How can a blind multitude, which often does not know what it wants . . . undertake so vast and difficult an enterprise as a system of legislation?
Rousseau, The Social Contract
The worst of all the multitude
Did something for the common good
Mandeville, The Grumbling Hive
Within contemporary radical politics, there are a lot of questions to which there are many possible answers, and one question to which there is none. There are innumerable blueprints for utopian futures that are, in varying degrees, egalitarian, cosmopolitan, ecologically sustainable, and locally responsive, but no solution to the most intractable problem of all: who is going to make it happen?
Almost all the agencies through which political change was effected in the twentieth century have either disappeared or been seriously weakened. Of these, the most powerful was the Communist state, responsible, in agrarian societies, both for gruesome repression and for dramatic improvements in human well-being. Within industrialized nations, Communist and social democratic parties, and for a period even the Democratic Party in the United States, intermittently succeeded in achieving significant social and economic reforms, of which the enduring legacy is the welfare state; in this regard, they were aided by the trade unions, which simultaneously brought about a partial redistribution of wealth. In their turn, party and union provided (often unwillingly) the institutional and rhetorical matrix for fluid social movements of much greater ambition and inventiveness.
How the achievements of these actors are judged is now, in a sense, irrelevant, for almost all have ceased to be effective political agents. The Communist state has disappeared; political parties of the left have become virtually indistinguishable from those of the right both in policy, and perhaps more importantly, in their social constituency and sources of funding; trade unions are in long-term decline, and movements for peace, racial and sexual equality have all but petered out, not because any of their long-term objectives were realized, but because they are unable to mobilize support.
Without these agents there appear to be only two forces capable of shaping the contemporary world: market globalization propelled by governments and multinational corporations, and populist reactions that seek to assert national or communal sovereignty. The same actors are frequently involved in both, oscillating between spectacular but sporadic manifestations of the collective will—the British fuel protests of 2000; 9/11; the us invasion of Afghanistan; the global demonstrations against the Iraq war; the ‘No’ votes against the European constitution—and the continuation of social and economic practices that undermine their efficacy: unquenchable demand keeps fuel prices high; the thirst for technological modernity erodes traditional values; resistance to taxation and the draft cripples us foreign policy, just as civil obedience undermines the anti-war campaign, and daily participation in a pan-European economy weakens the ‘No’ votes. But the two are, in fact, related, in that it is the unwillingness of populations to accept the emergent properties of their own habitual behaviour that necessitates the dramatic protests in the first place. All agents seem trapped within this cycle of unintended effect and ineffectual intent—both the market itself and the inchoate nationalisms and fundamentalisms that seek to control it.
Within this landscape, a new political agent has been identified—a potential alternative both to the global market and to the populist responses to it. According to Hardt and Negri, the only basis today for ‘political action aimed at transformation and liberation’ is the multitude, conceived as ‘all those who work under the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who refuse the rule of capital’.footnote1 However, the multitude is primarily defined not by its rejection of the market, but by its distance from the fictive unities of populism: