Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Common in Communism

JWTC on the commons

Michael Hardt’s The Common in Communism

Caveat: what follows is an attempted synopsis of what were very complex ideas. Apologies to their author!

Addressing what he described as the ‘sea change’ in the political landscape of the current fiscal crisis, Professor Hardt sought to work through a reconfiguration of communism drawing on Marx’s early economic and political manuscripts. In his reading of Marx, Hardt identified two concepts which he mapped onto a proposal of how to think beyond the fixities of capital and the social. In so doing, he advocated a ‘third way’ of conceiving the political anchored in a recuperation of the ‘common’ in communism.

Hardt argued that the normative meanings attributed to communism have to be reconceived in light of shifts in the composition of labour and forms of production. He contended that Marx’s notion of property in his 1844 manuscript ‘The Relationship of Private Property’, demonstrates a division between moveable and immoveable property, represented by the extraction of value in profit and rent respectively. Hardt went on to contend that, given the transformation of production, Marx’s analysis of moveable and immoveable property retains its purchase when applied to the concepts of 21st century material and immaterial production. The latter he defined as ideas, language, codes and social relationships in contradistinction to the more traditional forms of material property embodied by the former. The defining characteristic of the immaterial as something shared, leads Hardt to perceive it as the site of ‘the common’, and a locus from which the social power relations of capital can be contested. Whereas, for Hardt, Marx maintains the triumph of profit (the immoveable) over rent (moveable) in terms of the expropriation of value, the contemporary political-social has witnessed the triumph of the immaterial over the material, as its reproducible and shared form makes it more resistant to the kinds of policing and containment applied to the exclusive and non-reproducible qualities of the material.

Hardt qualified this assertion with the following observation: in order for the maximum productivity of the immaterial to be realised, ideas must be shared. The contradictory implications for capitalism thus reside in the paradoxical nature of immaterial production: the more the common is controlled and delimited, the more its productivity is reduced. Conversely, the sharing of the immaterial undermines the notions of private property so central to capitalism’s formation. Hardt supplemented his interpretation of Marx’s analysis of property with a focus on his exploration of communism in the essay, ‘Private Property and Communism’. This essay, Hardt submitted, provides evidence for a Marxian understanding of the ways in which capital appropriates not simply the object/commodity, but also subjectivity. That is, capital seeks to produce human subjects as commodities, as sources of production. This social relation of capital reveals both the increasingly bio-political nature of capitalist production and offers up a site for the interaction of singularities, the formation of multiplicities and mutualities, which resist its hegemonic impositions. The notion of the bio-political and/or immaterial as ‘the common’, and its increasing centrality to modes of capitalist production, allows us to think about the ways in which these concepts can be utilised against capital. When we recognise the ‘common’ in communism we recognise our shared potentiality to dismantle the oppressive apparatus of late capitalism.

Responses to Hardt’s argument are considered by Maki Motapanyane…read on!

Megan Jones

The politics of common belonging

Michael Hardt’s poetic vision for the future asks us to become conscientized to our intrinsic autonomy in the context of late capitalism. This autonomy, he argues, can serve as the basis of a shifting and radicalizing of social, economic and political relations beyond the domain of private property.

The ‘common’ that Hardt proposes brings human plurality and diversity into its fold through what he identifies as the intrinsically autonomous connection human beings have to the ecological (earth, nature) and artificial (creativity, affect, cognitive labour) common. Hardt imagines, from the present, the possibility of a common organized outside of private property relations yet still engaged in the market; a common that challenges the idea that something is only ‘ours’ when we possess it.

The argument that current modes of capitalist production reduce productivity by appropriating, controlling and constraining the common, is compelling. As is Hardt’s vision of rescuing immaterial products (ideas, images, affect) from private property relations so that these may be ‘freely’ shared.

What remains unclear is whether and how this vision of the common accounts for difference and inequality, for the material presence of history in day-to-day life. Radical speculation, in this case around the possibilities for organizing labour relations in a new way - in a manner that frees up human creativity for genuine mutuality, is important to the practice of effecting change. Nonetheless, part of the intellectual responsibility we carry in such endeavours involves grappling concretely with difference, racism, exclusion/inclusion, gender-based violence and vampirism in the name of the common, among other lived realities.

Maki Motapanyane

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