Negri: Letter to a Tunisian Friend
February 14th, 2011
It’s true — twenty years ago when you were my student at Paris 8 — we couldn’t have imagined that the Tunisian revolution would have taken this shape and would have stirred up constitutional problems analogous to those of a social uprising in central Europe. Together we studied the expulsion of the working class from the phosphate mines in southern Tunisia, a prodrome [early symptom] of the great waves of internal and external migration, and the slow transformation that the relocation of the European textile industry has caused in your country. You worked hard to show me the productive potentialities of your country, beyond the textile, tourism and petroleum industries (which have only recently started expanding). Everything happened so quickly. Twenty years ago we were just beginning to stammer about globalization, but today it’s gotten to the point that Tunisia has become a European province, and with it, the world. Twenty years ago we could barely comprehend the transformation from industrial work into immaterial/cognitive work, and today Tunisia has an overabundance of this cutting edge labor power. For twenty years we’ve exposed the terrifying transformation that neoliberalism has imposed on and across the changing shape of the market and labor: the end of the traditional salary system, and with it came mass unemployment and unbearable precarisation: 35% of the young are cognitive workers, but only 10% are employed. Moreover, Tunisia has endured endless attacks on welfare, terrible regional inequality, the disastrous effects of migration, a freeze on foreign investment, etc… And, after all, these last twenty years have been an affirmation of a mafia-esque dictatorship, an affirmation of limitless corruption and of a repressive system that is deceitful and cruel — deceitful because it depends upon and legitimizes itself through Western fears of some Islamic menace and cruel because it is purely and simply a force of class domination and oppression by a corrupt dictator against workers and honest people.
…The insurrection has created new strengths, but how to use them, how to put them in motion against old and new enemies (that will emerge at any moment)? Dear professor, do you remember when we spoke ironically about those Enlightenment men who challenged each other over the best constitution for Corsica, Poland, or even the Caroline Islands? Why aren’t we discussing (without laughing this time) the contents of a new Tunisian constitution? It’s not that there isn’t anyone here able to do it — immersed in solitary thoughts of conspiracy, in a still-circulating global political culture (even more than in Italy), in fears of uprising, and in the joys of victory — it’s because to talk about Tunisia today (and to talk about these new rights to construct and these guarantees to define) is to also talk about Europe. You never know, maybe Europeans will have their turn to liberate themselves from their own despotic regimes.
…Nonetheless, it is true that your problem is from now on a general problem, that a new constitution of liberty [constitution de la liberté] is not only a problem for Tunisians, but a problem for all free people. I’ll try to offer a few reflections to start a discussion, a forum to which everyone can contribute. To begin, I’d like to insist on a couple of points which seem to me to be more important than all the others, because in order to qualify as being a true democracy, this should be an absolute democracy, like we had hoped for twenty years ago.
1.) We’ve got to purge the old branches of power (legislative, executive, judiciary) and forcibly restore permanent control to a strengthened legislature, then we must add at least two other government agencies, one which will work in the media sector and one which will work on the banks and in finance.
First of all, it is no longer possible to imagine a democratic regime which is not bound by information, communication, and the construction of public opinion with respect to the truth, or to liberty, or the filtering of the multitude [au filtre de la multitude]. The extreme importance online initiatives have had during the insurrection would have to be safeguarded as a practice of permanent possibility. These practices should be rescued from the state of exception in character and should become a permanently and democratically control practice. But this isn’t enough: the old media to submit itself to social control which will free up activity blocked by the executive branch and political parties. There is only one way to affirm this democratic shape: free speech [le droit d’expression] ought to be liberated from the power of money. The plurality of information should not represent the means of its own capitalization, but ought to be guaranteed by popular sovereignty so as to increase discussion, the clash of opinions and decisions. The right to free speech shouldn’t just be an individual right, but is meant to be a collective practice, excluding all capitalist pretensions to suspend this right and all attempts to subjugate it. The right to free speech should be affirmed as a constitutent power [constituante puissance] open to the legitimation of the common.
2.) The banks, the financial system, have become, over the course of capitalist development, separately controlled by the industrial and political elite. Under neoliberalism, even this control has come to an end and the financial system has been rendered completely independent, legitimizing its intervention on the global level. In Tunisia, as you’ve said, in the transition to democracy one also acts out a progression of the forms of capitalist control over civil life. Finance capital already taken a more aggressive stance regarding communication and even while censorship is in the process of vanishing for good, new forms of control are being put into place.
Thus, the problem is how to stop this development, how to transform the banks into a public service, and to do it in such a way that the allotment of financial funds and the development of investment policy is decided in common. The tools of finance should be put into service of the multitude. It’s clear that this entails the construction of democratic powers of financial programming, coordinated with the activity of the legislature and the executive, and thus monetary power is striped of the deceitful and hypocritical independence of the central bank which has been an instrument of global capital. It’s a difficult path to travel down. We not only find ourselves coming up against national bankers, but against the interests of global capital.
But it’s a path we must travel with great determination — with prudence, but with great determination. And so we lay the first stone of a global uprising against neoliberalism and finance capital. Will that uprising ever finally come to a head?
The New York Times realized immediately that “one small revolution” like Tunisia’s could inflame not only Maghreb but all of the Arab world. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that an autocrat can more easily make concessions (to the people, but above all to banks and multinational corporations) than a democratic leader, however weak, who Tunisians will end up electing. That’s the American prediction. And so here’s our prediction: today it is not possible to imagine a democratic revolution that does not fulfill (above all else) a nationalization of the banks and rent reappropriation, which will follow, step by step, the establishment of the law of the common. This is the only way the multitude can establish its power. The mission of this democratically managed financial agency is to guarantee the welfare of the Tunisian populous, against precarity, to provide a guaranteed income, to offer a complete education and medical assistance tailored to the needs of each citizen.
Today, there is no liberty that does not rests on the common. It’s no accident that the dictatorship privatized everything in Tunisia that could be privatized — it all needs to be reappropriated. My friend A, the future of your generation and your children rests upon the common and joint management [gestion commune]. Without a doubt, the disaster which you are inheriting won’t fade overnight — once the clouds of insurrection dissipate your priorities will be to reflect and to make decisions. But the dispositif of a constitutional government can only concern itself with the common. Do not lose the project of the common to the Islamists (then that will be your concern, dear A) . They expand and develop under the cover of a false propaganda of the common.
3.) The third point concerning the government. As you’ve said, the Tunisian revolt has been a social revolt that was born out of a society of workers. Ben Ali understood that, above all, he couldn’t allow this social revolt to express itself politically, and every politician knew that the unemployed youth were a time bomb ready to explode. Why?
The young — cognitive labor — are, today, the real working class of the post-industrial era. Since they are cognitive laborers, these youth are certainly not powerless, on the contrary they have the means to transcend the frustration which has suppressed the poorer and older strata of the population. The culture of powerlessness was dealt a devastating blow in the streets of Tunis.
But the young must ensure that the revolutionary process remains open as they transform the insurrection into a machine of constitutional government. They can’t leave the transformation of the country’s constitution in the hands of the old elite (not the socialists, the democrats, nor the Islamists). Tunisians don’t so much need a new constitution as a constitutional system encompassing the entire country — including the armed forces, the magistrate and the universities. The legislative and governing power need to put the country back on its feet ought to be exercised directly by the young and by revolutionary groups and should be organized in all those places where it will be possible to do it. But all of this will be possible only if they avoid as long as they can setting up static forms of political representation (even the Enlightenment-era constitutional projects, which we just spoke of, couldn’t have taken less than ten years). The flexibility of global power, of its banks, of its central institutions, is truly great: these gentlemen would have no difficulty finding (and paying) a second-rate socialist or an Islamist to tip the balance in their favor! The insurrection has demonstrated its skills and it must be just as adept against global power and its Mediterranean emanations, which are already converging against the extreme danger of the Tunisian insurrection and its extension in Maghreb. We remember (this isn’t just your preoccupation, comrade A?): if we don’t put together constituent action committees, there are Islamists (whether they are extremists or moderates) who will take politics into the mosques. As more people become political democrats and constituents, more will become secular.
Ciao, let’s continue to exchange updates. We’ve been breathing a new air for some time now. Now we await Algeria!
PS : If you open up the Western business papers, those on the right, are talking a lot about how ratings agencies have cut Tunisia’s sovereign bond rating. Moody’s has already lowered the sovereign bond rating and downgraded it from “stable” to “negative.” [See here for more] On the same topic, the left is bemoaning the decision because they insist that, on the contrary, the insurrection is equally…productive, since the end of the mafia’s deductions from Tunisia’s industry should allow for an increase in confidence. But what confidence? In poverty? In precarity?
As for the political press, on the right they increase the threats: Be careful citizens of Tunisia, because the army is ready for repression if you go too far. This same army which has helped you liberate yourselves from Ben Ali… And on the left, after experiencing a brief moment of joy, they ask, “now what?” Since Ben Ali has now left, will the country rebuild its state apparatus and head into a peaceful transition toward democracy?
In reality, for the left like the right, the anxiety is as big as the surprise. Will Tunisia’s transition towards democracy will be an example, a laboratory for entire Muslim world? But if this is all they want, then it’s really not anything new. In fact, it’s rather old: quite simply, it is a new colonialism.
Dear A., don’t worry about this new constitution, or this new constitutional system, or the new instruments of citizens’ democratic power. In Maghreb, in Algeria, in Tunisia and then also in Egypt, there have been profound and important moments in the development of a democracy built from the bottom. We are refuting the narrow minded and repressive vision of American and European commentators.
PPS : I reread this letter before sending it to you and now it’s January 28th. Egypt is burning.
The original letter, in Italian, was first published at UniNomadE 2.0.
This version is based on the French translation by Alain Huppé published by the Journal Multitudes and was translated by Nate Lavey.