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A brick of a book

Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Scathingly described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘a witches’ brew of contemporary radicalism’, Hardt and Negri’s most recent book Commonwealth is a timely contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalist relations and the potential revolutionary conditions they create. Michael Hardt is a professor of literature at Duke […]

May 24, 2010
5 min read

Commonwealth

by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Scathingly described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘a witches’ brew of contemporary radicalism’, Hardt and Negri’s most recent book Commonwealth is a timely contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalist relations and the potential revolutionary conditions they create. Michael Hardt is a professor of literature at Duke University, while Antonio Negri is a sociologist and philosopher who was a major figure in the development of Italian ‘workerism’ and the Autonomy movement from the 1960s until his arrest for his political activities in 1978.

Negri spent the following years, until 1997, as an exile in Paris, where he became friends with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose work made a large impact on his own. Together Hardt and Negri’s work is considered to be responsible for a resurgence of interest in non-orthodox Marxism and its political manifestations.

Commonwealth is the final part of a trilogy that began with Empire in 2000, a book that was published during the emergence of the alter-globalisation movement. Multitude followed in 2004, developing the ideas that had been introduced in Empire, in particular the concept of the multitude as a new revolutionary subject. Commonwealth is a worthy addition to the trilogy, expanding and clarifying on the understandings in the previous books, but perhaps more significantly grounding their analysis within an extended discussion of ‘the common’.

Hardt and Negri understand this as ‘the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty [but] also and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledge, languages, codes, information’.

The common therefore incorporates two of the key concepts of autonomous Marxist theory, that of ‘immaterial production’ (production of knowledge, information, culture and so on) and the production of ‘the subject’ itself, commonly known as ‘bio-political production’. This moves us beyond orthodox assessments of capitalism and consequently the type of ‘revolution’ that is capable of overcoming increasingly complex social relations of capital.

The common stands in contrast to the historical experience of 20th-century politics, defined by the tension between socialism and capitalism. For Hardt and Negri, these are two sides to the same coin, two ways of managing property – either public management through the state or private management through the market. The political projects that stem from this binary split all continue with the march of capitalism and offer nothing in the way of radical potential.

The notion of the common allows us to make a radical break with the tired and miserable political history of the past century, instead providing the ground for a new political project that failed to be realised through ‘actually existing socialism’. Hardt and Negri refer to this as communism. As Hardt has written elsewhere, ‘what private property is to capitalism and what state property is to socialism, the common is to communism’.

It is indicative that Michael Hardt was present in Copenhagen during the COP15 summit in December giving a talk on the common and its relationship to the emergent climate justice movement. What we are witnessing, and taking part in, is not the proliferation of single issues, but rather the struggle over our commonwealth.

As a movement that brings together organisations as diverse as Via Campesina, Filipino fishing communities and European anarcho-autonomists, the climate justice movement may well represent the emergence of a new subjectivity against capital. We may be witnessing the development away from the environmentalist approach to climate change that has dominated the past 20 years towards a political approach to climate change based on a shared yet diverse opposition to capital.

The concept of the common is what provides for the communicability between struggles, a refrain that resonates through them, a common language that helps our movement of movements develop what Hardt and Negri describe as the ‘iterability of struggle’. Any move towards a post-capitalist society will need to find its affinity in the common, where struggle is not reduced to isolated campaigns against corporations, seed patents or the privatisation of education.

Commonwealth is a book that challenges presuppositions about the utility of Marx, and introduces the possibility of combining his insights with the ideas of other significant authors such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, who are not traditionally associated with the radical communist project. The extent to which the authors are successful cannot be judged on the content of the book alone or the consistency of their ideas. To fully judge Commonwealth and the concepts they introduce, we need to understand how these ideas are put to use in a radical project for the 21st century. As Massumi has noted: ‘A concept is a brick. It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.’

Bertie Russell and Andre Pusey

This book can be purchased here.

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