“My power is made perfect in weakness”: On institutional breakdown

One point from Hardt and Negri’s Empire has always stood out to me: namely, that institutions typically become more powerful as they break down. The most familiar example is the university, which has in many ways squandered its cultural credibility and has even actively victimized some of its key constituencies (student loans, adjunctification, pervasive rape on campus). Yet the demands we make on the university are ever-increasing. It’s as though the very breakdown of the university highlights the fact that we need “something like” the credentialing role it performs to make modern society manageable — and so we settle for “something like” the university (i.e., the actual-existing university).

One can see the same dynamic at work with contemporary capitalism. Clearly the economy is not working, yet the very injustice and discontent it breeds highlights the benefits of having an apparently impersonal mechanism for distributing economic rewards, lest we degenerate into a post-apocalyptic hellscape of survivalist anarchy. During the government shutdown, I started a series of tweets jokingly predicting absolute social breakdown if the U.S. defaulted, and many of my readers seemed to be deeply disturbed by them — it felt a little too realistic that the social bond in a highly individualistic nation with a lot of guns lying around may turn out to be more fragile than we’d ever imagine. The same holds for the U.S. Constitution. It is widely acknowledged to be highly irrational in its design, and yet the idea of “rebooting” seems unthinkable to most Americans.

If institutions make their demands more strongly felt precisely when they’re failing to deliver on their promises, it seems that the reverse would also hold: we are more able to reform our institutions when their hold feels less urgent. I imagine that much of the strong regulation of capitalism during the Cold War era came from the existence of a living, breathing alternative to the free market — even if the Soviet model did not seem desirable compared to the US model, everyone could tell that the USSR was not a post-apocalyptic hellscape. During the financial crisis, by contrast, it was commonplace to hear people say that if a key financial apparatus broke down, we simply “wouldn’t have an economy anymore.”

Similarly, as I was saying yesterday, in a world where every area of life is increasingly saturated with cutthroat competition, there doesn’t seem to be any alternative to the traditional family as a space of meaningful relationships — and hence people persist in propping up the model and even want to expand it to previously excluded populations, even though it winds up being a costly and painful situation for increasing numbers of people.

Since I can’t figure out how to wrap this post up: “hence the need for full communism is all the more urgent.”

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. Continue reading “The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time”

Monasticism and neoliberalism: On Agamben’s The Highest Poverty

I’ve been slowly working my way through Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics this summer, with a kind of dawning horror at the sheer nihilism of neoliberalism. The end result of this ruling ideology is that we should all be our own individual enterprises, in constant competition with others, making continual economic choices — and with no goal outside the competition itself. Even when we “retire,” we are not at rest, because then above all we need to be savvy managers of our various investments.

All this in the name of freedom! Continue reading “Monasticism and neoliberalism: On Agamben’s The Highest Poverty

My AAR paper: Negri and Gutierrez on Job

[I presented this on Saturday, November 19, under the auspices of the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernism group. I admit that my last couple paragraphs are somewhat self-indulgent, but my audience was forgiving.]

Gutierrez and Negri on Job:
Between Theology and Materialism

Adam Kotsko
Shimer College

For those of us who have been following the burgeoning trend of radical philosophical readings of the Bible, Negri’s Labor of Job may represent something of a breath of fresh air, not least because a major philosopher has finally chosen to focus on something other than the letters of Paul. More significant from my perspective, however, is the fact that Negri brings a voice into this dialogue that has often been neglected by recent philosophical interpreters: liberation theology.

Continue reading “My AAR paper: Negri and Gutierrez on Job”

Richard Dawkins Keynesianism

I am with Negri on Keynes that Keynes was “a gentleman – that is, an honest bourgeois, not a petty-bourgeois like Proudhon, or an ideologue, but an easy man”. Proudhon was a localist after all, and we all know the petty-bourgeois nature of localism and those who believe it can resist capitalism – more on this later! Not that we should confuse any of the recent attempts at government intervention and regulation with Keynesianism – of course, none of them even consider the possibility of full employment as being a necessary goal. And we certainly shouldn’t confuse Keynesianism with anti-capitalism like so many friends do. I digress.

The popular form of Keynes states that inorder to stimulate the economy in the event of one of capitalism’s systematic downturns, the government must perform more activity, creating jobs and stimulating the economy as a whole, kicking the recovery into gear. This is illustrated by an example from his masterpiece The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

if the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.

The simple point was – and against those who would claim that you need to build something socially useful (though this is to the good if this is possible, because more satisfied secure people do more economic activity) – the government should do something, anything to stimulate the economy.

My premise is this then – the government should require Richard Dawkins to release yet another book of the ilk of The God Delusion – feel free to come up with your own names in the comments. The sheer stimulation of the publishing industry, both in terms of newsprint and books either refuting his claims line by line, systematically or morally, or piggy backing his claims with fresh praise, would increase the economy to an unprecedented extent. The book should be a mix of generally bad arguments (like many of those he gives in the forebear) and very good (perhaps outsourced to the best atheist philosophers of religion) and/or very subtle and convoluted arguments indeed (perhaps those that it is near impossible to decipher and are open to numerous contradictory interpretations)  that would generate far more responses at far higher level of scholarship than the rather thin dash he gives us there. Better still, he could maybe do a series of the books.

Considering this would be done in a private consultation with Dickie Dawkins, it would sneak around conservatives opposed to stimulation of the economy. Its as good idea as any – maybe they could convince him to perhaps convert to a minor and obscure religion, in order to stimulate a further flurry of publication?

Two Free Books On The Neoliberal University and Protest

Everybody loves a free book, so I present to you today two free books that might be of general interest to readers here, along the theme of the general battles around education and its funding occurring in the UK and globally.

The first is Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, available as free PDF download and very reasonable (£1.48) Kindle version to save you the bother of conversion of formats. At 350 pages, it is a collection of accounts, journalistic reports, theoretical reflections, interviews and practical guides on the winter of education protests that occurred here in the United Kingdom against sweeping changes in higher education funding. These changes seek to move from a tax payer provided service for the public good to hyper-indivdualised marketised system with an ontology based upon advantage to private individuals. This programme includes a potential tripling the level of tuition fees with an introduction of variable market rates, vast cuts to central funding, particularly of the humanities, and the under-reported (and perhaps vital for US students looking to study in the UK) slashing of the numbers of student visas. This is, of course, an element of the wider austerity program, and students were keen to emphasise from the beginning their solidarity with those fighting the Coalition government’s wider austerity agenda and austerity agendas globally. It is a book that is consciously by the movement and for the movement, hoping to inform and provoke debate. With the second phase of university occupations occurring on the run up to the mass trade union day of protest (40 universities were occupied in the last round), it is an opportune time to give it a look and if you are from outside the UK get up to speed.

In a similar vein is the PDF version of the book Toward a Global Autonomous University produced by the trans-national collective Edu-Factory. Very much influenced by autonomous Marxist trends, the new thinking on what the politics of the common and thinkers like Hardt and Negri (Negri here provides a co-written conclusion), it is a provocative look at the current place of the university in capitalist society and the possibility of alternative formations. This book and their website, which includes reports from their very recent conference attended by education activists from across the world (including many UK occupations), are certainly worth a read.


I’ve been writing a review of Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth today, and a thought occurs to me: the fact that the Copenhagen climate talks produced little more than a token gesture seems to count as evidence that, as Hardt and Negri argue, multilateralism is just as dead as unilateralism. It’s difficult to imagine any kind of binding agreement being reached under any circumstances, but certainly a meeting among heads of state, various CEOs, and representatives of NGOs and religious groups seems more likely to produce meaningful results.

(Similarly, I wonder if one could take the depressing progress of health care reform as evidence that social democracy is just as empty as neoliberalism….)