More on (or against) biopolitics

This is something of a followup to what I wrote here, and also here. It is abstracted from an email interview currently in progress. It is pretty rough and undeveloped, but I hope it makes a certain amount of sense.

I both agree and disagree with Hardt and Negri in profound ways. I find their account of the predominance of “affective labor” in the current globalized economy to be incredibly useful. It’s not that such labor didn’t exist before, or that older forms of labor (like industrial labor) have somehow disappeared; but rather that our current social and economic formation is characterized by the hegemony of affective labor processes (together with the hegemony of finance capital over industrial capital, and the importance of continued “primitive accumulation,” or expropriation of formerly public resources, alongside the appropriation and accumulation of surplus value). I think that Hardt and Negri are correct in their observations about “empire” replacing the older forms of imperialism, now that capitalism has truly become global; under this regime, nation-states do not cease to exist, but they play a different role (vis-a-vis an international “market” that they cannot control) than they did formerly. And Hardt and Negri are also right to assert that the extraction of a surplus — which is to say, ultimately, of profit — has now extended well beyond the factory, to encompass all areas of social life, and that this means an increasing appropriation, not only of surplus labor-power, but also of what Marx called “general intellect,” or the accumulated knowledges and capacities of human life as a whole —  including things like habits, everyday practices, forms of know-how, and other potentialities of human (and not just human) “life” in general.

So in this sense I appreciate many aspects of what Hardt and Negri mean by biopolitical power, or the appropriation of the laboring activity of bodies and affects, not just in places of work, but in the overall compass of “life” as a whole. Yet this is also the point at which Hardt and Negri become disturbingly unsatisfactory to me. For what they are describing, under the rubric of biopolitics, affective labor, and the “real subsumption” of all aspects of social existence — and indeed of “life itself” — under capital, is a living nightmare, or a situation of unmitigated horror. For what it means is that we (meaning, by this “we”, everybody who works, whether in an office, a school, a factory, or some other institution, as well as everybody who is unemployed or underemployed, i.e. who does not even get the opportunity to work) — that we, so described, are not just being exploited nine-to-five, but rather all the time, 24/7: in our leisure as well as our work, when we are not being paid as well as when we are being paid, indeed even when we are asleep. This is what it means for capital to appropriate general intellect, and to capture, commodify, and sell not only quantifiable goods and services, but also such impalpable things as atmospheres, feelings, ways of being, or forms of life.

What I find inexplicable in Hardt and Negri is that they describe this situation of hyper-oppression and hyper-exploitation as one in which we are closer than ever to liberation, so that the self-determination of the multitude, as an active, affirmative, constitutive power, is somehow just around the corner — or is even, somehow, already in effect. This sounds suspiciously to me like the old-fashioned Marxist belief (never held, as far as I can tell, by Marx and Engels themselves) that “objective” economic conditions will somehow produce a transition from capitalism to socialism all by themselves, without the need for any sort of political action.

The view that economic processes will lead to revolutionary change all by themselves is precisely what used to be criticized, in many Marxist circles, as “economism.” And yet, I think that the problem with Hardt and Negri’s position is actually the result of their taking “biopolitics” too seriously, instead of subordinating it to economics. The reason for their unearned optimism is because they think that what capital is today exploiting can be designated, all too simply and holistically, as “life.” Where Marx saw labor being expropriated in the commodified form of labor-power, they see “life” as being expropriated directly. But I think this is wrong. There has been no shift from labor to life as a whole. Rather, leisure activities, and even mere sleeping, have been themselves transformed into new particular forms of labor. This allows them to be purchased in the form of labor-power, so that a surplus may be extracted from them.

To appeal to “life” beyond such specific forms of labor is an empty gesture. Indeed, the very idea of “life” in Western thought and culture is an exceedingly problematic one, as Eugene Thacker demonstrates in his brilliant recent book After Life. I am inclined to suggest that “life,” as posited in various discourses (not only those of Hardt and Negri) on biopolitics and biopower, does not exist. It is just an empty hypostatization, a transformation of forces and processes into a supposed essence. If we posit that such an essence has been alienated by practices of governmentality embodied in biopolitics, then it becomes all too easy to fantasize a disalienation that will return “life” to its essence. But this obscures the various forms of production and expropriation that are actually taking place, and puts the focus on tactics of “governmentality,” instead of examining the more basic processes of surplus value extraction and  capital accumulation.

I do not want to sound too harsh here. In fact, Hardt and Negri pay considerably more attention to economic expropriation and exploitation than most other contemporary theorists do. (It is important to note that they do focus on these processes, whereas other radical thinkers — Alain Badiou is the most notable example — programatically bracket and ignore them). But I still think that there is a certain imbalance that comes from their overvaluation of what they call biopolitics.

Also, I’m aware that what has today come to be called “neo-vitalism,” in various configurations, is concerned precisely to emphasize force and affect, rather than essence, in its understanding of how the world works. Evidently, I am largely in accord with this impulse. But I still think that it is dangerously confusing to hypostasize “life” per se in any way. The nineteenth century vitalists wrongly claimed that there was some sort of basic distinction between life and nonlife. They imagined some special process that drove living things, in contrast to the merely mechanistic forces that were supposedly all there was to the inanimate world. Today, this dualism is inadmissible. We should rather say, following Whitehead — and also Latour, Bennett, and the speculative realist philosopher Iain Hamilton Grant — that all materiality, or all of existence, nonliving as well as living, is intrinsically active and agential. It might be better to say, not that everything is alive, but that everything thinks in one way or another. This is the thesis, not of vitalism, but of panpsychism.

11 Responses to “More on (or against) biopolitics”

  1. erik w davis says:

    Dear Steven, this is a nicely-balanced appreciation of Hardt and Negri. Indeed, it’s better (and considerably more erudite) than my own criticisms, which are largely that they have attempted to reinvent the historical subject without real need (except for the psychic needs of appreciation and fame, to which both also succumb). Indeed, your criticism starting in paragraph 3 (a living nightmare) is a wonderful expose of their logic of immiseration. Though immiseration as a spur to revolution has been rejected by every serious thinker from Marx and Bakunin forward, it has an irresistible psychic appeal to those of who who wonder why our fellows have not yet begun to revolt: it makes it seem as if, by only getting a bit worse, our fellows will join our revolt. Instead, Hardt and Negri end by writing fictional political work taking place in an alternate, parallel reality, where the world is indeed in trouble, but where heroic end-of-the-world politics are displaced from narratives of the individual to narratives of ‘multitude,’ whatever the hell that really is supposed to mean. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this, Erik.

  3. Yusef says:

    “The term ‘biopolitics’ indicates the way power, at a certain point, transforms itself to govern not only individuals, through a certain number of disciplinary processes, but also humanity constituted in ‘populations.’ Biopolitics (through local biopowers) is thus concerned with the management of health, hygiene, food, birth rate, sexuality, etc., as these various fields of intervention become political stakes. In this way, biopolitics starts to engage with all the aspects of life that will become the arena for welfare state policies: its development is in fact wholly taken up in the attempt to better manage the labor force.”

    And,

    “The multitude can thus be defined as the jointing of an objective base (the common as a base for accumulation, constituted by material and immaterial forces) with a subjective one (the common as production, along a retreating border and ever renewed values; the common as the result of subjectivation.)”

    –both from the Porcelain Workshop.

    For what they are describing, under the rubric of biopolitics, affective labor, and the “real subsumption” of all aspects of social existence — and indeed of “life itself” — under capital, is a living nightmare, or a situation of unmitigated horror.

    and,

    What I find inexplicable in Hardt and Negri is that they describe this situation of hyper-oppression and hyper-exploitation as one in which we are closer than ever to liberation, so that the self-determination of the multitude, as an active, affirmative, constitutive power, is somehow just around the corner — or is even, somehow, already in effect.

    I’ve paid fairly close attention to your comments on these matters, and find them very complicated and thus challenging to respond to. I’m trying now because the subject (and your take) is so interesting.

    Could the problem you have with their ideas be you fitting them into a pessimist-optimist framework? What I like about them, and find deeply refreshing, is their attempt to examine the “nightmare” (as seen pessimistically, but also, frankly, as the matter looks with eyes wide open) with a view to finding where the retreating borders are (a kind of optimism, but if their views have any merit at all, it isn’t proper to dismiss them as optimistic, or as you once did, as those of “beautiful souls.”)

  4. Yusef says:

    Add–

    Hardt and Negri describe processes I believe we all observe, and note changes in and of the processes over time (the change of the change.) They then note wherein revolution and revolutionary potential is happening. There is misery and nightmare in the processes they describe, but that isn’t the point of describing them–to make us aware of how bad we have it. Nor, when they describe revolution happening is the point to abruptly reverse and slap happy-face stickers over the surface.

  5. marc b. says:

    a few points:

    1. in response to a prior post on ‘biopolitics’, ‘biopolitics’ should not be criticized for any alleged ‘eurocentricity’ when, at least in foucault’s terms, an analysis of the evolution of economics from mercantilsm to liberalism concerns europe’s economic relationship to the non-european world. in other words, as foucault describes it, mercantilsm as an economic system was a zero-sum game where the enrichment of england necessarily meant a correspodning impoverishment of spain, for example. economic liberalism recognized the potential of the improvement of europe’s lot by exploitation of relations with the outside world.
    2. as i understand the term, ‘biopolitics’ refers to an economic liberalism, or more recently neo-liberalism, which represents a shift of authority and emphasis. under neo-liberal policy there is no juridical entity in opposition to economic policy. every act in every sphere is validated by reference to its consistency with market principles. i think the term foucault uses is ‘veridiction’.
    3. there still exist competing interests that result in the appearance of ambiguity. as i have read in wendy brown and others recently, there are still, for example, tensions that exist between neo-conservative theory, which includes questions of morality, questions that are apperently absent from neo-liberal theory.

  6. Craig says:

    Is J. W. Bews ever mentioned in the context of biopolitics? He was a plant ecologist who specialized in the study of African grasslands at the University of Natal in South Africa. During the latter part of his career he was a university administrator as well and shortly before he died in 1938 he wrote a few books extending the ecological perspective beyond plant life. One of them was called Human Ecology and that was followed by Life As A Whole. He was about ten years younger than Mahatma Gandhi and thirty years older than Nelson Mandela.

  7. Jason Read says:

    Steven,

    I appreciate your piece, and fundamentally agree.

    I am not entirely sure about the charge of economism, or at least I think it raises some interesting questions. Negri and the Italian tradition were initially a break from economism, focusing on the subjective and antagonist dimension of labor power. If Hardt and Negri have come back to it, it is because of what they see as the transformation of the economy to the point where it includes all of subjectivity. I am not sure if the economism/voluntarism duality holds anymore, but I do think that Hardt and Negri too quickly see the radical possibilities of the new forms of labor. I see their failure as a failure to think through new modalities of subjection, rather than economism.

    Have you read Tiqqun’s _This is Not a Program_? They make a similar point about biopower.

  8. Kirby Olson says:

    I’m in favor animal economics. I think that if animals wish to marry that would be fine with me, because of all the economic actions it would foster. Not just the florists, but also the pageantry and clothing shops would prosper. Minks wearing leopard skin coats, and buffalo dressed up in the latest mink stoles, think of it!

    The question of animal divorce should not be sniffed at either from the viewpoint of economics. If animals can marry, should they be able to divorce? If a lion marries a hippo, should they decide that “irreconcilable differences” prevent a true union of souls? I think not. At least if I were the Pope of such unions it would be rare that I would grant a divorce. The animals might yowl and snip at one another, but I think they would work it out, eventually. So, yes to animal marriage. No to animal divorce.

    And yet, what about the lawyers? Animal lawyers have a right to a living, and divorce pays far more handsomely than marriage itself. So, perhaps reluctantly, I agree to animal divorce, too, solely because lawyers would eventually find a way to make it happen.

  9. Yusef says:

    as i understand the term, ‘biopolitics’ refers to an economic liberalism, or more recently neo-liberalism, which represents a shift of authority and emphasis. under neo-liberal policy there is no juridical entity in opposition to economic policy. every act in every sphere is validated by reference to its consistency with market principles. i think the term foucault uses is ‘veridiction’.

    The terms biopolitics, economic liberalism, and neo-liberalism may refer to the same processes but these are very different conceptions of what these processes do. They are different understandings.

    The limitations of understanding capitalism as an offshoot of Calvinism–compulsion to conformity through punishment, among other things–are not considered by either economic liberalism or neo-liberalism (which continue the assumptions of Calvinism). Thus, the commodification of human needs and desires, drives, isn’t thinkable, per se. Biopolitics helps to conceptualize with much wider scope finer forms of profitable social control than compulsion to conformity through punishment (though in Shaviro’s post wider scope is thought only to indicate biopolitical emphasis on greater immiseration, which I argue misses the point.)

  10. Yusef says:

    The reason for their unearned optimism is because they [Hardt and Negri] think that what capital is today exploiting can be designated, all too simply and holistically, as “life.” Where Marx saw labor being expropriated in the commodified form of labor-power, they see “life” as being expropriated directly.

    Can anyone provide textual or other evidence Hardt and Negri think this? (Please: the textual evidence is not provided by their use of the word root bios-.)

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