Networking the Multitude

Networking the Multitude

2005-12-18

Linda C Brigham complicates Hardt and Negri’s case for network resistance.

I’ll start here in a manner typical of responses to optimism: it would be nice to think that the ever-increasing technological facilitation of communication, along with the commodification of deeper and deeper territories of the lifeworld, might bring about a more widespread, immanent, and intimate form of democracy. Certainly it doesn’t feel this way. In the small world of higher education, for example, more intensive commodification, the breakdown of the curriculum into discretely purchased credit hours, has transformed intellectuals into mini-CEOs. The withdrawal of modern-era public funds accompanying the decline of the welfare state has produced among administrators, and increasingly among faculty, the transdisciplinary mantra, “think entrepreneurially.” This crossing of borders seems to be one-way; CEOs and entrepreneurs do not seem to be becoming more intellectual. Still, could the direct incursion of capital into the heart of intellectual labor lead to a better world?

To many of us, these are signs of endtimes and future catastrophe, the final and complete corruption of intellectual freedom that modernity protected with the disciplines, and the disciplines protected with methodological rigor. However, if we follow Hardt and Negri’s logic in Empire and Multitude , we might find some grounds for hope. Their re-reading of Marx’s Grundrisse and application of dialectical thinking to a new hegemonic form of labor, “immaterial labor,” make a powerful case that the end of modern formations does not necessarily lead to a nightmare, a postmodern dystopia of the absolute control of information by a powerful minority of interests. Here is the logic in a nutshell: immaterial labor’s primary products are affects and communications, that is to say, relationships, rather than material goods. By virtue of the fact that these products are relationships, they extend connectivity, directly forming networks. Networks defy stratification and do not homogenize into the modern territories of the nation or the ideology. Instead, they are composed of “singularities” (not subjects) linked directly to other singularities, a linkage that describes a “common” (not a subject category, not an identity) without suppressing the uniqueness of the nodes it connects. This network, created by the commodification of relationships in the latest permutations of capitalism, brings with it a reprise to the very system that created it. These new and growing networks are, by virtue of their form, purportedly equipped and inclined to subvert and transform the control now held by the global, virtual form of domination called ” Empire.”

But Hardt and Negri are unlucky, despite deserved celebrity. The respective futures of the two works were betrayed, in a sense, by events - Empire by the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center and Multitude by the reelection of George Bush. This baleful course of history spits out a mocking command, which I’ll examine primarily in the context of Multitude : “mind your networks!”  For the networks that result from the transformation of modern forms of production are more ambiguous than Hardt and Negri acknowledge, despite their astute description of postmodern productive processes. Multitude , unfortunately, seems to have simplified Empire in this respect. In Empire, networks were acknowledged to be both potentially liberating and oligopolistic. Nonetheless, even in Empire, structural detail on networks is lacking, and the immanence of networks was generally opposed and juxtaposed to the increasingly centralized controls necessary to manage them by power centers. Yet the assumption in Multitude too often appears to be that the network, “a good model for the multitude,” as the writers state in their introduction, is non-hierarchical; that as “distributed” it is distributed evenly, providing every node - or singularity - with access to a common; that is, with a link. While each of Multitude ‘s three sections is thought-provoking in its case for network emergence, especially with the backdrop of Empire, the book does not offer a sufficiently detailed description of network structures.

There are many kinds of networks. Possibly the structure intended by the word network in Empire and Multitude is a formation on the order of that dramatized in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, a celebration of a degree of connectedness in the world that far exceeds that implied by modern territory-based aggregates like the directory, the workplace, the neighborhood, vocation and nation. One of Guare’s main characters says, I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought …. How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. These lines capture very cleanly the interplay of singularity and common as nodes and connections. But Guare’s small world is vague and even apocryphal, possibly based on a Stanley Milgram experiment in the late sixties later discovered to be so flawed as to constitute a hoax. Actually, small world networks do exist, and they are distinctly more connected, and thus more versatile and responsive, than hierarchies, but there are several kinds, and some of them would certainly seem to be inimical to the democracy espoused by Hardt and Negri. A random network, in which everybody is equally likely to be connected to everybody else, is a small world network. But so is another kind of network, a scale-free network, in which a relatively few nodes have the vast majority of connections, and the great majority of nodes are relatively impoverished. This is an extremely durable form of the network that frequently occurs in nature; it has a high degree of connectivity (information moves through it very fast), and a high degree of resiliency (it’s hard to disable since there are many hubs). But it is not equalizing - in fact, it is the reverse; its functionality depends on the unequal connectivity of the units. If “connectivity” is the basic product of immaterial labor, it is not clear that the result of its hegemony will ameliorate the inequities of the current stage of capitalism.

The exposition of networks in Multitude generally does not proceed beyond a formulaic opposition between the hierarchy-form and more highly connected organizational forms. In the first and most intriguing section of the book, “War,” Hardt and Negri narrate the growing tension between traditional military structure and the means by which war must be conducted against a mobile and stateless enemy. The new object of war, the war against terror, against insurgency, requires not just controlling borders of sovereign states, but also instituting what the authors call a regime of biopower, the management of bodies and ultimately the social life of offending territories. In this respect, the military has the task of constructing relationships. These relationships entail on the one hand the transformation of combat agents into police agents, and even social workers. On the other hand, the premise behind these agents, a contemporary military personnel composed of voluntary recruits in pursuit of job opportunities, is that they are to be a technical and professional apparatus, largely safe from casualty. On the one hand, technology becomes the answer to a combat mission where death is an unacceptable risk. Proximity to the enemy is electronically and mechanically mediated at an apex of abstraction. On the other hand, the only way to prevent continual insurgent violence is to become intimate with the social networks that produce them, to become a quotidian bodily presence. The impossibility of social distance in conducting the war against terror on foreign soil undoes the hierarchic assumptions that constitute the military as a military at all. It cannot succeed, Hardt and Negri insist, unless it, like its adversaries, becomes a network, able to mobilize its nodes simultaneously, to “swarm.” In short, the social and material conditions of contemporary warfare unsettle the structure of the military chain of command and rework the very notion of both “the soldier” and “the enemy.”

The same dynamic proceeds on what has traditionally been called the domestic front, the world of citizens and labor. The logic of transformation proceeds from the dislodging of the old industrial style labor by “immaterial” labor: immaterial labor, itself material, produces not goods, not objects, but services and ideas - in essence, it produces relationships, “ultimately social life itself.” The rise and preeminence of immaterial labor potentially short-circuits the difference between capital and labor in the same way the military necessity of police action short-circuits the distinction between native and foreigner, soldier and civilian. While in the age of industrial labor, relationships - that is, unions - were a byproduct of the production of commodities, under the hegemony of immaterial labor, relationships and commodity are identical; labor directly manufactures the network that will undo capital as a territorializing power in the hands of a distinct population. The old revolution of the proletariat has become the revolution of a global everybody, and this is the democracy to come, a pure and direct democracy without organization, without representation. It is structured as a network of singularities. Relationships and affects, deployed as commodities, produce not simply customer satisfaction, but a “commons,” a linking of nodes that transforms modern subjects/consumers into postmodern singularities. This new network organization succeeds the hierarchies of the state, of the industrial order of labor, of an identity politics based not on the common but on abstract genus, on forced attribution.

But, in all this, the analysis of network formation needs to be more discriminating. Are more singularities more connected? Or is the net growth in connectivity the consequence of a hierarchy of hubs? As Hardt and Negri demonstrate throughout Multitude, the implications of various network forms for the political and economic future of the planet may be enormous. But how various forms of networks relate to social existence is a very complicated question nested within the already considerable complexity of Empire and its sequel. Nonetheless, network structures ought to merit sustained inquiry by two writers whose case against leftist despair is otherwise compelling.

Works Cited

Guare, John. Six Degrees of Separation. New York: Random House, 1990.

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

—. Multitude. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Aron Pease:

Systems theory provides another way to think about connected
organizational forms that escapes this binary. Linda Brigham’s review of
Cultural Critique’s special issues on “The Politics of Systems and
Environments” introduces the topic.

2006-03-18