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capitalisme cognitif

Science & Society, Vol. 79, No. 3, July 2015, 363–387
Cognitive Capitalism and Contemporary Politics:
A World Historical Perspective
ABSTRACT: The recent upsurge of class struggle seemingly conirms the cognitive capitalism hypothesis and, particularly, the
political predictions of Hardt and Negri. Using world-systems analysis as a heuristic device to facilitate comparison of Egypt’s Arab
Spring Revolt and Occupy Wall Street reveals complexities that
belie these conclusions. The “cognitariat” and “multitude” are not
uncomplicated revolutionary actors but fragmented and politically
ambiguous forces. Revolutionary subjectivity is not a structural fact
to be read off material conditions but remains a political project to
be realized through collective struggle. Meanwhile, the ideological
and practical appropriation of antiauthoritarian and antistatist
impulses by neoliberal forces poses the question of the passive
revolution, wherein the hegemonic center blunts and overtakes
revolutionary movements by incorporating some of their elements.
Cognitive capitalism does not appreciate these complexities, and
this undermined the full development of the contemporary cycle
of struggles.
HE 2008 FINANCIAL CRISIS shook the world and inaugurated a period of revolutionary mobilization: the Arab Spring
uprisings, renewed militancy of workers and students, and the
occupations and general assembles that transformed Tahrir Square,
Syntagma Square, Plaza del Sol, Zuccotti Park, and Taksim Square
into something much greater than municipal parks. For a moment —
perhaps the autumn of 2011, when Arab Spring protests teetered on
the precipice of comprehensive social revolutions and Occupations
Kaan Basaran, Roberto Ortiz, Valentine Moghadam, Thomas Reifer, David Laibman, and
the anonymous reviewers all provided valuable feedback at various points during the writing
and revising of this piece.
still dominated public squares across the normally quiescent United
States — it seemed as if world revolution was upon us. In the four
years since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power,
however, the Arab Spring’s jubilant protests have given way to a winter
of civil war, foreign intervention and political violence. In the United
States, the Occupy Movement seems to be more properly characterized as the “Occupy Moment” — more performance and agitation
than organization and transformation. More generally, these “leaderless” and horizontal movements have made dramatic demonstrations
and symbolic interventions but have failed to consolidate substantive,
structural change. In the case of Egypt, the return of the military to
power has reversed the political revolution that deposed Mubarak.
Meanwhile, the general crisis that defines the moment continues to
deepen and, despite the revolutionary upsurge, austerity and a disciplinary notion of security still stand as the dominant, albeit embattled,
conceptual rubrics organizing formal political discussion. What do
we make of the movements emerging and unfolding before us? Can
we apprehend the deeper social processes that define our historical
moment and provide needed perspective on the current travails?
Historically, the Marxist tradition has focused on the historical
and structural determinants of social change and, especially, revolutionary change. Many interpretations of Marxism hold that the revolutionary subject is synthesized from the most productive elements of
the working class. The workers found at the leading edge of capitalist
development are the most militant and class conscious. They are
the living labor that prefigures new, potentially non-capitalist social
relations. From this perspective, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s
reflections on contemporary politics deserve sustained attention.
In the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and related protests, they
see the emergence of a new era of capitalist development, cognitive
capitalism, and, with it, a transformation in revolutionary politics
(Hardt and Negri, 2011a; 2011b; 2012). Indeed, the wider literature
on cognitive capitalism sees it as a new mode of labor exploitation and capital accumulation that undermines the labor theory of
value and demands new theories (Moulier-Boutang, 2012, 9, 78–79,
94; Vercellone, 2007). Politically, cognitive capitalism replaces the
Leninist vanguard with a new mode of revolutionary organization,
the multitude.
The cognitive capitalism hypothesis is both exemplary and suggestive and overstated and lacking global perspective.1 However, some of
its conclusions become more measured in light of Moulier-Boutang’s
(2012) acknowledgement that the scholarship is extrapolating on an
emergent trend. Rather than thinking of “a stabilized regime, a mode
of accumulation,” he sees cognitive capitalism as “a tendency towards
transformation in the mode of exploitation” (original emphasis). With
this in mind, the research agenda of cognitive capitalism becomes
“advanc[ing] a hypothesis . . . even to the point of exaggeration, in
order to bring development out of the shadows where we are condemned to it for as long as we limit ourselves to the cautious adding
up of ‘facts’” (60, 94). While this approach may be appropriate to
clarify the logic of an emergent tendency, we must limit ourselves to
adding up “facts,” when dealing with its uneven effects on contemporary politics.
In this paper, I use world-systems analysis as heuristic device to
evaluate the cognitive capitalism hypothesis in relation to the political
upsurge of the last three to four years. World-systems analysis is neither
a theory nor a paradigm, but rather “a call for a debate” that challenges
the often unacknowledged consensus of Marxist and liberal thought
(Wallerstein, 1974; 2011a, xxx). World-systems analysis complicates
both traditional Marxist and liberal thought by expanding the unit
of analysis from national society to historical systems that encompass
a larger “spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and
cultural units [and] . . . represents an integrated zone of activity and
institutions which obey certain systemic rules” (Wallerstein, 2004a, 17).
The goal of world-systems analysis, then, is not to produce an airtight,
universal and ahistorical theory of capitalism. Instead, it is a framework for analysis that draws on the insights of Marxism, dependency
theory and the Annales school (among other bodies of literature) to
develop theoretically informed histories of capitalism as a globally
evolving relational system.
1 One must recognize that Hardt, Negri and the wider cognitive capitalism school take up
the fundamental questions of our times in a way that few do. Here it is necessary to identify
ecofeminism/the subsistence perspective and the rigorous attempts to investigate the labor
theory of value as similarly ambitious interventions into some of the most dificult and pressing questions of the contemporary moment. See Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, 1999; Mies
and Shiva, 1993; Amin, 1978; 2010; Harvey, 1999; 2006.
In this way, this paper uses world-systems analysis to facilitate
comparison of revolutionary movements in distinct spatio-temporal
zones of the world economy: Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising and the
Occupy Moment in the United States. I validate elements of the
cognitive capitalism hypothesis and argue that it apprehends novel
facets of contemporary capitalism. At the same time, I show how the
failure of Egyptian revolutionaries to move from a political revolution to more comprehensive social revolution and the ephemeral
nature of the Occupy Moment point toward historical complexities that belie the political predictions of the cognitive capitalism
hypothesis and demand more complex and historically grounded
analysis. To this end, this paper proceeds in four sections: first, a
review of the cognitive capitalism hypothesis and its claim about the
dynamics of contemporary class struggle; second, a presentation of
world-systems analysis as heuristic device to help interrogate and
historicize the political predictions embedded in the cognitive capitalism hypothesis; third, a world-historical analysis of Egypt’s Arab
Spring Revolution and Occupy Wall Street that highlights a series
of structural factors ignored by the cognitive capitalism hypothesis;
fourth and finally, a concluding section that integrates elements
of the cognitive capitalism hypothesis in a theoretically informed
history of contemporary capitalism in a way that can help enliven
theories of historical capitalism and, more importantly, contemporary revolutionary practice.
The Cognitive Capitalism Hypothesis
The foundation stone of cognitive capitalism is the apparent
hegemony of immaterial labor. The social worth of immaterial labor’s
products is more pronounced than its physical qualities. It “creates
not only material goods but also relationships and ultimately social
life itself” (Hardt and Negri, 2005, 109). Immaterial labor is biopolitical because it “blur[s the] . . . boundaries between labor and life,
between production and reproduction” (Hardt and Negri, 2010, 134).
While Hardt and Negri (2004) recognize that “immaterial labor constitutes a minority of global labor and . . . is concentrated in some of
the dominant regions of the globe,” they argue that it is “hegemonic
in qualitative terms,” and “is today in the same position that industrial
labor was in 150 years ago” (109, original emphasis).2 From here, some
write about the cognitariat or cognitive precariat, which replaces the
proletariat as the privileged revolutionary subject (Toscano, 2007, 5;
Moulier-Boutang, 2012, 134–135, 160; Hardt and Negri, 2012, 55).
For theorists of cognitive capitalism, the hegemony of immaterial labor and biopolitical production transforms social relations in
novel and politically important ways. Cognitive capitalism expands
exploitation beyond physical labor power to the “second degree”
to “capture a part of the invention-power” or the affects, subjectivities, knowledge and mental or spiritual capacities of labor (MoulierBoutang, 2012, 93–98). From here, theorists of cognitive capitalism
evoke an obscure concept in Marxist thought, “the general intellect”
or the “collective, social intelligence created by accumulated knowledges, techniques and know-how” (Hardt and Negri, 2000, 364).3 As
information and communications technologies become increasingly
central to all aspects of capitalism, the general intellect expands from
being a contributing factor in production to its driving force. This
fundamental change in the organization of production speaks to the
deepening “real subsumption” of labor to capital: “In the biopolitical
context, capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society
as a whole or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to
work in biopolitical production and what is produced” (ibid., 142).
Paradoxically, the real subsumption of labor to capital is said to
increase the autonomy of labor. When capitalist control pervades all
social relations, it is everywhere and nowhere: the distinction between
waged and non-waged labor breaks down; the spatial location of
exploitation is no longer the workplace but the full web of relations
that constitutes an individual’s life and circumstances; the temporal
scope of exploitation extends beyond the workday to envelop the
entire life span. Instead of a “productivist” capitalism lording over
2 When Hardt and Negri speak of the hegemony of immaterial labor, they mean that it
imposes its tendency on all forms of labor. In the same way that industrial labor’s hegemony transformed agriculture, leading to “agricultural modernization [that] relied heavily
on mechanical technologies, from the Soviet tractor to the California irrigation systems,”
immaterial labor informationalizes agriculture with “biological and biochemical innovations. . . . Seed corporations patent the new plan varieties they create. . . . agriculture is
being informationalized” (Hardt and Negri, 2004, 112–113).
3 See Bowring’s (2004) analysis of Hardt and Negri’s use of “the general intellect” for a detailed
account of the history of the concept and its contested and contradictory interpretations.
the labor process, we have a rent-seeking capitalism that captures the
products of immaterial labor without interfering in the process itself
(Vercellone, 2007). A more diffuse “social Taylorism” replaces the
ironclad workplace discipline of traditional Taylorism. On their face,
such claims apprehend important features of contemporary capitalism: the work of consumption, the increasing importance of “services”
in the capitalist core, and, more recently, the “digital enclosure” of
social relations through digital networking, mobile telephony and
related technological developments (Andrejevic, 2007).
However, these claims tend to overstate the originality of these
matters to the point of caricatured exaggeration. The notion of immaterial labor and its contradictory condition of greater autonomy within
social relations fully subsumed by capitalist control, for example, has
been rightly criticized on multiple points. Sayers (2007) and Starosta
(2012) show how Marx’s original works can explain contemporary
capitalism without resorting to such a fuzzy concept as “immaterial”
labor. Caffentzis (2007) goes even further, expanding Marx’s theory of
machines to include Turing Machines, i.e., computers. This new theory
of machines allows us to appreciate how the products of “immaterial
labor” — services, cultural products, knowledge and communication
— are, in fact, material goods. Similarly, Ross (2013) moderates claims
about such seemingly anti-capitalist developments as free and open
source software that have, in fact, been fully subsumed within the
apparatus of accumulation. While these points cannot be elaborated
at length here without distracting from this paper’s focus on questions
of contemporary class struggle, the limitations of the paradigm’s view of
the organization of labor and capital accumulation call into question its
political prescriptions and give good reason to approach the political
predictions of the cognitive capitalism hypothesis with some skepticism.
Of those thinkers associated with cognitive capitalism, Hardt and
Negri offer the most fully formed arguments about contemporary politics. Here, their thinking is an extension of their previous work and,
in particular, two concepts: Empire and multitude. In the last 30 to 40
years, the crisis of Fordism and the subsequent flexible reorganization
of production decentered global power relations. These changes, for
Hardt and Negri, replace relatively compact nation–states and their
competing imperial projects with an all-encompassing Empire, an
immanent, totalizing system “that effectively encompasses the spatial totality . . . that effectively suspends history and thereby fixes the
existing state of affairs for entirety,” and that “extend[s] down to the
depths of the social world.” Empire, however, is advanced as a progressive development “in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is
better than the forms of society and modes of production that came
before it.” The multitude is the revolutionary formation engendered
by Empire. It exists both “within Empire and against Empire” (original emphasis). However, these “new figures of struggle and new subjectivities are not simply negative forces. They also express, nourish
and develop positively their own constituent projects . . . that sustain
Empire,” while “call[ing] for and mak[ing] necessary its destruction”
(Hardt and Negri, 2001, xiv–xv, 43, 61). In short, the multitude is an
unmediated, immanent, and positive collective social subject offered
as an alternative to the classic conceptions of the people, class consciousness, or nation.
Hardt and Negri see recent events as vindication of these arguments. Noting the “frequent assemblies and participatory decisionmaking structures,” seen in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street,
they argue that contemporary movements “have all developed according to . . . a ‘multitude form’” (2011b). In their anti-manifesto — a
pamphlet entitled Declaration4 — they explicitly link their arguments
to the current explosion of class struggle:
We live in a society in which capital functions increasingly by exploiting the
production and expression of knowledge, a society of cognitive capitalism.
4 In Declaration, Hardt and Negri (2013) clearly try to make a dramatic political intervention,
while attempting to distance themselves from the traditional genre conventions of popular
political writing. Claiming a modest position as messengers rather than charismatic intellectual leaders, they begin their pamphlet with the distinction that “Manifestos provide a
glimpse of a world to come and also call into being the subject, who although only a specter
must materialize to become the agent of change.” Where “Manifestos work like the ancient
prophets, who by the power of their vision create their own people,” Hardt and Negri’s
Declaration announces a new condition, where “the multitudes, through their logics and
practices, their slogans and desires, have declared a new set of principles and truths” (4).
Such an effort, while admirable on its face, is not as simple as the authors would like to it appear. Hardt and Negri are world-renowned intellectuals and, as such, appear as obnoxiously
cosmopolitan elites to a global working class that, by and large, remains unaware of their
work. After all, their “declaration” happens to be an extension of their well known work.
This note is not meant as an ad hominem attack but, simply, acknowledgement of their social
position and the interests and investments that naturally and unavoidably low from it. One
cannot volunteer away social relations with inspiring language, and Hardt and Negri remain
embedded elite networks of power and privilege. They are, as Bourdieu (1985) famously
described the intellectual strata of society, “the dominated fraction of the dominant class”
(487). Their declaration remains inextricably linked to the charismatic politics that they
try to escape.
Knowledge ever more constitutes the heart of social relations, in terms of
both capitalist control and the resistance of living labor. It is thus no coincidence that, in the current cycle of struggles, a large portion of the activists
are students, intellectual workers, and those working in urban service jobs
— what some call the cognitive precariat. They mediate on their own skin
the activity of communication, intellectual labor, and the efforts required to
study. For the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts as much as for those in Spain,
Greece, Israel, and the United States, and for those characterized primarily
by the call for freedom as much as for those centered on poverty or inancial
exploitation, this is one solid basis they all share. The proliferation of struggles
and their performative character are grounded in the new nature of labor
power. As the centrality of cognitive labor becomes hegemonic, it permeates
and is crystallized in these forms of struggle. (Hardt and Negri, 2012, 55.)
The current intensification of class struggle, then, is a development
unique to cognitive capitalism. Hardt and Negri (2012) “see very
little of traditional socialist movements in this cycle of struggles” (12).
Instead they conceptualize current movements as a particular form of
prefigurative politics: “constituent struggles” that “root themselves in
a new ontological condition and establish the circumstances under
which more equal, common and sustainable relations can grow” (ibid.,
There is something deeply appealing about Hardt and Negri’s
work. Their particular brand of post-Marxism attempts to salvage
Marxism and synthesize elements of post-structuralism into a new
revolutionary vision appropriate for the contemporary conjuncture.
George Caffentzis (2013), one the most perceptive critics of cognitive
capitalism, puts it well:
The cognitive capitalism theorists’ work has brought a welcome excitement to
the study of contemporary capitalism. Their approach is certainly unconventional and illed with categorical topsy-turvies where apparent victory becomes
real defeat and apparent weakness becomes real strength. For example, what
conventional Marxist wisdom racks up as a defeat — deindustrialization and
globalization — has, in cognitive capitalism theorists’ eyes been a victory for
the proletariat in Europe and the United States (since their struggles have, in
effect, driven capitalism out of the production process). Moreover, capitalism
in its cognitive stage is extremely vulnerable, since workers now are using their
powers of cooperation and self-determination in the very process of applying
their living knowledge on the job, while — shades of Hegel’s master/slave
dialectic — capitalists are reduced to the role of “middle man,” no longer
in touch with the production process. By arguing that capital suffers from a
deep weakness and that the cognitariat possesses an even deeper strength,
the cognitive capitalist theorists aim to revive the revolutionary élan of the
age. (121–122.)
This is an admirable project and should not be glibly dismissed.
However, the cognitive capitalism hypothesis over-emphasizes the
knowledge-based sector at the expense of the systemic totality of
capitalism as a global and historical system. As a result, the paradigm
lacks a “synoptic comprehension” (ibid.). For this reason, I turn to
world-systems analysis as a heuristic device to unpack the complexities
presented by Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising and Occupy Wall Street
and move us toward a more complex and multi-dimensional understanding of class struggle in contemporary capitalism.
World-Systems Analysis and the Study of Historical Capitalism
As a global and historical heuristic to approach the systemic totality of capitalism, world-systems analysis is a useful methodological tool
to help situate and compare geographically and socially disparate
moments of class struggle. In this paper, I employ world-systems analysis to compare Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising and Occupy Wall Street.
In so doing, I show the limitations of Hardt and Negri’s notion of the
Empire and multitude, and put forward a world-historical conception of class formation and hegemonic struggle as a more nuanced
conceptual alternative. As a first step, however, it is necessary to take
on strawman interpretations of world-systems analysis that reduce a
broad and heterodox body of literature to a caricatured reading of
its best-known representative, Immanuel Wallerstein.
World-systems analysis departs from traditional Marxist thought
in that it defines capitalism in broader terms as a historical system
dedicated to the infinite and endless accumulation of capital. Capitalism, while centered by a “core” of national economies dominated
by the wage relation, extends further to an axial or global division of
labor which unifies the social scientists’ traditional units of analysis
(states, polities, peoples, etc.) in a larger “spatial/temporal zone which
cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an
integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules” (Wallerstein, 2004a, 17). “Core” economic processes
are highly skilled, capital intensive and relatively monopolized, while
“peripheral” processes are unskilled, labor intensive and highly competitive. These economic processes translate spatially into a tripartite
structure: the core, periphery and semi-periphery. The latter is “not
a residual category . . . [but] . . . a necessary structural element of the
world-economy.” The semi-periphery is akin to the middle and professional classes in a national society. It is the buffer zone that “partially
deflect[s] the political pressures which groups primarily located in
peripheral areas might otherwise direct against core-states” (Wallerstein, 2011a, 349–350).
On this point, Robert Brenner’s (1977) influential critique faults
world-systems analysis for prioritizing the political relations of circulation in the world-market over the social relations of exploitation in
class systems territorialized in nation–states. This view, however, is
limited by a methodological nationalism that misreads Wallerstein and
misrecognizes the systemic totality of capitalism. The main question
here concerns the unit of analysis. For Wallerstein and others working
in this tradition, the appropriate unit of analysis is the world-system,
not the nation–state. Processes of class formation, production processes and political relations of domination and subordination cannot
be adequately understood if one’s horizons remain limited to the
nation–state. Wallerstein locates the emergence of capitalism in the
16th century in the confluence of multiple processes: the unification
of the Mediterranean and Baltic trading systems into what would be
a world-encompassing market, the strengthening of states, and the
development of varied modes of labor control (including but not
limited to wage labor) that together formed a larger axial division of
labor. Whereas Wallerstein sees a definitive period in which capitalism emerged from the crisis of feudalism (due, in part, to important
changes in class relations), a truly “circulationist” view of capitalism,
such as the later work of Andre Gunder Frank (1998), reads capitalism
infinitely back in time. In this regard, Brenner’s critique is a product of
his refusal to consider social relations that extend beyond the formal
boundaries of the nation–state.
This dispute is not simply “academic.” It carries with it important
political consequences that are relevant for revolutionary struggle.
Brenner’s view unduly narrows our conception of capitalism and
fails to appreciate the differential ways various subaltern groups —
however divided by space, time and modes of labor control — share
a common convergence in capitalist exploitation. Class formation is
a world-relational process. Even Marx noted that “the veiled slavery
of the wage laborers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the
New World as its pedestal” (Marx, 1990, 925). World-systems analysis
sees the global class relations as internal to capitalism as a historical
system. Brenner and more orthodox Marxists see them as external.
It is important to see other forms of labor as internal and integral
to capitalism. Otherwise, one privileges wage labor at the expense
of unwaged labor, whether the reproductive work of the household
economy or the various forms of unfree labor that have been — and
continue to be! — central to global capitalism.
Historically, “the wage has been and continues to be used to organize . . . divisions” with the working class (Federici, 2006). Just as the
English working class formed in relation to the colonization of Ireland
(Robinson, 1983, 29–43) and just as the proletariat of the Northern
United States initially rested upon slave plantations of South and the
Caribbean (Dubois, 1998, 3–16) and later on the social exclusion of
legally emancipated Blacks (Roediger, 1991, 95–162), the ubiquitous
command of a rent-seeking capital over the cognitariat rests upon
more brutal forms exploitation. “There is a continuum,” Federici
(ibid.) reminds us “between the computer worker and the worker in
the Congo who digs coltan with his hands, trying to seek out a living
after being expropriated [and] pauperized by repeated rounds of
structural adjustment and the repeated theft of his community’s land
and natural resources.” As the chief methodologist of world-systems
analysis, Terrence Hopkins, put it: “the theoretical conditions and
processes of ‘class-formation’ are themselves continually transformed
in the course of capitalist development. Nor are they apparently much
alike, in any one period, in structurally distinguishable areas of the
world-system” (1982b, 84). Simply put, there is not a universal class
structure with a consistent revolutionary subject. The political challenge of revolutionary movements is to continually (re)compose “the
working class” as a politically mobilized “class-for-itself” in conscious
struggle against capital.
On a similar point, many also fault Wallerstein and world-systems
analysis for being overly restrictive in their depiction of the core,
semi-peripheral and peripheral zones of the world economy. On this
point, Tom Brass (2011) argues that, for world-systems analysis, “unfree
labor is acceptable to capital, but only on the periphery of the global
economy where this relational form is encountered” (145). This criticism is a product of an unfortunate methodological slip within the
tradition. Many world-systems analysts often speak only of hard and
fast locations, the core and the periphery, without any discussion of the
processes of core and peripheral differentiation and hierarchization.
This leaves world-systems analysis open to criticism that it remains
wedded to rigid depiction of the axial division of labor that fails to
apprehend the dynamics of contemporary capitalism (for this critique
also see Robinson, 2001, 15–19). The original methodological writings
on world-systems analysis, however, are quite explicit on this point
and insist that the core, periphery and semi-periphery are relational
concepts formed by world-encompassing processes (see Hopkins, 1982a,
13). This criticism is also a problem of presentation and canonization.
As Wallerstein points out, the empirical scope of world-systems analysis
is exceedingly complex: “far more complex than it was possible to
portray” (Wallerstein, 2011a, 347).
A careful reading of Wallerstein, however, shows a far more
nuanced treatment of these processes than his critics will acknowledge.
While conventional wisdom, for example, sees world-systems analysis
as uncomplicatedly designating Europe as “the core,” Wallerstein, in
the first volume of The Modern World-System, presents a more complex
picture. At the time, Southern France was a semi-peripheral region,
sharing more in common with neighboring Mediterranean states, like
Spain and Portugal, which played a crucial role as the great exploiters
of the New World and the transmission belt for the silver that drove
the development of Northern Europe as a core region. At the same
time, Brass’ criticism is grounded in a real problem that tends to
simplify the presentation of historical capitalism in problematic ways,
especially in the last 30 to 40 years of neoliberal globalization as the
once rigid axial division of labor has become increasingly muddled
by “cores” within the “periphery” and “peripheries” within the “core.”
The world-systems analysis tripartite division still retains some efficacy,
however. After all, who would deny the persistent inequality separating the “Global North” and “Global South,” despite the rise of Asia
and proliferation of concentrated enclaves of privilege and privation
in all world regions?
The continuing salience of these world regions is especially clear
when one tries to make sense of the current revolutionary upsurge. In
reference to the New Left and the world revolution of 1968, George
Katsiaficas (1987) writes persuasively of the “eros effect” or the chain
reaction of political protest that overtakes peoples and places them into
a seemingly unified explosion of popular discontent and revolutionary
agitation. The “eros effect” is clearly visible in the movements that have
erupted since 2011. They are responding to some of the same problems
— high unemployment, especially among the youth;5 environmental
pressures, in the form of rising food prices and the increasing costs
of social reproduction; and unresponsive political authorities — and
share some of the same repertoires of political contention — public
occupation and general assembly, the use of information technology,
and the general refusal to engage in formal politics. On this point,
however, Hardt and Negri only get us so far and their analysis can seem
a bit superficial. The differences between Egypt and the United States,
for example, are dramatic and cannot be easily collapsed into vague
notions of Empire and multitude. Even if occupiers of Tahrir Square
and Zuccotti Park both took on unresponsive political authorities, the
difference between the political power of Wall Street over U. S. politics
— a financial dictatorship — and the Mubarak regime — a military
dictatorship — cannot be simply glossed over. It is my conjecture that
world-systems analysis can help us make sense of the differential ways
in which the structural unevenness of the world economy conditions
the evolution of the various instances of localized class struggle, linked
together in the recent global upsurge.
Egypt’s Arab Spring Uprising, Occupy Wall Street
and the Decline of U. S. Hegemony
In this section, I use world-system analysis as a heuristic to compare Occupy Wall Street and Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising. I argue
5 Indeed, today’s youth have little to lose. In 2010, just before the global protest wave, 210 million youths were unemployed globally (IMF-ILO, 2010, 4). In North Africa and the Middle
East, general unemployment has been a chronic problem, holding at 12% for the past two
decades. Recently, however, crisis conditions pushed youth employment to 24% across
the region (Ahmed, 2010; Coy, 2011). Similarly, “the Great Recession” devastated youth
employment in the OECD countries. From 2007 to 2010, youth unemployed jumped ive
points in the UK to 19%; in the USA, youth unemployment reached 18%, up eight points;
and in Southern Europe, the rise has been meteoric: from 16 to 22% in Portugal, from 20
to 27% in Italy, up ten points to 33% in Greece, and doubling to 40% in Spain (OECD,
2011). Presciently, IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at a joint IMF-ILO conference in
September 2010, spoke of the need to “save the lost generation” and warned of the “time
bomb” of endemic youth unemployment (Strauss-Khan, 2010; Krishnan, 2011).
that an appreciation of the relative position of the United States and
Egypt in the world economy provides a better understanding of these
movements than collapsing their differences into vague notions of
Empire and multitude. To this end, this section moves in two analytic
steps: first, I draw on notions of world hegemony to critique Hardt
and Negri’s notion of Empire and historicize the current moment,
as defined by the crisis of U. S. global hegemony; second, I discuss
world-relational processes of class formation that explain the differences between the “multitudes” mobilized in Egypt and in the United
States to direct our attention to more complex dynamics of hegemonic
politics that require a more nuanced explanation than what the cognitive capitalism hypothesis can offer.
Since world-systems analysis is a broad and heterodox field of
intellectual inquiry, there are multiple definitions of hegemony which
can be seen as complementary (see Chase-Dunn, 1998, 166–198).
Wallerstein (2011b, 36–73; 1983) defines hegemony as the condition in which one core power exercises such preponderant military,
economic, and financial power that its material dominance becomes
transformed into political and cultural leadership. Arrighi (1994) adds
more subtly to Wallerstein’s conception of hegemony. He introduces
the notion of a systemic cycle of accumulation or iterative couplets
of material expansion and financial expansion that define the distinct epochs of capitalist history. These cycles are inaugurated by the
accomplished world hegemony of the core power, which provides
stability in the interstate system and sets the example of capitalist
development that defines an epoch. For the purposes of this argument, the specificities of varying conceptions of hegemony are not
essential. More important is the general historical argument, which
locates the accomplishment of U. S. hegemony in the stability of the
immediate post–World War II period, the crest of U. S. hegemony in
the overlapping political and economic crisis of the period between
1967 and 1973, and its decline in the turbulent contemporary conjuncture defined by neoliberal globalization, financialization and
increasing interstate tensions.
In this regard, Hardt and Negri confuse the breakdown of U. S.
hegemony and increasing multipolarity within the interstate system
with the emergence of a deterritorialized Empire. For Samir Amin,
another prominent figure in the world-system tradition, Hardt and
Negri misrecognize “the emergence of ‘collective’ imperialism of the
triad (the United States, Europe and Japan)” as the crystallization of
a deterritorialized Empire. In short, Hardt and Negri lose sight of the
contradiction presented so plainly by France, Germany and Russia’s
opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “the economy unites the partners of the imperialist system, politics divides the nations concerned”
(Amin, 2005, 4). While Hardt and Negri (2010) try to dismiss such
criticism by reframing the Bush administration’s unilateral foreign
policy as a failed “coup d’état . . . to transform the emerging form of
Empire back into an old imperialism, but . . . with only one imperialist power,” their oblique response to Amin falls short (206). Hardt
and Negri avoid any investigation into the relationship between the
structures of the declining U. S.–centered hegemonic system of states
and the international institutions, the UN and NGOs, which they cite
to support the rise of deterritorialized Empire in the 1990s. They
ignore all evidence that contradicts “the naive thesis of a ‘network of
power’: military bases, powerful interventions, the role of the CIA,
etc.” (Amin, 2004, 25–26).
Such evidence is abundantly clear in the relationship between the
United States, the hegemonic core power, and semi-peripheral Egypt.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Egypt promoted “Arab socialism” and
took a neutralist stance in the Cold War. The country leaned toward
the Soviets, and clashed with Israel from the 1948 Arab–Israeli War
until the Camp David Accords in 1978. Since then, Egypt has been a
central pillar of U. S. influence in the region. Since 1951, the United
States has provided Egypt with $118 billion in military aid, much of
that coming in yearly infusions of around $1.3 billion starting in the
1980s (Miller, 2014). Military assistance was also coupled with funds
for economic development, including $15 billion from USAID from
1974 to 1984 (Kandil, 2012, 163). These helped create a dramatic
political reversal in the region. In 1990, Egypt even joined ranks with
Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to expel Iraq from Kuwait.
Instead of a deterritorialized Empire, the current state of world
order is better described as the chaotic and unpredictable unraveling
of the U. S.–centered hegemonic system of states. Military power is
the last pillar of world hegemony to fall, and the United States is
struggling to maintain military dominance in the face of its flagging
economic power. At the start of the Cold War, the United States’ global
archipelago of 500 bases was sustainable when the nation accounted
for 50% of the global gross product. However, today the United States
“struggles to maintain 40% of world armaments (the 2012 figure)
with only 23% of global gross economic output.” Such slippage will
likely continue. The U. S. share of world output is expected to fall to
17% by 2016 (McCoy, 2014). In this context, the Arab Spring revolts
represent a renegotiation of relations of domination and subordination at the level of the interstate system. The results are uneven and
hard to predict. In Egypt, a pro–U. S. regime has been shaken. In
Libya, an anti–U. S. regime collapsed, with a little push from NATO.
In Syria, Russia blocked a repeat of the Libyan example and, after
over three years of bitter fighting, the Ba’athist government looks like
it may weather the storm after all. Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation
Council, the so-called Arab NATO, has emerged as an increasingly
independent actor in the region that cannot be reduced to a tool of
U. S. power. The point here is not to predict the future world order,
but simply to argue that the current status of global affairs is more
complicated than Hardt and Negri’s Empire.
Here again, Amin’s (2005) critique of Hardt and Negri is incisive.
Instead of Empire, he proposes a focus on hegemonic politics: “an
analysis of the subject of history as formed from particular social blocs
capable, in successive phases of popular struggle, of effectively transforming the social relations of force to the advantage of dominated
classes” (9). Revolutionary subjectivity, then, is not a structural fact
to be read off from material conditions, but a political project to be
realized through collective struggle. The specific dynamics of these
struggles, however, are shaped by the complex relation of “internal”
forces — class systems territorialized in particular regions — and
“external” forces — the global relations of domination and subordination, consent and coercion that define hegemonic order on a
world scale. In this regard, the varied zones of the world economy
that structure capitalism as a global system cannot exist at the same
“stage” of development at the same time. On this note, Mike Davis
(2011) reminds us, while
Western post-Marxists . . . lazily ruminate on whether or not “proletarian
agency” is now obsolete, obliging us to think in terms of “multitudes,” the
situation looks very different in the great industrializing society that Das
Kapital describes even more accurately than Victorian Britain or New Deal
America. Two hundred million Chinese factory workers, miners and construction labourers are the most dangerous class on the planet. (14–15.)
Indeed, in the last five years, thousands of spontaneous, largely defensive, strikes have rocked China, including a two-week strike in a Honda
parts plant that spread across the country and across industries in
2010 (Slaughter, 2011; Lüthje, 2010; Watts, 2010). Historical capitalism, as world-systems analysts have long argued, is a heterogeneous
space–time with many different class structures and modes of accumulation. This diversity of social formations is one of the secrets of
capitalism’s durability. It “gives capitalism a freedom of maneuver
that is structurally based. It has made possible the constant expansion
of the world-system, albeit a very skewed distribution of its rewards”
(Wallerstein, 2011a, 348).
While labor unrest in China may resemble the type of “traditional”
class struggle of the industrial proletarian, the situation looks quite
different elsewhere. In the case of semi-peripheral Egypt, a rentier
economy of oil, gas, real estate, tourism and high end retail controlled by the ruling oligarchy lording over unemployed or precariously employed workers provided an “economic impetus for revolt,”
but did “not facilitate a political consciousness directed . . . at the
structures of capitalism.” For this reason, the revolution took the form
of “mass political revolts against the oligarchical state,” over and above
“class struggles between wage labor and industrial capitalists” (Petras,
2012, 36). While Egyptian labor unions had engaged in a series of
unprecedented strikes and won real victories in the years preceding
the overthrow of Mubarak (El-Mahdi, 2011), different social forces
mobilized to create the now-famous “Tahrir moment.” Six groups
that dominated Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising were: two Facebook
communities, the Youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, the “New Left”
of young and middle-aged leftists, and two salient groupings of the
middle class around Mohamed El-Baradei, and the NGO community
(Kandil, 2011, 25–26). Anti-capitalist elements were marginal in Tahrir
Square, a mobilization dominated by the middle class.
As a result, the Egyptian Revolt faltered at a key moment. In late
January 2011, after pitched street battles in and around downtown
Cairo’s Nile Bridges, the police withdrew. The protesters had an opportunity to take over key administrative buildings and shut down the
state, but that is not what happened. Kandil (2012) explains:
Why did the protesters choose a giant public square (approximately 490,000
square feet with the capacity to host perhaps a million people) rather than
the sensitive state organs — a fateful decision that determined the revolt’s
trajectory? Everyone knew that seizing a central downtown plaza would not
stile life in a sprawling city like Cario, nor was it likely to make trafic on
its congested roads any worse than it already was. Also, unlike the narrow
alleyways and crammed-up buildings in the city capital’s popular neighbourhoods, the square was an open ground with nowhere to hide. So if the demonstrators’ plan was neither to paralyze the city nor to be able to maneuver if
forced into street battles, then what did they have in mind? It seems obvious
that the only advantage such an expansive and exposed location offered was
visibility. The organizer of the uprising drew inspiration neither from the
revolutionaries of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, nor
from their neighbours in Libya and Syria. They did not grasp the necessity
of creating a situation of dual power by occupying government buildings,
entrenching themselves in crowded neighborhoods, seizing entire cities, and
using all these bases for incrementally supplanting the regime. Instead the
organizers drew inspiration from Eastern Europe in 1989. . . . For a strategy
based on galvanizing domestic and world opinion and daring the regime to
shoot civilians in front of hundreds of camera and news reporters, Tahrir
Square (and other central squares throughout Egypt’s provincial cities) it
perfectly. (224–225.)
Instead of the escalation of the revolt, it faltered at the precipice of
revolution. Here, we see the limits of the “multitude” and its “constituent struggles.” It is incapable of projecting power and, despite grand
claims of prefigurative politics, it lacks an alternative vision beyond
an implicit liberalism. In both the parliamentary and presidential
elections, Egypt’s nascent secular liberals found themselves displaced
by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al Nour party (funded
by Saudi investors), political formations with deeper roots in Egypt’s
marginalized masses and the considerable informal economy (Noueihed and Warren, 2012, 124–127, 275; Salt, 2012, 61).
The same deficiencies are clear in Occupy Wall Street, a youth
movement of the white middle class that suddenly found their prospects for class reproduction undercut by the “Great Recession.” The
demographics of Occupy Wall Street speak for themselves: 61% male,
81% white, 90% college educated (including graduate study), 30%
with an income of at least $50,000, and 47% with full time jobs (Captain, 2011).6 Unsurprisingly, Occupy had problems moving beyond
its base in the downwardly mobile middle class. Emahunn Raheem
6 This survey polled 5,006 visitors to Zuccotti Park on October 21–22, 2011.
Ali Campbell, in an essay tilted “A Critique of the Occupy Movement
from a Black Occupier” argued the movement alienated people of
color because it did not challenge white privilege and remained a
movement organized by “white people have now decided to rail against
capitalism as it currently functions only when it has proven adverse for
their financial security” (Campbell, 2011, 42, original emphasis).
These class divides were readily visible in Zuccotti Park and other
occupations. By the end of October 2011, the original Occupy encampment had a clearly observable divide: “the educated political class on
the east side of the park — the media and communication working
groups, with their library and laptops and expensive cameras and
Wi-Fi connections — and the bereft ‘ghetto’ on the west side with
its drum circles and dances.” This divide led to conflicts: “$25,000 in
computer equipment, digital cameras, [and] cell phones” went missing. “The Kitchen Fund had $4,500 embezzled.” The more “serious”
occupiers on the east side begin to denigrate the “gutter” and “crust
punks” on the west side. They “sit in a corner of the park dealing drugs:
meth, ketamine, coke. They fight. . . . They don’t attend the general
assemblies. They don’t join the working groups.” This tension was
exacerbated by the fact that “gutter” and “crust punks” lived in the
park and held it, while many of the “serious” occupiers went home
for a comfortable night’s rest in their apartments (Ketcham, 2011).
Similar conflicts complicated other Occupations, which evinced difficulty to integrate the homeless population, prevent sexual assault
and manage the presence of illegal drugs (Newcomb, 2011; Shapiro,
2011; Linthicum, 2011; Monks, 2012).
Here, the emptiness of Hardt and Negri’s “constituent politics”
is manifest. As Paolo Virno (2004) explains, the multitude is ambiguous. It “is . . . the prevalent mode of being today: but, like all modes of
being, it is ambivalent . . . it contains within itself both loss and salvation, acquiescence and conflict, servility and freedom” (Virno, 2004,
27, original emphasis). Indeed, Hardt and Negri, in their Declaration,
subsume a series of movements and instances of moments of class
struggle — Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring Revolts, the 2011
London Riots, the Spanish Indignados and the 2011 Israeli protests
over rising costs of living — into a vague construct unified only by
their apparent horizontal forms of organization and protracted occupations of public space. A closer examination, however, finds much
about these multitudes to be uncertain, mixing calls for social justice
with demands for middle class privilege. In the Deleuzean language that
colors Hardt and Negri’s analysis, the proliferating desires that characterize the multitude have no intrinsic claim to revolutionary politics.
Absent clear political content and any medium- or long-term revolutionary strategy, the “multitudes” that seized Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park were thus able to make symbolic interventions in the public
sphere, but lacked the social power to make structural interventions at
the level of political economy. Hence, Egyptian demonstrators could
depose Mubarak but they could not create a broad multi-class alliance
capable of seizing power, whether through elections or other means.
Similarly, Occupy forced inequality into “the national conversation”
and helped reinvigorate the labor movement, but it fell far from causing any revolutionary change. These are no small accomplishments,
no doubt, but the failure of these movements to move from agitating
to projecting social power speaks to complexities and challenges for
which the cognitive capitalism hypothesis has no answers. Indeed,
Hardt and Negri (2012) acknowledge this problem but, instead of
taking it on, they simply beg the question:
Democratic counterpowers must be able to force the corporations and the
nation–states to open access to the common, to divide the wealth equitably
so all can meet their basic needs, and to stop the destruction and repair the
damage done to social systems, and ecosystems, populations and the planet.
How can such democratic counterpowers be constructed and where will they
get their force? How this will come about is not clear to us. But what is clear
are the urgent needs of humanity and the earth, and the incapacities of all
the existing powers to fulill those needs. (54.)
On this point, Hardt and Negri’s hesitation to provide a definitive
answer is both an appealing gesture to avoid the excesses of vanguard
parties and frustrating failure to take on the most important question.
The risks of drifting are acute. Already, the tenuous victories
of 2011 and 2012 have been reversed. The military has returned to
power in Egypt and the Occupy Movement has turned out to be a
fleeting moment of political contention, not an enduring movement
capable of systemic change. Here we confront an important analytic
and political question: are the reversals of early victories a successful attempt to blunt and overtake a revolutionary opening in the
form of what Antonio Gramsci called a passive revolution: controlling
inexorable change, while limiting the extent to which popular forces
seize effective control? In Gramsci’s initial elaboration (1971), passive
revolution was conceived as revolution from above and connotes political reorganization through state intervention, where once marginalized social groups are incorporated to a limited extent and without
meaningful expansion of popular political control. On this point,
Giovanni Arrighi’s (2005) analysis of the neoliberal passive revolution
is prescient. Reflecting on world-systems analysts’ failure to apprehend
the political significance of neoliberalism, he revised his arguments
on hegemony and asserted that “each successive hegemony of world
capitalism has been characterized by a particular passive revolution.”
Currently, this includes “ideological and practical appropriation by
the United States of the antiauthoritarian and antistatist thrust of
1968. The year 1989 was much the result of this counterrevolution as
it was the continuation of 1968” (88–89). The same can be said for
recent years.
The World-System in the Era of Cognitive Capitalism
In conclusion, I use world-systems analysis as heuristic device to
situate structurally disparate but temporally linked moments of class
struggles, Egypt’s Arab Spring revolt and Occupy Wall Street. I find that
Hardt and Negri’s arguments are complicated by a fuller appreciation
of the dynamics of historical capitalism and more detailed investigation of contemporary politics. The actually existing “multitudes” are
more fragmented, uneven and politically ambiguous than presented,
reminding us that revolutionary solidarity is always a political project to
be realized through collective action in concrete historical situations.
The enduring unevenness of global relations poses the question of
the passive revolution, wherein the hegemonic center controls social
change without consolidating a revolutionary breakthrough. These
are the problems that undermined the development of Egypt’s Arab
Spring revolt, the Occupy Movement in the United States and related
instances of class struggle.
The world-system has undoubtedly changed during the era of
cognitive capitalism, but the changes have been both more complex
and subtle than what the cognitive capitalism hypothesis presents.
The cognitariat, as a laboring class, may exhibit new forms of cooperation that offer glimpses of a post-capitalist future, but the way
toward that future is far from clear. The cognitive capitalism hypothesis
poses an idealized case — as Moulier Boutang writes, “advanc[ing]
a hypothesis . . . even to the point of exaggeration” — around which
the whole system of capitalist exploitation is said to be reconstructed.
This has been a fruitful, if fraught, exercise. The cognitive capitalism
hypothesis clearly apprehends some novel elements of contemporary
capitalism: blurring of waged and non-waged time; spatial expansion
of exploitation beyond the workplace to the full web of relations that
constitutes an individual’s life and circumstances; extension of the
temporal scope of exploitation beyond the workday to envelop the
entire life span. However, in focusing on the informational sector
of capitalism, it loses sight of an equally important change in global
capitalism. As Caffentzis (1999) reminds us:
The computerization and robotization of factories and ofices in Western
Europe, North America and Japan has been accompanied by “enclosures”
that act as “the counteracting causes” to the tendency of the falling rate of
proit throughout the capitalist system. Branches of industry that employ
very little labor but a lot of machinery must be able to have the right to
call on the pool of value that high-labor, low-tech branches create. (33–34,
original emphasis.)
From a global perspective, the enlarging masses of the extremely
exploited, and gaps between what Dyer-Witheford (2001) calls material, immaterial and immiserated labor, may be a more legitimate focus
of analytical and political attention. There is much work to be done.
Department of International Studies
DePaul University
Lincoln Park Campus
990 W. Fullerton Avenue, Suite 4100
Chicago, IL 60614
[email protected]
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