Wildcat 88, winter 2010

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From Empire to Commonwealth?

The latest work of T. Negri and M. Hardt has been out in German for a while now, carefully translated, laid out and printed. There is no lack of reviews: D. Harvey discusses at length all the weaknesses, the important German weekly Zeit slated the book, the left magazine ak printed first an adulatory then later a very critical review, and several articles in the latest issue of Grundrisse from Vienna are concerned mainly with the book‘s philosophical aspects.
We will briefly summarise the line of argument (an almost impossible endeavour) to find out how Hardt and Negri climb onto the Commons bandwagon.
How does the multitude become the prince, that is the book‘s programme. How can the potential lying in poverty be developed into a global democracy that enables everyone to participate in what is common?

The book is divided into six parts with three chapters each. The first begins energetically with a critique of bourgeois revolutions and human rights as a »republic of property«, based on Marx and others, then focuses once again, after a chapter about the »productive body«, on biopolitics. The latter becomes an »event« in the future that connects »freedom« and the »will to power«.
Part II to embarks on a critique of modernity, contrasting it not with some kind of »countermodernity« (the Nazis were anti-modern as well), but with an »altermodernity« that puts intellectuals into a new position: they are not a vanguard or »organic intellectuals«, but merely militants who, in cooperation with others, produce a new truth in a process of militant inquiry.
Part III (»Metamorphoses of the Composition of Capital«) argues for the trend towards the hegemony or prevalence of immaterial production in the capitalist value-adding process. In a »biopolitical context«, the term »organic composition« refers not only to the objective but also to the subjective conditions of the antagonistic relation of workers and capital. Capital is essentially (and necessarily) a mode of production that produces value through the exploitation of labour. But today capital no longer rules over the organisation of production as it once did, because cognitive and affective workers cooperate independently of capital‘s command, even under conditions of severe exploitation.

Marx already knew that, but Hardt/Negri go further and claim: »Capital thus captures and expropriates value through biopolitical exploitation that is produced, in some sense, externally to it.« (141) We are no longer dealing with »real subsumption«, i.e. the subjugation of production and the whole society to the command of capital, but with capital floating above production and society in a parasitic way, ruling by means of a disciplinary regime and financial networks – no longer interested in profit any longer but only in rent. Class struggle adopts the form of an exodus, but this absconding is only possible on the basis of the common.

A Theory of Organisation

The multitude is no spontaneous political subject, but a project of political organisation. Therefore a »theory of organisation appropriate for the multitude« is needed, along with proof that only the multitude is able to bring about the revolution. The »party« is no longer an instrument with which to defeat evil.
Part IV briefly touches on the empire, 9/11 and the end of US hegemony, then turns its attention to rebellions in history: how should they be organised today, how can we learn from Lenin not to miss the moment of insurrection. »A worker revolution is no longer sufficient; a revolution in life, of life is needed.« (239) The metropolis as the place of biopolitical production is the »factory to produce the Common« – and at the same time is marked by conflict, destruction, antagonism and violence.

Part V (»Beyond Capital?«) discusses the failure of neoliberalism, a »project to restore class power« (Harvey) which was unable to stimulate and organise production. Socialism lost its impact with the passage from industrial to biopolitical production: it can neither rationalise nor regulate the latter. This passage elaborates or even expands Tronti‘s concept of the social factory, but now industrial enterprises in the dominant states are no longer able to centralise the productive forces and to integrate labour-power within capital. This centralised capital is replaced by a capital based on society, so that society as a whole is now the main site of productive activity.
An increasingly autonomous workforce and a capital turning ever more into pure command oppose each other: »Labour power is thus no longer variable capital, integrated within the body of capital, but a separate and increasingly oppositional force.« (292) »Capital [is ruptured] into two antagonistic subjectivities.« (293) The main strategy of »capital« is the exercise of control through money, but money (janus-headed, as we know) might possibly become an instrument of freedom in the hands of the multitude to overcome poverty and misery.
At the end, the authors explore a possible transformation through the development of an »entrepreneurship of the common« and the renewal of cooperative social networks as first level of a programme for capital – not to save it, but because it produces its own gravediggers in this transition – until the multitude of the common could rule on its own.
The last part begins with a sweeping refusal of every form of identity politics – the aim is liberation, not emancipation of an existing subject! – and of all institutions that corrupt the common (family, nation, corporations…) but continue up to now to play an important role in struggles. Following from this comes a concept of revolution that breaks away from the communist movements of the 20th century, acknowledging neither vanguard subject nor party claim to hegemony.
The argument runs as follows: the technical composition of the proletariat today (given the hegemony of biopolitical production) makes possible a process of political recomposition through democratic decisions.
But the insurrection must be steadied with the help of institutions – revolution is an expansion of insurrection into an institutionalised process.
People »are not spontaneously, by nature, capable of cooperating with one another freely and together governing the common.« (362) Lenin already knew that people were not capable of democracy, but Negri and Hardt are opposed to a »transitional dictatorship« and to all illusions about reforms that postpone revolution to the far future. For the authors the question, »how can the transition be governed«, could only be answered through an inquiry into the technical composition of the multitude, with the aim of figuring out its political composition. It is all about insurrection and institution, transformation of base and superstructure, not about choosing between the two sides: this is how the multitude becomes the prince.

Negri and Hardt propose that the forms of corporate governance, i.e. systems of regulation as they are applied today in capitalist enterprises, could be refashioned to become a democratic and revolutionary concept. After all, the structures of imperial governance took up demands of the multitude, that is why they fit the multitude so well.

Spectres of the Common

In contrast to the usual discussion of the »commons«, Hardt and Negri want to start from the centrality of production and class composition. The common (they touch in passing on all the forms of historic commons about which there is so much hype about, but they use the term consistently in the singular form!) encompasses not only the natural world, but above all what is produced. Why, however, biopolitical (or immaterial) production as such should already be producing the common is not explained at all. Several self-employed media workers collaborating on a project do so to sell the project, with the clear consciousness of producing a commodity, and the better it is received on the market, the dearer they can sell it. Perhaps these people also have the potential to produce something in common for the use of all – maybe they even consciously do this, protesting against nuclear energy or the rebuilding of the main station in Stuttgart, just as printers in the old days would secretly print leaflets after work. But in their paid work, they produce commodities, possibly capital. Negri also spoke of the »proletarian self-valorization of the social worker« and the »parasitic role of capital« in the mid-70s, reverting to the ideology of self-managment which was rightly criticised by operaismo.
Hardt and Negri defend their »new class composition« (the multitude) against all criticism, but they now define it as a political project needing organisation. In his text The Factory of Strategy – 33 Lectures on Lenin, written in the early 1970s, Negri explained Lenin‘s programme for producing a working class. His own political programme sounds very similar now: how does the »class in itself« become a »class for itself«, and what is the mission of intellectuals in this process?

The multitude‘s capacity (or that of the forces of production) for self-organisation of production is increasingly in contradiction with the relations of production: this sounds very much like Marx. But by claiming that biopolitical production means the direct producers are no longer variable capital (and as such part of capital, an enemy within), they render the term capital meaningless and exaggerate what the Italian autonomia has been accused of: the so not see capital and working class as an antagonistic relation, but as two separate units engaged in a game of ping-pong for power. Hardt/Negri represent one of those fashionable theories that see in the Iphone only discursive networks, seeking to abstract it completely from the way it is produced industrially, as Dauvé/Nesic argue in their text Sortie d‘usine.

Revolution or Realpolitik?

Negri would not be Negri if his analysis were not a direct guide for an intervention into Realpolitik. In the 1980s he regarded the Alternative Liste1 in the Berlin regional parliament as a »revolutionary institution of proletarian transformation«, supposed to safeguard what had been achieved – and now he presents a book to Green party politicians to disguise their bourgeois base as multitude and their own nasty social politics as left-wing.
In contrast to most other post-operaist theoreticians, Hardt and Negri do not apply the concept of an inside and an outside of capital. But with their refusal of dialectic thought they throw away any antagonism within what exists. Will the multitude become prince through pure willpower? Who is the multitude? As usual, old ideas are rearticulated and adapted in Commonwealth, but open questions are once again covered by the invention of a new term whose meaning is not even really explained to the readers.

The fervour of the complex anti-Stuttgart21 movement in proposing a new transport concept against the dimwitted government is Hardt/Negri‘s Common in action: IT specialists and project managers doing teamwork, hobby-geologists and professors opposed to the mainstream. But with all those new terms, Hardt/Negri are hermetically sealing-off these new movements instead of helping us to find the cracks where this engagement turns into a criticism of social reality or could relate to the misery of work.
here are lots of refreshing passages in the book‘s 434 pages, in which the authors not only demonstrate their wide reading but also put forward fruitful thought. But everything that would be important for their own line of argument is only briefly touched upon, to be built in the big kitsch finale.

No doubt it is all about the present relevance of revolution, about terms appropiate for the world today. But with these two authors, you are never quite sure whether they prefer to see themselves as Saint Anthony or as Lenin – or whether they mainly want go against everything that has been thought up to now. When they bury the rule of property with roaring laughter in their final sentence, are they really laughing at their readers?

[1] Predecessor of the German Green Party that gained its first seats in the state parliament of Berlin in 1981.

[go to series on Commons, Common Wealth, Commonism…]

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