It wouldn’t be controversial to say that the 21st century’s global politics are defined by war. The War on Terror, the occupation of Iraq, the breakdown of people’s revolutions across the Arab World into further repression and a true Fourth World War in scope and international involvement.
All these demonstrations of state military power might make you think that we live in an era where states are consolidating their power over people through their militaries and police. And all that is true.
But we also live in an era of popular revolt against all those wars, the military incursions, the encroaching of surveillance on all our lives, and police violence against the population they ostensibly exist to protect. So is the real story of the ongoing century one of state power or popular revolt?
The answer, of course, is both. Which is why it’s so important for us to seize what victories we can in this moment. But what does it even mean to claim or consolidate a victory in today’s political environment?
There's a section in Antonio Negri’s Multitude where he goes through what different critics from the academic left have declared him to be. They’re the kinds of things that a right-wing libertarian or conservative would call him too. The book is about exploring the powers and potentials of the multitude, and it can be easy to misinterpret what the multitude actually is.
Multitude is how a thoroughly networked model of political organizing constitutes the politically active public. Sovereign power – the state, its militaries, police, and other command-and-control apparatuses – constitutes itself in direct action. Crackdowns, surgical strikes, targeted assassination, riot police.
Network politics has no strict command-and-control structure. That’s what lets so many different political movements work together – no one has to give up any of their own ideals or programs in exchange for solidarity, only come together in a single, mutually beneficial campaign.
A network’s direct actions are more about creating demonstrations and teachable moments about some systematic injustice. So we can see how we’re embedded in that systematic injustice and learn how to change our minds and lives to erode that injustice.
Sovereign power is about the use of force. Network power is about transforming our society by, one at a time, transforming how we understand ourselves and who we are. It’s about creating new subjectivities.
What I’d call the most damaging accusation against Negri that misunderstands what the multitude is, is the one that calls it a new vanguard. Essentially, it accuses Negri and his collaborator Michael Hardt of being old-school, unrevised Leninists.
The centrepiece of Vladimir Lenin’s political program was that the Bolshevik Party would act as a vanguard – a political avant-garde movement in Russian society that would capture state power and use it to radically reshape its industries, social structures, and subjectivities.
Calling the multitude a vanguard puts Negri in the camp of these authoritarians. Which, for someone with such a massive hatred as Negri’s for the oppressive power of any state institution at all, is laughable.
We’ve learned the lesson by now that using the state to change social values through coercion never quite takes – it breeds resistance and resentment of the very values you’re trying to push on people. The human spirit that brings people to revolt against oppressive institutions and actions is, as far as Negri (and I) are concerned, is the purest spirit of human democracy.
Too many people presume that left-wing politics is always about using state control to force changes on the population’s minds and spirits. The political left wing used to believe that, but we’re thoroughly over it. What really transforms humanity is much more profound . . . To be continued.