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Anything is possible when the multitude assembles

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s new book Assembly re-examines what Left power could look like - not just winning elections, but overhauling the way we organise society. Review by Ben Trott.

October 25, 2017
7 min read

Ben Trott is an editor of the journal Turbulence.

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From the Arab Spring and Occupy to the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2014, we have seen numerous recent movements and uprisings addressing people’s needs and desires, variously for democracy, for freedom, unshackling the people from the forces of reaction. And yet, they have failed to deliver on these radical desires; failed to create lasting change or a more democratic form of society. It is with this observation that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri open their compelling and provocative new book, Assembly. It confronts a history of failure that has dogged leftwing movements, often framed as a problem of ‘effectiveness’, and particularly the much-debated ‘problem of leadership’. Hardt and Negri root their analysis in contemporary social reality, asking the question – given these historic disappointments, what should a new left do if it is not altogether to abandon faith in social movements?

Hardt and Negri’s best-known book, Empire, was published at the turn of the century, just after the alter-globalisation movement had taken to the streets of Seattle, disrupting the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial meeting. It argued that nation-states had become unable to guarantee and regulate capitalist production and accumulation, which were becoming truly global following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Chinese economy. According to the authors, sovereignty itself was shifting to the global level of Empire itself: a network of supranational organisations (including the WTO), transnational corporations, state and non-state actors.

One of the book’s distinctive characteristics was its break with what Walter Benjamin, and more recently the political theorist Wendy Brown, have described as ‘left melancholia’. This is the tendency for some on the left to attach themselves to particular political ideas – and even to the failure of these ideas – rather than seizing the present possibilities for transformation. By offering a radical re-thinking of democracy, and indeed of communism, Empire served as an antidote to left melancholia at the supposed ‘end of history’ – the moment when all thought of political alternatives have been rendered useless or meaningless by the overwhelming power of the contention that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to capitalism.

It cast the emerging Empire as destructive, but resisted nostalgia for earlier forms of domination. Moreover, it argued that ‘the multitude’, or the labour that animated the ‘postmodern’ global economy, worked in increasingly creative and collaborative ways, and that the multitude itself could potentially become capable of creating a ‘counter-Empire’, inventing new democratic forms and ‘an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges.’

Assembly follows their books Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) in developing some of Empire’s arguments and conceptual categories, although it dedicates comparatively little space to geopolitics and global order. It offers instead the authors’ most detailed discussion of the present prospects for transformation, and in light of the movements that have emerged since the global crisis of 2007/8. Its chapters are punctuated by ‘calls’ and ‘responses’ that present an approach to thinking how the multitude can assemble more effectively. And indeed, how it can ‘take power’, not by winning elections but through the invention of new institutional forms, and through cooperation in social production.

Hardt and Negri provide a very distinctive response to the widely remarked absence of traditional leaders in many recent movements. They see this as largely the result of an anti-authoritarian rejection of hierarchical structures, and a symptom of both a general crisis of representation and ‘a deep aspiration to democracy’. And yet, they convincingly criticise those activists and commentators who fetishise ‘horizontalism’, as well as those who fail to see the organisation involved in movements that appear ‘spontaneous’. What we need, they say, is to rethink the role of leadership.

Concretely, they propose reversing the traditional relationship between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’. Leaders have often been seen as responsible for strategy, or for being able to ‘see far, make decisions, and enact comprehensive long-term political projects’. While tactics are understood as an issue for the grassroots, often reacting to shorter-term concerns and the interests of a particular group, but able to act on the knowledge of their immediate surroundings. Assembly suggests, however, that today leadership should itself be limited to tactical concerns, like reacting to direct threats of violence. Meanwhile, ‘social movements and structures of democratic decision-making’ should assume responsibility for developing strategy and charting the long-term course.

In order to develop the multitude’s strategic capacities, Hardt and Negri suggest weaving together three very different approaches. First, ‘exodus’ from existing institutions and creating new social relations on a small scale. This ‘prefigurative’ approach has dominated many movements since the 1960s, with participants experimenting in forms of self-government. And second ‘antagonistic reformism’, or a ‘long march’ through social and political institutions, winning rights and freedoms in ways that transform rather than support current structures of power. Part of the book’s most compelling contribution comes, however, in its theorisation of a third approach. Namely, achieving ‘hegemony’ by overthrowing existing institutions and creating new ‘non-sovereign’ ones. In other words, institutions composed of coalitions that don’t rule over society but instead ‘foster community and organization’, helping organise practices, manage relationships, and make decisions together.

Hardt and Negri insist that projects to create institutions along these lines should resist any notion of ‘the autonomy of the political’, or the idea that political dynamics can be separated from social and economic life. They must be embedded in the waged and unwaged networks of cooperation that animate contemporary production. This will require fostering what they call: ‘the entrepreneurship of the multitude’.

This is a term that potentially lends itself to misunderstanding. It has nothing to do with ‘social entrepreneurship’, which they note has often marketised networks of cooperation and solidarity, and frequently accompanied neoliberal attacks on the welfare state. Nor do they understand the entrepreneur in the traditional sense, as a risk-taker or inventor, but rather as someone who, following Joseph Schumpeter’s use of the term, creates ‘new combinations’ or new forms of cooperation among ‘existing workers, ideas, technologies, resources, and machines’. Again, in Hardt and Negri’s anti-melancholic approach, the multitude’s capacity to become entrepreneurial – fostering community, managing relationships, taking decisions together – is already partly indicated by the nature of labour today, rooted in collaboration, communication, and relatively high degrees of self-direction. But becoming entrepreneurial would also need to involve reclaiming what Marx called ‘fixed capital’: the products of physical and intellectual labour that have become tools for capitalist profit, from the spinning jenny to the smart phone. They suggest, in other words, that building non-sovereign institutions for self-rule and embarking on a form of entrepreneurship that produces new, more powerful forms of cooperation, would involve steadily replacing private property itself with ‘the common’, or social and natural wealth ‘that we share and whose use we manage together’.

Certainly, ‘people are not innately capable of collective self-rule’. But Hardt and Negri’s wager is that new forms of ‘social unionism’, mixing labour organising with social movements in order to re-appropriate and institutionalise ‘the common’, could not only itself produce ‘new combinations’. It could also produce new subjectivities, people transformed by their experiences of acting politically together. ‘We have not yet seen what is possible’, Hardt and Negri argue, ‘when the multitude assembles’.

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Ben Trott is an editor of the journal Turbulence.

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