January 11, 2024

Our Anomaly: On Antonio Negri

Jason Read

Book cover detail of French edition of Antonio Negri’s The Savage Anamoly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics.

For anyone studying philosophy and theory at the end of the twentieth century, the name Antonio Negri was something of an anomaly. An Italian in the midst of a turn to francophone theories, a Marxist in a post-Marxist age, albeit one that the traditions of Marxism never knew what to do with—all of this put him out of step with prevailing trends. Even his books, at least the first few that were translated into English, came through odd networks: a book on Marx published by the quasi-underground publisher Autonomedia, the cover of which looked more like a doom-metal album than notebooks on the Grundrisse; a collaboration with Félix Guattari published with Semiotext(e). The real anomaly, however, was the stories that circulated around him—the years of struggle that continued well into the 1970s, the stint in prison—all of which attested to different stakes and a different politics of thought than was generally associated with theory at the time. Negri seemed like something from a different time and place, continuing a philosophical practice of struggle and transformation that seemed to be both simultaneously from a past that was being erased and a future that had not taken place.

These biographical facts and rumors which defined his reputation were duplicated by his writing and thinking. It was not just Negri the person who had an anomalous relation to the existing protocols of intellectual production, but his thought as well. It is well known that Negri wrote his first book on Spinoza, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, while in prison. This book written under confinement is striking for the way it serves to break down the divisions that separate metaphysics from politics. There is not enough space here to address all of Negri’s arguments in the book—arguments that were returned to and refined throughout the years of his writing on and with Spinoza—but one thesis stands out: that of the interruption that defined the trajectory of Spinoza’s thought. Spinoza interrupted his writing of the Ethics, a book he had worked on for years, to write and publish anonymously the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as a political intervention. For Negri, this interruption is also a fundamental transformation: Spinoza’s engagement with politics and history, with the historical force of the imagination, with the politics of affects and the reality of power, transforms his understanding of imagination, affects, and power in the Ethics. “The ethics could not be constituted in a project, in the metaphysics of the mode and reality, if it were not inserted into history, into politics, into the phenomenology of a single and collective life: if it were not to derive new nourishment from that engagement.”1 Negri effectively inverted our image of Spinoza, and with it our image of philosophy: it was no longer a matter of detaching oneself from history and politics in order to contemplate the world, of thinking sub specie aeternitatis, but of plunging oneself into the historical moment in order to transform philosophy. The interruption transforms the philosophy: the latter sections of the Ethics convert the historical lessons about the superstitions and fears of the masses into ontological postulates about the power of the imagination and affects. As Negri writes about Spinoza, “Spinoza’s true politics is his metaphysics.”2 This is not a matter of departing from philosophy to politics or history, of a distinction between “interpreting” and “changing” the world as in Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. Rather, engagement with the world changes philosophy and philosophy changes how one engages the world.

In Negri’s hands, the history of philosophy ceased to be a museum of what was thought in the past, a procession of ideas entombed in their moment. Philosophy became a site of conflict and struggle, of real alternatives. Spinoza was not the only anomaly; through Spinoza, Negri constructed a subterranean tradition of materialism that ran through Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx. In this way he was similar to his contemporaries Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze in seeing philosophy less as a Western tradition marked by a telos and trajectory than a site of conflict and alternatives. Where Negri differed perhaps was in placing political conflict, and not metaphysical concepts of contingency or becoming, at the center of this difference. Central to his concealed tradition is the concept of constituent power. In constructing this concept, the differences of registers—political, ontological, and economic—are as important as the common core of a materialist theory of democracy, democracy as the relation of bodies and minds making and remaking the power of the people from below. Just as Spinoza made history internal to his ontology, and vice versa, Negri produces thought by shifting the register of the different concepts: the political force of the people, or the multitude, which creates and determines political power in Machiavelli, becomes an ontological postulate in Spinoza, creating reality itself through the communication of affects and imagination; in Marx this assertion becomes not so much economic, but quotidian—the world is made and remade each day, through our actions and relations. Negri argues that it is Marx’s later works, those devoted to the exploitation of living labor by dead labor, by capital, that one finds the clearest formulation of what Marx referred to as absolute democracy. It is living labor, the force of cooperation that makes and remakes the world. As Negri writes:

As long as we follow the political Marx, political revolution and social emancipation are two historical matrices that intersect on the same terrain—the constitutional terrain—but still in an external manner, without a metaphysical logic of this intersection being given … This necessity resides at the core of Marx’s theory of capital, where living labor appears as the foundation, and the motor of all production, development, and innovation. This essential source also animates the center of our investigation. Living labor against dead labor, constituent power against constituted power: this single polarity runs through the whole schema of Marxist analysis and resolves it in an entirely original theoretical practical totality.3

Negri does not just draw from Marx and Spinoza (and Machiavelli)—different materialist thinkers—but draws directly from the crises they confronted and the displacements that defined the trajectory of their thought. Spinoza’s departure from metaphysical speculation to politics, Marx’s shift from politics to the critique of political economy—in each case it is precisely the shift of problems and registers that drives conceptual innovation. As Negri writes, “Discontinuity and untimeliness are the soul of theoretical practice, just as the crisis is the key to the development of the real.”4 The same problems and relations cross the different registers and problems of politics, metaphysics, and economics, transforming and expanding with each encounter. Negri’s thought is neither an ontology which grounds a politics nor a political critique of ontology, but a constant displacement from the ontological to the political, the speculative to the practical, theory to practice.

It is also through Marx that we get the clearest expression of the political problem, a problem that is focused and crystalized by its displacement from ontology and politics. The problem is the gulf that separates production and appropriation. Negri’s expansive view of this problem reveals it to be a long-standing issue; the power of the multitude has always appeared as an attribute of the prince just as the power of labor has always appeared under capitalism as the productive power of capital. It is the same problem—constituent power against constituted power—that appears across politics, ontology, and economics. There is a certain tendency in this method of displacement, a tendency revealed by the transformation of labor itself, by the crisis of the Marxist critique of political economy. At the center of Negri’s engagement with Marx is an attentiveness to not only the activity of the working class—living labor producing dead capital—but to the constitution of the working class, a constitution that is both technical and political, reflecting changes in the organization of labor and workers’ own organization.5 It is against this transformation that we have to understand the crisis of Marxism. Its analysis and organization were framed against the composition of the mass worker, of the factory as the primary site of struggle, and so as the composition changes so do the terms of analysis. Contemporary labor, the labor of contemporary services, produces not just things (commodities) but produces and reproduces the form of social cooperation itself. The late twentieth century is defined by two processes: first, the movement of social conflict into the sphere of labor, as feminism and anti-racism reveal the extent to which gendered hierarchies and racial exclusion are integral to the production process, in the gendered division of labor and the intersection of racial hierarchies with the exploitation of labor, from society to production; and second, a movement from production to society, “displacing the process of exploitation from the labor class to all of society,” as aspects of life from education to health become integrated into cycles of profit and exploitation.6 The trajectory of capital takes us back to Spinoza, back to the opposition between the ontological power that creates the world, potentia, and the representation of power in the imagination, potestas. This opposition is now situated on new grounds, that of political economy. As Negri writes, “In the postindustrial age the Spinozian critique of representation of capitalist power corresponds more to the truth than does the analysis of political economy.”7

The autonomist hypothesis which argues that working class resistance precedes and prefigures capitalist domination reaches its culmination in Negri’s notion that capital, the rule of empire, is a distortion of and derived from the power of the multitude. This assertion becomes at once ontological, political, and economic, potentia against potestas, the multitude against empire, living labor against dead labor. This is the last sense of Negri’s anomaly: the optimism of the intellect against the general pessimism of the world. I will not rehearse the criticisms of this optimism here, criticisms that only grew stronger as the years since the publication of Empire have brought us wars, austerity, and the rise of fascism, taking us further and further away from the communism of the multitude. As much as Negri grounded his philosophy in the world, in the productive capabilities of labor and the striving of people, it cut against the world as it appeared to us, insisting on the power of the multitude where many only saw the rule of capital. It is possible to draw a broken line connecting Spinoza’s anomaly of the seventeenth century, imagining a world free from a king-like god and god-like kings, and Negri’s anomaly of the twentieth, imagining a world free of capital and states. Spinoza reminds us that what we cannot imagine we cannot do, and Negri provided the conditions for imagining a different future through a different practice of philosophy—a practice founded on the constant transformation of metaphysics into history and politics, and ontology into political economy.


Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 88.


Negri, The Savage Anomaly, 217.


Antonio Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State, trans. Maurizia Boscagli (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 33.


Antonio Negri, “Notes on the Evolution of the Thought of the Later Althusser,” in Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory, ed. Antonio Callari and David F. Ruccio (Westview, 1996), 53.


Roberto Nigro, Antonio Negri: Une philosophie de la subversion (Éditions Amsterdam, 2023), 43.


Antonio Negri, The Winter Is Over: Writing on Transformation Denied, 1989–1995, ed. Giuseppe Caccia, trans. Isabella Bertoletti et al. (Semiotext(e), 2013), 68.


Antonio Negri, “Reliqua Desiderantur: A Conjecture for a Definition of the Concept of Democracy in the Final Spinoza,” trans. Ted Stolze, in The New Spinoza, ed. Ted Stolze and Warren Montag (University of Minnesota, 1997), 246.

Philosophy, Marxism
Memorials & Obituaries, Revolution

Jason Read is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (SUNY 2003), The Politics of Transindividuality (Haymarket 2018), The Production of Subjectivity: Marx and Philosophy (Haymarket 2023), and The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work (Verso 2024). He blogs about philosophy, politics, and culture at unemployednegativity.com.


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