In discussion on the Immanent Marxist Utopia post I expressed the wish that someone would point me toward a Marxist critique of Hardt and Negri’s Empire. Traxus (American Stranger) sent me links to not one but four such reviews. Here’s my understanding of the first one, written by Malcolm Bull — here’s the link.
Bull says that, in a world where capitalism is everywhere, it’s hard to tell the difference between the neo-Marxists and the neoliberals. To energize the potential of the emerging worker multitude Hardt & Negri call for free movement of labor across national boundaries and a worldwide minimum wage. Bull says that libertarians likewise support both of these positions; I’d say that he’s right about free movement of labor but not about minimum wage, which in a libertarian world would be established, like everything else, by the unfettered marketplace. Bull says that minimum wage is part of the dismantling of welfare, but that’s not so: minimum wage is a barrier to hiring low-cost workers, which would increase unemployment. “Just because the ‘anarchists’ espouse bits of the Neoliberal agenda that even George W. Bush has not yet got to does not mean they are pursuing Neoliberal ends,” Bull acknowledges; he doubts that these means will achieve the Left’s desired ends.
Following Spinoza, Hardt and Negri want to release workers’ potentia — the strength and force of creative activity — from the state’s potestas — authority or sovereignty. Not only should potestas serve potentia; potestas emerges from potentia, even as for Spinoza God’s sovereignty is a natural outgrowth of his ability to create worlds.This, says Bull, isn’t a rationale for a Marxist revolution but for a Jeffersonian-republican one. He quotes H&N: “The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organisation of global flows and exchange.” By invoking the ideals of both “positive liberty” (freedom to fulfill one’s potentia) and “negative liberty” (freedom from authority) in service of a global collective surge of creative work, H&N propose to use a key neoliberal tool in dismantling the hegemonic capitalist empire and building a self-governing workers’ world order.
Bull says that H&N offer a manifesto of natural-born power unconstrained by how that power should be exercised. The potestas of government isn’t a restraint on or a channeling of the exercise of power but rather its aggregation. Where, asks Bull, does the concept of duty come into the picture? This unchecked expression of power can lead just as easily to tyranny as to democracy, as Spinoza acknowledged. There are no “natural” rights to protect individuals and groups against tyranny, says Spinoza: such rights can be conferred and enforced only by the state. H&N don’t accept this countervailing force exerted from outside the potentia. Says Bull: “The conflict at the centre of the movement against global capitalism is the tension between its libertarian stance and the demand for global justice.” Do H&N subscribe to a sort of pantheistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of potentia? Spinoza does, I think, which is why an emergent potestas would be effective in expressing the collective will to goodness and justice. Certainly Nietzsche would be more skeptical about it, though far from clear that he’d want to restrain the potentia.
Bull acknowledges truth in Hannah Arendt’s contention that the compassionate urge to impose restraints on freedom does tend toward totalitarianism. “All those do-gooders are more dangerous than they look,” he says. “The ideological alternative to Neoliberalism is, as Neoliberals never tire of saying, some form of totalitarianism. But that can only be a reason for people to start thinking about what new forms of totalitarianism might be possible, and, indeed, desirable.” The minimalist global regulation envisioned by neolibs isn’t going to cut it. “Unlimited risks need total controls and, as Hardt and Negri point out, ‘totalitarianism consists not simply in totalising the effects of social life and subordinating them to a global disciplinary norm’ but also in ‘the organic foundation and unified source of society and the state’.” But, says Bull, H&N “have no interest in the control of risk — a world of unlimited risk is a world of unlimited constituent power.” This is inadequate, says Bull. “Total social control” is what’s needed, a socially benevalent totalitarian protection that “involves a degree of microregulation with which individuals have to co-operate.” This totalizing force assures inclusion of the powerless in the creative society, guaranteeing work and welfare to all.
Curiously, Bull ends his essay by contending that, no matter what sort worker revolution arises, it will have to involve the United States. He says that, while H&N frame their argument in American terms, they ignore the importance of America the place. Says Bull:
“But theirs is the America of potentia not of potestas. They miss the point that even if the multitude could create its own Americas, it would be stronger under the sovereignty of the existing one – not just materially better off, but better able to bring about its social and political objectives. The international Left’s few successes of the past fifty years – decolonisation, anti-racism, the women’s movement, cultural anti-authoritarianism – have all had proper (and often official) backing from within the United States. The United States is no utopia, but a utopian politics now has to be routed through it… The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century got a bad name less because of their monopolistic control of everyday life than on account of their stifling insistence on a maxim of shared values, and their draconian punishments for nonconformity. They were, in Durkheimian terms, attempts to create total communities rather than total societies. The US offers a model for a different type of totalitarianism. Within a total society – a world of universal anomie populated by the hybridised subjects of mutual recognition – monopolistic microregulation need not be concerned with conformity. Of course, a global United States is not a total society, but total society is rapidly becoming more imaginable than the state of nature from which political theorising has traditionally started.”
I can’t tell what Bull’s point is here. Is he suggesting that the present version of the US could be maneuvered toward a “total society” that would retain the positive and negative freedoms of H&N while imposing a mechanism of justice and protection that it currently lacks? The last sentence seems to bely that hope: “But in a total society, it is not the social that needs a contract but the individual – an anti-social contract that creates individual spaces in a world totally regulated by meaningless mutuality.” Is he saying that an incipient American total society is the source of this meaningless mutuality that dominates the world, or that its full realization would make possible the release of individual agents who derive meaning from their participation in the American total society?
This is long. If (hopefully) discussion ensues I’ll try to formulate my own responses to Bull and to H&N.