Letters to the Heretics

Seventh Letter

Very dear Antonio,[1]

They tell me that, for a while now, you have fished in troubled waters, and I am quite comfortable with this. You are too intelligent to take literally the anathema that the [Italian Communist] Party hurls against the adventurous initiatives taken by the young people whom you inspire, those whom one calls the autonomes, because these invectives, which have become ritualized, must on the contrary be understood as incitements that take aim at the vivid forces of society so that they feel themselves pushed to intervene through new and creative actions that prevent the sclerosis of the entire country.

One knows it well: praise and applause encourage the conformists to remain certain about being right and to retain the strength to take the lead, just as rebels need calumny and hissing, which they attract according to their intensity, for the very same reasons. Our insults thus serve you as a stimulant, and if we address them to you insistently, this is because we in the Party have understood that entreaties and demands, even the most extreme ones, are destined to furnish (over time) a rich material for positive political interventions by the apparatus that exercises command. Thus, the ostracism with which we have struck you is only apparently real, and you have perfectly understood this.

According to the warning of Comrade Togliatti, “power creates nothing, it recuperates,”[2] that is to say, power engages itself on all the routes that revolutionaries and social troubles point out to it. Without them, power would be reduced to a vacuum,[3] forced into inaction and decline. Without the food provided by revolutionaries, a dynamic power such as capitalism would die; it is opposition that allows it to live – certainly not parliamentary opposition, which is a pure simulacrum – but the living, spontaneous and perpetually surpassed opposition that is proper to the most inflamed extremists.

Moreover, where capitalism is concerned, a country without conflict would not even be governable and, if it were without conflict, it would not merit being governed. It would be confined to second-tier countries where nothing happens and which are better known due to the brochures[4] issued by travel agencies than due to the dynamism of the conflicts that ravage them. Such countries, which are quite rare, only bring their governors meager satisfaction. What sense is there in having power if it is separated from its concrete exercise?

This isn’t the case here in Italy, because we enjoy an enviable preeminence: our country constitutes one of the “weakest links in the imperialist chain,” as they love to say in Leninist circles. That such national renown has been merited or usurped has only limited importance. It was, in any case, a preeminence, and all eyes were fixed upon Italian events and the skill with which our governors and institutions confronted them. A star[5] on the international stage of contestation, Italy was considered a difficult country to govern and, consequently, very gratifying for the politicians who intended to take the reins. Then came the stasis, which some called the post-68 ebb, and, from then on, the satisfaction decreased and the exercise of power became a tedious routine. But thank heaven, the truce was short and you autonomes appeared on the Italian political terrain, thus restoring a meaning to the difficult art of governing.

I will never stop repeating that power cannot live without the antagonism of revolutionaries (a very convenient formula to which we are now accustomed). When revolutionaries keep quiet and sink into inaction, power is reduced to a very poor “administration of things,” as is stated by an oft-repeated but badly understood formula. The logic of combat is, on the contrary, the real logic of capitalism and, when it falters, one at best falls back into pre-capitalist forms of social organization and at worst into post-capitalist forms that I prefer not to mention.

But such dangers are not present in Italy today, thanks to your appearance, which has permitted the country to recover from the dangerous absence of combative ideology[6] that had briefly existed. I do not wish to bore you with historical observations, my dear Antonio, and this is why I will limit myself to saying that, in this century, Italian intellectuals and politicians have given form to an ideological kernel that is solid and strongly combative,[7] oppositional, and resistant.[8] From Gramsci to you – by way of such intermediary stages as the editorial politics of Einaudi, at first, and then those of Feltrinelli,[9] the activity of the CLN,[10] the dissidents in the PCI in the 1960s,[11] the student protest movements led by people such as Viale and Sofri,[12] FUORI[13] and the feminist movement – there has been no break in the continuity. This combative current, a real Italian ideology, of which you are the epigones, still hasn’t found its critique, that is to say, its Marx,[14] who would liquidate it en bloc, and thus it continues to prosper. Despite its oppositional appearance, it remains an ideology of the perpetuation of power in the sense that it allows current conditions to nourish themselves with always-renewed reasons to live.

Burke remarks that “the speculative line of demarcation, where obedience ought to end, and resistance must begin, is faint, obscure and not easily defined,”[15] and I would add that it is impossible to determine. No individual ever knows if his comportment is situated on the terrain of obedience or that of revolt, but – despite this insurmountable speculative impossibility – the great majority of the Italian people are convinced they should act in opposition [to the established order] and, guided by the ideologues who “know the world,” they are completely disposed to head to the streets to transform it. The greatest terror for an Italian, who is indolent and servile by historical heritage and thus a little boastful, is that he might appear docile and resigned. As a result, if he encounters leaders who push him to go into action, to become disobedient and to put himself forward, he follows them, believing that he redeems himself by doing so.

Thus, as Macrobius says, to the leader “nothing is more suitable than to be thoughtful.”[16] Using this privileged slogan, the Italian ideologues of the last fifty years (obviously I’m referring to the progressives and revolutionaries[17]) have done everything to diffuse the belief that, after it has been made known, the world must be transformed. This was originally a Christian idea, formulated by the Bible, which encouraged mankind – due to its resemblance to God – to rule over the earth, and today it is the presumptuous pretention of capitalism that mankind must master its own destiny and transform the world. This is an extravagant principle, but it underlies every combative ideology, yours included.

The leaders think that the world must be transformed, and his subordinates are tasked with doing so. But in any effective collectivity, those who lead must, to a certain extent, also be disposed to follow by resigning themselves to the tastes, abilities and dispositions of the troops. The important thing is that the leading concept is not discussed. In this case, it is a good thing that one abandons the modalities of the transformation of the world for the inclinations of the executants of the renewal, on the condition that no one takes it into his head to see the world rot in tranquility or other, even more attractive conditions.

It is unavoidable that one encounters tranquil or other more impassioned attitudes among the masses. The essential thing is that all of them aim at regenerating the current state of things, with or without a revolution. You autonomes are precisely the most relentless in demanding immediate improvements. The behaviors that you put into action, inspired by an old tradition of illegal mass practices and by the more recent theoretical suggestions that are oriented towards criminal activity, are the most expeditious means to make this society flower again. You attack the supermarkets, which are the granaries of our times, in the same way that, in the past, the lower classes had recourse to this exasperated form of struggle in the name of a real distributive justice; you occupy buildings, thus stimulating the construction industry, particularly in the public sector; you demand free culture as the plebeians did with the circuses[18] and, when you contest culture, you obtain an unproven renewal of its quality.

I wonder: is this really opposition? There is no point in invoking the criminal and illegal components of your behavior, because violations of the law have nothing to do with putting capitalist society into question.[19] Laws are only the passing emanations of capitalism, which is quick to annul [or repeal] them (and replace them with others, naturally) as soon as social forces demand it. Thus bad laws, violated by subversives, are no more eternal juridical manifestations of capitalism than the spaces opened up by the actions of men through these violations are anticipations of the “islands of socialism,” which is something I am sometimes obligated to declare, under protest, to some tribunal. More modestly, these are spaces that are ready to receive new pieces of legislation that are more in conformity with the exigencies of capitalist development.

Thus, the traditional Marxist thesis that it is the judge who creates the criminal, and the Christian fundamentalist thesis that, on the contrary, it is the criminal who – with his own hands – erects the gallows mutually complete each other and say a single thing: capitalism’s negation of the rules of conduct is its only healthy aspect. Since capitalism, deprived of infractions, is condemned, the legislator creates the crook by enunciating certain norms, which the hoodlum violates in his turn to solidly install himself on the operational terrain that was reserved for him: the veritable hunting ground that the law strictly delimited for him. To say it in terms accessible to you: the robber steals that which one no longer desires and leaves for him to steal.

Understand me well: I nourish no animosity for criminals. Thieves, looters, bandits, fare dodgers and home invaders have always existed, with the choice of profession deriving from each person’s circumstances of birth and inclinations. Nor is it new that one sometimes seeks to furnish these crimes with political justifications, which is most often done to exert pressure for a change of regime. On the other hand, what leaves me perplexed is the fact that you justify your illegal actions by invoking an enormity such as the advent of communism. Or perhaps you believe that communism can be summarized as the instauration of a new social accounting that allows those poor devils access to the commodities in the supermarkets, to popular dwellings and cultural spectacles? If that’s what you think, our political lines do not diverge, and you would do well to dye all the crooks red.[20] Distracted by the crumbs that the present offers them in the name of the ideal of communism, these hoodlums will never know that there is better in life, and their (presumed) vitality will resolve itself into routine[21] or self-destruction. Consequently, the human imagination will never escape from the pincers of consent and violation.

That each person follows his own flights of fancy, trying to give them reality through conduct that is so foreign to the current models that one cannot classify them as illegal or legal – that is the terrible danger that we must always conjure away.

The quandary of a judge who is called upon to make a ruling on behavior that is so incongruous that it isn’t vigorously foreseen by legislation would be the terrifying sign that things have reached the stage mentioned above. I do not know if cases of this type have already been observed, but, in the goal of better confronting the danger and knowing how to keep it at bay, I task myself with furnishing you a few possible examples, chosen from the fields of morality, environmental protection and [economic] production, respectively.

Let us ask in what fashion the governmental apparatus would be able to intervene against the following hypothetical events.

a) The undertaking of this suggestion by Sade: “Different sites, sound, vast, properly furnished and solid on all points, will be erected in the towns; at them, all the genders, all the ages and all the creatures will be offered to the caprices of the libertines who will enjoy them, and the most complete subordination will be the rule of the individuals so presented.”[22] It is probable that the [criminal] accusation here would be a trifle with respect to the grandeur of the project.

b) The rise of a movement against urbanism that is dedicated to the demolition of all ugliness, such as dormitory cities, factories, religious edifices, stadiums, museums, etc.; to the suppression of doors and locks in all places; and to the creation of permanent, natural boundaries where automobile traffic is most fluid. The charges would concern the damage done and erection of barricades: mere peccadilloes for such an ambitious task.

c) As assembly of workers who question the meaning of their respective jobs (apart from the obvious collection of a salary), formulate the traditional questions in the manuals of political economy (what, how and for whom to produce?), and, once they have verified the insignificance of the jobs to which they are assigned, decide to commit themselves to the realization of artistic sensations or other similar pleasures. Such people would obviously be guilty of insubordination, and the government inspector would, with the support of the union, validate their dismissals [by management] for “good reason.” But one might wonder what sense there would be in having dismissals after the fact, when, in reality, it was the old world that had been dismissed.

These are only poor examples, the fruits of the sterile imagination of a Secretary of the [Communist] Party, but I am not deprived of the knowledge that any individual would, unfortunately, be able to weave much more tasty machinations. It would be best to hang a prudent veil over such activities, which are neither new nor old and, at bottom, are only moderately illicit (beyond the norm, one might say), and, instead of them, accept the delinquency that manifests itself in canonical forms and even more so, as I have said, if they are justified politically. Everyone must see the impossibility of the “qualitative leap” and thus the necessity of getting used to earning a salary or stealing one.

The political activity that you, the autonomes, conduct will certainly be successful. The idea that work in all its forms is harmful, which is an idea that has already been the prerogative of the property-owning classes, is in the process of being popularized. The young people who live as deliberate parasites, unemployed by choice and not by necessity; who steal, who scrounge right and left; who recycle garbage; who produce handmade garbage; and who deal drugs – they are always more numerous today.

The ranks of this army grow with time but, even if the entire population was finally persuaded of the noxious character of work and thus abstained from it, capitalist society would not be supplanted. Capitalism does not live upon current work; it is enough for it that past work is valorized in one way or another. And what better means to revalorize past work than the behavior of revolutionaries who, by stealing merchandise and by occupying hovels, create a social demand for products that one would prefer to see perish? Without the always increasing demand of the modern parasitical sectors – the contemporary revolutionaries who reject work – capitalist expansion would be impossible, which is what Malthus noted about the parasites of his times.

Upon closer examination, the revolutionary of today is an individual who wants something for free.[23] This is his idée fixe, and all of his behavior is oriented towards obtaining goods and services without paying his share in days at work; he prefers to have recourse to theft. But whether it is through the use of money or not, the revolutionary wants exactly what exists,; it doesn’t enter his mind that he might want something that doesn’t exist yet or he doesn’t desire to see what already exists disappear (which amounts to the same thing). He limits himself to wanting a different social compatibility, another way of appropriating commodities, and all of his activity is mono-maniacally devoted to this objective. Therefore, as Marx remarked, “commodities are things and, consequently, they do not offer any resistance to man. If they lack will, one can employ force, in other words, seize them.”[24] But it is precisely still a question of commodities, whatever the manner one has of procuring them.

The credibility of the revolutionary derives from the reiteration of his actions. Incapable of doing anything other than not paying for the goods and services that the market offers, he obstinately specializes in this conduct and acquires a certain credit for the future. Thus he manages to float his little boat, collecting tithes from his neophyte comrades and tips[25] from his family, which is resigned to what he “has made thus.” At this point, his credibility is over and he can finally extinguish and abandon his incessant activism, which permits a period of crisis or reflection, and even an escapade in the East,[26] but not for too long, because fickleness that is prolonged for too long would definitely cost him his credit, which, in this particular sector, is very difficult to reconquer once one is in one’s thirties. Thus, he periodically reappears in public, always putting forward the same recycled ideas, now become putrid, and clings to his livelihood like a usurer, only offering his own continuity as a revolutionary, which no one sees, except capitalism itself.

Lombroso would say that the political criminal, that is to say, the revolutionary, is the victim of a frightened attraction to novelties. This is why Lombroso calls him a “neophyte,” which is a label that is perfectly applicable to you, the autonomes, who ceaselessly seek novelties that are capable of bringing oxygen to a society that can only asphyxiate when deprived of the repeated emergences of conditions to surpass. Fortunately, those who pose as revolutionaries haven’t ceased wondering “what is to be done?” and responding with some innovative discovery, a priori excluding the terrifying hypothesis of their own disappearance, which would be the only real, incommensurable damage to capitalism, which would thus be deprived of its principal innovative agents. The real danger for current society will arise when the revolutionary, without thinking about anyone else, will in his heart of hearts answer Lenin’s question with this response: “I’m going to take care of my balls.”

One could object that, by choosing this route, the revolutionary moves from the frying pan into the fire, and that, emerging from the philoneist madness revealed by Lombroso, he ends up in the madness of “the perfect separation of the individual from his gender,” a danger described by Hegel.[27] It would be too easy to reply that gender,[28] as everyone knows, no longer has any characteristics of the human community, which has been reduced to the pure community of capitalism, and that there is no reason to abandon it and shut oneself away in solitude or small groups, as Boccaccio’s group did to avoid the plague.

Fortunately, this exodus from vulgar appetites hasn’t taken place, and the revolutionary, perceiving the triviality and insignificance of his desires that are, all in all, similar to those of the common man, proclaims bluntly that the vulgarity of one’s appetites is a right.

As for me, dear Antonio, advanced in age and immersed in the bureaucratic practices of the secretariat of a party that is always at the limit of fossilization when it isn’t stimulated by waves of social eversion, I certainly cannot openly support you, but if I were thirty years younger, I would surely be on your side, if not to fuck shit up in the streets, then at least to give my intellectual contribution to the socialization of the desires of the masses that you would like to satisfy. And nothing would please me more.

[1] Publisher’s note: we don’t know the year of Antonio Negri’s birth with certainty. He was associated with the “school of the Movement,” thereafter always remaining “in contact with class reality,” sometimes even “in a laborious and wheezing manner.” He is the principal Italian representative of “being against, for and with” and he has no doubts about “the richness of his needs and desires.” He has a weakness for the “dirty proletarian who speaks [of] communism,” and it matters little to him to present himself in the traditional costume of the “dock worker” or the [contemporary] costume of the freak [English in original], according to his mood. Theoretical inspiration for the so-called autonomous groups. [Translator: Negri was born in 1933.]

[2] It wasn’t Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, but the situationists who said this. Cf. Internationale Situationniste #8 (January 1963).

[3] English or Latin in original (the word is the same in both languages).

[4] French in original.

[5] French in original.

[6] The Italian here is di ideologia combattentistica.

[7] The Italian here is combattentistica.

[8] The Italian here is resistenziale.

[9] Founded by Giulio Einaudi in 1933, Giulio Einaudi Editore was one of the most important Italian publishing houses of the 20th century. It specialized in works by anti-fascists and Communists. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore was founded in 1954 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a Communist and political activist.

[10] Comitati di Liberazione Nazionale (the Committee of National Liberation), a communist organization of anti-fascists during World War II.

[11] It was in the 1950s that dissidents in the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) came to prominence.

[12] Guido Viale and Adriano Sofri, members of Lotta continua.

[13] See letter to Angelo Pezzana.

[14] A reference to Marx’s book, The German Ideology.

[15] Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Reflections on the French Revolution. English in original.

[16] Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (Fifth Century, CE), author of Saturnalia. Note that the author has dropped out the words ratus magno duci (thinking by the Grand Duke). Latin in original.

[17] But not the fascists.

[18] Latin in original.

[19] See letter to the partisan of armed struggle.

[20] That is, see them all as communists.

[21] French in original.

[22] From “One More Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Be Republicans,” in Philosophy in the Bedroom. French in original.

[23] This critique bears a strong resemblance to the one that Guy Debord would subsequently make of the ex-situationist Raoul Vaneigem in a letter to Paolo Salvadori dated 30 November 1979: “To enjoy everything, it is necessary and sufficient that it is free (waiting for it, he nevertheless confesses to work ‘a little’ for his survival, and one knows how). As there remains for him one or two free pleasures – spouting off [pisser] is one of his examples – he slides to the affirmation that he enjoys every moment, exactly like the poor women whom he has known. This simulator, here imitating – without avowing it – the ideological excesses of Professor [Jean-Francois] Lyotard of Vincennes, rallies himself against the sad lies of all the consumers who proclaim themselves to be happy, with the important difference that here it is free (…) Elsewhere, his conception of the free [gratuity] is only opposed to the commodity by the faraway memory of his youth. In fact, he is opposed – with a quite understandable terror – to all value judgments about someone or something, like a dialogue or the least reciprocity. And this world of the ‘free,’ in the neo-Vaneigemist sense, is precisely the pure world of the modern commodity, to which he has rallied, but not without making his fortune: there is no choice and nothing is worth anything.”

[24] Karl Marx, Chapter Two, Capital, Volume I.

[25] French in original.

[26] This might refer to the ex-situationist René Vienet, who went off to Hong Kong.

[27] Ueber die Reichsverfassung (“About the Constitution”). German in original.

[28] German in original.

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