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Benoît Hamon and Universal Income

Antonio Negri27 February 2017

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Antonio Negri's commentary on French Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon's proposal for a universal income first appeared in 
EuroNomade. Translated by David Broder.

There is something strange about taking interest in an electoral campaign again: it is a long time since this happened to me. When I saw Benoît Hamon on TV after he won the French Socialist primaries I felt — with a certain surprise — something of a breath of fresh air. Hamon won the Socialist primaries promising an unconditional citizen income, at a decent level. I will say right away: it is impossible that this proposal could determine a definitive break with this rotten system. Indeed, a series of interventions by friends and enemies alike implacably told us how alone he is on this score. They said, one after the other: Hamon talks about robots and automation; he says we need only go to the supermarket in order to realise the extent and depth of the rarefaction of work; and who denies it?; but that this is something quite different from asserting the need to set as the objective for labour governance not full employment, but citizen income... But where does he want to take us? What he is saying is just tall tales, unrealisable utopias, naïve fables.

Yet this was indeed a break, a powerful and evident one. To begin with, however, we will raise one first objection: are these not things that we knew already? What is new about it? Already in 1972 the Nobel prize winner in economics Wassily Leontief had attentively pointed out that with the spread of computers "the role of human as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors." Yet this was a rupture. Less bluntly, ever since the 1970s we have heard these same truths being repeated obsessively in order to strike fear into us, including through the banalities reorganised by Jeremy Rifkin and many of our home-grown prophets in their account of the ills that only freedom of trade could save us from.

So what about Benoît Hamon’s programme is novel, breaking with the debate and making it anew? There is the fact that while, in the first place, Hamon is proposing the citizen income as a defensive measure (as work becomes increasingly scarce), at the same time he is making two further steps that transform this defensive attitude into an offensive one — into something probably able to block neoliberal policies and to open up a new cycle of production and of struggles against work. Indeed, from the explanation of the income proposal’s defensive character there follows an indication of the new character that exploitation has assumed; an extractive quality, an activity that extracts value from society (and/or the citizenry) as a whole.

The welfarist theme of full employment is thus no longer central, because whether they are employed or not, each person in this society is implicated in the productive process, within the networks of cooperation that today close the productive forces within the relations of production. It is the spotlight on this fact that has raised a scandal. It was really comical to hear the old sea dogs of the big banks, the charitable Catholics and the enraged trade unionists on the TV declaring that the problem is respect for the dignity of labour and its personal and sacred character. They all want to return to an ideal Locke-of-the-origins where it is labour that creates freedom. In their anger, they in fact mask the more diverse — but concomitant — fears building up in opposition to the citizen income: the fear that the citizen income would allow the constitution of a unitary terrain of struggle that would break with the class fragmentation and/or the dissipation of the multitude that today determine the capitalist command’s extractive operations.

Effectively the citizen income — the demand for it, and its implementation — can actively constitute as a counterpower that social and productive cooperation which capital dominates by disaggregating it into a set of hierarchies and differences. Moreover, the citizen income allows (stimulates, forms) a common front not only of workers but also of the new subjects discriminated by race and gender — which today constitute the central prisms through which the separation of co-operating living labour is determined. This recomposition is necessary in order to achieve the defeat of neoliberal policies and thus open up the constitutional pact again, putting back in discussion the material constitution and the constitutionally consolidated relations of class forces.

However — as we were saying — there is a second element that colours the surprise over Hamon’s proposal and makes it so novel. In an intellectually reactive environment like Paris — a metropolis of mass intellectuality — the defensive character of the citizen income proposal, and the political dislocation that we have seen it capable of producing, gains wider acceptance. This latter is realised as people become conscious that these connective elements, and the expression of the common that a governmentality of citizen income could activate, express the new reality of labour-power: its cognitive nature, its profoundly co-operative stamp, its capacity for hegemony among exploited living labour. The decisive passage in the struggle against finance capital — qua agent of extractive exploitation and unifying force of all capitalist politics today — opens up at this level.

Also making their mark on these strategic terms are today’s necessary tactical avenues. These passages are appearing all of a sudden in the French presidential elections, and unexpectedly so. I get the impression that here we find ourselves faced with episodes like those Marx narrated when he recounted the class struggles in nineteenth-century France and the different bourgeois means of defeating them. Opposing Hamon’s republican proposal — a progressive one, because it defines what will eventually be a productive terrain for class struggle — are the diverse forces of the capitalist deployment, from a corrupt and hypocritical conservative Right to the directly capitalist-financial-entrepreneurial centre — Fillon on one side, Macron on the other. These are the forces most opposed to the recomposition of a class front, such as a citizen income could produce. The Right wants to do this by proposing an old-style welfare. However, it is also conscious that this welfare would gradually be nibbled away at by the demands of direct capitalist investment, and indeed it is well-disposed to favour such an inversion of this project. Macron, for his part, wants to renew a harsh capitalist welfare, recognising the transformation of class structures and rearticulating it at the level of the hegemony of cognitive labour. It is on this terrain — following Marx’s indications — that struggle is so necessary. The problem that the new class composition poses is one of recognising as a fundamental terrain the — defensive and/or offensive — cohesion of a subject, of a set and/or a complex; in short, a class alliance against the new disaggregation that the most attentive capitalist forces, the French Rothschilds (who are to Macron what Goldman Sachs was to Hillary Clinton) would like to bring about.

And then there is the other problem: the problem of the fascist Right. The call to militant antifascism is beginning to make itself heard again as a unifying theme (and it will resonate all the more so at the second round of the presidential elections). As usual, it is also a regressive theme in terms of the composition of class political fronts. Today we need an effort to coordinate the element of recomposition (to be found in the very assertion of the citizen income proposal) with the second element, the political element allowing the recognition and elaboration of the new needs constructed by mass intellectuality, bringing them into a suitable political programmatisation.

No one can predict what will happen in France in the next few months. And yet election results are now so crazy that even Hamon and his project should be granted a lot of room for hope. It is clear that the greatest danger lies in Marine Le Pen winning. Yet we ought not underestimate the hulk of an operation being conducted by Macron, which is probably able to weigh down heavily on the development of the class struggle and cognitive labour-power’s resistance in coming decades. Le Pen is repression; Macron is a capitalist project, the class struggle waged by the bosses.

Fundamentally, it would not have been mad to think that Macron himself could have presented the citizen income as part of his programme. Didn’t Grillo and the 5 Star Movement do so in Italy? From the capitalist point of view, this is purely and simply a recognition of the new technical (cognitive, cooperative) composition of the productive proletariat. But the question becomes a decisive one when the class recomposes itself around citizen income. A decent, unconditional citizen income is, then, not only a goal — it is, above all, a weapon for recomposing a communist force. The angle that Hamon has given his proposal seems inclined in this direction. And it is impressive that a Socialist has proposed it, for this proposal is an attempt to refound politics beyond work, against work. An attempt to transcend the centuries-long ontology of socialism itself.


Filed under: elections, france, universal-income