Commonwealth: Part 1

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In the opening pages of Commonwealth Hardt and Negri claim that the book represents an attempt to “articulate an ethical project, an ethics of democratic political action within and against Empire” (vii). Reiterating their position in Empire and Multitude, they argue that despite the insecurities, conflicts, and contradictions wrought by globalization there is no longer any space “outside” the new global capitalist order. For better or worse, globalization has created a common world. Because there is no longer an outside, creating more sustainable and democratic futures requires acting in this world through new collective projects of self-rule and political invention. CW thus represents Hardt and Negri’s attempt to fully articulate the conditions of possibility for a global democracy of the multitude. Central to CW is the conceptual deployment of the common. By the common Hardt and Nergi refer to the material world as well as to the results of social production—ideas, knowledge, images, and affects. While neoliberal forms of rule have led to the further enclosure of the commons through new strategies of capital accumulation and privatization, Hardt and Negri assert that globalization has also created common spaces and modes of knowledge particularly in the realm of digital communication and cultural production. According to Hardt and Negri, these articulations of the common—while still captured within empire’s distinct alignments of biopolitical production—represent an immanent potentiality for realizing an alternative democratic project: the “becoming-Prince of the multitude”.

Hardt and Negri distinguish their notion of the common from both private and public forms of control and reason. Their mobilization of the common is meant to bypass as well as to cross-cut through this distinction and thus also disarticulate a simplistic and ultimately false choice between capitalism and socialism.

Socialism and capitalism…even though they have at times been mingled together and at other times occasioned bitter conflicts, are both regimes of property that exclude the common. The political project of instituting the common, which we develop in this book, cuts diagonally across these false alternatives—neither private nor public, neither capitalist nor socialist—and opens a new space for politics. (vix)

Hardt and Negri claim that this “new space for politics” is already nascently present within the circuits of contemporary economic and social production. Again this appeal to the potentiality of the “inside” so to speak is what really annoys those like Zizek who can only speak of an alternative politics in terms of negation and appeals to an as yet unrealized “outside”. For Hardt and Negri, as capitalism becomes ever more deterritorialized and reliant on abstract and immaterial forms of production, it requires the generation of common technological and social resources particularly in the abstract domain. Consequently, social life is animated through, invested by, and productive of various and unevenly shared common resources. Thus contemporary capitalism enables an ontology that is at least partially grounded in the common. It is this appeal to subjectivity—its generation and potentiality as a constituent power of the multitude—that frames the central terrain of political struggle in CW.

Hardt and Negri proceed by re-defining and mobilizing two additional concepts in CW: poverty and love. Poverty represents an attempt to grasp the changing dynamics of class composition particularly as globalization recasts relations of power within and between nations. Because of their precarious and marginal status to this order, the poor are obligated to generate alternative frames of the common—informal legal arrangements, modes of production, cultural communication, labor, and tactics of resistance and struggle—these frames represent possibilities for a new constituent power. The notion of love that Hardt and Negri develop is rooted in a re-casting of wealth as tending toward the becoming of desire and the liberating power of shared difference. Hardt and Negri state that these concepts of love and poverty require an intellectual force in order to put them in motion. They locate this force within the multitude itself: “the multitude is a set of singularities that poverty and love compose in the reproduction of the common…we will not pull out of our hats new transcendentals or new definitions of the will to power to impose on the multitude. The becoming-Prince of the multitude is a project that relies entirely on the immanence of decision making within the multitude” (viii).

1.1 The Republic of Property

In this chapter Hardt and Negri begin with a critique of academic discourses centered on the concepts of sovereignty and exceptionality. These points are also developed in more detail in the recent collection of conversations between Negri and Cesar Casarino entitled “It’s a Powerful Life”. The criticism of Agamben and conceptions of sovereignty derived largely from German juridical theorist Carl Schmitt has two sides. First, Hardt and Negri argue that the focus on sovereignty and the authoritarian face of exceptional power tends to obfuscate the utterly naturalized and quotidian structures of power and domination immanent to capitalist society. Through a historical analysis of bourgeoisie constitutionalism they argue that the law and, in effect, modern sovereignty have always been subsumed within a republic of property. Simply stated, the republic of property observes that within modern systems of juridical authority, capital and the law have always implied and inflected one another within a structure of private ownership. These intimate ties extend into the social terrain providing both the transcendent horizon of common sense and the frames of legitimacy behind sovereign force, authority, and power. This analysis is if anything refreshing, providing a necessary counterweight to those projects intent on proving Agamben’s maxim that the camp has become the “biopolitical nomos of modernity”. It also provides a point of departure for conceiving a theoretical basis for alternative politics.

This leads to the second element of their criticism. Hardt and Negri claim that the apocalyptic tone that accompanies Agamben’s singular focus on the negative tendency of biopolitics negates the possibility of conceiving an immanent constituent power. In order to move beyond this negative horizon, Hardt and Negri develop a minor form of Kantian critique. Here they delineate two Kants: (1) a major Kant intent on legitimating the transcendent structure of the republic of property (2) a minor Kant invoked most incisively by Foucault—a Kant for whom transcendental critique translates into a creative questioning of all structures immanent to thought and experience beyond the transcendental plain. They state that “whereas the major Kant provides the instruments to support and defend the republic of property even up to today, the minor Kant helps us see how to overthrow it and construct a democracy of the multitude” (21). This means not only “daring to know” but “knowing how to dare” (i.e. thinking and acting autonomously as a “mature” subject requires the necessity of refusing to obey. This minor tradition of Kantian critique has a distinct Deleuzian flavor. Hardt and Negri mobilize a Kant of invention and creativity meant to provide the intellectual scaffolding to imagine a form of subjectivity, and, in turn, a constituent politics beyond the republic of property. They end the chapter showing the major Kantian inflections of Habermas, Rawls, Giddens, and Beck in order to argue that the reformism advocated by these thinkers remains trapped within the republic of property and therefore cannot adequately provide the conceptual tools to move beyond the existing social order.

1.2 Productive Bodies

This chapter begins by introducing Marx’s critique of the abstract and concrete relations between capital, the law, and alienated social life within the republic of property. They next follow how Marx’s perspectives were extended in the tradition of western Marxism, particularly by the Frankfurt School and Althusser to include a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the effects of the regime of property for human life. For the Frankfurt theorists, this meant attending to the base/superstructure nexus and the dynamics inherent in the real subsumption of social life under capital, and for Althusser it entailed the development of a “scientific” Marxism concerned with deducing the ideological co-ordinates of capitalist reproduction. Hardt and Negri claim that these related theoretical projects represent a “phenomenologization” of critique: an effort to shift theoretical valences from the realm of the transcendental to the immanent and, in turn, to the micro-political fabric weaving together formal legal orders and the ordering of bodies. These points lead Hardt and Negri through a brief trip through the phenomenological tradition. Here Heidegger is the philosopher of negative being who like Agamben fails to provide insight into an affirmative power of life. They then provide a genealogical strand between Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Foucault which recognizes the materially productive elements of being. It is with Foucault’s concept of biopolitics that they locate the most highly developed phenomenology of bodies. They simplify Foucault’s biopolitics through three principles: (1) bodies are the constitutive elements of the biopolitical fabric of being (2) where there is power bodies resist, in this way history is made through the resistance of bodies (3) resistance produces subjectivity in concert with other resistances. All these moves are performed in an effort to locate historical-political transformation at the corporeal level of lived existence—the biopolitical interstices of the multitude. Hardt and Negri claim “that only the standpoint of bodies and their power can challenge the discipline and control of the republic of property” (27).

In the last section of the chapter Hardt and Negri theorize the relation between the body and various fundamentalisms: religious, nationalism, white supremacism, and economism. In each case they argue that these fundamentalisms pose an understanding of the body which makes it disappear. Here the Spinozist influence manifests itself in full form as Hardt and Negri argue that while various fundamentalist truth regimes share a fetishistic concern with the body, particularly its containment, the body is nevertheless only recognized as a stand-in for certain transcendent structures that exist above and beyond the corporeal realm. For instance, racism in its modern variations poses a series of biological essences demarcating a transcendental hierarchy—a white supremacist teleology that stands outside bodies as such. Economism too is obsessed with the productivity of bodies, their capacities for entreprenuerializing risk and so forth. But it isn’t the productive capacity of bodies per se that marks economist fundamentalisms but the interest in the creation of surplus value that exists outside the actual materiality of bodies. In their effort to capture bodies within prescriptive orders, fundamentalisms attempt to deny the affirmative power of bodies to reach beyond given historical limitations. The interesting and important observation here is that the affirmation of bodies in their biopolitical potentiality poses not only a challenge to fundamentalisms, but insight into how various rigid, prescriptive, and ultimately misguided and often dangerous forms of thought might be transformed into alternative constituent forces. For instance, take the Tea Party/Sarah Palin wingnuts in the United States. While their “anger” at “big government” is rooted in a variety of irrational forms of reactionary thought, it would be a mistake to simply write off the movement as their grievances are rooted in very real concrete concerns—unemployment, proliferating insecurities etc. It becomes necessary not only to reject and fight against the transcendental appeals of this movement—vulgar economism, racism, nationalism, patriotism etc—but to develop a biopolitical practice where these grievances might be channeled into critical democratic agencies. Spinoza’s question – why is it that people willingly fight for their own slavery? – must be made subject to examination in all its paradoxical and ironic dimensions thus working to reconnect the dissonances and misinterpretations between cause and effect which muddy and debase contemporary political culture.

1.3 The Multitude of the Poor

This chapter marks an effort to further clarify the political conceptualization of the multitude. Again, the multitude is imagined here as an open and inclusive body that stands in opposition to the republic of property. Hardt and Negri claim that multitude resists the order of property due to their exclusion from it. This exclusion defined as the “poverty” of the multitude is what politically unites its open and disparate elements: its opposition to the republic of property defines the multitude as a radically inclusive composition of bodies. Poverty and exclusion are thus understood as constitutive elements of both the republic of property –providing a wage labor force etc—and the multitude itself which stands against it. “The poor, in other words, refers not to those who have nothing but to the wide multiplicity of all those who are inserted in to the mechanisms of social production regardless of social order of property” (40). It refers to political subjectivities that are radically plural and affirmative and, as such, pose a threat to the striated architecture of property wherever it has historically manifested itself. Hardt and Negri thus proceed by genealogically mapping the concept of the multitude. First, they track the concept in enlightenment political thought (namely Hobbes) where it appears primarily as a negative concept to be tamed through the principals of selective representation, such as through qualifications for political recognition and suffrage through landholder status in English law. Second, in opposition, they draw on Spinoza as the philosopher who most clearly articulates a relationship between poverty and the power of bodies as they strive to affirm possibilities for democratic community. Finally, Hardt and Negri again assert that contemporary conditions of global production have recomposed traditional notions of the working class absorbing all wage laborers and the poor within the dynamics of flexibility and precarity. “The poor, whether they receive wages or not, are located no longer at the historic origin or geographical borders of capitalist production but increasingly at its heart—and thus the multitude of the poor also emerges at the center of the project for revolutionary transformation” (55).

3 thoughts on “Commonwealth: Part 1

  1. Great summary of these sections Alex! Here are a few comments and questions that are on my mind after reading Part 1.

    1) This notion that “contemporary capitalism enables an ontology that is at least partially grounded in the common,” as you note raises some interesting possibilities for seeing alternatives to what, if we listen too much to Zizek, Agamben, et al., too often seems like an impossible situation. However, it also raises what I think are some crucial questions, which so far as I can tell are unanswered in the first section of the book. That is: are H&N proposing that this thinking in terms of the common is a wholly new development, contingent first on the globalisation of capital? Is the contemporary situation the only situation that could give rise to an ontology of the common? Is it possible that this is the re-emergence of “commons” thinking (and here I am thinking, as I do, of notions of gift-cultures developed by Mauss and others, in which “property” was less individual than collective – or even trans-individual.) Also, would it have been possible for a commons-based paradigm to have emerged out of alternative political-economic paradigms?

    2) Related to the above: if it is the case that capital sets up the possibility for a new (or even renewed) sense of the common, then there is a possible, though I think in the end minor, issue that appears in their assessment of the “second stream” of interpretations of Foucault (pp. 57-58) (Agamben, Derrida, Nancy) in which they seem to take a shot at Holderlin’s notion that “where ther is danger/so the rescue grows as well,” which Heidegger also picked up on in his notion of the “saving power.” I realise that they are suggesting that these theorists don’t do enough to see the possible affirmative possibilities of the saving power, but it seems that H&N could have done a little more to acknowledge that their thesis begins from a similar perspective if only inasmuch as they locate the power of the common from within contemporary developments in globalisation.

    3) I really like their comparison of Badiou and Foucault’s differing notions of the event. One thing that has bugged me in my reading of Badiou (and it is nascent) is the problem with how one knows whether or not what one is doing counts as an event? With Badiou you don’t know until after…and if after all your efforts you discover that it wasn’t an event, then what? This is what makes Zizek propose the refusal thesis I think, maybe because it is assured that doing nothing does something (?). Their reading of Foucault is more to my liking in that it doesn’t require hindsight – biopolitics is an event pure and simple; the trick is, as they suggest, this needs to be organised in some way. If not, it seems that simply accepting the reality of biopolitics as an event leaves the door open for complacency of the sort we find in the armchair activism of Gap purchases, Starbuck’s charity, and Green consumption.

  2. Thank you for the insightful comments Paul, here are my thoughts.

    (1) These points raise interesting questions. I think that the multitude is a trans-historical yet radically contextual concept, meaning that in a Spinozian sense bodies/subjectitivities are perpetually so many forces of combination, decomposition, and production. This view affirms the multitude as always already an immanent potentiality that insofar as it stands in opposition to the order of property tends toward the common (think back to the historical delineation they make in the chapter from Empire “Two Europes Two Modernities” between transcendental orders and the forces of immanence). This contingent and radically plural understanding of the multitude does not mean it cannot be historicized insofar as we understand historicization as a mapping of conditions of possibility. Here, Hardt and Negri take stock of given productive forces and make some definitive claims around the relative potential of social transformation in the contemporary moment. Thus I do not see their intervention as a re-affirmation of forgone social movements/perspectives of the common, nor a negation of latent possibilities of the common in alternative political-economic paradigms such as in state socialism. Finally, while they locate within contemporary regimes of production partially realized material elements and ontologies of the common, this does not mean that they are claiming egalitarian social transformation shares a determined relationship in the present.

    (2) Again, I don’t think that it is global capitalism per se that determines their analysis of social transformation, it just so happens that we live within its circuits and this has produced a particular set of productive economic and social co-ordinates which both enable and constrain the possibilities for the articulation of a democracy of the multitude. Their problem with Heidegger/Agamben is that these theorists pose a conception of being and power entirely as negation and thus fail to adequately apprehend the immanent affirmative power of bodies in composition within one another—this isn’t to say that social formations always tend toward the construction of the common but that the potential is always present for individual and collective agency.

    (3) Yes! It appears that while Hardt and Negri extract from Foucault a concept of biopolitics that recognizes the necessity of freedom and resistance to all power relations, this does not mean that events of freedom as they tend toward democratic social transformation do not require strategic thinking, organizing, and action. In other words, the biopolitical event as it enacts democratic futures is an accumulation of strategic action.

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