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Of Love, Democracy, and the Common: Review of Mult

“Brothers and sisters, there is dissent over the projects of globalization all over the world. Those above, who globalise conformism, cynicism, stupidity, war, destruction and death. And those below who globalize rebellion, hope, creativity, intelligence, imagination, life, memory and the construction of a world that we can all fit in, a world with democracy, liberty and justice”.
From “Globalize Hope” by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004) is the ambitious companion piece to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. Published in 2000, Empire is no less than an attempt to illuminate the contours of the new form of global sovereignty that has emerged along with the global market and global circuits of production and, ultimately, to find a politics that will allow us to find a way beyond this imperial order. In the years since Empire was published, however, the global terrain has shifted. Most notably, of course, the events of September 11, 2001 and the US-led global “War on Terror” which has followed it have drastically altered the range of opportunities and challenges confronting actors engaged in the search for alternatives to the current global order. Multitude is Hardt and Negri’s attempt not only to conceptualize this global state of war and what it means for empire but to theorize a democratic politics of the multitude capable of first countering and then moving beyond the imperial order and its war without end.

In many ways, Multitude begins where Empire left off. Rather than restating their analysis of the imperial global order which served as their focus in Empire, Hardt and Negri instead move immediately to conceptualize the global state of war through which we are now living. “War,” assert Hardt and Negri, “has become a regime of biopower, that is, a form of rule aimed not only at controlling the population but producing and reproducing all aspects of social life” (2004: 13). Borrowing from the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos, Hardt and Negri articulate our current age as “the Fourth World War” (with the so-called “Cold War” being the Third World War), a global war whose goal is not to achieve peace but to maintain order (ibid.: 30-37). Given the results of the recent elections in the United States, Multitude seems to possess an urgency and significance that is difficult to overstate. Of course, much like Empire, this work is a philosophical text aimed at illuminating the conceptual contours of the imperial global order and the struggle of the multitude against it, not a manifesto containing concrete tactics and strategies to accomplish a project of global human liberation.

Central to Hardt and Negri’s argument is that immaterial labour – labour which produces “immaterial products, such as information, knowledges, ideas, images, relationships, and affects” – has both become hegemonic with respect to other forms of labour and is in fact transforming society itself (ibid.: 65). This situation has led to the emergence of new and powerful forms of exploitation and alienation (such as the expansion of the “working day” to the extent that there is less and less distinction between work time and nonwork time) but it has also led to the direct and explicit involvement of people in the construction of “society” and “subjectivities” themselves as well as the development of independent and collaborative networks of communication (ibid.: 65-67). Here we can see the materialization of the autonomist Marxist theory inspiring Negri’s work in particular as it is the power and dynamism of labour rather than the dictates of capital which is the driving force behind socio-political and economic change. Similarly, the network form of many contemporary social movements such as the global social justice movement is a manifestation of the “biopolitical” shift which has “creativity, communication, and self-organized cooperation” as its hallmarks (ibid.: 83). It is vital to note that Hardt and Negri see the “War on Terror” and other such political and military moves on the part of nation-states within empire as an attempt to respond to and coopt the biopolitical force of the multitude, not – as other theorists might claim – a response on the part of dissidents to a pre-existing politico-military system. Empire seeks to exercise biopower, control over the very production and reproduction of life, while the multitude seeks to assert its own biopolitics, a politics rooted in the capacity of people working collectively and collaboratively to create and recreate life itself. There is a powerful clarity to Hardt and Negri’s analysis which focuses upon the agency, potential, and possibilities of humanity rather than privileging structural or systemic mechanisms and institutions to explain the current state of global war and the possible paths beyond it.

Essential to Hardt and Negri’s argument is their concept of the “multitude” as opposed to the concept of the “people”. While the people is a singular identity invested with sovereignty due to its unity (people individually are not sovereign, only the people as a totalizing unity can be sovereign) the multitude “is 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” (ibid.: 100). Much of the power of Hardt and Negri’s argument rests on their conceptualization of the multitude and its relation to biopolitical production. It is the multitude who produces and reproduces not only goods and services but life itself and it is this capacity that empire seeks to control and commodify. No one is outside of this biopolitical realm, not even those who appear to be excluded or oppressed and it is people’s mobility and their ability to communicate combined with the fact that we are the source of the production not only of all wealth but all social life that makes the multitude so very dangerous. The multitude is itself of course internally diverse. Unlike “the people” it is made up of singularities that maintain their uniqueness. This means that a democratic multitude cannot be sovereign, it cannot be a “political body” in a modern sense at all precisely because “sovereignty” resides over and above it as a transcendental principle and this is exactly what the multitude repudiates. Modern sovereignty serves capital, we need to find a way beyond sovereignty. The notion of the multitude is profoundly threatening to all visions of nationalism which seek to constitute “the people” and in this Hardt and Negri find themselves potentially at odds with many social movements from the global south for whom the nation is seen as a shield rather than a sword. Hardt and Negri convincingly unpack the segregating, subordinating, and homogenizing logic of nationalism and sovereignty, however, and in its place posit a radical democratic politics whose locus is not national, international, or supranational but properly global.

Contrasting their position to the four dominant positions on globalization and democracy (social democratic, liberal cosmopolitan, US global hegemony, and traditional-values conservative), Hardt and Negri assert that each of these positions merely serves to postpone democracy indefinitely. In fact, any position predicated on “[m]odern sovereignty.does not put an end to violence and fear but rather puts an end to civil war by organizing violence and fear into a coherent and stable political order” (ibid.: 239). In contrast to this, multitude presents a new possibility of practicing politics and (re)producing the world in entirely new ways and Hardt and Negri see this emergent possibility as predicated on three essential points: “the critique of existing forms of representation, the protest against poverty, and the opposition to war” (ibid.: 270). The construction of a “new science of society and politics” is what Hardt and Negri see as the greatest and most significant challenge today and it cannot be completed through “piling up statistics or mere sociological
facts” but rather through “calling on ourselves to grasp the present biopolitical needs and imagine the possible conditions of a new life, immersing ourselves in the movements of history and the anthropological transformations of subjectivity” (ibid.: 312). This is a philosophical project directly concerned with creating a new socio-political ontology and practice that recognizes the demands of the multitude as well as the fact that it is the multitude which is the source of all social life, all wealth, all possibility. For some, Hardt and Negri’s politics of the multitude may be frustratingly vague. They do not even attempt to approach a concrete vision of what a global democracy of the multitude would look like much less consider the mechanisms necessary to establish it initially. Such a criticism, however, would be largely misplaced. Hardt and Negri’s project is not proscriptive – they openly admit as much – it is rather aimed at conceptualizing our global state of war and theorizing a path beyond empire.

Fundamentally, Hardt and Negri see the constitution of the democracy of the multitude as nothing less than an “act of love” (ibid.: 351). A truly democratic politics of the multitude involves nothing less than the bringing into being of a new humanity. Rooted in an expansive notion of love, Hardt and Negri nevertheless completely acknowledge the right of the multitude to defend itself – with violence if necessary – against empire (ibid.: 341-345). What is called for ultimately, however, is the realization not only of the multitude’s capacity for exodus or resistance but of its constituent power capable of creating the very fabric of a new society (ibid.: 348). This constituent power is manifested in and dependent upon the common. All production, all identities, all social life is ultimately both productive of and produced by the common although capital has long sought to obscure this fundamental fact by alienating people from their work, from each other, and from themselves. Hardt and Negri are quick to emphasize that such commonality does not mean that the multitude will be homogenous, even less that it will be sovereign, but rather, that diverse and multiple singularities will constitute the very flesh of the multitude itself. It will be through communication, through cooperation, through the social, informational, and experiential networks that already exist that the multitude will articulate a common and radically democratic project in response to the current state of war and the expansive list of grievances and proposals being articulated on innumerable fronts today. In the words of Hardt and Negri, “[t]his world of rage and love is the real foundation on which the constituent power of the multitude rests” (ibid.: 353). When this constituent power will be fully realized and when it will be manifested in the creation of new world and a new humanity is something which Hardt and Negri acknowledge is beyond their ability to predict, yet they do not retreat to an invocation of the appropriate material-historical conditions for revolution. Their assessment is much more profound and much more indicative of the philosophical nature of their project and it bears quoting at length:

[w]e already recognize that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living – and the yawning abyss between then is becoming enormous. In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real political act of love (ibid.: 358).

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work in Multitude is an inspiring, accessible, and profoundly relevant demonstration of a political-philosophical intervention in deeply dehumanizing, disaffecting, and all too often rabidly anti-intellectual times. Confronted with a global war without end, Negri and Hardt respond with vision, clarity, and hope. Without seeking homogenization, false unity, or easy answers, Hardt and Negri offer a conceptual opening which draws from actually-existing moments of struggle and hope in the world in order to see a way through empire. As much as their philosophical and political sophistication, it is their invocation of imagination, creativity, and interconnectedness along with their deep belief in human possibility that makes Multitude so relevant today. When taken together with Empire it would be difficult to imagine two works which are more significant or provocative with respect to the contemporary dimensions of armed globalization.

Ultimately, however, it is Hardt and Negri’s articulation of a democracy of the multitude based in a commonality which already exists – albeit in a profoundly alienated and “capitalized” form – combined with an affirmation (or a reminder?) of our constituent power that is the most compelling aspect of their work. Reminded of our humanity and our capacity to innovate, communicate, and build collectively can our own revolutionary political act of love be far off?

Alex Khasnabish is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at McMaster University.

Works Cited

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

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