Commonwealth: Part 3

Part 3 Capital (and the struggles over common wealth)

3.1 Metamorphoses of the Composition of Capital

This chapter proceeds to outline the biopolitical character of contemporary political economy and how contradictions rooted within this particular phase of global capitalism provide specific openings to social struggles centered on the common. First, Hardt and Negri detail the “technical composition of labor” within the biopolitical economy particularly the intersections of immaterial production, the feminization/flexibilization of labor, and new transnational flows and ethno-national mixtures of laboring bodies. This finds Hardt and Negri largely rehashing points already spelled out in Empire and Multitude. They claim that as labor is increasingly organized around the prevalence of immaterial production—the generation and circulation of knowledge, ideas, codes, languages, and affects—surplus value tends to emanate from the production of social life itself. “This means, of course, not that the production of material goods, such as automobiles and steel, is disappearing or even declining in quantity but rather that their value is increasingly dependent on and subordinated to immaterial factors and goods” (132). In other words, the object of production increasingly tends toward the production of a subject; that is, the social relations and forms of subjectivity conducive to generating value in the biopolitical economy. Hardt and Negri argue that “the traditional economic division between productive and reproductive labor breaks down in this context, as capitalist production is aimed ever more clearly at the production of not only (and perhaps not even primarily) commodities but also social relationships and forms of life” (133).

The key point here, Hardt and Negri argue, is that as biopolitical production becomes primary, it increasingly exceeds the material quantitative basis for the extraction of surplus value, engendering new frameworks of capitalist command and control alongside new possibilities for social contestation. This can be seen in the transformation of marketing strategies, for instance, where what is increasingly being sold is not commodities per se but experiences, such as through the spatial aesthetic design of Starbucks Coffee chains meant to capture the idea of urban living and community. Hardt and Negri argue that cognitive and affective labor is increasingly autonomous from capitalist command. As such, capitalism is required to generate surplus value externally to the production process through the expropriation of the common: “the becoming rent of profit”. This expropriation occurs in some cases through what David Harvey has referred to as “accumulation by dispossession”: the privatization of fixed assets like schools, transportation systems, health systems, natural resources etc. However, Hardt and Negri argue that it is more generalized than this, as value is wrenched from the common through the production and reproduction of social life itself.  Hardt and Negri locate this as an emerging crisis for capitalist accumulation. As capital attempts to exert control, it increasingly becomes a fetter to biopolitical labor, draining the common—the primary driver of wealth production—through its effort to privatize and expropriate its resources.

3.2 Class Struggle from Crisis to Exodus

Hardt and Negri proceed to argue that the increasing autonomy of biopolitical labor presents an opening for exodus: a new model of class struggle based upon the subtraction of labor from the production process on the basis of the common. Before turning to how such an exodus becomes possible through the realization of the multitude as political organization, they first track down existing forms of the common. First, they illustrate through urban real estate values and speculative finance, how specters of the common exist at the core of contemporary capitalist processes. In real estate, for example, value is generated primarily through proximity and access to common resources like good schools, transportation, and cultural institutions as opposed to the intrinsic value of property. Second, through a discussion of the family, the corporation, and the nation, they point out the ambivalent and paradoxical ways that these particular instantiations of the common can serve as both tools of capitalist command while providing foundations for the liberation of the multitude. They argue that

the family, the corporation, and the nation do engage and mobilize the common, even if in corrupted form, and thereby provide important resources for the exodus of the multitude. All these institutions present networks of productive cooperation, resources of wealth that are openly accessible, and circuits of communication that simultaneously whet the desire for the common and frustrate it. The multitude must flee the family, the corporation, and the nation but at the same time build on the promises of the common they mobilize. Keep in mind that opening and expanding access to the common in the context of biopolitical production means seizing control of the means of production and reproduction; that it is the basis for a process of subtraction from capital and the construction of autonomy of the multitude; and that this project of exodus is the primary form class struggle takes today. (164)

3.3 Kairos of the Multitude

Picking up where they leave off, Hardt and Negri state:

All the objective conditions are in place: biopolitical labor constantly exceeds the limits of capitalist command; there is a breach in the social relation of capital opening the possibility for biopolitical labor to claim its autonomy; the foundations of its exodus are given in the existence and constant creation of the common; and capital’s mechanisms of exploitation and control increasingly contradict and fetter biopolitical productivity. But there are also countervailing objective conditions: new capitalist mechanisms find novel ways to expropriate and privatize the common, and the old institutions ceaselessly corrupt it. Where does all this leave us? Analysis of objective conditions take us this far but no further. Capitalist crisis does not proceed automatically to collapse. The multiplicity of singularities that produce and are produced in the biopolitical field of the common do not spontaneously accomplish exodus and construct their autonomy. Political organization is needed to cross the threshold and generate political events. The kairos—the opportune moment that ruptures the monotony and repetitiveness of chronological time—has to be grasped by a political subject” (165).

This marks a turning point in Commonwealth from the analysis of “objective” conditions to Hardt and Negri’s attempt to formulate the multitude as a viable political subject capable of self-determination, organization, and action. Here they turn to various critiques of their project for inspiration. These criticisms might be broken down into two categories. First, there are those like Pierre Macherey and Ernesto Laclau who argue that the multitude, insofar as it remains a horizontally organized multiplicity of irreducible singularities, lacks the coherence necessary to act as a viable (unified) subject capable of political decision and action. Second, they engage a series of criticisms aimed not at the form of the multitude but its content. For example, Paulo Virno and Etienne Balibar point out that the multitude lacks the internal criteria to prevent it from acting in ways conducive to social exploitation and oppression. Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou take this point even further. For Zizek, the decentered and immanent organization of the multitude directly mirrors, and thus runs the risk of reproducing, the derritorialized relations of neoliberal domination it ostensibly claims to overcome. He denies the possibility that radical transformation can come from within the coordinates of capitalist social organization. Similarly, Badiou centers his critique on Hardt and Negri’s Foucauldian interpretation of resistance. Badiou argues that since resistance is constantly engaged with power, resistance never actually escapes power and thus becomes power’s unwitting accomplice. Thus a break, or a subtraction, from power is necessary, which in Badiou’s view requires fidelity to the ruptural event by bringing discipline and order to the multitude in its wake.

In order to respond to these criticisms, Hardt and Negri attempt to “shift the ground” of discussion from questions concerning being the multitude to the notion of making the multitude. This “making” refers to the idea that the multitude is a perpetual becoming, articulated on the plane of immanence, through the interplay between nature, cultural production, and subjectivity. In the biopolitical economy, as life itself is generated through the common, the circuits of communication and subject formation constitute an architecture through which collective activity is being organized. Hardt and Negri argue that these processes provide the conditions in which the multitude can act as a political subject without the necessity of establishing a hegemonic or sovereign authority through which to articulate and enact its self-governing capacities. This hinges on the ontological recognition/acceptance of the multitude as a network becoming rooted in the common. What enables this rhizomatic structure to act politically is a collective process of fleeing the detrimental and corrupted forms of the common and nurturing and developing the liberatory and democratic forms. How is the multitude able to collectively distinguish and nurture the liberatory forms of the common as opposed to the detrimental? This is a question they take up in the next section of the text through their mobilization of love as a political concept. It strikes me that Hardt and Negri’s response to their critics is necessarily insufficient. They are trying to formulate a model of social organization and revolution that is genuinely forward looking and experimental by design. One has to verify Hardt and Negri’s ontology in order to accept the possibility of a self-governing networked political actor. This amorphous anti-hierarchical political becoming is what inflects both the project’s dynamism and its limitations. The criticisms expressed by Laclau and Balibar thus present valid points of contention, while I think Badiou and Zizek’s criticisms are more easily dismissed.

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