Commonwealth: 1.1 Republic of Property

by Daniel Hartley

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