The Machinic Multitude

The Machinic Multitude

Nicholas Spencer

Nick Spencer argues that the multitude is machinic, even without machines.

Aron Pease:

Nick Dyer-Witheford offers a similar perspective when considering the production of collective subjectivity and “species being” in the non-iron
realm of video games and virtual play.

Aron Pease:

Walter Benn Michaels argues that Hardt and Negri make poverty into an identity to be recognized, rather than a condition to be eradicated. (Michaels’s _Shape of the Signifier_ is reviewed in ebr by Lori Emerson)


The phenomenon of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire is one of the most remarkable events in the academic project of critical theory. As well as being the means of potential solidarity between academic discourse and anti-globalization activism, Empire draws out important and often unacknowledged fissures within academia’s disposition toward theoretical meaning. The fissures that I am thinking of pertain to the class politics of collective subjectivity. While numerous theoretical concepts have been embraced and deployed on a vast scale, the so-called decentering of the subject has failed. Bourgeois individualism, the dialectic of competitive egotism, and a dismissal of the proletariat continue to be widely practiced and espoused in academia, even among those who identify themselves with Deleuze, Foucault, et al. While I take it to be an overly general assortment of ideas that Negri discusses brilliantly in his other writings, Empire at least asks us to confront the problematic of academia and the proletariat. Thinking about this problematic can, I believe, establish an effective context for analyses of the issue of the machine in Empire and its sequel, Multitude. Much of Negri’s writing moves toward a theorization of the multitude, the global proletariat, as machine, but some of Negri’s writings with Hardt tend to define the machine in terms of technological hardware and then posit the fusion of the machine with a subject that is not overtly marked in collective terms. These are not incompatible perspectives on machinic subjectivity, but they are based on different ideas about the social productivity of the collective multitude. Because the fissuring of the academic disposition toward the multitude constitutes an exaggerated version of the different conceptualizations of the machine in Empire and Multitude, academic responses to Hardt and Negri’s theorization of the machinic multitude can, I believe, tell us a great deal about the current state of academia’s willingness to take seriously the revolutionary power of the global proletariat.

References to machines, technology, and science abound in Negri’s texts. Many, but by no means all, of these references invoke the concept of “general intellect” that Marx devises in the Grundrisse ‘s “Fragment on Machines.” The centrality of general intellect is underscored by the fact that it is a primary touchstone for many writings in the tradition of Italian workerism and autonomism. In Negri’s hands the idea of general intellect takes on an ambiguity of meaning. On the one hand, general intellect refers to the process by which labor and knowledge become incarnated as automated productive machinery, and the proletariat is put alongside and not within the productive process. Since much of Negri’s writing concerns the reconceptualization of the proletariat in the context of postindustrial automation, this aspect of Marx’s ideas is obviously of great significance. On the other hand, Negri defines general intellect as the language, behavior, and social reality produced by a proletariat that is now characterized as the “social worker.” So, in Negri’s reading of Marx, is general intellect identified with the machine or the proletariat? Of course the answer is that Negri identifies general intellect with both machine and multitude, but it is perhaps better to think of Negri’s formulation as one of the machinic multitude. Specifically, the machinic nature of the multitude is realized as the proletariat refuses work and challenges the labor theory of value, is uncoupled from the realm of factory production, and activates the milieu of reality through social cooperation and reproduction. At the same time, productive machinery becomes autonomous and has no need for factory workers. In other words, the subjects of the multitude become machinic and the automated machines become subjects. There is no doubt that in many of his texts Negri is concerned with both aspects of this process. However, he is mainly interested in the automation of machinery as a factor in the trajectory of the becoming-social of the working class. Like Paolo Virno, who, in A Grammar of the Multitude, defines general intellect as a “socialization essentially beyond work” that must not be reduced to the technological fetishism of machines “cast in iron” (85, 65), Negri states that the essential function of general intellect is the production of the collective subjectivity of the multitude.

The writings of Hardt and Negri give these issues of machinicity distinctive treatments. In these collaborative texts, there is sometimes a tendency to deny the significance of the refusal of work. Of course Hardt and Negri refer in Empire to the need for a “social wage” to which the unemployed are entitled (403), but the impression of work’s inescapability haunts the text. The reassertion of work by Hardt and Negri is concomitant with a privileging of the human relation to technological machines. We can see this privileging most clearly through references to the cyborg. Most obviously in his writings on Spinoza, Negri rails against Cartesianism for its isolation of subjectivity in a transcendental realm and its imagining of materiality in reified, objectivist, and empiricist terms. Negri’s ideas of collective subjectivity as a productive machine are consistent with this anti-Cartesianism. In texts such as Labor of Dionysus and Empire, Hardt and Negri present the cyborg as a variant of anti-Cartesianism. Here, the conjunction of human and machine is designed to overcome the separation of subjectivity and technical object. Yet the concept of the cyborg marginalizes the collective and inherently machinic nature of the multitude–the multitude, in other words, is machinic even when unattached to computers, robots, prostheses, nanomachines, and the like. The cyborg discourse therefore represents a shift toward the definition of general intellect as the machinery of labor, not subjectivity. For example, in Labor of Dionysus, Hardt and Negri identify the cyborg, “a hybrid of machine and organism that continually crosses the boundaries between material and immaterial labor” (281), with the social worker of Negri’s autonomist writings. By stating that “all of the efforts of the refusal of work of all the other exploited social strata tend to be identified with and converge toward techno-scientific labor in an antagonistic way” (281), Hardt and Negri make a confused attempt to relate social subjectivity to the laboring cyborg. If the exploited multitude has an “antagonistic” relationship with the cyborg, why do Hardt and Negri identify the cyborg with the autonomist social worker? The characteristic ambiguity of general intellect has at this moment become contradiction.

Through their appeal to the cyborg, Hardt and Negri distance themselves from other Italian autonomists. In Empire they claim that the authors included in the collection Radical Thought in Italy fail to move “beyond the constraints of the ‘workerist’ (operaista) analysis of capitalist development and the state-form” and are “too pure” to analyze the tangible forms in which “immaterial labor” is manifested (422n, 30). It is certainly true that in Empire Hardt and Negri offer effective statements on the linguistic, symbolic, and affective forms of immaterial labor. However, Hardt and Negri’s criticisms apply to their own discourse more so than, say, that of Virno. The authors of Empire concede that autonomism succeeded in showing how the realm of production feeds off the substance of social reproduction, but their accusations of workerism are perplexing. The autonomist authors of Do You Remember Revolution?, one of whom is Negri, refer to squatting, looting, the abandonment of work, and the self-reduction of transport fares as examples of the social worker’s appropriation of free time and enactment of the antagonistic relation to capital (237, 238). There is nothing ambiguous, contradictory, or workerist about these comments. Rather, Hardt and Negri’s preoccupation with the cyborg in Empire represents a workerist emphasis on labor and a neglect of the social machinicity of the multitude. In a sense one should give Hardt and Negri credit for attempting to overcome the ambiguity associated with general intellect and offer a coherent and integrated model of the dynamics of postindustrial production and social reproduction. The problem is that their project ends up prioritizing the appropriation of social machinicity by capitalist production and being unable to extricate analyses of social appropriation from the machinery of labor. Again the discussion of the cyborg illustrates this point. In Empire, Hardt and Negri speak of “anthropological exodus” (215). The concept of exodus, or the flight of the multitude from capital, is central to Negri’s critique of dialectical mediation and insistence on the antagonistic nature of the constituent power of the multitude. In contrast, the anthropological quality of exodus in Empire is, in somewhat reified fashion, associated with the bodily transformations of cyberpunk fiction, tattooing, piercing, etc. While reminding us that their laudable attempt to imagine a “body that is completely incapable of submitting to command” refers to Donna Haraway’s cyborg solely as a “fable” (216, 218), Hardt and Negri appeal for further theorization of the social multitude in relation to “the plastic and fluid terrain of the new communicative, biological, and mechanical technologies” (218). Like Hardt and Negri’s other directives for future research on the interface of human and technology, these comments marginalize the non-technological machinicity of the multitude and obscure the proletarian subjectivity that is at the heart of many of Negri’s other writings.

In Multitude Hardt and Negri turn their attention to the constitution of proletarian opposition to the global empire of capital. The preoccupations of Multitude enable Hardt and Negri to traverse a path that leads to the reassertion of general intellect as social productivity. Tracing a genealogy of forms of collective resistance, Hardt and Negri posit in Multitude the need for new forms of resistance that are more “polycentric” than the centralized political parties and guerilla movements of the past (83). In order to exemplify the realization of these new forms of resistance as the “network body” (90), Hardt and Negri refer to the organizational significance of the use of the Internet by anti-globalization groups. As a result, their formulation remains enmeshed in the appeal to the cyborg and thus the model of general intellect as immaterial labor. Here is a typical formulation from Multitude: “The networks of information, communication, and cooperation - the primary axes of post-Fordist production - begin to define the new guerilla movements” (82). Throughout the book Hardt and Negri insist that the domain of immaterial labor is as exploitative as any other form of capitalist command and at least their notion of the network cyborg emphasizes collective subjectivity, but they do at times fold the productive machine of social cooperation into the exploitative practices of postindustrial capitalism. In a related strategy, Hardt and Negri consign Italian autonomism of the 1970s to the realm of urban guerilla resistance. Even though they recognize that Autonomia “succeeded temporarily in … liberating entire zones where new cultures and new forms of life were created” (82), their comments privilege the technological interactivity of anti-globalization groups over autonomism’s social machinicity. The discussion of genetically engineered plants and animals is linked to these issues. While Hardt and Negri of course oppose the patented ownership of designer life-forms, the fact that their promulgation of the notion of “artificial life” over definitions of authentic or natural life derived from genetic patenting further demonstrates the powerful hold that capital’s technological machinicity has on their imagination (193).

As Multitude unfolds, the analysis of the nature of the collective proletariat displaces the bias toward technological machinicity. This development in the book should not be regarded as an abandonment of the study of the machinicity of general intellect. Rather, it is its fulfillment. The effects of Hardt and Negri’s technological focus do linger through much of the text. For example, the definition of the multitude often returns to criteria of labor and thus remains trapped in the workerist assumptions that accompany the celebration of the cyborg. However, the middle section of Multitude largely succeeds in presenting collective subjectivity in terms that break free of the restrictions of work and technology. Referring to the possibility of an “immanent mechanism” for the realization of the singularities and collectivity of the multitude (79), Hardt and Negri take on the perspective of social machinicity and consequently are able to present in clear terms the departure from ideas of the dialectical mediation of the one and the many that their theory of the multitude presupposes. When referring to the ways in which African American speech renews and nourishes American English, the authors succeed in demonstrating the social production of language without resorting to technologized and therefore reified versions of machinicity. In concert with such approaches, the conceptualization of the multitude as the poor enables Hardt and Negri to disrupt workerist assumptions and bring the notion of general intellect as social factory to bear on their assessment of globalization (106). Hardt and Negri insist on the need to dispense with ideas of class struggle that privilege the industrial proletariat. Hearkening back to Negri’s autonomist thinking, they suggest that the multitude, or the poor, encompasses the lumpenproletariat of the unemployed, the homeless, and the migrant. These comments are important because they stress that the multitude is irreducible to labor. Having asserted this point, Hardt and Negri indicate that the activities of living labor are an extension of the poor that conducts appropriative functions within the realm of capitalist immaterial labor. The poor thus become “the paradigmatic subjective figure of labor today … because they are included in the circuits of production and full of potential, which always exceeds what capital and the global political body can expropriate and control” (212).

At the point where general intellect is identified with the social productivity of the poor, Hardt and Negri attack the effects of capitalist technology. For Hardt and Negri, “there is a distinct neofeudal flavor to today’s privatizations - the privatization of knowledges, information, communications networks, affective relationships, genetic codes, natural resources, and so forth. The rising biopolitical productivity of the multitude is being undercut and blocked by the process of private appropriation” (186). In this context, references to Internet activism or the liberatory posthumanism of genetic engineering would ring hollow. Stripped of any trace of dialectical opposition, mediation or synthesis, the antagonism between empire and the multitude becomes clear. It is an antagonism based on processes of expropriation and appropriation: empire strives to expropriate the social productivity of the multitude as immaterial labor, and the multitude attempts to appropriate the time of capital as its own machinic temporality. There is no doubt that the heavily technologized realm of linguistic, symbolic, and affective immaterial labor is a primary site at which these processes unfold. Yet the constitutive power of the multitude emerges beyond the place of work; this is why the poor are, in the collapsing of production and reproduction that occurs in the real subsumption of labor, paradigmatic of the multitude. Any extended assessment of contemporary capitalism must of course address the function of technology, but to take the cyborg relation as the starting point for analyses of general intellect is to overlook the fact that, with or without technology, the multitude is machinic. Because American academia denigrates or ignores the working class on a systematic basis, it is especially important that academics not succumb to the displacement of the multitude by the technological relation in their readings of Hardt and Negri. As we have seen, much of Empire and even parts of Multitude invite such a displacement. But the primary goal of Negri’s writings is the theorization of the proletariat in the context of postindustrialization. For this reason, the popularity of Hardt and Negri’s books should be treated as an opportunity to drive forward the assault on bourgeois subjectivity and the reclamation of the cooperative, productive, and machinic richness of proletarian subjectivity.

Works Cited

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

—. Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

—. Multitude. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Negri, Toni, et al. Do You Remember Revolution? Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects 1967-83. By Toni Negri. London: Red Notes, 1988. 229-43.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.