Commonwealth: Part 2

Admittedly, I think might have went a little crazy with this summary, but hey, it’s a really interesting chapter! Cross posted at Fugitive Imagination.

Part 2: Modernity (and the Landscapes of Altermodernity)

2.1 Antimodernity as Resistance

Power and Resistance Within Modernity

In this section Hardt and Negri problematise the traditional dialectic opposition of modernity/antimodernity. This opposition, they argue, is what gives rise to problematic notions of modernity as an “unfinished project,” inherently good, and simply in need of further advance. They counter the traditional view of modernity as a process of a benign, universalised enlightened European sensibility that civilises an oppositional savage external world, by proposing that modernity itself is dualistic, characterised by the immanent coupling of domination and resistance. The forces of antimodernity, they argue, cannot be seen as being outside modernity but rather internal to it. This means that modernity, for Hardt and Negri, should be seen first and foremost as a power relation. In order to facilitate this ontological shift they first draw on contemporary characterisations of coloniality as a series of “encounters.” Encounters, as opposed to conquests, acknowledge the mutual mixtures and transformations experienced by the coloniser and colonised. Examples given include the adaptation by colonialists to pre-existing spatial layouts of Aztec city states and the influence of Iroquois Federalism on the political history of the United States. The language of encounter misses the violence of coloniality and thus Hardt and Negri continue with a psychoanalytic metaphor: European modernity is “psychotic” because it forecloses the possibility of alternative existences and the influence of the subjugated on the dominant. This is evident in attempts to erase alternate or antimodern histories, which are seen as a threat from the outside, as opposed to being constitutive of modernity itself. Finally, though centre/periphery models come closest to Hardt and Negri’s proposed duality, they run the risk of homogenising both the coloniser and colonised. “The West” is seen as the only “pole of domination,” without internal struggles and resistances, while “the rest” is seen as uniformly subordinate, without it’s own axes of domination. When modernity is understood as a power relation then seeing modernity as an unfinished project is much less benign than is suggested by Habermas and other theorists of social democracy. “More modernity,” Hardt and Negri argue, “is not an answer to our problems.” (71)

Slave Property in the Modern Republic

For Hardt and Negri modernity and republicanism are intimately linked because the republican form of property relations became the dominant form within modernity. Slave property is thus scandalous for the republic because it fundamentally contradicts notions of equality and freedom espoused by the French, American, and English revolutions, yet it forms the cornerstone of emerging republican economies. They ask: if slavery is so antithetical to these foundational notions of republicanism then why did it last so long, “not as a peripheral remnant of the past but as a central sustaining pedestal?” An ideological operation takes place in which republican discourses locate slavery as both an ancient phenomenon and a foil that operates against the capitalist conception of free labour. For Hardt and Negri then, this is “the point of maximum ideological contradiction with the republic of property…either freedom or property can be preserved, but not both.” (72) In posing slavery as a remnant of the premodern, modernity/capital can then propose that it offers modern solutions to this problem. Yet the issue of slavery is also a material one. Though Eurocentric histories see modernity as vanquishing slavery, in reality slavery was crucial to modernity’s development and a “massive segregation schema” (73) was enacted; freedom existed on one side of the Atlantic and was economically supported by slavery on the other. Racism then can be seen as one of the material supports for modernity. Attempts to foreclose or disavow the racist history of modern republicanism help to explain why the Haitian revolution has been systematically cast outside of historical accounts of “the Age of Revolution,” which are focussed on the “big three” republican revolutions. The Haitian revolution “reveals the profound contradiction between the ideology and substance of republicanism and modernity” (75) because, firstly, it freed slaves (thus violating modernity’s rule of property) and, secondly, it ended racial segregation (thus threatening modernity’s racial hierarchies).

Highlighting the relationship between slavery and modernity also helps us understand the power of slave resistance. Slaves are traditionally viewed abstractly as completely dominated subjects, though as Foucault noted, power and domination can only be enacted over subjects that resist. All subjects then, “have access to a margin of freedom, no matter how narrow that may be, which grounds their capacity to  resist.” (75) If slaves were in fact completely dominated then no power would be (nor need be) exercised over them. Thus, instead of conceiving of slavery as a vestige of the premodern to be vanquished by progressive forces of republicanism or capital, slaves themselves made their domination untenable as an economic system through their own capacity to resist. Citing DuBois, slaves set in motion an exodus, a “general strike” of sorts, that sabotaged the flow of  provisions to the Confederate Army during the Civil War. DuBois’s condensation of decades of slave revolt is meant to demonstrate the centrality of slaves in creating their own emancipation.  The point here is to see the resistances of antimodernity as existing within modernity itself. Contra Agamben then, Hardt and Negri assert that “humans cannot be reduced to ‘bare life’,” they remain “full of rage and power and hope.” (77) Thus, for Hardt &Negri, slave resistance is not antimodern because it rejects values of freedom and equality, but because it challenges the hierarchies that are central to modernity’s power relations.

The Coloniality of Biopower

In this section Hardt and Negri acknowledge and critique the function of ideology within the modernity-coloniality-racism complex. Forces of antimodernity are held in check both externally, through violence, control, and surveillance, and also through “internal mechanisms of subjectification.” (77) Heathens were converted to Christianity both by force and by re-education, within which the nature and capacities of natives were also redefined to meet the ideological motivations of the colonisers. Questions about native capacity for reason and their humanity are raised and “answered” in order to reinforce the hierarchy.  Here, capacity of native populations to be civilised is always seen as their capacity to receive such a salvation from the outside: the subjugated must first be ready to be saved. The limitation to critiquing the role of ideology, Hardt and Negri suggest, is that such critiques rest on ideology being somehow outside or separable from the subjugated and their interests. “Race thinking” is thus always posed as a failure of modernity and separate from modern society as a whole. Hardt and Negri propose a rethinking of racism not only in terms of ideological manifestations, but also in its material form. The powers of modernity-coloniality-racism are form of biopower that invests the subordinated with a productive power. Modernity’s power relations have never been just superstructural, but have material apparatuses that invest subjects. In this vein, “the Spanish Inquisition is an ideological structure, but it is also a highly developed bureaucracy” (80) To answer the question of whether or not, within biopower’s immense reach, there is possibility for resistance thus requires a reversal of perspective. Power is not primary and resistance a reaction to it, but rather, in line with Foucault’t assertion that power can only be exerted over “free subjects,” resistance is prior to power, it is “simply the effort to further, expand, and strengthen that freedom.” (81) Thus, the external standpoint that ideology critique seeks appears as “futile and disempowering.” (81)

2.2 Ambivalences of Modernity

Marxism and Modernity

This section begins with a critique of the notion of modernity as progress in various Marxist discourses that reinforce a teleological understanding of the move from pre-capitalist to capitalist modes of production similar to the social democratic notion of modernity as an unfinished project. This perspective sees the forces of antimodernity as backward and threatening. World-systems theories, they argue, have also inherited the Marxist ambivalence toward antimodernity and similarly reproduce its hierarchies. World markets are constituted through the gradual expansion of capital, though not absolutely linearly: there are cyclical contradictions and shifts in the dominance of particular geographic centres which in turn define new hierarchies and zones of exclusion. However, these systems take as given the “systemic nature of capitalist development.” (85) Antimodernity cannot be accounted for in these theories: because of their inability to recognise the role of class struggles in historical, social, and economic development; they cannot understand capital as a relation, nor can they account for the “resistances of subjects other than those directly involved in capitalist production.” (85) Yet there are other streams of Marxist thought that are better able to articulate the forces of antimodernity, though they remain, in Hardt and Negri’s estimation, still mixed with notions of modernity and progress. Lenin’s assessment that the battle between imperial powers in the First World War also created the conditions for breaking through ideological barriers that divided the world’s proletariat indicates a common struggle that breaks with progressivist discourses. Moreover, Mao’s elevation of the role of the peasantry in the struggle for liberation from capital represents an “antimodern theory of modernization.” (87) In later Marx he comes to see bourgeois private property as only one form that exists in parallel with many others. By focussing a model for communism in the Russian peasant communes, Marx’s thought moves away from notions of progress as there is no longer a requirement for the passage through capitalism on the road to communism. The importance of the common is only intimated here, but for Hardt and Negri is fully realised in the work of José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui finds in Andean indigenous communities a solid basis in the common that can also serve as the basis for resistance within modern society. For Hardt and Negri, the combination of the above examples of Marxist revolutionary thought with “Inca communism” signals that antimodernity “should be understood first in the social expression of the common.” (89)

Socialist Development

The three great socialist revolutions—Russia, China, and Cuba—are each tied most intimately to notions of modernity and progress. They each reinforce notions of developmentalist political economies shared with the capitalist states that overshadow alternate political economic forms. Lenin’s attempts to reconcile his appreciation of antimodern antagonism with developmentalist economic strategies appear always as a deferral: the real problem here is that the “maturation process” of socialism never really ends. For Hardt and Negri this is an insufficient analysis of “the mystifying function of capitalist ideology and its notion of progress.” (91) As with other socialist states, the elements of antimodernity are eliminated while the hierarchies of modernity remain intact. Thus, the crises that enveloped Russian and Chinese socialism revealed the fundamental position of developmentalist ideology, both in Russia’s oversimplification of Marxism as a straightforward evolutionary move from the primitive, through capital, to the communist and in China’s refinement of a centralized political organisation of capitalist modes of production. Cuba has only managed to avert major damage by “freezing itself in time, becoming a kind of preserve of socialist ideology that has lost its original components.”[1] Similar developmentalist ideologies have been expressed throughout the “developing world” becoming a means by which forces of antimodernity could be repressed under notions of national development and, as class struggles were merely suppressed, resulted in a confusion of Left and Right political categories and a drive to the political centre. In fact, capitalism has managed to triumph, giving the brief socialist histories of Russia and China the distinct look of having been merely fuel for the development of capitalism. For example, socialism taught capital useful techniques, such as Keynesianism, which Hardt and Negri note is adopted by capitalist states in times of cyclical crisis. Yet, the three great socialist experiments did inspire anticapitalist and anti-imperialist movements, though such liberation struggles “can no longer be cast in terms of modernization and stages of development.” (94) Here Hardt and Negri recast Che Guevara’s turn away from his duties in post-revolutionary Cuba not as an abandonment of responsibility, but rather as a fidelity to core revolutionary principles of antimodernity that had been straitjacketed by the administration of a socialist state governed by a developmentalist ideology. Here there is a rejection of scientific socialism in favour of the power of movements from below to facilitate transformation.

Caliban Breaks Free of the Dialectic

Hardt and Negri invoke the concept of the monster in discourses of modernity as a means through which the forces of antimodernity were cast as non-enlightened, threatening, and savage, thus legitimising domination over them. Adorno and Horkheimer’s attempts to dialectically grasp the monsters of antimodernity, in which the immanence of antimodernity within modernity is acknowledged, are unable to find a way out of the barbarism that constantly frustrates the enlightened capacities of modernity. However, they are right to point out those non-liberatory aspects of antimodernity. But, in setting up modernity and antimodernity as a dialectic, they homogenize the forces of antimodernity as uniformly barbaric and threatening (the Nazis, or even popular culture) without recognizing that some types of antimodernity are liberating; this ultimately fixes antimodernities in solely oppositional roles. For Hardt and Negri, the monsters of antimodernity are not homogenous; far from bringing the dialectic to a standstill, certain antimodernities must be seen to be productive, exceeding domination and pointing toward alternatives. Breaking from Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialectic requires a reversal in perspective. This is achieved through reference to Caliban, the savage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Reimaginings of Caliban’s role have focussed on his capacity for resistance, both through learning language from the Europeans and the possibility for him to free himself from his internalised subjugation. Finally, they offer the power of Spinoza’s imagination to exceed existing knowledge and thought and to facilitate transformation. Hardt and Negri suggest then that there are two positive tasks for analysing the forces of antimodernity:

1)      To distinguish between liberatory and reactionary versions of antimodernity.

2)      To acknowledge that resistance and freedom “exceed the relationship of domination” and cannot be “recuperated in any dialectic with modern power” (100)

2.3 Altermodernity

How Not to Get Stuck in Antimodernity

For Hardt and Negri, antimodernity is a useful starting place for theorising the common because it is firstly a resistance internal to modernity. Moreover, it is a “struggle for freedom within the power relation of modernity”; it is not geographically separated from modernity, each have always coexisted globally, and; it is prior to modernity. Since modernity’s power can only be enacted over already free subjects, there is no progression from antimodern to modern. However, there are limits to the concept of antimodernity because there is always the risk that it simply remains an oppositional stance. Hardt and Negri assert that it is necessary to move from resistance to alternatives, and thus propose the terminological shift from antimodernity to altermodernity. This shift is inspired by globalisation protests, which are interested in creating alternative versions of globalisation, in a sense taking the liberating elements of globalisation and jettisoning the disempowering ones. Altermodernity “marks conflict with modernity’s hierarchies as much does antimodernity but orients the forces of resistance more clearly toward an autonomous terrain.” (102) They propose that Frantz Fanon’s conception of  the evolution of “the colonised intellectual” provides a model for the shift, it passes through three stages: assimilation of European thought to become “more modern than the moderns”; a rebellion against Eurocentrism and a look back to one’s roots, an affirmation of identity that risks the creation of static position; a final creation of a new humanity, a revolutionary transformation. Discourses of indigeneity as a defense to colonialism are most interesting from this perspective. In former colonies (Canada, Australia, etc.) native resistance often begins with a rejection of stereotypes internalised from the colonisers, risking the static “authentic “position. Also, contemporary multiculturalism in former colonies requires that natives perform an “authentic identity,” deviation from which creates problems for the dominant culture. To move toward an altermodern conception requires acknowledgement of mixture, movement, and transformation in order to constantly renew native identities. This is seen most clearly in the Zapatista campaigns, which refuse fixed indigenous identity while also involving conflict with the Mexican state. Autonomy and self-determination are key features of this movement, which asserts the right to “become what we want” rather than simply “to be who we are.” (106) This ruptures the dialectic of modernity/antimodernity and creates the space for the constitution of alternatives. It also provides a model for distinguishing between a socialist and communist project. Socialism “straddles” modernity and antimodernity ambivalently, while, for Hardt and Negri, Communism ought to break with both and present an alternative path.

The Multitude in Coachamba

Here, Hardt and Negri develop a theory of parallelism. Altermodernity is equally concerned with culture and civilisation and labour and production. From the perspective of culture, labour movements are bound up with the developmentalist ideologies, while from the perspective of labour, culture and civilisation projects are primitive and antimodern. This conflict has threatened progressive movements throughout history, including peasant movements and gender struggles; among each, alliances were formed with either side. In altermodernity though, the various perspectives can been seen not in opposition but rather as moving forward in parallel. This parallelism is illustrated with reference to Bolivian struggles against privatisation of water and gas. As prices skyrocketed following a World Bank-advised privatisation, protests began. The key is that these protests were not merely centered around economics or culture/race/civilisation but were about each of these and more. Multiple subjectivities were engaged in the struggle, a diverse collection of ethnic identities from varied socio-economic levels.. The multiplicity of modern workers and working conditions means that a strict understanding of vertically organised classes is no longer functional, and instead needs to be replaced with a notion of the “multitude-form,” which emphasises multiple social singularities in while seeking to “coordinate their common actions and maintain their equality in horizontal organizational structures.” (110). The Bolivian experiences with gas and water are an example of this sort of horizontal integration and are also crucial in seeing altermodernity in terms of the common. First, because these protests were based around ensuring that common resources not be privatised and second because through their organisation the common appears as a social product. The protests that broke out were not spontaneous rebellion, but grew out of existing social networks and practices of self-government.[2]

Rupture and Constitution

The challenge of altermodernity is to both resist modernity’s hierarchies and also to craft alternative social relations based on the common. Thus, altermodernity shares much with, but is fundamentally different from, the perspectives of “hypermodernity,” which posits improving modernity but does not question the hierarchies intrinsic to it, and postmodernity, which, though it celebrates historical rupture, is largely a negative construction that finds it difficult to grasp resistance and move beyond modernity.

Altermodernity is a profound rupture. It is grounded in the struggles of antimodernity, but it also breaks with them by striving toward alternatives instead of stopping at resistance. Hardt and Negri propose three lines of investigation in order to construct a definition of altermodernity.

1)      An alternative line within European enlightenment that traces connections between Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx. This is the line that searches for absolute democracy and the desire to free humanity from domination but which has been submerged and made unrecognisable by the dominant transcendental formation of European enlightenment.

2)      The line of thought and action that derives from worker’s revolts and breaks from notions of modernisation and progress. This comes from Marx, Lenin, and Mao, who each struggle with moving away from Eurocentric developmentalist ideologies by focussing at times on powerful antimodern resistance.

3)      The traditions of antimodernity that, though they have often led to the reproduction of modernity’s colonial and racialised hierarchies, contain within them notions of the common as the basis for alternative social relations and forms of life.

Finally, Hardt and Negri suggest that the passage to altermodernity has some import for the role of the contemporary intellectual. First, the intellectual should be able to enact critique and propose alternatives. The intellectual must constantly push forward from rupture with the past. Second, there is no room for intellectual vanguards. Here, the intellectual is envisioned as a militant, neither on the sidelines nor out in front of the multitude, but rather a part of it, involved in a project of co-research and collaboration in order to constantly create the multitude.


[1] Indeed, I have had more than one conversation among friends who express a desire to visit Cuba “before it all changes,” as if, in addition to the sunny climate and all inclusive resort hotels, Cuba is a kind of cold-war Communist theme park destined to be returned to the capitalist fold once Castro passes on!

[2] This calls to mind Robert Putnam’s work on “social capital,” in which he asserts that the loose bonds of pre-existing social networks (as opposed to the tighter bonds of intimate friendships) are often the most effective when mobilising community efforts.

One thought on “Commonwealth: Part 2

  1. There are some interesting parallels in this section of Commonwealth to points raised by Zizek in his recent book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce particularly concerning the Haitian revolution. I don’t have the Zizek book in front of me at the moment but if memory serves, he also observes that the Haitian revolution revealed the centrality of resistance in the formation of European modernity. For Zizek, the Haitian uprising marks all the ambivalences and paradoxes of modernity, both its legacy of domination and hierarchy as well as it’s liberatory tradition. The Haitian revolutionaries rooted their project within the emancipatory register of the enlightenment and the French revolution and through their revolt embodied the principles of freedom and equality more purely than the French themselves who sought to deny the Haitian slaves their humanity. Zizek claims that the lesson here is that postcolonial resistance to global capitalism should continue to take a critical de-colonizing stance toward the specters of domination handed down from modernity, while recognizing that this stance is firmly within the modern tradition of human emancipation. According to Zizek, the truly revolutionary event, as demonstrated by the Haitian revolution, is not only to appropriate the democratic tradition in political struggle but to radically realign and alter that tradition in the process.

    In some ways this is what the concept of altermodernity is getting at in Commonwealth. For Hardt and Nergi it is not enough to recognize the contradiction within the power relation between modernity and antimodernity. It is not enough to resist. The goal, rather, is to generate new relations and social democratic forms (parallel and intersectional class based, gender, ethnic/indigenous struggles) that cut diagonally across the modern-antimodern threshold. Ultimately, in their chapter on altermodernity and throughout Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri offer a far more dynamic analysis than Zizek, who, whenever confronted with a tight spot often just simply reverts to some sort of grand negative reversal. This brings up a crucial point for me in terms of the broader importance of Commonwealth and the Empire series in general. As Zizek has stated on numerous occasions, himself borrowing from Fredrick Jameson, it is far easier today to imagine the end of human life do to environmental holocaust than even basic transformation of the global capitalist system. This is usually offered within the context of a more general lamentation about how the neoliberal moment exerts tremendous downward pressure on our ability to imagine collective paradigms of social transformation. The precise aim of Commonwealth is to offer a creative design for a new ontology of democratic possibility (a performance of imaginative possibility). This does not mean, of course, that Hardt and Negri should not be subject to critique. In fact as we will see in further posts, critiques of their project were incredibly productive in the formation of this project. It is, however, necessary to consider the dynamic in which critique is offered.

    Recently, I have found myself defending Deleuze against people that I think fundamentally misunderstand the nature or point of his project. In my view, Hardt and Negri’s project embodies Deleuze’s insistence that the value of criticism lies in its ability to transform and affect. In each of his books on Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Spinoza, Deleuze offers plenty of criticism, particularly of Kant, however, these projects are all undertaken in the spirit of pushing the philosophical systems of these thinkers into new territory and in the process simultaneously transforming their projects into something new and dynamic (isn’t this Zizek’s point regarding the Haitian revolution?). Everywhere one peers within Commonwealth, one can locate the stamp of this Deleuzian legacy from their treatment of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, to their deployment of the concepts of love, poverty, and altermodernity. The emphasis is not only to unravel faulty assumptions and open up blockages, but to pave the way for new possibilities for thought and being. My comments here are not in any way to suggest that these concepts along with Hardt and Nergi’s theoretical treatment of the multitude are not without their limitations. It is essential that these limitations be made visible and struggled over. However, if we are to adopt Hardt and Negri’s ethico-political co-ordinates, this process would orient itself toward making these limitations useful in the sense of expanding and sharpening our analytical, ethical, and political attunements. Such an approach seems to me to point toward a way out of the de-politicizing neoliberal deadlock. However, this is precisely what Zizek and others have disingenuously failed to do in their efforts to expel Deleuze from contemporary social and political thought (check out this brilliant analysis by Steven Shaviro of Peter Hallward’s recent assassination attempt)

    With all this being said, what are the limitations and possibilities of altermodernity as a conceptual figure of revolutionary praxis? In a sense, it is not possible to fully answer this question from this chapter alone. Many of the points raised in Part 2 are developed in much more theoretical detail in later chapters, and not before running the ideas through their critique of political economy in Part 3. Here, as a preliminary matter, I would like to address three interrelated critiques. First, critics allege that Hardt and Negri inadvertently reproduce a kind of Marxian developmentalist teleology through their claim that global capitalism produces both the “objective” and “subjective” conditions of its own demise. Submerged within this critique is a second one that refers to Hardt and Negri’s apparent messianic tendencies, connected to their supposed “faith” in the affirmative power of the multitude to govern itself in horizontal co-operative networks. Third, there is also a great deal of contempt for the notion of affirmation itself as a critical basis of praxis. Doesn’t such emphasis on creativity and affirmation reproduce neoliberal desiring subjects of capital? How can we effectively combat capital without directly negating it? And on and on….Hardt and Negri directly address the first criticism in Part 2 by engaging historical determinism as a misguided vestige of Marxism’s relationship to modernity (which does not in any way negate validity of Marxism as analysis or basis for political struggle!). In relation, they obliquely address both the first and second criticisms by insisting that the move into altermodernity does not share any determined relationship to the present, however, in those moments where it has emerged (Bolivia, Chiapas, etc) it has already embodied many of the characteristics of the multitude that they describe: horizontal organizational forms and intersectional alliances coupled with various dynamics of social production (i.e. new strategies of collective action, imagination, and political creation). Rather than emerging as historical necessity or existing simply as a utopian revolutionary fantasy, these movements embody concrete manifestations of the multitude as it engages in transforming the political relations in which it is immersed and in the process transforms itself through the generation of new forms of social life. As for the last point, Hardt and Negri take great pains to insist (particularly through their mobilization of singularity and multiplicity which we will take up later in further posts) that political articulations contain potential for furthering either reactionary or liberatory aims. The point of altermodernity is to recognize that the existence of the former need not negate the possibility of the latter as it strives to inaugurate potentials for as yet unimagined ways of thinking and acting with others.

    What I would like to say in closing out these scattered remarks is that I am interested in continuing to think about criticism in a way that is generative, that opens up rather than closes down productive possibilities for thinking through new intellectual and ethico-political connections. In further posts this will have to mean bringing our notes of Commonwealth into more of a direct conversation with our own interests and projects.

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