Mario Tronti, “The Strategy of Refusal”
Tronti, Mario. “The Strategy of Refusal,” in Operai e Capitale (“Workers and Capital”), Einaudi, Turin, 1966, pp. 234-252.
Review by Hayyim Rothman
Italian philosopher Mario Tronti wrote an influential book called Operai e Capitale in 1966. Since then, parts of the book have been translated into English, including a section titled “The Strategy of Refusal.” For Tronti, the greatest power of the working class is the power of refusal. Tronti argues that this includes the refusal of work, the refusal of capitalist development, and the refusal to bargain within a capitalist framework.
Tronti argues that “The effective development of the productive power of labour begins when labour is transformed into wage labour.” This is a critical step in building the political power of workers, for “the effective development of the political power of labour really begins from the moment that labourers are transformed into workers.”
As with all of Tronti’s work, “The Strategy of Refusal” sees a direct link between production and politics. It is as labor develops its productive power, according to Tronti, that it also develops political power, because the political power of labor is the “command over production.” As Tronti explains, capital requires a society based on production, which means that “whoever controls and dominates [production] controls and dominates everything.”
The capitalist class requires control over production in order to exist, according to Tronti. By going on strike and stopping work, workers also refuse to cede the command of capital and the organization of production to the capitalist class. This refusal, of course, means the destruction of capital. In short, “the worker cannot be labour other than in relation to the capitalist. The capitalist cannot be capital other than in relation to the worker.”
While this seemingly implies the fundamental subordination of the working class to the capitalist class, Tronti argues the reverse. The symbiotic relationship gives the worker power, because through worker insubordination, workers can abolish the capitalist. In Tronti’s view, the capitalists recognize this danger and attempt to “emancipate itself” from the working class by relying on the state to “make the working class abandon its proper social role as the dominant class.” It is government, in Tronti’s work, that serves as the guarantor of capitalist class domination.
This link between capital and political power gives workers another way to target the capitalist system. “Smashing the bourgeois State means destroying the power of the capitalists,” Tronti concludes.
Workers’ movements, according to Tronti, must recognize this fundamental nature of state power. The state serves as a mechanism designed to oppose the worker. “When the attempt was made to apply the model of the bourgeois revolution to the course of the working class revolution, it was at that point . . . that we saw the strategic collapse of the movement. The workers were supposed to copy this model, they were supposed to demonstrate, in practice, that they were capable of managing the economy of the society.” However, Tronti claims that these attempts failed because they demanded a form of collaboration with a capitalist institution: the state itself.
Tronti sees the tactic of collaboration as a key part of Western workers’ movements. Trade unionism, for example, agrees to “limit the class relationship within a formal, legal, contractual form.” Yet by doing so, “it has become, in fact, an element of stabilisation of capitalist development.” By working within the capitalist system, workers have thus strengthened the very system that oppresses them.
Here, Tronti returns to the concept of refusal. Rather than collaboration, workers must take up non-collaboration as a tactic. “Mass passivity at the level of production is the material fact from which we must begin.” Antagonism rather than collaboration should be the organizing principle of the working class. There must also be a “working class refusal to present demands to capital”––because doing so implies that capital is in charge. Instead, Tronti advocates, “the revolutionary process sees the working class becoming ever-increasingly what it actually is: a ruling class on its own terrain.”
In Tronti’s revolutionary formation, the working class is “a conquering power which, in destroying the present, takes revenge for a whole past (not merely its own) of subordination and exploitation.” In short, workers’ movements must refocus not on making demands of capital but on generating autonomous power for workers. This must include political autonomy, which will force capital to make demands that workers can refuse.
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Hayyim Rothman has a PhD in Philosophy from Boston College and recently received a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellowship to work at Bar Ilan University in Israel.