Monday, April 9, 2012

Critique of Multitude

Deleuze & Guattari, along with their followers Hardt & Negri, both posit the idea of the nomad as a rhizomatic formation which has the effect of “warding off the state” as Deleuze & Guattari put it. The rhizomatic nomad has a tendency to become Empire, but as Hardt & Negri point out, it can also congeal into a non-hierarchical and sustainable form, which they name the multitude. While the multitude as a global challenge to Empire which operates against it at the same supranational scale is an attractive idea on the surface, when examined further, the multitude as a non-hierarchical sustainable nomadology which functions as an alternative to Empire ultimately fails as a concept.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari develop the idea of nomadology in relation to their concepts of the War Machine and the rhizome. The rhizome describes their image of thought which would allow multiple non-hierarchical entry and exit points into a body of knowledge. They contrast the rhizome with the traditional tree-like structure of knowledge, in which every leaf is connected to a branch which is connected to a trunk, which takes one back to the root. The ultimate example of a rhizome today is the internet, practically speaking it has no start and no end, just a multitude of non-hierarchical points of entry. Applying this structure to social formations, Deleuze & Guattari claim that the nomad, who operates in the form of a travelling pack, is rhizomatic in that the travelling pack prevents power from stabilizing.

The rhizomatic nomad is then the expression of what Deleuze & Guattari term the war machine, by which they do not mean the military of a state, but a formation which destabilizes power and acts by deterritorializing space. The war machine then works to ward off the state, in that the state tries to stabilize and conserve the organs of power, while the nomadic war machine with its deterritorializing and reterritorializing of space fundamentally disrupts such attempts by the state.

The prime example of the nomadic war machine that wards off the state formation that Deleuze & Guattari have in mind are the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan. Although their nomadic and pack structure warded off the state formation, they did become an empire. An empire which deterritorialized space and promoted circulation, which made it not only an empire formed by the fluctuations of nomadic warriors, but one in which commerce flourished. Deleuze & Guattari explicitly point to the connection between commerce and the nomadic war machine, and posit the state as an obstacle to the dynamic and smooth flows of commerce.

Today’s form of globalized capital, which is able to operate above the level of states, and in fact is able to constrain the power of the state, is then precisely an expression of rhizomatic nomadology. While this argument is part of the basis for Hardt & Negri’s Empire, Zizek in his book on Deleuze Organs Without Bodies, picks up on this fact to defame Deleuze & Guattari as “ideologists of today’s digital capitalism”. Zizek argues that today’s globalized capital is thoroughly rhizomatic, it operates without a power centre, and has a thoroughly nomadic formation which seeks to ward off the state. The neoliberal push for free trade and deregulation was global capital’s mostly successful attack on the old state-based economies of the Keynesian era. A Thousand Plateaus, written in the 70s and finished in 1980, was ostensibly written as a leftist critique of Keynesian state-capitalism, but today does in fact come across as apologetic for neoliberal attacks on the state.
Hardt & Negri however, are able to somewhat deflate Zizek’s critique, in that they accept that today’s form of globalized capital with immensely weakened states is precisely an expression of the rhizomatic nomadic war machine lauded by Deleuze & Guattari. What Hardt & Negri point out is that this new formation, called Empire, contains within it the potential for those who sustain its creative force to generate their own form of nomadic counter-empire, which would be a “an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges” operating on the same global terrain as Empire. Hardt & Negri name this nomadic potential counter-empire the multitude.

The multitude is then rhizomatic in nature, as it is not simply a new working class movement, but contains any group of exploited or subjugated people, all coming together under the banner of “absolute democracy”. The global nature of the multitude makes it global and nomadic, as it seeks to legitimize cross national flows of people and information through its demands for a global citizenship and a reappropriation of information. Thus while the multitude is positioned by Hardt & Negri as a sustainable nomadology that rejects the hierarchical alternative of Empire, the concept is inoperable for a number of reasons.

The first problem with the multitude is that it effectively lacks any real political content. For Hardt & Negri the key element of the multitude is its immaterial labour which directly produces new forms of social relations, rather than material goods. Thus computer programmers working on Twitter or Facebook are producing means through which we socialize with other. Creating such networks of communication and culture, in Hardt & Negri’s view, essentially allows these immaterial labourers to create society directly thus undermining the need for mediation in the form of the state or of corporations. If immaterial labour directly produces a networked and rhizomatic society, then the labourer is no longer alienated and in a Marxist sense is accelerating the contradictions of capitalism. If globalized capital relies on such creation of immaterial social relations (again Facebook is a good example), then corporations like Facebook are the gravediggers of capitalism as they are creating the infrastructure for a new society of direct cooperation and communication which would render private ownership and the state redundant.

In many ways Hardt & Negri remain too Marxist then, and ignore any political dimension to their idea of the commons produced by this immaterial labour. Social networks such as Facebook which form a large part of the new immaterial commons Negri speaks about remain today explicitly non-political (the best way to get defriended is to constantly comment on politics), and the question remains of how and why the production and people who constitute the multitude would all of a sudden unite to overthrow Empire without any concrete political space to enact this. Again we are left with the conundrum of Western Marxism, looking at the contradictions in capitalism, waiting for the proletariat to magically become conscious of their position and spark some kind of Benjamin-style divine violence. Highly paid software engineers at Google or Facebook, who can show up to work at noon, are given Fridays to work on any pet project they want, and have pool tables beside their computers are much less likely to obtain this revolutionary spark than Marx’s industrial working class ever were.

Even if the immaterial labourers did develop a revolutionary conscious, the concept of the multitude has the further problem of how to get people to join together across cultural, religious, and ethnic lines. Even if the circuits and flow of nomadic empiric capital make the Apple engineer in California aware of his or her connection with Apple tech support in Pakistan, Apple factory workers in China, and Apple consumers in Israel, cultural consciousness today is an overdetermining factor. If the Californian is an evangelical Christian, the Pakistani an Islamist, the Chinese worker an atheist, and the Israeli consumer an orthodox Jew, those divisions will prevent any revolutionary multitude from uniting in today’s political climate. Toward the end of Multitude, Hardt & Negri finally tell us what it is that they believe will bring the multitude together into political action, and it is love. While loving your neighbour is a theme of many of the religions which seem intractably opposed today, there seems very little prospect for people who are radically different (and who remain so inside the rhizomatic multitude) to simply put aside what were once differences worth killing for and start loving one another.

The problem of people within the multitude loving each other as neighbours as a kind of political glue has been seen as a problem for many theorists. In Lacan’s reading of Freud, the neighbour is someone who disturbs us, in loving the neighbour we recognize his or her aggressive and evil core. In the approach of the neighbour we recognize our own aggressive core, which Lacan calls our jouissance, a kind of excess enjoyment which pushes us to transgress limits and thus makes us suffer. Lacan states we dare not go near our own jouissance, for to do so would be to attempt to satisfy the death drive and would thus result in our own destruction. To love our neighbours in the multitude is to get too close to them, and to destroy the space between that is needed for a kind of philia politike that Aristotle speaks of, which is more of a general friendship which does not require the intimacy of love. For a political community to function, it does not require people to love each other, but merely for people who disagree to be willing to leave their disputes in the public realm and not resort to private violence. A politics based on love would have to be a politics of reconciliation with no conflict, which would effectively reduce politics into the mere administration of things. Conflict among lovers leads to the worst kind of wars, and would thus be impermissible in the multitude, rendering it once again into a form of the One, and undoing its dynamic and rhizomatic non-hierarchicalization.

Hardt & Negri claim that the advent of empire improves the chances of revolution, as now the global multitude is positioned directly against the global empire of capital, and the mediating notion of the state is no longer an obstacle. Workers of the world really can unite today, but where? At least with the existence of the state there was an object for the working class to take hold of and exercise hegemony through. As the Arab Springs demonstrated, the immaterial commons in the form of Twitter, Facebook, and even symbolic public space can be catalysts for revolution but without a concrete political project and imposing of a permanent political space, such revolutions are likely to get swallowed up by the forces of the administrative state and Empiric capital. The problem with nomads is that although they are good at deterritorializing and disrupting the organs of power, as Deleuze & Guattari point out, they do not seek to reterritorialize space and simply move on. In the case of the Arab Spring, the reterritorializing is now being left to the military or Islamist groups who are winning elections, thus mitigating much of the progress that was made during the revolution.

The problem is then with nomadology itself. What if instead of trying to oppose the nomadic Empire of globalized capital with a non-hierarchical nomadism of the multitude, we need to oppose the figure of the nomad itself? If the nomadic war machine warded off the state, we now essentially need to ward off the nomadic war machine in its guise of Empire. The creation of a global political stage is needed to provide a fixed space for the “multitude” to play out their conflict, both with the Empire of globalized capital and with each other. As Deleuze & Guattari point out, the nomad was always opposed to the fixed space of the polis, and thus the nomad is an inherently anti-political figure. To be political requires a space for politics, and although the new immaterial commons that Negri speaks of could very well constitute this global stage, to politicize it means to mark out a fixed space which is designated as explicitly political, and thus a rejection of the nomadic element. If politics is thought of as something other than the exercise of power over subjected populations then the state need not be invoked as an alternative to the nomad, but a participatory politics could be a third formation which by providing stability and also being global, could work to ward off the destructive effects of the nomadic Empire of globalized capital.


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