Under the present, and urgent, circumstances, there are only two ways of looking at Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's new book, Multitude. Either, one is to say, with the neoconservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama, who reviewed it for the New York Times, that it proposes "imaginary solutions" to "imaginary problems." (Though hiring Fukuyama to review a book by noted Marxists is like hiring a hit man rather than a critic.) The other way of looking at this book is as if it were an impressive car wreck--impressive because it has a lot of spare parts that can be recycled. Many in fact aspire to less, and this is perhaps the greatness of Hardt and Negri's concepts: that they will a revolutionary becoming with such intensity that they destroy themselves in the process.
Mutlitude is Hardt and Negri's sequel to their bestseller--or really, box-office hit--Empire, which was to the WTO protest and the series of confrontations that it sparked (D.C., Quebec, Genoa, etc...) what Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11 is to WTC and the wars that it has spawned (Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, and so on...). Empire was the first book to reassess recent history since Fukuyama had claimed--after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1991--that the transnational capitalist class had finally reached heaven, raptured by the Gods of neoliberalism and globalization. For Fukuyama it was the end of history: Capitalism having attained its zenith, the world being perfect, there was nothing more for humans to want, and hence no more history to be made. More soberly, Hardt and Negri argued that globalization meant not the absolute fulfillment of all desire but a transformation in the structures of power--from the age of national sovereignty to the age of global sovereignty. "Empire" was their name for a new articulation of power on a global scale, no longer seated in one particular nation-state, but spread out among multinational corporations and international financial and political institutions that represented strictly elite interests. Thus, Empire meant that the world was at a point of crisis, not of fulfillment. The stage was set for the WTO showdown.
The concept of Empire names the global elite, whereas the idea of the multitude is the face of those who are exploited by that order. If the form of sovereignty has expanded from the nation to the planet, so has that of the subject that resists its domination, from Marx's old, white, male industrial proletariat to something called the multitude. But, admittedly, this is all very vague: What is the multitude? What does it want? What is its condition? These were the questions on which Empire ended and which the sequel takes up.
With Multitude, Hardt and Negri are promising to resolve a problem that has frustrated all leftists for the last 30 years: How do you create a movement for social change that is composed of racially, ethnically, culturally, sexually diverse subjects and yet is coherent without privileging one particular group's perspective and interests? The answer of the traditional Marxist movements had been to subordinate all other grievances to those of factory workers, the proletariat. But the result of that was clearly unsatisfactory. The identity movements inaugurated by the 1968 moment (Black Power, feminism, gay rights, and so on) went on the opposite course, preserving the specificity of their demands but unable to make connections with other struggles (the Black Power movement was sexist and homophobic, the feminist movement was racist, the gay rights movement was phallocentric). Hardt and Negri's solution: Maintain the diversity of these groups but establish the thing that makes them communicate. And what makes them communicate is the common, Hardt and Negri's term for the universal conditions that make life possible. And this is where the book crashes.
Gille Deleuze, one of Hardt and Negri's major inspirations, argued that one should distinguish between identity and singularity. Identity means that something exists by opposition to everything else (which presumes a comparison) whereas singularity means that that thing is unique, incomparable to anything else, and hence different in and of itself. Hardt and Negri take up Deleuze's concept to claim that the different movements issued from 1968 are singularities, not identities: What distinguishes them is not how they preserve their own agendas in opposition to those of the others but the richness and uniqueness of experience that they bring to the table--the common. Hence, the multitude is a multitude of singularities that live in common.
Given this structure of the multitude, one would expect to see a cacophonous carnival of colors. But what we get instead--and this is the glitch that causes the meltdown--is what looks like a Marxist revolutionary party without a chairman, a disciplined body without a disciplinarian. By the end of the book, Hardt and Negri's multitude looks like it's ready for the Second Coming, except it is the Christ waiting (who knows what for?) to resurrect himself. The multitude is at once savior and saved, Church and Divinity, Father and Son.
Let's grant there is a multitude: It's a beautiful concept and, for the most part, it makes sense. But, looking at the world around us, things are obviously not as harmonious as the note on which Hardt and Negri's book ends. The multitude, if it is composed of genuine singularities, cannot be the self-consistent subject they claim it to be.
This is far from saying that there are no useful concepts in Multitude--it's a must-read for anybody interested in an alternative future. It contains some of the best discussions that we are aware of on how direct democracy could work in a global context and on the relationship between social change and violence. Multitude is a creative contribution to the most important conversation of our day. But the theory in Multitude is still inadequate when it comes to the realities of the multitude.