Empire and the Commons

Empire and the Commons

Caren Irr

Caren Irr reframes the question of private property through fantastic narratives of the commons.

Aron Pease:

Joseph McElroy writes, “Water … is one of our properties, passing
through, as if we were one of its. And if we are one of its properties - for
it helps us live - where can that take us?” McElroy extends a number of water
narratives, strategies, and reflections toward just such a revitalized
commons in water.

Aron Pease:

RTMark’s “hacktivism” and corporate parody represent one attempt to -
if not abolish - at least sabotage the corporate naturalization of property


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire is a genuinely synthetic account of globalization. It unites empirical observations of the post-industrial economy and the geography of imperialism with a thorough rethinking of state-forms and theories of collectivity. Here, however, I want to consider it more as a sort of universal history. Set against other works in this genre, say, Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century or Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Civilization, Empire is obviously more philosophical, but also its workings are importantly at odds with these exemplary dialectical accounts. It is between Arrighi and Braudel that Hardt and Negri’s book situates itself - seeking to integrate the tight geometry of world systems theory together with the wandering range and humanist vision of la longue durée. There are places where the concepts perhaps do too much of the labor or where deeper exploration of inter-regional differences would be invigorating. But, what I want to underscore here is a bold and enormously provocative sub-theme in the book: the world as commons. It is this theme that authorizes Hardt and Negri’s quirky renewal of the slogan “the abolition of private property.”

“The commons,” for Hardt and Negri “is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude” (Empire 303, my emphasis). If Empire is the sovereignty that the multitude makes through the exercise of its embodied intellect, and the commons is the multitude’s body, labor and freedom, then it follows that the commons is the substance of Empire. The ambivalent character of Empire is evident in this: the commons makes the multitude - that notoriously elusive concept - available as the foundational political subject, at the same time that in our proprietary world the commons has an ethical resonance retained as a residue of solidarity, eco-consciousness, and subjectlessness. The commons launches an immanent politics and an ethics without the subject. We will want to revisit this potentially uneasy relationship between the ethics and politics of the commons. But first I want to examine Hardt and Negri’s alternative history of the concept of the commons and distinguish it from contemporary liberal accounts, such as that offered in Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas. The core of Hardt and Negri’s account of the commons appears in italicized section titled “Commons” (Empire, 300-303).

The italicized sections in Empire are, as Hardt has affirmed in an interview with Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, modeled on the scholia in Spinoza’s Ethics - sections where the compression and directedness of the formal propositions relax into more narrative elaborations. For instance, in the penultimate scholium of the Ethics, Spinoza rails against the “common belief” that freedom is constituted by indulgence of one’s lusts and constrained only by a temporary earthly servitude to piety (pietas) or religion (Ethics V, 42). In this and other sections Spinoza employs the style of insight that Gilles Deleuze associates with “the third eye, which enables one to see life beyond all false appearances, passions, and deaths” (Deleuze, Spinoza 14). That is, if the geometric proofs that comprise most of the Ethics are for Spinoza “the eyes of the mind” (Ethics V, 23), then a scholium is the “lighthouse that exchanges its signals with the others, at a distance and across the flow of the demonstrations.” The scholia are written, Deleuze continues, in “a language of fire that is distinguishable from the language of the waters” of the proofs (Deleuze, Spinoza 28). Using this “language of fire,” then, the “Commons” passage in Empire communicates in rapid, symbolic flashes, beaming the concerns of the preceding chapter on immaterial labor out across a broader landscape.

This particular scholium of Hardt and Negri’s operates at three levels. First is a historical narrative in which Hardt and Negri assert that “the modern period” is distinguished by the privatization of public property. Capitalist primitive accumulation set into motion a two-step process by which “common” wealth (natural resources, for instance) is converted first to the “second nature” of public property and then reappropriated into private hands. Processes of appropriation on this account consist of the production of “second, third, and nth nature[s]” (Empire 301). These virtual natures supplant the first nature of the commons and produce as an additional by-product legends about it: “Robin Hood’s forest, the Great Plains of the Amerindians, the steppes of the nomadic tribes, and so forth” (Empire 300). This historical narrative is, in other words, economic, political, and cultural; it is also a speculative one.

That is, inverting the tradition in liberal political philosophy of positing a state of nature from which the sovereign state later emerges, Hardt and Negri here begin their narrative with the state’s appropriation of a common nature that is, as far as we know, only legendary. They then proceed to project a state of nature that underwrites the sovereign into the present and the future. Their narrative continues by asking, “what is the operative notion of the common today,” after capitalist appropriation has gone global (Empire 301). They assert that at present because of information technology and the service economy “the concept of private property itself … becomes increasingly nonsensical,” entering into a conceptual crisis - though not exactly a juridical one. Alluding rapidly to a sort of Critical Legal Studies approach that evacuates the conceptual foundation of the property right, Hardt and Negri imagine a (near?) future in which “A new notion of ‘commons’ will have to emerge” (Empire 302). In other words, where for Locke or Hobbes a barbaric and violent commons preceded the enclosures that established real and rightful proprietary relations, for Hardt and Negri it is the post-natural concept of private property that is in danger of becoming “ever more detached from reality” (Empire 302). For Hardt and Negri, the commons has in a sense always been present, and thus it is not superseded by a long history of appropriations and the complex array of private property claims. Their historical narrative turns out, for this reason, to be a mythic one - relatively unconcerned here with replaying a tragedy, whether the bourgeois economists’ tragedy of the overuse and neglect of the commons or the anti-capitalist’s tragedy of systematic expropriation. Instead, when Hardt and Negri begin by asserting that “[t]here has been a continuous movement throughout the modern period to privatize public property,” the important word turns out to be “continuous” (Empire 300). An uninterrupted extension into time and space of the same unfolding process, a “continuous movement” is to be distinguished from a “continual” one that simply repeats the same event in succession. Hardt and Negri are writing a special sort of philosophical history here - one which can be considered all duration and no break, despite its commitment to a vocabulary of “the postmodern.”

The structure of this special history is clearer if we focus on the second level of this scholium: the logic of immanence and transcendence. Clearly recalling Spinoza’s distinction between “the immanent … [and] the transitive, cause” (Ethics I, 18), Hardt and Negri take as “the primary event of modernity … the discovery of the plane of immanence” (Empire 71). Rather than imagining the world as the effect of some external cause (such as God’s will), modernity on their account finds the causes and motion of the world to be indwelling in this world. This is a way of describing modernity that recalls a more familiar Renaissance humanist account but does not place any one type of the human at the center of a de-sacralized world. For Hardt and Negri, immanence is something discovered and something ineradicably linked to that self-constituting form of the state - i.e. that form of power that does not alienate authority in a monarch, for instance - that form they call democracy.

The logic of immanence in the “Commons” scholium is this: the power of private property is transcendent, not immanent, because it alienates the owner from the object, setting the owner apart from and above the object as well as above the other subjects excluded from access to the object. That is, property law relies on a “transitive” version of causality that treats a producer as external to the product and then transfers that externality to the owner/object relationship. Transcendence of this sort operates consistently in Empire as false consciousness or a kind of dialectical bad faith; behind or before such mistaken separations of producer and product, one has the “discovery” of “the immanent relation between the public and the common” (Empire 301). This immanence shows Hardt and Negri to be distinguishing between a modern concept like “public property” and a pre- or non-state concept like “the commons” at the same time that they assert the substantial relationship between them. In the context of their historical narrative about the dissolution of the public into private property, this assertion of the substantial relationship between the (always enduring) commons and the modern public amounts to a claim that the public does not and can not in fact dissolve even at the moment when it appears most imperiled by the “transcendent power” of private property. This is the premise necessary for the subsequent argument about the “nonsensical” character of private property. It is because the commons remains the enduring and immanent cause of the public that a range of production that has little to do with private property can spring up; even when juridical versions of private property are universalized. (Here, Hardt and Negri address a problem that troubles some economists; they explain innovation that occurs with little or no so-called financial incentive - a vital conundrum in the case of the Internet, the arts, and much scientific research.) Although immanence gives way to transcendental power historically, the transcendental concept of private property detaches from reality, and the immanence of the commons re-emerges. Thus, it is both the philosophical continuity of the problem of immanence vs. transcendence and the continuity of immanence itself that provides the substratum of duration for Hardt and Negri’s mini-history of the commons. The commons is eternal, present, and pre-transcendent nature.

Finally, let’s shift to the third level of this scholium - the level of argument Deleuze called “expressive.” In his brilliant article on Spinoza’s Ethics (published in The New Spinoza), Deleuze demonstrates that the Ethics appears at first to be one long continuous river, unfolding an unrelenting logic consistently, though in actuality it has three distinct modes: the geometrical demonstrations, the fire-y language of the scholia, and the enthymemes of Book V. Similarly, Hardt and Negri’s scholium on the commons initially appears as a fluvial flow: “There has been a continuous movement throughout the modern period” (Empire 300). A bit later, however, the movement is re-described as a “spiral of public and private appropriations” (Empire 301). The single unfolding drama of immanence thus begins to acquire what Deleuze calls “stations, arms, elbows, loops, speedings up and slowings down, and so on” (Deleuze, Spinoza 29). For instance, one unexplored “arm” is the idea that legends preserve a certain memory of public spaces (Robin Hood, etc.). These elbowed hints lead one to wonder: can the immanence of the commons be both utterly present and ordinary while also being virtualized in a fantastic, romantic past? Similarly, isn’t a substantially different sort of innovation involved in a commons in land and natural resources and the experience of the commons that Hardt and Negri treat as operative today - that “productive world made up of communication and social networks, interactive services, and common languages” (Empire 302)? These questions certainly suggest themselves, but the flow of the scholium also urges us to leap over something usually treated as very serious and influential difference in kind in Anglo-American law: the strongly presentist distinction between so-called real and intellectual property, or as Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig would have it, between rivalrous and nonrivalrous resources (that is, resources to which a logic of scarcity does or need not apply, since they’re not used up in consumption). At the expressive level, like Deleuze and Guattari in the “Who Does the Earth Think It Is” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, Hardt and Negri counter-intuitively treat a commons in pasture and in language as continuous, overcoming a nature/human distinction. Following Deleuze’s practice of immanent reading, one might wish to extend this limb a bit more and loop back from the emergent commons in language to a revitalized commons in, say, water or land. What exactly, one wonders, does this scholium suggest is the likely effect of a terrain that is becoming-property (such as email?) on one that has long been property (such as pasture)? Does the priority granted to immanence here require us to assume that non-proprietary practices in one arena necessarily translate in the habits of the multitude to anti-proprietary action everywhere? Is a total action possible? How can a proto-political multitude undertake the “abolition” of private property - at whatever extension is deemed viable?

Before returning to that topic, though, I want to linger for a moment on the last three sentences of the “Commons” scholium:

The commons is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude. Rousseau said that the first person who wanted a piece of nature as his or her own exclusive possession and transformed it into the transcendent form of private property was the one who invented evil. Good, on the contrary, is what is common (Empire 303).

Why, I wonder, does this scholium end on the ethical note? Why is “Good” what is common instead of, say, democracy instantiating the common? To answer this question, we need to recall that the force of Hardt and Negri’s interest in Spinozan immanence lies, as Negri has argued in The Savage Anomaly and elsewhere, in his treatment of the multitude as the necessary foundation of any form of sovereignty and his assertion that the immanence of world/nature/God necessarily tends towards absolute democracy. Despite any periodizing gestures, theirs is a materialist account of all of Spinoza, including the Ethics. Negri argues in his essay in The New Spinoza that in the late Spinoza democracy appears at the point of the aporetic elusiveness of the concept of the multitude; democracy is what expresses the status of the multitude as both concrete materiality and reason, as freedom and absolute horizon. Democracy thus appears as a

… social practice of singularities that intersect in a mass process - better, as a pietas that forms and constitutes the reciprocal individual relations that are established among the multiplicity of subjects that constitute the multitudo (Empire 237).

At this confusing point, we have the explanation for the inclusion of “the good” in the discussion of the commons. Democracy for Hardt and Negri is something other than a dialectical mediation of the One and the Many, and it is something other than the alienated sovereign law to which the multitude turns over its power. Democracy is instead the zone where singularities meet and realize they are also constitutively a mass, and at this unstable, aporetic point, Negri turns to the ethical concept of pietas, the root of “piety.” For Spinoza, pietas is the “desire to do good generated in us by our living according to the guidance of reason,” (Ethics, IV 37); this characteristically Spinozan concept of living in sociable contentment, affirmation, and joy when one is attentive to love of God/Nature or the “third eye” is not, on Negri’s account, a micro-allegory of living peacefully with others in a democratic society. It seems instead that the two terrains of ethics and politics are, for Negri, immanent within one another, as indeed the multitude is immanent to the commons. To assert then that “good … is what is common” is, for Hardt and Negri, the same as making an explicitly political claim for the necessarily democratic right to the commons.

What, then, does Empire’s philosophy of the commons mean for the present? Primarily, it offers us an affirmative alternative to the dominant languages of liberalism. To see the difference, we can briefly consider the writings of Lawrence Lessig, a self-described liberal libertarian. In The Future of Ideas, Lessig defends the commons in Internet technology on the grounds that it allows a necessary but inexplicable sort of innovation that is wrongly constrained by regulatory or legal controls of the sort associated with proprietary interests. His defense of the commons in this context is instrumental. (In his subsequent book, Free Culture, however, he advances a more explicitly political and cultural defense of “free culture,” and the reasons for his increasing suspicion of market forces would be important to consider in another context.)  For the earlier Lessig, though, it is the special character of the Internet (its nonrivalrousness and its essentially intangible structure) that requires the preservation of the commons in this area; the non-proprietary practices of the commons are necessary to advance the technology itself. Otherwise, Lessig is quite clear about his disinterest in any form of communism that makes arguments based on the alienating nature of property relations or the likely social consequences of monopolization.

By contrast, Hardt and Negri are explicitly pro-communist, and the concept of the commons (as opposed to, say, the views of a particular individual, such as Marx) is primary for their worldview or, more simply, their world. To explain what this might mean, Hardt (at least) has proposed revisiting the slogan “the abolition of private property,” especially on questions of intellectual property (Hardt, MSU). To make this slogan effective as a replacement for liberal positions on the same topic, and to make it work all on its own, I have been trying to suggest, it might be necessary to do one or two things. It may be necessary to attend specifically to the liberal legal tradition’s distinction between real and intangible property and show exactly how pessimistic that account of a reality dominated by scarcity is; this is a project of ideology critique. It may also be necessary to investigate whether the commons in real and intangible properties has been as “tragic” an experience as has been assumed; this is an essentially historical project. Finally, it may be necessary to rethink the very idea of “abolition.” If, as a non-dialectician, one begins not from the fact or necessity of private property but from the primacy and creativity of the commons, it is not the negation or removal of private property that is at issue, but instead its irrelevance. As a social relation, from this point of view, private property might be a mere blip on the screen of history; perhaps it does not and should not define the apex of human accomplishment. Not the abolition of private property, then, but the insignificance of it in the face of the much more enduring power of becoming - that’s the real slogan for Hardt and Negri.

For my purposes, at least, it is exactly this latter kind of affirmation of a world that has preceded and may well outlast the rigid exclusivity of private property that makes Empire invigorating. Drawing even more deeply from that well for analysis of topics that humanists often perceive as boring, practical, and obvious - such as the details of property law - seems a powerful way to revive if not a “utopian” vision, then at the very least a living and properly worldly one. This might well prove a fruitful common task.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

—. “The Global Coliseum: On Empire.” Interviewed by Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman. Cultural Studies, (16: 2): 177-192.

Hardt, Michael. Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

—. plenary lecture at Globalicities: Modern Literature Conference. Michigan State University; East Lansing, MI. October 2001.

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and The Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. (New York: Penguin, 2004).

—. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Random House, 2001).

Montag, Warren and Ted Stolze, eds. The New Spinoza. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997.

Negri, Antonio. The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics. New York: Hackett, 1992.