Commonwealth: Part 6

Part 6: Revolution

6.1 Revolutionary Parallelism

This chapter rethinks identity politics from the perspective of revolution. Hardt and Negri unfold their argument by first critiquing what might be called “liberal” or “liberal multiculturalist” variants of identity politics which have culminated in “race-blind discourses” and struggles for social recognition. The problem with these movements is that “race-blindness” tends to obfuscate continued structures of subordination and hierarchy, on one hand, while recognition fails to challenge the transcendent basis of identity, on the other. With this being said, Hardt and Negri argue that identity must form the foundation of a revolutionary politics, however, such a politics cannot end with identity. In other words, paradoxically, revolutionary politics must begin with identity but culminate in its abolition. Hardt and Negri outline three tasks for such a revolutionary politics. First, it is urgent to make visible the ongoing salience of race, class, and gender subordination within the social and institutional structures of our supposedly post-political era. This step recognizes identity as having concrete social effects that must be exposed to critical scrutiny and demystification. Second, struggles against social hierarchy must be channeled toward the drive for freedom, defined not by the preservation of identity as an essentialized form of property, but by the principles of self-determination, mutability, and transformation. According to Hardt and Negri

The terminological distinction between emancipation and liberation is crucial here: whereas emancipation strives for the freedom of identity, liberation aims at the freedom of self-determination and self-transformation, the freedom to be who you can become. Politics fixed on identity immobilizes the production of subjectivity; liberation instead requires engaging and taking control of the production of subjectivity, keeping it moving forward. (332)

The third task is to keep identity moving forward along a path toward its own abolition. I see this less as a destruction of identity than a process of transformation beyond the narrow essentialist parameters and categories imposed on identity both internally and externally. In reality, Hardt and Negri argue that the three tasks must be performed simultaneously in multiple zones through polyvalent strategies and movements unleashing the potential for boundless differentiation and collective organization on the basis of irreducible singularities. In other words, the three tasks of a revolutionary identity politics—(1) sociopolitical demystification (2) struggles for liberation (3) and abolition—do not arrive at a destination marked by the bland and apolitical elision of social difference, but rather open up the possibility for the articulation of a world teaming with multiplicity and becoming. According to Hardt and Negri, the realization of this revolutionary ontology requires fidelity to parallel projects of class, gender, race, and sexual liberation working both autonomously and in coordination.

6.2 Insurrectional Intersections

After having outlined the contours of a revolutionary parallelism in 6.1, Hardt and Negri again revisit the question of how such a horizontally organized, intersectional, and immanent political figure can collaborate and act as a political subject. This is a question that Hardt and Negri simply do not and perhaps, by design, cannot answer in any kind of satisfying way. They are forced to largely just repeat their fundamental philosophical positions regarding biopolitical production and subjectivity. They argue that in today’s biopolitical economy where social life based on the common has become the primary field of social struggle, revolutionary movements rooted on a vanguard party, or the construction of a new hegemonic collective identity, simply cannot form the foundation for a path toward an ethical project of democratic becoming. Moreover, they claim that the circuits of biopolitical labor and production actually enable the technical and social apparatuses through which the inauguration of this new revolutionary ontology might be realized on the basis of the common. While I can largely accept the ontological idealism of Hardt and Negri’s political project as a genuinely innovative and hopeful vision of democratic possibility, this does not mean I am convinced that they have adequately provided a basis for understanding the processes through which this revolutionary becoming can internally differentiate between beneficial and detrimental forms of the common in both their fruition and perpetuation. However, I am also not convinced that this in any way lessons the ethico-political value of Hardt and Negri’s project. To use a music analogy, the Empire series is a bit like the high fusion of Miles Davis. It is essentially rooted in a recombination of ideas already in circulation in a way that fundamentally transforms those ideas while assembling something that is anticipatory and forward looking. The re-alignment, in other words, forms something new, something untimely, in the sense that it touches on, hints at, still nascent aesthetic and technological possibilities. In the case of Miles Davis, this meant anticipating the invention of hip-hop, I think for Hardt and Negri this means anticipating a potential for democratic life that still largely defies the conceptual vocabularies and postures of attunement closest to us.

This is visible in the slightly less than satisfying attempts of Hardt and Negri to fully articulate the processes by which the multitude might pragmatically function: (a) take power, and, (b) govern itself. However, Hardt and Negri are attempting to push the conversation forward. In the latter part of this chapter, for instance, they attempt to articulate the parameters of an institutional form capable of preserving the revolutionary consistency of the multitude while enabling it to govern itself basis of the common. They distinguish between two lines of social political thought on institutional structures: (1) a major line rooted in consensus driven social contract theory (2) a minor line of social conflict theory that privileges the role of antagonism in the processes of democratic renewal. Taking the minor line, this section has Hardt and Negri slipping into something quite close to the radical democratic theory of Chantel Mouffe (although H&N would probably abject to this characterization), where institutions are imagined as sites where singularities can enter into productive conflict in order to constantly challenge, reformulate, and re-define democracy as a perpetually unfinished project: “something to come” in Derrida’s words.

6.3 Governing the Revolution

After imagining a new institutional form, they turn in this last chapter to how the multitude can take power and govern itself in a way that preserves its constituent orientation. First, they advocate for a revolutionary event that definitively breaks with the cycles of production and reproduction of Empire. Drawing from, but expanding on Gramsci, they argue that the transition from the insurrectional event to the government of the multitude requires thinking economic, cultural, and political struggle on the biopolitical field that brings together a variety of strategies and points of struggle. They state:

We are not faced with an alternative—either insurrection or institutional struggle, either passive or active revolution. Instead revolution must be simultaneously insurrection and institution, structural and superstructural transformation. This is the path of the ‘becoming-Prince’ of the multitude. (367)

They wrap up the chapter by trying to imagine juridical-legal authority on the basis of the multitude. Here they argue that Empire already inaugurates a series of technological, social, and legal systems that can be made to serve revolutionary purposes. Once made to serve the multitude, Hardt and Negri argue that the revolution has a will to achieve a constitutional form. They state:

A constituent governance that inverts the imperial form would have to present not simply a normative figure of rule, and not only a functional structure of social consensus and cooperation, but also and open and socially generalized schema for social experimentation and democratic innovation. This would be a constitutional system in which the “sources of law” and their means for legitimation are based solely on constituent power and democratic decision making. Just as insurrectional has to become institutional, so too must revolution, in this way, become constitutional, building through struggle after struggle, on successive levels that indefatigably overflow every systemic equilibrium, toward a democracy of the common. (375)

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