The new of issue of The Commoner is out, and what I’ve read so far is excellent. Cheers to Nate and Stevphen for putting together a provocative, feminist-directed number. I’ve gotten through only the four articles written by women, and though the Precarias a la Deriva and Sylvia Federeci contributions are quite good, I really dig (and am still chewing on) the articles by Angela and Ida Dominijanni, both of whom read through/against Tronti in their discussions of, respectively, migration and feminism. The last part of Dominijanni’s piece concerns her investigations into democracy, which have an affinity with Angela’s (and Brett Neilson’s) essay on democracy in Culture Machine. This is a fruitful area of research, methinks, but one that’s all but ignored by the left, most of which, in a testament to its Hegelian legacy, sees democracy as the ideal, the end. In other words, they are predisposed to ignore Dominijanni’s aphorism: “[T]here is no break between the model and the thing, between the idea and the historical experiment. Democracy is real (or actually existing) democracy. It is not something other than the historical realization of the idea.”

But what interests me more immediately is the way in which both essays spot a tendency in certain (alas, male-conceived) theories to reconstitute dissolved subjectivities into newly privileged locations of revolutionary activity. As seen in the following long blockquotes, Angela points to theories the of cognitive laborer, to which she counterposes the migrant, and Dominijanni points to democratic theories of the triumph of the son, against which she posits the sister, the complicator of the son’s post-1968 fraternal order.

But if the writings of Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri and others have focused more recently on the theme of immaterial labour, there is a sense in which the reception of such writings, if not always the analyses themselves, have retained an impression of cognitive work as a privileged site for the recognition—or, perhaps, the very constitution—of a revolutionary subject. Some of this is due to the uninterrupted transfer of political models from Leninism to so-called ‘autonomist Marxism’, in which Leninist organisational forms are deemed to have been adequate for an earlier epoch but not for the present or, at the very least, where the task of analysis is one of discerning the presence of a revolutionary subject. Yet, this is also due to a continuing reluctance to treat cognitive labour as labour—that is to say: as labour with its particular forms of exploitation, subjectivation and command that must, as a question of habit, shape an approach toward other kinds of labour let alone the world. And here it becomes crucial to restate a critical understanding of the philosophical concept of autonomy given that, in the specific context of cognitive work, autonomy is intimately bound up with exploitation. In other words, it is precisely through a degree of self-management that cognitive labour is mobilised as labour and made available for exploitation.

As Augusto Illuminati warned some time ago, the “movement of the exodus is ambiguously marked by the opposition to dominant ideas and their molecular renewal.” The terrain of autonomy might well be “the practical beginnings of communism,” but for others it amounts to the “liberalism of the market.”16 In retracing the history of the concept of autonomy from the early writings of Tronti to its more recent appearance in discussions of migration, the very ambivalence of this notion might be emphasised by mentioning another theme prevalent in the early writings of Potere Operaio and Autonomia, that of self-valorisation. Insofar as autonomy means something like “to give oneself one’s own law,” self-valorisation means “to determine one’s own value.” There is a deep ambivalence in both the question of law and value. Radical notions of value may well manifest a refusal of the determinations of value as established or presently recognised by capital, but it can also exhibit a striving for self-possession. The latter articulation retains distinctly capitalist aspects of valorisation which function as a prelude to—or aspiration of a future—exchange.17 But they can also indicate a bid for autonomy from the world that is also, in another sense, a kind of enclosure: the attempt to seek a cognitive shelter from the impact, whether troubling or invigorating, of the touch of the world.


Tronti […] writes about 1968 that ‘the crisis of politics paradoxically has its origins in the will to throw authoritarian power into crisis.’ But the analysis here needs to be more subtle and, doubling back along the trajectory of sexual difference, to avail itself of the distinction—which Tronti later gladly notes—between power and authority elaborated by the Diotima philosophical community drawing on Hannah Arendt.15 Tronti argues, to my mind with some reason, that 1968 was an anti-authoritarian political movement that had the paradoxical effect of removing authority from politics. Even so, there was a double movement: sons against fathers, but also sisters against brothers. On the first front, that between sons and fathers, the revolution of 1968 brings to its highest point the tendency of modern politics that began with the ‘grand narrative’ of the social contract. As Carole Pateman has magisterially shown, this is nothing other than the narrative of the transition from traditional (paternal) patriarchy to fraternal patriarchy, from the natural power of fathers to the conventional and contractual power of sons, which installs itself in the double and interconnected form of male freedom and domination over women.16 The novelty emerges on the second front: that of sisters against brothers. In 1968, this explodes with unprecedented extension and intensity. It reveals the entanglements of the ‘sexual contract’ between free men and subjugated women which sustains the social contract, divides the public sphere with the inaugural gesture of separatism, and gives political form to a sisterhood that is asymmetrical to fraternal society, because it is not based on matricide in the way the latter is based on parricide and relies not on paternal sacrifice but on maternal relation. The feminine attack on the patriarchal-fraternal order liberates politics from its sacrificial and mournful roots: the relational form supplants the ritual of death that regulates the transmission of heredity and the separation of powers.

It could be said that the first movement, insofar as it is revolutionary, reenters the order of repetition, while it is only the second that is truly unforeseeable and makes a difference. In the state of exception, the fraternal anti-authoritarian revolution renews the Oedipal sacrifice and, in so doing, preserves and reproduces the patriarchal symbolic order. The sisters, however, break it. The first movement, under its subversive crust, reorders; whereas the second disorders. Antoinette Foque, one of the protagonists of the French scene, identified this dynamic immediately. Foque writes that May 1968 was ‘the first assemblage of sons as such: after the era of liberty and equality came that of fraternity.’ ‘The father has exited the scene,’ and what counts now is ‘the double, the twin, the reflection, the brother; or what they call the comrade,’ which in the era of fraternity acquires the coloring of omnipotent narcissism.17 The narcissistic personality of the 1968 and post-1968 man, accurately described by Christopher Lasch in 1980, should not be under-evaluated as a widespread sociological phenomenon.18 It is not by chance that the theme returns in one of Slavoj Zizek’s most important interventions: another end-of-the-century book, The Ticklish Subject. Discussing the historicity of Oedipus in the wake of Freud and Lacan, Zizek also locates in the contemporary anthropological panorama a break in the symbolic order of bourgeois society and identifies this with the eclipse of paternal authority. The symbolic authority of the father, ‘the Name of the Father,’ the figure that unites the two functions of totem and taboo, of the ego-ideal and the super-ego, fades away. In its place there emerges ‘the primordial father,’ deprived of symbolic authority, no longer the ego-ideal but the ideal ego. This ‘primordial father’ is the imagined rival of his Peter Pan sons, who are eternal adolescents in competition with him, like Narcissuses obsessively dedicated to the care of themselves. They remain unaffected by interiorized prohibitions and are continually driven by injunction to enjoyment, which is functional to the capitalism of immaterial consumption and the postmodern religion of chance.19

In this way, Zizek explores the everyday effects of that process of the decline of paternal authority and the consequent crisis of masculine identity that Max Horkheimer analyzed in his Studies on Authority and the Family. But neither Horkheimer in the 1930s nor Zizek today manage to understand what was happening on the feminine side while Oedipus was vacillating within the masculine
Bildungsroman. Let’s return to Antoinette Fouque: in the era of narcissistic fraternity or the ‘universe of sons and images’ which takes the phallus as ‘the general equivalent of the integrity of Narcissus,’ what place is reserved for women? Fouque responds: either the part of Echo or the exhibition of the body in the market of images (a phallic gesture in its own way). These two poles have certainly not remained vacant: there is an abundance of women available to fill them. The point is that many, around the time of 1968, took a different path: difference, separation, exodus from the community of equals, sisterhood and feminine genealogy rather than parricidal fraternity, the emptying of power and construction of authority while the masculine anti-authoritarian struggle was confounding power and authority. No more Echo, no more mirrors for Narcissus. It was the feminine separation, just as much if not more than the decline of paternal authority, that prevented the movement of 1968 and after from resolving and recomposing itself into a new political order based on the reproduction of the old symbolic order. The movement of brothers against the father was the insurrectional element reducible to the new order, but the movement of sisters against brothers was unforeseeable and irreducible. In this way, it was women who made 1968 radical, more than it was 1968 that made women radical.


8 thoughts on “Commoner

  1. Well, you deserve to be blushing. I thought Ida’s piece was really good. Wish I could read more of what she has to say, but so far I’ve found only one other translated article, and it’s just a little editorial from il Manifesto.

  2. There’s also some in Italian Feminist Thought, Bono and Kemp, eds. Which is worth getting for an overview of lots of stuff, but often frustrating for being rather fragmentary.

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