Dr W Large

Against Pessimism

The last two chapters of Empire are the fight against the nihilism and pessimism of our age which has its source in the beliefs that capitalism is inevitable or that the only alternative is anarchy.[1] Pessimism arises from the mistaken metaphysical vision that the crisis or decline of the Empire is something that is outside of capitalism. Either this outside is impossible, or being possible, destroys everything. Negri and Hardt, on the other hand, argue that crisis defines Empire rather than limits it. It is inevitable because Empire has to feed from the very crisis that would destroy it, because it is immanent to its very domination.

      The crisis at the heart of Empire is the antagonism between capitalism and the multitude. We must understand, however, that this is not an equal relation. One is active and the other reactive. It is the multitude which creates human history and the future. Capitalism, on the contrary, must feed of this creativity. This is why capitalism, to a certain extent, is impossible. It is not that it destroys the very thing that makes it possible, for this would mean that it would have a greater power than the multitude, but it needs the very thing that it would attempt to control and dominate. It is the paradox that the more it grows the more its own limit grows from within. It is its own outside and limit.

Crisis and decline are not a hidden foundation nor an ominous future but a clear and obvious actuality, an always expected event, a latency that is always present[2]

Crisis has always been a part of the way, from ancient times, that Empire has been thought. The ancient notion of politics, however, is cyclical, the rise and fall of good and bad powers. It was Polybius’s conception of he Roman Empire which was the first to break with this natural time. The Roman Empire was the synthesis of all the good powers, the highest development of humanity. Though it overcame the cycle of nature, it could not, however, escape the contingency of history. Now the crisis entered the Empire itself, it did not come from outside. Gibbons and Montesquieu reject the explanation of the collapse of the Empire due to collision of social and historical forces. The Empire was simply too big, spatially and temporally, to manage. It had become impossible. But for Negri and Hardt the most important political theorist of Empire is Machiavelli. He is important because he places the collapse of the Empire internal to an ‘immanence of politics’. The Empire ends because the desire that maintains it is destroyed by Christianity. It collapses from within not because it is too big, but because the social fabric of values and beliefs that sustain it are no longer viable. In own time, they argue, the conflict is between the ‘expansive power’ of democracy, on the one hand, and the ‘repressive power’ of the Empire on the other. ‘Democracy’ does not mean a form of a government or a Western ideal which we are to impose on the rest of the world, but the vitality and participatory power of the people. It exists whenever people come together, even in ‘the armies of Stalin and Eisenhower.’[3]

In the new Empire, the two opposing forces are the multitude and the society of control. Postmodern capital still exploits the creative power of subjectivity, but this force is greater than its ability to dominate it. Capital and the multitude are not equal. On the contrary, capital is parasitical upon the multitude. Capital is essentially reactive, whereas the multitude is the active origin of history. It is constitutive, whereas capital is merely regulative. The creative power of the multitude Negri and Hardt call ‘generation’, and the reactive domination of capital, ‘corruption’. Generation is the production and reproduction at the heart of history. It is not the Empire that is the master of the world, but human imagination and action, without which it history would be static and time standstill. Of course, capital presents itself as though without there would be no world without it, but this is pure mystification. Corruption opposes generation through the myth of individual choice against collective action, privatisation, ideology and military and police action across the globe, but since the transcendent value system which supported this mechanism itself has been stripped away by the corrosive acid of capital, then the more the ontological negativity and lack at the heart of capital is visible. We now see the society of control for what it is, and the true creativity of humanity, which it must steal, rob from and attempt to destroy simply to survive, but is so doing, paradoxically, starve itself from the very oxygen it needs in order to endure.

      Nonetheless, the power of multitude always escapes this domination through the virtual or the ‘power to act’, which Negri and Hardt describe as ‘being, loving, transforming and creating.’[4] They first explain the virtuality of the multitude in the previous chapter, and it is perhaps one of the most difficult of the concepts of the book to understand. This is because it is so dependent on Deleuze’s interpretation of Bergson, and his subsequent use of the concept in his own work.[5] One way of understanding his notion of the virtual is through his interpretation of structuralism.[6] Structural relations can only be understood in terms of other structural relations. There is no such thing as a solitary structure. Any structure is only a structure because it is in relation to another structure (here we might think of empire and multitude as two such structures). This logic of relations is also internal to any structure. No element in a structure can have any meaning, role or function unless it is in relation, whether positively or negatively, with other elements within the structure. All relations are reciprocal. If A determines B, then B also determines A. The opposite of a reciprocal relation is a transcendent one, where one of the elements in the relation is determining and the other is not. Deleuze is a philosopher of immanence, because all relations between elements and between structures are reciprocal and not one way. There is nothing ‘external and superior’. This also explains his commitment to multiplicity. Nothing has a determinate meaning in itself but only in its relation to other elements, and these elements too only have their meaning in other relations. What is first is not identity but difference. Something only has a meaning in terms of the relation of difference that it has with other elements and these elements in turn through their relations of difference. Any structure draws particular relations between elements, and these relations determine the significance of the elements. Such points Deleuze calls singularities.

      But how does this logic of relations actually interact with our experience of the world? Any structure is real without being actual. This means that any existing structure with its relations of difference and points of singularity could be actualised in many different ways. Thus the final determination of any structure is the way that it is in fact actualised for it could be actualised in a different way or in many different ways. We need to see this ‘actualisation’ from two sides. One side is that the structure is in fact actualised in a determinate form, but on the other side, this means that the actuality itself is in contact with the relations and singularities of a structure that is much greater than it. It is not the actual that produces the structure, but the structure the actual, and this means that from the side of the structure, the actual must always be incomplete. The structure of relations and elements is what Deleuze would call the virtual, and it is always greater than the actual, and this is why we must distinguish it from the possible, which is always defined in terms of the actual (In Aristotle what is potential can only be actualised by another actuality and never a potentiality – it is the actual that defines the potential and not the other way around). There is always much more, virtually speaking, than is ever actualised and this means that what is actual is always open to change and transformation.

It is by understanding the multitude as a virtuality that we can understand that at one and the same time it is greater than and also the cause of empire, and because of must always break the limits which capital places upon it. Thus, against pessimism and nihilism, it is not a question of destroying all values but creating new ones, such as Nietzsche’s famous ‘transvaluation of all values’. The first operation of the virtuality of the multitude is spatial. It is the notion of global citizenship. This is not simply of matter of breaking with the nation state, but also the attachment to identity and race which defines it. The struggle of the Third World, resisting globalisation, should not fall back to race and nations, but fight for a new ‘common civilisation’. The second, which is contemporaneous with the first, is the transformation of material labour into immaterial labour, science, communication and knowledge, where even Marx glimpsed the possibility of a different future to the exploitation of industrial capital. All life is subsumed under capital. This means that capital directly works on the mind and the body. This would only be depressing if life was less than capital, but it is not. Life always resists the dead hand of money. This means that resistance to capital is total: everywhere and at all times. Life completely suffuses production and reproduction and creates values which are autonomous to capitalism. This leads to the third demand which is the ‘right to appropriation’ of the means of production – having free access to communication, information and knowledge.

Rather than positing the eternity of capital, we should recognise, with the complete immanence of life and society, it has come to an end. The dissolution of the Empire is taking place already in our subjectivity, in the interiority of our virtual desires, which are greater than their actualisation in capital.

[1] Antoni Negri and Michel Hardt, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001) p. 389.

[2] Ibid p. 386.

[3] Ibid p. 373.

[4] Ibid p. 357.

[5] Though in a footnote to this chapter (p. 468 fn.8), they distinguish their notion of the virtual from his.

[6] Our guide here is the excellent book by James Williams, Understanding Poststructuralism (Chesham, Acumen, 2005) pp.61-2.