Can’t think of any more clever history quotes.
But I do quite like this bit of Hume:
“When we run over libraries (…) If we take in our hand any volume of (…) let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” From his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Anyway, also posted here for personal reference and as a reminder is a talk I gave a while back based on another paper. Said paper follows the talk, another paper I’m not happy with. Unlike the one I just posted this one’s less a matter of ‘I disagree’ and more a matter of it’s not well written.
As I was working on my paper I kept coming back to a concern that I only knew how to pose in terms that I found embarrassingly old-fashioned. This is the question “what is the relationship between theory and practice?”, which also implies “what could or should the relationship be?” This gets at what is – at least for me – an important question, but I don’t like the terms this question is posed in. I’ve thought more about it, and the best rephrasing I can come up with is this: what is the relationship between intellectual life,
intellectual practice, and other aspects of life, other practices, especially political life, social struggle?
In an interview, Michael Hardt notes that Toni Negri, believes he, Negri, can have his intellectual life and political life be one and the same. Hardt admits that for himself, he is not so sure. I greatly respect Hardt’s honesty, and this is a question that I am very
interested in. Basically, I wonder what it would mean to elaborate intellectual practices that are political practices, practices of struggle.
One example I can think of in my own life is all the time I have spent reading, writing, thinking, and printing out material about Marxism and political philosophy while on the clock at different jobs, instead of working. On the one hand, to my mind, this is clearly intellectual practice as an act of subversion. In some contexts, the desire to pursue intellectual activity can be subversive, at least mildly so. For instance, the choice to pursue this activity is not always compatible with the demands and plans of national and global capitals. Institutions of higher learning are evidence of this today, given the status of academic labor markets and struggles around academic working conditions. There are a number of disincentives and disciplinary mechanism in places – low wages, financial instability, flexibilized work places, etc – around pursuit of higher education or to devoting oneself to intellectual activity full-time.
On the other hand, there are also disincentives and disciplinary mechanisms around not working, living unemployed, devoting oneself to fulfilling other desires fulltime, like the desire to take drugs, watch television, etc. As for reading Negri on the clock, it seems to me that there is nothing particularly subversive about the intellectual aspects of this activity, as it also subversive to sleep, smoke, make small talk with a coworker, or do any number of things on the clock instead of working. That is, I am not sure if there is anything particularly subversive about the intellectual activity as such.
What I wonder about, then, is this: what would be intellectual practices that, as intellectual practices, subversive? Thinking again about reading Negri while at work, it strikes me as obvious that workplace activity is always more powerful if it is collective. I believe it is subversive for one person to read Negri, or to sleep, on the clock, instead of working. It is even more so when a group of people undertakes collectively to not work, to organize themselves to reduce the amount of work they do. By analogy, then, I would like to guess that the subversive intellectual practices I am interested in will be collective practices.
As a reader of Negri, Agamben, etc, I am well aware of the arguments that intellect is always-already collective. We cannot have private languages, as Wittgenstein showed, and our very bodily existence is evidence of a social act of reproduction. But in my experience, a large portion of my intellectual activity is quite solitary, and is social and intersubjective, primarily through these pre-subjective aspects: that is, it is activity that involves reading, language, shared common semantic structures, cultural
references, etc, but a portion of the activity occurs in a context that is (and feels) isolated and isolating. Counter to this, my hunch is that subversive intellectual activity will be collectively pursued. This is part of what attracts me to the Italian context, to the tradition of operaismo.
The operaists – at least some of them – engaged in collective study into the shape of the capital relation in specific and local configurations in large industrial plants in Italy. Furthermore, they engaged in close study of the working class at the time, in hopes of understanding moments of everyday micro-refusal, and in hopes of contributing to the construction of larger organs of struggle. I disagree with the political forms and goals many of the operaists were part of – the political party aimed at seizing the state – but I am taken with their methods and I think there are important resources there for intellectual practice and political practice, for practices that are simultaneously intellectual and political.
I would like to add before going further that I do not mean to make a hard and fast distinction between matters and practices that are intellectual and those that are not. Rather, I mean to use the term loosely, to refer to that general and vague sense of the term that it has when one says that a given activity is ‘intellectually satisfying’, when one discusses one’s ‘intellectual life’. I recognize that there are intellectual aspects in everything, specific knowledges in every form of work and activity, knowledges about how to do the job, and about how to get away with not working. Part of the intellectual practice I am putting forward here, or that I am interesting in knowing more about and discussing, is a practice of researching these knowledges, helping draw them out, have
conversations about them in order to improve their efficacy and share innovative techniques.
I am interested in this form of intellectual activity in part because I enjoy intellectual activity, and I want to square this enjoyment with my involvement with and (sometime) enjoyment of ‘political’ activity, activity of ‘struggle’. This is essentially an intellectual point, wanting to think about how to think. But also, I think there is a political importance here as well. I think there are important struggles and movements in the world now, and if there are intellectual practices that can contribute to these movements, then developing and learning these intellectual practices is very important.
In this respect, I am drawn again to the Italian movements, and to work in Latin America and Spain on the figure of the ‘militant investigator’. The militant investigator is a figure that acts “in situation”. Miguel Benasayag and Diego Sztulwark write that “all of the hypotheses and practices of the past are the concrete ground and power that permits the continuation of … struggle”. For Benasayag and Sztulwark, the militant investigator is part of a process of understanding the contours of this ground inherited from the past and the possibilities for action in the present. The militant investigator is part of the continual process of mapping what the present is, and of “changing avenues and methods” in search of activity and strategy that is most adequate to the present. While I say, ‘the’ militant investigator, I want to re-iterate my hunch that this activity will best be collectively practiced. At the moment I have only scattered hunches and notes for further reading on theories and histories of movements and collective practices in Argentina, Italy, and Spain.
I would like to shift gears now, and address Negri and Hardt’s work. I am quite taken with Negri and Hardt, but I also find parts of their work problematic. In a recent interview, Michael Hardt was asked about Agamben’s remarks on Tiananmen Square. Agamben talks about the protests in Tiananmen Square as evidence of the type of political community he wants to champion, but at the same time Agamben states that any time this community instantiates itself the state will send in tanks. Hardt was asked about this, and what it suggests about the survivability of the multitude: how can our political communities survive repression without changing their form so as to become micro-states, small sovereigns, like the Red Brigades in Italy for instance. Hardt responded that while this is an important question, it is not the only question standing in the way of the project of creating the not yet multitude as an actual political community. He said that another big problem is that of conflict within the multitude.
I think this is tremendously important, and obviously the question of conflict within the multitude is linked to the question of survivability. If segments of the multitude are fighting amongst each other, then it will be easier for capital to manage these segments. On the other hand, the call for unity has been used time and again by one section of the left or the working class in order to oppose struggles by other sectors against hierarchies internal to the left or the working class – the responses of parts of the New Left the world over to the emergence of feminism is a case in point. In this light, then, I wonder at some of the political demands that Hardt and Negri have put forward: a new ‘New Deal’ and a multi-lateral Magna Charta. Hardt and Negri put forward these demands as if they are in the best interest of both capital and the entire multitude. I am not sure what I think about these political demands, but that is not the issue here for me right now. Rather, I would like to talk for a moment on the posing of demands like this.
Clearly, there can be and are conflicts between various global and national capitals. Still, I think it can make sense to talk about something being in the interest of capital, in the sense of something that is most conducive to the continued existence of the capital relation, as a form of social relations. On the other hand, to say or imply that something is in the best interest of the multitude suggests a homology between capital and multitude: multitude as a form of social relations, perhaps multitude as communism? If so, then, this would suggest that while there are conflicts within certain sectors of the multitude, there is one best way forward, something that is most conducive to the composition of multitude as a form of social relations. This would imply that the problem of conflicts within the multitude is secondary to, or is an obstacle to, producing multitude as a social relation. If that is the case, it may be necessary then to subordinate certain sectors of the multitude, in the interest of the multitude as a whole (similar to how certain specific capitals are not always served by what is best for capital as a whole, as a social relation)
This means that the concept of multitude as differences that co-exist is limited at best. To say the least, I am uneasy about this possible reading of the term multitude, but I think it is a plausible one, given Hardt and Negri’s proposals for and pursuits of political objectives that are in the interest of the entire multitude. In short, I suspect that there is a lingering transcendence here, a place from which to view the entire multitude and organize it, rather than a perspective of immanence to specific singularities and situations.
Let me try to be more concrete. There was an article in the Telegraph recently – please, no questions about me reading the Telegraph – about the legalization of prostitution in Germany. With prostitution legalized, unemployed women can now lose their unemployment benefits if they refuse to take jobs as prostitutes. Legalization of prostitution does, in my opinion, benefit women who are working as prostitutes. The criminalization of a form of work serves to weaken the workers employed in those jobs. On the other hand, de-criminalization opens up the state unemployment insurance program to become a mechanism to impose the labor of prostitution onto other women. This, to my mind, is a clear case of differing interests and conflicts within the multitude.
Now, if Hardt and Negri’s global and/or legislative proposals have a similarly ambivalent nature, then they are in fact representing one sector of the multitude against the interests of another sector, at least transversally so, in the name of the whole multitude. Legalization of prostitution in Germany is a case in point. Now, I am not saying that one should not advocate for the interests of one sector. We all have various loyalties and so forth, and perhaps this is at times a necessary evil. But it is troubling to advocate for one sector in the name of the whole, as this is frequently the form in which the maintenance of hierarchies internal to the multitude occurs.
On a related note, in the lead up to this conference, Tim Rayner sent out a copy of a paper of his. I liked the paper and I think it’s quite useful in clarifying some debates around the meaning of the concept of multitude. That said, I don’t like what Tim does with the concept.
I’d like to focus here on one phrase from Tim’s paper. He writes “In place of Hardt and Negri’s insurgent multitude, driven by the ‘will to be against’, I would posit an insistent multitude, driven by the right to life.” I have several questions about this sentence, for Tim and for Hardt and Negri, about what this phrase implies as an understanding of multitude and what this sentence implies about the relationship between intellectuals and multitude.
What does it mean to speak of a drive of the multitude? What is this drive, and does it inhere in the entire multitude?
Is the drive the language and structure of the multitude, the multitude in its own terms, the vocabulary the multitude itself uses to understand and construct itself?
Or perhaps the drive is, the essence of multitude, its truth (it’s grammar, perhaps?), even if this essence or truth may be opaque to the multitude itself?
On the other hand, perhaps the drive of the multitude a theoretical tool, not a truth of the multitude so much as a useful interpretive devices by which to give a shorthand for the behaviors and impulses within the multitude.
To my mind, there is no “world’s own language” and no “god’s eye view” which we can speak or look from. Language, in a half-remembered quote from Richard Rorty, is the repetitive use of a mark or noise. Our terms are tools, contextually relative, and best judged pragmatically. For instance, with temperature, neither 0 degrees celsius nor 32 degrees farenheit is any closer to the actual measurement by which the universe measures temperature, or in which temperature measures itself. We measure temperature, that is, terms are our tools.
And with the multitude, part of the force of the idea, to my mind, is to say that people with all sorts of motivations and thoughts and vocabularies can figure out how to work together, to form organizations, without previously sharing or having to assume the same vocabularies and beliefs. Multitude as a concept points toward paying attention to the encounters between the various constituent moments of the multitude, and how they manage to relate. And surely the standard for success cannot be the production of homogeneity, or the concept of multitude loses much of the point it is deployed for (the productive co-existence of difference that does not have to collapse into identity). I.e., to show again that I still have an embarrassingly old fashioned vocabulary in which I pose the questions that most matter to me, the multitude points to looking at material practices, not ideas and consciousness. And maybe at times there is a use to saying ‘this practice or set of practices can be understood as expressing some specific will or drive’, but that will or drive is a theoretical extrapolation, a useful fiction. It is a tool, not an essence of multitude.
The reason I make these remarks is that I am uneasy about the attribution of drives, as this operation of attributing can occur so as to imply a certain type of unity to the multitude as a political subject. for Tim and for Hardt and Negri, there is an articulation of the multitude’s drive and a project of linking the multitude to structures of law and sovereignty. I am uneasy about this political project, and I am curious to know if the imputation of drives to the multitude has any function outside of the project this political project. It seems to me that the articulation of drives of the multitude implies that it is possible to speak of and for the entire multitude without some form of distortion.
It also seems to me that the political projects Tim and Hardt and Negri propose (or rather, valorize, as there are sectors of the movement of movements that act on strategies like those advocated by Tim, Hardt, and Negri), these projects imply that the multitude can be represented with varying degrees distortion by or in law/the juridical order, and that this representation, within certain parameters at least, is a good things. It also seems to me that this understanding implies that the relationship between the multitude as constituent power and capital-and-sovereignty as constituted power is – or can and should be – a relationship of dialogue, of communication by representation, which I disagree with.
I would like to suggest instead that we understand the term multitude, perhaps, as the name of a space of encounter. Multitude as a process, a verb, maybe, rather than as a name for one entity. I would also like to suggest that the concepts and practices I mentioned earlier an avenue for further inquiry and political possibility (that is, the concepts and practices of the specific intellectual, the militant investigator,) I would like to suggest that these demonstrate a different understanding of concept of multitude than does the viewpoint of a global political strategy. This specific or situated perspective recognizes that sometimes there may be conflicts within the multitude. From a situated perspective, from a specific or singular vantage point, there is a way to try and address this, one of building links between singularities, but, fundamentally if we take the heterogeneity of the multitude as a starting point, and include the possibility of conflict as part of the heterogeneity, then I am not sure how much sense it makes sense to propose multitude-wide demands or to attribute drives to the multitude. That is another part of why I am interested in further work on the idea and practice of militant inquiry.
Assorted notes on/from the talk–
Someone remarks, who escapes me at the moment, that the multitude does not have a general will, because it has a general intellect. That is, the multitude has common powers of production and constitution – powers of thought, in Agamben’s sense of thought, powers of autonomous sociality. The general intellect is the central productive force of postfordist production. So the thing that makes the multitude so productive for capital is also what makes it so dangerous.
And yet… maybe there’s something messianic here, something epochal as Angela puts it… Marx’s delirious vision, I’ll have to check, but I remember them being predicated on a historical shift in which general intellect becomes important. The multitude is the rule of the many over itself, against the rule of the one. And yet, to say this happens because of the general intellect? I’m not sure. It sounds like this is a theory of the exhaustion of the rule of the one, the end of the one, not a critique. More bluntly: it means that now, as good Leninists, we stop being the same type of Leninists there were in 1920, and adopt new tactics and strategies. It’s post-party and seizure of the state, not anti- these perspectives. Communism is possible only now, and libertarian communism likewise. I’m not convinced.
Tim Rayner sent me (and others) a copy of a paper of his, in which he writes “In place of Hardt and Negri’s insurgent multitude, driven by the ‘will to be against’, I would posit an insistent multitude, driven by the right to life.”
I have a question about this. What does it mean to speak of a drive of the multitude, to speak of the multitude being motivated by a ‘will to be against’ or a ‘right to?
What is the status of the person who articulates this drive to the multitude? Is it someone who knows the language and structure of the multitude? That is, this is the multitude in its own terms, the language the multitude itself uses? Or is the speaker someone who knows the essence of multitude, its truth, such that the speaker articulates the real language (the grammar?) of the multitude? This is the language the multitude would use to understand itself if it did (or could) understand itself, analogous to the idea of language understanding the world in the world’s own terms (carving up the world at its joints). Or is the speaker an interlocutor for multitude, taking the many languages and making them intelligible [sp?], an act of translation and speaking for, an act of representation? Or is the speaker simply saying “here is one vocabulary by which we can analyze the multitude”, with the merits of one or another vocabulary being judged by their effects (the possibilities they open and close, render clear and opaque)?
My feeling is that the speaker is one of the latter two (interlocutor or analyst), and if the claim is to be one of the first two, then the speaker is definitely an interlocutor, and an interlocutor using (whether inadvertently or deliberately) questionable assumptions about language to mask the position of power that is interlocutor.
To my mind, there is no “world’s own language” and not “god’s eye view” which we can speak or look from. Language, in a half-remembered quote from Rorty, is the repetitive use of a mark or noise. Our terms are tools, contextually relative, and best judged pragmatically. For instance, with temperature, neither 0 degrees celsius nor 32 degrees farenheit is any closer to the actual measurement by which the universe measures temperature. There is no such measurement. Terms are ours, and that’s all.
And with the multitude, part of the force of the idea, to my mind, is to say that people with all sorts of motivations and thoughts and vocabularies can figure out how to work together, to form organizations, without previously sharing or having to assume the same vocabularies and beliefs. Multitude as a concept points toward paying attention to the encounters between the various constituent moments of the multitude, and how they manage to relate. And surely the standard for success cannot be the production of homogeneity, or the concept of multitude loses much of the point it is deployed for (the productive co-existence of difference that does not have to collapse into identity). I.e., to show again that I still have an embarrassingly old fashioned vocabulary in which I pose the questions that most matter to me, the multitude points to looking at material practices, not ideas and consciousness. And maybe at times there is a use to saying ‘this practice expresses this will or this drive’, but that will or drive must always be remembered to be a theoretical extrapolation, a useful fiction (which is not to say we can’t use them), it is a tool we can and probably should use, but it’s not the essence of the multitude, the truth underlying its actions regardless of what it (or its component parts) may think.
Multitude and Thinking In Common
Paolo Virno has remarked that today we are undergoing a period analogous to the 17th century, when the foundational concepts of modern political philosophy were first developed. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri make a similar remark, proposing a “new science of global democracy,” which involves a similar conceptual refoundation analogous to that of earlier times. They write, “A new science of global democracy would not simply restore our political vocabulary from the corruptions it has suffered; it would also have to transform all the primary modern political concepts.”
If we are living through a new 17th century, we must note that the 17th century was not only a time of transition and refoundation of political theory. Occurring at the same time was the process of primitive accumulation: enclosures, laws against the poor, stripping people of access to the means of subsistence, in order to produce the ‘free worker’ who owns only labor-power, the capacity to work. The crisis of inherited political thought and the need to rethink is rooted in similar changes, which some have called a return to primitive accumulation, or a new primitive accumulation. Agamben, Virno, Negri and Hardt use different various names – postfordism, postmodernity, the society of the spectacle – but all recognize processes and transitions happening today, and take them as objects of analysis.
These thinkers take up old political concepts and attempt to rethink them in light of the present. One key term in these attempts is “multitude”. All these thinkers named use the concept of multitude, but they use the term with different senses, just as in the 17th century Spinoza and Hobbes differed in what they meant by terms such as sovereignty and right. In the first section of this paper I lay out some of the different uses to which Agamben, Virno, Negri and Hardt put the concept of multitude, and the political differences these uses imply. In the second part I attempt to suggest another reading of the concept of multitude as a response to the new enclosures today.
Agamben discusses the term ‘multitude’ in relation to a particular understanding of the term ‘thought’. Agamben has in mind a specific “experience of thought [that] is always experience of a common power”. Agamben continues, speaking of “the inherence of a multitude to the very power of thought”. He quotes from Dante,
“‘It is clear that [hu]man[ity]’s basic capacity is to have a potentiality or power for being intellectual. And since this power cannot be completely actualized in a single [hu]man or in any of the particular communities of [humanity] above mentioned, there must be a multitude in [humanity] through whom this whole power can be actualized… [T]he proper work of [humanity] taken as a whole is to exercise continually its entire capacity for intellectual growth, first, in theoretical matters, and, secondarily, as an extension of theory, in practice.’”
Agamben adds that this “diffuse intellectuality […] and the Marxian notion of a “general intellect” acquire their meaning only within the perspective of this experience. They name the multitudo that inheres to the power of thought as such.” Agamben specifies here that “[i]ntellectuality and thought are not a form of life among others in which life and social production articulate themselves”, that is, Agamben does not mean simply ‘theoretical pursuits’, but instead “the unitary power that constitutes the multiple forms of life as form-of-life.” Thought, then, is the capacity that humanity has to compose itself into forms of life, and multitude is the term Agamben uses to specify that this capacity is always already collective, both the result and the ground of human sociality.
Thought, in this use of the term, “appears, in the materiality of corporeal processes and of habitual ways of life no less than in theory […] And it is this thought, this form-of-life, that […] must become the guiding concept and the unitary center of the coming politics.” In other words, the political project is to produce a human community adequate to the already communal nature of our capacity to be (or nature as) social.
For Agamben, there is an “inherence of a communitarian principle to any power”, as a result of “the necessarily potential character of any community.” That is, any human community has potentials, powers that are both product and presupposition for the community’s existence. The fundamental power here is the power humans have to compose forms of life, based on the always already social nature of humanity. This is why the political life Agamben calls for, the nonstatist politics, is a “life of power”. For Agamben this social power must be assumed, simply asserted as logically primitive. Just as “linguists can construct a grammar […] only by taking for granted the simple fact that human beings speak and understand each other”, “[p]olitical theory […] must presuppose, without the ability to explain it … the simple fact that human beings form a community.” A great deal of Agamben’s thoughts on this human community can be encapsulated a brief philological focus on the term Gattungswesen. The term is typically rendered in English as ‘species-being’. In Romance languages, however, the term is typically rendered as ‘generic being’. Agamben uses the term to mean both of these senses at the same time. The human community, for Agamben, is the Gattungswesen of humanity: its ‘species being’, the characteristic shared by humanity. And yet, the specific character of this species character is that it is radically open, under-determined, humanity as ‘generic being’ of humanity. Agamben’s politics amounts to a call for a political community that is open and species-wide, and attempts to celebrate moments when he sees glimpses of this community instantiated on earth.
For Agamben, then, ‘multitude’ is bound up with a philosophical anthropology. Agamben mobilizes this picture of humanity to argue against the concept ‘the people’ and against sovereignty, saying that “all peoples are gangs [of Gypsies]”, that is, the unity of the people is not given, but is rather an operation of force against the multiple and generic power that is humanity. Agamben seeks to underscore humanity’s multiplicity, and its power to create different forms of sociality. Agamben names this potential sociality ‘the whatever singularity’ and ‘the coming community’, and sees an example of this political form in the doomed protests in Tiananmen Square. Multitude, for Agamben, is part of the process or the capacity by which the coming community is constituted, and the coming community is a community that is adequate to humanity’s character as multitude.
What is the connection, however, between humanity as a generic power, humanity’s sociality as such, and the project of exodus from this particular world we seek to leave? The philosophical anthropology points toward a nonstatist politics, it grounds a political perspective, but what is the relationship between this ground and the project in particular? Agamben is unsatisfactory on this matter. He celebrates and mourns the events of Tiananmen Square but provides little resources for understanding the political community embodied there, it’s history, how it composed itself, and how future examples might survive in the face of political repression.
It is not clear how Agamben’s political theory (or politicized philosophical anthropology) relates to his assessment of the present. For Agamben, our present is the era of the camp, biopolitics that becomes thanatopolitics. In some ways, Agamben replays the despair and fear that his theoretical forbears in the Frankfurt School had about the onset of fascism, with the difference that Agamben fears a postmodern fascism. At the same time, he points toward a possible collective subject, the coming community, which emerges in insurrections like Tiananmen Square.
Agamben is afraid of the present global order, and sees a new possibility in the everyday life of the global multitude of migrants. For the most part, Agamben remains at the critical level, articulating critiques and analysis of the structures of constituted power, but leaves the subject that contests power at a poetic and unexamined condition. On the other hand, in a recent intervention at a seminar organized by UniNomade, Agamben declares that “What I always disagree with Toni about is this emphasis placed on productivity. Here we must reclaim the absence of opera as central.” Perhaps this is a step forward in Agamben being clearer in the positions he holds in regard to political action. One way to interpret this remark is as follows: for Agamben, the point of politics is to achieve the good life, human happiness. Our ability to be productive rests upon our ability to achieve the good life. That is, work is a reduction of our capacities and potentiality. This implies an autonomous power, the ability to be or to produce the coming community, which work limits and does violence to. Thus, the “absence of opera” could be read as a restatement in Agamben’s messianic idiom of the old Italian far left slogan and practice of the refusal of work. Still, Agamben leaves the closest thing he has to a political subject – the political community without conditions of belonging, the coming community – largely undeveloped. His remarks remain at the poetic and abstract philosophical level, and the political position he puts forward de facto is a vague insurrectionism (valorizing activities like Tiananmen Square), anti-politics (not engaging with the state), and shrill anti-fascism.
Negri and Hardt:
Negri and Hardt use two senses of the term multitude, in two times. These are the always-already multitude and the not-yet multitude. The not-yet multitude is a project of social and political reorganization, a goal that requires action and struggle to bring about. This multitude, if instantiated, will be a democratic, communist organization of society.
The always-already multitude functions politically as a critique of sovereignty, of the old prejudice that only the one can rule, that is, the bias toward the state. The always-already multitude is an operation of criticism, undermining homogeneity and unity in, for example, the biological body and political body. This operation demonstrates that homogeneity and unity are actually multiplicity. This is not a ‘simple’ multiplicity, however. Rather, it is a multiplicity shot through with power, a multiplicity that, as a result of processes of force, is produced as a type of unity and homogeneity, an appearance of homogeneity, if you will. As Hardt puts it in an interview, “[t]he “always-already” is meant to refer to the virtual existence of multitude.” In other words, the always-already identifies the possibility of multitude, it establishes or expresses the possibility of multitude on the level of theory. The not-yet multitude is the name of a project of creating this possibility, a possibility of communism.
And yet, while they identify two sense of multitude in their work, I would like to suggest a third multitude, present in the tension between the always-already and the not-yet multitude. In an interview, Negri states that the multitude is communist, but in a specific manner: “The problem is not that of a will but rather of understanding what communist potentialities there are. And, from my point of view, the communist potentiality of the multitude is infinitely greater than that of the working class when Marx theorized it.”
This quote demonstrates a tension in Hardt and Negri’s concepts of multitude. On the one hand, there is the always-already multitude, which is a virtual figure, a general possibility. On the other hand there is the not-yet multitude, which is a project and a goal. The connection between these two is unclear.
In this interview quote and elsewhere, Negri writes as if the multitude already exists, and not in a virtual sense: “the communist potentiality of the multitude is infinitely greater than that of the working class when Marx theorized”. It is hard not to read this statement as implying a parallel between the multitude today and the working class when Marx wrote. There was an existent, instantiated, incarnated working class when Marx wrote. It is hard not to read Negri as saying that there is today also an existent, instantiated, incarnated multitude today when he and Hardt are writing. Hardt writes “you might think of our notion of multitude as being very close to a traditional notion of proletariat, that is, the class of all those who produce, once the notion of production itself has been sufficiently revised and expanded”. Where does this actually existing multitude reside in relation to the always-already multitude – a virtual, metahistorical figure – and the not-yet multitude – a figure to come, requiring struggle to produce? The multitude now, the ‘actually-existing’ multitude is living labor today, it is an assessment of production today, the shape of capital and subjectivity today, the point from which we are in the process of departing in order to get to the future.
Perhaps we can understand these terms as follows: the always-already multitude is a theoretical articulation of the possibility of communism. The not-yet multitude is the project of creating communism. The textually implied actually existing multitude is the currently forming class subject, the class composition today, which is the point of departure through which – and object of intervention upon which – the not-yet multitude can be produced. The not-yet multitude as project is two-fold: the point is to identify “what communist potentialities there are” today in the actually existing multitude today, and to act in such a way that increases those potentialities.
For Negri, the new order is a better one. There are historically new possibilities for politics and for human social relations. That is why the multitude must push on toward the constitution of Empire, and out the other side, because global sovereignty would be an advance and the coming of Empire is part of the conditions of the coming of communism. Negri elaborates relatively specific strategic points: the multitude should engage with the state, calling for a global new deal, a right to citizenship and a general income.
For Negri, communism is only possible now. The subject, the multitude, is characterized by this new radical possibility. Negri identifies this new possibility with the changes in the labor process, with the new forms of work and value production that exist. If for Agamben the point of politics is to achieve human happiness, Negri seems to have an implicit view that happiness can only be achieved by passing through work, grounding the possibilities of multitude in the qualitative changes in the labor process today. In many ways, this is a restatement of a very old Marxist view. Negri and Hardt write “No economic system can continue while suffocating the productive potential of such a large portion of the population. The failure of neoliberalism, in other words, makes inevitable the task of creating a new productive system with the means to realize better the productive potential present in the world today.” This amounts to a call for new managerial structures adequate to the productive potentials of the multitude, an innovation in the structures of exploitation, which will be both more humane and more productive. In other words, Negri implicitly is arguing that the present moment is like the moment immediately prior to the rise of Keynsianism: an era in which labor and capital can mutually benefit from an innovation in the arrangement of production.
For Paolo Virno, the multitude is a term that identifies a mode of collective action, a political subject, capable of existing and acting together in a non-statist form. This multitude pre-exists the production of the people, both logically and historically. This multitude refuses the transfer of natural right to the sovereign. The multitude for Virno is a political category, a category about collective behaviors in relation to the state and sovereignty.
For Virno, the multitude has existed before in history at certain times and places, it is not a wholly new political form. For instance, Virno writes that in “the last chapter of the first volume of Das Kapital where Marx analyses the condition of the working class in the United States (Chapter 25 [sic], ‘The modern theory of colonisation’). There we find great pages on the American West, on exodus and on the individual initiative of the ‘many’. European workers driven out of their countries by epidemics, famine and economic crisis, go to labour in the large industrial centres on the east coast of the USA, mind you: they stay there for several years, only several years. Then they desert the factory and move towards the west, towards the free land. Wage labour presents itself as a transitional episode rather than a life sentence. Even if only for twenty years, wage labourers had the possibility of spreading disorder in the iron laws of the labour market; by abandoning their own initial condition, they determined the relative scarcity of labour and thus wage increases. By describing this situation, Marx offers a vivid portrait of a working class that is also multitude.”
Virno sees a similar historical moment today, in which the working class again is also multitude. His understanding of the present day becoming-multitude of the working class is bound up with what he sees as the tendency toward forms of non-state organization and action. The multitude today constructs forms of life, ways of being, which the state and capital must either incorporate or crush. In response, the multitude exercises the right to resistance, which “consists in asserting the prerogatives of a singular, of a local community, of a craft guild, against the central power, whilst preserving forms of life that have already been affirmed, and protecting already entrenched habits. Thus it entails the defence of something positive: it is a conservative violence (in the good and noble sense of the term).” This also entails that the radical political project “is surely not a question of ‘seizing the power’, of building a new State or a new monopoly of political decision but rather of defending plural experiences, embryos of non-state public sphere and innovative forms of life.” In Virno’s account, communism has always been possible, but there is a specific project for producing it today.
Virno does not share Negri’s assessment of present developments. Virno doubts the liberatory character of the transitions Negri believes are happening today: “the movement has as its objective the prevention of the birth of what has been called – hastily – “Empire”.” Virno believes the multitude should – and is tending to – use its capacities to create a nonstate public sphere, an exodus from all forms of state activity. Virno does not put forward specific demands for the movement of movements, but he does pay close attention to piquetero struggles in Argentina, and precarious workers struggles in Europe, and was part of writing a document entitled Immaterial Workers of the World, which proposes attempting to develop revitalized syndicalism adequate to the postfordist era.
I began this paper with a reference to primitive accumulation. Following others, I use the term primitive accumulation to name a continual process within capitalism, the logic by which capital is continually (re)constituted. I use the terms ‘enclosure’ and ‘commons’ to describe parts of this process. Enclosure is the set of processes of imposing management upon the means by which people meet their needs and desires, such that people are forced to sell their labor power, to work. These processes produce the separation of people from the means of production and subsistence, the separation constitutive of capitalism. The commons refers to the abilities and resources that allow people at different places and times to meet their needs without submitting to the sale of labor power. The struggles of the multitude produce the commons, produce means of meeting needs without submitting to the rule of state and capital, and means to challenge the imposition of the condition of life lived as labor power. Thus, the multitude produces the commons, which in turn serve as the resources by which the subversive singularities of the multitude produce, circulate, and sustain themselves. At the same time, it must be noted that the commons are a tremendously productive resource for capital, if capital can impose and retain control over the laboring multitude, that is, if capital can impose and defend enclosures.
The thinkers under discussion here provide resources for understanding the mechanisms of enclosure – changes in sovereignty, in capitalist production, etc – and provide the beginnings of an account of the subjectivities that resist enclosure, of action in/for the commons. They also suggest, implicitly and explicitly, political responses to the struggle over the commons and enclosures.
It strikes me, however, that these thinkers fail – or, put less negatively, the position suggested by their work as a next step – is to speak from a position within the commons, articulating as (part of) singularities in/of the multitude. Virno manages to pose the matter in general theoretical terms, saying that the crucial question is “the polemical nexus between the instance of the “good life” (incarnated in Genoa and Porto Alegre) and life put to work (axis of the postfordist enterprise)”, and the need to break the power to put life to work. But this ‘nexus between the good life and life put to work’ is always a particular instance. Virno’s theoretical account poses a sketch of the problem in general terms, but to refuse the putting-to-work of life does not occur at a general level. In other words, Virno fails to articulate adequately the position of the commons. He fails to articulate a position from within the commons, to speak from the point of fighting against specific enclosures, and to elaborate the constitution of specific subjects acting within the commons. Virno, like Agamben, Negri and Hardt, demonstrates a view that Cesare Casarino articulates thus:
“if the social field is by definition that which one is always enclosed in and part of (…) if the social field is precisely that which cannot be either complete or self-enclosed, it is also the case that to think such a field, to conceptualize it both as a space and as a set of relations, one must imagine it at a distance and to represent it as a self-enclosed entity one can stand out of and look into.”
While this operation of imaginatively placing oneself outside the social field may be useful for certain purposes, when we act politically we are fully enmeshed in the social field, and that thinking about political action and strategy requires thinking from a position within the social field. Marx writes, within capitalism “there arise relations of circulation as well as of production which are so many mines to explode” the capital relation. I would like to suggest that these mines are the singularities of the multitude, and that we can only ignite these mines from positions within the social field, within the multitude. In the rest of this paper I would like to begin sketching what it would mean to think and act from this position, which I will call thinking the commons, or thinking in the commons.
One possible resource for thinking (in) the commons is a remark made by Michel Foucault in the interview “Truth and Power.” Here Foucault elaborates on the idea of the specific intellectual. Unlike the universal intellectual, the specific intellectual does not seek to represent but rather acts where she is located in geographic, social, and institutional space. The specific intellectual is a situated intellectual, recognizing that global forms of power are only ever encountered in particular locations and configurations. Resistance also is always particular, and the specific intellectual seeks to act in and on the specific location in which she finds herself.
The project of multitudinous resistance must take specificity as its point of departure: it does no good to ask in general ‘how can singularities communicate’. Instead one must try to communicate within and among the singularities that one is part of (and which are part of one). The project – or rather, the projects – of politics consists in thinking and acting from the position of one singularity among the productive many. The aim is to begin from one’s own position as (or in) a singularity of the multitude, and to work out the singularity’s powers and how it can work with other singularities to grow more powerful together. Althusser recognized this, after a fashion, when he lauded Machiavelli for creating a ‘partisan’ text, a text that aimed to both identify and help constitute the subject, a text that implicated political practice, and implicated itself in relation to this practice.
This is the fundamental question I have in regard to Hardt, Negri, Agamben, and Virno: there is a specific subjectivity as writers, how does this subjectivity connect to the ideas they relate, and the political tasks of our time? More importantly, and beyond the question of reading specific thinkers and working with the ideas they provide: how can we manage, again to quote Althusser, to speak “from a place that … summons [ourselves] to occupy as potential ‘subjects’ of a potential political practice”. All political problems are questions of organization (that is, practical concerns about how to act collectively, how to live in common). What, then, is the most adequate response for thought – and position from and manner in which to think – for those want to make thought relevant to political problems? I can see no other answer than that it must be the thought of specific organizational attempts, that is, of specific becomings of subjects resisting sovereignty and the compulsion to sell our labor power.
The project this suggests for thought, then, is an approach to multitude roughly parallel to how Foucault discussed his own work on power: less a discussion of ‘what’ than a focus on ‘how’, focusing less on the nature of multitude than examples of multitude, and questions of strategy in/of the multitude. It is not enough to say we are in a “new 17th century”. Rather, the task is to figure out collectively how to become new Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters, who seek not only to diagnose the present condition, but also to act in specific ways to overturn it, and to understand the link between diagnosis and cure. This means, to quote Ruben Dri, understanding “communism as [a] new society or new social relations [which is] not a matter of taking power in the future, as if [power] were a thing, an object that could be situated in a place, but rather of constructing power today, which is the same as constructing communism. Constructing power, constructing new social relations …” And the challenge for thought is to rethink “the hypotheses, theories, and practices that allows us to construct the tools of our emancipation, the tools for the defense of life … “
I want to pose one possible version of this ‘partisan’ thought and action situated in/as a singularity of the multitude, as an avenue for further study: the workers’ inquiry or militant research. This practice has roots in the same Italian tradition that these thinkers arise from, the practice of workers’ inquiry pioneered by Romano Alquati and others. More recently, this practice has been taken up again, in transfigured form, in the thinking-in-situation of the Colectivo Situaciones and Precarias a la Deriva and the workers inquiries of Kolinko.
These initiatives attempt to think from within struggles, rather than to act as interpreters of struggles, to act from situated, embodied positions, to think as we act, in the first person singular and plural rather than the third person. These practices of thought aim to identify some of the specific ways in which the processes of producing life as labor power operate, and more importantly, the processes by which specific resistances produce themselves and subvert the ruling order. The point of this type of intellectual activity is, again to quote Ruben Dri, to rethink “the hypotheses, theories, and practices that allows us to construct the tools of our emancipation, the tools for the defense of life …”, in order to make resistances more effective, and to spread conversation about these actions so that more people can learn, analyze, and act together in mutually beneficial ways. The goal is practical subversion, the constitution of new commons and escaping the processes of enclosure that limit and do violence to us, the construction and exercise of counterpower.
Thinking in situation, or thinking in (the) common(s) (perhaps it is not by accident that the best exemplars of this type of thought practice collective and collaborative intellectual production) poses many problems that I can not address here. I am limited by constraints of space, and my own limited experience with the modes of thought and action that I am valorizing here
I would also like to be very clear: I do not mean my remarks to be anti-theoretical. There is a role here for theorizing. Philosophy can be a way to learn the forms of subjectivity helpful in militant research. Still, there is a limit to theory’s efficacy. At some point, militant research, thought in and of a specific location in the commons/multitude (and struggles in/for them), can only be learned by engaging in this activity, by doing militant research.
Finally, militant research may not always be theoretically complete when viewed from a perspective that seeks unity and identity. It may appear as a fragmentary intellectual discourse. Perhaps, though, this could be a useful form of fragmentation: to quote Foucault, “philosophical fragments put to work in a historical field of problems”. Militant inquiry may be, an example of what Althusser calls “theoretical fragments conducive to clarification of the formulation and understanding of this singular concrete case”, and thus conducive to understanding and participating in the constitution of subjects able to act in/on the present historical moment. If militant inquiry, as the attempt to think from within the singularity of multitude, appears fragmentary, I do not mean this as an excuse for the fragmentary nature of my remarks here. It does, however, suggest that acquiring the subjectivities and practices of militant inquiry, differs from those predicated on unity and sovereignty, that learning to be a specific intellectual is a different process than learning to be a universal intellectual. How to accomplish this learning is task I am still unclear on, so I happily look to others for examples and inspiration.
Paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, Penn State University, March 11-13, 2005. I am grateful to Colin McQuillan and Philip Armstrong for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.
Virno, “Facing a new 17th century”
Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 309
See Federici, Caliban and the Witch and Midnight Notes, The New Enclosures
Agamben, Means Without End, 9-11
Agamben, Means Without End, 65
The point about Gattungswesen is not mine, but is drawn from Jason Read’s excellent book, The MicroPolitics of Capital, page 180, note 69.
Agamben, The Man Without Content, 79-81
Agamben, Means Without End, 67
Agamben, The Coming Community
Agamben, Means Without End, 86-89
Luogo Comune, “Nuevo fascismo europeo”, of which Agamben is one of the authors.
See Tronti, “The Refusal of Work”, one of the few piece in English by this important thinker.
Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 222.
Hardt, “Autopsy interview.”
Hardt, Negri, and Zerbib “Entrevista a Toni Negri y Michael Hardt”, my translation.
Hardt, Negri, and Zerbib “Entrevista a Toni Negri y Michael Hardt”, my translation.
Hardt, “Autopsy interview.”
See Hardt and Negri, “Why We Need A Multilateral Magna Carta.”
Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, 23
Virno and Lazzarato, “Multitude and Working Class”
Virno and Lazzarato, “Multitude and Working Class”
Virno and Gago, “Facing A New 17th Century”
I would like to discuss the use of the term ‘primitive accumulation’ somewhat further in this note, as I can not spend more time on the term in the body of my paper, for reasons of space. ‘Primitive accumulation’ has a dual use, one historical and one logical or processual. On the one hand, the term refers to a historical era, as detailed in the last sections Capital volume one and elsewhere. The term also refers to a process or logic constitutive of the capital relation. In this second use of the term, primitive accumulation is the ongoing process by which capitalism produces the conditions upon which the capital relation is predicated: the existence of people who only have access to the means to meet their needs and desires by the sale of their labor power. In both uses of the term, the historical and the logical, primitive accumulation takes the name ‘enclosure’, and is paired against ‘the commons’ as that which is attacked and enclosed. Counterposed to the continual need to enclose the commons is the continual production of new commons. The new commons refers to new needs produced over time and initially met via non-commodity means, as well as the production of new means of meeting old needs. Unless these new needs can be made productive, that is, unless they are enclosed such that the needs can only be met by selling our labor power, a crisis of capitalist discipline erupts. Thus capital seeks to crush any means to meet needs that do not ass through the system of command that is the sale of labor power. The theoretical point is important: capital must continually reproduce (re-impose) the condition of labor power, and that this imposition is continually challenged, circumvented, dodged. The vocabulary, however, is problematic. The use of these terms – primitive accumulation, enclosure, commons – is useful in foregrounding the history of struggles under and against capitalism (a history written in letters of blood and fire, as Marx writes [cite]). On the other hand, this vocabulary lacks an easy means to differentiate between the logical moment – the ongoing constitutive (micro)processes that accompany capital – and the historical moment – the large offensives that take the name of enclosure and primitive accumulation in Marxist history. An innovation of these terms is a task for another time. I should note as well that my use of the term ‘primitive accumulation’ is not original, but rather derives entirely from the important work of others. For more on ‘primitive accumulation’ see Bonefeld, Cleaver, De Angelis, Federici, Midnight Notes, and Read.
Virno and Gago, “Facing A New 17th Century.”
Casarino, Modernity at Sea, 21
Marx, Grundrisse, 159
Foucault, Power 126-134
Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, 22
Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, 32
Perhaps I should say tactics, rather than strategy, perhaps strategy implies an ordering center, a hint of transcendence.
Ruben Dri, prologue to Benasayag and Sztulwark, p13 my translation.
See Steve Wright, Storming Heaven
This is to name only a few groups engaged in this area. There are others, too many to name. Most recently, there have been workshops held in Spain and Italy around the emergent movement of precarious workers, dedicated to the topic of the workers inquiry and the construction of new forms of “biosyndicalism”. One such workshop was held at the Malaga Social Forum in December of 2004. See http://estrecho.indymedia.org/newswire/display/11569/index.php
The task is rather like learning to swim, in which, as Deleuze notes in Difference and Repetition, we need teachers who say “do this with me”, from whom we can learn the movements required via collaborative engagement.
Foucault, Power, 224
Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, 16
I have encountered these ideas through the work of Steve Wright on operaismo, and the work of Benasayag and Sztulwark, Colectivo Situaciones, Precarias a la Deriva, and Kolinko. A recent anthology published in Spain, Nociones Comunes, is an important contribution to the questions and methods of militant research. More research is needed on the political work of Foucault and of Deleuze, as well as additional research on the various individuals and collectives that compose the tradition of operaismo, would go a long way in helping flesh out the concept and range of practices of the figure of the specific intellectual. For more on Nociones Comunes and the Precarias a la Deriva, see http://sindominio.net/traficantes/editorial/editorial.htm . For more on the Colectivo Situaciones, see http://www.situaciones.org , and for more on Kolinko see http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/engl/e_index.htm
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contrapoder. Buenos Aires: De mano en mano, 2000
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Notes for revisions:
(“just needs a little spackle and some napalm”)
“what matters is not ideology, not even the “economico-ideological” distinction or opposition, but the *organisation of power*.” Deleuze, in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium”, http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpdeleuze7.htm.
“One finds the old trick being played everywhere again and again: a big ideological debate in the general assembly and questions of organization reserved for special commissions. These questions appear secondary, determinded by political options. While on the contrary, the real problems are those of organization, never specified or rationalized, but projected afterwards in ideological terms.” Guattari, in http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpdeleuze7.htm.
“a simple dilemma: either one finds a new type of structure that finally moves toward the fusion of collective desire and revolutionary organization: or one continues on the present path and, going from repression to repression, heads for a new fascism” Guattari, ibid.
“we cannot be content with these analogies and affinities; we must also try to construct a social practice, to construct new modes of intervention, this time no longer in molecular, but molar relationships, in political and social power relations, in order to avoid watching the systematic, recurring defeat that we knew during the ’70s, particularly in Italy with the enormous rise of repression linked to an event, in itself repressive, which was the rise of terrorism. Through its methods, its violence, and
its dogmatism, terrorism gives aid to the State repression which it is fighting. There is a sort of complicity, there again transversal. So, in this case, we are no longer only on the theoretical plane, but on the plane of experimentation, of new forms of interactions, of movement construction that respects the diversity, the sensitivities, the particularities of
interventions, and that is nonetheless capable of constituting antagonistic machines of struggle to intervene in power relations.” Guattari, in “Pragmatic/Machinic”, http://www.gpc.edu/~mnunes/guattari.html
You write “All political problems are questions of organization”.
Could mention Cyril Smith’s Marx at the Millennium: he poses the
question: “what do humans have to do in order to live humanly?” or
“how can humanity make itself what is is in essence?” (p.64)
“It is not enough to say we are in a “new 17th century” Rather the
task…” You could actually quote/paraphrase/cite
Gerard Winstanley, who had an immanent (and maybe imminent too)
conception of communism, the republic of heaven, heaven exists here on
earth, we have only to create it (See Christopher Hill’s book, The
World Turned Upside Down)
I like your comment on tactics vs strategy.
Perhaps strategy *emerges*… when tactics resonate… ?
From Dan Smith’s paper: [Two Concepts of Resistance: Foucault and Deleuze, presented at SEP conference in London, August 2004]
“Why have revolutions gone badly? Because, until now, there has not existed within the revolutionary field a social machine that did not produce something else—namely, an embryonic State apparatus, or a party apparatus, which is the very institution of repression. Until now, revolutionary parties have constituted themselves as synthesizers of interests, rather than functioning as analyzers of mass and individual desires. The question of revolution has to be pushed to the level of desire: if it is desire that organizes power, is desire capable of organizing a social machine that does not reproduce a State apparatus? It is not enough simply to say that escape, resistance, and deterritorialization is primary in any social system. What is necessary is an organization of power that is capable of organizing and uniting these modes of escape without reproducing a State apparatus. This is why, for Deleuze, it is the concept of the war-machine that poses the true problem of revolution: “How can a war machine account for all the escapes that happen in the present system without crushing them, dismantling them, and without reproducing a state apparatus?”
[from discussion following “Five Propositions on Psychoanalysis,” in Desert Islands, pp. 279-280: “Today, we’re looking for the new mode of unification in which, for example, the schizophrenic discourse, the intoxicated discourse, the perverted discourse, the homosexual discourse, all the marginal discourses can subsist, so that all these escapes and discourses can graft themselves onto a war-machine that won’t reproduce a State or Party apparatus.”] [in Smith, p19]
D&G gesture toward “a war machine that does not necessary have war as its object, but is led to war only when it encounters a State apparatus that attempts to appropriate it […]the war-machine, which has its own objects, its own space, its own composition” [smith, p20]
“the analysis of the war machine as an organization of power […] we need to recover this idea of the war machine in our thinking of resistance—but that, of course, is a topic for another paper” [smith, p20]