Exodus and Counter-Economics, Part 1: Escape Routes

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“Capital’s continual restructuration is its response to working class sabotage,” wrote Antonio Negri in Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage (1977). This is the clearest elucidation of the autonomist proposition: that capitalism’s development, from the introduction of new technologies that shape production to the dynamics of the core-periphery relationship, emerges from the ability of the working class to successfully confound – up to a certain degree, at least – the operations that restrain them. He continues:

…restructuration of the system is a precondition – the stabilisation of the regime, and vice-versa. The tactical problems arise within the relative rigidity of this relationship, and not outside it – at least, ever since capitalist development has rendered undesirable the option of operating force and duress (in the sense of mere physical force against the working class and the proletariat.) For capital the solution of the crisis consists in a restructuring of the system that will defeat and reintegrate the antagonistic components of the proletariat within the project of political stabilisation.

As Negri notes, the question then becomes one of strategy and tactics – which itself becomes yet another confounding proposition. All attempts to forge new tactics and strategies are reflected, albeit in a neutered way, in the following deployment of a new stage of development. When the neoliberal regime began to speak of militarized interventionism and expansion of markets in the terms of “democratic peace theory”, were they not responding to the demands for a ‘real democracy’ that emerged towards the tail-end of the global Keynesian order? That the intellectuals tangled up in the state’s bureaucracies, once so committed to modernization theory, turned to the anti-colonialist and post-colonialist theorists emerging from the New Left, speaks to this, just as the shifting of interest from top-down management of social relations to the shaping of civil society by way of the grassroots does as well.

On a less esoteric level, we can see the simultaneous dual “horizontalization” of the modern corporation by way of post-industrialization and the “precariatization” of the working class by way of deindustrialization as both part of a singular program that transforms the entire conditions of class power, a restructuring that unleashes both certain progressive dynamics (horizontalism, though for only members of select classes) and restraining dynamics (the hollowing out of the means to subsistence, setting off a race towards the bottom for many).

Antonio Negri, in his post-autonomist collaborations with Michael Hardt, introduces the concept of exodus, which while operating as a productive concept, also has certain drawbacks (namely, that it remains more metaphysical than concrete – a charge that can be levelled against much of post-autonomist discourse). To understand what is meant by exodus, we have to unpack what Hardt and Negri mean when they write that capitalism is “not simply… a social relationship but… an open social relation.” That capital operates as a social relationship is the core of Marxian theory, which looks at the way socially-necessary labor time is transformed into variable capital in order to ensure the extraction of surplus value. Thus, in the capitalism diagnosed by Marx, capital framed social relations in a sort of closed system, determined only by the value of the commodity itself. Hardt and Negri’s capital-as-open social relation, by contrast, speaks to the capitalism of now, and more specifically, to the forms of capital that prevail in post-industrialization – the so-called “creative industries” and things of that nature.

Hardt and Negri suggest that variable capital (human labor) is becoming detached from constant capital (machines) and is beginning to achieve autonomy of its own. The question stands why they believe this detachment is taking place, and they see the answer as twofold. The first is due to the “newly central or intensified role of the common in economic production”; and because “productivity of labor-power increasingly exceeds the bounds set in its employment by capital.” (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pg. 151). By commons they mean the increased role of teamwork, cooperation, shared language, and communication that is necessitated by post-industrialization. By “exceeding the bounds”, on the other hand, they refer to the way in which skills learned on the job-site can be easily transferred outside of the workplace. Their example of in-bound productivity is the “auto worker” whose “extraordinary mechanical and technological skills… can be actualized only in the factory and thus in the relation with capital” (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pgs. 151-152). The bound-exceeding productivity, by contrast, would be the interpersonal and communicative skills learned in the so-called ‘new economy’.

Obviously there are incredible problems with these sets of assumptions. Hardt and Negri’s discourse can only be articulated in a narrow field of visions, one that is clearly focused on white collar labor – or as they call it, “immaterial labor”. In other words, they look to post-industrialization, and appear as neglecting the reality of de-industrialization, and the spatial restructuring of production that took place on a global level. As such, the reality of the special economic zone doesn’t appear readily in their discourse. How are we to take seriously the idea that labor is becoming immaterial when it rests entirely upon the uneven development between the core and periphery, both at home and abroad? How can we take it seriously when even in the immediate environment of ‘immaterial labor’ itself entails a vast and global material network, one larger than the world has ever seen? And finally, it is clear that the biases explode through on Hardt and Negri’s rather offensive posing of the auto workers, whose skills have little applicability outside of the factory. Anyone who has ever worked with tools in the workplace one knows the vast applicability of the skills that have been learned. This is not some privileged status of the white collar laborer.

Viewed from this angle, Hardt and Negri’s post-autonomism is something wholly detached from its workerist roots. Nonethless, their idea of “exodus”, regardless of the defaults of its foundational propositions, is a concept with potency:

Class struggle… takes the form of exodus. By exodus here we mean, at least initially, a process of subtraction from the relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power. Exodus is thus not a refusal of productivity of biopolitical labor-power but rather a refusal of the increasingly restrictive fetters placed on its productive capacities by capital. (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pg. 152)

The notion of “biopolitics” was first introduced by Foucault, who in the first volume of his The History of Sexuality detailed the emergence of a new form of “power over life”, one focused on the whole of society and inflected through “an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.” (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, pg. 139, emphasis in the original) Hardt and Negri pursue biopolitics through a slightly different register, as itself a terrain of struggle in which the population (or as they configure it, the “multitude”) can strike back against the organizations of power. Because it is a social phenomenon, they suggest, immaterial labor is itself a biopolitical plateau – thus producing a rather confusing image. Proponents of the ‘biopolitical turn’ would do well, perhaps to analyze Hardt and Negri’s depiction of post-industrial labor from the vantage point of Foucault’s own analysis in The Birth of Biopolitics, which articulates the rise of neoliberalism (from which post-industrial labor is indistinguishable) as a biopolitical program initially developed as a program to guide the state’s approach to its internal population. Indeed, can one even talk about a “population” before a state is there to make such an abstraction legible?

If we remove the questionable reference to “biopolitical labor-power” and open it to the explosive productivity of labor-power in general, we get a much more dynamic picture, one in which the capacity to do, to build (or rebuild) outside the purview of capital becomes a possibility. It also allows us to re-connect the post-autonomist discourse with the workerist tendency from which it springs. But the question still remains: what would exodus, in terms of a strategical move to deflect away from recuperation and cooptation by capitalism and the state, look like? How can the productivity of labor-power be put to use in a way that confounds the system?

I would like to bring into play here an important concept from the market anarchist tendency – that of agorism. Developed by the left-libertarian thinker Samuel Edward Konkin III (known as SEK3), agorism is a practice of engaging in counter-economics. As SEK3 defines it:

The Counter-Economy is the sum of all non-aggressive Human Action which is forbidden by the State. Counter-economics is the study of the Counter-Economy and its practices. The Counter-Economy includes the free market, the Black Market, the “underground economy,” all acts of civil and social disobedience, all acts of forbidden association (sexual, racial, cross-religious), and anything else the State, at any place or time, chooses to prohibit, control, regulate, tax, or tariff. The Counter-Economy excludes all State-approved action (the “White Market”) and the Red Market (violence and theft not approved by the State).

There are a number of ways in which the notions of agorism and counter-economics can shed light on forms that exodus could take or ways in which an exodus could be carried out. A series of posts will examine this more in depth, but first, a little background information on left-libertarianism and SEK3 is required.