Antonio Negri is a man of deep and abiding faith. I’m not talking about any particular religion like Christianity or Judaism. I’m talking about his faith in people to resist authoritarian power and build a better world.
This is a major theme in Commonwealth, and I admit that I haven’t worked through its argument to the end yet. But he returns again and again to different aspects of this power: that we all have the power to resist authority, and that the resistance of the most abject is the most powerful.
In the early chapters of the book at least, Negri has talked about slavery. This is part of Commonwealth's historical argument. The book is, in part, an argument that another world than the capitalist modernity we’re all accustomed to is possible.
|Paul Robeson as Toussaint L'Ouverture.|
So he looks into the history of the West and its economic processes to find contradictions, paradoxes, and contingencies. Ways that our whole globe’s economic system schizzed out in its development. Or particular decision moments where things could have gone differently.
And the most important factor in those early stages of modernity’s global solidification, which Negri keeps coming back to again and again, is slavery.
Slavery was the great contradiction of modern capitalism’s development. The profits of the global agriculture trades in Earth’s imperialist years built the great financial and economic centres of the modern era. Those profits depended on mass imported slave labour in the United States, Brazil, and around the Caribbean.
And it kind of got swept under the rug. This is why Negri always harps on the Haitian Revolution as the only one of all the revolutions in that era which really went all the way with the true spirit of revolution against authority and authoritarianism. The Haitian Revolution was the only one that freed slaves.
All the other revolutions in France, America, and later Germany and Italy, were primarily about protecting property and property holders from authoritarianism. Not people. They were bourgeois revolutions, or landowners’ revolutions.
They spoke the values of freedom, and believed in them too. But those other revolutions passed over the most horrible aspect of authoritarianism in their societies in silence. They never liquidated people’s human property. They never freed the slaves.
The possibility that even slaves have the freedom to revolt is the central concept of what Negri wants to teach us about human nature. It’s the centrepiece of the proof of freedom as the essence of humanity. The desire to live without oppression, without limitation – freedom from authority and from poverty.
It’s humanity’s universal desire to be free. The spark of any tiny possibility of resistance. Slavery is the most abject and defamed position a human can be in, because being a slave denies all your humanity and the singularity of your personality, to reduce your entire value to a price.
|The greatest folk heroes of Western cultures have always|
been rebels and resistance leaders, freedom fighters
against tyranny and oppression.
If even that most abject state of humanity can contain a seed of resistance, then human freedom can never truly be crushed, can it? Authority can never be absolute.
Thinkers like Giorgio Agamben are lurking on the margins of Negri’s argument. He refers to their ideas periodically, but only and always as something to reject. But they – and more explicitly freedom-minded writers like Hannah Arendt – address a human reality and situation even more abject than slavery.
The death camp. The situation where authority is so absolute, it would appear no resistance is possible. This is a place where humanity isn’t just reduced to the absurd simplicity of a market price and a productivity index. Death camps reduce their victims to garbage, waste to be disposed of.
If authority can never be absolute, then there have to be seeds of resistance and rebellion even here. Not just in our memories or reconstructions. That’s why a movie like Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful is so insulting – it makes a death camp into a place where the resistance of clowning, humour, and subversion is possible.
For Negri’s argument to succeed, there has to be a spark of resistance even here. I’ll get back to you on that.