Few modern political-economic works have the objective reach and power as Assembly by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri — the recent coda to their original magnum opus trilogy (Empire – Multitude – Commonwealth) from the millennium’s first decade. Perhaps even fewer have the quality that a single sentence — the book’s final, at that — summarizes so succinctly and incisively the essence of its ca. 300 pages: “We have not yet seen what is possible when the multitude assembles”.
The book must be carefully read for proper understanding, but for starters here, suffice it to say that the sentence reaffirms one of the main foci the authors have developed over the years; i.e., the concept of the multitude, a version of the proverbial “99%” that decisively moves away from some fade-to-gray melting pot of faceless clones (“the masses”) to a loose coalition of varied constituencies firmly united in opposition to the rule of global capital and private property. Next, the statement squarely hints at the potential of this force – elaborated in much detail throughout the text. Finally – and somewhat ominously – its negative form implicitly testifies to the real difficulties on the road to realizing this potential.
Certainly, Negri and Hardt are rather clear throughout Assembly on many such difficulties, but firmly stand behind the multitude’s ultimate (and practical) transformative potential. This is not a trivial point – indeed, in one segment the authors explicitly differentiate themselves from (otherwise much praised) fellow Marxist Wolfgang Streeck, who presents a far bleaker view of contemporary resistance forces in the opening summary of his recent essay collection How Does Capitalism End? – suggesting this is not just a “glass half empty/full” relativity. Perhaps it is not a fateful and clear dichotomy either – after all, the authors’ evidence for the potential is indeed compelling – but still, given the “devil in the details”: Are there real signs that the multitude has a fighting chance of making a lasting change for the better?
In the book, Negri and Hardt early on state: “There are two primary roads by which the poor themselves can respond to this contemporary neoliberal condition”. Taking into their cross-hairs various right-wing populisms, they see the wrong one basically involving attempts to “construct, defend or restore the identity of the people”; the other “refuses the siren calls of identity and instead constructs […] secure forms of life grounded in the common.” Similar clear distinctions between Left and Right populisms are echoed even in staunch criticisms of globalizing neoliberalism outside the Marxist tradition (cf. Stiglitz’s separation in Globalization and it Discontents, Revisited). Nonetheless, some evidence suggests matters might be a bit more nuanced.
Objectively, the further we move from the globally dominant nation-states toward subordinate ones (and excluding egregious right-extremist bigotry), it often becomes increasingly difficult to separate nationalist demagoguery from legitimate national identity mobilizations, in line with known anti-imperialist and anti-colonial traditions. Take this example: the Greek island of Lesvos (i.e., its native inhabitants and local government) was widely praised during the height of the Middle East migrant/refugee crisis – which was crested in 2015, but spans much longer and to date – for the compassionate and effective response in the front line of this disaster, despite virtual abandonment by national and supranational governing bodies; indeed, even an apparent Nobel Peace Prize nomination ensued.
However, years of continued neglect and impotence by said bodies, straining limited resources at the periphery of an already impoverished EU pariah, unfortunately changed that tune of compassion in tangible ways; and this tale of gradual shift from virtue to “xenophobia” and “anti-immigrant sentiments” can certainly find echoes elsewhere along the circuitous routes of migrant flow to the coveted global “Northwest”. This highlights another key point: finding diverse allies in what might be shaping into a directed protest against “the Man”. Occupy, Standing Rock, Yellow Vests, etc. is one thing, but doing that in the seemingly zero-sum games constantly framed by Empire is considerably harder. Returning to Greece for a moment – the just completed results of the national parliamentary elections only further confirms this: the deep general disillusionment with the once promising SYRIZA (= “radical leftist coalition”!) government is really much less testimony to the (undeniable) poor choices they made at some key junctures, as to the power that Empire still wields over limiting options of the dissenters.
Indeed, Empire’s standard “divide-and-conquer” play remains one of its workhorses against the Multitude and its ability to effectively assemble right here in the developed world as well (US above all). Much of this comes from specific events – keenly analyzed by Naomi Klein some time ago in her Shock Doctrine – that are capable of setting back promising agendas in unforeseen but decisive ways. It is well established by now that the serious anti-globalist (and anti-capitalist) momentum from the turn of the century was effectively destroyed by the 9/11 shock and aftermath. (Not the movement – but the momentum!)
More recently, the real story of the 2016 US presidential election – the blatant interference by major party structures to sideline the candidate with a potentially dangerous, progressive-sounding agenda – (and above all any real content of that agenda) somehow morphed into a completely different Cold-War-like narrative of some “foreign interference”, which persists with an uncomfortably large segment of what should nominally be the American “99%”. Luckily, that candidate (Sanders) and his basic message did survive into the opening rounds of the currently crowded, early Democratic Party field of 2020 contenders. Yet, during their recent debates (despite some creative variety on the soft targets of the administration’s many obvious trespasses), the dearth of ideas on, say, the crucial question of identifying “the one country to reset US relations with first” – with a couple of reasonable suggestions far outshadowed by the trite and nonsensical “NATO allies” – is as symptomatic as it is disturbing.
Although it is hard to gauge the complex US scene, much of this divisiveness seems reinforced from the agendas set by various elements of the putative Multitude coalition, and much too often playing right into the hands of the ruling system. Negri and Hardt are clear on this point in Assembly as well: “movements must be nonidentitarian” (p. 57). But leveraging identity politics is another favorite play of capital, and these challenges have been the subject of some very eloquent recent analyses right here on Dissident Voice, like those by David Penner, and Chris Wright.
To summarize: the quoted ominous closing sentence of Hardt and Negri’s seminal work both beckons and warns. In some ways, it even reminds us of the famed opening sentence of the original Marxist work, the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”. The potential of that spectre has been open ever since. For it to convert and close, the multitude truly needs to assemble into one.