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Multitude: Philosophy for the Future?
Review of the Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Time for Revolution by Negri.
By Charlie Bertsch
The following review by Charlie Bertsch (firstname.lastname@example.org) appeared in Tikkun Magazine, issue of Jan/Feb, 2005. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he specializes in twentieth-centruy American prose, cultural studies, and the history of aesthetics. He also teaches film.
Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Penguin Press, 2004.
Time For Revolution, by Antonio Negri. Continuum, 2003.
“Timing is crucial,” begins the final paragraph of Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s sequel to their improbably successful Empire. Their statement refers to politics, but it applies just as well to reading. Multitude seems like a different book today than it did before the recent election in the United States. Passages that read like a sign of imminent political orgasm in October now seem directed at a more distant climax. “The creation of the multitude, its innovation in networks, and its decision-making ability in common makes democracy possible for the first time today,” now seems to be not a prediction of the Democrats’ ride to victory on a wave of Internet activism in 2004, but a promise that all that energy will eventually reach shore. Someday we will get the break we’ve been waiting for, but we need to stay in the deep water a while longer.
That’s the message Multitude holds for the depressed and disillusioned, not only in the United States but wherever American policy dominates everyday life. As progressives worldwide face four more years of the Bush Doctrine, they must rationalize their despair down to a manageable size. So they remind themselves of the insight they had been suppressing during the last weeks of the 2004 campaign. While a John Kerry victory would have been nice, any ecstasy would have been forced, if not outright fake. “When does the moment of rupture come?” Although we once might have been tempted to answer, “November 3rd” a more sober reading of Multitude makes it abundantly clear that meaningful change is unlikely to be achieved at the ballot box. “The representative is thus, on the one hand, a servant of the represented and, on the other, dedicated to the unity and effectiveness of the sovereign will.” This tension cannot be sustained forever. In the end, representatives must work for the state against their constituents. “In the final analysis only the one can rule. Democracy requires a radical innovation and a new science.” As Empire already indicated, Hardt and Negri lay the foundation for this innovation with the concept of the “multitude,” which they sharply distinguish from traditional means of defining political constituencies such as “classes,” “masses,” or, most broadly, “the people.” Whereas “the people is one,” the multitude, by contrast, “is not unified but remains plural and multiple. This is why, according to the dominant tradition of political philosophy, the people can rule as a sovereign power and the multitude cannot.” Unlike a long line of thinkers in that dominant tradition, however, Hardt and Negri do not regard the multitude’s inability to generate unity as a sign of weakness. Rather, they question the premise that the body politic must be ruled at all. Instead of presuming that a singular entity, such as the state, makes plural subjects do its bidding, they propose a model in which the distinction between active and passive disappears. “Every sovereign power, in other words, necessarily forms a political body of which there is a head that commands, limbs that obey, and organs that function together to support the ruler. The concept of the multitude challenges this accepted truth of sovereignty. The multitude, although it remains multiple and internally different, is able to act in common and thus rule itself.” Hardt and Negri make this point repeatedly throughout Multitude, taking care to distinguish between the illusory self-rule that comes when people cede their power to representatives and the real self-rule that will accompany the abolition of government as we know it. “Rather than a political body with one that commands and others that obey, the multitude is living flesh that rules itself.”
Although Hardt and Negri retain the metaphor of the body politic, they cut off not only its head but other extremities that might take the head’s place as ruler. What is left, significantly, is mere “flesh.” People who have had the time and inclination to read a lot of post-structuralist theory will see an affinity between this idea and the figure of the “body without organs” that runs throughout Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s landmark Anti-Oedipus. Given Antonio Negri’s close association with those thinkers—he co-authored Communists Like Us with Guattari—the similarity is surely no accident. Although a wide variety of leftist thinkers have talked about the “multitude,” most notably Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, the strangeness of the image of “living flesh that rules itself” derives from the aftermath of May 1968, when thinkers were trying to figure out where the movement had gone wrong without reverting to the “right” way of doing things. It was a time of intellectual experimentation as intense as its sexual counterpart. And its legacy has been under ferocious attack ever since.
Maybe this explains why Multitude leaves the idea of “living flesh” distressingly abstract. Although Hardt and Negri extend the metaphor at several junctures in their argument, they don’t really flesh it out. In fact, the more territory they make it cover, the more transparent it becomes. At the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins explains that his unnaturally long life has left him feeling like butter spread over too much toast. The same could be said of Multitude’s key metaphor. “We should regard this common social being as a new flesh, amorphous flesh that as yet forms no body. The important question at this point is what kind of body will these singularities form?” Hardt and Negri present two possibilities: it will either be “enlisted in the global armies at the service of capital,” or demonstrate “the power to transform ourselves through historical action and create a new world.” But you never get a palpable sense that either sort of body will do the things bodies do—like eat, run, shit, or fuck. Because the earthiness of the body plays such an important role in Anti-Oedipus, its absence in Multitude seems like an example of ideological closure (in other words, structuring an argument so that only certain conclusions are possible). More broadly, the relative fleshlessness of the book’s “living flesh” underscores its principal weakness. Although Multitude depends heavily on a few key metaphors, Hardt and Negri rarely push them far enough to provoke readers into making connections between the language of politics and the politics of language. “The organs of the political body are really primarily economic divisions, and thus a critique of political economy is necessary to understand the body’s anatomy.” The language of this sentence, like so many in Multitude, fits seamlessly into the very tradition with which the book seeks to break. It’s one thing to argue that “the global political body is not merely a national body grown overlarge. It has a new physiology.” Making that newness come alive is a task of a different order.
Imagine if, following the inspiration of Anti-Oedipus, Hardt and Negri had used passages from literature to reinforce their theoretical points. The concept of “living flesh,” for example, becomes a great deal more compelling when illustrated with the famous sketch about the talking asshole in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: Nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: ‘It’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit.’ After that he began waking up in the morning with a transparent jelly like a tadpole’s tail all over his mouth. This jelly was what the scientists call un-D.T., Undifferentiated Tissue, which can grow into any kind of flesh on the human body.” The passage is revolting. But there’s a reason why that word is the twin of “revolution.” Had Hardt and Negri taken the risk, they could have made this point and then moved on to a discussion of stem-cell research, which played such an important role in the recent elections in the United States precisely because so many Americans fear the possibilities latent in “living flesh.”
The abstractness of Multitude also deprives us of a chance to understand where its authors are coming from. Because the metaphors they do use have been purified to the point where geographic and cultural markers are imperceptible, readers are discouraged from identifying with them as individuals. And that, in turn, has the effect of making their forceful first-person plural seem like an eraser of singularities. Their “we,” in short, ends up sounding a lot like the “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union” of the Constitution. To be fair, much of the blame for this perception rests with the nature of Hardt and Negri’s co-authorship. Because the two men are separated by so many factors—age, national origin, institutional affiliation—they are always writing across a divide that renders the personal an afterthought. This is one reason why Negri’s Time for Revolution, translated into English last year, provides an important counterpoint to Multitude. In the introduction to the essay “Kairòs, Alma Venus, Multitudo: Nine Lessons To Myself,” he writes, “When I came out of prison (‘came out’ so to speak, because this story is never ending and hundreds of comrades from the 1970s are still in prison and in exile); when I began once again to frequent (only in the daytime) friends and society (because at night I see only my prison comrades), I did not want to publish this manuscript.” The confession fleshes out the difficult theorizing to follow in a way that an empty rhetorical “we” never could. It demonstrates with brutal efficiency that Negri has paid a steep price for his ideas and reminds us, as part of the bargain, how many other people have paid the highest price of all for theirs. This is a particularly important lesson for readers in the United States, where the state’s war on dissent in the 1960s and 1970s was less dramatic than in Europe and where theory was largely an academic matter. Understanding that Negri’s intellectual project cost him his freedom makes readers more likely to finish sentences like, “My intention in these lessons is to develop a philosophy of praxis, a materialism of praxis, by insisting on: the dimension of temporality as the ontological fabric of materialism; the affirmative power of being; and the subjectification of becoming.”
In addition to facilitating readers’ identification with the first-person plural of Multitude, Negri’s Time for Revolution demonstrates the seriousness of philosophical purpose common to both books. Formulations that remain on a largely unquestioned, abstract plane in Multitude receive a real workout in Time for Revolution. This is especially clear in the book’s final section, “Multitudo: Politics,” which covers the same territory as Hardt and Negri’s volume, but at a much lower altitude. “The articulation that brings together society and State in modernity, cannot be either severed or realized differently. But the postmodern multitude can make it explode by affirming a commonality that does not bow to any equation of sovereignty, exposing it rather to the immeasurability of time.” Following Negri’s argument here requires considerably more discipline than reading Multitude, which is not exactly a summertime beach-blanket novel itself. But readers who have the time to read him slowly will reap ample rewards for their labors. In particular, Time for Revolution brings out the role that time plays in Multitude. “The multitude produces life by taking out an option on the to-come. It is not Power but the constituent power of the multitude that creates the common existence of the world.” The dream of true self-rule is predicated on the promise of this “constituent power.” Like the potential energy in a rock perched on the edge of a cliff, it cannot be harnessed. And that is precisely the source of its promise. Once the rock falls, its power is gone. So long as it remains at liberty to fall, however, anything is possible.
There is a distinct theological dimension to both Time for Revolution and Multitude. If the coming of revolution is always projected into the future of the to-come, the present can never be a source of true satisfaction. Perfection, the has-come, becomes another word for death. To keep hope alive, the “living flesh” of the multitude must not rest. Although this conception of time makes intuitive sense—nature isn’t static—it can seem distinctly frustrating for anyone interested in making the world a better place. After all, what’s the point of trying to build a new political order if it will reproduce the problems of its predecessor? Then again, apathy represents a troubling “perfection” of its own. The person who concludes that it’s not worth the effort to act reinforces the status quo as surely as the person who acts to defend it. The challenge, from Hardt and Negri’s perspective, is to inspire perpetual restlessness.
At one point in Time for Revolution, Negri provides a short list of imperatives for the multitude to bear in mind: “Do not obey, that is be free; do not kill, that is generate; do not exploit, that is constitute the common.” Significantly, he does not seem concerned by the apparent paradox of suggesting that people obey an injunction not to obey. There can only be one reason for this: disobedience must be the breeding ground for political good. “In the biopolitical postmodern, ‘doing politics’ means first of all to resist and rebel.” Negri’s favored metaphor for this work is exodus. Our task is to leave the security of order behind. “It is not political representation that can construct the common telos within the multitude, on the contrary, it can only be constructed by taking leave of representation and all the representative institutions in order to install itself in the new common temporalities.” But this flight to disorder still produces something. In taking leave we construct “common machines through which men and women stretch out beyond the edge of time.” Significantly, it is in making a more accessible version of this point that Hardt and Negri deploy Multitude’s most compelling metaphor. Following a discussion of open-source programming, they note that it, “does not lead to confusion and wasted energy. It actually works. One approach to understanding the democracy of the multitude, then, 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 and create new, better social programs.”
For someone who struggles through a book of Multitude’s complexity, the implications of this particular metaphor may disappoint. It seems perverse for Hardt and Negri to have ranged so widely through the history of political theory only to trumpet the revolutionary potential of Linux. And yet, as anti-climactic as that conclusion sounds, it is true to the spirit of their theory. Despite all the effort corporations and governments have expended on policing the Internet, it remains a resolutely “headless” commons, where every attempt at imposing order is rapidly undermined by the will to disobey. The open-source community is on the leading edge of all that restlessness. Whether it will prove a viable model for political resistance in an era of retrenchment remains to be seen. But there is more justification for believing in the promise of an open-source society than one that closes the political process behind a curtain of secrecy.
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