Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth stands as the culmination of an exciting trilogy that has the indisputable merit of having placed the themes of “exploitation,” “communism,” and “politics” at the center of intellectual debate. Yet this trilogy begins, and more powerfully ends, with a set of unresolved contradictions in which two Hardt and Negri(s) unwittingly face off against each other, but seem to never truly cross paths.
On one hand, Commonwealth builds upon a long tradition of deriving “communism” from the technical composition of contemporary capitalist production. For Hardt and Negri, the onset of “real subsumption” is very specifically defined by the integration of all concrete labor(s) into the abstracted labor of a single capitalist world market in which living and producing have become one and the same thing (“biopolitical production”). The consequences of this unprecedented integration has been the movement beyond imperialist expansion (and inter-imperialist competition) toward the formation of a single networked structure of command termed Empire—which has as its single most distinctive feature, unlike any previous empires, that it knows no outside (in geopolitical, epistemological, and even ontological terms) (Hardt, Negri 2000, 183-190; Hardt, Negri, 2009, 119-120). Yet for Hardt and Negri, this total subsumption of concrete labor(s) by capital cannot be read as a one-sided victory of capital over labor. Quite the contrary, for Hardt and Negri the factory revolts of the 1960s forced a qualitative leap in the abstraction of labor, obligating capital to carry within it, as its very motor, the communication, cooperation, and affective relations of the worker (Hardt, Negri, 2004, 145-150), in effect a new regime of “immaterial production” that had as its starting point, production process, producers, and product those things that we share in common (Hardt, Negri, 2004, 114). Consequently, Commonwealth presents the following hypothesis as its central instigation: “The transition is already in process: contemporary capitalist production by addressing its own needs is opening up the possibility of and creating the bases for a social and economic order grounded in the common” (Hardt, Negri, 2009, x). In sum, the conditions for communism are mature within the Empire of abstract labor. What remains is a final push within the non-space of Empire toward the abolition of private property that would allow for the re-appropriation of the common by the multitude (in effect an association of biopolitical producers) as the basis for a new social order.
On the other hand, Hardt and Negri attempt very explicitly in Commonwealth to (re)introduce some notion of antagonism. As they state, “one divides into two” and the world of Empire opens up to an interesting consideration of “multiple ontologies” (in which various actors can be located within the same situation and simultaneously exist in different worlds). This opening in turn sets the stage for a consideration of the “new geographies of rebellion” and a series of powerful worldwide struggles that have shaken the foundation of neoliberal capitalism in the past two decades, from the indigenous struggles of Bolivia and Chiapas to the struggles of those on the urban periphery in Argentina and the “Afropolis.” These themes and struggles would appear to place cracks in the singular systematicity of abstract labor in Empire, reinserting the possibility of a common arising not from the “common being” provided by contemporary capital but rather from the “making [of] the common” produced by organizational projects that could produce a rupture with Empire and create new forms of sociability.
Yet little time is spent reconciling these themes with the much-touted hegemony of abstract “immaterial labor” and Hardt and Negri’s consequent attack on all “outsides” to Empire. This leaves the impression that despite some rather exciting insights, ultimately they read (at times against themselves) these struggles as instances of the production of anti-capitalist subjectivities by the movement of capital itself, rather than that which would indicate the impossibility of capital completing itself as a unitary totality. In contrast, Marx forewarned that although the world market was characterized by the fact that “production is posited as a totality along with all its moments” […] “at the same time, all contradictions come into play” (Marx 1993, 227). Hardt and Negri have chosen to read the era of the world market primarily through the dynamics of abstract labor, eliding Marx’s “at the same time.” In practice, then, due to the ultimate elision of contradiction—of any outside to abstract labor—there is no way for the multitude to distinguish its own project from that of the further consolidation of Empire. Given this, it seems that it is the temporal unfolding of Empire that must give birth to the common, obviating the socio-spatial practice of the multitude. As in so many versions of Marxism(s), it seem that the unfolding of time (in Empire) of one Hardt and Negri annihilates the space (for “communism”) in the other.
M. Hardt, A. Negri (2000), Empire, New York.
M. Hardt, A. Negri (2004), Multitude, New York.
M. Hardt, A. Negri (2009), Commonwealth, Cambridge Mass.
K. Marx (1993), Grundrisse, London.