Literature Study GuidesEmpirePart 3 Chapter 3 Summary

Empire | Study Guide

Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri

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Empire | Part 3, Chapter 3 : Passages of Production (Resistance, Crisis, Transformation) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • While the Vietnam War was at odds with the United States's constitutional ideals, it represented the Vietnamese working class's desire for freedom. They resisted both imperialism and "the international disciplinary regime." This international disciplinary order was seen as the common enemy upon which diverse struggles converged, which in turn forced capitalism to change its structure.
  • In a section subtitled "Two, Three, Many Vietnams," the authors assert that by the late 1960s, the international system of capitalist production was starting to malfunction. This crisis was caused by conflict with the working class in "dominant capitalist countries," which Marx defined as "capitalist crisis." Workers rebelled by refusing to work and by beginning to make demands for guaranteed wages. In turn, the international economic system became destabilized.
  • The authors define this "virtual unity" of the working class as an "accumulation of struggles" that served to undermine the strategies of capitalism. These strategies had long worked to prevent global unity among the working class. Yet through this convergence of struggles, the division between First and Third Worlds began to soften.
  • At the same time these struggles unfolded, the global economic order, which had been stable for nearly 30 years thanks to the solidity of the dollar and monetary stabilization between the United States and other capitalist countries, also began to decline.
  • In a section subtitled "Capitalist Response to the Crisis," the authors maintain that this economic order was still considered new because there had been a shift from money being controlled by private banks and financiers to government and regulatory organizations. The destabilization began in 1968 and was marked by inflation of the dollar. By the 1970s any former equilibrium had vanished.
  • Marx would argue that this destabilization was not a bad thing from the capitalist perspective because economic crises can fuel its transformation. This is because individual capitalists are conservative with their spending, wanting to maximize their profits in the short-term even if it is detrimental to collective capital in the long run.
  • An economic crisis can push individual capitalists to overcome their resistance as well as get rid of sectors that don't generate profit. It can also change the organization of production and help new technologies evolve.
  • In a section subtitled "The Ecology of Capital," the authors reason that in response to the economic struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s, capitalism could take one of two potential paths to stabilize itself. The first was to attempt to reestablish control over the entire cycle of production by using technology to repress the working class through the automation and computerization of production. Yet this path was did not provide a long-term solution in that it stifled capitalism's production.
  • The second path had to include technological change that did not serve to repress, but rather alter the composition of the working class. This is effective because, as the authors state, capitalism "undergoes systemic transformation only when it is forced to and when its current regime is no longer tenable."
  • The working class has the power to place limits on capital and also define the terms of capitalism's transformation.
  • During World War I many theorists believed that capitalism had reached a crisis point as it became forced to reckon with the limits it was now up against in terms of expansion and accumulation. Capitalism had used up significant portions of the world for its accumulation and had run out of frontiers. This reckoning also led to conflict between the imperialist powers.
  • The authors note that at the time of writing Empire—the end of the 20th century—capitalism is in a robust place. One reason posited as to why this is so is because capitalism has reformed itself from imperialism. Yet as the authors work through hypotheses to support this idea, they come to disagree with it because capitalist expansion has accelerated, subsuming new territories.
  • A second reason posits that the persistence of capitalism is just a continuation of what came before in terms of expansion and accumulation but that the moment of confronting its limits has not yet arrived.
  • A third reason is that capitalism continues to expand is by looking inside rather than outside for resources. Modern technological transformation has turned nature into its own capital.
  • In a section subtitled "Assault on the Disciplinary Regime," the authors state that during the capitalist crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, a "new margin of freedom" emerged for the working class thanks to the expansion of welfare. Workers used the tensions and destabilization to widen the social powers of labor and increase its value.
  • The struggles of that era also forced changes to the concept of labor itself. Workers rejected the fixed nature of work and pushed for more flexibility. The hippie movement offers an example of the ways in which parts of society began to refuse the disciplinary nature of government and were instead interested in experimentation. This changed the value ascribed to certain kinds of work—intellectual work and women's work, in particular. This era valued cooperation and communication above all else.
  • Many analyses of these social movements neglect to acknowledge the economic power they held—and the notion that cultural movements and economics are closely intertwined. Capitalism was forced to shift because of the social movements led by the working class.
  • The only way capitalism will thrive under a new configuration will be for powers to adapt and govern a transformed labor group.
  • In a section subtitled "The Death Throes of Soviet Discipline," the authors mention that the collapse of the Soviet Union provides a lens with which to view capitalist shifts. They believe the Soviet Union collapsed because it never evolved beyond a disciplinary government and increasingly ran into the limits of modernization.
  • The Soviet Union was able to keep up with its rival powers in some areas, such as nuclear weapons and space exploration, but it couldn't compete where the real conflicts of power were taking place.
  • The Soviet Union's working class inevitably resisted its bureaucratic dictatorship by refusing to work. Despite the country's cultural isolation and exclusion from the world economy, its cycle of struggle deeply mirrored the crisis of other capitalist countries at a time when the working class was forcing the powers into a cycle of crisis, transformation, and new structures.
  • It was the Soviet Union's repression of the productive potential of its working class that led to its collapse.
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