Dr W Large



Every society, as Durkheim, argues, is based upon coercion.[1] The question is what kind of social constraint do we face today? It is the thesis of Empire that power has changed its form. The authors take their clue as to the nature of this power from the work of French writer Michael Foucault, and more specifically his notion of ‘bio-politics’. In the last chapter of The Will to Knowledge, Foucault argues that nature of sovereignty has changed in recent history.[2] It is worth looking at this argument in a little more detail. Traditionally, the major characteristic of sovereign power was the right over life and death, either in terms of execution, punishment, or war. The individual was the property of the sovereign, which she or he could dispose of as they wished. The image of such a sovereign power, Foucault writes, is the sword:

The right which was formulated as the “power of life and death” was in reality the right to take life or let live. Its symbol, after all, was the sword.[3]

This is probably still the way that most people understand the power of the state, but Foucault argues that the nature of power, from about the 17th century, has in fact gone through a very decisive change.

      What typifies power in modern societies is not so much the right over an individual’s life and death, but the control and organisation of life itself in its entirety. This control, Foucault writes, has two forms: the first is the discipline of the body, and the second is the control of the population. The first form of power, for those who have read some of the work of Foucault, is perhaps the more well known, and is analysed in his books The Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish. It is perhaps symbolised, above all else, in the idea of Bentham’s Panopticon, where the prison is designed so that every individual prisoner can be seen without them being able to see who is looking at them. In relation to Empire, it is the second form of power, however, that concerns us more, since Foucault links it expressly to the rise of capitalism.[4] Here the development of human life becomes a political question. It is no longer a matter of a threat to the sovereign power from an individual, or the right of this power, through the threat of death, to possess all that belongs to the individual, but the direct and infinitesimal control and inspection of everyday life. This is no longer a matter of life or death, but the continual ordering of what is useful and valuable in society. Moreover, there is no longer a split between the sovereign power and the body of the people. Rather, power is immanent to society itself. Rather than society being regulated by a power outside or transcendent to it, it is auto-regulating, and the mechanisms of power are immanent. The symbol of power is no longer the sword, but continual audit.

      The two forms of power are themselves in a point of transition. If the sovereign power ends with the society of discipline, then biopolitics begins with the society of control, where the object of power is the organisation of the population as a whole. But how does this new power demonstrate itself in our own lives? Deleuze describes this new power in a small essay called ‘Society of Control’.[5] First of all, he argues, the end of disciplinary society can be seen in the crisis of institutions that used to regulate the individual. Deleuze takes the example of the factory. Previously, the factory was regulated in terms of highest level of production, and the lowest level of wages that was possible. Now, however, the factory has mutated into the corporation, in which wages have been transformed into salaries that are differentiated precisely across different scales in order to reward and motivate different kinds of behaviour. In the past, there were two great opponents: the boss who regulated production, and the mass of workers who resisted this regulation. Today there is only the individual who competes with the other individuals, as though we were all taking part in some bizarre and frightening reality T.V. game. Indeed, as Deleuze remarks, the popularity of these games is that they simply reflect the reality of our lives. It is not enough that the bosses exploit you, but you have to enjoy and participate in the exploitation against your fellow competitors. This transformation of the factory into the corporation has had a similar effect of the school and the university. The only rationality of these institutions is a ‘perpetual training’ and ‘continuous control’ through examination and audit.

      Negri and Hardt describe the effect of this new society of control in the section called ‘The Production of Life’ [E 27-30]. This is not just a question of a description of different kinds of society, but how society itself creates and reproduces itself, and therefore the individuals and subjects which make it up. For all of these authors, Negri, Hardt, Foucault and Deleuze, the society of control is inseparable from new developments in capitalism. The first level of analysis is the change in production itself from material to immaterial labour.[6] Rather than the factory worker being the main source of surplus value and profit it is ‘intellectual, immaterial and communicative labour power.’ [E 29]

      This change in the nature of production also leads to a change in the ‘figures of subjectivity’. It perhaps in this latter idea that Negri and Hardt’s analysis differs slightly from Foucault and Deleuze’s, and this idea has its origin in Negri’s early Marxist writings. Take, for example, the essay ‘Social Capital and the World Market’.[7] Traditional Marxism interprets society in terms of the governing mode of production, which might be hunter-gatherer, agriculture or factory production. A society exists in a mode of production that is relatively stable through which its reproduces itself across generations. Advances in technology, however destabilise the very society it intends to reproduce. Thus, a better spear destabilises the society of hunters, a better plough, the society of farmers, better iron ore refinement, an industrial society, and so on. Instead of leading to the reproduction of society, it leads to its eventual destruction. This is the same with capitalism, but even more so. The chief effect of the mode of production of capitalism is to produce separation and antagonism at the heart of society, between wage labourers, on the one hand, who sell their labour time, and capitalists, on the other, who buy it.[8] This abstract distinction between labour and capital has to be made concrete and real, and this is what Negri believes Marx is doing the Grundrisse. This means that this division has to become subjective:

In these pages the entire discourse on diachronic transformation (crisis) becomes a discourse which constitutes class struggle in the modern sense. The articulations of production and reproduction, far from simply being the rigid terms of ‘the determinate social formation,’ represent the dynamism of class composition. The antagonistic dualism of development… is now personified, that is subjectivised.[9]

This creation of new subjectivity must be understood with in the movement from the formal to the real subsumption of labour under capital. In the first instance, capital takes over existing forms of production and simply re-engineers them to the suit its needs. Negri calls this manufacture. But in the latter stages of capitalist development, capital does not just take over the manufacturing process, but the whole of society itself. ‘Society, appears to us,’ Negri writes, ‘as capital’s society.’[10] It is this change that marks the transition to the Empire and its form of power is bio-political. It is at once global and total. Its power expands across the whole of the plant and the whole of our lives.

Power no longer belongs to supranational organisations, but to the global society of control, which is parallel to the capitalist world market. Capital has always been global, but only in the latter half of the 20th century has it also been bio-political. This is not merely the replacement of old colonial regimes with new ones, but a new and different way of actively structuring territories and populations. It is not simply the question of the redefinition of the nation state, but of the world as a whole. This is most clear, Negri and Hardt argue, in terms of money. There is no outside to money. Money is the total commodification of the world; everything can be bought and sold, and there is no place on Earth that is external to the exchange relation. The new global perspective, however, is not just about commodification. Bio-politics does not first of all operate on objects, but on bodies. It produces needs, desires and fantasies that preserve the status quo. Communication is not just the expression of globalisation; it constitutes, creates and produces it. The media is not just a commodity, but a creator of desires.

The power of the Empire, however diffuse and immanent, is nonetheless still a power. It is the only power which can still legitimate military force, even if this force does not take the form of the old colonial model. Rather than the invasion of one state by another, there is one unified world that is continually subject to momentary and military mechanisms. These military mechanisms, rather than functioning as an army, have the effect of a police force, which is essential moral in nature, operating through slogans of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’.[11] The ‘War against Terrorism’ is a classic war of the new age. It involves the world as whole, rather then a conflict between nation-states and it is essential a moral war, the justification of global order, in which the army functions as a police force defending the interests of capital.

This Empire does not exist in any kind of institution. Rather than embodying the UN or the IMF, for example, it controls these institutions for its own ends. The new Empire is more virtual than actual. It exists in the controlled threat of action, which mostly takes place at the periphery or margin. It does not have to invade or occupy a territory in order to control and determine it totally. We cannot understand Empire through the modal of the nation state, or even supra-national institutions, rather Hardt and Negri, describe it as the ‘nexus of the economic-industrial-communicative machine’ [E 40]. This does not mean that it is an irrational and impersonal process. There is subjectivity behind the Empire, but it cannot be understood through traditional ideas of sovereignty. It is the next chapter, ‘Alternatives within Empire’, that we will get our first glimpse of this new subjectivity.

[1] For a general outline of Durkheim’s social theory see Les règles de la method sociologique (Paris: Flammarion, 1988).

[2] Michel Foucault, ‘The Right of Death and Power of Life’ in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (London, Penguin, 1979) 135-145.

[3] Ibid 136.

[4] Although, in his essay ‘Birth of Social Medicine’, Foucault makes it clear that this transformation, historically speaking, predates capitalism in the state form of 18th century Germany, nonetheless in its last form in the English model, which becomes the template for biopolitics hereafter, capitalism is the primary causal factor. ‘The Birth of Social Medicine’ in Power, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3 (London, Penguin Books, 2002) p.137.

[6] In ‘Society of Control’, Deleuze sees this as a change, in Western societies, from a production to a service industry.

[7] In Marx Beyond Marx: Lesson on the Grundrisse (London: Pluto Press, 1991) 105-125

[8] This is this chief difference between capitalism and any other kind of society. Crisis and antagonism belong immanently. They do not come to it from the outside. Indeed capitalism is the death of every hitherto existing society.

[9] Ibid 111.

[10] Ibid 113.

[11] Thus, their controversial interpretation of NGO’s as merely creating the moral ground for the action of this police force.