Step Right Up and Join the Multitude

Review of Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Penguin, 2004, 427 pp.) “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
-Ken Kesey

“A Republic or an Empire?”
-Gore Vidal (often attributed to Pat Buchanan)

“Both”
-The Gargoyle of Reality.

For over a quarter of a century, including a recently finished stint for political violence, at Rome’s Rebibia Prison, Antonio Negri has been formulating this pop-profound masterpiece, equally “New Science,” Finnegan’s Wake and Das Kapital. Working with Duke cultural theorist Michael Hardt, and acknowledged “readability” help from Naomi Klein, this is perhaps the most important piece of global analysis since Tariq Ali’s Clash of Fundamentalisms. Though Hardt and Negri’s previous book Empire was labeled by no less than Slavoj Zizek as a “new Communist Manifesto,” many readers (including myself) and critics outside of academia, and specifically, on this side of the Atlantic found it wordy, repetitive and in one case even “A Manifesto for Nike.”*

The last and most frequently heard critique (covertly pro-capitalist) were from those Marxists who, like monotheistic literalists, do not consider Marxism and/or anti-capitalist philosophy in general to be a living multitude, as it were, but rather a tableau from up on high. Negri’s experience as an activist in the militant autonomist movement in Italy (which exists to this day, in Argentina as well) has led him to take what he has always called Marx’s “method” beyond dialectical analysis towards a “post-liberal and post socialist” polity.

No less than the neo-liberals and probably the sharper communists, Negri sees that the old welfare state/Keynesian model AND the Stalinist bureaucratic model will not be the shape of global reality. Rather, anarchists in all but name, Negri and Hardt see the Multitude as “self-governing” when it is ready. If workers can take over a factory, why cannot the multitude take over the world? This is how the world moves from the unipolar power of the American Republic to the multidinous power of an amorphous self-governed communist empire. The key is as Jeffersonian and Madisonian as it is Marxist. The real models here are Baruch Spinoza and Giambattista DeVico.

Empire sketched out the theory of moving from “Res-Publica” to “Res-Communismus.” Multitude, with its increased focus on global democracy provides a (not “the”) road-map for increased leverage for the global multitude until its ideas and “subjectivity” become global. One does not have to go much beyond the shared demands of what I now call the February 15 movement (after those who marched before the Iraq war) to understand the production of a global subjectivity.

While there may be plenty worth criticizing in their contention that global labor patterns have entered a “post-fordist” and post-industrial reality, it is definitely the case in Europe and North America. They advance this theory of the “multitude” this time around by, like their hero (and mine) Spinoza, to allow the multitude to encompass everyone, from “The Poors” as South African organizers call Black, White and Indian peasants, to computer programmers to renegade (or rational like Jefferson or Gore Vidal) elements of what they call the global aristocracy, a category that they clearly separate from capitalist or “bourgeois.” The power of the multitude is neither non-state (after all, they contend that some states contribute to multidinous power partially or completely) or state, but is often, if not always, not exactly what is realized by its agents, from Hugo Chavez to Elliot Spitzer to Arundhati Roy to even Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

Capitalism, extending Marx’s metaphor, and bourgeois power as such, has organically entered the final stages of “ourobourous” (the snake swallowing its tail.) A non-dialectical, Spinozan “monistic” theory, the Multitude is everyone, and is a monster like Robert Anton Wilson’s Yog Sotthoth and the Illuminati, waiting to be awakened. Towards the beginning of the book, they give an exegesis on the old Kabbalistic (Jewish Mystical) story of the Golem, the monster made of clay animated by an incantation. Like for the heretical Jew Spinoza, the Kabballah is a key reference point to understand the depth of the commitment and beauty here. The legend of the Golem is only completed when theRabbi allows his daughter to marry the Golem, but most Rabbis don’t tell you that part.

Monsters are a repeated theme here, as in the post-renaissance baroque, with its gargoyles, representing the archetypes of the fearful topsy turvy reality, with vast landowners on huge estates listening to string quartets playing surprisingly dissonant music representing the huddled masses ready for the first bourgeois revolution. Like the pre-revolutionary Europe of this period, it is no surprise that our fiction and even reality is full of monsters, from Osama to “Buffy Vampire Slayer” to the Neocons to the aliens that thousands of Americans believe are haunting and even abducting them, to the spectre of illegal aliens. It is no accident that Marx used the word “spectre” to describe the dawn of the communist movement.

The original monster was the Many Headed Hydra written about by Rediker and Linebaugh. During the era of slave and sailor revolts on the Atlantic, the shipowners and nascent capitalists would refer to the repeated and seemingly disconnected revolts as a “many-headed hydra.” Like in Greek mythology, one head is stepped on and like “whack-a-mole” another head arises. Hardt and Negri look at this period of opposition as really a continuation of what is written about in Empire, the opening up of global civil society (multitude) at the end of the “cold war,” the disconnected uprisings from Gdansk to Chiapas, from the LA Riots to Tiananmen to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As noted, this book is best paired not with Empire but with Ali’s Clash. Taking our geo-political reality for what it is, and being truly opposed to terrorism and reaction, Osama and Bush, Sharon and Hamas, Hardt and Negri look at how global opposition forms organically, in a “Genealogy.” Taking their cue from Foucault’s analysis of how institutions arose that, while built by different and disconnected architects, had the same design (hospitals, prisons, etc.) The multitude operates on “Swarm Intelligence,” a vast international conspiracy that does not even know that it exists, and cannot be effective if anyone tries to lead it except the whole of itself.

What Marxists would traditionally refer to as contradictions are here called “complimentaries” that can be genuinely overlapped as opposed to deal-making. From environmentalists marching with labor at Seattle to the genuinely right and left-wing opposition to war in the United States, the multitude, in its demand for peace on a global level, can begin to govern soon. It is actually, in a sense, already governing. As the old expression goes, take it easy, but take it. Or as the authors name one of their final passages “May the Force Be With You.” (They draw richly on popular culture.) All the “evil” and “monsters” are right in front of us. Multitude provides us with a way to beat and join them. It was said once that happens, the emperor has no clothes. We are the emperor, and we just need to get dressed.

*Ellen Meiksins Wood, who has been scolding leftists who go beyond the old class-struggle metaphysic for quite some time.

J