Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

by Vince Carducci

16 December 2009


Everything in Common

cover art



Commonwealth is the latest collaboration between Michael Hardt, a Duke University professor who specializes in Italian literature, and Toni Negri, an original member of the radical Autonomia group in Italy. Negri is the more colorful of the two, having at one time been accused of being the intellectual leader of the Red Brigades terrorists who in 1978 kidnapped and murdered former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Negri fled to France and lived in exile before returning to Italy in 1997 to serve out the remainder of a reduced prison sentence on a lesser charge.)Commonwealth concludes the trilogy that started with Empire (2000) and continued with Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), both also from Harvard University Press.

When first published, Empire created quite a stir on college campuses and in many liberal intellectual circles coming as it did on the heels of the Battle of Seattle, when the international resistance to corporate globalization initially burst into the public consciousness with media coverage of street protests that broke up the World Trade Organization meetings scheduled to take place in the city. Empire (the word always capitalized in text to denote its organizational status) sketched out a new world order in which the United States functioned as titular head of a slippery global oligarchy consisting of the G8, suprastate organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the WTO, transnational corporations, and their various vassals and minions. Multitude expanded upon its predecessor, finding the basis for true democracy in the diversity of a global proletariat disenfranchised by Empire, and hence set beyond its control and capable of wresting power simply by coming into consciousness of its own collective being.

Commonwealth isn’t so much an added installment to these earlier books as it is another iteration, reframing their arguments in light of recent circumstances. Its primary contribution to Empire theory is the revival of the concept of the common, a shared space that is neither private nor public, a relation that resists all together the dictates of what Hardt and Negri call ‘the republic of property’ of Western capitalism. The concept of the common is rooted in the Middle Ages in Europe, in the time before the appearance of the modern world-system that now circumscribes the globe. It’s been more recently developed by media theorists like Lawrence Lessig, whose creative commons license challenges the intellectual property regime of Empire, which seeks to capture the very thoughts of the multitude and then sell them back in pay-per-view.

Another significant event is the apparent failure, for the time being at least, of the United States’ effort to shore up its crumbling hegemony by means of force in Iraq and Afghanistan. This failure isn’t just one of military hardware, Hardt and Negri claim, but of ideological software as well. ‘Brand America’ doesn’t sell in the global marketplace of ideas like it used to. However, rather than spell the end of Empire it heralds the next phase as the authority of the individual nation-state, America’s included, is being further transcended.

I must confess that I didn’t care much for Empire when I read it shortly after it came out. Like its purported subject, the argument wasn’t clearly enough defined, couched as it was in buzzwords and abstractions that lacked specificity and no doubt helped to explain its popularity among humanities students. Its analysis of capitalism was derivative especially of Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which is insanely wackier and thus way more fun to read, and in the end is more insightful. Although time has shown that there is merit to core idea of Empire, i.e., that the global system is increasingly governed by a seemingly footloose array of powers in the process of consolidating into a new worldwide authority, others have made the same point and been able to present more concrete evidence of it. Multitude benefited from greater precision and a more direct style, though the concept of the multitude, derived from 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is better developed by other Autonomist writers, in particular Paolo Virno whose brief text A Grammar of the Multitude is a good introduction to the post-Marxist understanding of the subject as a mechanism of political mobilization.

Hardt and Negri reference a lot of good books in their narrative and one might do just as well to read them instead. Among those cited that can be highly recommend are: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, and William I. Robinson’s A Theory of Global Capitalism. To that list I would also add Giovanni Arrighi’s book Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century.

But there are things of value in Commonwealth. The discussion of the notion of ‘altermodernity’ neatly sums up the necessity of not returning to the past in resisting Empire, but of redirecting its forces to more egalitarian ends. The critique of Empire’s attempt to harness what Michel Foucault terms the ‘biopower’ of the multitude also rings true, though I prefer the original Autonomist concept of ‘immaterial labor’ to describe how our mental, spiritual, and emotional lives are being harvested along with our material output in the service of someone else’s profit. (Your Facebook content and friend networks are products you create in order to better sell yourself to online advertisers. Your preference for certain trademarks, be they Nike or Jones Soda, are now accounted for as ‘brand equity’ on some corporation’s balance sheet.)

Idealists will no doubt appreciate the optimism Hardt and Negri project throughout the book for the inevitability of the advent of commonwealth under the auspices of the multitude. Indeed, their book ends with a chapter titled ‘Instituting Happiness’.

I can’t say I share that sentiment, capitalism being one tough motherfucker in my estimation. But there is something to be said for keeping the alive the thought that, as the saying goes, another world is possible.



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