The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

This post emerges out of a close reading I did of one of Negri’s toughest texts, “The Constitution of Time,” which is in the Time for Revolution book put out by Continuum. I’m referencing the hardback edition, which has different pagination than the paperback edition. My thanks to Adam, Anthony, and Brad for hosting the post at AUFS.

I’d suggest that Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” can be understood as part of a contemporary ethical project. I am using “ethics” here in the sense of a way of life, and it’s how I understand Negri’s usage of “the practice of theory,” such as the following statement: “When the practice of theory is directed simply towards the constitution of the transcendent, time is non-existence. Time is multiplicity. Time is a theological scandal.” (30) I think that his (uneven) attempt to chart out a materialist theory of time is more readily understandable in these terms, and I’d like to  draw out the main contours of this ethics in order to clarify his pervasive recourse to the language of hope. Given Negri’s grounding of his own project in Spinoza, this is something I’ve found a bit troubling, even though I’m willing to entertain the idea that Negri does the some kind of rewriting to terms like hope that Spinoza famously does with God. Nevertheless, reading through “The Constitution of Time” was a bit of a revelation for me in my study of Negri, and despite the fact that this text is at times even more difficult than The Savage Anomaly, I’ve found it pretty helpful for getting a sense of what he’s up to in terms of his own ethics.

The first place that Negri’s ethics can be detected is in his polemical opposition to the “re-equilibrating calculus” of Keynes and Polanyi. (41) The fundamental distinction in Negri’s text is between the empty, reversible, measuring time of capitalism, and the constitutive, composing, open time of communism. Negri suggests that the second has been made possible by the first, which for him is why the “overcoming of capitalism occurs on the basis of needs constructed by capitalism.” (26) The more that capital has expanded on a global scale, the more difficult it becomes to measure labor with time. When capital has expanded far enough, when it “invests the whole of life,” then “time is not the measure of life, but is life itself.” (35) This paradox is one way to describe real subsumption; in conquering life, capital has seemingly become victorious once and for all. There is no longer an alternative to the M-C-M’ relation.

Yet Negri writes that “in destroying time-as-measure, capital constructs time as collective substance.” (41) This collective substance contains within it the desire to move beyond the relations of capitalism. It is important to note here — and I will return to this in a moment — that in the move to real subsumption Negri is talking about, the determination of value is not negated, but rather overdetermined. This collective substance, which Negri detects as developing within the expansion of capital, creates a potential problem for the continuation of capitalism insofar as it points to something that is an alternative to the now-dead time-as-measure. As such, capitalism is in tension with this overdetermination and seeks to re-integrate it into itself. This is what Negri detects in the proponents of State interventionists such as Keynes and Polanyi. They “insist maniacally” on the reversibility of the overdetermination that would serve to continue to prop up capitalism.

These problems are the context against which Negri posits his alternative way of life. I understand a second key aspect of his project to be the discussion of command in the section “Energy: Evanescence of Space.” This follows a similar logic to the one we have already identified. Earlier in the construction, Negri identifies command as that which (1) centralizes the order of production and (2) organizes the social for production, but at the same time, that which (3) presents itself as the natural to which (1) and (2) should be directed. (66) Command thus has the same empty and tautological functioning that we see earlier in the text with capitalist time. In the section on energy, then, Negri argues that there cannot be a standard of value outside of collective time because “nature is realized subsumption.” (69) The real value of command, and what props up the continuation of capitalist time after its death, is terror. “In real subsumption the only value that command allows is overdetermination: a surplus of command, a surplus of value. Terror. The possibility and the presence of terror.” (70) The emblematic example here is the nuclear, made up of “destructive demons” that, rather than provide value, are wholly negative–“space and time linked in the zero of explosion.” (70)

When the fog of this rage begins to settle, what is clear is that Negri’s concern is to provide us with a living alternative to the dead time of capitalism. He writes: “Once we have reached the point where we can grasp the autonomy and independence of class composition, and concurrently, once we have defined the relations between different temporal paradigms, our discourse then shapes the anthropological identity of the proletariat.” (77) However, it is still not quite clear to me how this alternative is hopeful. In one of the more lucid passages in the text, Negri restates the phrase I quoted earlier: “in destroying time-as-measure, capital constructs time as collective substance.” (62-63) He continues on to argue that capital wants to efface this collective substance, which he defines here as use-value, in order to reduce it to a collectivity that is without time. It is against this desire that Negri’s efforts in the text are aimed at; against a doctrinal reading of Marx wherein use-value is taken to be a static and natural quality that exchange-value functions in terms of, he suggests instead that use-value “is simply the determination of the collective liberation of time from exploitation.” (63) It is seemingly this collective liberation, which Negri attempted to further both in his writings and actions, that gives him hope. This is perhaps more clearly articulated in another of Negri’s writings from prison, the diary he kept during his trial in the early 1980s, where he writes:

We really do not need to go back to Lenin’s ‘What Is to Be Done?’ to point to ways of revolution. In those days, it was a little compact group of people who went hand in hand down the paths of revolt; here, instead, it is a whole world that can no longer abide its Time. This is the infinite, incredible force which we have to take from potential to action — to the action of radical change and hope. (Negri, Diary of an Escape, pg. 243)

Given the many examples of such an effacing of the collective substance by capital, I remain quite ambivalent about this hope. But perhaps this ambivalence is a part of Negri’s ethos.