8 December 2010

Multitude, Are You There?

The following book review is excerpted from Issue 10: Self-Improvement. Buy the issue!

  • Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard. October 2009.

“War, suffering, misery, and exploitation increasingly characterize our globalizing world”: these, the first words of Commonwealth, are not eye-catching. Say you are bothered by things like impending ecological catastrophe or massive economic inequality at the global scale. You will have probably plowed through dozens, maybe hundreds of similar lists. If so, you will have learned to notice when writers stop thinking but keep on listing. And you will have therefore observed, in the sentence above, that “suffering” is pretty nearly the same thing as “misery.” Lexicologists might quibble, but the phrase would still get a cautionary repetitious? in any freshman writing class.

There’s no way around it: Commonwealth is an irritating book. It shoves injustice in your face and then, having gotten your attention, refuses to hold still and look at the war or suffering or whatever, but instead soars so high into an atmosphere of self-generated abstraction that very soon you can no longer recognize any earthly landmarks at all. Despite and perhaps a little because of this attitude of fervent philosophical overreach, Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, which began with the publication of Empire in 2000, continued with Multitude in 2004, and now ends with Commonwealth, has been a notable market success. That in itself merits contemplation. Who would have thought the book market would reward still another denunciation of global capitalism, even one that boldly renamed both the story’s villain and its hero? Who could have foreseen a post-1989 bestseller that ended, as Empire does, with the words “the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist”? The impulse these books register is a noble one: to interpret today’s world of asymmetrical affliction and to change it. Their popularity, dialectically considered, marks a stage in the enterprise of fashioning a progressive common sense, and a stage that may have to count as progress.

Empire appeared—fortuitously, it seemed—a year after the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Along with Naomi Klein’s No Logo, the book seemed to offer an instant theoretical apparatus for the emerging alter-globalization movement. Aside from this good timing, it also benefited from two points it raised about the wretchedness caused by global capitalism. First, Hardt and Negri argued that the wretchedness was not first and foremost the fault of the United States. The US was not at the center of a system that could be called imperialism. Second, they argued that mysterious forces were already emerging within the new, non-US-centered, nonimperialist regime of power that they called (somewhat confusingly) Empire, forces that might not be quite visible to the nonvisionary eye but that were working actively to overthrow this global order. Each of these points could count in its way as good news.

The bearers of this news had followed very different paths to their big moment. Negri, born in Italy in 1933, acquired his revolutionary confidence from spontaneous eruptions of militancy on the factory floor in the early 1970s. Unplanned and indeed discouraged by unions and the Italian Communist Party, this worker activism seemed paradigmatic of the growing disillusionment with parliamentary politics and existing left-wing organizations, and to many observers it clinched the point, suggesting that political efforts should aim instead at the division of labor and, most profoundly, at transforming the nature of labor itself. This was the political and theoretical movement known as operaismo. Non-wage workers like housewives suddenly counted—a rich legacy for the future. As the movement’s philosopher, Negri reached back beyond Marx to Spinoza, who had both redefined labor and expressed a prophetic faith in what he called “the multitude” as collective bearer of reason, affect, and power. As things fell out, Spinoza did not get his name on a new set of banners; the separate proletarian institutions Negri had predicted did not emerge; and the thesis that the working class was working, invisibly and alone, to overthrow capitalism—recast in the late 1970s as autonomia—did not last more than a year or two into the 1980s. But if this “strange” and “desperate” intellectual adventure was a “dead end” (Perry Anderson’s terms) in Italy, Negri’s international fame continued to mount. For better or worse, the prophecy had acquired momentum of its own.

As for the much younger Hardt (born in the US in 1960), you can see where he was coming from, so to speak, from his interview in Astra Taylor’s 2008 documentary Examined Life. Rowing around the lake in Central Park, he recounts how, as an American visitor offering solidarity to the people of El Salvador in the ’80s, he was told by Salvadoran revolutionaries that what they needed from him wasn’t his presence on the ground; it was a revolution back in the US, where the Reagan government was (of course) supporting the military dictatorship. Hardt’s face is inexpressibly eloquent. How could he explain that there simply was no US equivalent of grabbing some rifles and going up to the mountains? Empire seems to be the answer he couldn’t give in El Salvador: an account of how the United States might after all be imagined as the site of a world-altering revolution, and a revolution that was going on right now.

(My sources tell me that the revolutionary group with which Hardt was then in conversation, one of five such factions, was not very successful in El Salvador—the casualty rate was quite high—and that its cannier and more successful counterparts asked their American friends not for armed revolution, but for help in passing legislation that would get the American government off their back. But not everyone will take the latter’s political success as a point in their favor.)

In Empire, Hardt and Negri stared into the blackness of global capitalism and saw the gleam of imminent abundance and liberated inventiveness, interlinked products of “the creative and prophetic power of the multitude.” After all, the US had led the way: by turning from heavy industry to what Hardt and Negri called “immaterial production”—the same thing Naomi Klein meant in No Logo when she said brand names now mattered more than the products they sold—American capitalism had set the system moving toward its own downfall. For a left at a loss for grand narratives, this beatific vision was both salutary and quixotic. Though Empire was officially opposed to dialectical thinking (it took this lesson from Spinoza and Deleuze, about whom both Negri and Hardt had already written), the book was the means by which a whole new generation was introduced to Marx and to the headiness of the dialectic, which teaches (correctly) that good things can sometimes come out of very bad ones. (In 1985, a generation earlier, it had been Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy that unwittingly passed on to the “new social movements” readership the excitement of the Marxist tradition that Laclau and Mouffe were in the act of denouncing.)

At the same time, it was not helpful for Empire to encourage the programmatic confusion of windmills with giants. To many of the book’s most concerned and discerning readers, especially on the left, it was not clear what the real-world referents might be either for the new hero, “the multitude,” or for the new villain, Empire. Though Hardt and Negri had the good luck to publish Empire right after Seattle, they had the bad luck to publish just before 9/11. They declared US imperialism obsolete, and then the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. As for the multitude, there was general puzzlement. Unlike the concept of the “proletariat” in Marx or the “masses” in Mao, which had their own problems of vague and shifting outlines and controversial degrees of agency, the concept of the multitude seemed to be designed so that it was impossible to check on its membership, its activities, or indeed its existence.

The second volume in the trilogy, entitled Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, tended to restate rather than resolve these issues. A scornful but not untypical review by Tom Nairn in the London Review of Books suggested that its rapturous, oracular, apocalyptic mode made it convincing only to credulous readers who were expecting the imminent arrival of a radical messiah. As Nairn observed with some surprise, Hardt and Negri actually use as a section head the sentence “May the Force Be with You.” The section is about armed struggle, so you can see the heading as an attempt at wit. But on a deeper level, “May the Force Be with You” seemed to say more than it wanted to about what sort of commitment Hardt and Negri’s fans had and how far the authors were willing to go in encouraging those fans to confuse politics with science fiction.

Commonwealth sounds like it is about something different. Its most resonant concept (I’ll come back to it) is in fact “the common.” But the same conceptual figures play the same leading roles, and with the same characters come the same questions. What is Empire, assuming such a thing exists? Sometimes Hardt and Negri come close to admitting that there is in fact no Big Discovery, no distinctive new system of power. “The global structures of capitalist power are functioning, but they are provisional and ad hoc, stitched together across the different levels of the system.” That’s not the sort of news of which best-sellers are made. At other moments they speak with calm certainty about matters of future regime change (for example, “China will not be the new imperialist power”) where curiosity and information-gathering would seem more responsible. Global capital may not have a single national center, but that doesn’t mean nations have become irrelevant to how power is exercised, as Hardt and Negri suggest, or that a shift of power eastward, for example, would be inconsequential. There are many different ways of not assuming that the US is and will remain world capitalism’s capital.

In Commonwealth the question arises again: what and where is the multitude? Hardt and Negri rather daringly quote Alain Badiou’s opinion that their conception of the multitude is “a dreamy hallucination.” One paragraph runs swiftly through the immigrant rebellion in the suburbs of Paris in 2005, Bolivian battles over rights to water and gas, and Argentine demonstrations by unemployed workers who, having no factories to picket, picket the city itself. Each episode tells us something valuable about current forms of injustice and the resistance to injustice. But each is quite different from the others, and no evidence is offered that they are part of some whole larger than the sum of its parts, let alone a power large enough to shake the world order to its foundations. That is what Hardt and Negri want us to believe, but you don’t send people into the streets to get beaten or shot or even just very tired without a better basis for belief than this.

When pressured on the multitude by their critics, Hardt and Negri tend to back down, talking about its “making” rather than what it already is, or calling it a “project” that might only be realized at some future date: “not a spontaneous political subject but a project of political organization.” I take this as an admission that the multitude exists only on the drawing board, where it shares space with a lot of other unbuilt and perhaps unbuildable structures. But at other times Hardt and Negri describe it as if it were right in front of us, plain as day. Or they make it shimmer ambiguously like a spirit at a seance. As the subject that precedes a lot of present-tense verbs, the multitude seems busily at work being and doing things right now. Often, however, Hardt and Negri’s present tense doesn’t designate a real present. Almost everything they assert to be a visible aspect of the existing world is at one point or another demoted to the much lower status of a wish or an imperative. For example: “The terrain of organization is where we must establish that the multitude can be a revolutionary figure and indeed that it is the only figure today capable of revolution.” Yes, they “must establish” this. But when?

Instead of attempting to show us some organization, they segue to the terrain of love. Citing Spinoza, they announce that politics is based on love, that love is joy, and that evil is love gone bad. Hardt and Negri predict that when the subject of love comes up, many readers will “squirm in their seats with embarrassment.” But what is most likely to make people squirm is not love; it’s the conflation of perennial wisdom on perennial subjects with what is supposed to be a new analysis of present urgencies. Like me, most readers no doubt rather enjoy the subject of love, but they may wonder what it has to do with anticapitalist politics. (The Sixties never really answered that question.) The answer offered here is no more satisfactory. Rather than love itself, which, socially speaking, has proven itself to be quite unruly, the problem, they say, is that the existing forms of love—romantic, familial, national—have become “corrupted.” This is signature anarchist silliness. It posits a primal norm of healthy, creative, joyful love that has been corrupted by present social arrangements and would be instantly restored by getting rid of said arrangements.

Hardt and Negri’s problem with love is also their problem with organization: they don’t much like either in any of their actual forms. And this same problem underlines the structural flaw at the heart of their concept of the multitude. On the one hand, what they call “organization” is, as they say, the necessary criterion for any would-be agent of revolution; as they say, it is what they “must establish.” On the other hand, Hardt and Negri don’t actually believe in organization. That is, they don’t think it’s a good thing: “traditional organizational forms based on unity, central leadership, and hierarchy are neither desirable nor effective.” But since these are the only forms of organization that can count as organization (an organization without unity or leadership is one hand clapping), what they’re really saying is that they recognize the multitude only when it is not organized, when it is an anarchic array of singularities. If they see the multitude, they do not see organization. If they see organization, they do not see the multitude.

Anyone inclined to defend this position could link it to a reasonable enough revulsion at state socialism (though neither author has actually experienced such a thing). You could also agree that a status quo ante Keynesianism that saved capitalism from self-destruction would not satisfy the deeper impulse to transform life itself that Hardt and Negri share with the aesthetic avant-garde. Still, there is a pretty radical divorce between the real-world problems they diagnose and any possible means of doing something about them.

Having ruled out any role for the multitude in politics as it is usually defined, Hardt and Negri proceed, logically enough, to reject politics as it is usually defined and proclaim that it has been replaced by what they call, grandly, “biopolitics.” Foucault, who put this concept in play in the 1970s, used it in a largely neutral sense to refer to governmental interest, beginning in the 18th century, in matters of biological life that had earlier been seen as prepolitical or private. “From this point on,” as Nikolas Rose puts it in The Politics of Life Itself, “politics would have to address the vital processes of human existence: the size and quality of the population; reproduction and human sexuality; conjugal, parental, and familial relations; health and disease; birth and death.” The concept has more recently been taken over by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who expresses a darkly conspiratorial view of state intervention in such matters. In the opening chapter, Hardt and Negri chide Agamben for his ”apocalypticism.” This is an egregious case of the pot calling the kettle black and, for what it’s worth, one of the few sour notes in an otherwise sweet-tempered book. Like Agamben, they identify biopolitics with an apocalyptic transformation. But like Foucault, they refuse to see this transformation as wholly negative. On the contrary (and here they depart from Foucault), for them it is nothing less than the Revolution, an apocalyptic upheaval that flashes up within economic production and then passes over into the domain of politics. And of course they stress the joy note, little played if at all in Agamben.

Their argument here is tricky to follow, but it’s absolutely central to such coherence as their enterprise possesses. Biopolitics is what happens when “the results of capitalist production are social relations and forms of life.” When you think of the economy, don’t think of goods anymore. Instead, think of images, ideas, feelings, sensations—what Hardt and Negri sometimes call “immaterial labor.” Inspired by enthusiasts of open access, and perhaps also by earlier, weaker-minded declarations that capitalism had been superseded by a socioeconomic system based on “knowledge” or “information” or “service,” Hardt and Negri seem to believe that the usual laws of political economy have now been suspended, or soon will be. For them, as for Felix Guattari, the fact that wasps pollinate certain orchids “for nothing, just for fun” is a parable bearing capitalism’s emergent truth. The new biopolitical production, modeled on the collective creativity of the internet, is “not constrained by the logic of scarcity. It has the unique characteristic that it does not destroy or diminish the raw materials from which it produces wealth.” Its products “defy and exceed measure.” Putting aside the matter of bandwidth and server space, this is reasonable in a way: you can’t call products scarce if you can’t measure or quantify them. It’s also absolutely otherworldly. One would think profits were no longer being generated and surplus was no longer being siphoned off. This-worldly things like food, shelter, jobs, and the capacity to pay for your kid’s college education, which are measurable and of which many people have been spectacularly deprived lately, are somehow no longer central to how the economy works. Or to how power works. In a kind of mad caricature of vulgar, economistic Marxism, the new system of immaterial or biopolitical production somehow flipflops dialectically into a revolution. The system overthrows itself. Or rather, it is its own overthrow.

This zipless-fuck quality explains why their predicted revolution, unlike earlier ones, need not demand old-fashioned political organizations or time-consuming demonstrations or the measurable numbers of participants who used to turn out for them. In 17th-century England, Hardt and Negri write, the word multitude involved “all those gathered together to form a political body regardless of rank or property.” Expanding on this disregard for property and rank, they describe the multitude as “boundless.” If it really were boundless, of course, then it wouldn’t be a “political body” at all. Which seems OK with them—the multitude’s impossibility to be grasped as a unity is one of the things they like about it. Bodies, for Hardt and Negri, are sites of resistance to power precisely because, and to the extent that, they refuse to be bounded. Refusing to be bounded means being creative, being productive. In this sense, productivity and resistance are somehow, miraculously, the same: “Value is created when resistance becomes overflowing, creative, and boundless.” What Hardt and Negri call biopolitical production is both resistance to the system and the ordinary value-creating functioning of the system at the same time. When they say “that biopolitical production is becoming hegemonic in the contemporary economy, filling the role that industry played for well over a hundred years,” they are therefore also saying that the revolution is happening—at any rate, the sort of revolution of which the multitude, vague as it is, can serve as putative protagonist.

Part of the secret of their commercial success is that, appearances to the contrary, Hardt and Negri really like capitalism a lot—probably more than most of their readers. Of course, Marx liked things about capitalism too—the famous “all that is solid melts into air” passage in the Communist Manifesto crackles with admiration. And again like Hardt and Negri, Marx did not think first and foremost about inequality; the category of exploitation is more abstract and less sentimental. (For example: domestic servants, for Marx, are technically not exploited, however badly they are treated; their labor does not generate surplus value, but only consumes it.) Still, no reader of Capital can miss Marx’s immersion in the brute facts of capitalist scarcity. Hardt and Negri are quite clear that scarcity is not their thing, not a cutting-edge issue. “The form of the common does not lend itself to a logic of scarcity.” And again: “This is not an immiseration thesis. The question is not, Are people worse off than before? It is rather, Could their abilities and potential be developed more fully?” This is something that a booster of global capitalism like Thomas Friedman could have said. Like Friedman, Hardt and Negri are quite enamored of freedom of movement. They know it is a privilege that the majority of the earth’s inhabitants do not have, but they wish to augment it on grounds that are irrelevant to the desires that most of the earth’s inhabitants do have: because it will allow “the multitude to flow where it can be the most creative, organize the most joyful encounters . . .” Refusing to think in terms of scarcity means that two basic reasons why people in fact want and need mobility—to be able to feed themselves and their families, and to be able to stand up against their employers on more equal terms, without fear of deportation—abruptly disappear, their place taken by “joyful encounters.”

A case could be made that Hardt and Negri’s concern for “abilities and potential,” which echoes both the early Marx and, more recently, the “capabilities” vocabulary of Amartya Sen, rescues the left-wing critique of capitalism from those globalists who cite statistical evidence of dropping poverty rates. But if that’s what they are trying to do—I admit it seems unlikely to me—then I think they concede too much too quickly. Yes, the zero-sum premise that prosperity here must be evenly matched by deprivation elsewhere can become a thought-stopping piece of moralism. But look around. It’s a bit premature to worry about the end of poverty and inequality.

If capitalism were indeed putting an end to poverty and inequality, the point would not be to change it, but to enjoy it. The facts are a bit different. But Hardt and Negri don’t seem very aware of them. There is a clarifying moment toward the end of the book when, speaking of “the structures of governance that are emerging as the primary forms of rule within Empire,” they come very close to celebrating those structures—celebrating, that is, Empire itself. What they mean, believe it or not, is “corporate governance”—the ways in which capitalist corporations, unsupervised by any “overarching political authority,” voluntarily hold themselves accountable. Hardt and Negri are quite impressed by the “flexibility and fluidity” with which corporations “adapt to changing circumstances,” by the fact that they “do not need stability and regularity to rule, but instead are designed to manage crises and rule over exceptional conditions.” There is a two-word response to this: British Petroleum. In the light of its “management” of the oil spill crisis and the “exceptional conditions” that followed, or more generally in the light of the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008, when corporate self-governance not only failed to save the system but was arguably a direct cause of the loss of a job, a pension, and/or a house for millions of people, with all the indirect misery that these losses entailed, their enthusiasm for the corporate model leaves one almost speechless. But what is truly enlightening here is the fact that Hardt and Negri prefer corporate self-accountability to the sort of regulation that both liberals and the left have been demanding. They dislike socialism more than they dislike the corporations, and indeed propose that the left should model itself on the corporations. They dislike socialism more than they dislike Empire. In Empire they let America off the hook. In Commonwealth they let the corporations off the hook as well. 

Anarchists have always faced the charge of being complicit with free-market individualism and antistatism, a charge given positive form in Robert Nozick’s libertarian masterpiece, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Rarely, however, have anarchists so openly drawn and celebrated the connection as Hardt and Negri do throughout their trilogy. This is lamentable, since the appeal of anarchism—especially compared with the left authoritarianism it has always sought to counter—is legitimate and frequently necessary. There are always good grounds for disillusionment with existing political forms. A younger generation that did not experiment with new forms, creatively adapted to the openings offered by the twists and turns of everyday life, would not be assuming its proper responsibilities to its place and time. Still, novelty alone is never enough, and the assumption that the old-fashioned state can never do anything right has itself gotten old and a bit tiresome. When Hardt and Negri talk about government oversight and regulation, they sound like the corporate-sponsored Tea Partiers of the Republican base. Why don’t the corporations want well-staffed, well-funded official bodies looking over their shoulders? What they’re afraid of is that these agencies, empowered by tax dollars to do their job and do it well, will successfully protect the public interest and legitimate the idea that things can and should be done in its name.

While Hardt and Negri speak in the name of the common, they reject any appeal in the name of the public and any intervention by the state, though all three concepts would seem to overlap. Biopolitical production is incompatible, they say, with “all forms of socialism, bureaucratic planning, state regulation, and so forth. . . . Whether the common is expropriated and its value corralled in private hands or by public means, under capitalist command or government control, the result is the same: the cycle of biopolitical production is stunted and corrupted.” Rather than the state or the public, Hardt and Negri associate the common with flight and with nature. Combine the two concepts and you get the common as a sort of unspoiled Shakespearian greenwood to which you are invited to escape. In part perhaps because of Negri’s time in prison, escape becomes an explicit motto of their politics. “The multitude must flee the family, the corporation, and the nation . . .” Some, they note, will be “reluctant to accept a notion of class struggle as exodus.” Well, they’ve got that right. However unglamorous, it makes more sense to think of the task of politics as staying to fight, and it makes more sense to think of the common as what is fought for. When you win, the common is what you achieve, like the existence of numerous, competent, decently paid inspectors mandated to check the purity of everyone’s food and the quality of everyone’s air. Or more radically, a revolution against the current infrastructure of industrial food, enabled by the public’s decision to withdraw from corporations the subsidies that privi- lege industrial agricultural products over properly farmed food.

Does this seem trivial? It’s arguable that hope is better nourished in the long term, even at the global scale, by smaller, less than apocalyptic steps. The proclamation of a new messiah will always get the publicity, but it can’t sustain either the laudatory attention or the critical scrutiny that will follow. Rather than announcing the emergence of a new revolutionary subject, something that Marxists can be no more confident about than Deleuzian anarchists, a book that wanted to belong to the same kind as Commonwealth but also wanted to be more politically responsible would be advised to take Marxism as a useful tool for the analysis of how people are being ripped off and by whom (as in David Harvey) and for the analysis of capitalism as a global system that has changed drastically as it moved through history, opening up certain possibilities of a relatively humanizing sort even as it closed down others (as in Giovanni Arrighi). Hardt and Negri have of course read these writers, but their exhortations float free of the best analyses available outside their trilogy. Perhaps all exhortation must at some point float free of analysis. The same may hold for my own exhortations, though I would at least want to claim Arrighi for my side. Adam Smith in Beijing makes the case that even from the perspective of the global economic system, it’s worth it to take on the political muss and fuss of building state institutions strong enough to be used as well as to be abused.

It follows, then, that time should be made for political principles that, like the public, already have a place within common sense. It is an established principle in the United States, though a contested and ever precarious one, that some things, like clean water, national parks, sewage systems, primary education, and even health care, are too important to be distributed to people only according to their family’s ability to pay and must therefore be subtracted from the rule of private profit. No, this principle will not take you as far as you need to go toward equality even within the US, let alone between the US and the less privileged citizens of other countries. But why resist, as Hardt and Negri do, the idea of getting people to respect and expand it? Naomi Klein takes this idea so deeply for granted in The Shock Doctrine that she doesn’t even stop to articulate it. In speaking up against the free-marketers’ “trademark demands” for “privatization, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending,” she of course speaks for their contraries: the public, government regulation, and generous social spending. For now, at least, whatever their limits, these terms seem to define the best of our progressive common sense, the inevitable rallying cries of the common.

Image: A multitude. 2008. Photograph by Ian Epstein.

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