I’m reading Negri’s The Porcelain Workshop with continual exasperation. What is he talking about?

For instance, almost at random: “When we speak of difference, we are therefore speaking of resistance. Difference cannot be recognized within the homologation [sic; this is not a careful translation] that biopower imposes on society” (page 98).

One doesn’t need to be a Zizekian to make a Critique of the Gotha Program-like dissection of every phrase in a passage like this. In fact, difference need not, and usually does not, imply resistance. Capitalism today, with its niche marketing and just-in-time, “flexible” production schedules, likes nothing better than to recognize difference, to proclaim its love of differences, to provide commodities tailored to each and every, no matter how minute, difference. Negri claims to be drawing on a Deleuzian inspiration; but it was Deleuze who denounced the danger of “lapsing into the representations of a beautiful soul: there are only reconcilable and federative differences, far removed from bloody struggle. The beautiful soul says: we are different, but not opposed” (Difference and Repetition, page xx).

Isn’t there a bit too much of the beautiful soul in Negri’s vision of the multitude, even if he insists on the “antagonism” between the multitude and Capital? The most important thing that Negri says is that, in “postmodernism”, or post-Fordist capitalism — what I like to call “aesthetic capitalism” — we have moved from what Marx called the formal subsumption to the real subsumption of society, and all social life, under Capital. This means that Capital is no longer satisfied to profit from “archaic” modes of production and technologies, of things that are outside its orbit in their social actuality, even if profit can be expropriated from them — the situation under merely “formal subsumtion.” Under real subsumption everything without exception is reorganized according to the capitalistic form: leisure time as well as work time, the “domestic” sphere of unpaid female labor as well as the “productive” sphere of male factory labor, the “private” no less than the “public”…

But Negri is so eager, and so quick, to move on to the resistance and creativity of the multitude that he acts as if this resistance and creativity is the main thing that “real subsumption” means. He glides all too quickly over the horrors of real subsumption, not to mention the fact that this real subsumption involves, precisely, the capitalization, or commodification, or “branding”, of precisely that vision of personal “liberation” that was so exalted in the 1960s. (This is something that Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello are especially clear about, in their important if overly lengthy and repetitious book The New Spirit of Capitalism).

So, when I read statements like the following, I can only wonder what planet Negri is living on:

We have already insisted upon the importance of “real subsumption” understood as the essential phenomenon in the shift from the modern to the postmodern. However, the fundamental element of this transition also seems to be the generalization of resistance in each intersection of the great grid of real subsumption of society under capital. The discovery of resistance as a general phenomenon, a paradoxical opening in each link of power and a multiform apparatus of subjective production, is precisely where the postmodern affirmation lies.

Say what? I would think that the predominant feature of “postmodern” existence, with the fading of “grand narratives,” is precisely the fact that resistance — even if it is present everywhere — becomes ever more scattered, more atomized, more ineffectual, more invisible. As Jodi remarked the other day, resistance is simply ignored by the government and the corporations, including by the media, because it is simply irrelevant to a “faith-based” (as Ron Suskind would put it) power system that doesn’t even bother to take it into account: “the [anti-war] movement doesn’t matter because public opinion doesn’t matter.”

This fits in with other aspects of the situation that I have groused about before. Most notably, the wondrous “creativity” of the multitude that Negri celebrates so strenuously is not a form of empowerment, much less of resistance, but precisely a new way of extracting surplus value — this is precisely what “real subsumption” means. Creativity today takes the form of things like crowdsourcing and ludocapitalism — “customers” now pay corporations for the privilege of doing their research and development work for them (which is the way, for instance, that a virtual world like Second Life is built), or volunteer to engage in “word-of-mouth marketing”; and even play turns into a form of work, that is to say of the unremunerated expenditure of labor-power.

This is also where I think that Nate is right in complaining that Negri makes “a variety of claims made about the present which are not actually attributes of the present as distinct from earlier eras,” including “implied claims about the past due to claims marking the present off from the past, such as the notion that now because of immaterialization of labor adequate representation of the proletariat is impossible – the proletariat is _now_ a multiplicity, as if it could previously be adequately represented.” I see this again and again when Negri argues, for instance, that the potential (potentia) of the multitude is incommensurate with the structures of power (potestas), such as when Negri speaks of

a new analysis of labor organization, wherein value becomes the cognitive and immaterial product of creative action, and at the same time escapes the law of value (the latter understood in a strictly objective and economic manner). We encounter the same idea, on a different level, when we localize the ontological dissymmetry between how biopower functions and the potential (puissance) of biopolitical resistance. If power is measurable (measure and disparity (écart) are precious instruments of discipline and control), potential (puissance) is, on the contrary, the non-measurable, the pure expression of irreducible differences. (page 39)

I find this passage astonishing, because the disjunction or “ontological dissymmetry”, that Negri discusses here, as if it were a special new development of “postmodernity”, is precisely the central point of Marx’s theory of surplus value — and arguably of Marx’s entire body of thought. There is a radical incommensurability between humanity’s productive and reproductive “species activity” and enforced work; and therefore between qualtiatively distinct forms of human activity and their homogenization in the form of abstract, socially necessary labor; and therefore also between the “value” of labor-power in a capitalist economy (this value ultimately correlating to what workers are paid) and the “value” of what that labor-power produces; and therefore, at a still further remove, between use-values and exchange-values as dimensions of the commodity form. This radical incommensurability (or what Gayatri Spivak calls “the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate — super-adequate — to itself”) is the necessary condition of possibility in order for exploitation — the expropriation of surplus value — to take place at all. How can Negri imagine that what he is describing here is a radically new conditon, that marks a rupture or “caesura” from the previous history of capitalism? How can he write as if Marx’s radical critique of “the law of value (understood in a strictly objective and economic manner)” were actually Marx’s erroneous buying into such a law, or his buying into such a law that was valid in the 19th and 20th centuries, but suddenly is no longer so today?

I could go on — but then I would never finish this post. The basic problem is, I think, that the new “production of subjectivities” that Negri celebrates cannot be separated from the ecstasies and excesses of consumerism; because consumption itself increasingly cannot be separated from productive labor, the two blending into one another almost seamlessly in the regime of aesthetic capitalism. Karatani has some interesting ideas about how we might resist and oppose capitalism on the basis of our dual identity of “workers qua consumers and consumers qua workers” (Transcritique, page 294) — but this is a way of thinking to which Negri seems entirely oblivious.

54 Responses to “Negri?”

  1. Kirby Olson says:

    Nate, my pastor is somewhat more bilious than I am in regards to the left. He was a pinko during the Vietnam war, and now can’t stand the pronoun changes throughout the Bible that have been ushered in by the PC crowd. He left the main office of the Lutheran church, and is now busy guiding this congregation steadily toward the Missouri Synod. The thing is, once you renounce the idea that God sets the standards, you end up ordaining midget warlock warthogs, or a paramecium, because there aren’t any standards left.

    So, you guys are both struggling academics?

    Good luck!

    I think the next round of interest will be in religion.

    Buy low, and sell high.

    Even in academia, it’s a market. If you come out as another PC Marxist, you may find that there’s no market for that, esp. if you are white and male. The market is glutted.

    Try to diversify your portfolio is my suggestion. The PC left is making its last gasp, and then will be history, and if you’re not already on the gravy train, you will be on your way back to Starbucks.

    Whereas I think that Protestant Christianity is here to stay and that there is a likelihood that at some point there will be an issue about whether academia really does look at all like America.

    But, good luck!

    The main thing is to have something new to say. If that rankles the orthodox, so be it. You still have had something new to say and that in itself is 99% of the FUN. You can’t guarantee that you’ll find a job, but I think it’s more important to say what you think is true. Marxism just isn’t true. I’ve read thousands and thousands of pages of it, and there isn’t anything true in it at all.

    A philosophy has to be adequate to reality, you know.

  2. Kirby Olson says:

    Nate, I understand that you had a low wage job. This usually means what you’re doing isn’t worth much.

    So just get a better paying job.

    You have a brain, so use it!

    Become a brain surgeon.

    It has to be easier than reading Negri and HArdt, and trying to teach it to students who fast-tracking to law school, or want to open a business.

    Marx was just an enabler for serial killers like Mao and Stalin.

  3. Kirby Olson says:

    I was a temporary secretary for a decade.

    I never once imagined unionizing the temps.

    I was just trying to write a novel, but didn’t have any experience in the world. So then finally realized I could write a novel about Temping itself.

    But people are different.

    Now that I know a little bit about who you are I feel sympathetic, and hope things work out for you.

  4. [...] features’ that persist across each: “Now, I am largely in agreement with Hardt (and Negri, and some of the economists associated with their position, like Marazzi and even to some extent [...]

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