Nationhood and the multitude: a new form of political subject?

In the frantic search to find an agreed name for emerging forms of collective agency, ‘the nation’ is frequently presented as an outdated inconvenience. This hasty generalisation fails to acknowledge the term’s continuing role in propping-up ‘invisible’ forms of state domination and, more importantly, its potential function as part of a critical biopolitics.   


Tomás Saraceno "Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, Like Droplets Along the Strands of a Spider's Web" . Photo: Angel Flores Jr

In a recent article for OurKingdom’s ‘Re-birth of the nation’ series, Greg Sharzer produced a compelling challenge to the notion of a post-industrial “return to the land”, arguing that such measures frequently serve only as an ‘accommodation’ of the violence of capital. Localism, so he argues, looks to the margins to retreat from austerity and alienation, aligning itself, in the process, with an inevitable cycle of ethical, political and strategic failures. ‘Revolutionary socialism’ on the other hand attempts to unpack the economic contradictions and reveal human contingencies at the very heart of capitalism that structure such separations. While it might be apt as a technique of disruption, the former will never develop the agency to challenge power because it fails to harness the empowerment and educating potential of revolutionary class struggle. Citing this ‘class consciousness’ as a primary vehicle for social transformation, his argument concludes with a call for more integrated forms of urban protest and industrial action to combat the flexibility of neoliberal capitalism: “[a]gainst the globalized age of austerity, we will create our own globalized age of resistance”.

Of course, it is clear that it is not always the case – or essential to its definition - that local forms of organisation be understood as merely accommodating; rather, as Sharzer himself suggests, that they repeatedly fail to address fundamental questions regarding the base operations of property and capital. The concept of a non-local group, even in cyberspace, is, of course, impossible to imagine. His own example of ‘globalised resistance’, the European strikes last November, was the result of coordinated groups of locally organized workers, and, while emotive at the level of spectacle, such activities could hardly be described as revolutionary in praxis against the contemporary mechanisms of post-Fordist control. Certainly a vital corrective is required if Sharzer’s thesis is to be deployed as a vehicle for clarifying debate: that it is only when the channels of communication between such groups ‘devolve’ into being localist that the potential for resistance is dampened. In these terms, the ongoing tension between ‘accommodation’ and ‘resistance’ is not just tied to the intentionality of class struggle, but profoundly expressed in how groups interact though media, culture and technology. 

More importantly, then, for those ‘returning to the land’, or indeed for Sharzer’s ‘revolutionary socialists’, is the question of when localism is rendered merely accommodating and what conditions of communication enable it to transcend into something larger; perhaps even global. Indeed is there anything intrinsically wrong with ‘returning’ to the land? In declining economies such as Italy, where there is much vacant farmland and mass unemployment, this small but viable counter-migration seems in itself a radical starting point from which to challenge the competitiveness of an increasingly disenfranchised urban life. The gap between this retreat and its solidification into struggle, and where Sharzer’s article is at its most provocative, is best understood by a question he notably evades: why must this movement be confined to the narrative of ‘return’? Despite considerable gains along the way – Sharzer is certainly correct that we shouldn’t be so quick to give up our schools, hospitals and factories – by not confronting this schism he fails to overcome the same problem that his supposedly docile subjects are so adamant to ignore: how can local - and national - struggles be made global?

Publics or Multitude?


Liliana Porter ‘Fragment of a Crowd’

Attempting to sketch the outlines of such a mode of resistance requires the situation of new forms of subjectivity and imagination within a ‘working definition’ of social substance. As a preliminary step in responding to the imperative within Sharzer’s article, the question might be reasonably proposed: what do we mean by ‘political actor’? Are we dealing with crowds, with corporations, with states? Do individuals have political agency? Do horizontal networks overcome vertical hierarchies? One of the most convincing starting points, proposed in parallel to these conventional examples, can be found in Negri and Hardt’s idiosyncratic use of the term ‘multitude’, which (borrowed from Spinoza’s notion that “fear of the masses” [is] the principal brake on the power of the sovereign or state”) is used in their work to signify the emotional basis upon which the evolution of global counter-power might be enacted. It is understood first therefore - though not primarily - as a collective act of resistance. A resistance comprised of bodies. 

Significantly, this opposition is not external to capitalism (as in Sharzer’s localists) but neither is it the result of confronting inner contradictions (as in ‘revolutionary socialism’). Developing this latter tradition, it endeavors to exploit an alternative ‘positive’ potentiality within capitalism’s own (in)visible occupation of the common:

“Specters of the common appear throughout capitalist society, even if in veiled and mystified forms. Despite its ideological aversion, capital cannot do without the common, and today in increasingly explicit ways” (153)

For the capitalist classes in post-industrial society, Spinoza’s sovereign ‘fear’ of the masses has developed from the necessity of using force alone. While police lines and barricades continue to block off streets and squares in moments of collective congregation (such as those in which Sharzer is interested), global power has simultaneously recognised the need to construct illusory publics, as a means of pacifying and ordering what may then continue to be framed as free and (paradoxically) ‘predictable’ consumers. Where previously the workers’ struggle entailed labour’s direct acknowledgement of surplus value, in the age of biopolitical control - when most work is conducted in offices, in transit, or even from home - capitalism’s own counter-revolution has enabled it to claim the hard fought victories of the (homogenised) working class as the symbols of its own benevolence.

‘The multitude’ emerges from this space between the myth of the free capitalist public and the history of struggle for direct democracy as a collective call for self-determination: sometimes heard, sometimes read, sometimes felt, often wasted. As such it might be observable in either the ‘retreat to the land’ or amongst the participants of large-scale industrial action (though it remains anti-essentialist and cannot be attributed as the product of either). Recognising the deterritorialised production of this space, and in an unconscious effort to undermine this tide of evasiveness, states and their satellite lobbyists increasingly turn themselves to the language of evasion - of pluralisation, multiculturalism and hybridisation - in an effort to distribute and conserve their model of sovereignty. As is readily apparent when such proposals are compared with ‘the multitude’, however, it is nonetheless the capitalist class that profits most from this enforced liberalisation (‘choice’ is the most coveted word in subscription TV ads for a reason). 

On the contrary, by maintaining a singularity that is itself able to convey the movement and uncontainability of plurality - beyond any one identity - Negri and Hardt’s multitude thus proposes a second and fundamental break from the capitalist understanding of ‘publics’; one that purports to stem from the capacity of groups of individuals to act outside of a centralised sovereignty: 

“Like ‘the people,’ the multitude is the result of a process of political constitution, although, whereas the people is formed as a unity by a hegemonic power standing above the plural social field, the multitude is formed through articulations on the plane of immanence without hegemony” (169)

The language here is meandering yet evocative: ‘articulations’ recalling the passionate singularity of musical performance; ‘plane’ an endlessly open expanse of space and time. The unifying sensation is the expansion of horizons, a mitosis fit for the birth of a subject whose actions as a gender, as a race, as a class are all intersected into the common-wealth of a constantly renewing substance. The burning desire to ‘smash!’ capitalism is herein reduced to a labyrinth of broken mirrors, replaced by the complex interaction of these overlapping identities that instead work to subvert outdated assumptions about identity. It is important to note that Sharzer’s stern-faced opposition between ‘localism’ and ‘resistance’ likewise fails to acknowledge the unusual texture of this argument, its opposition of terms bringing with it a concrete objectivity far removed from the multitude’s objective movement. By contrast (though again perhaps best understood in violent opposition to the self-commodification of pay-per-view TV) ‘the multitude’ searches less for a consensual anti-capitalism than for the possibility of constructing a new universality, from the power (and not the sum) of its elements.


‘Painting as Multitide’: a series by Doria

A third adverbial prefix to the multitude, and key to eradicating the thankless task of searching for it as something qualitatively ‘present’ or ‘absent’ in such a priori figures as ‘the working class’, is the clarification: “not a spontaneous political subject but a project of political organisation” (169). To search for its agency in any hypothetical combination of individuals, parties and states is to ask the wrong question; the multitude is an always possible condition of existence rather than a finished product. The demand made by ‘multitudinous’ being is to recognise that historically all of these bodies have been shaped according to a certain understanding of identity that can be moved beyond; perhaps evading the grip of capitalism in the process. While it is frequently searched for as something constructed, the ‘multitude’ might likewise be understood as a reduction: as what is left over when anti-hegemonic forms of power demonstrate their capacity to organize:

“This is a peculiar kind of making […] insofar as there is no maker that stands behind the process. Through the production of subjectivity, the multitude is itself author of its perpetual becoming other, an uninterrupted process of collective self-transformation” (173)

Understanding this ‘collective self-tranformation’ as entailing a certain mode of communication, subsequently reveals the ‘multitude’ as one potential name for a new model of democracy, not grounded in the Habermasian yearning for equilibrium but in the uneven structures of dissent and conversation. Crucially, therefore, it is ‘free discussion’ (in both its positive and negative senses) that enables the multitude to reveal as an agency at all. As they clarify: “democratic decision making transforms the parallel struggles of identities into an insurrectional intersection, a revolutionary event that composes […] singularities into a multitude” (349). By respecting and participating in this process, which as a result of its ‘second break’ cannot be reduced to the logic of ‘majority’, the emphasis is taken away from the ‘individual voter’, manipulable and predictable by behaviourism and Game theory, and replaced instead by a revolution at the level of substance in which ‘the electorate’ is replaced by a nature that is universal, singular and unpredictable.

The above solution as framed by Negri and Hardt is left - like any such proposal of ‘new nature’ - as something at best latent, at worst, non-existent. While self-professedly anti-dialectical, the argument struggles to overcome the stock-trade arguments against Hegelian idealism: If the multitude is a ‘process-of-becoming-other’ and never observable as an object, what might this transformation look like and from where might it begin? If not everyone thinks ‘multitudinously’, what to do with the leftovers? Why should we posit the existence of the multitude at all? Does this act not itself require an almost transcendental faith? Why would the multitude intrinsically emerge as a good thing? Sharzer’s analysis again provides a useful materialist anchor for tying this abstract speculation to the desperate need for long-term solutions to austerity. If localism is unable to formulate resistance by allowing capitalism to force a split from the history of labour struggle, then such theoretical reflexes seem equally unable to establish agency if all they achieve is to deepen the sensation of absence. Yet the potential of the multitude as an imaginative stimulus for recasting how we imagine citizenship and, beyond this, political activity is already being seen in residual forms in Occupy, the Arab Spring and, most controversially, in Anonymous. The question of how these examples were and are able to imagine themselves and their inter-relations is an open one, but one lesson that is rapidly being learnt from their early history is that simply changing the name of the struggle cannot be seen as an easy substitute for engaging with fundamental and long fought over questions surrounding the language of democracy.

The biopolitics of nationhood


‘City Recorder’: a series by Alasdair Gray

Despite its unclear relationship with the actual emergence of these new forms of ‘struggle’, there remains something exciting and potentially transformative in Negri and Hardt’s detailed account of de-centered power, that may help the radical left to go beyond SWP arguments about commitment and move towards a genuinely post-capitalist subjectivity. What is clear is that whatever this process is to be called there is a hefty and active cultural task to be synchronized simultaneously in different ways across ‘publics’ if ‘non-hegemonic structure’ is to be realised as something valuable and lived. The articles in this series have already demonstrated in a variety of ways, the continuing relevance of nationhood as a component in fashioning identity, in self-expression, in art and in the everyday struggle to assert community. Others have contrasted this with the continuing power of state-nationalism and the mechanisms by which its operations are obscured in plain site. The fact remains that for the duration of what might now be called ‘modernity’ the nation-state was the primary focus of political thought, the construction of ideology and subsequently the production of subjectivity. It was and is at the centre of institutional contestation in imperial centres and key to anti-colonial struggles around the world. With this in mind, what could be more relevant than nationhood as an irresolvable struggle from where the multitude might be able to emerge and develop politically? Negri and Hardt briefly acknowledge this possibility in their 2009 study, Commonwealth:

“Nationalism can never fully escape fundamentalism, but that should not blind us to the fact that, particularly in the context of national liberation struggles, nationalism’s intense focus on bodies suggests biopolitical practices that, if oriented differently, can be extraordinarily powerful” (37)

Given the weight of this considerable concession it is telling that the argument is subsequently left so vitally underdeveloped. Even by its own terms - the multitude is conceived as “a process of political constitution” – and as such the concept of nationhood, the historic site in which contemporary ‘biopolitical practices’ continue to function, seems the logical starting point from which a critical subjectivity could be developed. Their premise remains unclear: why should nationhood be understood as intrinsically tied to hegemonic notions of identity? In eventually abandoning this ‘orientation’ argument outright, and enabling them to avoid answering this question, it is Negri and Hardt who ironically retreat to ‘fundamentalist’ language akin to ‘nationalism’ in their eventual command: “the multitude must flee the family, the corporation, and the nation but at the same time build on the promises of the common they mobilise” (164). While admirably long-sighted, the tone is clearly bogged down by a desire to make this radical proposal run before it has even learnt to walk. In a moment of fantastic optimism this carefully crafted manual of anti-hegemonic thought appears – and all too familiarly – in the language of a narcissistic activist pocket-book. Here, the evolution of the ‘multitude’ seems to lose an important opportunity to move beyond abstraction; the most promising identification of a way to move the concept forward left behind as a false lead.

It is worth recalling that Spinoza’s original use of the term situated ‘the multitude’ within the antagonism of nation and state in the sphere of ‘domestic’ politics: “Every ruler has more to fear from his own citizens […] than from any foreign enemy”. As such it seems similarly vital to recognise the changing parameters of national experience as an important componant to understanding the contemporary ‘multitude’. Maintaining the potential of ‘the multitude’ to deconstruct power, then, it is my view that any such attempts to revitalise the term would gain much by engaging with the arguments of figures such as Paul James and Tom Nairn, both of whom have developed vital and urgent diagnoses of the processes by which constitutional and sovereign contestations have shaped the history of modernity. While the overexcited Negri and Hardt in command-mode are reluctant to engage further with this line of argument, their otherwise discursive description of the multitude cannot within its own parameters deny this experiment: in Spinoza’s own terms revolution is not a question of either / or, but of how to work on limits.

For anti-capitalism today, it would certainly be desirable to challenge the neoliberal slide between ‘privatisation’ and ‘monopoly’ while maintaining at least one horizon of ‘multitude’ with which to confront the abuse of ‘common spaces’, ‘freedoms’ and ‘publics’ by state-nationalism and corporate power. At its most reflexive, the possibility of the left wielding both arguments and revealing the relationship between the two would help to dymystify further the shadowy world of lobbying and the dark side of spectacular and even ‘globalised’ nationalisms. Michael Gardiner succinctly defines the type of national space from which this may emerge in his assertion that “[a]lternative sovereignties arise via the national, but this does not makes them nationalist as an end in itself, or the question confined to one region”. The implication of this argument, of course, has further implications for how we might position the multitude within class, gender, racial and generational struggles as a means of going beyond them. At the same time, however, it should be recognised that resistance may still obtain crucial forms as a result of what in practice may be public and hegemonic / consensus decisions. Instead, it needs to be consciously acknowledged that it is possible to oppose the marketised appropriation of ‘the common’, through the insistence of ‘public’ ownership while further developing the anti-capitalist multitude in the process.


Laura Oldfield ‘Savage Messiah’

In Italy, for example, where according to the latest census 85% use the television as the primary source of information, there is sore need of a specific institutional struggle against Berlusconi’s monopoly of this media form. Bifo Beradi’s Telestreet project is exemplary of this hybridised struggle that is trying to go beyond itself: a movement which is both necessarily-national while a constituent part of a new subjectivity. Or in Greece, where the participation of entire families in ‘occupations’ and ‘rent strikes’ has positioned squatting (one potentially ‘localist’ action in Greg Sharzer’s schema), as part of a national and universal struggle. In the UK the opportunity of the Scottish referendum must be understood not as the forcing of a win/lose choice motivated by stereotypes and bile but as a chance to challenge engrained forms of sovereignty and stimulate new forms of democratic engagement.

Using the resources of both nationhood and multitude, the challenges opened up by all of these crucial debates is to tackle global forms of power that are themselves so shamefully old and so dazzlingly new. Meanwhile, if the multitude itself is to become anything other than the fantasy of a self-loathing Marxist vanguard and contribute to the democratic potential of this crisis, its usage must be situated within a historical narrative in which nationhood remains a vitally contested term for establishing ideological and constitutional change. 

This article is part of the series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'

Reference: 

Negri, Antonio & Michael Hardt. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2009 

About the author

Jamie Mackay (@JacMackay) is a researcher in Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick and a contributing editor to OurKingdom