You can’t build a new society with a Stanley knife

Malcolm Bull

Forget Bob Geldof, Bono and the other do-gooders, Genoa’s only significance was as the latest battle in the war of Neoliberalism. It was a clear victory this time for the ‘anarchists’. Damaging property and street fighting proved the most effective forms of protest, and provoked an over-reaction from the police: they shot a man armed with a fire extinguisher and raided the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum for no reason. Non-violent demonstrators like to claim that the ‘anarchists’ have hijacked legitimate protest, but that is not historically true: the Black Bloc were there to greet Reagan when he came to Europe in the 1980s, long before many of the other groups represented at Genoa were formed. The Tute Bianche (‘white overalls’) are a more recent and distinctively Post-Modern phenomenon, committed to the deconstruction of the opposition between violence and non-violence, but they, too, have roots in the autonomist movements of the 1970s. Demonstrations of this kind have been going on for a long time, and they are unlikely to stop. The only thing that seems uncertain is who is fighting on which side.

I am not referring to the rumour that the Black Bloc has been infiltrated by agents provocateurs, or the counterclaim that the Tute Bianche have started to co-operate with the police. The issue is more fundamental. Since the end of the Cold War, Neoliberalism has become so ideologically dominant that it is no longer clear whether the real Neoliberals are the leaders of the G8 or the people outside in the balaclavas and the overalls. Take Ya Basta!, the Italian group formed in 1996 in support of the Chiapas uprising, and a driving force behind the Tute Bianche. They are fighting under the slogan ‘per la dignità dei popoli contro il neoliberismo’, but their two key political demands, free migration and the right to a guaranteed basic income, are policies that were once largely the preserve of Neoliberal think-tanks in the United States. The idea that everyone should be paid a basic income, irrespective of any other income they have coming in, or of their willingness to work, has a long history on the Right. In the early 1960s, Milton Friedman came out in favour of one form of the idea, and in Britain it has circulated at the margins of Conservative politics for half a century, being espoused most recently by William Hague’s friend Alan Duncan. Support for free migration has also come mostly from right-wing libertarians, and in the early 1980s was the sort of topic that found an airing at Liberty Fund seminars. For Neoliberals one of the attractions of these policies was their incompatibility with the welfare state. Basic income was the cheap alternative to welfare, a direct repudiation of ‘to each according to his needs’ (it allows for the total removal of social security infrastructure); free migration, which would make a nation’s welfare benefits accessible to everyone in the world, would quickly make the hard-won achievements of the welfare system unsustainable.

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. In Italian autonomist politics, the idea of a guaranteed income developed in the early 1970s not as a means of cutting the welfare bill, but as part of the effort to uncouple productive labour from the capitalist economy. As for free migration, it is as natural an outgrowth of left-wing internationalism as it is of right-wing libertarianism. Still, we should be wary of interpreting the violent confrontation at Genoa as the clash of incompatible ideologies. Although it originated from a Marxist analysis of the class struggle, the conception of autonomy which inspired the Autonomia movement in Italy and the Autonomen of Germany and Northern Europe has come substantially to overlap with the Neoliberal ideal of negative liberty. The initial move looked revolutionary: since Marx had shown that social relations were not, in fact, the seamless web of bourgeois mythology, but rather the battlefield of economic conflict, the class struggle could be waged more effectively if the working class disengaged from waged labour and sought autonomy for itself. In the Italian context, the ideal of autonomy also represented the reverse of the PCI’s historic attempt to achieve hegemony through the domination of civil society. By seeking the leadership of the capitalist state, the PCI was merely helping to support it: autonomous action, independent of unions and party, would sever the working class from capitalism, and without labour to sustain it capitalism would collapse.

In practice, autonomy meant that action once considered relatively marginal to the class struggle, like squatting or the ‘refusal of work’ – wildcat strikes, calling in sick, knocking off early, acts of petty theft and sabotage – became paradigmatic examples of the ‘self-valorisation’ of the working class. At first, these actions were part of a strategy for effecting revolutionary change, not (as in anarchism) an attempt to realise a new social ideal. But they soon became ends in themselves, and throughout the 1980s autonomism survived chiefly in neo-tribal squatters’ colonies like Kreuzberg in Berlin and Christiania in Copenhagen. The repoliticisation of the movement was partly due to the success of the Zapatistas. Their ‘autonomous municipalities’ and their struggle to affirm an alternative politics independent of the state provided a new model for all who wanted to live outside the capitalist system. At the same time, the very fact that people in remote parts of the world had to fight to establish that autonomy served to illustrate capitalism’s new global reach. However, a shift had taken place: autonomy had been intended to replace capitalism with Communism; but as the antithesis of globalisation it functions very differently: autonomous areas or spheres of activity may constitute local alternatives to capitalism and so limit its extent, but they are not incompatible with its continuation. In terms of political theory this is significant: ‘immunity from the service of capital’ (as Hobbes might have put it) is one, today perhaps the most important form of negative liberty, and autonomous regions and basic incomes are both ways of making it possible, whereas neither autonomous zones nor basic incomes have any place in Communism, for both are ways of limiting the demands that people can make on each other.

It is this intellectual and political context that makes the appearance of Empire so intriguing. Recently released on parole from Rebibbia prison in Rome, and an acknowledged influence on Ya Basta!, Antonio Negri has unimpeachable revolutionary credentials. In the 1970s, he was the leading theorist of Potere Operaio and later of the Autonomia movement. But in 1979, the kidnapping and execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades gave the Italian authorities the pretext for the indiscriminate repression of the extra-Parliamentary Left. Thousands of activists were arrested on political charges; Negri himself was accused of masterminding acts of terrorism, and of being the unidentified voice on the line in a phone call to Moro’s wife. There was no hard evidence to substantiate any of these accusations. The pentiti accused Negri of complicity only in one action and that was more a hideously bungled prank than an act of terrorism: in the ‘kidnapping’ of a Potere Operaio supporter by his friends to extract money from his wealthy parents, a chloroformed handkerchief was held for too long over the young man’s face. Nevertheless, Negri was sentenced to prison, only to be released under Parliamentary immunity when elected as a Radical MP. Escaping to France, where he had the support of Deleuze and Guattari, he continued his academic career in Paris (Michael Hardt was a student) until 1997, when he voluntarily returned to Italy to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

Negri’s attempt to retheorise the autonomist strategy began during his first spell in prison, with a study of Spinoza. He found in Spinoza a distinction (lost in English translations) between potentia (‘strength’, ‘force’, ‘creative activity’) and potestas (‘authority’, ‘command’, ‘sovereignty’). According to Spinoza, God’s power (potentia) is his essence, and what we conceive to be in his power (potestas) necessarily exists. For Negri this does not just mean that since God is necessarily creative his creation, too, is necessary; it subordinates potestas to the continuing actualisation of potentia: God’s sovereignty over the world is, in reality, nothing other than his world-making. The political import of this distinction emerges in Spinoza’s unfinished Political Treatise, where, Negri claims, the multitude becomes ‘a productive essence’ and the potestas of the sovereign is the potentia of the people.

Here, the old autonomist strategy of disengagement from existing structures of authority found a new justification. The proletariat may have given way to Spinoza’s multitude, and the language of economics to that of jurisprudence, but the basic point was unchanged: taking power and making power are the same thing. The revolutionary potential of this idea was affirmed in Insurgencies (1999), where Negri pointed out that the English and American Revolutions had been inspired by just such a doctrine: the republican theory of liberty, with its emphasis on the constituent power of the citizenry. In the brief passage ‘from resistance to revolution, from associationism to the constitution of political bodies . . . from militiae to the armies’ was the proof that potentia could become potestas overnight. All that Marx had needed to add to what J.G.A. Pocock called the ‘Atlantic republican tradition’ was the idea that the political always includes the social. Now, ‘political space becomes social space,’ and with creative free labour as its subject, constituent power is ‘the revolution itself’.

In Empire, this argument is applied to globalisation. The new world order represents a new form of imperial sovereignty ‘composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule’. The account of the way these organisms – the United States, the G8, the UN, the NGOs, the multinationals and the media conglomerates – exercise their authority is left rather vague, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. Empire, like other forms of sovereignty (imperium in Spinoza), is only the power of the people writ large. In globalisation, alternatives to capitalism are not defeated so much as given new opportunity to work on a global scale: ‘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.’

It’s easy to see why Empire has proved the most successful work of political theory to come from the Left for a generation. Not only is it written with unusual energy, clarity and wit, but it addresses directly the central political issue of the moment: the perceived distance between ordinary people trying to live in the way they want and the systems of power that defeat them. By simultaneously redefining globalisation as a form of sovereignty and recasting the autonomist project in the republican tradition, Hardt and Negri offer an exceptionally optimistic analysis of the problem: remote as it may seem, sovereignty is nothing that a few like-minded people cannot create for themselves. Today’s anti-capitalist protests may look like mob violence, but that is half the point: the street mobs made America, too; this is counter-Empire in the making.

Nevertheless, the structure of counter-Empire remains obscure. Hardt and Negri distance themselves from those who merely want to ‘defend the local and construct barriers to capital’. But although their reinterpretation of autonomy involves more than freedom from the constraints of the market, it is still recognisably part of the late 20th-century reworking of liberalism. Negri’s rediscovery of republican thought in the early 1980s paralleled that of Quentin Skinner in Britain, and the retrieval of Anti-Federalism by libertarians in the United States. In no case did this involve repudiation of the idea of negative liberty, just a renewed emphasis on the point that people can be free only if they also have an ongoing capacity for self-government. For Skinner this meant a call to active citizenship, while for Negri it involved a reaffirmation of the Anti-Federalist view that the constituent power of the citizen is not irretrievably transferred to the sovereign through some contract or constitution. The constituent power of the multitude is inalienable; it remains, as Negri writes in Insurgencies, ‘an irresistible provocation to imbalance, restlessness and historical ruptures’. Counter-empire is permanent revolution.

This is not the Marxist revolution to which Negri was once committed. Although hailed by Slavoj Žižek as ‘The Communist Manifesto for our time’, Empire is more Jeffersonian than Marxist. Like those who invoke The Declaration of Independence against the Federal Government, Hardt and Negri focus on the contradictions generated by liberalism’s global sovereignty: the nuclear bomb (a standing affront to militias as well as to pacifists), the continuing existence of immigration controls, the reliance of global business and media interests on government support and regulation. Cheerfully appropriating the slogans of national Neoliberalism for use against global Neoliberalism, Hardt and Negri proclaim: ‘Now that the most radical conservative opponents of big government have collapsed under the weight of the paradox of their position, we want to pick up their banners . . . It is our turn now to cry: “Big government is over!”’

With its repeated affirmation that we don’t have to accept the world as we find it, and that we can remake it to suit ourselves, Empire is certainly inspirational reading. But what, if anything, it might inspire someone to do is hard to say. Because Hardt and Negri’s version of republican liberty is a theory of power rather than of rights it doesn’t easily translate into talk of duties. (Unlike Skinner, they can’t call for laws forcing us to exercise our rights.) Furthermore, their analysis of power is not one that lends itself to judgments about the way it should be exercised. Both these difficulties are inherited from Spinoza, whose theological metaphysics dictated that, since all power is God’s power, power must be co-extensive with natural right. In a state of nature everyone has as much right as they have the power to exercise, limited only by the antagonistic power of others. The formation of the commonwealth involves no transfer of natural right to the sovereign (as in social contract theory), merely an aggregation of power, and thus of right, that increases the power of the commonwealth over nature and over the individuals within it. Civil right is natural right and natural right is power. As Negri puts it in Insurgencies, ‘the law precedes the constitution, the people’s autonomy lives before its formalisation. It is the Tartar who founds freedom, in the experience of his own right.’

The belief that civil right is unalienated power is fundamental to Negri’s rethinking of the autonomist programme. But as many commentators have pointed out, Spinoza’s theory licenses tyranny as much as democracy, counter-revolution as well as revolution. Whoever exercises sovereignty has the right to do so for as long as they have the power to maintain it. By replacing Marx with Spinoza, Negri preserves the revolutionary creed at the expense of its justification. For Spinoza, there is no point at which either the individual or the multitude is alienated from something that is naturally or rightfully theirs, so no one has any claim to power that they do not happen to possess. If someone develops larger muscles, buys a bigger gun, or stages a successful revolution, power and right are redistributed accordingly. That is all there is to it.

Spinoza, it’s no surprise to discover, is Henry Kissinger’s preferred political philosopher. Whether he is Mrs Thatcher’s favourite as well, I don’t know, but on Negri’s reading he ought to be. For Spinoza, too, ‘the bourgeois ideology of civil society is only an illusion’ and there is no such thing as ‘an intermediate moment in the process that leads from the state of nature to the political state’. The concept of ‘multitude’ that Negri derives from Spinoza is therefore as much a repudiation of civil society as it is a substitute for the old idea of the ‘masses’. According to Negri, nature constructs individuals, and then, through co-operation, ‘an infinite number of singularities are composed as productive essence.’ The political is ‘a multitude of co-operating singularities’ coextensive with the social but not mediated through it. If civil society withers away, so much the better; the true structure of sovereignty is then laid bare.

Whether Hardt and Negri can actually manage without a more nuanced and autonomous conception of the social is another question. They object to social contract theorists who pretend ‘that the subject can be understood presocially and outside the community and then impose a kind of transcendental socialisation on it’. The dialectic between the civil order and the natural order is now at an end, they argue, ‘all phenomena and forces are artificial’ and so ‘no subjectivity is outside.’ But if there is ‘no more outside’, how does that leave the claim that civil right is the aggregated power which individuals enjoy in the state of nature? Where there is no difference between the natural and the social, the distinction between the social and the political becomes all the more important. For what is the role of constituent power if sovereignty is always already constituted? Where now ‘the Tartar who founds freedom in the experience of his own right’?

Ironically, one response to these questions may be found in Spinoza himself. It is not at all obvious that Negri’s interpretation of Spinoza is correct. In the Theologico-Political Treatise Spinoza had maintained that some sort of social contract was necessary and that natural right was transferred. In the Political Treatise, the contract disappears, but whether its elimination means the continuation of natural right in the civil state or the elision of the difference between the civil and the natural is less certain. Spinoza sometimes says the former, but he also emphasises that in the state of nature where ‘the natural right of man is determined by the power of every individual, and belongs to everyone . . . it is a nonentity, existing in opinion rather than fact.’ Only on entering the commonwealth does natural right become more than a fiction: ‘men in the state of nature can hardly be possessed of their own right.’ On this interpretation, civil right is the only form of right there is; in the state of nature there is so much risk that men are virtually powerless against each other; far from taking their unalienated power into the commonwealth, they experience it there for the first time. For man, the social animal, if not for God or nature, potestas creates potentia.

It would, I think, be difficult for Hardt and Negri to turn their argument around in this way. Although they recognise the function of society in the production of individual subjectivities they barely acknowledge its role in the production of power. Using Foucault’s model of biopower, they argue that power constitutes society, not the other way round: ‘Power, as it produces, organises; as it organises, it speaks and expresses itself as authority.’ In reply to Machiavelli’s observation that the project of constructing a new society needs arms and money, they cite Spinoza and ask: ‘Don’t we already possess them? Don’t the necessary weapons reside precisely within the creative and prophetic power of the multitude?’ No one is powerless; even the old, the sick and the unemployed are engaged in the ‘immaterial labour’ that produces ‘total social capital’. Sounding a bit like Ali G, they conclude: ‘The poor itself is power. There is World Poverty, but there is above all World Possibility, and only the poor is capable of this.’

It is difficult to see how this analysis comprehends the reality of powerlessness. You may be able to threaten the world with a Stanley knife, but you cannot build a new society with one. Insofar as the problems of the powerless have been addressed in recent years it is often through a dynamic that works in the opposite direction to the one Hardt and Negri suggest. Their response to globalisation is to maintain that since we have not contracted into global society, we still have all the power we need to change it. The alternative is to argue that a geographically boundless society must also be a totally inclusive society. The latter is an extension of what used to be called the politics of recognition. Globalisation may have replaced multiculturalism as the focus of contemporary political debate, but there is an underlying continuity: the concern of anti-globalisation protesters with remote regions of the world, with the lives of people unlike themselves, and with species of animals and plants that most have seen only on TV is predicated on an unparalleled imaginative identification with the Other. This totalisation of the politics of recognition from the local to the global is what has given momentum to campaigns such as the one for African Aids victims; here, it is a question of sympathy rather than sovereignty, of justice rather than power. In many cases, unless the powerful recognised some kinship with them, the powerless would just die. Capitalism has no need for the ‘immaterial labour’ of millions now living. For powerless human beings, as for other species, autonomy leads to extinction.

The conflict at the centre of the movement against global capitalism is the tension between its libertarian stance and the demand for global justice. Although Hardt and Negri are pro-globalisation and anti-capitalism they belong firmly in the libertarian camp. The ‘postmodern republicanism’ they advocate expresses the ‘multitude’s desire for liberation’ through ‘desertion, exodus and nomadism’. And although, in his most recent work, Kairòs, Alma Venus, Multitudo, Negri has written a series of meditations on poverty almost Franciscan in tone, the political theory he has developed over the past twenty years lacks the tools to deal with it. The assertion that the political is identical with the social cannot disguise the fact that his is a theory conceived entirely in terms of the former. As Hannah Arendt once noted approvingly of the American Revolution, this was a fight ‘against tyranny and oppression, not against exploitation and poverty’.

For Arendt, it was the other sort of revolution, motivated by compassion rather than the desire for freedom, that led inexorably to terror and totalitarianism. She may not have been altogether wrong. All those do-gooders are more dangerous than they look. Even the much-touted idea of a tax on currency speculation (designed to reduce market volatility and provide resources for sustainable development) would require worldwide ideological consensus for its enactment. Chasing foreign exchange trading from one tax haven to another, and from currency deals to bonds to commodities to derivatives needs bigger government than anything that currently exists. Effective environmental regulation would restrict the movement, fertility and consumption patterns of individuals all over the planet. 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. In the United States, the discussion has been kick-started by the recent hijackings. Globalisation appears to have created a world of unlimited risk, without a corresponding totalisation of the means of social control. Some commentators, following Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ model, argue that global social control is impossible and the only way to contain risk is to maintain the boundaries between civilisations. For Neoliberals, however, commitment to globalisation necessitates the search for some form of global authority – the shifting nexus of institutions and alliances that Hardt and Negri call Empire. But this is never going to yield the type of intensive social regulation needed to limit all the risks of a global society. 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’.

Hardt and Negri have no interest in the control of risk – a world of unlimited risk is a world of unlimited constituent power – and they dismiss the totalitarian understanding of society as one in which ‘community is not a dynamic collective creation but a primordial founding myth.’ But the debate about social control prompted by the hijackings is one that others on the Left should hurry to join. The issue here is not American hypocrisy (Nagasaki, not Pearl Harbor, is the relevant comparison): let the Swiss cast the first stone – London has statues of war criminals all over the place. It is rather that, without yet realising it, the world’s only superpower wants to achieve something that presupposes greater economic and social justice. Current US policy may be unacceptable, but the long-term project holds an unexpected promise.

If the ‘war against terrorism’ is going to be less of a fiasco than the ‘war on drugs’, it requires global social inclusivity and reciprocity. Total social control involves a degree of microregulation with which individuals have to co-operate. One way totalitarian societies have differed from those that are merely authoritarian is in their provision of work and healthcare. (If you want to keep track of people you cannot abandon them when they are unemployed or sick.) The link between welfare and totalitarianism works both ways: social regulation and inclusion go together. If the US wants to make the world a safer place, it will eventually have to offer, or force other governments to provide, the population of the entire world with the means to participate in global society. This will involve real constraints on the operation of the market, particularly finance capital. Tuesday, 11 September 2001 may prove to be the date at which Neoliberalism and globalisation parted company.

‘Nous sommes tous Américains,’ proclaimed the editorial in Le Monde. And not just those who were horrified by the hijackings: the attack on New York and Washington was not an act of war against a foreign enemy (it had no strategic value) but a protest that implicitly acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States. ‘I am an American Airlines pilot,’ boasted one hijacker, drinking in his local bar. A mixture of black humour and wishful thinking no doubt, but a clear indication of psychological proximity. If Americans fail to understand why their country is hated, it is often because they barely comprehend the extent of its influence. No one travels halfway round the world to kill themselves amid a people with whom they feel no connection. Even in the Arabian desert, America is uncomfortably close. For the US, it may seem like a foreign war, but on the other side it is more like a civil war, dividing families – the bin Ladens, for instance.

One thing that the hijackings have brought to the surface is the extent to which ‘the primordial founding myth’ of a total society is already available in the history of the United States. At one level, Hardt and Negri recognise this. Their work is free of the European Left’s residual anti-Americanism and represents a systematic effort to appropriate the American myth for the global multitude. 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. Anti-globalisation is often an argument for the globalisation of American norms – why should workers in the Philippines have fewer rights than their American counterparts? Israel will join the list of ‘rogue states’ only when the United States becomes more representative of the population of the world. 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. In this situation, we need to start thinking in new ways. Negri’s version of what Althusser called ‘totality without closure’ is a politics without a social contract, ‘a constituent power without limitations’. 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.