Retort

I’m reading, finally, Retort’s Afflicted Powers, and I’m impressed with their handling of “how, strategically and politically, the US state [has] responded to” September 11. Particularly I appreciate how they navigate between the two dominant conceptions of the neoliberal state. Refusing to accept the two ontologies of the state, one in which it is the protector of national sovereignty and the national economy and another in which it is predominantly a multilateral, multinational guardian of capital’s prerogatives and international order, as absolute, Retort shows how the state is capable of both functions, if not simultaneously, at least concatenately, and hints at the singularity of the post-September 11 situation:

It seems that the state does not know what to do in these circumstances. This does not mean it is on the path to real strategic failure, necessarily, or that it will prove incapable of pulling back from the imperatives of the image-war and slowly, relentlessly, accommodating itself to the needs of a new round of primitive accumulation. The hatchet men and torture brigades (professionals, not part-timers from Appalachia) are being retrained as we write. “Road maps” are to be thrown in the trash can. Failed states become weak state once more. “Democracy” proves unexportable. Iran and Syria join the comity of nations. Exit Wolfowitz and Makiya, mumbling.

States can behave like maddened beasts, in other words, and still get their way. They regularly do. But the present madness is singular: the dimension of spectacle has never before interfered so palpably, so insistently, with the business of keeping one’s satrapies in or order. And never before have spectacular politics been conducted in the shadow — the “historical knowledge” — of defeat.

Retort avoids the tendency present in many analyses of the US response to September 11 that sees the response as a complete refutation of the central thesis — at least in the popular reading — of Empire — that state functions have become unbound from individual nation-states. Simon Critchely, though perhaps more blunt than others, captures this when he writes: “It is rather rare for books to be refuted empirically, but I think this happened to Empire on September 11th, 2001.” But this tendency is, to my mind, filled with a bit too much theoretical schadenfreude. It wasn’t Hardt and Negri’s thesis that the “old” state was forever gone, never to return, but that the state had found a new mode, a new primary way of functioning. The old function hadn’t disappeared; it was just quiet. Pointing out Hardt and Negri’s wrongness, while fun, doesn’t really help us figure out how the present functions. Retort knows this, and so puts Empire‘s exposition of the state to good use, and recognizes its limitations without finding satisfaction in spotting its errors.

It’s interesting that Negri seems to suffer a lot from this rather smarmy revision. I suppose it’s his own fault in some way, in that his attention to newness and novelty sometimes leads to an errant earnestness, but at least he is open to changes in conditions. Many of the criticisms leveled against him, on the other hand, are overly concerned with error or are, more relevantly, rather conservative. His writings on immaterial labor are a good example of this. While he proclaims we have entered a new epoch in which communitive and affective labor dominates society, his critics say, no, capitalism has always been like this, it’s always traded in affect, it’s always required unwaged care support, etc. Of course there’s lots to criticize Negri for, but doing so because he fails to recognize capital’s historical continuity and timeless essence doesn’t tell us anything about the present or about politics. It’s merely a sociologist’s correction.

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