Inventing the Common

Antonio Negri and Judith Revel

Published 13 May 2008. Original in French from the Journal Multitudes. Translation by N. Lavey.

1. Let’s begin from a very simple assessment, since sometimes it is more reasonable to begin with the end: today we live in a world where producing has become a common act. Some of us again have in mind whole sections of Foucauldian analyses on the double pincers that industrialization imposes on the minds and bodies of men starting at the end of the 18th century: one part - the individualization, separation, desubjectification, the training (dressage) of each individual – reduced to being a productive unity in the form of the monad, with neither doors nor windows, entirely disassembled and reassembled according to the demands of yield and the maximization of profit; the other part, is the ordering of these productive monads, their massification, their constitution in undifferentiated populations, their interchangeable character, since gray everywhere makes it all gray and a broken body is as good as any other. Individualization, serialization – the blessed pincers of industrial capitalism; a marvel of a political rationality which doesn’t hesitate to split up its methods of control and management, to bite into the flesh of the individual as she begins to fashion in her image and to organize populations which she invents, to establish definitively her authority over life and while exploiting power. Thus, some will reread Discipline & Punish. Others have in mind, more simply, the rhythm of the chain, the broken links, the impression of no longer existing, of a body that transforms itself into cannon fodder for serialized production, of repetition without end, of isolation, of exhaustion. The impression of having been both swallowed by a whale – alone and in the dark – and of having been chewed up with so many others. It’s all true. All of it still exists. And yet: all that exists less and less. Since it found its voice it, Multitudes has tried to explain this change, to describe this reality – this tendency which transversed the existing and was digging in the interior the consistency suggests – to analyse the consequences. This change has affected the conditions of exploitation, the connections of power, the paradigm of work, the production of value, and all at the same time. This change has also affected the possibilities for resistance, because, paradoxically, it has reopened and increased (démultiplié) the possibilities for resistance.

2. One of the most difficult points, also one of the most controversial, is confronting all those who are today still accustomed to the old model of serial production, in the face of the factory and the history of its internal resistance, that is, believing that new means of exploiting men – more advanced, more competitive, more diffuse – can correspond to a heightened possibility for conflict and sabotage, for rebellion and for liberty. For when we say that the model of production (and thus its exploitation) has changed; we are also saying that we must stop thinking of the factory as both the template for production and proletarian conflict. When we speak of a “new capitalism” of cognitive capitalism, of immaterial work of social cooperation, of the circulation of knowledge, of collective intelligence, we are trying to describe both the new expansion of the capitalist plundering of life, its investment not only in the factory but also in the whole of society, and also in the generalization of the domain of the struggle, the transformation of the method and site of resistance, today it is the metropolis which is the site of production, which is the space of possible resistance. We claim that today capitalism can no longer be permitted to desubjectify – individualize, serialize – humanity, to knead human flesh into two headed golems (the “individual” as a productive unity, the “population” as an object of mass management). Capitalism can no longer permit it because what produces value is, from now on, the common production of subjectivities. When we say that production has become “common,” we don’t mean to deny that there are still factories, decimated bodies, and production lines [chaînes de travail]. We are affirming only that the same principle of production, its barycenter, has shifted; that creating value today, is to position subjectivities in networks and to capture, detourn and appropriate the common which they unveil and create. Capitalism today needs subjectivities, it depends on them. Paradoxically, it finds itself chained to that which undermines it: because the resistance, the affirmation of the intransitive freedom of humanity is precisely to assert the power of subjective invention, its singular multiplicity, its capacity to produce, starting from its differences, that of the common. From canon fodder, bodies and minds transform themselves into capitalism’s cannonballs. Without the common, capitalism cannot exist. With the common, the possibilities of conflict, resistance and appropriation are infinitely increased. What a beautiful paradox in an age which has finally succeeded in ridding itself of the tatters of Modernity.

3. From the standpoint of what we call the “technical composition” of work, production has become common. From the standpoint of its “political composition” it would be necessary that this common production correspond to the juridical categories and the new politics that should be capable of organizing this “common,” of describing its centralization, of outlining new institutions and their internal mechanism. However, these new categories don’t exist. They are lacking. Since we hide new demands for the common, since we continue, paradoxically, to reason in obsolete terms – as if the site of production was still the factory, as if the body was still shackled, as if one could choose only between being alone (individual, citizen, productive monad, a number detained in prison or a worker on the line, a solitary Pinocchio in the belly of the whale) – since we continue to act as if nothing had changed: we arrive at what constitutes the most pernicious of the mystifications of power. We have to slash open the belly of the whale. We have to defeat Moby Dick.

4. This mystification rests, in particular, on the quasi-permanent re-proposal of two terms which function like many delusions but they correspond equally to two ways of appropriating humanity’s common. The first resorts to the category of the “private” and the second falls back on the “public.” In the first case, property – Rousseau dixit: and the first person who says “this is mine” – makes an appropriation of the common by himself, that is to say, it is expropriated from all others. Today, private property consists in denying people their common right to that which their cooperation alone is capable of producing. The second category, in revenge, is that of the “public.” The great Rousseau, who was so rigid with private property, with good reason, made it the source of all the suffering and depravity of humans, immediately fell for it. Thus, the problem with the social contract – the question of modern democracy: since private property generates inequality, is how to invent a political system where everything, belonging to everyone, nevertheless belongs to no one? The trap slammed shut on Jean-Jacques – and on us at the same time. So here’s the public: that which belongs to everyone but to no one, which is to say, it’s that which belongs to the State. The State, which should be ours, has to invent something to pretty up its seizure of the common: we are made to believe, for example, that if it represents us and if it appropriates the rights from which we produce, it’s because this “we” that we are, is not what we produce in common, it’s not what we create and organize as common, but it is that which allows us to exist. The common, the State says, doesn’t belong to us, since we don’t really create it: the common is our earth, our fundament, it’s what we have under our feet: our nature, our identity. And if this common doesn’t truly belong to us – to be is not to have – the takeover of the common by the state isn’t labeled appropriation but (economic) management, delegation and (political) representation. QED: The implacable beauty of public pragmatism.

5. Nature and Identity are mystifications of the modern paradigm of power. In order to re-appropriate our common, above all we need to produce a drastic critique. We are nothing and we don’t want to be anything. “We”: this is neither a position nor an essence, but a “thing” made hastily to declare that it was public. Our common, is not our fundament, but our production, our invention that continually starts anew. “We”: the name of a horizon, the name of a future. The common is always in front of us, it is a process. We are this common: making, producing, participating, moving, sharing, circulating, enriching, inventing, restarting.

6. For nearly three centuries we have thought of democracy as the administration of public matters, that is, as the institutionalization of the Statist appropriation of the common. Today democracy can no longer be thought of but in radically different terms: as common management of the common. This management implies, in turn, a redefinition of cosmopolitan space and a redefinition of constituent temporality. It no longer consists in defining a form of contract that makes it so that everything, belonging to all, nevertheless belongs to no one. No: everything, being produced by everyone, belongs to everyone.

7. In the report that some of us have put forward – starting with experiences that have been developing for several years, and also with the report that these experiences, which were formerly a niche variety, are now becoming standard – we are trying to make visible the common, to recount strategies of re-appropriation of the common. Today the metropolis has become a generalized, productive fabric: it’s there that common production is given and organized, it’s there that the accumulation of the common is realized. The violent appropriation of this accumulation is still made in private or in public – what we call the “rent” of metropolitan space is from now on a major economic issue and it is on this point that strategies of control are crystallized – but here we do not want to enter into the analyses of the connection of “rent” to profit, nor into those of “productive externalities”…For the moment it suffices for us to indicate that the private appropriation is often guaranteed and legitimated by public appropriation and vice-versa.

8. Take back the common, re-conquer not only a thing but a constituent process, that is, a space in which it gives itself – that of the metropolis. Trace the diagonals in the rectilinear space of control: oppose diagonals to charts, interstices to grids, movements to positions, futures to identities, unending cultural multiplicities to simple natures, artifacts to pretensions of origin. In a beautiful book from a number of years ago, Jean Starobinski spoke of the century of lights as a time which had witnessed “the invention of liberty.” If modern democracy was the invention of liberty, radical democracy, today, wants to be the invention of the common.

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