Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Kyle Parry reviews Assembly

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 368 pp.

Review by Kyle Parry

The latest product of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s now three-decades-long collaboration is a wide-ranging and provocative account of possible paths forward for left reform, revolution, and debate. Inspired by the flood of public assemblies and political upheavals that animated the first half of the 2010s—and evidently completed before the election of Donald Trump—Assembly updates the conceptual frameworks developed in Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009) while also confronting an array of new political and theoretical issues, from the organization of social movements to the resurgence of right-wing populism to more recent, digitally enabled forms of capitalist expropriation. If there is one overriding argument in Assembly, it is that advocates for a truly democratic world must no longer refuse the demands of leading, strategizing, decision making, and institution building that can otherwise remain variously secondary, absent, or anathema amid left, liberatory, and progressive causes. Without doing so, such enterprises will either repeatedly flounder on the inherent limitations of representational structures—mistakenly trusting fallible proxies and deceptive avatars—or they will stay forever fixated on an unfeasible dream of radically horizontal governance. By instead following the “course of political realism” laid out in Assembly, Hardt and Negri contend, the vast and varied multitude can finally find a way to not only take but effectively wield and retain economic and political power (p. 252).

Not far into the book, having established these guiding claims, Hardt and Negri begin to put forward a sequence of proposals, couched as calls and responses, for exactly what such an applied political realism ought to look like. For instance, it might seem as though it is important to elect good leaders with grand plans, whether to head a new social movement or to occupy an existing elected office. According to Hardt and Negri, this is wrongheaded. Instead, it is the multitude itself that must perform the work of strategic imagination and long-term decision making, leaving short-term tactical scheming to now merely instrumental leaders. As a second example, it might seem like an ascendant multitude should aim either to take over existing political institutions or to outright eliminate them. For the authors of Assembly, this is unrealistic either/or thinking. The better move is to get creative about inventing new, effective, and crucially “nonsovereign” institutions. Such institutions are not meant to “rule over us” but to “foster continuity and organization” and to “help organize our practices, manage our relationships, and together make decisions” (p. 38).

These are intriguing proposals. Like the others that follow, they succeed in articulating fruitful variations on longstanding concepts while also enacting an infectious faith in democratic possibility. Readers can indeed take such thinking in interesting directions. Among the most promising of these is the idea of scaffolding collective intelligence and thereby reinventing democratic decision making—a theme also recently at the forefront of less Marxism-inflected work in political theory.[1] At the same time, while certainly inventive along these lines, Assembly also consistently refuses to put its inventions to the test. Nowhere do we find, for example, an illustration of how an actual decision-making process could plausibly and effectively unfold—around, say, the opioid crisis or reparations—when undertaken by plural and contradictory multitudes. And nowhere are we given sufficient room to imagine what an exemplary nonsovereign institution would aim to do, how it would be structured and resourced, nor what generative blends of strategy and tactics might ensure its persistence and lasting effectiveness. Instead the authors continually revert to broad proclamations. The most consistent of these proclamations is a familiar refrain out of Negri’s autonomist Marxism; namely, that the social and economic lives of contemporary people already contain a wealth of cooperative abilities ready for adaptation to democratic projects. It is compelling to imagine that something like this is true. It is also compelling to imagine that we could use our intellectual and cooperative powers to delineate and analyze these abilities for the sake of progressive and liberatory projects. But the fact that two authors so adamant about this latter possibility do not themselves pursue it is concerning. As sympathetic as we might be to the larger aims of the project, we are nevertheless left wondering whether the many propositions in Assembly will actually hold water amid the travails of twenty-first century reform and revolution. Granted, Hardt and Negri insist at one point that their goal is not to produce a “substantive proposal” but instead to posit a “methodological guideline” (p. 41). All the same, their own useful insistence on strategy and staying power suggests the need to develop another kind of theory. Such theory would embrace the powers and perils of particularity while also forging enduring vocabularies for democratic messiness and provisionality—an avowedly critical version of what Peter Galison calls “specific theory."[2]

Knowing the title, reading the preface, and seeing the repeated image of a honey bee swarm, many readers will gain the strong impression that, quite apart from advancing principles for left democratic practice, Hardt and Negri also intend to break new theoretical ground on the concept of assembly. Surprisingly, although the authors do make some thought-provoking suggestions, their engagement with this theme is ultimately limited to two brief passages. The first of these is not a new theoretical angle on assembly; it is a loyal reprise of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s influential concept of agencements machiniques or “machinic assemblage,” now slightly modified to incorporate the digital, the algorithmic, and the nonhuman.[3] The second passage on assembly closes the book; Hardt and Negri put forward a stimulating but basically schematic “exhortation” to embrace “freedom of assembly” as a constituent political right and an expression of “social wealth,” “lasting institutions,” and “cooperation in production”—in other words, as a kind of rhetorical condensation of their core arguments (p. 295). It could be easy to explain away these choices by referring back to the authors’ warnings in the preface; there they say they don’t mean to offer a theory of assembly but to instead use the concept as a “lens through which to recognize new democratic political possibilities” (p. xxi). But this characterization ends up feeling imprecise. Indeed, while the book does call attention to assembly-related themes like cooperation and combination, it seems more plausible that assembly was either established early in the research process and largely forgotten until the last minute, or that without an obvious unifying term the authors judged assembly satisfactory enough.

In any event, we are left to guess what might have been if Hardt and Negri had subjected Assembly to the kind of hopeful conceptual alchemy that has often proven so productive and provocative in their earlier projects. In so doing, the authors could have not only picked up some of their own threads of thinking on concrete political assemblies from their self-published antimanifesto Declaration; they could have also joined an emergent line of thinking around assembly that doesn't remain wedded to the vision of assembly/assemblage introduced by Deleuze and Guattari and subsequently elaborated by Manuel DeLanda, Jasbir Puar, and many others.[4] That more dominant vision—justifiably influential but also highly particular—tends to favor philosophical talk around ontological processes of arrangement and rearrangement, with terms like multiplicity, heterogeneity, and deterritorialization taking center stage. By contrast, the emergent line of thinking around assembly opts to prioritize the political, the cultural, and the agential, and it generally favors more accessible and practically consequential questions and ideas. This means thinking about and with assembly still entails accounting for plurality, relationality, and connection over and against individuality and discreteness, but it also means retaining an emphasis on the things that cultural and especially political actors do (or struggle to do) under limiting and sometimes hostile conditions. To take one example, in Elise Danielle Thorburn’s 2012 account—which explicitly engages Hardt and Negri’s work but is, for some reason, not cited in Assembly—to assemble is to risk an often unsuccessful political organizational mode that mortal creatures already do and might yet do better. For Thorburn, assembly even has the potential to provide “the organisational terrain for the common politics to come.”[5] Alternatively, in Judith Butler’s 2015 “performative theory of assembly”—warmly but only passingly referenced by Hardt and Negri—to assemble is to engage in a relational, expressive, and manifestly plural “performative enactment” that requires the alignment of vulnerable bodies in time and space.[6] To assemble is thus also to actualize and affirm, as Hardt and Negri might put it, hidden or would-be “circuits of cooperation” (p. xvi) across sometimes seemingly impossible barriers of difference. The point is not that Assembly is wrong to retain the Deleuzean version of assembly. It is that there are highly significant forms of social, political, and even media assembly for which that version proves insufficient.

If there is one concept that does receive sustained attention in Assembly—and that could have provided an equally representative title—it is enterprise. Remarkably, the end result of this attention is not critique; it is reinvention. That is, although Hardt and Negri acknowledge that “heroic tales of capitalist entrepreneurship are just empty talk,” and although they know how “neoliberal ideologues prattle on ceaselessly about [entrepreneurship’s] virtues,” they nevertheless see it as possible and necessary to “claim the concept of entrepreneurship for our own” (p. xix). Hardt and Negri’s idea for how to do this is twofold. First, clear away the stubborn ideals of liberal and neoliberal enterprise, whether those are ideals espoused by self-sufficient individuals stridently discerning new terrains for investment or, in a different vein, a compensatory “social entrepreneurship” in which citizens charitably pick up where the state leaves off (p. 144–145). Second, reconceive entrepreneurship in terms matched to the ambitions of the multitude. Hardt and Negri perform this latter step by means of a characteristic turn to an unfashionable interlocutor—neither Niccolò Machiavelli nor Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison nor Carl Schmitt, but the early twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter. Though they reject many of Schumpeter’s premises, the authors nevertheless find one idea helpful: to engage in entrepreneurship is to create “new combinations among already existing workers, ideas, technologies, resources, and machines,” and it is therefore not only to “bring together workers with resources and machines” but also to “impose on them a mode of cooperation and discipline by which they are to work together” (p. 140). Reconceived in these terms, Hardt and Negri’s entrepreneurship is no longer strictly or even primarily the province of individual, energetic, property-hungry “men of action.” It is instead the distributed labor of vast, cooperating aggregates of people who together make, manage, and transform the living geometries and “machinic assemblages” of material and cultural common wealth. Now understood as profoundly capable of “productive cooperation,” the multitude is also seen as capable of “multitudinous enterprises” (pp. 146, 245). That is to say, under the right conditions, the multitude can always get to the business of “organizing new social combinations, inventing new forms of social cooperation, [and] generating democratic mechanisms for our access to, use of, and participation in decision-making about the common” (p. xix). In other words, for Hardt and Negri, we will eventually spend our days immersed in a pervasive and hyper-productive “entrepreneurship of the multitude.”

Is this proposition true? Is it at least interesting, suggestive, or inspiring? Can the democratization of enterprise constitute a fruitful turn in political thought’s ongoing “struggle over concepts” (p. xix)? Would we indeed find overwhelmingly powerful entrepreneurial capacities in the social and technological lives of contemporary people if we only, finally, had the eyes to see them? Or is this yet another scene in a deceptive dream of a single, worldwide, eminently capable, eminently democratic multitude? Or, even more concerning, is to celebrate entrepreneurship only ever to implicitly affirm a fetish of the new, the ideology of individual achievement, an uncritical view of technology, and ultimately what Karl Polanyi called the “stark Utopia” of a free, self-adjusting market?[7] When a repellent idol of entrepreneurship turned absurdist agent of “the people” tweets and rallies his way to the US presidency, such questions take on new meaning. Indeed, in the midst of Trumpism, enduring neoliberalism, and constant technological upheaval, enterprise has become an even more paradoxical figure. It is both a shorthand for so much violence—a world made sick by the will to acquisition—and a compelling vision of the new and the possible—a world transformed by as-yet-unimagined people and things. Although in some ways superseded by history, Assembly nevertheless succeeds in providing initial means and encouragement toward thinking and acting in response to such paradoxes. Hardt and Negri rightly leave us asking how to do so in ways that augment rather than circumvent deep commitments to democracy, equality, and thriving.

[1] See, for instance, Hélène Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton, N.J., 2013). My thanks to Colin Kielty for this reference.

[2] Peter Galison, “Specific Theory,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 379­–383.

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, vol. 2 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, 1987), p. 4.

[4] See Hardt and Negri, Declaration (New York, 2012).

[5] Elise Danielle Thorburn, “A Common Assembly: Multitude, Assemblies, and a New Politics of the Common,” Interface 4 (Nov. 2012): 258.

[6] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Mass., 2015), p. 181.

[7] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, 2001), p. 3.