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Contra Hardt and Negri

Multitude or Generalized Proletarianization?

Samir Amin is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal. His books published by Monthly Review Press include The Liberal Virus, The World We Wish to See, The Law of Worldwide Value, and, most recently, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism. This article was translated from the French by James Membrez. This critique was inspired by Amin’s reading of the massive tome by left theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri bearing the title Commonwealth (2011). He wrote it as a follow up to his “Empire and Multitude,” Monthly Review (November 2005), which dealt with their earlier books: Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004).
The Editors

The term multitude was first used in Europe, it seems, by the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, to whom Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explicitly refer. It then designated the “common people” who were a majority in the cities of the Ancien Régime and deprived of participation in political power (reserved for the monarch and the aristocracy), economic power (reserved for property owners of feudal ancestry or for the nascent financial bourgeoisie, both urban and rural—including the rich peasants), and social power (reserved for the Church and its clerics). The status of the common people varied. In the city, they were artisans, small merchants, pieceworkers, paupers, and beggars; in the country, they were landless. The common people in the cities were restless and frequently exploded into violent insurrections. They were often mobilized by others—particularly the nascent bourgeoisie, the active component of the Third Estate in France—in their conflicts with the aristocracy.

Similar social forms had existed earlier and elsewhere. The plebeians of ancient Rome and the city-states of Renaissance Italy are well known. In the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, the Levellers, who emerged in the conflict between Cromwell and the Crown, belonged to the same sort of social strata. For my part, I have observed that similar social realities may be found elsewhere outside of Europe, such as with the Taipings in nineteenth-century China.

The vicissitudes of the French Revolution provided the space for an even stronger intervention by these plebs (the multitude of that time) in the conflict between the bourgeoisie of the Third Estate, on one side, and the monarchy and aristocracy, on the other. The conflict rapidly became three sided (aristocracy, bourgeoisie, people) and the plebeian component had the upper hand for a while in 1793 with the political group known as The Mountain. Robespierre clearly expressed the demands of these plebs: he contrasted the “people’s political economy with the political economy of the proprietaires [owners of fortunes]” (using these same strikingly modern terms, as Florence Gauthier points out).1

An initial general observation: the revolts of the plebs are proof that human beings have not always accepted the oppression, lack of rights, or poverty to which they have been subjected by various social systems in different times and places. The dialectic of the conflict between the desire for freedom by human beings (a matter of anthropology) and the inequality that is imposed on them (a matter of political sociology) is a permanent transhistorical reality.

A second observation: all of the revolts of the plebs—the ancient multitude—were defeated. Should we conclude from this, in a strongly economistic and determinist interpretation of history, that this was because the demand of the plebs (a type of communism based on the aspiration to equality) was not a possibility, and the development of the productive forces implied the invention of capitalism and the exercise of power by the bourgeoisie as its representative? I will not discuss these issues further here, despite their importance for understanding Marx and historical Marxisms. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval offer a magnificent analysis of these issues to which I shall refer.2

The early anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon used the very term “multitude” in the middle of the nineteenth century to describe the social reality of the urban France of his time (Paris in particular); Dardot and Laval explicitly refer to this.3 This description was, for his time, perfectly correct, in my opinion (and in Marx’s opinion, it seems, since he offered no complaints about it). In Restoration France, during the July Monarchy, and in the Third Empire, political and economic power was reserved to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, themselves segmented and in conflict, but ultimately united in a sharing of power modulated by changes in the specific weight of each side. The common people, who were in the majority in Paris and other large cities, were excluded. Within that diverse group, the new industrial proletariat was still in its formative stage and in the minority. They were primarily found in the new textile industry and the coal mines. Proletarianization had hardly begun in France, though it was more advanced in England. In the history of France, this multitude (or these plebs) continued to be active. It had not forgotten 1793, and in 1848 and even (partly) in 1871 aspired to return to that moment. Yet, once again, it failed.

Having said that, I do not believe it is useful to retain the term multitude to describe later time periods, in France, Europe, or elsewhere in the world, particularly for contemporary societies. I would even say that this term becomes dangerously deceptive.

The long-term, immanent tendency of capital accumulation, triumphant from the second half of the nineteenth century, is to proletarianize, i.e., to transform the diverse members of the common people (the plebs, the multitude) into sellers of their labor power to capital, either “really” or “formally,” as Marx analyzed it. To be proletarian is a new status, one that is continually changing and that continues to develop up to the present.

This proletarianization inexorably advances through the always unique combination (specific to a time and place) formed by (1) the technological requirements of the organization of capitalist production, (2) the struggles of the proletarians either against this capitalist organization itself or to find a more favorable place in it, and (3) the strategies developed by capital in response to proletarian struggles, with the objective of fragmenting the proletariat. There is nothing new here in principle, although the result of any given combination is always unique and specific to a particular moment in the deployment of capital accumulation within the local context of national capitalism, but also at the regional level in the nation/state in question. These combinations structure all of global capitalism in quite specific ways, defined by equilibriums/disequilibriums in international relations. In particular, they form the contrasts characteristic of proletarianization in the (unequally) dominant centers and the dominated peripheries, thereby maintaining the various functions necessary for global accumulation.

There are, then, good reasons to look at proletarianization more closely and concretely, avoiding overzealous and excessively broad generalizations. It is true that the historical Marxisms of the Second and Third Internationals, unfortunately, often succumbed to the temptation of making generalizations of this kind and, consequently, reserved the term proletariat to one segment of the latter. Examples of this exclusive use of the term proletariat are factory workers or miners in the nineteenth century and workers in the large factories of the 1920s to ‘60s organized along Fordist lines.

The fixation on these particular segments of the proletariat explains—without excusing—the errors in the strategies for the class struggle developed by the historical Internationals. In certain places and at certain times, these segments of the proletariat found themselves in a context more favorable to pursuing their struggles. The fixation on these segments and their struggles, which were victorious to a certain extent, can thus be understood. The social advances of the post-Second World War reformist state (the Welfare State) were a result. But the strength of the movements that made these advances possible hid their weakness. Fixated only on the segments of the proletariat in question, the movement forgot the others, whether proletarianized or in the process of proletarianization in other conditions and forms—particularly the peasantry. This neglect made it impossible to call capitalism into question, and thus encouraged the reintegration of the advanced segment of the proletariat and its submission to the logic of accumulation.

For my part, I have proposed an interpretation quite different from that of Hardt and Negri, which I have called a “generalized proletarianization” of the contemporary world beginning, let us say, in 1975. I emphasize in this interpretation both the proletarian status imposed on everyone and the extreme segmentation of the generalized proletariat, just as I emphasize the concomitance—not by chance—between these two characteristics, on the one hand, and the extreme centralization of capital’s control, on the other.

A rapidly growing proportion of workers are no more than sellers of their labor power to capital, whether directly when they are company employees or indirectly when they are reduced to the status of subcontractors—a reality that should not be obscured by the apparent autonomy conferred on them by their legal status. For example, in family agriculture, titles to property (in land and equipment) are rendered meaningless because of the deductions imposed, both upstream and downstream, by capitalist monopolies. Most small and medium companies producing manufactured objects or services as well as “freelance” work belong to the same reality: the generalization of proletarianization. Today, all or almost all workers sell their labor power, including cognitive, if necessary.

In these conditions, the evolution of the system does not reduce the area in which the law of value is at work, but, contrary to what Hardt and Negri say, demonstrates with greater power than ever its harsh reality. In the diagram I have used to illustrate this question the law of value operates through the hierarchy of salaries (and more generally the payments to subject labor).4 All workers (80 or 90 percent?) provide, say, eight hours of work per day for 250 days per year to produce goods and services (useful or not!). But the remuneration of their labor merely allows them to purchase an overall volume of goods and services requiring only four hours of labor per day. They are all (productive or unproductive) equally exploited by capital.

I rounded out this study by analyzing the vertiginous growth of the surplus absorbed in a Department III, which comes to supplement Department I (production of goods and services for production) and Department II (production of goods and services for final consumption).5

Segmentation of the generalized proletariat mainly finds its explanation in the strategies implemented by capital of the generalized monopolies (the contradictory complement necessary to the emergence of a generalized proletariat) to initiate and control the direction given to technological research, which is designed to encourage the segmentation in question. This segmentation, however, is not the unilateral product of the strategies implemented by capital. The resistance of the victims and the struggles that they undertake interact with these strategies and give particular forms to the segmentation. There are well known concrete examples: the solidarity developed in these struggles—such as among the railway workers of the SNCF in France—attenuates in some ways the devastating effects of the generalized proletariat’s segmentation, yet simultaneously reinforces it.

These strategies for struggle at first sight prove Alain Touraine to be right in what he says about contemporary society and the social movements specific to each of its segments. The objective of an effective strategy for a common struggle consists precisely in identifying strategic sub-objectives that allow unity in diversity.

There are certainly no blueprints that provide an answer to this challenge. But Hardt and Negri do not help us to advance militant thinking in this area. Their insistence on the significance of the liberating effects produced by spontaneous struggles is disproportionate. Recognizing the reality of these liberating effects is straightforward and certainly does not require any pompous analysis. The real difficulty arises as soon as we pose this question: How do we articulate the segmentary struggles into a strategy for wide-ranging and generalized struggle? Hardt and Negri have nothing to say about this.

Generalized proletarianization and its segmentation go hand in hand with changes in the structure of capital. The transition to monopolies in their initial form (from 1880 to 1975), then into their contemporary form, which I have called generalized monopolies, typifies these changes. The centralization of the power of these monopolies—without a parallel concentration in the legal ownership of capital—completely transforms the nature of the bourgeoisie as well as the management of political power in the service of abstract capital’s domination. The bourgeoisie is itself now largely made up of salaried agents of abstract capital, in particular producers of knowledge useful for capital. Hardt and Negri never define these cognitive values precisely enough to assess their significance. These salaried agents, while they work eight hours, receive compensation that allows them to buy goods and services, the production of which cost more, even much more, than eight hours. They do not, then, participate in the production of surplus value, but are consumers of it. They are bourgeois and are conscious of being so. I refer here to the analyses in The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism that I have devoted to this evolution, to which Hardt and Negri have never paid any attention.6

The preceding analysis focuses only on transformations in the centers of the system. The diverse forms of proletarianization in the societies of peripheral capitalism are different and specific. I will return to that in my critique of Hardt and Negri on the subject of imperialism.

We are, then, quite far from a step backward towards a diversification of statuses similar to that which characterized the multitude in the past. In fact, we are in the exact opposite situation. Before Hardt and Negri, Touraine had confused the new segmentation with the “end of the proletariat,” and in that vein, substituted the struggle of “social movements” (in the plural) specific to each of these segments in the new social reality for the struggle of the proletariat (in the singular). Hardt and Negri go back to Touraine, which is implied by their return to the term multitude. In their view, the capitalist law of value is on the decline (for me, it is expressed with growing force) and being replaced by a flowering of modes of exploiting labor similar to those from the past prior to proletarianization and the law of value. But Hardt and Negri say nothing specific about this flowering of forms of labor. Their silence about this is eloquent: they do not know what to substitute for the law of value. Marx said that the tumult of the waves in the market masked the power of the law of value, which completely controlled the movements of these waves. Likewise, I will say that the diversity of the components of proletarianized society (the multitude) masks in a similar way the power of the law of value, more precisely the law of globalized value, which forms that diversity.

Instead of analyzing the concrete forms of the generalized proletariat’s segmentation, Hardt and Negri revel in a discourse on the “commons” (“commonwealth”), which does not contribute much, despite its length and repetitiveness, to what has long been known on the subject. There are writings on the “commons” that both clarify fundamental concepts much better than Hardt and Negri do, and which also challenge those concepts that allow the dominant ideology of the market to integrate externalities in its system.7

For their silence on the reality of contemporary social diversity, Hardt and Negri substitute endless analyses under titles such as “biopolitics” and “cognitive capitalism.”

To call politics “biopolitics” does not bother me, even though Michel Foucault and, subsequently, Hardt and Negri see something new there. But I am not convinced that there is anything new. For me, politics have always been biopolitics—management of human life, individual and social. Like Dardot and Laval—and Marx, I believe—whose analyses concerning the articulation between anthropology and sociology I share, when examining the “practical activity of individuals” (Dardot and Laval’s inspired terms), I attempt never to separate the transhistorical (but not transcendent!) anthropological foundation from the sociohistorical framework in which that activity takes place.

I will not go back over the myth of the transformation of industrial capitalism into cognitive capitalism. Every form of production in every age of human history has always included a decisive cognitive component.

I will say no more about any of these issues. The reader will find analyses on these questions in my books.8 I do not want to present here any dangerously simplifying summary of these contributions.

Empire or Imperialism?

Hardt and Negri’s theses rest on two assertions: (1) The globalization of the system has reached a stage such that any attempt to implement any sort of national policy is destined to fail; as a result, the concepts of nation and national interest are outmoded. (2) This reality affects all states (despite their still formal existence, of course), including the dominant—sometimes hegemonic—powers, and that, consequently, there is no more imperialism, but only an “empire” whose center is nowhere. The centers of economic and political decision-making are dispersed throughout the planet and dispense with state policies.

These two propositions are utterly false and can be explained only by a total ignorance of the history of capitalist globalization since its origin five centuries ago up to the present. This history, consisting of the construction of an opposition between dominant centers and dominated peripheries and the consequent subjection of modes of accumulation in the peripheries to the requirements of accelerating and deepening accumulation in the centers, is completely ignored by Hardt and Negri. Imperialism is nothing other than the totality of the economic, political, and military means mobilized to produce the submission of the peripheries, today as yesterday.

The shaping of the societies of peripheral capitalism produced forms of proletarianization specific to each region according to the functions that were assigned to them, and hence different from the forms of proletarianization found in the dominant centers, yet nevertheless complementary to them. The apparent “multitude,” i.e., the diversified whole of working classes integrated into the global system, is structured in a particular manner from one country to another, from one phase of global capitalist development to another.

The processes of proletarianization (I use this term deliberately even if they immediately appear as processes of dispossession, exclusion, and pauperization) in the peripheries do not reproduce, with a delay, those that formed (and continue to form) the structures of the societies in the dominant centers. Underdevelopment is not a delay, but the concomitant product of development. The social structures produced in the peripheries are also not vestiges of the past. The submission of these societies distorted the earlier structures and shaped them in such a way as to make them useful to imperialist expansion of global capitalism (which is inherently polarizing). Workers in the informal sector, for example—continually growing in number and proportion in the peripheral South—are not vestiges of the past, but products of capitalist modernity. They are not excluded, but segments of labor completely integrated into the system of capitalist exploitation. Here let me make an analogy with the domestic labor of women: this informal labor—non- or poorly remunerated—makes it possible to reduce the price of labor power employed in the formal segments of production.

Hardt and Negri loftily ignore the concrete analysis of these situations, which have been the subject of many important works. Their naive view of globalization is the one served up by the dominant discourse. The only sources of information and inspiration to which Hardt and Negri refer are drawn from Foreign Policy magazine, through which the Washington establishment sells its goods and which they eagerly consume.

In this view, transnationalization has already abolished the reality of nations and imperialism. Washington wants everyone to believe this in order to eliminate the power of protest. For my part, I have reached the opposite conclusion: transnationalization has in no way created a global bourgeoisie, leaving aside the question of whether the latter has—or does not yet have!—a world state at its service. The expansion of the capitalist/imperialist system of the contemporary globalization of generalized monopolies is based, not on the beginning of the state’s decline, but rather on the affirmation of its power. There would be no globalized neoliberalism without an active state, whether that be to take on the functions of the hegemonic power (the United States and its subaltern allies) or in the form of comprador states that secure the submission of the peripheral societies to the requirements of the imperialist domination by the centers. In counterpoint, no advance of peripheral societies can be imagined without the implementation of sovereign projects (implemented by national states) that simultaneously combine the construction of a modern and integrated industrial system, the reconstruction of agriculture and the rural world to achieve food sovereignty, the consolidation of social progress, and an openness to the invention of an authentic, progressive, and continual democratization. I stress that any project for national sovereignty must include the working classes and not accept their exclusion. The affirmation of the nation and the construction of a global system as multipolar as possible are not outmoded. To believe that makes it quite simply impossible to construct effective step-by-step strategies, which is exactly what Washington wants!

Negri’s error in judgment is well illustrated by his call to vote in favor of the European constitution because the latter—in calling the nation into question—would hinder the development of neoliberal capitalism! Negri does not, then, even see that European construction was devised precisely to consolidate, and not weaken, this development. The—only apparent—reduction in state functions is intended, not to strengthen the power of civil society (to the possible benefit of interventions by the “multitude”), but on the contrary, to eliminate its potentially effective power to protest. The diktats of the Brussels pseudo-state (“non-state”) serve as pretexts to strengthen the reconstruction of national states, formerly based on the social compromise between capital and labor, to be exclusive servants of capital. Simultaneously, European construction makes the continent into a subaltern ally of the leader of the new collective imperialism and consequently even strengthens the capacity of the U.S. state to act.

The Washington establishment perfectly understands what Hardt and Negri persist in denying! The tight control of globalization by the generalized monopolies of the imperialist powers (the United States and its subaltern allies: Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia) is pursued through the permanent deployment of a geostrategy of military control of the planet. Hardt and Negri have little to say about this (do they then consider NATO’s role to be “outmoded”?).

Hardt and Negri claim: (1) that the political-military interventions of Washington and its allies have already visibly failed, and (2) that the Washington establishment, having understood this, is in the process of giving them up!

The term “failed” deserves serious examination. One can certainly believe that Washington considers it possible—through its political and military interventions designed to support its economic domination—to stabilize the system of comprador states at its service. From this perspective, these interventions have indeed failed. But its interventions have simultaneously destroyed entire societies (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) or are attempting to do so (Syria, Iran, Ukraine, Russia, and others). The possible management of these broken societies by reactionary political Islam (the Muslim Brotherhood and others that the Western media present in a favorable light) or by the neo-fascisms of Eastern Europe politely described as “nationalisms” does not hinder the consolidation of the imperialist triad’s domination of the world system. The chaos produced by the violence of imperialist interventions and the mistakes of the local responses is, then, a second best that Washington has made its objective. From this perspective, Washington has not failed (or at least not yet!). Further, Washington does not recognize this as a failure. On the contrary, the option of rushing headlong into more of the same is all the rage, sustained, among other factors, by the presidential candidacy of the warmonger Hillary Clinton.

The other weapon used by the U.S. state to perpetuate its domination is the still almost exclusive use of its dollar as international money. We have recently seen how this weapon was used to subjugate the banks of subaltern allies (the Swiss banks, BNP Paribas) or call to order recalcitrant states in the South (the threat to bankrupt Argentina).

There is no money without a state. The dollar is the money of the United States as a state exercising its full sovereignty. The power of the dollar acts effectively through the interventions of the Federal Reserve on the financial market even though these interventions are intended to support monopoly capital. If necessary, the state intervenes here to serve the collective interest of U.S. capitalism against the interests of any given segment of its own economy. The view of economic liberalism that the central bank, provided with a status that ensures its independence from the state, allows the market alone to determine the value of money is nothing but an ideological discourse that is used to make us believe that there is no need for the state to manage the economy.

The situation in the Euro zone is no different, despite appearances. There, the European Central Bank—which is independent from states—acts in fact as an agent to carry out the state policy of the dominant country in the group, Germany. We have seen this function at work in the Greek situation, among others. That is why the IMF never speaks of Europe, but always and only of Germany.

The dollar weapon of the U.S. state is effective insofar as other states accept the asymmetrical legal relations between states: no legal person of U.S. nationality can be tried under any law other than that of the United States, without reciprocity. This is an asymmetry typical of the old imperialist or colonial systems.

The army and money are instruments of the state and not of the market, still less of civil society! There is no capitalism without the capitalist state. On this fundamental question, Hardt and Negri quite simply accept the fashionable ideological rhetoric that is used to hide this reality in order to pretend that capital’s beneficial action is hindered by useless and harmful state interventions (which is false).

It is difficult to see how the military strategy of the United States and its control of the globalized financial system can be defeated other than by state policies determined to be free of it all. To view such state policies as useless—even dangerous—is really to capitulate and accept the current imperialist order.

State policies implemented in contemporary capitalism, just as in earlier stages of modern history, are not exclusively economic policies designed to serve the hegemonic bloc dominated by capital; they simultaneously involve all areas of social life, particularly the political management of society. The discourse of capitalism now in fashion claims that the law of the market and the practice of multiparty, representative electoral democracy are essentially the same. This is an absolute abuse of reality that any examination of real history refutes. The state in really existing capitalism (the supposed “market”) accepts—even encourages—the appearance of democracy when it suits capital’s management of society, while it resorts to other means, autocratic, even fascist, in other circumstances. I refer here to what I have written on the return of fascism to the scene at this time of crisis in the capitalism of generalized monopolies, in which I pointed out the earlier complicity between supposed liberal currents (in the parliamentary right) and fascisms of the past.9

Hardt and Negri neglect all that. They accept the dogma of the now fashionable discourse on civil society, which makes it possible for them to credit the interventions of civil society—the resistance and struggles of the exploited, the “multitude”—with an enormous, determinant, and unilateral power that they do not have. Dardot and Laval, who do not share this naïveté, analyze in a completely different way (and I share their analysis) the sometimes conflictual, sometimes complementary dialectic between the state policies of capital and the development of struggles against—or within—these policies. The diverse results of this dialectic depend on specific situations. In some circumstances, capital is forced to retreat and adapt to the advances imposed by such struggles. In such cases, the working classes (the generalized proletariat) then often accept the compromise obtained, internalize its requirements, and consequently become an active force within the logic of the system. These forms of alienation (adopting consumerism) retard the maturation of the anti-capitalist consciousness necessary to go further. In other circumstances, capital succeeds in forming the movement and guiding its orientation. We have seen “multitudes” support fascism.

The now fashionable discourse, spread in particular by Foreign Affairs, whose propositions are adopted by Hardt and Negri, wants to make us believe that the interventions of the United States, whether armed or dollar interventions, are inherently favorable to the progress of democracy, i.e., they have a “benign effect.” One has to be completely naive to place any trust in that. Should we forget the state lies continually resorted to by presidents of the United States to justify attacks, yesterday against Iraq, and today against Syria and Russia?


  • Florence Gauthier, Triomphe et mort de la révolution des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Paris: Syllepse, 2014).
  • Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Marx, prénom, Karl (Paris: Gallimard, 2012).
  • Ibid, 311.
  • Samir Amin, Three Essays on Marx’s Value Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013), 85–86.
  • Ibid, 68–69.
  • Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
  • See, for example, François Houtart, Le bien commun de l’humanité (Mons, Belgium: Couleur livres, 2013).
  • Samir Amin, The Law of Worldwide Value (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010); Three Essays on Marx’s Value Theory; The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.
  • Samir Amin, “Fascism Returns to Contemporary Capitalism,” Monthly Review 66, no. 4 (September 2014): 1–12.
2014, Volume 66, Issue 06 (November)
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