Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins’s review of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s trilogy-completing Commonwealth in Issue 10 of N+1 was unsurprising at the time, but fewer than two months after its publication, has become indefensible. Titled “Multitude, Are You There?,” Robbins’s piece repeats the standard critiques of the Empire series that have been in heavy intellectual circulation since the first book became a surprise best(ish) seller:
“Hardt and Negri’s problem with love is also their problem with organization: they don’t much like either in any of their actual forms. And this same problem underlines the structural flaw at the heart of their concept of the multitude. On the one hand, what they call ‘organization’ is, as they say, the necessary criterion for any would-be agent of revolution; as they say, it is what they ‘must establish.’ On the other hand, Hardt and Negri don’t actually believe in organization. That is, they don’t think it’s a good thing: ‘traditional organizational forms based on unity, central leadership, and hierarchy are neither desirable nor effective.’ But since these are the only forms of organization that can count as organization (an organization without unity or leadership is one hand clapping), what they’re really saying is that they recognize the multitude only when it is not organized, when it is an anarchic array of singularities. If they see the multitude, they do not see organization. If they see organization, they do not see the multitude.”
Is this a crisis of terminology, imagination, or some Wittgensteinian combination of the two? Like a single hand clapping, Robbins finds, as many have before him, the multitude riddled with contradictions; it is the organization of the disorganized, the productive labor of those who refuse work, the people of no state. Such a nebulous and dialectical concept makes it easy for the skeptics to demand the multitude appear before them so that its existence might be demonstrated. If the multitude is the phoenix that might restart history out of the ashes of neoliberalism, then the cynics have taken the eventless pile of dust as proof negative. But already in this young year, even the most world-weary and jaded among us has been forced to see something that looks new. In Tunisia first and now in Egypt, people clap with one hand.
They have burned the police stations and party offices, they have attacked and appropriated from the wealthy neighborhoods, they have co-opted the army, battled the police in the streets, and brought an entrenched (and U.S.-backed) regime to its knees. And who are they? Or perhaps: what is this they? The descriptive term I’ve heard used most often in news interviews, Twitter reports, and from a friend on the ground is “everyone.” The government has shrunk to the size of more or less one, and it has demonstrated no ability to enforce the mandated curfew: perhaps the primary requirement of a security state. What, then, does exist? If we speak of “the people” as a bounded political concept, it is insufficient to describe the marchers. Though it can exist without a nation, “the people” is by definition a sovereign unity that shares the ability to delegate authority. So far – and this is not necessarily to say it won’t happen – we haven’t seen the expected coalescing around opposition leaders or parties. Even with the support of The Muslim Brotherhood, opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei seems a long way from becoming a transitional prime minister. (I read a number of reports of protesters yelling “You’re late!” as he arrived to address the crowds.)
The Italian theorist Paolo Virno’s definition of the multitude (one of the best, in my opinion), offers a different kind of collective subject:
“Even the many need a form of unity, of being a One. But here is the point: this unity is no longer the State; rather, it is language, intellect, the communal faculties of the human race. The One is no longer a promise, it is a premise. Unity is no longer something (the State, the sovereign) towards which things converge, as in the case of the people; rather it is taken forgranted, as a background or a necessary precondition. The many must be thought of as the individualization of the universal, of the generic, of the shared experience. This, in asymmetric manner, we must conceive of a One which, far from being something conclusive, might be thought of as the base which authorizes differentiation or which allows for the political-social existence of the many seen as being many.”
Although it may only last for a moment, we can glimpse the many as many in Egypt right now. The ad hoc safety committees are not the rich protecting themselves and their property from the proletarian mobs let loose, hoping Mubarak will hold on, they are Egyptian neighbors who have taken it upon themselves (and each other) to organize and protect. Where Robbins was able to write derisively of Hardt and Negri “They dislike socialism more than they dislike the corporations,” we can now see the kind of resistance the authors outline. He associate their desire for openness and fluidity as a reckless gesture toward anarcho-capitalism, but this crisis has called into being the kind of organization Robbins, caught between models of the state and the corporation, refuses to imagine. The safety patrols are neither state, party, nor corporation, their composition worries those on the traditional right and left, who imagine them as either a prelude to Jacobin terror or a looting mob. But as the lede to this Times article makes clear, we’re not witnessing the rise of the Egyptian Tea Party; the analysis of the Tunisian revolution as a popping of the education bubble is much closer to reality.
What Hardt and Negri (and others, [like Virno, who often do so better] on the post-operaismo ultra-left) offer is a theoretical understanding of the events in Egypt that isn’t dismissive of their novelty. Where some see Iran in ’79 or France in ’89, post-operaismo recognizes that the Egyptians have no mediating entity adequate for channeling their struggle. No opposition party (or invading state – notice how Bush isn’t on Fox celebrating the wave of democracy through the Arab world) could have planned and executed the revolution as successfully as the multitude has. From the selection of targets to its militant will, the protesters (surely we can call them revolutionaries?) have demonstrated strategy and organization that some on the traditional left believe shouldn’t be possible without dozens of plenary meetings and thousands (hundreds?) of sold newspapers. From where does this insurrectionary knowledge issue? Robbins would have us believe that Hardt and Negri hope naively for a coincidence of joy and rainbows and sunshine, that they think the multitude will just know what to do because that’s what makes it happy. When the reviewer refers to the authors’ “anarchist silliness,” the caricature supposedly unfounded faith in the crowd’s knowledge might be a good example. But that would be to ignore the foundations of Negri’s concept of immaterial labor – perhaps the theoretical move for which he has faced the most criticism. The claim in Empire that all labor is immaterial labor strikes a lot of critics as abstract at best and classist at worst, but we can trace this argument back to Negri’s early work, before he has even picked up the term “multitude.”
In the pamphlet “Domination and Sabotage” (1977), Negri draws the immaterial aspect of all work out of the practice of sabotage. The fact that workers know how to reverse the work they do into the appropriative non-work of sabotage reveals the implicit knowledge-work. We can see the same principle at play on the streets of Egypt where citizens are sabotaging their state. The Egyptians know the critical points of the security structure because they are the ones who have been performing the cognitive labor of citizenship. If they knew where they could find the police stations that now lay in ashes, it’s because they have had to avoid or be bailed out of them. They have reversed their place in the police apparatus, rather than use their knowledge-work to reproduce the system, they have repurposed it for sabotage.
I don’t think Egypt will be the domino that starts the global revolution, but I will be surprised if this new decade doesn’t include more insurrections of the same character. The world is young, educated, connected*, and dispossessed. There are no institutions adequate for their grievances, no parties, unions, or states. And yet, the Egyptians haven’t left the streets. Reaffirming my belief in poetic justice and the use of grandiose terminology in theory books, one of Robbins’s most unfair critiques of Commonwealth was on the concept of “exodus.”
Here’s what Robbins wrote:
“In part perhaps because of Negri’s time in prison**, escape becomes an explicit motto of their politics. ‘The multitude must flee the family, the corporation, and the nation . . .’ Some, they note, will be ‘reluctant to accept a notion of class struggle as exodus.’ Well, they’ve got that right. However unglamorous, it makes more sense to think of the task of politics as staying to fight, and it makes more sense to think of the common as what is fought for.”
Here’s what Hardt and Negri wrote:
“By exodus we mean, at least initially, a process of subtraction from the relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power. Exodus is thus not a refusal of the productivity of biopolitical labor-power but rather a refusal of the increasingly restrictive fetters placed on its productive capacities by capital. It is an expression of the productive capacities that exceed the relationship with capital achieved by stepping through the opening in the social relation of capital and across the threshold. As a first approximation, then, think of this form of class struggle as a kind of maroonage. Like the slaves who collectively escape the chains of slavery to construct self-governing communities and quilombos, biopolitical labor-power subtracting from its relation to capital must discover and construct new social relationships, new forms of life that allow it to actualize its productive powers. But unlike that of the maroons, this exodus does not necessarily mean going elsewhere. We can pursue a line of flight while staying right here, by transforming the relationship of production and mode of social organization under which we live.” (emphasis added)
“‘These big guys are stealing all the money,’ said Mohamed Ibraham, a 24-year-old textile worker standing at his second job as a fruit peddler in a hard-pressed neighborhood called Dar-al-Salam. ‘If they were giving us our rights, why would we protest? People are desperate.’
He had little sympathy for those frightened by the specter of looting. He complained that he could barely afford his rent and said the police routinely humiliated him by shaking him down for money, overturning his cart or stealing his fruit. ‘And then we hear about how these big guys all have these new boats and the 100,000 pound villas. They are building housing, but not for us — for those people up high.'”
“‘We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police,’ said Khalid Toufik, 40, a dentist. He said that he also took shifts in his neighborhood watch, along with students and workers. ‘It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or a Christian,’ he said, ‘we all have the same goal.’
‘I am glad, that they are all on the streets to protect us from robbers,’ said Hannan Selbi, 21, a student. ‘We are sure that it’s in the interest of the government to create chaos.‘
Soon after Mr. Mardini’s first tentative steps, committee members were recognizable by the simple white armbands they wore, often just strips of fabric. They created logos and distributed fliers asking for more help from the public. Some wear photocopied pieces of paper on their chests like marathon runners’ numbers. Mr. Mardini wore a badge that read simply People’s Committee in red Arabic. But the way people walked up to him and began talking, it appeared he needed no introduction.
The civic enterprise is now divided into four branches: traffic, cleanup, protection and emergency response.
Though others refer to him as the head of the committee, Mr. Mardini said: ‘We don’t have a leader. This is our country, and we all have to protect it.‘” (emphasis added)
Against sizable odds and the derision of at least one Columbia University professor, there looks to be exodus again in Egypt. I’m excited to see where they’re going.
*It’s worth noting that social media technologies, rather than enabling these insurrections, are produced by the same social forces.
**Cheap shot, especially if you’re going to call him “silly” and he did hard time for writing about joy.