The common that Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s book is dedicated to is defined at the intersection between “nature” and “artifice”. This means that it is unthinkable outside of the action (praxis) through which “social production” transforms the “material world”. Common is thus a concept with a high historical density: centuries of domination and struggle, sufferance in exploited labor and practices of resistance define this almost geological stratification, in the form of a “world (still) to be won”. Committed to seeking new ground and a new language to articulate a liberation politics of the 21st century, Hardt and Negri’s research cannot avoid – for the same assumptions that motive it – a genealogical foundation, a reconstruction beginning with the needs of the present where it is situated. Already in Empire, one of the most original theses (and one of the reasons for the book’s success) was that “globalization” should be investigated from a historical perspective articulated on multiple dimensions: not only reconnecting it to the horizon of the global market that, according to the Marxian lesson taken from the “world-system” theory, was characterized capitalist production from its origins, but also rediscovering the role played by workers’ struggles and anti-colonial movements that push against this process of planetary unification. What emerged was certainly not a resizing of the violence born with the processes of capitalist globalization, but a much richer image of those very processes, conflictual and contradictory to prevalent critical writings that, in truth, were becoming a bit nauseating on “neoliberalism” and the “pensée unique” [dominant ideology].
This genealogical method was used in Empire inside a complex interpretation of modernity that had been refined over many years, particularly in Negri’s work, and that had also been expressed in his studies on Descartes, Spinoza, Marx and constituent power. The idea, central to these studies, that modernity – ever since the Renaissance and the first formulations of the theory of sovereignty by authors like Bodin and Hobbes – was invested with a rupture and a violent clash between a series of historically successful tendencies that constituted the time of capital, property and the state, and a whole of movements (in a social, political and cognitive time) that imagined and practiced a politics of “immanence” based on radical equality and liberty, starting with the discovery of the creative power of humanity. “Two Europes, Two Modernities” was significantly the title of one of Empire’s chapters. Ten years later, many of these interpretative elements have been reaffirmed, particularly in the search for a concept of the common outside the homology of public and private law, rekindling the terrain of a radical critique of property, where “the foundation of every modern political constitution” are found. However, at the same time, the critical genealogy of modernity is enriched in Commonwealth with new dimensions that turn out to be precious both under the profile of historical research as well as under the profile of a better clarification of what is at stake in contemporary social conflicts.
2. One could say that the most important innovation, following the lesson of the most astute postcolonial studies, is Hardt and Negri’s ability to situate the entire question of modernity in global geographic coordinates. The duplicity of modernity (the latter, we read in Commonwealth, is always “a power relation: domination and resistance, sovereignty and struggles for liberation”1 ) is immediately exemplified in reference to the multiplicities of “meetings” determined by European colonial expansion in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Far from presenting the exploitation of “free” wage labor in capitalist production as “normal”, Hardt and Negri ponder over the constitutive character, in the definition of global modernity, of slavery and other forms of non-free labor, structurally tied to devices of “racial” domination. And they highlight, polemicizing with the historical reconstructions that present subaltern subjects as passive and inert, the essential role played by their heterogeneous practices of resistance in the production of the common world we still live in.
“Anti-modernity” is the term used in Commonwealth to define these practices of resistance that have had workers and indigenous, women and slaves, indentured servants and farmers as protagonists. But the anti-modernity that Hardt and Negri speak of is fully inside modernity itself, it is inseperable from it in the sense that the forces that incarnate it act inside the scission and the meetings that constitute it: they continually change and deepen the concepts of freedom and equality, turning them against “the hierarchical power relations of modernity”2 . There can certainly be reactionary anti-modern projects, whose common characteristic consists in the attempt to “break the relationship at the heart of modernity and free the dominator from dealing with the subordinated”3 , according to the authors. But what most counts is that even the anti-modern forces that express opposition and the yearning for the liberation of the exploited and the dominated risk remaining “stuck” inside a merely negative conception of resistance that can often feed (according to Fanon’s thesis, amply used in this book) a nefarious search for mythological roots and “premodern” traditions. In any case, it is here that modernity ultimately triumphs: power devices and the proprietary and hierarchical logic that constitute its framework have amply demonstrated being able to live with multiple “traditions” and being able to put roots down inside heterogenous cultural environments.
The insistence on this hard nucleus of modernity (traceable to the persistant dominion of capital over its times and spaces) is what distinguishes Hardt and Negri’s project from the work of many postcolonial critics that develop the thesis of “alternative modernities” on the base of a hermeneutic that admits a multiplicity of culturally differentiated interpretations of the “modern” text. Much more radically, Commonwealth proposes, through the category of “altermodernity”, the identification of a plane of convergence for the forces of “anti-modernity” where the possibility of a passage from mere resistance to the construction of an alternative is measured: a political project that aims at instituting a common that can only emerge from a practical critique of the proprietary logic inherent to the existence and reproduction of capitalism.
3. The cartography of anti-modern and altermodern forces that this book proposes is doubtlessly quite effective. But beyond the contribution that this cartography brings to the endless debate over modernity, it is important to highlight how it qualifies, in a very precise sense, the meaning of one of the most often repeated affirmations in Commonwealth: today the eminent terrain where both capitalist accumulation and the forms of resistance and struggle insist is the “production of subjectivity”. Interpreted through the analysis that we have briefly reconstructed here, this affirmation poses the radical heterogeneity of subjects emerging (or rather, produced) from the multiple “meetings” that weave modernity’s plot as a central problem. And if Hardt and Negri use the term meeting, adapting it from postcolonial studies, they very well know the way the same term was used by Marx in the first book of Capital when dealing with the meeting between capital and labor. It is also this meeting, historically and contemporarily, that is produced in a multiplicity of forms to which different “productions of subjectivity” correspond. Every so often, in the chapters dedicated to “biopolitical production” in contemporary capitalism, the two authors seem to lose sight of the radicalness of this problem, whilst it is very clear in the part on modernity, where “multiplicity” is posed as a “primary element of the political project”4 .
However, on the other hand, it really is the awareness of this problem that justifies the importance attributed by Hardt and Negri to the critique of “identity politics”: if there is often a movement of revolt against a specific device of subjectification at the origin of the latter, its crystallization in claims and categories of identity reproduces borders and divisions, functional to the re-articulation of control and social hierarchies. This goes for the classical questions of “identity politics” (race, ethnicity, sexuality), but the same goes even more so on the terrain of labor and income, where the heterogeneity of the positions and conditions in which exploitation is lived (throughout the world) lends itself to nourishing a kind of corporative politics of identity. It is in the gap between this heterogeneity and the growing role played by “common” potencies (knowledge, cooperation, languages and affects) in contemporary capitalist production that we need to work, theorically and practically, to make the “altermodern” subjects emerge.
Translated by Jason Francis Mc Gimsey