Friday, August 14, 2009

Part one of an ongoing discussion of "Multitude" by Hardt and Negri

by Joel Wendland

You ask, "Joel, why discuss a five-year old book by two authors (referring to Hardt and Negri, authors of Empire) whom a lot of people on the left have dismissed as out of touch?"

Time and real life test theory. And Hardt and Negri wrote Multitude in 2004 as a defense their book Empire and as a sequel both to explain why the Bush administration's policies – foreign and domestic – hadn't disproved their basic argument that imperialism, as defined primarily by an international competition among powerful nation states – Europe and the US – had been replaced by an all-encompassing system of "empire" unconfined by the boundaries of a single nation.

But Multitude also sought to define the kind of global political resistance by people (redefined in M as differentiated social subjects) to this all-embracing imperial (not imperialist) system. Democracy, H and N argued in the new book, is the best alternative to Empire.

OK sounds good so far. But does this theory hold up in a new era of reform and social change marked at its beginning by the complete rejection of Bush by the US people and the world? Can we expect a new book from H and N to sledgehammer Obama into their old categories? Can we separate the transient features of US imperialism from its more permanent ones, and does this render H and N's concept toothless?

So to begin let's look at the Preface to this book. A couple of caveats: I am reading this linearly and will be commenting on it thusly, which means at points repetitions in some discussions will occur. I am going to state right off that their is much to like about Multitude and I am going to highlight those points as much as possible. Everyone should feel free to comment, dispute or point to errors at any time.

Also, I think Marx's axiom from the opening of The 18th Brumaire is worth keeping in mind in reading this book, especially if one wants to read this book with the empathy needed to understand its arguments before setting about on the path of criticism. Marx wrote, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."

"Preface: Life in Common"

No one can disagree with the stated goal of the book, the description of the "project of the multitude." It "not only expresses the desire for a world of equality and freedom, not only demands an open and inclusive democratic global society, but also provides the means for achieving it." Only cranks and tyrants could object.

And they do, H and N argue. They have constructed a world of "seemingly permanent state of conflict," which as it turns out has become the main necessary feature of "empire." It pervades all aspects of culture, politics and economy, "posing its own political order." War – defined as this perpetual state – is the greatest threat to democracy.

H and N then turn to a defense of their thesis in "Empire." "Our point of departure [in empire] was the recognition that contemporary global order can no longer be understood adequately in terms of imperialism. Briefly, empire, instead, is the tendency toward a "network power" which is a "new form of sovereignty" that combines various globalized entities such as powerful nation states, international institutions, and multinational corporations. Empire is a fusion of states, (capitalist) monopolies and international organizations of coercion into a single network of economic, military and political dominance; it excludes and erases all social space not absorbed or co-opted by empire. (It must be a single network, or you have an imperialist system.)

Within this system of domination, the order is "fractured by internal divisions and hierarchies but also plagued by perpetual war." Thus, rather than war caused and motivated by the competing interests of imperialist states, war is an expression of the political battles for position in the network of power now known as Empire.

National liberation movements led by the people, like those which emerged as soon as modern imperialism emerged with capitalism, are no longer viable alternatives to empire. Class struggle itself, even as an internationalist movement, undergoes a major transformation in the minds of H and N.

The new entity that must and is emerging to replace empire is the "multitude," the ultimate expression of the fight for democracy. The multitude is also an emergent global network of movements and social forces that find common ground on which to join forces to engage and struggle against empire and its representatives (and to make use of a concrete example, both Bush and Osama bin Laden were empire's actors).

Here, H and N distinguish the multitude from other concepts that generalize and categorize subalterns. For example, the multitude differs from "the people." To H and N, the people is a unitary subject, a reduction of diversity to unity, a setting aside of difference for the sake of unity rather than the embrace of the common and diversity to build strength. The "masses" are indistinct and uniform and do not qualify as the multitude.

The working class also fails to qualify in H and N's view. Let me quote: "The concept of the working class has come to be used as an exclusive concept, not only distinguishing the workers from the owners who do not need to work to support themselves, but also separating the working class from others who work."

Here H and N revive the old and narrow divisions of industrial workers and non-productive workers, a division they attribute to Marxism, to explain this disqualification of the working class as a model for the multitude. Of course, Marx did examine the role of "productive labor" and the people who performed it in capitalist relations of production, but he did not pose one group against another. (See Marquit, "Productivity of Labor.")

Without saying who defines the working class in this narrow way as only the industrial working class, H and N dismiss the working class as a candidate for the multitude. The words of the Internationale – "the international working class shall be the human race" – no longer work under empire.

Industrial working class, I would argue, can not be defined as an essentialist or inherent quality of any group of workers. While it can be based on objective factors like the production of surplus value, it has also been an historically contingent and contested subjectivity. Take dockworkers and truck drivers and railroad workers for example. Do they produce surplus values? Have they ever? Probably elaborate arguments could be developed to prove yes or no.

Basically, they produce a service – the movement of raw materials and commodities in the production chains and distribution networks for capitalist enterprises. Yet, the working class movement considers them vital industrial workers, key sections of the industrial working class. In the context of the United States, the supposed "they" who devised a narrow industrial concept of class, according to H and N, always viewed these non-productive workers as essential parts of the working class. See for example the 1934 general strike in San Francisco to win the unionization of the docks by the ILWU.

Further, workers, who may or may not have accepted H and N's narrow definition of the working class, fully understood that "class struggle" involved more than industrial workers, that winning any particular battle – a union contract, protection from repression, civil rights, etc. – required broad support from industrial workers, service workers, faith-based leaders and communities, unpaid home makers, groups of intellectuals, small business owners, civic organizations, the unemployed, and so on. (See the movie Salt of the Earth as perhaps the finest cinematic representation of this.)

The 1930s US labor movement saw the birth of social (or civic) unionism (often with an internationalist tendency) – the broadest possible concept of working class and class struggle – on a mass scale, though the labor movement had often practiced it on a much smaller scale well back into the 19th century. (See Markowitz, "Review," for example.) Workers at the center of a particular struggle had to forge a common goal, a point at which their particular interests intersected with those of others in order to build such alliances. While many times leftists and communists propagandistically defined these points of common interest as "natural," any organizer of any coalition will tell you negotiations and hard work go into making such alliances and networks possible.

For another example, communists frequently argued that the racist or xenophobic exclusion of some groups of people from a particular plant or industry ran counter to the common interests of all workers, and thus white, native-born workers, who were supposed to be "naturally" aligned with white capitalists had more in common with Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and foreign born workers. Indeed, their families and communities shared commonalities that made them stronger. Leftist theorists of cultural pluralism, in fact, argued for self-determination of these communities, and the need to preserve identities, but also the forging of a common point of interest, the struggle against exploitation and oppression. (See Meyer, "Cultural Pluralism," for example.)

It seems to me this broad concept of the working class and its great historical struggle does in fact qualify as a way of viewing the multitude as H and N define it. Unfortunately, H and N never mention this historical tendency in the labor movement. Perhaps it would knock down their claim to originality to do so.

But this reading only takes care of one portion of the H and N's beef with the working class. This broad concept of the working class isn't enough for them. And historically, that has proven to be the case as well. As the quote above reveals, H and N believe the "working class" also excludes capitalists from the "multitude."

This is the point at which H and N become most controversial for Marxists, I think.

But again, I think they are positing a concept of the multitude that has been previously argued for historically, which H an N ignore. First of all, Lenin argued for the broadest possible political coalitions in developed capitalist countries against military or economic action against the Soviet Union. Indeed, in the USSR, the New Economic Policy could be seen on a fundamental level to be a tenuous alliance of the communist party with individual capitalists for the sake of development and a long-term greater good. (See China today)

But an even better example is the world communist movement's call for a global popular front against fascism in the mid-1930's. Communists saw this as a working-class initiated movement/coalition but that would necessarily include capitalists. And the New Deal coalition and Popular Front up through World War II could be seen on the whole as a multi-class alliance of forces that resisted both the worst exploitation of capitalism in the US and its extremist arm in the Axis alliance (fascism) globally. Indeed, the fascism of the 1930s and 1940s looks a lot like the "empire" H and N describe today.

McCarthyism and the Cold War disrupted this temporary alliance, imposing severe repression on the working class advocates of both the broadest concept of the working class and the popular front – a small snag that puts H and N's multi-class multitude as the ultimate form of the struggle for democracy into question. A snag I hope they clear up in this book.

So are H and N simply proposing the renewal of a global popular front on a permanent basis, without telling us that is what they are doing? And are they obscuring that fact by claiming the people who invented the idea of the popular front always advocated only a narrow concept of the industrial working class? Hmmm. Let's discuss more next time.