Thursday, 16 October 2008

Phuture agency

There is an excellent review of the new Virno here. I think it's a very interesting work, especially in light of reflections on agency. I have to agree with said reviewer that the comments about the New Orleans superbowl are reprehensible, I'm hard pressed to understand why no one pointed out the possible problem at an earlier stage to Virno. It's certainly a case for postcolonial critique.
One thing I found particularly odd was Virno's rehabilitation of Schumpeter's Unternehmergeist (entrepreneur-spirit). This, however, started to make a little more sense after reading Robin Blackburn's 1991 piece on 'Socialism After the Crash'. The essay offers a fascinating discussion of the 'calculation debate' and the possibilities of market-socialism, including this comment:
So far as I am aware no-one pointed out that Hayek’s argument from the dispersed nature of knowledge could also be deployed against a narrow capitalist entrepreneurialism by advocates of social and worker self-management.
I'm not sure if this exactly coincides with what Virno means and, like the concept of "exodus", it remains highly under-developed. This seems all the more problematic in the current context of financial crisis, in which these forms of "agency" would have to connect the multitude to power over the macro-economic. This might be another reason to agree with IT that his pitching of innovation and negation at this level of abstraction is of more use to those turning a capitalist profit that to those wanting alternative egalitarian social forms.
At a slight tangent I've also recently encountered the work of Malcolm Bull, which has the merit of asking exactly the question that has been troubling me:
Within contemporary radical politics, there are a lot of questions to which there are many possible answers, and one question to which there is none. There are innumerable blueprints for utopian futures that are, in varying degrees, egalitarian, cosmopolitan, ecologically sustainable, and locally responsive, but no solution to the most intractable problem of all: who is going to make it happen?
(The Limits of Multitude)
The result, at least in Bull's summary is that:
Without these agents [communist states / parties of the left] there appear to be only two forces capable of shaping the contemporary world: market globalization propelled by governments and multinational corporations, and populist reactions that seek to assert national or communal sovereignty. (Limits)
We are left with the choice between the 'invisible hand' (under which, to use Karl Polanyi's words, 'human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation’) or forms of populist will. It may be we could argue Peter Hallward's attempts to argue for a generic or communist will are one way to try to escape this alternative. What's provocative about Bull's argument is that he assimilates the Negrian multitude precisely to the 'invisible hand' / Hayekian tradition. This throws a more sinister light on the lack of specificity of Virno's models of agency; is his work another ruse of the (capitalist) cunning of reason?
That said Bull's own solution seems to partake of a slightly odd version of the same logic:
To the contemporary crisis of political agency, Hegel’s theory of the state offers both an explanation (in terms of the inadequacy of any one form of agency) and two possible resolutions: it excludes the non-dialectical options of a global market society or global non-market state, and reduces the viable options to a global market state and a global, potentially non-market society. A global civil society might be willed into a global market state, or else a global state might, through the workings of the invisible hand, collapse into some form of global civil society. The former is the natural expression of the Hegelian dialectic transposed to a global context; the latter has the form of Gramsci’s appropriation of the anti-dialectic.
(States of Failure)
Here the dialectic, or anti-dialectic, implies a passing over through the invisible hand to a global civil society. He appears to argue that the 'anarchy' of capitalist barbarism offers a path through to socialism, via this barbarism registering the failure of the state: "the invisible hand invests the failure of utopia with the utopian promise of the failed state." Again, I'm not really sure how this specifies more forms of agency? Perry Anderson's question to Bull carries weight:

an impasse between the globalizing market and populist reactions to it implies that they are of equivalent weight, neither advancing at the expense of the other: is that what the last twenty years suggest? If the current version of the global state (sc: us hegemony) is dissolving, why should not it issue into Huntington’s patchwork of regional market powers, delimited by civilizational spaces, rather than a global civil society, market or not? ("Jottings")
I'd say this alternative is plausible because, as Anderson points out, this implication of symmetry (perhaps derived through the metaphorics of chaos theory) that doesn't seem to really register the 'balance of forces'. For me a similar problem afflicts Immanuel Wallerstein's claim that as we are entering in a crisis for the system, not a crisis of the system:

We have to remember finally that the outcome of the struggle during the present chaotic transition is not in any fashion inevitable. It will be fashioned by the totality of the actions of everyone on all sides. We have only a fifty-fifty chance of prevailing. One can define fifty-fifty as unfortunately low. I define it as a great opportunity, which we should not fail to try to seize.
I wonder if the metaphorics of chaos theory used also by Wallerstein ("equilibrium" / "bifurcation") leaves the strategic questions a little hanging in terms of balance? Anyway one thing I should say about Bull's use of Hegel is that Hegelians have a habit of being right.

For what it's worth my own position is more Andersonian on this; sceptical, but not without hope.

5 comments:

it said...

There's a good discussion of all this here, which cites you, owen and I.

Jamie said...

I've updated that discussion a bit here

Benjamin said...

Thanks, I'll read with interest while trying to write a Dickens lecture...

Jasper Bernes said...

Can you say a bit more about why--and which--Hegelians fare pick the right horse? I'm curious.

An interesting correlate for the Bull essays might be Arrighi's new book, _Adam Smith in Beijing_. They both seem willing to wager rather a lot on the hope that liberalism--senescent as it may seem--could be finally ready give up the (common) goods, equality-wise. They leave me with a bad taste, for that reason, although I admire both writers a great deal. . .

BTW, great review of the Virno, IT, if you're still reading.

Benjamin said...

a semi-joke Jasper on the tendency of people like Debord / Jameson to get things right (May 68 / the dominance of finance capital) by following the cunning of reason. I realise that's a small set of two, but that's why my blogging is such an imprecise art...

On Arrighi, Perry Anderson links both him and Bull together, along with Nairn and Hardt & Negri, in "Jottings".

I'm doubtful if that's what Arrighi argues; it seems to put a lot of faith in the "process" of capital to produce its "gravediggers" - I'm more worried than that.