While critical of anarchism, the leading theorist of Italian autonomism defended rioting and sabotage, the wildcat strike and social insurgence, and consistently wrote some of the best pages against the hateful triad of capital, state and borders.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Toni Negri. More than any other radical thinker, he has shaped the theoretical and political space in which we have acted as autonomists and anti-globalization activists in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and indeed all over the world. Antonio Negri (1933-2023) was pivotal in developing operaismo with Antonio Panzieri (editor of Quaderni Rossi) and Mario Tronti (author of Workers and Capital) and especially Autonomous Marxism, the movement of which he was theorist in the red hot 1970s as well as leader of its revolutionary organization (so-called Autonomia Organizzata in Padua and Rome, as opposed to Autonomia Creativa in Bologna) together with Franco Piperno and Oreste Scalzone. For his incendiary writings and political commitment to the revolution of social labour vs industrial capital, he was prosecuted and persecuted by the Italian state, which imprisoned him after April 7, 1979 (the date of the investigation that put more than 15,000 autonomists under arrest or penal proceedings). He was freed briefly because he was elected to the Italian parliament in 1983. He then fled to Paris, where he studied Foucault and worked with Guattari and Deleuze. He was a political exile until he decided to return to Italy in 1997 and spend the rest of his 12-year sentence (ostensibly for abetting robbery). At this point, he was already the most important Italian Marxist alive. His works had started to be translated into English (by his future co-author Michael Hardt in the Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State Form, 1992), but a second phase opened in his life that would make him one of the most widely read leftist intellectual in the world and an inspirer of another major street-fighting movement after the Italian Troubles of 1977, namely the Genoa global justice movement of 2001.
As a self-styled anarcho-Negrian activist, this is where I come in. Seattle 1999 was mostly an anarchist affair, as David Graeber pointed out in the New Left Review, but Genoa was in black and white, namely the black bloc and the white overalls who fought the police in July 2001. The tute bianche were all avid readers of Negri, and the Carlini stadium was set up by autonomist groups directly inspired by him, especially in Venice, Milan, Bologna, and Rome. Toni’s son, Checco, fought bravely in the streets when carabinieri charged us on the afternoon of Saturday, July 20, before killing Carlo Giuliani, a kid from Genoa who was both an autonomist and a black blocer. But the two forces didn’t merge. The North European/North American black bloc rioted and demolished in the morning, while in the afternoon, the Italo-European white overalls hoped they could push the police away by force of their numbers and were beaten, gassed and tortured, although the majority managed to make it back to the stadium where they were camping. As all of respectable Italy, including the parliamentary left, went hysterical after the black bloc, the leader of white overall protesters, Luca Casarini, refused to stigmatise their violence and famously showed on live TV the bullets the Italian police had shot against us. However, US anarchists thought that autonomists were becoming semi-institutional and they hadn’t sufficiently defended black bloc protesters, so Luca was pied when he visited New York City (he now heads the Mediterranea non-profit organization, which is rescuing migrants at sea). In the meantime, Empire, the book co-written with Hardt, had become an international bestseller. Multitude and Assembly would follow in the subsequent decade, proposing a significant new synthesis in Autonomous Marxism, inspiring movements like the Zapatistas and Indignados and political formations like Podemos and Syriza. Finally, he could leave France and travel across the world to America, China, Brazil, and Venezuela.
Throughout his life, Toni defended rioting and sabotage, the wildcat strike and social insurgence. He consistently wrote some of the best pages against the hateful triad of capital, state and borders, but he was critical of anarchism. He was a Leninist who believed in the necessity of revolutionary organization, and he was a communist, as he wrote in his monumental autobiography completed shortly before his death. Still, it was the Italian Communist Party that was his inquisitor, and the official left has consistently reviled him. In the mainstream press, the obits rehashed the label of cattivo maestro, nefarious mentor of young minds, rather than engage with his intellectual legacy. In Italy, saying comunismo is not the same thing as saying autonomia. In fact, I’d argue autonomia is halfway between communism and anarchism. It is heavily intellectual (like anarchism mostly isn’t), and this is a criterion for self-organising. It’s the brainiest who lead (as a bookish nerd, I’ve always been attracted to this). Autonomia proposes to mix spontaneity with structure, syndicalism with demands, social emancipation with institutions of the commons, Marxism with feminism and post-colonialism. The fact remains that anarchism competes with autonomism as a revolutionary ideology. You can’t do Bonanno and Negri; it’s either or. However, whether it was the underclass burning with rage in the London riots or the Gilet Jaune attacking the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Toni would always write in their favour: he loved rabble and the explosion of rage against the structures of domination.
Negri’s basic intuition is that the struggles of living labour determine capitalist development. First comes the autonomous subject, which affects capitalist dynamics and state power. Industrial labour in Negri I and precarious, intermittent, immaterial, and affective labour in Negri II are the forces driving social evolution. Capital is a social relation, not a mode of production, while the state is not the board of administration of the bourgeoisie but an active terrain which is amenable to be bent by social conflict and occupation by radical forces. Negri wrote the Marxist theory of the state that Marx lamentably never wrote. He advocated social unionism and political organizing. When in the 2000s in Milan, we did the EuroMayDay movement by the precarious for the precariat against precarity, Negri and Negrian movements across Italy and Europe supported us and were our accomplices. In the 1970s, the unions inspired by Autonomia controlled factories and neighbourhoods in Venice, Rome, Milan, and Turin. In the 2000s, the centri sociali (squatted social centres) established by autonomists were the backbone of the spaghetti left.
Toni became a Marxist as a professor rather than as a student. He was a leftist catholic and socialist before turning to communism, and he spent two years in a kibbutz and travelled across Europe before starting to teach philosophy in Padua. He always disliked Stalinism and the USSR and was always attracted by the US and the heights of “capitalist civilization”, but especially to its working class, which held the secrets of the next stage of capital-labour conflict. Today, if he were still alive, he would discuss with Sergio Bologna and others the implications for the workers of the world of UAW’s successful strike and unionization drive after three decades of neoliberal domination. He was always fascinated by the IWW and the wobblies, one of the many reasons that made me love him and study his ideas. And Toni could love. He was an affectionate person who put sentiment and altruism at the centre of his life. I shall miss him forever.
~ Alex Foti
Alex Foti is an editor, essayist and activist based in Milano. He was among the founders of ChainWorkers and EuroMayDay, early instances of the self-organization of precarious workers in Europe. A pink wobbly and green radical, he has co-authored the Middlesex declaration of Europe’s precariat and the Act 4 Radical Europe manifesto. He is the author of General Theory of the Precariat: Great Recession, Revolution.