[Marxism] Tom Nairn versus Hardt/Negri

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 28 08:28:14 MDT 2005


LRB | Vol. 27 No. 9 dated 5 May 2005
Make for the Boondocks
Tom Nairn


     Better to wonder if ten thousand angels
     Could waltz on the head of a pin
     And not feel crowded than to wonder if now’s the time
     for the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
     To teach the Serbs a lesson they’ll never forget
     For shooting Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

     Carl Dennis, ‘World History’1

The cover of Multitude invites bookshop browsers not just to read it, but 
to ‘Join the many. Join the Empowered.’ The missionary tone is underlined 
by Naomi Klein’s blurb – ‘inspiring’ – and a frisson added by the book’s 
appearance: a brown paper wrapping like those used to discourage porn 
thieves and customs inspectors. Trembling fingers that go further are 
reminded that this book succeeds Empire (2000), by the same authors, which 
provided a picture of the global imperium supposed to have followed the 
Cold War – not the American Empire, but a wider settlement of which US 
supremacy was just one part. This imperium has generated global resistance, 
which all purchasers are now invited to approve, in the name of democracy.

Hardt and Negri’s multitude should not be confused with the working class, 
or any ethnic and national group. It seems to mean humanity in general – 
‘The multitude is many-coloured, like Joseph’s magical coat,’ but the coat 
hides an increasingly common will, summed up by the authors as ‘democracy’. 
Readers are warned that the book’s argument may not be ‘immediately clear’ 
and are exhorted to be patient, for Multitude is ‘a mosaic from which the 
general design gradually emerges’. Before turning to that design, it’s 
important to stress how welcome this expansiveness is. In a venture like 
this, social anthropology and philosophy are as important as economics or 
conventional international relations. As Gopal Balakrishnan wrote in his 
review of Empire in New Left Review, it seems apposite to cite Virgil: ‘The 
final age that the oracle foretold has arrived; the great order of the 
centuries is born again.’

And yet, as in the previous book, this oracular tone is puzzling. If the 
outlook for global democratisation were as good as these prophets maintain, 
then surely a more empirical, matter-of-fact tone would suffice? Instead, 
an exalted and visionary tone prevails, right up to the high note of 
rapture on which they end: ‘Today time is split between a present that is 
already dead and a future that is already living . . . In time, an event 
will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real 
political act of love.’ Hardt and Negri’s project is constantly undermined 
by an inebriate tendency towards the absolute. It is as if the authors find 
themselves transported by a philosophical elixir of oneness which, though 
invariably justified as ‘radicalism’, may in fact carry the reader towards 
an odd style of religiosity. Nor is this just a side effect: it is this 
that we are really being invited to ‘join’ – empowerment through faith, via 
spiritual transport.

     You’ll have to tell them frankly you can’t explain
     Why Nineveh is still standing though you hope to learn
     At the feet of a prophet who for all you know
     May be turning his donkey toward Nineveh even now.

     Carl Dennis, ‘Prophet’

While Empire made some readers think of Virgil and Rome, in Multitude the 
defining shift is more restricted: the postmodern has become the premodern. 
The philosophy of Spinoza has replaced both Marxism and capitalist 
neo-liberalism. While affected timelessness is inherent in the Hardt-Negri 
rhetoric – hence their over-easy references to antiquity or the Middle Ages 
– the centre of gravity in this book is firmly in the later 17th century. 
Once regarded as an important precursor of the Enlightenment and of Marxist 
materialism, the thought of Spinoza (1632-77) is redeemed in these pages, 
as a wisdom awaiting its vindication in a globalised epoch yet to come. In 
vital ways, Spinoza told the whole story: his apparently abstract 
pantheistic philosophy explained history itself, future as well as past, 
and the globalisation process simply favours a return to such 
understanding, after the mounting sorrows and delusions of modernity.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n09/nair01_.html

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