TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Mario Tronti and the Autonomy of the Political

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Joseph van der Naald looks at Mario Tronti’s “Workers and Capital” from Telos 14 (Winter 1972).

Mario Tronti’s postscript to the second edition of his publication Operai e Capitale, published in Telos in 1972 as “Workers and Capital,” provides the reader with a summation of his thought on the development of the “mass worker,” presented through an analysis of notable labor struggles across the Western world. Tronti’s methodology, which he briefly explicates at the beginning of the piece, delineates certain historical workers’ struggles in order to examine “macroscopic groups of facts yet untouched by the critical consciousness of labor thought” (25). His purpose is to yield “an historical model, a privileged period of research” (25) so as to better analyze the emergence of the autonomy of the working class engaged in a dialectical struggle with capital.

As an introduction to Tronti’s text, Paul Piccone provides a critique, raising concerns with its positivist and “macroscopic” methodology, while also taking issue with Tronti’s representation of the working class. Piccone alleges that “Workers and Capital” draws “absurd conclusions” (23), and that the text’s representation of the so-called reality of the working class is based on a “phenomenal appearance” (23), a “bourgeois product totally under the domination of a bourgeois hegemony” (24).

While there is credence in Piccone’s criticism of Tronti as having presented a distorted and extraordinary image of the working class, especially in his fetishized representation of American labor, there is a rationale behind Tronti’s framing of the problem exclusively from the idealized position of the laborer. At stake is precisely what distinguishes autonomist and operaist currents of thought from other anti-capitalist movements: the act of placing the struggle at the center of the analysis, emphasizing the power of the worker as that which forces capitalism to adapt, the motor that pushes history forward—in short, the “autonomy of the political.”

The relevance of Tronti’s writing today lies in the way he deftly presents the facets of operaist, and what would become autonomist, theory through a sociological analysis of the working class’s interaction with capital. Tronti’s text can be useful in thinking through one of those facets, namely the autonomy of the political, despite the problems associated with his positivist methodology, and how the autonomy of the political can be manifested in a reading of history through workers’ struggles.

Taking the struggles of the English working class around the turn of the century as one of his bodies of data, Tronti begins by noting that, despite gains made by dockworkers and longshoremen around 1889, English workers’ struggles lacked spontaneous worker action against capital. Strikes were organized and regulated; unions were becoming a homogenous corporate affair as labor progressively became regulated by the state and capital. Tronti defines this form of management of labor struggles as economic science: “the theoretical consciousness of the labor program translated in terms of bourgeois conceptualization” (29).

The autonomy of politics from capitalist development appears here as the autonomy of science: science not as technology but as theory, not as an analysis of labor, but as capital’s economy. We must not seek in the highest points of economic thought a direct treatment of the labor struggles: the higher the level of elaboration, the more abstract is the movement of categories and the more difficult it becomes to recognize the presence of struggles in this thought. (29)

Tronti finds in Keynesian economic thought this form of analysis par excellence; English “economic science” recognizes all action in society as stemming from the vicissitudes of capital, denying the power of the labor struggle in shaping the outcome of history. English economics robs the worker of autonomy, Tronti argues, subsuming the politics of labor under the interplay between the state and capital. Tronti calls instead for a new form of “objective social science [that] can and must be translated in the language of the struggles” (30).

We must learn to read the scientific language of capital beyond these concepts, beyond the logic of the discipline: between the lines of “their” treatises systematizing “their” knowledge. We must not grant what they say. The cultural hieroglyphics must be deciphered: the scientific jargon must be translated in our illustrious class dialect. In regard to the great scientific discovery by the capitalist, we must follow its attitude towards reality: we must not reflect what is, but elaborate in order to understand what really is. (29)

This is part of the value that Tronti sees in the “American labor sphinx” of 1933–47, where a specific convergence of past working class victories are woven together, and the primacy of the struggle now more fully occupies a position in the strategy of the worker. The peak of American labor power reaches a climax for Tronti with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which he raises to the status of a “political fact” (52). The CIO is so important for Tronti’s analysis precisely because it was birthed out of “true and advanced labor struggles” (52), satisfying a new form of organization for the working class. In short, working class composition in American labor was never separated from the struggle, massifying itself into a “new politics.”

American labor, for Tronti, in the way that it makes the struggle primary, materializes the autonomy of the political, where the working class is a fluid and ever-adapting force. Capital continually transforms itself, and in order to combat it, the working class too needs to be continually reconstituted: “Workers and capital are not only classes contraposed to each other, but always changing economic realities, social formations, and political organizations” (60). The problem for Tronti then becomes how to begin drawing up this newly reconstituted working class, the mass worker, in the face of the emerging social factory—a developing question not unfamiliar to autonomist thinkers in the 1970s and beyond. The question of the mass worker begins, however, with strategy. Tronti’s identification of the preeminence of the political and the importance of the struggle as the working class’ most vital tool for enacting social change is indispensible in understanding the rapidly changing nature of class and capital in the 20th and 21st centuries.

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