Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, the new book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is their sequel to their justly famous Empire.
Hardt and Negri are important thinkers — as I’ve said before, more than once — because they are thinking seriously and profoundly about how to renew marxism and the left in our current age of post-Cold War globalization.
Multitude isn’t quite as rich and surprising a book as Empire: but that was inevitable, both because it consolidates and restates what we already learned from Empire, and because it endeavors to be more immediate, more pragmatic than the earlier book.
Empire argued that globalization, and the end of the Cold War, had led to a new form of capitalist domination, one that differed in substantial ways from those of industrialization, colonialism, and imperialism. While transnational corporations, electronic communications and computing technologies, and a world market whose expansion is no longer checked or resisted by so-called “socialism”, have not ameliorated conditions for the enormous number of people around the world who live in poverty, they have certainly changed the rules of the game, the way power is exercised, the way economic and political structures are organized, and therefore the ways it might be possible to resist, and to change things. Hardt and Negri take for granted that we live in a “network society,” in which nation-states no longer exercise sovereign power to the extent they once did, and in which the fluidity of capital has eroded the welfare state and the status of the traditional working class. Their endeavor was to rethink marxist theory in such circumstances; they rejected both the orthodoxy that would cling to traditional marxist categories (like the proletariat and the vanguard party) regardless of changed circumstances, and the “post-marxists” who would throw out the baby along with the bathwater, arguing for a tepid reformism on the grounds that recent developments had made radical change henceforth impossible. Hardt and Negri instead argued, optimisitically, that in dissolving traditional categories of nationality, in “informatizing” everything, and in uniting points and processes around the world, globalized capitalism had in fact created new conditions for its own overthrow. Instead of opposing “globalization” for basically conservative and nationalistic reasons, they advocated a sort of hyper-globalization,one that actually fulfills the promises falsely offered to the people of the world by the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank.
In Multitude, Hardt and Negri flesh out this picture, by expanding on the possibilities for resistance and change, and by more explicitly linking their own philosophical project with recent radical activism (from the Seattle and Genoa protests to the Zapatistas). They define the “multitude” (which is their replacement for such defunct groupings as “the people” and the “proletariat”) as a collection of “singularities” who discover what they have in common, but without fusing into some sort of sovereign unity, the way “the people” and the “proletariat” were once supposed to do. This idea of the “common,” as that which brings together groups that remain different and disparate, is the link between Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomatic” logic of singularities and connections, on the one hand, and the actual practices of coalitions and affinity groups in the worldwide “anti-globalization” movement today, on the other. Hardt and Negri argue that the informatization and networking of everything leads to a greater production of the common than ever before: precisely because all social and economic production today is networked, leading to the “common nature of creative social activity” (132), and because of the increasing importance of “immaterial labor,” meaning work that produces “ideas, symbols, codes, texts, linguistic figures, images, and other such products,” on the one hand, and emotions and relationships on the other (108). It is not that industrial work in factories is disappearing, but that such work itself is increasingly permeated by “immaterial labor” and “affective labor.”
What this means, ultimately, is that all of social reality — and not just some economic “base” — is being produced collaboratively, and in common. Traditional notions of private property are evidently nonsensical when applied to immaterial (and digitally reproducible) goods, like pop songs and software and the genomes of crops (which is why the attempts by media companies to enforce their copyright increasingly appear absurd and surreal). But even more conventionally physical goods, like automobiles and food, are now as much the products of collective knowledge (information technologies) as they are of the manipulation of raw materials; and they tend to be marketed at least as much for their affective qualities as for their pragmatic uses. There is no longer an economic sphere (what marxists traditionally called the “base”) separate from the spheres of culture, leisure, etc (the old marxist “superstructure”); rather, everything is cast into the same web and network.
More conventional Marxists see this situation (the loss of superstructural “autonomy”) as a dystopian nightmare. For Hardt and Negri, however, the increasing production of the common means that there is a more powerful basis for radical democracy and equality today than ever before in human history. Capitalism works by expropriating what human labor produces; in globalized “late capitalism” this means that capitalism expropriates everything, not just economic goods but cultural and affective life as well. But for Hardt and Negri, this means that the revolutionary reappropriation, by the multitude, of what it creates, can be equally all-embracing.
This basic thesis is backed up by a wealth of detail: not by those dubiously valid social science statistics, of course, but by considerations both philosophical and practical. Hardt and Negri write at great length about the structure (and lack of accountability) of supernational organizations like the IMF, as well as NGOs (non-governmental organizations), about the sorts of demands that global protest movements have been making, and about the problems involved in “scaling up” from democracy on a national scale (as in the United States, not as it actually does work, but as it is supposed to work according to the Constitution) to a global scale. They don’t claim to give a blueprint of “what is to be done,” but they try to work out the philosophical basis upon which a global truer democracy could function.
Basically, Hardt and Negri call for a massive act of imagination and reinvention — something that cannot be done by theorists, but that has to be thrashed out in the course of actual social and political practices of escape and transformation — and suggest the ways that concrete movements of reform can themselves help lead to these more radical outcomes (in rejection of the old marxist opposition between “reform” and “revolution”). They say that such radical reinvention is possible and thinkable, because its basis is already present in the world today, in our networks and information technologies, and in the extraordinary creativity of the poor, the disenfranchised, and migrants and immigrants, worldwide.
I find myself half persuaded by Hardt and Negri’s arguments. Their vision of multiple singularities, and of the production of a “common” which is yet not a fusion or a unity, is the best way I have come across for thinking about what is often regarded negatively as postmodern “fragmentation”, or as the death of “grand narratives” (Lyotard). This seems to me to be crucial understanding of the world we live in today: there’s nothing worse than when people on the left, as well as the right, call for some return to the “good old days” that never existed in the first place, and regard the present only as a case of woeful decline.
On the other hand, I think that Hardt and Negri’s willful optimism causes them to underestimate the difficulties of the endeavor they are calling for. Especially in the context of our post-9/11 state of eternal war (which they discuss in the first third of the book), I think that Bush and Osama, between them, would destroy the world before they would allow any flourishing of the multitude to take place.
There’s a wonderful passage in Multitude (190ff) where Hardt and Negri write of the way that political philosophy has traditionally seen the nation or the society as a body: Hobbes’ Leviathan is only the most famous use of this more-than-metaphor. The multitude, they say, can in this context only be seen as something monstrous, a disorganized agglomeration of flesh, since it rejects the sovereignty of the head over the other organs that is the central concern of Hobbes’ model (and that of all too many later political thinkers as well). Capital works, in the terms Hardt and Negri implicitly borrow from Deleuze, by separating the body politic from what it can do. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the multitude is a body without organs; it expresses its potentialities to the fullest by rejecting the restrictions imposed by the hierarchical organization of the organs.
While I find this image compelling, I can’t help being haunted by its inversion. In my picture, capital itself is the monstrous flesh, the body without organs, that we the multitude are forced to inhabit. This flesh is “really” ours, ultimately ours. But in our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, we don’t own it, or hold it in common. Rather we scurry about, in its folds and convolutions, like lice or fleas; or at best, we reprogram its code here and there, just a little bit, like viruses. It oppresses us, but we are stuck; we hate it, but we can’t live without it. Can we transform this parasitic, shadowy state of being into a form of resistance?