Declaration

Hardt and Negri, Declaration

Slavoj Zizek famously said of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire that it was “the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century.” With Declaration, Hardt and Negri apparently repudiate Zizek’s praise, as they argue that manifestos are “obsolete” in that they “provide a glimpse of the world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change.” But that subject is with us here and now, they claim: “Agents of change have already descended into the streets and occupied city squares, not only threatening and toppling rulers but also conjuring visions of a new world” (1). So it is not a manifesto that we need, but an updated Declaration of Independence, and Hardt and Negri unabashedly take the US Declaration as their model when they write that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are equal, that they have acquired through political struggle certain inalienable rights, that among these are not only life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but also free access to the common, equality in the distribution of wealth, and the sustainability of the common. (51)

On this basis, they call then for a new constitution, and begin to outline some of its possible features (again) on the lines of the US model, examining in turn the requirements of an executive, legislature, and judiciary in a federal structure that would “constitute the procedural horizon of a participatory democracy of the common” (84).

But not so fast. Who are these “agents of change” who are already among us? It turns out that they are in the first instance the multitudes who participated in the wave of protests, encampments, and rebellions of 2011: from Tunisia and the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish indignados. Declaration, published in 2012, is written in the heady aftermath of these movements. Five years on, however, in each case disillusion and even disaster are the order of the day: the Arab Spring has left us with new forms of authoritarianism or bloodshed in Egypt, Libya, and Syria; there may be something of the spirit of Occupy in Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign in the primaries, but the US is likely to end up with Clintonian business as usual or, worse, Donald Trump; and in Spain (as in Greece) the initial radicalism of the indignados has devolved into the tepid compromises with a dominant political order negotiated by Podemos (and Syriza). The subject of any Declaration of Independence is once again more spectre than actuality: it refuses to go away, but it is not exactly fully here. There may still be room for a manifesto or two. The Revolution is almost as distant as ever, and that is not simply because the structures of power remain as resilient as ever, but also because the revolutionary subjectivities that would overthrow them are perhaps somewhat less tangible than Hardt and Negri would here have us believe.

In fact, in practice Declaration recognizes this dilemma. The best parts of the book are not so much its re-imaginings of specific constitutional arrangements (which become increasingly vague and repetitive) as its analyses of the ways in which multitudinous subjectivity is (still) captured, mystified, and folded in upon itself in contemporary neoliberalism. Hardt and Negri thus offer a typopology of neoliberal subject positions, all of which we collectively inhabit to one degree or another: the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented. Debt prevails as “rent, not profit” increasingly drives the capitalist economy (12); unlike traditional wage exploitation, it produces subjects whose productivity is obscured as they see themselves only as consumers. The media, meanwhile, shape subjectivities that are not so much alienated as co-opted, “constantly absorbed in attention” (16); here it is their affective capacities that are hidden and betrayed. Surveillance society generalizes fear but also makes us all would-be vigilantes; we find ourselves “deprived of every possibility of associative, just, and loving social exchange” (29). Finally, representation “gathers together the figures of the indebted, the mediatized, and the securitized and, at the same time, epitomizes the end result of their subordination and corruption” (25); here it is political action that is proclaimed to be forever inaccessible to ordinary folk.

Each of these four mystifications, however, is equally an index of powers of the multitude that can no longer be simply repressed or ignored: the powers of productivity, affect, association, and constitution. In brief, just as Hardt and Negri (somewhat heretically) overturn the Marxist Labour Theory of Value, because it is no longer simply labour that produces value for capital, so they aim to expand our sense of the powers that can be put to the building of a new society. So instead of the “lament” to which the Left always tends (as left-wing parties “lament the destruction of the welfare state, the imperial military adventures, [. . .] the overwhelming power of finance” and so on [87-8]), Hardt and Negri ask us to prepare for the event that will “completely reshuffle the decks of political powers and possibility” (102). Ultimately this is how they see “the cycle of struggles of 2011,” as “preparing ground for an event they cannot foresee or predict” (103). They tell us that history is full of such unforeseen events and assure us that “you don’t have to be a millenarian to believe that [. . . they] will come again” (102). Maybe not. But it sure helps if you are.

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.

extrapolation

One of my panels at LASA (the Latin American Studies Association congress) turned once more to discussion of Ernesto Laclau.

I have spent a long time engaging with Laclau (and I deal with his work at length in my book’s first chapter). His is an important and influential theory–indeed, I argue that it is the most complete theory of hegemony–but it is also fundamentally flawed and fatally limited.

In essence, what Laclau has done is extrapolate from the discussions among a small number of leftist radicals in Argentina during the early 1970s, when populism seemed the only possible horizon for politics. Their question then was how could they redeem populism for a progressive project, when there seemed to be no alternative available.

It is impressive that Laclau has managed to produce an entire politico-theoretical system from the dilemma that these militants perceived in a particular place at a particular time.

But what is extraordinary, given the subsequent adoption of this system almost wholesale by so much of cultural studies, is that if we return to the Argentine situation we see that left-populism was proved totally mistaken.

For the left was violently expelled from the Peronist coalition almost as soon as Perón arrived back in the country following his long exile. Moreover, the subsequent military coup then (and even more violently) showed that populism itself had run up against its limit when it refused to acknowledge the role of the state.

No doubt pretty much any political philosophy is at root largely an extrapolation from a particular state of affairs. Antonio Negri, for instance, is in his own way also still captivated by his observation of the rapid changes in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, and then by his part in the resulting struggles of the early 1970s.

But Negri was at least to some extent right: the dismal failure of the Italian Communist Party’s so-called “historic compromise” revealed the political and theoretical poverty of the theory of hegemony upon which Eurocommunism (so lauded by Laclau) depended.

Negri was of course wrong about the imminence of revolution both then and, I’d argue, now, though I still think that there is much to salvage from his work none-the-less. I suppose that followers of Laclau could similarly argue that hegemony theory can likewise be salvaged even after its failure in the context in which it was originally elaborated, and for which it should ideally work best.

But they don’t seem to acknowledge that failure in the first place, in part no doubt because Laclau’s increasingly abstract systematization serves to obscure that context quite totally for most of his commentators.

conclusion

Cultural studies and civil society theory purport to be progressive projects, liberatory alternatives to the dominant social order. Yet cultural studies’ concept of “counter-hegemony” only reinforces all the populist assumptions upon which hegemony rests, leaving the state unquestioned. Likewise, for all its talk of “society against the state,” civil society theory also merely entrenches state power, by excluding other logics that might unsettle sovereign claims to legitimacy and universality. In short, both appeal to and uphold constituted power, instantiated in and exercised through representation. Constituted power is the transcendent power of the sovereign subject, but it is a delegated power: it is the result of a prior articulation (in cultural studies’ terms) or mediation (for civil society theory). Constituted power draws its strength from an immanent constituent power that precedes it, and which it claims to represent. Hence the power that a political order exercises is always derivative, and that order is itself the creation of constituent power. In the words of the Abbé Sieyès, who first formulated this distinction in the context of France’s 1789 Constituent Assembly, “in each of its parts a constitution is not the work of a constituted power but a constituent power. No type of delegated power can modify the conditions of its delegation” (“What is the Third Estate?” 136). For Sieyès, the constituent assembly was to harmonize these two modalities of power: to ensure that government was well constituted. But the very notion of good constitution presupposes a distinction between the constituent and the constituted. Indeed, this split is at the heart of what Martin Loughlin and Neil Walker term the “paradox of constitutionality”: that the people, the presumed subject of power, are denied access to it; “the power they possess, it would appear, can only be exercised through constitutional forms already established or in the process of being established” (“Introduction” 1).

Read more… (long .pdf file)

substratum

Constituent power is continuous and everyday. Appearances, however, are deceptive: in appearance, constituent power emerges only in moments of crisis, in the transition from one political order to another, soon thereafter to disappear. As Negri notes, “once the exceptional moment of innovation is over, constituent power seems to exhaust its effects” (Insurgencies 327).

The normative regulations of constituted power are more familiar than is the uproarious intensity associated with constitutional assemblies, when constituent power is glimpsed in full force as it intervenes decisively on the political stage. But for Negri, this “appearance of exhaustion” is simply “mystification”; in fact, “the only limits on constituent power are the limits of the world of life” (327, 328).

Constituent power “persists”: once a constitution is declared, it goes underground; unseen, it continues to expand until it erupts once more to interrupt constituted power, forcing drastic changes in social relations. Capital responds with a series of class recompositions that it presents as natural; the state reacts with periodic refoundations that it presents as simple renegotiations of some original social pact.

At each stage, the multitude is beaten back, temporarily defeated, “absorbed into the mechanism of representation” (Insurgencies 3) and so misrecognized as class, people, mass, or some other docile political subject. But even such misrecognitions, Negri claims, signal an “ontological accumulation” (334). Being itself is transformed through the “continuous and unrestrainable practice” that is the multitude’s everyday, permanent revolution (334).

A focus on constituent power, then, rather than on the different forms taken by constituted power, opens up “a new substratum” of history, “an ontological level on which productive humanity anticipate[s] the concrete becoming, forcing it or being blocked by it” (232).

brock

Toni NegriThe Brock conference “Metastasizing Capital” left much to think about. I didn’t catch everything, in part because I also took the time to do some sight-seeing. But of what I saw, there were plenty of good papers, even among those I disagreed with.

In the end, though, no doubt the point of the thing was to hear from Toni Negri (and Judith Revel), and to engage in some dialogue with them. Kudos to Brock, by the way, for being as far as I know the first place in North America to host Negri.

But as we’ve started to discuss in comments to my previous post, the reception of what Negri actually had to say was far from completely favourable.

He pointed to some important issues–not least, the problem of evil, that haunts any philosophy of affirmation. Other tidbits included he denial that the disturbances in the banlieus had anything to do with the logic of (post)coloniality (huh?!), and Revel’s aside suggesting that we have to distinguish between “good” and “bad” multitudes.

But Negri’s over-riding theme, taken up also by Revel, was the “rupture” between what he here framed as modernity and postmodernity. And the more he discussed this rupture, the less convinced I became.

While listening to Judith Revel, I grabbed a piece of paper from Nate (who’s already posted some initial reactions to the conference) and came up with the following tables:

Negri today
Continuities and breaks in the rupture between modern and postmodern. (All theses taken from Negri and Revel’s oral presentations at Brock.)
before after
dialectic between labour and capital NO dialectic between labour and capital
exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system
modern subject, defined by rights postmodern, but not postcapitalist, subjectivities: minorities, multitude

Negri beyond Negri
Continuities and breaks in the rupture between modern and postmodern. (All theses taken from Negri’s published work.)
before after
NO dialectic between labour and capital [MBM] NO dialectic between labour and capital
exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system exploitation replaced by pure command [E]
modernity traversed by the multitude, a subject misrecognized as people etc. [I] postmodern, postcapitalist, subject, the multitude, comes into its own
Key: MBM=Marx beyond Marx; E=Empire; I=Insurgencies

Now, I’m as big a fan of rupture as the next person, but there is some incoherence here. Moreover, what’s important is surely the relation between continuity and discontinuity. One of the insights of the workerist and autonomist tradition from which Negri comes (but which, in public at least, he continues rather oddly to underplay) is the notion that it is working class power that’s continuous, continually pressing upon capitalist domination. And that capital in response is forced into a discontinuous series of restructurations, which in turn force a series of class recompositions (elite industrial worker -> mass worker -> socialized worker). Still, the red thread remains working class power.

Ironically, though, in that the force of working class power is against its confinement, as a class, within capitalist relations of production, and in that its aim is autonomy, the working class envisaged by the autonomist tradition is a class not for itself, but against itself.

Should the multitude emerge on its own account, then, that would mean the end of the working class as a class, and also the end of exploitation. In so far as that has taken place, in so far as social productivity now has no need of capitalist structures, i.e. in so far as any putative labour/capital dialectic is broken, all that remains is a command that is cruel and unpredictable precisely because it no longer has its roots in economic exploitation. Corruption is all.

After all, “corruption itself,” Hardt and Negri argue, “is the substance and totality of Empire” (Empire 391). It is “not an aberration of imperial sovereignty but its very essence and modus operandi” (202).

More on this anon, I’m sure…

true

“A true multitude” [“una vera moltitudine”]

–Toni Negri on the protesters in the recent French disturbances.

Meanwhile, on other fronts, the dialectic between capital and labour is now broken, we’re told. But labour power continues to be central.

That’s the news from Brock.