Ktismatics

26 October 2008

The Creativity of the Multitude

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:12 pm

The possibility of democracy is emerging for the very first time.

Always a bit slow on the uptake, I just read Hardt & Negri’s Multitude, their 2004 follow-up to Empire, a book on which I previously engaged in a series of tumultuous post-and-parry sessions. H&N argue that in late capitalism the knowledge worker has replaced the factory worker as the hegemonic form of labor, not through numerical domination but by signaling a change in how all work can “work.” Manual labor produces material goods, characterized by limitation and hence by scarcity. Knowledge work, by contrast, produces immaterial goods that can be distributed to everyone without natural limit, its spread restrained only by artificially constructed barriers like intellectual property laws. Not only that, but through dissemination the products of knowledge work actually burgeon and multiply rather than being dissipated. This is the power of the “multitude” – the singular and collective ability of people, working individually and in collaboration with one another, to create an ever-expanding congeries of immaterial cultural products which collectively H&N call “the common.”

I skip to the last thirty pages of Multitude, where the authors present as close as they get to a proposal on how democracy is going to emerge as both a political and an economic force from within the existing world order. What restrains the expansion of the common, say H&N, is the sovereign power which capital exercises over the means of production. According to the tradition of sovereignty, as elaborated by fascist social theorist Carl Schmitt, only the One can rule, whether that One be the king, the aristocracy, or the people. Without the dominance of the One, society descends into chaos.

Schmitt insists that in all cases the sovereign stands above society, transcendent, and thus politics is always founded on theology: power is sacred. The sovereign is defined, in other words, positively as the one above whom there is no power and who is thus free to decide and, negatively, as the one potentially excepted from every social norm and rule. (pp. 330-1)

According to H&N, this theory of political sovereignty applies to economic management as well:

The capitalist is the one who brings the workers together in productive cooperation. The capitalist is a modern Lycurgus, sovereign over the private domain of the factory, but pressed always to go beyond the steady state and innovate… To sovereign exceptionalism corresponds economic innovation as the form of industrial government. A large number of workers are engaged in the material practices of production, but the capitalist is the one responsible for innovation. Just as only the one can decide in politics, we are told, only the one can innovate in economics. (p. 331)

For H&N, the unrestrained expansion of the common depends on the intrinsic creative force of the multitude being released from the ideology of sovereignty. It’s not that the knowledge workers must form themselves into a manifestation of the One, whereby they can then exert the sovereignty of Labor; rather, the multitude succeeds by remaining true to its multiplicity, its limitless burgeoning channeled only by mutual collaboration among its singular constituents. What’s needed to achieve this infinite expansion of the common isn’t a unitary executive chain of command driving down through the hierarchy but rather a flat organizational architecture fueled by “common resources, open access, and free interaction” (p. 337). H&N see in the growth of the internet and cybernetics industries exemplars of this sort of “open source” development of an electronic commons.

Perhaps we can understand the decision making of the multitude as a form of expression. Indeed the multitude is organized something like a language. All of the elements of a language are defined by their differences one from the other, and yet they all function together. A language is a flexible web of meanings that combine according to accepted rules in an infinite number of possible ways. A specific expression, then, is not only the combination of linguistic elements but the production of real meanings: expression gives a name to an event. Just as expression emerges from language, then, a decision emerges from the multitude in such a way as to give meaning to the whole and name an event. For linguistic expression, however, there must be a separate subject that employs the language in expression. This is the limit of our analogy because unlike language the multitude is itself an active subject – something like a language that can express itself. (p. 339)

It’s this ability of the multitude to arrive at emergent decisions that fuels both economic innovation and democracy. Sovereignty, based on the myth of the One Who Rules, has in fact always depended on the consent of the ruled. If the ruled withhold this consent they don’t descend into chaos; rather, they achieve the absolute democracy and self-rule of the multitude.

People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept, but a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude… We need to recuperate the public and political conception of love common to premodern traditions. Christianity and Judaism, for example, both conceive love as a political act that constructs the multitude. Love means precisely that our expansive encounters and continuous collaborations bring us joy. (p. 352)

I’m all for the multitude of knowledge workers being freed to control their own work and to generate their own innovations in love for one another and for the commons. But aren’t the limitations to H&N’s proposal fairly obvious? First, the workers suddenly becoming aware that the emperor has no clothes isn’t going to topple the reigning sovereign. Capital controls the work because capital pays the workers. It’s money, not ideology, that gives the owners their power over the workers.

Second, money isn’t just a controller of workers; it’s also a motivator. Knowledge workers may grind out the work through fear of losing their jobs, but most also attempt to excel in hopes of getting a raise in pay. The vaunted explosion of worker creativity in information systems and biotechnology was fueled by nerds who hope to get rich off of their cleverness, to invent their way into the plutocracy. There’s no question that the already-rich investors get more than their fair share from entrepreneurial ventures, but some knowledge workers really do make a lot of money from their ingenuity. The most visibly successful techie entrepreneurs are propelled less by the freedom to create something intrinsically excellent than by the possibility of accruing enormous financial rewards far exceeding what they could earn in decades working a regular job.

Third, the capitalists’ sovereignty over innovation doesn’t operate by executive fiat and exception. In the contemporary capitalist firm Innovation is a core corporate objective, part of the work at nearly every level of the organizational structure. For decades so-called intrapreneurship has been incorporated into business practice, providing even line-level ops workers with opportunities to collaborate and to put forward clever new ideas for consideration by management, ideas that might earn the innovative worker at least a small sliver of the pie if the idea goes into production and distribution. Certainly it’s capital that calls the shots: the financial projections attached to the proposed innovations, the expected reductions in costs or increases in revenues, the anticipated return on investment — these are the criteria by which management selects some ideas for development while rejecting others of equal or even superior intrinsic merit.

Fourth, I guess I’m just not persuaded about the incipient potential creativity of the multitude waiting to be unleashed. Certainly there are workers whose ingenuity is thwarted or diverted by the power of money. Productive and inventive workers often find themselves forced either to accede or to resist pressures from finance and marketing, pressures that would have them relax their standards in order to generate more revenue. Resistance to economic innovation often tends toward resistance to innovation generally and a guildlike protectionism among workers. Often the most innovative and energetic workers find themselves lured by jobs in management and marketing, jobs that offer both more control and more pay, jobs that drain creative passion away from innovations that benefit the common and toward those that benefit capital. However, management and marketing people aren’t particularly innovative either. If workers owned the means of production, if knowledge workers reaped the financial benefits of their innovations without having to pay off the investors, would passionate creativity begin to explode through the multitude? I doubt it, but I’d like to give it a try anyway.

It’s possible that H&N have gotten things backward, that instead of leeching away the creative energy of the multitude, capital is really the motivator, the engine, and the agent of innovation. That’s what neoliberalism asserts. Maybe without the propulsive force of capital, humanity would sink entirely into routine and repetitive contentment. The financial markets create money out of nothing through investment and lending; so too perhaps does the entrepreneur and the CEO create creativity out of nothing in order to make those investments and loans pay off for themselves and their companies as well as the capitalists. Only through a continually renewed stream of products does the economy keep growing, do share values go up among speculators, do existing loans get rewritten for ever bigger amounts. This sense that capital rather than biopower is the engine of innovation has been the subject of recent speculation among bloggers about accelerationism and capital unbound. Perhaps, instead of inhibiting the creativity of the multitude, capital is creating that very creativity, the current crisis actually hastening the move toward the singularity of a fully recursive, self-creative posthumanity.

In counterpoint, here’s an excerpt from an essay by Mario Tronti:

What’s missing? A political interpretation: serious, lucid, realistic, non-ideological, non-conventional, non-electoralist. The famous transformations of work are like the equally famous transformations of capitalism: when everything has been said, nothing has changed. The storytellers of the social come and describe the state of affairs: the liquid instead of the solid, what melts into air rather than what sediments on the ground, the whole that must become flexible, the production that becomes molecular, the power that is everywhere and nowhere like the holy spirit, because it is micro and no longer macro, and then the immaterial, the cognitive, the politics that is bios, made to measure for the asocial individual – forget about women and men of flesh and bone who organise themselves for the struggle. With limitless patience we read and listen, careful not to let what we don’t know slip through our fingers.

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9 Comments »

  1. People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept, but a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude… We need to recuperate the public and political conception of love common to premodern traditions. Christianity and Judaism, for example, both conceive love as a political act that constructs the multitude. Love means precisely that our expansive encounters and continuous collaborations bring us joy. (p. 352)

    I like the direction that they are going with this. In the days of sovereigns, the king was theoretically supposed to be a benevolent ruler, loving and caring for the good of the people and the kingdom.

    Despite my agreement with appreciating love as a political concept, I’m actually not sure precisely what they might mean by this. For example, how do knowledge workers, who work in cubicles isolated from each other for their own individual wages, appreciate and appropriate love as a political concept? In other words, if our society operates from a fundamentally self-interested, cold-hearted capitalism, how does one begin to conceptualize love as a political concept?

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    Comment by Erdman — 2 April 2010 @ 8:54 am

  2. “Fourth, I guess I’m just not persuaded about the incipient potential creativity of the multitude waiting to be unleashed.”

    Nietzsche wasn’t persuaded either. He was fairly anti-democracy, believing that “the herd” would use their power to stifle the creativity of the most exceptional human beings.

    “Productive and inventive workers often find themselves forced either to accede or to resist pressures from finance and marketing, pressures that would have them relax their standards in order to generate more revenue.”

    Which is kind of another reason why appropriating love as a political concept seems so foreign.

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    Comment by Erdman — 2 April 2010 @ 9:06 am

    • Nietzsche is an undeniable influence here. H&N invoke love as a political force that pulls the multitude together as a collective entity rather than just a congeries of individuals creating their ways into superman status. The ethos of individual creativity is the ideology behind neoliberal capitalism: if you’re creative, hard-working, independent-minded, etc. you will succeed. But those who control the money and power in are society are already working together as collectives, especially in business corporations, political parties, financial institutions, interlocking boards of directors, and so on. The individual creators function as a kind of low-risk, low-cost R&D outsourcing by these wealthy and powerful collectives. If 1 out of 100 individual innovators comes up with something clever, the big money just buys him out without having to finance the other 99 creative individuals. It’s financially shrewd. Similarly the moneyed collectives can diversify their political portfolio by “investing” in all the candidates from both parties, so they win either way.

      I wonder whether love is a strong enough counterforce to money and power. Individual creativity isn’t the goal for H&N, nor is the acceleration of creativity on a societal scale. What they’re looking for is real democracy: power in the hands of the multitude rather than the moneyed elite. Love may draw the creative insurgents together in voluntary cooperation, but it seems that eventually that cooperation has to take the form of intentional collaborative counter-pressure against hegemonic power. Otherwise the localized irruptions are likely to be suppressed or, more likely, bought out.

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      Comment by john doyle — 2 April 2010 @ 2:35 pm

      • K: “Love may draw the creative insurgents together in voluntary cooperation, but it seems that eventually that cooperation has to take the form of intentional collaborative counter-pressure against hegemonic power. Otherwise the localized irruptions are likely to be suppressed or, more likely, bought out.”

        Agreed. I think MLK, Jr. and Gandhi also understood this point. Love for these two revolutionaries was worked into their political philosophy. Love brought the multitude (the oppressed) together, but love was also an important part of the political action. The goal was never to overthrow the powers, necessarily, but only to draw the powers back to their own compassion and humanness. As such, nonviolence was not just a nice theological idea, but it was actually believed to be the best way to bring about a revolution. So, nonviolence was thought to be the most pragmatic way to relieve oppression and change the economical and political structure of society.

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        Comment by Erdman — 3 April 2010 @ 8:53 am

  3. “It’s possible that H&N have gotten things backward, that instead of leeching away the creative energy of the multitude, capital is really the motivator, the engine, and the agent of innovation. That’s what neoliberalism asserts. Maybe without the propulsive force of capital, humanity would sink entirely into routine and repetitive contentment.”

    How does this relate to our discussions of Zizek and Lacan?

    We have discussed the operations of desire. Zizek examines economics and political theory through the eyes of desire. I’m not really clear on whether Zizek really has anything interesting to say in terms of a proposed direction for economics and political systems. Mostly he strikes me as a creative and intriguing deconstructionist.

    Here is a bit from my blogging:

    Although a Marxist, Zizek says, “‘Actually existing Socialism’ failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’, to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient.” (p. 19)

    This particular brand of socialism failed because it was actually a “subspecies” of capitalism, but left out the “key ingredient” of capitalism. What is this “key ingredient”? It is the gap between the object of desire itself and its cause.

    Capitalism relies on the gap between the object of desire and its cause. Capitalism clearly succeeds if we kind of resign ourselves to allowing our desires to dominate our behavior. We lose a bit of our souls, of course, that’s the trade-off.

    The question I have is whether an economic or political system can succeed without the “key ingredient.” And how can one appropriate love as a political concept? Love seems to go the opposite direction as desire. Desire takes us into ourselves and away from others in any intimate relation–that’s what happened to Humbert Humbert. Love, by contrast, seeks the good of others, over and above one’s self, and seeks to engage the other as a free and beautiful person on his/her own terms.

    Contemporary economies and politics seem keen on working within a structure of capitalism (i.e. the mechanisms of desire, self-interest, and greed) and seek to use some of the surplus to invest in social programs under the pretense of doing something loving for others. In a reverse sense, then, contemporary capitalistic systems seek to “have their cake and eat it too.”

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    Comment by Erdman — 2 April 2010 @ 9:19 am

  4. Hardt & Negri come more from the tradition of Deleuze than of Lacan. Lacan (and Zizek) are compelled by divisions and lacks and gaps; Deleuze, by trajectories and flows and breaks. For Deleuze even the act of blocking a flow of desire is itself a desirous act, and the blocked flow finds another pathway for channeling itself.

    When Zizek speaks of the key ingredient as being a gap, which is the sort of thing he does as a consistent theoretical praxis. What’s missing is something that’s already missing, a negation of a negation. What is it that’s between the object and the cause of desire? It’s the sense of an irretrievable lack or loss in the self, isn’t it? And it results from having been cut off from the Real, from a primal unity of oneself with one’s mother or Big Other or whatever. You’ve lost whatever it is that would make you complete, would make you as powerful as the Big Other, would make the Big Other desire you. And I think that for Zizek the place of the Big Other in capitalism is occupied by the capitalists themselves, the ones whom everyone wants to become or to be loved by. So you buy the objects in the marketplace, paying more than they’re worth to you because you think they possess that magic Something that you lack. But once you buy them, of course, they turn out not to possess the magic; the magic has slipped from this object you’ve bought to some other object on display that’s even more fabulous. So you keep doing this, never closing the gap between cause and object of desire, which is lack. Meanwhile the excess you pay for these objects turns into profits, which goes into the bank accounts of the capitalist Big Others, making them ever more fabulous, ever more desirable, ever farther out of reach of the consumer. When I read Zizek this way I think he’s endorsing capitalism, because it runs on the Lacanian engine of lack and desire whereas socialism does not. So there are skeptics on the left about Zizek’s alleged Marxism.

    But this isn’t Hardt & Negri’s thing. They are more persuaded that desires really can be fulfilled, and that the desire to create when thwarted becomes replaced by an altogether less satisfying desire to consume. If H&N are right and the paradigmatic labor and products of the current age aren’t characterized by intrinsic scarcity, then limiting supply in order to induce demand is just an illusion. There is enough of what’s being made to go around, no need to regard it as valuable and special and magical. Then the creators get to see their results extend to more and more people rather than being hoarded by the rich. And work becomes fulfilling in its own right rather than something you sell for money which lets you buy artificially scarce and overpriced consumer goods in an attempt to compensate for your lack of creative fulfillment.

    How does this relate to love? Maybe it’s the intrinsic love of creating that gets corrupted by money and power into exchanging one’s labor for money and consumption. Maybe it’s love that motivates the creator to make things widely available to as many as possible rather than the supply being artificially restricted to the few who can pay the price.

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    Comment by john doyle — 4 April 2010 @ 3:09 pm

  5. K: What’s missing is something that’s already missing, a negation of a negation. What is it that’s between the object and the cause of desire? It’s the sense of an irretrievable lack or loss in the self, isn’t it? And it results from having been cut off from the Real, from a primal unity of oneself with one’s mother or Big Other or whatever. You’ve lost whatever it is that would make you complete, would make you as powerful as the Big Other, would make the Big Other desire you.

    Over the last year or so, I’ve read a bit of spirituality that merges spiritual development with this particular psychoanalytical theorizing. The idea of having lost the self in infancy. The ego compensates for this by, essentially, trying to fill the gap. The result is personality development and coping mechanisms that compensate for this loss.

    From a spiritual perspective, the answers vary, but it usually has to do with facing the emptiness in openness, rather than trying to compensate and escape it. Much of this involves meditative practices. In meditation, one opens to the emptiness. As one lives life, then a person learns not to fall back on personality mechanisms that are merely escapes.

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    Comment by Erdman — 5 April 2010 @ 10:25 am

  6. Lacanian analysis goes in this direction too. Lacan regards ego as a sort of tumor, but he’s not into renouncing the self. Subjectivity is created inside the internal gap or the split. There’s some Northern Irish preacher, one of those guys who runs an art church inside a pub, who’s into some sort of Lacanian apophatic theology and religious praxis as I recall. My sense of some of the more meditatively-oriented praxes like Richard Rohr is that they’re more prepared to renounce self along with ego, but I don’t know their stuff as well. Do any of these religious Lacanians propose any sort of political agenda, any collective projects for pursuing justice?

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    Comment by john doyle — 5 April 2010 @ 12:06 pm

  7. Is Peter Rollins the Irish preacher you are thinking of? I’ve read one of his books, How (Not) to Speak of God. I blogged a bit about him a year or so back, I believe it was.

    I’ve not heard of any collective projects for pursuing justice from the crowd that I’ve read. However, I feel like its a major hole in the spiritual/contemplative/meditative movement in the U.S. There’s little to no sense of how one’s own esoteric spiritual enlightening is supposed to affect the world. Certain crowds can start to feel like their meditation is aimed at status quo suburbia, helping the Prius-driving, crowd feel more self-actualized, with no substantive change to the system. That’s just my vibe. I am sure there are some out there who are pursuing personal spirituality and social justice in tandem.

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    Comment by Erdman — 5 April 2010 @ 6:43 pm


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