Notes on Negri’s “Crisis of the Planner State”

In “Crisis of the Planner State”, Negri attempts a definition of the radically changing dynamic of capitalist economic transition in Italy in the late 1960s-1970s. This definition interlocks two paths, one theoretical, the other historical. The theoretical path begins with Marx’s explanation in the Grundrisse of the historical tendency that money under capitalist pressure is transformed from its original function as mediator in the exchange relation between two different use values into a looming power seemingly external to this simple transactional function that gave it birth. Negri’s “tendency” is money’s “furious will to liberate itself from its office of mediation in exchange, taking on its true capacity of domination over wage labor outside and beyond the petty transactions of the marketplace and within the dimensions of a general sociality…” (p. 4)  The key move in this essay is the positing of Marx’s theoretical (and idealist, perhaps, Negri warns us) description of this gradual capitalist transformation onto the historical development of capitalism in the 20th century: The valences of proletarian-state interaction similary transform and result in what is today a capitalist state “liberated” from (or wishing it was independent of) its relationship with labor, poised with teeth bared, ready for enterprise domination and class war.

This development travels through three different phases, each of which has its corresponding political formation in the state apparatus and proletarian organization. So the reign of the “professional worker” at the beginning of the 20th century leads to Negri’s thought that “Whatever the extent of the profound tactical differences…between, say Kautsky and Luxembourg or Lukáks and Gramsci, it is difficult to see these differences as significant in terms of the basic socialist program they all share.”(p. 12) “The political leadership of the proletariat duplicated in its relation to the mass movement the dualism that existed in the movement itself between a mass of professional worker (managers of the mode of production, imbued with the ideology of work) and the proletarian masses.”(p13.) The different developments and social composition of the professional workers in different countries then finds its equivalent in the different nuances of socialist thought coming from Germany or Russia, as well as the high levels of mostly unplanned capitalist anarchy inadequately integrated into the state.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the capitalist response was to eliminate the professional worker from his privileged position by segmenting the production process and enhancing the implementation of physical labor in the factory, a dynamic that gives birth to the mass-worker (operaio-massa). The financial collapse of 1929 that seriously wounds an ideology of unplanned capitalist anarchy and the concurrent rise of mass struggles gives birth to the “planner-state”, which under a Keynesian guise attempts to manage the relationship between the capitalists and the rising mass of union laborers, communist parties and their demands for higher wages. The capitalist class’s attempt to homogenize the professional worker into a smaller mechanized cog, thereby taking away his ethical claim to take the machine from his master due to his proximity and knowledge of the mode of production and its technical basis, results in, however, this mass-worker whose function has spread wider and deeper into the society itself. As the intensification over the appropriation of the surplus through wage struggles and its foregrounding of the transactional nature of money, the process of the further socialization of the entire production process coincides with this expansion of the mass worker and the massification of his party. This mass worker then confronts the state which hegemonically attempts to manage the economy (a positive relationship from the point of view from the capitalists and perhaps the Western European communist parties as well), a confrontation that eventually finds its limit in rising inflation, profit squeeze, and the intensification of struggles that fail to coincide with the mediated, “official” relationship between capital and labor: Wildcat strikes, radicalization from the influx of a new generation of young workers from different geographical regions, and the ossification of the molar opposition of the mass-worker under the banner of the aging communist party and the planner-state. Negri sketches out this historical transformation:


“The various epochs in the history of the working class are marked by the emergence of specific antagonisms around which the struggle has developed and around which organizations have been built in response to these revolutionary explosions. The specific antagonism in the period of the Second International was that between the worker’s control of the labor process and the capitalist ownership of the mod of production. In the period between the two world wars—and right up to the sixties—we had the specific antagonism between the massification of the labor-power on the one hand and the dynamic and precisely proportioned control of that massification within capital’s plan on the other—that is, the wage contradiction. Today’s specific antagonism is that between the overall constitution of the working class into a political individuality and the factory form of capitalist domination, between command by the enterprise [commando d’impresa] and a communist will on the part of the masses.” (p29).


As this wage contradiction implodes, so does bourgeois democracy: “Since this regime was always functional o the world of exchange, and articulated closely with it, freedom, equality, and democracy remain merely an appearance, a façade…” As money further alienates itself from the exchange relation and finance capital begins to dominate and intertwine itself with the state, “The figure of the despotism of capital is ever more openly glorified with the collapse of money’s role in mediating the anarchy of production. And the state more openly glorifies its monstrous role as the technical organ of domination as it presides over the total disarticulation of the rationale of development… All that remains is class hatred…” (p. 5) –And, one could add, a clear way for “the multinational enterprise fully to take over the functions of motivation and general command over development.” (p. 24).

From the planner-state then, to “enterprise command” [commando d’impresa], the crisis-state (and the perpetual state of crisis) as well as the rise of “appropriation as a defining characteristic…” (p. 31) as opposed to “autonomy” which according to Negri was the defining characteristic against the planner-state. “Appropriation is the process whereby a new figure of the historical revolutionary subject reveals itself; it is the recognition that the forms of production are increasingly moving from a state of contradiction with the social forces of production into a state of antagonism… In this way the social individual of production can recognize the present mode of production as a straitjacket constraining his own possibilities, and communism as the only reality that is adequate to his own emergence.” (p. 31). From a “socialism” born out of contradictory forces, then, to a “communism” born out of antagonism and class hatred.

How to organise under these conditions? How, if the socialist organisations of professional workers organizing to seize the means of production at the beginning of the 20th century for the most part failed, as well as their transformations into mass parties of uniformed labor, for the most part resigned to mediation, reform and “progress”? The new historical subject Negri is attempting to define (and harness into a revolutionary direction) has a definite relationship to the changing organic composition of capital that will determine his project. As opposed to “subjectivists” who see the changing composition of the mass as an excuse for insurrectionary violence and direct confrontations with the state, Negri emphasizes the “need once again to relate analysis, discussion, and practice regarding the problem of organization back to the materiality of the movement.” (p. 15) But as Negri develops his analysis of the materiality of the movement, its very materiality becomes more and more abstract. Indeed, as his title heading to chapter four reads, (“(Abstract) Labor as Revolutionary Subject: The Basis of the Communist Program and Proletarian Appropriation”), passages from the Grundrisse are used to articulate and speculate over the “development of the social individual” (p. 20), a condition that the development of large industry has supposedly enabled by capitalism’s development of its forces of production and its pressure on social relations into two spheres that are “the material conditions to blow this foundation sky high. (Grundrisse 706)” (p. 19).

Negri sees this moment of the crisis of the planner state, the dissolution of a managed, “good” capitalism of steady development as a moment that was foreseen by Marx in the Grundrisse. The Grundrisse itself, which wasn’t translated into Italian until 1968 (also the year of its French translation and the appearance of the first essay in English) is used as a sort of theoretical battering ram in this essay– a privileged document that lent Negri’s critique the imprimatur of authority, but an authority that had been hidden and repressed for more than 100 years. As Negri’s project attempts to decisively break away from the PCI and form a new theoretical coherence to his organizational ideas, the Grundrisse becomes the shield he can use to defend his movement “beyond Marx.” Back to Marx and beyond Marx to the enterprise-state, “in the sense that it extends the norms of command over factory labor to all social labor.” (p. 25) And: “The overdetermination of the enterprise form of command destroys any relative basis of stability, continuity or coherence in the functioning of state and union mediation…This is the price capital has to pay for gaining freedom of disposal over the overall movement—a freedom that, in this perspective, becomes an uncertainty principle as regards the stable aspect of capitalist existence.” (p.41)

A new precarious position, then. Back to Marx to go beyond Marx and back to Lenin? Negri struggles to keep his theorization of the new subject that both is born from and gives birth to the Crisis-Enterprise-State and a vanguard that must find a way to relate to this subject from detailing its specificity. On the one hand: “[W]e are reacquiring many of the elements that defined the structure of the Leninist revolutionary party.”(p. 35). But on the other: “[B]ut today our Leninism is something new, in a very profound sense: it is new inasmuch as it seeks to verify a new analysis of a new project, based on our current class composition.” Which brings us back to a growing impossible reconciliation between a mass-worker decomposing under its own pressure and the pressure of capital, now redefined beyond Marxist categories as a power that is “dissociated from value and operates on the plane of relations of force” (p. 29) and a vanguard that is driven under the urgency and “possibility of…channelling the movement toward effective pivot-points of power.” (p.42) The impossibility is met by insurrection, not revolution, “because revolution is the recomposition of a process that has destroyed, with its own force, an entire apparatus of power.”(p.43) The time is not ripe for revolution, because there is no self-perpetuating force of revolution. There are the vanguards, however, and their ability to block capital’s initiative and undermine the precarious position of capital’s power.

Negri’s analysis points towards a new historical stage in the composition of the laborer and the laboring social body under capitalism. In attempting to relate new, forward-looking political formations out of this analysis, he is caught between a need to adhere to his relationality with the actual movement against a paramilitary adventurism unmoored from all political alliance, and an analysis that points more and more towards an abstraction, a decomposed mass, immaterial. Following Marx’s speculations in the Grundrisse, Negri emphasizes this new historical subject’s “continuous possibility of revolt, as a capacity for unceasing and repeated attacks on power” (p.39), although Negri fails to show how this subject moves beyond mere potentiality into actuality in and for itself.

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