Notes on multitude and the city

I wrote my post on the Harvey and Holland readings with pages 105-115 of Multitude in mind, though it had been over a year since my first and only reading. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to point out some of the reasons I find it so powerful, especially with respect to thinking about cities.

H&N’s “initial approach is to conceive of the multitude as all those who work under the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who refuse the rule of capital” (106). As they point out, this conception of a potential revolutionary class is inclusive — an “equal opportunity of resistance” (107). Perhaps I’m overly excited about the this idea, but the fact that it opens up the potential for revolutionary action to knowledge workers, service workers, and the unemployed, is the only way that I can be viscerally drawn to contemporary organization around Marxist principles.

Relating this back to the city: I’ve never known a city based on industrial production. As I confessed a few years ago in an urban theory class, the only “big city” I’ve ever known has been a postindustrial one. Engels’s Manchester or the Chicago represented by Sinclair or Bellow are now etched in my understanding of the past, but to see an actual factory in a city that also has skyscrapers still deterritorializes me. So to conceive of an urban revolution based on an industrial base has always been nonsensical to me, while one based on all work that is beholden to capital is clear. To think of a city crippled by striking transit operators — as Negri discusses in Goodbye Mr. Socialism (33-36) — is to think of contemporary revolutionary power.

Second, I think that H&N make a very important point about the centrality of immaterial labor when they assert that “in any economic system there are numerous different forms of labor that exist side by side, but there is always one figure of labor that exerts hegemony over the others” (107). They are not displacing material labor, but instead thinking more along the lines of what Gramsci calls “cultural hegemony”: it’s the culture of immaterial labor that is penetrating and reorienting work and social life. Or, as H&N put it, “today labor and society have to informationalize, become intelligent, become communicative, become affective” (109).

As someone who studies the “urban revitalization” projects, this overlap of culture and the economy is of paramount importance. For example, in the classic literature on gentrification, there is a sharp divide between explanations based on cultural phenomena (the influx of artists, hipsters, et al into devalorized areas, which then become cool and a target for new development) and economic phenomena (the devalorization and revalorization processes operating only as capital flows target areas for maximum profit). But H&N are largely eschewing these types of categorical divisions and asking us to think about the biopolitical, in which “the traditional distinctions between the economic, the political, the social, and the cultural become increasingly blurred” (109). The project I am studying is indeed a collision of all these realms, and though economics are the driver of urbanization, it would be naive to try and think about it without the political, social, and cultural conditions that both make it possible and keep it from proceeding in a profit-maximizing way.