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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - Book Review: Hardt and Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire Reviewed by D. Oswald Mitchell

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 27 Apr 2005 07:36:30 +0200 (CEST)


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One approach to understanding the democracy of the multitude is as
an open-source society, that is, a society whose source code is
revealed so that we can all work collaboratively to solve its bugs.
- Hardt and Negri, Multitude, (340)
After the unprecedented commercial and critical success of Michael
Hardt and Antonio Negri’s dense and manic Empire (2000),
which the Marxist critic Frederic Jameson called “the first great
new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium,” and cultural
theorist Slavoj Zizek praised as “nothing less than a rewriting of
The Communist Manifesto for our time,” the publication of its
sequel, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004),
has generated a significant amount of interest. Empire’s
theorization of “a fundamentally new form of rule,” a new
global sovereignty that transcends both national borders and modern
imperialism, was eagerly seized upon by many in the
anti-globalization movement and the academic Left seeking a
theoretical framework for naming that-which-they-opposed, in place
of the vague and inaccurate term “globalization.” Hardt and
Negri’s new book Multitude picks up where Empire left off,
theorizing the potential forms that popular resistance to Empire might
take.

Empire concludes with a gesture toward the “potential political
power” of the social mass they designate “the multitude,”
the source of any viable counter-force to Empire. But in Empire
Hardt and Negri consistently refused to describe or plot the
development of such an entity (which, they confess, has not yet
emerged as a social force), other than to affirm that “only the
multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models
and determine when and how the possible becomes real” (411).
Beyond this, Empire offers only vague gestures towards its potential
form and composition, and the unknowable (and unexplained)
“event” that will bring it to maturity.

In spite of all its similarities of topic, theoretical foundations, and
audience, Multitude is actually a rather different book than its
predecessor: more modest, more disciplined, more accessible. For
along with the sometimes hyperbolic praise Empire received, it also
generated a great deal of criticism.1 Perhaps the most widespread
criticism was for its lack of groundedness: for all its relevance to the
spirit of the times and the true brilliance of its analysis, Empire
sometimes reads like a poorly-translated Japanese instruction
manual, as in its authors’ agile hands, the gap between theory
and practice sometimes opens into a yawning chasm of specialist
lingo and pseudo-militant sloganeering.2

Like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Empire had the good fortune of
surfacing in the immediate wake of the anti-globalization
movement’s coming-out party in Seattle, and so found itself
suddenly thrust into the media spotlight. As newly-energized activists
looked to it for guidance and direction, the public looked to it for
explanations, and anti-intellectual right-wing pundits looked to it for
ammunition. Its ideas received more widespread scrutiny and debate
than – let’s be honest – most leftist academics usually
dream of, and thus forced upon its authors a degree of accountability
that many intellectuals rarely face. And it appears that Hardt and
Negri have taken a number of the criticisms the book received to
heart. It is to their enormous credit that in their sequel, the authors
have largely emerged from the depths of extreme abstraction to
re-engage with the social movements that carry the hope driving their
project, and with the larger public that is, presumably, sympathetic to
their most basic demands for true democracy, freedom from poverty,
and an end to war. As a result, Multitude is a work of political
philosophy in the best sense of the term, providing a critical
rethinking of some of our most basic political concepts –
democracy, sovereignty, representation, and so on – in the
context of the new global networks of power and communication that
increasingly regulate social and political life. The stated aim of their
investigation is to “work out the conceptual bases on which a
new project of democracy can stand” (xvii). Faced with the
debacle of modern representative democracy, they call on us to
reclaim the concept of democracy in its radical, utopian sense: the
absolute democracy of “the rule of everyone by everyone”
(307). The multitude, they argue, is the first and only social subject
capable of realizing such a project.

Multitude is divided into three sections: War, Multitude, and
Democracy. The first section seeks to account for the general global
state of war in which we find ourselves, and through which, Hardt
and Negri argue, power is increasingly expressed. (This section
represents, in part, an attempt to elaborate their theorization of
Empire in the wake of the September 2001 attacks on US soil and
Bush’s declaration of “war on terror.”)

In the second section, Hardt and Negri sketch out their conception of
the multitude and highlight the tendencies that make it possible.
Here they argue that the shift from industrial to post-industrial
societies has been accompanied by a shift in the dominant form of
labour, from industrial labour to more “immaterial” forms of
work – the production of social relations, communication,
feelings, ideas, etc. (which they term biopolitical production) –
and that this deep shift is profoundly reorganizing many aspects of
our lives, including the very ways we interact and organize ourselves.
Hardt and Negri propose that what our labour increasingly produces
is the common – a crucial concept to their project, the basis upon
which any democratic project will be built. Conceived in these terms,
they propose a description of the multitude as “an open network
of singularities that links together on the basis of the common they
share and the common they produce” – a union which does
not, however, in any way subordinate or erase the radical differences
among those singularities.3

The last section, Democracy, looks specifically at the diverse and
growing demands for real democracy erupting around the globe, and
catalogues the myriad reforms that are being put forward to
democratize the global system. Against this backdrop of collective
desire, the final section of the book offers a productive reading of the
modern political concepts of representation and sovereignty,
exploring how an emerging democratic project might usefully remake
or resist these concepts.

My only major criticism of Multitude is an environmentalist one, or
perhaps a materialist one. Its analysis is grounded in an unspoken
faith in the continuing abundance of material resources to fuel the
“immaterial” economy, when in reality the looming spectres
of “peak oil” production and dramatic climate change
represent a very real limit to their notions of the dominance of
“immaterial” wealth and labour. Hardt and Negri seem, in
fact, dangerously blind to how finite the raw resources are that keep
every aspect of our economy humming along. “Some resources
do remain scarce today,” they write, “but many, in fact,
particularly the newest elements of the economy, do not operate on a
logic of scarcity.” They predict that the growing abundance of
“immaterial property” (knowledge, ideas, etc.), which is
“infinitely reproducible, ... will make “the notion of a basic
conflict with everyone (over scarce resources) seem increasingly
unnatural” (311).

It’s a nice thought. In fact, such cooperative group action is
already clearly evident in such promising formations as the
open-source software movement and the Creative Commons
initiative, which are revolutionizing the ways people engage in
collaborative production and think about intellectual property. But we
would be foolish to ignore the dark clouds that overshadow such a
bright future: in October 2003, for instance, the Pentagon issued a
confidential report (which the Bush regime did its best to suppress)
predicting that by 2020, the effects of climate change will be causing
mega-droughts, famine, and nuclear conflicts over scarce resources
across the world. “Disruption and conflict will be endemic
features of life,” the report concluded. “Once again, warfare
would define human life.”4 One might legitimately question the
conclusions of such a report, but we gain nothing by ignoring such
predictions, and stand to lose everything.

For years I’ve nursed the cynical and slightly paranoid theory that
the main point of the reality TV show Survivor was to accustom
people to the idea that, in a world of scarce resources where there just
isn’t enough wealth to go around (at least, not at the desired rate
of consumption), democracy becomes nothing more than the process
of “voting” the most marginalized elements of society “off
the island” (after following the recent debates about US budget
priorities, I’ve begun to wonder how far off such a system of
garrison-democracy actually is.) The point is this: a truly progressive
inquiry into the potential for real democracy at a global scale had
better start grappling with the looming twin crises of fossil fuel
scarcity and profound climate change, because all the wrong people
are already retooling “democracy” for a world of scarcity –
real, imagined, or imposed.

In spite of this serious oversight, Multitude still represents an
important advance in our attempts to make sense of the profound
societal shifts accompanying the rise of network forms of both
resistance and control, and the possibilities for a better world that
these shifts might enable.5 And Multitude actually stands alone quite
well: if you’ve never cracked Empire but are curious, Multitude is
a good place to start. If you picked up a copy of Empire a couple of
years back and stalled 60 pages in, but remain interested in the ideas
it grapples with, Multitude merits a look. If you read Empire and were
excited by the ideas, but just wished sometimes they could express
them a little more clearly, or relate them more directly to real-world
struggles, Multitude is the book you’ll wish they’d written
first.

NOTES :

1 Leftist sociologist James Petras, for example, dismissed Empire as
“a wordy exercise devoid of critical intelligence,” and “a
sweeping synthesis of the intellectual froth about globalization,
post-modernism, (and) post-Marxism, all held together by a series of
unsubstantiated arguments and assumptions which seriously violate
economic and historical realities” . “Theorizing at the level of
absolute abstraction,” quipped the right-wing National Review,
“the book is almost free from fact, history, or plain
statement” (David Pryce-Jones, “Evil Empire: The
Communist ‘hot, smart book’ of the moment,” National
Review 17 Sept. 2001). Alan Wolfe in The New Republic pilloried it
as “a lazy person’s guide to revolution” . And finally,
voicing the legitimate frustrations of countless readers, George
Monbiot confessed on his blog, “There’s a game I
sometimes play with my friends, which is to open (Empire) at
random, put your finger on a paragraph, and see if you can work out
what the hell it means(...). They have some important things to say. I
just wish they had said them more economically” .

2 For a glimpse of Empire at its most obtuse and esoteric, see the
section “New Barbarians” (214-18).

3 “The multitude,” write Hardt and Negri, “is composed
of radical differences, singularities, that can never be synthesized in
an identity. The radicality of gender difference, for example, can be
included in the biopolitical organization of social life, the life
renovated by the multitude, only when every discipline of labour,
affect, and power that makes gender difference into an index of
hierarchy is destroyed” (Multitude 355).

4 Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, “Now the Pentagon Tells
Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us,” Observer/UK 22 Feb.
2004.

5 For other explorations of the implications of these profound
biopolitical shifts, see Siva Vaidhyanathan’s artfully-written and
startlingly original The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash
Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and
Crashing the System (2004); Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the
Network Society (2000), the first volume of his exhaustive The
Information Age trilogy; and Big Noise Film’s powerful and
lyrical documentary The Fourth World War (2004).
=============================
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]


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