Débat autour d'Empire

On Empire

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   Hardt and Negri’s Empire takes a strange turn early on, when it discusses the legal framework of an emerging international order. On one level, this is a standard Marxist analytic technique: Look to the transformations of the visible superstructures for underlying infrastructural changes otherwise hard to detect. But what I find curious is the particular legal infrastructure chosen for attention.

Had they chosen to look at the development of intellectual property law, H+N might have come closer to a revival of class analysis. Property is the basis of class. The privatization of land, the capital, and now information divides the world between classes whose interests are antithetical. The enclosure of land pits farmers against landlords. The development of private capital pits capitalists against workers. But now there is a new dimension to class struggle, which pits the producers of intellectual property, what I would call a hacker class, against a new class that gathers into its hands all of the means of realizing the value of commodified information -the vectoralist class.

Much of what we grasp through the crude prism of ‘globalization’ is explained by the development of this third level to class struggle. Marx was always well aware that commodification had two phases -agricultural and industrial. Ricardo had already instructed him on the difference between rent (the return on land) and profit (the return on capital). It is a pity that H+N did not choose to look further at the fundamentals of class.

By choosing instead international law and sovereignty, they pursue another important but not necessarily dominant dynamic at work in the world. This I would call the struggle between the vector and the envelope. It is an historical conflict, partially capture in D+G’s concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. However, they preferred an ahistorical use of these terms, with the partial exception of their exemplary analysis of the state in Anti-Oedipus.

It is by making a fetish of the politics of vector and enclosure, and ignoring innovations in class formation and class analysis that one ends up with the sterile opposition between ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘anti- globalization’. In H+N, what is innovative is that they in effect shift the axis of conflict toward two competing forms of vectoralization -Empire versus the multitude. However, since the former is in some ways considered a form of autonomous ‘self envelopment’, it doesn’t escape the flirtation with romantic discourses of people and place (crudely ‘fascism’) which dogs the anti-globalization movement.

Moreover, H+N have not really thought through the material means by which ‘globalization’ is effected. Looking at the law of post-national sovereignty is to look at an effect and not a cause. The rise of a matrix of communication vectors, increasingly under the control of a vectoral class, is not very well analyzed in Empire. Communication merits the odd description, but rarely conceptual development. Here H+N reproduce a weakness in Marx’s original analysis of the commodity form. It is all very well to talk about the relationship between money as the general equivalent and the exchange value of commodities, but Marx never really talks about the material means by which such a relation is communicated and effected.

What makes possible relations of value is what is at the heart of ‘globalization’, namely, a vectoralization, by which things can be posited as independent of their conditions of formation and placed upon a plane of acknowledgement and comparison. Not only the market but all forms of relation become vectoralized, particularly since the mid-19th century invention of the telegraph, the point at which the information vector takes off and becomes a time-space domain for the ordering of relations between people and things.

Vectoralization has micro as well as macro effects, and it is important to grasp both at once -something the terms of the ‘globalization’ debate do not. Neither do H+N, who require supplementary concepts to account for the micro scale changes they see, which are not necessarily compatible with their macro level concepts. There’s no neat fit between the theory of empire at the macro scale and the theory of the disciplinary society and its transformation into the society of control, which are meant to account for micro-level changes in subject formation. H+N turn the history of theory into a theory of history, Foucault followed by Deleuze, but this is not a conceptually abstract enough procedure to really grasp the tendencies currently at work in the world.

Considered together, a class analysis that takes intellectual property seriously, together with a theory of the vector and the envelope attuned to the material basis of vectoralization, gives a better account of appearances than the more cumbersome and scholastic theory offered by H+N. One sees that current developments don’t add up quite so neatly to a new totality. Very contradictory forces are at work. The old state system, which grew out of the power of the vector has come in turn to be undermined by it. As the ruling class becomes itself vectoral, its wealth based on guarding its patents and copyrights, its channels and stocks of information, it frees itself from its spatial commitments within the state. States become subject to capture by particular interests, and set up temporary envelopes against vectoralization at the behest of different class forces in different places at different times.

H+N’s theory of empire has been overtaken by events. The theory works well for the Clinton years, when the American state did indeed seem more or less committed to vectoralization, to undermining its own envelop in the interests of the vectoral class. The Bush jr years are far more contradictory. Bush is currently the leading anti-globalization campaigner in the United States -if a very selective one. His breach of the spirit, and the letter of the WTO to protect the steel industry is a tactical switch from the politics of the vector to the politics of the envelope. As such it is not uncommon -Japan, the EU and the US constantly switch from one to the other, under pressure from different alliances of class forces.

What may be far more significant is the continuous pressure from the vectoralist class to achieve the total enclosure of information within a regime of private property. This has both national and supra-national dimensions. A remarkable amount of the WTO negotiations concern intellectual property issues. These agreements are in part at least merely symbolic, but they have their parallel in very effective national regimes of IP law and regulation which secure once the property of the vectoral class. Just as the enclosure acts sealed the fate of a free peasantry and created commodified agriculture; just as the development of the4 joint stock company secured the commodification of capital, so too IP law is creating a third tier of class polarization and conflict.

But one finds very little resonance of these issues of H+N. Negri made some tentative steps towards a new development of class theory in The Politics of Subversion, but in Empire this is not taken any further. Perhaps the effort of rewriting Marx as Spinoza has pushed any new developments in class analysis or in the analysis of the materiality of the forces of abstraction in the world into the background.

The Spinozist turn gives rightful emphasis to the productive and creative aspects of labor. Here H+N continue the work they set out in The Labor of Dionysus. But this theoretical preference determines, in advance, a political preference, for the kind of ‘worker’s power’ movement Negri sponsored in Italy. One might want to cast a cold and critical eye over the successes and failures of this type of political theory and practice over the last 30 years in Italy before signing onto it as a global political stance.

(Multitudes-Infos, June, 12-2002)