Thursday, June 19, 2008


Cultural studies and civil society theory purport to be progressive projects, liberatory alternatives to the dominant social order. Yet cultural studies’ concept of “counter-hegemony” only reinforces all the populist assumptions upon which hegemony rests, leaving the state unquestioned. Likewise, for all its talk of “society against the state,” civil society theory also merely entrenches state power, by excluding other logics that might unsettle sovereign claims to legitimacy and universality. In short, both appeal to and uphold constituted power, instantiated in and exercised through representation. Constituted power is the transcendent power of the sovereign subject, but it is a delegated power: it is the result of a prior articulation (in cultural studies’ terms) or mediation (for civil society theory). Constituted power draws its strength from an immanent constituent power that precedes it, and which it claims to represent. Hence the power that a political order exercises is always derivative, and that order is itself the creation of constituent power. In the words of the Abbé Sieyès, who first formulated this distinction in the context of France’s 1789 Constituent Assembly, “in each of its parts a constitution is not the work of a constituted power but a constituent power. No type of delegated power can modify the conditions of its delegation” (“What is the Third Estate?” 136). For Sieyès, the constituent assembly was to harmonize these two modalities of power: to ensure that government was well constituted. But the very notion of good constitution presupposes a distinction between the constituent and the constituted. Indeed, this split is at the heart of what Martin Loughlin and Neil Walker term the “paradox of constitutionality”: that the people, the presumed subject of power, are denied access to it; “the power they possess, it would appear, can only be exercised through constitutional forms already established or in the process of being established” (“Introduction” 1).

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Constituent power is continuous and everyday. Appearances, however, are deceptive: in appearance, constituent power emerges only in moments of crisis, in the transition from one political order to another, soon thereafter to disappear. As Negri notes, "once the exceptional moment of innovation is over, constituent power seems to exhaust its effects" (Insurgencies 327).

The normative regulations of constituted power are more familiar than is the uproarious intensity associated with constitutional assemblies, when constituent power is glimpsed in full force as it intervenes decisively on the political stage. But for Negri, this "appearance of exhaustion" is simply "mystification"; in fact, "the only limits on constituent power are the limits of the world of life" (327, 328).

Constituent power "persists": once a constitution is declared, it goes underground; unseen, it continues to expand until it erupts once more to interrupt constituted power, forcing drastic changes in social relations. Capital responds with a series of class recompositions that it presents as natural; the state reacts with periodic refoundations that it presents as simple renegotiations of some original social pact.

At each stage, the multitude is beaten back, temporarily defeated, "absorbed into the mechanism of representation" (Insurgencies 3) and so misrecognized as class, people, mass, or some other docile political subject. But even such misrecognitions, Negri claims, signal an "ontological accumulation" (334). Being itself is transformed through the "continuous and unrestrainable practice" that is the multitude's everyday, permanent revolution (334).

A focus on constituent power, then, rather than on the different forms taken by constituted power, opens up "a new substratum" of history, "an ontological level on which productive humanity anticipate[s] the concrete becoming, forcing it or being blocked by it" (232).

Sunday, June 15, 2008


The multitude is common. It is ordinary and everyday, and it is also both the product and the producer of shared resources. It comprises what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker term the "hewers of wood and drawers of water": a "motley crew" of apparently disorganized labor (The Many-Headed Hydra 40, 212).

Though Negri sometimes flirts with an almost Leninist vanguardism, the multitude rebels against party organization or the privileging of so-called advanced sectors. The exercise of constituent power is a matter of habit, not training, indoctrination, or even will. The multitude seeks connections based on what we already hold in common; its polyvalent powers of connection open up new bases for commonality.

Negri and Hardt reverse the narrative that claims that capitalism has already destroyed the commons, and that privatization is now rampant, especially after neoliberalism. They argue that we have more in common now than ever before, and that the stage is set for the "common name" of a Communist liberty to come. The love of the common people is to ensure this transformation of what is now either private interest or public command into an immanent utopia.

And yet it can be hard to distinguish the multitude from the actual dystopia of Empire. Hardt and Negri oppose the multitude's commonality to Empire's corruption, but their analysis of corruption is confused and contradictory.

Indeed, the common and the corrupt often overlap: both are products of informal and unsupervised networks. Again, the multitude is ambivalent and the state has no monopoly on corruption. The principle of commonality suggests that there can be no categorical distinction between multitude and Empire: if constituted power is merely a particular (de)formation of the constituent, the point is rather to distinguish between such formations, to find a protocol by which to set apart bad from good, rather than to affirm the multitude at every turn.

When it comes to the multitude, Negri's projective Marxism too quickly renounces critique.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


The Saturday photo, part V: with Peter Hallward in a Vancouver bar, following his talk on "Haiti and the Politics of Containment."

This blog has been once more in the doldrums for too long. More is to come.