Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links

The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #96, February 2001. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Blows against Empire

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press), 512 pp., $36.95. [hardcover], $18.95 [paperback].

We hear a lot about "globalization" these days, but its meaning is often taken to be self-evident - as is its value (good if you're orthodox, bad if you're a rebel). That's neither intellectually nor politically satisfying. Now, with Empire, we have an attempt to think freshly about the world we live in, and the possibilities for making it better. There's a lot wrong with the book, but it's an excellent starting place.

Michael Hardt teaches in the literature program at Duke. Antonio Negri is described on the book jacket as "an independent researcher and writer and an inmate at Rebibbia Prison, Rome." Negri's crime was armed insurrection against the Italian state; the state had fingered him as the secret leader of the Red Brigades in the 1970s, an implausible charge he has always denied. He is the leading thinker of autonomist Marxism, an approach which emphasizes the creative and revolutionary power of workers on their own, apart from state and party. Next to typical left pessimism, autonomists can seem dreamily optimistic, seeing struggle and victory where others see apathy and defeat. Where most people (across the political spectrum) see capital as acting and labor as reacting, autonomists see capital as the reactive side of the relation.



Empire is an extremely ambitious attempt to theorize the economic and political world today. Though clearly in a Marxist tradition, it's hardly orthodox. Though it pays appropriate homage to Lenin's famous pamphlet on imperialism, there's little that's Leninist about its analysis or especially its politics.

Maybe the best place to start a consideration is to focus on the dispersed nature of power today, a decentered structure Hardt and Negri call Empire. Take the ownership and governance of giant corporations. Early firms were owned generally by a single capitalist or a small network of partners. By the end of the 19th century, the likes of Morgan and Carnegie were assembling small firms into giant combinations like U.S. Steel. By the early 20th century, it was easy to conclude, as Lenin (and Rudolf Hilferding, in his classic Finance Capital) did, that industry was coming under the ownership of a handful of big banks, arranged in cartels often protected by price-fixing and high tariffs. Things didn't turn out that way. Now, giant firms are owned by thousands, even millions, of shareholders, and it's hard to point to a controlling force other than "the markets." And individual workplaces don't really count for much these days; the entire world is now an integrated workplace, a giant "social factory."

Global political power is also dispersed. Unlike 19th century imperialism, when Nation X owned Colony Y, today's hierarchy is harder to specify. There are few cases of outright ownership, and the boundaries between the First and Third Worlds are getting blurrier - literally in the case of the U.S. - Mexico border, but also in the sense of the movements of large numbers of migrants from South to North, and the proliferation of skyscrapers and McDonald's in the South.

Cartels and classic imperialism turned out to be blocks to capitalist development. Cartels inhibited competition, capitalism's disciplinarian, as well as technological innovation, jointly leading to inefficiency and stagnation; tariffs, currency regimes, and other instruments of colonial preferences blocked trade and capital flows, inhibiting the development of a single world market; and frequent imperial wars promoted physical and financial ruin that were obstacles to the accumulation of capital. By contrast, the age of Empire is one of deregulation and the promotion of trade and capital flows - all designed to encourage competition, technological innovation, and the integration of the world into a single market. Wars are reserved for "rogue states" that refuse to get with the program.



Empire evolved over the last several decades, as capital's response to the great rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s. In the rich countries, a variety of rebellions flared, from traditional labor movements to new feminist, ethnic, ecological, and sexual movements. In the so-called Third World, there were numerous wars of national liberation, combined with an increased assertiveness by the poorer countries demanding higher commodity prices and a global redistribution of power and income - a movement that peaked with an oil embargo and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. It looked like domestic and international hierarchies of power were under serious threat.

But the masters rose to the challenge. Hardt and Negri are light on the details, but the history is a familiar one: the creation of a deep global recession in the early 1980s, which scared the hell out of First World labor and threw the Third World into the debt crisis; an acceleration of technical change, which produced the familiar cybergadgetry of today; the dispersion of production into smaller, more flexible units often far from population centers and each other; cutbacks in the more benign aspects of the state, like social spending, and an increase in the punitive ones, like jails; the casualization of employment, along with speedup and givebacks; and the propagation of a whole new ideology, which repositioned the Keynesian social democratic state as obsolete and stifling, and the new world of hypercapitalism as a realm of freedom and adventure.


No turning back

So what's to be done about Empire? A lot of thinkers and activists would love to recover a lost world of nation-states or self-sufficient localities. Hardt and Negri will have none of this:

[W]e insist on asserting that the construction of Empire is a step forward in order to do away with any nostalgia for the power structures that preceded it and refuse any political strategy that involves returning to that old arrangement, such as trying to resurrect the nation-state to protect against global capital. We claim that Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is better than the forms of society and modes of production that came before it. Marx's view is grounded on a healthy and lucid disgust for the parochial and rigid hierarchies that preceded capitalist society as well as on a recognition that the potential for liberation is increased in the new situation.

This isn't a popular view. But their critique of the nation-state deserves serious attention. For example, though there are undoubtedly progressive aspects to classic national liberation struggles - those directed against colonial powers - it's a recurrent fact of history that once established, nation-states thrive on creating new hierarchies, and by excluding, to some degree or other, those not deemed members of the tribe. Any progressive political movement today should be looking beyond hierarchy and exclusion towards a society that's egalitarian and truly universal (not the counterfeit kind proffered in ads).

In our normal work lives, we're all linked - often invisibly - with a vast network of people, from across the office or factory to the other side of the world. Standard globalization narratives, mainstream or critical, often efface this fact, making capital into the dominant creative force rather than the billions who produce the goods and services that the world lives on. That cooperative labor deserves to be acknowledged in itself, as the creative force that it is, but also a source of great potential power. Empire uses a lyric from Ani DiFranco as one of its epigraphs: "Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right." They could have also used a line from Patti Smith: "We created it. Let's take it over."



Not, of course, that such a takeover is simple or imminent. But it would help if we had a better appreciation of the struggles that are going on in our supposedly somnolent time. To Hardt and Negri, the most visible rebellions of our time - Tiananmen Square, the Intifada, the Zapatistas, strikes in France and South Korea - have been largely local affairs; they weren't seen as part of a common global struggle either by political analysts or prospective revolutionaries. Also, a lot of resistance goes on that isn't coded as such; a Mexican crossing the border into the U.S., or a data entry clerk keying in wrong information as an act of sabotage, are both rebels of sorts, even though they're typically seen as individuals acting alone. One of the points of a book like Empire is to try to make some connections - to connect the dots between the visible rebellions, and to recode all the less-visible dispersed instances of rebellion as nodes in a common struggle against exploitation and tedium.

Surprisingly, Hardt and Negri have nothing to say about the newest protest movements, those invoked by the single word "Seattle," but which are much larger than that. Just last month, there were demonstrations against the World Economic Forum in Davos - and, simultaneously, a popular counter-summit in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Participants in these movements are linked globally through the Internet, and on the ground by cell phones, using the very technologies beloved of cheerleaders like the New York Times's house clown, Thomas Friedman. And convening elites are now forced to respond to their antagonists, needing massive deployments of police just to hold their meeting, and, more importantly, recasting their agendas to address the protesters. So, last April, we saw the IMF forced to pretend like it really cared about the world's poor; if hegemony consists in part of setting agendas, then a real hegemonic challenge is underway. Of course, it's only a beginning; the "movement" knows what it's against, but is a bit murky on what it's for, and the elite response mainly been in the field of public relations, not altered policy. But this does put some flesh on Hardt and Negri's evocations of a movement that would push us beyond Empire.



Sometimes Empire reads like a cascade of assertions with little or no evidence. Its heavy reliance on metaphors and religious imagery makes it seem at times like a theological fantasy, more a dreamwork than an exercise in political economy. The prose is often heavy going (though next to Negri's earlier works, it's an easy read), and there are long detours into the history of political theory whose relevance to the book's overall argument isn't clear. There's virtually no analysis of the institutions of Empire - the World Bank and the IMF are invoked now and then, but their actual working and associated ideologies barely noticed. Ditto agents of opposition like unions, political formations, or NGOs. Actual cross-border campaigns, whether for debt relief, immigration amnesty, or getting cheap AIDS drugs to Africa, are barely mentioned if at all.

Their program, like much of their analysis, is a bit thin on details. They call for absolute freedom of movement and a "global citizenship," which is lovely but right now seems achievable only in the imagination. And they also call for (again in italics) "a social wage and guaranteed income for all," though they don't disclose how this would be organized in a world beyond the nation-state. Who'd write the checks? Would there even be money?

Hardt and Negri are often uncritical and credulous in the face of orthodox propaganda about globalization and immateriality. They exaggerate the decline of the nation-state - NATO and the IMF are, after all, made up of national governments - and they ignore evidence that production networks aren't as seamlessly global as the business press would have us believe. They sometimes play down the preeminent role of the U.S.; they say that today's Empire has no Rome, but Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood are pretty good approximations; NATO, for example, is meant to bind Europe to the U.S. in a subsidiary role, and any talk of independent European initiatives makes Washington very nervous. They assert that immaterial labor - service work, basically - now prevails over the old-fashioned material kind, but they don't cite any statistics: you'd never know that far more Americans are truck drivers than computer professionals. Nor would you have much of an inkling that 3 billion of us, half the earth's population, live in the rural Third World, where the major occupation remains tilling the soil.


Against sadness

These are not minor flaws. Yet despite these serious complaints, making them almost feels like quibbling. Just because the book isn't really a Capital for our times, it's provocative in every sense of the word. Their emphasis on the dispersed nature of power today, the rich potential of the social networks uniting people worldwide, and the refusal of all nostalgias are fresh and often profound. Even if it doesn't deliver the goods, Empire should inspire a multitude of empirical investigations and practical political projects.

Aside from the provocation to think freshly, the value of Empire is also in its spirit - not gloomy or resigned, as is so much left writing these days, but full of optimism and a fresh urging to see the possibilities inhering, often invisibly, in the present. Their revolutionary isn't "anything like the sad, ascetic agent of the Third International whose soul was deeply permeated by Soviet state reason" - a passage reminiscent of Foucault's injunction, "Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable." They conclude the book by invoking "love, simplicity, and also innocence" and "the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist." One wants to say, "oh how romantic, how archaic, how deluded, how impractical," but it's so beautiful that it's best to leave it at that, for now at least.

Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links