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Why Work on Rights? Citizenship, Welfare and Property in Empire and Beyond
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Why Work on Rights?
Citizenship, Welfare and Property in Empire and Beyond

In the final section of Empire, their monumental recent study of the postmodern global economy, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri try to articulate in a new way the “potential political power” of the vast group of “exploited” and “subjugated” social subjects they call the Multitude (393). Such power finds its concrete expression, according to the authors, in three “rights”; 1) the right to global citizenship; 2) the right to a “social wage” or guaranteed income; and 3) the right to “reappropriation of the means of production” (406). Such rights are no more, and no less, than the practical embodiment of what Negri elsewhere calls a new “post-deconstructive” ontology, grounded in the essential creativity of the productive social subject (Negri, “The Specter’s Smile” 12). The first two of these proposed rights may also be said to articulate, in their most general form, the full domain of traditional civil and economic rights. At stake here, in other words, would be an attempt to guarantee to all social subjects, without conditions or exceptions, both citizenship (inclusion within the juridico-political order) and welfare (what Franklin Roosevelt famously calls a “freedom from want”). The third right, by contrast, reiterates the fundamental aspiration of classical Marxism, and corresponds precisely to that essential characteristic of the Multitude — its productivity — which allows it to serve, in the overall argument of the book, as a symmetrical counterforce to Empire itself. Hardt and Negri’s three rights thus encompass (and perhaps transcend) both familiar liberal approaches to social welfare and the full utopian audacity of the Marxist tradition, and so represent, the authors suggest, the very telos of all (past or present) struggles for political liberation.

No reader otherwise sympathetic to a progressive politics of any variety could fail to be generally sympathetic to these proposals. In this essay, however, we will suggest that Hardt and Negri’s specific case for these three rights, and also the whole philosophic program that underlies that case, is fundamentally flawed. Although the authors claim to be responding to what they also argue are the radically and fundamentally new conditions of labor in postmodernity, their concluding proposals finally do no more than recapitulate an entire tradition in which socio-political rights of every kind remain contingent upon an individual’s willingness and ability to work, to earn, and to produce. A thorough critique of this persistent habit of thought is required, we argue, before any conceivable schedule of rights, including this one, can be either rigorously thought or practically realized.

The Right to Citizenship

Although Marx himself writes of his suspicion of schedules of rights and their relation to the securing of the bourgeois state,1 Hardt and Negri are only the most recent contemporary left-wing theorists to endorse unequivocally a political project which begins with the “citizen,” the figure who is the bearer of such rights in the modern world. For example, in response to being asked the question, “Who comes after the subject?,” with the subject understood as a contingent and also exclusive form, Etienne Balibar writes: “The citizen (defined by his rights and duties) is that ‘nonsubject’ who comes after the subject, and whose constitution and recognition put an end (in principle) to the subjection of the subject” (Balibar 38–9).

Implicit in Balibar’s rapid formulation is that the Althusserian problem of the subject always-already in subjection, always-already interpellated by the state and its apparatuses, can be overcome by the form of citizenship. The “constitution and recognition” of the citizen, understood as a combination of “rights and duties,” formally puts an end to the logic of subjugation. But several urgent questions raise themselves in the face of such a thesis. First, why does the “constitution” of the citizen need a further “recognition” in order exit the condition of subjection? And, second, doesn’t the very idea of “duties” subject the citizen-in-potential to a judgment of his fitness at this moment of recognition? In other words, isn’t the “recognition” that Balibar recommends a judgment of whether one has fulfilled, or is capable...