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Commonwealth – Preface: The Becoming-Prince of the Multitude

Don’t be put off by the title of the preface…

Hardt and Negri begin by making an important observation: globalization has resulted in the creation of a common world, one which has no ‘outside’. Another way of saying ‘no outside’ is ‘immanent’, the opposite of ‘transcendent’. We must abandon all dreams of political purity and transcendent values and accept that this is the world in which we find ourselves, and so this is the world in which we – immanently – have to act.

They then provide a definition of their most important concept: the common.

‘By the common we mean, first of all, the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. We consider the common also and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth.’

There are two important things to notice here. Firstly, the common is both material and immaterial – language and knowledge are just as much things to be shared as physical goods and land. Secondly, the common in some sense already exists; it’s just that we’re so blinded by ideologies of private property that we fail to perceive it.

Hardt and Negri go on to stress that capital is now so extensive that it ‘creates, invests, and exploits social life in its entirety, ordering life according to the hierarchies of economic value.’ But if this is our world, if this is entirely immanent, how can we resist? Well, paradoxically, capital – despite its continuing drive to privatize resources and wealth – actually makes possible and even requires expansions of the common: information, codes, knowledge, images, affects, communication networks, internet technologies. We don’t need to dream up utopian, ‘outside’ ideas of how society might be organised: capitalism is providing us with the infrastructure for a social and economic order grounded in the common.

They end the preface by introducing two more concepts: poverty and love. The normal meanings are obvious, but what is the spin they put on them? Firstly, they choose to talk of poverty because it avoids falling into old-school presuppostions about class and class composition, forcing us to take into account how class has changed now that so many productive activities remain outside wage relations. Secondly, their definition of ‘poor’ is not one of lack but of possibility. ‘Our challenge will be to find ways to translate the productivity and possibility of the poor into power.’ As for ‘love’, theirs is a political love. It is beyond individualism without being sucked back into the private life of the couple or the family: it is centred on the production of the common. Both poverty and love are animated by force: intellectual force, physical force and political force. ‘Love needs force to conquer the ruling powers and dismantle their corrupt institutions before it can create a new world of common wealth.’

One last key word: the multitude. This is a hugely complex term with a political and philosophical history reaching back to Machiavelli, and which I cannot hope to explain, because I don’t yet understand it myself. On one level, it suggests something like ‘proletariat’, in the sense that it poses a revolutionary threat to the capitalist social order. But on another level, and following the philosopher Spinoza, it seems to implicate all of us: just as the common does and does not already exist, so the multitude is already in some sense here: we – the human population of the world – are the multitude, a set of singularities with the creative potential to found the common. If that sounds confusing, it’s because I’m confused.

Dan Hartley