Commonwealth: Part 5

Cross posted at Fugitive Imagination

Part 5: Beyond Capital?

5.1 Terms of the Economic Transition

Neoliberal Zombies

The joining of neoliberalism and unilateralism in the latter half of the twentieth century is illustrative of the problems faced by capital in contending with the emergence of biopolitical production. In fact, the current crisis in neoliberalism is not due to unilateralism’s death grip, but rather because both systems proved to be solutions generated by an outmoded approach to understanding production. Hardt and Negri argue that greater/lesser deregulatory political-economic paradigms associated with either the US or in the European Union were in fact in competition to become the political support mechanism for neoliberalism. The problem for capital, according to David Harvey, is that neoliberalism is not about the production of wealth (capital’s fundamental necessity); it is instead predicated on the redistribution of wealth, largely based on the expropriation of socialised wealth, i.e. the transfer of wealth from formerly public institutions to for-profit, private institutions. In this way, neoliberalism and unilateralism were incapable of responding to the challenges set forth in the changing terrain of production: how to contend with the production of images, affects, etc? For example, the production of knowledge, which was once an instrument for the capitalist as a means toward the production of value, and was thus internal to capital (part of its command and control), is now a value itself that has begun to be produced outside of capital. This presents a problem: the more capital rests on value creation through knowledge production as such, the more knowledge escapes its control.

Socialist Illusions

Here Hardt and Negri argue that just as neoliberalism is unfit to face the challenges brought about by biopolitical production, so are outmoded illusions of socialism. For Hardt and Negri, socialism and capitalism appear as two sides of the same coin. Both are ways to manage and control the production of wealth and the use of resources. Indeed, socialism itself is concerned, as is neoliberalism, with redistributing wealth, not creating it. In both cases, as they have argued throughout the book, biopolitical production’s need for autonomy to create and exploit networks of affinity and cooperation is all too often fettered by control from above, whether that is in the form of a capitalist factory floor or in the form of state regulation and disciplining of the workday. Indeed, among the numerous factors that influence the decline of the Soviet Union, they locate the incapacity of socialism for dealing with biopolitical production as crucial: social and cultural creativity existed in the waning days of the USSR, but were stagnated by oppressive state control. Biopolitical production’s “products” are incommensurable with the productivist logic of capitalism or socialism – their immateriality is difficult if not impossible to measure. Capital and government regulation both attempt to control productivity and neutralize the immaterial and both hinder the productive capacity of biopolitical production. Hardt and Negri outline three major (and failed) approaches for contending with biopolitical production. First, the concept of “social capital” acknowledges the importance of networks, affinities, and the immaterial social fabric as crucial to production, but sees these factors as supplementary to the productive process itself: they are not products themselves. Thus, social capital is always made to conform to a productivist logic, made measurable. Second, classic notions of a social democracy in which the interests of capital and those of labour are mediated by institutions such as trade unions similarly attempt to incorporate what they can into their logic, making any labour outside of this logic incompatible. But, labour unions can no longer reasonable represent the multiple categories of types of work and workers for the reasons developed in earlier chapters and the social democratic perspective becomes exclusionary. Finally, the “third way,” famously associated with Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair, though it acknowledges the importance of the immaterial, attempts to hitch biopolitical production to the neoliberal wagon. But the efforts to privatize what, according to Hardt and Negri, is fundamentally oriented toward the common prove the incompatibility of biopolitics and neoliberalism. For Hardt and Negri renewed calls for socialism miss the point and are doomed to fail just as neoliberalism has. They propose reinforcing the difference between socialism and communism: what the private is to capitalism, the public is to socialism, the common is to communism.

The Global Aristocracy and Imperial Governance

The main question raised in this section is, despite what appear to be the failures of neoliberalism, socialism, multilateralism, and unilateralism, and with the failure of transnational organisations like the IMF, World Bank, etc. to sufficiently resolve crises: How is that things still keep working? To address this vexing question, Hardt and Negri first note that the system of global governance is currently ad-hoc and chaotic. They suggest that imperial governance is “aristocratic,” and cite Joseph Nye, who suggests that American imperialism, hegemony, and empire, are in no way accurate descriptors of the global political economic situation. From Nye’s work, Hardt and Negri construct an imperial pyramid, with the US at the top as the “monarch,” sole military superpower; corporations, subordinate states, and invested players as the middle “aristocracy,” and; NGOs, clergy, media systems who claim to represent “the people” at the bottom. Despite its pyramidical shape, this is not a case of absolute monarchic control by the US. Nor is the aristocracy necessarily homogenous. The various skirmishes and disagreements between the members of this middle level, and their antagonism toward the monarch; amount to jockeying for position and attempts to get a piece of the global capitalist action. In relation to the bottom level, the aristocracy is supported by those who claim to be “for the people” but who are often interested in getting their piece too. The NGOs, clergy, and mass media all at one time or another purport to represent the interest of the multitude, despite their being actually no “people” that can be represented. The reason this system continues is because of the fear of the resistance of the multitude by the aristocracy and the monarchy. This resistance is where Hardt and Negri locate the potential for revolution, the place where alternatives to imperial rule are to be found.

5.2 What Remains of Capitalism

The Biopolitical Cycle of the Common

In this section, Hardt and Negri are concerned to situate the common as different from traditional public vs. private debates. Here, they invert the notion of economic “externalities,” commonly associated with those elements of production that cannot be adequately measured and accounted for, and often seen by capital as missed market opportunities. Instead, they argue, the biopolitical production “internalises” the common, making it the prime measure and resulting in a view of private property as a “missing commons” and “common failures.” The rise of debates over intellectual property has thrust concerns over the common into the contemporary imagination. The common resists its privatisation and control through copyrights and patents just as it resists public institutional efforts to control and administer access. Thus, biopolitical inverts capital’s association of freedom with private property; rather than seeing public control as antithetical to freedom, the common becomes the locus of freedom, standing against private control. The importance of social growth is key to conceiving the political economy of the common; this social growth is the capacity to create and involves an “increasing stock of the common accessible in society.” (283) Hardt and Negri cite that the common’s lack of constraint by a logic of scarcity is also crucial here; the production of the common does not necessitate a loss when it is “used”—affects, images, ideas, are not used up when shared and in fact, increase the capacities of those involved in their exchange. The cycles that characterise traditional economistic analyses (boom and bust narratives) are also in need of significant alteration under conditions of biopolitical production. Their argument that there are two types of generation of the common—positive and negative—hold the key to understanding the qualitative dimension of biopolitical cycles. Economic indicators would have to be based around questions about the common’s accessibility, the autonomy of its productive networks, the ratio of positive to negative influences on the common, etc.

The Tableau économique of the Common

This section presents a reworking of 18th-century French economist Francois Quesnay’s Tableau économique, in which the relations of monetary exchanges are traced out broadly over the economy. Marx was influenced by Quesnay, who saw agriculture as the only truly productive force in an economy since other fields merely repurposed already existing value. Marx placed labour (not land) at the centre of the capitalist economic paradigm, noting that surplus value was created through the exploitation of labour and the constant expansion into new markets to distribute the products of this labour. Hardt and Negri offer a narrative that sees agricultural centrality overlapping with and adapting to the procession toward industry, and industry as overlapping with and adapting to the procession toward biopolitical production. So, just as agriculture adopted wage labour and mechanisation, so must industry adapt to the communicative and affective networks of biopolitical production. In adapting the Tableau to biopolitical production there are several difficulties that threaten the stability of the table: 1. Capital depends on biopolitical labour, but biopolitical labour becomes increasingly less dependent on Capital; 2. how do you measure qualities? Hardt and Negri also note that Marx’s conception of necessary and surplus labour, though useful, need to be reformulated. Firstly, necessary labour in this case is that which produces the common (which is in turn the source of social relations). The wage was the common site of struggle for necessary labour, but under biopolitical production the struggle must be over the common and the creation of social relations. Secondly, surplus labour and value has to be reconceived: what is exploited now is the result of social power; capital exploits the products of the common. Here, Hardt and Negri point out, is a potentially explosive situation: “the social productive forces, which are antagonistic and autonomous, inside and outside the market, are necessary for capitalist accumulation but threaten its command.” (288) The traditional responses to crisis in capitalism have been war, which as discussed previously has been exhausted as an effective solution, and finance, which Hardt and Negri argue has been the only effective way for capital to exploit the autonomy of biopolitical labour because it remains outside the productive process as such. The new Tableau économique thus results in a tripartite table of struggles. 1. The Struggle of the Common Against Work, in which the productivity of biopolitical labour needs to be defended from attempts at control and command; 2. The Struggle of the Common Against the Wage: the wage is not the only thing that reproduces biopolitical labour, the common does too. Thus, this is a defence against that which threatens the creation and maintenance of social life; 3. The Struggle of the Common Against Capital is the defence of democratic organisation of the productive forces of the common.

One Divides Into Two

This section addresses the difficulties of reintegrating biopolitical production into capital. Taking their cue from an old Maoist slogan, “The one divides into two,” Hardt and Negri tease out various emerging dualities and problems with traditional workers vs. capital dialectics. Drawing on Mario Tronti, they note that the traditional dialectic of labour vs. capital results in a continued process of worker revolt that hastens capitalist restructuring, which is in turn followed by more revolt and more restructuring. For Hardt and Negri this is never enough, it never takes flight from capital and labour and production remain internal. In the context of biopolitical production however, labour becomes increasingly external to capital, no longer a variable capital. The precarity and change in work temporalities discussed earlier signal the emergence of two conflicting subjectivities: biopolitical labour is increasingly autonomous (as is necessary for it to function) and multitudinous while capital struggles to extract wealth and relies on this production despite its increasing autonomy. The only semi-effective strategy for Capital has been financial control, which “extends and amplifies” the dual nature of money as both a universal equivalent and medium of exchange and as the representation of value. One anti-capitalist strategy for confronting money has been to take it out of the equation and move toward systems of barter (this strategy appears utopian in its desire to return to a lost innocent time, pre-money). Another strategy, through fair trade and equal exchange has been to preserve money’s representational value but take away its power over the social field of production. Hardt and Negri ask whether a third strategy that maintains both functions of money is possible. Here they suggest that if the category of abstract labour can be paralleled with that of abstract finance, as a means to come to grips with the multitude as subject.

5.3 Pre-shocks Along the Fault Lines

Capital’s Prognosis

Working from the assumptions that capital will not rule forever and that it will create the conditions for the modes of production that will succeed it, Hardt and Negri propose themselves as doctors, diagnosing the symptoms of capital’s illness. They cite Schumpeter’s valuing of entrepreneurialism as capital’s driving force and note that he criticised post-war American capitalism for degenerating onto a management rationality that vitiates any innovative spirit.  They note that some may argue that computer industry mavens like Jobs or Gates may be classified as modern day Schumpeterian innovators but, Hardt and Negri deftly point out, much of their so-called innovations are actually the exploitations of the labours and innovations of a multitude of technology experts that are far beyond the borders of capital. (In this case, people working in Open Source Software and free software movements are often ahead of the curve of mainstream technology companies). A second symptom is capital’s inability to engage the productive forces of biopolitical production. As they have discussed throughout, the institutions and machinations of capital (as with the state) are a fetter to the full potential of biopolitical production—there are “disposable” workers, and positions that require a minimum of creativity and do not fully engage with people’s capacities to create and innovate. Hardt and Negri advocate viewing capital’s crises in subjective terms, moving away from overly rationalised objective explanations for boom and bust. In this way, they note that the products of biopolitical production still need to circulate to realise their value, but that this circulation is actually a part of the productive process itself—the production of the common. The production of the common is the production of subjectivity, and the production of subjectivity is the production of the common. Thus, the “crisis of the biopolitical circuit should be understood…as a blockage in the production of subjectivity or an obstacle to the productivity of the common.” (300)

Exodus from the Republic

Although they admit that they are a long way from being able to propose new structures and methods for achieving an exodus from the republic of property, Hardt and Negri outline here a few key obstacles to and necessities for such an exodus.  As they have discussed throughout the book, both the capitalist and state strategies for providing the organisation of productive cooperation are now no longer necessary, and are in fact a blockage to realising the true potentials of the common. Freedom is thus key to the creation of the common, and it is a freedom that is neither individualist (as no individual alone can create the common) nor is it collectivist (as there is no possibility for a homogenous mass within the singularities that make up the multitude). Instead, this is a freedom from hierarchies, a freedom from the legitimation of authority that is inscribed in the traditional understanding of the “contract” (whether individual or social).  Biopolitical production is often configured as a conversation, with no boundaries or hierarchies preventing those with varying knowledges and capacities from participating. But, as Hardt and Negri have noted in their discussion about the metropolis, let us not hastily think of all “conversations” as benign. In fact, part of the goal is to withdraw also from the toxic and infelicitous versions of the common that are created in negative encounters. In order to create the common there must also be a move away from representation and toward a more radical democracy. Representation, whether seen as the creation of a “people” constructed through the relationship with a leader, or as the constitutional representation designed to at once involve and separate people from the political process, is an aristocratic form of governance, and thus reinscribes or creates new hierarchies that fetter the production of the common. Thus, this new democracies seizes on the notion of multitudinous entrepreneurialism as a means toward the power of decision making.

Seismic Retrofit: A Reformist Program for Capital

In this section Hardt and Negri enumerate the potential remedies for the illness that is affecting capital, though they do so with the full belief that their tonic will not be accepted by the patient. Instead, this section amounts to a list of impossible demands of capital and a programme for the further development of the common. First, they note that adequate physical infrastructure needs to be developed that will supply the multitude with water, sanitation, electricity, access to food, etc. The basic infrastructure provides a foundation from which the other necessary elements of biopolitical production can flourish. A social and intellectual infrastructure is also necessary, and bolsters and is bolstered by an open information and culture infrastructure. This means that the multitude must educate and be educated, and must have access to the tools and materials needed to build this knowledge. Restrictive regimes of copyright and hierarchical access to education will not suffice. Funding must also be made available to promote advanced research in the absence of profits hitherto gained from restricting access to knowledge. Additionally, there are two fundamental individual freedoms necessary for the development of the common (or to cure the ills of capital if anyone would listen, which they doubt). First, subjects must be free to move, to immigrate and to associate, but they must also be free to choose to stay put. This means that border restrictions and arbitrary favouritism among nations must be put to rest and that no one should be compelled to move in order to find work. Second, everyone would be free from the infringement upon their time. For this to work there would first have to be a guaranteed income for all, regardless of work, that would provide for the necessities of life. More control over time and movement in space would allow the multitude to pursue the power of decision making, and to learn democracy, as Jefferson argued, by doing it.

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