This brief postface, written in 2009, comes from the English translation of a collection published as "Crisis in the Global Economy; Financial Markets, Social Struggles and New Political Scenarios", edited by Andrea Fumagalli and Sandro Mezzadra, translated by Jason Francis McGimpsey, in 2010.
Postface: A Reflection on Income in the "Great Crisis" of 2007 and Beyond
We all know what rent is. We all know what a rentier is. Each of us has looked him directly in the eyes, at least once, when we pay the rent for our apartment. We can have envied him or hated him, but anyway we consider him - at least in our case - someone who earns without working. The laws of rent governed the ancien regime. Reactionaries praised it through Burke and Hegel, considering it natural; the revolutionary disciples of Rousseau, the Enlightenment reformist and the founders of Human Rights hated it. English liberalists and Kantian philosophers thought that liberty could not grow from and be based on the exploitation of inherited wealth: that a "worthy" wealth must instead be founded on work. And for the theorists of the "wealth of nations," the inventors of the political economy? They were ambiguous on the subject: on one hand, in fact, they thought that capitalist wealth should be built against rent (and the truth of economic theory consisted in identifying this); on the other hand, they didn't hide the fact (even though often hiding it from their readers) that capitalistic development could not have ever had the possibility of being constructed and implemented with such great force if not for a violent, original appropriation. That is what happened historically - the appropriation of the common, of lands and labor - in the age of the Enclosures. This is what, therefore, "absolute rent" is: an original violent, but necessary, accumulation - but it had to be hidden because it was heinous - enslaving, perverse, atrocious in its ways... Certainly, absolute rent survived in the ordinary, daily processes of consumption, but it was so subordinated to the other forms of the generation of wealth (economists said this, or at least they hoped it, but certainly they suffered from ambiguity in their analyses) that in the end it became relevant only when it was represented as the prize of a contest between property owners (of land and/or money). "Relative rent" thus became one of the figures in which surplus value produced by labor was found, emerging though the difference in the productivity of worked land just as it did in commercial funds. Through "relative rent" economists tried, on one hand, to appeal to the reformists, while trying to find some plausibility for their reasoning; in reality, and not very secretly, together with capitalist development they legitimized the violence of original appropriation, of primitive accumulation. When, at the halfway point that brought the founders of the political economy to our times, Keynes (nearly a century ago) continued to curse rent, wishing for "the euthanasia of rentier"; who would have ever thought that the beginning of the twenty-first century would be characterized by the debate over rent once again? And by the political effects of its enforcement? And by the reactionary ideological glorification of its worst outcomes?
When we study democratic constituent power in the founding processes of the modern legal order, we cannot help but note that it always touches - or better yet strikes - the propriety structure of the capitalistic order (from a critical point of view it attacks preconstituted proprietary relations; from a reformist and/or revolutionary point of view, it expresses the desire for a new social order of property). Given the intensity of this intention of constituent power, it isn't surprising that the fact that bourgeois legal theory has, throughout modernity, tried to isolate the concept, ripping it from the materiality of social relationships where it hides - social relationships of property, first of all; and later, relationships of capitalist appropriation. Constituent power stops where law begins. The Thermidor was the moment when constituent power was realized to then be immediately negated, erased. Nevertheless, constitutional theory knew that this neutralization was in vain. Even when constituent power is formally isolated, immediately afterwards the jurist and the politician are forced to fully assume, for the orientation of their work, the analysis of the "material constitution" (which is to say the study of the social relationships that are, in their complexity and their possible antagonism, at the base of the legal or "formal constitution"). A strange situation was thus articulated. Property relations accounted for the problem that was at the base of the insurgencies of constituent power; instead constituted power held property relations as sacred and immutable. In the formalist hypocrisy of contemporary jurisprudence, constituent power, when it was reassumed, could only be read as "power of exception," lacking all content that wasn't the intensity of the decision. Against this, every time it was presented in its materiality and made the topic of property arise again, constituent power was spread over constitutional time and therein - proposing itself as an element of today's legal innovation and social emancipation - opened toward the possibility of democratic institutions. Constituent power thus clashed with "absolute rent," construing itself - as a democratic function - over the long-term of the material constitution, and fought inside the legal forms of "relative rent."
Today, democracy is no longer faced merely with (and against) landed rent (land and real-estate) - but above all faced with financial rent, the capital that money mobilizes, globally, as a fundamental instrument for the governance of the multitudes. Financialization is the current form of capitalistic command. It is clearly still interlaced with rent, and it repeats both the violent intentionality as well as the ambiguity and contradictions of every figure of capitalistic exploitation. It would therefore be silly to think that financial capital did not contain, within itself, an antagonistic relationship: it always includes labor power as one of its necessary elements, both the producer of capital and conflict. The form in which financial capital contains this antagonism is defined according to wholly determining specificities: a strong abstraction of the bodily quality of work and citizenship, the capitalistic construction of a world masked by distorted needs, and a monstrous community of exploitation. Regarding the exploitation of the common: when labor power has become multitude and labor has become cognitive and cooperative, capital no longer exploits the single laborer, it essentially exploits the whole of labor in as much as it is cooperative, it expropriates the common that this labor produces. The exploitation of the common is therefore financial rent.
Absolute or relative rent? Rent founded on a gesture of radical appropriation, of expropriation or a generalized exploitation articulated on the entirety of produced value and common valorization? In all probability, the contemporary economist, postindustrial in nature, will answer without hesitation to our query, saying: "we live in a world of relative rent." But then, when profit itself is presented as rent (since on the global market it is immediately translated into this form of the existence of capital), financial rent and financial flows - in the world of rent - are immediately touched and conditioned by multitude struggles. Nevertheless, when the world of relative rent is brought to us again, what enormous difference is demonstrated by the same relative rent! The world of rent confronts the common, it emerges inside the common, inside a generality of exploitation. There are countries (China for example) where these processes are presented in a such a "pure" way that the social relationships between the political centralization of command and the dimension of welfare, of social wage and the distribution of wealth in general, are all immediately revealed as a relationship of struggle: even wages have reached the generality of financial rent. Looking at countries where the complex articulation of rent and profit comes in an "impure" form, like the United States and Europe (or in all of the ex-third world countries where income "oligarchs" persist), even here it has to be noted how intense the struggle for income re-appropriation is in the formation of relations of social reproduction. However, resistance against rent is fierce everywhere. Everywhere, on the other hand, the defense of rent reaches the point of re-proposing the synthesis between absolute rent and the state of exception that we have seen throughout its genealogy. It is here, then, that this kind of rent reappears, violently opposing democratic processes. This is the moment when absolute rent is vindicated, overturning the historic development of capitalism in order to guarantee profit.
Is it possible, where rent has absorbed or at least integrated the dynamics of profit, to define a struggle over "relative wages"? Is it possible to describe apparatuses of confiict directed against rent? What is a struggle over rent? What is a "rent wage"? Every answer to these questions must first of all reintroduce a subject: between whom does the struggle take place when rent mystifies the common of social production? A subject, we said: an antagonistic, multitudinary force, that has the capacity to demolish the rigid biopower exercised in the name of absolute rent. But how is this subject constructed? It can only be constructed imposing a terrain of struggle based and structured on, and oriented toward, relative rent. How to succeed in doing this? It can only done through the construction of a struggling subject. Rent is transformed from absolute to relative when it is subjugated to democracy by social struggles. Hence struggles that lead to the construction of this subject will need to be conducted. Uniting precarious workers and those who are socially excluded, recomposing material and immaterial labor: the former inside the complexity of its factory and metropolitan articulations, the latter on the same space and in the same complexity of its articulations (from call centers to universities, from industrial production to communication, from research centers to social, sanitary and educational services). This is the multitude that can compose a political subject that actively penetrates the territory of rent commanded by finance and can introduce (with the same force that the battle for wages had for the workers in the Fordist factories) a struggle for income. A "rent wage" can and must be configured on this dimension.
Attention: this is not to say that the quantity of wages torn from rent (first absolute, then relative) can in some way determine a crisis in capitalistic command. The struggles around rent (in particular for a basic income) are first and foremost a means - a means for the construction of a political subject, of a political force. A means without an end? Yes, because its scope is not, nor can it yet be, the conquest of power, nor a lasting transformation of the mechanisms of reproduction of the capitalist society: in the struggle only the reality and the acknowledgement of a force that knows how to efficiently move on the terrain of rent can be built. It is beginning with this passage, from this constituent use of struggle for the definition and the acknowledgement of a political subject - only arising from this passage will it be possible to open a new struggle not limited to the negotiation of basic citizen income, but aimed at the re-appropriation of the common and its democratic management.
Class struggle doesn't happen without space. Today this space is the metropolis. Once it was the factory; it still is today, but saying factory today means something different from what it once did. Today's factory is the metropolis - with its productive relationships, research companies, the sites of direct production and communication, transportation, separations and confines, crises of production and circulation, diverse forms of employment, etc.. The metropolis: an ultramodern factory as only the prevalence of cognitive labor in the processes of valorization can determine; yet it is also an ancient factory in which slaves, migrants and women, precarious workers and the socially excluded are put to work and exploitation invades every aspect and moment of life. The metropolis: a pre-industrial factory that plays on cultural and social differences with different degrees of exploitation, like gender and race differences used as class differences; and yet a postindustrial factory where these differences constitute the common of the metropolitan encounter, continual and creative hybridization, the meeting of diverse cultures and lives. A common that can be recognized and brought to light in the metropolis. Rent clothes this common: it accumulates it in the highest floors of skyscrapers, rent dominates the common in stock markets, rent reveals itself to those that hide the common from its producers. Against this, an absolute democracy of struggles for transparency, for Glasnost, can indicate a way to emancipate the common to us. Attacking all of rent flows, from real-estate (through the financial articulations of profit) to the rent of copyright and digital production. The struggles that we have here indicated in parentheses constitute the heart of capital today. Democracy can and must destroy absolute rent to reach the power and intensity that is necessary to develop struggles against relative rent. Absolute rent, after having been the initial and violent figure of the capitalist period of take-off is now the figure of capitalistic exploitation that lives at the highest level of development: it is the figure of the exploitation of the common. The path to go down is intensifying the relationship between command and the common until that contradiction explodes, knowing full well that there is no dialectic that can resolve this problem. Only democracy, when it becomes absolute, can do this; when the acknowledgement that every person is necessary to the others because all are equal in the common...
The great crisis has begun within the metropolis. The new proletariat - created by the capitalistic production of subjectivity as proprietary individuals, then pushed toward a patrimonial condition in the neoliberal conversion of the welfare state (but at the same time reduced to the fatigue of a precarious life while the last century of worker struggle had improved living conditions and requalified labor into cognitive labor) - well, this new proletariat has rebelled. They have impeded capital from the faculty of social income, they have stolen its homes, they have demonstrated again how capitalistic rent could not compromise, even when facing the urgency of the equilibrium of its own command. Resisting, rebelling... Here is the new production of subjectivity that is put to play by the proletariat.
Closing the seminar from which this book is born, I believe that all the conditions that determine this radical overturning of
the processes of production of subjectivity are put forth in conclusive terms here. What remains is to begin to understand how to re-appropriate what capital has turned into rent for the common subjectivity. It is not inappropriate to pose this question in an era when passion, intelligence, and "revolutionary" practices are coming back to liven up the scene. On a global level. The analyses of the crisis and the consequent political thoughts that are contained in this volume not only describe and criticize the current historical phase of capitalism but also open new horizons of desire.
- February 2009