Michael Hardt / Antonio Negri

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There has been a continuous movement throughout the modern period to privatize public property. In Europe the great common lands created with the break-up of the Roman Empire and the rise of christianity were eventually transferred to private hands in the course of capitalist primitive accumulation. Throughout the world what remains of the vast public spaces are now only the stuff of legends: Robin Hood's forest, the Great Plains of the Amerindians, the steppes of the nomadic tribes, and so forth. During the consolidation of industrial society, the construction and destruction of public spaces developed in an ever more powerful spiral. It is true that when it was dictated by the necessities of accumulation (in order to foster an acceleration or leap in development, to concentrate and mobilize the means of production, to make war, and so forth), public property was expanded by expropriating large sectors of civil society and transferring wealth and property to the collectivity. That public property, however, was soon reappropriated in private hands. In each process the communal possession, which is considered natural, is transformed at public expense into a second and third nature that functions finally for private profit. A second nature was created, for example, by damming the great rivers of western North America and irrigating the dry valleys, and then this new wealth was handed over to the magnates of agribusiness. Capitalism sets in motion a continuous cycle of private reappropriation of public goods: the expropriation of what is common.
The rise and fall of the welfare state in the twentieth century is one more cycle in this spiral of public and private appropriations. The crisis of the welfare state has meant primarily that the structures of public assistance and distribution, which were constructed through public funds, are being privatized and expropriated for private gain. The current neoliberal trend toward the privatization of energy and communication services is another turn of the spiral. This consists in granting to private businesses the networks of energy and communication that were built through enormous expenditures of public monies. Market regimes and neoliberalism survive off these private appropriations of second, third, and nth nature. The commons, which once were considered the basis of the concept of the public, are expropriated for private use and no one can lift a finger. The public is thus dissolved, privatized, even as a concept. Or really, the immanent relation between the public and the common is replaced by the transcendent power of private property.
We do not intend here to weep over the destruction and expropriation that capitalism continually operates across the world, even though resisting its force (and in particular resisting the expropriation of the welfare state) is certainly an eminently ethical and important task. We want to ask, rather, what is the operative notion of the common today, in the midst of postmodernity, the information revolution, and the consequent transformations of the mode of production. It seems to us, in fact, that today we participate in a more radical and profound commonality than has ever been experienced in the history of capitalism. The fact is that we participate in a productive world made up of communication and social networks, interactive services, and common languages. Our economic and social reality is defined less by the material objects that are made and consumed than by co-produced services and relationships. Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities.
The concept of private property itself, understood as the exclusive right to use a good and dispose of all wealth that derives from the possession of it, becomes increasingly nonsensical in this new situation. There are ever fewer goods that can be possessed and used exclusively in this framework; it is the community that produces and that, while producing, is reproduced and redefined. The foundation of the classic modern conception of private property is thus to a certain extent dissolved in the postmodern mode of production.
One should object, however, that this new social condition of production has not at all weakened the juridical and political regimes of private property. The conceptual crisis of private property does not become a crisis in practice, and instead the regime of private expropriation has tended to be applied universally. This objection would be valid if not for the fact that, in the context of linguistic and cooperative production, labor and the common property tend to overlap. Private property, despite its juridical powers, cannot help becoming an ever more abstract and transcendental concept and thus ever more detached from reality.
A new notion of "commons" will have to emerge on this terrain. Deleuze and Guattari claim in What Is Philosophy? that in the contemporary era, and in the context of communicative and interactive production, the construction of concepts is not only an epistemological operation but equally an ontological project. Constructing concepts and what they call "common names" is really an activity that combines the intelligence and the action of the multitude, making them work together. Constructing concepts means making exist in reality a project that is a community. There is no other way to construct concepts but to work in a common way. This commonality is, from the standpoint of the phenomenology of production, from the standpoint of the epistemology of the concept, and from the standpoint of practice, a project in which the multitude is completely invested. The commons is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude. Rousseau said that the first person who wanted a piece of nature as his or her own exclusive possession and transformed it into the transcendent form of private property was the one who invented evil. Good, on the contrary, is what is common.
One of the wonderful things about the information highway is that virtual equity is far easier to achieve than real-world equity . . . We are all created equal in the virtual world.
Bill Gates
The paradigm shift of production toward the network model has fostered the growing power of transnational corporations beyond and above the traditional boundaries of nation-states. The novelty of this relationship has to be recognized in terms of the long-standing power struggle between capitalists and the state. The history of this conflict is easily misunderstood. One should understand that, most significantly, despite the constant antagonism between capitalists and the state, the relationship is really conflictive only when capitalists are considered individually.
Marx and Engels characterize the state as the executive board that manages the interests of capitalists; by this they mean that although the action of the state will at times contradict the immediate interests of individual capitalists, it will always be in the long-term interest of the collective capitalist, that is, the collective subject of social capital as a whole.[1] Competition among capitalists, the reasoning goes, however free, does not guarantee the common good of the collective capitalist, for their immediate egoistic drive for profit is fundamentally myopic. The state is required for prudence to mediate the interests of individual capitalists, raising them up in the collective interest of capital. Capitalists will thus all combat the powers of the state even while the state is acting in their own collective interests. This conflict is really a happy, virtuous dialectic from the perspective of total social capital.
When Giants Rule the Earth
The dialectic between the state and capital has taken on different configurations in the different phases of capitalist development. A quick and rough periodization will help us pose at least the most basic features of this dynamic. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as capitalism established itself fully in Europe, the state managed the affairs of the total social capital but required relatively unobtrusive powers of intervention. This period has come to be viewed in retrospect (with a certain measure of distortion) as the golden age of European capitalism, characterized by free trade among relatively small capitalists. Outside the European nationstate in this period, before the full deployment of powerful colonial administrations, European capital operated with even fewer constraints. To a large extent the capitalist companies were sovereign when operating in colonial or precolonial territories, establishing their own monopoly of force, their own police, their own courts. The Dutch East India Company, for example, ruled the territories it exploited in Java until the end of the eighteenth century with its own structures of sovereignty. Even after the company was dissolved in 1800, capital ruled relatively free of state mediation or control.[2] The situation was much the same for the capitalists operating in the British South Asian and African colonies. The sovereignty of the East India Company lasted until the East India Act of 1858 brought the company under the rule of the queen, and in southern Africa the free reign of capitalist adventurers and entrepreneurs lasted at least until the end of the century.[3] This period was thus characterized by relatively little need of state intervention at home and abroad: within the European nation-states individual capitalists were ruled (in their own collective interest) without great conflict, and in the colonial territories they were effectively sovereign. The relationship between state and capital changed gradually in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when crises increasingly threatened the development of capital. In Europe and the United States, corporations, trusts, and cartels grew to establish quasimonopolies over specific industries and clusters of industries extending far across national boundaries. The monopoly phase posed a direct threat to the health of capitalism because it eroded the competition among capitalists that is the lifeblood of the system.[4] The formation of monopolies and quasi-monopolies also undermined the managerial capacities of the state, and thus the enormous corporations gained the power to impose their particular interests over the interest of the collective capitalist. Consequently there erupted a whole series of struggles in which the state sought to establish its command over the corporations, passing antitrust laws, raising taxes and tariffs, and extending state regulation over industries. In the colonial territories, too, the uncontrolled activities of the sovereign companies and the adventurer capitalists led increasingly toward crisis. For example, the 1857 Indian rebellion against the powers of the East India Company alerted the British government to the disasters the colonial capitalists were capable of if left uncontrolled. The India Act passed by the British Parliament the next year was a direct response to the potential for crisis. The European powers gradually established fully articulated and fully functioning administrations over the colonial territories, effectively recuperating colonial economic and social activity securely under the jurisdiction of the nation-states and thus guaranteeing the interests of total social capital against crises. Internally and externally, the nation-states were forced to intervene more strongly to protect the interests of total social capital against individual capitalists.
Today a third phase of this relationship has fully matured, in which large transnational corporations have effectively surpassed the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states. It would seem, then, that this centuries-long dialectic has come to an end: the state has been defeated and corporations now rule the earth! In recent years numerous studies have emerged on the Left that read this phenomenon in apocalyptic terms as endangering humanity at the hands of unrestrained capitalist corporations and that yearn for the old protective powers of nation-states.[5] Correspondingly, proponents of capital celebrate a new era of deregulation and free trade. If this really were the case, however, if the state really had ceased to manage the affairs of collective capital and the virtuous dialectic of conflict between state and capital were really over, then the capitalists ought to be the ones most fearful of the future! Without the state, social capital has no means to project and realize its collective interests. The contemporary phase is in fact not adequately characterized by the victory of capitalist corporations over the state. Although transnational corporations and global networks of production and circulation have undermined the powers of nation-states, state functions and constitutional elements have effectively been displaced to other levels and domains. We need to take a much more nuanced look at how the relationship between state and capital has changed. We need to recognize first of all the crisis of political relations in the national context. As the concept of national sovereignty is losing its effectiveness, so too is the so-called autonomy of the political.[6] Today a notion of politics as an independent sphere of the determination of consensus and a sphere of mediation among conflicting social forces has very little room to exist. Consensus is determined more significantly by economic factors, such as the equilibria of the trade balances and speculation on the value of currencies. Control over these movements is not in the hands of the political forces that are traditionally conceived as holding sovereignty, and consensus is determined not through the traditional political mechanisms but by other means. Government and politics come to be completely integrated into the system of transnational command. Controls are articulated through a series of international bodies and functions. This is equally true for the mechanisms of political mediation, which really function through the categories of bureaucratic mediation and managerial sociology rather than through the traditional political categories of the mediation of conflicts and the reconciliation of class conflict. Politics does not disappear; what disappears is any notion of the autonomy of the political.
The decline of any autonomous political sphere signals the decline, too, of any independent space where revolution could emerge in the national political regime, or where social space could be transformed using the instruments of the state. The traditional idea of counter-power and the idea of resistance against modern sovereignty in general thus becomes less and less possible. This situation resembles in certain respects the one that Machiavelli faced in a different era: the pathetic and disastrous defeat of "humanistic" revolution or resistance at the hands of the powers of the sovereign principality, or really the early modern state. Machiavelli recognized that the actions of individual heroes (in the style of Plutarch's heroes) were no longer able even to touch the new sovereignty of the principality. A new type of resistance would have to be found that would be adequate to the new dimensions of sovereignty. Today, too, we can see that the traditional forms of resistance, such as the institutional workers' organizations that developed through the major part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have begun to lose their power. Once again a new type of resistance has to be invented.
Finally, the decline of the traditional spheres of politics and resistance is complemented by the transformation of the democratic state such that its functions have been integrated into mechanisms of command on the global level of the transnational corporations. The national democratic model of state-managed exploitation functioned in the dominant capitalist countries so long as it was able to regulate the growing conflictuality in a dynamic fashion-so long, in other words, as it was able to keep alive the potential of the development and the utopia of state planning, so long, above all, as the class struggle in the individual countries determined a sort of dualism of power over which the unitary state structures could situate themselves. To the extent that these conditions have disappeared, in both real and ideological terms, the national democratic capitalist state has self-destructed. The unity of single governments has been disarticulated and invested in a series of separate bodies (banks, international organisms of planning, and so forth, in addition to the traditional separate bodies), which all increasingly refer for legitimacy to the transnational level of power. The recognition of the rise of the transnational corporations above and beyond the constitutional command of the nation-states should not, however, lead us to think that constitutional mechanisms and controls as such have declined, that transnational corporations, relatively free of nation-states, tend to compete freely and manage themselves. Instead, the constitutional functions have been displaced to another level. Once we recognize the decline of the traditional national constitutional system, we have to explore how power is constitutionalized on a supranational level-in other words, how the constitution of Empire begins to form.
The Pyramid of Global Constitution
At first glance and on a level of purely empirical observation, the new world constitutional framework appears as a disorderly and even chaotic set of controls and representative organizations. These global constitutional elements are distributed in a wide spectrum of bodies (in nation-states, in associations of nation-states, and in international organizations of all kinds); they are divided by function and content (such as political, monetary, health, and educational organisms); and they are traversed by a variety of productive activities. Ifwe look closely, however, this disorderly set does nonetheless contain some points of reference. More than ordering elements, these are rather matrixes that delimit relatively coherent horizons in the disorder of global juridical and political life. When we analyze the configurations of global power in its various bodies and organizations, we can recognize a pyramidal structure that is composed of three progressively broader tiers, each of which contains several levels.
At the narrow pinnacle of the pyramid there is one superpower, the United States, that holds hegemony over the global use of force-a superpower that can act alone but prefers to act in collaboration with others under the umbrella of the United Nations. This singular status was posed definitively with the end of the cold war and first confirmed in the GulfWar. On a second level, still within this first tier, as the pyramid broadens slightly, a group of nationstates control the primary global monetary instruments and thus have the ability to regulate international exchanges. These nationstates are bound together in a series of organisms-the G7, the Paris and London Clubs, Davos, and so forth. Finally, on a third level of this first tier a heterogeneous set of associations (including more or less the same powers that exercise hegemony on the military and monetary levels) deploy cultural and biopolitical power on a global level.
Below the first and highest tier of unified global command there is a second tier in which command is distributed broadly across the world, emphasizing not so much unification as articulation. This tier is structured primarily by the networks that transnational capitalist corporations have extended throughout the world market -networks of capital flows, technology flows, population flows, and the like. These productive organizations that form and supply the markets extend transversally under the umbrella and guarantee of the central power that constitutes the first tier of global power. Ifwe were to take up the old Enlightenment notion of the construction of the senses by passing a rose in front of the face of the statue, we could say that the transnational corporations bring the rigid structure of the central power to life. In effect, through the global distribution of capitals, technologies, goods, and populations, the transnational corporations construct vast networks of communication and provide the satisfaction of needs. The single and univocal pinnacle of world command is thus articulated by the transnational corporations and the organization of markets. The world market both homogenizes and differentiates territories, rewriting the geography of the globe. Still on the second tier, on a level that is often subordinated to the power of the transnational corporations, reside the general set of sovereign nation-states that now consist essentially in local, territorialized organizations. The nation-states serve various functions: political mediation with respect to the global hegemonic powers, bargaining with respect to the transnational corporations, and redistribution of income according to biopolitical needs within their own limited territories. Nation-states are filters of the flow of global circulation and regulators of the articulation of global command; in other words, they capture and distribute the flows of wealth to and from the global power, and they discipline their own populations as much as this is still possible.
The third and broadest tier of the pyramid, finally, consists of groups that represent popular interests in the global power arrangement. The multitude cannot be incorporated directly into the structures of global power but must be filtered through mechanisms of representation. Which groups and organizations fulfill the contestatory and/or legitimating function of popular representation in the global power structures? Who represents the People in the global constitution? Or, more important, what forces and processes transform the multitude into a People that can then be represented in the global constitution? In many instances nation-states are cast in this role, particularly the collective of subordinated or minor states. Within the United Nations General Assembly, for example, collections of subordinate nation-states, the majority numerically but the minority in terms of power, function as an at least symbolic constraint on and legitimation of the major powers. In this sense the entire world is conceived as being represented on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly and in other global forums. Here, since the nation-states themselves are presented (both in the more or less democratic countries and in the authoritarian regimes) as representing the will of their People, the representation of nation-states on a global scale can only lay claim to the popular will at two removes, through two levels of representation: the nation-state representing the People representing the multitude.
Nation-states, however, are certainly not the only organizations that construct and represent the People in the new global arrangement. Also on this third tier of the pyramid, the global People is represented more clearly and directly not by governmental bodies but by a variety of organizations that are at least relatively independent of nation-states and capital. These organizations are often understood as functioning as the structures of a global civil society, channeling the needs and desires of the multitude into forms that can be represented within the functioning of the global power structures. In this new global form we can still recognize instances of the traditional components of civil society, such as the media and religious institutions. The media have long positioned themselves as the voice or even the conscience of the People in opposition to the power of states and the private interests of capital. They are cast as a further check and balance on governmental action, providing an objective and independent view of all the People want or need to know. It has long been clear, however, that the media are in fact often not very independent from capital on the one hand and states on the other.[7] Religious organizations are an even more long-standing sector of non-governmental institutions that represent the People. The rise of religious fundamentalisms (both Islamic and Christian) insofar as they represent the People against the state should perhaps be understood as components of this new global civil society-but when such religious organizations stand against the state, they often tend to become the state themselves. The newest and perhaps most important forces in the global civil society go under the name of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The term NGO has not been given a very rigorous definition, but we would define it as any organization that purports to represent the People and operate in its interest, separate from (and often against) the structures of the state. Many in fact regard NGOs as synonymous with "people's organizations" because the People's interest is defined in distinction from state interest.[8] These organizations operate at local, national, and supranational levels. The termNGOthus groups together an enormous and heterogeneous set of organizations: in the early 1990s there were reported to be more than eighteen thousand NGOs worldwide. Some of these organizations fulfill something like the traditional syndicalist function of trade unions (such as the Self-Employed Women's Association of ahmedabad, India); others continue the missionary vocation of religious sects (such as Catholic ReliefServices); and still others seek to represent populations that are not represented by nationstates (such as the World Council of Indigenous Peoples). It would be futile to try to characterize the functioning of this vast and heterogeneous set of organizations under one single definition.[9] Some critics assert that NGOs, since they are outside and often in conflict with state power, are compatible with and serve the neoliberal project of global capital. While global capital attacks the powers of the nation-state from above, they argue, the NGOs function as a "parallel strategy 'from below'" and present the "community face" of neoliberalism.[10] It may indeed be true that the activities of many NGOs serve to further the neoliberal project of global capital, but we should be careful to point out that this cannot adequately define the activities of all NGOs categorically. The fact of being non-governmental or even opposed to the powers of nation-states does not in itself line these organizations up with the interests of capital. There are many ways to be outside and opposed to the state, of which the neoliberal project is only one. For our argument, and in the context of Empire, we are most interested in a subset of NGOs that strive to represent the least among us, those who cannot represent themselves. These NGOs, which are sometimes characterized broadly as humanitarian organizations, are in fact the ones that have come to be among the most powerful and prominent in the contemporary global order. Their mandate is not really to further the particular interests of any limited group but rather to represent directly global and universal human interests. Human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch), peace groups (such as Witness of Peace and Shanti Sena), and the medical and famine relief agencies (such as Oxfam and M‚decins sans frontiŠres) all defend human life against torture, starvation, massacre, imprisonment, and political assassination. Their political action rests on a universal moral call-what is at stake is life itself. In this regard it is perhaps inaccurate to say that these NGOs represent those who cannot represent themselves (the warring populations, the starving masses, and so forth) or even that they represent the global People in its entirety. They go further than that. What they really represent is the vital force that underlies the People, and thus they transform politics into a question of generic life, life in all its generality. These NGOs extend far and wide in the humus of biopower; they are the capillary ends of the contemporary networks of power, or (to return to our general metaphor) they are the broad base of the triangle of global power. Here, at this broadest, most universal level, the activities of these NGOs coincide with the workings of Empire "beyond politics," on the terrain of biopower, meeting the needs of life itself.
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