Hardt & Negri’s “Multitude”: the worst of both worlds

Anne-Marie Slaughter Thomas N Hale
25 May 2005

The rise of globalisation – both as an empirical fact and as a favourite topic of pundits, politicians, and intellectuals – has spawned a startling number of grand theories which seek to explain our changed circumstances. While physicists continue to search for a single Grand Unified Theory, social observers seem to produce them like so many goods and services buzzing through the world economy. When one of these theories rises above the cacophony, as Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s has, it is important to take notice.

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2005) is a neo-Marxist extravaganza that picks up where Hardt & Negri’s widely-discussed Empire (2000) ends. Empire recast Marx’s bourgeoisie as a placeless, faceless network of transnational corporations, international organisations, and the nation-states that benefit from them.

Now Multitude re-imagines the proletariat as a heterogeneous web of workers, migrants, social movements, and non-governmental organisations – “potentially … all the diverse figures of social production”, “the living alternative that grows within Empire.” Where Empire focused on the problems of globalisation, Multitude proposes a solution to those problems – the creation of a truly pluralistic democracy for all mankind.

Multitude does not lend itself easily to summary, but the basic idea is as follows. The multitude is not “the people,” but rather many peoples acting in networked concert. Because of its plurality, its “innumerable internal differences”, the multitude contains the genus of true democracy. At the same time, the multitude’s ability to communicate and collaborate – often through the very capitalist networks that oppress it – allows it to produce a common body of knowledge and ideas (“the common”) that can serve as a platform for democratic resistance to Empire.

The multitude’s democratic potential thus springs from its heterogeneity and its penchant for dynamic exchange. Hardt & Negri believe these characteristics grow from the very nature of contemporary social life and economic production, which they see resting on two pillars. The first is a new model of labour, which Hardt & Negri describe as “biopolitical production.” This unhelpful label tries to capture the particular dynamic of the production of “ideas, images, affects and relationships” in the information economy. These are immaterial rather than material goods. They can spread quickly throughout the world, creating a “common” that touches on all aspects of social life.

The second pillar is the mode of political organisation embraced by the multitude. In place of “centralised forms of revolutionary dictatorship and command,” the multitude organises resistance to globalisation through networks, which substitute “collaborative relationships” for hierarchical authority. At last, a true revolution from below; a movement that can marry the spontaneity of anarchy with the power of mass resistance. Woodstock meets the Internet.

All clear? If not, it’s not the fault of your reviewers. Hardt & Negri warn their readers not to expect immediate comprehension, and indeed the shape of their arguments is often baffling. Multitude jumps from folklore, to philosophy, to finance with little concern for disciplinary barriers or – at times – clarity. A third of the way into the first chapter, on war, Hardt & Negri interrupt a discussion of United States exceptionalism with a discursus called “Golem,” which begins:

“A golem is haunting us. It is trying to tell us something. The golem has become an icon of unlimited war and indiscriminate destruction, a symbol of war’s monstrosity. Perhaps we need to listen more attentively to the golem’s message. The golem doesn’t want to kill, it wants to love and be loved.”

While Hardt & Negri clearly find extended allusions to Jewish mysticism – and later vampires, demons, and carnival – helpful to our understanding of globalisation, many of these vignettes seem more like testaments to the authors’ intellectual creativity (and literary training) than the building-blocks of an argument.

Multitude is a sprawling, often silly book, yet its central point comes out largely right. Globalisation does require us to think of new forms of democracy that can expand rule by the people to the transnational level. Hardt & Negri’s optimism about the ability of democratic global governance to end capitalist exploitation is both dated and dubious, but they are right in their conviction that expanding democracy beyond borders can build a fairer world. And they are on to something important with their insistence that these forms are likely to draw from the decentralised, pluralistic networks that seem to define the contemporary zeitgeist.

Social resistance in an age of terror

Hardt & Negri advise their readers to “think of the book as a mosaic” from which “the general design gradually emerges.” We thus note below a number of different arguments that emerge from Multitude, arguments that, when stripped of the pretension and periodic pomposity with which they are presented, actually get at the heart of current debates over globalisation and global governance. Several deserve serious attention.

On war and democracy, for instance, Multitude’s focus on democracy marks an important shift. Empire was not much concerned with democracy, focusing instead on economic relations. Interestingly, it seems to be the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the ongoing “war on terror,” that have focused Hardt & Negri’s thinking on democracy (Multitude’s subtitle, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, speaks to this point). Why might this be?

Contra the Bush administration, Multitude holds the global war on terror to be a central obstacle to democracy. While neo-conservatives have conflated counterterrorism with democracy promotion, Hardt & Negri have done just the opposite, seeing most counterterrorism policy as anti-democratic. The authors see US-led efforts as dangerous to civil liberties within nations and oppressive to the people who find themselves in countries on the wrong side the good vs evil divide.

But what does the war on terror have to do with economic globalisation? Certainly self-described global justice activists have been quick to add the war in Iraq to their list of complaints against the existing world order. Protestors have seen little need to provide a coherent intellectual framework for both causes, and when called upon to do so frequently resort to the facile “blood for oil” argument, which views the war on terror as a plan to pacify the world for capitalist exploitation. Hardt & Negri toy with this idea, but fortunately do not go so far as to endorse it fully. Rather, they suggest a more subtle and compelling linkage.

The authors never quite state the point explicitly, but they connect resistance to neo-liberal globalisation and opposition to the American-led war on terror by looking at both through the prism of transnational democracy. In their view both movements are motivated by people’s desire to have a say over decisions that affect the world in which they live. People around the world feel helpless when decisions made at the International Monetary Fund or in the boardrooms of large corporations affect their ability to work or provide for their families. They feel similarly disenfranchised when a single country and a few of its allies decide to intervene militarily absent multilateral authorisation or a compelling rationale. In this way both “anti-globalisation” and anti-war protests are exercises in democracy – an attempt to “have one’s say” at the transnational level.

Multitude’s concern with war reopens an important question that Hardt & Negri first tackled in Empire – the role of the nation-state in an increasingly globalised world. They argued that while certain states occupied a privileged place in the world order, globalisation had essentially diminished the importance of the state. In contrast to the old system of imperialism, real power, they argued, was now located in the transnational network of global capitalism. Though this network sometimes relied on states to accomplish its goals, it – not states – was the chief driver of policy. Furthermore, Hardt & Negri saw much to celebrate in the decline of the nation-state, which they pointed out has often been a tool of oppression and violence.

This view has been vigorously contested by a number of critics, particularly those beyond the north Atlantic, who believe that the “old imperialism” is alive and well. Scholars like Atilio Boron, whose Imperio & Imperialismo (CLACSO, 2002) is perhaps the fullest of these critiques, argue that globalisation has in fact strengthened the position of the dominant states, perhaps changing the form of imperialism but not its effects.

The prescription of these critics is thus to strengthen states in the developing world, allowing them to resist and mitigate globalisation. While Hardt & Negri argue the developing world’s only chance is to form a network just as global and dynamic as world capitalism, turning globalisation into a force for good, many in the developing world think the solution is just the opposite – to become less global, not more.

Hardt saw this tension first hand at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, lamenting that many in the global justice movement, particularly in the global South, failed to adopt his “discontents of the world, unite!” call. (See Hardt’s reflections in New Left Review, 2002).

Those who believed that Empire understated the role of the nation-state may feel a twinge of vindication upon reading Multitude. Hardt & Negri now see the state-sponsored war on terror as the fundamental obstacle to the transnational democracy they seek. In Multitude the state, and the United States in particular, has ceased to be the passive beneficiary of globalisation, instead becoming a key force of oppression that should be resisted.

This shift is somewhat understandable; war, more than any other subject, showcases the importance of the nation-state in world affairs. Less understandable is Hardt & Negri’s failure to discuss the implications of the resilience of states and to alter their prescriptions accordingly. They are capable only of seeing the nation-state as a problem – one to which they have no solution. The last chapter seems to suggest the multitude as some kind of alternative to the state, although without specifying what exactly the multitude could do other than resist. This idea – or rather dearth of ideas - shows above all that the authors, driven more by ideological conviction than empirical observation, have trained their imagination far more on alternatives to the state than on the state itself.

From nation-state to network

Hardt & Negri assume that every gain for transnational-level political organisation is a loss for the nation-state. In fact, nation-states, just like transnational corporations and social movements, are going global and networking with their counterparts abroad. These networks of government agencies – financial regulators, environmental regulators, even legislators and judges – are creating a web of global governance that is based not in a supranational entity but rather in nation-states themselves. These networks have grown dramatically since the end of the cold war, such that even proposals for Security Council reform – the old world of international relations only among unitary nation-states – are accompanied by proposals for the creation of an “L-20”, an informal network of the leaders of twenty critical states from both the developed and the developing world.

Hardt & Negri see networks behind every tree; they understand the power and distinctive nature of the form; they grasp the vigour and dynamism of networked pluralism. And yet they miss the profound changes that are taking place within the state itself as a result of these trans-governmental networks. Here the binary nature of their Marxist roots betrays them. They cannot escape the dichotomy of the class struggle and hence can only picture the world in an updated version of the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. In fact, the prospects for democratic global governance will depend on the interactions of at least three distinct sets of networks: corporate, civic, and trans-governmental.

To be fair, Hardt & Negri are careful to caution that they have no specific schemata for the democratic global governance they believe will spring from the multitude. The book is intended as a theoretical “platform,” not a concrete action plan. Nonetheless, they do attempt to sketch the basic contours of their vision, and while they are not sufficiently specific to be of use to policymakers or activists, they do grapple with some of the questions most central to current global governance debates.

The discussion of sovereignty merits particular attention. Hardt & Negri argue that all historical and extant forms of governance – monarchy, oligarchy, autocracy, democracy – involve the rule of “the one” over “the many.” Even in democracy, “the people” function as a single social unit, they argue. Sovereignty is the power of the ruler – be it a dictator, a ruling class, or even a people – over the ruled. Thus, the challenge for “true” democrats is to undo the anti-democratic binary of sovereignty and allow the ruled to govern themselves.

Readers who suspect that political theorists have already attempted to tackle this problem during the Enlightenment and the political projects it inspired are correct – and Hardt & Negri are happy to associate their project with the architects of the American and French revolutions. They call for a “new science” of democracy that will do for the world today what the United States Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man did for the populations of America and France during the 18th century.

Hardt & Negri are right to argue that we need new forms of governance to address contemporary transnational problems democratically. Furthermore, they intelligently argue that such governance cannot spring from “the one” – e.g. a global government elected by a world electorate – but rather must come from a pluralist web of overlapping institutions and actors who, while linked, maintain a fundamental degree of autonomy.

The trick, of course, is to figure out exactly how such a web should work. What institutions will be required? How will individuals gain a say over the decisions that affect them? How will their rights be protected? How will public goods be provided? Here Hardt & Negri have less to say, and they are not alone. In recent years scholars have made a compelling case for transnational governance, but have been less able to prescribe what such governance should look like. Much more work is required to develop the mechanisms to make global governance effective and democratic.

A postmodern pastiche

Perhaps Hardt & Negri would have been able to provide some of these specifics if they had consulted with other writers who are tackling the same problem, but unfortunately their call for a “new science of democracy” largely fails to engage with the relevant literature. This oversight perhaps accounts for the authors’ sense that they are presenting something more novel than they actually are. It is somewhat ironic that two writers as well read as Hardt & Negri would embellish their book with arcane – even outlandish – references, but neglect highly relevant lines of scholarship like cosmopolitanism, deliberative democracy, reflexive law, Habermasian communication, and the study of global civil society. A closer look at these ideas might have allowed the authors to advance the debate significantly further.

Multitude mixes Marxism with postmodern pastiche that produces, in some places, the worst of both worlds. Marxism may be out-dated, oversimplified, and wrong, but it is at least clear. Hardt & Negri’s muddled musings often forsake this clarity for suggestive glimpses of a future they feel but can’t quite describe – except to idealise the unexploited power of the multitude. The greatest danger of this kind of thinking, as demonstrated so often in the purported utopias of the 20th century, is that in the end real decisions get made by the very opposite of the multitude – an “enlightened” revolutionary elite.

On the other hand, Hardt & Negri have identified a very real problem: how to create institutions of global governance that allow individuals directly affected by decisions to have a real say in them. Hardt & Negri are by no means the only thinkers to see and grapple with this problem. But they are willing to take more risks, reach to more sources, and imagine more boldly than many other authors. The result is an idea – the idea of the multitude – that is likely to be an important component of any more practical schemes to realise a more democratic global vision.

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