How does the insect swarm serve as a figure for humanity? In recent formulations by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the swarm buzzes for the anonymous multitude, achieving creative solutions to humankind's problems “through collective and distributed techniques of problem solving without centralized control or the provision of a global model.” Such a vision constructs a benign and beneficent swarm that, although it lacks differentiation and specificity, accomplishes democracy without sovereignty. Achille Mbembe points out, nonetheless, that the swarm can have a more sinister and deadly aspect.
The ancient Greeks used the figure of the swarm to connote an anonymous and undifferentiated mass of human beings. Achilles' army of Myrmidons in the Iliad are at least antlike, perhaps even metamorphosed ants, ants become warriors. In the classical period, the comic poet Aristophanes uses the insect swarm of wasps to embody his crowd, his chorus of furious, cantankerous, militant, and class-conscious jurors. Such a swarm is depicted with affection even as Aristophanes seems to deplore their manipulation by demagogues. Their “becoming-animal” offers a riotous, exhilarating line of flight from the decorum of nouveau riche Athenian society, a form of politics as the demos, the people, demand their part. But the philosopher Plato removes the sting from the wasps and represents docile and obedient bees, model citizen-workers, and even cicadas, transformed from human beings who once loved the muses into tattletales for the gods; the swarm becomes an instrument of antidemocratic, philosophical espionage.