Letters

Spinoza on Speed

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s, Empire (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2000) is a book I have always been ambivalent about. It is a kind of Spinozist-accelerationist epic. (As Benjamin Noys has usefully shown). Spinoza on speed.

I admire the boldness with which it attempted to describe the situation that was its present, and which in certain respects is still our present. It was a sort of massive détournement of Machiavelli, Spinoza and Marx. H+N: “Machiavellian freedom, Spinozist desire, and Marxian living labor are all concepts that contain real transformative power: the power to confront reality and go beyond the given conditions of existence.” (185)

On the other hand it seemed a bit trapped in a certain voluntarist reading of the Spinozist worldview. If with Althusser, Spinoza turns everything into one combinatory structure, in Negri, and then in H+N, Spinoza turns everything into one proliferating agency. It is a sort of extreme version of the ‘standpoint theory’ that begins with Lukacs, which begins and ends with labor as agency. What is lacking is the crucial step Bogdanov makes, which is to insist that the question is for labor to think what is other to it, and that what is other to it in the long run is not capital but nature.

In Lukacs that is a narrowing down of agency, of proletarian praxis, in a dialectic with the reified thought of capital. In H+N this is further impoverished: there aren’t two historical agents – there is only one, rethought not as labor but as multitude. Thus: “History has a logic only when subjectivity rules it.” And “The history of capitalist forms is always necessarily a reactive history.” (268) Not only is the multitude the only agency in this historical monism, it is only an agent as living labor. Neither nature nor techne appear as agents at all. Hence changes in the forces of production just magically appear in Empire, as if straight from the workshop of Hephaestus.

Of course there are benefits to seeing labor as an agent. H+N are good on the driving role of worker mobility, from country to city, and from state to state, as one of the forces driving modern forms of capitalism to try and capture labor and fix it in place. But the one-agent monist of this version of Spinozist-Marxism can seem strangely weightless.

The central proposition of the book is that there is a new form of global sovereignty called Empire. “In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries…” (xii) But then what infrastructure allows it to do that? “It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus…” (xii) But what is that apparatus made of?

Is it really the case that “the role of industrial factory labor has been reduced and priority given instead to communicative, cooperative and affective labor.” (xiii) Given that there are some hundred million industrial workers in China alone now, this may need to be understood with a bit more nuance.

As a one-agent theory, Empire basically boils down to this: “The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing counter-Empire…” (xv) Constructed with what? H+N: “Our argument aims to be equally philosophical and historical, cultural and economic, political and anthropological.” (xvi) But not technical. Nothing much is to be said about the actual forces of production with which another history would have to be made.

H+N are not alone in thinking that an international world order had by 2000 clearly broken down, and some kind of global order was emerging. Two tendencies emerged, which H+N think transposed ways of thinking about states to the supra-state level. One is a return to Hobbes, and a notion of a contract between states for mutual security; the other is a return to Locke, and a global constitutional civil society. In either case the international is thought as analogy to national polities.

What was emerging around 2000 was a single supranational power, grounded in an ethics of just war that justifies interventions in states. Empire appears most visibly now as legitimate force against unjust states. Empire claims for itself a right to policing, a right of intervention, and even a duty of the dominant to police the peripheries, legitimated by supposedly universal values.

What undergirds this new order is a regime of “biopolitical production.” Following Foucault, this appears as a moving beyond disciplinary regimes of power, which Foucault analyzed in his studies of the prison, the school and the clinic. Disciplinary power structures the limits of thought and action. But this is now something more like what Deleuze called a society of control. H+N: “Power is now exercised through machines that directly organize the brains… and bodies… towards a state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity.”

Discipline was in a sense architectural, and shaped bodies from without, to the point where bodies internalize the externally imposed discipline. Control is more microscopic and works, in a sense, ‘internally.’ Paul B. Préciado will later show quite brilliantly how control can work as a kind of pharmaceutical regime.

The shift from discipline to control is subsumed by H+N within a Marxist language of the move from formal to real subsumption. This is part of Marx’s historical thinking in which he sees capital as working outwards from its home territories, annexing spaces and folding them into its regimes of circulation.

At first, its outward move is formal, attaching itself externally to existing forms, be it a colony or (on another scale) a body. But eventually subsumption becomes real, more a matter of an internal articulation of the formerly separate entity into itself. It is no longer just the formal subsumption of the worker’s body via the discipline of labor but the real subsumption of the subjectivity of the same body which now thinks of itself as a consumer.

In his texts on disciplinary apparatuses, Foucault is quite strict in limiting his analysis to how forms shape bodies. It was not a theory of subjectivity. This gave his work a certain ‘vulgar’ quality, which could have pointed the way to a certain kind of vulgar Marxist understanding of the technical means via which bodies both produce and are produced. But in the later Foucault, in Deleuze, Guattari and Hardt and Negri, the question of the subject returns, like a kind of default setting intellectuals cannot help but restore each time their hardware goes down.

H+N borrow from D+G a Spinozist vision of the world as a monism of desiring-machines, producing subjectivity. Negri, and then H+N grafted this on to something Marx mused on in his notebooks: the “general intellect.” Marx was in a tentative way trying to think how not just the physical qualities of labor become social labor under capitalism, but how labor’s cognitive qualities as well tend to become combined and socialized. But there is a slippage back towards an idealist view that is latent in the category of general intellect. Combined with the tendency to privilege living labor in H+N this becomes rather problematic. Cognition and subjectivity get rather more privileging than is all that helpful in trying to think historically.

H+N: “The central role previously occupied by the labor power of mass factory workers in the production of surplus value is today increasingly filled by intellectual, immaterial and communicative labor power.” (29) It is hard not to see this as imposing a view from the overdeveloped world onto the world picture. If anything, this is an era of the mass production of the industrial worker on a global scale.

In a way, what H+N do is rewrite the ‘cultural turn’ in Marxist thought on a global scale, as if the centrality of the social production of the means of satisfying human needs was no longer a central concern. Viz: “After a new theory of value, then, a new theory of subjectivity must be formulated than operates primarily through knowledge, communication and language.”

But is this not exactly the opposite move to that for which the Anthropocene calls? Is not the problem really even more today than ever about labor’s encounter with nature, its extraction of the means of realizing human needs, but then also the constraints on the ability to even achieve that by misalignment of use and exchange value?

H+N get it that something new arose in the postwar period. In their terms, that industry and finance come to structured all of space “biopolitically”, but H+N say nothing about how. There is a bit too hasty a desire to move the question from the production of objects to subjects – as if commodity production had not always produced subjects. What is missing is the attempt to produce the concept of the tech that made it possible.

The second world war called into being vastly expanded and accelerated forms of what I call the vector: those lines that have particular qualities but whose deployment in space can be anywhere, and which are the agents of an abstraction of space itself. These were of two kinds: the intensive and extensive vector. The extensive vector includes radio, radar, telephony and eventually the whole of telecommunications. The intensive vector is essentially computing and data storage. One extends abstraction across space, with the other concentrates it. One extends perception of situations and the reach of command; the other accelerates the speed and complexity of analysis and the quantity of storable data.

This I think is a more helpful way of grasping the new forces of production than simply saying, as H+N do, “communication industries.” Modern capitalism always had those. Indeed, the era of the modern market is coterminous with that of the telegraph, that first media that reliably moved information faster than armaments or commodities, and enabled the control of what happens geographic space via a more abstract space traversed by the vector. Much folly results from seeing ‘communication’ as some new thing in postwar capitalism, and not integral to the whole development of commodification, from postal systems to cellphones. The unity of communication and production is not a novel feature of postwar commodification at all.

One of the joys of Marx’s political writings is the sensitivity with which he handles multi-agent situations. But in Capital he reduced historical action to two agents. Empire takes its cue from Capital, as its monolithic name suggests, and perhaps not helpfully so. H+N view the construction of Empire exclusively as a response to struggles against modern power. “The multitude called the Empire into being.” (43) Negation plays a subordinate role in this theory, but more to the point so does the complexity of inhuman or nonhuman agency. It is as of Sartre’s practico-inert exerted no feedback at all.

In today’s parlance, Empire is accelerationist. “We claim that Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is better…” (43) Empire increases the potential for liberation. H+N are against reactive localism. They usefully call for an inquiry into how reactive localism is produced. Empire is “regime of the production of identity and difference.” It isn’t homogenizing.

This isn’t one of those theories about how globalization, for good or ill, makes everything the same. Rather, it is a theory about how Empire moves towards real subsumption, folding outsides into the insides of commodification, but by assigning to what it incorporates sometimes quite specific functions and qualities. You can be incorporated in your difference. Your difference is not in itself a kind of resistance or alternative.

“Resistance is futile!”, as the Borg say in StarTrek. Modernity has come to an end, and it can’t be brought back. “We must cleanse ourselves of any misplaced nostalgia for the belle époque of that modernity.” (47) The goal is now transforming the necessity imposed on the multitude into liberation. Empire forms in response to the multitude. It is up to the multitude to push it still further.

There is a certain slippage in language throughout Empire, between multitude and labor. H+N see traditional labor, that centrally modern figure, as in decline. They speak instead of the rise of rise of “immaterial labor power.” (53) More on which in a moment. Interestingly, they were concerned about the incommunicability of struggle in the new globalized space of Empire. “The struggles do not communicate despite their being hypermediatized… We are once again confronted by the paradox of incommunicability.” (56)

This certainly seemed the case in the late twentieth century. The weird global media events I studied in my first book, Virtual Geography, such as Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin wall appeared singular and disconnected. They may seem less so in the wake of the globalization of Occupy, no matter how different and incomparable its various iterations may have been.

But perhaps it is not that helpful to insist too strongly that there is a common enemy and that there should be a common language of struggle. This smacks of a sort of residual Leninism, which always saw itself as the high theory of revolutionary praxis. There’s a curious will to power in H+N’s attempt to render all the old languages of struggle obsolete and replace them with their own. Thus, “We suspect that Marx’s old mole has finally died.” (57) And there are no more “weakest links.”

We’re not left with much by way of linguistic resources, however. H+N: “The multitude is the real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives off the vitality of the multitude – as Marx would say a vampire regime of accumulated dead labor that survives only by sucking the blood of the living.” (62) This agency can’t be called into being simply by assertion. In one key respect Empire is still a pre-modern book. It has nothing to say about its own form, about its own technical and communicative possibilities. Hence it lacks any sense of the nonhuman agencies via which the world might actually be made.

If one reads Marx on French politics, what emerges is a multi-class view of historical action. A rising bourgeoisie, as a minority class, had to align itself with other classes, with artisans and peasants, in order to overturn the aristocratic class order. And having done so, it quickly shed or contained its former class allies. In such accounts, there are always more than one or two class actors, and historical transformation is always a matter of leverage and alliance.

If this collapses into a dialectic of two in cod-Marxist thought, it collapses into an immanence of one in H+N. Here it is all about the productivity of the multitude and its immanent desires. Immanence and radical democracy are the gifts of the modern era, a veritable effulgence of scientific and democratic creativity. But this Spinozist modernity produces also a reactive formation. The transcendent is the reactive field of containment for the immanent. For power, “It was paramount to avoid the multitude’s being understood, a la Spinoza, in a direct, immediate relation with divinity and nature, as the ethical producer of life and the world.” (78)

It is as if H+N had taken Marx’s turning of Hegel right-side-up and put him upside-down again, then kicked him in the head and replaced him with an upside-down Spinoza. As in Hegel, the history of philosophy is conflated with a philosophy of history.

It is not an uninteresting history. Descartes appear as a as new and modern form of transcendent order. Kant makes the subject central, but empty of experience, with knowledge made contemplative, and ethics reduced to reason. With the exception of Spinoza modern philosophy becomes a story of containing the energies of the multitude in some transcendent form or another, so long as it is not the old medieval theology.

Kant makes immediacy impossible: “The fact that it is difficult if not impossible to reunite the appearance of the thing with the thing itself is precisely the curse of this world of pain and need.” (81) This results in a romanticism of longing for a lost monism. And then Hegel transforms the immanent goal of the multitude into the transcendent power of the state.

In short, philosophy is a response to “liberated singularities” (83) that tries to contain them in new transcendent forms. Once Descartes has shed the old scholasticism, Kant revives the subject only to hand it over to Hegel as a conflictual node whose heliotropism is the reinvention of the state within history. Curiously, even the difference between labor and capital disappears, let alone the thought that arises from the social activity of any other kind of class actor in history. New kinds of nonreligious transcendence replace church with state. Hobbes and Rousseau are not that far apart, simply worshiping monarchical and republican absolutes respectively.

Key to this story is Adam Smith, who is used to legimimate the image of a self-organizing space outside of state sovereignty. H+N curiously do not spend much time trying to disentangle what multitude might mean outside of the Smithian invisible hand of the market. In general, those modes of thought that descend from Spinoza via Deleuze, Negri and others have a tendency towards a kind of vitalist, emergent and self-organizing sociality that is rather hard to tell apart from latterday versions of Smith. There’s an allergy to thinking what role infrastructures, tech, institutions and even actual cultures might play in non-state forms of organization, and a certain wishful thinking about how stable such things might be.

Here it is worth recalling Zizek’s provocation that if it’s a choice between civil society and the state, he would choose the state. Which is of course perfectly proper for Hegelians – as it is for Stalinists. His object there was more the civil society theory of Arato and Cohen. But the point might here be adapted to ask whether H+N really offer a concrete sense of what non-market forms of non-state organization might be like. Not to mention their affordances, their durabilities, relative rigidities, not to mention their specific pathologies.

Where Foucault thinks the disciplinary as supplanting the sovereign state, H+N see it as a mutation in sovereignty. Sovereignty shifts from a transcendent single point to a general economy of command. The modern state needs active citizens, not passive subjects. Luxemburg shows how national identities usurp real democratic organization. National popular sovereignty appears as revolutionary only up to the point when the revolution is won.

The ‘people’ are actually made by the nation-state, not the other way around. It is grounded in a myth of the very thing it produces. Subaltern nationalism is an ambiguous political force, anti-colonial struggles use nation as a weapon, but one which soon consumes the cause. “Every imagination of a community becomes over-coded as a nation, and hence our conception of community is severely impoverished.” (107) As soon as nation becomes state, its progressive function is at an end. A people is not a multitude, but a simulacrum of one made by the state to a national template.

Against third world nationalism, H+N stress the utopian element of globalization. “This utopian element of globalization is what prevents us from simply falling back into particularlism and isolationism in reaction to the totalizing forces of imperialism and racist domination, pushing us instead to forge a project of counter-globalization, counter-Empire.” (115)

They concede that “The global utopian vein in Marx is… ambiguous.” (118) Marx thought the colonization of India would abolish its old feudal order, but for H+N Marx was trapped in a unilinear approach to history, imagining that even the colonies had to pass through the same historical stages as the west. But actually, the expansion outwards of capital is not quite so unilinear and homogeneous. It turned out that even slavery is compatible with capital, as it had a ‘useful’ function in controlling the movement of labor. The movement towards real subsumption incorporates externalities in their differences rather than making them the same.

Colonialism homogenizes conflicts and makes them appear binary: anti-colonial resistance versus the colonizer. But an actual politics can’t arise out of negation alone. “The real political process of constitution will have to take place on this open terrain of forces with a positive logic, separate from the dialectics of colonial sovereignty.” (132)

Empire does not really rest on colonial binarizing disciplinary regimes that sort the colonized from the colonizer any more. H+N: “the postmodernist and postcolonialist theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity and hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialism of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. Power has evacuated the bastion they are attacking and has circled around to the rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference.” (138)

Pomo challenged modern sovereignty only, but sovereignty is mutating into a new form. Power is not actually dialectical, or even – one might add – even philosophical. Like Jameson, H+N see the postmodern as the symptom of a new stage of capitalism, but like him they don’t really offer much by way of a conceptual articulation of it. In their case, perhaps this is because their one historical agent – multitude, living labor, is too general and ahistorical a character.

Hence this sort of thing: “The real revolutionary practice refers to the level of production. Truth will not make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will. Mobility and hybridity are not liberatory, but taking control of the production of mobility and stasis, purities and mixtures is.” (156) Note that this works on a binarized logic, of refusing the pomo/poco language, but gesturing to the other, more correct one only negatively. Spinozist monism has just not yielded a nuanced enough trace of historical time and agency to actually act in an affirmative manner as a new conceptual net to describe the situation.

Admittedly, there is some force to their account of the mutation of American power into empire. For Machiavelli constituent power is that which is produced by the multitude. For Arendt, revolution succeeds when it finds constitutional form, a dialectical negation, within which to contain constituent power. H+N see this as unfinished business. Constituent power does not go away, but keeps pressing at the boundaries of constitutional power.

In American sovereignty, conflict between limit and expansion always solved by expansion, that which saves the republic from corruption. Empire is a kind of universalizing republic, extruded out of American power but going beyond it, even to the point of subsuming American sovereignty itself, up to a point.

H+N “Perhaps the fundamental characteristic of imperial sovereignty is that its space is always open.” (167) Global Empire arises out of continued extension of American constitutional project. But there is no more outside. Following Jameson and Debord, H+N see modernization as complete. There is no more nature. There are no more autonomous bases beyond Empire’s reach.

Hence resisting Empire cannot be local. All that is left is: “to go still further?” (206) When Empire has run out of externalities, it can be made to confront that which produces it – the multitude – in and of itself. H+N: “imperial power can no longer discipline the powers of the multitude; it can only impose control over their general social and productive capacities.” (211) Hence for the multitude, “a new task: constructing, in the non-place, a new place; constructing ontologically new determinations of the human, of living – a powerful artificiality of being.”

This could almost be the point at which H+N touch on the Anthropocene, but nature, or rather biosphere, never really appears as a concept. How could it, when only the point of view of living labor has really authentic being? What is missing is any sense of the infrastructure which both pushes global commodity production over the limit of what will sustain it, but which also, paradoxically, is the infrastructure also for a knowledge of that very fact.

Here we have to reverse the perspective, and concentrate on dead labor rather than living labor. What is it that produces what H+N so unhelpfully call “immaterial labor?” A pretty vast and very material infrastructure. One made of very different kinds of materiality to the old modern, or Fordist one.

The very particular material properties of information is one of the things that falls through the too-big net of H+N’s concepts. Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains. If there is a potential for new modes of non-market, non-state organization, it is in part due to the peculiar properties of information. The emerging ruling class of our time, the vectoral class, is precisely the one which has so far best realized how to build commodification regimes and forms of control on these über-material properties.

Empire was a brilliant book. It is unmatched in its scope. There’s not much it could not sweep up in its synthetic purview. H+N: “Donna Haraway carries on Spinoza’s project in our day as she insists on breaking down the barriers we pose among the human, the animal and the machine.” (91) At which point this particular reader wants to shout: ‘enough!’ Not everything makes sense when absorbed into the great octopus of Spinozism – least of all Haraway. Or rather, everything makes too much sense, and loses its specific qualities.

What Empire lacks is a sense of the multiple agencies of our current historical situation. There are multiple class agencies, but none of them are particularly human. Labor today is cyborg labor. The vectoral class cannibalized the old capitalist class by subordinating ownership of the means of production within the means of control of production by information.

It also lacks a concrete sense of limits, whether thought as Sartre’s practice-inert or by more directly thinking the biosphere as ground, as one can find in now little known Marxists such as Bogdanov and Needham. Empire shares with latterday accelerationist theories a lack of means to think inertia, but also to think extrapolation, of how new forms could be socially and technically engineered out of what we know of the other forms that work in the world.

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McKenzie Wark

  • Işık Barış Fidaner

    “But not technical.”

    this seems to me a common tautological way of using the word “technical”: like an implicit reference to a kitchen where people are supposed to know what they do.

    but kitchen people might be as confused as the serving people, in a different yet correlative mode. nothing would remain technical in a such a correlation of confusions, which is usually the case when one thinks about it..

    • mckenziewark

      sorry, i find your comment even more confusing.

  • Cosmin Visan

    The mobile knowledge workers that make up the ‘multitude’ have been tamed by 1. Credentialism, which makes them get into huge debts to get the degree that allows them to enter the knowledge worker class (and since the industrial worker has been moved to China, there is only that or a terrifying fall into the netherlands of McJobia) and 2. Outsourcing them to Bangalore and Pakistan… out of sight, with no bargaining power. Capital looks pretty full of Agency from where I stand…
    It’a a kind of weird Calvinism, where Purgatory (work in a factory, buy a house, redemption at retirement) has been eliminated, and there is only the Heaven of Silicon Apple, or the Hell of Mall Minions. Naturally, if you don’t make it to the Knowledge Spheres, you are a loser (predestined by low IQ and lack of ‘getting-it-together’).

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