Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

Nick faceAhoi, Disorders! We’re thrilled to host a guest post by Nicholas J. Kiersey, Assistant Professor at Ohio University, indefatigable student of Foucault, Italian Autonomism and Deleuze and Guattari, plus a die-hard fan of Battlestar Galactica. Nick is the author of papers on governmentality in Global Society, the biopolitics of the war on terror in New Political Science, everyday neoliberalism in the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and is due to be published on the occupy movement and affective labour in the financial crisis in Global Discourse and Global Society respectively. Oh, and he’s also Irish. That’s also important. Below is Nick’s review of Dave Eden’s new book on Autonomist thought, which one can only hope has not gone entirely unnoticed because it’s one of the finest on the subject!

All quotes in the below are to Eden’s text, unless otherwise stated.


Eden Autonomy

No doubt, a return to the commodity is a risky venture. As Dave Eden puts it in his exceptional new book, certain framings of the power of the commodity can lead to an embrace of austerity, a “romanticization of poverty” or, worse, “a reactionary anti-capitalism”. Nevertheless, he asserts, a return to the commodity may ultimately be required. Currently popular framings of social movements, such as those of Hardt and Negri, he notes (citing Franco Berardi), offer very bright and “jolly” interpretations of the possibilities of the age, pretty much ignoring the need for a critique of the commodity form altogether. As such, they appear to have little sense of what it is that keeps capitalism going, or what it is that might finally send it on its way! However, while Eden wishes to convince us that we cannot do without the critique of the commodity, it is unclear if he ultimately achieves this goal. For his argument stands or falls on his ability to convince us that it is possible both to embrace this critique and remain faithful to an internal theory of capitalist power. This is a difficult circle to square and, by the end of the book, Eden seems to have done little to address it – an irony given that this is actually one of the areas where the targets of his critique are especially strong.

At the heart of Eden’s explanation of Autonomism, its virtues and its flaws, is the “Copernican inversion” of Marxism in which Mario Tronti asserts that the true dynamic force behind capitalism’s development is the workers rather than capital. Starting from this core observation, Eden proceeds to offer a survey and critque of Tronti’s heirs, particularly Antonio Negri. For Negri, the current order in world power is defined most completely by the antagonism between ‘Empire’ and the ‘multitude,’ where the latter term endeavors to expand the definition of the proletariat in order to capture not only the vitality of “labour as a whole” but to encompass the full diversity of the identities which compose it, and Empire is the power which dominates the multitude. Breaking with traditional Marxism, however, Empire is not capitalism. Rather, it is a multi-valent regime which proscribes democracy in order to bolster a global order of things which is capitalist, statist, racist, and gendered, among other things. Challenging this power, however, the Multitude realises the creative possibilities of today’s intellectual and affectively efficacious labour, and incorporates them in its struggle for self-actualisation.

Eden has no particular objections to the idea of the Multitude, but he does object to Negri’s optimistic appraisal of its politics. Negri’s Marxism is predicated on the idea that the emergence of the ‘post-Fordist’ mode of industrialization has wrought a significant shift in the relationship of the labouring subject to capitalist power. The advent of industrial capitalism was itself revolutionary, of course, transforming the world into one where workers would recognize themselves as paid factory labourers. The newer mode, however, reaches deep into the labouring subject to exploit it’s most intimate creative potential, its ability to sequence complex information and posit new affective relationships, thereby smashing the very distinction between the spheres of work and non-work. And so, what makes society today fully ‘biopolitical’ is this paradox, that the forms of organisation most commensurate to developing and exploiting this type of labour are those also predicated on self-governance and the play of individual desire. The new labour is thus largely a self-coordinating form, managing itself and modulating its own social relations. And for this reason, it is also potentially a rebellious subject, containing within itself the potential to “constitute the common that can animate the multitude as in the production of practices of freedom”. For Eden, the big question is how the multitude can be made to recognise itself in this struggle.

Eden’s critique of Hardt and Negri hinges on the absence of commodification from their account of capitalism. For Eden, Hardt and Negri’s focus on the weakness of capitalism means they cannot explain the longevity of capitalism as anything other than a temporary accident. Capitalism thrives, says Eden, because it is able to divide and conquer the working class through commodification, which is a fragmenting and politically disabling mechanism of power. In this sense, Eden is returning to a venerable tenet of the traditional Marxist understanding of capitalist hegemony, the labour theory of value. Because it is the powerful logic of the “commodity-form” which posits labour in the first place, we must turn to the sphere of circulation if we wish to glean how it is that producers remain divided against themselves.

Is this an overly cynical reading of capitalism? Eden cautions that it is important not to engage in ‘hard fetishism’. Negri is, he says, “in many ways correct”. But by including the commodity form in our account, we may see a combination of production and exchange, all ultimately organised “through the mediations and circulations of the commodity-form which soak the globe and produce a vast fetishism and reification that entraps the very collective powers it mobilizes”.

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Eden intends that this claim be interpreted as radically pessimistic, but not fatally so. He elaborates his argument via a close reading of John Holloway’s critical Marxism, suggesting that the reification of class as object is a major strut of capitalism’s hegemony and, as such, that part of the battle with capitalism must involve a grappling with embedded capitalist identity. As Eden cites, “the spectacle is the stage at which the commodity form has succeeded in totally colonizing social life”. Here, the working class is reified as labour, a mere “thing,” and its exploitation inheres in the fact that it is separated from any sort of a vital relationship to its own “doing.”

Up against such a wretched enemy then, the terms of our revolt must be wider than some Autonomists might admit. Whereas for Negri the solution is exodus, or the creation of a new body, a parallel politics, for Eden “the revolt of the multitude is not just to free our creative capacities from capitalist control but also from our own alienated creations”. That is, we must also “negate the reification of our creativity”.

Yet Eden hesitates a little with the implications of this argument. Holloway’s capitalism is problematic because of the way it rationalizes our lives, leaving us as nothing but a standing reserve of “particulars” lumped into the same bag, “much as potatoes in a sack”. Echoes of Frankfurt School nostalgia for the pre-modern are intentional here, and Holloway is explicit in admitting Adorno as much as Tronti among his intellectual resources. Eden supports this to an extent. He cites Holloway approvingly that Autonomism “requires critical theory”. This means going beyond the affirmative subjective stance of Negri and Virno’s ideal of the multitude, which is “inevitably a fiction”, and posing instead a subject of resistance whose only positivity is its relentless opposition to any form of identification whatsoever.

Nick3

As Eden appears to intuit, if Holloway’s argument for identity rests on the idea that ontological arguments are necessarily reductive, then this would seem to set an impossibly high bar for any real world strategy of emancipatory politics. It is hard to see how one can be Marxist without posing at least some form of revolutionary subjectivity! Moreover, as Eden implies, it is unclear just how much power capitalism has over identity anyway. In one of the more impressive parts of the book, Eden notes how many of the objects we consume, like houses, for example, are not reducible to their status as commodities. Revolt, says Eden, can just as easily be driven by the desire for creation, or to care or look after each other, freely.

Adopting this position, it is perhaps no surprise that Eden actually concludes with an endorsement of Negri, noting that it is ultimately he who offers the “most compelling vision of a potential politics”. By focusing on the importance of the common in contemporary production, and its emancipatory potential, Negri allows us to conceive of a positive project of emancipation. Yet this is also a confusing conclusion to some extent, for it is unclear how we are supposed to integrate Negri’s multitude with Holloway’s critique of the commodity form, which Eden nevertheless endorses.

One potential explanation for this confusion is that the author does not seem to explore the divergence between Negri and Holloway on what is arguably its principle axis, that of ontology. The problem becomes especially apparent on the question of immanence. For Eden, Holloway is the theorist of immanence par excellence. Negri, by contrast, is described varyingly as a theorist of immanence and a theorist who poses capitalist command as somehow external to the power of the multitude. At one point we are told that Negri understands capitalist modernity to be in a state of “internal conflict”. While elsewhere we are told that Hardt and Negri describe social control as somehow an external “imposition of command” on the multitude.

This confusion is not really Eden’s fault, as it is already apparent in Holloway’s work. Whereas Negri looks for what is positive in the conjecture, hoping to extract from it something upon which we might build, Holloway’s project pays lip service to Tronti’s inversion while describing a form of hegemony that seems to dictate our every thought and deed.

My sense is that this trouble might be resolved if we give further attention to the place of desire in Negri’s work, and especially his work with Hardt. For Holloway, critique is essentially an epistemological task. Whereas, for Negri, bodies matter. Does this mean Negri is fundamentally ignorant of issues of fetishization? Or is it more that he approaches the question of hegemony obliquely, from the perspective of a desiring ontology? Despite Eden’s claims about Hardt and Negri’s reading of Debord, for example, it is clear for Negri that “communication” is indeed a major vector of capitalism’s constituted power:

“In advanced capitalism, therefore conflict, struggle and diversity are focused on communication, with capital, by means of communication, trying to preconstitute the determinants of life” (Negri, The Politics of Subversion, p. 118).

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Using communications to preconstitute the desires and passions of our living bodies? Comments like this suggest that Negri’s capitalism is neither quite so “merry,” nor his understanding of the post-political quite so impoverished, as Eden argues.

Hardt and Negri are not naïve about fetishization, then. They just chose not to linger on it, preferring to focus their analysis on the potential of our time. And, in fairness to them, it is not clear how productive the critique of commodity is or can be today. Consider, for example, Eden’s discussion of an email he received from Michael Hardt wherein Hardt states that Negri and he prefer to avoid the topic of fetishization because of the “highly moralistic condemnations most often associated with critiques of consumerism”. Eden’s response on this point is surprisingly brief. He acknowledges the risks but moves on quickly, reassuring us that the challenge is “to develop an emancipatory critique of the commodity-form”. Eden says that his route is premised upon the principle of immanence and asserts that the leadership the Multitude seeks must come strictly from within. Indeed, but what of Hardt’s point? Doesn’t leadership premised on immanence presuppose a certain degree of horizontalism in adjudicating matters of taste, too?

To some extent, the answer is a matter of trust. In their recent works, Hardt and Negri speak of labour’s capacities for generating relationships in terms of “love,” emphasizing that the objects of capitalist “love” are built of the same stuff, but misdirected (see Commonwealth). The idea of fetishization as misdirected love suggests an interesting challenge to Holloway’s cynicism. It shifts the focus away from consumerism as an impediment to the powers of human reason, and brings us back to the perhaps the core question of what we think emancipation is for in the first place. What does it mean, really, to love oneself, among others?

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An interesting parallel commentary to this comes from James Livingston’s recent book, Against Thrift. For Livingston, there is a tendency among leftist critics to reduce the problem of today’s ‘post-political’ horizon to the hegemony of a one-dimensional culture of consumerism. This tendency, he suggests, is underpinned by an ascetic ideal, that “consuming goods is a passive, silent, selfish reflex that keeps us from experience of the real world … so producing goods must be morally, intellectually and politically superior to consuming them”. As with Hardt and Negri, Livingston does not gainsay that the desire-soliciting machineries of contemporary capitalism do little to recommend themselves, barraging us as they do with countless advertisements to buy “crap”. Yet this should not necessarily imply a need for a critique of the commodity.

Borrowing from Freud, Livingston suggests that if there is a common baseline of desire shared by all human beings, it is probably that of “individuation,” or the need “to become a genuine self, an autonomous being who is nonetheless capable of commitment to others”. The atomistic language here is perhaps a bit troubling, but it is not entirely inconsistent with the idea of a multitude of singularities. Consumerism, for Livingston, is an apparatus of culture. It works on the side of sublimation, selling “a way of being in the world that is free of compulsion–free of necessary labor, the work you do because you have to – on the assumption that when at your leisure, you’re free to choose an identity that might accord with the goods on offer”. This is not false consciousness, says Livingston. We have time to savour the idea of our purchases, personalising the exchange, and rendering the “use value” of the good irrevocably “plural, immaterial, and irrational”. In this sense, and in a manner quite consistent with the house example cited by Eden above, Livingston foregrounds the non-linearity and limitlessness of desire, or love, as an inherent part of what it means to be a singular human being.

This argument is interesting to reflect on in relation to Eden’s attack on Hardt and Negri. Livingston notes how the trope of anti-consumerism unites a whole host of strange bedfellows: from Jefferson to Rousseau, to the Frankfurt school, and Thomas Frank, all of whom lament the shallow, “other-directed” men that commercialisation seems to produce. Underneath it all, there seems to be a yearning for a better, or more true, relationship to “work” and, through this, a deeper understanding of the vitality and moral force of the community. Yet, as Livingston observes, consumption can be a form of work, too — a work where there is a “producing that’s freely given for irrational purposes”. Such an argument is not a million miles from Hardt and Negri’s arguments about the social factory, and their hopes for a world ‘beyond work’. For Livingston, this essential kernel of consumerism offers us an avenue for thinking past the morality of austerity. As he puts it, despite the disappointing ends to which it is often directed, “advertising” remains today “the publicist of the place that could be, that sphere outside labor”.

Nick6In this light, Eden’s reading of Negri seems to pose two problems. One the one hand, there is the characterization of Negri as a scholar of transcendence. This is a strange conclusion because, after all, voluntary servitude is the primary preoccupation of the entire Spinozist tradition from which Negri hails. On the other hand, however, there is this misunderstanding perhaps of Hardt and Negri’s motives for focusing on desire and love. Without some positive sense of what it is that we are liberating, and what it is that we might as liberated beings actually require in order to really live, we are indeed vulnerable to the accusation that what we are really trying to rescue is a truth about labour and value, for its own sake (or, more simply put, that what we are suffering from is simply the postmodern nostalgia for epistemological certainty). And despite his efforts to qualify it on precisely this point, Eden’s endorsement of Holloway leaves us unclear just where he would himself draw the line between the critique of the commodity and a moralising anti-consumerism.

Eden is certainly correct in pointing out as a problem Hardt and Negri’s reluctance to offer concrete and practical advice to the movements. In their recent Declaration, for example, they argue that real revolutionary knowledge is something the multitude can come up with only on its own, and in the context of some sort of major transformative event. But this is more to do with an overcautious desire to avoid imposing a telos than a naive reading of the tenacity of capitalism’s grip.

The above notwithstanding, Eden’s book is excellent and deserves a wide reading. His mastery of the literature is truly enviable. While it leaves us with some questions, these do not subtract from what is otherwise a compelling discussion of the stakes of theorising capitalist hegemony, and just how we might recruit the diverse literatures of Autonomist Marxism in the task of its critique.

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4 thoughts on “Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

  1. Reblogged this on #OCCUPYIRTHEORY and commented:
    The wonderful people over at Disorder of Things have posted an extended version of my recent review of Dave Eden’s excellent ‘Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.’ The original version, which appears in the current issue of New Political Science, is focused more on the book itself. This version tries to offer a more developed response to Eden’s thoughts on the place of the critique of the commodity in contemporary Marxism. Sincere thanks to Wanda and Pablo for hosting the piece. ~ Nick

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  2. Pingback: Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics. | #OCCUPYIRTHEORY

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