The Maidan as Multitude

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"The Multitude on the Maidan, March 2, 2014." via Reuters.

The Ukrainian crisis is still in its active phase. I will not try to predict the outcome of events, nor will I concentrate on the analysis of the current situation. Instead, I will go back to the time of the Maidan, namely, to those cold months of the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 when there seemed to be one powerful force operating—the people assembled on the main square of Kiev. We have been able to appreciate the amazing scope and density of the gatherings thanks to aerial photos, not to mention day-to-day reportage. However, I will focus not so much on appearances, no matter how impressive they may be, as on the internal (invisible) dynamics of the Maidan treated from the point of view of the multitude.

Speaking very briefly, the political theory of Modernity has consistently opposed the concept of the people to that of the multitude. Indeed, for writers such as Thomas Hobbes, the multitude was essentially a synonym for disarray and chaos. It was equal to that “state of nature” of pre-political being which had to be overcome in favor of the state as a corporate entity or precisely as a “body politic.” However, even in the life of a well-ordered state there are moments when the destructive energies of the multitude threaten to resurface, and those are civil wars. According to Hobbes, the multitude has to be repressed in the name of the people, which strictly corresponds to the unified and homogeneous state: “The People is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed; none of these can properly be said of a Multitude.”1 Viewed as “the durt and dregs of men” (to remember Hobbes’s passionate definition),2 the multitude constitutes “a regurgitation of the ‘state of nature’ in civil society,”3 which was obvious to social contract theorists.

However, there is one significant approach that seems to be at odds with this line of political thinking. I am referring to Benedict de Spinoza. Based on a radical philosophy of nature, his political philosophy also takes an essentially different turn.  Spinoza declares that two who come together and unite their strength have more power and more right over nature than each of them independently. The more there is power, the more there is right. Now power (potentia) should be understood as the creative—constitutive—force of being itself (as opposed to power in the narrow sense, or potestas).4 What is important is the way a full-fledged state comes into being: “…as in the state of nature the man who is led by reason is most powerful and most independent, so too that commonwealth will be most powerful and most independent, which is founded and guided by reason. For the right of the commonwealth is determined by the power of the multitude, which is led, as it were, by one mind.”5 As we can see from this passage, there is no transfer of right—only an increase in power (potentia) that engenders a new form of (political) being, namely, the state. Sovereignty and power depend directly on the multitude and its capacity to achieve and maintain a level of organization. In other words, conceptually, the multitude turns into “the positive premise of the self-constitution of right” (italics added).6

Of course, this runs against the grain of contractarianism as such. I will not pursue this topic any further, although it does have a lasting theoretical impact. I will only stress that presently, the concept of the multitude has been reappropriated from the history of political philosophy and is now viewed in a positive way. Moreover, in its recent formulations, the multitude accounts for both the complexity of contemporary economic relations and the specific nature of the public sphere. Perhaps the main thesis could be summed up as follows: we no longer strive for unity, be it that of a nation-state, the people or a national language, because that unity has largely been achieved. Any form of individuation is premised instead on the collective, or, to use the term again, on the multitude. The multitude is no longer an abstraction in the traditional sense—it remains faithful to multiplicity qua multiplicity (without subsuming it under a unifying concept of the people or dissolving it into a mass of isolated individuals).7

In my view, the Maidan is best understood precisely in these terms. Referred to as a “headless monster” even by present-day scholars (the metaphor itself goes back to modernity, expressing fear of the formless crowd), the Maidan has clearly proven that it is in no need of any leadership at all. Remaining beyond representation in a very general sense, political representation included, the Maidan is a form of collective activity that challenges the body politic, that is, the institutional framework of politics. Yet, the Maidan has been capable of self-organization, as many observers have noted. One of the basic driving forces of the movement was a quest for justice, and it is this imperative that bound together the people-in-crisis. The ethical aspect of the movement (or its moral superiority, according to later definitions) sprang precisely from the fact that people came to peacefully claim the basic rights—defined by basic needs—that they were denied under Yanukovych. The Maidan became a radical reformulation of the public sphere itself; it was a negation of politics in the name of absolute democracy (to remember Spinoza once again).

As a protest movement, the Maidan does not stand by itself. On the contrary, it is part of a larger network, especially when we think of the movements that shook the world in 2011. Being different in size and scope, they have likewise carried varying slogans. However, they all testify to a change occurring globally: the action of multiple bodies whose increased power is the only measure of a new political reality. Indeed, evidence shows that sovereign states are incapable of solving global problems. The multitude, being itself a trajectory of social resistance, undermines their outdated control.

Helen Petrovsky is Head of the Department of Aesthetics, Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Notes

1 Thomas Hobbes, De Cive (12:VIII).

2 Thomas Hobbes, De Cive (10: footnote 1).

3 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude. Foreword by Sylvère Lotringer, translation by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 23.

4 See Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 191 ff.

5 Benedict de Spinoza, A Political Treatise (III:7).

6 Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly, 194.

7 See Antonio Negri, “Approximations: Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude,” translated by Arianna Bove.