Containing Multitudes: The New Communist Manifestoes a Decade Later

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It has been ten years since Michael Hardt, a literature professor at Duke, and Antonio Negri, an imprisoned Italian radical, dropped Empire on the academic world. The book has since been dubbed “the Communist Manifesto of the 21st century”; it has been assigned in graduate classes across the world; and it has enjoyed the backlash any successful work can expect to receive.

It has also been five years since Hardt and Negri gave us Multitude, in which they tried to square their analysis of a centerless, nonstate imperialism with the violent reassertion of US nationalism that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. A lot changed following the first book’s release, and it is safe to say the world is a rather different place today than it was in 2005. How do the premier treatises of neo-Marxism hold up today?

Like its predecessor, Multitude attempts to synthesize the work of a variety of thinkers (Deleuze, Castells, Foucault) into a grand update of Marxism for the world of 21st century globalization. Though much clearer and more understandable than, say, Deleuze, Empire could still be a dense and difficult read. Packed with theoretical references and historical and literary allusions, Multitude is comparatively more accessible and significantly shorter than its predecessor.

More importantly, Multitude aims to show how people might resist the all-pervasive power of global capitalism. Empire suggested that conventional understandings of imperialism, colonialism, and neo- or post-colonialism were inadequate for the 1990s era, in which the US emerged as the sole “superpower” yet did not exert direct political control over other nations in the traditional sense of European and Asian empires (e.g. the British or Japanese). Hardt and Negri argued that the real “Empire” was a skein of commercial and political relationships that encircled the globe, operating without a clear center but enfolding most of the world’s people within the norms of international trade and the dominance of multinational corporations. Exemplars of this new, de-centered form of imperial rule included trade agreements like NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO, as well as the less formalized protocols of business – what Hardt and Negri call in Multitude the “lex mercatoria.” This system “originally referred to the legal structures that governed trade among merchants in medieval Europe at centers outside the jurisdictions of all the sovereign powers,” they write. (169)

To the extent that corporations and their law firms develop an international and even global regime of lex mercatoria and thereby establish normative processes that regulate globalization, capital creates in its weakest form a kind of ‘global governance without government.’ The resulting regime of global law is no longer a captive of state structures and no longer takes the form of written codes or preestablished rules but is purely conventional and customary. Law here is not an external constraint that regulates capital but rather an internal expression of agreement among capitalists. This is really a kind of capitalist utopia. (170)

In Multitude, the authors attempt to show that this stateless Empire creates its own opposite – the Multitude, which is somewhat analogous to the traditional opposition of capital and labor, or the proletariat. In the same way that earlier capitalist industrialization created a regimented working class by taking people off the fields and putting them in the “dark, satanic mill” of yore, today’s boundless capitalism is linking workers all over the world through everything from telecommunications to international flows of labor, popular culture, and even foodways. In this sense, they make a similar point to the one Marx made about free trade – which he supported, only because it would expedite the development of capitalism and its (supposedly) inevitable collapse.

This is not to say that Hardt and Negri are advocates of so-called free trade and footloose capital, freed of all legal and national constraints – nor do their anarchistic visions of spontaneous, pluralistic, non-hierarchical political organization mean that they are opposed to the traditional welfare state or labor unions, which they see as necessary safeguards of public well-being that the people have achieved through long and desperate struggle. They do, however, see the outlines of a potentially liberatory political movement emerging through the same global circuits of communication and organization that make today’s global capitalism possible.

In explaining the political prospects of the Multitude, Hardt and Negri revisit the analysis of the “information” or “post-industrial” economy they initiated in Empire. Drawing on the work of the sociologist Manuel Castells and others, the authors are careful to point out that such a designation does not mean that the majority of workers in the world, or even in the United States, work at producing information or intellectual property. Rather, they argue that the use of information technology is transforming all areas of production, from agriculture to manufacturing. They turn to the Marxist idea of the tendency, suggesting that while information industries may represent a small portion of overall labor and production, they are the most influential or hegemonic form of production in today’s world. Industrialization in the 19th and 20th century transformed the entirety of society, as farming was reconstituted along the lines of manufacturing, with the introduction of mechanical implements and chemical fertilizers. Similarly, vast numbers of people in the world remain employed in agriculture, but the research-intensive and intellectual property-owning companies like Monsanto have reshaped this sector through genetically modified seeds. Information technology has also penetrated manufacturing in numerous ways, as computers and satellite communication permit the dispersal of production around the world; meanwhile, techniques such as “just-in-time” production rely on speedy communication to customize small batches of products. In this sense, the economy has been “informationalized.”

Hardt and Negri also contend that this new economy depends more than ever on the production of “affect” and relationships, on the production of life itself. Employment in health, education, and other services is greater than in the past, as people work at maintaining and reproducing the labor force, while the production of knowledge and cultural expression hold a greater prominence – and dollar value – than ever before. The authors note that capitalism attempts to subjugate these productive forces, just as capital has always alienated workers from their labor, and knowledge and expression become commodified as “information.” (They never let the mask slip, though; Microsoft Word tells me “commodified” is not a word.)

This wholesale appropriation of language, tradition, imagery, and sensation for the purposes of property and profit is depressing, but the authors also point out that capital can never capture the full value of the people’s productivity. For example, GDP does not account for the creative labor of slum dwellers in Brazil, who clearly sustain their own lives and the lives of others through their everyday work, despite contributing nothing to the measurable economy. One could also say that the massive growth of the underground economy throughout the world in the last thirty years reflects this uncommodifiable labor, as when music and movies are pirated and circulated off-the-books, for reasons of profit or personal pleasure. The labor that goes into a church bulletin or Wikipedia is unavailable to the market. As always, labor power resides with the laborers and, Hardt and Negri suggest, in the elusive web of everyday life. This is the spring from which capital’s power flows, but it remains difficult to control. It is also the source of Multitude’s creativity, diversity, and potential power.

To show how the Multitude might make itself felt politically, Hardt and Negri turn to a curious history of revolutionary struggle. They connect the large, hierarchical “people’s armies” of Lenin and Trotsky with the industrial mode of mass production and factory labor. They then trace the development of new forms of organization, from Mao’s peasant army to Che and Castro’s foquismo, which employed a polycentric pattern of quasi-independent units of guerilla soldiers. As the authors note, this flatter form of organization was eventually reduced into a single national army under a single authority following the victory of the Revolution and the establishment of Castro’s regime. Radical groups in the 1970s moved guerilla warfare into the cities, as seen in Germany’s Red Army and Italy’s Red Brigades, but they failed to move beyond the top-down structure of traditional militaries.

Hardt and Negri suggest that the Los Angeles riots (or rebellion, if your prefer) of 1992 reflect a spontaneous form of political resistance, and they point to the Zapatista movement and the Palestinian Intifada as clearer examples of “network organization,” which “is based on the continuing plurality of its elements and its networks of communication in such a way that reduction to a centralized and unified command structure is impossible.” (82-83) They see the Intifada as criss-crossed with different structures, some directed by established Palestinian political organizations (such as Fatah and Hamas) and others springing from “poor young men on a very local level around neighborhood leaders and popular committees.” (84)

The authors take pains to contrast this kind of movement with terrorist groups and drug cartels, which are also “networks” but allegedly feature a militaristic chain of command. This point is, of course, debatable. Few of us really understand what, if anything, Al Qaeda is, and the small factions that develop (everything from Al Qaeda in Northern Europe to Al Qaeda in Northern Manitoba) may or may not be directly controlled by top commanders. Hardt and Negri’s claim about drug cartels is sounder, as they appear to operate with ruthless discipline despite their flexible and interlocking relationship with similar criminal organizations around the globe. As Castells has suggested in End of Millennium, these violent organizations are just as much a reflection of the “network society” as the Zapatistas or anti-globalization activists.

The concept of the Multitude itself remains problematic by the end of the book. Hardt and Negri imagine this political entity emerging from the diversity of political interests, cultural drives, and economic needs that characterize the whole population of the world, and, like so many leftists, they look to the Seattle WTO protests of 1999 as an exemplary moment, when black-hooded anarchists, liberal Christians, environmentalists, and union members could all converge on common positions despite their ideological differences. When the authors finally offer their political proposals, they are not very convincing – global democracy through a reformed United Nations, or global cooperation of activists through instruments like the World Social Forum. Understandably enough, no one has quite cracked the nut of how to combat capitalism on a global scale. Creating a viable (or even desirable) successor to the Communist International is not easy, but creating a lively synthesis of neo-Marxist thought is a more manageable task.

What Hardt and Negri do favor seems to be a kind of anarchism – a way for people to collaborate and govern their affairs without the domination of capital or the nefarious doings of its partner, the state. (The state, again, is available as a tool for alleviating the sorrows inflicted by capitalism, even as it is the bulwark protecting capital and the cudgel used by private enterprise to do all sorts of evil deeds, like locking down Iraq’s oil fields for Exxon Mobil.) The authors look to the identity politics of the late twentieth century with a favorable eye, as feminism, gay rights, and anti-racism movements developed ways to function without adopting a single voice or denying their own irreducible differences, to borrow a fashionable academic phrase. In many ways, this yen for a self-organized, non-hierarchical movement that unites differing factions resembles liberal pluralism, disguised behind the mask of militant Marxism. What were the WTO protests or the political projects of progressive women, African Americans, and gay rights campaigners but the essence of coalition politics in a liberal democracy?

Perhaps the outlines of a new, flexible kind of movement can be found in the netroots – the constellation of groups like ActBlue, DailyKos, and MoveOn that raise money for progressive candidates and coordinate electoral activities. VoteVets might have a different agenda from FireDogLake, but they coalesce around issues, candidates, and actions in a relatively uncoordinated fashion. Most of these groups have made their influence felt most keenly since the release of Empire and Multitude, particularly in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress and the election of Barack Obama.

The Multitude can emerge when people organize along lines of shared interests, which is how the democracy of our dreams works. Hardt and Negri might prefer that this cooperation and self-government take the form of Murray Bookchin’s municipalism or the Autonomia movement of Negri’s radical youth, but in the present day it seems to comport well with a social democratic politics of pluralism – one that always has its eye on reducing violence and enhancing the freedom and capacities of all people, in the face of stern resistance from both capital and the dead-weight of history.

Alex Cummings