1.The political project of instituting the common, which we develop in this book, cuts diagonally across these false alternatives – neither private nor public, neither capitalist nor socialist – and opens a new space for politics.
This short sentence in the preface – with its suggestive title, The Becoming Prince of the Multitude – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s goals and contents summarizes in an excellent way. First of all, Commonwealth is not only a book: it is a political project. This immediately poses a matter of method, which is to say it is impossible to read and discuss the text outside the political context of contemporary struggles and the revolutionary tension that permeates it. Secondly, the common (singular) is different from the classical interpretations of the commons, i.e., common goods. The common does not exist in nature, but it is instituted, is a matter of production. Only living labor and its struggles make the common common. Finally, the sentence cited at the beginning draws the profile of a new space for politics: the politics of the common is situated beyond the exhausted dichotomy between public and private because they are two sides of the same capitalist coin. So, this space is beyond the system of representation and nation-state sovereignty, and it points out the constituent characteristics of the multitude’s global movements. We have nothing to defend, an entire common world to build up.
Therefore, the social-democratic strategies and the space of the reformist mediation are definitely over:
On this social terrain of biopolitical production, in the context of society-based capital, the integrating mechanisms that functioned in firm-based capital no longer work. Here the one really divides into two: an increasingly autonomous labor-power and, consequently, a capital that becomes increasingly pure command. Labor-power is thus no longer variable capital, integrated within the body of capital, but a separate and increasingly oppositional force.2
But we must be careful: this is not a claim for a spontaneous development of collective liberation. On the contrary, it is first of all the result of the optimism of the intellect, rooted in the formation of the cognitive labor and its cooperative and productive potentia. It is the ambivalent outcome of the class struggle of the 60s and 70s, the antagonist clash between workers’ autonomy and the capitalist response, the development of the productive forces and the restructuration of the system of exploitation. In short, it indicates a new battlefield marked by the centrality of the common – which is what the cooperation of living labor produces and what capital captures. This means that capitalist valorization and accumulation is no longer based on the organization of labor power upstream, but on its predation downstream. This is the base of liberation, but realizing it depends on the collective organization of social struggles and collective cooperation. Hardt and Negri are very clear on this point:
We can bet on the rupture of the relation of capital and build politically on the emerging autonomy of biopolitical labor. The open social relation presented by capital provides an opportunity, but political organization is required to push it across the threshold.3
Cognitive labor is not an abstract figure but a political subject. Or, in better terms, it is the becoming of a political subject in social struggles, from the North African insurrections, acampadas, or Occupy Wall Street, global movements inside the global economic crisis. This is exactly what was at stake when the operaista militants started to talk about the emergence of a new class composition in the middle of the capitalist counterrevolution after the 70s, pointing out its cooperative and cognitive characteristics, as well as its multitudinary form. Again, they were not lead by the optimism of the will or the faith in the historical progress – to cite the most frequent and boring rhetoric of the leftist victimization and subalternity to the so-called „mono-logical thinking”: it was the capacity to bet on the political anticipation of this tendency that is always immanent to class composition.
In fact, insurgence and revolution are not events but processes marked by continuity and discontinuity, subjective sedimentation and leaps forward. This is the decisive difference between operaismo and other radical thinkers who dream of the advent of a metaphysical communism, disembodied from the material processes of organization and social struggles: „In Badiou an event – such as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the French Revolution, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to cite his most frequent examples – acquires value and meaning primarily after it takes place”4 . Therefore, we have to pose the problem of the forms of organization inside this process:
What is really necessary […], as Lenin rightly insists, is the link between ethico-political indignation and the unstoppable sequence of acts of violence, expropriation, and sabotage against the symbols and institutional realities of power that the jacqueries express. The central problem, though, adds Lenin, and we fundamentally agree, is how to translate every moment of insurgency into a moment of government, how to make insurrection lasting and stable, that is, how to make the jacquerie effective5 .
The term jacquerie can sound strange. But Hardt and Negri use it in a particular way: contemporary jacqueries are not the revolt of the excluded but the insurgence of subjects completely inside the process of production and accumulation, expropriated of the social wealth that they create. If we think of the banlieue or, more recently, the UK riots, we see the emergence – as Hardt and Negri argue – of a new figure of the poor: the poor are living labor, the form of life that produces the others people’s wealth and its own poverty. The Marxian definition comes true.
Struggles and jacqueries underline the center of the politics of the common: the reappropriation of social wealth and the destruction of capitalist structures of command. The space-time coordinates of this politics are embodied in the metropolis, that is to say, the factory for the production of the common. It is not by chance that the occupation of metropolitan spaces, for example public squares, has become central in the practices of the contemporary struggles, from Tunis’ Casbah or Tahrir square, until Puerta del Sol or Zuccotti Park. It shows the constituent practice of the multitude’s potentia and its irreducibility to reformist demands. Also, within the metropolis-factory, it indicates the centrality of the struggles against rent, which „operates through a desocialization of the common”6.
How is the reappropriation of social wealth transformed into the institution of the commonwealth? This is a strategic question. In the global crisis, determined by the resistance of the global composition of living labor against the corruption of the common, one thing is sure: revolution is back on the agenda, but in a new form – that is to say, without taking control of the state. In this context, Hardt and Negri elaborates a new notion of transition, against theories of a total collapse and its socialist correlations:
The kind of transition we are working with instead requires the growing autonomy of the multitude from both private and public control; the metamorphosis of social subjects through education and training in cooperation, communication, and organizing social encounters; and thus a progressive accumulation of the common. This is how capital creates its own gravediggers: pursuing its own interests and trying to preserve its own survival, it must foster the increasing power and autonomy of the productive multitude. And when the accumulation of powers crosses a certain threshold, the multitude will emerge with the ability autonomously to rule common wealth.7
Thus, transition is immanent to the constituent movement of the composition of living labor: it indicates the problem of the rupture with capitalist apparatuses of capture and the creation of new institutions of the common. „This is a materialist teleology that has no illusions about invisible hands or final causes pulling history forward. It is a teleology pushed forward only by our desires and our struggles, with no final end point”8. We might say: it is an auto-teleological movement, immanent to the composition of living labor.
For Brian Anderson of „The Wall Street Journal”, Commonwealth is a dark, evil book. For Francis Fukuyama, it is dangerous. The capitalist think tank is right. Their fears are well-founded.