Finding analytical insights that help illuminate this confusing time in history is difficult. Doing such analysis is hard, and giving an analysis that is more than just rhetorical flourish wrapped around ideological presuppositions would be to provide a “hard analysis.” I just finished reading such a hard analysis in Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System by Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver. The book is divided into four big chapters, and was cowritten with eight others, and presents a fascinating long-term view of hegemonic succession in the modern world.
To grossly simplify the book’s argument, there have been two previous historic transformations like the one that is now underway. The first was when the Dutch lost their control of the emerging transnational economy to the British, and the second was when the British Empire gave way to the U.S. Having denoted those as the main transformations, the authors delve into the specific processes by which it happened, the way the structure of business evolved through these transitions, the role of crisis and war in accelerating the deeper trends already observably underway. Remarkably, during the latter stages of losing hegemony, both Dutch and British finance capital enjoyed periods of expansion and apparent success, which corresponds closely to the reflation of U.S. power and financial control globally since the 1980s, well after the peak of U.S. world hegemony. The spasmodic thrashing of the dying beast visible now in Iraq and Afghanistan (who knows where else the small-minded theocrats and their corporate sponsors will attack before finally losing power) may serve the function that WWI played in undercutting British power, and the mid-18th century wars in Europe and North America played in dismantling Dutch power. One other interesting parallel in the big systemic process of change between the previous transitions and today’s is that in each case a financial crisis hit in the emerging power zone prior to the final demise of the existing hegemon. So a financial crisis in 1772 in London led to the unraveling of Dutch financial power in the following decade. The 1929 Crash in the U.S. led to a depression that with WWII finally destroyed British global financial power and paved the way for the U.S. More recently the 1997 East Asian financial collapse presages the rise of China and the whole east Asian region as the next dominant economic and political power in the world and the coming collapse of U.S. economic power.
The authors do not overstate their case and make clear in a series of five hypothetical propositions at the end of the book how the parallels to prior historic junctures help shed light on the momentous changes underway now, but also show how some crucial things are different now. In their second proposition, they note that unlike any previous case, there is now an unprecedented bifurcation of military and financial capabilities, which they think reduces the likelihood of war between the system’s most powerful units, though the same bifurcation is not capable of preventing a long period of systemic chaos. I would argue that with the emergence of an offensive U.S. war to control oil there will indeed be a long war, but as long as China, Russia, India and Brazil stay out of it, it will only serve to drain the resources of the declining hegemon and set the stage for a new global regime to emerge in its eventual wreckage. Clearly China is poised to assert itself in the coming years, but it’s not at all clear that it can lead to a new world system that resolves the problems left by the U.S.’s chaotic and self-serving endgame of plunder and destruction. (The unconscious reliance on systemic crisis as a prime motivator for radical change is one of the key points attacked by Roberto Unger in his What Should the Left Propose that I reviewed a week ago. While his proposals don’t ultimately satisfy me, I do appreciate that he boldly puts them into the public discussion. He concludes about his own prescription: “The advancement of alternatives like these would amount to world revolution. It would not deliver world revolution in the form we have been accustomed by the prejudices of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought to associate with the idea of revolution: sudden, violent, and total change. The transformation would be gradual, piecemeal, and generally peaceful”¦ The most important sign that we will have succeeded would be that we would have diminished the dependence of change on crisis.”)
Arrighi and Silver point to the great proliferation in the number and variety of transnational business organizations and communities as unique to this period, and note how such a proliferation itself has accelerated the general disempowerment of states. That in turn has also produced the general hollowing out of social movements that depend on state intervention and state guarantees as their source of power, e.g. trade unions, etc. The authors make a general reference to the coming period as one in which there will be a changing spatial and ethnic configuration of the world’s labor force, which will also involve a much greater feminization of the same. The coming social conflicts will thus not be like the ones that characterized the 20th century or earlier.
And that loops me back to the ongoing question of “immaterial labor” new social subjects, and the search to understand what shape revolt might take now. After the Cambridge conference I felt the category of “immaterial labor” was really problematic and I’ve only grown more skeptical since then. In Cambridge I picked up a badly photocopied Aufheben #14 “Questions on Immaterial Labour”. It’s a tedious read itself, since it spends so much time beating up Negri and Hardt and Empire. I understand that N/H were responsible for popularizing the idea of “˜immaterial labor’ more than any other writers, but the detailed critique of their work leaves me yawning. Here’s some of their best writing summarizing part of their critique, which soon after this turns on a discussion of the confusion of subjectivity and objectivity in N/H and their ultimate religiosity!
“Negri and Hardt’s “˜new’ category of “˜immaterial’ labour, however, does not seem to be better than [the old category of mental labour]. Like “˜mental labour’ we have seen that immaterial labour includes side by side the call center worker and the top designer too. Using the wrong category, Negri and Hardt give themselves a hard time in trying to convince us why this category correctly encircles the potentially subversive “˜new subject: why the migrant, although he does manual work, is immaterial, and why the top designer, who is included in the category, is a revolutionary subject.”The problem of bad categories can be solved either by looking for more apprpropriate categories” or by making the bad category elastic enough to patch up all its shortcomings”¦ Negri and Hardt define”¦ immaterial labour”¦ as any possible human activity” either manual or mental, either done inside or outside the workplace” that produces ideas, communication or affections, either as product or a by-product. With this definition, immaterial labour can include anything. Indeed, what human activity is not an expenditure of thoughts, affects or an act of communication after all? Even the production of nothing can be seen as production of something: needs and desires, which are indeed human forms of affects and communications.
“The convenient elasticity of the category”¦ allows N/H to sneak into and out of the “˜subject’ of immaterial labour”¦ groups according to the current rating of sympathy scored in the liberal-leftist world. Thus black “˜communities’, tribes in the Pacific, housewives, students, Indian farmers fighting against the genetic industry, protesters involved in the anti-capitalist movement, workers in flexible jobs, economic migrants, the radical student and the academic like Negri are all in”¦. when anything”¦ can be considered as “˜production,’ we have found the Holy Grail of the theorist, the magic key for the Theory of Everything capable of accommodating everything in the end explaining nothing.”
On the other hand, there’s a link in it to John Holloway’s critique of Negri, which I found really well-written and concise compared to Aufheben’s 20 pages. Holloway has a different angle too. He is a long-time participant in the discussions around “autonomist Marxism” and his book Change The World Without Taking Power is a vital contribution, a stimulating recasting of the original idea of commodity fetishism. But in this article that originally appeared in Historical Materialism, he rebuts Negri for seeking to establish autonomist critique as a positive project. For Holloway it is impossible to meaningfully construct a revolutionary politics on anything else but a loud screaming NO, a basic negation of how our lives are reduced and stunted by life under capitalism. Holloway sharply takes apart the positive ontological project of Negri, insisting as he does in his book that “the world is not, there is no being, there is only doing, a doing torn asunder in such a manner that the done takes on a life of its own and appears to be”¦” I recommend reading Holloway’s argument, but here’s a quote I really liked from the end of it:
“We hate capitalism and fight against it, but that does not make us into the embodiment of good fighting against evil. On the contrary, we hate it not just because we adopt the common condition of the multitude, but because it tears us apart, because it penetrates us, because it turns us against ourselves, because it maims us. Communism is not the struggle of the Pure Subject, but the struggle of the maimed and schizophrenic.”
It’s too easy to get lost in arcane philosophy, reading one set of theoretical critiques against another. Often I find it quite interesting to a point and then suddenly I’m aghast at now much time I’ve spent on it, rather than doing my own work, seeking to understand the world I can observe and participate in. Of course these theories are important contributors to a larger framework of understanding and it’s just as loony to push them away as somehow separate and irrelevant. But it’s only one thread of a dense fabric I’m weaving these days. I’m also grappling with issues of science history and shifting paradigms, which I think dovetail into discussions of class composition and exodus from this mad moment in history in important ways”¦ more on that to come.