Negri, A. The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century,

The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, Oxford, Polity Press/Basil Blackwell, 1989, 232 pages.

The Politics of Subversion is collected from disparate papers and amounts to a very different work. It links with the first insofar as it is centrally concerned with creating a framework for understanding and influencing socio/economic change. However, the radical Marxist agenda appeared somewhat esoteric to this reader. There is a very long introduction (44 pages) by Yann Moulier which attempts to put Negri’s writings into their social and political context. Some of this is useful, but the commentary about ‘operaismo’ (Italian Marxism) presupposes a prior familiarity with this kind of discourse. I suspect that most people would find it obscure.

The book as a whole is polemical, opaque and highly abstract. It is clearly driven by a desire to understand and explain the dilemmas and contradictions of capitalism. As such it is worthy of attention in a futures context. It offers one account of ‘where we are’, one ‘story’ about the 20th Century. Given the particular blind spots which attend the corporate origins of much futures work, it is a story which needs to be heard and considered.

The core of Negri’s argument is that ‘capitalist reformism’ (which would probably include most corporate futures work) constitutes a dominant theme of our time, but reformism has failed: ‘the twentieth century represents the explosion of a reformist project on the part of capital. It was to have given form to the whole of the twentieth century; but the century slipped from its grasp’ (p. 67). Despite the use of a range of repressive, controlling strategies, ‘every reformist search for equilibrium and every innovative strategy, resulted in conflicts and antagonisms which were new, … irretrievable and irresolvable’ (P. 70). In this account, nothing has worked. Capital flows, depressions, debts and conflicts are all a consequence of an underlying systemic irrationality. Hence:

the great absurdity of the advanced capitalist societies is that while they claim to be open, secrecy is growing all the time; while they claim to be democratic, secrecy is increasingly protected and defended; while life-enhancing possibilities have grown explosively, secrecy concerning the possibility of death is maintained (p.125).

Such criticisms are not new – they have been voiced by many observers and critics throughout the present century. However, what may be new (I stress ‘may’ because others with closer knowledge of this literature may differ) is the particular significance Negri accords to subversion as a positive methodology, a way of negating the negative and oppressive aspects of capitalistic society. He writes: ‘in societies such as the ones we live in, oppressed as they are from top to bottom and bound by asphyxiating customs, destruction is as important as innovation …Sabotage is innovation’ p. 79). In this view, ‘subversion is countervailing power…(it) is the calm and implacable countervailing power of the masses’ (p. 59). It’s clear why the writer was exiled from his country – such polemical comments can be easily taken as a prescription for anarchy and terrorism.

However, Negri’s real concerns are deeper and more constructive. Far from advocating open violence, he sees creative potential emerging from “the antagonism of the socialised worker.” New forms of violence are certainly possible, and some are exemplified in the nuclear state. But ’peace is…the basic watchword of our times’ (p. 198). New modes of existence, renewal and transformation are permanently possible. While he tends to romanticise the ‘intellectual proletariat’ (who are ‘beautiful, open and sincere’ (p. 51), he is certainly alert to the creative possibilities embedded within postmodernism, from which ‘it is possible to construct the concept of new collective subjectivities’ (p. 206). It is a pity that having performed such extensive groundwork, these ‘possibilities’ remain largely unexplored. Hence the subtitle of the book ‘A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century’ is in no way realised. The demands of thinking/living/writing in such abstract and committed terms may have hindered the development of a more coherent and higly-developed vision about the way things could be.

For Negri the present century is ‘incomprehensible’ (P.62). Such an overstatement rather contradicts the aim of presenting anything as ambitious as a manifesto. Perhaps it shows how a commitment to one particularly compelling story tends to cancel out others. In exploring the politics of subversion from a neo-Marxist, and post-socialist viewpoint, the author has defined and illuminated many hidden processes, opened out various analytical categories and choices. But he has missed other shifts of understanding, perception and practice which give greater clarity and definition to our present, and hence our views of possible futures (for example: deep ecology, the re-sacralisation of nature, the extended present etc.) So for me the book is useful as a review of one strand of contemporary Marxist thinking. It is a challenging thesis, if somewhat overstated.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss The Politics of Subversion. Given that much of the futures literature has over-simplified social change and excluded or overlooked discourses which explore the contradictions of capitalism, this book does have a contribution to make. If taken seriously, it could act as a necessary foil to the bland outpourings of some corporate futurists, particularly those for whom notions of ideology, repression and cultural hegemony are part of a foreign (or forbidden) language.

The Politics of Subversion may not have provided clear solutions but it has placed some very important – and uncomfortable – questions on the futures agenda. Are futures people right to imagine that the system is reformable? Can fundamental conflicts of interest be reconciled? How can oppressed classes construct ‘new collective subjectivities’? Is the present economic turbulence a temporary epiphenomenon, or, as Negri suggests, is it a permanent and inescapable feature of capitalism?

It is tempting to answer unreflectively, drawing upon standard cultural premises and ways of knowing. But it is precisely these which are at issue, along with the varied human ‘lifeworlds’ which are constructed from them. The conclusion I draw from this book is that such starting points are legitimately a matter for urgent critical enquiry.

Published as part of Time-frames and turbulence, in Futures 22, 7, September 1990, pp. 774-6.