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  • From the Proletariat to the Multitude: Multitude and Political Subjectivity
  • Jason Read (bio)
Review of: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Where Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s first book, Empire, defined an object of critique—the book’s title is also their name for the global order they seek to analyze—their follow-up, Multitude, attempts the more difficult project of identifying and describing the revolutionary subject. The difference between the two books is not rigid: the “multitude” makes its appearance in Empire, and Multitude continues to examine “Empire” and the new global powers in the age of “the war on terror.” Even so, while the first book addresses the hot topics of globalization and neo-liberalism and thus fits easily into ongoing conversations and debates, the second addresses a problem that is rarely posed: the problem of revolutionary subjectivity, of the powers and possibilities capable of changing the existing global order. This problem does not lend itself to the same debates and discussions. This difference could perhaps be used to explain the ways in which the two books have been received: while the first was a crossover hit, making it into the pages of The New York Times and Time, the second has not had nearly the same success. The handful of major publications that have addressed Multitude have dismissed it as a kind of sophomore slump. The New York Times even went so far as to enlist Frances Fukuyama, perhaps the individual most predisposed to disagree with Multitude, to declare that Hardt and Negri’s fifteen minutes of fame are officially over.

Multitude is organized as a response to two questions: what remains of Empire (the concept) in the wake of the United States’ unilateral war against terror and in Iraq? And what subjective forces, desires, and identities are capable of combating Empire (the political formation)? The first of these questions is somewhat extrinsic to the organization of the text, reflecting transformations in the world that have taken place since the publication of the first volume; the second, however, is intrinsic to the text’s organization. The problem of revolutionary subjectivity is first announced in Empire as a kind of lacunae, as that which is difficult or even impossible to name or imagine in the present. While Marx could see continuity and even teleology underlying the revolutions of the nineteenth century, the various protests of the twentieth century—Tiananmen, Los Angeles, Chiapas, Seoul—appear to be discontinuous, without an identifiable subject or struggle to help us connect the dots (Empire 54). Marx compared the sporadic revolutions that marked the nineteenth century to the burrowing of a mole, whose discontinuous emergence from the dark earth is evidence of a hidden continuity and a concealed identity, the continuity of class struggle and the common identity of the proletariat. What is lacking in the present is any sense of that common substance or common vocabulary to connect the various struggles; they are left to stand out in their singularity, contingency, and heterogeneity.

Hardt and Negri’s assertion that struggles have become incommunicable, that they cannot be seen as discrete expressions of a common process, subject, or identity, traverses a decades-old debate about the relationship between economic conditions and political struggles. What unifies different political struggles separated by place and time, for Marx, is the recognition of a common economic enemy, capitalism, and a common economic language, that of exploitation. The heterogeneity of political protests was counteracted and supported by the universality of economic conditions. The notion that the economy is a universal and necessary condition underlying and supporting the apparent contingency of political desires and subjectivities has come under assault from multiple directions in past decades, in the work of Hannah Arendt, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Rancière, among others. Common to these diverse views is the idea that Marx’s strategy of finding the common economic essence underlying the various appearances of politics amounts to a negation of the political in all its contingency, heterogeneity, and specificity. Politics, roughly to characterize these diverse views, is not the expression of some underlying economic essence...

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