Cross posted at Fugitive Imagination.
Part 4: Empire Returns
4.1 Brief History of a Failed Coup D’État
Let the Dead Bury the Dead
For Hardt and Negri, the definitive event of the 21st century, thus far, has been the failure of unilateralism. They see the failure of the US to gain imperial supremacy as evidence that imperialism itself is a dead ideology, and that scholarly acceptance of the US as imperialism, based on out-moded theories, hastens the necessity that “the dead bury the dead.” Drawing from their work in Empire, they suggest that toward the end of the 1990s “Empire” was a new global order that was qualitatively different that previous forms of imperial power that had their basis in the dominant political unit of the nation-state. Instead, the problem for the 21st century is one of a wide networked distribution of varied powers contributed to by many actors. I t was characterised by the collaboration of states, corporations, global economic and political institutions, etc. For international relations scholars then, the traditional narrative of world history that moved from a multipolar world, through a US/USSR dominated bipolarity, to an “end of history” unipolar world dominated by the US were no longer adequate for understanding the emergence of a new global order. Hardt and Negri argue that reactionary forces, typified by American neoconservatives, pursued an agenda of unilateral imperialist glory that rejected the emergent formation of Empire, in essence “a coup d’état within the global system.” (205) The defining moment for this coup was the catastrophe of September 11th. They argue, however, that the imperial attempt failed largely due the neoconservatives’ rejection of Empire. The neoconservatives were in favour of American exceptionalism, seeing the US as having a responsibility to unilaterally impose political power around the world, spreading democracy, and thus guarantee peace. But, Hardt and Negri point out, a reliance on, but inability to adapt military strategy, coupled with a tenuous relationship to economic concerns, hastened the failure of the project. Finally, taking for granted that other nation-states would simply play along, these new imperialists disregarded the need for moral or political authority. In the end, this imperialist project attempted to “assert hegemony without concern for, and even scorning the necessary prerequisites for, that hegemony itself.” (208) Imperialist projects, they argue, did not fail because of poor execution, as many neoconservative hard liners would suggest, but rather because “unilateralism and imperialist projects were already dead.” The furore over the imperialist actions of the US gave rise to a series of criticisms from the Left that, according to Hardt and Negri, declared there was in fact no new world order, and that imperialism remained as it was defined in the 19th and 20th centuries. These writers accepted the exceptionalism of the US as a force of domination, and this acceptance mimics the outmoded ideologies of imperialism itself.
The Exhaustion of US Hegemony
In this section Hardt and Negri examine the details of the military, political, and moral breakdown that were part of the failure of US unilateralism. Economic breakdowns appear in the following section, while this section is dominated by military discussion. They propose that the war in Iraq demonstrates the soundness of “two well-established truths of military thought.” (210) First, the nature of size and composition of a force is crucial. In Iraq the US experimented with reduced troop numbers and preferred a mobile, technologically-enhanced formation. Both of these factors make for a successful offensive strategy, but do not function well as a defensive strategy for an occupying force–occupations require large numbers. Second, different subjectivities emerge from the conflict between occupied and occupier. In this case, occupied forces take on a subjectivity of resistance, a “willingness to risk harm and death,” (211) while occupying forces, especially now when justifications for foreign wars can barely rely on notions of patriotism, lack access to subjective production. Occupying armies are populated by mercenaries, who presumably lack any kind of ideological attachment to a “cause.” These obstacles are only enhanced by the problems associated with urban warfare. Hearkening back to their discussion of the metropolis as a site of production of the common (pp. 153-56), Hardt and Negri note here that insurrections that emerge in urban centres rely on the established spaces, communication circuits, and social networks. Remarkably, the same mobile, technologically advanced force that is failing in Iraq and Afghanistan is still the paradigm that military thinkers are relying upon to hold sway over the larger-in-number but less well equipped armies of emergent nations such as China. The political and moral breakdown of US unilateralism go hand in hand: the ideological explanation for US hegemony, so it goes, held the notion that the US was always acting in the interest of peace and democracy, both domestically and internationally. The reality, Hardt and Negri argue, is different: other nations accepted US hegemony only when US interests also advanced their interests. The last vestiges of a virtuous US were erased by Abu Ghraib and the legitimisation of the practice of torture, and when it became clear that the US was pursuing a unilateral agenda. The “ideological cover” that aided and abetted US hegemony had already been hollowed out because the pursuit of war, its economic policies, etc., no longer advanced the interests of formerly willing accomplice states.
What is a Dollar Worth?
Here, Hardt and Negri offer the key aspects of the breakdown of US economic supremacy, what they see as a series of “no confidence votes”: the “neoliberal experiment” of Iraq and its failure; economic relations to other nations; currency; global finance’s interdependency, and; the recognition of wasteful spending of the War on Terror. Iraqi oilfields were important to the US, they argue, but the real point was to see if it was possible to create a functioning neoliberal state from the ground up. Thus, in Iraq, existing economic, social relations, labour structures, etc. were destroyed and then rebuilt according to neoliberal logic. The newly privatised nation ran into trouble when foreign corporations were afraid to invest due to violent instability that made it difficult to conduct business, and when they doubted the legitimacy of their operations under the eyes of international law. The experiment’s failure was further exacerbated by the resistance of Iraqi workers to privatisation. Whether or not US unilateralism was good for business then became a key question, not so much for individual corporations, but for the international community. In fact it was not, and thus the US lost the ability to impose its economic will on other nations. Especially in Latin America, US interests ceased to align with the interests of other countries. US currency too, they assert, has lost its power as the global standard. And though it may remain the symbolic standard for years to come, its real power has been lost due to the interdependence of global finance markets. The US housing crisis revealed the US’s dependence on global finance, while the corresponding global meltdown was illustrative of global finance’s dependence on US markets. Finally, Hardt and Negri see the aftermath of hurricane Katrina as a point in which all of the failures of US unilateralism come into play: the labelling of the citizens affected as “refugees” brought home conditions associated with the subordinated world and revealed continuing racial divisions. Some commentators even pointed out the “war on terror” contributed to the devastation because a) the National Guard were busy, and couldn’t be called on for help, and b) the funds used to support the foreign wars could have been used in domestic infrastructure improvements.
4.2 After US Hegemony
Here Hardt and Negri problematise the “search for successor candidates to global hegemony” in the wake of the failure of US unilateralism, arguing that the possibility of a hegemonic nation-state or sovereign power is now impossible. We now live in transitional times between imperialism and Empire. Giovanni Arrighi notes that the rising trajectory of a hegemonic power usually features an increase in investment in productive processes, while its decline is marked by a shift toward finance. The financialisation of the US economy (beginning the decoupling of the dollar from the gold standard), is further coupled with US military failures (Vietnam is seen here as the “signal crisis” and the occupation of Iraq as the “terminal” crisis in US decline), and Arrighi suggests that a new cycle of accumulation will emerge, albeit one that is not centred around a single nation-state, but rather a combination of formerly subordinate regions. Hardt and Negri point out the difficulty in imagining the novel form that the new global order will take by noting the tendency to think in terms of a new (or really renewed) multilateralism based on a version of 19th century multilateralism with ideology, rather than religion, as its central guiding force. They argue, however, that the systems that would support such a multilateralism no longer exist; such a system and its institutions (such as the United Nations), already weakened, did not survive the final blow of failed US unilateralism.
Drawing on Saskia Sassen’s analysis of emergence political and economic formations, Hardt and Negri argue that after unilateralism fails and a return to multilateralism is impossible, a shift in perspective is needed to recognize new forms of management, regulation, and control. Sassen argues that the emerging global order is forming both within and outside of nation-states, it is an assemblage of national, supra-national, and non-national institutions and authorities. In no way is there a power vacuum, post uni- or multi-lateralism, instead there are multiple poles of power, and the construction of assemblages of state and non-state actors that are establishing new forms of authority. It is within various conceptions of “governance” that Hardt and Negri locate an opening toward a new perspective that focuses on collaboration and regulations without the existence of a hegemonic power. They trace two histories of the notion of governance: in corporate discourse the term refers to structures of authority and is useful in this context for providing a means to conceive of a non-state-oriented system of organisation; in the work of Niklas Luhmann and Michel Foucault, attention is paid to the “bottom up” processes of creativity of various political actors and the regulatory structures that surround them. Different models of governance derive from these two perspectives. 1) notions of “market values” suggest a poly-centric organisation driven by structures of authority that favour commerce and profits; 2) a post-sovereign form of global governance in which states are the primary actors, though often working in an ad-hoc fashion; 3) one that draws on labour union institutions for the management of collective interests that cannot be dealt with at the individual level. This is a self-regulatory model whose actors consent to “polyarchic jurisdiction.” For Hardt and Negri, this third model is the most relevant for understanding governance within Empire. It is oligarchic, in which many international, national, corporations, etc. collaborate. It is a plural and flexible process. Each model is pluralistic and guilds from below. States continue to be major players in terms of policy making, though the production of law “takes command away from sovereignty, makes it adequate to the market, and distributes it among a variety of actors. (227) But, Hardt and Negri warn, this type of governance should not be mistaken for democracy. Its multiplicity, they argue “is highly restricted to only a privileged set, an oligarchy of powers hierarchically related to one another, and its openness is severely limited by the effects of power and property.” (277)
The New Scramble for Africa
In this section, Hardt and Negri trouble the existence of a “flat” global economy that creates a more stable and equal playing field. Great divisions, they argue, still exist and are even deepened by globalisation, what may have formerly been “outsides” to capitalist production have been subsumed and exploited. They focus on the return of imperial-era approaches for extracting capital from subordinate regions, with particular focus on Africa and approach this phenomenon from Marx’s concept of formal vs. real subsumption of labour. Formal subsumption, for Marx, occurs when capital appropriates modes of labour and production that exist outside of a capitalist logic (e.g., craft production, certain agricultural practices). Real subsumption occurs when new forms of labour and production within the logic of capital (and here I can think of phenomena like “customer support” call centres, or even factory floor managers). This view has been expanded to see the whole of colonial activity as a passage from formal to real subsumption. From this view, formal subsumption marks a borderline between capital and non-capital, and holds the possibility of an outside, while real subsumption could be misconstrued as creating a flat and equal world. But, Hardt and Negri assert, as labour practices become globally divided there is a reciprocal passage from real to formal subsumption, a passage that does not re-create an “outside” to capital, but rather creates deeper divisions and boundaries. Whereas in the 19th century imperial activities in Africa concentrated on the extraction of natural resources (which does still continue today), there is now a focus on further extraction of wealth through dispossessing others’ existing wealth (presumably here they are suggesting that elements of the common in some subordinate nations are being appropriated by foreign business – much like the Bolivian water and gas situations and the neoliberal “experiment” in Iraq). This type of dispossession is aggravated by capital’s predatory stance in the face of natural and manmade catastrophes. While this type of dispossession is occurring elsewhere, Hardt and Negri highlight Africa for the particularly brutal forms it has taken: in diamond mines, in oil fields, etc.
4.3 Genealogy of Rebellion
Revolt Breathes Life Into History
The focus of this section is “spontaneous” revolt and the possibilities for harnessing and making a lasting transformation from resistance. Hardt and Negri begin with the notion of “indignation,” which, according to Spinoza, rests at the heart of movements of revolt. Indignation is the place where the power to act against oppression begins. It includes a dimension of violence and force which can appear spontaneous and naïve. Hardt and Negri call on the term “jacqueries,” traditionally associated with particularly bloody peasant revolts, to characterise contemporary violent revolt: from peasant revolts, through worker rebellions, to the Paris riots of 2005. The jacquerie, in traditional narratives, is always seen as a negative: though the people are legitimately suffering, their actions are too sporadic and too violent and thus are unable to leave a legitimate institutional wake; they disappear as quickly as they appeared. Yet, Hardt and Negri note, these revolts are often more organised than they seem, especially in the focus of their violence: peasants revolted against rent, workers revolted against the fixed capital of the factory owner, and the Paris revolts of 2005 focussed on conditions of social mobility and division such as transpiration and schools. Reactions against the jacqueries also tend to overemphasise the possibility for jacqueries to legitimate existing structures of power; in doing so these reactions miss the legitimacy that does exist in the creative and nomadic power of the jacqueries. The real task, Hardt and Negri argue, is how to transform the actions of the jacqueries into lasting change within the context of biopolitical production, where resistances can no longer be congealed and represented by one representative group (resistances can no longer be covered under an umbrella concern with wages and social services, for example). Jacqueries, though they are an essential part of transformative politics do not go far enough.
Anthropology of Resistance
Within the biopolitical context Hardt and Negri note the necessity of a new theory of revolution that builds on the potentials of the multitude and resists mystification. This section is concerned with examining the temporal dimensions of the biopolitical transformation of labour. Anthropological conditions in contemporary society are, they argue, are under the rule of biopower, and thus any possible resistance will also be be biopolitical. Drawing on Foucault, they note that the indignation that underpins revolt is at once a rupture and a continuance. That is, revolt is constant; it is “how the multitude makes history.” (241) Revolt here is seen as at once “within and against” that which it resists: the modern proletariat produces within a biopolitical world, but it also is against that same totality. Rather than a specific power to rebel against, contemporary revolt is directed against capital as a whole and for Hardt and Negri represents an exodus, a separation from the dominance of capital. Contemporary resistance is also marked by a change in temporality: work time and life time are increasingly simultaneous, with capital reaching beyond the traditional definitions of (socially) necessary labour and non-work time. Drawing on their thoughts on the poor from Chapter 1, they suggest that capital is always rooted in the present, while proletarian revolt was always oriented toward the future. However, as these temporalities collapse, revolution now cannot be imagined as a deferred event, but rather must exceed the present. They point to the struggles of 1968 as the definitive moment in which these temporalities began to coincide, where the socialist workers movement drew to a close and its dialectic relationship with labour institutions was destroyed. Finally, they revisit their previous separation of “the crowd” from “the multitude” as a means of recuperating the possibility of the crowd’s indignation to be organised, to be recomposed with all the subordinated classes and oriented toward revolution.
Geographies of Rebellion
This section is concerned with the spatial dimensions of the biopolitical transformation of labour. Drawing on their previous examination of the metropolis, they argue that the production of capital extends now beyond the factory into the entire social territory. In response to the deterritorialisation and nomadism of labour power resulting from imposed flexibility and necessary migration, and the corresponding breakdown of borders, capital is tasked with creating new borders and hierarchies in an effort to command and exploit. This is a “historical innovation” that reflects the inversion of the movement from formal to real subsumption of labour discussed earlier: it is not a return to old hierarchies and divisions between properly capitalist and non-capitalist forms of labour. The precarity that characterises biopolitical production results in both the social exclusion of workers while they paradoxically remain very much within the structures and processes of social and economic production: for example, workers often traverse metropolises in the course of their work day, and traverse continents in order to find employment. The emblematic figure of this precarity is the banlieusards, those who live in the poor peripheries of European metropolises. This precarity, along with the constant breaking down of borders negates the possibility of a political vanguard to lead the masses. The problem, for Hardt and Negri, is how best to reflect this decentralisation and dispersal politically, how to move from the revolt of a jacquerie to organisation. Jacqueries reformulate social space, reappropriating spatial and temporal dimensions of the multitude, but they do not define a positive organisational program. But, since, as with the banlieusards, they exist “within and against,” so do they provide the impetus for imagining solutions that also arise from within, but are oriented against. Nation states, NGOs, and trans-national institutions have all proven unable to organise global social space. Transformation, Hardt and Negri argue, can only emerge from the global movements of populations and their active refusal of norms of power. The multitude must create new institutions that will harness the positive potentials of the jacqueries’ revolts and the border defying actions of the banlieusards.