Friday, 16 October 2009

Review of Hardt and Negri's 'Commonwealth'

Here's a strange thing about Hardt and Negri's latest book. Empire, the first in the trilogy, was, obviously, about 'Empire' – the new super-national form and structure of global rule that H&N deem to have emerged in recent decades. And Multitude was about the 'Multitude' – the half-rabble, half-working-class subject which forced Empire into being; its opposite and nemesis, fated to overcome the domination Empire exercises over it and charged with realizing freedom, love, and all manner of good things. But Commonwealth can't really be said to be about a commonwealth, either existent, emerging, predicted, or demanded. The notion is never discussed, anywhere in the book.

One or two aspects of a sought-for commonwealth are treated – the form of property pertaining to it (common property rather than private property); the new mode of labor underlying it and making it possible (biopolitical labor, which is to say, labor which produces the substance of life, which is to say, labor which produces the substance of subjectivity, which is to say, what economists call 'services' – things which, broadly speaking, enrich the connections between humans); the political form appropriate to it (participatory democracy rather than the quasi-aristocratic form of representative democracy we have today). But the treatment of these themes is pretty cursory, is subordinate to critique of what exists today, and is conducted with a high level of conceptual fuzz throughout.

A cynic would say of this book that the authors are simply cashing in on a successful brand. After all, weren't we told in Multitude that it stood to their previous book as Hobbes' De Cive stood to his Leviathan? Hobbes didn't write a trilogy. Defending H&N against this cynic would be difficult, moreover, because there is really nothing new here. The same territory is covered as previously (and I mean exactly the same territory. I wouldn't be surprised if there are identical sentences). Any shift in focus is negligible.

Here's what a sharp-eyed theorist might observe: “If Commonwealth fails to extend H&N's project, if in many ways it represents a step backwards from their previous work (after all, how much clearer and more direct in style their second book was!) then we have to seek the explanation, ultimately, not in the authors' failings and compromises, but in objective conditions . The reason is the same as why Bob Dylan is now turning out horrendous Christmas carols, where, in the 60's, this man seemed able to tap into that decade's exuberant spirit: the anticapitalist movement, which was the reason Empire was catapulted to success in the first place, and to which Multitude was obviously addressed, has faded. The summit gatherings have tailed off from the monstrous 300,000 of Genoa. The World Social Forum, while numerically larger, has lost a lot of its vibrancy. And does anyone really use Indymedia these days?”

Of course there's some truth to this. But it hides a much larger story. The same energies, demands, organizational forms, and even many of the same people who went into the anticapitalist movement, can be found now in the global popular movement to halt climate change. Many of the same constituencies put their enthusiasm and drive into the Obama electoral campaign (of course, they are being betrayed), itself a transferal from a growing anti-Iraq-war movement which made that war unacceptable in public opinion. If Indymedia has waned slightly, that's only because the model of news created by and for ordinary people, uncontrolled by media corporations, has become generalized in thousands of blogs, podcasts, discussion forums, viewer-supported video networks, and online news sites, in a process which is killing major newspapers. The anarchist mood of the anticapitalist movement - of individuals collaborating in a common project whilst disdaining any organizational form involving their passivity in response to orders – has also generalized across the social field: YouTube didn't exist when Empire was written, and Wikipedia had only just begun. Now they are central institutions, and hundreds of thousands of projects embodying the same ethos are likewise flourishing. In short, the movement got serious, and got down to work (example: Naomi Klein followed No Logo with Disaster Capitalism). And this is only to mention a few headlines from in the developed world.

Commonwealth covers none of this. It is true that they intend their analysis is to be conducted on a different plane from such empirical events, namely that of social philosophy. But I think the real problem (though they would no doubt reject the accusation) is that they see their work as part of a debate among academics and theorists, rather than as a contribution to a movement, aimed at articulating and clarifying its thoughts. At best, the work is straddled somewhere between the two. This may be a cheap shot, but is there not something rather self-contradictory about the fact that they have not chosen to publish the text (about common property) online for free, but are instead choosing (and it is a choice) to publish through the accepted capitalized channels for information distribution? I doubt it occurred to them, and that says something.


It is by no means all bad. Indeed, in some ways, it is a measure of the theoretical advances made by H&N that these criticisms can be made of them at all. The catalog above, recording manifestations of the rampaging productivity of what may as well be called 'the multitude', can be read as H&N getting it right. Their central theoretical proposition concerning Empire, moreover, looks ever more correct, and this is not nothing - even Perry Anderson, the ablest Marxist of our time by a huge margin, was judging American ascendancy at the same time as H&N discerned its eclipse. Now the G20 has been anointed as the premier intergovernmental ruling power, and the dollar may be on a long-term road to loosing its position as the international reserve currency. Surely H&N deserve a lot of credit.

Their books are bursting with imagination. Nobody who has spent time trudging through anemic Marxist work that sticks loyally to orthodoxy, can fail to feel grateful for the sheer life of this writing. Similarly, anyone who wallowed in the crocodile pessimism of poststructuralist philosophy must owe H&N thanks for their optimism, and their politicization of a field that was becoming dominated by smirking English professors. They made contact again with something like the spirit of '68, from which this philosophical tradition originally took its force.

It is not just style, though. In their judgments they are spot on about a lot of things. They are right to distinguish the 'common' from the private and the public, and to highlight the importance of this legal-social category, and its potential to provide the structural basis of a new social form; correlatively, they are right to insist that capitalism v socialism is therefore a false dichotomy. Moreover, their insistence that this common is in large part something that is being created – that it comprises languages, codes, ideas and so on – is also important. A lot of work on the commons begins from the perspective of the old peasant commons of the late Middle Ages, and doesn't stray very far from this. The concept is consequently often seen as something that applies only to natural resources, or to the third world – in sum, as not having much to do with modernity.

Their extensions of Marx are bold and insightful. There is without doubt something correct about the judgment that capital has now risen beyond the workplace and subsumed society as a whole in its crystal jaws. There is a social factory (that is why disruptions to the high street conveyor belts during a protest, or defacing advertising, or building occupations, have such a frisson of danger, and why the participants feel so free). Consumers and workers are regimented, policed, persuaded and formed down to the ganglia, by the machine. It is true that new forms of labor are becoming hegemonic, that the dynamics that these forms follow are very different to those of the old industrial labor, and that the productivity and organization of at least a section of this labor is increasingly independent of its relationship with capital, which has therefore become extraordinarily parasitic. (Negri, and his fellow Italian workerists, deserve a comradely pat on the back for having pursued all these themes for the past 40 years).

Their criticisms of other contemporary social theorists are strong, and their appropriation of the work of many others is creative, being used to sketch pictures of the social terrain which often resonate.

Their political judgment is sound. They are precisely right to say that “capitalist relations of property are becoming increasingly...fetters today [on people's capacities to develop]” (298) and right to think that this is among the most powerful ways in which to critique the system. The program of demands of reform they put forward – massive restoration and building of physical, social and immaterial infrastructure around the globe; the introduction of new freedoms (of movement, of time, of work); granting a guaranteed income; the establishment of participatory democracy at all levels of government – is inspiring, and keyed in to contemporary debate. And it is a great measure of both the vice in which capital has society, and of the mediocrity of today's generation of politicians, that, as H&N note, this program has virtually no chance of being introduced by elites.

Even where the thoughts they follow are only half-formed, there is evidence of the fecundity of their angle of vision. For example, in pursuing their argument that the wealth created by the multitude consists of the manifold modes and platforms of interaction in which it engages, they point out that property values are a good indirect measure of this. (Those values tend to be highest where that interaction is most dense, most exciting). One can sense that, waiting here, there is a brilliant derivation of the financial crisis centered on the inflation of property values and their privatization of the common.

But there are a lot of these half-formed thoughts. They reinterpret Marx's categories of 'necessary labor', 'surplus labor' and 'the rate of surplus value', in terms of the 'common powers of production', and proceed to observe that this leads to an extension of the contradiction between the private nature of capitalist property relations and the social nature of the production. They reinterpret Quesnay's Tableau Economique in terms of categories of struggles between classes (rather than categories of goods, or relations between sectors of the economy), and ultimately struggles against Empire. They reinterpret the function of finance, as capital's ideal means of expropriating the common whilst remaining external to the actual organization of production.

Great stuff, except that these points combined occupy no more than about 3 pages of text. Marx worked for 40 years at figuring out the laws that govern capitalism; the theoreticians working with the framework he developed predicted the current 'credit crunch' years before it happened (check out work in Monthly Review, or Perry Anderson's 2007 editorial in New Left Review, or Robbert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulance, or the British SWP's International Socialism Journal). The truth is very valuable to us; they take it too casually.



1. H&N: What do religious fundamentalists, nationalists, racists and economicists (as in 'economism', the theoretical tendency to reduce everything to economics) have in common? They all focus on the body, and see a transcendent essence behind it. The book is absolutely replete with this kind of bollox. There is not a grain of truth or insight here. It is bullshit of the purest extraction.

2. Please dump these ridiculous lineages of philosophers. Apparently there is a line of 'phenomenology of the body' that runs: Bergson & Giovanni Gentile > Dilthey & Yorck von Wartenburg > Heidegger > Merleau Ponty > Foucault. Apparently this involves progressive clarity about the fact that power is immanent, that subjectivity is produced by resistance, and so on. I tell you what: I don't believe you. These lineages are all over the book, as they were over the previous two. Negri is a great intellectual historian, but there's a kind of autism here.

Also, dump the false structural architectures: the trilogy of books each with their tripartite sections. The dialectic of Empire-multitude. The major-lines versus minor lines. Its like H&N are daring critics to show incredulity towards their metanarrative. It has the feeling of a game.

Dump the concept-checking (I don't recall 'events' playing much of a part in Empire, but now that Badiou is big, they suddenly figure, and moreover, as always-having-been-incorporated).

3. The language is tortuous. Although this is partly because H&N are fully signed up to the appalling bluff that humanities professors have tried to perpetrate for the past 30 years (called 'Theory'), it is also because there is a lack of actual content. A waffle of abstractions is the norm; gems are the exception.

4. Repetition. The book repeats itself throughout, and repeats themes from the previous two books, with little sign of the issues having been thought through or further developed.

All this could be forgiven if it were compensated by more substance regarding the purported object of the book. It should have detailed the lineaments of the common-wealth - as the constitutional and economic form tendentially brought into being by and through the multitude. The forms of interaction that take place therein. The conceptual form, and the philosophic history it realizes. The book should be crammed with examples of activists, social entrepreneurs, open-source coders, social centers, and all the other projects, analyzed to see the forms they instantiate.

Instead, what we have is a lot of promises and place-holders, and straightforward muddle. For example, H&N argue strenuously that a key feature of biopolitical production is that it tends to exceed all attempts to measure and quantify it. In place of tonnes of coal and numbers of toothbrushes, the biopolitical realm consists of relationships, ideas, passions, capacities, encounters, friendships, ethical fibers...and accountants can't put numbers on these things. (Is this even true? You can do some very clever things with powerful statistical methods. But there is zero chance that H&N will have considered this). So the quantification of this realm is impossible. But then H&N proceed to propose that a possible strategy for the multitude to pursue would be to wrest the control of money from capital: “Might the power of money (and the finance world in general) to represent the social field of production be, in the hands of the multitude, an instrument of freedom, with the capacity to overthrow misery and poverty? Just as the concept of abstract labor was necessary for understanding the industrial working class as a coherent, active subject, including workers in a wide variety of different sectors, do the abstractions of money and finance similarly provide the instruments for making the multitude from the diverse forms of flexible, mobile, and precarious labor?” (295). Are numbers, and formulae, capable of representing the value of the productions of the multitude or not? Is there a contradiction here? Who knows? Anyway, onto Mao and some more concept-juggling....

Or again: a great insight of theirs is that one vast, concrete instantiation of the common – and a very powerful illustration of its wealth – is the metropolis. They record the change from the city whose urban shape and atmosphere was determined by the industrial factory, to one centered around all the activities in which biopolitical production consists. “The city...[is] a living dynamic of cultural practices, intellectual circuits, affective networks, and social institutions. These elements of the common contained in the city are not only the prerequisite for biopolitical production but also its result; the city is the source of the common and the receptacle into which it flows” (154). This sets up a potentially fascinating field of investigation, on which there are all sorts of angles: a look at how urban planning structures interactions and reflects the form of capital; historical investigations about the contestation of the forms of cities, and the politics crystallized in their physical form; the role of contemporary underground mileux and activist attempts to reclaim cities (guerrilla gardening; squatting; public spaces; allotment swaps; the rave scene; on and on); trends in architecture and how they relate to the common; and a thousand other things. But after the briefest of discussions about real-estate values, the whole theme of the metropolis is simply dropped. Of course, there isn't space for everything, but the point is that H&N don't pay sufficient attention to allow their conceptual point (that in the metropolis as elsewhere, capital parasitizes on the multitude) to be at all grounded in the facts – they are simply bringing up a subject and then slapping on their conceptual schemas, with copious slops of flour and water glue.

Or again: H&N are excellent at making the basic point that, if the hegemonic form of labor has changed qualitatively, so will the basic laws that govern its dynamics. But they made this point 9 years ago, and they have not followed through the implications at all. Are they aware, for example, of the extension of Moore's Law carried out by Ray Kurzweil, and its assertion that information-industries are subject to exponential growth - a contention with literally cosmological importance, if it is true? They surely should be, because it would seem to pertain to their subject very directly. Or, they argue against the autonomy of nature and assert that the body is subject to being altered by our preferences and desires. But instead of this opening out onto the mesmerizing world of the transhumanist technologies, they choose to illustrate this with reference to Judith Butler.


This is a missed opportunity. It is a real shame, because we do need intellectually serious, historically informed, conceptually sophisticated theorizing of what is going on. But concept-heavy work like this is unsatisfying, intellectual junk food. You do not put this book down and fizz with excitement about what you're going to do to be part of this movement.

H&N parade a succession of so-called ontological qualities before us, which are supposed to sum up the basic process of the multitude, encompass all its various articulations, and define it as a progressive force: love, constituent power, democracy, happiness, altermodernity, biopolitical reason, Rechtswollen. But we know, don't we, that these are just moves in a game with some other continental theorists. Maybe Zizeck will drop some amusing backhander; maybe the center of fashion will move to The Coming Insurrection, and the dominant taste will get a little harder. But the only people playing are the ones with the time.

Are their conceptual formulas of any use? Well, consider the following jotting of some diverse imagined routes via which something like Angel Economics (which I take to be pretty close to what H&N imagine as their Commonwealth) might get realized:

1. The backlash against the current recession leads to increased union power, including the formation of world-unions, and a compromise is reached which leads to unions being represented on the boards of corporations. With this, the raison d'etre of firms changes. Instead of merely returning shareholder value, they must look after their employees. They must also look after the communities they serve, and promote other values we hold dear: slowly, you can see the lines of something like Angel Economics taking shape.

2. The 100k garages movement, plus Fabbers and Makers and RepRappers, are spurred on by the ever-increasing drop in the cost of the technology on which they draw, and a huge expansion of people participating, as a consequence of a massive increase in structural unemployment. Released from the dictates of capital, these small, community-based producers are free to follow their own values. This slowly draws in more and more functions of life.

3. The transition town-movement develops, and extra sectors are arrogated to local control (local food production, local energy generation, local currencies etc). As such, they become essentially independent of the circuits of capital, and begin to function in answer to quite different values. They confederate.

4. As part of individual capital's genetic drive to increase the profit rate, more and more use is made of open-source, crowdsourcing, and other similar techniques of obtaining free labor, and more generally parasitizing upon people's natural creative inclinations. This becomes so predominant among so many industries, that actually 80% of the organizing is being done completely autonomously from any involvment with capital. Capital 'thins out' so much, in this way, that eventually it will be a relatively small step to expropriate it, default against it, or in other ways simply shut out the nominal owners of capital.

5. In the wake of repeated financial crises, there grows a large body of policy advocates for moves to 'invest sustainably'. What this means in essence is using money according to a logic in which money, actually, becomes subordinated to other values. A policy regime is instituted which slowly, but incrementally, introduces all the various features of Angel Economics, but as 'targets' which need to be met through capitalism (just as, say, honesty in advertising is today partially enforced through regulatory agencies) Eventually, this simply leads to the transformation of the capital-maximizing imperative into something else.

6. In economics, a growing movement seeks to replace the measure GDP with a whole host of other measures that actually track real life values. But, again, what this actually means is the subordination of money to real values.

7. The re-localization of governance functions (e.g. British Conservatives) grows to the point where regions are effectively governing themselves anyway. There is a strengthening of proper democracy. This crowds out capital.

8. Projects like Open Source Ecology become widespread, especially in the third world and in areas laid to waste by capitalism's twisted priorities. Groups build their own villages and reasonable technological capacity, connected into a world network via the internet. Beyond a certain number of people (doesn't need to be that many) they can produce what they need to entirely outside capitalism, and this provides the basis for the emergence of a different economic system.

9. The world of policy institutes, think tanks, and its anchor in academia and scientific research, grows to have ever greater influence over governmental policy, and therefore begins to make that policy ever more rational. Such obvious points as that people do best when they're in control, are eventually unavoidable. Revolution via the think-tank.

10. Legalization: The regulation of life according to rational values is enforced ever more through the courts, and through a world-wide system of justice, backed up by charters of rights. This, ultimately, implies the ordering of life according to values other than power and the maximization of profit. All it requires is for all relevant rights to be recognized (as they are not, today) and for there to be proper means of enforcement.

11. The mass-personalization, mass-customization and user-generation movements gather steam, as essentially consumer movements which alter what capitalism does. This functions to give people ever more control over what they purchase. As that grows, it brings with it many of the features of Angel Economics.

12. Challenges like global warming call for co-ordinated action among all the citizens of the planet. Both directly, and from their spin-off effects, this leads to the deepening of the regulation of social affairs for mutually agreed social ends, to the benefit of all.

13. 'Third-world' development and world international normalization: A brutally simple fact underlies the relative worker-passivity that has been experienced over the past 30 years. Namely, that the capitalist-consumer-dominant classes have been on one side of the world, while the most exploited workers have been on the other (China etc). Over the coming years, this is going to change. You watch the difference it makes, when you can see your exploiter.

14. Mechanical productivity increases. For some time it has been the case that a large portion of people are essentially living off the labor of a tiny number - so huge is the productivity of machines for what we really need. The rest is just the production of pointless waste. This 'rational case for the re-ordering of jobs' has therefore been around for a long time, but it will become too great to ignore.

15. What Kurzweil and the transhumanists say is true, and within a decade, serious changes are beginning to be made to humans' basic capacities. Many of the ape-derived tendencies which serve to perpetuate capitalism are simply switched off, or disconnected from the economic system. It looses its legs.

16. The transparency of capitalism. Capitalism comes ever ever more to rule, sinks itself ever deeper into the soul, has its values dominate public life. Today, public life is nominally ruled according to civic values. But the actual driving force is capital. This will become ever more transparent, as it has been doing now for decades. Across the whole western world, there is a complete cynicism towards politicians, and all other figures and functionaries linked into the governmental machine, for the simple reason that they constantly lie and do not do anything remotely related to what they profess to do, but are instead simply the mouthpieces, and brains, and arms and legs for capital. If your system relies on geniuses of manipulation (Barack Obama) to work, its obviously unstable because geniuses, by definition, don't come along that often. Eventually, the barrage breaks.

17. Informationalization. As the sciences – and therefore also engineering – are coming more and more to be information-processes, a few basic facts about information come to assert themselves. For example, the fact that it does not obey a logic of scarcity. This again tends to undermine one of the key structural supports of capitalism. Without them, it begins to be eclipsed, and other values come to prevail, to order the economy.

18. Psychoactives and brain science: Capitalism has always relied on placing itself between people and their seeking of exhalted expereinces. The preparation for this was done in the late Middle Ages. Witches, and other individuals who possessed the technology (i.e. herbal preparations, drugs) to allow humans to experience higher realms were systematically exterminated by the organized Church. In our own day it is advertising/branding that is responsible for exploiting the fact that humans have one half of their being in a higher-dimensional realm, and the attempt is therefore to divert this through, say, a pair of shoes or some crappy moulded plastic spaceship. But with the proliferation of psychoactive substances able to take us there directly, the sharing of experiential information, and, crucially, advances in brain science that allows this to become safer, people will go there directly. The raison-d'etre of half of capitalism then falls away, and with it go so many other of its premises, since it relies on pathologic overconsumption, driven by the creation of mental illness, to survive.

19. Unemployment: Unemployment is a key structural component of capitalism. It provides a means to prevent the working class from bargaining. The crisis is being used as a means to make workers work harder so that more value comes from them, meaning an increase in unemployment. OECD predictioms are for around 10% across developed world. (This can be translated into a real figure of around 25%, since, as usual, the official statistics find every possible way of lying). These people will simply build their own non-capitalist world.

This is a disparate collection, but if something like Angel Economics were to be brought about, these would be some of the forces involved. Do the universals H&N supply adequately subsume all these different changes? To some degree maybe. But much more so, they function to flatten out the heterogeneity.

All of this, all of these criticisms, can be boiled down to one central philosophical point on which I think one should be unwavering in disagreeing with H&N – the status of truth. H&N are part of that whole wider mileux on the left who have an agonized relationship to truth. The sources of this are multiple (Frankfurt-school scepticism towards the value of the rationalization produced by science; Marxist-inspired critiques of the role of science in service to capital; Nietzchean- Heideggerian- and Foucauldian-Deleuzian philosophical critiques; counterculture influences; feminist- and other 'subaltern' criticisms of 'dominant rationality'; and so on). And the outcomes are vaired (for H&N, the alternative supreme value seems to be Negri's Spinoza-inspired vitalism).

This scepticism plays an absolutely central role in the whole Empire series, determining even seemingly unconnected parts of their thesis. The claim that 'there is no outside' to Empire, for example, is not just a geographical claim, or a claim about the pervasiveness of capital's rule, deep down in your body. It is also a claim of epistemology: you do not have access to anything outside Empire. It is only, so to speak, a fortuitous, contingent accident that Empire immediately brings into being the Multitude. But the Multitude doesn't do what it does because those things are just, or true, or right, or good, or beautiful. They are simply the results of its overflowing, unconquerable Will.

This scepticism has been extremely productive in the new lines of enquiry it has opened up over the past 50 years, across a range of academic disciplines. But there has to be a way of harnessing this, without falling into the downright stupidity that has also been encouraged. The left, in its philosophical incarnation, should turn back towards the True, the Right, the Beautiful, the Just. And not in a faddish way, but because of the nobility of these values.