First off: why can’t everyone write like this? I mean, sure—Marx was systematic, and Benjamin was delightfully quirky, and Adorno was elegantly dialectic, and Deleuze and Guattari were overflowing and unrestrained…but there is a certain measure of power in some nice clean prose.
Secondly, following up on Szeman’s interest in the dynamic relationship between abstract ideas and real existing stuff, and its intersections with power. I’m going to try to just lay out how H&N use some major Marxian terms/concepts and how they use inflections of the original to go “beyond Marx” only to find him there haunting everything:
The category of labor is undeniably important to understand the dynamics of our lived world. We should understand the historical (and I presume ecological, but more about that below) situation of lived human experience as resting fundamentally on labor as humanity’s foundational action in the world (purely side note, this has resonance with my understanding of Heideggerian “world” and “Dasein” as well). So, that pre-systemized, primary category is “living labor”, which the technology/force of capital then captures as “labor power” to create the type of surplus value we usually think of as money—the “monetary ontology” of our modern Chicago School reality. However, because “living labor” is exactly an overflowing and Dionysian bios, it twists away from capital—and in an effort to keep capturing it, capital invents/uses biopower to socially control humans. This is the whole Foucault disciplinarity bit, and its linked to the hegemony of the emergent form of production called “immaterial labor”—the work that produces social life itself, (even as it can be exploited, like we are being exploited by the likes of Archer Daniel’s Midland, who kind of bankrolls UNL because taxes don’t cut it and football dollars probably go back to football coaches/that giant building that has very little to do with knowledge).
But, according to H&N, “a theory of labor and value today must be based on the common” (Multitude 148). Furthermore, exploitation must be rethought as expropriation of the commons—the most insidious form of biopower and the greatest threat to common wealth is precisely enclosure and the cultural forms which enable it and arise from it: the privatization and subjection to the market of everything. This is the same force which is trying to collapse both space and time to make everything equally accessible to the market at all times: just-in-time delivery of goods that you can order anywhere with your smart phone and then tweet/instagram photos of yourself that prove the affective quality of life affirmed and realized by that purchase.
As Szeman pointed out, it’s all possible because of a certain type of “dead labor”: oil. And probably only because of oil. Oil is the base of our whole superstructure: jets, football teams, “cheap” food, plastic. Those 500 “energy slaves”. This was my question for McCloskey that she twisted around and didn’t answer.
So, to return to my point about our ecological situation: if we agree that expropriation of the commons is indeed exploitation—and the oil economy is nothing if not an expropriation of the commons across time and space—then we are faced with deciding who all has a stake in the commons. And clearly, to me, drawing the borders at humanity is only slightly better than drawing the borders at the “Anglo race” (like a victorian), or the bourgeoisie like a good capitalist. Not least because diversity of life seems to be a source of value of all sorts, just like living labor—food, fiber, shelter, medicine, etc. It seems to me that any “revolutionary accounting,” if such a thing is indeed possible, would take into account a much wider common wealth, one that would encompass the whole bios—including the zoe and the botane too. It is, after all, in this or “world” that the positive externalities are to be found: “the artificial common, or really, the common that blurs distinction between nature and culture.” (Commonwealth 139). And I haven’t even touched on antagonism or class.
While Hardt and Negri are fairly upbeat, Szeman expressed his doubts about our ability to cause any sort of change in consciousness beyond more carefully analyzing the system before us, or do to more than create models that explain the forces at work today. While I appreciate his skepticism toward speculation, I’m also just optimistic enough to think that we can find “new” concepts to understand our present in study of the past, of other cultures, and our own literature. Concepts that might be able to adjust our subjectivity, our community, or our concepts themselves enough that the possibility of revolution still exists. But then, maybe that’s utopian—and maybe that’s why we need utopias.