The poor: a threatening and indispensable enemy

From the dangerous classes to the danger of the multitude

Antonio Negri. Published on Global Magazine, Issue 2, May 2003. Translated by Arianna Bove

The corsi e ricorsi of history are strange. It is renowned that throughout the history of capitalism the definition of ‘dangerous classes’ has been very flexible. In the era of manufacture the poor were the dangerous: the multitude of penniless and vagabonds agricultural workers and landless peasants forced to move towards cities and factories. In the era of large industry, the workers became the ‘dangerous class’: assembled en masse in the factory, they exercised a pressure that affected all social relations; the dangerous class had to be pushed on the path of poverty, unemployment, and the industrial reserve army. Today the poor is the enemy once again: in Postfordism, the flexible worker - mobile and precarious, capable of producing cognitive and intellectual surplus - is the enemy, threatened by means of exclusion, as if poverty was not enough. Precarious middle classes, taylorised intellectual labour and an immaterial labour force degraded through industrial instrumentalisation and the alienation of value: this is the fate of the new condition of poverty. However, never has the poor been in the condition of being as productive as he is now. In social production, since labour becomes cooperative, a concrete common realisation - and this common constitutes the core necessary condition for the production of commodities and services - exclusion would seem to be impossible. Despite the myriad of mechanisms of exclusion to which he is subjected, the poor expresses an enormous power of life and production. What is excluded through the legal and economic forms of capital is nevertheless included in the circuits of social and biopolitical production. Thus the poor, the unemployed, the homeless and wage less represent first of all a contradictory situation: they are excluded from a general social condition that conceives of value as built in community. This is the reason for the dangerousness of the poor, the substance of his ‘being foe’ to the actual form of capitalist command.

Despite its current crisis, the ideology of labour keeps producing negative effects. In the era of large manufacture, working class organisation never liked the poor: if the poor were excluded from the productive process, he was also excluded from any meaningful role in political organisation. Like the capitalists, the working class Left also conceived of the poor as dangerous, not only because the poor can appear to be unproductive social parasites (thieves, prostitutes, junkies etc.) but also because they seem politically unstable and basically irrational. In fact, at certain times in history fascists and reactionary populism used the poor as the social base and weapon against the working class, and counting on their disorganisation and resentment for their exclusion. The working class movement often imagined the poor to be part of the enemy, a full member of that industrial reserve army that could attack the wage relation and put workers’ employment in danger. Whilst communists certainly denounced labour aristocracies, the diffidence towards the poor would not cease so long as the ideology of labour hegemonised the minds of socialists.

In Postfordism the poor comes out of the picture into which he had been forced by large manufacture capitalism and the operaismo of that stage of social composition of labour. In many ways, the more the worker is positively inserted in social productive activity, the poorer he is today. The distinction between directly productive labour and unproductive labour has always been dubious, also in Marxian discourse. However, for Marx the poor were neither productive nor unproductive: they lied outside of production, as the savage lies outside of civilisation. But just as the savage fully resides inside globalisation today, so has the poor entirely re-entered social production. His productive capacity is not virtual - as it used to be when the vagabond was pushed from the countryside to new industrial cities. The labour capacity of the poor is now actual because the entire set of social relations is productive. However, the poor is still the enemy or has become again the enemy par excellence because he is necessary to production, rich in productive capacity and included in social production. All of this, just in the name of the need for inclusion, makes him dangerous and inimical. As it is always the case for the enemy of society, the poor must fight against poverty and thus recognise himself as his own enemy. Such was the case of the worker who, struggling against exploitation, had to conceive his own destruction. The suppression of poverty must then represent itself as the suppression of the poor. But the suppression of poverty is also a struggle against those who organise poverty as the basis of their wealth and of capitalist development.

If it is true that the poor is included in the biopolitical texture of social production, the struggle against poverty will be a constituent one. Poverty reveals the subversive content of the universal participation of the labour force to social production. In the era of large industry the struggles of the poor were always resistance struggles - whatever their outcome. In England, Germany, the United States in the 1920's, and again in Europe during the 1970's, the struggles of the poor were struggles for appropriation. Resistance and appropriation are the struggles of the excluded, but today, with the social inclusion of labour, the struggles of the poor merge and become entangled with those of the workers and they are constituent. They only become effective when they manage to halt the mechanisms of exploitation and hierarchisation of the global labour force. Because of this, citizenship income becomes the constituent political key of the struggles of the poor: it merges the political recognition of inclusion and the project of democratic management of globalisation. Thus the poor becomes the real enemy.

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