Dr W Large

A New Subjectivity


‘Counter Empire’ is the turning point in the argument of the book. So far, the authors have been occupied in offering a diagnosis of the transition from modern sovereignty to imperial sovereignty, or what they call the Empire. From now on, they will attempt to offer an alternative to this new form of power; what they label, and which is the most controversial concept of the book, the multitude, which is a new kind of subjectivity at odds with imperial sovereignty. But this turn is also marked by another change of emphasis, one that is highly dependent on Marx’s critique of capitalism, which is a turn towards production. We can see this turn in two ways: first of all, it is an attempt to move away from a static analysis, which does not take into account the dynamic nature of reality, and how human activity changes history. This is true just as much of Empire itself, as any other theoretical analysis, and secondly, it is concrete political struggles that tell us about what the future might be, and we have to wait for the events themselves to show us what possible alternatives there might be.

      The authors say that what is required is a new kind of democratic republicanism, but this must be viewed outside of the dialectics of modernism. As we have seen, much of political critique comes from the resistance to modern sovereignty. Thus, in Marx, the labour power of the proletariat is the real ontological motor of reality, whereas capital presents itself as the mysterious origin. Labour power is the real source of capital, but it represents capital outside of itself as something whose domination it must resist. In Marx’s thought, though, labour is both inside and outside capital. It is this contradiction that is meant to lead to the eventual collapse of capitalism. In imperial sovereignty, as is represented by post modernism, this clear separation of an inside and outside of capitalism is no longer tenable. Capital is no longer separate from labour power, but infiltrates all aspects of the social field. All social relations invest relations of production, and relations of production invest all social fields. What is different is there is no longer any place in which to locate the domination and resistance to capital and thus we can no longer demarcate a clear difference or distinction between the inside and outside of capital. There are still productive relations and these still impact on social relations, but since these productive forces are unlocalised then the social relations that rise from then are also unlocalised. This means that the labour power of the multitude, the creative power of humanity, occurs in the non-place of the postmodern relations of production. This non-place is, however, real. It happens in the minds and bodies of people, but it just cannot be localised in a factory, state, or institution. As imperial sovereignty becomes more and more virtual, then the struggle against it must also be more so.

      This means that new democratic republican subject today must be more nomadic and fluid, just as the capital that confronts it. Rather then operating through a clear distinction of an inside and an outside, it will have to operate through an indistinct milieu. Capital is no longer limited to the factory but expands through out society, and social relations completely invest production. Thus, we cannot really speak of their being a social space outside of the influence of capital which might resist it. We are now speaking not of determinate relations of production, but a general abstract notion of production, in which every activity is linked to production; the only justification of social life is economic. This general notion of production will be described further on this book at the movement from concrete labour to abstract or immaterial labour.

This make resistance to capital all the more difficult to theorise because it is no longer localisable, for example in trade unions or working class struggles. On top of this, global capital has three major ways in which it prevents or stops any resistance to the new form of power: global finance capital, police and media and communication. Global finance capital ensures that the world as whole operates in the same way, and preserves the inequality between the centre and the periphery, even if this centre might move. The police, which today includes the military, ensure that the normativity which is associated with global capital is preserved. Finally, the media ensures that the values of global capital are internalised to such a degree that people will desire and fight for their own oppression.

Before we sink into a profound pessimism, which is usually the reaction of the left to reality, Negri and Hardt argue that the very existence of repression proves that there must be an alternative to capital, even if we theorists cannot see it. Moreover, the very direction and speed of change in the world is being propelled along by the new proletariat that they call the multitude. If there were no resistance to capital then it would not change, for there is no motive for capital to change in itself. It is essentially reactive. This new proletariat, to which we all belong, since capital now saturates all aspects of social reality, they call the nomadic subject, borrowing the expression from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, or a new barbarism. Now they are clear, perhaps disarming some of the critics, before they have spoken, to say that they themselves are not certain what the content of this new subjectivity might be, which is already resisting global capital, and forcing it to continually change and evolve, but this is not due to any intellectual weakness of their part, but because of their very orientation to history: history is not formed by static forms of human life, which we can know in advance, but by the very creativity and imagination of human beings. We cannot know what the future can contain, precisely because the future by definition is open, and is not just a repetition of the past. In fact repetition is the time of capital, in which the same day endlessly repeats itself, whereas creativity is the time of revolution. Thus the vagueness of the notion of the multitude is not an empirical error on the part of Negri and Hardt, but is evidence of the ontological openness of the concept:

Even when we manage to touch on the productive, ontological dimension of the problematic and the resistances that arise there, however, we will still not be in the position - not even at the end of this book – to point to any already existing and concrete elaboration of a political alternative to the Empire. And no such effective blueprint will ever arise from a theoretical articulation such as ours. It will arise only in practice.[1]

Despite this qualification, the authors attempt, and do so throughout this book, to indicate, from within current circumstances, out of what conditions in the present, the future might come. They argue that resistance from capital, which is first, can be described as a general ‘will to be against’ that has the three forms: nomadism, desertion and exodus. But all these three forms need to be understood in terms of production; that is to say the production of new forms or new ways of living. The difference between the postmodern subject and the multitude is that the first subject creates nothing, it merely consumes. The multitude, on the contrary, is a productive subject: ‘those who are against,’ Negri and Hardt write, ‘while escaping from the local and particular constraints of their condition, must also continually attempt to construct a new body and a new life.’[2]

All of this must be seen within a global context. We are no longer speaking of local struggles but global, since capital itself is global. But why must capitalism necessarily lead to a global social order? Negri and Hardt answer this question in the chapter ‘The Limit of Imperialism’. The critique of imperialism is has always been an important part of Marxist theory, and it is here that we have to look for the explanation of the global expansion of capital, but just like the previous chapter, ‘Counter Empire’, we have to be careful not just becoming ‘Marxist Believers’ and treating Marxism as though it were sacred scriptures. Theory should follow reality and not the other way around. What is the heart at this critique is the idea that capitalism needs global expansion. In other words, there cannot be a local capitalism, and the fact that the whole world has become a world market capital belongs to the necessary logic of capital itself. Within this need for expansion, in the classic critique of imperialism, there is a necessary contradiction: the more that capital expands into external markets, the less external markets there will be, and thus capital will eventually destroy itself. It should not surprise us now that Negri and Hardt are not wholly convinced by this argument, just because it is dependent on the dialectic of an inside and an outside. The contradictions with postmodern or post-industrial capital are more subtle.

First of all, however, let us look at the classical argument. Why does capital need an external market? The answer has to do with the unequal relation between the worker as producer and consumer of capital. The wage of the worker is less than the value of the product they produce; otherwise there would be no profit. This surplus value, the different between the price and of the product and the cost of labour, however, needs to be realised, otherwise it is only virtual. In other words, it needs to be turned into money. There is a problem, however, in transforming surplus value into money which has to do with its very origin: the cost of labour. Who is going to buy the product? The answer is labour, but the wage of labour are less, socially speaking, than the price of the product, so there is not way that labour can realise the full amount of surplus value. But why can’t the capitalist consume the product. The answer is ‘yes’ to some extent’ since they are the one’s who have the money after the process of the realisation of surplus value. But if the capitalist spent all their profits, then there would no money left to invest. The morality of capital is that it must always be re-invested. If not, capitalism itself would collapse. The reason that capital needs external markets is that the worker and capitalist combined do not constitute a big enough market to consume all the products that are made, and this only becomes more vicious as the efficiency of production is increased: I can never pay the workers enough to consume all the products they make, and if I did, then I wouldn’t make any profit.

The internal logic of capitalism is, therefore, always to find new markets to expand to so as to realise surplus value, that is, to turn capital into money, so it can be reinvested again as capital, the eternal circle of M-C-M. For the sake of continued growth, however, there is no point merely realising capital, rather the cycle must repeat itself again, and no longer just as M-C-M, but C-M-C. In other words, it is not sufficient merely to export markets, but production. Capitalism continually needs to find need areas to invest in order not merely to realise capital, but to accumulate it. The first stage of capitalist accumulation is to find the means to purchase constant capital, and the second, variable capital, or labour power. The first stage of imperialism, Luxemburg calls ‘pillage and theft’.[3] Here, there is no need to internalise what is external to capital, merely to capture and control the resources of a territory, even though it remains non-capitalist (think of the land grab of Africa in the 18th and 19th and other areas of the word by the strongest centre of capitalism at the time, Britain). The second stage, the appropriation of variable capital, however, does require the externalisation of this outside. It is no longer simply a matter taking over the material wealth of non-capitalist territories, but their production wealth, and this mean exporting capitalist relations of production. Capital thus transforms, and must do so, non-capitalist countries into capitalist ones – what is exported is a new kind of social relation that in turn will breed and replicate itself, and in this continual process of realisation and accumulation, capital creates the whole world after its own image.

We might ask, therefore, where is the crisis in this circle. It is that capitalism is dependent on external markets, and yet to carrying on growing it internalises this outside, so that at some stage there is not longer any exterior at all. As soon as the external territory has been internalised in the capitalist relations of production then it can no longer be used in the realisation of surplus value – it just produces more surplus value. There is, therefore, a necessary limit when there is not enough non-capitalist territory to produce any more capital and its conversion into money. The world however is finite so in the end this must lead to the collapse of capital.[4]

What then is the difference between this kind of imperialism, which is probably typified by the power of Britain in the 19th C, and what Negri and Hardt call the different power structure of Empire? In the old critique of imperialism, it exports its own struggle abroad, and thus it is part of the evolution of the modern state, and the incorporation of the multitude through nationalism and chauvinism. But in the new form of sovereignty, since there is no longer an outside to internalise, the political crisis becomes increasingly internalised, and rather than imperialism being the motor of realisation and accumulation, it becomes an impediment. What we need importantly, here, however, is a complete shift in our theoretical understanding. It is not capital which is the dynamic force for change in the world, but class struggle. If we focus too much on economic history, we fail to realise that what is most important for changes in capitalist forms of production, is not objective but subject history.[5] The object of capitalism is no longer non-capitalism territories outside of itself, but immediately the multitude from within: ‘capitalist development is faced directly with multitude without mediation.’[6] In the next two chapters that we look at, ‘Disciplinarity, Governability’ and ‘Resistance, Crisis Transformation’, we shall see exactly what this new kind of crisis looks like.

[1] Antoni Negri and Michel Hardt, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001) 206.

[2] Ibid 214

[3] Ibid 225.

[4] Although this description of the expansion of capitalism is objective and economic, Negri and Hardt realise that there must be a subjective and political corollary. This is the importance of Lenin for them in their analysis. See, Lenin, ‘Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism’ in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (International Publishers, 1939) 88-98.

[5] Thus Negri will already argue in ‘The Mass Worker and the Social Worker’ that it was political struggle in the 1960’s and 70’s which caused the change in capitalism relations in production: ‘All this gradually uncovered, in increasingly socialised forms, an attitude of struggle against work, a desire for liberation from work - whether it be work in the big factory, with all its qualities of alienation, or work in general, as conceded to the capitalist in exchange for a wage.’ See, ‘Towards a Critique of the Political Economy of the Mass Worker: from Social Labour Power to the Social Worker’ in Revolution Retrieved (London: Red Notes, 1988) 205.

[6] Empire, op. cit., 237.