October 2008

My great uncle argues for it in his new book. Even if he does prefer theory based on practice to “high theory”, i still love him, especially since Negri is the example of high theory his co-author takes to task. Hear about it on Against the Grain.

I was underwhelmed by Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude. Its an anti-climactic feeling, because of all the hype. Reading these books was like listening to the new band or watching the new movie everyone has praised and finding out its not all that. I’m not saying they’re as bad as Lost in Translation, but they certainly aren’t Tout van Bien, or Charlie Chaplin.
I was mainly underwhelmed with Empire and Multitude because of the disjuncture between the aim of the books- theorizing the revitalization of the left- and its result; the theorization of the revitalization of the left. Call me a pessimist, but I think the Left has to do a little more then put on its post-modern prescription glasses to sort itself out
Hardt and Negri certainly do a good job of framing the problem- globalized corporate neoliberal rule over all aspects of life-but their theorization of overcoming it is inadequate because they somehow think updating Marx with Deluzean terminology and Foucaultian biopolitics is enough.  That somehow this new postmodern frame- with its schematic talk of the post-modern biopolitical production of immaterial labour through networks as the basis of the new antagonism of empire and the multitude- will unlock our understanding of our current geo-political cluster fuck and make us suddenly aware that things are going to be okay because history is on our side. In other words, replace proletariat with multitude… and…. Wahla… history is still developing towards democracy for all.
The tragedy, then, is that this update of Marx, updates the most useless part. Hardt and Negri ignore vital Marxian concepts like alienation, fetishism, labour time, and the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism because they celebrate the libratory potential of immaterial labour. Its this view-point and their celebration of post-modern irony and carnival as the new politics- like their celebration of the papier-mâché street theatre puppets- and talk of the Seattle WTO protests that also make the works seem irrelevant and dated. This is grossly displayed in one of their examples of how the potential of the multitude is inherent in immaterial labour; their discussion of finance capital;

“we should note that finance capital also has another face, a common face that points toward the future…Finance capital…tends to function as a general representation of our common future productive capacities…Since finance capital is oriented toward the future and represents such vast realms of labour, we can perhaps begin to see in it, paradoxically, the emerging figure of the multitude, albeit in inverted, distorted form. In finance the contradiction becomes extreme between the expansive becoming common of our future productivity and the increasingly narrow elite that controls it. The so-called communism of capital, that is, its drive toward an ever more extensive socialization of labour, points ambiguously toward the communism of the multitude.”282

Unless the ambiguity of “communism of the multitude,” means further immiseration of the multitude, I have seen no communist potential in the continuing meltdown of financial capital. What I have seen is what theorist’s who use the Marxian concepts Hardt and Negri ignore- like Harvey, Jameson etc. long predicted; a collapse of the speculative bubble as an ensuing crisis endemic to capitalism.
Are Hardt and Negri then headed for the dustbin of history like contemporary neo-classical economics handbooks? I doubt it. Negri has been at it for years and has evolved with the times. I just hope in their future work, their understanding of the problem and their admirable optimism is tempered with complexity and a certain suspicion that the new- whether it is postmodernism or post-post modernism- may be necessary but its not inherently sufficient.
Meanwhile, here are two things I think are relevant to the current crisis; the knowledge that things have changed, which Hobsbawm soberly assesses

The interest in Marx seems a vindication, as his analysis of capitalism put its finger on globalisation and periodic crises and instabilities. Over the past few decades people thought the market would sort everything out, which seemed to me a statement of theology rather than reality. It’s good that people are taking this kind of analysis more seriously than they have for a long time because it breaks with the conventional analysis that has dominated most governments and a lot of ideologies over the years. It’s fun to discover that what one has been saying for a long time, and others have been pooh-poohing, is being taken seriously. But that isn’t the important thing; that is to recognise that a phase of this particular world system has passed and we must think of another one. It will take a long time for it to settle down, but there is no way we’re going back to where we were in the 1980s and 1990s, and that’s a good thing.

And the knowledge that this change carries with it the potential and need for a new non-post modern, extra-representative form of politics, which Badiou polemicizes for:

The only thing that we can hope for in this affair is that this didactic power may be found in the lessons drawn from this grim drama by people, and not by the bankers, the governments who serve them, and the newspapers who serve these governments. This return to the real has two related aspects. The first is clearly political. As the film has shown, the “democratic” fetish is merely the zealous servant of the banks. Its real name, its technical name, as I have argued for some time, is capitalist-parliamentarianism. It is advisable, as several political experiments have begun to do in the past twenty years, to organise a politics of a different nature.

In other words, history isn’t over and it isn’t inexorable, it just happens and if we are going to change it and get rid of whatever succeeds neoliberalism, well we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Like the mythical phoenix reborn from ashes, I have returned. Unlike the mythical phoenix, my absence had nothing to do with wickerman like resurection through fire. No, nothing like that. No violet flames or hot coals ruffling my feathers. My absence has more to do with logistics, access, and moving half way around the world. Now I am settled and I have the internet again. So, it will be just like old times, only now the solid is really melting into air.

Speaking of the meltdown and its aftermath– the grizzled Leftist’s monuments of Hobsbawm and Badiou provide the best commentary I’ve seen. They also balance each other quite nicely; Hobsbawm provides a sober, historical reading of the event, while Badiou asserts its moral imperative via Lacaneese.