Negri on the Refusal of Work


A chunk of refusalist goodness extracted from the pages of Antonio Negri’s Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage (italics are Negri’s, the bolded text is mine).


More than any other single watchword of the communist movement, the refusal of work has been continually and violently outlawed, suppressed and mystified by the traditions and ideology of socialism. If you want to provoke a socialist to rage, or deflate his flights of demagogy, provoke him on the question of the refusal of work! In the hundred years since Marx first spoke of work as “unhuman nature”, [62] no single point of the communist program has been so fiercely fought against – to the point where, nowadays, the excommunication of the refusal of work has become tacit, surreptitious and implicit, but no less powerful. The argument has been shunted out of sight. 8ut now the shrewdness of proletarian reasoning has begun, on this indirect terrain, to reinstate the centrality of the refusal of work in the communist program. From ethnology to psychology, from aesthetics to sociology, from ecology to medicine, this centrality repeatedly reappears, sometime disguised in strange ways, and sometimes almost invisible. Nonetheless, is is springing up everywhere, and soon they will be constrained to pursue it, just as in earlier times similar high priests had to deal with the omnipresent sorcerous truth of the Devil.

Our task is the theoretical reinstatement of the refusal of work in the program, in the tactics, in the strategy of communists. Today, as never before, at our given level of class composition, the refusal of work reveals its centrality as a point of synthesis of the communist program, in both its objective and its subjective aspects. The refusal of work is, in fact, the most specific, materially determinate foundation of the productive force reappropriated to serve the process of workers’ self-valorisation.

The refusal of work is first and foremost sabotage, strikes, direct action. Already, in this radical subjectivity, we can see the global nature of its antagonistic comprehension of the capitalist mode of production. The exploitation of labour is the foundation of the whole of capitalist society. Thus the refusal of work does not negate one nexus of capitalist society, one aspect of capital’s process of production or reproduction. Rather, in all its radicality, it negates the whole of capitalist society. So it is not by chance then, that the capitalist response does not try to deal with the refusal of work by partial means: it has to be a global response at the level of the mode of production, in terms of restructuring. Seen from this point of view, the effects of the refusal of work exercise a direct productive action on the capitalist mode of production. But the more fully the refusal of work is socialised and radicalised, according to the very rhythm of capitalist restructuring, the more its “productive action” intensifies the aspects of destructuring of the capitalist mode of production. The falling rate of profit, the crisis of the law of value, and the rearticulation of the law of value within the indifference of command are direct (albeit neither continuous nor homologous) effects of the refusal of work. The continuous effect, on the other hand, is to be found on the obverse side of capital’s dialectic – where sabotage is revealed as class valorisation. and the refusal of work becomes the key to reading self-valorisation. It becomes the key to reading in two fundamental senses (from which other radical consequences then follow): in the sense that it is one of the contents, if not the fundamental content of the process of proletarian valorisation; and in the sense that it provides a criterion of measure for the method of social transformation. We should look first at these two fundamental senses, and then at the consequences that derive from them.

(a) The refusal of work as the content of the process of self-valorisation. Please note: “content” here does not mean “objective”. The objective, the aim of the process of self-valorisation, is the complete liberation of living labor within production and reproduction: it is the total utilisation of wealth in the service of collective freedom. It is therefore more than the refusal of work – although this covers the fundamental space of the transition, and characterises its dialectic as well as establishing its norms. So, the refusal of work is again a moment of the process of self-valorisation as it relates, in a destructive manner, to the law of value, to the crisis of the law of value, and to the obligation to productive labour of the whole society. The fact that in the society based on self-valorisation, in the transitionaI phase, everyone must work, is a norm that is pertinent to the refusal of work, exactly as is the campaign to reduce working hours and to reduce the labor involved in reproduction and transformation. To recognize this normativity of the refusal of work is to grasp it as a content of the process of transition, and not as a final objective of the process of self-valorisation; not to mystify it, but to determine it within the class struggle, in the specificity of its constructive function. Thus, as well as being a fundamental tactical function in the destructuring of the enemy, we see the refusal of work as the content of communist strategy. The two aspects are deeply related. The struggle for the destructuring of capital, and particularly for the destructuring-destruction of constant capital in the form that it assumes in its most recent phase (of the maturity of the capitalist mode of production and its state). establishes particular relationships with the continuing existence of wealth in its capitalist form. The process of class separation runs up against the hard constancy of capital – against constant capital. In the short term, this relationship cannot be eliminated, but only dominated. Invention-power, as the transfiguration of labour-power in this first phase of transition, must apply itself to the destructuring of constant capital. The refusal of work is its first, fundamental weapon, and to this is added invention in its proper sense (the qualitative determination of a mode of production no longer dominated by the categories of capital). But the refusal of work is precisely fundamental because it continuously reposes class struggle within the problem of transition, because within its experience it carries the complexity of the destructuring-liberation dialectic. This can also he seen from a further point of view. When the critical consciousness of political economy realizes the actuality of the proletarian process of the refusal of work, it reacts either in utopian terms, or in purely ideological terms. The technological utopia is the negation of the concreteness of the refusal of work and the attempt to attribute the exigencies that arise from this concreteness to technological development, to the expansion of fixed capital, and to an increasing intensity of the organic composition of capital. The ideology of quietism is the attempt to reverse the collective terms of the experience of the refusal of work into a perspective of artisanal liberation – isolating the big collective event and confining it in the recesses of individual consciousness, or in communitarian intercourse between individuals. So all this can be ignored. The refusal of work is at one and the same time destructuring of capital and self-valorisation of the class; the refusal of work is not an invention that puts its faith in the development of capital, nor is it an invention which feigns the nonexistence of the domination of capital. It is neither a (utopian) flight of fancy, nor a (quietist) retreat into isolated consciousness: it faces foursquare that collective relationship which alone permits us to introduce a logic of (collective) class separation. Liberation is unthinkable without a process that constructs the positivity of a new collective mode of production upon the negativity of the destruction of the capitalist mode of production. The exultant and demonstrative force of the concept of the refusal of work consists, in Marxian terms, in the twofold nature of the functions in question, in their complementarity. it is clear that in the process of transition the weight that each function gradually assumes will be different. But beware of dividing the fundamental core that produces them, and beware of making homologies between them in their alternating development: the history of the socialist perversions of the revolutionary process has always been based on the extolling of one of these moments to the detriment of the other – and in the end, both were destroyed and utopianism and individualism reappeared because the collective practice, the unitary content of the revolutionary process, the synthesis of love and hate, the refusal of work in its materiality, were destroyed with them.

(b) The refusal of work as a measure of the process of self-valorisation. So, the refusal of work is indeed a strange concept. It is the measure of itself it is the measure of the process of self-valorisation of which it is also the content! Yes indeed. This is possible because of its dialectical nature, because of the intensity of the synthesis of destructuring and innovation that invests it. In the first place, then, the progress of the process of self-valorisation is measured, negatively, by the progressive reduction of individual and overall labour-time, that is, the quantity of proletarian life that is sold to capital. In the second place, the progress of the process of self-valorisation is measured positively by the multiplication ot socially useful labour dedicated to the free reproduction of proletarian society. Hatred of work and hatred of exploitation are the productive content of invention-power, which is the prolongation of the refusal work. To grasp the refusal of work as a measure of the method of social transformation for us means a tremendous step forward. It means focusing on the generalised reduction of working hours and linking it simultaneously with a process of revolutionary innovation, theoretical and practical, scientific and empirical, political and administrative, subordinated to the continuity of the class struggle over this content. It means being able to start to put forward material parameters for measuring the workers; progress in terms of communism. The problem of how to measure productive force, in fact, is not only a problem for the capitalists; on the other hand, in any case, it does not appear that, given the continuing crisis of the law of value, capital is really very capable of self-measurement. Command is not a measure, but is simply efficacy, an act of force. Neither the criterion of the wage hierarchy nor the monetary system any longer has any logic other than that of command. The productive force of social labor is not so much organized by capital as undergone by it, turned back against it as destructuring. Measuring the productivity of labor in terms of the refusal of work allows a complete demystification of capital’s command over productivity; it negates the possibility of a productivity of labor which is still exploitation and introduces a measure which at the same time unbalances the system – a measure of the increasing revolutionary intensity of the process of self-valorisation. At this point, finally, we should come to consider the measure not as a function of exploitation (as it has always been so far, and as the economists – even those of the school of value – continue to think: true to themselves!), but rather as a measure of freedom. A measure adapted to living labor, and not to the results of exploitation and the death of labor consolidated into capital. A measure of the quantity of revolution produced, of the quality of our life and our liberation. And this measure will provide the basis for our continuous formation and transformation of the method of social transformation.

To see the refusal of work both as a content and as a measure of the processes of self-valorization implies, as we have said, a number of relevant consequences. Here we need only highlight one fundamental one, since it has an immediate impact on class composition. It is the dynamic nexus that, on the basis of the practice of the refusal of work and its theoretical/practical extensions, is posited between the workers’ vanguard in direct production and the proletarian vanguard in indirect production. Now, even in the most revolutionary variants of theoretical Marxism, the nexus between direct and indirect productive labor has never been correctly posited; it has only been posited within a tendency of a merely objective character. Capital enlarges, integrates, develops, and socially recomposes productive labor in general: fine – and some have ventured to identify in this framework a movement of unification between directly and indirectly productive labor. But if we start from the standpoint of the refusal of work, then we can reinterpret these tensions deriving from the logic of capital: we can identify, in a complementary and/or antagonistic manner, a far deeper dialectical process running through the fabric of productive labor (and one which is desirable from the class point of view). The refusal of work is, first and foremost, the refusal of the most alienated – and therefore the most productive – labour. Secondly, it is the refusal of capitalist work as such – that is, of exploitation in general. And thirdly, it is a tension toward a renewal of the mode of production, toward an unleashing of the proletariat’s invention-power. In the interweaving of these three motifs, the dynamic intensity of the refusal of work invests the entirety of the capitalist mode of production. If all this is true, the social interchange which capital imposes and the division that slowly disappears between directly and indirectly productive labor ought to he assumed as a fundamental issue for the refusal of work. In the refusal of work, there is a recognition of the interchange between directly and indirectly productive labor, because there is a destructive tension on the part of the most exploited labour and the entirety of its social reproduction which is quite unifying. It is in the interest of the workers to tear aside the veils which capital draws over the unity of social labour, and instead to strengthen and articulate this unity. The refusal of work, once it presents itself as invention-power, must move within the unity of all the aspects of socal labour, of both directly and indirectly productive social labour. The radical method of social transformation can only be applied to this unity; it can only reassume and rearticulate it from the inside. The refusal of work, whether in terms of definition or in terms of prospects, thus invests the given composition of the class, bringing out its unitary characteristics, and insisting on the workers’ rearticulation of productive labour in all its aspects.

As regards the consequences that derive from the dynamics of the refusal of work, we shall take these up in the following two sections. Here. it has been important to insist upon the unity of social productive labour in terms of the refusal of work. Now, in this case our operation has been not only scientific, but also – and above all – political, because in fact it is within this complex unity of the refusal of work, based on the breadth and density of this definition of the class, that the threads of the revolutionary workers program thus far outlined all tie up. This class composition, then, seeks a communist program that will be adequate to its own sodal figure, which will strike effectively at the level of production and equally so at the level of reproduction. On the terrain of reproduction, the most immediate form taken by the refusal of work is that of the direct appropriation of wealth, either on the commercial level or on the institutional level, on the basis of this composition, the refusal of work launches an attack on the working week and proposes itself ultimately as the primary norm in relation to the development of proletarian invention-power. In short, this class composition which we see invested by the refusal of work and by invention-power begins to represent globally the process of self-valorisation. In its independence and separateness. (Allow me to add once again that this separateness is not technological utopianism, nor is it individual solitude, nor is it a communitarian illusion. On the other hand, after the experiences of the past ten years, is there anyone who can still doubt the efficacy and the complementarity of the double action that has been set in motion by the refusal of work – the destructuring of capital’s system and the destabilisation of capital’s regime?)




There’s an interesting article from May of last year (happy belated New Years, blog friends! May your 2019 be better than the disjointed hangover from 2017 that 2018 was) that has been making the twitter rounds today. I’m off twitter at the moment, polishing off the book, but managed to snag it nonetheless. It’s from the folks at the University of Helsinki, by way of “Expansion of global forests reflects well-being, not rising CO2, experts say”. Now, the argument that the ‘global greening’ that is currently way derives primarily from the same forces driving anthropogenic climate change comes from NASA, among other places; I’ll point the interested reader to the following article (from which I nabbed the very pleasant image above): “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds”. In brief, here’s what they have to say:

Green leaves use energy from sunlight through photosynthesis to chemically combine carbon dioxide drawn in from the air with water and nutrients tapped from the ground to produce sugars, which are the main source of food, fiber and fuel for life on Earth. Studies have shown that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide increase photosynthesis, spurring plant growth.

However, carbon dioxide fertilization isn’t the only cause of increased plant growth—nitrogen, land cover change and climate change by way of global temperature, precipitation and sunlight changes all contribute to the greening effect. To determine the extent of carbon dioxide’s contribution, researchers ran the data for carbon dioxide and each of the other variables in isolation through several computer models that mimic the plant growth observed in the satellite data.

Results showed that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70 percent of the greening effect, said co-author Ranga Myneni, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. “The second most important driver is nitrogen, at 9 percent. So we see what an outsized role COplays in this process.”

Pretty straightforward stuff. The Helsinki study, however, makes a strikingly different claim:

since the 1800s, transitions from net forest loss to gain have coincided with a switch within nations from subsistence to market oriented agriculture. Today the growth or decline of a nation’s forest resources correlates strongly to the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.


The study attributes forest expansion to several factors that have outweighed the impacts of population growth and improving diets. They include:

  • Urbanization, which draws farmers off marginal rural lands
  • Evolution from a subsistence regime to market economy, which further concentrates farming to the best lands
  • Better agricultural technologies and yields, relieving the need to clear new agricultural land
  • Better transportation, communication, storage, processing, and consumer behavior, reducing food waste
  • The availability of alternatives to wood as a fuel

Vilma Sandström underlines that another factor requires detailed impact assessment: developed nations increasingly outsource their resource needs to others abroad through international trade. Earlier research suggested that growing stock stops decreasing at a per capita income threshold at US$ 4,600 (in 2003 dollars). Today the threshold is likely closer to $20,000 dollars income per capita.

What is immediately obvious is the highly unexpected suggestion that the driver of deforestation is, in appropriately non-linear character, the development of the capitalist mode of production itself. Of particular note is the elimination of subsistence agriculture—that is, agriculture produced for the direct consumption of the household, or perhaps the small community—and the movement towards high-yield industrialized agriculture that distributes its output via the market. This point is, of course, coupled to the pertinent issue of urbanization: the decline of subsistence agriculture is directly correlated to the rise of a mobile workforce that goes in pursuit of employment, which generally entails going where capital is the most concentrated, i.e. the city. What the Helsinki study is describing, in other words, is the very dynamics sketched out by Marx, and further elaborated by those theorists that suggest that primitive accumulation is not a one-off event, but an ongoing, continual process of dispossession.

But it also illustrates the other side of this process, the progressive element that makes the capitalist mode of production such a revolutionary force. Dispossession itself is double-faced, oscillating between impoverishment and the radical increase of living standards, but the role of technology and scientific as motive forces alongside this dispossession and marketization must be highlighted. By concentrating agricultural production, by minimizing land-use through high-yield techniques, and by managing both agricultural and non-agricultural land through forest management and other conservation techniques, the trajectory of development appears angled, at least in part, to what the sort of situation Marx anticipated (as I briefly detailed in my post on Eco-Marx):

…The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production… Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society.

I don’t want to overstate the case, of course, and certainly the report deserves deeper scrutiny, especially in relation to other claims that emphasize the role of C02 in reforestation (not to mention the negative externalities that have arisen to the side of industrial agriculture, from the immense way to the problem of run-off to its own emissions). Nonetheless, it clearly illustrates a lesson, vital in this time in which limited, localist production, permaculture, and other small-scale food production techniques are being privileged: to position oneself against the capitalist system does not mean we do not have to refuse to recognize the progressive elements of the system, for it is precisely these elements—and the ultimate promises which they are denied—that are the building blocs of the future world.