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#10: How do politics begin? Part II

Alexei Penzin /// After the “United and Indivisible”: Multitudes in Post-Soviet Space

In post-Soviet intellectual and political space, the conception of multitude as a new form of social subjectivity has hardly been very fortunate. The problems in its reception begin with the very translation of the term itself: in the Russian edition of Negri and Hardt’s “Empire,” “multitudes” is mistranslated as “masses,” when this term was actually introduced, among other things, to mark an important difference in relation to the very masses it now invokes!

In post-Soviet intellectual and political space, the conception of multitude as a new form of social subjectivity has hardly been very fortunate. The problems in its reception begin with the very translation of the term itself: in the Russian edition of Negri and Hardt’s “Empire,” “multitudes” is mistranslated as “masses,” when this term was actually introduced, among other things, to mark an important difference in relation to the very masses it now invokes!

It is also surprising to see that “Empire” has received such disparaging reviews from authors otherwise internationally known for their progressive views. For instance, in a rather irate review of “Empire,” Boris Kagarlitsky continues to apply the inaccurate term of “masses”: “From time to time, some kind…of abstract ‘masses’ appear on the pages of this book. We know little more about these ‘masses’ than about the absolute ideas of ancient philosophy” [1]. This seems somewhat strange because Kagarlitsky himself has developed an exotic theory on the “revolt of the middle class”, connecting its revolutionary potential with the crisis of the social state and the development of new information technologies. However, Kagarlitsky hardly goes to the same lengths to construct new concepts as do Negri and Hardt. Furthermore, his figure of the “middle class”, no doubt, is heir to the category of the “people” as a unitary political body, whose predicate can be found in the state. In the early 20th century, the concept of the people-sovereign was carried over from the obsolescent plane of “political theology” to the socio-economic plane. A displacement of the same type also formed the political figure of the “middle class” as the basis of the late capitalist state. But is it really possible to recode this hybrid notion so that it might take the place of the (proletarian) “hegemon” in a new anti-capitalist strategy? Even if such doubts arise concerning Kagarlitsky’s thinking, the general vector of his theory still runs in the same direction as that of Italian Marxist theorists in their search for subjectivity under the conditions of post-Fordist capitalism, which, perhaps, is why his rejection of Negri and Hardt’s work with the Spinozean term of “multitude” seems somewhat peculiar.

Be this as it may, one major obstacle for the inclusion of multitudes into post-Soviet discursive space can be found in the predominance of a neo-conservative variation on the theory of “post-industrial society.” In its day, Soviet Marxism criticized such theories furiously as “bourgeois revisionism,” which, perhaps, is why they have risen to such dominance today. The term “post-Fordist capitalism” allows one to disassociate oneself from such reductionist theories because it denotes the formation of new subjectivities, connected to the change in “living labor.” Its productive force is not only to be found in technical innovations and the growing importance of information in production, but in fundamental human potentials, in language and thought.

A further important moment in the following line of reasoning is connected to my personal experience. At a recent public discussion, I found myself in a rather tricky position when a group of leftwing activists asked me to explain “what exactly this multitude is.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I came to realize that terms like “immaterial labor” sound off-key, even spurious among political activists who are fighting for the interests of people forced to face the question of bare survival on a daily basis and are thus involved in perfectly material processes. This experience gives rise to the temptation of assuming that the misunderstanding of terms from contemporary Italian Marxism has its roots in post-Soviet reality itself, in which the conception of the multitude has no more that weak referents. But then again, one might wonder: aren’t we being weighed down by interpretations that have been naturalized, inevitably becoming “descriptions” of reality?

When the New Left in Russia interprets its local situation, the theory of the central vs. peripheral locations in the “world economy” usually plays a crucial role, explaining the specificity of local conditions through the phenomenon of the “capitalist periphery.” Without refuting the meaning and progressive role of this theory to scholarship, we might risk the assumption that it is exactly this complex of ideas that plays the most reactionary of roles in our local context, because it legitimates some of its more odious political peculiarities, such as the blend of leftwing and religious-nationalist movements in local Realpolitik, which is now seen as something natural for countries on the periphery.

At the same time, the further development of a “world economy” analysis itself allows us to speak of important transformations. For example, Giovanni Arrighi claims that under the conditions of the “global period of transition,” connected to the weakened hegemony of the leading nations of the center, the economic distributions that have dominated the world to date are now undergoing a process of erosion. [3] Negri and Hardt also express this tendency, arguing that the separation between the center and the periphery is becoming less and less important in a contemporary biopolitical world order. Instead, what is emerging is a homogenous system of “global apartheid,” in which all subordinations are multiplied on both global and local scales, while resistance to this order is based upon a commonality more fundamental than local difference. [4]

In their most recent book, Negri and Hardt recall Dostoevsky’s novel “Demons,” maintaining that the novel presents a striking expression of the fear toward multitudes whose main characteristics already presented themselves momentarily as the old feudal order in Russia was dissolving. This dissolution disrupted the hitherto-existing distribution of class, engendering heterogeneous agglomerations of radical elements, from which the first emancipatory movements actually arose. The enigmatic organization of conspirators that Dostoevsky’s novel describes is not coordinated by some unified center, but it is still frighteningly effective. It is unimaginable in the vein of traditional political thinking, which develops under the sign of the transcendent unity of power and sovereignty. This is why the conservative writer depicts the conspiratorial organization in terrifying mystical-religious figures, as a form of possession by a “legion of demons.” But how much fear can the multitude inspire today, as we face yet another crisis of the old world order?

If we turn away from the intrusive idea of the capitalist periphery for a moment, we can see the same distinctive features in post-Soviet space that served as points of departure for the thinking of contemporary Marxist theory in Italy. Left behind by the Soviet Leviathan and having undergoing a phase of shock and declassification, the multitude “lives a life” that is no longer transparent if seen from within the logic of sovereignty. It is no coincidence that the most comprehensive visual expression of the multitude’s presence can be found in the metro, in subterranean space. It is as if the multitude is located in the dissident “underground,” which now paradoxically has a mass-quality. The structure of social production is becoming increasingly precarious, losing any guarantees for stable employment. In its composition, migrants who live beyond the jurisdiction of their nation-states play an increasingly important role. However, the post-Soviet multitude is more or less apolitical, because it soberly gauges the possibilities for defending its interests within what officially claims to be representative democracy. The politicization of these new subjectivities that are breaking away from the “united and indivisible Soviet people” is beginning to develop, but for now, it has taken on dangerous, negative forms corrupted by the older images of sovereignty, which, in turn, begin to seem all the more maniacal and demonic.

To ignore these social and political changes would mean depriving leftwing politics of any chance to stand up against such reactionary threats. The concept of multitudes, as opposed to the politico-theological notion of the people – nourishing the activities of the ultra-right with its protracted decomposition – may well turn out to be an important critical instrument in the struggle against neo-fascist tendencies. Moreover, its class-aspect allows a more precise analysis of labor in both material and immaterial production, including them in a context of global transformation and international struggle. Finally, the difference between multitudes and masses overturns the obsolescent image of an irrational, easily manipulated crowd. There can be little doubt that this is precisely this shift in consciousness that is important under present conditions, as the possibility for collective political action is being reborn.

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