Archive for the ‘2002’ Category

Multitude and Metropolis

Posted: October 7, 2010 in 2002, Posse Journal

The multitude and the metropolis*
Antonio Negri
1. ‘Generalising’ the strike.

It is interesting to note how, on the occasion of the Spring and Summer 2002 struggles in Italy, the project of ‘generalising’ the strike of the movement of precarious and socially diffuse workers, men and women, seemed to be harmlessly and uselessly subsumed beneath the workers’ ‘general strike’. After this experience, many comrades who participated in the struggle began to realise that whilst the workers’ strike was ‘damaging’ to the employer, the social strike passed without notice through the folds of the global working day. It neither damaged the masters nor helped the mobile and flexible workers. This realisation raised a series of questions: how do we understand how the socially diffuse worker fights; how can he concretely subvert in the space of the metropolis his subordination to production and the violence of exploitation? How does the metropolis present itself to the multitude and is it right to say that the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory used to be to the working class?

In fact this hypothesis presents us with a problem, one not simply raised by the obvious differences between social and workers’ struggles in terms of their immediate efficacy. It also raises a more pertinent and general question: if the metropolis is invested by the capitalist relation of valorisation and exploitation, how can we grasp, inside it, the antagonism of the metropolitan multitude? In the 60’s and 70’s, as these problems emerged in relation to working class struggles and the changes in metropolitan life, often very effective responses were given. We will summarise these later. For the time being, we just want to underline how these responses were concerned with an external relation between working class and other metropolitan layers of wage and/or intellectual labour. The problem today is posed differently because the various sections of the labour force appear to exist in the metropolitan hybrid as an internal relation and immediately as multitude: a whole of singularities, a multiplicity of groups and subjectivities, who mould the (antagonistic) shape of metropolitan spaces.

2. Theoretical anticipations.

Amongst the theorists of the metropolis (architects and urbanists), Koolhaas was the one who provided us, at the end of the 70’s and in a delirious manner, with a new image of the metropolis. We are obviously referring to Delirious New York . What was the central thesis of this book?

Koolhaas drew an image of the metropolis that -because of but in spite of a more or less coherently developed planning- lived through dynamics, conflicts, powerful juxtapositions of cultural layers, life styles and forms and of a multiplicity of hypothesis and projects for the future.
In order to understand the city, one had to look at this complexity and this microphysics of powers from within. New York in particular was the example of an extraordinary historical, political, technological and artistic accumulation of various forms of urban planning. However, this was not enough, for one also had to recognise that the metropolis was stronger than the urban centre. Speculative interests and citizens’ resistances defeated and swept away both the prescriptions of power and the utopias of the opposition. The metropolis confused and mixed the terms of the urban discourse: starting from a certain urban intensity, the metropolis constituted new categories, it was a proliferating machine. The measure went beyond itself. What was needed was to provide a microphysical analysis of the metropolis -in this case one of New York- that could account for both the thousands of active singularities and the forms of repression and blockage that the power of the multitude met. Thus Koolhaas’ architecture grew amongst great plans of urban co-habitation that were then taken up, modified and mixed with other architectural forms…Koolhaas’ architecture tells a great story, that of the destruction of western cities and their replacement by the hybrid metropolis. That for Koolhaas architectural development is classified in a manner functional to the different organising techniques of the building work is not relevant, though useful to understand. What is of interest here is the exact opposite: despite the industrial corporativasation of the agents of production, here we perceive how far the metropolis organises itself on continuous yet distorted layers, consistent with the Welfare paradigm yet hybrid. The metropolis is a common world, everyone’s product – Not general will but common aleatoriness.

Thus the metropolis wants to be imperial. Koolhaas is a forerunner of weak postmodernism. Drawing from the genealogy of the metropolis, he anticipates an operation that will become crucial in mature postmodernism: the recognition of the global dimension as a more productive and generous one from the economic standpoint and with respect to lifestyles.

This critical effort is neither solitary nor neutral. On the contrary, it produces a different critique; it entrusts it into the real movement. For instance, when we introduce differential and antagonistic elements in the knowledge of the city and we make them the motor of metropolitan construction, we also compose other fields of living and fighting – common ones. Another example concerns the metropolis and collectivation. Surely, this old socialist word is now obsolete and surpassed in the consciousness of new generations. But this is not a problem. The project is not one of collectivation but of recognition and organisation of the common. A common made of a great wealth of life styles, of collective means of communication and life reproduction, and above all of the exceeding of common expression of life in metropolitan spaces. We enjoy a second generation of metropolitan life, creator of cooperation and exceeding in immaterial relational linguistic values: it is a productive generation. Here is the metropolis of the singular and collective multitude.

Many postmodernists reject the possibility of regarding the metropolis of the multitude as a collective and singular space, massively common and subjectively malleable and always newly invented. These rejections turn the analyst into the buffoon or the sycophant of power. In fact we have recuperated the ideas of external economies, of immaterial dynamics, of cycles of struggles and all that makes up the multitude.
New York is postmodern in so far as it has participated to all stages of the modern and has, so to speak, consumed them in critique and in prefiguring something else: the result is hybrid, the metropolitan hybrid as a spatial and temporal figure of the struggles, a plan of the microphysics of power.
3. Metropolis and global space.

Before and more than anyone else, Saskia Sassen taught us to see the metropolis, all metropolises, not only -like Koohlaas- as a hybrid and internally antagonistic aggregate, but also as a figure homologous to the general structure of capitalism in the imperial phase. Metropolis expresses and individualises the consolidation of global hierarchies, in its most articulated points, in a complex of forms and exercise of command. Class differences and the general planning of the division of labour are no longer made between nations, but rather between centre and periphery in the metropolis. Sassen observes skyscrapers in order to draw implacable lessons. Who commands is at the top, who obeys is below; in the isolation of those who are highest lies the link with the world, whilst in the communication of those who are lowest one finds mobile points, life styles and renewed functions of metropolitan recomposition. Therefore, we must traverse the possible spaces of the metropolis if we want to knot together the threads of struggle, to discover the channels and forms of connection and the ways in which subjects live together.
Sassen suggests looking at skyscrapers as the structure of imperial unification. At the same time she hints to the subtle provocative proposal of imagining the skyscraper as an above and below rather than as a whole. Between the above and below runs the relation of command, of exploitation and therefore the possibility of revolt.

Sassen’s themes strongly resonated in Europe in the 90’s when, with some difficulty and yet effectively, some antagonistic forces started seeing the structure of the metropolis as the mirror of the contradictions of globalisation. In fact, whether there were skyscrapers or not, the global order re-established an above and a below in the metropolis, that of a relation of exploitation that spread across the internal horizon of urban society. Sassen showed the places and the relations of exploitation and dissolved the multitude, bringing it back to the dispersed exercise of material activities. On the other side there is command. Blade Runner has become science fiction.
4. Historical anticipations.

Others see the metropolises of skyscrapers and of Empire as places of struggle that can reveal common aspects and above all embody organisations and procedures of resistance and subversion. In this respect, one example immediately comes to mind: the Parisian struggles of the winter of 1995-96. These struggles are to be remembered because at the time the privatisation plans of public transport were rejected not only by the trade unions but also by the combined struggles of the metropolitan population. However, these struggles could never have reached their great intensity and importance without being traversed and somehow prefigured by the struggles of sans papiers, sans logement, sans-travail etc. This is to say that metropolitan complexity at its highest level opens up lines of flight to the whole of the urban poor: then the metropolis, even the imperial one, wakes up to antagonism.

These developments and antagonisms were anticipated during the seventies: in Germany, the United States and Italy. The great shift of the frontline from the factory to the metropolis, from class to multitude, was theoretically and practically experienced and organised by many vanguards. ‘Reclaim the city’ was a persistent, important and overwhelming watchword in Italy. Similar words went through the German Bürger-initiativen and the squatters’ experiences in most European metropolises. Factory workers recognised themselves in this development, whilst the order of the unions and that of the parties of the working class movement ignored it. The refusal to pay transport fares, the massive occupations of houses, the seizing of districts for the organisation of free time and for the security of workers against the police and fiscal agents were projects carried out with great care. These zones were then called ‘red bases’ but were in fact more city spaces for public opinion rather than places as such. Sometimes they were decisively non-places – they were mass demonstrations in motion that went through and occupied squares and territories. Thus the metropolis began to be rebuilt by a strange alliance: factory workers and metropolitan proletarians. Here we started to see how powerful this alliance could be.

At the basis of these political experiences there was another greater theoretical experimentation. At the beginning of the 70’s we started observing a metropolis invaded by skyscrapers with globalisation, but also built by the transformations of labour practices in the course of their realisation. Alberto Magnaghi and his comrades published a formidable journal (Quaderni del Territorio) that showed, more convincingly in each issue, how capital was investing the city and transforming each street into a productive flux of commodities. The factory was then extended onto society: this much was evident. But it also became clear that this productive investment of the city radically modified class struggle.
5. Police and war.

In the 90’s the great transformation of productive relations that invested the metropolis reached a quantitative limit and configured a new phase. Capitalist recomposition of the city, or the metropolis, is given in all its complexity by the new configuration of the relations of forces in Empire. Mike Davis was the first to provide an adequate image of the phenomena that characterise the postmodern metropolis.
The erection of walls to delimit zones the poor cannot access, the definition of spaces of ghettos where the desperate of the earth can accumulate, the disciplining of the lines of transit and control that keep the order, the preventive analysis and practice of containment and persecution of possible interruptions of the cycle: today, in the literature on empire, when the continuity between war and global police is mentioned we often neglect to say that the continuous and homogeneous techniques of war and police were invented in the metropolis.
‘Zero tolerance’ has become the watchword, or rather, the dispositif of prevention that invests entire social strata whilst persevering against the refractory and excluded individuals. Skin colour and race, or religious clothing, customs or class differences are, in turns, assumed as the defining elements of the repressive zoning within the metropolis.
The metropolis is built on these dispositifs. As we said regarding Sassen’s work, the spatial dimensions, the width and height of buildings and public spaces are completely subordinated to the logic of control. This occurs wherever it is possible. In the spaces where the housing capital determines too high a profit to be turned into instruments of direct control through the application of heavy urban processes the metropolitan landscape is covered in electronic control networks and traversed by representations of danger that televisions and helicopters design. Soon on each city we will see gathered those instruments of automatic control, autopilot planes and police clones that the army currently use as norm in wars. Soon the enclosures and red zones will be established according to logic of control planes: urban planning will have to interiorise the forms of aerial global control and prioritise them over the freedom to develop spaces and society. It is clear that in so saying we exasperate trends that are still limited and only represent one part of metropolitan development. As in the theory of war here the enormous capacity for developing violence on the part of power, the so called total asymmetry, generates adequate responses: the ghost of David against the reality of Goliath. Similarly the ‘zero tolerance’planning of control on the city produces new forms of resistance. The metropolitan network is continuously interrupted and sometimes subverted by webs of resistance.
The capitalist recomposition of the metropolis builds traces of recomposition in the multitude. The fact is that in order to be given control itself must recognise, or even build, transindividual schemes of citizenship. All of urban sociology, from the Chicago School to our days, acknowledges that within a framework of extreme individualism, the concepts and schemes of interpretation must assume transindividual dimensions, almost those of community. Analysis must be applied to the development of these forms of life. This is how determinate localisations of the movements of the multitude and definite spaces in the metropolis will be discovered. Spatial and temporal determinations of the habitat and income (consumption) are used to design the contours of districts and to determine the behaviours of populations. War as the legitimation of order and the police as the instrument of order: these powers that are assumed as the constituent function of the metropolis and take the place of citizens and movements cannot get through. Again, the analysis of the metropolis refers back to the perception of the excess of value produced by the cooperation of immaterial labour. The crisis of the metropolis is moved much further.
6. Building the metropolitan strike.

They told me that when the ‘general 24 hours strike’ was launched in Seville, during the night, from midnight onwards, groups formed in all districts to block all roads, all boites de nuit and to communicate to the city the urgency of struggle.
This lasted for a whole day alongside a general mobilisation on the metropolitan territory concentrated in the afternoon in mass demonstrations. Here is a good example of management of a general strike: a metropolitan strike where throughout the 24 hours of the working day, different sections of social labour meet. However, this formidable political movement seems insufficient to characterise a ‘generalised strike’. We need to go deeper and analyse specifically each passage and/or movement of recomposition, each moment of struggle that can flow into the construction of a social strike. Why are we saying this? Because we regard the metropolitan strike as the specific form of recomposition of the multitude in the metropolis. The metropolitan strike is not a socialisation of the working class strike: it is a new form of counter power. We still do not know how it operates in time and space. What we know is that a functionalist sociology, one of those that puts together various sections of social recomposition of labour under capitalist control, will not design a metropolitan strike. The encounter, the clash and the intertwining and moving forward of the different strata of the metropolitan multitude cannot be seen other than as constructions (through struggle) of movements of power. How does this movement become capable of spreading power? For us the answer does not allude to the Winter Palace. Metropolitan revolts do not pose the question of substituting a mayor: they express new forms of democracy and schemes other than those of control. Metropolitan revolt is always a refoundation of the city.

7. Rebuilding the metropolis.

Hence ‘generalised strike’ must contain in itself the ‘delirious’ project of rebuilding the metropolis. This entails finding the common and building metropolitan proximities. We have two figures that are absolutely indicative of this project, they lie at the extreme margins of a scale of community: the fire fighter and the immigrant.
The fire fighter represents the common as security, as recourse of all in case of danger, as the constructor in the common imaginary of children; the immigrant is the man needed to give colour to the metropolis as well as meaning to solidarity. The fire fighter is the danger, the immigrant is the hope. The fire fighter is insecurity; the immigrant is what is to come. When we think of the metropolis we conceive of it as the physical community that is wealth and production of cultural community. Nothing better than the metropolis indicates the design of a sustainable development, a synthesis of ecology and production in the biopolitical framework. In this period, today, we are carrying the weight of a series of old ignoble and impotent schemes of social democracy, according to which the metropolis can only reproduce if we introduce in it social safety valves that can be used to turn (and eventually to repair) the dramatic effects of capitalist development into money. Politicians and corrupt unions are negotiating these safety valves… We think that the metropolis is an exceptional and excessive resource even when the city is made up of favelas, barracks and chaos. Neither schemes of order, prefigured by an omnipotent power (from the earth to the sky through war and police), nor neutralising structures (repressions, cushions etc.) can be imposed on the metropolis and inside its social tissue. The metropolis is free. The freedom of the metropolis stems from the building and rebuilding that it carries out on itself day by day; the ‘general strike’ is inserted in this framework. It is the prolonging or rather the manifestation or revelation of what is alive in the depth of the city. Probably in Seville the ‘general strike’ was also the discovery of that other society that lives in the metropolis during the whole of the working day.
We do not know whether things really went that way: however, what we want to underline is that the ‘general strike’ is a kind of radical excavation in the life of the metropolis: its productive structure and its common.

*Published on the journal Posse and then circulated on on 20/11/02

Translated by Arianna Bove



Towards an ontological definition of multitude.

Translated by Arianna Bove. This article was published on the journal Multitudes numero 9 as ‘Pour une definition ontologique de la multitude’.(p. 36-48) This article has also appeared in  Reflections on Empire published by Polity Press

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’ view the multitude was 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 [1] , whether of empirical or idealist origin, is in equal parts a theory of transcendence and of dissolution of the plane of immanence. 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; [page 2] 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 [2] . 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 [3] 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 [4] . Through an analysis of cooperation we can already reveal that the whole of singularities produces beyond measure. This power [5] not only wants to expand, but, above all, it wants to acquire a body [6] : 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 [7] , by following three lines:

a)       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.

b)      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.

c)       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.

[page 4]

From the perspective of power [8] , 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 [9] 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.

[page 5] 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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12] . 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 [13] . 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.

Ad1) 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.

Ad2) 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.

Ad3) 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).

Translated by Arianna Bove. This article was published on the journal Multitudes numero 9 as ‘Pour une definition ontologique de la multitude’.(p. 36-48)

Translator’s notes:

  • [1] ‘Il giusnaturalismo moderno’
  • [2] ‘…produzione di cui vengono fatti attori gli individui…’
  • [3] potere
  • [4] potenza
  • [5] potenza
  • [6] conquistare un corpo
  • [7] potenza
  • [8] potere
  • [9] potere
  • [10] potenza
  • [11] potenza
  • [12] l’unita’ del molteplice e’ per la moltitudine la medesima del vivente ed il vivente e’ assai difficilmente sussumibile nella dialettica.