By Alex Callinicos
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Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Harvard University Press, £25.95
Issue 345

One of the landmark events in the rise of a new anti-capitalist movement ten years ago was the appearance of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s book Empire. A remarkable bestseller for a long book written in fairly esoteric philosophical language, Empire sought to situate resistance to neoliberalism within the framework of the Marxist critique of capitalism and imperialism.

But Hardt and Negri argued that capitalism had changed since the days of Lenin and the other classical theorists of imperialism with the emergence of Empire, a new transnational network power into which nation-states were dissolving. Moreover, the class struggle was changing shape, as the working class was dispersed into a more amorphous multitude consisting of all those subject to capital.

Empire provoked an enormous debate and widespread criticism from other Marxists (me included). Hardt and Negri have sought to restate and develop their arguments in two subsequent books – Multitude, which appeared in 2004, and now Commonwealth, published late last year. Enthusiasts for Commonwealth – the great Marxist critic Fredric Jameson calls it the “last and richest of the Empire trilogy” – have suggested it gives greater political precision to Hardt and Negri’s earlier, rather vague account of contemporary anti-capitalist struggle.

Certainly this is what they promise in the preface, which announces “The Becoming-Prince of the Multitude”. The reference here is both to Machiavelli’s Prince and to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, where the revolutionary party is described as the “Modern Prince”. The implication is that Commonwealth will show how the multitude becomes a collective political subject.

Hardt and Negri certainly acknowledge that this is a question that must be addressed: “Capitalist crisis does not proceed automatically to collapse… Political organisation is needed to cross the threshold and generate political events. The kairos – the opportune moment that ruptures the monotony and repetitiveness of chronological time – has to be grasped by a political subject.”

But, alas, Hardt and Negri’s prince never comes. They reject the idea of a vanguard party and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, according to which revolution requires a concentration of economic, political and ideological power. (Gramsci, incidentally, is subjected to a critical discussion that is, in the caricatures it seeks to perpetuate, by the standards of contemporary discussion, little short of a disgrace.)

Instead Hardt and Negri fall back on metaphors, arguing, for example, that different “fields of struggle” – workers, peasants, blacks, women, etc – “autonomously march forward on parallel paths”. The closest that they come to justifying this approach is when they write, “If one can realistically establish the capacities for self-organisation and cooperation in people’s daily lives, in their work, or more generally in social production, then the political capacity of the multitude ceases to be a question.”

In other words, if the multitude is developing the collective capacity to manage society in production, then politics will look after itself. That this amounts to the most profound economic reductionism should be obvious. But it licenses the book’s real focus on expanding the arguments of Multitude and especially the idea that capitalism is being transformed by “biopolitical” production, where what is produced consists of different kinds of immaterial services, including knowledge and emotions. Consequently, productivity is being driven increasingly by the creativity and cooperation of the multitude, which demotes capital to a parasitic and external role.

This analysis echoes themes of Negri’s writing that go back to the 1970s. What is newest in Commonwealth is its take on the fashionable idea of the common. Hardt and Negri mean by this not merely the natural resources that capital seeks to appropriate, but also “the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships”, which are both the means and the result of biopolitical production. Communism, they argue, is defined by the common, just as capitalism is by the private and socialism (which they identify in effect with statism) with the public.

It’s not that there’s nothing of merit in this analysis. Thus Commonwealth includes an interesting discussion of the contemporary metropolis. But it is compromised by an essentially Romantic conception of labour breaking free from capital’s grip. Thus Hardt and Negri write, “Biopolitical production is not constrained by the logic of scarcity. It has the unique characteristic that it does not destroy the raw materials from which it produces wealth.”

They have in mind, I think, someone creating on their computer ideas or images that anyone can use. But they ignore the energy consumed by both the computer and the creator. Any productive process depends on access to scarce resources. Similarly, Hardt and Negri argue that biopolitical production has transcended Marxist value theory since the value it creates is immeasurable: “How can you measure the value of an idea, an image, or a relationship?” Michael and Toni, have you never heard of Hollywood?

Commonwealth’s heart is definitely in the right place. But it hugely underestimates the extent to which the logic of capital still rules the world – and therefore the effort of critical thinking and political organisation that will be required to break its hold.

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