Monday 16 October 2017

Altermodernity and the Common

While we're discussing the future and seeing as Michael Hardt is in the big smoke discussing his latest collaboration with Toni Negri, I want to come back to the Empire trilogy for a look at what they have to say about it. After all, their perspective is fundamentally hopeful as it notes the emergence of immaterial labour as the strategic source of surplus value makes transparent the exploitative foundation of profit and, objectively speaking, tilts the balance of power away from capital and to the growing mass of socialised/networked workers. There are countervailing tendencies, of course, and it's tough to maintain an optimistic cast of mind in a gloomy age such as ours, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The translation of Corbynism into a mass force is one of them, the cut through of Bernie Sanders in the citadel of global capitalism another.

Like Marx before them, Hardt and Negri's theory of communism is rooted in class struggle, albeit one that assumes newer, different forms. While developing Marx's concept what they also share is an appreciation of how the new society is rooted in the realities of the present. The whole 'socialism/communism is fine in theory but rubbish in practice' objection is ignorant of Marx and Engels's own arguments against grand blueprints. In Marxism, the promise of a world after capitalism is latent not just because we have the technical wherewithal to produce enough for everyone, everywhere, but because its reproduction depends increasingly on planning - both in terms of meeting market signals and clearing up after the mess for-profit production tends to make - and because the increasing socialisation of labour and the dense webs of interdependency characterising it renders capital ever more superfluous. Marx knew well capital's tendency to become a fetter on the productive forces it unleashed, and nothing sums that up better than Theresa May's Britain with its appallingly low productivity and its cutting up and dividing low waged, low skilled labour intensive jobs and calling it job creation.

For Hardt and Negri, the new terrain of class struggle is the common. The move to immaterial labour makes the languages we use, the knowledge we create, the ideas we think up, the information we generate, the symbols we craft, the relations we forge and the identities we become the key vector for wealth generation and therefore capture by capital. This is the very stuff of social life: the social production of people, networks, and communities. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the front line of the class struggle is the battle for the human soul. That means so-called identity politics are as important to the struggle against capital as the more traditional forms of class struggle. The social and the economic are entirely fused, which means capital is everywhere but also so are its points of vulnerability. Class struggle now assumes a swarm-like aspect of autonomous struggles, all rooted in the common, all fighting commercial invasion and capture/appropriation of their wealth, our commonwealth. As Hardt and Negri put it, the "Multitude is thus a concept of applied parallelism, able to group together the specificity of altermodern struggles, which are characterised by relations of autonomy, equality and interdependencies among vast multiplicities of singularities" (Commonwealth 2009, p.111).

A politics based on the common, a society becoming conscious of itself as an interconnected substance obviously breaks with capitalism. It has laid the ground work for a global commons, and now the job is done. Humanity is increasingly able to take its own destiny in hand without the anarchic tyrannies of the market. What is slow emerging is what Hardt and Negri call the altermodern, or altermodernity, a position that explicitly identifies with "the now" but promises an alternative to it. Effectively, it is a simultaneous a break with and a preservation of modern civilisation, or modernity, and therefore opposed to the various anti-modernities, postmodernisms, and reflexive/unfinished modernities of mainstream social theory. It is also at odds with, gasp, socialism.

While Marx and Engels, and arguably Lenin did not identify socialism with state ownership, Labourism certainly has. In the received tradition of the party, the route to the good life is not through collective and democratic organisation of the people that make our movement, but through representation. Our job is to elect people to Parliament who'll pilot progressive legislation through the House. Socialism here is taking industry out of private ownership and centralising it through economies of scale under the leadership of a cadre of managers. From this point of view there was little qualitative difference between state property in a liberal democracy and state property in a Stalinist dictatorship; it was merely a question of degree. It also meant Labour were disarmed by Thatcher's populist attack on bloated nationalised industry and its inefficiencies, but that's for another time. For Hardt and Negri, statist ownership is at odds with common ownership. Whether you were part of the social factory of post-war Britain or the (authoritarian) state factory of the post-war USSR, workers were kept down and held back, their aspirations frustrated and sublimated, their bodies and brains exploited for the benefit of others. Further, they gone on to argue one of the contributing factors to the USSR's collapse was its inability to foster the dynamism of the common, which was present but largely smothered and heavily policed by its overweening party/state. One reason for China's success is that a less hands on authoritarianism has allowed for the emergence of a policed and surveilled common, but one in permanent antagonistic tension with the fused dictatorship of capital and the party. The common, even under dictatorships, is always producing new relations and becoming the basis of something else. It cannot but resist and work around the brutal rigidity of authoritarianism.

If we understand modernity as class rule in advanced societies, then the modernities theorised by Beck, Giddens and Habermas properly belong to the same intellectual tradition. For Beck, by way of a quick precis, his work was based around the suggestion that class as the main antagonism had been usurped by a proliferation of risk. This ranged from the likelihood of nuclear war and environmental disasters to the small-scale risks invading everyday life. Politics was increasingly a matter of managing risk, and our mode of being oriented to identifying, preparing and mitigating them. Anthony Giddens largely agreed and gave it his own spin in his sketching out of the 'Third Way'. Based on his earlier arguments around reflexive modernisation, the advanced societies had developed tools, media and institutions of such sophistication that, theoretically, these can be turned on ourselves and to monitor the collective behaviour of societies and intervene to address risks and persistent social problems. For Jurgen Habermas, the modern is indissociable from the intellectual and artistic flowering attending the Enlightenment. The blows struck then for science and reason remain as latent potentials in the modern and are yet to be realised, hence his regarding modernity as an "unfinished project". Despite Giddens' forays into 'life politics' (i.e. postmodernised identity politics, albeit without the overtone of atomistic conflict), Beck's concern with individualism and Habermas and his theory of communicative action, these are effectively social democratic theories, statist theories overly concerned with institutional responses to new challenges. The agent of liberation is not the multitude but the dour lander bureaucrat, and the coiffured Labour politician with a photogenic grin. They do not challenge the logics of the times but swims with them.

The altermodern then is composed of three lines of struggle - the realisation of the constitutive power of the common against the sovereign power (even in its representative forms), what Hardt and Negri call 'absolute democracy'. Then there is the legacy bequeathed by the workers' movement and its elaboration by Marxism, warts and all. And lastly, not really touched on here but theorised across the Empire trilogy, the struggles against colonialism and racialised rule. All these have and continue to feed into the melting pot of a common growing aware of its collective intellect and the shared basis of its interests. Parallelism is more than an ethic of resistance, but the condition for the flows of solidarity and interdependency between the singularities (i.e. identity locations) of the multitude.

As we have seen previously, the hegemonic position occupied by the socialised worker means there are no longer any hegemonic positions. Everyone is networked, and there is no one sector of social production in which capital is uniquely strategically vulnerable. Opportunities open and close, and depend on the state of the opposing class, the organisation and understanding of the workers. The end of hegemony in this sense means a new place for the intellectual in the coming complex of the altermodern. Their role is not as a cadre of activist priests who keep the revealed truths to themselves, a la sundry vanguards of old but perform the standard role of critique, of following the example of Marx and Engels and translating the experiences of movements into concepts that demystify the social world, that work with others to realise new norms and develop the institutions of our collective, constituent power. This is an intellectual who is not above or separate from the common but are part of it, are completely inside of it and sees their contributions merge with others in building the altermodernity to come.

Corbynism is our tear in the fabric of capital, a moment through which millions have poured and are becoming something much more exciting and dangerous than "socialism fans". The end of capitalism is talked about, socialism is talked about, and communism in its new fully automated luxury/space guise is abroad. It's possible because class struggle has picked up, and occasioning it is a huge outpouring of creativity and thinking. And the most exciting thing? We're only at the beginning of this time of awakening.

Image source


SimonB said...

Given that capitalism has confounded previous predictions of its demise do you have any suggestions of how it might do so with these ideas?

It occurs to me that the Internet will be critical for these new commons. The attempts by US cable companies to remove net neutrality might be a hint.

Infrastructure vital to us all and even public spaces are now largely in private hands. Is there really a better option for these things than common ownership through government agencies in a democracy?

David Timoney said...

I am dubious about Hardt & Negri's concept of altermodernity (do we really need any more qualifiers of "modernity"?). While their work does contain useful insights about the here and now, they share a common [sic] failing with other gropers after the postcapitalist sublime in that it too often spins off into transcendent mysticism. I fear that their contribution to "translating the experiences of movements into concepts that demystify the social world" remains patchy at best.

Anonymous said...

"While Marx and Engels, and arguably Lenin did not identify socialism with state ownership, Labourism certainly has."

Seriously? Have you not read "The Manifesto of the Communist Party" and a many other text which in Marx and Engels clearly DO identify socialism with state ownership? As for Lenin, he was discussing how the Post Office was the model for his socialist State in 1917... as for his practice, yes, he replaced capitalists with State bureaucrats (with one-man management armed with "dictatorial" powers against the workers).

The main socialist tendency which placed workers' self-management and self-organisation of production at its core has been anarchism -- from Proudhon onwards. Marxists have, in general, been for State ownership and centralised planning. Those who have not -- like the council communists -- were denounced by Lenin as being anarchists...

An Anarchist FAQ

Phil said...

And Lenin also talked about how Russia wasn't a socialist state but variously a workers' state with bureaucratic deformations and state capitalism. Likewise, Marx and Engels advocated state ownership but did not equate that with socialism, in much the same way anarchists (presumably) advocate wage rises without pretending that's one and the same thing as abolishing waged labour.