Dr W Large

The Geometry of Politics

We remember that the original thesis of this book is that there is a new kind of sovereignty emerging in the world, which Negri and Hardt call the Empire:

Our basic hypothesis is that sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule. This new global form of sovereignty is what we call Empire.[1]

The problem, however, is that we still do politics as though the emergence of this new kind of sovereignty were not happening at all. We still live as though we existed within the form of modern sovereignty which has ceased, or at least in the process of ceasing, of having any influence on us whatsoever. This is why, as we saw last week, people imagine that postmodernism is revolutionary and liberatory because it attacks and undermines modern sovereignty, when in fact, historically and materially speaking, this enemy no longer exists. Worse than this, the supposedly revolutionary nature of postmodernism, which is meant to free us from the oppression of the binary logic of modern sovereignty, is the same as the post-industrial logic of capital, which captures is within a worse repression of the society of control.

In the chapter called ‘Imperial Sovereignty’, Negri and Hardt, begin to show what the true nature of this new power is and how far, ontologically speaking, it is different from modern sovereignty. They do this by using the fundamental distinction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’. They argue that much of problem, and they even include Foucault in this criticism, of the critique of power, is that it still remains within this dialectical opposition that defines modern and not imperial sovereignty. Thus, Hobbes and Rousseau imagine the social or civil order to be an interior space that needs to be defined against an external nature, which is disordered and monstrous. Or modern psychology is defined in terms of the opposition between the interiority of consciousness defending itself against the external force of the unconsciousness. Or even in anthropology, primitive societies are viewed as being an ‘outside’ space that threatens the interior civilised space of Europe.

This dialectic between and ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ has now come to an end. One example that Negri and Hardt give is racism.[2] Racism functions in a very different way in modern and imperial sovereignty, and this gives us some idea of the different function of these structures in how they control populations. It has become extremely difficult to delineate present day racism, so much so that we might no longer believe that it exists anymore. Aren’t slavery, segregation and apartheid now over? But Negri and Hardt argue that racism has not finished, rather it has got worse. It only seems to have vanished because its form has changed. The racism of modern sovereignty was based on biological, racial and essentialist arguments. If we understand racism in this sense, then we can say it is over. However, in the movement from modern to imperial sovereignty, racial difference is replaced by another kind of difference, which is cultural, and this cultural difference has just as powerful, if not more so, segregative effect, even if it is no longer essentialist. It is a racism that no longer needs a biological or natural basis, and thus is much more fluid and flexible. It leads to the same segregation as biological racism, but it is much harder to combat than the latter because it presents itself as egalitarian. In modern sovereignty, it is the hierarchical function, the superiority of one race, in relation to the other, that produces segregation, whereas in imperial sovereignty, hierarchy is an effect of segregation. Thus to use an example of the authors, African American score lower on aptitude tests than Asian Americans.[3] This is not a biological difference, but a cultural one. Asian Americans, the argument goes, pay more attention to education. The superiority of Asian to African Americans is a posteriori and not a priori. If African Americans are disadvantaged, then this because of their culture and they are simply losers in the free market of the meritocracy of culture. Racism is no longer supported by racial superiority that is biologically or naturally defined, but by deviation from a norm. This norm is White-Man-European.[4] There is no absolute outside, but there are only internal differences of ‘more or less’: more or less white, more or less male, and more or less European. The superiority of Asian American culture over African American is that former is closer to the White-Man-European norm than the latter. Racism now acts through inclusion in relation to a norm rather than exclusion in relation to an absolute. All differences are equal but some differences are more equal than others. The operation of differences in imperial sovereignty is more fluid and mobile than modern one, but its effects are just as much ‘segregationary’ if not more so, because we can just blame those who are excluded for their own exclusion.

The biggest problem that arises in the movement from modern to imperial sovereignty is the question of political action. Modern sovereignty is defined in terms of crisis. In the critical tradition of modernity (Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx) politics is a matter of discovering new spaces of liberation by taking the contradictions of modernity and letting it explode from within. So for Marx, the struggle immanent to capital is between the independence of exchange from use value. Although this struggle in immanent to capital, otherwise Marx would be operating with the transcendent model of pre-modern sovereignty, nonetheless it posits a space of human reality and activity outside of it – use value which is predicated on fixed notion of human nature. The revolutionary critique of modernity is still caught with the dialectic of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of modern sovereignty. But we no longer exist within this kind of sovereignty. This would mean that the critical concepts of Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx, no longer have enough libratory force. This is not question of rejecting these writers, but of not turning then into ossified prophets. Our thought needs to reflect real social and historical conditions. This is the real meaning of materialism, not simply repeating the analyses of Marx’s Capital, as though the logic of capitalism today was exactly the same as its 19th and 20th century version.

The great difference between modern capitalism and postmodern capitalism is that in the latter there is no outside. This means that rather than there being a conflict between an inner and outer space, there is only the one surface. This surface presents itself as a smooth surface, but in fact if we look very closely, we will see that this smooth surface is made up of an infinite number of scratches, scores and nicks which rather than defining one fundamental crisis between two different powers describe an ‘omni-crisis’ that is everywhere and nowhere. Negri and Hardt describe this movement from crisis to ‘omni-crisis’ as movement from crisis to corruption. Imperial sovereignty is not in crisis, rather it feeds from crisis, and in this sense it is corrupt. Now we must be careful, they write, not to confuse this corruption with any ethical or moral order. Rather they want to go back to the ancient definition of corruption found in Aristotle, where it signifies degeneration.[5] There are two sides of corruption in the Empire. One, is that it is made of up of inclusive as opposed to exclusive differences; it is the very hybridity that postmodernism celebrates. The other is that the power of the Empire operates through breaking barriers and oppositions down, rather than instituting them. It is important that we don’t confuse this second side with the crisis or collapse of modernity. Corruption does not mean the end of the Empire, but defines it: ‘Imperial power is founded on the rupture of every determinate ontological relationship. Corruption is simply the sign of the absence of any ontology.’[6] What we have to do is to discover a counter power within the world from which this corruption feeds, the positive ontological order of which it merely signifies as a lack or deficit.

[2] The other example in this chapter is the production of subjectivity – whereas modernity requires institutions to produce subjectivities, Imperialism does not. See, Ibid pp. 195-8.

[3] Ibid p. 193.

[4]The source of this argument is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘Year Zero Faciality’ in A Thousand Plateaus (London: Athlone 1988) 161-91. See, Philip Goodchild, ‘Escaping Dominant Discourses’ in Deleuze & Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire (London, Sage, 1996) pp. 106-45.

[5] Empire, Op. Cit., p. 201.

[6] Ibid, p. 202.