Friday, October 2, 2009

A universal yet disinterested sympathy

In the preface to Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri define for us several of their key concepts. First of all, the common. It is most obviously ‘natural’ resources (such as air), but is “also and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth” (viii). It will be argued that contemporary forms of capitalism are caught in a trap: they rely on the common, but are able to generate profit only by capturing—privatizing—the common and thereby destroying its productive capacities. Ultimately, it will be argued, this most recent cycle of capitalist accumulation has little to do with the production of wealth, and more with the seizing of previously common wealth, something like a new enclosure. What do we call this new regime of production over which capital is struggling so paradoxically to retain control? It is the biopolitical. The authors say that, “the ultimate core of biopolitical production…is not the production of objects for subjects as commodity production is often understood, but the production of subjectivity itself” (x). Biopower is what the authors call the control that capital attempts to exert over this new form of production. New or renewed concepts will be required, the authors say, to understand the new situation. They identify at the outset the two central such concepts: poverty and love. Many more concepts will be added to these by the end of the book, in particular Spinoza’s conception of joy, but corruption is mobilized as an idea with philosophical content, and in the very last pages of the book we find a particularly grisly figuring of revolutionary laughter.

The authors have, in the past, been accused of idealistic (in a non-technical sense) messianism. They take a more ‘realist’ tone here, saying, “we…believe that…intellectual force is required to overcome dogmatism and nihilism, but we insist on the need to complement it with physical force and political action. Love needs force to conquer the ruling powers and dismantle their corrupt institutions before it can create a new world of common wealth” (xii). The issue of force and violence is treated relatively openly by Hardt and Negri. In essence, their position is that the multitude must withdraw from capital, and that this act of force will doubtless require the support of violence, just as—and they return to this example more than once—the Jews could not leave Egypt without some violence, the Pharaoh would not let them go. How, then, do they define this multitude that must perform an exodus from capital? They say, “the multitude is a set of singularities that poverty and love compose in the reproduction of the common” (xii-xiii). The multitude has as yet only a shadowy existence. It is, on the one hand, the economic foundation of the current structure of capital—but on the other hand, it does not yet exist as a political form. The project of this book, then, after Empire and Multitude, is to articulate the “political construction of the multitude with Empire” as an “ethical project” (xii). The authors are fully engaged in the Leninist critique of revolutionary thought that fails to think the transition between present possibilities and the future. They say, “the becoming-Prince of the multitude is a project that relies entirely on the immanence of decision making within the multitude. We will have to discover the passage from revolt to revolutionary institution that the multitude can set in motion” (xiii).

Such an ambitious project might be vulnerable in many ways. I expect to be thinking about it for some time to come. For now, on the heels of my reading, I have a few questions, or challenges.

It is crucial for Hardt and Negri’s argument that the biopolitical economy does not suffer from scarcity. Industrial production, on the other hand, was ruled by scarcity. What does scarcity mean? Here it refers not so much to the problem of ‘not enough,’ but rather to the fact that something owned by one person cannot be owned by another. This is to say that while scarcity certainly can mean the absolute dearth of, for instance, food, it also refers to a whole system of ownership. The industrial economy is ruled by prices, which are determined, at least in theory, by supply and demand—scarcity. The biopolitical economy, for Hardt and Negri, is in a sense defined by the tendency towards immaterial production. Immaterial products, unlike cars, can be in principle enjoyed by an unlimited number of people. A television show, once produced, is infinitely repeatable and distributable. This means, for Hardt and Negri, that the biopolitical economy is essentially an economy of the common—a concept that replaces the bourgeois/capitalist notion of a division between public and private. Various pieces of empirical evidence are brought in at this point, for instance the increasing reliance of economic value on ‘externalities,’ paradigmatically in real-estate.

Biopolitical production, enabled, we might say, by the trend in the direction of the immaterial, is centrally defined by the production of subjectivities. I would like to understand better the relation between these immaterial products and subjectivities. Subjectivity is, in a certain sense, an immaterial product. But there are other immaterial products that may be, in the hands of a bricoleur, turned into subjectivities. Biopolitical production draws on and expands the common. Yet, I wonder if we might not find a logic of scarcity at work in the production of subjectivities through the common as well. Contrary to the Jeffersonian image (the flame of my candle is not diminished when you use it to light your candle), it seems to me that subjectivities, in as much as they are conceived as identities, are necessarily exclusionary. In the game of identity, this is to say, my candle (or really, our candles) signifies less if you have one as well.

This objection may be a failure of revolutionary imagination on my part. Certainly, Hardt and Negri discuss the various traps into which identity politics falls. Chapter 6.1, “Revolutionary Parallelism” is a wonderfully lucid exposition of how to differentiate the essentially parallel revolutionary identity politics from the many competing non-revolutionary identity politics. The goal is to get beyond the “frequent embarrassment that accompanies reproducing the catalogue race, class, gender, sexuality, and so forth. (The ‘and so forth’ is especially embarrassing)” (343). In essence, the distinction is that identity politics is bad when it in the end only re-enforces the identity around which it organizes. It is good (revolutionary) when its practice and goal are the dissolution of that identity. The paradigm here is obviously the proletariat, supposedly the only class that makes revolution in order to eliminate itself. For Hardt and Negri (specifically against Zizek), it is patently obvious that certain kinds of feminism, for instance, also seek to dissolve the category of woman, and are therefore revolutionary. The distinction here would be between the essentializing practice of certain feminisms, (although Hardt and Negri don’t mention it, we could say Cixous’ écriture feminine) and the destabilization practiced by queer theory (they do give us the positive example: Butler). Hardt and Negri find a similar division between essentializing black nationalisms and those forms of black radicalism that ultimately transcend these racial categories. Fanon, for instance, rather than simply affirming the blackness that has been denigrated, sees that in the end it will be necessary to destroy both whiteness and blackness. This whole chapter, in my view, is both brilliant and entirely correct.

So what am I doing talking about exclusionary identities? In the context of queer theory, we get the quote from the Anti-Oedipus: not 2 sexes, not 0 sexes, but n sexes. All that I am saying is that even in a world with n sexes, there is no reason to think that it will not be possible to make a commodity out of each singularity in the multitude, thereby reintroducing the logic of scarcity into what had been the paradise of the common. No doubt this objection springs from a smearing-together of important distinctions, or a misunderstanding of the goal. Perhaps the authors would simply shrug—the point isn’t that everything will be perfect, but rather that the problems will be new. Does it even make sense to speak of the commodity in the era of biopolitical production? I see no reason why we can’t, although the concept would need some elaboration in order to be applied to subjectivities—no doubt this work has already, somewhere, been done.

Commonwealth is an enormous and lucid synthesis not only of post-Revolutionary social thought, but also of the last two generations of academic critical theory. Together with Empire and Multitude, we have on our hands a thoroughgoing attempt to renew the empirical, philosophical, and political gambit of Marxism. This trilogy is not a philosophical treatise, nor a political program, nor a study of economic morphology. It is certainly also not a ‘theoretical intervention.’ Indeed, what I admire most about this body of work is precisely the fact that it dares to be empirico-political rather than simply theoretical and philosophical—this is what connects it to Marx and the best tradition of theoretical political writing. I mean by this that the authors begin with a given conceptual framework, and critique and expand these concepts, replacing them as necessary, with resources drawn not only from the observed world, but from what they judge to be the edge of the world in its becoming. This is a fancy way of saying that the authors have examined the evidence and made a bet about the direction in which it is pointing, and staked themselves philosophically and politically on this judgment. It seems to me that the language of wager is appropriate here in a way that it generally is not in situations that are primarily philosophical, empirical, or political.

It would be very interesting to look at Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth as a trajectory. For one thing, Commonwealth opens with a round denunciation of the contemporary obsession with sovereignty, an obsession that, it seems to me, has a great deal to do with the analysis of sovereignty undertaken in Empire. If this first book was, perhaps justly, criticized for being messianic about revolution, the same cannot, or ought not, be said of Commonwealth. We have there a remarkably clear and honest gaze into the abyss of revolutionary violence. I am even surprised that the authors were as willing to condone violence as they seem to be. The last sentence of the book is “they will be buried by laughter.” This, together with the image of the apocalyptic Exodus, is strong stuff. Similarly, the reintroduction of corruption as a meaningful category is slightly alarming. It is none the less necessary, because it allows the authors to provide guidelines for distinguishing between good and bad forms of the common—the movement of their thought here is in many ways parallel to Alain Badiou’s ‘negative’ account of evil. This parallelism, together with a renewed attention to the evental nature of revolutionary action is something that I believe was missing from Empire. Verifying this, and examining the ways in which the geopolitical changes since the era of Empire (although Commonwealth argues that no major structural changes have in fact taken place in that time) have changed the authors’ conception of the world, would I think be instructive. These, though, are projects I can’t undertake at the moment.

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