Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Commonwealth--Hardt and Negri

Besides an extraordinary amount of repetition of their points (which, who knows, may have bee necessary to connect all of their analyses) Hardt and Negri offer an immensely powerful critique of capitalism in light of biopolitics and biopower. Their philosophical geneology traces from Augustine, to Spinoza, to Deleuze and they draw on a diverse range of political and economic theories along the way.

If I have complained before about the lack of clear cut distinctions in other texts, Hardt and Negri may be guilty of the opposite. Their characterizations of positions such as modernity, anti-modernity, and altermodernity (corresponding in part to what Haroway mentions as autremondalisation) are broad concepts, but they deploy them with such purpose and confidence that such distinctions are effective. If modernity is characterized by oppression and colonial forces, and anti-modernity is characterized by resistances to this modernity (an important, but, according to H&N insufficient because it is stuck in opposition), altermodernity "constitues a dispotif for the production of subjectivity" (115). 

Altermodernity, as concerned with producing subjectivities, differs from hypermodernity and postmodernity. Hypermodernity, aligned with theorists  such as Jurgen Habermas, contends that do not propose to break with but to reform and transform modernity's basic institutions. According to H&N, hypermoderniity, "simply continues the hierarchies that are central to modernity, putting its faith in reform, not resistance, and thus does not challenge capitalist rule" (113). Postmodernity, in contrast, is characterized by "negative thought," whose solutions are "weak" and "aesthetic," often drifting into theology (114). 

Alternmodernity is necessary in the age of the biopolitical, where much of what is produced cannot be controlled by capitalists even though they can draw wealth from it. Labor does not only produce products, but produces "forms of life" and various subjectivities, characterized by immaterial products: cognitive and affective. In a way, does this not correspond to the shift in advertisement from the 'product' itself to selling the lifestyle that one could have should one buy the product? But now, it is not even a matter of product. Rather, according to H&N such production happens in the realm of the common rather than privatized copyright and patents. Since biopolitical labor no longer corresponds to the law of scarcity, an idea, image, affect, etc. does not exhaust itself. Rather, "if you use that idea productively, I can use it too, at the very same time. In fact the more of us that work with an idea and communicate about it, the more productive it becomes" (381). This kind of labor and value is increasingly autonomous from capital: "an increasingly autonomous labor-power and, consequently, a capital that becomes increasingly pure command. Labor-power is thus no longer variable capital, integrated within the body of capital, but a separate and increasingly oppositional force" (292). 

So, what social form corresponds to altermodernity in the age of the biopolitical? The multitude. The multitude of the "poor" is where H&G suggest we start. However, the "poor" is not necessarily just those who we consider 'poor' today materially, but basically consists of those who are marginalized and who are for what H&N call "the common." The multitude is composed of singularities who set up encounters which in turn transforms their subjectivities. The multitude shifts from identity to singularity. In a particularly powerful chapter on identity politics, H&N argue that we must start with identity politics but cannot end with them. In fact, identity politics should "strive for their own abolition" (332). Not, mind you, to rid us of difference, but in order to prepare the way for further becoming. In order to become something other, something else, you have  to forget identity. Then, the way is open for differences to flourish. H&N rightly characterize this process as monstrous and violent: "the most terrifying violence confronting revolutionaries may be the monstrous self-transformation we find in the revolutionary streams of identity politics" (371). 

The imagery of the singularity, multitude, swarm, the monstrous, etc. stem from the alternative geneology of philosophy I mentioned earlier--headed mostly by Spinoza and Deleuze (and his reading of the former). Another theorist that seems to be working in a similar vein (although perhaps a bit more ambivalent than H&N) is Gerald Raunig, in his book A Thousand Machines. If nothing else, Raunig explores the importance of a new conception of cognitive labor. Labor is less about new products and more about creation and innovation: "the raw material and means of production of living labor is the capacity for thinking, learning, communicating, imagining, and inventing" (Raunig 115). Both H&N describe the multitude in musical terms as a composition with a composer or orchestra without a conductor. No one person or force seems to be "in charge" of this multitude. I think Raunig's conclusion is a great summary of both his book and H&N's: 

It is precisely in this that the quality of the machine beyond humanist, mechanistic, and cybernetic interpretations consists: in the insistence of a dissonant power, a monstrous potency and enjoyment, in the ambiguous re-invention of verker as a non-conforming concatenation of differences, singularities, and multitudes in an a-harmonious composition without a composer. (119)

However, H&N go much further in their book with more specifics on what they would like to see and their analysis of society. Raunig is working primarily with the concept of the machine--a concept of the machine as a social entity rather than how we generally understand machine: "the thesis of this book is that there is an AND, living and mechanical, that is nto all to be found only in the progressive merging of man and technical machine" (110). Both are working out of D&G, but H&N are more attentive to organized resistance and revolution than Raunig, who almost has an an-archic strain in his thought.

In contrast, H&N propose that the multitude needs to create institutions, but institutions based in conflict rather than institutions that solidify an already pre-formed identity: "the central difference, perhaps, has to do with the locus of agency: whereas according to the conventional sociological notion institutions form individuals and identities, in our conception, singularities form institutions, which are thus perpetually in flux" (358). Institutions that are not created based on what people are, but always moving toward becoming something other.
revolt becomes powerful and long-lasting only when it invents and institutionalizes a new set of collective habits and practices, that is, a new form of life [. . .] common practices and behaviors as well as their original set of gestures and affects. (356)
The way H&N propose this creates a different way of thinking revolutionary event. Indeed, H&N are critical of many thinkers of the Event, including Alain Badiou: "In Badiou an event [. . .] acquires value and meaning primarily after it takes place. He thus concentrates on the intervention that retrospectively gives meaning to the event and the fidelity and generic procedures that continually refer to it" (60). For H&N, Foucault's notion of the event requires a more "forward looking gaze," and has a bit more 'queerness' to it:
The biopolitical event, in fact, is always a queer event, a subversive process of subjectivization that, shattering ruling identities and norms, reveals the link between power and freedom, and thereby inaugurates and alternative production of subjectivity. (63)
Later in the book, queer is associated not with a particular identity but a "critique of identity" (335). We see this same move toward an acknowledgment of the multiplicity of differences in Donna Haraway's When Species Meet. How can we foster queer indigestion in the political and economic realms? Complementary to Donna Haraway's language, H&N suggest that we must "nourish indignation," which they think "love" may  help to foster (246).

The Common and Occupy Wall Street

Reading this text I could not stop thinking about how Occupy Wall Street may be a practical enactment of the multitude. They have created their own gestures and behaviors and guidelines for self-organization. A recent segment of Colbert Report explained the various gestures they use to signify consensus. While I have a difficult time not laughing at such ridiculous gestures and behaviors, I am at a loss to explain why! Its like a whole new system of parliamentry procedure! Furthermore, we see the movement formed of what Raunig deems the "precariat," a term that H&N almost use as well. The "precariat" are the people whose jobs are unstable and whose 'class' is hard to define (see Raunig 80-83). H&N write that what is also precarious is the division between work and leisure time: "precarity is a mechanism of control that determines the temporality of workers, destroying the division between work time and non-work time, requiring workers not to work all the time but to be constantly available for work" (146). When you are working in precarious situation "none of your time is your own" (147). But biopolitical production requires the "freedom of producers to organize their own time" (147). To me, this sounds an awful lot like academic labor.

But space is another important aspect of the common. In fact, H&N argue that "the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class" (250). In other words, it makes sense that people are occupying an entire city. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street logic has analogies to the piquetos in Bolivia who decide to 'picket the city' (see H&N 259) as well as events Raunig discusses in his book. Raunig writes, "the machinic practice of inventing and concatenating bodies and signs, the theatricality and the flight from representation generated different qualities and quantities of reappropriating the city and discuvsive space in the various local contexts" (88).

Practical Actions

Hardt and Negri suggest some really radical proposals toward the end of the book that would move us toward a more democratic and just society. This is, in my opinion, the most radical:
A reform that would grant freedom of time is the establishment of a minimum guaranteed income on a national or global scale paid to everyone regardless of work. Separating income from work would allow everyone more control over time. (309)
Wouldn't this be nice? Perhaps their diagnosis of biopolitical labor as labor that is immaterial, cognitive, and separated from capitalists is a justification for their position that everyone should have a guaranteed income. Is this not, basically, the ultimate welfare state? Who would pay for this? What kind of utopia do these guys live in where people will just "do work" even though they don't have to work to get an income for the basic necessities of life? What are these "basic necessities of life" or "bare life" --food? shelter? tvs? computers? How do we define "life" here?

In order for this to work at all, we would have to have a major culture shift--something I think H&N thinks can be done. But really, we have to be realistic when we realize that many people just don't give a shit.

On the other hand, could we say that I am actually living under this system? I have a "fixed income" every 2 weeks, which is for teaching classes, prep work, grading papers, etc, but I have relatively complete control over my time. Still, the process of organizing one's own time productively is a terribly difficult thing to do--even for an intelligent, educated man such as myself--with such meaningless distractions of the entertainment industry. What incentive do I really have to produce ideas? Mostly it is a feeling of "I need to work." However, I am convinced that not everyone believes that.

In other words, although I find H&N's critique and formation of the multitude productive--particularly with regard to institutions and their becomings, I find their concrete practices that they suggest a bit optimistic about human potential in general.

On another note, is it not the case that H&N's points have been made by others in less bulky (and less explicitly Marxist terms) by John Dewey in his Reconstruction in Philosophy?
Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, value are transmitted that made common. (161)

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