Biopolitics of the Multitude Versus the Hegemony of the People

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* Book: Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude Versus the Hegemony of the People. Giorgos Katsambekis and Alexandros Kioupkiolis (eds). Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington, VT, 2014. 247pp.,


by Eduardo Frajman:

"This is a sharply focused collection in both its real-world concerns and its theoretical approach. Editors Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis have attracted an eclectic mix of contributors and challenged them to analyze three recent waves of mass popular mobilization – the Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, the anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain, and the Occupy movement in the United States – using the analytical tools of “post-Marxism.” The editors are particularly interested in creating a dichotomy between two influential variants of post-Marxist thought. In one corner is Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau, whose Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (co-written with Chantal Mouffe and published in 1985) is one of the seminal post-Marxist texts. In the other are the venerable Italian firebrand Antonio Negri and his long-time collaborator, American Michael Hardt, who became academic celebrities after the publication of Empire in 2000.

The heart of post-Marxism is to be found in the insights of its unwitting founding father, the Italian thinker and activist Antonio Gramsci. In his Prison Notebooks (written in the 1930s but only published in the 1950s, long after his death) Gramsci explores an astounding variety of topics, but his most influential contribution is his conceptualization and analysis of “hegemony.” According to the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their intellectual progeny, the structure of society is determined by the relations of production between the dominant and dominated classes. The very nature of production under capitalism, according to orthodox Marxism, will inevitably bring about its own destruction, after which the proletariat will emerge as the universal social class. Gramsci intuits a crucial problem with this view. Marxism, he believes, neglects the cultural aspect of domination, dismissing it as secondary, super-structural. He develops in response a theory in which the means of the production of meaning are as important as the means of material production. Under the power of hegemony, the proletariat do not rise up in revolt, their path barred as much by symbolic as by material barriers. As long as the capitalists have a hold of culture, of meaning, the revolution cannot take place. Hegemony is the enemy, as an old professor of mine used to put it.

What hegemony is, exactly, is a matter of furious debate among post-Marxists: it is the dominant culture, the culture of domination, the culture of the dominators, or perhaps a combination of these, or something else altogether. Such ambiguity is very much in evidence in the chapters of this volume. Given the current state of post-Marxist scholarship, it could not have been otherwise. There is much less disagreement regarding how hegemony (whatever it is) shapes the current political situation. As outlined by Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, the consequences of current hegemonic domination include “a neoliberal state apparatus,” “material devastation on deeply distressed middle and lower classes,” the trampling of “basic liberal and democratic rights,” and “harsh repressive action against popular dissent and collective self-organization.” To combat such destructive forces “a Gramscian politics of hegemony” is needed, “and the construction of a forceful counter-hegemonic bloc”: “broad alliance building, governmental change, a cogent program of reforms and a cohesive and massive political force that can back up this program and re-order the balance of power in society” (2).

Mass movements of protest and resistance, at least since the 1960s but especially since the early 1990s, have been identified by intellectuals as potential wellsprings of counter-hegemony. This book brims with enthusiasm over the prospect that the Arab Spring, the protests of the indignados in Southern Europe, and Occupy may play just such a role. Saul Newman (Chapter 4) declares that they “embody a new form of politics, involving the creation of autonomous spaces and relations rather than the representation of identities of power […] which points towards the possibilities of autonomous social relations and political life beyond the bankrupt despotism of the financial system and the nihilistic charade of parliamentary politics” (93). Kioupkiolis (Chapter 7) concurs: “They set out to construct and to prefigure through their resistance practices a new democratic world” (149). The authors are, of course, very much aware that the revolution is not imminent, and that hegemony is not going anywhere. “We still haven’t brought down the neoliberal order of domination,” Kioupkiolis reminds us (151).

How to create an enduring counter-hegemonic bloc is the fundamental political question of post-Marxism, which has for the most part abandoned the orthodox fixation on the urban proletariat as the locus of revolution and replaced it with some form “horizontal and multitudinous self-organization” (2). Laclau’s variant, particularly in later works such as On Populist Reason, and Hardt and Negri’s, are singled out in this volume as the most prominent expressions of the counter-hegemonic potential of mass mobilization. No doubt many post-Marxists would suggest alternative candidates for that honor. Several other thinkers are frequently discussed in the book, including the French Jacques Rancière, the Italian Paolo Virno, and the immensely popular Slovenian Slavoj Žižek.

There is nevertheless an intriguing contrast between the two views selected by the editors. In the simplest terms, Laclau believes that the only thing that can destroy hegemony is a competing hegemony, the hegemony of “the people.” Hardt and Negri, by contrast, envision a world free of hegemonic politics altogether, replaced by the organic “biopolitics” of an amorphous and undefined social entity they term “the multitude.” Each of the eleven essays in the book, including the Introduction, summarize and discuss both perspectives, making a reading of the entire volume a highly repetitive exercise. The authors then take the discussion in various directions. Some engage primarily in theory, they examine the recent mass movements through a particular theoretical framework. Jodi Dean (Chapter 3), for instance, proposes the concept of “the people as the rest of us” as a better signifier for potential counter-hegemony.

Most chapters, however, deal in meta-theory, they engage the existing theories in order to understand them in relation to each other. Andy Knott (Chapter 9) prefers Laclau. Dean is critical of both sides, and likes theory with a more Freudian flavor. Newman and Benjamin Arditi (Chapter 1) are particularly critical of Laclau, but the former is more willing to accept Hardt and Negri’s alternative than the latter. Paul Rekret (Chapter 6) tries to show how the two sides are incommensurable, while Katsambekis (Chapter 8) aims to combine the two, as do Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen (Chapter 10). It would be impossible to provide here a detailed overview of the multiple battlegrounds within this manifold theoretical debate. Suffice to say that a reader who wishes to understand them must be ready to decipher a volume filled with sentences such as this one: “If Negri’s ontological conception of the multitude leads him to subsume all social phenomena to the absolute vertical asymmetry of multitude and empire, which guarantees the autonomy of the former, then the absolute horizontality of Laclau’s ontology of discourse to which all social phenomena belong is equally generalized insofar as it excludes any reference to an extra-discursive materiality whatsoever” (143).

This is not to deride the quality of the essays, most of which show impressive subtlety and sophistication. An unfortunate exception is Yannis Stavrakakis’ panegyric defense of Laclau (Chapter 5). Rather than engage any of the theories in depth, Stavrakakis traces chronologically a number of critics of Laclau and targets each of them individually. The piece reads less like a theoretical analysis and more like a series of spiteful personal attacks. Stavrakakis does deserve credit for the one funny aside in the entire book, when he suggests (in a footnote) that post-Marxist theorists themselves may be engaged in a “small-scale hegemonic project aiming at securing the consent of prospective readers” (120).

The highlight of the volume, on the other hand, is Richard J.F. Day and Nick Montgomery’s “Letter to a Greek Anarchist” (Chapter 2). Explicitly avoiding the jargon that pervades the rest of the contributions, they confront a crucial question: is theory important at all? What role would it play should the chance to truly challenge hegemony presented itself? Day and Montgomery are uncertain: “Our argument is rather that the emptying and filling of these particular signifiers by academic metatheorists doesn’t necessarily have much effect on what many people on the ground do or think” (53). As many academic metatheorists suspect from time to time, the choice between Laclau and Hardt and Negri, or Rancière, or Žižek may not amount to much when the nature of the debate “intrinsically allows both everything and its opposite to be posited and critiqued.” Day and Montgomery even dare suggest the refreshingly disheartening possibility that “those who lapse into apathy and political nihilism are the most consistent, theoretically and historically!” (67)

There is an additional, equally frightening question that none of the authors contemplates: is it possible that the infatuation with popular mobilization exhibited in this volume is misplaced? Occasional mass mobilization seems a perpetual feature of contemporary politics. Popular upsurges and the rise of “civil society” were identified as contributors to the demise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere. Consider the “direitas ja” campaign in Brazil (1984), the People Power Revolution in the Philippines (1986), and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (1989). More recent examples include the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004), the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon (2005), and the failed protest movements in Iran (2009) and Hong Kong (2014). Not all popular movements aim at replacing capitalist hegemony. Nowhere is this more evident than in Latin America. Anger against neoliberalism produced popular upsurges in Ecuador (2000), Argentina (2001), Bolivia (2003), and many other nations. Conversely, the left-wing governments that replaced neoliberal regimes have themselves been the target of comparable popular mobilizations such as the ones in Argentina (2008) and Venezuela (2013).

It is not at all obvious that the Arab Spring mobilizations were driven primarily by opposition to capitalist hegemony. In fact, many of the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria were calling for the type of liberal, capitalist democracy that Occupy Wall Street and the contributors to this volume reject. The same is true of the “indignant” workers in Greece and Spain, most of whom could not be less interested in a future utopia of horizontal governance; their priority is to put food on the table. In a moment of resigned pragmatism, Kioupkilis recognizes that even the most extensive mobilizations “are always minoritarian compared to the silent, inert majorities of abstaining individuals” (166). This book may exemplify a sort of intellectual inertia, one that fails to see that the blaze of popular revolt is bound to be short-lived, doomed by the inevitability of exhaustion and by the mundane requirements of everyday life. Even as Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis acknowledge “the apparent eclipse” of the movements that inspired this book in the first place, they are already looking ahead to the next “resurgence of autonomous popular resistances across the globe” (14) in the hope that those will be the ones that finally deliver a lasting victory." (