Dr W Large

The Multitude

The multitude has perhaps caused the most controversy in the reception of the Empire than any other concept, thought or idea, within it. Even Hardt himself, in an interview, has expressed the opinion that it is the one part of the book that requires more argument, research and evidence.[1] The origin of the multitude is in Negri’s work on Spinoza and his re-appropriation of latter’s notion of ‘absolute democracy’. It has also much to do with Negri’s previous notion of the possibility of a revolutionary subjectivity. In Empire, the multitude is the name of the only positive resistance to capitalism, as opposed to negative resistance or fundamentalism or other forms of the politics of nostalgia. It is important also to note that the multitude is the true origin and cause of history. Biopolitics and the society of control, on the contrary, are mere reactions to the creative power of the multitude.

      One of the most important sources and influences, however, upon the development and definition of the multitude, is the work of Deleuze, and is this that I want to concentrate upon at the beginning of this lecture.[2] Traditionally, philosophy begins with identity and thinks multiplicity in relation to it. If I have many things, I try and think what it is that is common between them, or if I am trying to distinguish between different things, I do so by contrasting or opposing their identities. Apples are different from oranges because I know what apples and oranges are. Can we have a logic of multiplicity that is not dependent on identity? This is very difficult for us, because the very language we use seems to demand that we think in identities. Take propositional statements of the form S is p, for example, which we all think is the normal way to talk about the world. This presupposes in advance that S has an identity (or essence as Aristotle would say) to which we attach attributes or properties. This common sense view, however, like all common sense attitudes, hides a deep prejudice. This prejudice is the belief that representation is the only authentic relation to life. Deleuze thinks there might be another relation between life and thought, which is not primarily representational. It is an illusion of philosophy to think that the complication and chaos of our lives can be fit within categories and syllogisms. The source of this illusion is Plato and the idea of transcendence. The theory of forms is the archetypal thought of identity and representation. It takes the experience of individual things and universalises them. This chair only has a meaning because it participates in the universal ‘chair’ and so on. The illusion of transcendence abstracts life from thought rather than connecting thought to life.

      We should not confuse, however, the idea of multiplicity with the idea of the ‘many’, for this definition of multiplicity is the meaning that representation gives to it. Rather than speaking of the ‘individual’, which is only defined in relation to the universal or general, we should speak of the singular, and rather than the general or universal, which is only defined in relation to the individual, we should speak of the open or the indeterminate, the way in which, whether for a short or long time, different singularities can come together, or come apart.[3] Beneath the individual, there is the sub-individual, and beneath the universal, is the multiple in which these sub-individual singularities compose. Such a multiplicity is what we call life, which is always made up of sub-individual happenings and events.

      We can translate this on the ethical and political plane for Deleuze by asking ourselves how does how life express itself prior to the mechanisms of bio-politics and the society of control which individualises us by asking us to identify ourselves in a statistical norm? We can see why for Negri and Hardt it is not a question of asking whether the multitude exists or not, for if we can connect it to the idea of multiplicity which exists prior to identity, then it has always existed. It explains why the biopolitics and the society of control exist and not the other way around. Revolutions are no longer about transcendental apparatuses of power, but the micro-power of our everyday lives.

      One way of thinking about this distinction between the general and the individual on the one hand, and the singular and the multiple on the other, is gender. The operation of identity or axiomatics is where we must choose one sex or the other, and whether this  is conceived as something natural or something that we have to learn, makes no difference to this choice. What interests Deleuze, however, is the way in which in our lives there are whole kinds of little ‘becoming feminine or masculine’, a gesture or sudden look, idiosyncrasies that do not fit within these identities, and are always happening beneath or beyond them. We turn this thought into an ethics and a politics, when we say that the only way to defeat the identities that oppress and repress us is to free the sub-individualities and compose them with others to form multiplicities.

Misunderstanding the multiple in Empire, and there might be some argument that the authors sometimes fall into the same mistake, is to think that this word refers to some self-defined individual, group or class. Every identity, label or definition is produced by the society of control and therefore they can never be a positive resistance to it. The multitude, on the contrary, refers to what lives beneath or beyond any individual, group or class. This does not mean that as individuals we are made up of small parts, for this would be to think of the sub-individual in terms of the individuality. Rather we should think of our lives as made of kind of indefinite mass of virtual possibilities, from which the society of control constructs identities. Nonetheless this indefinite mass is always greater than the society of control, and which is always dependent upon it. It is not that we have to choose to escape the society of control, rather our lives are already beyond or beneath it, in the sense that anyone of us is greater than any label or designation, man, woman, student, worker, white, black and so on. What we have to do is stop recognising and representing ourselves in these labels, because they make our lives much smaller than they could be. What makes us singular is our indefiniteness, which is never expressible in something individual, or universal, as though each of us where an event, Socrates socratizing, rather than Socrates as an example of the genus ‘human being’. The indefinite is what we love in the other, and why we fall in love – there imperceptible and unattributable becomings that are beneath and beyond any label or definition. I do not love a woman or man; I love this woman or that man – their singular presence in which each life is unique. This is why also love is only expressible in literature, poetry and music. I love some one for their vagueness. As soon as I capture them in an identity, then I have ceased to love them.

The true measure of democracy, therefore, is whether a society allows for the unique and singular. Our own society is non-democratic to the extent that it operates through a logic of identity and recognition, through the society of control and statistical norms. Now there is nothing difficult conceptually in this idea, because we live it all the time. The problem is, after thousands of years of Plato and Aristotle, we are too conceptual. We see concepts and definitions everywhere so that we cannot get beneath them. What is truly individual about us is what is singular, and singularity is made up of the indefinite. This is true of life itself. The singular moments, the sudden smile, the breeze across the leaves of tree as we walk across the moor, the play of light on the sea, a moment in a concert or listening to a CD at home, these are individuations, which are not merely not one of a kind, like when we say a green thing is an example of ‘greenness’, but utterly individuated and indefinite, beyond any definition or label. Every human life is made up of these moments, which cannot be captured in a statistical norm, nor any interpellated subjectivity. Before I am the person they say I am, the name that a sign on my Visa card, I am these moments. Or I am not at all. There is no ‘I’. Life is these moments before any subjectivity. Every one of our lives has something impersonal about it, and it this anonymity which escapes the society of control. We are more than the names we are given and the statistical norm we are reduced to through comparison. As Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus:

Between substantial forms and determined subjects, between them, there is not only an exercise of local demonic raptures, but a natural play of hecceities, degrees, intensities, events, accidents, which compose individuations completely different from those of well formed subjects which receive them.[4]

The big difference between Negri and Hardt’s notion of the multitude and Deleuze’s multiplicity is that the former demands a ‘political subject’. It is perhaps this necessity of subjectivity and with it the idea of a political program that the most difficult part of Empire to conceive. The basis of this subjectivity is the opposition between Empire and the multitude; we have to remember that the latter is the constitutive power of reality. It is not that there is first of all the society of control and biopolitics, but that this power is always a reaction against the creativity of the multitude. Reality is formed by this creativity rather than the society of control. The multitude only becomes political when it is aware of its own creative power which is limited by the repression of the empire. This creative power is linked to new spatiality and temporality of subjectivity, which has its source in the new labour of post modern capitalism. Previously the exploitation of labour was only linked to production. Now it is connected to the total reproduction of society. It is not merely the factory which is the local of exploitation, but the whole of social life. This is why Negri and Hardt throw away the old concept of the proletariat as identical to the industrial working class. Anyone who is exploited by capital belongs to the proletariat. It is in relation to this new social exploitation, signified by biopolitics and the society of control that three concrete political demands emerge:

1.      Global Citizenship

2.      Social Wage

3.      Right to re-appropriation

All these demands are against the forms of capital itself. The first against the restrictions against the flow of labour, in the form of immigration, and migration; the second in the recognition that whole of society it involved in capital, whether working or not, and the last in the new industries of communication. These demands are the third phase of worker militancy, which is the social worker. The first two phases being the professional and the mass worker. ‘‘The multitude,’ Negri and Hardt write, ‘is bio-political self organisation’. It is the realisation that the co-operation and creativity that is the heart of capitalism is ours, and we have the right to control and determine it.

Negri and Hardt’s conception of the multitude, therefore, is not very dissimilar to Negri’s previous notion of the necessity of the revolutionary subject in his autonomist writings. The problem or question remains is whether the new subjectivity which is implied by Deleuze’s notion of multiplicity and nomadism, and which these authors claim is their inspiration, can really be inserted and placed within a traditional political program as we have conceived it, or whether it demands a new kind of politics that we are only just becoming aware of, which Agamben saw signs of in Tiananmen Square:

The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest of control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organisation.[5]

[1] Reference to this

[2] I will be using John Rajchman’s excellent book on Deleuze as my guide. See, John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connection (London: MIT Press, 2001) 50-111.

[3] Or what Agamben calls the ‘whatever’. See, Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[4] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Mille Plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980) 310 [my translation].

[5] The Coming Community, op. cit., 84.