News from the Zona: Ireland, Negri and Chérèque

I was in Ireland last week. Ireland, surely, is a posterchild and ward of the Zona: rolling in tax evasion wealth in the 2000s, constructing like mad and paying its chief officials, it turns out, like mad too, in 2008 it went off the cliff and has contracted and contracted since, all the while hocking its future to the plutocrats of the financial sphere, and cutting funding for normal life elsewhere. That’s Ireland then. But in Wicklow where I went, and then in Dublin where I went after, there was not a strong sense of disaster in the air. Rather, what was in the air was something more delicate, like the air whistling out of a punctured tire: there was a slumping towards lower expectations. And in fact expectations were well and truly privatized – one probably heard more about politics than is usual – and we did talk to a journalist who had very articulate ideas about politics – but on the whole, there was no sense of a collective project at all.

This is one of the remarkable successes of the neo-liberal era, and perhaps the secret of its apparent ability to spawn a Zona and yet keep its bony hands on the world’s throat. What it has exploited is the dialectic of vulnerability that was forged in the Cold War system, in which the power to destroy the world was granted to the political elites in return for a return on that power that traversed ordinary life – that is, the setting up of the conventions and circumstances of middle class life. I want to avoid assigning the responsibility for that set up to the state or to the private sphere, since it is a delusion that the state and private enterprise are opposed to each other in any essential way. The Cold War system, as I’ve pointed out before, owes a lot to the Hitlerian totalitarianism of the thirties – which, contrary to the ideologists, was anything but an epoch of total mobilization. Rather, it was an epoch of specialized mobilization in which the state did what it could to insulate the individual “authentic” German from any collective project that would require sacrifice on his or her part.

We are the heirs of that thinking. As long as the mass of people are not, individually, vulnerable, as long as no sacrifice is really required for a collective vision, the mass of people are content to operate individually, to think of their fates as having to do with their defects or virtues, their hard work or laziness, their propensity to save or spend – without really having any sense of the systems put in place from the point of view of which they, individually, are simply so many human products, and their tics and life experiences so much  bland margin of error that the models can easily deal with. The power of the masses has been given up without a shot – or, to put it more Adorno-esquely,  every time you turn on the tv set or computer, you surrender a little bit more. 

But you never surrender all the way – the systems of governance that have both produced the Zona and have managed it can’t accommodate complete surrender, although they don’t know it. The human economy, which puts holes and tunnels in even the most rational economic institutions and enterprises, is required for capitalism to exist.

Which brings me to the point of this post, the dialogue between Tony Negri and François Chérèque, the general secretary of the French union, The Democratic French Confederation of Labor, or Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) in the February issue of Philosophie. The pdf can be found here:

The dialogue has not been given any attention, as far as I could tell, among the English speaking blogs. Too bad. Chérèque presents an empirical view of the condition of the wage class in France stemming from his interviews with that class. The project of interviewing the class was motivated by the self-immolation of an employee of France Telecom, a militant of the CFDT: why would one’s self-identity be so wrapped up on one’s work?
Negri opposes to Chérèque’s ‘old fashioned” promotion of the word and the concept, worker, his new fashioned notion of ‘immaterial labor’ – what I would call the triumph of the agent of circulation over the agent of production. For Negri, this signals the passing of a ‘figure’, the figure of the proletariat, who emerged in the 1840s and attenuated in social importance after the 1870s. Chérèque, jumps on him about this potted history:

F.C. I don’t wholly share your observation. It is true that the heroic figure of the proletariat concentrated in mass in the great industries has disappeared, but material labor hasn’t disappeared for all that… Firstly with globalisation: the Apple model of Steve Jobs is  “enterprise without factory”: on one side, immateriality, computers and information research, and on the other, the delocalized factory in China with the conditions of production that we know. But this process of dissemination is equally at work in Europe. There is a new segmentation of work with a massive recourse to temps, to the intermediares, to precarious labor to support difficult tasks. The farther you are from the profit center, the more you suffer. Do you know how much a supermarket employee lifts onto the shelves every day? A ton!

To which Negri replies, backtracking: One cannot efface the physical and corporeal dimension of work, you are totally right. Imagine that work can really become immaterial is stupid!”

However, Negri returns to the charge later: “One tends in fact to forget these workers, who, however, furnish out everyday meat. If I persist, however, in naming “immaterial labor”, it is in order to break out of the relation labor/created object and to show that it becomes principally a network, that its fundamental elements consist more and more in knowledge, the capacity to organize a cooperation. It equally becomes more and more affective and liguistic. One of the most important points, it seems to me, which is valid for all workers, is the mobilization  and the active imbrication of the set of knowledges (connaissances – skills) and the living time of the wage earners.”

Negri, here, is playing his strongest suit, for the penetration of labor into the private life is part of the social arrangement that makes the private life everything, and the public object nothing. It is a new form of moralization that destroys a certain cultural success of the 19th century – the creation of a higher, or more dialectically complex, narrative intelligence, one that links together disparate 19th century figures like Marx, Simmel, Durkheim, Mill, etc. with the novelists from Balzac through Mann.

It is the dissolution of that narrative skill that has led to the odd dualism between work and entertainment that seems, diabolically, to sit on our lives, and make it hard to utter a peep against the scandalous cretins who rule us.