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Diacritics 31.4 (2001) 3-10

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Can Immanence Explain Social Struggles?

Ernesto Laclau

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

In a recent interview 1 Jacques Rancière opposes his notion of "people" (peuple) 2 to the category of "multitude" as presented by the authors of Empire. As is well known, Rancière differentiates between police and politics, the first being the logic of counting and assigning the population to differential places, and the second the subversion of that differentiating logic through the constitution of an egalitarian discourse which puts into question established identities. "The people" is the specific subject of politics, and this term presupposes a sharp division in the social body which cannot be led back to any kind of immanent unity. Empire, on the contrary, makes immanence its central category and the ultimate ground of the multitude's unity.

The main lines of Rancière's critique provide a good starting point for what we have to say about the book. The immanentism of Hardt and Negri would be linked, according to Rancière, to their Nietzschean/Deleuzian ethics of affirmation, which does away with any reactive or negative dimension. Empire would belong, in that respect, to the whole tradition of modern political philosophy, which is profoundly metapolitical: "the kernel of metapolitics is to lead back the precarious artifices of the political scene to the truth of an immanent power which organizes beings in a community and identifies the true community with the grasped and sensible operation of this truth" ["Peuple ou multitudes" 96]. From Hardt and Negri's rejection of any inherent negativity in political subjects, it follows that the power inherent in the multitude has to be a disruptive power, "lodged in all states of domination as its ultimate content, a content destined to destroy all barriers. 'Multitudes' have to be a content whose continent is Empire" ["Peuple ou multitudes" 97]. Disruptive forces operating through a purely immanent movement are what Marxist theory called "productive forces," and there would be, according to Rancière, a strict homology between the place of productive forces and that in which multitudes, as described in Empire, act. Rancière points out that productive forces should not necessarily be understood in any narrow productivist sense: there has been a constant widening of the concept from the strict economism of classical Marxism, to the recent attempts to introduce in it the ensemble of scientific and intellectual abilities, passing through the Leninist attempt to supplement via political intervention a role that productive forces refused to fulfill.

I think that Rancière has rightly stressed what I see as the main source of several weaknesses of Empire, including a central one: that within its theoretical framework politics become unthinkable. So I will start from a discussion of its notion of immanence and move later to various other theoretical and political aspects of the book. [End Page 3]

Let us start with the authors' discussion of the origins of European modernity. While the usual insistence is on the secularization process, that process would be, "in our view . . . only a symptom of the primary event of modernity: the affirmation of the powers of this world, the discovery of the plane of immanence. 'Omne ens habet aliquod esse proprium'—every entity has a singular essence. Duns Scotus' affirmation subverts the medieval conception of being as an object of analogical, and thus dualistic predication—a being with one foot in this world and one in a transcendent realm" [Empire 71]. Duns Scotus's insistence on the singularity of being would have initiated an assertion of immanence that the authors describe as a process whose representative names would have been Nicholas of Cusa, Pico della Mirandola, and Bovillus—other names quoted are Bacon and Occam—and whose point of arrival is Spinoza. "By the time we arrive at Spinoza, in fact, the horizon of immanence and the horizon of the democratic political order coincide completely. The plane of immanence is the one on which the powers of singularity are realized and the one on which the truth of the new...