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.


La ciudad y los perros

Mario Vargas Llosa, La ciudad y los perros

Mario Vargas Llosa’s first published novel, La ciudad y los perros, ends with something of a twist, as we discover that one of the book’s central characters is also one of its principal narrators, a boy who’s been telling us a fairly sad but quite sweet tale about his love for a young girl who lives near him. This comes as a shock because when he is portrayed by others, it is as the ringleader and tough guy of a student gang at Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where much of the novel is set. Fully deserving his self-appointed nickname of “the Jaguar,” there he is uncompromising and absolutely unsentimental, quick to jump on the slightest weakness or avenge any slight or infraction. He may well have gone so far as to murder a classmate whom he suspects of snitching. As another gang member puts it, a guy who could be the Jaguar’s best friend if only he had friends rather than merely henchmen and enemies: “Nothing surprises me about the Jaguar, I knew he has no feelings” (317). Hence the surprise indeed when we discover that this hard-bitten delinquent is in fact a closet romantic, whose voice we’d heard but hardly recognized. How much do we, or anyone else, know him after all? We never even discover his real name.

In part, Vargas Llosa is playing with the basic illusion that we can know any character in literature, or even that there are characters to be known. All we have are textual effects. The Jaguar has no “real” name, because he doesn’t exist outside of a text in which any such name is perpetually with-held. Or to put this another way: the Jaguar’s function in the novel is to be a character whose “real” name can only be the subject of conjecture. That’s how the character was written, and if we were to be given his name, it would be less a question of our knowing more about him (as though he really existed, outside the text) than of his becoming a different character with some other function. Likewise, the point is less that we should try to reconcile the apparent divergences between the Jaguar as he is portrayed by others in the Academy, and the character as he is made to reveal himself through first-person narration. It is more that we shouldn’t really be expecting consistency in the first place. The notion of character as a consistent set of attributes and dispositions that endures over time and space is itself a literary fiction, a narrative device.

To put it yet another way: the kind of fractured, non-linear, distributed narration employed by a book such as La ciudad y los perros, with its abrupt shifts of style, point of view, location, and temporality, makes us question the forms of subjectivity that other modes of literary fiction (realism or costumbrismo, for instance) had presented as natural or self-evident. The characters inscribed in Vargas Llosa’s novel are both excessive and elusive: we know too much about them, and find this excessiveness untidy and ambivalent; and yet we also realize that we can never really know them, that they do not exist to be known. In a novel that is obsessed with faces (and above all with “saving” face), we are reminded that neither the Jaguar nor anyone else in the book has a face unless the narrative deigns to describe it. Which is of course how it can get away with its long-delayed twist: the Jaguar is never given a face, so we are unable to recognize that the same character spans two sections of the text. Again, we are reminded of what is left out of the narrative. Or rather, once more, it is not so much that the Jaguar has a face that is simply never shown to us; his facelessness is a constitutive characteristic of his inscription on the page.

All this suggests perhaps other modes of subjectivity, other ways of conceiving the self or selves. An inconsistent, self-contradictory, and faceless self. For all selves are fictions of one sort or another, and we could imagine the effects of different narrative strategies on the construction and presentation of the self. In a fight near the end of the book (a strange, wordless struggle between two of the schoolboy cadets), the Jaguar mutilates the face of one of his classmates: “He’s destroyed his face,” an observer says, “I don’t understand” (382). But it may be that this is the Jaguar’s function more generally (the “jaguar effect,” if you like): an assault on all our faces; a violent desecration of outmoded notions of the subject.