Necropolitics and Anti-democracy

Reading Response: Hardt and Negri: Multitude, Selections.


Gabriel Piser

While doubtably crucial for dispersing important ideas to a wider auidence, H+N have come under fire from a number of related corners for reasons that are disconcerting perhaps, but valuable to consider seriously. Most salient are the criticisms of their positive or affirmative biopolitics (see Esposito 2008 for a troubling example of this reading of biopolitics) and their attempt to reclaim democracy. The concept of necropolitics is developed by Achille Mbembe and Jared Sexton among others. The interventions in An Introduction to Civil War, This is not a Program, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis confront problems with the concept of the democracy of the multitude. A larger project would be to trace connections and disjunctions among a triad made from these criticisms to work by Negri (inclusive of his works with Michael Hardt). In this case, I simply offer a brief summary of some of the key elements of the more incisive and important interventions. In case my position is unclear, I value many of the interventions made by Hardt and Negri in explaining the world, but am very wary of the unacknowledged presence of race in thier vitalist discourse, and of the deintensifying power of democracy as a concept.

Necropolitical critique of affirmative biopolitics:

The central assertion here is of the centrality of the need for a “racial discourse of life philosophy”. Donna Jones has written a book (2011) under that title, centered on the theses that vitalist thought is inseparable from discourses of race and nationalism, as well as that black thought is made meaningful through contact with the vitalist tradition. The idea expresses the notion that a “living flesh which rules itself” (Multitude 100) is a only intelligible through the systematic production of flesh that is dead and governable. More broadly, we might consider how the universality, vitalism, and utopian optimism reflected in some European philosophy from the enlightenment onward is connected to the creation of abjected and racialized populations via colonialism. This lends an odd valence to passages, in Multitude, where “…despite their poverty and lack of material resources, food, housing and so-forth, the poor do have an enormous wealth in their knowledge and powers of creation.” (135)

Against Democracy:

(This literature has a lot online, so I have included more links and content from elsewhere)

The writings of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee strive to reposition the field of struggle against empire. They confront the concept of the Multitude as well as argue against a reclaiming of democracy. Tiqqun’s Cybernetic Hypothesis (summarized here) asserts that the operations of empire require a transparent and rationally managed flow of information. The democracy of the Multitude can be seens as the highpoint of post-fordist self-managment when everyone expresses themselves openly (Multitude 100), resulting in ‘optimum’ outcomes.The recuperation of swarm intelligence as a “rational”, and democracy as “everyone ruled by everyone” leave little room for the forms of resistance that are needed to confront empire. I am not thrilled with the following formulation, but the central issue is essentially that the fundamental assumption of democrazy is the externalization of power, the objectification of one’s desire, and therefor is always representative and never ‘direct’.

But that also means that its first objective must be to resist all attempts to reduce it away with demands for representation. Fog is a vital response to the imperative of clarity, transparency, which is the first imprint of imperial power on bodies. To become foglike means that I finally take up the part of the shadows that command me and prevent me from believing all the fictions of direct democracy insofar as they intend to ritualize the transparency of each person in their own interests, and of all persons in the interests of all. …

What Foucault would later call (in a playful tone) “the death of Mankind,” is none other than the devastation brought about by these two kinds of skepticism, the one directed at individuals, and the other at society, and brought about by the Thirty Years’ War which had so effected the course of Europe and the world in the first half of the last century. The problem posed by the Zeitgeist of those years was once again how to “defend society” against the forces driving it towards decomposition, how to restore the social totality in spite of a general crisis of presence afflicting it in its every atom.  The cybernetic hypothesis corresponds, consequently, to a desire for order and certitude, both in the natural and social sciences.

—The Cybernetic Hypothesis

From the summary link above, the last two section suggest forms of resistance which are adequate to the task of confronting biopolitical democracies and cybernetic captialism:

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Lastly, it is worth bringing up Mario Tronti’s critique of democracy in the recently released collection “The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics” translated by Alberto Toscano. In this article he claims that democracy is anti-revolutionary because it is “pervaded”, “impelled”, and “stabilized” by a process of neutralization through identification with the soveriegn. One question is if the figure of the Multitude provides a figure for this identification. If empire today is indeed a scientifically managed “democratic empire”, we would do well to remain suspicious of calls for a ”new science of democracy.”


Below is a short extract from a great post on Matt Applegate’s old blog. He is speaking on a panel of Binghamton University Comparative Literature students on Monday at 2:00 in the same room where we meet for class. His talk is “The Micro-Politics of Guerilla Discourse: Black Mask and the Production of Living Culture.”

…Varying somewhat wildly between biting invective and concise critique, Tiqqun’s engagement with Negri’s thought begins with a critique of citizenship:

The accidents and the rationality that produce the citizen all point to the heart of the imperial enterprise: to attenuate forms-of-life, to neutralize bodies; and the citizen advances this enterprise by self-annulling the risk he represents to the imperial environment . . . There is therefore a factory of the citizen, whose long-term implantation is Empire’s major victory; not social, or political, or economic but anthropological victory . . . The objective [is] to purge the productive center of a society in which production was becoming militarized, to purge it of all the ‘deviants,’ of all the at-risk individuals, of all the agents of the Imaginary Party. (103-104)

It is of this understanding of the citizen and the mechanism by which society is sanitized or purged that Tiqqun refutes Negri on questions of bio-politics and the multitude:

The three watchwords typical of political Negrism–for all its strength lies in its ability to provide informal neo-militants with issues on which to focus their demands–are the ‘citizens dividend,’ the right to free movement (‘Papers for everyone!’), and the right to creativity, especially if computer-assisted. In this sense, the Negrist perspective is in no way different from the imperial perspective but rather a mere instance of perfectionism within it . . . Hence political Negrism’s incestuous relationship with imperial pacification: it wants reality but not its realism. It wants Biopolitics without police, communication without Spectacle, peace without having to wage war to get it. Strictly speaking, Negrism does not coincide with imperial thought; it is simply the idealist face of political thought. (117-118)

So, the importance of a redefinition of partisanship comes to the fore. Not only does Tiqqun consider class to be an antiquated and inadequate means of framing partisan relations in the contemporary moment, articulating a concept of partisanship that distinguishes itself from Negri’s multitude is what remains vital; where the multitude exists as a reconceptualized form of citizenship, citizenship in either local or cosmopolitan iterations must be refused precisely because of its status as an idealized imperial socio-political composition.


2 thoughts on “Necropolitics and Anti-democracy

  1. This is not the way I understood Donna Jones’s work. No question that some versions of vitalism were historically inseparable from some versions of racism and nationalism – just as they were historically inseparable from some (major) versions of resistance to racism (e.g., negritude). But (if history is a history of contingencies) that historical inseparability does not mean that all versions of vitalism are “unintelligible” apart from that history, and therefore does not mean that self-governance is necessarily bound up with the domination and/or exploitation of others (if I understand the point of Gabriel’s comment here; flesh that is both “dead and governable” is difficult for me to imagine).

  2. Thanks for this great review of some of the critiques. I wanted to speak to the democracy question. I was surprised by the idea that the IC is against a recaliming of democracy. We recently read the Call, and I did not see anything there that conflicts with H&N’s notion of democracy. (On the contrary, the IC seems quite indebted to autonomia in general and perhaps H&N in particular). Tronti’s critique is disappointing, assuming more or less that democracy is the same thing as liberal demcoracy. (Jodi Dean makes a similar (unhelpful) move, I think). Well of course we don’t want to pursue that, but liberal democracy isn’t really democracy at all, and it isn’t what Hardt & Negri mean by democracy. The idea of Empire as democratic is absurd when democracy is understood with H&N. They think of it, as I do, as being more or less equivalent to communism. It puzzles me that many on the left throw democracy to the wolves by accepting, in line with capitalist dogma, that it is the same thing as a liberal-democratic state. What a waste of one of our most powerful political concepts…

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