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The reasons why we need to move forward
on October 2, 2004
"Multitude" by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is a follow-up to the author's widely-acclaimed "Empire". In "Multitude", Hardt and Negri discuss change and the possibility of global democracy, which they define as "the rule of everyone by everyone". The book offers a unique vision of how such a future might be developing around us and futher rewards its readers with numerous insights and top-notch analysis in a highly readable text.
"Multitude" appears to have been written in part as a response to the criticisms of "Empire" as presented in the excellent book, "Empire's New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri" edited by Passavant and Dean. For example, "Multitude" takes a slightly different approach to the themes of U.S. exceptionalism, network power structures, violence and the politics of identity; all of these topics were critiqued at length in "Empire's New Clothes". Consequently, it appears that Hardt and Negri may have profited from this dialogue and it may also explain why "Multitude" is a more substantive and less theoretical book than "Empire".
Section One of "Multitude" is entitled "War". Hardt and Negri discuss the perpetual state of war as a means to maintain the capitalist world order and social hierarchy. Interestingly, the authors show how insurgencies and counterinsurgencies have both taken on the characteristics of flexible, postmodern production networks. Importantly, the anti-globalization movement is lauded as an example of how such decentralized and distributed networks can support an "absolutely democratic organization" whose emerging strength might yet constitute the "most powerful weapon against the ruling power structure."
Section Two is about "Multitude". The multitude is both plural and multiple, wherein people maintain their individualities but act based on common interests. Hardt and Negri posit that global production is made possible by "the commons" of language and communications and information networks. Patents, licenses and other tools to control the commons and appropriate wealth for private investors has hampered the productivity of the multitude, the authors believe, thereby creating a tension that might lead to revolution. To that end, recent events in Argentina are held out as examples of how new forms of collaborative democracy might emerge.
Section Three is entitled "Democracy". Hardt and Negri explain how the ecological and economic grievances of the multitude are routinely suppressed in favor of corporate interests. The authors endorse a number of reforms that might alleviate some of the worst excesses -- such as the Tobin Tax on currency trades, the easing of copyright laws and the forgiveness of third world debt -- but they go much further, suggesting that the time may be ripe for a "new Magna Carta", or a fundamental restructuring of relations between capital and labor. To that end, the authors envision an "open-source society" of collaboration characterized by the self-rule of the multitude and using the commons as the basis of social and economic production.
In my view, one of the key attributes of "Multitude" is its convincing analysis and description of today's post-democracy world. Hardt and Negri describe how the three major tenets of U.S. democracy -- the media, the separation of powers, and representation -- have been irreparably coopted by corporate power. This, of course, is an observation that has been made elsewhere but rarely with the penetrating analysis and skill that these intelligent authors bring to bear on the subject. If "Multitude" does nothing else than to serve to widen the discussion on this critically important topic, it will have made an important and lasting contribution.
However, I am less convinced that the open-source community envisioned by Hardt and Negri will spontaneously emerge as they have suggested. The disconnect between the aspirations of the multitude for shared peace and prosperity on the one hand and the brutal realities of hierarchical power structures on the other has existed for centuries. While one is certainly hopeful that the historic moment has changed and has made a revolution in human relations possible, the authors provide little in the way of guidance as to how the multitude might cross the divide. Still, "Multitude" serves as a thought-provoking and inspirational work that helps us understand the reasons why we need to move forward to a more peaceful and humane world, if not how to get there, and easily deserves a five-star rating. I highly recommend it to all.