Literature Study GuidesEmpirePart 3 Chapter 6 Summary

Empire | Study Guide

Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri

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Empire | Part 3, Chapter 6 : Passages of Production (Capitalist Sovereignty) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • The chapter title in full is "Capitalist Sovereignty, or Administering the Global Society of Control."
  • On the surface, capitalism and sovereignty seem at odds. Sovereignty thrives on creating and maintaining boundaries and territories. Capitalism thrives instead on networks of relationships. Capitalism can cross boundaries, and it has no central source of power.
  • According to Marx, capitalism puts populations in motion, creating a "free proletariat." It seeks to create a singular cultural and economic system of production, and through this process traditional cultures can be destroyed. It also reduces status, titles, and privileges to the baseline of monetary value, making what was once qualitative now quantitative.
  • A parallel between the transition from sovereignty (rule by one person) to governmentality (rule by a decentralized economy) and the expansion of capitalism can be drawn. Each kind of rule supports capitalism during its historical period but also poses obstacles to capitalism's development.
  • Civil society served as a mediator between capitalism and modern sovereignty. It attempted to balance the self-interest of economic individuals and the unified interest of the state. In contemporary times, however, civil society no longer serves this role. Its structures are disappearing because of the changing relationship between capital and labor. Its institutions (schools, families, factories) have also changed.
  • What has emerged from civil society is the "society of control." Foucault's vision of a panopticon provides one example of this. Foucault's panopticon is a metaphor for modern disciplinary society. In the metaphor, Foucault imagines a kind of prison architecture that allows the guards to see every prisoner from a central tower, causing the inmates to be disciplined more. Foucault used the metaphor to describe modern disciplinary society, arguing that it has replaced the premodern society of power coming from kings.
  • Much like the panopticon, sovereignty's discipline has become virtual and is exercised in a similar way.
  • In a section subtitled "A Smooth World," the authors denote that as sovereignty moved towards immanence, boundaries collapsed on both national and global scales. A global society has emerged that prizes a world market.
  • During the 19th and 20th centuries, imperialism allowed capitalism to survive and expand. Imperialism worked in such a way as to propel capitalism in its conquest of globalization, yet it also hampered capitalism because it reinforced boundaries, and therefore restricted its flow of capital, labor, and goods. Both systems stand inherently at odds.
  • The notion of the "Third World" also comes into question with the end of imperialism. Where once it described places that were outside of the Cold War division—places those nations would compete for—its definition no longer made sense. This is because the imperialist notion of "inside and outside" was ceasing to exist, and the "frontiers" the Third World was seen as were no longer being competed over by imperialist powers.
  • However, many have argued that the Third World never actually existed because its definition never recognized the diversity of the countries it was meant to describe. The purpose of capitalist conquest, though, found the term useful.
  • Because of decentralization and consolidation, attempting to even categorize geographical divisions as central and peripheral is no longer easy.
  • In a section subtitled "The New Segmentations," the authors indicate that just because civil society and national boundaries are disappearing doesn't mean that social inequalities have been eradicated. On the contrary they have only grown stronger under different guises.
  • In major urban cities, both wealth and poverty have grown, while the physical distance between the wealthy and the poor has shrunk. As a result, architectural trends have created spaces that contain an open and free environment inside while presenting a formidable entrance in the form of "fortress architecture" with closed and impenetrable exteriors in places like commercial centers and government and buildings. This architectural shift marks the decline of true public space.
  • Another hallmark of this new segmentation is along political lines regarding labor. Informational technology has changed the face and power of labor.
  • The imperial politics of labor works to lower the cost of labor. The workday sees less regulation, which means people work all hours of the day and night as well as weekends. This work, also often unregulated, creates more available work, especially the more unregulated it is. This increase happens because rules around labor and the regulation of working hours have become more lax, so more people have access to the unregulated work.
  • Fear of violence and the lack of money or employment create and maintain these new segmentations. This point lines up with the earlier argument of fear as a tool used by communication corporations.
  • In a section subtitled "Imperial Administration," the authors claim that the imperial administration must maintain peace and mobilize and organize the new segmentations. It must do this by controlling differences rather than seeking to integrate them. As a result, it functions according to the specific issues it needs to fix.
  • Where once administrations sought universality by treating every issue equally, now each problem is treated differently. The authors raise the question of why this system is considered legitimate given its negative qualities. They posit that this is because it is locally effective.
  • The autonomy of local administration doesn't contradict imperial administration; it only serves to expand its effectiveness. In turn, it fosters local consent to the imperial government.
  • In a section subtitled "Imperial Command," the authors point out that imperial command is separate from administration, which is the opposite of modern regimes. The result of changes in society have changed the relationships that once made up sovereignty. It is exercised through biopolitical control rather than disciplinary control.
  • Where once the concept of a "people" was characterized by a shared identity, it has been replaced by populations that are much more mobile and flexible. This new multitude can only then be governed biopolitically—along internal lines through production, exchange, and culture.
  • This multitude has the potential to transform itself into an absolute democratic power, and with that comes the possibility of overthrowing capitalist domination. Preventing this from happening is imperial government's largest priority. At the same time, Empire's very existence depends on this multitude, and so it must be controlled but not eradicated.
  • However, Empire does not have access to local spaces. Instead, imperial command is interested in investing and protecting the global system. It does this by stockpiling thermonuclear weapons, a global threat that signals the transition from modern sovereignty to Empire in how it changes global dynamics.
  • Money is another way imperial command wields control. The construction of the world market has resulted in national markets being deconstructed. Yet just as with the imperial nuclear threat, "money" has no singular location.
  • The authors next bring up the concept of "ether," which refers to a medium that is intangible and where elements go to disperse. It is the third medium of imperial control, and management of communication, education, and culture often dissolve in the so-called ether because they are not subject to sovereignty. This kind of control results in deterritorialization.
  • These three kinds of imperial control reflect the imperial pyramid of power. The threat of a nuclear bomb belongs to monarchic power; money is connected to aristocratic power; and the ether is a reflection of democratic power.
  • In a section subtitled "Big Government is Over!" the authors bridge the subject of conservatives and neoliberals under Empire, who call for an end to "big government." However, while representatives of the conservative wing pushed for the end, the postmodern informational revolution required the government to support it through the building of the Internet, controlling the stock exchange, maintaining the value of money, and reforming the education system.
  • The authors argue that capitalism needs big government in order to function and thrive. At the same time, big government has been responsible for the redistribution of social wealth and fights for equality and democracy. But this era is over: big government now helps reproduce the power that leads to exploitation.
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