‘Commonwealth’, ‘Behind the Crisis: Marx’s Dialects of Value and Knowledge’ reviewed by Marco Boffo


The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009. xiv + 434 pp., £16.95 pb
ISBN 9780674060289

Reviewed by Marco Boffo

About the reviewer

Marco Boffo is a PhD candidate in Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, …


As the reality of crisis disrupts the utopian landscape of the knowledge economy, knowledge and its place in the current phase of capitalism have become pressing concerns for contemporary Marxism. In this context, Commonwealth and Behind the Crisis locate knowledge within contemporary capitalism, simultaneously reassessing the relevance of value theory for economic, social, and political analysis. Displaying a problematic reading of contested mainstream economic categories, Commonwealth marks a new ambiguous endpoint for the trajectory of post-Operaismo’s political economy, while Behind the Crisis, reaffirming value theory, refutes post-workerist analysis and lays down elements of a Marxist theory of knowledge.

While Empire (Hardt and Negri, 2000) outlined the changing nature of contemporary capitalism, and Multitude (Hardt and Negri, 2004) more explicitly stressed the social subjectivities active therein, Commonwealth, the third volume in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, focuses on ‘the common’ as source and outcome of a ‘democracy of the multitude’ (viii). Readers accustomed to Hardt and Negri’s trademark musings on sovereignty (Part 1), (post- and alter-) modernity (Part 2), hegemony, multilateralism, and the international order (Part 4), biopolitical production (Part 3 and Part 5), Foucault, Spinoza, and the like, will not be surprised. Nonetheless, distinctively setting apart Commonwealth from the previous volumes of the trilogy, explicit recourse to the rhetoric of political economy frames the overarching narrative and political thrust of the book, and specific categories from the discipline of economics are mobilised to substantiate its socio-political analysis. While both the political relevance of economic thought and the political economy of contemporary capitalism have been constant concerns throughout the trilogy, the reframing of the overall argument as a treatise of political economy, and the appeal to distinct categories from economics, mark a strong discontinuity with the authors’ previous efforts.

Taking as point of departure ’the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together’, as well as ‘knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth’, Commonwealth stretches the economic category of public goods to encompass ‘those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production’ (viii). This sets the tone for an exploration of ‘the institutional structure and political constitution of society’ infused with the spirit of reviving ‘a return to some of the themes of classic treatises of government’ (xiii), sustained and reinforced throughout the book by the mobilisation of foundational myths and thinkers of political economy. Thus, bees’ activity and pollination as metaphors of social productivity are followed all the way from Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and Adam Smith’s reading of it (184-7), through Deleuze and Guattari’s reversal of the tale in favour of wasps’ unproductive behaviour (186-8), to J. E. Meade’s bees and pollination as a positive externality (281). Similarly, Quesnay and his Tableau Economique (285-6), Keynes and his euthanasia of the rentier (141), as well as Schumpeter and his prognosis of capitalism (296-8), all make guest appearances.

Positing a mutually expanding positive relation between the common and wealth, ‘the need to institute and manage a world of common wealth, focusing on and expanding our capacities for collective production and self-government’ (xiii) inspires ‘the political project of instituting the common’ (ix). Adopting the perspective of the common to open new spaces for political action implies rejecting the ‘pernicious political alternative between capitalism and socialism’ (ix). Indeed, if ‘what the private is to capitalism and what the public is to socialism, the common is to communism’ (273), and ‘socialism ambivalently straddles modernity and antimodernity, communism must break with both of these by presenting a direct relation to the common to develop the paths of altermodernity’ (107). Given this prospect, a striking feature of Commonwealth is the absence of any acknowledgement, let alone discussion or critique, of Elinor Ostrom’s work (co-winner in 2009 of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on community self-management of common-pool resources). While other participants to the debate on the commons engage critically with her work, Commonwealth remains silent about it, missing an important opportunity to qualify its political project with respect to mainstream liberal visions of community self-management (often a rhetorical device allowing for deeper neoliberal restructuring in practice).

Despite rhetorical emphasis on political economy, Commonwealth’s substantive political economy of contemporary capitalism remains typically post-workerist, in strong continuity with that of Empire and Multitude. It is, again, at the rhetorical level that Commonwealth distinguishes itself. To substantiate their analysis, Hardt and Negri mobilise from the toolbox of economics externalities and social capital. Thus, they ascribe what they see as the increasing importance of externalities in economic theory (although whether this is factually true for economics is a moot point) to the hegemony of ‘biopolitical production’ and ‘biopolitical exploitation’ (141), ‘[t]he capacities of biopolitical labor-power’ exceeding work and spilling over into life (152), and the shift ‘from the industrial to the biopolitical metropolis’ (154), central ‘site of biopolitical production’ (250) and ‘vast reservoir of common wealth’ (153), where social cooperation affects the value of landed property in the form of negative and positive externalities (154-5) ‘embedded in the surrounding metropolitan terrain’ (251). Investigating ‘what political regime can both foster and control production today’ entails analysing ‘what social production and social wealth’ mean ‘in economic terms’ (271). Thus, social capital, understood as ‘ the various forms of community’ constituting the ‘stock of wealth’ allowing the functioning of all other forms of capital, is seen by Hardt and Negri as ‘supplementary concept’ to bypass ‘crude economistic notions of production’ (271). Nonetheless, social capital understands ‘the new figures of biopolitical production as supplements or appendages to Fordist industry and its mode of accumulation’ (272); it is the pervasiveness of externalities and market failure, in which Hardt and Negri recognise ‘a spectre of the common’, that ‘allows … to rethink some of the standard assumptions of political economy’ (155). Hence, Hardt and Negri tell us, to understand biopolitical production a reversal of the economists’ perspective is required, to ‘internalize the productive externalities, bringing the common to the center of economic life’ (280): ‘freedom of the common’ is essential in the knowledge economy for creativity, production, and growth, the common having replaced the private as ‘locus of freedom and innovation’ (282). The common, previously perceived as external to economic activity, ‘is becoming completely “internalized”’; therefore, adopting ‘the standpoint of the common’ implies rethinking ‘many of the central concepts of political economy’ to understand a biopolitical production unconstrained by ‘the logic of scarcity’ (283).

Nonetheless, Commonwealth’s appeal to the concepts of externalities and social capital raises important unresolved issues, shedding an ambiguous light on the authors’ analysis and overall political project. Erroneously presented as if unanimously accepted by all economists (some ‘contemporary heterodox economists’ are cursorily referenced in footnote 37 (419), although no explanation is given as to the exact meaning of their heterodoxy), externalities and market failure are introduced in Hardt and Negri’s system without acknowledgement or discussion of their origin in methodological individualism and the mathematical apparatus of microeconomics, ignoring whether their use might constrain, let alone skew, analysis. Despite the expression `social capital’ appearing in Empire in a very different, and more marxisant, way (304-7 and 403), the authors do not acknowledge, let alone explain, this semantic shift, the polysemy of the expression, or the implications of adopting one meaning over the other. The vast and ever-expanding literature on social capital and externalities is never mentioned, discussed, nor critiqued by the authors (for an ‘overview of the various uses of’ social capital, the reader is referred to an introductory textbook in footnote 9 (417)), the two concepts being mobilised as part of Commonwealth’s rhetorical strategy rather than for their analytical content. Furthermore, social capital, externalities, and market failure are, each in their own way, key illustrations of “economics imperialism”, the restricted and restrictive incorporation of the social within economic theory; basing analysis on either concept comes at great costs in terms of both what is left out and what is incorporated in piecemeal fashion. Having gained prominence in World Bank rhetoric, scholarship, and policy in practice in the guise of the Post-Washington Consensus, externalities and social capital have been instrumental in sustaining and pushing forward the latest phase of neoliberalism. For these reasons, Hardt and Negri’s political reading of these concepts would have required at least qualification. Such acceptance of contested economic categories marks a new ambiguous staging post for post-workerist assessments of contemporary capitalism, as well as their overall political project.

A divergent approach is followed by Behind the Crisis. Predicating that understanding the ‘crisis-ridden nature’ of capitalism requires developing ‘Marx’s own method of enquiry’, the book intends to refute specific claims of ‘irrelevance, inconsistency, and obsoleteness’ of Marx’s thought and analysis (vii). Departing from both Hegelian readings of Marx’s method and Engels’ grounding of dialectics in ‘the law of development immanent in nature’, the first chapter offers a methodological reflection based on dialectics ‘as a method of social research focused exclusively on social reality’ (2). Tackling recent controversies on ‘abstract labour as the only source of value [and its] materiality … the law of the falling rate of profit, and the so-called “transformation problem”’, the second chapter dismisses claims of Marx’s logical inconsistency on the grounds of the exclusive focus of critics ‘on the quantitative and formal-logic aspect’, as opposed to the inability of formal logic to grasp ‘qualitative, radical change’ (53). The third chapter contrasts underconsumptionist and policy-failure based explanations of the current crisis against a Marxian theory of crisis (131-43), defending on empirical and theoretical grounds (143-70) an explanation of the current crisis as expression of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Rejecting Keynesian policies on the basis of their class content, radical change is identified as the only solution to endless alternation of cycles of crisis and recovery (170-82).

Whatever the reader’s take on these hotly debated and controversial issues, the most interesting aspect of Behind the Crisis lies in the fourth chapter. Given the ‘widespread notion that in contemporary capitalism the economy rests more on the production of knowledge … than on “material”, or better said, objective production’ (184), the book reclaims the necessity of a theory of knowledge ‘consistent with Marx’s wider theoretical opus’ (183) as subjective complement to its theory of crisis. Thus, the chapter explores ‘two areas of a Marxist theory of knowledge’ (183): ‘the development of a theory of individual and social knowledge’ linking the ‘crisis-ridden nature of the capitalist economy’ to the ‘manifestations of … objective developments at the level of social consciousness’, and an assessment of the potential of ‘knowledge produced under capitalist relations’ to function in the ‘transition towards a socialist society’ (184). Refuting the notions of information- and service-society, and reaffirming the specificity and socially determinant nature of the ‘capitalist ownership-relation’ (185-92), the chapter lays down a theory of individual knowledge rejecting the concept of immaterial labour, as well as distinctions between intellectual and manual labour (as all forms of labour always involve both ‘the working of the brain’ and the execution of tasks, thus being intellectual and manual at the same time), and mental and material labour (as all forms of labour always involve both conception and ‘expenditure of human energy’, thus being mental and material at the same time) (193). Defining ‘objective transformations’ as ‘transformations of objective reality … existing outside … consciousness’, and ‘mental transformations’ as ‘transformations of knowledge … of objective reality or of previous knowledge’, with both types of transformations requiring ‘expenditure of human energy’ and thus being ‘material processes’ (193), Carchedi dismisses physicalist definitions of materiality (198-202), and argues that any type of labour process is material, ‘including the production of knowledge’ (198).

Identifying ‘whether and under which conditions the production of knowledge is production of value and surplus-value’ (220), and reaffirming the importance of capitalist command and value production within the labour process (220-5), Carchedi’s analysis challenges post-workerist conceptualisations of knowledge and value as exceeding the labour process. Through detailed textual refutation of the standard post-workerist interpretation of Marx’s Fragment on Machines and concept of General Intellect (225-31), Carchedi confronts head-on post-workerist assumptions about the pervasiveness of science and knowledge production inevitably leading to the ‘supersession of capitalism due to the moving contradiction between forces and relations of production’ (230). Through close engagement with Empire (237-44), the theses of the immanence of cooperation to knowledge work and increasing autonomy of knowledge-workers from capitalist command and control are dismissed on the grounds of a view of knowledge determined by the capitalist ownership-relation: the production of knowledge being a social process, both application and creation of science and technology are class-determined (244-6), and like ‘the objective collective labourer, the mental collective labourer is subjected to the capitalist division of labour’ (248). Such ‘application of the capitalist technical division of labour to the production of knowledge’, although differently guided and ‘dictated by [the] different types of knowledge to be produced’, allows for the production by individual mental labourers of ‘class-determined knowledge’ (248). Despite some elements of knowledge possessing trans-class and trans-epochal character, under capitalism their specificity is incorporated within the existing relations of production (256-67). Thus, in stark opposition to post-workerist analysis, where knowledge is inherently transcendental with respect to capital, for knowledge to be functional to a transition to a system of ‘human self-realisation’ (269), it is necessary to differentiate different kinds of knowledge on the grounds of whether they advance the goal of labour’s self-emancipation or its subjection to capitalist relations of production (261-3).

While Hardt and Negri simply re-wrap their argument in the rhetoric of political economy, they eschew any substantive renewal of their analysis, as well as engagement with problematic aspects of their thought and the economic categories mobilised therein. Carchedi’s reflection, dispelling received ideas about knowledge and contemporary capitalism, evidences the fallacy of post-workerist presuppositions, re-opening the debate on knowledge, the labour process, and value theory. Furthermore, Hardt and Negri’s repackaging of their argument in the rhetoric of political economy, together with the casual mobilisation of contested economic categories, stands testimony to the inescapable need for social theory to address political economy. If the liveliness of the debate on knowledge within Marxist accounts of contemporary capitalism suffices to rethink the demise of Marxism within the knowledge economy, purposeful engagement with value theory remains essential to move beyond the metaphorical and rhetorical levels.

1 July 2011


  • Hardt, M., and A. Negri 2000 Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).
  • Hardt, M., and A. Negri 2004 Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin).

One comment

  1. This review is a breath of fresh air and, considering the limitation of space, is well done. However, it would have been wiser to deal with these two books separately in two different reviews. My reasons are twofold: (1) that Negri’s (Hardt’s) writings are often difficult to pin down for their straight face rhetorical anarchism (which I call methodological bullshitting) and (2) that the amount of trespassing and thus ‘convenient’ (yet misunderstood) terminology from one sub-discipline in bourgeois social and political sciences to another, compounded by hoping from one philosophical method to the next. On the other hand, Carchedi’s, far from presenting a utopian science fictions (if you like) attempts to tackle a number of specific questions–and despite the fact that one is in agreement or disagreement with his presentation–in age-old political economy and its critique.

    At any rate, I enjoyed the review.

    Cyrus Bina
    Author of most recently
    OIL: A TIME MACHINE–Journey Beyond Fanciful Economics and Frightful Politics (2011)

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