly thinks there is, and I’d be tempted to say that there are some important things we can take from him (a theory inspired by the belief we can win and a willingness to analyse the political context strategically) but other parts of is theory e.g. the party and the vanguard must be assigned to the political graveyard. As we progress it is clear that Autonomia has some roots which may seem alien to the predominately anarchist and autonomous Marxist positions which find inspiration in it.

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Posted on February 21, 2011, in Articles, Reading Group and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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