Hardt & Negri, Representation, and Absolute Democracy

I am in the midst of copy editing my new book, and I found this passage particularly enjoyable on reading it again.  It outlines Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the contradiction between democracy and modern representative government.

For Hardt and Negri absolute democracy (a term they take from Spinoza’s Political Treatise (1677, Chapter XI)) is the first great modern innovation of democracy, and it functions to radically extend the ancient concept.  For ancients such as Aristotle, the demos did not mean the people as a whole.  Rather it referred only to the many poor who were not members of the elite classes. Aristotle assumed that these poor were always the majority, but they never constituted everyone in the society. Thus demo-cracy, the rule of the demos, was for Aristotle the rule of the many poor over everyone else. The modern innovation, Hardt and Negri argue, was to extend absolutely this concept of the demos from the many poor to everyone (2004, p. 240). As a result, modern democracy is understood to be the rule of everyone over everyone, or absolute democracy.[1]

Hardt and Negri argue that the second great modern innovation of democracy has to do with the question of scale. Rather than the polis-sized community of ancient democracy, modern states were national in scale.  But they still aspired to be democratic, and so they needed to invent a notion of democracy that was feasible at that larger scale. The solution that emerged was representation: everyone participates in selecting a few representatives, and those few govern in the place of everyone–they represent the whole.  Representative democracy thus connects people to their rulers through elections.  But it also separates people from their rulers because it opens a gap between “those who govern” and “everyone,” between rulers and ruled.  The representatives stand for everyone, but they can never be everyone.  But as we saw the first modern innovation of democracy imagines it to be absolute: in a democracy everyone governs everyone.  And so modern democracy cannot tolerate the gap between representatives and everyone. Representative democracy is therefore a contradiction.  Hardt and Negri write that “democracy and representation stand at odds with one another.  When our power [the power of everyone] is transferred to a group of rulers, then we all no longer rule, we are separated from power and government.”  However, they continue, “despite this contradiction…representation came to define modern democracy to such an extent that…it has become practically impossible to think democracy without also thinking some form of representation” (2004, p. 244).  For example, that association is now so taken for granted that Joseph Nye, a leading political thinker, asserts that “democracy is government by officials who are accountable and removable by the majority of people in a jurisdiction (Nye, 2002, p. 109).  Representation and democracy contradict each other, and yet the two have become entirely synonymous.

As David Foster Wallace once said, “what a fucking mess.”

[1] I should mention that Hardt and Negri are probably extending Spinoza beyond where he was willing to go.  He imagined absolute democracy to be a form of absolute state (Tucker, 2012), whereas in Hardt and Negri it is conceived of quite differently, as being beyond the state.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2004) Multitude. New York, Penguin.

Nye, J. (2002) The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go it Alone.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Tucker, E. (2012) “Spinoza’s Absolute Democracy,” Paper given at the University of Washington’s Spinoza Symposium, March 3.


2 thoughts on “Hardt & Negri, Representation, and Absolute Democracy


  2. Pingback: Isabell Lorey: Non-Representationist Democracy | Path to the Possible

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