Multitude, Are You There?

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard, 2009.

“War, suffering, misery, and exploitation increasingly characterize our globalizing world”: these, the first words of Commonwealth, are not eye-catching. Say you are bothered by things like impending ecological catastrophe or massive economic inequality at the global scale. You will have probably plowed through dozens, maybe hundreds of similar lists. If so, you will have learned to notice when writers stop thinking but keep on listing. And you will have therefore observed, in the sentence above, that “suffering” is pretty nearly the same thing as “misery.” Lexicologists might quibble, but the phrase would still get a cautionary repetitious? in any freshman writing class.

There’s no way around it: Commonwealth is an irritating book. It shoves injustice in your face and then, having gotten your attention, refuses to hold still and look at the war or suffering or whatever, but instead soars so high into an atmosphere of self-generated abstraction that very soon you can no longer recognize any earthly landmarks at all. Despite and perhaps a little because of this attitude of fervent philosophical overreach, Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, which began with the publication of Empire in 2000, continued with Multitude in 2004, and now ends with Commonwealth, has been a notable market success. That in itself merits contemplation. Who would have thought the book market would reward still another denunciation of global capitalism, even one that boldly renamed both the story’s villain and its hero? Who could have foreseen a post-1989 bestseller that ended, as Empire does, with the words “the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist”? The impulse these books register is a noble one: to interpret today’s world of asymmetrical affliction and to change it. Their popularity, dialectically considered, marks a stage in the enterprise of fashioning a progressive common sense, and a stage that may have to count as progress.

Empire appeared—fortuitously, it seemed—a year after the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Along with Naomi Klein’s No Logo, the book seemed to offer an instant theoretical apparatus for the emerging alter-globalization movement. Aside from this good timing, it also benefited from two points it raised about the wretchedness caused by global capitalism. First, Hardt and Negri argued that the wretchedness was not first and foremost the fault of the United States. The US was not at the center of a system that could be called imperialism. Second, they argued that mysterious forces were already emerging within the new, non-US-centered, nonimperialist regime of power that they called (somewhat confusingly) Empire, forces that might not be quite visible to the nonvisionary eye but that were working actively to overthrow this global order. Each of these points could count in its way as good news.

The bearers of this news had followed very different paths to their big moment. Negri, born in Italy in 1933, acquired his revolutionary confidence from spontaneous eruptions of militancy on the factory floor in the early 1970s. Unplanned and indeed discouraged by unions and the Italian Communist Party, this worker activism seemed paradigmatic of the growing disillusionment with parliamentary politics and existing left-wing organizations, and to many observers it clinched the point, suggesting that political efforts should aim instead at the division of labor and, most profoundly, at transforming the nature of labor itself. This was the political and theoretical movement known as operaismo. Non-wage workers like housewives suddenly counted—a rich legacy for the future. As the movement’s philosopher, Negri reached back beyond Marx to Spinoza, who had both redefined labor and expressed a prophetic faith in what he called “the multitude” as collective bearer of reason, affect, and power. As things fell out, Spinoza did not get his name on a new set of banners; the separate proletarian institutions Negri had predicted did not emerge; and the thesis that the working class was working, invisibly and alone, to overthrow capitalism—recast in the late 1970s as autonomia—did not last more than a year or two into the 1980s. But if this “strange” and “desperate” intellectual adventure was a “dead end” (Perry Anderson’s terms) in Italy, Negri’s international fame continued to mount. For better or worse, the prophecy had acquired momentum of its own.

As for the much younger Hardt (born in the US in 1960), you can see where he was coming from, so to speak, from his interview in Astra Taylor’s 2008 documentary Examined Life. Rowing around the lake in Central Park, he recounts how, as an American visitor offering solidarity to the people of El Salvador in the ’80s, he was told by Salvadoran revolutionaries that what they needed from him wasn’t his presence on the ground; it was a revolution back in the US, where the Reagan government was (of course) supporting the military dictatorship. Hardt’s face is inexpressibly eloquent. How could he explain that there simply was no US equivalent of grabbing some rifles and going up to the mountains? Empire seems to be the answer he couldn’t give in El Salvador: an account of how the United States might after all be imagined as the site of a world-altering revolution, and a revolution that was going on right now.

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