I finally got a draft of that talk on the common done. I’m not happy with it except the done part. This is as good as it’s gonna be, given my time etc. Say la vee. As they c’est. HA! I tue me!

The talk:

As an occasional witness to recent conversations around “the common” it has repeatedly seemed to me that theorists of the “the common ” are doing one thing while thinking they’re doing another. In a nutshell, in my view, writers who talk about “the common” express in philosophical terms something quite general, something that is an important aspect of human social being and of human societies’ existing in the world. There’s a place for this kind of articulation, by all means. But we should be clear on what this type of articulation does and does not do. Expressions of qualities of human social being as such are not specific to any particular social historical condition. Thus, in my view, recent writers’ who have developed an idea they call “the common” are not articulating anything particular to the present or to any other historical moment. This is not in itself a problem. The problem is that these writers think that with their use of the idea of “the common” that they are expressing something historically specific, when they’re not. That is, writers on the category of the common make a mistake in their understanding of their own work on that category. In developing the category they develop a term which applies transhistorically or at least for huge swaths of time, and yet they think are developing a term which articulates specific aspects of the present. [1]

If anyone has not followed the writers I have in mind, you will probably wondering what “the common” even means in this context. In a recent essay, “Politics of the Common,” Michael Hardt describes what he calls “two distinct but related domains of the common. On the one hand, the common refers to the earth and all of its ecosystems, including the atmosphere, the oceans and rivers, and the forests, as well as all the forms of life that interact with them. The common, on the other hand, also refers to the products of human labor and creativity that we share, such as ideas, knowledges, images, codes, affects, social relationships, and the like.” Hardt also calls these “the ecological common and the social and economic common or the natural and the artificial common,” though he stresses that he thinks there are important limits to the dichotomies of ecology vs. society or natural vs. artificial.

What is immediately apparent to me in these quotes is that they apply to all human societies as such. All human societies have involved ways of interacting with the earth, and all have involved labors which produced ideas, emotions, and relationships, as well as maintaining and producing new biological life. That is, “the common” here means on the one hand “human existence in a relationship to the natural world” and on the other “human sociality.”

I think these ideas have an important force. The first aspect of the common is useful for underscoring the ways in which we rely up and impact the natural world, and for talking about ways in which we should behave differently with regard to our relationship to the earth. The second aspect of the common is also useful. In a sense, Marx used this idea in his mockery of classical political economists’ attempts to use Robinson Crusoe as an ideal type of human being. Marx showed that even though political economists thought of Crusoe as an isolated individual, in fact Crusoe was a social being. Political economists’ Robsinonian isolated individualism was actually dependent on and an expression of human sociality, despite what political economists thought Crusoe expressed or demonstrated.

As I said, these two aspects of the common have important uses. As I’ve already said, though, one use that these do not have is expressing anything particular about any particular historical moment. The lack of specificity in these terms is a problem because proponents of the category “the common” think they are articulating specific aspects of the present.

Hardt and others claim that in the present there is a form of a labor that is particularly important. Their terms for it vary – some of the terms they use are immaterial labor, affective labor, and biopolitical labor. Hardt and others claim that in the present this type of labor sets the terms for other types of labor or is paradigmatic of qualities that other types of labor are increasingly having to take on. Hardt refers to this sometimes as the hegemony of immaterial labor.

Hardt believes that immaterial labor has particular potentials which are politically important, such that the hegemony of immaterial labor has important political consequences. For Hardt and others, immaterial labor draws upon and produces the common to a greater degree than other forms of labor. This means, for Hardt, that the common is central to capitalism today.

I’m not convinced that what Hardt and others call immaterial labor really is hegemonic.[2] I don’t think proponents of the hypothesis of the hegemony of immaterial labor have offered anything like a real attempt to prove this hypothesis. (Indeed, they have treated it less as hypothesis to be tested by comparison with evidence than as axiom with which to stake other claims.) In any case, I’m not arguing against the claim about the hegemony of immaterial labor. Instead, in keeping with what I said above about “the common” I’m going to argue that writings on the common articulate nothing specific about immaterial labor. These writings tend to mistake qualities common to all labor for qualities specific to what they call immaterial labor. If I am right about this, then even if Hardt and others are right and immaterial labor is hegemonic today, the category of “the common” tells us very little about this kind of labor as distinct from any other, and tells us very little about the present as distinct from any other moment.

My point amounts to a claim that the centrality of the common to production that Hardt finds in the present is not a fact about the present alone. Rather, the centrality of the common to production is a fact about capitalist production as such, and perhaps about all social production in all human societies. That is: what is different about the present is emphatically not that the common (as defined by these writers) is central to production, because the common (as defined by these writers) is always central to capitalist production. It may well be that the common is central to production today in some unique way, but Hardt and others fail to specify that uniqueness.

Before I continue, I want to take a moment to point out something that I am emphatically not saying. I am not saying that nothing has changed in recent history and I am not denying that the present is a unique historical moment. I’m saying that Hardt and others’ theoretical writing on the common does not articulate much that has changed in recent history and does not articulate much that is specific to the present. I note this because when I’ve voiced criticisms along these lines before, I’ve often met with responses along the lines of “you think nothing has changed! You think the present is the same as the past!” I don’t think that and that is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that Hardt and others present their theoretical work on the common as getting at something unique about the present and that he is mistaken in doing so. This theoretical work on the common is not a good tool for understanding the particularity of the present. None of that is an argument against a view that emphasizes historical change or a view that the present is a unique historical moment.

The (Alleged) Present

Antonio Negri, another current writer on the common and often a co-author with Hardt, defines our moment in part as the era of the hegemony of immaterial labor. For Negri, the present is characterized in part by forms of labor which generate meaning, relationships, ways of life, social relationships, and biological life, among other things. This labor, Negri holds, creates those things alongside whatever else this labor creates, if it has any other product at all. Negri’s theoretical project is in part to provide a philosophical description of this type of labor (or rather, a further philosophical description – those qualities as described are already quite abstract).

Today, for Negri, “increasingly common conditions of labor in all sectors place new importance on knowledge, affective relations, cooperation, and communication.” Forms of labor retain their unique qualities but “they all nonetheless develop common bases, which today tend to be the condition for all economic production; and, in turn, that production itself produces the common – common relationships, common knowledge, and so forth.” (Mult 349.) According to Negri, doing this sort of work requires workers to draw on an existing pool of resources, namely the common: capacities that everyone shares and knowledges that belong to everyone and which are created continually by everyone. “Production based on cooperation and communication makes perfectly clear how the common is both presupposition and result: there can be no cooperation without an existing commonality, and the result of cooperative production is the creation of a new commonality; similarly, communication cannot take place without a common basis, and the result of communication is a new common expression.” (Mult 349-350.)

Negri see this as “a new, common homogeneity of the productive fabric” which supposedly has new powers of transformation or is more subject to being remade by workers, and which supposedly confers, by virtue both of its homogeneity and of the particular qualities which Negri sees in this sort of labor, a new ability for and tendency for the working class-in-itself to become a class-for-itself. (PW 63.) The working class today in this type of labor “carries within it certain means of production in the brain: properties that have not been constructed by [capital], but exist in relative autonomy. (…) the means of production has become internal to the singularities engaged in the organization of labor.” (PW 66.) “today labor isn’t of individuals anymore but of multitudes, it is always plural work.” (GMS 184.)

“Today (…) people have become more communist than ever before. (…) Today levels of community and sharing exist everywhere: even writing an article on a computer means having to rely on a common knowledge, which is to say the Internet. Language has now become the most advanced form of community: one no longer exists outside of language.” (NON 27.)

Negri thus sees all people today enmeshed in a process of producing a living social world. “Our common knowledge is the foundation of all new production of knowledge; linguistic community is the basis of all linguistic innovation; our existing affective relationships ground all production of affects; and our common social image bank makes possible the creation of new images.” Negri refers to all of this as production which both results from and produces the common. (Mult 148.) Capitalist production draws on this world, is parasitic on this world and can not survive without it.

In all of this, it seems to me that Negri’s claims to the specificity of the present rely on qualities which, as I’ve already said, are not actually specific to the present. As another example, here is Negri commenting on the common: “the set of signs, or, if you like, the set of customary habits and behaviors, that constitutes the social adds up to something like 90 percent or 95 percent of the reality of being-in-the-world, of inhabiting the world – in short, of life.” (IPOTC 102.) Not just capitalism, but social life as such requires the common: “we could not interact and communicate in our daily lives if languages, forms of speech, gestures, methods of conflict resolution, ways of loving, and the vast majority of the practices of living were not common. Social life depends on the common.” (Mult 188.)

I see little different in Negri’s remarks here and these (powerful) remarks by Stanley Cavell:

“We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals, nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life.’ Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying.” (Stanley Cavell, “The Availabilty of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy”, in _Must We Mean What We Say?_, p52)

For Cavell, rightly, these remarks apply to all contexts in which humans have ever learned and used language. Likewise with Negri’s remarks: if there is any present-specificness in all this, I simply don’t see it. Negri seems to me to lay out general aspects of work and of the reproduction of labor power as such.

I’d like to change gears now, following some different detours. My first detour will be through some quotes in the Grundrisse. My second trace the emergence of the category of the common in Negri and others’ work as well as a tendency to announce world-historical changes in production.

First detour: From General Intellect to the Common

“The common” is a term which Negri and others have taken up relatively recently work. As far as I can tell, the term largely replaces the term “general intellect,” a term which Negri and others had taken from a passing reference by Marx.[3]

In Marx, general intellect refers to scientific knowledge used in value production, “social knowledge [that] has become a direct force of production”. (Grundrisse, 706.) In Marx’s description science and knowledge primarily enter the labor process via machinery, via fixed capital. Negri and others have reinterpreted general intellect to include the accumulation of knowledge and productive capacity within variable capital, that is, within the bodies and brains of the working class. Negri and others thus modified the interpretive category “general intellect” to emphasize not knowledge and intelligence used to control the working class but rather the potentials workers make use of in doing their jobs. These are potentials which workers can withhold from their employers and which workers can redeploy in other ways.

And so, the common. The common as a category takes up the textual function of the general intellect and incorporates its qualities – an aufhebung, if anyone is keeping score – as well as combining the general intellect with qualities that are more obviously corporeal. Negri in a sense follows a strange trajectory here, beginning from a category Marx saw as a quality of capitalist domination then to an emphasis on knowledge held by employees, then ending up with a partial emphasis on the sum total of human capacities, which is how Marx defined labor power in the first place. It’s an awfully circuitous path to arrive back at – and an awfully convoluted manner in which to affirm – a basic point of Marx’s analysis. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Second Detour: Marx, the Grundrisse, and Common Characteristics

In the Grundrisse Marx writes that “all epochs of production have certain common traits, common characteristics. Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition. Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations (of production – NH) belong to all epochs (of human history – NH), others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without” these common qualities. Marx here uses language and law as a metaphor for understanding historical periods in their similarities and in their differences. He writes that “even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such.” Thus for Marx if we confuse “characteristics in common” with “the elements which are not general and common” we can not understand historical moments in their particularity. (Grundrisse, 85.) Marx continues a few pages later, saying that “There are characteristics which all stages of production have in common, and which are established as general ones by the mind; but the so-called general preconditions of all production are nothing more than these abstract moments with which no real historical stage of production can be grasped.” (Grundrisse, 88.)

Posed in the terms of these Grundrisse passages, the centrality of the common to production that Hardt and others see as a fact about the present is what Marx calls a common characteristic, one “shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient,” a characteristic “which all stages of production have in common,” a characteristic “with which no real historical stage of production can be grasped.”

I want to note two other aspects of these passages. First, for Marx in these quotes, there is nothing a priori wrong with categories that are trans-historical in scope or which address multiple historical epochs, it’s just that they don’t work as tools for grasping historical specificity. Second, if we look at the German (and I should say, I’m hardly a scholar of German), there is an etymological or terminological proximity between Marx’s terms “common” and “general.” The term in German that is translated into English as “common” is “gemein;” “gemein” is also a root for a number of other words including “allgemeine”, translated as “general.” In the terms of these passages from the Grundrisse, “the common” is etymologically little different from “generality.” In my view, it’s also little different conceptually.

To be polemical, Hardt and others make a mistake mocked by Hegel in his Phenomenology, then make another mistake. Hegel wrote that some people had an idea of “Absolute as the night in which, as we say, all cows are black,” something Hegel called “the very naïveté of emptiness of knowledge.” (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phprefac.htm#m016.) I claim that “the common” is likewise a sort of “night in which all cows are black,” in that the category tells us nothing specific about anything. What’s more, I argue that adherents of the concept make a mistake akin to looking at some cows in the dark and saying “these cows have a unique quality! when looked at in the night time, they look black!”

Third detour: Negri, Schmitt, and the political use of periodization

While the terms change and the theoretical touchstones that Negri draws on vary, the enunciation of a historical break is itself an important continuity across Negri’s career. Negri has changed the vocabulary and some of the details of his understanding of the new era, but he has for the past 3 or 4 decades repeatedly declared one epochal transformation or another. Declaring a new era is one of the key textual moves that gives Negri’s works its Negri-ness.[4]

Negri expressed this move I think most succinctly in his “Twenty Theses on Marx.” His fourth thesis was “The periodization of capitalist development shows that we are at the beginning of new epoch.” I apologize if this is obvious, but periodization is an activity. Time and human society does not fall into periods, we find periods which we identify according to various criteria and which we argue for. Negri sets out from a theoretical perspective and a normative position that values and seeks to find discontinuity and the beginning of a new epoch.

Reading Carl Schmitt has shaped how I understand Negri’s periodizing rhetoric. Schmitt wrote in the “Age of Neutralizations” that philosophers and historians have long recognized “[t]hat all historical knowledge is present knowledge, that such knowledge obtains its light and intensity from the present and in the most profound sense only serves the present, because all spirit is only present spirit.” (Schmitt, Age of Neutralizations, 130. Jacques Ranciere made a similar point: “An episode from the past interests us only inasmuch as it becomes an episode of the present wherein our thoughts, actions, and strategies are decided.” Page xxi in Kristin Ross’s introduction to Ranciere, The Ignorant Schoolmaster.) That is, we define and give meaning to sequences of time – that is, we periodize – based on ideas and values we hold in the present.

Periodizations can and often do have a political valence. Let me quote Schmitt again. He wrote in the preface to the second edition of Political Theology One that “any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision, irrespective of who decides and what reasons are advanced.” (PT p2) He remarked similarly in the Concept of the Political that “any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision.” [COTP 3RD ED.] While Schmitt was not here explicitly discussing the ways we sequence time, his remarks could very well apply to how we choose to periodize. Consider claims to the objectivity of a periodization. Let’s take objectivity to mean defining and giving meaning to a sequence of time in an observer-independent manner based entirely on qualities internal to that sequence of time. Objectivity in that sense would mean something non-political. For Schmitt in the passages I just quoted, claims that an activity is nonpolitical can be a particularly powerful political move. Claims to objectivity are powerful tools for propping up a politically loaded periodization.

Let me turn to a similarity in how Schmitt and Negri read Marx. Schmitt writes:

“the antithesis formulated by Karl Marx: bourgeoisie and proletariat (…) concentrates all antagonisms (…) into one single and final battle (…) by integrating the many bourgeois parties on earth into a single order, on the one hand, and likewise the proletariat on the other. By so doing a mighty friend-enemy grouping is forged.”[5]

Similarly, Negri writes with Michael Hardt that

“a theory of class not only reflects the existing lines of class struggle, it also proposes potential future lines. The task of a theory of class in this respect is to identify the existing conditions for potential struggle and express them as a political proposition. Class is really a constituent deployment, a project. This is clearly how one should read Marx’s claim about the tendency toward a binary model of class structures in capitalist society. (…) This claim is really part of a political proposal for the unification of the struggles of labor in the proletariat as a class. This political project is what most fundamentally divides Marx’s binary class conception from the liberal models of class pluralism.”

Hardt and Negri’s Marxism approves of and seek to replicate this tendency in Marx. Hardt and Negri continue, noting that today “the old distinction between economic and political struggles becomes merely an obstacle to understanding class relations.” In light of the above quote one must read ‘understanding’ as essentially synonymous with ’shaping’.

[/End Detours] [Begin Consequences/]

I’ve now taken a scenic route to the common, passing first through some of the sights to see in Marx and Schmitt. I took the first detour, through Marx, in part because it seems to me that if I can figure this out via a reading of Marx in the Grundrisse, so can Negri – he’s smarter and better read than I am, he’s had a great many more years to think about all this, and he wrote a book about the Grundrisse. This makes me suspect that Negri is not so much making a mistake as making some deliberate move. I took the second detour, through Schmitt, to help get at some possible stakes of what Negri is doing.

I’m not sure that one needs Schmitt to understand or criticize Negri. Let me say what I’ve come to think about Negri after reading Schmitt. As I’ve already said, I think Schmitt helps make clear that Negri’s periodizations are political. I think an element of Schmitt’s understanding of the term “political” is particularly useful here. In Schmitt’s terms “political” does not just mean value-laden, observer dependent, subject to interpretation, controversial, and so forth. For Schmitt, something is “political” when it forges or seeks to forge a constituency against another constituency, or when it inspires or seeks to inspire a constituency. (COTP 35.) This strikes me as particularly relevant for understanding Negri.

I see Negri’s rhetorical move of announcing a new epoch as more or less Schmittian, though perhaps in only a vague sense of “Schmittian.” Negri aims to use his periodizing as a tool, for what is basically a hortatory act. The periodization in terms of historical break that Negri posits is part of an attempt to construct a political community through positing the present as a historically and politically ripe moment.[6]

I am of two minds on Negri and periodization as political rhetoric. On the one hand, I have an impulse to say that Negri’s periodization is not the only tool which could suit this project. For most destinations there are multiple routes to get there; for most machines there are multiple tools that one could use fix or dismantle it. At the same time, I could be right that a periodization based on continuity could serve Negri’s purposes as well as his periodization based on discontinuity, but that would not really recommend a narrative continuity. After all, one thing being just as good as another is not a strong argument for choosing that thing.

On the other hand, I have an impulse to say that Negri’s periodization serves a particular purpose because of the people he identifies as a proto-constituency, the people he thinks could form his constituency, namely, immaterial laborers narrowly defined – relatively privileged information and culture workers.[7] If, for Negri as for Hardt, the present is a particularly ripe historical moment, particular people in this moment have extra access to or importance within the ripeness of time. They are the temporal leading edge in the passage from present into future.[8]

My impulse is to say that Negri’s narrative of the ripeness of the time is really about forging a type of commonality, but not one common to the entire working class. Rather, Negri’s narrative or myth is a possible way to forge a commonality in the sense of forging a constituency, for a specific stratum or some strata of the working class to see itself as universal.

According to this story, immaterial laborers are a universal constituency in two or three senses. First, immaterial laborers access universal human capacities, namely the common. Second, immaterial laborers’ characteristics are becoming the characteristics of all workers – for Negri and for Hardt all workers are becoming increasingly similar to immaterial laborers. This makes immaterial laborers both a leading edge – because while others are becoming more like immaterial laborers, immaterial laborers are most like immaterial laborers – and one with the rest of the class – because the rest of the class is steadily turning into immaterial laborers. Allegedly.

To give this perhaps a positive valence, this rhetorical move is in a sense a version of Marx’s claims in the Communist Manifesto that the working class has radical chains, such that when the working class shatters the chains of class all the chains of all forms of social domination shall be shattered. To give it a more negative valence, and this is closer to my view, let me quote Jacques Ranciere: “It is always in the heart of the worker aristocracy that a hegemonic fraction forms, presenting itself as *the* proletariat and affirming the proletarian capacity to organize another social order, starting with the skills and values formed in its work and its struggle.”[9] This is an old tendency, associated among other things with the conservative – even if occasionally combative – form of unionism championed by the American Federation of Labor in its early years (at the very least), that is, craft unionism.[10]

The Future of the Common and the Common in the Past

In lieu of a real conclusion, I would like to speculate on the future of the common (as a category for thought). On an analytical level, one line of inquiry that might be followed by people who think there may be some important use outside of philosophy for the category of the common and the theoretical framework it is part of.

I think the category would benefit from – or, to be more forthcoming, I think the category’s utility might be tested via – engagement with historical research. I suspect that a lot of what is said by Negri and others would, at the level of the practices of historical inquiry, amount to little different from the methods used by sophisticated historians attentive the overlap between social history and cultural history – at least among historians attentive to various versions of “the linguistic turn” within the field of history. Still, that’s an open question and “the common” may well prove useful in historical research. A particular avenue of inquiry I would be interested in someone carrying out would be to compare the remarks made by Negri and Hardt and others about immaterial laborers with the history of immaterial laborers and their organizations, particularly before the era that these writers identify as the era of immaterial labor’s hegemony.

For instance, the 1901-1902 Biennial Report of the Iowa Bureau of Labor Statistics lists among the unions registered in Iowa unions of barbers (who conducted massages too), carpenters, retail clerks, train conductors, cooks and waiters, locomotive engineers, musicians, teamsters, telegraph workers. Any of these or all of these could be researched. It would also be interesting to analyze how immaterial labor over time has fallen across the divide between skilled and unskilled labor which shaped so much of the U.S. labor movement. My hunch is that for much of the history of the U.S. working class ‘skill’ as in ‘skilled labor’ is an index of the degree to which immaterial components loom large in how the work is understood as distinct from unskilled labor – except, of course, when that labor has been done by women. I should also note that the information in this report – and much more not included here, both quantitative data like numbers of locals and members as well as qualitative data like getting workers’ views on issues of the day – derived from immaterial labor by state agents, including a fair bit of affective labor – cajoling and relationship building – in order to secure not only the qualitative but also quantitative data.

In addition to empirical investigation of the past, the category of the common should be placed into closer proximity to empirical study of contemporary social struggles and of questions of organization – both mass and political organization, preferably with an emphasis on actually existing organizations rather than programmatic prescriptions, classical or otherwise. (In my view, this should occur in a manner which brackets off both theoretical questions such as the ontology of sociality and meta-theoretical questions such as the role of theoretical practice in relation to other practices, as both of those discussions too easily assume a meaning-in-context for theoretical ideas rather than find and prove such a meaning.) Ideally this too would involve a historical sensibility, which might help minimize the rhetorical aura of novelty around contemporary political proposals so that these proposals could be debated on their merits. [And here I become extemporaneous. Depending on the time I’m going speak extemporaneously from notes even rougher than the attached piece. I plan to address something about current political proposals coming from some circles with some kind of post-operaismo orientation, proposals that I tend to find at best underwhelming and which I’d quite like to hear the assembled audience’s thoughts on. I plan to compare these proposals a bit with proposals from the history of moderate socialists and trade unionists. If I finish Hardt and Negri’s new book Commonwealth I’ll likely talk about them, otherwise I’ll likely talk about the Edu-Factory group, drawing on things I’ve written about them before.]

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[1] I have previously made an almost identical point with regard to Negri’s use of the term “biopolitics.” Negri claims that the present historical moment is unique for being a biopolitical stage of capitalism. This claim fails because Negri offer a definition of biopolitics which in fact applies to capitalism as such, and not to contemporary capitalism. I have also articulated an analogous point with regard to the autonomist marxist notion of the social factory, Negri’s understanding of reproductive labor in comparison with that of feminist marxists tied to the Wages for Housework movement, and with regard to Jason Read’s arguments about the production of subjectivity. On Negri’s understanding of biopolitics and capitalism, see this essay of mine: “A Biopolitical Stage of Capitalism?” Critical Sense 14:1 (Spring 2007): 69-101. A draft is online here: http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/biopolitical-capitalism. On the social factory, see the entry I wrote for “social factory” in the glossary to Graeber and Shukaitis’s book Constituent Imagination. On reproductive labor, see this talk, given at the University of Minnesota Comp Lit and Cultural Studies grad student conference: http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2005/10/17/time-do-you-work. That talk also addresses the idea of the social factory. On the production of subjectivity, see my review of Read’s excellent book: http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2005/10/17/time-is-it. That review appeared in a journal called De Philosophia.

[2] On this, I find David Camfield’s article “The Multitude and the Kangaroo” compelling.

[3] For more on the general intellect, see for example Hardt and Negri, Empire, 28-30, 364-5, and Nick Dyer-Witheford, CyberMarx.

[4] Steve Wright has argued, I think convincingly, that the declaration of a new era and a new subject has characterized Negri’s work throughout his career. Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism [London: Pluto Press, 2002]; “A Party of Autonomy?” in Resistance in Practice: The Philosophy of Antonio Negri, eds. T. S. Murphy & A. K. Mustapha [London: Pluto Press, 2005]; “The Limits of Negri’s Class Analysis, http://libcom.org/library/limits-negri-class-analysis-steve-wright; and personal communication. Wright’s works are to my mind the most important sources for understanding Negri. Wright’s work is particularly important for understanding Negri if one believes, as I do, that most of Negri’s philosophical writing is the result of and a (rather opaque) restatement of claims made and contradictions within his Marxism, which pre-exists and underlies his philosophical work. In the words of Sergio Bologna, “the thought of Organised Autonomy, in particular the thought of Toni Negri, is a system of thought which in a certain sense has theorised ambiguity.” (http://libcom.org/library/analysis-of-autonomia-interview-sergio-bologna-patrick-cunninghame.) Bologna’s review of Wright’s book is also worth reading. http://libcom.org/library/review-storming-heaven-sergio-bologna.

[5] Negri’s periodization could be fruitfully compared with Schmitt’s periodizations in “Land And Sea” and The Nomos of the Earth.

[6] Space constraints prevent me from engaging with this point here, but in my view Negri’s perspective is a example of what Jacob Taubes described as an apocalyptic strain in Marx, one tied to a mythological understanding of the forces of production. To my mind this gives Negri’s work a theological character, one based in part on what Schmitt called a depoliticalization. I more fully (though by no means adequately) expressed this point with regard to Negri’s periodizing impulse in a conference presentation I gave a few years ago called “Relatively Political.” That paper is available online at http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2006/06/26/is-relatively-political/.

[7] See Camfield, “The Multitude and the Kangaroo.” Maria Turchetto and Steve Wright both imply that Negri’s enunciation of a new epoch and a new subject has usually arisen from context-specific political aims. See Wright’s works listed in footnote one. Turchetto, “From ‘Mass Worker’ to ‘Empire’: The Disconcerting Trajectory of Italian Operaismo,” pages 285-308 in Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis’ Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism. Turchetto’s essay is readable in its entirely in the version of the book available on Google Books.

[8] Silvia Federici has recently criticized post-operaismo, though somewhat obliquely and not quite in these terms, for the ways this work implies that some people are real historical agents – in Federici’s view, mostly relatively privileged men – while others are not. (Federici, “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint.” http://inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com/precarious-labor-a-feminist-viewpoint/.) This point could be fruitfully compared with Steve Wright’s discussion of the “ceto politico” (political elite) as a way to understand Negri’s work in the 1970s, and with Wright’s discussion of Negri as a member of the Italian movements’ intra-movement political elite. (Wright, “A Party of Autonomy?”) The point could also be usefully compared with Monty Neill et al’s discussion of the notion of a class vanguard within Italian Marxism. (Neill et al, “Toward the New Commons: Working Class Strategies and the Zapatistas,” especially section 5, “Class Composition and Developing a New Working Class Strategy.” http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3843/monty5.html.)

[9] Quoted in Donald Reid’s introduction to Ranciere’s The Nights of Labor, xxiv. It is clear to me from a reading of Wright and Turchetto (both cited above), among others, that current theorists of the common have their roots in traditions of thought dedicated to finding hegemonic figures. I have in mind here primarily the Italian marxist tradition of operaismo, which can be characterized in part as a deliberate theoretical and organizational attempt to do what Ranciere describes in this quote. On the subject of operaismo, one of the biggest missed opportunities of the recent popularity of Negri’s work and other post-operaismo writers is the almost total lack of an attendant increased attention to operaismo in all its variability and disagreement (in a way similar to how the increased popularity of Spivak and other post-colonial writers has not led to much more attention specifically to the social history produced by the Subaltern Studies group). This is no doubt in part due to Negri’s tendency to treat his work has containing whatever insights there were in operaismo as being contained in his work in a sort of aufhebung. For a reflection on the tendency across operaismo to look for hegemonic figures, see Camfield, “The Multitude and the Kangaroo.” See also the conversation between Sandro Mezzadra and the Colectivo Situaciones here: http://www.e-valencia.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=6740&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0. Readers who do not understand Spanish can find some of my notes on that conversation here: http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2005/11/21/is-class-composition/. I would like to note that the operaismo periodization of capitalism in terms of hegemonic class figures – professional worker, mass worker, social worker – is repeated by Hardt and Negri’s recent work.

[10] An analogous form of craft- or profession-centered consciousness can be seen today in the Edu-Factory network, wherein academic professionals rhetorically universalize their interests and their position to be the entirety of The University. They thereby render invisible the ensemble of employees required to keep universities functioning, as well as the divisions and hierarchies among those employees.

EDIT:

I can’t remember if I’ve posted these on the blog before or not. I was asked to ID a few readings to go with my talk. I meant to post them with the talk, but forgot. I’m adding them in now. I’m not entirely sure these were the best choice, I picked them when the talk was still a kernel in my brain. Ah well. I’m pasting below in a comment a thing I wrote up trying to justify these selections and to think about them seriously. Here’s the selections:

*

http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, thesis 12; addenda A and B

XII

We need history, but not the way a spoiled
loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it.

Nietzsche, Of the Use and Abuse of History

Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the
depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last
enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation
in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which
had a brief resurgence in the Spartacist group,* has always been
objectionable to Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed
virtually to erase the name of Blanqui, though it had been the
rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding century.
Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role
of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews
of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget
both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by
the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated
grandchildren.

(…)

A.

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection
between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for
that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it
were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of
years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops
telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he
grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite
earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the
‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

B.

The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store
certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty.
Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past
times were experienced in remembrance–namely, in just the same way.
We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future.
The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This
stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn
to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however,
that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For
every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might
enter.

*

Mario Tronti, “The Strategy of the Refusal,” (excerpt from Operai e capitale)

“the future, from the working class point of view, does not exist;
only a block on the present, the impossibility for the present to
continue functioning under its present organisation, and thus an
instance of its possible reorganisation under an opposite notion of
power. An autonomous working class political power is the only weapon
that can block the functioning of capital’s economic mechanisms. In
this sole sense the workers’ State of tomorrow is the party of today.

This brings us back to the concept, which we attributed to Marx, of
communism as the party, which instead of constructing a model of the
future society, supplies a practical means for the destruction of the
present society.”
(http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/tronti_refusal.html)

*
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/appx1.htm
Marx, unpublished introduction to the Contribution of the Critique of
Political Economy
(This text appears in the Grundrisse.)

“[W]hen we speak of production, we always have in mind production at a
definite stage of social development, production by individuals in a
society. It might therefore seem that, in order to speak of production
at all, we must either trace the various phases in the historical
process of development, or else declare from the very beginning that
we are examining one particular historical period, as for instance
modern bourgeois production, which is indeed our real subject-matter.
All periods of production, however, have certain features in common:
they have certain common categories. Production in general is an
abstraction, but a sensible abstraction in so far as it actually
emphasises and defines the common aspects and thus avoids repetition.
Yet this general concept, or the common aspect which has been brought
to light by comparison, is itself a multifarious compound comprising
divergent categories. Some elements are found in all epochs, others
are common to a few epochs. The most modern period and the most
ancient period will have (certain) categories in common. Production
without them is inconceivable. But although the most highly developed
languages have laws and categories in common with the most primitive
languages, it is precisely their divergence from these general and
common features which constitutes their development. It is necessary
to distinguish those definitions which apply to production in general,
in order not to over look the essential differences existing despite
the unity that follows from the very fact that the subject, mankind,
and the object, nature, are the same.”

*
http://washingtonoldtimemusic.com/WHFAUA03.htm

We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years

We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers’ dead.

We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full!

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.

Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in!

We have fed you all a thousand years-
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.

You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
And we’re told it’s your legal share,
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,
Good God! We bought it fair!

“Written by ‘an unknown Proletarian.’ Music by Von Liebich. First
listed printing, Industrial Union
Bulletin, April 18, 1908.”

*
http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/giap/Giap_multitudes.html

Wu Ming, “From the Multitudes of Europe Rising Up Against the Empire
and Marching on Genoa (19-20 July 2001)”

We are new, and yet we are the same as always.
We are ancient to the future, an army of disobedience. For centuries
we have marched, armed with stories as weapons, “dignity” emblazoned
across our ensigns.
In the name of dignity we fight those who play the lords and masters
of people and meadows, forests and waters. Those who rule arbitrarily,
impose the order of the Empire and impoverish the communities.

We are the peasants of the Jacquerie. Our villages were plundered by
the mercenaries of the Hundred Years War and the nobles made us
starve. In the Year of Our Lord 1358 we took up arms, destroyed their
castles and took the ill-gotten back. Some of us were captured and
decapitated, blood flowed from our noses, but we were on the march and
we would not stop again.

We are the ciompi of Florence, the workers of factories and the minor
arts. In the Year of Our Lord 1378 a carder led us to rebellion. We
took over the city council and reformed the statute of arts and
professions. The lords escaped to the countryside and organized the
siege of the town. After two years they defeated us and restored the
oligarchy, but nothing could stop the contagious spirit of our
example.

We are the peasants of England who battled against the nobles to get
rid of tolls and excises. In the Year of Our Lord 1381 we heard the
preaching of John Ball: “When Adam dalf and Eve span / Who was then a
gentilman?”. We set off from Essex and Kent with pruning hooks and
pitchforks. We occupied London and set buildings on fire. We sacked
the palace of the Arch-bishop and opened the doors of jails. By the
King’s appointment many of us went to the gallows, but things had been
changed forever.

We are the Hussites. We are the Taborites. We are the Bohemian
labourers and craftsmen who rebelled against the Pope, the King and
the Emperor after Ian Hus was burnt at the stake. In the Year of Our
Lord 1419 we assaulted the town hall of Prague and threw the
burgomaster and the councillors out the window. King Wenceslaus died
of a heartache. The powerful of Europe waged war on us, and so we
called the Czech people to arms. We drove back all invasions,
counterattacked and entered Austria, Hungary, Brandenburg, Saxony,
Franconia and the Palatine. The heart of a continent was in our hands.
We abolished servitude and the tithes. We were defeated after thirty
years of war and crusades.

We are the thirty-four thousand men that answered the call of Hans the
Piper. In the Year of Our Lord 1476 the Madonna of Niklashausen
appeared to Hans and said:
“There shall be neither kings nor princes, neither papacy nor
priesthood, neither taxes nor tithes. Meadows, forests and waters
shall belong to all people. Every one shall be a brother to each
other, possessing no more than his neighbour”.
We arrived on the day of St. Margaret, a candle in one hand and a
spear in the other. The Holy Virgin would tell us what to do. The
knights of the Bishop captured Hans, then they attacked and defeated
us. Hans burned at the stake, but the words of the Virgin did not.

We are the String Shoe, the labourers and peasants of Alsace. In the
Year of Our Lord 1493 we conspired to kill the usurers and cancel all
debts, confiscate the treasuries of the monasteries, reduce the
priests’ incomes, abolish oral confession and establish local courts
elected by the communities. On Easter Sunday we attacked the
stronghold of Schlettstadt. We were defeated. Many of us were arrested
and put on the rack, to be quartered or decapitated. Many were
crippled by having their hands and fingers chopped off, and were
driven out of the country. Yet those who kept marching spread the
String Shoe throughout Germany. After years of repression and
re-organization, the String Shoe rose up in Freiburg in the Year of
Our Lord 1513. The March
went on, and the String Shoe has never stopped.

We are Poor Konrad, the peasants of Suabia that rebelled against the
taxes on wine, meat and bread, in the Year of Our Lord 1514. We were
five thousand and threatened to conquer Schorndorf, in the valley of
Rems. Duke Ulrich promised he would abolish the new taxes and examine
the peasants’ complaints. He was only seeking to keep us quiet and
gain time. The revolt spread all over Suabia. Our delegates were
admitted to the diet in Stuttgart. It was decided to depose and punish
three of the hated councillors of the Duke, to add to the Duke a
council of four knights, four burghers and four peasants, and to
confiscate the monasteries and the endowments in favour of the State
treasury. Ulrich convened another diet in Tuebingen, and his
neighbours helped him gather troops. It was not easy to take the
valley of Rems by force: Ulrich besieged and starved Poor Konrad on
the mountain of Koppel, then he plundered the villages. Sixteen
hundred peasants were captured, sixteen of them decapitated, and the
rest received heavy fines. And yet Poor Konrad still revolts.

We are the peasants of Hungary that rallyed for the crusade against
the Turk, and decided to wage war on the nobles instead, in the Year
of Our Lord 1514. Sixty thousand armed men, at the orders of commander
Dozsa, spread the insurrection all across the country. The army of the
nobles surrounded us at Czanad, where a “Republic of Equals” had been
founded. They captured us after a two months’ siege. Dozsa was roasted
on a red-hot throne, his lieutenants were forced to eat his flesh.
Thousands of peasants were impaled or hanged. The massacre and the
impious Eucharist led the March astray, but could not stop it.

We are the army of peasants and miners that followed Thomas Muentzer.
In the Year of the Lord 1524 we shouted: “All things are common!” and
declared war upon the world order. Our Twelve Articles shook the
powerful of Europe. We conquered towns and won the hearts of the
people. The Lansquenets exterminated us in Thuringia, Muentzer was
torn to pieces by the headsmen, and yet nobody could deny it: all that
belonged to the earth, to the earth would return.

We are the “Diggers”: a community of unemployed labourers and landless
peasants. In the Year of Our Lord 1649 we gathered in
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, occupied the common land and started to dig
it up. We wanted to live together and share the fruits of the earth.
The lords of the manor aroused the populace, we were seized and locked
up by an angry mob. Countrymen and soldiers assailed us and trampled
our crops. When we cut the woods on the common, the landlords sued for
damages and trespass. We moved to Cobham Manor, built four houses and
started a crop of winter grain. Troops attacked us, destroyed the
houses and again trampled the fields. We persisted. Other diggers
started crops in Kent and Northamptonshire. A mob drove them out. The
law defeated us and we set out again.

We are the serfs, miners, fugitives and deserters that joined
Pugachev’s Cossacks to overthrow the autocracy of Russia and abolish
servitude. In the Year of Our Lord 1774 we conquered strongholds,
confiscated riches and moved to Moscow. Pugachev was captured, but the
seed was going to bear fruit.

We are the army of General Ludd. Our fathers were cleared off their
lands and we became weavers. Then came that weaving machine. In the
Year of Our Lord 1811 we ran across the countryside of England,
stormed factories, destroyed machines and laughed in the face of
constables. The government sent thousands of soldiers and armed
civilians. A disgraceful law established that machines were more
important than human beings, and those who destroyed machines had to
be hanged. Lord Byron warned:
“Is there not blood enough upon your penal code, that more must be
poured forth to ascend to Heaven, and testify against you? How will
you carry the bill into effect? Can you commit a whole country to
their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up
men like scarecrows? Or will you proceed (as you must to bring this
measure into effect) by decimation? . . . Are these the remedies for a
starving and desperate populace?”
The rebellion broke out, but we were tired and underfed. Those who
escaped the slip-knot were deported to Australia. And yet General Ludd
still rides at the edge of the fields, in the dead of night, rallying
his troops.

We are the workers of Cambridgeshire under the orders of Captain
Swing. In the Year of Our Lord 1830 we rose up against despotic laws.
We set barns on fire, destroyed machines, threatened landlords,
assaulted police stations and executed narks. We were sent to the
gallows, but the call of Captain Swing would gather a bigger army.
Their advance would raise a dust that soiled all coppers’ coats and
judges’ gowns. The assault on the sky would last 150 years.

We are the weavers of Silesia who rebelled in the year 1844.
We are the fabric printers that set fire to Bohemia in the same year.
We are the proletarian insurgents of the Year of Grace 1848.
We are the spectres that tormented popes, tzars, bosses and footmen.
We are the populace of Paris in the Year of Grace 1871.
We have gone through the century of revenge and madness, and we keep
on marching.

They say that they are new, they christen themselves by acronyms: G8,
IMF, WB, WTO, NAFTA, FTAA… They cannot fool us, they are the same as
those who have come before them: the écorcheurs that plundered our
villages, the oligarchs that re-conquered Florence, the court of
Emperor Sigismund that beguiled Ian Hus, the diet of Tuebingen that
obeyed Ulrich and refused to admit Poor Konrad, the princes that sent
the lansquenets to Frankenhausen, the impious that roasted Dozsa, the
landlords that tormented the Diggers, the autocrats that defeated
Pugachev, the government whom Byron cursed, the old world that stopped
our assaults and destroyed all stairways to heaven.

Nowadays they have a new empire, they impose new servitudes on the
whole globe, they still play the lords and masters of the land and the
sea.

Once again, we the multitudes rise up against them.

Genoa.
Italian peninsula.
19, 20 and 21 of July
in a Year that no longer belongs to any Lord.

*

http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/wumingblog/?p=264

Wu Ming, excerpts from “Spectres of Muntzer at Sunrise,” introduction
to Verso’s forthcoming republication of Thomas Müntzer’s Sermon to the
Princes.

“It is impossible to disclaim the responsibility the Wu Ming
collective had, at least in Italy. We were among the most zealous in
urging people to go to Genoa, and helped to pull the movement into the
ambush. After the bloodbath, it took quite a while – and a lot of
reflection on our part – to understand our own (specific) errors in
the context of the (general) errors made by the movement.
Clearly, something went wrong with the practice of “mythopoesis” or
“myth-making from the bottom up”, which was – and still is – at the
core of our philosophy.

By “myth” we never meant a false story, i.e. the most banal and
superficial use of the term. We always used the word for a narrative
with a great symbolic value, a narrative whose meaning is understood
and shared in the community (e.g. a social movement) whose members
tell it one another. We’ve always been interested in stories that
create bonds between human beings. Communities keep sharing such
stories and, as they share them, they (hopefully) keep them alive and
inspiring, ongoing narration makes them evolve, because what happens
in the present changes the way we recollect the past. As a result,
those tales are modified according to the context and acquire new
symbolic/metaphorical meanings. Myths provide us with examples to
follow or reject, give us a sense of continuity or discontinuity with
the past, and allow us to imagine a future. We couldn’t live without
them, it’s the way our mind works, our brain is “wired” to think
through narratives, metaphors and allegories [3].

At a certain point, a metaphor may suffer sclerosis and become less
and less useful, until it’s void of all meaning, a disgusting cliché,
an obstacle to the growth of inspiring stories. When this happens,
people have to veer off, looking for other words and images.
Revolutionary and progressive movements have always found their own
metaphors and narrated their myths. Most of the times these myths
survived their being useful and became alienating. Rigor mortis set
in, language became wooden, metaphors ended up enslaving the people
instead of setting them free […]

No-one can erase mythological thought from human communication,
because it’s embedded in the circuitry of our brains. As a matter of
fact, every iconoclasm eventually generates a new iconophilia, against
which new iconoclasts will rage. The cycle will be endless if we don’t
understand the way these narratives work.

The trouble with myths is not their intrinsic falsehood, truth… or
truthiness. The trouble with myths is that they sclerotise easily if
we take them for granted. The flow of tales must be kept fresh and
lively, we have to tell stories by ever changing means, angles and
points of view, give our tales constant exercise so they don’t harden
and darken and clog our brains.

This, of course, is an extremely hard task, for several reasons.

First of all, it’s too easy to underestimate the dangers of working
with myths. One always runs the risk of playing Dr. Frankenstein or,
even worse, Henry Ford. We can’t create a myth at will, as though on
an assembly line, or evoke it artificially in some closed laboratory.
To be more exact: we could, but it would have unpleasant consequences.

Expanding some observations by Karoly Kerenyi, Italian mythologist
Furio Jesi drew a sharp distinction between a “genuine” approach to
myths (although he later criticized Kerenyi’s use of the adjective)
and a forced evocation of myths for a specific (usually political)
purpose. Think of Mussolini describing the 1937 invasion of Abyssinia
as “the reappearance of the Empire on the fateful hills of Rome”.
Kerenyi and Jesi called the latter strategy “technification of myths”.
Technified myth is always addressed to those Kerenyi called “the
sleeping ones”, i.e. people whose critical attitude is dormant,
because the powerful images conveyed by the technifiers have
overwhelmed their consciousness and invaded their subconscious. For
example, we may “fall asleep” during the incredibly beautiful first
half-hour of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938).
On the contrary, a “genuine” approach to myths requires staying awake
and willing to listen. We have to ask questions and listen to what
myths have to say, we have to study myths, go looking for them in
their territories, with humbleness and respect, without trying to
capture them and forcibly bring them to our world and our present. It
is a pilgrimage, not a safari.

Technified myth is always “false consciousness”, even when we think
we’re using it to a good purpose. In an essay entitled Literature and
Myth, Jesi asked himself: ‘Is it possible to induce the people to
behave in a certain way – thanks to the power exerted by suitable
evocations of myths – and then induce them to criticize the mythical
motives of their behaviour?’. He answered himself: ‘It seems
practically impossible’.

In the heyday of the global movement (from Autumn 1999 to Summer
2001), we tried to operate in the space between the adverb
(”practically”) and the adjective (”impossible”). We tried to use the
adverb to break open the adjective. We deemed Jesi’s answer too
pessimistic. We thought that “opening the laboratory” and showing the
people how we processed “mythologemes” – i.e. the basic conceptual
units, the metaphoric “kernels” of mythological narratives – was
enough to provide the people with the tools of criticism. “Correct
distance” from a myth was our chimera: not too close lest we might
fall into a stupor, not so far that we no longer feel its power. It
was a difficult balance to keep, and in fact we didn’t keep it.

Because the problem is also: who is the artificer of mythopoesis, the
evocator, the obstetrician? It should be up to a whole movement or
community or social class to handle myths and keep them on the move.
No particular group can appoint itself to that office. At the end of
the day, we ended up being “officials” assigned to manipulate
metaphors and evoke myths. Our role became a quasi-specialised one. An
agit-prop cell. A combo of spin doctors. Sure, From the Multitudes of
Europe… could make your nerves sing, it made you feel like going to
Genoa right away, but that was not enough. We never looked for ways to
“criticize the mythical motives of our behaviour”. “Practically” never
cracked “impossible”.

At present, there is no alternative but continuing the work: we have
to continue the exploration, prick up our ears and approach myths in a
way that’s not instrumental. We have to understand the nature of myths
without wishing to reduce their complexity and test their aerodynamic
properties in the wind tunnel of politics.”

*

Excerpt from my paper “A Biopolitical Stage Of Capitalism?”, I think
this was published in Critical Sense journal, but I’m not totally sure
if the journal continued to exist after accepting the paper.

“What is at stake for Hardt and Negri in a declaration of a new epoch?
I suspect that this is not simply a mistake on their part, but rather
a rhetorical and political attempt to have some external effect. In
the words of Carl Schmitt:

“All political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning.
They are focused on a specific conflict and are bound to a concrete
situation; the result is a friend-enemy grouping, and they turn into
empty and ghostlike abstractions when this situation disappears. Words
such as state, republic, society, class, as well as sovereignty,
constitutional state, absolutism, dictatorship, economic planning,
neutral or total state, and so on, as incomprehensible if one does not
know exactly who is affected, combated, refuted, or negated by such a
term.”[55]

That is to say, the categories of political thought are themselves
political and potentially constitutive.

Along these lines, it must be noted that the term, multitude, the
name that Hardt and Negri give their political project, had a currency
in Italian social movements prior to the publication of Empire, as did
the concept, exodus, which they hold up as the practice of the
multitude.[56] Hardt and Negri’s use of these concepts comes out of
their familiarity with these movements, and I suspect are an attempt
to intervene in those circles in order to impact the formation of
collectivities and alliances of collectivities against capital and the
state. In this light it is interesting to note not only Hardt and
Negri’s use of Schmitt, but the similarity in their respective
readings of Marx.[57] Schmitt writes:

“[T]he antithesis formulated by Karl Marx: bourgeoisie and proletariat
… concentrates all antagonisms … into one single and final battle … by
integrating the many bourgeois parties on earth into a single order,
on the one hand, and likewise the proletariat on the other. By so
doing a mighty friend-enemy grouping is forged.”[58]

Hardt and Negri write:

“[A] theory of class not only reflects the existing lines of class
struggle, it also proposes potential future lines. The task of a
theory of class in this respect is to identify the existing conditions
for potential struggle and express them as a political proposition.
Class is really a constituent deployment, a project. This is clearly
how one should read Marx’s claim about the tendency toward a binary
model of class structures in a capitalist society. … This claim is
really part of a political proposal for the unification of the
struggles of labor in the proletariat as a class. This political
project is what most fundamentally divides Marx’s binary class
conception from the liberal models of class pluralism.”[59]

Hardt and Negri continue, noting that today “the old distinction
between economic and political struggles becomes merely an obstacle to
understanding class relations.” In light of the above quote, one must
read ‘understanding’ as, essentially, synonymous with “shaping.” They
continue: “Class is a biopolitical concept that is at once economic
and political. When we say biopolitical, furthermore, this also means
that our understanding of labor cannot be limited to waged labor but
must refer to human productive capacities in all their
generality.”[60]

This is a worthy sentiment, but there is no need for the limitation
of its application solely to the present, unless there is some
function to be played by this limitation. I suspect that the
historical break that Hardt and Negri posit may be part of a
Schmittian attempt to construct a political community through positing
ours as a historically and politically ripe moment. Whether this is
the maneuver they have in mind, I am not convinced, as the preceding
arguments make clear. Every moment is ripe for its participants, and
whatever the constitutive power Hardt and Negri’s declaration of a new
epoch may have, it comes at the cost of writing out of history a
number of important forebearers in struggle.

This declaration may also be motivated by a desire to think through
the present and toward the future without engaging critically with the
wreckage and nightmare of much of the history of Marxism. I can think
of no other motivation Hardt and Negri might have. I am not
sympathetic with either. Hardt and Negri are right that “[w]hat is
necessary is an audacious act of political imagination to break with
the past,” but this has been the political task of everyone alive at
any moment ever in time since the inception of exploitative and
hierarchical social relations.[61] Hardt and Negri’s positing of this
rupture as a need that is unique to the present demonstrates an
inadequate account of the uses and abuses of history for life in the
present.

Notes
(…)

[55] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 30-31.
[56] See the previously mentioned pieces by Virno, wherein he provides
a different theoretical account of and political valence to the term
multitude. See also the 1997 piece “Un mundo … muchos mundos,”
circulated by the Ya Basta network for a discussion of multitude and
exodus within Italian movement circles (“Un mundo … muchos mundos:
globalización, éxodos y multitudes-Repensar la acción política
antagonista por una nueva carta de derechos,”
http://www.sindominio.net/laboratorio/documentos/varios/yabasta.htm
(accessed 12/19/05). See also Steve Wright, “Confronting the crisis of
‘fordism’: Italian debates around social transition,”
http://libcom.org/library/confronting-crisis-fordism-steve-wright
(accessed December 19, 2005) for a fuller treatment of debates, dating
from 1990 onward, around the category of exodus and the political
practices connected with it within the Italian left.
[57] Interestingly enough, in another context Etienne Balibar
commented to Negri in regard to the latter’s support for the EU
constitution: “You have become completely Schmittian,” because Negri
felt that the EU constitution offered a chance to impact the formation
of another global power that could stand against the US. Quoted in
Arianna Bove, “Notes on public discussion between Etienne Balibar and
Antonio Negri on the constitution of Europe. Rome, June 2004,”
http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpbalibar3.htm (accessed 12/16/05).
[58] Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 74.
[59] Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 104-5.
[60] Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 104-5.
[61] Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 308.”

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