Hail the Multitudes

ADBUSTERS The MagazineOne distinctive feature of the most powerful political movements that have emerged in recent years is their refusal of central leadership and unified programs.This was clear, for example, in the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle as well as all the various antiglobalization and anti-war protests that followed. It’s a distinctive feature of the Zapatista movement. In this new framework there is no single movement but a movement of movements communicating in horizontal, decentralized networks.
“Multitude” is the name that my colleague Toni Negri and I give this emerging form of social organization. It is composed of different people who act in common and collaborate, without denying their differences, freedom or autonomy. Its democratic character is clear. What is less clear is whether the movements today can effectively challenge the present structure of power and pose a real alternative to it. In the language of political philosophy we could say that every viable political subject must have decision-making ability and be able to propose a new society. To form a multitude, in other words, the movements must be able, while maintaining their autonomy and singularity, to act in common and create a coherent and powerful political project. If they are not capable of this we may see a reemergence of traditional political structures with leaders, spokespeople, and unifed agendas.

In order to understand the power and potential of these new movements it is useful to begin with a hypothesis: in each era the most powerful form of political organization corresponds to the dominant organizational model of economic production. The centralized and hierarchical structures of the form of the political party that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, corresponded to the centralized and hierarchical organization of factory production. This hypothesis is based on the notion that the primary form of political organization draws on the relationships already existing in society, the ways we already relate to each other in our work and our daily lives. If we are used to a boss and foremen directing us at work, the idea goes, then we will also need a political boss and lieutenants directing our political organizations.

When we look at the organization of labor in contemporary economic production we find that the centralized command structures typical of the factor are no longer dominant. They have been displaced by the production of ideas, images, information, affective relationships, and similarly immaterial products. This production of immaterial goods is organized in horizontal networks that emphasize the cooperation, collaboration and communication among the various producers. Although only a small portion of global labor is involved in such immaterial production, its model of decentralized network collaboration has become dominant and tends to influence all other types of production.

If this hypothesis is true then the most powerful form of political organization will correspondingly involve decentralized networks. If we are trained in our work and our daily lives to collaborate in horizontal networks, we will be able too in political organizations collaboratively to make decisions, challenge the present forms of power, and propose an alternative society.

This is not to say that all leadership structures and calls for unified agendas should immediately be banned from our political projects, but it does indicate that the new forms of organizing can be effective. Certainly the defenders of Empire still operate primarily through heirarchies, and there is evidence to suggest that the chain of command remains an efficient way of imposing power. But those in the top echelon of power are facing a loss of legitimacy as their hold over civil society is marked increasingly by coercion, and less by being able to garner consent. In contrast, horizontal networks offer more fl exibility, and because they are evolving out of the emerging model of production carry a natural power and legitimacy. There is good reason to expect therefore that horizontal, collaborative networks can emerge, slowly over decades, as the primary and most powerful forms of political organization. Now it is a question of what we do with them.

Michael Hardt teaches in the Literature Program at Duke University. He is author with Antonio Negri of the books Empire and Multitude.
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