Thinking Blue Guitars

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Month: February, 2010

Commonwealth: 1.2 Productive Bodies

Originally published at The Night Shift

This is a very difficult chapter, so you’ll have to bear with me. The first section charts the transition that occurred in twentieth century radical thought from the Marxist critique of private property to the ‘phenomenology of bodies’. The young Marx focused on the relation between capital and law. Legal systems, he stated, are abstract representations of social reality, whilst capitalist property relations provide the concrete reality. In other words, the law says we’re all equal, but pop down to your local factory and you’ll see we’re not. Thinkers like Louis Althusser, an important French Marxist, and Theodor Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt School (a group of Marxist theorists), then extended this analysis beyond the law to demonstrate that the whole of social life has been ‘subsumed’, or saturated, by capital. Because of this shift away from an outlook which perceives only certain areas of social life as being ‘contaminated’ by capital to an outlook which claims that our entire lives are produced by capital, the type of societal analyses became less ‘transcendent’ and exterior, and more ‘immanent’, or interior. The body now becomes important.

There were two reasons for this shift. One was the militant activism that spread like wildfire across France, Italy and Germany in the 60s and 70s, thereby immersing analyses in the direct experience of militants. The other was a change in the object itself. Material production – making things in factories – gave way to immaterial production: labour was no longer simply physical, but also cognitive and intellectual. (In Britain we might say that this corresponds to the demise of primary industries like mining, ship-building, steel works etc. and the rise of service sector office jobs). When immaterial labour becomes predominant, so Hardt and Negri argue, the entire capitalist process has to be understood differently. Moreover, the scope of Marxist theory now expands. It is no longer acceptable simply to talk of class: feminist, antiracist and anticolonial struggles exploded and forced the Left to think the commodification of labouring bodies through the prisms of gender and race.

Ironically, this move from ‘transcendent’ critique of private property to ‘immanent’ experience had already been prefigured in various conservative philosophies in the early twentieth century. Vitalism and phenomenology, both of which attempt to cast off abstraction to root themselves in concrete life, offered to refuel the values of a system rendered hollow. If we imagine most philosophy up to this point as an overhead, panoramic shot, then the gaze now descends like a thunderbolt into the very bodies that just a moment ago looked like the tiniest of ants. As it does so, the view from inside the body looking out means that the individual to whom that body belongs can longer be seen; the move from the transcendent to the immanent coincides with openness to the other, to that which an individual is not: to the common. (Here, one might cite Husserl or Merleau-Ponty).

And here we arrive at Foucault and the concept of ‘biopolitics’. Negri and Hardt very briefly outline three axioms of Foucault’s research:

  1. Bodies are the constitutive components of the biopolitical fabric of being.
  2. On the biopolitical terrain, where powers are continually made and unmade, bodies resist.
  3. Corporeal resistance produces subjectivity, not in an isolated or independent way but in the complex dynamic with the resistance of other bodies.

What can this possibly mean?! Well, being itself – the totality of that which is – is conceived as constituted by a series of bodies (our bodies), like a great patchwork quilt – but a quilt which we produce through our labour (we build the buildings, we make the laws, we educate the children, we write the books, we invent the aeroplanes…). It is ‘biopolitical’ because it consists of our live, biological bodies, but also of a whole network of material and immaterial political forces: law, education, language, labour, capital, etc. All of these are intertwined to form a continuous whole; if one part alters, its repercussions ripple through everything else. But it must not be imagined that the political forces completely dominate our minds and bodies; on the contrary, history is precisely the antagonism of our bodies resisting these attempts to discipline us. Indeed, in the process of resisting we constitute our very ‘subjectivity’ – i.e. what we mean when we say ‘I’, our selves. The ‘I’ is an interplay of a whole mind-boggling range of encounters, of ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’ to power, of being with others, of dominating and being dominated. These are very difficult ideas, but they should become much clearer throughout the rest of the book!

Hardt and Negri end the chapter with a section arguing that fundamentalisms (religious, nationalist, racist, and – oddly – economist) all have a double relation to the body: on the one hand they are obsessed by it – the Islamic fundamentalist enforces the veil to hide the flesh, the racist transfixes the being of another in his very skin etc. On the other hand, however, they make bodies vanish: it is not, at bottom, the bodies about which fundamentalists care, but rather the transcendent values or essences of which the body is a sign, as if it were ‘an x ray to grasp the soul’. Biopolitics, as a form of resistance, refuses to acknowledge this transcendental realm by insisting on the immanent, material dimension, on the very power of bodies themselves.

Dan Hartley

Commonwealth: 1.1 Republic of Property

Haitian Revolution

Originally published at The Night Shift

The first half of the book will focus on ‘the republic, modernity, and capital as three frameworks that obstruct and corrupt the development of the common’. There is a structural analogy here to the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza’s Tractatus Politicus which aims to investigate the limits of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy as political forms. (Spinoza died before writing the crucial section on democracy. It should be noted that his philosophy has been hugely influential for Negri). Hardt and Negri want to carry out an investigation which interrogates the very conditions of possibility of social life today. Capitalism is not an overt sovereign ruling over us; rather, it is invisible and functions as an impersonal form of domination, saturating our entire social field of vision – right down to our most personal experiences – without our even being aware of it.

But the first political form in which capitalism as we now know it really took root was republicanism. This is a form of government, instituted by the great bourgeois revolutions, based on the rule of property and the inviolability of the rights of private property, which excludes or subordinates those without property. In the French and American revolutionary Constitutions the position of property was sacred. And this continues right through to the constitutions of the present day. The only exception was the Haitian revolution: by freeing slaves it freed property, and hence was denied entry into the canon of republicanism.

In the final section of the chapter, the authors locate a split in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. On the one hand, there is the ‘major Kant’, the thinker who provides the theoretical foundations for a burgeoning capitalist class. On the other hand, there is the ‘minor Kant’ who not only dares to know, but knows how to dare: this is the Kant whose critical reason turns against itself and threatens to explode at any second the very philosophical foundations of the republic of property which he had just laid down. The major Kant continues today in social democratic traditions across Europe (Habermas, Rawls, Giddens, Beck), but the minor Kant is we, the multitude: overthrowers of the republic, brothers and sisters of the Haitian emancipators, builders of the common.

Dan Hartley

Commonwealth Summary – Preface: The Becoming-Prince of the Multitude

Originally posted at The Night Shift

Don’t be put off by the title of the preface…

Hardt and Negri begin by making an important observation: globalization has resulted in the creation of a common world, one which has no ‘outside’. Another way of saying ‘no outside’ is ‘immanent’, the opposite of ‘transcendent’. We must abandon all dreams of political purity and transcendent values and accept thatthis is the world in which we find ourselves, and so this is the world in which we – immanently – have to act.

They then provide a definition of their most important concept: the common.

‘By the common we mean, first of all, the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. We consider the common also and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth.’

There are two important things to notice here. Firstly, the common is both material and immaterial – language and knowledge are just as much things to be shared as physical goods and land. Secondly, the common in some sense already exists; it’s just that we’re so blinded by ideologies of private property that we fail to perceive it.

Hardt and Negri go on to stress that capital is now so extensive that it ‘creates, invests, and exploits social life in its entirety, ordering life according to the hierarchies of economic value.’ But if this is our world, if this is entirely immanent, how can we resist? Well, paradoxically, capital – despite its continuing drive to privatize resources and wealth – actually makes possible and even requires expansions of the common: information, codes, knowledge, images, affects, communication networks, internet technologies. We don’t need to dream up utopian, ‘outside’ ideas of how society might be organised: capitalism is providing us with the infrastructure for a social and economic order grounded in the common.

They end the preface by introducing two more concepts: poverty and love. The normal meanings are obvious, but what is the spin they put on them? Firstly, they choose to talk of poverty because it avoids falling into old-school presuppostions about class and class composition, forcing us to take into account how class has changed now that so many productive activities remain outside wage relations. Secondly, their definition of ‘poor’ is not one of lack but of possibility. ‘Our challenge will be to find ways to translate the productivity and possibility of the poor into power.’ As for ‘love’, theirs is a political love. It is beyond individualism without being sucked back into the private life of the couple or the family: it is centred on the production of the common. Both poverty and love are animated by force: intellectual force, physical force and political force. ‘Love needs force to conquer the ruling powers and dismantle their corrupt institutions before it can create a new world of common wealth.’

One last key word: the multitude. This is a hugely complex term with a political and philosophical history reaching back to Machiavelli, and which I cannot hope to explain, because I don’t yet understand it myself. On one level, it suggests something like ‘proletariat’, in the sense that it poses a revolutionary threat to the capitalist social order. But on another level, and following the philosopher Spinoza, it seems to implicate all of us: just as the common does and does not already exist, so the multitude is already in some sense here: we – the human population of the world – are the multitude, a set of singularities with the creative potential to found the common. If that sounds confusing, it’s because I’m confused.

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