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Saturday, March 31, 2012
ON THE COMMON, UNIVERSALITY, AND COMMUNISM
Theoretical Weekends at Scission with another long one. This is a conversation between Etienne Balibar and Antonio Negri.
The following discussion between two major representatives of contemporary radical political thinking is based on a symposium held in April 2009, with both participants subsequently revising their verbal remarks for publication in Rethinking Marxism.
Balibar: I truly believe that the current crisis, if it is really what a deep crisis, a global crisis, a crisis not only of certain, say, economic mechanisms, but a crisis of civilization including the kind of world order in which we live—this will force us to more or less completely rethink, revise, redimension the political and theoretical categories with which we have been working in the last period.
My question finally would be the following: not “what is communism?” (how is it defined? how is it ontologically grounded? what are its material or immaterial bases?), but rather, “who are the communists?” (therefore also where are they? what are they doing?).
Negri: The current economic crisis indicates that the overcoming of capitalist domination might be easier than we ever hoped. So the equilibrium of governance might be broken or subverted and the ‘common of the multitude’ might have the upper hand over the ‘communism of capital’.
My problem as a communist is not only seizing power, but also what to do with it once it’s seized (and the whole history of class struggle, both before and after the seizure of power, is clearly a process of transition from this standpoint). So, what to do with power? Our discussion on communism starts here.
On the Common, Universality, and Communism
A Conversation between Etienne Balibar and Antonio Negri
Introduction by Anna Curcio and Ceren zseluk
Communism is the specific idea around which we want to structure this conversation…. In Toni Negri’s recent writings with Michael Hardt (Hardt and Negri 2001, 2005, 2009), communism is thought from an ontology of the common. The common is both the presupposition and the product of social cooperation. It is a potential of expanding social cooperation which attends the paradigmatic transformation of productive forces toward immaterial production and the prominence of new forms of labor in contemporary capitalism such as affective labor, creative labor, and the increasingly socialized production of knowledge and communication more generally. The common refers to a form of socialization that breaks down the former divisions between work and life, between production and reproduction, and between material and immaterial.
In Etienne Balibar’s and some post-Althusserians’ recent writings, communism and related concepts of social emancipation are thought in relation to a paradoxical idea of universality, one that is simultaneously impossible to realize and yet necessary for politics. Against the false universalisms of communitarianism and commodity fetishism, this paradoxical universal both presumes and politicizes the internal limits of any formation. Balibar’s name for this “ideal universal” is equaliberty (galibert). By stating that equality and liberty are inseparable, the principle of equaliberty questions the limit of any discourse and extends the emancipatory potential of rights beyond their current exercise (see Balibar 1994, 2002).
We want to explore the theoretical and political implications of these two approaches for how we understand and practice communism in our conjuncture—more specifically, in the context of the current global economic crisis….
A particular argument proposed in Multitude and further developed in Commonwealth is that financialization crystallizes the way in which the value of (the present and future) social cooperation and living labor is homogenized, subjected to abstraction through money, and expropriated by capitalism. In this process of financialization, we locate a particular subjective support. As a substitute for the disappearing welfare state, the process of neoliberal financialization interpellates individuals as managers of their consumption and retirement plans as well as entrepreneurs of their own human capital. In the face of this subjective support of financialization, how do we distinguish the affects, desires, and forms of cooperation that produce the common from those that reproduce capitalistic cooperation? In this sense, is there not a role for ethics (beyond an ontology of the common) in the production of the common? Could we imagine communism as the name of such an ethics? Furthermore, given the displacement of the welfare state by the process of privatization and individuation, how does the idea of the common enable us to rethink, or perhaps think beyond, the relationship between the state and the public?
As the response to the current crisis borrows from the protocols of Keynesian demand management, not only do discourses on equality begin to be articulated in the public sphere (both by its conservative detractors and liberal proponents) but also calls for a moderation of the unbridled pursuit of private property begin to be voiced (both by conservative moralists and liberal humanists). It seems to us that these pronouncements of equality and moderation support a particular regime of distribution and stabilization that will not necessarily do away with the historically overdetermined social hierarchizations and regimes of “internal exclusion” on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. In this conjuncture, through what political demands can we extend and intensify the emancipatory potential of equaliberty? In what ways might these demands be continuous with, or depart from, those social rights that constitute the public under the welfare-state form? Could we imagine communism as a supplement of class struggle that pushes equaliberty beyond the horizon of Keynesian pragmatics, entitlements, and morality (i.e., beyond liberal capitalist democracy)?
Conversation between Toni Negri and Etienne Balibar
Toni Negri: I think that in order to get straight into the questions we have to draw a distinction, in the concept of the multitude, between the singular subject regarded as labor power—living labor in social production—and the subjected individual identified in the political order of citizenship. At this stage of the crisis of financialization and in the processes of struggle that emerge in such a situation, although the distinction I draw does not exist in reality (the two are indistinguishable in fact because they function in relation to one another), it permits us to confront the questions posed by Michael Hardt and me (and we do not claim to represent the current of operaismo as a whole) and by tienne Balibar (who tries to distinguish himself from the Althusserian tradition with right resolve).
Let us start with the second figure: the individual who is subject to the civic and political order can be identified in a relation of equaliberty to the extent that she is assumed as the material condition of a juridical and/or constitutional conjuncture and as a ‘non-actual’—unstable and unsatisfied—tension. In my view, the paradox underlying the definition of equaliberty as a universality that is impossible to realize and yet necessary to democratic and progressive politics can be related to spheres other than just those of equality and liberty; these are the political-economic spheres of the capitalist order of society—brutally defined as ‘wage’ related because income is generally regarded as the condition of direct or indirect participation in capitalist social relations. We are speaking of the figure of the citizen as historically integrated in the biopolitical order of welfare.
If we take the nexus connecting the figure of the citizen to that of the worker, both of whom are subjected to the measure of a ‘necessary wage’, to that historical measure of the satisfaction of needs indispensable to producing and surviving, the definition of this measure/quantity of needs leads us straight to the heart of the problem. We need to ask how, starting from this determination, it is possible to raise the question of maintaining, increasing, politically identifying, or changing that mass of needs that only a given level of ‘necessary income’ is able to satisfy.
We know that the current transformation of labor power (living labor is increasingly immaterial and cooperative) and its socialization (the valorization of labor can now be captured only at the level of money and finance) changes the terms of this question. The problem is taken away from the analysis of the length of the working day and subjected to the laws of finance. Consequently, the economic struggle to subvert the rules of the relative wage becomes a sociopolitical struggle to subvert the rules that govern the financial distribution of income in the welfare state. Liberty and equality have a cost. They are independent values with an always determinate economic base. As labor becomes intellectual, liberty is indispensable to it; similarly, as it becomes cooperative, equality qualifies it. Today, without liberty and/or equality, there can be no productive labor.
In this respect, the problem of distinguishing between the ‘common’, the ethico-political whole constituted by singularity and produced by the making-multitude, on the one hand, and the ‘communism of capital’, the form of capital accumulation and the symmetrical representation of new processes of social and cognitive production of value, on the other, no longer exists. In this context, any action aimed at securing a higher level of necessary income and any reference to financial capital have to do with exchange value and exchange value only, with commodities and commodities only. Identifying an alternative to the current character of the world of capital, the so-called communism of capital, is no longer possible at the level of wages and welfare in general. Therefore, to approach the question of finance from the standpoint of a theory of equaliberty, or any reference to it in political economy, can only amount to a proposal arising from within the issue of exchange value, completely from the inside of the problem of the commodity.
However, if we open the question to the aforementioned point of view that faces the effective nature of labor power—the particular technical and political composition of labor power—then we can start talking about the worker as participating in the multitude.
Then we can insist on the new figure of the productive subject who has conquered a relative autonomy both in the forms of cooperation she expresses and in the complexity of cognitive, intellectual, relational, and affective materiality of the labor power she puts to work. On this terrain there begins to emerge a specific excess linked to the becoming common of labor and of human reproductive activity, a surplus with respect to the difficulties of alienating the subjectivity inherent to autonomous production or expropriating the objective excess of such a production.
At this point our reflection must go deeper. The presupposition is that capital is always a relation between constant and variable, dead and living elements, and that this relation is always dialectical from the standpoint of capital. Capital must reduce this opposition to a unity by sucking dry its living power. Our question is whether this capital relation can be broken and the elements that make up the synthesis of capital can be divided. Every time there is a capitalist crisis, this rupture and division becomes evident, but capital recomposes this process. Now, can the new structure of living labor, the new technical composition of the labor force and the making-multitude, can the new possible political composition definitively keep the technico-political structure of capital open? Can it break the capital relation?
We can begin to answer this question by looking at the issue of the nonhomogeneity between becoming ‘common’ (the making-multitude of singularity) and ‘the communism of capital’ (global domination in the figure of financial capital).
From the standpoint of the ‘communism of capital’, we can only see the chance of moving within the realm of exchange value: the struggles for necessary income. The rupture that can be determined in this realm follows these struggles, but the nature of value stays the same: it is always exchange value. When income or welfare is the object of our demands, commodities and currency can be redistributed without affecting their nature. This struggle is fully inserted in the dynamics of the exchange of value: that is to say, of exchange value.
The only point where the determined rupture is ontologically relevant is when it relates to new figures of labor power, as outlined above, and insists on the labor power that produces excess at the productive level of the relations, affects, language, and communication that exalt the new cooperative nature of labor. What emerges from this is the common, and here the rupture is pushed toward the conversion of values (from exchange value) and the seizure of a mode of production oriented toward the production of man for man also at the level of welfare: the social wage and citizen income are no longer a quantity but the image of a new progressive breaking point of the capital relation and the power (potentia) of the autonomy of labor. I think that there are analogies with the process of equaliberty here, but the problem is to take hold of a figure of the production of man for man and of a radical change in the structure of production.
Etienne Balibar: I will return to the issue of equaliberty. I am always a little uncomfortable with explaining or defending my own ideas but, after all, this is something probably an intellectual, or a public intellectual, has to do. So, I will try to do it and answer Toni’s criticism, which I perfectly understand. But right now, in reaction to Toni’s positions, let me say three things.
First of all, starting again from the question about the crisis and financialization: I truly believe that the current crisis, if it is really what it seems to be—that is, a deep crisis, a global crisis, a crisis not only of certain, say, economic mechanisms, but as President Lula of Brazil wrote a few days ago [March 2009] in an op-ed that I believe was published more or less everywhere in the world, a crisis of civilization including the kind of world order in which we live—this will force us to more or less completely rethink, revise, redimension the political and theoretical categories with which we have been working in the last period. It was always like that in similar historical conjunctures. This was particularly the case several times during the dramatic history of Marxism as a theoretical and political project. And each time, to put it in the words of Althusser, it meant that you did not only have to think about the conjuncture by applying or trying to implement as intelligently as possible already existing categories, but you had to start again thinking within and under the conjuncture, under the constraints of the conjuncture. In particular, we will have to determine which are the strategic dimensions of this crisis. Of course, each of us has guesses and hypotheses about that, but, in fact, we do not know. And therefore, everything we can say today about alternatives, even alternative languages, be it based on the ontology of the common and the political philosophy of the multitude as global revolutionary subject, or on a certain conception of nonexclusionary citizenship and “democratizing democracy” that I try to attach to the category of ‘equaliberty’, will probably have to be completely reexamined.
Now, second and third, to return to Toni’s ideas and positions which he once again has very forcefully expressed: There are at least two great ideas that, from my point of view, not only are positive contributions, but are crucial elements of our attempt at thinking alternatives in the late capitalist moment in which we live. I do not go into details, but I want to name them. The first of them is his idea of “constituent power.” I think that in fact on this point perhaps we have slightly different terminologies, but, in reality, tracing back to a historical legacy, a revolutionary tradition that we broadly share, what I try to say in terms of “equaliberty” and what Toni tries to say in terms of “constituent power” are fundamentally convergent. And it has to do, of course, with the idea that only struggles, as Toni just repeated, a conflictual nature of social relations—and I absolutely agree with the idea that capital, indeed, is a relation—can account for the transformation of institutions, be they economic or political, civic, and, therefore, represent the motor of historical changes. And the important point is, of course, not only this primacy of the insurrectional or the constituent over the constituted, which does not deny the necessity of institutions and constituted power. But it is also the fact that the materiality of the struggle is always to emerge again in the very places where a certain established, official discourse, the discourse of the state and the dominant class, the hegemonic discourse will deny its presence and do its best to convince us that in fact it does not exist—either because it was eliminated or because it is bound to remain marginal. And the range, the breadth, of such spaces in history, culture, society where the constituent power, the insurrection as the driving force of history emerges and reemerges, is truly fascinating. And I see no difficulty, at least in the first moment, to put that under the umbrella ‘multitude’ if there remains a question mark: if the multitude is not taken for an existing subject, but rather, I would say, a regulatory idea of a possible convergence of these insurrectional elements.
The second element that I find central in Toni’s reflection concerns his thinking on labor and productive power. My great divergence, to put it in quick terms, is that I have long abandoned the ontological prerequisite of Toni, which is the absolute primacy, not to say the uniqueness, of productive force as an anthropological foundation for politics and historical change. So I see a number of other dimensions of culture and society which cannot be reduced to an analysis in terms of productive force and which we need if we want to understand something about the struggles of the societies in which we live. But I agree with Toni, and this is something that he really pushed to the fore on the background of a number of inquiries which combined psychology, sociology, labor relations, and in the end, of course, political theory, that the concept of labor with which Marx himself had been working was much too narrow and, from that point of view, did not account for the reality of the development of labor relations in past capitalism, and certainly not in contemporary capitalism. By insisting again on something that was present only marginally in Marx, on the importance of the dialectic of material and intellectual labor, the role it plays in the permanent contradiction between the individualistic and the cooperative aspect of labor, and above all, by reminding us that labor is not only intellectual, or manual, but also has an affective dimension and, for that reason, is intrinsically connected to all the social passions, which build or destroy the common, Toni really has revolutionized a certain narrow, perhaps utilitarian, view of labor that Marx had retained. Now I think these two things are absolutely inevitable and in everything I could say myself I would try not to forget or to deny that.
Finally, just one quick remark: my problem is with Toni’s ontological understanding of all these problems. He’s even pushed the ontological dimension or one-sidedness around the definition of men as productive animals to a greater length, which allows him to resume the neat narrative that sees communism at the end, as the telos of the progressive socialization of labor. He’s pushed that to another extreme, which, from my point of view, is completely metaphysical. And from that point of view, of course, what I miss—he won’t be surprised, this is the old Althusserian tune—is politics. There cannot be politics where everything is always already determined in advance by an ontological framework. You cannot have the uncertainties of politics. You cannot have the unexpected character of the political conflicts or crises that are rooted either in the economic phenomena or in the ideological dimensions of contemporary politics. Where is religion, where is nationalism, where are all the ideological discourses and practices that will heavily weigh on any and every turn in the historical moment in which we are living and that make it absolutely irreducible, from my point of view, to a simple alternative between the more or else irresistible rise and emergence of the common as the futuristic dimension of labor, on the one side, and the “communism of capital,” on the other? A beautiful oxymoronic formula that I salute, but which says nothing about the conjuncture.
Negri: First, I do not believe that historical materialism is a constrictive ontology, a determinism, or a teleology. I think that in historical materialism and its ontological condition we must include chance, the clinamen, alternative productions of subjectivity, the aleatory connections of modes and so forth: Spinozist ontology integrates and qualifies the horizon of materialism.
Second, my impression is that when we talk about labor, as we started doing in Empire with Michael and many other comrades, the political dimension is exalted rather than reduced. Insofar as labor becomes biopolitical, liberty and equality are internal to human productive activity, be it economic or political.
Third, the political is not just a superstructure of social cooperation. Therefore it is innovated by values that differ from market values and exceed and go beyond their order and measure.
To open wide the question of politics, I want to return to the problem of the crisis of sovereignty and government in particular. Inside this crisis of sovereignty and government it becomes possible to express “constituent power.” This requires that we confront the problems of capitalist civility (whether liberal or socialist) and global organization with proposals, as Michael and I have been doing for over a decade now. If what has been said so far has any meaning, when we speak of thecommon as a new use value that opposes the capitalist rule of profit and command, we come to understand the current political crisis as one that is eminently political in a strict sense, as a crisis of government and sovereignty, of modern politics par excellence. I would rather avoid going back to the crisis of sovereignty and its transformation in the imperial age here; I have already amply discussed it elsewhere, but with regard to the crisis of government and its modern figure, it is clear that state administration has radically changed. It is less the design of a unitary and articulated decision that descends from the law and more a dynamic, pluralist, and disarticulated system of decisions, contracts, and conventions established among multiple subjects. Governanceis coming to substitute for government. From the perspective of political science strictly speaking, we ascertain the same alternative that we found in political economy: the critique of political economy and the critique of political science are juxtaposed. If we consider the problem from the point of view of juridical right (which always presents itself as a formal science and as the coherent prise de conscience of a singular ordainment), we face the same difficulties: not only does government detach itself from the juridical qualifications of sovereignty, but governance and administration assume a distance from constitutional and/or administrative right, too. To clarify, these transformations occur because there are surpluses that resist or are placed in alternation with the juridical or administrative order everywhere. Government is always subjected to this play. You might have won the elections with a large majority over your adversary, but you will be equally subjected to the alternatives of governance. Examples of this are numerous and could include the experiences of constitutive government today (as demonstrated by Obama). At this point the problem becomes that of understanding whether this surplus and alternative designs can be brought back to new forms of subsumption within the renewed structures of sovereignty and capitalist government, or whether these contradictions could be the basis on which to configure a space for constituent power. Like Mao we are saying: one divides into two. Obviously the reference to Mao is entirely ironic, but still effective if we think of the little irony with which the idea of the political-theological One was proposed, from Jean Bodin to Carl Schmitt, throughout modernity, and is still being suggested.
This is only a hypothesis. For the time being, we need to understand whether capitalist command will manage to reconstruct its internal equilibrium within the new conditions of development and crisis, and whether the subjects that seek a new common prospect and new figures of liberty and equality will manage to build institutions able to oppose the structures of government of capital over the common. It is possible to clearly discern and identify a sort of institutional dualism with a degree of precision in governance as well as other spaces that were opened by the weakening of practices of sovereignty at the level of empire. We probably have to sharpen this dualism and accumulate surplus only on one side of this relation of crisis: that of the demands of the common.
Balibar: I want to start with an epistemological reflection on the uses of the very category ‘common’. And I feel the need to try to articulate what Anna and Ceren very generously pointed to as my signature intervention in these debates with the central concern about common and communism. The first thing—and I do not think Toni and I would disagree on that, or we all agree on that in a sense, witness precisely his provocative use of the formula ‘communism of capital’—is that we have to take into account the fact that the ‘common’ is a category that covers what I tend to call in French ‘equivocity’ or equivocal meanings: that is, not only a variety of meanings and applications but a permanent tension between opposite meanings.
And I see at least three directions in which any reflection on the common could go, which I think are never completely reducible to one another. One has to do with the issue of ‘universality’ and ‘the universal’. I argued in the past that the notion of the universal itself was an intrinsically divided and conflictual one, with extensive and intensive aspects, and, above all, especially in the West, torn between philosophical and political traditions, centered on the idea of universalizable rights of the individual person, certainly also linked to a certain homogeneity of the market or a certain system of equivalences dominating the market, on the one hand, and claims, attempts at rethinking the universal in a more differentiated and, for that reason, dialectical, manner, on the other hand. That is the whole problem of the universal of singularities, which are ultimately rooted in certain deep and enigmatic anthropological differences: sexes, races, and cultures, the oppositions of health and disease, the whole issue of normality and abnormality, however it becomes defined. So, to summarize, I see here an essential dimension in which any reflection on the common has to go, which is roughly speaking the attempt at rethinking the universal as such in terms of anthropological differences.
For the universal in that sense, which remains essentially a regulative idea, or a permanent aporia, there is very little chance of coinciding immediately with either the project of building a state or a system of public institutions, or the problem of promoting a communitarian dimension of social relations, which takes the many forms that we know: national, religious, and also revolutionary. These two problems concern the public, the citizen, whether identified with the state or critical with respect to a statist dimension—which has its importance. There would be no rights if there had been no states in our societies, and the communitarian dimension. Again, I hardly see how humans could live outside communities, but the problem is that the communities are mutually incompatible so none of these dimensions is reducible.
Communism is the third and most enigmatic direction in which I see a reflection of the common to go. Communism is a notion or a name that I would not disown or abandon myself, if only at the ethical level that you were mentioning, but, more profoundly perhaps, also at the logical level. The problem with communism, however, is that it is being not only devaluated and scorned, but profoundly shaken and internally destroyed by the history of the twentieth century so that any discourse of communism today not only has to be formulated in terms of an alternative to exploitation and various forms of oppression—and, in the end, to capitalism—but it must be formulated in terms of an alternative to the alternative as it was historically realized. If it does not understand the reasons why the communist project based on Marxian concepts, however distorted, ended in its absolute opposite, it will produce nothing, or once again it will lead to the worse. That was not because Lenin and Stalin were bad guys or because Mao was a tricky ruler who fooled the people. The problem is: why did masses, “multitudes,” understand communism like that and, therefore, find themselves caught in the incapacity to reorient what they thought was an emancipatory movement and proved to be a road to hell? So any communism today has to be alternative to the alternative as well. And it is from that point of view of course that we all try to rethink communism: Toni does it in his way, by returning to a Christian inspiration (more precisely Franciscan; this is one great ‘communism’ in history, the communism of poverty, love, and fraternity); and I do it by returning to a radical bourgeois or civic form of pre-Marxist communism, the communism of ‘equaliberty’. It is not the communism of the market, of course. It is the communism of the Levellers, of Blanqui and Babeuf. This is a political idea of communism which preceded its Marxian fusion with socialism. This is what we are all doing, in the hope of addressing in a critical manner the equivocities of the notion of the common in our contemporary world. I repeat the three dimensions any reflection on the common has to attend: (1) the issue of universality to come, (2) the issue of a public sphere beyond the state, but not necessarily beyond citizenship or rights, and (3) the issue of how to deal with communities and their mutual incompatibilities.
Negri: The three proposals Etienne presented to sum up the discussion correctly address the questions we must concentrate on.
(1) We have to refer the search for a universal quality back to the concrete process of the construction of the universal and to the Spinozist perspective of a constitution of ‘common notions’. The epistemological and ontological questions need to be kept tightly together. (Here I am also referring to the aporia—that was ‘actually’ not an aporia—proposed by Derrida in hisSpecters of Marx.)
(2) With respect to Etienne’s proposal, I insist that it is important to avoid excluding the principles of right and citizenship by relegating them to a sphere that, however common, lies beyond the state; they have to be strictly linked to the new rights of living labor. If we fail to perform this conjunction, I am afraid that the new rights of citizenship and equaliberty will cease to exist.
(3) Central to this problem are the making-multitude and building of the common, not only in the dialectical terms of mediation but also in constituent and ethico-political terms. Etienne highlights a very difficult problem indeed. It is no less than the problem of social conflict and its solution, one that needs to be seen in a continuous perspective up to the ever present hypothesis of civil war. Perhaps, as we have argued, a realist definition of governance and its internal articulation can help us to move forward. But I do not believe that the ideas or Utopias of pre-Marxist socialism and/or communism help us solve this problem any more easily than the events of the confrontation with the movements inspired by revolutionary Marxism. Even when democratic radicalism, in a felicitous synthesis with Marxism, is assumed as the ground on which to build institutions of the common, resistance to exploitation and the exercise of violence in the construction of liberty and equality could still be necessary. As Rosa Luxemburg said, irenism and the construction of a democracy of the oppressed are not always in agreement.
To conclude, the current economic crisis indicates that the overcoming of capitalist domination might be easier than we ever hoped. So the equilibrium of governance might be broken or subverted and the ‘common of the multitude’ might have the upper hand over the ‘communism of capital’. This situation would not be tragic; it would simply be a democratic solution to the crisis—even though we are sure that 99 percent of political scientists and academics who deal with this matter would scream about the danger of a dictatorship and the threat of socialism (i.e., Stalinism). But it would not be a dictatorship: it would simply be the hegemony of one pole that has been subordinated over another which has been dominant until now. Obviously, nobody holds a monopoly over the rule or the balance of governance, and yet it is up to everyone to democratically safeguard the rule. Given that political science has extensively discussed capitalist government, I propose to develop, in line with Etienne’s third theme, a discussion of the issue of new institutions of the common. It would suffice, for instance, to start from a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where Hegel develops the institutions of the objective, bourgeois, and public spirit in three great chapters on family, civil society, and the state. From the standpoint of the common, I propose to open a critical debate on the future of the family and its possible destruction as an instrument of identity in the spheres of education, reproduction, and inheritance (what a monstrosity!) while facing the economic situation, and to outline more adequate and happier forms of conjugal and filial relationships. Instead of markets and enterprise, I propose to discuss social production and its democratic organization; instead of guilds, unions and the ‘general classes’, I want to talk about the de-structuring of communication networks and welfare; and finally, in place of possessive individualism, banks, and financial communism, let us think about new forms of production of man byman. All this needs to be done until we build and imagine the exercise of constituent proposals of a new form of right that is no longer public or private, but common. Well, this seems to me a great work project to be discussed and developed by many.
Balibar: So many things in what Toni has said would deserve elaborated responses! I will try and imitate his careful enunciation of points of convergence and divergence, each of them being just elements for a continuation of the discussion. This is in fact a form of ‘common’ intellectual work. There are five questions (mainly) on which I would like to continue and from which I would like us to reexamine our tacit assumptions in the reading of Marx, or in the interpretation of contemporary events.
(1) First there is the dialectical thesis, which Toni resumes (ironically) from Mao: “One divides into Two.” Without such a thesis, there is no possibility of immanent critique, no politics that radicalizes the contradictions produced by history and reacts upon them, no liberation of the forces generated by collective experience, and so on. We agree on that general principle and, in a sense, this is not surprising, given the Marxian background on which we both work. But clearly there are different ways of understanding it. One of them was rooted in the juridico-political notion of ‘sovereignty’ (or its reversal in the problematic of the class struggle as civil war, the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.); it culminated in the idea of ‘double power’ characterizing a more or less interminable ‘phase of transition’. We no longer think in these terms (and I have to admit that it took me long to understand why it was inseparable from the catastrophic outcome of the past ‘communist revolutions’). Another way, probably not so simple itself, is the idea of ‘bifurcation’. I developed it some years ago on the basis of a fresh reading of Marx’s analysis of ‘reproduction’ and it seems to me that it is not without affinities with what Toni and Michael Hardt describe as the opposition between the production of the ‘common’ and the ‘communism of capital’. But indeed this mimetic rivalry should be further discussed.
(2) This leads quite naturally to another point in Toni’s theorization that is quite fascinating for any Marxist: his description of the ‘excedent’ or ‘surplus’ produced by the social labor process, which is not quantitative but qualitative, and nevertheless quantitatively appropriated by the financial capital. As we know, this idea derives from Marx’s description of the effects of cooperation after the industrial revolution, but it substitutes financial capital for productive capital as ‘subject’ of the appropriation. On the one hand, this allows Toni to conflate the idea of the excedent with another Marxian concept—namely, the idea that the production process not only ‘produces’ commodities but also ‘reproduces’ the social relationships of production. Taken together, they lead to the idea that in the current developments of capitalism, the ‘relations’ that are reproduced in the labor process are, in fact, no longer capitalist but already ‘communist’, or they recreate ‘commons’. On the other hand, this leads to the idea that, now that its cycles and trends directly command the labor process, the function of financial capital is not one oforganization of this process, but only one of plundering its results and political constraint over its agents. A similar idea was brilliantly developed by Michael Hardt in his contribution to this issue in terms of the accumulation of financial capital being today more akin to rent than to profit,therefore external to the collective ‘living labor’. I see this as a deep ambiguity in their use of the concept of ‘life’, which they use to bridge the distance between a Marxian notion of living labor and a Foucaultian notion of biopolitics. Life is simultaneously taken as an ontological category that designates the immanence of the whole process of production (within which the political moment is organically included) and an ethical category that authorizes a dualistic antithesis between the ‘living’ and the ‘dead’ (or the artificial, the repressive, the intervention of power, etc.). I really don’t think that one can blur the ideological tensions of the notion of ‘life’ like this.
(3) I have no difficulty with the idea that there is a directly political element in the organization of production, which is also an element of struggle and violence. On the contrary, as I said before, I take it to be one of the most precious and indisputable legacies of the operaista tradition. Therefore, I also have no objection to the idea that there is no ‘distance’ between the labor process and the political interventions of the state, but a direct interaction (again this is something that can be traced back to Marx in passages that depart from the architectural metaphor of base and superstructure or the legacy of the Hegelian distinction between civil society and state). The importance of this idea is enhanced when, like Toni, one insists on the fact that the production process is no longer enclosed in the space of the ‘factory’ or the ‘workplace’. Something like a new era of ‘putting out’ is taking place, which also involves a considerable broadening of the category of (living) labor. But when I say, “I don’t see the politics in Negri,” I have another aspect in mind. To me, Toni’s philosophy represents an extreme form (spectacular for that reason) of the reduction of ‘society’ to a productive organism, and the understanding of every anthropological relation (and difference) as a function of human labor (which also involves, of course, that ‘living labor’ becomes a very complex reality—in fact, a totalization of the human). As a consequence, Toni’s attitude with respect to the old problematic of socialism versus communism is very strange: he criticizes harshly, and rightly in my view, the idea of a ‘socialist transition’ toward communism (“Goodbye, Mister Socialism!”), but he pushes to the extreme the idea that communism, or the emergence of the common, results from the ‘socialization of the productive forces’ whose ‘final’ stage is reached through the primacy of immaterial over material labor and the reintegration of the affective dimension into the productive activity.
I strongly object to this, and it is the basis of my remarks on his implicit teleology. It seems to me both empirically wrong and theoretically ruinous to suppose that all anthropological differences (sex/gender, normal/pathological, cultural/racial, etc.) are reducible to differences within ‘labor’ (or, in more ethical terms, ‘production of man by man’). Although I admit that they constantly interfere in practice, I think that the anthropological differences remain heterogeneous; there is an essential plurality of agencies here or, in Althusserian jargon, overdetermination: not so much the overdetermination of base and superstructure, but the overdetermination of social relations themselves. For that reason, I refer ‘politics’ not only to the element of conflict, but to the diversityof struggles, emancipatory values, collective agencies of which the ‘social producer’, however important, is only one. This is also one of the reasons why I believe that contemporary radicals (including Toni himself, in fact) ‘return’ to pre-Marxist models of communism: it is also a way of disentangling the question of the common from the onto-teleological absolutism of labor (and, indeed, I do not agree that ‘equaliberty’ is an expression of the logic of exchange value; this was Marx’s reductionist understanding of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition from which he wanted to distantiate himself).
(4) This would lead us to another interesting confrontation on the issue of institution and its relationship to what I called the model of bifurcation. I welcome the idea that, not only should communists make ‘propositions’, appear as a ‘creative’ force (not only a ‘reactive’ or even a ‘resisting’ force), but these propositions should concern alternative institutions. Perhaps this insistence on institutions, and the disjunction of the institutional dimensions of politics from an ‘artificialist’ view, is something that comes from Hume, through the intermediary of Deleuze. But it also has a Spinozist and Rousseauist dimension. Marxism, traditionally, has been almost unable to cope with the dilemmas of the institution (for example, participation versus representation), even when these played a key role in its own political experiences (the ‘party’, the ‘social movement’, the ‘councils’, etc.). All this clearly relates to the reunification of the issues of communism and democracy that we both advocate (with several others: Ranciere, for example). Then comes the institutional problem of governance and its tendency to substitute ‘sovereign power’ in the construction of the political space of capitalism; therefore, also the interpretation of the changes produced by globalization, and the virtual bifurcation of a neoliberal governance and a governance of the multitude (which essentially for Toni would be its self-organization or its self-institution: are we really far here from somebody like Castoriadis?).
We certainly must have a thorough discussion on governance and ‘governmentality’. I agree that the figures of the political are currently changing, that the role of the nation-state, as it was maximized by the Keynesian welfare state, is challenged by other structures based on networks rather than territory. But I am amazed at the idea proposed by Toni that financial and transnational governance should be, if not exactly less violent than imperialist state power, at least a more favorable condition for the institution of communism, as the financial crisis would demonstrate. Again the metaphysics of the virtual autonomy of the multitude preempts concrete analysis. Not only does it seem to me that the introduction of these forms of governance, and the corresponding technocratic discourse, now all-pervading, has not purely and simply eliminated the political centrality of the state and its ‘territorializing function’ (the crisis also demonstrates that), but I believe that neoliberal governance develops forms of ‘real subsumption’ of individuality under capitalist relations, which also have psychological dimensions, or generate ‘voluntary servitude’. So, I don’t really believe that a communist politics has become easier or more spontaneous than it ever was. Hopefully it is not, in fact, the opposite: a communist politics has become more difficult. In any case, this is a violent internal contradiction to cope with, if the discourse of the ‘common’ is not to appear wishful thinking.
(5) My question finally—the one I would hope we would keep thinking about when speaking of democratic forces or anticapitalist movements in this ‘globalized’ world—would be the following: not “what is communism?” (how is it defined? how is it ontologically grounded? what are its material or immaterial bases?), but rather, “who are the communists?” (therefore also where are they? what are they doing?). I cannot but remind you that the final section of the Communist Manifesto is devoted not to a definition of communism but to a ‘pragmatic’ answer to this interrogation: who are the communists—that is, what distinguishes them from “other parties of opposition,” and what do they support or stand for? This is in many respects the most politicalmoment in Marx’s way of writing about communism, even if it does not exhaust the theoretical questions. It also suggests that ‘the common’ is essentially the result of a political practice, located in a specific historical conjuncture, or in a ‘difference of times’, especially through Marx’s insistence on the fact that the ‘communist party’ does not so much propose its own agenda as reveal the possible unity of all the ‘movements’ against the dominant order.
It seems to me that this attitude is well worth imitating in our current discussions of a communist revival beyond the ‘catastrophe’ of ‘really existing socialism’. Of course the communists, defined in practical terms, are not necessarily where the name Communism is invoked. We can also try to reflect on how we would reformulate what Marx designated as the two crucial dimensions of this politics: the critique of property, and the internationalist attitude. For Marx, their unity was grounded in the situation of the proletariat, but this has become very problematic for us and much too narrow in terms of defining the forms of exploitation and oppression against which to revolt. Beyond the critique of property, there exists a problem of inventing the modalities of ‘sharing’ the means of existence and distributing the subjective dimensions of life between the ‘individual’ and the ‘collective’ poles of personality, both necessary (this is in particular where I believe that ‘equaliberty’ remains an important idea). And beyond internationalism, a reiteration of the old cosmopolitan ideal that did not tackle the roots of nationalism, tribalism, racism, religious antagonism (because Marx thought that these ‘ideologies’ no longer mattered to the proletarians), there exists a problem of creating a new cosmopolitanism that, in particular, transforms the clash of cultures into a mutual capacity of translation. I am tempted to say that the ‘communists’, however they call themselves, are those who practically contribute to these goals, which perhaps are not entirely isolated.
Negri: I would like to conclude without concluding, just to put forward some brief comments on Balibar’s conclusions.
(1) OK, Balibar’s interpretation is right: Mao’s thesis, “one divides into two,” is not dialectical; it is a bifurcation. The path, not just the path we walk on, but the direction objectively bifurcates. Given the situation determined by the accumulation of surpluses of immaterial, cognitive and affective labor, capital finds it harder and harder to operate a fixed synthesis between its command and the autonomous development of labor power.
(2) OK, Balibar’s position on this point seems correct, but rather than a contradiction we should see it as a condition. Life is the ontological substratum where each human event unfolds. Life is the immanence of every behavior, but also the place where every value emerges. To live is good; it is the ethical goal. The enemy presents itself as, and consists of, anything that deprives life of its potency and returns it to death. Life is good, evil is non-life. I think that there is something of Spinoza in this affirmation.
(3) As above. Society is certainly a productive synergy and becomes so more intensively as the capitalist artifice and manipulation of life controls, models, and blocks productive powers. But this capitalist invasion of life is nonetheless a productive relation, that is, an antagonistic relation. The capitalist invasion of life augments, and does not eliminate, the antagonism of social relations. Here, it would be easy to object that when there is no manifest political opposition, this antagonism cannot be seen. But I see it as a possibility, a tendency and the accumulation of forces that forewarn of a resolutory event. It is worth pointing out that in this widening of the scope of capitalist domination and around the primitive and originary labor power resistance to capitalist exploitation, other human activities (against colonial power, gender domination, etc.), behaviors that arise as antagonistic figures, posit themselves in the position (and eventually as the option) to resist. If equaliberty could in praxis develop as a tendency to recompose resisting subjectivities, this would be good news.
(4) Subjects organize themselves as institutions along the line of exodus that prolongs the bifurcation. In the biopolitical realm, subjects always appear as institutions (production of subjectivity, accumulation of subjectivity, multitude of singularities); if they didn’t, they would be mere shadows (like fetishes inside capitalist domination, as Derrida taught us). In the biopolitical realm, subjects are never individuals; they are always ensembles of resistance. Here lies the difficulty of seeing the constitution of subjects as a transindividual process. This constitution is certainly determined by a horizontal relationship between ‘individualities’ (subjects, singularities, etc.), but it is also overdetermined by the surplus of this encounter. And to add a last remark: we are not from the Frankfurt School; we do not experience real subsumption as a destiny. Rather than linear, real subsumption is always fragmented and discontinuous. We see it as a contradictory process where the relation between action and reaction, and resistance and oppression, is never given once and for all; it is always open. Machiavelli, Spinoza, Marx, and the operaists have always refused teleology (especially catastrophism). For us, resistance is the key to all development.
(5) We seem to be more or less in agreement on this too, but my problem as a communist is not only seizing power, but also what to do with it once it’s seized (and the whole history of class struggle, both before and after the seizure of power, is clearly a process of transition from this standpoint). So, what to do with power? Our discussion on communism starts here. In addition, I am convinced that we need to solve two fundamental problems: property and internationalism. And on these points we must face some difficulties: how to build the common and institute it within democratic structures, how to overcome public as well as private law and invent new figures of the constitution and the expression of the common. The same applies to the shift ‘beyond internationalism and toward a cosmopolitical common’, so to speak. This poses the problems of peace and freedom of commerce, of the defense of the environment and the conquest of space, of the fight against misery and death, and so on. The need for a world association of states that goes much deeper than the internationalism of the past two centuries is already asserted in the current constitutions of the ‘communism of capital’. The questions inherent to ‘being communists’ today are those of how to govern the exodus from capitalism, push the bifurcation outside the two, in multiplicity, to conquer a form of life where the common can develop and constitute itself as a web of singular rights. These questions constitute communist militancy not simply as problems, but as the fields, tensions, and desires of political experience.
This conversation, in which Toni Negri participated through videoconference, was the opening address at “The Common and Forms of the Commune: Alternative Social Imaginaries,” a symposium held at Duke University, 9-10 April 2009. Through a series of subsequent exchanges, the authors have revised and expanded on the original transcript, the result of which is the text that appears in this issue. Arianna Bove translated Toni Negri’s section of the conversation from Italian.
1. Balibar, E. (1994) Trans. J. Swenson. Masses, classes, ideas: Studies on politics and philosophy before and after Marx Routledge , New York
2. Balibar, E. (2002) Politics and the other scene Verso , New York
3. Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2001) Empire Harvard University Press , Cambridge, Mass
4. Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2005) Multitude: War and democracy in the age of empirePenguin, New York
5. Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2009) Commonwealth Harvard University Press , Cambridge, Mass