Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and one decade since the current financial crisis began, Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri manifests itself as a timely work. This book stands today as a political manifesto against both the spectres of communism and the spectres of capitalism — then being read and received in a peculiar way by the readers of the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, who happened to witness the crisis of both economic systems in less than a generation. The ambition of Commonwealth is indeed to introduce the ternary notion of ‘the common’ in a political and philosophical discourse that is still polarised by the binary oppositions of modernity: that is, public and private, state and market, democratic institutions and the so-called civil society. If Hard and Negri’s Empire (published in 2000) attempted to describe the new governance of financial institutions and globalisation over the crumbling ‘material constitution’ of the nation states, Commonwealth aims to set the immanent ground of a new political project within and against such Empire.

What constitutes the common? Hardt and Negri provide a complex genealogy of this notion (not to be confused with the more generic commons) and specifically show how the production of the common and its expropriation are the core of contemporary capitalism. In a very Spinozian fashion, the notion of the common functions as a unifying idea to ground political theory and specifically to set the primacy of social autonomy against any transcendental power. But, this genealogy being quite articulated, I want to focus on just one (yet crucial) issue in this review, the dimension of value.

As it is renown, the notions of surplus labour and surplus value are at the core of Marxism and aim to describe the inner antagonism and contradictions of capitalism, leading up to the controversial hypothesis of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Hardt and Negri make this notion ‘explode’ across the whole of society and the new forms of labour. Negri himself started to question the Marxian law of value already in the ‘70s, looking at the possible subjective crisis of capitalism and not just waiting for the objective crisis to unfold. In Marx beyond Marx, Negri says that the Marxian law of value (that measures productivity according to labour time) can be considered as one of the historical incarnations of the more general law of surplus value (useless to add that this reading still attracts today ferocious critiques by the whole spectrum of orthodox Marxists). In more recent works, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri interpret the crisis of the Marxian law of value via the paradigm of immaterial and biopolitical production, where precisely the value produced by all of us is no longer measured just on time and energy, but on a whole set of cognitive and affective flows, by the intellectual and emotional potentiality of our bodies.

Following the “metamorphoses of the composition of capital”, in Commonwealth Hardt and Negri identify three key trends of contemporary labour: the hegemony of immaterial production in the process of capitalist valorisation, the feminization of work and the global flows of migrant labour. These three major trends challenge the scheme of traditional political economy as “biopolitical production shifts the economic centre of gravity from the production of material commodities to that of social relations, confusing the division between production and reproduction”1 . Indeed, “what is the value of a company in the post-industrial era?” Hardt and Negri rhetorically ask. Together with many contemporary authors, they repeat that the most important part of the value is given by a company’s immaterial assets (goodwill, social capital, intellectual property, etc). They recognise then that this intangible capital mainly originates from expropriation of the collective intelligence and social cooperation that continuously produce flows of information and images, share knowledge and culture, and invent new languages and lifestyles. Hardt and Negri consider this mode of production based on the common as hegemonic in today’s capitalism: in other words, we could say that the production of the common can be taken as unit of measure (or better, dismeasure) of value.

Hardt and Negri however are not advancing a completely new paradigm here. This idea of the collective sphere of the common as a productive force descends directly from the Marxian definition of capital as a social relation that reproduces social relations:

Although wealth in capitalist society first appears as an immense collective of commodities, Marx reveals that capital is really a process of the creation of surplus value via the production of commodities. But Marx develops this insight one step further to discover that in its essence capital is a social relation or, really, the constant reproduction of a social relation via the creation of surplus value via the production of commodities. Recognizing capital as a social relation gives us a first key to analyzing biopolitical production.2

Negri and Hardt radically shift the engine of production and innovation from the material heart of the factory to the social heart of the metropolis. However their interpretation is quite sceptical of  other similar widespread notions such as ‘social capital’ or ‘cultural capital’, as these notions refers just to an external added value and not the core itself of the new mode of production:

Economists do recognize the common, in fact, but cast it generally outside of properly economic relations, as ‘external economies’ or simply ‘externalities’. In order to understand biopolitical production, this perspective must invert and internalize the productive externalities, bringing the common to the centre of economic life.3

According to Hardt and Negri the mode of production based on the common introduces a Copernican revolution within political thought as capitalistic command is said to be no longer central in the extraction surplus value, but on the contrary, especially in the Western ‘network society’ and ‘knowledge society’, freedom and autonomy are conceded to the common in order to fully exploit its potentiality.

In the realm of the information economy and knowledge production it is quite clear that freedom of the common is essential for production. As Internet and software practitioners and scholars often point out, access to the common in the network environment—common knowledges, common codes, common communications circuits—is essential for creativity and growth.4

As just shown, what is at the core of the paradigm of biopolitical production is a consistent reformulation of the Marxian law of value. If labour goes social, that is—if production embraces the whole of individual and social time, with no distinction between productive and unproductive labour—time ceases to be the measure unit of surplus value. In this sense, Hardt and Negri say that the value of the biopolitical production and the common goes beyond measure.

To determine what it means for biopolitics to exceed, we need to establish the difference between this figure of non-measure and the traditional models proposed to measure value. In the biopolitical context, value overflows any threshold of political and economic control. Its measure cannot be derived either from the quantity of time dedicated to the necessary reproduction of labor-power as a whole or from the ensuing social order. Biopolitical value is grounded on the common of cooperation.5

The Marxian idea of surplus value is transformed then into the figure of excess value. In fact Marx’s surplus value theory still belongs to the Western tradition of ‘measurability’. According to Hardt and Negri: “The critique of political economy, too, including the Marxist tradition, has generally focused on measurement and quantitative methods to understand surplus value and exploitation. Biopolitical products, however, tend to exceed all quantitative measurement and take common forms, which are easily shared and difficult to corral as private property”6 . Again this passage from surplus value to excess value is again at the centre of criticism. The notion of excess value may resound as too much of a postmodern attitude: capitalism has indeed introduced new ways to ‘measure’ the value of social relations and to govern their production, as the technologies of social networks and search engines indicate today. Yet Hardt and Negri have the merit of pointing to new fields of political research and political potentiality that remain unexplored. “We still need a new theory of value that is grounded in exceeding, crossing the threshold”, they conclude with a clear political demand for theory7 .

Berlin, December 2011.

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  1. M. Hardt, A. Negri, Commonwealth, Cambridge MA 2009, p. 135 []
  2. Ibidem, p. 136 []
  3. Ibidem, p. 280 []
  4. Ibidem, p. 282 []
  5. Ibidem, p. 317 []
  6. Ibidem, p. 136 []
  7. Ibidem, p. 318 []
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