Utopian Passion

The heartfelt disgust at neoliberalism’s cruelty that animates Hardt and Negri’s work is, quite simply, admirable.  And the equally passionate desire for the “commons” and for “cooperation”—along with the desire to imagine a politics, along with forms of political action, that body forth such cooperation in a shared space—is also praiseworthy.  Just because their sharp analysis of neoliberalism is not matched with a correspondingly acute description of what to do next is no reason to disparage the work.

Here’s the fullest statement of the longed-for utopia in the book.

“The history of general strikes is animated by an insurrectional and constituent passion: not passion in the sense of a charismatic or thaumaturgic event, but passion that lives in the highest moments of political ethics, in the intersection of resistance and solidarity, when spontaneity and organization, insurrection and constituent power are most closely tied together.  It is an act, to use the language of ethical philosophy, when rationality and love triumph together.  In the ‘strike’ passion, reason creates a dynamic of common freedom and love generates an expansive action of equality.  Calls for coalition, tous ensemble, speak the language of reason and freedom; expressions of camaraderie, companer@s, sisters and brothers, are the language of love and equality.  The general strike thus gives flesh to the bare bones of the language of human rights” (Assembly, 241).

“O, then was it bliss to be alive. The resemblance to Arendt’s celebration of “the lost treasure of revolution” impresses me. The importance of ends, of purposes, of outcomes shrinks; it is the political action itself that looms large, the ecstatic moment of union with others in the fierce present of “resistance,” of love.  Success is almost beside the point.  The strike is not a moment of building or of becoming.  It is a moment of pure being, of being-with, of the ecstatic loss of self in something larger than the self.

(To be fair, Hardt and Negri’s term “constituent power” is meant to signal that the power immanent to the general strike is constructive, it constitutes things.  They certainly don’t want to say that the strike, like Auden’s poetry, “makes nothing happen.”  But “constituent power” is another instance of their sloganeering.  How this power constitutes anything and what it constitutes are never addressed.)

The longing for a worthy collective, a larger cause to which I can willingly, happily, in a full unshadowed endorsement, immerse myself must beckon to us all at some point or another.  Even the staunchest individual imagines a soul mate, an absorbing and fulfilling love.  A perfect union.

Love, admittedly, is difficult.  I am often astonished at both how mundane love is—and how improbable at exactly the same time.  We are all such prickly beasts, full of selfish desires and self-regarding hurts and shames and needs.  The slightest things rub us the wrong way, make us wrinkle our noses in disgust.  “I don’t want to be associated with that.”  Such sensitivities afflict our personal loves and consistently poison less personal associations. So when it actually works, when our incorporation (a potent word when its bodily root is taken seriously) is complete—and satisfying–it seems nothing short of a miracle.

And here’s the rub.  Few experiences appear to scratch the itch for belonging so intensely as war.  Nostalgia for war is rampant among those who have participated in one.  And Hardt and Negri’s romance of the general strike sounds remarkably similar to soldier’s memories of being in the army.  The logic of William James’s famous essay, “A Moral Equivalent of War,” weighs upon me.  James was eloquent, in Varieties of Religious Experience, about the desire to merge the self into some cause, some entity, larger than self.  In many respects, that longing is religion for James.  War can look like religion’s equivalent—the stakes are appropriately high, the denial of the self’s petty needs fully imperative.

“War is the health of the state,” wrote Randolph Bourne.  Presumably, war thus should be the exact opposite of everything that Hardt and Negri desire from politics.  They want ecstasy without destruction, with everything on the line even though violence is absent.  I sympathize. I, too, want that.  At least some of the time.  I am, I suspect, more attached to individuality than they are.  I want to reserve my right to have reservations, to maintain an ironic distance from collective enterprises, to be allowed to judge them as well as participate in them.  No unreflective belonging.

One final thought.  Bourne’s famous statement can be taken in another way.  Reading the book about the American war in the Pacific, it is impossible not to be impressed by the feats of organization and coordination the state managed during World War II.  The moving parts were almost infinite; the details that needed to be anticipated and then taken care of simply mind-boggling.  As an intellectual challenge, a challenge then joined to the material and psychological challenges, the war—and how America responded to it—is awe-inspiring.  If anything ever proved that communism could work, it was what America did in the five years from 1940 to 1945, when a centrally planned economy that appropriated every single member of society and assigned them their place in the war-making machine performed its task extremely well.

Hornfischer (the author of the book on the Pacific War) is a fairly typical right-leaning military historian.  He is fully taken with the romance of American power and deeply proud of American know-how and courage.  He never cottons on the extent that the America of the war years was a communist society if ever there was one.  But he also pays just about no attention to the sand in the machine.  For him, the war operations were just about frictionless, with only a few minor, if unfortunate, mishaps (he really can’t even bring himself to call them screw-ups).  Most telling, perhaps, is the fact that he deems artillery and air bombardment (long-distance killing) as almost always effective, whereas most analysts have concluded that the military has always over-estimated their efficacy.

It wasn’t just for humor’s sake, with no connection to reality, that the common sailor resorted to the ever-present euphemism, SNAFU.  Situation Normal All Fucked Up.  The best laid plans and all that.  The romance of war, like all romances, tends to eliminate the warts.  Many a soldier was not a happy camper, and even the happy ones usually had scant respect for the abilities of the higher-ups, with their fancy uniforms and even fancier plans.

Assembly is driven by a desire for a moment (at least a moment, even though it seems to suggest we could have an era) when all are in lockstep.  Be careful what you wish for.  War, based on nationalist solidarity, is the closest we’ve come to such ecstatic unity.  Maybe the revolutionary moment, the longed for assembly of the multitude out in the public square protesting the evils of neoliberalism, compares.  But I’ll put in my two cheers for liberal pluralism all the same.  Lockstep just doesn’t appeal to me all that much.

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