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Review: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Assembly

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Assembly. Oxford University Press, 2017.


Since the 1990s Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have coauthored several controversial volumes of note about contemporary politics and emancipation.

This time they offer Assembly, a book that revisits many themes of their earlier publications. Despite this, the new volume also presents a significant shift in their thinking. Hardt and Negri address, especially at the beginning and in the conclusion of Assembly, political problems that cannot but be dealt with in their specificity, even though they continue adamantly to deny what they call the “autonomy of the political.”

Regardless of their contemporary targets of criticism, there is more than an echo of an old Italian debate in this, that of the tradition of the 1960s-1970s “operaismo,” in which Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti and Negri himself were the main figures. Tronti eventually moved away from the distinctive tenets of this intellectual-political movement, while Panzieri passed away. The movement originally had the factory as its setting, from which politics had to be derived, in a stark so-to-speak “materialist” turn. While Negri, in successive formulations held fast to this perspective, Tronti came to accept politics as a relatively autonomous dimension, returning to the Italian Communist Party (PCI) (with which Negri always had an adversarial relation) and eventually embraced even a sort of post-modern outlook. Given this background, a curious tension, to some extent productive, runs through the book.

The main themes of this ambitious volume are the relation between leadership and the “multitude” (their self-coined concept for the general social subject); the entrepreneurialism of the multitude (in order to confront and overturn the idea of neoliberalism, which underlies political developments), the transformation of value and the social composition of capital, the emergence of a well-educated and well-organized multitude; a revived and reconfigured notion of the “commons,” and how we should think about conducting political struggles and devise practical steps towards forming a new and decent society. Some speculations and partial answers are proposed in the course of their analysis.

Thus, in Assembly, the themes are, excuse the expression, multitudinous, and the issues they raise even more so.  I would like, however, in this short review, to discuss a specific problem, which will conflict with their conclusions. I want to discuss politics as such, an approach far away from their concept of the “multitude,” regardless of the importance this term has for their argument.

Hardt and Negri initially had a straightforward view of the “multitude” and of communism, which were supposed to manifest themselves in due time without unseemly detours or delays. The “multitude” would incarnate itself soon, though how this would happen was hardly clear. But in their recent books elements of mediation and long-term thinking were introduced, however reluctantly. The “commons” is defined in Assembly as a collective appropriation of the world that lies beyond property, though not beyond the present, since it must be and is being activated. What is more interesting is that issues of organization come to the fore in this book, despite their rejection of the “autonomy of the political.” Now the multitude is deemed the agent of “strategy,” while leadership, localized and of relatively minor importance, plays a “tactical” role. The capacities of the multitude enable this shift of great magnitude, as during virtually all the history of the left. Yet Hardt and Negri go beyond that: they find that in left politics there are three possible paths, which can be – and this is really astonishing in its novelty within their work – compatible and complementary. They are (1) pre-figurative politics, (2) true reformism (rather than mere adaptation to capitalism and neoliberalism) and (3) the actual taking of power. While the pre-figurative politics (which would realize today, in practice, what a future society should be like) is difficult to generalize from small-scale endeavors, the third has been and will be problematic, to say the least, due to verticality and the weight of institutions, a problem that besets true reformism too, which is nevertheless long-term and practical and can help open space for pre-figurative politics.

The key problem is that leadership and strategy take on a more intense and extensive role than what can be devised in the immediate action of the “multitude” and even in pre-figurative politics. A further problem is that Hardt and Negri seem not to realize this and thus do not even discuss the issue. However, it is not by chance that two developments in their thinking become visible now. For the first time, Gramsci appears as a central personage in their work, though Machiavelli stands out in the discussion of the “new Prince” (the multitude). One could even detect a creeping sympathy, not devoid of criticism, for the PCI, insofar as they tried (though failed) to carry out that second route of left politics (transformative reformism). Of course, the PCI’s Leninism and centralism, and its attempt to control the masses and internal dissent, prevents Hardt and Negri from endorsing the party’s trajectory. In any case, given the permanent adversarial relation between Negri and the PCI, this cannot come as a surprise. The price for this is his strong negation of the “autonomy of the political,” precisely Tronti’s perspective when he returned to the PCI, leaving aside those who, like Negri, still insisted that the factory – and eventually society as a whole in an expanded biopolitical post-modern epoch – is the main site of struggle, the kernel of “operaismo.” If speaking of the “autonomy of the political” may be a dangerous reification, it is necessary to come to terms with its specificity, its demands and inner developmental logic. They do so, in part.

Finally, although Assembly adheres to Negri’s earlier concept of “constituent power,” not only does he reduce its importance (now merely a transformative “dispositif”), he separates it from “sovereignty,” which is deemed too unitary. In addition, this move is connected to a view of “dual power” which allows for the emergence of counterpowers in a plural society, in which, we may say, the state loses its monopoly of organization of social life – although they oppose any positive role for revolutionary violence in the contemporary world – implicitly because there is a developmental trend of the state becoming ever more powerful, at least with regard to ordinary citizens. On the other hand, they retain the idea of capital – and again, implicitly, the state – as “parasitical” upon the “multitude” to which it reacts. This runs counter to Marx’s view of the great organizing capacity of capital (contra Proudhon), even though it is a “vampire” (not a parasite, though Marx was at pains to negate intellectual labor production of value, a problem ingrained in Marxist political economy). This is a point that can be extended to the state with its legal apparatus and rights, a terrain that must not be abandoned, except to our own detriment. These are not at all merely parasitical developments, instead they stem from, and are conditioned by, the tense dialectic between state and society as well as class struggle and other conflictual relations.

This is not to say that social dynamics and social struggle are no longer the main focus of Hardt and Negri’s analysis. They are. Likewise, the construction of alternatives related to the recreating and expanding the commons is a means to bring out the potentiality of an autonomous multitude that has always been necessary for a parasitical capital (especially finance capital) to organize its endeavors, let alone for the state. Above all, we are offered, irrespective of our criticism, a fresh vista on the evolution of two authors who are very much willing to learn. If with regard to Hardt this is striking, it is more so the case with Negri, who has undergone exile and a period in jail, as well as having reached an advanced age. It bespeaks humility and a readiness to expose himself to the vagaries of history and the evolution of social agents, from which both authors are eager to learn.

There are many problems and shortcomings in Hardt and Negri’s books, conceptual and political, which I have discussed earlier and elsewhere (Domingues, 2017). The same is true of Assembly, which repeats many former arguments, sometimes too quickly, with the problems that have beset their view of biopolitical capitalism and the multitude as actor returning. However, not only are there worthwhile and relevant insights in its pages, as it opens room for us to engage with the complexity of social life and social change, a sober view of the history of left emerges. The history of the left has been littered by too much false certainty and factionalism. Despite a lingering version of Marxism, in their ecumenism, if I may put the issue this way, Hardt and Negri do not shrink from polemics or from their own affirmative views, yet help us to go beyond the arrogance that has been a hallmark of certain leftwing ideas. That is a heritage which, following their example, we must renounce. We have all to gain from this.


Jose Mauricio Domingues is author most recently of Emancipation and History: The Return of Social Theory(Leiden: Brill, 2017).