Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire

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Multitude might be described as a handbook for those who see democracy as a yet unfinished project, one that might still be pursued in ways that work through institutions to create a mode of social organization that is based neither on imperial sovereignty nor on anarchy.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Reviewed by Eric Mason

In a post-Republican National Convention interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, author-activist Arundhati Roy stated that, more than the “ho hum” spectacle and speeches inside the convention center, she was “thrilled” by the diverse crowds that gathered in the New York streets in protest. For Roy, these groups of people that came together despite their diverse interests were noteworthy exactly because they did not hold a centralized march or rally. It is just such a decentralized network of independent groups acting collectively that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri name “multitude” and that they make a central figure of their book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.

Multitude might be described as a handbook for those who see democracy as a yet unfinished project, one that might still be pursued in ways that work through institutions to create a mode of social organization that is based neither on imperial sovereignty nor on anarchy. The concept of the “multitude” is Hardt and Negri’s way of identifying the possibility of such a project, and their way of not falling on either side of the unity/plurality binary. Rather, the multitude is an “irreducible multiplicity” not merely caught in postmodern fragmentation nor automatically enlisted as members of a cohesive proletariat, but bearing a “subjectivity that emerges from this dynamic of singularity and commonality.”

Multitude, for all its centrality to this new book, is not a new concept for Hardt and Negri. In their last book together, Empire, Hardt and Negri argued that the multitude served as the political subject best suited to challenging the new imperialism. Multitude is very much an extension of Empire’s analysis of globalized capitalistic production, but it is also charged with a new zeal for the biopolitical power of networked citizens laboring to produce the common resources necessary to democracy.

For anyone who has read Empire, much of Hardt and Negri’s call to challenge the new world order will sound familiar. The disciplinarity of biopolitical power, the political potential of the masses, the suspended decline of the nation-state, the question of sovereignty, the hegemony of immaterial production–all of these reappear as organizing principles in Multitude. What Multitude does do differently, however, is to address the global state of war that has emerged since the events of September 11, 2001.

According to Hardt and Negri, war has become a “form of rule” and a “general matrix for all relations of power and techniques of domination.” This is significant because wars have traditionally initiated “states of exception” during which civic rights are suspended and extraordinary powers are granted to government bodies. Recognizing that the war on terror has supplied the U.S. government with a “permanent and general” state of exception, Hardt and Negri caution us that:<
“A war to create and maintain social order can have no end. It must involve the continuous, uninterrupted exercise of power and violence. In other words, one cannot win such a war, or, rather, it has to be won again every day. War has thus become virtually indistinguishable from police activity.”

For Hardt and Negri, this constant state of war necessitates a rethinking of the concept of democracy, which is confronting a “leap of scale” when considered a necessary adjunct to globalization. While many of their philosophical and political touchstones have not changed since Empire, Hardt and Negri focus more attention on the global apparatus of governance, including organizations such as the United Nations and the IMF, and on central democratic principles such as “representation.” They also focus more on glimpses of the biopolitical power of the multitude that have appeared in the “carnival and mimicry” of protests, as well as in the “decentralized” intelligence of social networks such as the open-source software movement.

What all of these social networks share, and what Hardt and Negri argue is the multitude’s central role in challenging current threats to democracy, is the production of the common. The common is at once both the product of labor and the basis for future production, a surplus reappropriated and managed by the multitude. The possibilities of the common are most visible in the realm of immaterial labor, the most paradigmatic example given being communication. If one focuses, as Hardt and Negri do, on the role of immaterial labor, the common does not operate according to the logic of scarcity, supposedly opening the possibility of mass participation in political power exercised through the biopolitical force of immaterial labor.

Immaterial labor is a concept apparently similar to concepts such as “knowledge economy” or “symbolic-analytic” work. What Hardt and Negri add to these previous concepts is the refusal to separate the economic, the political, and the social. They claim that immaterial labor must be understood as a form of “biopolitical labor” that, in addition to producing “knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response,” creates social life itself. The lived reality of labor and the abstract reality of globalization are thus kept in close relation through the multitude’s creation of “tighter articulations between the political and the social.”

One problem caused by giving immaterial labor a central role in the project of the multitude is the question of the participation of those who labor on the land and do not trade primarily in immaterial labor—namely, peasants. Hardt and Negri admit as much when they state that the “figure of the peasant may pose the greatest challenge for the project of the multitude.” The disappearance of the peasant from struggles over democracy (like the disappearance of the “figure of the industrial worker, the service industry worker, and all other separate categories”) is welcomed by Hardt and Negri, who see this as part of the “more general trend of the socialization of all figures of labor.” In other words, the multitude depends on the becoming common of multiplicity, while each form of labor is assumed to be able to retain its singularity.

This relation of singularity and commonality is at once the most basic aspect of the formation of the multitude, the most difficult condition to achieve and maintain, and, very likely, the most unlikely aspect for readers to accept as possible. Unfortunately, there is little in this book that does not follow from the possibility of the formation of the multitude. Groups of protesters dancing in costume and chanting outside political conventions and economic summits might not satisfy some readers hopes for the potential for change in global governance. Hardt and Negri do offer more than this, but the possibility of a politically effective multitude is as fragile as it may be powerful, and like the current war on terrorism, is a project that must also be “won again every day.”

Despite the difficulty of the project of the multitude, and perhaps exactly because of this difficulty, Multitude is worth serious consideration by those who believe democracy is a project worth pursuing, as Hardt and Negri say, “for the first time today.” This book has already prompted a similar backlash to which Empire was subjected, a backlash that often distrusts the masses and refuses to imagine a “democratic use of force” that does not lead to the sovereign rule of empire. What remains to be seen is whether the promising glimpses of social networks that Hardt and Negri point out accumulate constituent power sufficient to “constructing democracy and defeating the armies of Empire.” Hardt and Negri argue that such power is already within our grasp.

Eric Mason is a Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida.

Copyright © 2004 by Eric Mason. All rights reserved.
 

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