Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist Manifesto For the Twenty-First Century?
Slavoj Zizek reviews Empire for the LRB
Capitalism is not just a historical epoch among others. In a way, the once fashionable and now half-forgotten Francis Fukuyama was right: global capital is "the end of history." A certain excess which was, as it were, kept under check in previous history, perceived as a localizable perversion, as an excess, a deviation, is in capitalism elevated into the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money, of a system which can survive only by constantly revolutionizing its own conditions-that is to say, in which the thing can survive only as its own excess, constantly exceeding its own "normal" constraints. And, perhaps it is only today, in global capitalism in its "postindustrial", digitalized form, that, to put it in Hegelian terms, really existing capitalism is reaching the level of its notion: perhaps, one should follow again Marx's old, antievolutionist motto (incidentally taken verbatim from Hegel) that the anatomy of man provides the key for the anatomy of the monkey-that is, in order to deploy the inherent, notional structure of a social formation, one must start with its most developed form.
Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use-value and exchange value: in capitalism, the potentials of this opposition are fully realized, the domain of exchange-value acquires autonomy, is transferred into the specter of self-propelling speculative capital which needs the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its dispensable temporal embodiment. Marx derived the very notion of economic crisis from this gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory, self-generating mirage of money begetting more money-this speculative madness can not go on indefinitely; it has to explode in ever stronger crises. The ultimate root of the crisis is for him, the gap between use-value and exchange-value: the logic of exchange-value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people. It may appear that this analysis is more than actual today when the tension between the real universe and the real is reaching almost palpably unbearable proportions: on the one hand, we have crazy, solipsistic speculations about futures, mergers, and so on, following their own inherent logic; on the other hand, reality is catching up I the guise of ecological catastrophes, poverty, Third World diseases in collapse of social life, mad cow disease.
This is why cyber-capitalists can appear as the paradigmatic capitalists today; this is why Bill Gates can dream of cyberspace as providing the frame for what he calls "frictionless capitalism." What we have here is an ideological short circuit between the two versions of the gap between reality and virtuality: the gap between real production and and the virtual, spectral domain of Capital, and the gap between experiential reality and the virtual reality of cyberspace. It effectively seems that the gap between my fascinating screen persona and the miserable flesh that is "me" off-screen translates into immediate experience the gap between the Real of the speculative circulation of capital and the drab reality of impoverished masses. However is this (this recourse to "reality" which will sooner or later catch up with the virtual game) really the only way to operationalize a critique of capitalism? What if the problem of capitalism is not this solipsistic mad dance but precisely the opposite: that it continues to disavow its gap with "reality", that it presents itself as serving real needs of real people? The originality of Marx is that he played on both cards simultaneously: the origin of capitalist crises is the gap between use- and exchange-value, and capitalism constrains the free deployment of productivity.
What all this means is that the urgent task of the economic analysis today is, again, to repeat Marx's critique of political economy, without succeeding on to the temptation of the ideologies of "postindustrial" societies. It is my hypothesis that the key change concerns the status of private property: the ultimate element of power and control is no longer the last link in the chain of investments, the firm or individual who "really owns" the means of production. The ideal capitalist today functions in a in a wholly different way: investing borrowed money, "really owning" nothing-even indebted, but nonetheless controlling things. A corporation is owned by another corporation, who is again borrowing money from banks, who may ultimately manipulate money owned by ordinary people like ourselves. With Bill Gates, "private property in the means of production" becomes meaningless, at least in the standard meaning of the word. The paradox of this virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in elementary particle physics. The mass of each element in our reality is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron's mass at rest is zero, its mass consisting only of the surplus generated by the acceleration of its movement, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself. Does today's virtual capitalist not function in a homologous way: his "net value" at zero, he directly operates just with the surplus borrowing from the future.
This, exactly, is what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are trying to do in their Empire (2000), a book that sets as its goal, writing the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century. Hardt and Negri describe globalization as an ambiguous "deterritorialization": victorious global capitalism pushes into every pore of our social lives, into the most intimate of spheres, and installs an ever present dynamic, which no longer is based on patriarchal or other hierarchic structures of dominance. Instead, it causes a flowing, hybrid identity. On the other hand, this fundamental corrosion of all important social connections lets the genie out of the bottle: it sets free the potentially centrifugal forces that the capitalist system is no longer able fully to control. It is exactly because its global triumph that the capitalist system is more vulnerable than ever. The old formula of Marx is still valid: capitalism digs its own grave. Hardt and Negri describe this process as the transition from the nation-state to global Empire, a transnational entity comparable to ancient Rome, in which hybrid masses of scattered identities developed. Hardt and Negri thus deserve much praise for enlightening us about the contradictory nature of today's "turbocapitalism" and attempting to identify to identify the revolutionary potential of its dynamic. This heroic attempt sets itself against the standard view of those on the Left who are struggling to limit the destructive powers of globalization and to rescue (what there is left to rescue) the welfare state. This standard leftist view is imbued with a profoundly conservative mistrust of the dynamics of globalization and digitalization, which is quite contrary o the Marxist confidence in the powers of progress.
Nevertheless, one immediately gets a sense of the boundaries to Hardt and Negri's analysis. In their social-economic analysis, the lack of concrete insight is concealed in the Deleuzian jargon of multitude, deterritorialization, and so forth. No wonder that the three "practical proposals with which the book ends appear anticlimactic. The authors propose to focus our political struggle on three global rights: the rights to global citizenship, a minimal income, and the reappropriation of the new means of production (i.e. access to and control over education, information and communication). It is a paradox that Hardt and Negri, the poets of mobility, variety, hybridization, and so on, call for three demands formulated in the terminology of universal human rights. The problem with these demands is that they fluctuate between formal emptiness and impossible radicalization. Let us take the right to global citizenship: theoretically, this right of course should be approved. However, if this demand is meant to be taken more seriously than a celebratory formal declaration in typical United Nations Style, then it would mean the abolition of state borders; under present conditions, such a step would trigger an invasion of cheap labor from India, China and Africa into the United States and Western Europe, which would result in a populist revolt against immigrants-a result of such violent proportions that figures like Haider would seem models of multicultural tolerance. The same is valid with regard to the other two demands: for instance, the universal (worldwide) right to minimal income-of course, why not? But how should one create the necessary social-economic and ideological conditions for such a shattering transformation?
This critique is not only aimed at the secondary empirical details. The main problem with Empire is that the book falls short in its fundamental analysis of how (if at all) the present global, social-economic process will create the space needed for such radical measures: they fail to repeat, in today's conditions, Marx's line of argumentation that the prospect of the proletarian revolution emerges out of the inherent antagonisms of the capitalist mode of production. In this respect, Empire remains a pre-Marxist book. However, perhaps the solution is that it is not enough to return to Marx, to repeats Marx's analysis, but we must needs return to Lenin.
The first public reaction to such a motto is, of course, an outburst of sarcastic laughter. Marx: OK, even on Wall Street they love him today-Marx the poet of commodities, who provided perfect descriptions of capitalist dynamics; Marx of the cultural studies who portrayed the alienation and reification of our daily lives. But Lenin: no, you can't be serious! The working-class movement, revolutionary party, and similar zombie concepts? Doesn't Lenin stand precisely for the failure to put Marxism into practice, for the catastrophe that left its mark on the entire twentieth-century's world politics, for the Real Socialist experiment that culminated in an economically inefficient dictatorship? In contemporary academic politics, the idea of dealing with Lenin is accompanied by two qualifications: yes, why not, we live in a liberal democracy, there is freedom of thought…however, one should treat Lenin in an "objective critical and scientific way", not in an attitude of nostalgic idolatry, and, furthermore, from the perspective firmly rooted in the democratic political order, within the horizon of human rights-therein resides the lessons painfully learned through the experience of twentieth-century totalitarianisms.
What are we to say to this? Again, the problem resides in the implicit qualifications which can be easily discerned by "concrete analysis of the concrete situation", as Lenin himself would have put it. "Fidelity to the democratic consensus" means acceptance of the present liberal-parliamentary consensus" means acceptance of the present liberal-parliamentary consensus, which precludes any serious questioning of how this liberal-democratic order is complicitous in the phenomena it officially condemns and, of course, any serious attempt to imagine a society whose sociopolitical order would be different. In short, it means: say and write whatever you want-on condition that what you do does not effectively question or disturb the predominant political consensus. So everything is allowed, solicited even, as a critical topic: the prospects of a global ecological catastrophe, violations of human rights, sexism, homophobia, antifeminism, the growing violence not only in far-away countries but also in our megalopolises, the gap between the First and Third Worlds, between rich and poor, the shattering impact of the digitalization of our daily lives…there is nothing easier today than to get international, state, or corporate funds for multidisciplinary research into how to fight the new forms of ethnic, religious or sexist violence. The problem is that all this occurs against the background of a fundamental Denkverbot, a prohibition on thinking. Today's liberal-democratic hegemony is sustained by a kind of unwritten Denkverbot similar to the infamous Berufsverbot in Germany in the late 1960s: the moment one shows any minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim seriously to challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: "Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!"
And it is exactly this same thing that the demand for "scientific objectivity" means: the moment one seriously questions the existing liberal consensus, one is accused of abandoning scientific objectivity for outdated ideological positions. As for us here, it goes without saying, none of us is involved in any unconstitutional activities. You probably all know De Quincey's quip about the "simple art of murder": how many people began with a simple murder which at that point, appeared to them nothing special, and ended up behaving badly at table! Along the same lines, we would certainly not like to follow in the steps of those who began with a couple of innocent beatings of policemen and Molotov cocktails which, at that point, appeared to them nothing special, and ended up as a German foreign minister. However, there is a point on which we cannot concede: today, actual freedom of thought means the freedom to question the predominant, liberal-democratic, "postideological" consensus-or it means nothing.
Although most of us probably do not agree with Jurgen Habermas, we do live in an era that could be designated by his term neue Undurchsichtlichkeit, the new opacity. More than ever, our daily experience is mystifying. Modernization generates new obscurantisms; the reduction of freedom is presented to us as the arrival of new freedoms. In these circumstances one should be especially careful not to confuse the ruling ideology with ideology that seems to dominate. More than ever, one should bear in mind Walter Benjamin's reminder that it is not enough to ask how a certain theory (or art) declares itself to stay with regard to social struggles; one should also ask how it effectively functions in these struggles. In sex, the effectively hegemonic attitude is not patriarchal repression but free promiscuity; in art, provocations in the style of the notorious "Sensation" exhibitions are the norm, the example of the art fully integrated into the establishment.
One is therefore tempted to turn round Marx's eleventh thesis. The first task today is precisely not to succumb to the temptation to act, to directly intervene and change things (which then inevitably ends in a cul-de-sac of debilitating impossibility: "what can one do against global capital?"). Rather, the task is to question the hegemonic ideological coordinates, or, as Brecht put it in his Me Ti, "Thought is something which precedes action and follows experience." If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space; it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates. Those who "really want to do something to help people" get involved in (undoubtedly honorable) exploits like Medecins Sans Frontieres, Greenpeace, and feminist and antiracist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated but even supported by the media; even if they seemingly enter economic territory (say, by denouncing and boycotting companies that do not respect ecological conditions or that use child labor). They are tolerated and supported so long as they do not get close to a certain limit. Let us take two predominant topics of today's radical American academia: postcolonial and queer (gay) studies. The problem of postcolonialism is undoubtedly crucial; however, "postcolonial studies" tend to translate it into the multiculturalist problematic of the colonized minorities' "right to narrate" their victimizing experience of the power mechanisms that repress "otherness" so that, at the end of the day, we learn the root of postcolonial exploitation is our intolerance toward the Other, and, furthermore, that this intolerance toward the "Stranger in Ourselves", in our inability to confront what we repressed in and of ourselves. The politico-economic struggle is thus imperceptibly transformed into a pseudo-psychoanalytic drama of the subject unable to confront its inner traumas. The true corruption of American academia is not primarily financial-it is not only that they are able to buy many European critical intellectuals (myself included, up to a point)-but conceptual: notions of "European" critical theory are imperceptibly translated into the benign universe of cultural studies chic. With regard to this radical chic, the first gesture toward Third Way ideologists and practitioners should be that of praise: they at least play their game in a straight way, and are honest in their acceptance of the global capitalist coordinates, in contrast with pseudo-radical academic leftists who adopt toward the Third Way an attitude of utter disdain while their own radicality ultimately amounts to an empty gesture that obliges no one to anything determinate.
Lenin is for us not the nostalgic name for old, dogmatic certainty-quite the contrary. To put it in Kierkegaard's terms, the Lenin we want to retrieve is the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism-recall his acerbic remark apropos of some new problem: "About this, Marx and Engels said not a word." The idea is not to return to Lenin but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today's constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically reenacting the "good old revolutionary times" nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to "new conditions", but at repeating, in the present, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolutionary project in the conditions of imperialism and colonialism-more precisely, after the politico-ideological collapse of the long era of progressism in the catastrophe of 1914. Eric Hobsbawn defined the concept of the twentieth century as the time between 1914, the end of the long, peaceful expansion of capitalism, and 1990, the emergence of the new form of global capitalism after the collapse of really existing socialism. What Lenin did for 1914, we should do for1990. "Lenin" stands for the compelling freedom to suspend the stale, existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live; it simply means that we are allowed to think again.
Lenin's stance against economism as well as against pure politics is crucial today, apropos of the split attitude toward economy in (what remains of) radical circles: on the one hand, there are pure "politicians" who abandon economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other hand, there are the economists, fascinated by the functioning of today's global economy, who preclude any possibility of a political intervention proper. Today, more than ever, we should here return to Lenin: yes, economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of global capitalism-but the intervention should be properly political, not economic.
The battle to be fought is thus twofold. First-yes-anticapitalism. However, anticapitalism without problematizing capitalism's political form (liberal parliamentary democracy) is not sufficient, no matter how radical it is. Perhaps the lure today is the belief that one can undermine capitalism without effectively problematizing the liberal democratic legacy which (as some Leftists claim), although engendered by capitalism, acquired autonomy and can serve to criticize capitalism. This lure is strictly correlative to its apparent opposite, to the pseudo-Deleuzian, love-hate, fascinating/fascinated poetic depiction of capital as a rhizomatic monster/vampire that deterritorializes and swallows all-indomitable, dynamic, ever rising from the dead, each crisis making it stronger, Dionysus-Phoenix reborn. It is in this poetic (anti)-capitalist reference to Marx that Marx is really dead: appropriated when deprived of his political sting.
So where in all this is Lenin? According to the predominant doxa, in the years after the October Revolution, Lenin's declining faith in the creative capacities of the masses led him to emphasize the role of science and scientists, to rely on the authority of the expert: he hailed "the beginning of that very happy time when politics will recede into the background…and engineers and agronomists will do most of the talking." Technocratic postpolitics? Lenin's ideas about how the road to socialism runs through the terrain of monopoly capitalism may appear dangerously naïve today.
"Capitalism has created an accounting apparatus in the shape of the banks, syndicates, postal service, consumers' societies, and office employee unions. Without big banks socialism would be impossible…our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive…This will be country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods, this will be, so to speak, something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society." (Lenin 1960-70, 26: 106)
Is this not the most radical expression of Marx's notion of the general intellect regulating all social life in a transparent way, of the postpolitical world in which "administration of people" is supplanted by the "administration of things"? It is, of course, easy to play against this quote the tune of the "critique of instrumental reason" and "administered world" (verwaltete Welt): "totalitarian" potentials are inscribed in this very formula of total social control. It is easy to remark sarcastically how, in the Stalinist epoch, the apparatus of social administration effectively becomes "even bigger." Furthermore, is this postpolitical vision not the very opposite of the Maoist notion of the eternity of class struggle ("everything is political")?
Are, however, things really so unambiguous? What if one replaces the (obviously dated) example of the central bank with the World Wide Web, today's perfect candidate for the General Intellect? Dorothy Sayers claimed that Aristotle's Poetics effectively is the theory of detective novels avant la lettre: since poor Aristotle didn't yet know of the detective novel, he had to refer to the only examples at his disposal-the tragedies. Along the same lines, Lenin was effectively developing the theory of the role of the World Wide Web but, since the Web was unknown to him, he had to refer to the unfortunate central banks. Consequently, can one also say that "without the World Wide Web socialism would be impossible…our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive? In these conditions one is tempted to resuscitate the old, opprobrious, and half-forgotten Marxian dialectics of the productive forces and the relations of productions. It is already a commonplace to claim that, ironically, it was this very dialectics that buried really existing socialism: Socialism was not able to sustain the passage from industrial to postindustrial economy. However, does capitalism really provide the "natural" frame of the relations of production for the digital universe? Is there not in the World Wide Web and explosive potential also for capitalism itself? Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting its monopoly through the state apparatus (recall the court-ordered split of the Microsoft Corporation), would it not be more "logical" to socialize it, rendering it freely accessible?
The key antagonism of the so-called new (digital) industries is thus how to maintain the form of (private) property, within which only the logic of profit can be maintained (see also the Napster problem-the free circulation of music). And do the legal complications in bioenergetics not point in the same direction? The key element of the new international trade agreements is the "protection of intellectual property": whenever, in a merger, a big First World company takes over a Third World company, the first thing they do is close down the research department. (In Slovenia-Henkel-Zlatorog, our company had to sign a formal agreement not to do any research!) Paradoxes emerge here that bring the notion of private property to extraordinary dialectical paradoxes: in India, local communities discover that medical practices and materials they have used for centuries are now owned by American companies, so they should be bought from them; with the biogenetic companies patentizing genes, we are all discovering that parts of ourselves-our genetic components-are already copyrighted, owned by others.
Today we see the signs of general unease, which is already exploding: I am, of course, referring to the events usually listed under the name of "Seattle." The long honeymoon of triumphant global capitalism is over, the long-overdue "seven-year itch" is here. Witness the panicky reactions of the big media which, from Time to the Cable News Network, all of a sudden started to warn about Marxists manipulating the crowd of "honest" protesters. The problem is now the strictly Leninist one of how to actualize the media's accusations: how to invent the organizational structure that will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand. Otherwise, the momentum will be lost and what will remain will be the marginal disturbance, perhaps organized as a new Greenpeace, with certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, and so on. In other words, the key "Leninist" lesson today is: politics without the organizational form of the party is politics without politics, so the answer to those who want just the (quite adequately named) "new social movements" is the same as the answer of the Jacobins to the Girondin compromisers: "You want revolution without the revolution!" Today's blockade is that there are two ways open for the sociopolitical engagement: either play the game of the system-"engage in the long march throught the institutions"-or get involved in new social movements, from feminism through ecology to antiracism. And again, the limit of these movements is that they are not political in the sense of the universal singular: they are "one-issue movements" lacking the dimension of universality-that is, they do not relate to the social totality.
Here, Lenin's reproach to liberals is crucial: they only exploit the working classes discontent to strengthen their own positions vis-à-vis the conservatives, instead of identifying with it to the end. Is this not also the case with today's left liberals? They like to evoke racism, ecology, workers' grievances, and so forth to score points over conservatives without endangering the system. Recall how, at Seattle, Bill Clinton himself deftly referred to the protesters on the streets outside, reminding the gathered leaders inside the guarded palaces that they should listen to the message of the demonstrators ( the message which, of course, Clinton interpreted, depriving it of its subversive sting attributed to the dangerous extremists introducing chaos and violence into the majority of peaceful protesters). It's the same with all new social movements, up to the Zapatistas in Chiapas: systemic politics is always ready to "listen to their demands," depriving them of their proper political sting. The system is by definition ecumenical, open, tolerant, ready to "listen" to all. Even if one insists on one's demands, they are deprived of their universal political sting by the very form of negotiation.
To repeat Lenin is thus to accept that "Lenin is dead"-that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving. To repeat Lenin means that one has to distinguish between what Lenin effectively did and the field of possibilities that he opened up, the tension in Lenin between what he effectively did and another dimension, what was "in Lenin more than Lenin himself." To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.
Hardt, M., and A. Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Lenin, V.I. 1960-70. Collected Works. 45 vols. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.