Tag Archive: Hardt & Negri

It riles me up when intelligent people whose work I respect a lot say ill-considered, if not outright indefensible, things. Jodi Dean’s post arguing that communism “worked” strikes me as such a thing. I’ve provided a lengthy counter-argument on her blog, the gist of which is that the political projects that were actually carried out (rather than merely dreamed) under the flag of “communism” were colossal failures, for a whole host of reasons. This is thoroughly documented, and anyone who has spent much time in the former Soviet Union, or I imagine in China, has encountered the many levels of failure: social, economic, ecological, and, perhaps most disturbingly, a kind of deep spiritual failure.

Gilles Deleuze argues that what we need are artistic and philosophical experiments that would revive our belief in this world. (That’s what this blog has argued since its inception.) While the Soviet experiment did produce such a belief in its earliest stages — and these are worth learning from — it lost it rapidly and decisively. Whether we date that loss to the long slow decline after Khrushchev, or to Stalin’s ascent and totalitarian takeover in the 1920s (and the killing fields that followed), or to the suppression of leftist dissent (such as the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921, or others even earlier), is all a matter for debate. View full article »


Also published at Indications.

It’ll take some time before the dust settles and we’ll be able to make sense of exactly what happened at the Copenhagen climate summit. But what’s becoming clear is that this may be a genuine turning point in the history of global politics.

The most remarkable thing that will come out of the meeting is not whatever set of policies will be agreed to tomorrow: this is because the key player, the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, is hamstrung by a conservatively poised party (his own Democrats) in power in the two houses in which he needs support in order to pass significant legislation. The most remarkable thing, rather, will be what happens to global civil society and its relationship to the structures of national and international power.

National governments, and none more so than that of the US, are deeply encumbered by the stranglehold of corporate lobbyists and other economic interests on their political systems — which is why nongovernmental and civil society groups are necessary to solve the issues that traditional political actors cannot. But while the NGOs and civil society groups speak of “democracy,” they are not elected and are, arguably, not representative in an obvious way. The democracy they speak of is of a different order than the one that’s doled out once every few years to the voting citizen of a given country.

What the activists mean by “democracy” is the activity and mobilization of citizens taking things into their own hands. And, unfortunately, that’s a kind of democracy that’s just as open to those on the right, from the Glenn Beck Tea Partiers and climate denialists in the US to racialist nationalists and religious fundamentalists around the world. So the lesson here, I think, is that we are now on a new and different political terrain — a terrain that is global and much more open than what we’re used to, and that really is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The climate justice activists in Copenhagen, fortunately, are sending a clear message to the rest of the world that there is a consensus emerging around basic matters of eco-social solidarity: that we are all in this together, and that the rich won’t get away with plunder any longer. As George Monbiot puts it, this is “a war between human decency and sheer bloody selfishness.”

A big piece of this message is that the industrial society that has grown over the last two centuries is hitting a wall, a limit point, beyond which something has to give way at a deep level. As David Loy argues, this limit point is forcing a test of people’s capacity to identify with humanity at the collective, global level and to internalize the lesson of interdependence. Assuming that the science is accurate — and science being what it is, we don’t and can’t know anything with 100% certainty, but we do know that the majority/consensus of climate scientists is strong in its conviction that anthropogenic climate change is most likely to be well on its way — then we are hitting a capacity limit that is comparable to the population density limits that triggered the shift from foraging societies to settled agriculture several thousand years ago.

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Several days of silence calls for at least a whimper of sound here… I’ve been on the road (Washington, DC, Boston, and tomorrow Montreal) and writing for crisp deadlines in amidst the travel. And I’m still uncertain as to whether it’s better to post little snippets just to keep the flow coming to your blog readers, or if I should concentrate on lengthier, more considered posts when the opportunity for them arises. Either way, I have been adding to the Shadow Blog, and there’s been plenty to add there, most of which I could have said something about here. (Unfortunately I can’t control the Shadow Blog’s appearance — that’s Google’s prerogative — so some entries come up only as linked titles, while others blare their full length at you.)

But a few things worth mentioning both concern economics:

First, the very pleasant surprise of Elinor Ostrom being awarded a Nobel Prize for it. (The other surprise Nobel I’ll leave uncommented upon…) Ostrom is a political scientist whose work on the commons is central to reconceptualizing the human capacity to manage commonly held resources. Her work (along with that of many colleagues) has dealt the death blow to Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” scenario, with its ornery assumption that unless we privatize or bring in the heavy hand of government, humans will destroy their environment inevitably, incessantly, and repeatedly, out of some kind of death drive (or maybe birth drive, an inability to control our own reproduction). That’s a simplification, of course, intended provocatively, but it still gets a little maddening to see how captivated students get by the elegant simplicity of Hardin’s apocalyptic tale, while being much less interested in the messy complexities of real life as shown by painstaking fieldwork and careful analysis. Ostrom’s work shows that commons can be, and often have been, successfully managed — it just takes the right kind of collective institutions (appropriately scaled, manageable and participatory, with clearly understood responsibilities, etc.). Here’s the Nobel committee’s justification for their decision, a recent article of Ostrom’s from Science for those with institutional subscriptions, and some blog discussions on the topic.

And second, the seismic shifts starting to take place in the field of economics, of which Ostrom’s Nobel is one indicator, Paul Krugman’s recent NY Times Magazine piece How Did Economists Get it So Wrong? is another, and the growing prominence of behavioral economics is a third. The latter is being incorporated into policy making in the US, as I’ve written about before, especially now that Cass Sunstein has been confirmed as Obama’s regulatory “czar” (he who has been under fire from Glenn Beck for, well, does it matter?). This piece from Britain’s funky Prospect Magazine provides more news about how it is also shaping public policy in the U.K.

(Where, though, are our buddies the ecological economists? They need to be taking this opportunity to leap to the forefront of economic debate as well. (I ought to prod my colleagues up the street at the Gund Institute eco-eco think-tank to see what they have to say…)

The idea of the commons is central to Ostrom’s work and, incidentally, is also at the heart of Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s third and final installment of their much loved / drooled over / berated (hopefully not in equal measure) Empire trilogy. (Are they the George Lucas of sociopolitical theory, or the Darth Vader?) Following up on Multitude, this one’s titled Commonwealth. They are the inspirational writers of the Spinozan (post-Marxist) left, and I’m eager to see where they’ve taken things (despite the weaknesses of the previous volumes, as outlined, for instance, by some of the articles here).

Re-Public put out a very nice special issue on the commons a while back, though it focuses more on the technological commons than the ecological ones, and the issues faced by the two are not always the same. I would also recommend Re-Public’s environmental justice issue, and Steven Shaviro’s (and others‘) more recent analyses of the economic crisis. And see On the Commons for more of this kind of thing.