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Another World, Possibly

BY Dave Mulcahey

Shortly before he died in 1918, the American critic Randolph Bourne penned an incendiary essay laying bare the monstrous duplicity at the heart of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. We know Wilson from school history as the champion of national self-determination. Bourne regarded such high-minded talk as a hollow ruse. History will record, he wrote, that “when the American nation had ostensibly a chance to conduct a gallant war, with scrupulous regard to the safety of democratic values at home, it chose rather to adopt all the most obnoxious and coercive techniques of the enemy and of the other countries at war, and to rival in intimidation and ferocity of punishment the worst governmental systems of the age.”

The essay, which Bourne never finished, is remembered for a pithy aphorism, “War is the health of the state.” This slogan has lately taken on a discomfiting resonance.

Warfare, Bourne observed, exercised a psychological effect on the nation wholly salutary to the state and the classes that ran it. It regimented life and terrorized dissenters, granting the state new powers to punish citizens for the mildest divergences from orthodoxy. Wilson’s lofty rhetoric about a world made safe for democracy was merely filigree on his dangerous idealism of the state. Inevitably, the democratic principles he so fervently boosted came into conflict with the state’s need for power. Just as inevitably, Bourne wrote, Wilson decided “that it is the naïver democratic values that must be sacrificed.”

Bourne’s manifesto is remarkably apposite today. It’s certainly a great source to plunder for antiwar rhetoric. Yet what the left needs to grasp is how profoundly the nature of warfare has evolved, especially in the last few decades—to understand the way these innovations have arisen in response to novel challenges to state power. In their new book, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri try to get a grip of this dynamic. The result is rich and sometimes surprising, and it marks a fruitful new direction.

Hardt and Negri are the authors of Empire, the 2001 bestseller that outlined a new supranational political network—Empire—that the authors believe inexorably supersedes nation states as the agent of global power.

Multitude attempts to make sense of the interval since their last book. After all, the Bush administration’s assertive foreign policy may strike some as problematic to Empire’s conceit. The book also tackles a related problem: Who in the age of Empire will be the standard-bearer of leftist political struggle and aspiration?

As for the Bush administration’s healthy regard for war, Hardt and Negri offer a subtle and, in many ways, counterintuitive interpretation. Whereas the more bombastic critics of the Iraq war like to point out the possible pecuniary angles the president and his cronies are working, Hardt and Negri demur that, really, this war is bad for business. The disproportionate force the American military enjoys turns out to be not such a great advantage. Mercenary armies fighting indigenous resistance movements don’t have a great win-loss record. From a pragmatic point of view, the war will likely prove to be a serious mistake.

That is not to say that war, according to Hardt and Negri, is less crucial to the health of the state in our time than it was in Bourne’s. War today is different and, the authors argue, the way in which it has changed is key. Comparing the last century to our own time we may be fooled into believing that humankind has learned from modernity’s carnage. Sure, the earth may abound in weapons of mass destruction, but we are enlightened enough not to use them. And we don’t slaughter each other by the tens of thousands in trench combat. Postmodern wars are clean, technologically delimited, humanitarian. Right?

But they are total wars in ways the great gore fests of the 20th Century were not. War, Hardt and Negri write, is no longer concerned merely with conventional strategic objectives but with “producing and reproducing all aspects of social life.” What is the “war on drugs,” for example, with its concept of zero tolerance, other than a bid for social control? What is the “war on terrorism,” with its embedded technologies of surveillance, other than a means to discipline civil society?

Hardt and Negri argue the limits of war have been extended. No more of that liberal-modernist hoo-hah about war as the means of last resort. War is now “the first and primary element, the foundation of politics itself.” The roster of acceptable enemies has been expanded from rival nations and political parties to include “abstract concepts and sets of practices.” Not surprisingly, then, the apologetics of war have taken on moralistic cadences, with “just war” theory and “evil” crowding out “national interest.”

In fact, as Hardt and Negri see it, postmodern war really is civil war, a war against dangerous internal enemies of Empire itself. The U.S. armed forces, as the media breathlessly reported, have undergone a “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA. The new army is no longer massed ranks of cannon fodder, but a decentralized network of highly trained and well-equipped knowledge-workers. They kill and conquer, to be sure, but afterward they “dictate cultural and legal norms to the conquered.” They are nation builders.

But the RMA should not be mistaken for some consequence of enlightenment or humane values, Hardt and Negri write. It grew out of the counterinsurgency operations of the late 20th Century, and its sole purpose is to serve Empire. Since well before 9/11, U.S. military planners have understood that their enemy is a network, that war is now “netwar.” They have adapted to their enemy.

Who is this enemy? “His name,” Hardt and Negri write, riffing on a passage from the New Testament, “is legion.” Leaving aside the better-known “evildoers,” the authors suggest the banner of resistance to Empire will be carried by “the Multitude,” a heterogeneous and heterodox force who share with the global poor a “double character of poverty and possibility.” They are flexible, mobile and resourceful—think the Zapatistas, the Seattle demonstrators, or even the Palestinian Intifada in its more grassroots manifestations.

Interestingly, this flexible nature we observe in both the RMA and the more effective global insurgencies corresponds to changes in civilian labor markets. Hardt and Negri argue that a new kind of work, “immaterial” labor, has come to the fore socially and culturally. Any number of terms have already been coined to describe postindustrial labor, and the authors’ own elaborations on the phenomenon are passably interesting. What is crucial, though, is their observation that immaterial workers produce more than goods and services—they produce “cooperation, communication, forms of life and social relationships.” These immaterial things have “value,” Hardt and Negri argue, as much as Marx’s commodities do, and as such are a source of political power.

How to assert this power? Hardt and Negri refuse to urge “What is to be done?” Their objective, prudently, is to suggest that social revolution is still eminently possible, and that even in this dark time the left has every reason to be optimistic.

Another world is possible, they argue. Power rests with the people. All that is needed is a political project to make it happen.

Dave Mulcahey, a former managing editor of The Baffler, wrote In These Times' monthly "Appallo-o-meter" feature for nearly 10 years, until the fall of 2009.

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