- Universalism of the Common
[Humankind] always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.—Karl Marx
Surplus, Value, and the Common
One does not know what one writes. This truism of that form of thought which is writing holds all the more true perhaps when the one writing is not an individual but the aleatory product of a wayward conversation, the plural subject of a singular yet common encounter.
It is under the sign of this truism that the present essay is born, as I return to the encounter that took place between Antonio Negri and me in a book titled In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics, as I revisit here that encounter in the attempt to understand and, indeed, to know exactly what it is that one wrote there, so as, hopefully, to go beyond it. In particular, it is the titular object of praise that continues to linger and to preoccupy me as the eminently unfinished business of that book: the concept of the common was certainly praised yet not fully given, grasped, defined there.
In the essay, "Surplus Common," that serves as a preface to that book, I sketched a possible genealogy of the concept of the common by interrelating what I took to constitute its earliest proto-modern intimations in Dante Alighieri's De vulgari eloquentia and De monarchia, and its latest postmodern reincarnations in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. (Hardt and Negri's subsequent collaborative undertaking, Commonwealth, had not yet been published.) Crucially, I sketched this genealogy by putting Alighieri's and Hardt and Negri's works in conversation with one another via the intermediary and nodal figures of Aristotle, Karl Marx, and Baruch Spinoza. The aim of such a genealogy, however, was to approach the concept of the common indirectly, transversally, secondarily.
I analyzed, interwove, and deployed the various articulations of the common in these thinkers so as to produce another and primary—that is, logically anterior—concept, which I referred to as "surplus common" [pluscomune]. In doing so, I hoped in effect to re-elaborate a distinctly Marxian theoretical-methodological maneuver. Much like Marx shows in the Grundrisse that, paradoxically, "the creation of surplus value," namely, the immediate result of the process of capitalist circulation, "is the presupposition of capital" itself ,1 much like Marx demonstrates, in other words, that surplus value is at [End Page 162] once presupposition and result of capitalist valorization, and much like Negri, therefore, argues in Marx beyond Marx that the "theory of value . . . can exist only as a partial and abstract subordinate of the theory of surplus value" ,2 I used my genealogy to show how the common and its forms find their logical, transcendental yet immanent, precondition in a concept of surplus common. In short, I tried to show that surplus common is at once presupposition and result of the common. This homology is methodological, in the sense that I approached the question of the common in the same way in which Marx (and Negri) approached the question of value. This homology, however, is also theoretical, since my aim, in the end, was to show how any adequate theorization of the common in modernity and beyond not only must consider the essential function of the common within the process of extraction of surplus value but also must confront, on the one hand, the actual identity of the common with capital, and, on the other hand, its potential difference from capital, and hence must investigate the complex relations of immanence among surplus, value, and the common. I approached the question of the common in the same way in which Marx approached the question of value not only because I found Marx's method of transcendental critique to be particularly effective but also because I understood these two questions to be intimately related to each other in capitalist modernity and...