Commonwealth: 1.2 Productive Bodies

by Daniel Hartley

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