The Multitude Strikes Back

The authors of Empire, the It book of postmodern philosophy, have a new plan to save the world Aug. 9, 2004
Four years ago, A Duke professor named Michael Hardt and an Italian academic named Antonio Negri noticed that the world was changing in weird and radical ways. It was becoming globalized and wired and networked, and Hardt and Negri surmised, not unreasonably, that a weird and radically new political theory was needed to describe it, one that engaged on a global scale. They sketched one out in a book called Empire, and it was a huge hit – The Corrections of the academic season. If you hadn’t read it, you pretended you had.

In Empire, Hardt and Negri described a world in which countries – and multinational corporations and the U.N. and other chunky, powerful institutions – are bound together in a shifting, fluid, borderless global network that no nation controls. Their name for this global system was Empire, and it’s a handy model. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq? A classic pre-imperial move, oblivious to the complex global consequences of one nation’s actions within the powerful web of Empire. But the authors insist that Empire has an upside, that it creates an opportunity for a different kind of democracy, one that would encompass the world. Their latest tome, Multitude (Penguin Press; 427 pages), tells us how that will happen.

“Multitude” is their word for a whole new kind of political entity, one made up of the entire population of the world in all its infinitely complicated, irreducible variety. But how can we the multitude – a vast, far-flung, inchoate bunch of people – reinvent democracy on a global scale? Hardt and Negri are glad you asked. The answer isn’t simple – not like, say, electing some kind of international global parliament. Instead, Multitude insists that the new democracy can and must come not from the top down but from below, from the entirety of the multitude working and acting together, spontaneously and collaboratively. In the world of Multitude, it is the ruled, not the rulers, who will really run the show.

Hardt and Negri’s signature tone is one of rock-anthem optimism, and Multitude is definitely animated by a warmhearted belief in human goodness. But it is, ultimately, a work of Utopian thinking, occasionally shading into utter fantasy. Multitude treats the global populace as if we were all one big, happy, left-wing underground, undivided by cultural differences, eagerly awaiting our chance to sock it to global capitalism. The authors’ examples of multitude-style international activism – the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in 1999 or the G-8 protests in Genoa in 2001–have a wan, quixotic air to them. “Eventually, perhaps, the seismic vibrations of each protest will resonate with the others,” Hardt and Negri write, “amplifying them all in coordination, creating an earthquake of the multitude.” Eventually. Perhaps. But so far the multitude is looking pretty uncoordinated, and the Empire pretty sturdy. It’ll take a lot more than Multitude’s huffing and puffing to blow it down.