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  • An Italian RuptureProduction against Development
  • Antonio Negri (bio)
    Translated by Bruno Bosteels

How can I begin to define the Italian “difference” within the philosophical framework of postwar Europe? I begin with the end of the 1950s, when a group of politicized intellectuals began to question the extent of the immanence of work in the development of capitalist technologies.1 What were the transformations that from within the modern factory foisted labor-power on machines? Questions like these continued to be elaborated upon with respect to the violent social development of the postwar economic expansion. What, it was asked, was the impact of human activity on how society is structured, passing from the factory to society? On the one hand is this question: what was the effect of capitalist command (and its technological instrumentation) on social life? And vice versa: what transformations did social movements force upon the structures and the institutions of capitalist command? Capitalist power was quickly extended to the control of social life until being configured as biopower, in spite of widespread and effective resistance. How could biopolitical relations be lived and organized so as to create alternatives to biopower?


I am convinced that these are the central points around which an original political philosophy has come to constitute itself in Italy within the tormented framework of the heterodox Marxist debate but that also has deep ties with the Italian phenomenological schools of the 1960s. The latter came on the scene by opposing the tedious but extremely widespread Heideggerian philosophy that was hegemonic both on the Right, in neo-scholasticism, and on the Left, with the last Sirens of the Frankfurt School. They offered an analysis of the antagonistic subjectivity in the phenomenologies of Enzo Paci, Giuseppe Semerari, and Enzo Melandri (as well as the new critical positivism of Giulio Preti and Ferruccio Rossi-Landi). They focused on the anthropological relations between the human being and the machine, productive activity and language, perception and action; in so doing they updated Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s humanism, following it up with insights and approaches that “Western Marxism” had elaborated from Georg Lukács to Karel Kosíc.

Some research paths have been identified in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno in 1996 (with essays written in the 1980s and 1990s). From this period onward, the themes mentioned above (originally conceptualized in terms of the relationship between class movements and technological transformations) became entwined with and nourished by contact with poststructuralist philosophical literature, primarily, but not exclusively, from France. Through this thematic hybridization, the problems summarized above became central to the postindustrial, postmodern, and globalizing debate. [End Page 21]

If this is the overall framework in which the original adventure of the authors of The Italian Difference is to be located, allow me now to focus my attention on a concept, or better yet, on the watchword that was at the center of that period of research and political activity: a phrase that uniquely captured both the rational point of the period as well as its esprit de finesse. I want to ask what the “refusal of work” actually meant.2

To this end, I want to reflect upon a few concepts that, even though they do not immediately refer to the question of the meaning and significance of the “refusal of work,” will be useful to us if we wish to tackle this question. Here I would like to take up a few theoretical achievements that are relevant to our problem and that were set out decisively in Empire and then worked out above all in Commonwealth. Forgive me for employing concepts a posteriori but if I were to trace the development of these concepts from beginning to end, my thinking would become rather cumbersome. I would like to engage some hypotheses about the ways in which the ontology of human labor, or better, productive power [potenza] (as has been adopted in the social and political sciences), historically takes on a form and then in that form either becomes dominated (subjected and enjoyed, disciplined and controlled) or places itself in the condition of revolting, of liberating, and (in the words...