an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 8, June-July-August 2011, ISSN 1552-5112
Whose Empire? Which Multitude?
In Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue for a re-ordering of the current global capitalist paradigm (Empire). Their approach is Marxian: they provide an analysis of labour (‘immaterial labour’), ascribe a revolutionary situation (global state of war) and point to a revolutionary subject created by the labour conditions (the ‘multitude’). This overall picture is very well known: capitalism in its drive for production produces its own gravediggers. The novelty factor in Hardt and Negri’s theory is the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ as opposed to industrial labour and the revolutionary subject of the ‘multitude’ instead of the working class. I argue that both of these central concepts are flawed: ‘immaterial labour’ is a misnomer and the ‘multitude’ is not a viable political player.
For Hardt and Negri post-industrial labour is particularly characterised by, what they call, ‘immaterial labour’ which now plays the new ‘hegemonic role’ (M, p.107f.), as opposed to the industrial labour during Marx’s time. ‘Immaterial labour’ is described as
1) ‘informationalised industrial production processes’,
2) the engagement with ‘analytical and symbolic tasks’,
3) the ‘production and manipulation of affects which requires virtual or actual human contact and proximity’.
Hardt and Negri have already been, rightly, criticised for type 1 (e.g. Sayers, S., 2007): the fact that the production of material goods today often involves modern computer and communication technologies does not change the fact that what is produced is nevertheless a material thing. Thus, production, although informationalised, remains nevertheless material.
The clearest and most succinct formulation is the following:
Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we might define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labour-that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication. (Hardt, 1999, p.94)
The examples given are:
Entertainment Hardt (1999), Hardt and Negri (E, p.285)
Fast food services
Software production Lazzarato (Immaterial Labour, available
Photography at )
For Hardt and Negri these examples share the traits of ‘immaterial labour’. But what could they have in common? What is the connection between photography and transportation, or fast food services and health care? To my mind, these activities hardly fit under any single descriptive term pertaining to their nature. As can be seen from the quote, everything ‘immaterial’ (like entertainment, advertising, audiovisual production) is considered a service and only actual material objects are products. I argue that this conception of ‘immaterial labour’ negates the distinction between products and services. This is inadequate and leads to several misconceptions.
The decisive feature for the status of a product or a good is that it can be owned, not whether it is physical: materiality/immateriality is unimportant. Important is rather that ownership rights can be established and exchanged (which means that goods are tradable) and that they are distinct entities independently of their producers and owners: the production takes place separately in space and time, the finished product can be distributed, traded, and consumed long after production. These features can apply to both material as well as immaterial products: literature, music, theories, plans, designs, films, programs, etc. may be ‘immaterial products’ but they are nevertheless goods (like material products) because they are produced, are separate entities from their makers, they can be owned, traded, copied, used, etc. independently of their production which thus remains a separate process. Thus, contrary to the concept of ‘immaterial labour’, an immaterial good is nevertheless a good and not a service.
Services, by contrast, differ from both material and immaterial goods. They are relations (e.g. agreements) and therefore are not separate production processes resulting in separate entities independently of the people involved; thus, they cannot be owned and hence not traded, distributed, or copied. Services can only be rendered. Nor is it possible to distinguish a production-process from the ‘use’ or ‘consumption’ of a service, as you can in the case of goods. Thus, products are made, whereas services are rendered. Films, ideas, etc. may be immaterial but are nevertheless made products, not rendered services. Of course, products and services may coincide, namely in the case of the service including a made product (for example a tailored suit). But also in such cases the made product does not somehow become immaterial, instead it is still possible to distinguish between the service and the product. The product is what remains, whether the service was concluded or not. If the customer retreats from the deal, the tailor still has a suit. He owns it and does with it as he pleases. If the customer buys the suit, the ownership goes to him and he can do with it as he pleases. However, not all services include a product. A cleaner, for example, provides a service but does not produce a good over which he holds ownership rights. Hardt and Negri confuse products and services because they wrongly declare the physicality of something to decide over its status as a good or a service. But goods are not just physical objects (they also include non-physical ones like plans, theories, stories, films etc.), nor are all non-physical objects automatically services. In short, contrary to what Hardt and Negri suggest, the difference between material objects and non-material things is not the same as that between labour and service. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that “the division between manufacturing and services is becoming blurred” (Hardt, 1999, p.92). Goods and services remain distinct.
This has implications for the use of ‘immaterial labour’ in Hardt and Negri’s theory of revolution because of the social and political implications they draw from it. They claim that
…in each of these forms of immaterial labor, cooperation is completely inherent in the labour itself. Immaterial labour immediately involves social interaction and cooperation. (E, p.294)
This socialising function is crucial since Hardt and Negri conclude that “immaterial labour thus seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.” (ibid.)
However, is it true that what Hardt and Negri call ‘immaterial labour’ involves the social dimension that services do? I claim that immaterial products are not necessarily collective, nor ‘immediately involve social interaction and cooperation’: an immaterial good can be produced and consumed alone – it is not automatically a service. For example, one may come up with a plan, a story, or a theory, by oneself and may also “consume” it by oneself. There is no service, nor a social relation (sufficient for spontaneous and elementary communism) involved.
Furthermore, there can even be services, which are not collective in any strong sense either. Consider most maintenance services: apart from an initial agreement on what is to be done, not much more contact is necessary. I do not have to be present when my car is being serviced, my house cleaned, or my TV fixed. The same holds for other examples of ‘immaterial labour’ that are advanced: advertising, fast food services, transportation, audiovisual production, etc. I thus contend that immaterial labour mostly does not imply the kind of social dimension that is asserted of it, at least not one that is sufficient for the kind of sociality that Hardt and Negri have in mind – the multitude. But first I would like to say a bit more about ‘immaterial labour’.
It is claimed that ‘informatisation’ and ‘immaterial labour’ feature a social dimension unlike previous kinds of labour. Modern telecommunication and technology, particularly computers and the internet, are introduced as radically new media allowing for new ways of interaction. Pfeiffer (2004, p.22ff.), by contrast, argues that Hardt and Negri rig their analysis: they reduce earlier working conditions to a “non-interactive, non-communicative, and machine-like counter-image” (translation U.M.) after which other conditions must then appear as new. The computer as the “universal tool” is regarded as introducing cooperation, communication, and interaction, as if these features did not exist beforehand.
It is also asserted that labour (due to the use of computers) homogenises in ‘abstract labour’ which supposedly distances the worker from his object. But with some more differentiation these claims can be questioned. The supposed homogenization of labour is by no means a new idea, particularly within the Marxist tradition. Whether it was successful in Marx’s time or not, I agree with Pfeiffer (op.cit.) that the computer is used in such differing ways that it is simply false to claim that it homogenises all of its applications into abstract, universal, symbolic, or interactive work. Whether you work in software design, consumer service, manufacturing control and/or supervision, graphic design, or simply text creation makes a vast difference as to how the computer (and which software) is being used. Thus the skills, knowledge, and experience involved vary drastically.
I also dispute that the use of computers necessarily distances the worker from his object, i.e. that it makes labour more abstract. Equally, the opposite can be shown: various simulation techniques, for example, can lead to the understanding and control of processes that were previously inaccessible to the worker (such as in the chemical industry, the manipulation of digital images, or music recording). Thus, Hardt and Negri’s claim that labour necessarily becomes more homogeneous, abstract or distancing requires more proof.
From these points I conclude that ‘immaterial labour’, as characterised by Hardt, Negri, and Lazzarato, is a misnomer. The various examples they give hardly have unifying features and the reason is a confusion of immaterial products with services. The computer is contentiously conceived as a ‘universal tool’ leading to homogenisation as well as alienation. Yet neither the production and transfer of information, nor of affects (Hardt, 1999), nor the involvement of symbolic tasks applies equally; nor do these criteria share in any noteworthy increase in ‘abstraction’ or communication.
Another problem of ‘immaterial labour’, which is a direct outcome of the application of Marx’s thought, is its evaluation. Already among the primary writers we find two opposing sides: Hardt and Negri see ‘immaterial labour’ positively, Lazzarato purely negatively.
For Hardt and Negri ‘immaterial labour’ is crucial because it enables the formation of the ‘multitude’ and its resistance to global capitalism (M, p.66f). On the other hand, ‘immaterial labour’ is also a new stage in the exploitation of the worker, who is meant to be flexible, social, perform her tasks with a smile, communicate, etc. In other words, not only the worker’s body is subordinated and directed but also her character, her identity and subjectivity (M, pp.65f.,111,113). For Lazzarato ‘immaterial labour’ therefore intrinsically embodies all the hallmarks of capitalist exploitation. There is no sense here of immaterial labour as an enabling condition for a future communism. Instead of enabling the ‘multitude’, it establishes capital relationships, its discourse is authoritarian, it takes hold of the workers’ subjectivity and it is Taylorist. Whereas Hardt and Negri claim that “in immaterial production the creation of cooperation has become internal to labour and thus external to capital” (M, p.147, my emphasis) Lazzarato claims the direct opposite, immaterial labour is the manifestation of “the capital relationship”.
This ambiguity concerning the evaluation of labour is not a new one, particularly not within the general framework of Historical Materialism. Already in Marx’s writings this is an issue. Within his philosophical anthropology of the human species, labour plays the key role because no other living being produces the means for its own life and no other produces so universally. It is the activity of labour that singles humans out from other animal species and it is the condition of scarcity, within which man finds himself, that triggers, for Marx, man’s ingenuity (e.g.: German Ideology, p.31, 32, 36, 37; 1859 Preface; Capital I, p.84, 86). In order to overcome the scarcity of the means of life and the unfavourable natural conditions that humans experience with hunger, cold, rain and lack of comfort, humans start to change their environment in their favour. They gather, hunt and prepare food, they build shelter, they make clothing, and they construct tools. In all of this humans learn as much about themselves as they do about the things they work on. It is an important part of the Hegelian strand within Marx that labour and self-realisation are inextricably linked. We externalise ourselves in our labour and in doing so we learn something about our nature, our abilities and our possibilities. This is the positive side of Marx’s evaluation of labour. As with Hardt and Negri above, here labour enables certain abilities that we would not have without it. Even stronger, the human species would not be what it is without labour: engaging in it is part of our being. It should therefore be cultivated and brought under the control of all and “consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan” (Capital I, p.84).
Yet there is also an opposing side within Marx’s writings: labour, exactly because it is a necessary part of our nature, belongs to the realm of necessity as distinguished from the realm of freedom. We cannot choose but to labour or all the achievements that we have reached through it will cease to exist sooner or later. Crops have to be sown and reaped; food has to be prepared; most materials have to be extracted from the earth; homes have to be built. Unless this labour is accomplished we will soon experience drastic food shortages and dilapidating living conditions. Labour is thus necessary and not free. This is why Marx distinguishes the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom in the late Capital III (p. 820) and why he claims that the shortening of the working hours is the precondition for the realm of freedom: “Beyond it [the realm of necessity] begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom […].” In other words: do the work that needs to be done and afterwards you can be free. At one point Marx even calls for the abolition of labour because its mere liberation is not enough (German Ideology, p.223, 224).
Both of these sides of the evaluation of labour can be found in Marx’s writings and many of his scholars have tried to find an explanation for it. There are those who argue for the compatibility of the two sides (e.g. Chitty 1993; Sayers 2003) and there are those who argue the opposite (e.g. Marcuse 1955, 1965; Schaff 1965; Press 1977; McLellan 1984), often attributing the positive evaluation to the early Marx and the negative view to the late Marx. However, I leave this debate to scholarship. The main point here is that the issue concerning the evaluation of labour can already be found in Marx and, as shown above, the same applies to ‘immaterial labour’, depending on whether one reads Hardt and Negri or Lazzarato. It remains unclear whether ‘immaterial labour’ is what labour ought to be (namely communicative and ‘immediately social’) or whether it presents a new stage of capitalist exploitation and alienation.
The ‘multitude’ is the corresponding idea to Marx’s industrial proletariat (M, p.103f.). But in contrast to the proletariat, the ‘multitude’ is a wider concept that is more apt to today’s conditions. “The multitude gives the concept of the proletariat its fullest definition as all those who labour and produce under the rule of capital.” (M, p.107). As explained above, Hardt and Negri take the modern labour conditions of ‘immaterial labour’ to be such that they involve a maximum of connectivity and interrelations between labourers (ibid, p.107).
The increasingly dense network of trade and trade-relations in the global capitalist economy together with modern communication technology and labour practices put all of the subjects into closer contact with each other. ‘Immaterial labour’, Hard and Negri assert, features an intrinsic sociality and thus the enables the concerted action of ‘all those subject to capitalist production’ (M, p.106). The characteristics of the ‘multitude’ are the following:
a) it consists of all those subject to Empire
b) it is irreducibly different (i.e. many-faceted, multitudinous), it includes for example: workers, political activists, animal rights campaigners, homosexuals, rebellious groups like the Zapatistas, open source advocates, etc.
c) it expresses the desire for a world of equality and freedom
d) it demands an open and inclusive democratic global society
e) it provides the means for achieving c) and d) (M, p.xi)
Hardt and Negri deliberately make no distinction between political, social, and economic organisations or groups since it is part of the postmodern condition that the boundaries between these concepts are increasingly blurred. It all becomes ‘biopolitical’, i.e. it ‘engages life in its entirety’ (M, p.94). The ‘multitude’ is therefore the group of all groups, the one of which they are all parts but which does not reduce them in a way that undermines their differences (like other group concepts such as ‘people’, or ‘mass’). According to such a definition the ‘multitude’ is, so to say, a social universal set.
My claim is that a universal set cannot be a political agent.
What binds this ‘multiplicity’ are the shared grievances against Empire, and Hardt and Negri help themselves to an analogy of social organisation which is meant to explain how the ‘multitude’, despite its innumerable internal differences, can act: the network analogy. But I question this analogy.
The communicative relations between people, which Empire itself brings about in modern production (‘immaterial labour’) requires relations, connections, and involves the worker’s subjectivity: it thereby establishes a network of communication. For Hardt and Negri, this network, like Empire, has no centre but consists of numerous autonomous cells linked only by communication. Because these networks deliberately have neither a centre nor an authoritative hierarchy they are therefore intrinsically democratic. This is the main reason why the postmodern world is, for the first time, in the position to bring about a global radical democracy. Only through ‘immaterial labour’ can a global democratic counter-Empire be realised by the ‘multitude’.
However, Hardt and Negri’s appeal to network structures is oversimplified: they assume that networks are equally balanced throughout, without a hierarchy, preferential statuses or functions. This does not apply to all networks, crucially it does not apply to social networks; instead, recent research has revealed that such systems are not horizontally structured, as supposed. Social networks, contrary to the horizontal approach, are characterised by preferred connections, functional differentiation, key-positions and an unequal power distribution between people and groups of people. I claim that such features are necessary for any kind of social organisation.
Contrary to what Hardt and Negri suggest, social networks: a) are structured, b) do not grow in an egalitarian manner but according preferential connections, i.e. according to the status of adjacent people or positions, c) as a consequence, if key-positions are damaged then the overall structure quickly disintegrates, contrary to Hardt and Negri’s claim that resistance simply reforms even if the network is attacked by Empire. Without these features a network is simply not organised at all. Structures, for whichever specific purpose, enable advancement through the order they establish. This order then allows progress in terms of social complexity, knowledge and information, economic interchanges, approved or disapproved actions (i.e. law), etc. Any feasible social theory today has to include organisations, institutions and structures, because it is the structural and functional differentiation of our societies which enable our current life in the first place.
To advocate the self-rule of the global working population (i.e. the ‘multitude’) is not progressive, but rather simply unrealistic. Note that I am not arguing that the network idea as such is useless. Within limited confines horizontal network structures can have their use, for example in deliberation, awareness-raising or public debates (see Dryzeck, 2005, p.230; Kellner, 2002, p.295ff.).
But for decision-making (law and policy for example) functionality requires organisation, that is, having particular offices/positions/roles/institutions with distinctive functions, such as we have, say, in the distinction between the legislative, judiciary and executive functions of the government.
‘Radically democratic’ networks such as the ‘multitude’ are, by definition, non-representable, which means that they cannot answer questions of legitimacy: How are we to determine who makes legitimate decisions regarding any particular issue and which decisions can be regarded as representative of the people concerned?
Although Hardt and Negri focus on how the public and its governance are to be construed for our post-national and global age, they are not giving a clear answer. Their model of self-governance in a global sphere is equal to having no governance because to govern oneself in a world without borders leaves one fighting for oneself instead of fighting together with others. In a world without boundaries I cannot tell who is legitimately party to my concern - who is ‘sitting in the same boat’ - who has a rightful claim to be included in the decision-making process - and who does not. Without boundaries of inclusion/exclusion, that define who is a rightful party to a decision and conditions concerning the legitimacy of political decisions we simply have no framework for any governance whatsoever (see Fraser, 2007, p.224-253).
Hardt and Negri suppose, like Marx, a global solidarity of the workers merely on the grounds of the supposed homogeneity of their labour. But if I am correct in claiming that the supposed homogeneity is mistaken, then this severely weakens a concept of solidarity that is based on it. Furthermore, it is by no means clear that the ‘multitude’ will be as collaborative as Hardt and Negri tell us (cf. Schmalz-Bruhns, 2007, p.271). If the unity of the ‘multitude’ results from its opposition to Empire, then what keeps it connected once Empire has ceased to exist?
If, as Hardt and Negri stress, the ‘multitude’ is, like Marx’s proletariat, a class-concept, then the same difficulty applies: ‘class’ is defined by opposition to another class (here it is Empire, rather than a social class). But once the opposing concept is gone what will happen to the supposed victors? For Marx this problem was solvable: insofar as he conceived of the proletariat as the class of the industrial labourers, the post-revolutionary situation is one in which the proletariat stops being a class and becomes a global labour force united by the centrality of industrial labour. But Hardt and Negri cannot adopt this strategy so easily because they explicitly insist that the ‘multitude’ is irreducible to a particular central activity. The ‘multitude’ is by definition a class of irreducible differences. So the question rises, what will unite those irreducible differences once Empire, as the common enemy, has ceased to exist? What or who ensures collaboration and prevents faction-building? Without some kind of institution this will be impossible because the public misses an important element: namely a bearer of responsibility for whom it is a public in the first place. Such a bearer of responsibility would have to draw boundaries for whom, and which issues, it is responsible and for whom and which it is not.
Self-determination is what Hardt and Negri have in mind when they argue that the ‘multitude’ can rule itself. But also ‘the concept of collective self-determination requires the distinction between members and non-members’ (Habermas, 1998, p.161, as quoted in Schmalz-Bruhns, ibid., p.271, translation U.M.). That is, we have to define a particular public to which self-determination applies. For the vast majority of decisions this public cannot be global because most decisions are made locally, or regionally, perhaps nationally, and concern particular people or groups of people. Thus, decisions are particular and have limits concerning scope and applicability, i.e. a framework has to be established for whom a particular decision is relevant and for whom it is not. Only very few decisions apply globally. In other words, for decision-making we need the relevant publics which thus need to have boundary-conditions. The ‘multitude’, by Hardt and Negri’s own definition, has no boundary-conditions.
For these reasons I argue that the ‘multitude’ does not constitute a political player. The network-analogy does not simply apply and there is no structure to maintain any status quo after Empire has been fought. In being non-representative and global the ‘multitude’ cannot make any decisions because important referents and conditions for decision-making, legitimacy and responsibility are missing. These are, however, essential parts for any democratic theory. Without them we are left with a patchwork which explicitly does not feature any preferential statuses, hierarchy, or authority, without which a network is simply not organised at all and thus incapable of legitimate decision-making. Yet, particularly on the global scale, which Hardt and Negri target, decisions need to be made and adhered to, for otherwise we cannot speak of a global subject at all.
There has to be some structure and identifiable goals and members, otherwise we may have a social movement but not a political agent. This last point I would give to Hardt and Negri: the multitude may be a movement, particularly a protest movement, but it is not a political agent. The switch from the former to the latter would, according to my argument, require a move away from the network-analogy, or an acknowledgement that even networks are not as egalitarian as often claimed. A patchwork of autonomous cells that continuously form, re-form, and disband, as Hardt and Negri imagine it, is not a political group. The latter requires organisation and cannot be “[…] essentially elusive, ephemeral, perpetually in flight” (M, p.55). That is, it must itself be an organisation in order to act like one.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 8, June-July-August 2011, ISSN 1552-5112
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 Hereafter Empire (2000) may be referred to as E, Multitude (2004) as M.
 Cf. Hill (1999) who uses ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ instead of ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’.
 In neglecting this distinction between goods and services Hardt and Negri also neglect the poiesis/praxis distinction for which Marx has already been criticised (see Habermas, 1978).
 Cf. Lazzarato: “This immaterial labor constitutes itself in forms that are immediately collective, and we might say that it exists only in the form of networks and flows.” Morris (2004, p.130), likewise, summarises: “This labor indicates a unification of instrumental and communicative action in which "social networks, forms of community, biopower" (p. 293) are directly produced. Culture and production are more thoroughly integrated than they have ever been.” (the internal quote is from Empire, p.293.)
 “We should note that one consequence of the informatisation of production and the emergence of immaterial labour has been a real homogenisation of labouring processes. […] With the computerization of production today, however, the heterogeneity of concrete labour has tended to be reduced, and the worker is increasingly further removed from the object of his or her labour. […] Through the computerization of production, then, labour tends toward the position of abstract labour.” (E, p.292). “This becoming common, which tends to reduce the qualitative divisions within labour, is the biopolitical condition of the multitude.” (ibid, p.114, Morris (2004, p.129) makes similar claims)
 Also Marx, and particularly Marcuse, thought that increasing industrialization would lead to an assimilation of all labour practices.
 The proletariat, for various reasons, does no longer constitute a revolutionary subject: a) Marx’s industrial proletariat is hard to find these days, b) in the past, as well as in the present, it hardly ever is the revolutionary subject that Marx envisaged, c) it is a too limited class, as well as concept, for our postmodern world. These ideas have been advanced ever since the 1970’s.
 “The multitude is composed of innumerable internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity – different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations; different forms of labour; different ways of living; different views of the world; and different desires. The multitude is a multiplicity of all these singular differences.” (M, p.xiv)
 Or set of sets, as in set theory.
 For further points against Hardt and Negri see Tilly (2002), Seth (2002), Clark (2005).
 Cf. Richard Florida’s “creative class” which is very similar, if not identical, to Hardt and Negri’s ‘immaterial labourers’ (see Svendsen, 2008, p.39)
 “Network organisation, by contrast, is based on the continuing plurality of its elements and its networks of communication in such a way that reduction to a centralised and unified command structure is impossible.” (M, p.82f.) From this perspective Hardt and Negri can also criticise the Cuban revolutionaries of the 1950’s for their rigid military organisation which undermined the democratic roots that they themselves wanted to bring to fruition.
 So-called ‘Erdos-Renyi’ networks. For the following details on networks I am indebted to Peter Andras. Most data is taken from ‘Network analysis of complex systems’ (Peter Andras, 2009).
 So-called ‘Scale-free’ networks. In the neutral terminology of network studies people are referred to as nodes (positions or people) and clusters (people or groups of people).
 It will not suffice to argue in response that with networks there is no need for big organisations or structures anymore, as Hardt and Negri (M, p.100) do when they claim that “The multitude, although it remains multiple and internally different, is able to act and rule itself. Rather than political body with one that commands and others that obey, the multitude is living flesh that rules itself.”
 “[…] structures can be seen as a set of constraints on communications that constitute the organisation. […] structures have a vital role in handling organisational faults, errors and failures, being able to limit their damaging effects within the organisation.” (Andras, 2005)
 The ‘borders’ I refer to here are those of an inside/outside of a particular public. It is often assumed that due to globalisation also the public sphere will become global.
 Cf. Zizek
 I do not claim that there are no global challenges facing us. Of course there are issues that concern all of those alive at a time (e.g. global warming), but there are few of these challenges and (for all their importance) they do not suffice to account for the political challenges we face daily in the communities in which we live.
 Note that I do not claim that the actions of non-institutional subjects cannot be politically effective. But one can be politically effective without being an identifiable political player.