...... Blows Against the Empire?

...........Slavoj Zizek

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Today's global capitalism can no longer be combined with democratic representation: the key economic decisions of bodies like the IMF or WTO are not legitimized by any democratic process, and this lack of democratic representation is structural, not empirical. For this reason, the call for a global (representative) democracy that would submit the IMF, WTO, etc. to some kind of democratic control (voiced, in Germany, by Habermas, Beck, Lafontaine, and others) is illusory. Can one really even imagine a worldwide vote for the board of the IMF? We are dealing with more than the usual complaint that parliamentary democracy is "formal" - here, even the form is absent.

Hardt's and Negri's Empire [1] (as well as its follow-up, Multitude) [2] aims at providing a solution to this predicament: : "The common currency that runs throughout so many struggles and movements for liberation across the world today - at local, regional, and global levels - is the desire for democracy."(xvi) Far from standing for a utopian dream, democracy is "the only answer to the vexing questions of our day, /.../ the only way out of our state of perpetual conflict and war."(xviii) Not only is democracy inscribed into the present antagonisms as an immanent telos of their resolution; even more, today, the rise of the multitude in the heart of capitalism "makes democracy possible for the first time"(340). Till now, democracy was constrained by the form of the One, of the sovereign state power; "absolute democracy" ("the rule of everyone by everyone, a democracy without qualifiers, without ifs or buts"(237)) only becomes possible when "the multitude is finally able to rule itself"(340).

The wager of NH here is to repeat Marx. For Marx, highly organized corporate capitalism already was "socialism within capitalism" (a kind of socialization of capitalism, with the absent owners becoming more and more superfluous), so that one only needs to cut the nominal head off and we get socialism. For NH, however, the limitation of Marx was that he was historically constrained to the centralized and hierarchically organized machinical automatized industrial labor, which is why their vision of "general intellect" was that of a central planning agency; it is only today, with the rise of the "immaterial labor" to the hegemonic role, that the revolutionary reversal becomes "objectively possible." This immaterial labor extends between the two poles of intellectual (symbolic) labor (production of ideas, codes, texts, programs, figures: writers, programmers...) and affective labor (those who deal with our bodily affects: from doctors to baby-sitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labor is "hegemonic" in the precise sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th century capitalism, large industrial production is hegemonic as the specific color giving its tone to the totality - not quantitatively, but playing the key, emblematic structural role: "What the multitude produces is not just goods or services; the multitude also and most importantly produces cooperation, communication, forms of life, and social relationships."(339) What thereby emerges is a new vast domain the "common": shared knowledge, forms of cooperation and communication, etc., which can no longer be contained by the form of private property. This, then, far from posing a mortal threat to democracy (as conservative cultural critics want us to believe), opens up a unique chance of "absolute democracy" - why?

In immaterial production, the products are no longer material objects, but new social (interpersonal) relations themselves - in short, immaterial production is directly biopolitical, the production of social life. It was already Marx who emphasized how material production is always also the (re)production of the social relations within which it occurs; with today's capitalism, however, the production of social relations is the immediate end/goal of production: "Such new forms of labor /.../ present new possibilities for economic self-management, since the mechanisms of cooperation necessary for production are contained in the labor itself."(336) The wager of Hardt and Negri is that this directly socialized, immaterial production not only renders owners progressively superfluous (who needs them when production is directly social, formally and as to its content?); the producers also master the regulation of social space, since social relations (politics) IS the stuff of their work: economic production directly becomes political production, the production of society itself. The way is thus open for "absolute democracy," for the producers directly regulating their social relations without even the detour of democratic representation.

The problem here is, at a minimum, triple. First, can one really interpret this move towards the hegemonic role of immaterial labor as the move from production to communication, to social interaction (i.e., in Aristotelian terms, from techne as poiesis to praxis, namely, as the overcoming of the Arendtian distinction between production and vis activa, or of the Habermasian distinction between instrumental and communicational reason)? Secondly, how does this "politicization" of production, where production directly produces (new) social relations, affect the very notion of politics? Is such an "administration of people" (subordinated to the logic of profit) still politics, or is it the most radical sort of depoliticization, the entry into "post-politics?" And, last but not least, is democracy by necessity, with regard to its very notion, non-absolute? There is no democracy without a hidden, presupposed elitism. Democracy is, by definition, not "global"; it HAS to be based on values and/or truths which one cannot select "democratically." In democracy, one can fight for truth, but not decide what IS truth. As Claude Lefort and others amply demonstrated, democracy is never simply representative in the sense of adequately re-presenting (expressing) a pre-existing set of interests, opinions, etc., since these interests and opinions are constituted only through such representation. In other words, the democratic articulation of an interest is always minimally performative: through their democratic representatives, people establish what their interests and opinions are. As Hegel already knew, "absolute democracy" could only actualize itself in the guise of its "oppositional determination," as terror. There is, thus, a choice to be made here: do we accept democracy's structural, not just accidental, imperfection, or do we also endorse its terroristic dimension?

NH continuously oscillate between their fascination by the global capitalism's "deterritorializing" power, and the rhetoric of the struggle of the multitude against the One of the capitalist power. The financial capital with its wild speculations detached from the reality of material labor, this standard bête noire of the traditional Left, is celebrated as the germ of the future, capitalism's most dynamic and nomadic aspect. The organizational forms of today's capitalism - decentralization of the decision-making, radical mobility and flexibility, interaction of multiple agents - are perceived as pointing towards the oncoming reign of the multitude. It is as if everything is already here, in the "postmodern" capitalism, or, in Hegelese, the passage from In-itself to For-itself - all that is needed is just an act of purely formal conversion, like the one developed by Hegel apropos the struggle between Enlightenment and Faith, where he describes the "silent, ceaseless weaving of the Spirit." Even the fashionable parallel with the new cognitivist notion of human psyche is not missing here: in the same way brain sciences teach us how there is no central Self in the brain, how our decisions emerge out of the interaction of a pandemonium of local agents, how our psychic life is an "autopoietic" process which, without any imposed centralizing agency (a model which, incidentally, is explicitly based on the parallel with today's "decentralized" capitalism). So the new society of the multitude which rules itself will be like today's cognitivist notion of the ego as a pandemonium of interacting agents with no central deciding Self running the show...

However, although NH see today's capitalism as the main site of the proliferating multitudes, they continue to rely on the rhetoric of the One, the sovereign Power, against the multitude; how they bring these two aspects together is clear: while capitalism generates multitudes, it contains them in the capitalist form, thereby unleashing a demon it is unable to control. The question to be asked here is nonetheless if HN do not commit a mistake homologous to that of Marx: is their notion of the pure multitude ruling itself not the ultimate capitalist fantasy, the fantasy of capitalism self-revolutionizing perpetual movement freely exploding when freed of its inherent obstacle? In other words, is the capitalist FORM (the form of the appropriation of surplus-value) not the necessary form, formal frame/condition, of the self-propelling productive movement?

If anything, the problem with NH is therefore that they are TOO MUCH Marxists, taking over the underlying Marxist scheme of historical progress: like Marx, they celebrate the "deterritorializing" revolutionary potential of capitalism; like Marx, they locate the contradiction within capitalism, in the gap between this potential and the form of the capital, of the private-property appropriation of the surplus. In short, they rehabilitate the old Marxist notion of the tension between productive forces and the relations of production: capitalism already generates the "germs of the future new form of life," it incessantly produces the new "common," so that, in a revolutionary explosion, this New should just be liberated from the old social form. Marx perceived how capitalism unleashed the breath-taking dynamics of self-enhancing productivity - see his fascinated descriptions of how, in capitalism, "all things solid melt into thin air," of how capitalism is the greatest revolutionizer in the entire history of humanity; on the other hand, he also clearly perceived how this capitalist dynamics is propelled by its own inner obstacle or antagonism - the ultimate limit of capitalism (of the capitalist self-propelling productivity) is the Capital itself, i.e. the capitalist incessant development and revolutionizing of its own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate flight forward to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction...

Marx's fundamental mistake was to conclude, from these insights, that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible, an order that would not only maintain, but even raise to a higher degree and effectively fully release the potential of the self-increasing spiral of productivity which, in capitalism, on account of its inherent obstacle ("contradiction"), is again and again thwarted by socially destructive economic crises. In short, what Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the "condition of impossibility" of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its "condition of possibility": if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism - if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates.

The mirror-image of this reliance on Marx is NH's political deadlock. One should shamelessly ask here a na•ve question: what would "multitude in power" (not only as resistance) be? How would it FUNCTION? Hardt and Negri distinguish two ways to oppose the global capitalist Empire: either the "protectionist" advocacy of the return to the strong Nation-State, or the deployment of even more flexible forms of multitude. Along these lines, in his analysis of the Porto Allegro anti-globalist meeting, Hardt emphasizes the new logic of political space at work there: it was no longer the old "us versus them" binary logic, with the Leninist call for a firm, singular party line, but the coexistence of a multitude of political agencies and positions that are incompatible with each other as far as their ideological and programmatic accents are concerned (from "conservative" farmers and ecologists worried about the fate of their local tradition and patrimony, to human rights groups and agents standing for the interests of immigrants, advocating global mobility). It is, effectively, today's opposition to global capital that seems to provide a kind of negative mirror-image in relation to Deleuze's claim about the inherently antagonistic nature of capitalist dynamics (a strong machine of deterritorialization which generates new modes of reterritorialization): today's resistance to capitalism reproduces the same antagonism. Calls for the defense of particular (cultural, ethnic) identities being threatened by global dynamics coexist with the demands for more global mobility (against the new barriers imposed by capitalism, which concern, above all, the free movement of individuals). Is it, then, true that these tendencies (these lignes de fuite, as Deleuze would have put it) can coexist in a non-antagonistic way, as parts of the same global network of resistance? One is tempted to answer this claim by applying to it Laclau's notion of the chain of equivalences: of course, this logic of multitude functions, because we are still dealing with RESISTANCE. However, what about when - if this really is the desire and will of these movements - "we take it over?" What would the "multitude in power" look like?

There was a similar constellation in the last years of the decaying Really-Existing Socialism: the non-antagonistic coexistence, within the oppositional field, of a multitude of ideologico-political tendencies, from liberal human-rights groups to "liberal" business-oriented groups, conservative religious groups and leftist workers' demands. This multitude functioned well, as long as it was united in the opposition to "them," the Party hegemony. Once they found THEMSELVES in power, the game was over. Another case of acting multitude is the crowd that brought back into power Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. However, can we forget the obvious fact that Chavez functions as a Latino-American caudillo, the unique Leader whose function is to magically resolve the conflicting interests of those who support him? "Multitude in power" thus necessarily actualizes itself in the guise of an authoritarian leader whose charisma can serve as the "empty signifier" able to contain the multitude of interests (it was already Peron who was a militaristic patriot to the Army, a devout Christian to the Church, a supporter of the poor against oligarchy on behalf of workers, etc.). The favored example of the supporters (and practitioners) of the new, dispersed counter-power of the multitude is, of course, the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. Here is Naomi Klein's description of how its leading figure, subcommandante Marcos, functions:

he wasn't a commander barking orders, but a subcommandante, a conduit for the will of the councils. His first words, in his new persona, were 'Through me speaks the will of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.' Further subjugating himself, Marcos says to those who seek him out that he is not a leader, but that his black mask is a mirror, reflecting each of their own struggles; that a Zapatista is anyone anywhere fighting injustice, that 'We are you.' Most famously, he once told a reporter that 'Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, /.../ a single woman on the Metro at 10 P.M., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums /.../ Meanwhile, Marcos himself - the supposed non-self, the conduit, the mirror - writes in a tone so personal and poetic, so completely and unmistakably his own. [3]

It is clear that such a structure can function only as the ethico-poetic shadowy double of the existing positive state power structure. No wonder Marcos cannot show his face; no wonder his idea is to throw off his mask and disappear back into anonymity if and when the movement reaches its goals. If the Zapatistas were to effectively take power, statements like "Through me speaks the will of..." would immediately acquire a much more ominous dimension - their apparent modesty would reveal itself as extreme arrogance, as the presumption of one particular individual that his subjectivity serves as a direct medium of expression for the universal will. Do we still remember how phrases like "I am nothing in myself, my entire strength is yours, I am just an expression of your will!" was the standard clichˇ of "totalitarian" leaders, who also knew very well how to manipulate their dark implication - "...so anyone who attacks me personally is effectively attacking you all, the entire people, your love for freedom and justice!" The greater the poetic potential of Marcos in opposition, as a critical voice of VIRTUAL protest, the greater would be the terror of Marcos as an ACTUAL leader. As to the political effects of the Zapatista movement, one should note the final irony here: when Klein lists as the main Zapatista political achievement that this movement "helped topple the corrupt seventy-one-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party," [4] what this amounts to is that, with Zapatista help, Mexico got the first post-revolutionary government, a government that cut the last links with the historical heritage of Zapata and fully endorsed Mexico's integration into the neo-liberal New World Order (no wonder the two presidents, Fox - ex-boss of the Mexican branch of Coca-Cola - and Bush, are personal friends).

However, is it not that the Zapatistas DID develop a minimal, positive political program, that of local self-determination, of moving in where state power failed and enabling people to constitute new spaces of local community democracy? "What sets the Zapatistas apart from your average Marxist guerilla insurgents is that their goal is not to win control but to seize and build autonomous spaces where 'democracy, liberty and justice' can thrive. /.../ Marcos is convinced that these free spaces, born of reclaimed land, communal agriculture, resistance to privatization, will eventually create counter-powers to the state simply by existing as alternatives." [5] And yet, we encounter here the same ambiguity: are these autonomous spaces germs of the organization-to-come of the entire society, or just phenomena emerging in the crevices and gaps of the social order? Marcos' formulation that the Zapatistas are not interested in the Revolution, but, rather, in "a revolution that makes revolution possible," is deeply true, but nonetheless profoundly ambiguous: does this mean that the Zapatistas are a "Cultural Revolution" laying the foundation for the actual political revolution (what, way back in the 1960s, Marcuse called "freedom as the condition of liberation"), OR does it mean that they should remain merely a "site of resistance," a corrective to the existing state power (not only without the aim to replace it, but also without the aim to organize the conditions in which this power will disappear)?

The response of the partisans of Negri and Hardt to this critique is, of course, that it continues to perceive the new situation from within the old framework. In the contemporary information society, the question of "taking power" is more and more irrelevant, since there is no longer any central Power agency which plays a de facto decisive role - power itself is shifting, decentered, "Protean..." Perhaps, then, today, in the epoch of homo sacer, one of the options is to pursue the trend of self-organized collectives in areas outside the law. Recall life in today's favelas in Latin American megalopolises: are they, in some sense, not the first "liberated territories," the cells of futural self-organized societies? Are institutions like community kitchens not a model of "socialized" communal local life? (And, perhaps, from this standpoint, one can also approach, in a new way, the "politics of drugs." Was it really an accident that, at every moment that a strong self-organized collective of those outside the law emerged, it was soon corrupted by hard drugs - from African-American ghettos after the rebellions in the 1960s and Italian cities after the workers' unrests of the 1970s, up to today's favelas? And, the same holds even for Poland after Jaruzelski's coup in 1980: all of a sudden, drugs were easily available, together with pornography, alcohol, and Eastern Wisdom manuals, in order to ruin the self-organized civil society. Those in power knew full well when to use drugs as a weapon against self-organized resistance.)

However, what about the complex network of material, legal, institutional, etc. conditions that must be maintained in order for the informational "multitude" to be able to function? So, when Naomi Klein writes: "Decentralizing power doesn't mean abandoning strong national and international standards - and stable, equitable funding - for health care, education, affordable housing and environmental protection. But it does mean that the mantra of the left needs to change from 'increase funding' to 'empower the grassroots'" [6] - one should ask the naive question: HOW? How are these strong standards and funding - in short, the main ingredients of the Welfare State - to be maintained? No wonder that, in a kind of ironic twist proper to the "cunning of reason," Hardt and Negri end their Empire with a minimal positive political program of three points: the demand for global citizenship (so that the mobility of the working force under the present capitalist conditions is recognized); the right to a social wage (a minimal income guaranteed to everybody); the right to reappropriation (so that the key means of production, especially those of new informational media, are socially owned). The irony here is not only the content of these demands (with which, in abstractu, every radical liberal or social democrat would agree), but their very form - rights, demands -, which unexpectedly bring back into the picture what the entire book was fighting against: political agents all of a sudden appear as subjects of universal rights, demanding their realization (from whom, if not some universal form of legal state power?). In short (psychoanalytic terms), from the nomadic schizo outside the Law, we pass to the hysterical subject trying to provoke the Master by way of bombarding him with impossible demands...


[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000.

[2] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude, New York: The penguin Press, 2004.

[3] Naomi Klein, Fences and Windows, London: Picador, 2002, pp. 211-12.

[4] Op. cit., p. 214.

[5] OP. Cit., p. 228.

[6] Op. cit., p. 223.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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