Response to Pierre Macherey

Posted: February 10, 2011 in 2006

Antonio Negri: Response to Pierre Macherey

Antonio Negri

May 1, 2006

Translator’s introduction: On November 19th, 2004, Pierre Macherey presented an extended critique of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, on the occasion of Citéphilo at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille. Toni Negri, who was invited to speak at the seminar, responded orally to Macherey’s critiques. The text that we publish here is a more detailed and developed version of Negri’s response. Pierre Macherey’s text is available at the following web address: LB

It seems to me that the objections presented by Pierre Macherey, with the elegance of a master and the sincerity of a friend, are three in number: each of which, naturally, entails certain complications, as much in terms of questions as answers.

The first question, posed ex abrupto, concerns the central theme, the foundation itself of our discussion, namely the concept of labor. In insisting upon the immaterialization of labor, Macherey asks, do Hardt and Negri not finish by dematerializing it? Why not proceed in the opposite direction, and reconstitute the material reality of labor, the tediousness and suffering of exploitation, by first underlining its undeniable new productive characteristics? Do we not give in, in following Hardt and Negri, to a sort of post-modernist apology for change, whatever form it might take? Consequently, why do the authors of Multitude insist so forcefully upon the break between modernity and post-modernity rather than showing the continuity of exploitation between the two; or better yet showing the culmination of exploitation in a period that draws its breath from a most ferocious modernity?

I realize that the first question concerns labor. In effect, I believe that critical thought, yesterday as today, still consists of placing the exploitation of labor power at the center of our theoretical framework. From this point of view, I reaffirm my fidelity to the critical mission of materialism. In reality, the new face of productive labor (intellectual, relational, linguistic, and affective, rather than physical, individual, muscular, instrumental) does not understate but accentuates the corporality and materiality of labor. It is clear that this transformation must always be considered in relative terms: in terms, however, that tend towards the real. We offer neither apology nor enthusiasm for this transformation of labor: who would argue that the fatigue of a call center operator is less (albeit absolutely different) than that of a steel worker of a century ago? Who would argue that the nurse working in a computerized hospital asks less of her body than did a coal miner? From another point of view, there are surely elements that aggravate the exploitation of “immaterial” labor (this term is not completely satisfying but it is the best that I know for marking this paradigm shift): the post-modern dissolution of space and labor time (the “work day” dissolves with increasing flexibility, the “factory” with increasing mobility), and the disappearance of temporal criteria for measuring labor (the classical law of labor value no longer holds as a measure of exploitation and, therefore, no longer provides the basis for a politico-syndical relation of force). A series of paradoxes follow from this point. For example, the laborer feels alone despite working in a cooperative and relational network: the multitude produces solitude. Or, inversely: the productive capacity of cognitive labor always exceeds the time spent in general at work (because intellectual labor cannot be reduced to simple intervals of time, and because the means of production do not lose but gain value during the labor process). Faced with these paradoxes, exploitation appears, in a manner more violent than ever, as the expropriation of the excesses created by intellectual labor, by cooperation itself.

If the classical descriptions of the “work day” and the law of value/labor no longer correspond to reality; if, moreover, we accept that labor remains at the center of production and constitutes the motor of all productivity, then we must also realize that we are now entering a new historical epoch, a new age of exploitation. Our opposition to the term “hypermodernity” (normally used by Marxist philosophers and sociologists, particularly in Germany among the epigones of the Frankfurt School, to maintain the classical model of exploitation, the paradigm of the traditional revolutionary subject, and insist upon a certain historical continuity with the past), insists upon the irreducible break contained in the definition (but not only in the definition, in reality as well) of the productivity of labor and the preceding transformation in labor power. To say postmodern in place of hypermodern is not a minor point; it introduces the connotation of an historical passage (that remains, certainly, to be lived and tested over and over) that is as radical as it is dramatic.I will now address a second important objection put forward by Macherey, involving the meaning of communication and the relationship between communication and “the common”: I don’t agree with the order in which Macherey has posed his questions, but it seems to me important to respond first to this objection, in order to better address subsequent criticisms regarding the concept of the multitude. It seems to me that Macherey tends to consider communication as an empty possible [vide possible], as circulation devoid of meaning. I would respond at first that I consider communication to be an actual terrain, both real and effective, for the materialist constitution of productive singularity. Communication is today one of the most important elements (tendentially hegemonic, according to all appearances) for the creation of value through social labor, and the extraction of surplus-value through new ways of organizing work. Communication is not a vacuum, but in fact full of productive energy; to communicate, from now on, is not to empty the furnaces of production but to feed them directly with information. On the interior of communication (if we consider the productive forces at work there) we can see the constitution of the most modern processes of exploitation. It is upon these networks of communication and exploitation, of productive inclusion and hierarchical exclusion, that the multitude is built: this is why I prefer to address the question of communication before confronting more explicitly the political problem regarding the transformation of the multitude in itself to a multitude for itself (we will try to no longer use these equivocal concepts – it’s better to speak of flesh and of body).

But lets return to the heart of the problem, which is to say the argument that communication grows by identifying with the network of post-modern productive relationships. I remember a discussion, which took place at least ten years ago, during a seminar of mine at the Collège International de Philosophie between François Ewald and Pierre Macherey: the context was identical to the one that we are now describing, the problem was to give communication a biopolitical foundation, and the debate centered around how to incorporate the work of Michel Foucault. To the Ewaldian interpretation that saw communicative interconnection as open in an undifferentiated manner, as a Mandevillian expression of micro-powers, Macherey opposed (still with respect to Foucault) the idea that in the Foucauldian conception of the biopolitical, desires and powers affirm their liberty through intersecting in the construction of the common. Macherey added that in Spinoza the production of subjectivity takes place along the horizon of the common. A large number of the participants at the seminar were convinced by this argument. If communication is the key for the ontological cooperation of a multitude of singularities – if, in other words, it is through communication that the productive potential of the multitude establishes and develops itself – then we are presented with a fundamental point regarding the ontology of the subject of democracy.

Certainly, we are still upon formal ground – that’s the least one could say! We are talking above all about processes and not about contents. One might object that it is only contents that count … but we will return to this question when we respond to Macherey’s third observation. For the moment, in the manner of Spinoza, we will insist upon the solidity of the ethical and collective process: in the present case, generalized communication, even if it is free and unguided, becomes constitutive. The affirmation of the multitude (as productive contest within diverse sectors of society, of a multiplicity of singularities) puts in place an objective common end. In these conditions – Marx called them the objective aspects of “class becoming” – we can see the objective bases of becoming-multitude. Unlike Marx, however, we are uncertain whether this will involve an inevitable passage: in our opinion this tendency has become too risky.We arrive, therefore, at the definition of the multitude. Macherey doesn’t mince his words – he goes straight to the point: if the multitude is not a subject, is not the maker of exodus, then who is capable of organizing an anti-capitalist alternative at the global level? How, in the given context, can the flesh of the multitude become a body? Exodus, in biblical history, is decided upon by Moses. We know that this decision was, so to speak, democratic: in effect, it was not the result of a decree but a long confrontation with power, and a firm, constituent decision on the part of the people. Obviously, however, we cannot follow this model today. In passing, Macherey notes that this mosaic democracy has strong anarchistic characteristics. Moreover, he adds that the process of democratic political decision-making, which invests the multitude as constituent power, has strong resemblances with the theories and practices of self-management [autogestion]. In any case, Macherey recognizes that Hardt and Negri have no illusions concerning an organic substance that preexists the constitution of the common and, therefore, the decision. We might add that Hardt and Negri do not have the slightest illusion regarding self-management and the individualizing criteria that we often imagine to be at the base of its (selfdirected) reconstruction of institutions. Individualism is, alas, always possessive.

Let us, therefore, repose the problem. Macherey does not reiterate the reproaches made by others about the concept of the multitude, namely that the multitude does not provide permanent criteria for determining what are (in anti-global jargon) the effectively progressive and emancipatory oppositional movements. Macherey understands that it is the multitude that creates these criteria within itself, articulates them in an organized fashion, and gives them, eventually, programmatic form. The common is given to us only by a movement of movements. Too many comrades are still nostalgic for a Red Square, too red to permit a real consensus. As for us, we can only imagine such an agreement taking place on the interior of a process that accumulates programmatic contents and risks of realization, partial decisions and tendential movements: the transformation of the multitude from flesh into body, unresolved as it may be, constitutes a central theme.

Macherey will probably be very happy to hear me say this. I insist, however, upon the fact that the problem cannot be avoided; its non-resolution takes nothing away from the reality of the conditions in which it was posed. An unresolved problem is still a problem. Macherey has a certain antipathy for the biopolitical: it seems to him, not without reason, that the biopolitical can be reduced to a sort of vitalist night in which all cats appear gray. This suspicion is completely legitimate. In our opinion (we have repeated this on several occasions) the biopolitical is nothing more than the terrain that class struggle, which is at present that of the multitude, has created – a topology, therefore, of struggle in the postmodern era. It is in the realm of the biopolitical that the desires, needs, and struggles of the intellectual laborer permeate society, taking up ways of life as conditions of production and, in this way and this way only, allowing themselves to confront exploitation. For his part, Macherey seems to have a certain complaisance (or perhaps nostalgia) for the dialectic – certainly not for that of Hegel who, by a wave of a magic wand, always managed to transform the negation into a (bizarre but) sublime movement of the Spirit. He seems, therefore, to show some sympathy for a materialist dialectic of relations of force in order to put in play powers and productions. As far as I am concerned, I will play at this game granted that there is no pretension to the synthesis, the sublimation, the teleology – to the Aufhebung. Suffice it to say that to enter this game is to walk on dangerous ground. To create the multitude, “to make the multitude,” is to run this risk.

All this brings me back to the first part of Macherey’s presentation on the subject of Multitude – when he underlines our insistence upon the tendency, historical becoming, the becoming real of the possible, the necessity of power. We know that the objective tendency is also, in a certain sense (this will always need to be verified), a subjective formation: it is in the space between that we seek to construct – this is our only desire – a post-socialist program. To define the common, in a democracy of and for everyone – a common that is constructed, anew, each day, that is driven by resistance and desire, and organized by the collective control and governance of this process: a new revolutionary constitutionalism? Perhaps. This is quite possibly what Spinoza had in mind and what post-modern anthropology has understood virtually. We will conclude by proposing the following formula: the multitude does not seek to take power but to manage [gérer] the common.

Translated by El Kilombo Intergaláctico


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