Translation by Arianna Bove. Gothenburg Conference on What is the Common? October 2009.
Before Commonwealth , we published Empire and Multitude .
Whilst Empire was a book that could be immediately understood from the point of view of the spatiality of power, Multitude presented some problems. In particular, the question of how the multitude could organise itself.
So the first issue we confront in Commonwealth is the becoming Prince , in Machiavellian terms, of the multitude. I am not following the thread of the book here. I am just trying to outline the problems we set out to confront in the book.
We thought that the possibility of giving a structure, or a spine, a backbone to the multitude resided in the concept of the common.
So, what is this concept of the common?
First of all, let me say a small footnote on its naturalistic dimensions. We all know that the common is water, air, soil, the sea, land, etc. but we are interested in the human-made common, because the naturalist common has long been reabsorbed in the productive structures of capitalism.
So the problem we confront in the book is the definition of the common inside the multitude.
The notion of the common and the notion of multitude tend to be juxtaposed and confounded. They are interchangeable notions, the constitution of the common and the multitude. That is to say, the common does not precede or follow the multitude: the making of the multitude is the common.
All of this obviously occurs within capitalism and capitalism is always a social relation, one between those who command and those who obey, between fixed and variable capital.
So we need to build the concept of the common inside the relation of capital. Here capital is presented as struggle, as a common that is there, but that was historically appropriated by capital and continuously subjected, in the process of its making, to capital.
But today the common is the name of capitalism: capitalism today is capitalism of the common. People who insist on private property today are actually talking about the private property of capital, which is the common of capital against the property-less.
Here we find the great bifurcation of our times, which is the new technical composition of labour power, inside and outside the common but expropriated of its capacity and possibility of enjoying it.
The general context of the development of this bifurcation is biopolitical, and in the book Commonwealth we dedicate a chapter to explaining how this bifurcation is one of the concept of capital itself, where one divides into two: on the one hand, the communism of capital, on the other hand, the precarisation of this new labour power.
At this point, we need to talk about the issue of finance and rent. Finance is the main instrument of capitalist accumulation: in this bifurcation capitalist accumulation takes on the form of finance. We must stop talking about a separation between finance and real production, and understand that financialisation is not an unproductive and parasitical deviation of growing quota of surplus value, but rather the very form of capitalist accumulation, symmetrical to the new processes of biopolitical production.
So how do we get out of the crisis? We can only do it through a social revolution that confers to the multitude or the subjects who construct the multitude new rights of social property over what are common goods.
Clearly, this is only possible if we fundamentally oppose private property as conceived as the power of capital.
But if we wish to return to the notion of multitude and its biopolitical dimension, we'd better do it historically.
Right from the start, the multitude is opposed to the republic, because the republic is the republic of property (see for instance the debate on the English revolution). So the republic is the republic of property to which we must start opposing the multitude as a becoming common and the multitude of the poor.
Today the poor constitute the multitude, because there has been a change in the relationship between production and wealth. Mind you, the poor are not the excluded, they are the foundation of wealth, because wealth is made of social relations and the poor embody the exodus from capitalist relations of private property – wealth lies in this dispossession.
Some critiques are about the centrality of working class labour in the definition of the multitude.
We know that the relation between working class and other sections of the proletariat, like the poor, or those who fight racism, colonialism and all forms of domination can be considered in the concept of the multitude.
Here we need to introduce an intersectional perspective, we must find the mechanisms that do not solve the problems but allow us to build a common force. This intersectionism is not a flat network of inter-crossing webs; it is the Spinozian notion of the creation of surplus in the encounter of singularities, anything but flat. So the multitude as a concept is a dispositif of organisation of singularities (see Iran for example).
Other critiques state that on this multiplicity we need to refer to the universal rather than the common, and this universal is equal-liberty. This equal-liberty is a universality that is a synthesis of heterogeneous and a traversing of differences.
Others think that the multitude can only be recomposed through a synthesis where the universality and hegemony of concepts are played out. This is a rather Leninist conception of a vanguard group acting to foster and shape this process.
Our response is that we look for a unity that comes through the materiality of relations, from ontology. Their problem is that they cannot refer to ontology and thus they cannot renew historical materialism.
Other criticisms are that the moment of the revolution and communism is something that cannot be summarised in a continuity of causes but must find a radical innovation in the event. This is acceptable in some respects, but we also insist on historical materialism and the fact that someone has to do these things, on the continuity of things and the accumulation of events. These processes are not necessarily bureaucratic, where all multiplicity is already an institution, so the polemic is correct but one has to see the accumulation of elements of refusal.
Here the relation between refusal and constitution is one of accumulation and cannot be otherwise.
Constituent power emerges out of refusal like love, as a pulsation that is positive. It is the refusal of poverty and misery that becomes the potenza of poverty, and the Platonic need is subverted. The Platonic idea about poverty is that poverty leads us from need to wealth.