Multitude or working class? - Antonio Negri

Negri explains his concept of ‘multitude’ in a response to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos at the European Social Forum in Paris, 2003.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on September 11, 2006

We all agree to the fact that we want to fight capital and renew the world. But I think this ain’t conceivable as a poetical process. Because the name multitude is not a poetical notion, but a class concept. When I talk about multitude as a class concept, I talk about the fact that workers today work in the same and in different ways compared to those they worked some centuries ago. The working class and its class composition are quite different in the distinct periods that followed each other since the beginning of the industrial age.

The organisation of labour has indeed damned changed from the 18th century ‘til now, as well as the political and technical class composition; and also the way the class builds up its class consciousness is extremely different. If we use the concept of working class and the concept of organisation of labour homogeneously and uniquely we’ll be mistaken profoundly.

I think that after ’68 and with the beginning of the neo-liberal counterrevolution the structure of organising labour and in consequence the organisation, the making of class composition has changed profoundly.

The factory stays no longer in the centre of value production. The value is created by putting to work the whole of society. We call multitude all the workers who are put to work inside society to create profit. We consider all the workers in the whole of society to be exploited, men, women, people who work in services, people who work in nursing, people who work in linguistic relations, people who work in the cultural field, in all of the social relations, and in so far as they are exploited we consider them part of the multitude, inasmuch as they are singularities. We see the multitude as a multiplicity of exploited singularities. The singularities are singularities of labour; anyone is working in different ways, and the singularity is the singularity of exploited labour.

To take notice of all this is of particular importance, we have to underline it because labour is becoming increasingly immaterial. This doesn’t mean that the realm of material labour wouldn’t expand, as material labour does evidently today, in the factories, in the sweat-shops, in the incredible workplaces where children work, work materially. All this is of extreme importance. But what is significant in the process of value creating productive labour is intellectual labour, networking labour, inventive labour, scientific labour. When Marx began to talk about industrial valorisation, it was in view of 100 or 200 factories, but the grand tendency was the one he claimed, and this path we have to follow. Just to add a second observation: The industrial working class never has produced value being a mass, value has always been produced because any worker added his/her particular contribution to the creation of value.

The problem is not to find a class coalition or to refer to relations connecting the working class and the movement of movements, the problem is to refer to the unique root of value, the unique quality of labour. It is the dignity of labour that allows us to propose alternative paths for life and society.

When we take for example the peasantry. Peasants have always been considered to be outside the working class, to be something that should become working class. This always has been complete rubbish because the peasants always worked, worked hard, worked on things, worked as singularities. Nowadays we find ourselves facing a peasant class in the countries that are becoming increasingly irrelevant for capitalist development, and inside this peasant class we find on one side to a great extend the organisation of industrial labour, on the other side we find the specificity of peasant labour, which is singular, which means a specific contact with nature, the making of good cheese, of good vine. It means finding this unique quality of labour, finding inside the diversity, inside the difference the common elements, that are, of course, joint elements of exploitation, but on the other side the specificity of the peasant’s capacity to relate oneself to the earth and to transform it, transform it into good cheese and good vine. Only in this way we can think of relations with the industrial working class, and not with workers’ aristocracy, that wouldn’t be mechanical.

On the other side let’s consider women’s labour. What is it? What has it always been under the domination of the patriarchate? It has been secret work, but a work of relating. Fundamentally. A work that always knew the place of the socks* in the house. The secret of so-called domestic labour is that it cannot be quantified. It is quality. A fundamental quality that has allowed the reproduction of the species, of workers’ species, of labour. How can we refer to this value, to this struggle? Not as coalition: Join the women – get lost, fuck off! But then? Nothing, if there ain’t this profound reason: inside labour we can find finesse, a capacity to get in contact, to create relations. Anyone of you who has worked, for instance, with computers knows precisely what finesse, what creating of relations means here. The production of value is production of abundant relations, it is linguistic production.

Multitude is first of all a class concept, then also a political concept. In so far as it is a class concept, multitude puts an end to the concept of working class as a simplistic concept, as a mass concept. From the point of view of politics the concept of multitude puts an end to the concept of people, of nation and of all that build by the state, providing it with a fundament of representation.

Translated by Thomas Atzert
* Negri here alludes to the book by Christian Marazzi: Il posto dei calzini: La svolta linguistica dell’economia e i suoi effetti nella politica, Bellinzona: Casagrande, 1994. [tr.]



10 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by JessM on August 20, 2013

It would have been good to include Alex Callinicos' talk or at least a link to it, so we know what exactly Negri is responding to.


10 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on August 20, 2013

Not a fan of either Negri or the SWP and the concept of 'the mutitude' in my opinion is less than helpful in understanding either the production of value in a modern globalised capitalist system or the important differences between different forms of labour and expressions of class struggle. If it is saying that the production of surplus value cannot occur without the socialy organised 'work' of many different people outside of the traditional industrial working class then that is correct but far from novel (and expressed equally well by many other theorists), if it is to emphasise the increased role of 'science' in the most recent phases of the 'real domination of capital/subsumption of labour' again correct but not new, but it is wrong if it is suggesting that there is no longer an important distinction to be made between 'productive' and 'unproductive', of surplus value' work, particularly relevant now in the increased drive of capital to reduce 'unproductive costs'.


10 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by ocelot on August 20, 2013

Well Negri declared the (insuperable) crisis of the law of value already back in the 1970s. So to him the distinction between productive and unproductive labour does not apply because labour's productive power is "beyond measure". There are various arguments presented for the "unmeasurability" of modern labour (says he, glancing at the clock to see if it's home time - not yet, huh!) and here Negri presents another one - he posits the move from quantity to quality being the dominant tendency in the productive power of labour (somebody ring the "fragment on machines" bell - ding!), i.e. the rejection of the idea that labour can be reduced to a "mass" of simple labour, abstract labour, abstracted from the quality of its concreteness. From a value form perspective, it's based on surprisingly old-school "embodied labour" presuppositions, when you look at it closely. That is, all the criticisms of the Negri-line post-autops (i.e. the law of value rejectionists) on the immeasureability of "cognitive labour" really deals with the physicalist "moment of conception" model*, rather than the exchange-realisation one.

* I sometimes rather unkindly call this the SPUC model of value


10 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by Comrade on October 27, 2013


8 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on May 22, 2016

Since a reference to the Negri and Hardt book 'Empire' has come up again on this site I think this IP critique of the specific concept of 'the multitude' is very relevant: