Marx mingles with multinational trends in authors’ idea of a new democracy The 1990s brought with it no shortage of hasty predictions concerning the increasing irrelevance of the nation state. According to many pundits, the power of the multinational corporation — a stateless entity that could often regulate the flow of ideas, people and capital across state borders more effectively than national governments — was quickly trumping the power of many governments. In response to the power these corporations wielded over the lives of millions of disenfranchised workers, there came a backlash in the form of anti-globalization protests that raged at meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank throughout the latter part of the decade, spawning a larger social movement aimed at combating the hegemonic power of capital divorced from the accountability of state sanction or law.
Even given the undeniable power multinationals hold over political and economic relations between states, the nation state still remains the primary mover on the world stage. In their new book, “Multitude,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri attempt to outline a comprehensive theory bringing the state, democracy and the power of capital together to redefine the terms under which they operate. The result is an unconvincing, muddled take on international power relations at the economic, national and supranational levels that offers little of value to any of the debates into which they wade.
The problem with the book is not only that many of the terms the authors employ are concepts gleaned from other thinkers, which they’ve polished up and renamed, but also in the authors’ seeming inability to move past Marxist interpretations of economic and political power. Their use of the term “immaterial labor” seems just another way to Marx-ify what has been called the “new economy” or “intellectual labor” for the past decade or so. The same goes for their concept of “multitude,” which they define as “an internally different, multiple social subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (or, much less, indifference), but on what it has in common.” In other words, what the “multitude” would bring about is “[A world in which differences express themselves freely … in order to take away the limiting, negative, destructive character of differences and make differences our strength.” It is a rare occurrence that not just one, but two respected thinkers team up to produce such an unsatisfying, derivative, lazy formulation, only to foist it on the world in the form of a lengthy book. If this were a paper in an obscure journal, maybe they could get away with failing to define their terms, but packing a whole book full of such content-less utterances is something altogether different.
The concept of multitude, no matter how ill-defined the authors leave it, seems to fall somewhere in the unsatisfying gray area between theory and praxis — taking its abstraction from John Rawls’ “Original Position” (where, in constructing a system of justice, representatives are unaware of the abilities, ethnicity, gender, religion or belief system of the citizens they represent) and the more concrete idea of “constitutional patriotism,” a concept Jurgen Habermas, among others, has defined as a pluralistic model of governance, where citizens find commonality in the founding documents of the state, rather than in the more limiting terms of ethnicity or religion. But unlike these two liberal theories, Hardt and Negri settle for a kind of vapid relativism in which national institutions melt away in favor of a sort of global democratic order, in which somehow, as if by magic, coercion and violence will evaporate. As nice as it would be if a global polity could form out of a celebration of “differences,” the authors are much too wobbly in their thinking to suggest any real way for democracy to flourish at the international level. They celebrate a kind of democracy defined as the “rule of everyone by everyone,” which sounds closer to the dictatorship of the proletariat than something we should actually hope for.
Also, their brief description of terrorism leaves little to be desired, weakly stating that definitions of terrorism “vary according to who defines their key elements: who determines, for example, what is a legitimate government, what are human rights and what are the rules of war.” Perhaps the authors need to brush up on the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, or better yet, revisit any of the other international accords dating back to Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, which explicitly lay out exactly what these terms mean in the international arena. Somehow, Hardt and Negri want to change the face of the global world order by ignoring the institutions which give it meaning, preferring instead some sort of vague cultural reform from the bottom up. While there is no doubt that culture and class are defining elements of both national and international political considerations, the transformative power the authors invest in the terms are lost in their essentially formless and scattershot analysis, leaving little of value behind.
Paul McLeary is a Brooklyn writer.