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Mythologies of Autonomy: Capitalist Space and Left Institutionality
(Which does not mean that by abolishing the barometer one can abolish bad weather) (Gramsci 1971: 257).
Marx’s lifework, Gramsci notes, ‘concerns the relationship between German philosophy, French politics and English classical economics (Gramsci 1971: 400).’ “Young Marx” mainly has done with Hegel’s legacy of idealist criticism. The mid-phase around Capital disassembles liberal political economy as idealism’s isomorphism. Despite Gramsci’s personification of the three discourses as ‘Ricardo with Hegel and Robespierre,’ (Gramsci 1971: 402) the polemic of Marx’s last phase is named less by the figure representing the task of fashioning a government after the first spasms of revolution, than by the Franco-Russian anarchists Proudhon and Bakunin. Marx’s later writing against anarchism remain among his least read, let alone further theorized, partially because the retrospective on Marx’s complacency in letting the First International implode rather than become subject to anarchist maneuvers, was overtaken by the debates on imperialism, “late” capitalism, and the status of revolution in a “non-Western” society. Postcolonial Studies often locates its grounding problematic in this post-First International moment, but as Marx wrote, ‘just as in any other new stage in history, the old errors come to the surface for a time (Marx 1974: 299).’ With the recent impact of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, the unresolved argument between marxism and anarchy about left institutionality, the durable formations that nurture and protect a progressive life-world, has recently come back to roost (Hardt and Negri 2000). Even if Empire leaves one with the heightened sensorium of a domestic dispute spiraling into illogic, as its autonomist rhetoric melts substantive preliminaries into unnecessarily confused claims, Hardt and Negri’s inspired work deserves grateful thanks for decisively inaugurating a long-overdue confrontation between contemporary strands of neo-anarchist thought and a reconstituted marxism.
As a mainly synthetic work, Empire benefits from the steady growth of anti-dialectical poststructuralism, which carried the burden of resistance discourse during the post-68 period of the organized left’s disaggregation, a crisis of confidence that accelerated after 1989. Empire’s key assertions concern the emergence of a new globalized form of capitalist sovereignty that no longer operates through statist cores and mainly produces surplus-value through the “immaterial labor” of communication and affective (“service sector”) industries. These are clearly the legacy of the last three decades’ anti-depth model theories. Soldering anti-foundationalism with pre-existing arguments about the shift from fordist to postfordist capitalism and a history of capitalist geography largely derived from Braudel and Wallerstein, Empire attempts to reintroduce “master narrative” political analysis with a revised care for micro-power. Hardt and Negri’s bricolage does not ultimately achieve its desired synergy because even as the two avail themselves of certain theoretical models, they often deny the axioms that produced the models’ conclusions in the first instance.
Hardt and Negri repudiate left instituionality through a misrepresentation of Foucault’s position. For Empire, Foucauldian-derived anti-statism becomes a programmatic anti-institutionality, where premeditated collective formations of any kind are seen as complicit with disciplinary mechanisms. Rarely does any contemporary Anglophone disavowal of classic marxist propositions about organizing dissent appear without seeking legitimation from Foucault’s work on power and institutionally-derived knowledge. Conversely, marxist critics often make Foucault bear the brunt of their contemporary complaint. Both positions typically misread Foucault’s telegraphing by assuming that his anti-Stalinist/PCF stance can be generalized as a larger rejection of left organization and its relation to Marx. For contrary to claims that his work evacuates political agency, Foucault endorses the anti-disciplinary strategies forged by the 1840s worker and Fourierist press: these procedures fused a local counter-discourse (in which terms of deviancy were reversed and applied to the bourgeoisie, with a larger struggle) whose “aim was not simply to extract concession from the state or to rescind some intolerable measure, but to change the government and the very structure of power.” Moreover, the proclamation of this counter-discourse ‘communicate[s] between different forms and levels of offences’ by establishing ‘relations between the workers’ movement and the republican parties…in the passage from the workers’ struggles…to political revolution (Foucault 1977: 273).’
Hardt and Negri, on the other hand, reject the convergence of popular insurgency and left organization as they invoke a politics of spontaneity. According to Empire, the limited impact of ‘the most radical and powerful struggles of the twentieth century’ can be attributed to a failure to inspire “a cycle of struggles, because the desires and needs they expressed could not be translated into different contexts (Hardt and Negri 2000: 54).’ Hence Empire hyperbolically declares, ‘in our much celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable’, since “there is no common language of struggle that could ‘translate’ the particular language of each into a cosmopolitan language…that facilitates communication, as the languages of anti-imperialism and proletarian intervention did for the struggles of a previous era” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 54, 57). Hardt and Negri celebrate this weakness as a strength by claiming that struggles now do ‘not link horizontally, but each one leaps vertically, directly to the virtual center of Empire (Hardt and Negri 2000: 58).’ Although Empire lays claim to the tradition of Italian Marxism, the inevitable result of politics that forgoes efforts to build coalitions, or historic blocs, of horizontal interests was foreseen by Gramsci: ‘Failing to give [‘spontaneous’ movements] a conscious leadership…or to raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics, may often have extremely serious consequences. It is almost always the case that a ‘spontaneous’ movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class… to attempt coups d’etat (Gramsci 1971: 199).’ Marx and Foucault are more severe; both see intentional nomadic bohemianism/deviancy as the acts of agents provocateurs (Marx 1973: 197; Foucault 1977: 280).
In its rejection of subaltern institutions, and the communist party’s typical responsibility for facilitating horizontal communication among the disempowered in order to create an oppositional hegemony, Empire displays a tremendous unlearning of all that Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks have to teach us about revolutionary democracy. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asks, who speaks for the subaltern (Spivak 1988)? For Gramsci, the answer is clear: the subaltern. Yet, given the subaltern’s initial structured lack of fixed modes of enunciation, the communist party’s role is to fashion instruments for the subaltern to wield. To deny this need for institutional forms that empower and concatenate dissent is simply to indulge in mythologies of dissenting autonomy.
The problems emerging from Empire’s attempted fusion of a (Deleuzian) Foucault with an historiography of long economic cycles are, nonetheless, useful errors that encourage a return to these sources for alternative synchronicities that might better analyze the present conjuncture and generate future agendas. Foucault’s work on different modes of knowledge reinforces Marx’s periodization by modes of production. Critics, for instance, often overlook Foucault’s tacit reliance on Marx’s claim that the shift from a formal to a real subsumption of labor-power in the late eighteenth century transformed a host of pre- (or weakly) capitalist relations, including epistemology itself. Foucauldian archaeology rejects the untroubled linearism of thematic histories that believe terms like “medicine” have transhistorical continuity. For Foucault, the project of archaeology means the study of ‘new forms of positivity’ created by ‘sudden redistributions’: ‘a single notion (possibly designated by a single word) may cover two archeologically distinct elements (Foucault 1972: 169, 161).’ As a discourse becomes imbricated with ‘economic processes and social relations,’ it emerges as an entirely different object altogether (Foucault 1972: 164). Investigating how a ‘set of enunciative facts’ becomes ‘linked to non-discursive systems: [archaeology] seeks to define specific forms of articulation’ with ‘institutions, political events, economic practices and processes (Foucault 1972: 162).’
Because Foucault’s evidentiary matter nearly always illustrates this transformation through the eighteenth-nineteenth century transition, he tacitly invokes historical capitalism’s development from a phase defined by the extrinsic appropriation of non-capitalist social relations, mainly through violence (formal subsumption, absolute surplus-value), to the intrinsic reconfiguration of their systemic logic (real subsumption, relative surplus-value). In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the rise of disciplinary institutions sought to make subaltern subjects docile and fragment laboring-class solidarity by shifting the emphasis of subordination from brute physical control to the internalization of “normal” subjectivities. Discipline’s contemporaneous industrial mode of production uses a similar tactic as it incites workplace competition by introducing non-normative laborers (women and children) into the factory to re-direct male proletarian resistance away from the bosses and onto the worker’s family members – a strategy whereby sexism, a capitalist form of patriarchy, uses a cross-class ideal of masculinity to dampen class struggle. However, as archaeology defines socio-cultural fields (the ‘accumulation of men’) as discursive, and ‘political events, economic practices and processes’ (‘the accumulation of capital’) as non-discursive, a term bearing functionalist connotations, Foucault appears to reinscribe base-superstructure claims. It is such claims that have served to authorize anti-foundationalist critics’ elision of historical capitalism as culturally non-representational, hence insignificant (Foucault 1977: 221).
A way beyond this antimony appears by reading Foucault and Marx via Regulation School theory that distinguishes between regimes of accumulation and modes of regulation helps here. Michel Aglietta defines the ‘form of social transformation that increases relative surplus-value under the stable constraints of the most general norms that define absolute surplus-value’ as regimes of accumulation (Aglietta 1974: 68). The means of superintending competition, both inter-capitalist and the class struggle crystallized in the fight over wages, refers to the mode of regulation (Aglietta 1974: 18). Though Aglietta proposes these terms to describe the metabolism linking the departments of production and consumption, we can also use them to revise the discursive/non-discursive split. As each regime of accumulation superintends the law of value, it covers the historical transformation of production from forms of non- (or weakly) capitalist commodity exchange and accumulation (hoarding, tribute, usury, mercantile luxury trade) to one dedicated to monetarized surplus-value as an end, not a means. The mode of regulation covers forms of managing antagonism, as with the shift from a social system based on status hierarchies and blood-caste conflicts to one primarily driven by modern class subordination.
Aglietta’s insight is that both aspects have their own history of incorporation within capitalist modernity in ways that may be initially uneven, yet eventually synchronize. Likewise, each department has its own “cultural” aspects so that neither accumulation nor regulation “bases” the other. In this light, Foucault’s treatment of normalizing discipline explains how a particular mode of regulation controls (i.e. lowers) wages, as laboring classes trade militancy for inclusion within status norms, like whiteness or “honest work”, to facilitate the industrial regime of accumulation and its production of a non-normate reserve army of surplus labor, be it in the domestic or foreign domain.
Reading Foucault through Aglietta raises two questions. Firstly, what articulates a “regime” to a “mode”? In short, this is a matter of Gramscian hegemony and historic blocs. Secondly, Foucault’s treatment of normalizing discipline explains how a particular mode of regulation controls (i.e. lowers) wages, as laboring classes trade militancy for inclusion within status norms, like whiteness or “honest work”, to facilitate the industrial regime of accumulation and its production of a non-normative reserve army of surplus labor, be it in the domestic or foreign domain. If a crisis of regulation (through increased domestic or foreign subaltern intransigence) forces a change in the regime of accumulation, then ought not a transformed regime promote, in turn, a more compatible mode of regulation?
Which brings us back to Empire’s deployment of Foucault. Hardt and Negri argue for a globalized form of intensified disciplinary normalization that circulates through ‘flexible and fluctuating networks’ (Hardt and Negri 2000: 23). As Empire claims that disciplinary procedures are now released from their previously restricted space of site-specific institutions, it asserts the ‘biopolitical nature of the new paradigm of power. Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior…[with] command over the entire life of the population’ (Hardt and Negri 2000: 23). Foucault’s precise terminology is lost here.
In Foucault’s exegesis, all modes of power are biopolitical in the sense that each historical phase advances its own mode of corporeal treatment, ranging from the early modern sovereign’s marking of bodies in awful spectacles to modern constructions of intrinsic sexuality. Biopower here refers to a specific phase of (industrial era) modernity that Foucault links to historically situated phenomena, such as the rise of statistical censuses and demographic concerns deployed by ‘instruments of the state,’ whereby ostensibly neutral quantification supports the qualitative evaluations that form the ligands for a matrix of ‘the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies’ (Foucault 1980: 141). Doubtless biopower continues to exert influence, since older social modes remain continually available for recall. But in light of postfordist explanations, Foucault ought to be read as suggesting that biopower, typified by governmentally reinforced norms of internalized corporeal regulation and the rationalization of reproductive nurture (“the Welfare State”), is no longer the dominant mode of regulation or the contemporary pressure point for anti-systemic politics in a different phase of historical capitalism that supersedes nineteenth century forms of imperialist statism.
Even before Lawrence v. Texas, the New York Times’s decision to grant same-sex unions inclusion within the normative legitimacy of its matrimonial archive, leads one to question if “normal” heterosexuality really continues to define the terrain of contestation (New York Times 2002)? Judith Butler insists ‘homosexuality and bisexuality…are essential to the functioning of the sexual order of the political economy, that is, constituting a fundamental threat to its workability. The economic tied to the reproductive, is necessarily linked to the reproduction of heterosexuality’ (Butler 1998: 42) Butler’s claim is mainly valid for nineteenth century-derived configurations of sexualized public-private divisions, but has less regulatory effect today.
“Normalization” has been a productive analytic tool for a range of critiques about the social construction of normative categories, like whiteness, heterosexuality, and citizenship, and the ways in which these classifications create hierarchies that “orientalize” the Other as a strategy of distraction from ongoing class stratification. Yet our primary focus on the abjection of the non-normative today, in a post-industrial phase, risks nostalgia for the heroic bad old days, even as ongoing capitalist dynamics make for bad new ones through different forms and constellations of power. The irony of Empire’s dramatic refusal of biopower lies in its believing that violating “normality” currently holds our liberation in balance.
Empire suggests that the modernity/modernism/modernization triptych is replaced by one of postmodernity/postmodernism/postmodernization, where “postmodernization” refers to the digitization of analog products and processes (Hardt and Negri 2000: 293). Digitization becomes a particularly contemporary form of commodity exchange as the binary code rationalization of analog life abstracts universal vital properties, just as labor becomes quantified in the money-form, and allows this commonwealth to become privatized through the speculative economies surrounding the patenting of genetic codes, biotechnology, and expressions of creativity and argument. The regime of information capitalism naturalizes the concept of “intellectual property,” which violates the human right to learn and be healthy, in order to catalyze a new phase of “primitive accumulation” that divests humanity from the cognitive commonwealth of its own collective knowledge formation. The organized crime of biopharmaceutical, agrotech, and lifestyle-marketing corporations seeks to enact a technological rack-rent by enclosing the ground codes of human experience and subsistence and forcing us to satisfy survival needs through the marketplace (Chase-Dunn 1989: 76). As information is given the protected status of persons, the order of the day is not that subjects submit to a civilizing process of corporeal normality, but that they comply with system’s fee-paying epistemic networks.
Transnational corporations create a forced dependence that positions the “information have-nots” (an oxymoron that terminologically replaces what used to be called the “underdeveloped”) as both consumers of processed info-goods and super-exploited primary handlers of the raw materials that provide the hardware for info-style exchanges. This neomercantilism establishes networks of distribution that structurally reward certain agents and disenfranchise others in ways that suggest the current moment is not as radical a break as Empire suggests. Contemporary regimes seem different from centralized fordist ones because they hearken back to pre-fordist eighteenth century deployments, like the worldly monopoly trading companies that were state-authorized and protected, but not state-enclosed. Similarly, Hardt and Negri’s insistence that contemporary capital works through ‘communication, cooperation, and the production and reproduction of affects’ recites the dominant traits of the eighteenth century’s culture of bourgeois-defined sentiment, emulation, and sociability, the age of manufacture’s techniques for overcoming artisan resistance to work-place conglomeration (Hardt and Negri 2000: 53; Marx 1977: 443-444).
Within the frame of fifteenth to nineteenth-century Europe, Marx defined five typical, and empirically verifiable, “moments” of capitalist exploitation, with the passage from one to another as a compensatory response to the falling rate of profit. The series includes: “primitive accumulation’s” violent disruption of non- (or weakly) capitalist relations that forcibly divorces producers from their means of production; the formal subsumption of value through over-work; relative surplus-value’s collectivization of labor, followed by its fragmentation through de-skilling; and, lastly, investment into the fixed capital of new technologies and distribution channels to recreate a modern form of primitive accumulation by incorporating zones of previously un-proletarianized subjects (women and children) into labor conditions (Marx 1977). These processes are not fixed stages, but their tendencies ineluctably form a recursive “spiral” of familiar dynamics modulated through historically and locally contingent fungible forms (Marx 1977: 727). ‘The history of this expropriation assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different historical epochs. Only in England, which we therefore take as our example, has it the classic form (my emphasis) (Marx 1977: 876).’ Because Marx treated the mid-nineteenth century’s industrial turn as the last aspect of his paradigmatic sequence, the central problematic in the ensuing historiography of capitalism concerns this question: are there additional, post-industrial processes, which Marx did not describe because he did not live to experience them, or are all later moments simply the same notes in a different register on this five tone stave, where the distinction is not one of structure, but scoring?
Empire chooses the former. I believe this is a mistake, but it is not the choice in a still open debate that is at stake, but the implications of what is lost through that decision. As capitalism successfully negotiates more spiral transformations, the duration of its cycle-time collapses in ways that makes the various moments appear as if occurring simultaneously, an accelerating time-space compression that seems as if the process is virtually instantaneous, lacking in mediations, and free of spatial depth. Braudel and Wallerstein account for this seemingly absent time by geographizing the movement of spirals (Braudel 1992; Wallerstein 1974-1989). Each cycle’s hegemon suffers disestablishment as it has invested too much fixed capital in its particular constellation of operation to negotiate a Schumpeterian creative destruction; more nimble competitors gain power as they discover new avenues and sites of primitive accumulation that deliver alternative springs of profit. The Venetian monopoly on Mediterranean access to the East spurred Iberian naval exploration to circumvent the Italians first by traveling alongside Africa, for its trans-continental trading routes, and then across the Atlantic. Spain and Portugal accidentally found their promised land in a regime based on New World mining. Eighteenth century Anglo-French capitalism constructed a post-Iberian Atlantic cartography of profit through triangular trades involving oceanic slavery and Caribbean sweeteners. Post-War US hegemony rested on a Cold War map that discovered the “free world” as a consumer outlet, with Europe stabilized by social market labor compacts that protected state budgets from over-expenditure by “exporting” unemployment across the border to be contained within the Soviet Bloc (Wallerstein 1995:12-13).
If one phase of US hegemony erodes after 1973, then what new global shape emerges? Here Empire makes its stand. By arguing for a new epoch of capitalist rule that is systemically de-centered, rather than presenting a new configuration of core-periphery arrangements, Empire abolishes the law of inter-capitalist competition and its role in reshaping global geography. In this new Eden of fellow feeling, capitalists are all Abel and no Cain slyly plots to evict his kin from the riches of the earth. Yet, by refusing the geography of uneven development, Hardt and Negri’s work cannot align itself, in any meaningful sense, with Marx’s diagnosis on capitalism’s need to appropriate new zones of labor-power, the primitive accumulation that results in core-periphery differences. Without any sense of the entrepreneurial heterogeneity within capitalism, Hardt and Negri overlook how bourgeois civil war manufactures new instances of popular forced movement. Capitalists only gain advantage over each other by altering their organic composition of capital, and primitive accumulation’s evictions are the swiftest means to this end. Empire can express a Deleuzian celebration of circulation as a delirious good in itself only by foregoing the General Law of Accumulation, which details how the unfortunate human bearers of labor are coercively made more “flexible” in their location. Without any critique of the factors that force displacement, Empire’s dithyrambs of molecular de-linkage manifests anarcho-autonomism’s defining trait as a socialized form of libertarianism that proclaims the radical right of nomadic de-territorialization without a self-critique on how this freedom has been preconditioned by the nightmare of liberalism’s political economy.
Instead of being a dead dog, the US is attempting to do what only England has managed before: master two contiguous phases. To do so it must discover new zones of latent labor-power, or, at least, block potential competitors from appropriating these veins. The restructuring of production towards cyber-space as a US dominated territory is one prong. The return to State terror is another. The post-1989 conflicts, the ongoing “Levantine Thirty (?) Years War” (Gulf War-Yugoslavia-Afghanistan-Gulf War II, etc.) can be read as the US’s stoking of regional chaos to generate wretched labor willing to produce (or safeguard) cheap natural resources and deny European expansion as a possible competitor to American power. The demonization of Islam functions to frighten the European Union from the advantages of its own potential enlargement by raising a crescent curtain on its Eastern frontier. Similarly, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is the compensatory medium for the region’s proto-bourgeoisie, frustrated at US support for aristocratic despotism that prevents the local “technical merit” from assuming sovereignty. Twenty-first-century Islamic Jihad generates a national-popular fusion of the region’s agrarian/provincial and proto-bourgeois interests because it desires, not rejects, modernity.
A third motive links war and technology as a marker for the next phase. Given the difficulty in discovering new terrains of exploitation on earth, the next direction will inevitably be the outward scramble to acquire resource-rich topographies in space. Here the barrier is investment costs, not the state of science. Just as the ethno-religious aggression of the Spanish Reconquista and expulsion of the Jews provided the initial financing for Isabella’s New World adventures, the “war against terror” justifies State super-subsidies for research and development in aerodynamics and integrated life-support systems for planned extra-terrestrial accumulation. Before the routine exploitation of overhead Nature is possible, however, the killing-fields need to be sown to justify unproductive financing of military science and dislodge latent labor from its home amity.
But is globalization only an American imperium? Drawing on Abu-Lughod’s description of linked trading domains before the fifteenth century, Frank claims that European aspects of proto-capitalism (technology, munitions, numeracy, credit mechanisms) were neither exceptional nor as developed as in contemporaneous China (Frank 1998: 1-8: Aub-Lughod 1989). Yet, at some bifurcation point, China left the path to further capitalist development. Meanwhile, European powers used their links to a more complex East to transform themselves from a blundering set of snarling warlords into a capitalist “world-system,” a mainly self-contained trading network. The implications of Frank’s claims are three-fold.
Firstly, there is nothing intrinsically “Western” about capitalism. As he himself suggested, Weber’s civilizing claims about the exceptionalism of European rationality do not withstand further historical research (Weber 1930: 28). The celebrated ingredients for capitalism (bureaucracy, expansionism, clusters of innovation) existed in all the early modern global trading nodes. As Frank admits, the question is not why one zone became capitalist, but what particular configurations catalyzed forward motion faster than others. (Frank 1998: 333-334). The answer to this question can only result from inquiries that differentiate between Eurocentric research, which sees Western cultures as both exceptional and normative, and Euronodic work, which treats the European “world-system” only as zone that ceases to be semi-peripheral after the fifteenth century and globally dominant in the phase between the late eighteenth and mid-twentieth century. Global studies must trace the contours of capitalism’s rise, be it in the Canton or Champagne region, and recognize that a region’s delay in becoming fully capitalist is not always a matter of structured dependency, but the inability to coalesce scattered interests.
If the Asian world-system decelerated its own capitalist trajectory, the recent acceleration of the region’s capitalist drives means that our current moment is also akin to that pre-fifteenth century scenario of mutually competing economies. In this light, Empire’s claim for the absence of US dominance has an unintended resonance. The felt homogeneity of globalization could be the result of a condition not seen since early modernity, an increasing overlap between two expanding geo-nodes, one American and the other Asian. We may exist less in a wholly new mode of capitalist sovereignty than in the epochal shift in global capitalism where the short-lived moment of Amero-European dominance faces increasing competition from an insurgent Asiatic capitalism articulating its own configuration of profitable space (Shapiro 2000). Since inter-capitalist conflict surely becomes received as cross-class struggle, then, as Gramsci suggests in the above epigram, the return of stormy weather is no time to abandon either our still functioning analytic tools. Despite Empire’s sans souci, the project of reconstructing left institutional facilities remains central to any pertinent anti-capitalist politics. Hardt and Negri do not mark the break they suppose, but Empire does signal a shift beyond the moment of postmarxism. Critics comfortable with the recent revisions of power, like Foucault’s, are returning to Marx. In so doing, they pose a new set of questions for the desire for a postbourgeois existence: What is a non-disciplinary, democratic left institution? What energizes effective opposition? How does democratic communism operate?
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