This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”
Read more… (.pdf file)
A pointer to the online project Política común (“Common Politics”).
This is a multilingual (though to date, mostly Spanish language) forum that is a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen and Mexico’s 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos.
The site’s aims and methodology are described as follows:
Esta plataforma digital busca el desarrollo de modos de producción teórica colectivos, en discusión abierta, y al margen del formato de la ponencia o del artículo académico. Es un proyecto que intenta abarcar la totalidad del pensamiento contemporáneo con particular atención a sus registros políticos y genealogico-políticos. Es un proyecto público que admite entradas directas en castellano, italiano y portugués, y en traducción desde cualquier otra lengua. Todos los textos que se publiquen en él, al margen de los ofrecidos en las secciones de Comentarios o en el Forum general, serán arbitrados por un colectivo de tres personas.
Discussions have already begun in the fora devoted to the various working groups, “Heteronomía y democracia,” “Imagen y acción,” “Vida y uso,” “Psicoanálisis y democracia,” “Testimonio y práctica teórica,” and “Comunismo y acción.”
UPDATE: My friend Alberto Corsín-Jímenez also directs me to Medialab-Prado Madrid’s Commons Lab.
The multitude is common. It is ordinary and everyday, and it is also both the product and the producer of shared resources. It comprises what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker term the “hewers of wood and drawers of water”: a “motley crew” of apparently disorganized labor (The Many-Headed Hydra 40, 212).
Though Negri sometimes flirts with an almost Leninist vanguardism, the multitude rebels against party organization or the privileging of so-called advanced sectors. The exercise of constituent power is a matter of habit, not training, indoctrination, or even will. The multitude seeks connections based on what we already hold in common; its polyvalent powers of connection open up new bases for commonality.
Negri and Hardt reverse the narrative that claims that capitalism has already destroyed the commons, and that privatization is now rampant, especially after neoliberalism. They argue that we have more in common now than ever before, and that the stage is set for the “common name” of a Communist liberty to come. The love of the common people is to ensure this transformation of what is now either private interest or public command into an immanent utopia.
And yet it can be hard to distinguish the multitude from the actual dystopia of Empire. Hardt and Negri oppose the multitude’s commonality to Empire’s corruption, but their analysis of corruption is confused and contradictory.
Indeed, the common and the corrupt often overlap: both are products of informal and unsupervised networks. Again, the multitude is ambivalent and the state has no monopoly on corruption. The principle of commonality suggests that there can be no categorical distinction between multitude and Empire: if constituted power is merely a particular (de)formation of the constituent, the point is rather to distinguish between such formations, to find a protocol by which to set apart bad from good, rather than to affirm the multitude at every turn.
When it comes to the multitude, Negri’s projective Marxism too quickly renounces critique.