All Commentary
Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Some two decades after the collapse of communism, socialist intellectuals still scramble to rehabilitate Marx and collectivist social theory in general, with Duke University professor Michael Hardt and Italian sociologist Antonio Negri leading the bunch. Academics are attracted to their radical critique of existing capitalist institutions. Non-academics and educated laypersons on the left are attracted to their radical message and hope that the people will successfully engage in a revolution to overturn private ownership and market exchange.

Although the book has attracted some zealous followers, it is a difficult read. One wades through lengthy and tiring discussions of Foucault, debates with Sartre, attempts to refashion Marxist theory, and then, sandwiched in between, hopeful tales about the restoration of “authentic identity” among the Maya and lengthy, optimistic claims about how the people of Cochabamba are progressing from “antimodernity” toward “altermodernity.” One suspects that the authors understand that their ideas won’t hold up well if stated in plain English, so they resort to an obscure but intimidating style. Amidst all of this, and among many other intellectual detours, stands a full-blown chapter on Spinoza’s concept of love. Suffice it to say that Hardt and Negri argue that people must be trained and educated in love in order to fight the evil forces of private property.

The authors assume (but don’t bother to argue) that property and market exchange block and destroy genuine human relationships. Marx had this general insight correct, they believe, but they suggest that his analysis needs to be corrected and updated in its details to fit our postindustrial age. Hardt and Negri claim that Marx’s theory of alienation, for example, must be further developed from an analysis of competitive separation of people and estrangement of the fruits of their labor to an “alienation of one’s thought” itself. Exactly what that means isn’t clear, but I think they’re suggesting that our thoughts aren’t truly our own, but are created by the capitalist system that allegedly controls us.

The authors insist that life—genuine, loving human relationships—is nestled in “the common.” The common consists of those institutions beyond private and public ownership of the means of production and, it appears, the fruits of labor, too. (One of the book’s many confusing aspects is that the meaning of “the common” is vague and shifting.) In Hardt and Negri’s view private property is the essence of capitalism, public property the essence of socialism, and the common is the essence of—you guessed it—communism. With this concept the authors try to break from the totalitarian consequences of “the victorious revolutions” of Russia, China, and Cuba. They claim to be optimistic that the revolution is imminent and, at long last, emancipating.

Nowhere do the authors consider the possibility that their revolution might lead to adverse results. Nor do they ever come to terms with the knowledge-communicating properties of voluntary and open exchanges of property rights. The coordination of plans, which is ultimately coordination of thoughts and expectations, is completely ignored in the book. How this can happen without private property and exchange is a mystery.

The common, the authors proclaim, is the ground of freedom and voluntarism. Activities within the common are the source of true wealth (hence the book’s title). The freedom of the common is the freedom to find and develop love, and it provides the source of the multitude’s supposed creative power. But “capital,” that meaningless collectivist concept that goes back to Marx himself, disrupts the common. Capital, they assert, exploits the multitude, the truly productive.

And the multitude is huddled and gathered mainly in cities, in “the metropolis,” used as another collectivistic concept. Marx focused on the factory, but Hardt and Negri claim that the metropolis is supposedly the current site of “hierarchy and exploitation, violence and suffering, fear and pain,” and therefore will be the site of the impending revolt. The authors have absolutely no sense of cities as spontaneous orders where millions cooperate for mutual gain. Maybe people keep going to cities because they are alienated from their own thoughts.

Hardt and Negri try to impress with their knowledge of Foucault, Laclan, Derrida, and Viveiros de Castro, but where’s Smith? Where’s Hayek? Where’s Jacobs? They never address the spontaneous and invisible-hand-like nature of markets, the communicative and wealth-enhancing nature of exchange, the role that cities play in such exchange, and the notion of civil society, an independent sector that is not fundamentally organized through commercial activity or the violent compulsion of the State. Are they even aware of the counterargument? And if so, when do they plan to address it?

Commonwealth is a pitiable effort at resuscitating Marx. But it was a lost cause to begin with.