I finally finished Commonwealth. I expected it to be disappointing. It was. I felt doubly disappointed to be right about that. I took notes in the book and I remember thinking at least once “oh, this is decent”, maybe more than once. Not many more, though. The book and its political and theoretical project strike me as a dead end.

I don’t have time now (and am not sure I’ll have the will later) for anything in depth. For now, a few notes.

They continue the stuff about biopolitical labor, which is basically false, trivially true, or bound up with some other mistake, such that whatever positive content that stuff may have it’s mitigated by its many downsides. It strikes me that there’s also a contradiction here with regard to prior forms of labor (oh and by the way, late in the book in the very brief discussion of Grasmci they refer to Fordism as the subsumption of society under capital, a pretty big revision compared to their earlier remarks, big enough that to make it in passing is just sloppy) and organizational forms.

At one point they talk about how the Bolshevik party form was an expression of the class composition of industrial labor – a boss on the job and a boss in the party, professional workers and professional revolutionaries – and how the class composition of biopolitical laborers makes new organizational forms possible. This is backward in my opinion, rendering class composition basically useless, or just a bad idea. The ideas are useful or at least interesting when they proceed from political composition – the organizations and struggles of the working class – to an understanding of the technical composition – the technologies used in work and in managing the working class. Workers struggle in a context, “political composition” is a shorthand for the forms of the struggle, one response by capitalists is to change the technical composition as a way to attack the working class. The class then has to find a new political composition against the technical composition. From that point of view it’s partly a criticism of work.

Hardt and Negri move in the opposite direction. They don’t tend primarily to talk about the technical composition as a response to and a move against a prior political composition which undermined it and as something to work against. In other words, the technical composition as I understand it is only a useful idea when it’s about how the labor process is configured by and as the valorization process, against the working class. To put it another way, the idea is useful when it’s about the working class as class in itself, something we want to overcome.

Hardt and Negri mainly use the idea another way. They talk about the capacities used in the labor process as being on the one hand proof of capacities in the working class as potential class for itself – authority and responsibility are delegated at work nowadays (for some people, they fail to add), therefore they can be delegated in the organization of the class for itself – and on the other hand as developing capacities which were only inchoate before. Hardt and Negri in this latter sense talk about the technical composition as determining the political composition, and in a rather strong sense. On the other hand, toward the end of the book they talk about how we need organizational forms and actions that develop our capacities. I more or less agree with that, but it’s in tension with the stuff on biopolitical labor developing those capacities.

On the bright side, I’m putting this post in the “jokes” category. That could be a meanspirited “this book is a joke” remark, but it could also be a “ha ha, these fragmentary notes on an opaque book, what a funny joke!” kind of joke, a joke consisting in pretending that I think that I’m making a good joke when I’m not – and thus by doing so, I actually make a good joke! Man, I crack me up.

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