...... The Ideology of the Empire and its Traps

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

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

In the last decades, the political Left was ruthlessly pursuing the path of giving way, of accomodating itself, of making the "necessary compromises" with the declared enemy (in the same way the Church had to compromise on the essentials in order to redefine its role in modern secular society). It tried to reconcile the opposites, i.e., its own position with that of the declared opponent: it stands for socialism, but can fully rendorse economic Thatcherism; it stands for science, but can fully endorse the rule of the multitude of opinions; it stands for true popular democracy, but can also play the game of politics as spectacle and electoral spins; it stands for principled fidelity, but can be totally pragmatic; it stands for the freedom of the press, but can flatter and get the support of Murdoch... [1] In the early days of his rule, Tony Blair like to paraphrase the famous joke from Monty Python's The Life of Brian ("All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?") in order to ironically disarm his critics: "They betrayed socialism. True, they brought more social security, they did a lot for healthcare and education, et.etc., but, in spite of all that, they betrayed socialism." As it is clear today, it is rather the obverse which applies: "We remain socialists. True, we practice Thatcherism in economy, we made a deal with Murdoch, etc.etc, but, nonetheless, we remain socialists."

In the old days of the XXth century, great conservatives often did the tough job for the liberals: after the indecisive attitude of the Socialist government which ended up in the global crisis of the French Republic itself, it was de Gaulle who cut the Gordean knot by giving Algeria independence - up to Nixon who established diplomatic relations with China. Today, the opposite scenario is more of a rule: the new Third Way Left does the job for econimic liberal conservatives, dismantling the welfare state, bringing privatization to the end, etc.etc. However, the stance of condemning the postmodern Left for its accomodation is also false, since one should also ask the obvious hard question: which was effectively the alternative? If the Left were to choose the »principled« attitude of fidelity to its old program, it would simply marginalize itself. The task is a much harder one: to rethink thoroughly the Leftist project, beyond the alternative of "accomodation to new circumstances" and sticking to the old attitude.

And one of the great achievements of Hardt's and Negri's Empire is that they accepted the challenge to break out of this debilitating deadlock - do they succeed? Let us approach this question via a detour, an attempt to provide a Deleuzian theory of the social consequences of the digital revolution, Alexander Bard's and Jan Soderqvist's Netrocracy. [2] This book is a supreme example of what one is tempted to call the new cyber-Stalinism: while cruelly dismissing Marxism as outdated, as part of the old industrial society, it takes from the Stalinist Marxism a whole series of key features, from primitive economic determinism and linear historical evolutionism (the development of the forces of production - the shift of accent from industry to management of informations - necessitates new social relations, the replacement of the class antagonism of capitalists and proletariat with the new class antagonism of "netocrats" and "consumtariat") to the extremely rude notion of ideology (in the best naive Enlightened way, ideology - from traditional religion to the bourgeois humanism - is repeatedly dismissed as the instrument of the ruling classes and their paid intellectuals destined to keep in check the lower classes). Here, then, is the basic vision of "netocracy" as a new mode of production (the term is inadequate, because in it, production precisely loses its key role): while in feudalism, the key to social power was the ownership of land, legitimized by religious ideology, and in capitalism, the key to power is the ownership of the capital, with money as the measure of social status, private property as the fundamental legal category and market as the dominant field of social exchange, all this legitimized by the humanist ideology of Man as autonomous free agent, in the newly emerging "netocracy," the measure of power and social status is the access to key informations; money and material possessions are relegated to the secondary role. The dominated class is no longer the working class, but the class of consumerists, "consumtariat," those condemned to consume the informations prepared and manipulated by the netocratic elite. This shift in power generates an entirely new social logic and ideology: since informations circulate and change all the time, there is no longer a stable long-term hierarchy, but a permanently changing network of power relations; individuals are "nomadic," "dividuals," constantly reinventing themselves, adopting different roles; society itself is no longer a hierarchic Whole, but a complex open network of networks.

Netocracy moves here simultaneously too fast and not fast enough - as such, it shares the mistake of all those other attempts which all too fast elevated a new entity into the successor of capitalism, at the same level as capitalism: postindustrial society, informational society... Against such temptations, one should insist that "informational society" is simply NOT a concept at the same level as "feudalism" or "capitalism." The picture of the accomplished rule of the netocracy is therefore, in spite of the authors' stress on the new class antagonisms, a utopia: an inconsistent composite which cannot survive and reproduce itself on its own terms - all too many of the features of the new netocratic class are only sustainable within a capitalist regime. Therein resides the weakness of Netocracy: following the elementary logic of ideological mystification, it dismisses as "remainders of the (capitalist and statist) past" what are effectively positive conditions of the functioning of informational society.

The key problem is that of capitalism, the way "netocracy" relates to capitalism. On the one side, we have patents, copyright, etc. - all the different modalities in which information itself is offered and sold on the market as "intellectual property", as another commodity. (And when the authors claim that the true elite of netiocracy is beyond patents etc., because its privilege is no longer based on possessing the information, but on being able to discern, in the confusing quantity of informations, the relevant ones, they strangely miss the point: why should this ability to discern what really matters, the ability to discard the irrelevant balast, not be another - perhaps crucial - information to be sold? In other words, they seem to forget here the basic lesson of today's cognitive sciences: already at the most elementary level of consciousness, information IS the ability to "abstract", to discern the relevant aspects in the confusing multitude with which we are constantly bombarded.) On the other side, there is the prospect of the exchange of informations BEYOND the property relations which characterize capitalism. This inner antagonism is realized in the basic tension within the new netocratic class between pro-capitalists (Bill Gates types) and those advocating a post-capitalist utopia, and the authors are right in emphasizing that the future "class struggle" will be decided with regard to the possible coalition between the post-capitalist netocrats and the underprivileged "consumtariat": without this coalition and support from within netocracy, "consumtariat" alone can only articulate its protest in violent negative actions lacking any positive future-oriented program. The key point is thus that there is no "neutral" netocracy: there is either a pro-capitalist netocracy, part of the late capitalism, or the post-capitalist netocracy, part of a different mode of production. To complicate things further, this postcapitalist perspective is in itself ambiguous: it can mean a more open "democratic" system, or the emergence of a new hierarchy, a kind of informational/biogenetic neofeudalism.

This struggle is already taking place. In 2001, the Microsoft Corporation anounced that it is working on Palladium, a radically new version of Windows with a separate security chip which would give users protection and control of their information: "Nothing leaves your PC without your permission." Palladium ensures through encryption that no one eavesdropes on you, all ingoing mail is filtered, your outgoing messages can be opened only by those you authorize, you can track who opened them, etc. - it is a "plan to remake the personal computer to ensure security, privacy and intellectual property. [3] Is this not THE big attempt to inscribe the informational universe into the capitalist logic of private property? Opposite to this tendency are attempts to develop a new cyberspace language, an alternative to Windows, which would be not only freely accessible to all, but is also developed through free social interaction (preliminary versions are not kept hidden, awaiting the magic moment when the new product is revealed to the market; on the contrary, these versions already freely circulate in order to provoke a feedback from the users). The fact that AOL supports such an alternative in order to strike at its competitor is tell-tale: why should progressive forces not strategically use this support?

Netocracy presents the local groups of the new informational elite almost as islands of non-alienated utopian communities: a description of the life of the new "symbolic class" for which life style, access to exclusive informations and social circles, matters more than money - top academics, journalists, designers, programmers, etc., effectively live in that way. However, are the authors of Netocracy fully aware of the ultimate irony of their notion of "nomadic" subjects and thought as opposed to the traditional hierarchic thought? What they are effectively claiming is that the netocrats, today's elite, realizes the dream of yesterday's marginal philosophers and outcast artists (from Spinoza to Nietzsche and Deleuze) - in short, even more pointedly, that the thought of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, the ultimate philosophers of resistance, of the marginal positions crushed by the hegemonic power network, is effectively the ideology of the newly emerging ruling class. In 1996, in his admirable "The Pedagogy of Philosophy", Jean-Jacques Lecercle portrayed the scene of a yuppie in a Paris underground reading Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy?:

The incongruity of the scene induces a smile - after all, this is a book explicitly written against yuppies /.../ Your smile turns into a grin as you imagine that this enlightenment-seeking yuppie bought the book because of its title /.../ Already you see the puzzled look on the yuppie's face, as he reads page after page of vintage Deleuze... [4] What, however, is there is no puzzled look, but enthusiasm, when the yuppie reads about impersonal imitation of affects, about the communication of affective intensities beneath the level of meaning ("Yes, this is how I design my publicities!"), or when he reads about exploding the limits of self-contained subjectivity and directly coupling man to a machine ("This reminds me of my son's favored toy, the action-man who can turn into a car!"), or about the need to reinvent oneself permanently, opening oneself up to a multitude of desires which push us to the limit ("Is this not the aim of the virtual sex video game I am working on now? It is no longer a question of reproducing sexual bodily contacts, but to explode the confines of established reality and imagine new unheard-of intensive mode of sexual pleasures!"). Is today's popular culture not effectively permeated by Deleuzian motifs, from the Spinozean logic of imitatio afecti (is this impersonal circulation of affects, by-passing persons, not the very logic of publicity, of video clips, etc., where what matters is not the message about the product, but the intensity of the transmitted affects and perceptions?) to new trends in childrens' toys (the so-called "Transformer" or "Animorph" toys, a car or a plane which can be transformed into a humanoid robot, an animal which can be morphed into a human or robot... is this not Deleuzian? There is no "metaphorics" here, the point is not that the mechanical or animal form is revealed as a mass containing a human shape, but, rather, the "becoming-machine" or "becoming-animal" of the human, the flow of continuous morphing. What is blurred is also the divide machine/living organism: a car transmutes into a humanoid/cyborg organism - therein resides the horror...)?

And are Hardt and Negri not caught in a similar ambiguous attitude towards the Americanized global capitalism, when they celebrate its "deterritorializing" multitude? They 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 the 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 the political space 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 the multitude of political agencies and positions which, although incompatible as to their ideological and programmatic accents (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 which seems to provide a kind of negative mirror-image to Deleuze's claim about the inherently antagonistic claim of the 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 the 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 the same 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... (Furthermore, is today the state really withering away (with the advent of the much-praised liberal "deregulation")? Is, on the contrary, the "war on terror" not the strongest yet assertion of the state authority? Are we not witnessing now the unheard-of mobilization of all (repressive and ideological) state apparatuses?


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Moyens sans fins, Paris: Payot Rivages 2002, p. 147-148.

[2] Alexander Bard and Jan Soderqvist, Netrocracy. The New Power Elite and Life After Capitalism, London: Reuters 2002.

[3] "The Big Secret" in Newsweek, July 8 2002, p. 50-52.

[4] Jean-Jacques Lecercle, "The Pedagogy of Philosophy," Radical Philosophy 75 (January-February 1996).

This essay was originally published in Empire's New Clothes. Reading Hardt and Negri, Ed. Paul Passavant and Jodi Dean, New York: Routledge, 2003.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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