Radical media, politics and culture.

?s for Hardt

Notes for another possible interview...

In reading your work, I find myself wrestling with the term ‘biopolitics’ and ‘biopolitical’, which you lay out [find reference and quote] as power taking charge of life. As I understand you, the becoming biopolitical of production is what makes the new political project of the not-yet multitude possible. You are not alone in this, some friends from Spain and Argentina have taken up the term as well (reference Precarias and Franco Ingrassia), as part of both mapping the present and proposing new political projects. The understanding of project they lay out sees designated workplaces as contiguous with other spheres of life, and the politics proposed is characterized by a movement – and the attempt to build and exercise power – across these times and spaces.

My initial response to term and the turn it is related to in theory and in political struggle is enthusiastic. On the other hand, I have become more ambivalent about the term. To say that biopolitics has to do with power taking charge of life seems to be vague, as all political power is power over instantiations or modalities of life. Paolo Virno has written that he has a friendly disagreement with you and Negri over biopolitics, because the very concept (and material existence) of labor power implies a taking charge of life (or, as Panzieri writes, planning the labor process means planning living bodies) [cite and quote both]. This would mean that capitalism is biopolitical from its inception. I assume you do not agree with Virno, or else you would not use the concept of biopolitics the way you do. Can you clarify your use of the term, and how it differs from what Virno claims about the term?

In the book Guias, Negri distinguishes between biopower – as the set of techniques of managing populations – and biopolitics – as the production of subjectivity [cite, quote]. In this regard, biopower seems a very important historical development, and an important category for understanding the present and history. On the other hand, biopolitics as the production of subjectivity is harder for me to grasp the importance of. Perhaps I misunderstand the terms, but it seems to me that organizing and social struggle always involve the production of subjectivity. I can think from my own experiences with workplace organizing, there is a big change involved in becoming part of collective activity. It seems to me that all collective activity of resistance and refusal is a process of becoming-collective in a new way, becoming-resistant, which is a production of subjectivity. Or am I using the terms differently than you are? If so, how?

On a related note, as part of the becoming-biopolitical of labor, I understand you and Negri to have laid out a picture in which capitalist production is not limited to remunerated worktime or designated workplaces, and that this (biopolitical?) condition, wherein work occurs across the social field, is part of the new political potentials found in our moment. I wonder about this, though, about what register this idea operates on, the idea that production doesn’t just happen in the factory – are you innovating Marxian categories, or diagnosing a change in the present world? Do you mean that what was once nonwork time has become worktime (in the sense of producing for capital, value production) such that there is now (a greater quantity of) unpaid work happening that did not happen before? Or do you mean that today, because of the arrangement of production today, we understand that capitalism has always involved unpaid work outside of designated workplaces? (I am thinking here of writers like Dalla Costa, Federici, and Fortunati, who argue that the wage has always commanded unwaged labor as well, so that housework by women has always been work for capital since capitalism began.) A similar question was asked of you the last time, when we did the interview by email for aut-op-sy, but the question wasn’t adequately clear. To try and ask this question more directly: do you and Negri see reproductive labor as having been productive of capital (and thus a site of struggle analogous to paid workplaces) since the beginning of capitalism, or do you see this a new phenomenon? If housewives work, for instance, have they worked since capitalism began, or beginning at some later point in time?

In the last interview, in response to similar questions, you said (among other things) “Another way to approach this question would be with Deleuze and Guattari. In Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, all is production. Think of desiring-production as a way of expanding what is considered labor.”

When I hear you say ‘desiring production expands what is considered labor’, I am not sure how to hold onto a distinction that I think is important, namely, the difference between value production and other production, between work for the boss work for one’s self (at the office I work in - the work of data entry that I should have been doing vs the work of typing up these questions for you which I did instead). It seems to me that there are several ways to understand the phrase ‘expands what is considered labor’. One sense is the recognition of activity that is productive of capital but is not or has been recognized as such. (The labor of housewives, for instance, which Fortunati says has been able to be made productive for capital in large part due to the denial of the fact that it is productive for capital.) Another sense is that certain activities that were not productive of capital become integrated into the production of capital. I am thinking here of artistic production: people who play music, write, etc for their own enjoyment who then find themselves able to sell their creative work – work they would do anyway – to get paid enough money that they don’t have to do anything else, at least for a while. This seems to me to be something like a voluntary submission to enclosure at the cultural level, in return for payment. (Something which, perhaps despite the terms here, I have no problem with. I would love to be able to do such a thing!) With this last, it seems to me that nonwork activities become work, become value productive (analogous to the sense in which Marx says that factory work is not productive of value if the goods rot on the dock – value production is (productive of) a social relationship above all else. Similarly, when a band sells its record or a novelist sells her manuscript, activities are or become part of value production, become valorize – conversations had with friends, nightmares and daydreams, moments of emotional and physical intimacy. If the record or book is not sold, or is sold to a company but then does terribly in sales, then value is not realized and those activities are not valorized.

Can you expand on your remarks on the relationship between value production (labor productive of capital) and desiring production, and the relationship of desiring production and the common? (In the above examples I tried to give about aesthetic production I kept thinking about the common – if a band sells its record then it is valorizing part of the common, producing the common as part of capital, if it doesn’t sell then those moments of the common are not valorized.) Insofar as I understand the terms, I understand the relationship of value production and desiring production as follows – value production and desiring production relate to each in a mobile and transverse fashion. Sometimes desiring production and value production are in line with each other, sometimes value production combats desiring production (the imposition of work, the dead time that the Situationists denounced) and sometimes desiring production ruptures or escapes from value production.

In the last interview, in response to these questions you also said “I should note also that "productivity" might not always be the right way to think of this. (…) We need to think about what is productive of social relationships, of society itself.” This interesting, and reminds me of remarks (which I’m not sure I understand) by Jean-Luc Nancy, about being-with. But, in thinking about what is productive of society itself – this is a variation on earlier questions – how can we also think about the production of capitalist society, and the production of communism? We don’t live in society itself, society as such, we live in a capitalist society, a capitalist epoch of society that we want to exit from. And so, in the production of society itself, it’s important to think about … vectors, for lack a better term … trajectories that point back into the production of society as capitalist society, and trajectories that point beyond capital – productions of communism (building the new society inside the shell of the old, as the saying goes.) This is part of what is at stake in the questions about reproductive labor and so on: parts of the Marxist tradition have seen only industrial factory workers as being capable of pointing (producing social relationships) beyond capitalism, the industrial proletariat as bearer of (potential) communism. Part of what I like about your expansion of the concept of labor is that it can serve as a move in (and against) the Marxist tradition, expanding who is part of the production or bringing on of communism, and thus working against strategies which have subjugated different class sectors behind a hegemonic sector (and its official representatives). Do you have thoughts on any of this?

You spoke at the Society for European Philosophy conference, on the theme of ‘resistance’, in London in [when?]. You began by commenting on the idea that power is prior to resistance, which had come up in some of the conference presentations. You laid out three different versions of this idea – Deleuzian, a philosophical and ontological conception wherein it is only resistance that has the power to act creatively; Trontian, in which the actual historical forms that capitalism takes on are produced by the working class; and a third identified with Subaltern Studies and British social history, a ‘bottom-up’ (re)reading of history showing that those assumed (by a certain reading of history) to be without agency, to be fully determined by power, were in fact active subjects. I wonder how you would place your idea of multitude, always-already multitude in this schema. I am partial to thinking that we can interpret ‘bottom-up’ history as historical research which shows that bodies presented as homogeneous were actually heterogeneous, that ‘bottom-up’ history is a history that shows the working class and others as being, in a fashion, always-already multitude. Virno argues that Marx’s depiction in the end of v1 of Capital [find reference] is a description of the working class as (becoming-)multitude. Can multitude be read back into history in this way, or is it only to be found in the present? If not, then how and why does your use of the term multitude differ from that of Virno, who does read it back into history?

Along the same lines, you and Negri talk about moving beyond thinking which takes identity and difference as its central categories, categories which exist in opposition, in an either/or relationship. Instead, you propose the categories common and different, which exist in a both/and relationship. This is very interesting, and I can see how this, at a philosophical level, connects with both your understanding of the present and your political proposals. If you’ll pardon a poor intellectual joke, I think this relationship of common/different characterizes most of my questions for you, which I feel are all different variations of a common theme. I have another such question for you here: is the shift from identity/difference to common/different an innovation in philosophy, or a change in the present world? This leads to my next question, which is, does the change from identity/difference to common/different change how we read prior history?

To make a political parallel, and to pose questions at a more clearly political register, you and others have claimed that the political task is not to seize power, to seize the state. The goal is to exercise power, rather than to seize power as I believe Marcos said, to change the world without taking power like in the title of John Holloway’s book. I wonder at how to interpret this politically, and I think this wondering is at the root of most of my other questions. It seems to me that there are two different understandings of saying “the goal is not to seize power but to constitute power”, which, if you will pardon what may be a sectarian turn of phrase, I think of as either a post-vanguardist/post-statist position or a non- or anti-vanguardist/-statist position. I admit that I am not entirely sure what current political importance rests on this distinction – both positions agree, after all, that the goal today is not seize power. But there does seem to be a difference with regard to the reading and understanding of earlier moments in the history of struggles. The post-statist view seems to say that the goal is not to seize power any longer. That is, the old political forms and strategies aimed at the state are exhausted. This implies a past efficacy – a past communist content, if you will – which is now lost today. This position implies a valorization of past hegemonic working class strategies in past historical moments. The anti-statist position here would be that the goal has never been to seize power, which implies that there was never a positive efficacy – a communist content – to the project of seizing power. This position implies a critique of past hegemonic working class strategies and perhaps identifying/sympathizing with currents which were not hegemonic within the class.

Now, before I ask you what you think of this, I would like to say that I understand that, as my friend Keir says, it is possible to do almost any task with almost any tool. That is, I understand that people sometimes accomplish worthwhile outcomes with limited ideas (just as people with great ideas sometimes accomplish very little else) – the seizure of power, its attendant organizational forms, and the political imaginary bound up with it was an important moment of class struggle for a very long time. That is, I mean to say that the hegemony of statist/vanguardist ideas/strategies within the working class may have had some positive results, but this does not mean that other ideas/strategies may not have had similar or better results if they had become hegemonic.

And so (if you can still remember what I was saying!), I would like to ask, when you and Negri advocate that movements act in ways which are not state centered, would you consider yourselves as articulating a post-statist position or a nonstatist position, with respect to the reading of history in light of the categories you deploy and elaborate in the present?

Part of why I am hung up on this matter is due to experiences with people in vanguardist political organizations who acted in nontransparent and manipulative ways in antiwar and other political activities. I also ask because I have trouble understanding the role of newness in your work and elsewhere, politically speaking. For example, in Empire you and Negri call for new rights, based on the present arrangement of capitalism. You call for free movement, because of the role of migration. But migration and flight has been practiced for centuries. You call for the right to reappropriation – this has also been practiced for centuries, in a class struggle over what will be common and what will be enclosed. And you call for a general income – I would love to get paid simply for existing, but I don’t see how this is something which only now becomes a right. It seems like a variation on the old communist slogan ‘to each according to need’ – a universal income supplying to everyone what they require in order to meet these needs. To make sure I am being clear, I would be happy to see these rights instantiated. But when you offer arguments for these rights based on the characteristics of contemporary capitalism – characteristics which I understand you to be saying are unique to our era – I hear an implied position that prior to our era there was not a good argument for these rights, that is, that these have become rights or have become possible rights. Am I reading into your argument too much?

Similarly, with regard to conversations around the issue of precarity today, positions are put forward calling for organizational forms which I agree with. My friend Franco wrote a short article calling for what he calls ‘biopolitical sindicalism’. But, as far as I can tell, much of this position involves ideas similar to ideas proposed in nonhegemonic sectors of working class movements for a very long time. (The same can be said of the position that we aim for something other than the seizure of state power.) The IWW has been thinking out and practicing alternative forms of worker organization for one hundred years. Today we call it ‘solidarity unionism’, as opposed to the ‘business unionism’ predominating in the official leadership of the official labor movement. I see much in common with what the IWW has been saying and what people are saying around precarity today, and with a certain reading of your work, but the difference is that I don’t see anyone in the IWW saying that this is a particularly new set of possibilities, it’s a set of possibilities that has been around since at least 1905. The main difference, in my mind (I don’t speak for the IWW of course), is that you and others (like the Precarias a la Deriva) seem to be saying that what the IWW wants – in terms of class strategies and movement organizational forms – is only now becoming possible. Is that a fair characterization, or have I misunderstood?