Tronti and the Refusal

[Long Sunday is hosting a symposium on Mario Tronti’s “The Strategy of the Refusal,” which started on Monday. Some really smart people are making contributions, and I’m looking forward to a week of their takes (see here for background and the schedule of posts). My contribution went up today, and I’ve crossposted it below.]

Deleuze says somewhere that the beginning and the end are merely points, that it’s the middle that is truly interesting. So it is for Tronti, who almost despite himself affirms that in the struggle against capital the action takes place in the center. For Tronti, the middle is the place of the refusal, nestled between the beginning, the workers as a “class for itself,” and the end, the workers as a party demanding “total power.” Near the end of “The Strategy of the Refusal,” even as he insists that we must move beyond passivity and noncollaboration and as he avows his teleological commitment to the party form, Tronti reiterates that the struggle should be based on “the working class refusal to present demands to capital, the total rejection of the whole trade union terrain, the refusal to limit the class relationship within a formal, legal, contractual form.”

So even in his invocation of an end, Tronti returns to the middle, the site where the working class rejects not only the commands of capital but also the institutional imperatives of official labor movements, the cultural authority of working-class intellectuals, and the state, which seeks to reduce the working class to juridical and democratic, i.e., nonpolitical, citizen-subjects. Tronti hints at, but doesn’t detail, the ways in which the middle offers the working class fecund ground for creating a politics that gives voice to its refusals. The working class shares the cramped spaces of the middle with other political minorities, women, ethnic and racial minorities, migrants, the disabled. These minorities establish revolutionary connections and create revolutionary becomings in the autonomous space they share, and these minoritarian connections and becomings are responsible for demands that capital cannot tolerate:

The first demands made by proletarians in their own right, the moment that they cannot be absorbed by the capitalist, function objectively as forms of refusal which put the system in jeopardy. Whenever the positive demands of workers go beyond the margins that the capitalist is able to grant, once again they repeat this function–the objective, negative function of pure and simple political blockage in the mechanism of the economic laws. […] In such circumstances, the demand as a refusal sets off a chain of crises in capitalist production, each of which requires the tactical capacity to make a leap forward in the level of working class organisation.


As well as being the space of minoritarian existence, the middle in another sense represents one pole of capital’s axial production arrangement. For Tronti, the worker that refuses the social factor inhabits the capitalist center of the North, and finds its counterpart in the formerly colonized periphery of the South. In Tronti’s time, as in ours, the distinction between center and periphery was increasingly dissolving. As capital moves technological and material production to the periphery and simultaneously expands and deregularizes work in the center, domestic Souths are created in the North, just as in the South sharper lines are drawn between the producers and the consumers of value.

Delezue and Guattari outline versions of the state that roughly correspond to the North and South: the social-democratic and the totalitarian. In reality, these constitute oscillations of state tactics rather than concrete types. The state adds axioms to overcome the limits that working-class struggle reveals to the it. That is, northern social-democracies may respond to working-class demands by resorting to the deregulatory, privatizing, and wage-lowering tactics of “totalitarianism,” just as social-democratic axioms such as increasing domestic demand and creating a large public sector frequently occur in politically “totalitarian” states (cf. China).

(It is worth noting, I suppose, that the United States is probably exemplary here, as in its post-Cold War phase it is able to embody both the “totalitarian”–minimal state with low wages and high stratification–and the social-democratic–an outwardly directed financial sector and an always-ready war-machine–with apparent ease.)

These oscillations between social-democracy and totalitarianism are capital’s futile way of getting beyond its fundamental impediment to waging direct war on the working class: its need for political institutions to enforce its perogatives.

The capitalists have not yet invented–and in fact will obviously never be able to invent–a non-institutionalised political power. That type of political power is scecifically working class power. The difference between the two classes at the level of political power is precisely this. The capitalist class does not exist independently of the formal political institutions, through which, at different times but in permanent ways, they exercise their political domination. […] On the other hand, quite the opposite is true of the working class: it exists independently of the institutionalised levels of its organisation.

Capital’s task is to either rid itself of the need for representation or saddle the working class with the kind of mediation that dilutes the latter’s power.


Though Tronti says very little about the specific content of refusal, he is clear that it is a weapon to be used, not a permanent stance:

[S]topping work […] implies a refusal of the command of capital as the organiser of production: it is a way of saying “No” at a particular point in the process and a refusal of the concrete labour which is being offered; it is a momentary blockage of the work-process and it appears as a recurring threat which derives its content from the process of value creation. The anarcho-syndicalist “general strike”, which was supposed to provoke the collapse of capitalist society, is a romantic naivete from the word go. It already contains within it a demand which it appears to oppose–that is, the Lassallian demand for a “fair share of the fruits of labour”–in other words, a fairer “participation” in the profit of capital.

Refusal draws strength from its “momentary” and “particular” usage. As soon as it becomes permanent, it’s rendered impotent. As totality, refusal leaves its ground and becomes active. It then attacks specific instances as illegitimate, unnatural, or illegal, which only validates the state’s right to decide the legitimate, the natural, and the legal. In short, refusal becomes ironic. But it should be humorous. Refusal should attend to the consequences of capitalism, not concern itself with establishing and policing principles. As the tactic of minoritarian politics, refusal must remain passive, because in its passivity it becomes absolute.

Perhaps the great literary figure of the Tronti’s refusal is not Bartleby but the humorous Leopold Bloom, the unmanly dark-haired Jew inhabiting Europe’s internal colony, Ireland. In the minoritarian space Bloom inhabits, he continually makes connections with the Orient and Africa and with women and children. Bloom’s connections with minorities go beyond mere solidarity or sympathy, however. In the series of refusals that make up his life–the refusals of masculine imperatives, sexual monogamy, provincialism, nationalism (which, significantly, is simultaneously a rejection of anti-Semitism and racism)–Bloom acts out a radical becoming-other that ultimately rejects not just capital’s commands but, finally, capitalist command.


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