Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri warn the reader, in the preface to Multitude: War and Democracy in the age of Empire, “this is a philosophical book…do not expect [it] to answer the question, What is to be done?” Despite this warning, however, that aching and persistent question hangs over their argument for the rest of the book. If Hardt and Negri’s central premise is correct, and the living alternative to Empire is now the multitude, this raises – as quickly as a reader of philosophical books can remind them of thesis eleven – a familiar question: does the concept of the multitude help illuminate how to bring to life this alternative? Or, to put it more directly, in the face of the war, brutality and injustice of Empire, what is to be done?

But of course Hardt and Negri’s reluctance to answer this question is very understandable. As they point out in their previous book Empire, it took the Paris Commune for Marx to develop his understanding of revolution, surely we need a 21st century revolutionary outbreak before we can begin to describe how the multitude will organize itself to create a new society. The one inkling they provide us with is the global justice movement which, according to Negri “in social terms the multitude represented at Genoa [at the G8 demonstrations] the first full representation of the new layer of precarious workers in “social” labour produced by the revolution of post-Fordism.”

The emergence of the global justice movement, which we felt in Australia with the WEF protests in 2000, was a powerful impetus for activists around the world, particularly in developed countries where an ability to conceptualize mass anti-capitalist movements had been most lacking. We felt part of a multitude which was on the offensive – we stopped the WTO round in Seattle and again in Cancun, we shut down the WEF for a day, we put the IMF on the back foot, we made the financial institutions feel the need to explain themselves. Despite the youth and inexperience of the movement it was strong beyond our expectations.

But the joy in our new power also faded fast. The state response was violent, we could not stop the war in Iraq, and the spectacle of summit hopping became less novel and appealing over time. The multitude seemed to well up but also drain away leaving a bittersweet mixture of euphoria and disappointment.

So what pathway does a concept such as the multitude provide us with? Hardt and Negri’s return to Benedict de Spinoza’s multitude is premised on a series of changes which they feel have unsettled a traditional understanding of class. Encapsulated in the term post-Fordism, these changes revolve around the hegemonic position of immaterial labour, the subsumption of society under capital and the penetration of capital into the production and reproduction of life (biopolitics). As the field of exploitation of life under capitalism has expanded they have refused to maintain the field of exploitation of labour at the site of production alone. The growth in job mobility, part-time and casual work, the diffusion of production into the informal economy, and the growth in intellectual labour does not mean, they argue, the end of the working class. As Negri explains, “the only possible answer to this, from the working-class viewpoint, is to insist on, and fight for, the broadest definition of class unity, to modify and to extend the concept of working class productive labour.”

What is uplifting about Negri’s interpretation of Spinoza is that he provides us with an effective “other” to power, “a radically distinct, sustainable and irrecuperable alternative for the organization of society.” This “other” lies in the translation of the word power itself. The English language only provides one word for power  whereas the Latin word used by Spinoza breaks down into two aspects potestas (the centralized, mediating, transcendental force of command) and potentia (local, immediate actual force of constitution). The antagonism between these two aspects of power unfolds in Negri’s mind into the potestas of capitalist relations of production and the potentia of the multitude. In returning to the term multitude Negri brings into life a constitutive mass which cannot be reduced to “the people” and spoken for by a higher power, nor can it be manipulated or lead from the outside like the mob. The multitude is a multiplicity of singularities which contains the potentia of a new society.

Faced with the dizzying number of debates which spin off from these assertions it feels tempting to find shelter in the comfort of “old skool” Marxism and a traditional understanding of the working class. As tempting, I must admit, as I found an outright reject of postmodernism in earlier debates. But as time has shown in that particular controversy, whilst the more mono-subjectivist “there is no external reality” currents within postmodernism have dimmed, gone forever too is the universalizing subject position of the working class. As Frederick Jameson pointed out there was a cultural logic to post-modernism which was the result of social and economic changes bought about by late-, or what we would now called globalised-, capitalism.

The cultural logic of the multitude finds its roots in the same soil. In the developed world the experience of labour has fragmented from one which can be easily organised at the site of production (gone are the days of the Fiat Factory which brought together the most militant and powerful workers all under the same roof) and our search for a revolutionary agent needs to expand to encompass this reality. The multitude emerges as a concept as much from the theorizing of Hardt and Negri as from the dynamic of life itself.

The term has it dangers of course. Hiding behind some people’s enthusiasm for it is a desire to turn a blind eye to the large numbers of workers who still sweat it out in contemporary Fordist factories which have been displaced by globalization out of the old industrial heartlands into the new export processing zones and global sweatshops. Or even in others to counter-pose the seemingly prosaic struggles and experiences of industrial workers to the new more “poetic” and de-classed multitude. The term is poetic enough to provide a safe haven for these, and many other misunderstandings. But it has entered our lexicon because it answers a conceptual need to describe changes in the experience of labour particularly in the developed world.

Marx reminds us in Grundrisse that production “not only creates an object for the subject but also a subject for the object.” The answer to the question I began this discussion with ultimately lies in the revolutionary potential of the subjectivity of the multitude – in its ability to grow from an agency “in itself” to an agency “for itself”. Whilst the experience of labour may have become more fragmented and complex, all of us, whether we work as immaterial labourers or not, are alienated both from the object and subject of our labour. The struggle against this reification requires a struggle against the externality of capitalist production but also the internal aspects of our subjectivity which have been shaped by this process, that is between the aspects of our subjectivity which we sell as a commodity and ourselves (as we could be). Our potentia lies in our ability to resolve this division.

Translation: Alexei Penzin

Zanny Begg (born 1972) is an artist, critic, and activist of the global movement for justice. She lives in Sidney, Australia.