To a pragmatist, nothing is more frustrating than utopian idealism. Duke University lit prof Michael Hardt and Italian radical Antonio Negri try to bridge the gap between the world we want and the world we have by analyzing cultural and social trends in unique ways, grounding their political theory in real-world examples such as the Internet and the (misnamed) anti-globalization protests, and synthesizing disparate theories about network behavior, economics, and love. That’s right, love.
Multitude is ultimately unreasonable, excessively theoretical, but nevertheless brilliant, if only for its ambition. It’s a follow-up to the worldwide success of their Empire (2001), which described, in new yet familiar (read: neo-Marxist) terms, the ways in which the global order has changed. Out goes national sovereignty, in comes supranational governance, controlled by a network of economic (IMF), political (the United Nations), and military (American) interests, whose decisions affect all of the Earth’s billions. If Empire was description, then Multitude is prescription. By looking at the various ways in which people have answered the oppressive tendencies of Empire, the authors seek to outline a model for resistance and, in some gray, as yet undefined future, a global democracy.
They describe Multitude as the Empire’s oppressed peoples in a way that respects their individualism yet groups them together as a politically viable whole. Neither “the people,” nor the proletariat, nor the working class, “The multitude, by contrast, is not unified but remains plural and multiple.” They argue that the networked structures of global control give birth to the tools (similar networks) that will be useful in breaking that control. In this, they are onto something smart—the current global protest movement needs these ideas.
But for every insightful synthesis of available theory, there’s a sketchy idea, a kooky analogy. References to Star Trek, golems, and The Matrix seem like frivolous attempts at accessibility, and then there are sentences like this: “The vampire, its monstrous life, and its insatiable desire has become symptomatic not only of the dissolution of an old society but also the formation of a new.” Stoker as Engels.
And while the authors go out of their way to describe modern democracy as inadequate to global needs, they fail in their attempts to describe what might replace it, instead outlining their argument for why “a new science of global democracy” is needed. Even when they do talk tangibles, their recommendations are often unrealistic, like suggesting a new U.N. parliamentary body based on population (hey, at least we’ll all learn Chinese).
Multitude contains solid concepts undermined by nuttiness: “We need a more generous and more unrestrained conception of love. We need to recuperate the public and political conception of love common to premodern traditions.” If love is the only thing that can save the day, we’re in more trouble than we thought.