Proletariat or Multitude? A Postanarchist Critique of Empire

0
2943

by Jason Adams

Introduction: A Proletarian Ideology of Progress and Productivity?

Though it is not clearly articulated as such, underlying the argument of Hardt and Negri’s much-acclaimed book, Empire there is a fundamental singularity/universality nexus that is typically deployed as the basis for the emerging counter-Empire of the multitude as well as for the postmodern sovereignty of world order and the informatized production of postmodern capitalism; this is then juxtaposed to the particularity/universality nexus that had been deployed by the new social movements and left-wing nationalisms of the late twentieth century as well as the modern sovereignty and industrial production systems which they are depicted as having been actively refusing. As used here, ”universality” refers to that which affects, describes or defines both each and all throughout all spatiotemporalities and thus has the potential of either becoming a space of identity or a space of difference, ”particularity” refers to that which can be considered as an example or a category of a universality and which always becomes recuperated into the space of identity and ”singularity” refers to that which is not generalizable or definable under any form of identity but which can interlink with universality so long as it is understood as a universality of difference. Thus, with the shift to the 21st century, the singularity/universality nexus becomes the channel through which movements seek to move beyond the various forms of philosophical reductionism which have been arisen since the 1960s, including gender-reductionism, race-reductionism, and national-reductionism; these newer reductionisms then, are understood as the embrace of a resurgent particularity/universality nexus outside of the class universal, which is ostensibly understood as a universality of difference rather than of identity.

Yet, while breaking down these new reductionisms is indeed a necessary development in the shift towards a world based upon the singularity/universality nexus, I would argue that in this particular form of moving “beyond”, the authors actually seek to move back to a time in which Marxist ideology ruled the vast majority of social movements, when it was still generally believed that economics was the fundamental driving force of world order. The way in which they accomplish this, it seems, is through an often rather imperceptible slippage between the nonlinear, existentialist and subsistentialist concept of the multitude and the linear, progressivist and productivist concept of the proletariat; as a result, the authors reinforce yet another version of the very particularity/universality nexus they claim to oppose as the concept of the proletariat finally comes to overdetermine the concept of the multitude. Thus, against both the new social movement and proletarian conceptions of particularity/universality, I propose instead a singularity/universality which might undermine all overarching ideologies, categorical reductionisms and other dominations in order to really begin to move towards a more anti-authoritarian, singularist and intersubjective mode of being-against as an unambiguous extension of the concept of the multitude as understood through the works of autonomists such as George Katsiaficas, Paolo Virno and Giorgio Agamben, the nonlinear, non-progressivist conception of history put forth by Walter Benjamin and the living praxis of the old IWW and the antiglobalization and antiwar movements of today. Such a mode would not accept any conception of history which seeks to discover or articulate any ”particular” driving force of world order nor which seeks to enforce an ideology of progress and productivity but would instead allow for the probability that there are a multitude of ”singular” causes of the continuing shift to Empire, that history does not necessarily proceed in a “forward” direction and that production is not necessarily the primary means of exploitation or resistance in all places at all times.

The Universalities, Particularities and Singularities of Being-Against

According to the authors, there are two primary modes in which the shift to Empire must be understood today; the first is that of the transformation of sovereignty from an imperialist form to a more complete imperial form, and the second is the transformation of production from an centralized industrial form to a decentralized informational form. Thus, whereas the imperialist sovereignty of the 20th century had been based on the striated European framework of a centrally dominant power extending its exploitative power directly, the Empire of the 21st century is one based on a smooth American framework in which an open network coopts local elites under a “single logic of rule”, thus leading to a constitutive, biopolitical form of governance without government. Similarly, whereas the industrial production of the 20th century had been based on a Fordist framework of mass production, strong unions, and a “family wage”, the informational production of the 21st century is based on a decidedly post-Fordist mode which relies on just-in-time production of goods in the newly-industrialized regions and a service based economy in the formerly-industrialized regions, all of which is overdetermined by the centrality of information technology. What is conceptually interesting about this division between sovereignty and production is that it is primarily within the former context that the concept of the multitude is invoked, while it is primarily within the latter context that we witness the resurrection of the proletariat. In other words, in this formulation, the multitude takes on a decidedly “political” hue while the proletariat takes on a decidedly “economic” one. Though the argument put forth is that in the shift to Empire the two can no longer be separated, it seems to me that there is more of a tendency towards such a separation than the authors might be willing to admit; as they themselves state, “the realm of production is where social inequalities are clearly revealed and moreover, where the most effective resistances and alternatives to the power of Empire arise”. ”This focus on productivity as the primary site of resistance seems to me to be a result of their determination to save Marxism as an overarching ideology”, a determination which increasingly brings them into conflict not only with the “counter-Empire” as it is emerging today in practice, but also with their fellow autonomists ranging from George Katsiaficas to Giorgio Agamben, who, while learning from Marx and applying his ideas where it is relevant, do not feel any compulsion whatever to continually refer back to him as though he spoke only in universal truths.

Indeed, the most glaring contradiction of this book results from retaining an overly ideological attachment to Marx and his productivist and progressivist biases; this is demonstrated very clearly when the authors offer a shallow, almost obligatory critique of Marx’s Eurocentrism, only to quickly return to his problematic argument that despite the bloody and unjust history of colonialism it can also be seen as a positive development since it has supposedly carried with it a utopian thread that at least potentially allows for the constitution of a revolutionary universal proletariat. As the self proclaimed libertarian Edward Said has argued in regard to this aspect of Marx’s thought, “in article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a social revolution” – precisely the same argument is to be found in Hardt and Negri’s agreement that “Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is better than the forms of society and modes of production that came before it. Marx’s view is grounded on a healthy and lucid disgust for the parochial and rigid hierarchies that preceded capitalist society”. The conclusion at which they arrive from here is that in the face of Empire, the multitude must not try to resurrect the particularist bases that served the movements of the 20th century, but instead should construct a global counter-Empire based on the productive forces of the new proletariat to “take us through and beyond” its limits, thus bringing about a “new cartography…through the resistances, struggles and desires of the multitude”. What seems so odd here is the completely unsubstantiated assertion that ”all” forms of locality are and always have been “backwards”, particularist, hierarchical and homogenizing; the Marxist version of the ideology of progress and productivity is in this sense not so far off from the capitalist modernization theory that has been challenged by scholars ranging from ”dependencia” theorists to ecofeminists and postcolonialists. Indeed, nationalism is but one of many forms of locality being embraced today by social movements today and is actually amongst the least popular; far more common are the local village autonomy and subsistence movements for community self-determination, outlined by ecofeminists such as Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies and by other critical social scientists such as Amory Starr and Jason Adams. Such movements usually display a great amount of respect for horizontal decision-making forms as well all kinds of diversity in addition to a willingness to connect with other such movements on both regional and global scales; Hardt and Negri deny not only these elements but also the related works of radical anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Pierre Clastres, which have demonstrated quite clearly that in most parts of the world, precapitalist and prestate social formations were actually far less hierarchical and unequal than what most people struggle to survive under today.

Thus, it seems that it is the redeployment of a Marxist ideology of progress and productivity that ultimately leads them to the argument that with the rise of globalization, the dream of the universal proletariat has become possible as never before. It is specifically for the purpose of the realization of this dream that the singularity/universality nexus is put forth by the authors, and is described as a means to move past the philosophical reductionisms of the new social movements which have “become extremely limited themselves because just like the perspectives they oppose, they perpetuate narrow understandings of the economic and the cultural. Most important, they fail to recognize the profound economic power of the cultural movements, or really the indistinguishability of economic and cultural phenomena”. This supposed rejection of particularity/universality by the authors is ultimately disingenuous because, as George Katsiaficas has argued, it is deployed for ideological reasons having to do primarily with the author’s commitments to Marxism, specifically to the idea that economics is to be understood as ”the” fundamental driving force of Empire – a move which leads to a return, rather than a rejection, of particularity/universality. As a student of Herbert Marcuse, Katsiaficas recognizes in Negri’s more recent theorizations the cooptation of those concepts that his teacher and others of his time had put forth that a “new working class” had emerged amongst immaterial laborers (i.e., housewives, students, technological workers and intellectuals) and that the industrial working class was no longer central to the course of social change due to the rise of a post-Fordist economy; this for instance is demonstrated in Marcuse’s statement in 1969 that “no matter how great the distance between the middle-class revolt of the metropoles and the life-and-death struggle of the wretched of the earth – common to them is the depth of the Refusal. It makes them reject the rules of the game that is rigged against them, the ancient strategy of patience and persuasion, the reliance on the Good Will in the Establishment, its false and immoral comforts, its cruel affluence”. Noting the limitations of both perspectives, he pushes further than either Marcuse or Negri, arguing that by continually referring back to Marx and to the economic “base”, these theorists miss the full complexity of contemporary autonomous movements, which at their best attain a “universal species level” that is irreducible to any particularity. Such a concept allows then, for the deployment of a different singularity/universality nexus which then becomes capable of deconstructing reductionism and domination and the subjectivities which reinforce them and to move instead towards a more anti-authoritarian, intersubjective and open-ended space in which to consider the changing shape of world order. In this sense, Katsiaficas’ critique can be seen to some extent as the return of pre-Marxist utopian socialist thought, articulated most clearly by Charles Fourier and an extension of the old Situationist graffito “the liberation of humanity is all or nothing”. Since such thinkers were usually summarily dismissed by Marx and Engels and later by their orthodox followers for seeking not “to emancipate a particular class, but all humanity at once” despite the lack of an agent such as the proletariat to carry such action out, Hardt and Negri would no doubt be rather hesitant as well in this regard. Yet such a concept seems to be quite compatible with that of the multitude, at least in the sense that the term is used at certain points in the authors’ argument; it does not however, coincide with the concept of the new proletariat as it is generally used, precisely the reason that Marx and Engels rejected the thought of Fourier and the orthodox Marxists rejected the Situationists. For while the term multitude is usually used in a very open-ended sense as “constellations of singularities” it seems that the concept of the proletariat has to really be stretched in order to maintain the term’s historical relationship to the ideology of progress and productivity, which means that it is probably more accurately described as “constellations of particularities”. Indeed, as stated by Hardt and Negri, ‘proletariat’ is the general concept that defines all of those whose labor is exploited by capital, the entire cooperating multitude. The industrial working class represented only a partial moment in the history of the proletariat and its revolutions, in the period when capital was able to reduce value to measure. In that period it seemed as if only the labor of waged workers was productive, and therefore all the other segments of labor appeared as merely reproductive or even unproductive. In the biopolitical context of Empire, however, the production of capital converges ever more with the production and reproduction of social life itself; it thus becomes ever more difficult to maintain the distinctions among productive, reproductive and unproductive labor.

Yet if we return to some of the original sources of the concept of the multitude, even as it has been used in other threads of the autonomist Marxist tradition no less, we will find a definition that contrasts markedly with that deployed by Hardt and Negri for the new proletariat, especially in its rejection of the closed identity of the sovereign One as opposed the open difference of the singular Many. Paolo Virno, for instance, lays out a short genealogy of the concept of the multitude in the collection ”Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics’, which begins with its first prominent appearance in the 17th century philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Here he says, it is used in a negative sense to refer generally to the Many that inhabit the imagined state of nature, those caught up in a violent, chaotic war of all against all; this being, of course, based on a racist (mis)understanding of the “underdeveloped” indigenous cultures of the New World. From here, Virno moves on to the liberal notion in which the multitude becomes the “private” half of the public/private distinction as a means of silencing the cacophony of dissenting voices that emerge in that context while simultaneously making such dissent external to the “legitimate” public sphere of politics. As telling as both of these examples are, in terms of articulating the contrast between the multitude and that of the new proletariat the most interesting aspect is revealed in Virno’s recounting of the democratic-socialist use of the concept, in which he states, “on the one hand, the collectivity of ‘producers’ (the ultimate incarnation of the People) comes to be identified with the State, be it with Reagan or with Honecker, and on the other, the multitude is confined to the corral of ‘individual’ experiences”. If it is the case that Virno considers a productivist ontology to be opposed to his more open-ended conceptualization of the multitude, then this would seem to contrast greatly with the way in which it is used by Hardt and Negri, which is precisely in the sense of “production and reproduction of social life itself” – because even if this does ostensibly include productive, reproductive and unproductive labor it is still labor nonetheless therefore productivist in orientation. Thus we can see that both in its origin as the disordered, primitive Many which both Marx and Hobbes and in its contemporary incarnation as the disordered, postmodern Many, the authors seek to move both back toward the One of the proletariat even while rejecting such moves by others. It seems then, that the multitude is not seriously but only cynically invoked by Hardt and Negri as a synonym of the proletariat, especially since New World gatherer-hunters were hardly productive in Hardt and Negri’s sense of the term (in the sense that they lived primarily off the abundance provided by nature) and further, since fellow autonomists such as Katsiaficas and Virno have dismissed this type of ontology as the ultimate form of totalizing identity – indeed, as the latter puts it, as “neither ‘producers’ nor ‘citizens’, the modern virtuosi attain at last the rank of multitude” – an attainment that is decidely minoritarian in its commitments and thus radically opposed to the imposition of any overarching identity.

Further realizations about this sort of slippage between multitude and proletariat are attained by investigating the genealogy of the concept of singularity which essentially forms the base unit of the multitude; according to Hardt and Negri such an investigation must begins with the understanding that there have been two modernities; the revolutionary and liberatory Renaissance mode of immanence and the counter-revolutionary Enlightenment mode which recuperates immanence and redeploys transcendence as “the refoundation of authority on the basis of a human universal” written of course, in the code of the Eurocentric imperialism that was emerging at the time. This then, eventually leads to the emergence of sovereignty through the social contract of Hobbes and Rousseau; as they put it, “through the workings of the sovereignty machine the multitude is in every moment transformed into an ordered totality” in the form of national and other totalizing identities. Seeking to counter this recuperation, from Renaissance philosophy they take from Duns Scotus the argument that “the confusion and decadence of the times can be remedied only by recentering thought on the singularity of being” and then combine this with Spinoza’s quest to put humanity in the place of God, thus “affirming the democracy of the multitude as the absolute form of politics”. While these well-known classical sources are clearly cited, the work in this area by Giorgio Agamben is given only a passing nod; even though his unique development of the concept of singularity appears to have been perhaps the single most important source for the concept of both the multitude and of postmodern sovereignty, in other words, the very basis of the book. For Agamben, singularity is to be considered as synonymous with what he terms the “whatever-being”, the emergent figure of the Coming Community which like Virno’s multitude, and unlike Hardt and Negri’s proletariat, is a form of community that affirms difference rather than affirming identity. It is defined most concisely as that “which is neither particular nor general, neither individual nor generic” – so then, if the multitude is politically a “constellation of singularities” as Hardt and Negri have stated in those parts of the book where the proletariat is not actively being resurrected, then it cannot also be economically a “constellation of particularities” as it is articulated in those parts where the proletariat is being deployed as a synonym for the multitude. For as Agamben argues in regard to the progressivist and productivist Chinese government, “what the state cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity…wherever these singularities demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later the tanks will appear”. The question that emerges at this point then is, in this case, did the People’s Army attack the People because these divergent singularities were attempting to form a sense of community under the identity of a reconstituted “new proletariat”, or was it instead, as Agamben puts it, because they were attempting to form a sense of community without affirming any identity at all? It seems clear that in fact this attack was made in the ”name” of the proletariat and thus Hardt and Negri do not actually seek to redeem this vision as it has been put forth by Spinoza, Scotus and Agamben, but rather seek to coopt it and to resignify it under the productivist and progressivist ideology of Marxism, specifically through its subsumption under the concept of the new proletariat. As I have argued, this is not really so far off from the authoritarian, racist and totalizing theories of Hobbes and Rousseau in that it not only denies the egalitarian aspects of oral and subsistence societies but also thereby undermines the very bases for a multitude of singularities to become the form of a new type of being-in-community.

It is for this reason that I would like to conclude this section with a short consideration of the origins and the transformations over time of singularity, particularity and universality – not so much in the sense of the history of ideas as has been the case thus far, but rather in the sense developed by the main thinkers of critical anthropology, an area of scholarship the authors would do well to investigate further. According to Jack Goody, what allowed for the possibility of the particularity/universality nexus in the first place was the spread of mass literacy which finally broke the hold of the small, dispersed, face-to-face community on the human imagination; this of course, was the original multitude rejected by Hobbes as a “war of all against all”, and all too similarly by Marx and now even Hardt and Negri as “parochial and rigid hierarchies”. Focusing on such communities in the context of the Near East and West Africa, Goody demonstrates how with the rise of literacy face-to-face societies are wiped out by an innumerable number of “firsts” which appear in the human sphere and eventually culminate in the centralized authority of the state. This begins in one sense with the appearance of “religion” which could for the first time become abstracted from its particular cultural context and through the Word becomes universalized to the global level thus allowing for such things as “conversion” which had previously been unthinkable in the communities of singularities which had predominated up until this point. This original decontextualization is the origin of both universalism and particularity (in the sense that it functions as an example of a universal); with both, the openness and flexibility of culturally embedded and other more singular forms of spirituality are displaced with the closure, orthodoxy and dogma of religion since the Word must be learned to the “letter.” This universalization of religion is also of course, the universalization of norms which is one of the central functions of the state which arose hand-in-hand with it; also central was the rise of specialization in the new social roles of priests and literati, an effect of those able to master the Word in a way not accessible to the general population. The concept of a unified “nation” (rather than a singular village or a locality) in which a sovereign could regulate laws from a highly centralized location ”equally” over a widely dispersed geographic space became thinkable with the universalist/particularist bias of writing as well. Benedict Anderson, building on the work of Goody and other critical anthropologists, has demonstrated how this lead to the growth of imagined communities in the form of nation-states dispersed over massive geographical spaces; Arjun Appadurai then builds on the work of both to demonstrate how in Empire, the abstractions made possible by mass literacy combined with new “technoscapes” such as the Internet, are leading to the emergence of ”imagined worlds” as well; worlds which are no less likely to eventually solidify into some totalizing form or another. He makes most clear the profound implications of such a shift in the provocative statement that “the central feature of global culture today is the politics of the mutual effort of sameness and difference to cannibalize one another and thereby proclaim their successful hijacking of the twin Enlightenment ideas of the triumphantly universal and the resiliently particular”. Therefore, I contend through my reading of Katsiaficas, Virno and Agamben that an explicitly minoritarian advocacy of singularity/universality must reject not only the imagined communities of the age of modern sovereignty but also the imagined worlds of the age of postmodern sovereignty, each of which seeks to smother difference with a variably older or newer form of community of coopted singularities redeployed as an identity; either the national citizen or the global citizen, the national industrial proletarian or the postnational new proletarian. Rather than dismissively rejecting all precapitalist forms-of-life as simply parochial and hierarchical, those who seek to construct the beginnings of what might be called a counter-Empire would do well to reject the ideological attachments and prejudices that restrain an otherwise promising theory and to therefore investigate what can be learned from the much-despised “past” at least as much as what might be learned from the much-heralded “future”; otherwise we run the risk of replicating the worst aspects of the old Hobbesian theory of man and in the process denying the very possibility of the kind of multiplicitous non-totalizing communities of resistance we claim to be working towards in the present.

III. Conclusion: the Multitude Against the Ideology of Progress and Productivity

Throughout this paper I have sought to demonstrate that the Marxist ideology of progress and productivity has severely restrained the multiple potentialities of what has become one of the most important analyses of globalization and antiglobalization available., Hardt and Negri’s ”Empire”. As has been shown, the dangers of this ideology are most clearly expressed in those instances in which the concept of the multitude comes to be overdetermined by the concept of the proletariat, when a potentially liberatory and unprecented concept of a community of differences becomes recuperated back within the homogenous and bounded difference of identity that is ostensibly being opposed. The radical potential of the Coming Community as a singular form of being-against both by itself and for itself is expressed more clearly through the less ideologically-bounded writings of other autonomists such as Katsiaficas, Virno and Agamben, all of whom seek to develop explicitly ”minoritarian” communities of singularities, forms of commonality capable of refusing the imposition of totalizing identities – whether that identity be of nation, gender, class or other forms. Thus one is left with the question of why it is that this book has become so important not just within the critical academic world, but also within actual social movements; because if it is the case that an overly ideological attachment to Marxism has lead to a recuperation typically rejected by autonomist theorists, does it not also seem likely that the social movements they put forth as primary examples of the counter-Empire might also suffer a similar fate? It seems to me that the answer to this question can be found in the living praxis of these movements themselves and thus it is to these which now turn, beginning first with the old IWW and then moving on to the contemporary antiglobalization movement, both of which have their original center of gravity within the borders of the United States.

This is perhaps, not altogether surprising, since, as the earliest English-language writings available on the Autonomia movement out of which Negri first emerged confirm; a “renewed ‘Americanism’ is exploding right at the time the Italian movement is going through a growth and/or definition crisis…[the American workers’ movements have] a history without ideological mediation, violent and concrete…[and therefore] to understand Italy one must understand the United States; one must rediscover in the history of American class warfare, that political richness which today is attributed to the Italian ‘intellectuals'”. To this I would reply that if one were to pursue this, one would find that what really distinguished the Wobblies and set them apart from other unions and social movements of their time was not just their rejection of representation and national subjectivity as implied by the authors in the intermezzo, but also their refusal to refer back to any particular ideology as a basis for action; certainly Marx and his followers were subjects of much ridicule within such circles. Indeed, the IWW’s Industrial Worker newspaper once featured a particularly memorable comic that demonstrated quite starkly the rejection of both big-s Socialism and big-a Anarchism by Wobblies in favor of a grassroots, spontaneous, autonomous form of worker resistance to capitalist exploitation instead; the simple but powerful drawing depicted a big, brawny factory worker with the words “IWW” scrawled across his chest, who was deliberately ignoring a well-dressed, newspaper-vending “Socialist” to his left and a lesser-dressed but book-obsessed “Anarchist” to his right, the former pointing at the moon, the latter at the stars and the incredulous worker pointing instead into a bustling sweatshop factory while bellowing the word “ORGANIZE!” The reproduction of such an anti-ideological spirit today would seem to contrast markedly with Hardt and Negri’s fundamentally Marxist formulation; indeed, long before Negri grudgingly extended his definition of the proletariat to conform to the new conceptualizations put forth by Marcuse, Gorz and others, Wobblies were attending Marxist meetings to jeer the pretensions expressed there that simply due to their careful and in-depth studies of the contours of scientific socialism, they would be the ones to lead the “industrial” proletarians to salvation, while the “lumpen” proletarians (the homo sacers who were the primary subjects of the Wobblies) were more or less dismissed as backward and irrelevant, much as the multitude as defined by Hobbes is dismissed today by Hardt and Negri.

Similarly, if one were to seek to discover in the praxis of contemporary movements that “political richness” attributed today to Hardt and Negri, one would find an ever-increasing rejection not only of any overarching ideology but also of any form of reductionism, whether on the basis of gender or race as has been seen in the old second-wave feminist and anti-imperialist movements or on the basis of economics as we have seen in the past and as we apparently are seeing once again in the reduction of all of these movements to the informatization of the economy. Like the Wobblies who once called the Marxists on their scientific pretensions today we might turn our attention to the streets of Seattle, where in late 1999, a bare-chested member of the Lesbian Avengers explained what she felt had lead to this emergent counter-Empire; as she put it, “the WTO went against too many people at once; you know, labor, environmental movement, women’s rights, animals rights – every different type of group of people was affected by this. That was their worst mistake ever, they pissed off too many people and now we’re going to fight back unified and that’s what’s going to help us.” Clearly, the unity that is spoken of here is by no means a call for a return to the homogenous politics of the proletariat, much less so the increasingly dog-eared ideology of Marx; in fact it was precisely the immense diversity of individuals and groups that were present that allowed a type of untamed, spontaneous, tentative “unity” to emerge in the form of a movement of movements, a true multitude in Virno’s sense of the term. Indeed, as Hop Hopkins of the Brown Collective put it afterward, “solidarity doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about the issues that separate us. That’s the biggest change that I see happening…race, class, gender, sexism, heterosexism – if that’s not in your analysis then you’re only half-stepping and you’re not really working for the revolution.” Expressions such as that expressed by Hopkins would seem to contrast greatly with the Marxist ideology of progress and productivism in Empire, which generally leads to the eschewing of such conflicts as a sort of “regression” or movement backwards to the redivision of what had finally become a universal proletariat. What this argument ignores however is that particularity is nothing more than that ontological shift which emerges in the process of retreat from a universality; from that location it can either proceed to develop into a new totalizing form of identity or it can instead proceed in this retreat even further, to the level of singularity, what Deleuze calls ”becoming-minor”. Thus, both the new types of conflict that are emerging within contemporary social movements described by Hopkins and the new types of commonality described by the unnamed Lesbian Avenger are indispensably important sources of movement in the process of constructing a form of community which affirms difference but does not affirm an identity. Thus, from the living praxis of both the Wobblies and the contemporary antiglobalization movement, we can actively challenge the linear, progressivist notion that every new atrocity committed by the global elites can also be understood as a step “forward” and that any return of the “past”, such as the subsistence economies of primary oral societies or the radically local movements for self-determination of the global South are necessarily to be considered a step ”backwards”. Just as the Wobblies’ focus on the lumpen-proletariat and the antiglobalization movement’s focus on a diversity of tactics and positionalities might be considered as well. To do this, then, is to affirm a different conception of history from that put forth by both Hobbes and Marx; as Walter Benjamin put it so clearly in the final essay of his life:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the
exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.
Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this
will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that
in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things
we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement
is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise
to it is untenable.

What Benjamin is saying here resonates quite harmonically with what Said once argued in regards to Marx’s Orientalism; by retaining a linear conception of history in which the universalization of Empire is simply understood as the progressive reconstitution of the universal proletariat, otherwise critical thinkers are forced to slip into a complicit position with regard to precisely that which they claim to oppose; ironically this means that in the process they ultimately prevent the emergence of precisely that which they claim to support; a Many which refuses to affirm the One. Instead of beginning with the Western industrial proletariat as ”’the” agent of universal change and then grudgingly expanding the definition of the term to include immaterial laborers, women and the “lumpen”, a Benjaminian conception of history begins instead where autonomists such as Katsiaficas, Virno and Agamben, and grassroots social movements such as the old IWW and the contemporary antiglobalization movement begin, with the positionality of the most oppressed and the most excluded and then as Fourier might have advocated, perpetually expand that open-ended network in a rhizomatic and nonlinear fashion outward from there. Specifically, that means beginning with those who have known the true meaning of the “state of emergency” for centuries and to which the rest of us are only now beginning to wake up in the process of its intensification; this would include such particularities-in-retreat-from-universality as indigenous peoples, people of color, immigrants and women, as well as threatened species, forests and ecosystems. From this point one would extend outward, gradually weaving into the network the positionalities of industrial workers, immaterial workers, graduate students, professors and ultimately even white, male, heterosexual, Protestant, upper class capitalists, finally reaching the level of what the early Marx referred to as “species-being”, what Marcuse called the Great Refusal, or what Virno, Hardt and Negri have termed the multitude. Thus, within this complex web, an emergent community of singularities would have both immensely expanded their sense of self at the same time each increased the possibility of their own self-determination and autonomy. Only then might those who seem to perpetually find means of allowing progress and productivity to place themselves at the center of the world actually stand to learn something from the supposedly parochial and hierarchical societies which practiced such singular forms-of-life long before the rise of capital or state; indeed it was from the suppression of these communities through the abstractions brought about by literacy that the particularity/universality nexus first emerged as the One that subsumes the Many – first through the rise of religion, then the priests and the literati, then state and the military and now Empire and – if we are not careful – the counter-Empire as well.

* Giorgio Agamben. ”The Coming Community” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)
* Arjun Appadurai. ”Modernity at Large” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press , 1996)
* Walter Benjamin. [http://www.tasc.ac.uk/depart/media/staff/ls/WBenjamin/CONCEPT2.html “Theses on the Philosophy of History”] 7 April, 2003.
* Jack Goody. ”The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
* Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. ”Empire” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)
* George Katsiaficas. ”The Subversion of Politics” (New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1997)
* Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, ed. ”Italy: Autonomia: Post-Political Politics” (New York: Semiotext(e), 1980)
* Herbert Marcuse. ”An Essay on Liberation” (Boston: Beacon Press , 1969)
* Edward Said. ”Orientalism” (New York: Vintage Books, 1979)
* Paolo Virno. “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus” in ”Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email