A friend of mine has been telling me all about his reading of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire which inspired me to seek out some of Hardt’s work. I’ve listened to several lengthy interviews and lectures this week, and a few things have jumped out at me.

First off, I appreciate how comprehensible he is, without devolving into pop analysis. He does jump all over the place, but not nearly as incomprehensibly (and perhaps not as entertainingly) as Slavoj Zizek.

Central to Hardt’s work is his conception of the multitude. Again, I have not yet read the book, but from the lectures I’ve listened to, the multitude refers to the notion of many peoples acting in networked concert, but not necessarily in full, or even intentional, solidarity.

The multitude’s potential for direct democracy actually springs from the products of our contemporary economic and political situation — global capitalism. Hardt argues this seeming irony is so, due to the model of labor that has become dominant in recent years. The kind of labor that is concerned with the production of ideas, images, affects, and relationships in an information economy. This kind of service economy produces immaterial goods rather than physical commodities.

The social and technological skills needed to function in this immaterial economy are the same skills which point to an increased capacity among the multitude for networked cooperation and social relations on larger scales, which have serious democratic potential.

In the dated revolutionary model, solidarity is required. Within the context of multitude, solidarity is not required, but cooperation and engagement are. Centrally enforced ideology and group identity is not as important, and neither are strategic leaders.

This was a freeing concept for me. It rescues the primacy of the individual (long a capitalist claim), and balances it with the potential for collective democratic change. A person need not subscribe to all dogma to engage, and have a say. Democracy need not be limited to a choice between neoliberal elites every 4 years. A person can drop in and out of support for a given movement as much as their conscience and personal conviction move them. There is no need for authenticity arguments, or identity politics in order to contribute.

As a person emerging from a lifetime of centralized dogma and enforced identity, I had been struggling with this dilemma where I was noticing that advocacy and participation in some movements have the potential to enforce rigid identities of their own. That this does not have to be the case, that you can still be effective, that a diversity of approaches is actually a strength, and that leaders should be strategically subordinate to a movement’s unifying ideas is a fascinating prospect.

Hardt’s outlook is ultimately optimistic. We need not give in to despair, because wrapped up in some of the deepest problems of the world might also be an increased capacity to form solutions together.