The Multitude Voted Republican

Discussion between Erik Empson and Thomas Seay

There are two notions in currency in the debate on the multitude that it would be wise to steer clear from. The first is an idea of multitude as constituted by a self selecting, politically motivated and ethically charged subjectivity. The second idea, a economic determinist one, holds that the multitude is comprised of individuals whose political outlook is directly determined by a new type of social experience at work. Both come from the attribution of autonomy to one particular aspect of human life. In contrast, our approach to multitude should be mulititudinous, that is to say, adequate to its object. It is not a homogenous body acting in concert, it has no single over-arching ideology, nor does it promise or desire one. Unless it can be related to actual events the concept is a pretty useless piece of nominalism: at best it can register that an unknown quantity exists in political life that does not fall into the categories current in political theory.

Some of the scandal of the result of the November 2004 Presidental Election in the USA is due to the expectations that Americans would react at their administrations lack of popularity internationally and opt for the Democratic candidate. Indeed after the first Gulf war in the early nineties, Bill Clinton had beaten Bush senior on a campaign that promised to focus on domestic affairs ('it's the economy stupid') rather than international policy. Thirteen years later, when events had brought the two arenas - international and domestic - somewhat closer together, and America was still hearing about how hard done by Al Gore was in the previous election, the voters chose to give their support to Bush junior. Somewhat incredibly for a nation so marred by apathetic anti-political consumer culture, the turnout was some 12 million more than the previous 2000 election.

Remembering that the conditions for multitude were said to lie in the relative weakness of political sources of unity, the discrediting of the insitutions and mechanisms for representation and the disaggregation of the notion of a people, aswell as the decrease in time-space distantiation and the opening up of communication as the ultimate horizon of the new global village, do these events not suggest that the concept should be taken back to the drawing board or ditched all together? If that were so, one swallow would make a summer, but nevertheless the former enthusiasm for the new, exciting and embracing idea of multitude has certainly waned - even to the point where the authors of the seminal work Empire have suggested that Bush's election victory invalidates their thesis of global dynamic towards a supra-national form of political right.

How can multitude: eminently acephalic, unknowable, ungovernable, and emergent at the crisis of sovereignty, coexist with this evidence? One important factor to consider is the relation between fear and bravado. Like no where else, fear seems to be accompanied by the fear of losing face....hence bigger guns, bigger SUVs, bigger bodyguards, bigger talk, bigger hotdogs. Another factor is the how voting has become disassociated from politics: we regularly vote on our favourite cereal, who we want the next pop-star to be and so on. An increased turnout is not necessarily evidence of a recovery from the crisis of representation but can just as easily be a reaction to its deepening, people vote because they are fearful, worried that their fragile connection to the political body with be severed all together. If increased turnout comes out of a sense of duty as opposed to strong affiliation, it is also a result of fear, participation in producing the vanishing simulacra of sovereign decision.

There are clear reasons to believe this is the case. Far from being able to capitalise on the social refusal of politics, and the becoming minority of a multitude of actors, the democratic left acts as a negative check on s process, essentially trying to mobilise what is organically anti- capitalist/ anti- state into being pro-state. Placed in the conundrum of being morally obliged to act within the political community, it is likely that - given its spectacular nature - people will be more sympathetic to conservative claims for restricted state as well as delegation of authority to a strong leadership. Bush won because his nationalism is better than Kerry's patriotism. The latter represented a movement towards empire, that weakens the cause of mobilisation on the basis of democratic sovereignty, and demands more responsibility from the individual.

This is why Hardt and Negri are wrong to think of the multitude as a 'political project'. However, you can imagine it as something that acts, and can take decisions (including their qualifications of this being a decision without a neural centre). This does not mean however, beyond a very particular reflexive moment that occurred in the recent self understanding of the radical left in Italy, that the multitude can necessarily understand itself as multitude. Thinking multitude is a certain gaze upon the social that expresses its conflict _with_ the political.

For this reason conservative populism is not really the explanation of anything, and berating against it is futile. In fact we berate the masses for not desiring something we dont very much want ourselves. For this reason the vote for Bush was a big fuck you to the political process (and its predictive science) and a denial of the smug complacency of the left that believed they had some kind of natural right to win, whilst in fact prevaricating over every issue of principle that might have gained them some renewed respect. The crisis of sovereignty called for the natural affirmation of the authority of the state and that is what it received. Behind populist conservatism there is a healthy cynicism, a black humour that is playing with the old cold war meaning of democracy as a moral unity against a larger threat.

More bigotry lies in the techniques of mass mobilisation for the electoral process. Consumption, and perhaps if we go so far to agree with Hardt and Negri production too in late capitalism encompasses a far more sophisticated fashioning out over the choice of what we are that the political process. The political is not a primary decision, but a secondary, reactive and reductive process that runs alongside all social activity. The problem with its relative autonomy is that, having the very function of the engineering of political legitimacy, it is the area of social practice that lacks authenticity and legitimacy most of all.

Thomas Seay criticises:

The "multitudes", not all but a good part of them, in the American countryside are racist, xenophobic, homophobic, against a woman's right to choose abortion and very very religious, patriotic and militaristic. I want to underline that the vote for Bush came from the reactionary countryside...the demographics are evident on that point. One of Karl Rove's (Bush's political strategist) was to paint Kerry, and the Democrats, as a person willing to sell out the US to the UN, accelerate gay rights, weaken US military might, etc. His strategy worked and energized the most reactionary elements in US society.

I am sorry but any interpretation that says that this was somehow a radical move on the part of the "mulitudes" in the countryside is in error. The good news is that a line has been drawn in the sand. The US is a polarized nation and there are some good things that might be done in such a situation.

Erik replies:

If recent events can be explained through the conventional indicators, there is very little use for the concept of multitude. However a last stab at defending these counter intuitive claims:

A lot of commentators were excited by increased participation frankly because they thought it would favour Kerry. But something about the event itself, the mobilisation, and the media frenzy was always going to favour Bush. If we dont think of the multitude as a political subjectivity but rather as an a/anti-political form of social subjectivity there is a kind of immeasurable and unpredictable outcome when the latter get caught up in the excitement of the political event and are compelled to take sides because, supposedly, their interests are manifold and not reducible to this kind of decision. This is why I say it can be understood in relation to the crisis of representation, rather than its rejuvenation, because the results did not work themselves out through the imagined criteria of the reasonable, but in the dislocated spaces where self interest resides and to which the political process can not refer. Like the Berlusconi effect, part of Bush's appeal is that he belongs to something greater than the marginalised state spectacle of the political process which he represents. That they are both crooks is no scandal nor surprise but crucial to seeing why support for them can in fact coincide with a refusal of politics (or at least with the general disregard for it).

November 2004

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