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Robinson Crusoe Radicalised (part two)

9 Mar , 2017  

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In Domination and Sabotage, Toni Negri defines the process of working class self-valorisation as follows:

Working class self-valorisation is first and foremost de-structuration of the enemy totality, taken to a point of exclusivity in the self-recognition of the class’s collective independence.

According to Negri, actively engaging in the process of working class self-valorisation necessitates adopting a stance of “radical otherness”. This radical other is presented as a subject existing in a state of separation from the totality of capitalist social relations. In its concrete activity, engaging in the process of working class self-valorisation compels the radical other to engage in activities which further develop the working class perspective in, against, and beyond the state of things which are dominant within capitalist societies: the state of the bourgeoisie.

This activity can take many forms including radical educational projects, the development of alternative social practices which counter dominant ones, and cultural forms which are distinct from those found in popular culture. In order to be self-valorising, these educational projects, social practices, and cultural forms must counter their capitalistic, sexist, and racist counterparts which are hegemonic within modern day society. They counter the enemy totality. However, this is a far from exhaustive list and can only be so if working class self-valorisation is to remain an ongoing process which breaks through the barriers and oversteps the limits which serve as its objective fetters.

The capitalist imposition of work remains a reality and as such the opportunity to self-valorise must be understood as only one-side of the self-activity of the working class. The other side of this activity, the negativity which opens up space in which the positivity of creation can emerge, is to be found in those acts of refusing the capitalist imposition of work, which disrupt the efforts of the capitalist class to accumulate capital and thereby reproduce daily a condition of exploitation. These activities include on the job sabotage, gold bricking, calling in a sicky, shoplifting, going slow, etc.

It is interesting to note that many of these activities, whether it be going slow or goldbricking, can be done alone. Indeed, these activities often begin as isolated instances of refusal which appear to have an accidental character. The point has been reached where the radical other has finally said no, but it is not necessarily a no which can be understood rationally (i.e. socially). It appears as an act of individual insubordination and nothing more. It is nothing and is not yet conscious of the fact that it must be everything.

As such, it is entirely consistent within Negri’s method to go beyond his formulation of the working class as an autonomous agent, to replicate his act of intellectual extremism. Taken to its end point, Negri’s method posits the radical other as an isolated radical other, isolated from the radical otherness of the autonomous working class which is itself isolated from the broader dynamic of class struggle.

This isolated radical other relies only on themselves, only on their own capacity to engage with their environment in order to fulfilll their now radicalised needs. They are self-sufficient.

In short, the radical other has reached a point of exclusivity beyond Negri’s point of exclusivity. The only limits that are placed on them are those very same limits that have been placed on all human beings throughout history. In effect, Negri’s radical other is Robinson Crusoe radicalised.

It would be incorrect and unfair to suggest that Negri argues that the position of the atomised revolutionary is a position to aim for. On the contrary, it is clear from the pamphlet that Negri views revolutionary practice as a collective endeavour, as something which sustains itself at a level of generality beyond the individual. Radical otherness is a stance, a mode of being in the world, a mode of subjectivity.

However, we must begin somewhere and if this radical otherness is not to float off into the ether where to begin if not with the human being of flesh and blood who is to live out this condition of radical otherness? In effect, the logic of Negri’s position taken to its extreme must begin with a radicalised Robinson Crusoe, cut off from others and the history of the class struggle. It must begin as nothing before it can become everything.

It is important to note that this method of moving from Negri’s position of intellectual extremism to a position of intellectual terrorism, of moving from an autonomous working class isolated from the capitalist counter-attack to a radical other isolated from a broader radical class, does not produce results which can accurately describe a real material situation. Even in solitary confinement one is bound up in broader social relations.

Rather, this act of abstracting the individual radical other from the broader abstraction of an autonomous working class is an exercise of the radical imagination, an attempt to push beyond the limitations placed on us by the reality of living with others. Indeed, when arguing a radical position it is not uncommon to feel alone. This is why it is important to be able to identify comrades in the struggle. The position of being a radicalised Robinson Crusoe is not something which should be desired because it is something which is impossible to sustain.

Negri does not go this far and so does not acknowledge the logical conclusion of his method. As already stated, this is an attempt to build on a prior act of intellectual extremism by making it more extreme still.

For Marx, Robinson Crusoe on his island served as the embodiment of abstract individualism. As such, Robinson Crusoe serves as the perfect figure for reversing the perspective and examining Negri’s radical otherness in relation to the radical other who must live it when solitary. But is Robin Crusoe radicalised ever truly isolated? If Robinson’s set of books did not solely consist of a stock book for accounting, but also some of the great works of the history of radical thinking then is his connection with others through the act of reading and his connection to history not maintained?

This may stand if he is only to think about revolution, to merely entertain class struggle in his mind. However, on his island in his solitary state of radical otherness, it would mean nothing for his practice. If he refuses work he only refuses his own development. If he engages in an act of sabotage he only sabotages himself. To believe that radical otherness can be lived on a purely individual basis is to believe in an abstract radicalised individual living in an abstract radicalised realm of freedom. There is, however, in practice no abstract radicalised realm of freedom. The structure of the enemy totality, to use Negri’s phrase, is always there. Radical otherness is always under threat.

Later in the article, Negri refers to what he describes the “objective point of view – the view point of the crisis state (stato-crisi).” It is his attempt to bring the working class back in, to fit the working class into the picture of its own life. However, it is interesting to consider matters from the perspective of radical otherness, both at the individual level of the radicalised Robinson Crusoe and at the collective level of activist communities, as if it were indeed a missing piece of the jigsaw. Indeed, it is necessary to consider this because the current period is a period in which the welfare state is undergoing a process of privatisation. The implications of Negri’s objective point of view” in regards to welfare for both individuals in particular and activist communities in general are too important to ignore in the current moment.

The third part of Martin’s four article series on welfare, alienation and the poverty of radical otherness through the lens of Robinson Crusoe will be out tomorrow (10/03/17) on consented.co.uk – read part one here


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