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.