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Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude

by Antonio Negri (Translated by Arianna Bove)

Traduction anglaise de l'article de Toni Negri paru dans le N º 9 de Multitudes

1) The multitude is the name of an immanence. The multitude is a whole of singularities. On these premises we can immediately begin to trace an ontological definition of what is left of reality once the concept of the people is freed from transcendence.

The way in which the concept of the people took shape within the hegemonic tradition of modernity is well known. Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel have, each for his own part and in different ways, produced a concept of the people starting from sovereign transcendence: in those authors' minds the multitude was regarded as chaos and war. The thought of Modernity operates in a twofold manner on these grounds: on the one hand, it abstracts the multiplicity of singularities and, in a transcendental manner, unifies it in the concept of the people; on the other hand, it dissolves the whole of singularities (that constitute the multitude) into a mass of individuals. The modern theory of natural right, whether of empirical or idealist origin, is a theory of transcendence and of dissolution of the plane of immanence all the same. On the contrary, the theory of the multitude requires that the subjects speak for themselves, and that what is dealt with are unrepresentable singularities rather than individual proprietors.

2) The multitude is a class concept. In fact, the multitude is always productive and always in motion. When considered from a temporal point of view, the multitude is exploited in production; even when regarded from the spatial point of view, the multitude is exploited in so far as it constitutes productive society, social cooperation for production.

The class concept of multitude must be regarded differently from the concept of working class. The concept of the working class is a limited one both from the point of view of production (since it essentially includes industrial workers), and from that of social cooperation (given that it comprises only a small quantity of the workers who operate in the complex of social production). Luxemburg's polemic against the narrow-minded workerism of the Second International and against the theory of labour aristocracies was an anticipation of the name of the multitude; unsurprisingly Luxemburg doubled the polemic against labour aristocracies with that against the emerging nationalism of the worker's movement of her time.

If we pose the multitude as a class concept, the notion of exploitation will be defined as exploitation of cooperation: cooperation not of individuals but of singularities, exploitation of the whole of singularities, of the networks that compose the whole and of the whole that comprises of the networks etc. Note here that the "modern" conception of exploitation (as described by Marx) is functional to a notion of production the agents of which are individuals. It is only so long as there are individuals who work that labour is measurable by the law of value. Even the concept of mass (as an indefinite multiple of individuals) is a concept of measure, or, rather, has been construed in the political economy of labour for this purpose. In this sense the mass is the correlative of capital as much as the people is that of sovereignty we need to add here that it is not by chance that the concept of the people is a measure, especially in the refined Keynesian and welfares version of political economy.

On the other hand, the exploitation of the multitude is incommensurable, in other words, it is a power that is confronted with singularities that are out of measure and with a cooperation that is beyond measure.

If the historical shift is defined as epochal (ontologically so), then the criteria or dispositifs of measure valid for an epoch will radically be put under question. We are living through this shift, and it is not certain whether new criteria and dispositifs of measure are being proposed.

3) The multitude is a concept of power. Through an analysis of cooperation we can already reveal that the whole of singularities produces beyond measure. This power not only wants to expand, but, above all, it wants to acquire a body: the flesh of the multitude wants to transform itself into the body of the General Intellect.

It is possible to conceive of this shift, or rather, of this expression of power, by following three lines:

  1. The genealogy of the multitude in the shift from the modern to the postmodern (or, if you like, from Fordism to Postfordism). This genealogy is constituted by the struggles of the working class that have dissolved the "modern" forms of social discipline.
  2. The tendency towards the General Intellect. The tendency, constitutive of the multitude, towards ever more immaterial and intellectual modes of productive expression wants to configure itself as the absolute recuperation of the General Intellect in living labour.
  3. The freedom and joy (as well as crisis and fatigue) of this innovative shift, that comprises within itself both continuity and discontinuity, in other words, something can be defined as systoles and diastoles in the recomposition of singularities.

It is still necessary to insist on the difference between the notion of multitude and that of people. The multitude can neither be grasped nor explained in contractarian terms (once contractarianism is understood as dependent on transcendental philosophy rather than empirical experience). In the most general sense, the multitude is diffident of representation because it is an incommensurable multiplicity. The people is always represented as a unity, whilst the multitude is not representable, because it is monstrous vis a vis the teleological and transcendental rationalisms of modernity. In contrast with the concept of the people, the concept of multitude is a singular multiplicity, a concrete universal. The people constituted a social body; the multitude does not, because the multitude is the flesh of life. If on the one hand we oppose the multitude to the people, on the other hand we must put it in contrast with the masses and the plebs. Masses and plebs have often been terms used to describe an irrational and passive social force, violent and dangerous precisely by virtue of its being easily manipulated. On the contrary, the multitude is an active social agent, a multiplicity that acts. Unlike the people, the multitude is not a unity, but as opposed to the masses and the plebs, we can see it as something organised. In fact, it is an active agent of self-organisation. Thus, a great advantage of the concept of the multitude is that it displaces all modern arguments premised on the "fear of the masses" as well as those related to the "tyranny of the majority," arguments that have often functioned as a kind blackmail to force us to accept (and sometimes even ask for) our servitude.

From the perspective of power, what to make of the multitude? Effectively, there is really nothing that power can make of it, since here the categories that power is interested in — the unity of the subject (people), the form of its composition (contract amongst individuals) and the type of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, separate or combined) — have been put aside. On the other hand, that radical modification of the mode of production that went through the hegemony of the immaterial labour force and of cooperating living labour a real ontological, productive and biopolitical revolution — has turned all the parameters of "good government" upside down and destroyed the modern idea of a community that would function for capitalist accumulation, just as the capitalist desired it from the outset.

The concept of multitude introduces us to a completely new world, inside a revolution in process. We cannot but imagine ourselves as monsters, within this revolution. Gargantua and Pantagruel, between the 16th and 17th century, in the middle of the revolution that construed modernity, are giants whose value is that of emblems as extreme figures of liberty and invention: they go through the revolution and propose the gigantic commitment to become free. Today we need new giants and new monsters who can join together nature and history, labour and politics, art and invention in order to show the new power attributed to humanity by the birth of the General Intellect, the hegemony of immaterial labour, the new abstract passions and the activities of the multitude. We need a new Rabelais, or, better, many of them.

To conclude we note again that the primary matter of the multitude is the flesh, i.e. that common living substance where the body and the intellect coincide and are indistinguishable. Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes: "the flesh is not matter, nor mind, nor substance. In order to designate it we need the old and new term element, in the same sense as this term was used to speak of water, air, earth and fire, i.e. in the sense of a general thing — a sort of embodied principle that brings a style of being where there is a fragment of being. The flesh is in this sense an element of Being." Like the flesh, the multitude is then pure potentiality, unformed life force and an element of being. Like the flesh, the multitude is oriented towards the fullness of life. The revolutionary monster that is named multitude and appears at the end of modernity continuously wants to transform our flesh into new forms of life.

We can explain the movement of the multitude from the flesh to new forms of life from another point of view. This is internal to the ontological shift and constitutes it. By this I mean that the power of the multitude, seen from the singularities that compose it, can show the dynamic of its enrichment, density and freedom. The production of singularities does not simply amount to the global production of commodities and reproduction of society, but it is also the singular production of a new subjectivity. In fact, today (in the mode of immaterial production that characterises our epoch) it is very difficult to distinguish the production of commodities from the social reproduction of subjectivity, since there are neither new commodities without new needs nor reproduction of life without singular desire. What interests us at this point is to underline the global power of this process: in fact, it lays between globality and singularity according to a first rhythm (synchronic) of more or less intense connections (rhyzomatic, as they have been called) and another rhythm (diachronic), of systoles and diastoles, of evolution and crisis, of concentration and dissipation of the flux. In other words, the production of subjectivity, i.e. the production that the subject makes of itself, is simultaneously production of the density of the multitude because the multitude is a whole of singularities. Of course, someone insinuates that the multitude is (substantially) an improposable concept, even a metaphor, because one can give unity to the multiple only through a more or less dialectical transcendental gesture (just as philosophy has done from Plato to Hobbes and Hegel): even more so if the multitude (i.e. the multiplicity that refuses to represent itself in the dialectical Aufhebung) also claims to be singular and subjective. But the objection is weak: here the dialectical Aufhebung is ineffective because the unity of the multiple is for the multitude the same as that of living, and living can hardly be subsumed by the dialectics. Moreover, the dispositif of the production of subjectivity that finds in the multitude a common figure, presents itself as collective praxis, as always renewed activity and constitutive of being. The name "multitude" is, at once, subject and product of collective praxis.

Evidently, the origins of the discourse on the multitude are found in a subversive interpretation of Spinoza's thought. We could never insist enough on the importance of the Spinozist presupposition when dealing with this theme. First of all, an entirely Spinozist theme is that of the body, and particularly of the powerful body. "You cannot know how much a body can." Then, multitude is the name of a multitude of bodies. We dealt with this determination when we insisted on the multitude as power. Therefore, the body comes first both in the genealogy and in the tendency, both in the phases and in the result of the process of constitution of the multitude. But this is not enough. We must reconsider all the hitherto discussion from the point of view of the body, that is to say we must go back to points 1), 2), 3) of the preceding section, and complete them in this perspective.

  1. Once we define the name of the multitude against the concept of the people, bearing in mind that the multitude is a whole of singularities, we must translate that name in the perspective of the body and clarify the dispositif of a multitude of bodies. When we consider bodies, we not only perceive that we are faced with a multitude of bodies, but we also understand that each body is a multitude. Intersecting the multitude, crossing multitude with multitude, bodies become blended, mongrel, hybrid, transformed; they are like sea waves, in perennial movement and reciprocal transformation. The metaphysics of individuality (and/or of personhood) constitute a dreadful mystification of the multitude of bodies. There is no possibility for a body to be alone. It could not even be imagined. When man is defined as individual, when he is considered as autonomous source of rights and property, he is made alone. But one's own does not exist outside of the relation with an other. Metaphysics of individuality, when confronted with the body, negate the multitude that constitutes the body in order to negate the multitude of bodies. Transcendence is the key to any metaphysics of individuality as well as to any metaphysics of sovereignty. On the other hand, from the standpoint of the body there is only relation and process. The body is living labour, therefore, expression and cooperation, therefore, material construction of the world and of history.
  2. When we speak of multitude as class concept, hence of multitude as subject of production and object of exploitation — at this point, it is immediately possible to introduce the corporeal dimension, because it is evident that in production, in movements, in labour and in migrations, bodies are at stake, with all their vital dimensions and determinations. In production the activity of bodies is always productive force and often primary matter. In fact there could be no discussion of exploitation, whether it is concerned with commodity production or with life reproduction, that does not directly touch upon bodies. Then, the concept of capital (on one side the production of wealth, on the other the exploitation of the multitude) must always be realistically looked at also through the analysis of how far bodies are made to suffer, are usurped or mutilated and wounded, reduced to production matter. Matter equals commodity. We cannot simply think that bodies are commodified in the production and reproduction of capitalist society; we also have to insist on the reappropriation of goods and the satisfaction of desires, as well as on the metamorphoses and the empowerment of bodies, that the continuous struggle against capital determines. Once we recognise this structural ambivalence in the historical process of accumulation, we must pose the problem of its solution in terms of the liberation of bodies and of a project of struggle to this end. In other words, a materialist dispositif of the multitude can only start from the primary consideration of the body and of the struggle against its exploitation.
  3. We talked of the multitude as the name of a power (potenza), and as genealogy and tendency, crisis and transformation, therefore this discussion leads to the metamorphosis of bodies. The multitude is a multitude of bodies; it expresses power not only as a whole but also as singularity. Each period of the history of human development (of labour, power, needs and will to change) entails singular metamorphoses of bodies. Even historical materialism entails a law of evolution: but this law is anything but necessary, linear, and unilateral; it is a law of discontinuity, leaps, and unexpected syntheses. It is Darwinian, in the good sense of the word: as the product of a Heraclitean clash and an aleatory teleology, from below; because the causes of the metamorphoses that invest the multitude as a whole and singularities as a multitude are nothing but struggles, movements and desires of transformation.

By saying this we do not wish to deny that sovereign power is capable of producing history and subjectivity. However, sovereign power is a double-face power: its production can act in the relation but cannot eliminate it. At first, sovereign power (as relation of force) can find itself confronted with the problem of an extraneous power that obstructs it. Secondly, sovereign power finds its own limit in the very relation that constitutes it and in the necessity to maintain it. Therefore, the relation presents itself to sovereignty firstly as obstacle (where sovereignty acts in the relation), secondly as limit (where sovereignty wants to eliminate the relation but does not succeed in doing so). On the other hand, the power of the multitude (of the singularities that work, act, and sometimes disobey) is capable of eliminating the sovereign relation.

We have two assertions here. The first is: the production of sovereign power goes beyond the obstacle whilst not being able to eliminate the limit that consists in the relation of sovereignty. The second is: the power of the multitude can eliminate the sovereign relation because only the production of the multitude constitutes being. These can ground the opening to an ontology of the multitude. This ontology will start being exposed when the constitution of being that is attributed to the production of the multitude will be practically determinable.

It seems possible to us, from a theoretical point of view, to develop the axiom of the ontological power of the multitude on at least three levels. The first one is that of the theories of labour where the relationship of command can be demonstrated (immanently) as groundless (insussistente): immaterial and intellectual labour, in other words knowledge do not require command in order to be cooperative and to have universal effects. On the contrary: knowledge always exceeds with respect to the (trading) values that are meant to contain it. Secondly, a demonstration can be directly provided on the ontological terrain, on that experience of the common (that requires neither command nor exploitation), which is posited as ground and presupposition of any human productive and/or reproductive expression. Language is the primary form of constitution of the common, and when living labour and language meet and define themselves as ontological machine, then the experience that founds the common is realised. Thirdly, the power of the multitude can be exposed on the terrain of the politics of postmodernity, by showing how no conditions for a free society to exist and reproduce itself are given without the spread of knowledge and the emergence of the common. In fact, freedom, as liberation from command, is materially given only by the development of the multitude and its self constitution as a social body of singularities.

At this point, I would like to reply to some of the criticisms that have been levelled against this conception of the multitude, in order to move forward in the construction of the concept.

A first set of criticisms is linked to the interpretation of Foucault and its use made in the definition of the multitude. These critics insist on the improper homology supposedly given between the classical concept of proletariat and that of multitude. Such homology, they insist, is not only ideologically dangerous (since it flattens the postmodern onto the modern: just as the authors of Spat-modernitat do, who sustain the decadence of modernity in our time), but also metaphysically so, because it poses the multitude in a dialectical opposition against power. I completely agree with the first remark, we do not live in a "late modernity" but in "postmodernity" where an epochal rupture is given. I disagree with the second observation, because if we refer to Foucault, I cannot see how we can think that his notion of power excludes antagonism. On the contrary, his conception has never been circular, and in his analysis the determinations of power have never been trapped in a game of neutralisation. It is not true that the relation amongst micropowers is developed at all levels of society without institutional rupture between dominant and dominated. In Foucault, there are always material determinations, concrete meanings: there is no development that is levelled onto an equilibrium, so there is no idealist schema of historical development. If each concept is fixed in a specific archaeology, it is then open to a genealogy of a future unknown. The production of subjectivity in particular, however produced and determined by power, always develops resistances that open up through uncontainable dispositifs. Struggles really determine being, they constitute it, and they are always open: only biopower seeks their totalisation. In reality, Foucault's theory presents itself as an analysis of a regional system of institutions of struggles, crossings and confrontations, and these antagonistic struggles open up on omnilateral horizons. This concerns both the surface of the relations of force and the ontology of ourselves. It is not the case to go back to an opposition (in the form of a pure exteriority) between power and the multitude, but to let the multitude, in the countless webs that constitute it and in the indefinite strategic determinations that it produces, free itself from power. Foucault denies the totalisation of power but not the possibility that insubordinate subjects endlessly multiply the "foyers" of struggle and of production of being. Foucault is a revolutionary thinker; it is impossible to reduce his system to a Hobbesian epistemic mechanics of equipollent relations.

A second group of criticisms is directed against the concept of the multitude as potency and constituent power (potenza e potere costituente). The first criticism to this conception of powerful multitude is that it involves a vitalist idea of the constituent process. According to this critical point of view, the multitude as constituent power cannot, be opposed to the concept of the people as figure of constituted power: this opposition would make the name of multitude weak rather than strong, virtual rather than real. The critics who defend this point of view also assert that the multitude, once detached from the concept of the people and identified as pure power, risks of being reduced to an ethical figure (one of the two sources of ethical creativity, as seen by Bergson). Concerning this theme (but from an opposite side) the concept of the multitude is also criticised for its inability to ontologically become "other" or to present a sufficient critique of sovereignty. In this critical perspective, the constituent power of the multitude is attracted by its opposite: therefore, it cannot be taken as radical expression of innovation of the real, nor as thematic signal of a free people to come. So long as the multitude does not express a radicalism of foundation that subtracts it from any dialectics with power, — they say — it will always risk being formally included in the political tradition of modernity.

Both these criticisms are insubstantial. The multitude, as power, is not a figure that is homologous and opposed to the power of exception of modern sovereignty. The constituent power of the multitude is something different, it is not only a political exception but also a historical exception, it is the product of a radical temporal discontinuity, and it is ontological metamorphosis. Then, the multitude presents itself as a powerful singularity that cannot be flattened in the Bergsonian alternative of a possible and repetitive vitalistic function; neither can it be attracted to its pressing opponent, i.e. sovereignty, because the multitude, by existing, concretely dissolves the concept of sovereignty. This existence of the multitude, does not seeks a foundation outside of itself, but only in its own genealogy. In fact, there is no longer a pure or naked foundation or an outside: these are illusions.

A third set of criticisms, of a sociological rather than philosophical character attacks the concept of multitude by defining it as "hypercritical drift." We let the fortunetellers interpret what this "hypercritical" means. As far the "drift" is concerned, this consists in seeing the multitude as fixed in a place of refusal or rupture. As such, it is incapable of determining action, whilst destroying the very idea of acting since, by definition, starting from a place of absolute refusal, the multitude would close the possibility of relations and/or mediations with other social agents. The multitude, in this view, ends up representing a mythical proletariat or an equally mythical pure acting subjectivity. It is obvious that this criticism represents the exact opposite of the first set of criticisms. In this case, then, the response can only recall that the multitude has nothing to do with the reasoning logic dependent on the friend/enemy couple. The multitude is the ontological name of full against void, of production against parasitical survivals. The multitude does not know instrumental reason either on its outside nor for its use within. And since it is a whole of singularities, it is capable of the maximal amount of mediations and compromising constitutions within itself, when these are emblems of the common (whilst still operating, exactly as language does).

This article was published in the journal Multitudes numero 9 as "Pour une definition ontologique de la multitude," pp. 36-48.

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