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Dictatorship or Permanent State of Exception? (part 2)

The Concept of Empire

The fundamental problem is to construct the concept of Empire as a specific form of State and to place it in relation to the concept of “imperialism” or the “monopoly” stage of capitalist society. Two possibilities present themselves: Either Empire corresponds to a new organization of the social relations of production that is qualitatively distinct; it is the State-form corresponding to a new “stage” of the development of capital. Or Empire corresponds to a particular period of the development of the imperialist stage, the result of the tendency exhibited by this structure, the organization of a super-imperialism.

With Negri, Empire corresponds to a new mode of the accumulation of capital based on “immaterial labor.” The approach is tainted by technicism, expressing the primacy of the productive forces over the social relations of production. It is all the more puzzling since he himself fully criticized this conception during the 1970s. Any research in this sense must study the labor process through the forms of the new relations of production and new property relations of labor power.

The second option, Empire as a specific period of the imperialist stage, is more complex. It is thus necessary to break up the imperialist stage into two distinct periods.

The first period is characterized by the mass presence of labor power in the social relations of production. This directly political existence requires a reorganization of the State to manage the balance of power. This is what the Bourdieu school has taken note of, in a purely formal manner, under the name of “social State.”

The second period corresponds to the ongoing deconstruction of this balance of power. One can distinguish two moments. The first, mainly economic, is the dismantling of the labor structure through relocations, by the capability of multinational capital to put labor powers of different values into competition. The second phase corresponds to the current state of affairs, to setting up the conditions necessary for overturning property relations on the basis of criminal law.

This whole process can be perceived and theorized as a permanent state of exception insofar as the virtual war against terrorism makes possible an ever more intense offensive against freedoms. However, the overturning is such that it leads to the establishment of a “new order,” of a psychotic political structure where the word of power is substituted for the facts themselves (the government thesis on the September 11 attacks is exemplary in this regard). It is a question of a legal order set up where the law is formed by the word of the executive power.

Empire and Dictatorship

This situation we have called organic dictatorship and no longer state of exception. It represents the tendency in its realization. We could equally use the Schmittian concept of the total State. But for us, as opposed to Schmitt, this form of the organization of power does not express the return of the political faced with liberalism, but the full realization of the latter.

The phenomenological character of Schmitt’s approach, the fact that the form of the State is not put in relation to its content, the social relations of production, prevents him from producing the concept of this form of dictatorship, one that could equally be described as a totalitarian dictatorship, a dictatorship that regulates all aspects of life.

However, the permanent state of exception continues to produce its effects. This organic dictatorship, which tends to identify society and State, constantly modifies its conditions of existence, thus miming capital, which continually revolutionizes the conditions of its production. Thus, this dictatorship is no longer a stable political form, it is also a permanent state of exception.

Revolution in the relations of production has characterized capitalism for its whole existence. However, it has experienced a particular speeding-up in the current phase and, above all, this process is freeing itself from its original cause, labor conflict.

The relation between workers’ struggle and the mechanization of the labor process was clearly posed by Marx, who showed that machines hasten to where strikes occur. However, globalization makes it possible for capital to free itself from the motor of its development, the labor struggle [6], and apply methods of production that are the result of experience acquired in the face of the most advanced elements of labor to workers without traditions of struggle. This possibility breaks the strict connection existing between the effect and its cause. The effect, the permanent revolution in the relations of production, appears as its own foundation.

Currently, the transformation of criminal law, which leads to the suppression of habeas corpus and places whole populations under ongoing control, profoundly changes the forms of the property of “free” labor power. The criminal law of exception thus creates conditions that make it possible for capital to modify the relations of production qualitatively. The transformation in the organization of power that accompanies this drastic economic change cannot be reduced to a change in political regime. It modifies the very form of the State, setting up the state-form adequate to the new relations of production.

The dismantling of the political structure of the working class is, at the same time, the deconstruction of the national State. Capitalist command has been reorganized at the world level. The national form of the State has been coupled with a networked international organization, the national State retaining only police and judiciary functions. The current phase is witness to these prerogatives being integrated globally into an imperial structure directed by the administration of the United States, which concentrates all power in its hands. A vertical structure, which carries out the control and repression of populations under a centralized command, is joined to the horizontal reorganization of the first phase.

The Empire, as the space of this command, can thus exist only as dictatorship. If dictatorship is the only form of government possible, that means that it no longer represents only a specific form of political regime but that it is the product of the identity of society and State. It is both the form and content of this identity, State-form and organization of society. It is no longer the dictatorship of the State over society, but the organic dictatorship of capital.

Translated by James H. Membrez

Part 1 of Jean-Claude Paye’s article appeared on Wednesday. Click here to purchase Paye’s Global War on Liberty


6. On the thesis that the workers’ struggle is the motor of development of capital, see Mario Tronti, Operai e capitale (Rome: Einaudi, 1966).

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