Hardt-Negri's "Empire": a Marxist critique, part 3

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Jun 29 09:42:55 MDT 2001

Part three of "Empire" is devoted to an explanation of the new realities
facing the radical movement, which--swimming bravely against the stream of
academic fashion--they dub postmodernist. They also explain the crownpiece
of autonomic-Marxism strategy, a clever and powerful form of proletarian
resistance called "refusal to work". This plays as much of a role in their
movement as 'focos' played in Guevarist guerrilla struggles in the 1960s or
that the general strike played in anarcho-syndicalism. Let me hasten to add
at this point that refusal to work is something entirely different than a
general strike. What it is exactly--in all its glory--will be detailed
momentarily, but first let us turn out attention to this thing they call

First of all, postmodernism replaced something called modernism. Modernism
is made up of three characteristics:

1. Fordism: this refers to the wage regime of such as the kind that existed
in Detroit auto factories; Henry Ford's in particular, who combined
relatively higher pay with brutal anti-union policies.

2. Taylorism: this refers to Frederic Taylor, the father of time-motion
studies, whose views on efficiency found support not only in Detroit auto
factories but in Lenin's USSR.

3. Keynesianism: Once you have the first two planks nailed down, you create
deficit spending techniques, welfare state legislation, etc. in order to
maintain relatively low levels of unemployment and high levels of class peace.

With postmodernism, everything changes--at least this is the authors'
conviction. Not only does this include the decline of basic industry such
as automobile and steel production in favor of computer-based services, it
also involves the re-engineering of such traditional industries as
"information-based" entities. In a postmodernist factory, workers not only
program machines to do work, they also participate in nodes in a global
network of inter-related production and planning facilities. Whether any of
this has any connection to the economic processes identified by Karl Marx
is an entirely different matter. As far as one can tell, it seems that
surplus value is being created in the same way it always has.

Part of the problem, as is the case throughout "Empire", is the lack of
solid economic data to support their arguments. In their definition of
modernism, Hardt and Negri take note of the transformation of family farms
into corporate industrial farms, a sign that "society became a factory." As
it turns out, the reality is far more complex. The penetration of capital
into agriculture took a much different form than that of the classic case
of industrial production such as textiles in the 18th and 19th century,
according to Richard Lewontin (Monthly Review, Jul-Aug, 1998). Not only are
there still about 1.8 million independent farms in the USA today, with over
100,000 separate enterprises producing more than half of all the value of
the output. "Furthermore, roughly 55 percent of farmland is now operated by
owner-renters who are for the most part small producers." With the absence
of such hard economic data, we are left with gossamer abstractions in
"Empire," relying all too frequently on novelists like Robert Musil to
buttress their points rather than graphs or charts.

For everybody operating in the Marxist framework broadly speaking, except
for the sectarian "Marxist-Leninist" left, the question of the industrial
working class in the advanced capitalist countries remains problematic.
Except for some outbursts in the late 1960s in western Europe, the period
following WWII has been characterized by the sort of class peace that
existed in the long expansionary period leading up to WWI. That period, of
course, gave birth to "revisionism" in the social democracy while today's
long expansion has generated its own kind of responses, ranging from
Marcuse's Frankfurt school inspired New Leftism to the "radical democracy"
of Laclau-Mouffe. In general, this involves looking to other forces besides
the industrial working class, ranging from the "social movements" to the
lumpen proletariat.

Hardt and Negri have their own peculiar take on this question. Rather than
seeing a weakened labor movement co-opted by bourgeois parties and making
ideological concessions to imperialism of the sort noted by Engels in the
British labor movement of his day, they see an internationalist working
class on the offensive putting capital on the ropes. They write:

"We can get a first hint of this determinant role of the proletariat by
asking ourselves how throughout the crisis the United States was able to
maintain its hegemony. The answer lies in large part, perhaps
paradoxically, not in the genius of U.S. politicians or capitalists, but in
the power and creativity of the U.S. proletariat. Whereas earlier, from
another perspective, we posed the Vietnamese resistance as the symbolic
center of the struggles, now, in terms of the paradigm shift of
international capitalist command, the U.S. proletariat appears as the
subjective figure that expressed most fully the desires and needs of
international or multinational workers. Against the common wisdom that the
U.S. proletariat is weak because of its low party and union representation
with respect to Europe and elsewhere, perhaps we should see it as strong
for precisely these reasons. Working-class power resides not in the
representative institutions but in the antagonisms and autonomy of the
workers themselves." (Empire, p. 268-269)

This alleged expression of the needs of the international working class
obviously is something I missed during George Bush's war against Iraq but
it is entirely possible that I was napping. Also, I happen to be one of
those paleo-Marxists who views low party and union representation as
weakness, not strength. What gives me hope is the fighting spirit of Los
Angeles janitors fighting for union recognition. Eventually that fighting
spirit might be expressed on the electoral front through working class
candidates running on a clear class basis. However, Hardt and Negri have
and had their sights elsewhere.

What they call "antagonism and autonomy" resides not in trade union
struggles, but in a phenomenon they call "refusal to work." For those of us
old enough to have danced to Janis Joplin, this phenomenon would be as
familiar as an old pair of bell-bottom jeans. Just to make sure that
everybody gets the message, this section includes an epigraph by Jerry
Rubin: "The New Left sprang from … Elvis's gyrating pelvis."

(Jerry Rubin was a co-leader with Abby Hoffman of the so-called "Yippie"
movement that tried to fuse the new left and the counter-culture. It
consisted of about a dozen publicity hounds who used to hold press
conferences promoting their provocative actions on the eve of major
demonstrations that poor shmucks like me passed out tens of thousands of
leaflets to build. After the Vietnam war came to end, Rubin re-invented
himself as a stockbroker and "networker" who hosted parties for young urban
professionals looking for love and business connections. It is entirely
likely that Rubin coined the term "yuppie".)

So what was this "mass refusal of the disciplinary regime, which took a
variety of forms" and which "was not only a negative expression but a
moment of creation" but "what Nietzsche calls a transvaluation of values."
This mouthful of ungainly academic prose amounts to praise of the following:

--Going to live in Haight-Ashbury.

--College students experimenting with LSD instead of looking for a job.

--"Shiftless" African-American workers moving on "CP" (colored people's time).

(Empire, p. 274)

According to Hardt and Negri, these seemingly personal gestures of "refusal
to work" were actually expressions of "subjectivity" that embodied
"profound economic power" that mounted a serious challenge to the stability
of the system. Well, what is one to say.

Speaking as somebody who used to try to sell the socialist newspaper "The
Militant" to barefoot people wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and smoking pot at
antiwar rallies, I have to confess that my views might be overly
prejudiced. So, to be fair, I will instead invoke another expert on the
counter-culture whose views I share, namely Thomas Frank, publisher of "The
Baffler" and author of "Commodify your Dissent", a collection of articles
from this fine publication. Frank writes:

"The ways in which this system are to be resisted are equally well
understood and agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we
revolt by embracing diverse, individual life-styles. It demands self-denial
and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt through immediate
gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the
appetites. Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970:
'Amerika says: Don't! The yippies say: Do It!' The countercultural idea is
hostile to any law and every establishment. 'Whenever we see a rule, we
must break it,' Rubin continued. 'Only by breaking rules do we discover who
we are.' Above all rebellion consists of a sort of Nietzschean
antinomianism, an automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever
social prescriptions we've happened to inherit. Just Do It is the whole of
the law." (Commodify Your Dissent, p. 32)

This pretty much encapsulates the notion of "refusal to work" put forward
by Hardt and Negri. In contrast, Frank regards personal rebellion as just
another empty gesture that can be exploited by the capitalist system.

"Consumerism is no longer about 'conformity' but about 'difference'.
Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a
bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending
self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd
but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit
in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock 'n' roll
rebels, each one of us as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes
of the 1960s, who now pitch cars, shoes, and beer. This imperative of
endless difference is today at the heart of American capitalism, an eternal
fleeing from 'sameness' that satiates our thirst for the New with such
achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the
myriad colors and irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-Eleven."
(Commodity Your Dissent, p. 34)

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list