I think the people that went there expected a boxing game, a good one, rather nice than brutal but still a fight. I also think that most people had paid a bet for either part.
The seminar with the name multitude versus working class (that should have been called Negri versus Callinicos) was announced to 14.00 at la Vilette, one of the four areas, in four different communes in Paris where the European Social Forum (ESF) was held. The debate was set for a room designed for around 300 persons, at least thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve heard â€“ I never managed to get in. When we got to the place it was lovely surrounded by trees, with all the autumn colours on the leafs and with the typical architecture of la Vilette with balconies and stairs everywhere and a crowd was standing outside. Maybe 1500, maybe more, standing outside the entrance shouting: outside, outside.
Demanding for the debaters to come outside. People speaking on their mobile phones, organisers walking back and forth, the crowd staying â€“ it was irresistible, one had to stay, it was the spectacle of the forum. Scola couldnâ€™t have set the scenery better. I had by chance got hold on an exclusive balcony ticket, thanks to being late and not bothering to even trying to get into the room. A
decision was taken that they were coming out and very slowly people started to slip out out, restraint by the crowd that did not want to loose a good seat, close to the fence with enough space to sit on the cold and humid concrete. Interpretation was not going to be possible outdoors, people got organised in small language groups with one person interpreting, Negri interpreted himself from Italian to French, Callinicos got someone to do English to French.
And the boxing game started.
It would be very unjust of me to try to reproduce what they said. I did not tape the debate, and even if I took notes they could not give justice to what actually was said. What I can do is to give my impression, based on my own prejudices and concerns. Personally I had bet money on Negri, not because I knew anything about his technique, but because I prefer his theory.
They started off by explaining their concepts: working class by Callinicos and multitude by Negri. Both of them surprised me. When I listened to Callinicos what came up to my mind was a male blue-collar worker, going up in the morning, receiving his lunch package by his working-class, probably unlucky, woman and going to the factory to stand at the assembly line. He did not say that but that is what I thought of. That made me finally understand the point of criticising the concept of working class as has been done many times, for example by Hardt and Negri in Empire. They criticise the concept of working class to exclude what is not male, white and works in the industry, and obviously that is a problem.
In Sweden where I live the average working class is probably a woman working in the public sector, an image that seldom comes to our minds. When Negri spoke he explained the concept of multitude and he was much more Marxist and more class oriented than I had expected him to be. But when he spoke no image came into my mind. Even though I tried to concretise images of women, men, old and young everything was so mixed up that I ended up conceptualising thinking of multiple identities and off was the collective. Left was an individual while one of the most important things with the term working class is that it sets a collective in movement. I was not convinced that we should switch working class to multitude.
Then they were going to respond to each other. I think the audience would have expected some bloodshed, some fighting spirit, instead they treated each other extremely polite. Here Negri convincingly spoke about the change and transformation work has gone trough, about value, where surplus, value and profit is produced and not produced. Work is more immaterial and everybody is exploited in capitalist society.
Callinicos spoke about exploitation as distinct from oppression, strikes, about the danger of the movement being turned against the working class. He claimed that the working class and the social movements are weak if they are not united, and gave Argentina as an example. One of his conclusions was that there should be alliances and fusions between the working class and the movement.
Here Negri spoke hard and with a good debate technique against alliances, he said something like; Stalin made alliances, we have to make other things. That was one of the highlights of the debate. I thought that was the moment where they were going to get tougher, question one another arguments but also argue even more in favour of their own. But that never took off really. They did not attack each otherâ€™s point of views clear enough. They never explained the importance of their own concepts. Does Callinicos want us to use the concept of working class, and who are not part of that concept? Does Negri want us to change from working class to multitude, and why would that be so urgent?
I couldnâ€™t say that there was a clear winner. Of course people already convinced thought that their â€œownâ€ side won. I feel more unconfident. Not in that I was wrong in betting Negri. I was right, I still prefer his theory, his way of articulating problems and proposing changes. But my problem is that I loose the facility to view my own role in his discourse. What can a young activist do? When it comes to Callinicos itâ€™s so easy to imagine a role, even though I have no workplace to organise a general strike at.
Negri says you have million of possibilities but Iâ€™m afraid the only ideas I get from listening to Negri are very individual possibilities. I donâ€™t share the, in my eyes, Alex Callinicos very narrow definition of the working class but at the same time I feel more safe in knowing my role in a collective struggle when he speaks.
Theoretically I think Toni Negri is right, about the changes, about what is new, about the importance of including more people and more groups in seeing what is todayâ€™s revolutionary subject but I feel lost trying to figure out my role in a collective struggle.
While Callinicos is clear on the object â€“ to change the world by working class revolution â€“ his subject is based on a narrow materialist base, Negri has no clear subject, but a broad materialist base â€“ almost everybody in the world are part of what could become a transformatory and revolutionary movement â€“ but the method is vague and hence we are condemned to individual resistance.
Who won? I would say Negri â€“ Callinicos 2-2.
I would happily see another game, and bet money again. This is one of the things that the social forum process should be used for: to debate, to give people possibilities to break new ground.
It was a good game. Lets hope next one is even better.