Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Finishing Empire

My reading of Empire is in fact something like timely. In the fall, perhaps in October, Commonwealth, the third volume in what I suppose to be a trilogy, will be published. Good to start at the beginning.

The project of the book is to delineate and argue for a particular reading of the contemporary world. Hardt and Negri argue that we have entered a phase of history they call Empire (conceptually related to previous Empires, such as the Roman Empire, but rigorously distinguished from 19th century European imperialism). The goal is to understand the particular logic of this phase in the development of capital in order to understand how it may be resisted, and where alternatives should and should not be sought. The book is organized into four parts. The first part is an introductory clearing of the ground, and presentation of the problematic, the concepts. The middle sections present, from two different angles, an interpretation of modernity and its transformation into Empire. The second section is something like an intellectual history of the idea of sovereignty from the early modern period through to the present day; the third section tells the same story from the perspective of the means and relations of production. The backstory told, the interpretive framework set up, the final section is an analysis of Empire itself. I found the last section to be written in quite a different voice from the rest of the book. Oddly more abstract, unsurprisingly more messianic. Significantly more difficult to read.

The book is enormously rich, and intervenes in any number of debates and bodies of scholarship. I plan to look over some of the reactions to and reviews of the book in the next week. At that stage, I may present some more specific arguments. At the moment, I want only to record the questions, or miniature research projects, that I want to pose and propose to and of this text.

From the perspective of late 19th century Marxism, I find the voluntarism of the text extraordinary. For Hardt and Negri, the driving force for structural innovation in capital is not competition between capitalists, as I have understood it to be for Marx, but rather resistance to capital mounted by the proletariat. This perspective—in which worker resistance is what changes the system—is of course more congenial in the 21st century. It is also, in certain respects, closer to the facts. Hardt and Negri mention the slow end of the Caribbean slave system, pointing to arguments that slavery was not abolished when it ceased to be profitable, but rather long after it had ceased to be profitable, when the tempo and tenacity of slave rebellion made it impossible to sustain. It might be pointed out that by the middle of the 19th century the slave system was no longer central to the global economy in the way that it arguably was in the 18th century. This argument about the structural changes in the capital (and, importantly, in the constitution of sovereignty) is made largely in terms of basic metaphysics and broad periodization, rather than with specific examples. Can finance capital in the 1980s really be explained by the broad rejectionism of the 1960s? From Vietnam to Berkeley? Perhaps. If I knew the Marxist tradition better, I would understand, I think, the stakes of what I call Hardt and Negri’s voluntarism. My sense is that it is a position fundamental to certain strains of Italian Marxism with which I am not familiar. It meshes well also, it seems, with the Deleuzian anti-structuralism and anti-formalism of the authors.

Biopower is a crucial concept in Empire. Having recently read Foucault’s later lectures, I am curious about the compatibility between Hardt and Negri’s account of the contemporary world and Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism. It is possible that they are simply tangential to one another. It might be argued that Empire is simply an exaggerated and developed form of the market ideology that so interested Foucault. It would, at any rate, be interesting to take careful note of how Hardt and Negri use Foucault. My sense is that they are using his work as something of a bridge between Marx and Deleuze. Indeed, in the preface, they say that Empire was inspired by two large, interdisciplinary books: Capital and Thousand Plateaus. It seems to me that the historical transformations they chronicle from modernity to postmodernity might also be that from Marx to Deleuze.

It is crucially important for Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the contemporary world that the relationship between Multitude and Empire is not mediated. The center may be reached from any point, because the center is not geographically located. There is no mediation because there are no levels between which mediation would be necessary. Everything is mixed into a smooth geometrical soup. Or at least tends to be. For me, this raises the question of the unity of the Multitude. It seems that for Hardt and Negri, every division within the Multitude (into nations or peoples or even, perhaps, classes), is a pernicious tactic of the corruption of Empire. So, indeed, is any attempt to assert a unity of all people beyond the singularity of Multitude. Yet the task for the Multitude is to assert itself as political subject. No doubt political subjecthood does not exactly require unity in any pre-poststructuralist sense, but I’m not sure that I understand how all this is supposed to work.

Finally, I was struck by the use, in the concluding section of the book in which something like concrete possible demands of the Multitude are suggested, by the use of the language of rights. Hardt and Negri clearly have a somewhat tortured relation to the so-called republican tradition. They are not definitive in their use of such words—several times they talk about postmodern republicanism, but eventually claim that the latin verb posse is to be preferred to res-publica as a description of the victory of Multitude. (If their most recent book is to be titled Commonwealth, perhaps they’ve reconsidered this). Yet it seems to me that Arendt’s observation that human rights are nothing without citizenship is applicable here. Isn’t Empire’s conception of global citizenship caught in just the same exclusionary bind as any other form of citizenship—that is, doesn’t it also implicitly exclude from humanity all those not included within Multitude? And this in a more radical way than simple nations? Is the creative being of Multitude supposed to solve this problem?

Very likely, this and other questions will be addressed in the next volume. It will also be interesting to see how well my impression of this book tallies with that of the professional reviews.

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