Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> On Empire
McKenzie Wark on Wed, 29 May 2002 21:47:46 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> On Empire

On Empire
McKenzie Wartk <mw35 {AT} nyu.edu>

Hardt and Negri's Empire takes a strange turn early on, when it discusses
the legal framework of an emerging international order. On one level, this
is a standard Marxist analytic technique: Look to the transformations of
the visible superstructures for underlying infrastructural changes
otherwise hard to detect. But what I find curious is the particular legal
infrastructure chosen for attention.

Had they chosen to look at the development of intellectual property law,
H+N might have come closer to a revival of class analysis. Property is the
basis of class. The privatization of land, the capital, and now
information divides the world between classes whose interests are
antithetical. The enclosure of land pits farmers against landlords. The
development of private capital pits capitalists against workers. But now
there is a new dimension to class struggle, which pits the producers of
intellectual property, what I would call a hacker class, against a new
class that gathers into its hands all of the means of realizing the value
of commodified information -- the vectoralist class.

Much of what we grasp through the crude prism of 'globalization' is
explained by the development of this third level to class struggle. Marx
was always well aware that commodification had two phases -- agricultural
and industrial. Ricardo had already instructed him on the difference
between rent (the return on land) and profit (the return on capital). It
is a pity that H+N did not choose to look further at the fundamentals of

By choosing instead international law and sovereignty, they pursue another
important but not necessarily dominant dynamic at work in the world. This
I would call the struggle between the vector and the envelope. It is an
historical conflict, partially capture in D+G's concepts of
deterritorialization and reterritorialization. However, they preferred an
ahistorical use of these terms, with the partial exception of their
exemplary analysis of the state in Anti-Oedipus.

It is by making a fetish of the politics of vector and enclosure, and
ignoring innovations in class formation and class analysis that one ends
up with the sterile opposition between 'neo-liberalism' and 'anti-
globalization'. In H+N, what is innovative is that they in effect shift
the axis of conflict toward two competing forms of vectoralization --
Empire versus the multitude. However, since the former is in some ways
considered a form of autonomous 'self envelopment', it doesn't escape the
flirtation with romantic discourses of people and place (crudely
'fascism') which dogs the anti-globalization movement.

Moreover, H+N have not really thought through the material means by which
'globalization' is effected. Looking at the law of post-national
sovereignty is to look at an effect and not a cause. The rise of a matrix
of communication vectors, increasingly under the control of a vectoral
class, is not very well analyzed in Empire. Communication merits the odd
description, but rarely conceptual development. Here H+N reproduce a
weakness in Marx's original analysis of the commodity form. It is all very
well to talk about the relationship between money as the general
equivalent and the exchange value of commodities, but Marx never really
talks about the material means by which such a relation is communicated
and effected.

What makes possible relations of value is what is at the heart of
'globalization', namely, a vectoralization, by which things can be posited
as independent of their conditions of formation and placed upon a plane of
acknowledgement and comparison. Not only the market but all forms of
relation become vectoralized, particularly since the mid-19th century
invention of the telegraph, the point at which the information vector
takes off and becomes a time-space domain for the ordering of relations
between people and things.

Vectoralization has micro as well as macro effects, and it is important to
grasp both at once -- something the terms of the 'globalization' debate do
not. Neither do H+N, who require supplementary concepts to account for the
micro scale changes they see, which are not necessarily compatible with
their macro level concepts. There's no neat fit between the theory of
empire at the macro scale and the theory of the disciplinary society and
its transformation into the society of control, which are meant to account
for micro-level changes in subject formation. H+N turn the history of
theory into a theory of history, Foucault followed by Deleuze, but this is
not a conceptually abstract enough procedure to really grasp the
tendencies currently at work in the world.

Considered together, a class analysis that takes intellectual property
seriously, together with a theory of the vector and the envelope attuned
to the material basis of vectoralization, gives a better account of
appearances than the more cumbersome and scholastic theory offered by H+N.
One sees that current developments don't add up quite so neatly to a new
totality. Very contradictory forces are at work. The old state system,
which grew out of the power of the vector has come in turn to be
undermined by it. As the ruling class becomes itself vectoral, its wealth
based on guarding its patents and copyrights, its channels and stocks of
information, it frees itself from its spatial commitments within the
state. States become subject to capture by particular interests, and set
up temporary envelopes against vectoralization at the behest of different
class forces in different places at different times.

H+N's theory of empire has been overtaken by events. The theory works well
for the Clinton years, when the American state did indeed seem more or
less committed to vectoralization, to undermining its own envelop in the
interests of the vectoral class. The Bush jr years are far more
contradictory. Bush is currently the leading anti-globalization campaigner
in the United States -- if a very selective one. His breach of the spirit,
and the letter of the WTO to protect the steel industry is a tactical
switch from the politics of the vector to the politics of the envelope. As
such it is not uncommon -- Japan, the EU and the US constantly switch from
one to the other, under pressure from different alliances of class forces.

What may be far more significant is the continuous pressure from the
vectoralist class to achieve the total enclosure of information within a
regime of private property. This has both national and supra-national
dimensions. A remarkable amount of the WTO negotiations concern
intellectual property issues. These agreements are in part at least merely
symbolic, but they have their parallel in very effective national regimes
of IP law and regulation which secure once the property of the vectoral
class. Just as the enclosure acts sealed the fate of a free peasantry and
created commodified agriculture; just as the development of the4 joint
stock company secured the commodification of capital, so too IP law is
creating a third tier of class polarization and conflict.

But one finds very little resonance of these issues of H+N. Negri made
some tentative steps towards a new development of class theory in The
Politics of Subversion, but in Empire this is not taken any further.
Perhaps the effort of rewriting Marx as Spinoza has pushed any new
developments in class analysis or in the analysis of the materiality of
the forces of abstraction in the world into the background.

The Spinozist turn gives rightful emphasis to the productive and creative
aspects of labor. Here H+N continue the work they set out in The Labor of
Dionysus. But this theoretical preference determines, in advance, a
political preference, for the kind of 'worker's power' movement Negri
sponsored in Italy. One might want to cast a cold and critical eye over
the successes and failures of this type of political theory and practice
over the last 30 years in Italy before signing onto it as a global
political stance.

And see also

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net