July 24, 2006.

First Published in Werner Bonefeld, Ed. Subverting the Present, Imagining the Future: Class, Struggle, Commons. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2008.


The web page of aut-op-sys, a major site for the discussion of autonomist Marxism, takes as its introduction a classic text of the tradition in its English language variant. This text first appeared in the US journal Zerowork, and defines the concept of ‘class composition’:

Capital’s ‘flaws’ are not internal to it and nor is the crisis: they are determined by the dynamics of working class struggle. To be understood, that dynamics and cycle of struggles requires an analysis that must operate at four, interconnected and necessary levels.
First is the analysis of the struggles themselves: their content, their directions, how they develop and how they circulate…
Second, we study the dynamics of the different sectors of the working class: the way these sectors affect each other and thus the relations of the working class with capital…
Third, we consider the relations between the working class and its ‘official’ organizations, that is, the trade unions, the ‘workers’ parties’, welfare organizations, etc…
Fourth, all these aspects have to be related to the capitalist initiative in terms of general social planning, investment, technological innovations, employment and to the institutional setting of capitalist society…

Through these interdependent levels of class analysis we can understand the relations between the working class and capital. They enable us to specify the ‘composition of the working class’. (Zerowork)

The full statement, including expansions of each point, can be found in a collection by Midnight Notes (1992: 108-114). Noting that the statement was written in 1975, aut-op-sy (nd) asks:

How well does it stand up today, in the face of the dramatic shifts that have reshaped the worlds of waged and unwaged work since that time? What does mass struggle mean in a period when the mass worker seems to have lost its centrality? What do the struggles of women mean when the family and the welfare state have continued to fracture? What does the circulation of struggle mean at a time when millions are fleeing their place of birth? What does communism mean in the face of the ‘socialist’ bloc’s collapse and the emergence of a global ecological crisis?

This paper responds to those cogent questions by arranging an encounter between ‘composition’ and another idea, more recently prominent in autonomist thought, ‘multitude.’ Composition emphasizes the empirical, rigorous investigation of concrete class struggles. Multitude is a theory, to date posited mainly in very abstract terms, of the changing scope and conditions of such struggles. To connect them is, however, controversial, because analysts of class composition (including organizers of aut-op-sys) have sharply criticized multitude theorists. The argument here, however, is that while there are substantial grounds for this criticism, there are more compelling reasons for combining the two ideas in a methodology to understand and expedite the class struggles of the twenty-first century.

To make this argument, I first say a little about the content and context of both concepts, go on to look at why the composition-analysts have criticized the theory of multitude, and explain why, despite these sometimes telling points, I continue to ‘see something in’ multitude as a horizon of inquiry into contemporary struggles. After briefly mentioning some actually-existing instances of such inquiry, I conclude by revising the Zerowork text to outline a methodology for a compositional analysis of the multitude.

The School of Composition

The concept of class composition originates with the theorists of Italian operaismo (workerism) (Alquati, 1974; Tronti, 1977; Panzieri, 1976, 1980) and in the factories of Northern Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. Rejecting ritual invocations of ‘the working class’ by communist party bureaucrats, trades union officials and left academics, operaismo sought to understand and assist waves of mass worker militancy: strikes, wildcatting and sabotage. They bought to the task two major instruments. One was theoretical: a radical rereading of Marx’s account of capital-labor relation that started from working class struggle and its cyclical renewal, rather than finishing with it as afterthought to some supposedly automatic historical process (see Cleaver, 1979). The other was empirical: an investigative curiosity about workers’ actual experience of labour and struggle, a curiosity that found canonical support in Marx’s (1880) call for ‘a worker’s inquiry’ with its list of one hundred questions about the conditions of exploitation.

In his definitive history of the ‘school of composition,’ Steve Wright (2002) documents how these theoretical and empirical elements were fused into powerful tool of militant analysis. Inverting Marx’s concept of the ‘organic composition’ of capital (the ratio of fixed to variable capital in production) operaismo applied the term ‘composition’ to the dynamics of struggle against capital. They distinguished the ‘technical’ and ‘political’ class composition. Technical composition is the way capital organizes the work-force in production—the division of labour, supervision and discipline, and use of machinery. Political composition describes how, and to what degree, workers make the collectivity of the workplace a basis for counter-power (see Kolinko, 2001).

These concepts informed a series of empirical inquiries (‘inchiesta’) into mass-worker conflicts, combining data, observation and interviews (see Wright 2002). Most focused on the immediate point of production. Most of these workplaces were industrial—automobile plants, chemical continuous processes, and technical operations. Many of the studies aimed at identifying actual or potential leading or vanguard sectors. These analyses fed back into the strategies and tactics of the political groupings in which operaismo was involved.

Wright notes there was persistent tension between theoretical and empirical elements in the operaismo mix. In principle, theory was submitted to the ongoing re-verification of empirical finding. In practice, theory was sometimes reluctant to bow. As he observes (2002: 187), ‘the best work of classical workerism’ was made possible by the ‘recognition of material divisions existing alongside the formal unity provided by the conditions of wage labor.’ But there was also a tendency in operaismo theory to idealize the working class as pure anti-capital (see Bonefeld, 2003). One result could be a failure to properly estimate working class weaknesses, which was to eventually have serious consequences for the Italian ultra-left.

But, in a broad sense, composition theory did adjust under empirical pressures. Though operaismo was focused on the immediate point of production, its theorists also affirmed (even if abstractly) the importance of the ‘social factory’ –worker’s homes, schools, communities and culture. As Italy spiraled into widening political crisis, a new set of activists, associated with the social movements of autonomia, began to apply the concepts of composition to this wider sphere, sometimes with results its originators were reluctant to accept. Most radical of these revisions was that feminist autonomists (Dalla Costa & James, 1972) who argued class composition had to reckon with the division between waged (male) work in production and unwaged (female) reproductive labor at home. Other ‘compositionists’ (Berardi, 2003) brought the optic to bear on the struggles of ‘new social subjects’ — students, casual workers and the unemployed–some heavily emphasizing the theoretical lens (see Negri, 2005), others more empirical (see Bologna, 1980).

The repression of the Italian movements in 1977 brutally truncated these experiments (and perhaps revealed some flaws in their approach). But the concept of class composition, which had itself assimilated influences from other international struggles, was relayed well beyond its point of origin, to be taken up and further altered in a complex global circulation (see Wright, 2006). Thus, for example, the work of the German collectives Wildcat (2003) and Kolinko (2001, 2002) constitutes perhaps the most direct, detailed contemporary application of operaismo’s method to struggles at the point of production. On the other hand, the ‘social factory’ expansion—embracing Dalla Costa and James’ emphasis on unpaid labor and social reproduction– has been most fully worked through by the theorists and collectives of North American workerism (Cleaver, 1979; Midnight Notes, 1992): the Zerowork statement comes from this lineage, as a reading of the full text makes clear.

Theory only advances with struggle: this is central to the compositionist method. So it is not surprising that the changes this method has undergone since the 1960s were thrown into sharp relief by the eruption in the 1990s of another cycle of struggles, the great rebellion against neoliberalism that started with IMF riots in the global South and hit public awareness in the North with Zapatista uprising of 1994. In an analysis of this uprising, Midnight Notes member’s at once recalled, and marked their departure from, the origins of composition analysis by referring to the work of one of operaismo’s members, Alquati, who:

. . . argued that movements of working class struggles comprise a network, not just regionally or nationally, but even on the international level. A network is the unity of struggles in both their vertical and horizontal articulations. The vertical articulation is the point within the capitalist circuit of production/reproduction; the horizontal articulation is the spatial distribution and linkage. This combined vertical-horizontal articulation of struggles pivots around decisive points of interconnection: nodal points (Neill 1997, see also 2001.)

They went on, however, to say that the Zapatistas (and many other contemporary struggles) demonstrate that this network of struggles no longer has its key nodes in the factories of the mass worker. Rather such nodes are as likely to be found in struggles of peasants and other unwaged and disposed sectors caught up in new rounds of primitive accumulation. Put alongside Cleaver’s (1994) famous analysis of how news of the Zapatista uprising was circulated via Internet to form an ‘electronic circulation of struggle,’ this gives a good sense of the scope of contestation—from cyberspace to coffee plantations—a new account of class composition confronts. But doing so brings us face with a very controversial creature: the multitude.

The Moment of Multitude

The concept of ‘multitude’ was proposed in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000). The timing was superb: appearing in the context of huge demonstrations in North America and Europe against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the G8, the book seemed to arise directly out of the multifarious throngs of witches, workers, hackers and greens teeming in the streets of Seattle, Prague, Quebec and Genoa; comparisons with the relation of The Communist Manifesto to the revolutions of 1848 were made.

The actual genealogy of Empire, and multitude, was of course longer and more complex. Hardt is an American activist-academic, an expert of on philosophy of Giles Deleuze; Negri a famous veteran of, and political exile from, the Italian struggles. The ideas they presented reflected the discussions and controversies of the Parisian journal Futur Antérieur, whose other participants included Maurizio Lazzarato and Paolo Virno, and which had analyzed the cycles of activism in France culminating in the general strikes of 1996 (sometimes—Eurocentrically–called the ‘first uprising against globalization’). But as such insurgencies generalized into a ‘movement of movements’ (Klein, 2004) it seemed that these concepts had met their world-historical moment.

Empire was exciting because posited something new under the anti-capitalist sun. Since the book has been very extensively discussed (see Pinguin, 2003) I can treat it summarily, focusing on the idea of multitude.

The Empire (capital E) that Hardt and Negri address is that of a capitalism gone ‘global.’ This new globality emerged, they say, in response to the struggles of the 1960s and 70s. Capital sought to evade or destroy high levels of militancy in its developed centres both by becoming nomadic (free trade, maquiladoras) and through new technologies, particularly digital systems, that offered a more continuous and capillary penetration of space and time (bringing on the Deleuzian ‘society of control’). Empire is thus a condition of extreme subsumption. Spatially, there is since 1989 no part of the planet where capital is not dominant; breaking out of old national, and even imperial forms, it is coalescing a world-wide politico-judicial-economic apparatus. Temporally, there is no aspect of human life-time that it does not organize. Empire expropriates not just labor-power, but bio-power (a concept Hardt and Negri adapt from Foucault). If labour-power is human life organized through waged work, bio-power is such life organized through capitalist command the span of its social existence (Hardt & Negri 2000, 221-242).

The concept of multitude, however, posits that these very conditions can be the basis for a new contestation of capital, qualitatively different from previous cycles of struggle.

If resistant labour-power manifested as the working class, resistant bio-power manifests as the multitude.

Because capital is world-wide, the multitude’s struggles are intrinsically transnational, manifesting in eruptions from Chiapas to Gaza, Beijing to Genoa. Not so much anti-globalizing as a counter-globalizing, the multitude is a force capable of seizing the positive content of planetary production and communication.

Because the locus of capitalist expropriation is no longer punctually concentrated in the workplace, but omnipresent, the sites of insurgency against it will be multiple. The era of mass-worker leadership is decisively gone, replaced by a swarming of myriad biopolitical initiatives connected in new forms of alliance, affinity and network,

Because the technologies of capitalist command are different from those of the industrial era, they offer different opportunities of subversion. Computerisation, intended to intensify control, paradoxically creates new areas of autonomy. Reversing the emphasis in on sabotage of machines in Negri’s earlier work, multitude theory rather emphases the potentials for reappropriation and even ‘spontaneous and elementary communism’ (Hardt & Negri 2000, 294).

The multitude arises from conditions of ‘immaterial labour.’ This is the term Hardt and Negri (2000, 290-294) apply to work manipulating information, communication and affect, as opposed to hands-on material transformation. Such immaterial labour is, they say, associated with the high-tech and service economies of post-Fordism, as opposed to Fordist manufacturing. The pre-eminence of immaterial labour is, they suggest (in contradiction to their tendency elsewhere to shift focus away from the point of production), the basis of the emergence of the multitude—the common condition that allows the convergence of otherwise separate struggles.

Multitude is an optimistic concept. In place of decade’s long pessimism of left intellect, it suggested the emergence of a counter-force with the capacity to make inroads against global capital. Without purporting to propose a political platform, Hardt and Negri sketched three demands they believed important to the new activism: the right to global citizenship and the planetary mobility of labour, the right to a social wage or guaranteed income for all, and the right to reappropriation, meaning ‘free access to and control over knowledge, information, communication and affects . . .the primary means of biopolitical production’ (2000, 407).

Multitude is an iconoclastic idea. Its etymology runs from Spinoza and other 17th century republicans, not Marx and Lenin. It displaces terms previously central not only to autonomists, but to all other versions of Marxism– the ‘industrial proletariat,’ the ‘working class.’ Negri (2002) insists multitude is ‘a class concept’, albeit one of creative power exploited not just in work, but in ‘social cooperation . . . [in] the networks that compose the whole and the whole that comprises the network.’ But even if one accepts this argument (many do not), the linguistic innovation of ‘multitude’, breaking with a deeply entrenched class-struggle lexicon, is startling.

Multitude is also an unfinished idea. In Empire, its discussion only occupies the last few pages of a long book (leading some to complain the authors had skimped autonomism’s emphasis on revolt). One of the appealing, or annoying, features of its presentation was that in contrast to customary cast-iron certainties on the left, Hardt and Negri in interview admitted the concept was a preliminary, and probably premature, attempt to grasp a new wave of struggles; multitude was not only provocative, but also manifestly under-construction, in a way that invited further development.

This invitation was, in some quarters, accepted. The idea was discussed and elaborated in the successor to Futur Antérieur named (what else?) Multitude; the Italian journal Derive Approdi elaborated the class analysis of multitude; and Virno published a brief, dense book, A Grammar of the Multitude (2004), suggesting that conditions of immateriality and total subsumption were at least as conducive to cynicism as activism. Elsewhere, however, the response was less friendly.

The Verdict of Comrades and Events

Like all else in Empire, the concept of multitude, while attracting great interest on the left, was also widely criticised (Balakrishnan, 2003; Passavant & Dean, 2004). Many of the condemnations came from positions antipathetic to autonomism, such as more structuralist Marxisms or post-Marxisms that had dispensed with anti-capitalism. But multitude also drew fire from the ‘school of composition’ with which Negri had once been identified. Wildcat (2003), for example declared ‘the concept of the ‘multitude’ stands diametrically opposed to the ‘workerist’ concept of class composition’, and condemned Negri’s work as ‘an inversion of the concept of ‘class composition.’

Why would a theory that at first glance seems to continues and expand elements long important to autonomist thought, such as a ‘the social factory,’ attract this criticism? I’ll focus on four points: post-structuralist abstraction, immaterial labour, class anxiety, and triumphalism euphoria.

Post-Structuralist Abstraction: Hardt and Negri’s analysis is an exercise in political philosophy, and, moreover in a post-structuralist political philosophy many on the left dislike. Wright speaks of the filtration of operaismo insights via ‘French theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari’ as a ‘melange’ (2002, 2). The concept of multitude seems supported far more by discussion of biopower, rhizomes, and virtualities than by data on international division of labour, capital flows, or occupational distribution. This appearance is a little deceptive: in the background lie some quite detailed inquiries into workplaces and social struggles conducted by the Futur Antérieur group (e.g. Lazzarato et al., 1990; Lazzarato & Negri, 1993). But while Empire takes its impetus from events on the streets of Paris, Seoul and Seattle, and contains some illustrative examples, it seems far–very far–from the amassing of facts, interview and analysis that characterized operaismo. Wright (2002, 152-175) sees Negri’s work from the 1970s on heavily exaggerating the theoretical side of the theory-empiricism balance in composition-studies. His anticipation of a new cycle of struggle, waged by a new collective subject, Wright claims, persistently outran facts on the ground–a criticism which was made at the time within Italian autonomia, and which looms again around the idea of multitude.

Class Anxiety: Although multitude extends social factory analysis, it moves further away than earlier versions from the immediate point of production. To those for whom the workplace, or even a more generalized concept of ‘work’, remains the necessary anchor for the analysis of class relations, to shift from labour-power to biopower is to go adrift. Despite the insistence of Hardt, Negri and Virno that multitude is a class concept, it dislodges ‘working class’ and ‘workers’ as the key terms; implicit or explicit in many critiques is the belief that this empties the core of Marxism. Thus, for example, John Holloway, in a critique of Empire, writes that ‘Worst of all, perhaps, is the total eclipsing of the centrality of doing in the development of the concept of multitude’:
The concept of ‘working class’, for all its problems, for all its deformations, has at least the great merit of taking us to the centrality of human purposive activity, social doing. In the concept of multitude, this is lost completely (2003).
In return, Virno (2004, 45) characterises this type of reaction to multitude-theorists failure to use explicitly ‘class’ language as ‘electroshocks for monkeys.’

Immaterial Labour: The theory of immaterial labour associated with multitude is perhaps the single most contentious part of the theory. Its suggestion of the hegemony of cyborg-style high-tech labour has been criticized from numerous directions: for ignoring the obvious persistence of manual labour, manufacturing and agrarian, on a global scale (Wright, 2005); for focus on ‘high’ end of the capitalist value chain at the expense of slave like conditions at the lower end (Caffentzis, 2003); for conflating within a single category the very different conditions of say, a network system administrator, a latte-serving barista and a sex-worker (Dyer-Witheford, 2005). Hardt and Negri have defended their position, pointing out that when Marx claimed a lead historical role for the industrial proletariat it, too, was a tiny minority of the global workforce, and also eventually modified some of their formulations. But the many difficulties attending the ‘immateriality’ thesis have seriously discredited the concept of the multitude.

Triumphalist Euphoria: While a refreshing, aspects of multitude-theory was its hopefulness, the question was whether this resurgence of joy passed into giddy millenarianism. The power of the multitude was asserted with a confidence that made light of the problems of the movement of movement, not least those of organization. In place of the attention to the divisions of worker’s struggles compositionist analysis (at its best) allowed, multitude suggested a spontaneous coordination of struggles on the basis of the commonalities of immaterial labour–even without communication between different segments. This ‘incommunicado’ thesis contradicted the manifest importance of networking, cyber-spatial and terrestrial, to the movement of movements (Cleaver, 1994; Caffentzis, 2002). It therefore overlooked the difficulties of this process. These problems were apparent even in the Seattle-era high point, with divergences around strategy and tactics between trades unionists and new social movements, North and South, direct actionists and non-violent protestors and many other fractions only thinly covered by a veneer of ‘civil-society’ rhetoric. But what really threw into the question the optimism of the multitude theory was the change of political landscape following the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

The events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath raised several towering, smoky, question marks around the concept of multitude. The emergence of a reactionary, theocratic armed struggle against the centres of global capitalism terminated the simple binary, ‘empire versus multitude.’ The US invasion of Iraq, a very old-fashioned imperial adventure, threw in question the new global Empire from which multitude supposedly arose. Massive demonstrations round the planet against the invasion could be seen as manifestation of multitude, but their failure was also a sober reality check on the power of global social movements. And in the global North-West these movements started to subside and fragment as ‘war on terror’ chilled activism, and narrowed the scope of what remained.

It was in these circumstances that Hardt and Negri published the sequel to Empire. Multitude (2004) discussed the new war situation, interpreted as a reactionary reflex of US imperialism against conditions of globalization that threatened its hegemony; partly defended and partly back-peddled on the concept of immaterial labour, and presented an exhaustive inventory of the grievances against capital raised by the movement of movements. A big, baggy book, Multitude contained many insights: writing today, as war widens from Afghanistan to Iraq to Lebanon, across the Middle East and into bombings, arrests, surveillance and civil-liberties abuse around the planet, its observations about how militarization not only violent assaults life but functions as a disciplinary apparatus of social reproduction are all-too germane (Hardt & Negri 2004, 12-25). But it provided neither a concise theoretical riposte to critics, nor the concrete evidence to shore up controversial assertions. Appearing in inauspicious conditions, when the movement of movements was in rapid ebb, it couldn’t avoid the suspicion that ‘multitude,’ a concept born in the sunny aftermath of Seattle, had enjoyed its mayfly moment of celebrity, only to expire on the sudden arrival of harsher weather.

A Reconsideration After Seven Years

Why, then, after seven years, a torrent of criticism (to which this author also contributed), and in apparently adverse circumstances, return to ‘multitude’? I’ll confess–I like the word. This may seem a small thing. But the right word concentrates into itself a world of cognition. Multitude does so, on seven counts.

1) It conveys the many-ness of revolts against commodification, the heterogeneity of anti-capitalist activity witnessed in the counter-globalization revolts, and still visible, even if often subdued and scattered. Even a quick tour d’horizon of the mid-sized Canadian city where I live (made easy by the local activist computer networks) reveals protests of the homeless, anti-pesticide campaigns, post-carbon planning groups, drives to unionize university research assistants, opposition to local branch plants of the US military-industrial complex, actions of transnational solidarity, support of aboriginal land rights, a (very) loose municipal coalition of such groups and a Regional Social Forum that provides a space of convergence. In all these, anti-corporate, ant-commodification and often, anti-capitalist elements are present. A similar snapshot could be taken at thousands of points around the planet. This multiplicity defies reduction to a single centre or retraction into familiar categories, and still has to be theorized.

2) Amongst these struggles many continue the global dynamics emphasized in multitude-theory. Especially salient are the planetary flows of migration, moving not to any new frontiers but from poor to rich sectors of a world-capitalist economy, and galvanizing a wave of conflict over criminalized border crossing, illicit work and the entwined social reproduction of race and class. To the major examples of Hispanic labor protests in the US and the insurrection of the French banlieux in 2006 can be added hundreds of other battles of sans-papiers, asylum seekers, deportation and rendition victims (see Mitropooulos, 2006; Moulier-Boutang, 2006). Although often overlooked by critics raging against immateriality, these issues of transnational population flow and nomadic labor were central to the concept of a de-territorialized, hybrid multitude.

3) While the analysis of ‘immaterial labor’ associated with multitude was badly mishandled, it identified crucial issues. Re-appropriations of informational work, through cyber activism, hacking, piracy, open source and peer to peer networks, continue apace. Networks of indie-media and guerrilla news amount today to an autonomous activist media system circulating information and analysis on a speed and scale unthinkable thirty five years ago (see Kidd 2003, 2004). Other, criminalized struggles over intellectual property are causing information capital serious difficulties, and not just at the high, ‘yuppie,’ end of the value chain: they will grow in intensity as ‘immaterial’ networks more deeply interpenetrate ‘material’ production, for example in micro-fabrication. Justified aversion to hyperbole about ‘immaterial labor’ should not prevent analysis of such struggles, and the potentials they contain.

Similarly, the category of ‘affective labor’ has provided an important path for reconsidering the sexual division of labor as it reappears in the context of a largely female service economy, double-shift housework and endemic precarity. In doing so, it has opened the way to the overdue re-feminization of an autonomist tradition that since the days of Dalla Costa and James has been far too male (Del Re, 2005; Dowling, 2006). Thus although the ‘immaterial labor’ thesis was a fiasco, disaggregating its component parts—such as informational and affective work—is important in understanding the multiplicity labors and struggles in contemporary capital.

4) However much hostility post-structuralist perspectives provoke, they bring with them issues seriously neglected by operaismo composition studies, especially in regard to the processes of ‘subjectification’ (Berardi 2003). Virno’s (2004, 80) consideration of the ‘dark side’ of the multitude, and the ‘social individual’s’ ambivalence between rebellion and opportunism raises crucial points about the ethical and affective dimensions of a capitalism whose spectacular cultural apparatus is devoted to the production of subjectivity.

5) Although the ‘war on terror’ complicates analysis of multitude, it also makes it even more necessary. The recent re-contextualization of the concept by the Retort (2005) is important for two reasons. One is that it dispenses with Hardt and Negri’s ‘Empire’ in favor of David Harvey’s (2003) analysis of a ‘new imperialism’ arising from US-based initiatives for oil control, militarization, financialization and new rounds of primitive accumulation. The second is that it takes seriously Al Qaeda and its affines as movements assimilating anti-capitalist critique and revolutionary organization (the vanguard party plus networked rhizomes) for theocratic ends. In this re-mapping, multitude (aka the movement of movements) reappears as the antagonist of imperialism and fundamentalism in a three-way global fight (see also Dyer-Witheford, 2004); in the era of the ‘war on terror,’ the best way to organize against both war and terror may be from the perspective of multitude.

6) The move to analysis of bio-political struggles, rather than labor struggles, is a theoretical innovation consistent with Marx’s accounts of capital as a social metabolism, operating not just at in production but through an entire process of circulation. This process, described in the introduction to Grundrisse and the second volume of Capital, provides a basis for an account of multitude’s internal commonalities and differences more rigorous than that which Hardt and Negri give. Marx’s original account describes only two moments in this circuit: production, where labour power, machinery and raw materials are combined to create commodities, and circulation, where commodities are bought and sold. Dalla Costa and James (1972), and other autonomists (Cleaver, 1977; Fortunati, 1995), insisted on a third moment, the reproduction of labour power, in which workers are prepared and repaired for work (or unemployment), in homes, schools, hospitals, welfare offices and, the wider community. Ecological struggles have highlighted a fourth moment, the (non) reproduction of nature, in which raw materials are extracted from the environment and wastes returned to it; while this circuit has not been thoroughly theorized by autonomists (but see Caffentzis, 1992; p.m., 1992) analysis can draw on valuable work from other schools (O’Connor, 1998). This elaborated model enables a properly Marxian account of biopower that comprehends the heterogeneity of struggles to which multitude alludes. The move was partially anticipated in social factory theory, but the shift from labor-power to bio-power removes the persistent reference back to ‘work’, de-centers the analysis from the immediate point of production and re-posits it at the level of the circuit as a whole. It is only at this level one can grasp the dimensions of a series of ecological, energy and epidemiological struggles, such as those around global warming, ‘peak oil’, pandemics, and other species-scale issues.

7) The optimism associated with ‘multitude,’ however dampened today, continues to resonate with an important theme in contemporary movements—renewed interest in alternatives to global capital. After the fall of the ‘workers’ states,’ capital asserted ‘there is no alternative,’ and postmodern pragmatism submitted (‘no grand narratives, please’). The World Social Forum’s slogan ‘Another World is Possible’ picked up the challenge, even if in weakly relativist terms. Yet the question of which ‘other world’ to actualize remains. It becomes even more important as Al Qaeda proposes its own choice: ‘restore the Caliphate!’ Autonomists of all stripes have, for good reason, observed Marx’s embargo on ‘abstract utopias’. But utopias (preferably practical ones) are intrinsic to struggle, and ‘multitude’ signals, if mainly in its tone, a resumption of this issue.

I am not, it should be clear, particularly concerned with supporting or refuting the idea of multitude in its original iteration. The big, set-piece denunciations of and adjudications on multitude, and its authors’ defenses, are done. More interesting now is what can be done with multitude. Deleuze says a concept is a tool; this is how Hardt and Negri intended multitude. It remains for me an open, horizon of questions about, and for, what was once, and may again be, a movement of movements in and against global capital. While groups such as Wildcat (2005) turn away towards world-systems theorists to revitalize their analysis, I look rather for more sober, rigorous and grounded account of multitude. Where I agree with the compositionist critics of multitude is that the idea needs to come down to earth. It must fall from the abstract heights at which it was proposed. It needs the shock of empiricism. Operaismo took the abstract, formal concept ‘working class,’ gave it concrete content and, to a degree, allowed these findings to test the initial concept. In the same way, I suggest, ‘multitude’ is an idea that deserves not so much adoption as investigation. It requires inquiry.

The Revival of Inquiry

This is only to echo suggestions made before and after the concept was enunciated. In 1995, while the idea of multitude was gestating in Futur Antérieur, Ed Emery urged ‘No Politics Without Inquiry!’ Observing that after the long defeats of the 1970s and 80s there were finally signs of struggle based on a new and largely mysterious class composition, he proposed a renewal of collective research to understand and accelerate the process. Eleven years later, with the movement of movements ‘actually at the moment quite eclipsed, but with a more or less direct impact on a number of social and political conflicts in its wake,’ Emiliana Amano and Raffaele Sciortano (2006) make a similar suggestion. They write in the context of the No Tav movement of community opposition to a high speed train line traversing the Susa valley in Northern Italy, a struggle whose terrain is ‘the entire fabric of social reproduction’. Taking this as exemplary of the conditions within and against which the global social movements must now operate, Armano and Sciortano propose a revival of ‘conriecerca’, research conducted in and with struggle, investigating a ‘class composition that is not workerist’ and aiming for,
a virtuous circle of knowledge and change, that, on return puts theory itself to the test and helps find out useful questions—above all, the question of what ‘class autonomy’ could be in changing times (2006).
And Negri (2006) also, in his own inimitable mode, has made a similar suggestion for new inquiry.
What Emery, Armano, Sciortano and Negri propose, is moreover, actually occurring. In the generally gloomy post 9/11 firmament, a handful of bright sparks is provided by several small groups working in a highly-reflexive, politically-committed inquiry into on issues of composition, broadly defined.
I will just mention three. The first is the investigation of call-center work by Kolinko (2002), based on three years immersion in the ‘whirlpools of circulation’ in Rhurgebeit, Germany.
The second is the investigations of precarious work and the labors of the ‘Care-Sex-Attention’ nexus made by the feminist collective Precaria a la Deriva (2003; 2004) in their explorative ‘drifts’ through Madrid.
The third are the ‘encounters’ of the group Colectivo Situaciones (2004) with the ‘social protagonists’ of Argentina’s protracted crisis–movements of unemployed workers, peasants and the commemorators of the disappeared.
Mention of these experiments together, in the context of multitude-theory, must be immediately qualified. Each has their specific practice and perspectives; insistence on the preservation of particularity against a fast abstraction is in fact a common characteristic. All are engaged with the debates over multitude and immateriality, but critically. Kolinko works from a perspective close to that of Wildcat, whose strong disagreement with Hardt and Negri I have cited, and their somber portrait of network hell is a salutary corrective to overestimates of immaterial labor. Precarias a la Deriva (2004) questions the way the concept of multitude can submerge the gendered specificity of struggles. So it would be misleading to enlist these names in a simple celebration of multitude.
That, however, is not the point here. Rather, it is that these groups investigate the problematic of multitude: that is, the question of what forms of counter-power are possible in a highly globalized capitalism, with new forms of informational and affective labor and a tight interweaving of production and social reproduction. They also, however, renew (and improve on) the best features of compositionist inquiry: militant, conducted in collectivities with the aim of connecting to wider collectivities, theoretically informed but empirically open, partisan but persistently reflexive, self-inoculating against vanguardism, yet aiming to expedite struggle.
Not all inquiry can, or should, emulate the projects mentioned above, each remarkable in its creativity and commitment. Those who operate in conventional academic settings will want to consider how their inquiries relates to universities themselves a site of multitudinous contestation (see Day et al., 2006) But these three examples do epitomize something of the spirit—or style– with which I would like to approach ‘multitude.’ Only tenacious, recursive, networked, empirical and politicized inquiry can answer the question posed by Colectivo Situaciones, so relevant to the debate over multitude:
What to do when we are faced with this mechanism of massive adhesions and rejections, which elevate and dethrone radical experiments repeating the consumerist mechanism of the society of the society of the spectacle (2005, 808)
Kolinkos, Precaria a la Deriva and Colectivo Situaciones all scrupulously document and discuss their methods of investigation. There are also available other examples of proposals for inquiry, such as that from Derive Approdi (2002). As a contribution to this collective development of methodologies, I conclude with a re-writing of the Zerowork statement from which this discussion started; this with great respect to all who produced or disseminated the original. Because the scope and complexity of struggle have precisely doubled over the last thirty- five years, the rewrite has eight, not four points; it is longer than the abbreviated on-line original, but not much more so than the relevant sections of the full text. It too, of course, is for testing, criticism and revision by the wider networks of inquiry and struggle.

For a Compositional Analysis of the Multitude

First, again, are the struggles themselves, the struggles of the multitude, collective interruptions in the circuit of capital conceived in its widest circumference. These include struggles in production (e.g. strikes, stoppages and occupations); in circulation (e.g. against consumerism and media spectacle); in social reproduction (e.g. over health, housing, welfare, schools and university), and in the reproduction of nature (e.g. against environmental destruction and over biotechnologies). In production, make no a priori judgment about the primacy of immaterial labor, or any other kind; the issue is how struggles against different kinds of work—informational, affective, industrial, agrarian—connect, or fail to do so. But similarly, make no assumptions about the priority of the immediate point of production; whether the struggles flow (or fail to flow) out from the workplace into the rest of the social factory, or back into it from flashpoints around social and ecological reproduction is a matter for discovery.

Second, situate each struggle in the planetary space of multitude. Explore its cartography. Determine what maps, of large and small scale, terrestrial of course, but also cyber-spatial and institutional, are needed to understand it. Locate the places (a street, a town, a factory, land) it contests and claims, however briefly or partially. But also track the flows and circulations of people in migration, of information in networks, involved. Chart the territorializations and deterritorializations, and how these cut into the spatial organization of ‘glocalized’ capital (see De Angelsi, forthcoming).

Third, study the struggles as compositions of subjects and machines. By the composition of subjects we mean the bodies (including affects and minds) waging the struggle. The multitude is a multitude because it comes in two sexes, several genders and many colors, to which the mill of capital assigns varying commodity-values. Struggle is a process of becoming in which these commodified identities are unmade and transformed .By the composition of the machines we mean the relation of the struggle to technology. This may be a matter of halting capital’s machines (stop the line, block the bulldozer, burn the GMOs) but also appropriating or refunctioning them (the recovered factory, the collective garden, the pirate network) or even inventing new ones. Marx dissected the organic composition of capital; anatomize the organic composition of the multitude, the ways insurgent biopower combines with technologies.
Fourth, consider the relations between the multitude and its ‘official’ organizations, which include not only the trade unions, the ‘workers’ parties’, welfare organizations, etc, but also the NGOs and community development groups, the local and international coalitions, the World Social Forums, its regional spin-offs, and the other institutionalizations of the movement of movements. As Zerowork (1975; 112) observes, it is a mistake to identify struggles with official organizations, but one cannot take a ‘pure’ line that ‘analyzes struggles entirely independent of these organizations.’ Learn about (and circulate word of) new initiatives such as ‘bio-syndicalist unions’ (Tsianos & Papadopolous, 2006).
Fifth, take seriously de-compositionary struggles. Decomposition is ‘as real as recomposition’, and often underestimated (Wright, 2002; 224). Capital is the dominant decompositionary force, but there are others. There are even decompositionary struggles that attack capital but also segment the multitude. Often either ignited or recuperated by capital, these segmentary struggles are not, however, just its phantom or reflex; they have their own bad autonomy. Islamic military jihad is a de-compositionary struggle whose boldness and skill mobilizes revolt against immiseration for reactionary ends. Consider the ‘war on terror’ as the collision of two forces of decomposition, capital and fundamentalism, and the way both ‘war’ and ‘terror’ are not just destructive, but modes of social reproduction that repress the capacities of the multitude.

Sixth, relate all these aspects to the ‘general capitalist initiative,’ which today includes neoliberalism, deregulation, privatization, militarization, flexibilization and precarity, command through financial markets, digital and biotechnological innovation, and new cycles of primitive and futuristic accumulation. Detecting the high-level trajectory will require corroboration between inquiries. It is important to know if we are witnessing the coalescence of a global ‘empire’, or an acceleration of ‘trade blocs’ ushering in new ‘imperialist’ conflict; therefore extending transnational networks of inquiry should be an priority, especially in regard to communication with comrades in China.

Seventh, identify protagonistic as well as antagonistic features of struggles: that is, what they are for as well as against. Collate plans, platforms, manifestos, proposals and even utopias. Evaluate which move towards a feasible world of substantive equity with multiple centers. In the recent resurgence of post-capitalist imagination some of the most important is around the category of ‘the common.’ The future of the multitude depends on whether it can move not just from the circulation of capital to the circulation of struggles, but from the circulation of struggles to the ‘circulation of the common’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006). Therefore, while recognizing that even the best of terms can be recuperated, ask: what is the ‘commonist’ tendency?

Eighth, finally, but also before starting, and persistently, examine the relation of inquiry and struggle. How are they differentiated, and why? Can the inquiry feed back its findings into the struggle and not into capital? How does it avoid sociologism? If it makes slogans, are they ingenious ones? If university-based, what is the inquiry’s relation to struggles over academic work and campus corporatization? Is it generating categories, connections, and circulations of information helpful to the movements? Is it time to revise theoretical premises? The multitude is a composition: a convergence of singular struggles that in their combination go beyond capital. Without romanticism or cynicism, attend not just to successful transversal connections, but also to blockages, chasms and implosions. Differentiate the struggles, identify their commonalities, relay between them. Recompose the multitude.

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