literature · reviews
themes literature agenda archive anthology calendar links profile

Wolfgang Tomaschitz

The transformation of democracy on a global scale

On Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire

Regenerating the theoretical past

Michael Hardt /
Antonio Negri:
Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.
New York:
The Penguin Press,
xviii, 427 pages
ISBN 1-59420-024-6
book cover
The Penguin Press:
external linkWebsite
1 The authors provide a thrilling description of their project, Multitude, which depicts a vague yet nevertheless recognizably looming »democracy on a global scale.« Multitude is a follow-up to a previous work, Empire (2000), and wants to turn the often discouraging analysis of its predecessor away from the »living alternative that grows within Empire« (xiii), and to present possibilities and ways to leave behind the so-called »leftist melancholy« (Neue Zürcher Zeitung).
2 In a way it achieves this, but the reader must be patient. To begin with, the book's first few chapters describe forms of global democratization that are not novel; instead, it explores possible pre-formative versions of conventional anarchist and neo-Marxist conceptions. The authors are busier with the reconditioning of their own theoretical past than with illuminating the phenomenon of an actual potential democratization processes on a global scale. In these sections, the concept of »multitude« is adopted according to the concepts of class and popular culture as they play out in the context of various resistance movements, such as the South American Guerilla warfare of the 70's and 60's, Mexico's Zapatista movement and more recently, Italy's Tute Bianche-type of opponent to globalization. With constant attempts, it strives towards structural analogies that can render understandable the movement of democratization, which in fact is a polycentric and globally interconnected phenomenon that cannot be institutionalized.

Teachings from the political corpus

3 This attempt is clearest in the long chapter entitled »De Corpore« (158 ff.). Negri and Hardt latch on to older theories, like that of Hobbes, which saw the formation of a »corporation« in all forms of social institutionalization. The authors interpret this as something like a unified »flesh«, to borrow the term from philosopher Merleau-Ponty. In short, their thesis reads: archaic social entities dissolve in the process of globalization, while new entities take forms that are tremendous in dimension and often dangerous to public well-being. The multitude itself could become such a new institution, which, like all political bodies, behaves as a singular entity; at the same time, however, (one hopes) it does not become a political body in the conventional sense, rather one bred from the energies of each of its parts.
4 »Biopolitical productivity of the multitude« or the »production of the collective« (202 ff.) is what Hardt and Negri call the process that opposes a state body that is shaped by regimentation and control. To that effect, »we need … a conception of privacy that expresses the singularity of social subjectivities (not private property) and a conception of the public based on the common (not state control)« (203-204). However only mere traces, insinuations, and postulations of this appear in the first two chapters (thus far two hundred fifty pages long).

Existential questions

»We can already recognize that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living – and the yawning abyss between them is becoming enormous.«

Michael Hardt /
Antonio Negri
5 Finally, some of the theoretic promises are concretely addressed only in the last and longest chapter (229 ff.). First, the areas of conflict are defined: public domain, the private sphere, representation, sovereignty and biopolitics, in short, discussions that commonly deal with political and theoretical issues surrounding the ecology. Negri and Hardt leave behind with this work the most fiercely disputed and existentialist issues of the next few years.
6 At the center of this attempt at a solution, if one can call it that, stands the vision of a new type of universal public opinion-making, whereby the term »opinion« is too meek for that which the writers are intending here. The multitude does not only generate opinions, but »also and most importantly produces cooperation, communication, forms of life, and social relationships« (339). The authors purvey a comparison in order to illustrate how we have introduced »swarm intelligence« into the processes of public opinion-forming and decision-making. These are to be thought of, in a way, as an open-source movement, like the one known in the computer software development world, where each individual's source code is made accessible to everyone so that each can carry out as best as possible his contribution to the improvement of the entire program. In such a model, the position of the sovereign is also obsolete, banished from politics, as Hardt and Negri write, thereby giving the multitude a chance to »self-govern«. That sounds terribly utopian, or at least idealistically conceived.

Public sphere, intervention, and a drive for activism

7 However, this kind of creation of the public is not the only mechanism onto which the writers build their thesis, since the »collective« is created, as they predicted, by means of tangible forms of public intervention. It is not by mere chance that allusions to the Tute Bianche and Zapatistas in previous chapters were made. Under the slogan »We need to invent new weapons for democracy today« (347) we think about the possibilities of an action-driven »biopolitical strike« or a special kind of »martyrdom«, in which the martyr, in contrast to the suicide assassins of Baghdad and Jerusalem, exposes himself to the force of the almighty powers in order to provide proof of injustice in the world and to defeat »the armies of Empire« (347). One would like to interpret this as fantastical musings, had the authors' intentions not been so earnest and were it not the case that something akin to this already occurs on a daily basis.
8 In spite of all its rough edges and tendency for over-illustration, Multitude is a work that in certain respects conveys hope and perspective. Amongst all the illustrations and analogies, it charts out the possibility of new spheres of action and the public sphere in global civil society, which provides, through its concrete projects, the preliminary work of a »democracy on a global scale« in a more precise and more substantial manner than it is possible using any political theory to date, including that contributed by Hardt and Negri.
Translation from the German by Oana David.

polylog. Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/5/rtw-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Wolfgang Tomaschitz, Vienna (Austria)
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.
themes literature agenda archive anthology calendar links profile