Communism conference — Michael Hardt

Michael Hardt’s talk, “The Production of the Common,” at the London conference On the Idea of Communism, summarized a lot of his ideas over the last several years in a way that I found helpful. He defined “communism” as having to do with the common — as opposed to both private property and state property. And said he wanted to put the focus on political economy and on the question of property. (This in contrast to the other speakers on his panel, Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward, who were both far-ranging and lucid, but foucsed rather of questions of political action and organization. Indeed, I have now gone to nine talks — with three more to come — and Hardt’s and Negri’s were the only two which so much as mentioned political economy. Quite odd for what is supposed to be a Marxism conference). I will try to summarize what Hardt said, with a little commentary

In the 18th century, and still in the 19th when Marx wrote, capitalism was in transition from a form based mostly on immobile property, which is to say agricultural land, from which surplus was extracted in the form of rent, to a form of capitalism based on mobile property, which is to say manufacturing (since a factory can in theory be built anywhere), from which surplus was extracted in the form of profit (i.e., although Hardt didn’t express it this way, from the direct expropriation of absolute and relative surplus value). The landlords were losing out to the new industrial capitalists. Even still in Marx’s time, there were less industrial workers than there were agricultural ones, but industry was the dominant mode of production in the sense that it was the one that imposed its forms and methods of organization on all the rest (a “dominant,” as Jameson would say).

Today, Hardt said, we are in the midst of another transition, this time from industrial production to “immaterial production.” The number of workers involved in immaterial or affective production is still much smaller worldwide than the number of factory workers, etc., but immaterial production is the leading edge that imposes its forms of organization on the rest, just as industry was in the 19th century. (This, in part, was Hardt’s response to criticisms of the entire notion of immaterial production on the grounds that millions of people still work in factories, even if it is mostly today in the “underdeveloped” world instead of in the wealthy nations of the West, or global North). [Hardt didn’t mention this, but his periodization fits in well with McKenzie Wark‘s idea of a movement from landlords to industrialists to the current “vectorial class” of the owners of property rights to “information.” Hardt, like Wark, is focused on what Wark calls “the property question”].

Today, informatic or immaterial production is focused on questions of so-called “intellectual property” (this is my term, not Hardt’s), in the forms of copyright, patents, etc. A company’s physical products often have value, not because of any actual use, but because they are manifestations of a “brand” to which consumers are attracted, or with which they identify. Massive sums of money are gained from things like patents on genetic sequences, genetically modified crops, rights to copyrights on music, video, and text, to (often frivolous) patents on supposed inventions, to control of certain channels of distribution, to a company’s working methods and “trade secrets,” and so on. Even traditional hard-manufacture factories are governed by informatics, and profit comes as much or more from control of the informational organization that governs production, than from the physical items in themselves that are produced (as these latter are not sold for much above cost).

According to Hardt, all this means that immaterial production has more similarities to the pre-industrial capitalism focused on the extraction of rent than it does to the (pre-informatic, or perhaps Fordist) industrial system that focused on the extraction of surplus value as profit. The most dynamic sort of capitalist appropriation today comes in the form of a renewed “primitive accumulation,” or privatization of the common: one can see how both the patenting of genetic sequences taken from plants used by traditional cultures, and the copyrighting of “new” ideas and their expression, fits into this paradigm. This means that the struggle against capitalism must take on radically different forms, compared to those of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Hardt, immaterial production qua primitive accumulation is more a case of the direct appropriation of the common by capitalists, than it is one of the indirect expropriation of the common through the sale and purchase of labor power as was the case under industrial capitalism.

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 Moulier Boutang) about the transformations in capitalism over the last fifty years, and especially since the 1970s. But I am not sure I entirely accept the framework through which Hardt interprets these developments. In particular, I do not think that immaterial production involves a more “direct” expropriation of the common than was the case when industrial capitalism extracted value. It is true, as I have already said, that a lot of this new source of capital appropriation comes from a kind of “primitive accumulation” — corporations are now appropriating the commons in the form of things like genomes and songs and procedures of working, in the same way that landlords appropriated the commons of land at the time of the enclosures. But I don’t think that this is either a novelty or a reversion. It is rather the case that “primitive accumulation” never went away; it is a continual structural feature of capitalism, and was at work in the industrial age as much as it was in the agricultural stage, and as much as it is still today. Capitalism always both appropriates to itself things that it didn’t produce — and this precisely by “privatizing” them — and extracts a surplus from the processes of production that it directly initiates and supervises.

That is to say, there isn’t that great a difference between, on the one hand, how industrial capitalism imposes “cooperation” on large numbers of workers simultaneously, and draws profit from the economies of scale due to this cooperation (which is a form of relative surplus value) as much as it does from the initial inequalities built into the process of buying and selling “labor power” as a commodity (which is what Marx calls absolute surplus value); and, on the other hand, the way that immaterial capitalism today draws its profits from turning employees’ collaborative projects, and the cultural knowledge of indigenous peoples, into “intellectual property” locked under copyright and patent. In both cases, there is a double movement: on the one hand, the appropriation of what would otherwise be (or what previously was) common, and on the other hand, the transformation of that “common” precisely into a commodified form that stores or embodies congealed “labor” and that allows for the “marketization” of the product. The transformation of home knitting into manufactured clothing is not that different from the transformation of a plant with medicinal properties into a patented drug, or into a genetic sequence that can be used for controlled production of the medicine.

So, the point is that primitive accumulation and surplus-value extraction go together, both in 19th-century industrial production and in today’s immaterial production. This is why I don’t accept Hardt’s claim that production today somehow involves a less mediated and more direct appropriation of the common than was the case in the large factories of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Primitive accumulation or appropriation doesn’t occur apart from those other techniques of the extraction of surplus value — and this is just as much true for immaterial production today as it is, and was, for industrial production.

If we are to see a difference in the capitalism of the contemporary era, this has to to with the fact that, today, capital has become even more mobile and abstract than it was in the age of heavy industry. The movement from industrial to immaterial production is an intensification of the movement from agricultural to industrial, an even further internalization of capitalist social relations, an increase in the “mobility” or “flow” of capital. Today we are coming closer than ever to the limit-condition of the real subsumption, instead of the merely formal subsumption of all of society under capital. There is less and less of an “outside” that capitalism can “primitively” accumulate, and more and more is included in the mass of what is directly managed by capital’s disciplinary and modulatory procedures. (But there is only an asymptotic approach to the absolute of “real” subsumption; such a totality is never fully achieved. There always has to be some outside that capital has not appropriated yet, and without such an outside capitalism would entirely stagnate — a point made as much by Schumpeter as by Marx).

To say that we are moving ever closer to real subsumption is equivalent to saying that now — under what Jonathan Beller calls “the cinematic mode of production” (although I think it is rather post-cinematic — which is a point I am still working on), or what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — surplus value is extracted in the processes of distribution and consumption as well as in the process of primary production. For Marx, circulation involved the faux frais of the capitalist mode of production, and had to be subtracted from profit. But today, in an “information economy” or ‘attention economy,” circulation is itself a direct source of further profit. Hardt and Negri are correct to associate this situation with real subsumption displacing merely formal subsumption. But they seem to me to be overly opimistic when they suggest that this means that we are finally reaching the point where the “objective conditions” for communism finally exist, or that the property form has become a “fetter” on the technological means of production, a fetter that is ready to be burst asunder. It just ain’t so. Digital technologies bring with them new forms of potential liberation, certainly; but they also bring new forms of control, new potentials for micromanagement and control via continual modulation (as Deleuze says in his great article on the society of control).

Hardt said at several points that the restrictions of copyright, patent, etc., because they are privatizing the common, are thereby making immaterial or affective labor less “productive” than it could be — which isn’t altogether wrong, but also isn’t the right point to be making — since “productivity” (like “efficiency”) is a category of the private enterprise system and wouldn’t have the same meaning (certainly wouldn’t be measured in anything like the same way) in a world of communism, or of the unrestricted common. Part of the point is precisely that (as Hardt, together with Negri, says — and as Virno says as well) even the most individualized and particular acts of human invention rely so extensively on the whole past accumulation of human invention, that private property rights become absurd. I maintain my signature on this blog, for instance, but it would be utterly ludicrous for me to maintain that my ideas and words come from nowhere — in fact, they come from what I have heard and read and otherwise encountered in the society that I live in. My own personal spin on things is still a spin on what arises and exists elsewhere, or in many elsewheres. And people can make what they want of my words, including things that I absolutely detest, which disabuses me of the notion that these words are “mine” in any metaphysical, propertarian sense.

At best, my words here will become part of what Hardt beautifully called — quoting from Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts — “the production of man [sic] by man” — this by way of making the point that those early manuscripts are anything from essentialist, since they see “human nature” not as something that exists once and for all as our basis, but rather as something that human beings themselves continually remake. Our very remaking of ourselves is at stake, and this is one further reason why the relentless privatization of the common is so obscene. But I am made uneasy when Hardt also calls this remaking a process of “biopolitical production” — because, once again, I think that this characterization is only valid under the conditions of capitalist appropriation, and that it would have to be characterized differently if it were truly to be, and to remain, common. I think that more than vocabulary is at stake here; Hardt and Negri’s terminology reflects what I see as their excessive optimism about how conditions for the common have (supposedly) already been achieved in the heart of capitalism itself.

One final word, on finance. Hardt cited the current financial crisis as an instance of capital’s inability to manage its own complexities in a useful manner. But things seem to me to be a little more complicated than this. Obviously, the system is dysfunctional; and obviously, the insane proliferation of derivatives and other “arcane financial instruments” is a symptom of informatics run amok. More orthodox Marxists often say that finance is merely fictive, since it is not related to, or backed up by, any actual production. But this “ungrounded” finance itself needs to be seen as part of the infrastructure of immaterial and affective capitalism; and as an effect of immaterial and affective labor. In such a context, “fictive” does not mean unreal or ineffective — as we are currently experiencing, the effects of delirious financial capital flows are all too material and evident. This is something that needs to be theorized much more than I am able to do here. I am still trying to figure things out; I would definitely say that, for instance, Christian Marazzi‘s ideas about the linguistic nature of these types of finance is inadequate. But I haven’t found anyone yet who can explain it to me, or theorize it, better.

17 thoughts on “Communism conference — Michael Hardt”

  1. Thanks for this Steve. Just wondering — about your last point — have you read Randy Martin’s work? Especially An Empire of Indifference?

  2. Instructive piece: Affective Capitalism. I’d like to learn more about this. Also, on your last point, you might look at Lee & LiPuma’s Financial Derivatives & the Globalization of Risk.

  3. Here you summarize the following points:

    1. The idea of common property, rather than private or state, is at the heart of communism;
    2. the contemporary model of capital is immaterial or affective production is a movement toward real subsumption of all of society under capital (which when reached, does not necessarily entail a future communism)–this is what I have, only half-jokingly, been calling “transcendental capitalism.”
    3. how we remake ourselves is what is at stake;
    4. the fictive, or ungrounded, nature of finance needs to be analyzed as part of the infrastructure of immaterial, affective capitalism because of its real effects.

    Again, I mourn the loss of Deleuze, in part because we’ve been deprived of his book on Marx. I can’t offer anyone who has theorized the last point, but you should do it, because it is very important work. The ungrounded nature of finance can’t just be linguistic, clearly, but an analysis could in part take the line of D&G on linguistics in A Thousand Plateaus. You are in fact trying to get to a history that generates incorporeal transformations, which will resemble, as Deleuze wrote in “Postscript,” the undulations of a serpent, rather than the burrow. I will look around for someone who might have taken up this challenge.

  4. PS I agree with your critique of the idea that production today involves a less mediated and more direct appropriation of the common than it did in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries, and that a more apt framework for the movement from, as you write, “industrial to immaterial production is an intensification of the movement from agricultural to industrial, an even further internalization of capitalist social relations, an increase in the ‘mobility’ or ‘flow’ of capital.” I think those who are trying to create an analytical framework for this movement are also struggling with words. I would add to the terms you use (“intensification,” “internalization,” and “an increase in ‘mobility’ or ‘flow'”) something like increased penetration of, formation of, and control over the minutiae of social relations under capitalism, which had remained previously on the “outside.”

    It is perhaps beside your point in one way, but what you write also calls to mind the importance of Debord in Society of the Spectacle, regardless of his austerity. I think he describes very well the move from social relations having to do with class and ownership to social relations based on separation from others and from ourselves (while the property system under capitalism is of course still in place), which actually does relate to your point about internalization.

  5. PPS In my first note, there’s a typo: I meant, under 2., “The contemporary model of capital AS . . .”

  6. I would like to point out that capitalism has always operated at the expense of the commons. It is why the biosphere is as utterly fucked as it is.

    From my research and perspective contemporary capitalism is no more or less direct in its rapacious greed to ruin the world – to chew rocks and spit nails, computers, automobiles, plastic corn forks, and those stupid little cups you get to hold ketchup. God I hate those things.

    Early capitalism took the most immediate and local “Commons”, and the result were the Enclosure Acts forcing land into the hands of the rich and the peasants into cities to work at factories. The Enclosures effectively removed the Commons from existence.

    In North America in 1492 Europeans found 24,709,000 km^2 of “Commons”. Instead of peasants feeding and watering their livestock on it, you had several civilisations of Natives who had been using the land for tens of thousands of years. Like the peasants of the UK, they were quickly forced off their land to make way for european farmers, soon followed by Industrial machinery and shopping malls and the “beautiful new Trail Of Tears golf course”. Sometimes I wonder how much of the Enclosure Acts and their techniques were results of the North American colonial experiment.

    So, Enclosures and Invasions provided land based capitalism the raw materials. Then, the metals and fossil fuels provided by the theft of the land, in turn provided the energy and resources to create much more complex social and technical organisations like the interweb thingie.

    Frankly, I do not see the pollution in, say, China, as Chinese pollution, or, the exploitation of workers in China or Malaysia as Chinese or Malaysian exploitation. I see it as Western and American. This is my reasoning:

    I own a factory here in Canada. We make Canadian Widgets for Canadians. Wages in Canada are not cheap and business taxes are tough here, so I relocate the factory to some banana republic, like, Oooh, Alabama where unions are weak. And set up factory there. And so the money flows from Canadian pockets to me and I send off a pile of it to Alabama to keep the Widgets flowing. Then I talk with a Chinese gentleman who tells me I can make Canadian Widgets in China for 1/10 the price, and he’ll help me set it up. Next thing you know, a bunch of Alabamians are unemployed and I have a factory going in China, stinkin’ the place up with pollution making my Canadian Widgets.

    So, is it Chinese pollution? If I hadn’t been able to move the factories out of Canada, the pollution never would have left Canada, so I would argue, no, it is Canadian pollution that has been exported to China. In this way, the entire planet is rendered a “Commons” that is then cut up and divided for the sake of capital and profit. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) doesn’t make it “more direct” than before. If you were a peasant in the Lake District and some sheriff came by saying “Sorry lad – but you’ll have to give up the farm and move to Liverpool, and if you don’t it’s off to jail with you, and you haven’t but nowt to say about it, so go along quiet like.” that’s pretty fucking direct, IMHO, and there isn’t much more direct than that.

    The creation of Immaterial Production was only possible with the energetic and materials production that is presently available. This is prima facie correct. The real problem is the irreversible transition to lower energy states and degraded materials conditions that will avail in the not so distant future. Can such a civilisation exist?

    Some argue, no: we are going to go blindly off a cliff like the Reindeer on St. Matthew Island, where, through the destruction of wolves in 1944, their numbers increased increased from 29 animals to 6,000 by 1963 but then underwent a die-off the following winter to less than 50 animals from a collapse of the food supply and within a few decades had completely died out.

    Most of these theorists (Hardin, Duncan, Bartlett) figure it won’t be a one year collapse, but perhaps a one or two generation (20 – 40 year) collapse beginning with the collapse of oil exports sometime in the 2010s/2020s.

    The destruction of the Commons for the vanity of the ruling class is also seen as a driving factory in the collapse of Easter Island. The Commons in that case was the forest. They cut down all the trees and within a few generations their population collapsed into constant warfare and cannibalism.

    Others, such as myself, see a die off as well, but not over a period of 40 years – more likely 100 – 200 years, depending on how stupid people are.

    From my perspective, the supposed qualitative differences between production from land capital and Immaterial Production from digital infrastructure are not of real significance, nor is one more immediate and direct than the other. You still have the freedom to starve. Freedom, by Art Bears:

    After this I saw multitudes
    Forced from the land,
    Cleared for the wool.
    Dispossessed, refugees,
    Who were told
    To be free –
    Free to starve,
    Or to Slave;
    free to choose
    A or B, as we offered.
    To labour or die!

    I saw cities explode with
    This freedom, and
    Covered my eyes!

    I would submit that present capitalism is faced with two big problems:

    1. An immanent and permanent decline in total energy production. Work requires energy. No energy, no work. no work, no profit, no profit – bye bye capitalism… The top of the elite has been well aware of this problem for a number of years, but really starting with Laherrere and Campbell’s article in March 1998 Scientific American on the imminent loss of cheap petroleum resources. note, Matthew Simmons, a leading figure in Energy depletion analysis was a key advisor to the Cheney Administration.

    2. The collapse of many basic materials. Many elements in groups 10, 11, and 12 of the periodic table are especially stressed. GeoDestinies by Walter Youngquist provides more than enough info on this. My understanding is he is going to republish it with updated info soon. It’s not for happy making.

    3. The inversion of Jevon’s paradox, where rather than conservation only resulting in increased use of resources and economic growth, economic growth will only be predicated on the conservation of resources at a rate greater than the loss of energy from the system. I think I have a PhD waiting for me in there somewhere…unless….

    4. Even though ICT exists at the highest energy and resource level, it will be maintained long beyond its sustainability inflection point as its effects in providing data and information and pacifying billions with entertainment is worth the loss of resources, as it helps inform and temper society as civilisation skitters into what is shaping up to be a trainwreck of a transition to a sustainable society. That sounds more interesting….

    You wrote: But they seem to me to be overly opimistic when they suggest that this means that we are finally reaching the point where the “objective conditions” for communism finally exist, or that the property form has become a “fetter” on the technological means of production, a fetter that is ready to be burst asunder.

    and I agree with you that their hopes are unfounded. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was only possible when the objective conditions existed such that the reproduction of labour in a (nascent) capitalist system was possible. HOW people worked and survived and how this work was financed (both in terms of dollars and resources) had to come prior to any actual “capitalist” formations. The Romans had factories to make bread. HUGE factories that ran off water wheels. We don’t talk about Rome as some ancient capitalist state. And even if a Roman said “hey – we have factories and we are creating a new class of people enslaved to our machines and we use huge sums of money to finance this factory – let’s call ourselves capitalists!!!” They’d say he was crazy and feed him to the lions.

    Same with “communism”. you’re not going to get communism out of computer networks. Networks can be used for progressive ideas, gestures, and programs, (viz Rossiter and Organized Networks) but these machines are made by giant corporations and only exist from the insane destruction of our ecosystem. When we can figure out how to make computers out of sand and sea water (two things I don’t think we’re ever going to run out of) and assembled by people who do so voluntarily for the joy of building them – no – I don’t see this as any kind of a stage for communism. Quite the contrary….

  7. It is somewhat dated, and quite possibly not what you’re after, but for a different framework concerning immaterial production you could try Mark Poster’s The Mode of Information.

  8. I will be curious as to your take on Massimo de Angelis’s book the Birth of History which follows similar lines but seems to me on a first glance to avoid some of the pitfalls of Hardt and Negri’s theses on Immaterial Labour and the commons. At the very least it cannot be accused of avoiding political economy as I never saw so many delirious and complex diagrams since reading Guattari’s work and these are all diagrams of contemproary political economy (de Angelis has worked closely with David Havie an economist and certainly can navigate dextrously around those M C M (etc) forumulas! But the main point of interest seems to be a new approach to the question of value that rejects H and Ns theories of the beyond measure, immeasurable etc of both contemporary capitalism and its potential alternatives in favour of the idea of the emergence of other forms of value and measure based on different articulations of linear, circular and phase temporalities (sometimes approaching a quite SF formulation).

    I am by no means sure I understand yet what is going on in this book but it does feel like one of the first books in quite a while to take the thought developed by H and N and post-autonomy more generally into some kind of new terrain and one that is at once more modest and less delirious while still offering some kind of optimism about the future (which you may not agree with but it is what I would call a sober optimism rather than a delirious one that precisely locates the terrain of sturuggle in the field of political economy and not somehow magically beyond it…….)

  9. I have been curious reading this post what role sports in general would play in the communist societies of the future. At present, the capitalization of sports (especially professional sports) and their spectactularization (many billions involved not only in terms of people, but in terms of money) met an interesting intersection of global interest in the Olympic Games held in Beijing last summer, in which we saw the Orwellian Chinese state at work producing model athletes at great expense to the People, as the model athletes produced a glimpse of the competitiveness of state capitalism.

    When we look back at the role that sports played in the Cold War — and the attempts by various Soviet and Soviet satellite states to produce model boxers, weight-lifters (the mustachio’d women of Bulgaria were particularly striking), even chess was an area of competition between the two systems, as well as the internecine warfare that was produced for instance in the Hungarian-Soviet water-polo matches of 1958 which continued the bloodshed marked by the revolution of that summer in the blood matches played in the pool later that autumn with this time the Soviets taking the brunt of the counter-counter-revolution.

    Will sports be privatized, and turned into an area for amateurs only, will sports be de-fanged so that “everybody wins” as now happens in children’s soccer, in which everyone receives a trophy and merit itself is de-established? I wonder if sports were mentioned even once during this conference?

    I also wonder what role lacrosse (specifically) will play in Hardt’s upcoming utopia (it is a multicultural game in that it originated with Native Americans, and marks thus anyone who plays it as a multiculturalist par excellence).

    Sports mark an interesting mix (harkening back to the war games of the ancient Greeks) of the war impulse (javelin as spear), boxing as boxing, between the martial and the ludic. I would like to see more of an emphasis on the ludic, and perhaps even the ludicrous, in the utopian sports of the future, in which an emphasis upon the surreal possibilities of sports are enhanced (the butterfly stroke is ridiculous, but could be made even more so by people swimming only with their left large toes while holding on to a surf board on which slogans that advertise the state are blinking), or people jumping down in rhythmic unison, while chanting the slogans of the new world odor (global warming is a reality), and merging in and out in green (eco-colors) and red (passionate statism) and black (acceptance of the twilight of the idols).

    Baseball is a major business in Cuba even today. What role will specific sports play in the communist societies of the future?

    Maybe sports will be limited to lifting stacks of Hardt’s books on to the shelves of the People, and we see who reads through them the most quickly, absorbing their wonderful content, will be sufficient, but I would like to see an opening into a panoply of new vision for sports, and their possibility, as an important adjunct of the Hardt-y societies to come: perhaps we could not only read them, but they would somehow have to be used in every sport in the new Olympiads — throwing them, eating them (pie contest), lifting them, swimming with one held overhead while chanting phrases from them, or swimming continuously until the entire book has been read, running with one hundred of them on top of your head, etc.

    Growing Marxist beards with the enhancement of steroids would also be neat, perhaps while sitting on top of hunger poles, while reading the books of the new states to come, too.

    There are so many exciting possibilities.

  10. Wow. The nature state of bourgeois ideology is back and is now called “the common”. That’s what we’ve all fell apart from when we left the paradise and entered surplus value expropriation.

    I have to thank Henry Warwick for putting it into scare quotes and reminding the reader that “original accumulation” might be just another word for the destruction of a different order of possession ( or division of private/common that is never absolute ) maintained by cultures with lesser weapons.

    Is it even a birth defect of Marxism that it gave rise to such a crude, a-historic and undialectic but instead dualist notion as it is used by communist true believers? At least Marxism is not beyond repair.

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