Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire

Reviewed by D. Oswald Mitchell

Reviewed in this article

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire
by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, 2004.

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

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 Žižek 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”. 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”. 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”. 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”.

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” (http://www.rebelion.org/petras/english/negri010102.htm). “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” (http://www.tnr.com/100101/wolfe100101_print.html). 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” (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2003/12/04/december-debate-part-1/).

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).