From Newton’s Intercommunalism to Negri’s Biopolitical Production

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There is not a straight line between Huey P. Newton’s theory of intercommunalism and Antonio Negri’s theory of biopolitical production but there is a striking analytical commonality in Newton and Negri’s thought. I am not arguing that there is an unacknowledged debt, rather that the parallels of Newton and Negri’s analysis merits a closer reading if we are to understand the values of both.

will draw out the connection between a theory of spatial hegemony of resistance and the New Left. Newton, a co-founder of the BPP, was radicalized during the civil rights era and his politics were infused with the burgeoning racial tensions of the early 1960s. The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used the strategy of occupation to bring forth the very real injustice of racially segregated space. Many SNCC activists by the mid 1960s took the lessons learned from the occupations and began to develop theories and practices of Black Power. The BPP was initially formed on the basis of a theory of separation and nationalism. Newton and Bobby Seale had come to the conclusion that the failure of the 1965 Watt’s rebellion was an inability for the black community to organize and lead itself and for this a black nationalist consciousness needed to be fostered. As Judson L. Jefferies notes, black nationalism meant the formation of a separate black institutional structure and Newton in particular “defined black nationalism to mean black community control free of outside interference, particularly of capitalists and police.”

Black nationalism was the defining and controlling of a separate black space. The BPP saw the first step towards this was to make real Malcolm X’s call for self-defense.[1] The BPP’s idea of black nationalism was about asserting control over space. Hence the first point in their ten-point program was “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.” Early on the BPP did door-to-door surveys to understand what people thought were the biggest problems in the Oakland community. They found that police harassment and brutality were one of the biggest problems in Oakland. The BPP heard many concerns and knew that many social problems existed, a lack of employment, malnutrition and a variety of poor public services, however none of those issues could be addressed if the police harassment was not stopped or at least curbed. The BPP’s nationalism at this point was about carving out a spatial autonomy from the white capitalist power structure. Jefferies breaks down the BPP’s theoretical development into four phases: black nationalism, revolutionary socialism, internationalism and intercommunalism. The most relevant phases here is the transition between black nationalism and Newton’s theory of intercommunalism.

Newton eventually realized that black separatism in and of itself could not exist in parallel with a white capitalist structure. The totality of imperialism and capitalism would require a total transformation. The position of African Americans during the fordist era allowed activists to adopt a more radical critique of capitalism and structural racism by the mid-1960s. Continued police violence, geographical marginalization and the inability of the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s strategy of non-violence to address the marginalization of most urban African American communities meant that activist were more open to systematic critiques of American capitalism. As Terry Eagleton points out there is a good case for arguing that there is a relation between ones social situation and one’s political position. Eagleton is not arguing that this relation always happens but rather that those marginalized by a particular social order have a much greater potential to (and indeed should) formulate a universal critique because of their particular social position. By 1970, Newton abandoned his previous notion of black separatism for a universal position of internationalism.

By 1971, he began to put forth his idea of intercommunalism, which sought to address the limitations of the inward looking black separatism. In this way Newton’s thought mirrored Lefebvre’s understanding of the limits of autogestion. Lefebvre saw that autogestion, the self-management of space, was a useful means of struggle that opened up further resistance.  Autogestion for Lefebvre had an ambiguous relationship with the state and capitalism, it neither overcomes the dominant capitalist relations nor can it position itself in complete opposition to the state. Indeed the principle of autogestion tacitly relies on the state to generalize the condition of self-management or at least to enforce and protect spaces of autogestion. The point here is that for Lefebvre and Newton spaces of self-control in and of themselves cannot ensure liberty outside of the state and capitalist social relations.

The theory of intercommunalism was Newton’s answer to the deficiencies he saw within black separatism. According to Newton the United States was not simply a capitalist state but the central hub in the empire of capital. Newton, much like Hardt and Negri’s later analysis, saw empire as something without an outside, a true global order.[2] Colonialism and neocolonialism had ended and what was left was a dispersed collection of communities. For Newton a community “is a small unit of with a comprehensive collection of institutions that exist to serve a small group of people.” While certain communities are more oppressed than others, the overall trajectory is that global imperialism is laying the groundwork for world communism.

The commonality of oppressive social forces means it is easier to forge links between communities. Newton’s theory was building upon Fanon’s analysis of the new revolutionary agent in the post war era. In the fordist period the factory worker, the proletariat, was the agent with the most revolutionary potential. They were alienated and exploited; they were ripped apart from their previous communities and histories through enclosures. The industrial proletariat had the ability to forge a new identity of commonality via the shared experience of exploitation and they had the massive power of being the source of all wealth created within the capitalist system. For Fanon, in the period of colonial resistance the figure of the lumpenproletariat becomes a significant actor in the battle for self-determination. As Fanon states “Colonialism will also find in the lumpenproletariat a considerable space for maneuvering. For this reason any movement for freedom ought to give its fullest attention to the lumpenproletariat.”

If anti-colonial resistance leaders fail to organize the lumpenproletariat, who make up the vast majority of the colonized, they will be unable to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Newton here sees that the lumpenproletariat in the late 1960s and 1970s is in the process of the becoming the revolutionary agent. In the United States those excluded from the fordist social compact, women and people of colour would be the ones to provide a revolutionary thrust. The reason for this according to Newton is that there will an increasing number of unemployables. While Newton overestimated the role technology would have in replacing workers, he was right to point out that the traditional employment relations were in the midst of changing.

Newton’s theory of intercommunalism wasn’t just relevant to the BPP, rather it can be applied to understanding a wider trend within the New Left. The BPP was just one of a number of groups that formed in the excluded zones of the fordist social compact. These groups formed around the principle of self-determination in those zones. The Chicano, Indigenous, Chinese, Puerto Rican power groups that formed contemporaneously also shared a similar analysis of spatial self-determinism. These groups were not simply based on racial or ethnic solidarity, but were fixed in a particular space and sought self-determination within that space in order to enact wider societal change.[3]

The community, neighbourhood, the ghetto, the university and even the city itself became the terrain upon which the New Left struggled. As Hardt and Negri note, in the 1960s “critical thought and practice started to recompose sites of resistance that are founded on the identities of social subjects or national and regional groups, often grounding political localization of struggles.” These community based responses to the injustices of Fordism, rooted themselves in a struggle of self-determination over space. These struggles were not hegemonic because they presented a local alternative to western imperial capitalism rather they were hegemonic because they were sites of new subjectivities and practices that presented a forceful alternative to the reigning totality.

According to Hardt and Negri the new subjectivities produced during the crisis period of the late 1960s and 1970s not only challenged the dominant social relations and class composition, but they also pointed the way towards the dynamic economic powers of cultural capitalism. The values of cooperation, creativity, flexibility and communication found in the counterculture spaces of the New Left anticipated and defined the changing productive paradigm of neoliberalism. The New Left’s challenge to the traditional disciplinary regime of production and the composition of the working class along with the subsequent structural crisis of capitalism required a systematic shift in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation.

The hegemonic shift from industrial capitalism to some sort of postmodern capitalism[4] saw an economy increasingly restructured around financialization, immaterial circuits of knowledge and flexible production. According to Hardt and Negri we are now entering a period in which immaterial labour or biopolitical production is now becoming hegemonic. Biopolitical production for them refers to the increasing importance immaterial goods and production play in influencing and defining all our other productive and social relationships. For Hardt and Negri this means, “the sites of economic production have spread throughout the social terrain, and the production of economic value is increasingly indistinguishable from the production of social relations and forms of life.”  Biopolitical production produces new subjectivities that have the potential to short circuit private property relations.

The New Left analysis of capitalism and resistance in Newton’s work has been pushed to its logical ends by Negri and rightly or wrongly applied to the current neoliberal era. Is intercommunalism still a relevant theory? Are Hardt and Negri’s theories of empire and biopolitical production a fresh perspective on modern capitalist social relations or are they political constructs rooted in the New Left’s response to the crisis of Fordism? Situating Negri’s thought in the broader radical milieu of the New Left can help us understand its values and limits.


[1] It was not just Malcolm X who advocated for self-defense. Others in the civil rights movement also had advocated and practiced similar forms of community defense in the American south. Robert F. Williams had organized community members in North Carolina to militantly defend their homes from the Klu Klux Klan.

[2] For more on Hardt and Negri’s conception of empire see the chapter “world order” in their book Empire.

[3] I am not trying to dismiss the importance of racial solidarity and identity rather I am noting that these identities and solidarities were also rooted in space. Racist practice often operates through the spatial separation and controlling of bodies in certain spaces. Thus, identities of race and racial solidarity are interwoven into the fabric of space and community.

[4] Hardt and Negri use the term biopolitical production, others use creative capitalism, communicative capitalism, financial capitalism or the rise of immaterial labour. The point here is that whatever language one uses there was a notable shift in the dynamic of capital accumulation and production. This shift was not a quantitative shift rather it was a qualitative shift. There are now more industrial workers and more industrial products in the world than ever before. The difference is that capital accumulation is increasingly defined by immaterial forms of production and circuits of communication.

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