Objet a as Inherent Limit to Capitalism:
on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Slavoj Zizek

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What makes Empire and Multitude such a refreshing reading (clearly the definitive exercises in Deleuzian politics) is that we are dealing with books which refer to and function as the moment of theoretical reflection of-one is almost tempted to say: are embedded in-an actual global movement of anti-capitalist resistance: one can sense, behind the written lines, the smells and sounds of Seattle, Genoa and Zapatistas. So their theoretical limitation is simultaneously the limitation of the actual movement.

Hardt's and Negri's basic move, an act which is by no means ideologically neutral (and, incidentally, which is totally foreign to their philosophical paradigm, Deleuze!), is to identify (to name) "democracy" as the common denominator of all today's emancipatory movements: "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." 1 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." 2 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" 3 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," 4 only becomes possible when "the multitude is finally able to rule itself." 5

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 Negri and Hardt, 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." 6 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." 7 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.

There is a whole series of concrete questions that this vision gives rise to. Can one really interpret this move towards the hegemonic role of immaterial labor as the move from production to communication, to social interaction (in Aristotelian terms, from techne as poiesis to praxis: as the overcoming of the Arendtian distinction between production and vis activa, or of the Habermasian distinction between instrumental and communicational reason)? 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 terrorist dimension? However, much more pertinent is another critical point which concerns Negri and Hardt's neglect of the FORM in the strict dialectical sense of the term.

Negri and Hardt 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 bete 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 how the "silent, ceaseless weaving of the Spirit"

infiltrates the noble parts through and through and soon has taken complete possession of all the vitals and members of the unconscious idol; then 'one fine morning it gives its comrade a shove with the elbow, and bang! crash! the idol lies on the floor.' On 'one fine morning' whose noon is bloodless if the infection has penetrated to every organ of spiritual life. 8

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 Negri and Hardt see today's capitalism as the main site of the proliferating multitudes, they continue to rely on the rhetorics 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 Hardt and Negri 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?

Consequently, when Negri and Hardt repeatedly emphasize how "this is a philosophical book," and warn the reader "do not expect our book to answer the question, What is to be done? or propose a concrete program of action," 9 this constraint is not as neutral as it may appear: it points towards a fundamental theoretical flaw. After describing multiple forms of resistance to the Empire, Multitude ends with a messianic note pointing towards the great Rupture, the moment of Decision when the movement of multitudes will be transubstantiated the sudden birth of a new world: "After this long season of violence and contradictions, global civil war, corruption of imperial biopower, and infinite toil of the biopolitical multitudes, the extraordinary accumulations of grievances and reform proposals must at some point be transformed by a strong event, a radical insurrectional demand." 10 However, at this point when one expects a minimum theoretical determination of this rupture, what we get is again withdrawal into philosophy: "A philosophical book like this, however, is not the place for us to evaluate whether the time for revolutionary political decision is imminent." 11 Negri and Hardt perform here an all to quick jump: of course one cannot ask them to provide a detailed empirical description of the Decision, of the passage to the globalized "absolute democracy," to the multitude that rules itself; however, what if this a justified refusal to engage in pseudo-concrete futuristic predictions masks an inherent notional deadlock/impossibility? That is to say, what one does and should expect is a description of the notional structure of this qualitative jump, of the passage from the multitudes RESISTING the One of sovereign Power to the multitudes directly RULING themselves. Leaving the notional structure of this passage in a darkness elucidated only by vague homologies and examples from the movements of resistance cannot but raise the anxious suspicion that this self-transparent direct rule of everyone over everyone, this democracy tout court, will coincide with its opposite. 12

Negri and Hardt are right in rendering problematic the standard Leftist revolutionary notion of "taking power": such a strategy accepts the formal frame of the power structure and aims merely at replacing one bearer of power ("them") with another ("us"). As it was fully clear to Lenin in his State and Revolution, the true revolutionary aim is not to "take power," but to undermine, disintegrate, the very apparatuses of state power. Therein resides the ambiguity of the "postmodern" Leftist calls to abandon the program of "taking power": do they imply that one should ignore the existing power structure, or, rather, limit oneself to resisting it by way of constructing alternative spaces outside the state power network (the Zapatista strategy in Mexico); or do they imply that one should disintegrate, pull the ground of, the state power, so that the state power will simply collapse, implode? In the second case, the poetic formulas about the multitude immediately ruling itself do not suffice.

Hardt and Negri conform here a sort of triad whose other two terms are Ernesto Laclau and Giorgio Agamben. The ultimate difference between Laclau and Agamben concerns the structural inconsistency of power: while they both insist on this inconsistency, their position towards it is exactly opposite. Agamben's focusing on the vicious circle of the link between legal power (the rule of Law) and violence is sustained by the messianic utopian hope that it is possible to radically break this circle and step out of it (in an act of the Benjaminian "divine violence"). In The Coming Community, he refers to Saint Thomas's answer to the difficult theological question: What happens to the souls of unbaptized babies who have died in ignorance of both sin and God? They committed no sin, so their punishment

cannot be an afflictive punishment, like that of hell, but only a punishment of privation that consists in the perpetual lack of the vision of God. The inhabitants of limbo, in contrast to the damned, do not feel pain from this lack: /.../ they do not know that they are deprived of the supreme good. /.../ The greatest punishment - the lack of the vision of God - thus turns into a natural joy: irremediably lost, they persist without pain in divine abandon. 13

Their fate is for Agamben the model of redemption: they "have left the world of guilt and justice behind them: the light that rains down on them is that irreparable light of the dawn following the novissima dies of judgment. But the life that begins on earth after the last day is simply human life." 14 (One cannot but recall here the crowd of humans who remain on stage at the end of Wagner's Twilight of Gods, silently witnessing the self-destruction of gods - what if they are the happy ones?) And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Negri and Hardt who perceive resistance to power as preparing the ground for a miraculous LEAP into "absolute democracy" in which multitude will directly rule itself - at this point, the tension will be resolved, freedom will explodes into eternal self-proliferation. The difference between Agamben and Negri and Hardt could be best apprehended by means of the good old Hegelian distinction between abstract and determinate negation: although Negri and Hardt are even more anti-Hegelian than Agamben, their revolutionary LEAP remains an act of "determinate negation," the gesture of formal reversal, of merely setting free the potentials developed in global capitalism which already is a kind of "Communism-in-itself"; in contrast to them, Agamben - and, again, paradoxically, in spite of his animosity to Adorno - outlines the contours of something which is much closer to the utopian longing for the ganz Andere (wholly Other) in late Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, to a redemptive leap into a non-mediated Otherness.

Laclau and Mouffe, on the contrary, propose a new version of the old Edouard Bernstein's arch-revisionist motto "goal is nothing, movement is all": the true danger, the temptation to be resisted, is the very notion of a radical cut by means of which the basic social antagonism will be dissolved and the new era of a self-transparent non-alienated society will arrive. For Laclau and Mouffe, such a notion disavows not only the Political as such, the space of antagonisms and struggle for hegemony, but the fundamental ontological finitude of the human condition as such - which is why, any attempt to actualize such a leap has to end up in a totalitarian disaster. What this means is that the only way to elaborate and practice livable particular political solutions is to admit the global a priori deadlock: we can only solve particular problems against the background of the irreducible global deadlock. Of course, this is no way entails that political agents should limit themselves to solving particular problems, abandoning the topic of universality: for Laclau and Mouffe, universality is impossible and at the same time necessary, i.e., there is no direct "true" universality, every universality is always-already caught into the hegemonic struggle, it is an empty form hegemonized (filled in) by some particular content which, at a given moment and in a given conjuncture, functions as its stand-in.

Are, however, these two approaches really as radically opposed as it may appear? Does Laclau and Mouffe's edifice not also imply its own utopian point: the point at which political battles would be fought without remainders of "essentialism," all sides fully accepting the radically contingent character of their endeavors and the irreductible character of social antagonisms. On the other hand, Agamben's position is also not without its secret advantages: since, with today's biopolitics, the space of political struggle is closed and any democratic-emancipatory movements are meaningless, we cannot do anything but comfortably wait for the miraculous explosion of the "divine violence." As for Negri and Hardt, they bring us back to the Marxist confidence that "history is on our side," that historical development is already generating the form of the Communist future.

If anything, the problem with Negri and Hardt is 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. However, precisely as Marxists, on behalf of our fidelity to Marx's work, we should discern the mistake of Marx: he 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... (Therein would reside a possible Lacanian critique of Marx, focusing on the ambiguous overlapping between surplus-value and surplus-jouissance). So the critics of Communism were in a way right when they claimed that the Marxian Communism is an impossible fantasy - what they did not perceive is that the Marxiam Communism, this notion of a society of pure unleashed productivity outside the frame of Capital, was a fantasy inherent to capitalism itself, the capitalist inherent transgression at its purest, a strictly ideological fantasy of maintaining the thrust to productivity generated by capitalism, while getting rid of the "obstacles" and antagonisms that were - as the sad experience of the "really existing capitalism" demonstrates - the only possible framework of the effective material existence of a society of permanent self-enhancing productivity.

So where, precisely, did Marx go wrong with regard to the surplus-value? One is tempted to search for an answer in the key Lacanian distinction between the object of desire and the surplus-enjoyment as its cause. Recall the curl of the blond hair, this fatal detail of Madeleine in Hitchcock's Vertigo. When, in the love scene in the barn towards the end of the film, Scottie passionately embraces Judy refashioned into the dead Madeleine, during their famous 360-degree kiss, he stops kissing her and withdraws just long enough to steal a look at her newly blond hair, as if to reassure himself that the particular feature which makes her into the object of desire is still there... So there is always a gap between the object of desire itself and its cause, the mediating feature or element that makes this object desirable. And, back to Marx: what if his mistake was also to assume that the object of desire (the unconstrained expanding productivity) would remain even when deprived of the cause that propels it (the surplus-value)? The same holds even more for Deleuze, since he develops his theory of desire in direct opposition to the Lacanian one. Deleuze asserts the priority of desire over its objects: desire is a positive productive force which exceeds its objects, a living flow proliferating through the multitude of objects, penetrating them and passing through them, in no need of any fundamental lack or "castration" that would serve as its foundation. For Lacan, however, desire has to be sustained by an object-cause: not some primordial incestuous Lost Object on which desire remains forever transfixed and whose unsatisfying substitutes all other objects are, but a purely formal object which causes us to desire objects that we encounter in reality. This object-cause of desire is thus not transcendent, the inaccessible excess forever eluding our grasp, but behind the subject's back, something that from within directs desiring. And, as is the case with Marx, it is Deleuze's failure to take into account this object-cause that sustains the illusory vision of unconstrained productivity of desire - or, in the case of Hardt and Negri, the illusory vision of multitude ruling itself, no longer constrained by any totalizing One. We can observe here the catastrophic political consequences of the failure to develop what may appear a purely academic, "philosophical," notional distinction.


1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude, New York: The Penguin Press, 2004
2. ibid
3. ibid
4. ibid
5. ibid
6. ibid
7. ibid
8. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit, Oxford; OUP, 1977.
9. Hardt M. and Negri A., op. cit.
10. ibid
11. ibid
12. This is also why Negri and Hardt's reference to Bakhtin's notion of carnival as the model for the protest movement of the multitude-they are carnevalesque not only in their form and atmosphere (theatrical performances, chants, humorous songs), but also in their non-centralized organization-is deeply problematic: is late capitalist social reality itself not already carnevalesque? Furthermore, is "carnival" not also the name for the obscene underside of power-from gang rapes to mass lynchings? Let us not forget that Bakhtin developed the notion of carnival in his book on Rabelais written in the 1930s, as a direct reply to the carnival of the Stalinist purges.
13. G. Agamben, The Coming Community, Minneapolis: MUP, 1993.
14. ibid

to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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Comment On This Article





comments jpg
why does zizek and other commentators think this "without taking state power" strategy is new? Hello. Anarchists have been saying this for years! Hardt and Negri, fantastic deleuzian writers, appropriate anarchist tendencies, strategies, and movements without credit, as do most marxists of today. Zizek does this too,
onto <onto@indymedia.org>
Brooklyn, - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 at 11:48:30 (EST)
Zizek! band rock star
nyc, - Sunday, November 27, 2005 at 01:36:46 (EST)
zizek makes the same faulty assumption that negri and hardt make about "immaterial labor", namely that "informationism isn't labor". infact, thinking IS labor, you burn as many calories solving a mathmatical puzzle as you do soldering a rivet. i like many of the other things they all talk about but it is a real shame that zizek is so full-of-himself to sweep marx under his rockstar rug. why do they obscure this real issue, who are they pretending to be talking to? how can I take them seriously when they en-act this most basic philosophical error.
joseph davies
nyc, - Tuesday, November 22, 2005 at 02:12:14 (EST)
Zizek on Negri... what a treat!

celeste <quinquej@hotmail.com>
NY, NY, - Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 22:46:40 (EDT)