From edition

The Empire of Wealth II–Differential Economics

Friends upset by my criticism of Empire (see issue one, 2001) have asked me to explain myself. So to explain myself: I think Empire is a backward-looking book that unfortunately repeats the faults of intolerance, prejudice, and closed-mindedness that characterize a recent tradition of Marxist writing on post-modernism that is usually referred to as “Left Conservatism.” The book also exudes faith in a material ontology that is prior to the contrivances and differences of the market. From that ontology, the multitude will rise up and save us by laying claim to an annual stipend. This faith, this certainty and sense of authority, make Hardt and Negri sound at times like Catholic Church theologians denouncing deviations from the faith, especially post-modern deviations. At times, this connection seems more than metaphoric. The word “god” is used in the book without any apparent sense of irony.
The book assumes a wrong premise–that the post-modern idea of differences is in fact central to capitalist globalization understood as an extension of the capitalist market all over the globe, an event that results in a new Empire. There are three things wrong with this premise. The first is that globalization is not wrong because it expands markets. Rather, it extends and expands the differential between wages and profits through the location or creation of low-cost production sites. The second defect of the premise is that market domination is not imperial in any compelling political sense. What is disturbing about the new world economy is that it feasts upon the difference between wages in countries where labor is organized and strong and countries where labor is disorganized and weak. Finally, the premise assumes there is something wrong with difference because difference shows up in the operations of the market. In fact, it shows up everywhere, and that is why one cannot make a supposedly radical new politics out of denouncing it. To do so is to denounce the ontology we inhabit and the epistemology we know it by. It is also to denounce the only instrument available for reshaping that ontology and making a more just world.
Why is difference so pervasive and why does it offer us something not to reject in a heavenly gesture of narcissistic purity but to embrace as one key to understanding how what’s rotten in global capitalism might be remedied? First, let’s begin by noting that the post-modern idea of difference–that there are no identities, only differences–comes closer to modern physics’ assumptions about the universe we live in than the naïve materialist ontology of Empire. The physical world’s apparent substance is the effect of relational interactions between entities that have no existence apart from the relations they enter into. This simple idea–that existence in space mandates relations of force between entities that would expire outside of those relations–would, if embraced, have allowed the authors of Empire to perceive that difference is fundamental to human dealings with the physical world and that it cannot be purged by neo-Catholic declarations of purity. (“Lock up all post-modernists!” is one subtle, implied argument in Empire.)
If difference is not a matter of choice, how can it enable a better understanding of economics so that a more helpful model than putting the world on the dole (essentially what Empire proposes) can be developed?
One way of pursuing this line of thought is to think about what universality really means. For years now, the word and the idea have been critiqued because they were confused with transcendence. What transcendence names–the possibility of a spiritual ideality that is outside matter and physics–should be discarded, but is universality the same thing? A materialist or physicalist understanding of universality would describe it as a concatenation of instances or examples so that no instance is left out of the series. Such a notion of serial concatenation accepts the fundamentality of difference but takes advantage of it to build a universal that as a result becomes a plane to which consistent standards of measure can be applied. What might be called universality-from-below exposes for remedy the harsh differences that now are the motor of capitalist globalization. And the remedy would consist of a rational rearrangement of difference rather than a naïve utopia of in-difference, a “multitude” that rises up to get its welfare check.
Why a “rearrangement of difference”? Because economic is difference, and that is true of capitalist economic as it exists or of any economics that might style itself as “post” or “non” capitalist. Whatever alternative is chosen or formulated will still require a difference between terms to make its operations possible. Why? Because economic life–the making of goods for sale–can only exist if there are differences between its fundamental terms. An economy of purely equal terms (prices paid for production materials equals price charged for end product) would not function. The prices paid to workers for their labor, added to the cost of raw materials, must be less than the price charged for the end product. The secret of globalization is not so much imperial marketing as it is an exacerbation of these fundamental differences. By lowering the cost of labor extremely, businesses are able to create a much larger difference between costs and income.
The solution to this quest for greater differences that, when monetarized or converted into monetary income, is the basis for the new globalized wealth is not, as the authors of Empire suggest, to reject difference but rather to accept it and pursue its consequences. What the reach of globalization makes possible is a more complete view of all the differentiated instances that make new wealth creation possible, wealth again understood here as the monetarization of difference. This more complete view allows the formulation of a universal model of regulated differences. Those regulated differences would be the expression of a democratically arrived at sense of what the right ratios of difference should be between the fundamental terms of economic life. For example, a universal economy might be developed in which the difference between costs and income could not exceed 15%, in which managers’ pay could not exceed base pay in the firm by more than a two to one ratio, and in which wages for labor around the world could not vary by more than 3%. In other words, a business could only charge so much for products; company executives could not extract more than a certain amount in pay; and businesses could not pay less than a certain amount worldwide.
Such a universal economic model would require a dissolution of national boundaries and the development of new ideas of sovereignty and of citizenship. The authors of Empire are right to notice that post-modernism points in this direction, but what for them is tragedy, is for humanity the only way to survive. One consequence of these developments would be the removal of certain dangerous national and ethnic differences from our lives. With universal citizenship would come not only a new sense of universal rights that would extend the reach of democracy and personal freedom but also a new universality of economic justice. There would be no outside where lower wages might be found because of a weaker population has not mustered enough protections.
This model of social amelioration reverses the relationship between technique and material ontology. Like all metaphysicians, the authors of Empire conceive of ontology as prior to technique and as existing outside of technique. The natural substance of ontology expresses itself in technique, which is a mere secondary contrivance, a representation of something more prior and important. The technical arrangements of society and the differential arrangements of economics are secondary and derivative, determined from outside by more a more fundamental reality. They will change when movements within material being give rise to new virtual possibilities. But in fact, new realities will only emerge when we decide to rearrange technique so that a new set of differential relations between the terms of social and economic life become possible. Ontology is the result of those relations, not the other way around. Technique is primary, ontology secondary. Ontology is an effect of the differences that exist between a certain arrangement of terms, a certain technical deployment in space, a practice of making through relations between terms.
The authors of Empire would like a future utopia to be as natural and inevitable as capitalism is now made out to be by thinkers who share Hardt and Negri’s naturalist and ontologist metaphysics. But in fact, the future of economic justice will require a complex arrangement of difference that will only be possible if we give up naïve materialist ontologies and come to perceive the highly contingent character of the relations and differences that generate all the substances we think of mistakenly as natural, fundamental, and ontological. Hardt and Negri find such post-modern notions as contingency dangerous, but in fact, they are our only lever of action. By envisioning economic life as resting on highly contingent differences and relations between terms, we gain the advantage of being freed from the sense of necessity any power system fosters to convince its adversaries of its inevitablity. The necessities that govern modern economics can be reformulated and remade, but to get that point means having a rather different perception of economics than is available in Empire. One must see it as differential and contingent, not natural and necessary..
The argument between Hardt and Negri is a continuation of an implicit argument in French post-structuralism between Derrida and Deleuze. That argument never took place, but it might have. On the one hand, Deleuze developed the idea of a mobile materialism, borrowing largely from Derrida’s works of the mid to late 1960s, which first introduced the idea of a interplay between solidity and fluidity, identity and differential undoing, fixity and unfixity, etc. On the other hand, Derrida’s work made the traditional notion of materialism as ontology untenable. There is no identity of substance apart from the techniques and contrivances of representation that are supposedly derived from materiality. Those techniques make material substance possible.
Deleuze’s work was more explicitly political, and its accessibility made it more popular with anglophone Marxists. Derrida’s more inaccessible work was also less overtly political, and it had, as I noted in my first essay, the misfortune of being associated in the US especially with a school of literary criticism that defused its political implications.
But Deleuze’s work reads more like a good novel than a piece of helpful analysis, and its categories, like those of Hardt and Negri, seem often to be more a continuation of Scholastic philosophy than an investigation of new appropriately secular and rational possibilities. We must move beyond a vision that has us “obeying” nature as much as a church (or denunciatory intellectuals who presume to know whom we should anathemize, who should be purged). Such conservative, anti-post-modernist Marxism might once have had its place, but we need to engage in a more difficult thought process and a more difficult process of making and building if we are even to fabricate the kind of just economy we all perceive as a necessity. That will require us to engage in differential economics, a mode of thinking and formulating alternatives that takes stock of the role difference plays in making and sustaining all economic life, even that of a socialist utopia.

Michael Ryan

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