Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Empire of the Left

I felt an obligation to read the fashionable neo-Marxist book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and finished it yesterday. It has been celebrated, or at least actively discussed, by much of the left since it was published in 2000.

The main motivation for me was intellectual honesty. My general feeling about the far left tends to be repulsion and disdain. But sometimes you have to try to engage with what people you don't necessarily like are saying, to put your own ideas and instincts to the test.

I felt I had to read it because people on the left who I argued with mentioned it. You can't win arguments, or even appear credible, if you also appear to be ignorant of some of the points on the other side.

The book even cropped up in comments on posts on this blog. And Marxism is rising again, says the press (well, at least the Guardian, which may be wishful thinking.)

So what did I think? It was like walking through a thick fog. Every so often you see the outlines of a shape that might be interesting, or at least have some connection to the world outside. But then the viscous haze of prose closes in again, and you wonder if what you thought you saw as a genuine point was even real.

The prose style is often almost self-parodic. Here's an example:

The ontological terrain of Empire, completely plowed and irrigated by a powerful, self-valorizing, and constituent labor, is thus planted with a virtuality that seeks to be real. The keys of possibility, or really of the modalities of being that transform the virtual into reality, reside in this realm beyond measure. (p359)

In the margin beside this, I scrawled "what does this mean?" And much of the four hundred pages are just like this. It is nebulous and cloudy and vague. Every so often a glimmer of light breaks through the murk, and you want it to illuminate something. But then the cloudiness returns.

There are almost no examples. There is, in contrast to classic Marxism, almost no tangible economics, apart from occasional references to the IMF or Bretton Woods. I would be the last to complain about philosophical influence, but there are many more vague references to Spinoza than anything resembling tangible reality. Nothing seems concrete. Everything is discussed at the level of "ontology." Everything is passive voice. Actors are vague. The mists close in.

But it is interesting, despite being badly written. So here are the glimmers in the fog that I can connect. Their basic argument is that capital has now become a universal "Empire", which justifies itself by appeals to keep the peace, and manages police actions in obscure parts of the world.

Empire is formed not on the basis of force itself but on the basis of the capacity to present force as being in the service of right and peace. .. Empire is not born of its own will but rather it is called into being and constituted on the basis of its capacity to resolve conflict. p15

The United States has a privileged part in this Empire, but it is not the center. There is no center. There is no single authority or command or capital.

Murdering Marx

In fact, they overthrow many of the analytical elements of traditional Marxism. Use value is now meaningless, because value is "beyond measure." It is now communicative, cooperative and about affect.

The inside defined by use value and the outside of exchange value are nowhere to be found, and hence any politics of use value, which was always based on an illusion of separability, is now definitely inconceivable. (p209)

Dialectic is dead, because everything is "inside" Empire. Old Marxist ideas about imperalism are also outmoded, because there is no center and periphery, no inside and out. The nation-state is dead, and post-colonial aspirations for their own nation-states risk merely repeating repressive regimes at home. Empire is everywhere.

In effect, one might say the sovereignty of Empire itself is realized at the margins, where borders are fleible and identities are hybrid and fluid. It would be difficult to say which is more important to Empire, the center or the margins. In fact, center and margin seem continually to be shifting positions, fleeing any determinate locations. p39

Crises and conflicts are not a sign of the end of capitalism. If anything, police interventions help validate the system as keeping the peace with its moral instruments. Ethnic conflicts just create new identities and make the system more malleable.

The modern is dead. So is "postmodernism" as a project of the left:

The postmodernist epistemological challenge to "the Enlightenment" - its attack on master narratives and its critique of truth - also loses its liberatory aura when transposed outside the elite intellectual strata of Europe and North America. p 155

Indeed, "Postmodernism is indeed the logic by which global capital operates." (p151). Marketing thinking in many ways predates it, they say.

The ideology of the world market has always been the anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist discourse par excellence. Circulation, mobility, diversity and mixture are its very conditons of possibility. (p150)

Leftist postmodernists are focusing on old forms of power, as they oppose hierarchies, essential identities and stable oppositions. But Empire has none of these things.

This new enemy not only is resistant to the old weapons but actually thrives on them, and thus joins its would-be antagonists in applying them to the fullest. Long live difference! Down with essentialist binaries. (p138)

And it is certainly true that big corporations are all for affirmative action. diversity and, in many cases, gay marriage and other leftist objectives.

As for "struggles" like Berkeley or Paris in the 1960s or the LA Riots , "we are hampered by the nagging impression that these struggles are already old, outdated, and anachronistic." (p56.)

Marx, they say, thought of proletarian struggle as a "mole" which would surface sometimes and then borrow underground to its next emergence in history. That is over too.

Well, we suspect that Marx's old mole has finally died. It seems to us, that in the contemporary transition to Empire, the structured tunnels of the mole have been replaced by the infinite undulations of the snake.p 56

Everything is superficial. There is no center to revolt against. The class struggle is over. Indeed, even big government is not necessarily a useful tool for socialists.

It is our turn to cry "Big government is Over!" Why should that slogan be the exclusive property of conservatives?... In imperial postmodernity big government has merely become the despotic means of domination and the totalitarian production of subjectivity. p349

Maybe this is why the book has had such an impact on the left. It is transgressive within its own intellectual community. It seems like a major advance because, in the wake of the 1990s which seemed to see socialist projects crash and burn beyond redemption, it dumped many aspects of Marxist analysis. But it offers a new way forward within the same general approach. Behavioral economics serves much the same function in mainstream Economics - transgressive enough to provide a thrill, but not overthrowing things too much either. It is exciting within the terms of a particular tradition which was reeling in the 1990s.

The Multitude and Desertion

So what do they have to say on their own account? Instead of the proletariat or "the people", there is now "the multitude", a broader term. The multitude is "the real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off of the vitality of the multitude." (p62)

The multitude is a multiplicity, a plane of singularities, an open set of relations, which is not homogenous or identical with itself and bears an indistinct, inclusive relation to those outside of it. The people, in contrast, tend toward identity and homogeneity internally while posing its difference from and excluding what remains outside of it. p103

Despite appearances (the collapse of much union power, the abandonment of communist experiments), economic change is always driven by resistance by the multitude, they say.

This insistence on the fundamental role of labor resistance seems more a desperate act of faith on their part, a claim to lingering relevance for the left, more than persuasive or convincing argument.

Mass migration, "nomadism", desertion are the modern face of resistance.

The deterritorializing desire of the multitude is the motor that drives the entire process of capitalist development, and capital must constantly attempt to contain it. (p124)

A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration (p213)

All boundaries and mechanisms of discipline have faded, they say - family, state, factory, prison. Power has seeped out of those localities and is now everywhere, but it is now internalized. Empire embraces hybridity and diversity.

That means traditional resistance will not work.

Whereas in the disciplinary era sabotage was the fundamental notion of resistance, in the era of imperial control it may be desertion. Whereas being-against in modernity often meant a direct and/or dialectical opposition of forces, in postmodernity being-against might be the most effective in an oblique or diagonal stance. Battles against the Empire may be won through subtraction and defection. p212

It is hard to even identify the enemy, however.

The first moment is the magnanimous, liberal face of Empire. All are welcome within its boundaries, regardless of race , creed, color, gender, sexual orientation and so forth. In its inclusionary moment Empire is blind to differences; it is absolutely indifferent in its acceptance. It achieves universal inclusion by setting aside differences that are inflexible or unmanageable and thus might give rise to social conflict. p198

There is no "Other", in other words. Empire is cunningly open and tolerant.

Contingency, mobility and flexibility are Empire's real power. (p200)

Indeed, ironically, they praise the US Constitution as one of the first historical signs of this new sensiblility.

.. a new principle of sovereignty is affirmed, different from the European one: liberty is made sovereign and sovereignty is affirmed, different from the European one: liberty is made sovereign and sovereignty is defined as radically democratic within an open and continuous process of expansion. .. The very idea of scarcity that - like the idea of war - had been at the center of the European concept of modern sovereignty is a priori stripped away from the constitutive processes of the American experience. p169
The US Constitution is open and mixes and changes, and it is designed to resist corruption. (p163)

In fact, I was left wondering what the problem is with Empire, even within their own terms - tolerant, flexible, largely pacific, with little overt control or oppression. This is not the dark satanic mills or overseer's whip. It is not conservative, far from it.

Ah, but, they say, Empire is ultimately all held together with "spectacle" , i.e. images and ideas which shape public opinion and replaces genuine politics; and, ultimately, fear.

There is no single locus of control that dictates the spectacle. The spectacle, however, functions as if there was such a point of central control. (p323).
(That, ironically, seems to echo Milton Friedman's "as if " methodology.)

Although the spectacle seems to function through desire and pleasure (desire for commodities and pleasure of consumption), it really works through the communication of fear - or rather, the spectacle creates forms of desire and pleasure that are intimately wedded to fear. In the vernacular of early modern European philosophy, the communication of fear was called superstition. p323

So Empire is really about fear, unlike the record of leftist projects like stalinism, or your local screaming political correctness lefties who are not into intimidation or crushing dissent. OK.

Where does it lead? Following Spinoza, they argue we need to act on the plane of immanence (ie no religious or overarching transcental ideas), and that means becoming more "machinic". A new human will be created:

Once we recognize our posthuman bodies and minds, once we see ourselves for the siminas and cyborgs we are, we then need to explore the vis viva, the creative powers that animate us as they do all of nature, and actualize our potentialities. (p92)


Abstraction and Evaporation

It all seems abstract. In essence, stripped of the cloudy verbosity, they are conceding most of traditional Marxism is outmoded, and much contemporary or recent leftism - postcolonial theory, dependency theory, postmodernism and trade unionism - is a mistake. Empire does not actually sound that bad, in their own terms, and their objections to it are highly abstract. Their theory of the resistance of the "multitude" pairs a thin ontological novelty with an unfounded and unproven grandiose claim it is in reality the true power underlying all social life.

So far, so bad for the left. To this point it seems like largely a Nero-style aesthetic response to the contemporary world, rather than genuine politics. It's not so much an argument as itself an affect, largely a juvenile pose, in the same way as some fourteen year olds become goths and talk about how horrible life is. They think "struggle" is where the cool kids are at.

It is theatrical, a way to maintain a subculture much like the cults who keep expecting the end of the world and always being disappointed.

It is an admission that much of traditional leftist analysis has no relevance, and what is left is the style of rhetoric. All the metaphysics is much like a turned-up trench coat collar or gang tattoos or spiffy jackboots - for show, rather than for substance. It is all surface and how things look, image and affect. Meanwhile the content has evaporated into steam and clouds. The subject, ahem, has become ontologically problematic.

And it's worse than that. That Goth-like affect can have real world consequences, just like the shooters at Columbine. Negri was in jail for involvement with the Red Brigades when he wrote the book, linked to murder. The leftist tendency to reduce politics to aesthetics and metaphysics produced the worst crimes in human history - purges, dekulakization, famine, the Great Leap Forward. Hundreds of millions died in the Twentieth Century as a result. But somehow hard leftists still believe they have some moral credibility.

So the opaque prose-style is more than just bad writing. When rhetoric is more important than reality, catastrophe awaits. The left is suffused with this attitude.

In their own terms, when communication is at the core of modern production and power, such bad communication is also self-defeating.

Still, we'll look at what they have to say about means of production in the next post. That's more interesting.



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