From Empire to Commonwealth: Communist Theory & Contemporary Practice

Conference Abstracts (Download PDF here: FEC Abstracts)

Thursday 25th November

Session One: Autonomy

9:30 – 10:30: Chair – Elizabeth Humphrys

Dave Eden

Of Screams and Cracks: the promise of Negative Autonomism

The popularity of post-operaismo thought often leads to a reduction of its richness to the work of Antonio Negri. This paper attempts to flesh out the challenge posed by what John Holloway, its best know articulator, has called ‘Negative Autonomism’. Without trying to invent a school to fit a name this paper will present the broad critique that this position makes of the Deleuzian underpinnings of Negri’s work, arguing that the rejection of dialectics leads to an inability to critique the forms that capitalist social relations take. Negri’s affirmation of labour’s current capacities struggles to take account of the fetishisation that creativity is imprisoned within. Against this, and via an innovative reading of Adorno, Negative Autonomism hopes to elucidate the hope of a negative dialectic of refusal that lies in the heart of capitalist society: the revolt of labour against its condition as labour. This paper will investigate the above whilst signally the pitfalls such a position risks.

Nick Southall

Time for Revolution: the power of love

Concluding Multitude Hardt and Negri declare: “We can already recognise that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living – and the yawning abyss between them is becoming enormous. In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real political act of love”. My paper will explore this declaration at the middle of Hardt and Negri’s Empire trilogy and some of the ideas that pivot around it. The paper will emphasise, discuss and critique Hardt and Negri’s strategic vision in relation to the time of revolution and the power of love.

Session Two: Social Movements in Japan

11:00 – 12:30: Chair – Alexander Brown

Risa Tokunaga, Sonomi Suzuki & Nozomu Shibuya

Linking Struggles Against the Expropriation of the Common: Okinawa, Tokyo and Freeter Activism

In Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri account the two forms of the common and the ways they expropriate. The first is relatively traditional notion that generally involves natural resources. The expropriation of the first form of the common is known as the primitive accumulation of capital and the enclosure. The second notion of the common, centres on the new forms of exploitation of biopolitical labour, involves the product of labour and the means of future production. This common is the languages we create, the social practices and the modes of sociality that define our relationships. They point out that biopolitical production is becoming hegemonic and biopolitical labour is increasingly autonomous.

Then, how do we resist capital which captures and expropriates values through biopolitical exploitation which undermines the common? As Massimo De Angelis elaborates the many types of ‘new enclosure’, we are urged to “contribute to the emerging political discourse on life and knowledge as a commons”.

In this presentation, we display various types of struggles to “reclaim the common”. For instance, protests against the U.S. military base expansion in Okinawa, a case of privatisation of the public park in Tokyo, and freeter activism which carry out by urban precariate. Through investigating the experience of struggles, we will articulate between the ongoing struggles in Japan and the expropriation of two forms of the common.

Takuro Higuchi

Global Activist Networks in Asia: Global Continuation and Evolution in Japan

Since Seattle 1999, plenty of summit protests around WTO, G8/20, IMF, WB, COP, and so on happened in each different summit sites in the last decade. Such incidents were amazingly accepted because of their mass actions and widespread networks of activists sustaining series of mass actions. As some researchers argue, those of generating networks are based on horizontality and autonomy, and they have already prefigured a powerful model for (re)organizing society. However, some researchers also argue the major shortcomings in the other hand. In theory “Global Activist network” has constructed since Seattle though, in practice there has still been serious spatial gap between Western part of the world and other side of the world. Actually, global activist network was excluded Asia. However, in 2008, G8 summit was held in Japan. This paper thus aims to show that global activist network since Seattle which was in fact limited to the Europe and North America was expanded to involve Asia through 2008 G8 summit in Japan. 2000 G8 in Japan was right after the Seattle in 1999, yet, due to its single-issue and national character of the movements, globally expanding networks didn’t reach to Japan. However, movements around 2003 anti-Iraq war brought in autonomous character of alter-globalization movement and referred the legacy of autonomous activisms. During 2008 G8, some autonomous activists in Japan then took over diversity of tactics and networks of activists inherited since PGA, DAN and Dissent!..

Session Three: Precarity, Commons, Love

13:30 – 15:00: Chair – Mark Gawne

Alexander Brown

Precarious Times: The Immanence of Proletarian Struggle

In Commonwealth Hardt and Negri describe precarity as “a mechanism of control that determines the temporality of workers, destroying the division between work time and nonwork time”. This paper will explore the temporality of precarity by looking at proletarian struggles around time. It will question Hardt and Negri’s concept of real subsumption by looking at the ways in which proletarian struggles transform every moment of capitalist time into an opportunity for exodus and resistance. I will consider precarity as embodying a tension between workers’ struggles for flexibility and control over time and capital’s attempt to turn this struggle against the class and impose it as capitalist time. By utilising an understanding of precarity in its broadest sense I will argue that the inherent instability and insecurity of contemporary life can form the basis for rejecting capitalism and reclaiming the time of life.

Annette Maguire

Precarity & the Recombinant Culture of the Commons

My starting point is a radical understanding of culture as emanating from the struggles of those “below” in all our common singularity, as an expression of “the meanings and values implicit and explicit in a particular way of life” (Raymond Williams).

Current management discourse, particularly in media-digital industries, is awash with terms like “creative thinking” and “intuitive design”. I wish to reclaim one such concept to emerge in recent times – that of cognitive surplus. The term denotes the very real phenomenon, observable in trends of internet usage, that people exhibit a great propensity to produce culture (in this case, in digital form) and to share those cultural works with others.  The idea is that this font of shared creativity exceeds the bounds of what can be absorbed into mechanisms of commercial exchange, hence the term surplus. In fact in some senses it appears to be inexhaustible.

Turning this concept on its head opens up interesting space for understanding the cultural practices of today’s precarious proletariat. It points to the abundant “immanence” of creativity among those below. Proletarian self-activity, whether consciously or not, gives form to a culture of re-invention that is by its very nature a commons, pointing to the Surrealist concept of ‘collective genius’.  I will look at the uses of hip hop culture to explore this terrain.

Session Four: Beyond Biopolitics

15:30 – 16:30: Chair – Rachel Rowe

Angela Mitropoulos & Melinda Cooper

Beyond Biopolitics

There is an impasse in biopolitical understandings that is as theoretical as it is political.  It is a limit that is as pertinent to readings of Foucault (among others) as it is to analyses of the most recent financial crisis, as explanatory of the collusive rise of neoliberalism and theology, as it is to the proximate advance of the political figure of the working family and the proliferation of border controls. Whether cast in the affirmative register of Hardt and Negri’s biopower, or Agamben’s negative theology of sovereignty, the question of biopolitics always risks recapitulating the ostensibly self-evident foundation of the household – or, to take up and modify a term from Arendt, an oikopolitics.

Friday 26th November

Session One: Education

9:00 – 10:00: Chair – Annette Maguire

James Pollard

Education under the regime of border security: notes for a pedagogy of liberation

This paper examines the paradigm of border security under conditions of the empire, using the United States as a case study.  As the immigrant population in the U.S.A. becomes more numerous and more settled, the job of reproducing the migrant worker, formerly performed by the home country, have now fallen to the U.S. itself.  Under these conditions, border security itself must “globalise.”  The border is no longer a geographic line between the United States and Mexico: it pervades American society.  By surveying recent developments in American education, in particular the No Child Left Behind Act (2002, due to be reauthorised by Obama), I present evidence that the structural conditions of a permanent border, in effect segregation along immigrant/nativist lines, are already present.  I present this argument for two reasons. The first is to help inform educators, educational researchers, and students of the political effects that the border has on their work.  The second is to raise issues of pedagogy and education in the wider network activist organisations working for immigrant rights and social justice. In order to confront the pervasive effects of racism and oppression on immigrant welfare, it is necessary to address education and support the development of radical democratic pedagogies.

Sam Russell

Subverting the Research Framework


Session Two: Social Movements in Australia

10:00 – 11:00: Chair – Dave Eden

Elizabeth Humphrys

The Noughties: The rise and fall of the Global Justice Movement in Australia

This paper will explore the rise and fall of the Global Justice Movement in Australia (aka the Anti-Capitalist Movement, the Anti-Corporate Globalisation Movement). I will argue that the international movement became possible because of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rise of certain political critiques, but that s11 played a unique role in cohering disparate forces into a social movement in Australia and the blockades in particular took anti-systemic politics from the defence to the offence. I assessing the trajectory of the GJM over the noughties, I will argue that the events on 9/11 gave rise to a number of internal and external challenges and that since late 2001 the GJM has dissipated and narrowed, with there presently being no movement as such. I will argue that these setbacks were not the result only of the events on 9/11, but significantly due to the internal practical and ideological limitations of the movement.

Ella Ryan

The Alyawarr People’s Walk-Off: Creating Action Spaces for Social Justice

The background to this paper is the key policy decision taken by the Commonwealth Government to address claims of extensive child sexual abuse and neglect in the Northern Territory. There has been much opposition to the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), particularly from the Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory who have been adversely affected by the intervention. In July 2009, the Ampilatwatja community walked-off their land in protest of the intervention. Trade unions from around the country have publicly and financially supported the community’s cause. This paper will explore the spaces of action that have been generated through the intersection of different political identities. Geographies of social movements are temporally and spatially specific, with multiple interactions between place, space and identities. Therefore I will aim to apply a performative framework that conceptualises resistance practices within spatial-identity relationships. In other words, the reciprocal relationship between resistance practices and geography in which they both play a role in shaping each other. By locating specific spaces of resistance in the broader political context of the intervention, the aim of this paper is to indicate the possibilities that such spaces can offer for the Aboriginal rights movement in Australia.

Session Three

11:30 – 13:00: Chair – Nick Southall


Towards an Autonomous Research Network

Based on proposal available here.

Session Four: Affect, Production, Exchange

14:00 – 15:00: Chair – Ella Ryan

Mark Gawne

The Composition of Affective Labour & Technologies of Affect

Throughout Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, the centrality of affects and affective labour in contemporary capitalism has formed a key theoretical axis upon which a series of claims made by Hardt and Negri hinge. These claims concern problems of the technical composition of capital and the political composition of the multitude, as well as the critique of political economy. This paper will provide a critical engagement with Hardt and Negri’s articulation of affective labour, through mapping the implications of two related problems. The first problem can be identified as one of composition reflecting the lack of serious engagement with difference in the composition of affective labour. The second problem concerns the imposition of regulatory and indexing mechanisms upon the bodies of affective labourers. These questions will be engaged through an attempt to develop an understanding of technologies, or an apparatus, of affect. The aim of this paper is to assist in posing some more nuanced questions concerning the composition of, and lines of antagonism involved in, affective labour and the production of affect.

Dave Eden

The Gravity of Value: a critique of the absence of exchange in post-operaismo thought

Post-operaismo theory offers the promise of a radical understanding of the present. It is a trajectory of communist thought that has attempted to grasp the current composition of capitalist society. It does so in a way that stresses the novelty of our moment and emphasises the power of struggle and subversion from below. Here I want to address a deep and problematic flaw: the absence of any serious attempt to grapple with the role that exchange plays in the accumulation of value. Moving from Tronti’s original formulations through to ideas of the social factory and then to biocapitalism I will argue whatever their vitality and insight such concepts lack an understanding of exchange and thus produce a lopsided and limited understanding of capitalist social relations. What is especially problematic is how this leads to a rejection of the law of value and thus a reformulation of profit as rent. By critiquing this absence and exposing it limits perhaps we can develop richer formulations of communist praxis.