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December 22, 2001
Where The Sun Never Sets

t’s a rare book of Marxist political theory that gets a mention in Newsweek, let alone a glowing page-and-a-half review. Though it sits uneasily next to the two special issues of Rethinking Marxism devoted to the book, the Newsweek squib was representative of the response to Empire, which has made remarkable inroads into the more theory-averse precincts of American intellectual life in the nearly two years since its publication. For better and for worse, it captures well a major strand in today’s political thinking.

Empire, a collaboration between jailed Italian Communist Antonio Negri and American literary theorist (and, one feels, junior partner) Michael Hardt, is an attempt, probably the most fully realized to date, at a Marxist read on globalization. Unlike many anti-globalizers, North and South, they vigorously reject any suggestion that a return to the world of autonomous nation-states is possible. They accept the new world order— with its global economy, global culture and global police actions—as a given, and, taking the longest of long views, seek out the new possibilities it opens up for human liberation.

The book divides into three strands. The first is a new kind of global sovereignty, replacing that of the nation-state. The second, and least interesting, is what they take to be the economics of Empire, a highly conventional account of “globalization” that could be excerpted comfortably in The Economist or Financial Times. The third is the possibilities for resistance or revolution opened up by the new order.

y “Empire,” Hardt and Negri mean a new political order that is replacing the competing nation-states of the past 500 years. The nation is supposed to have an organic unity rooted in the mists of history; states are defined by the territory they control. Empire, by contrast, lacks boundaries and is potentially all-inclusive. Empire also lacks any center: Unlike the imperialism of the past, under Empire one cannot even approximately separate the exploiters from the exploited with lines on a map.

This vision is sketched out at a very high level of abstraction and seems rather obviously contradicted by the reality of unchallenged U.S. supremacy that we all read about in the papers. But Hardt and Negri rightly insist that the content of a military intervention can’t always be settled by looking at the insignia on the uniforms. While nation-states always acted, covertly or overtly, in their own national interests, today’s interventionists, whether they know it or not, are compelled to serve an incipient transnational order.

The Gulf War was perhaps the first war of this kind. There the United States found itself compelled to act “not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right.” As Hardt and Negri don’t quite acknowledge, all U.S. imperial wars, from the Spanish-American on, have been conducted “in the name of global right.” But today, as they insist in one of the book’s defining if not most original passages, rhetoric has become, or replaced, reality. Hardt and Negri see the language of human-rights interventions not as cynical window-dressing but as their real content: Police power is the signature of Empire. And as in any well-run police state, police actions soon induce the victims to police themselves, so the universal rights on which military interventions are based are incorporated into national legislation everywhere. “Armies and police anticipate the courts” in “an inversion of the conventional order of constitutional logic.”

What distinguishes this new situation from the old international order, dating back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which effectively introduced the modern nation-state, is that the internal affairs of states are no longer clearly marked off as a sphere apart under international law. Once the principle is accepted that interventions across borders are legitimate on human-rights grounds, a system of global law has been acknowledged even if the bodies that will codify and adjudicate it have not yet been formed.

It’s not unfair to say that Hardt and Negri don’t present a single piece of evidence for any of their claims. Empire is a book of visions, not arguments. Either you accept them or you don’t. Still, isn’t there something to it? If the logic of human-rights imperialism isn’t as profoundly new as they would like, it remains a departure from the Cold War understanding of international relations.

he real heart of the book—the passages that now help to inspire the Seattle movement—is its political program, if the word applies to something so slithery and acephalous. There are probably half a dozen initiates of Italian political philosophy who can follow Empire’s every twist and turn; the rest of us will have to skim a bit. But if one isn’t deterred by discursive meanders, undefined terms and the annoying insistence on the absolute, unprecedented newness of it all, the broad outlines are clear enough and even, in a way, compelling.

In opposition to Empire Hardt and Negri place “the multitude,” a term carefully chosen and distinguished from “nation” or even “people,” which are blinds for power. To speak of the will of the people, they insist, is to postulate a uniformity that inevitably does violence to the aspirations it supposedly embodies. The multitude is defined by its heterogeneity; it is simply the many, the sum of numerous distinct human “singularities.” The essence of political struggle is the effort of authority—whether capital, nation-state or Empire—to assimilate this heterogeneity into a single will.

Naturally, this rejection of traditional political identities —class as firmly as nation—leads to a rejection of traditional political movements. The struggles of oppressed peoples are, at best, progressive until they win institutional form. Genet’s romantic attachment to the Palestinians as history’s losers—“The day the Palestinians become a nation like the other nations, I will no longer be there”—is paradigmatic. Similarly for workers: “Against the common wisdom that the U.S. proletariat is weak because of its low party and union representation,” they write, “perhaps we should see it as strong for precisely those reasons. Working-class power resides not in the representative institutions but in the antagonism and autonomy of the workers themselves.”

Don’t even get them started on meliorative state action like progressive taxes or workplace regulation: The New Deal was an attempt to institute the “factory society.” And today, in “imperial postmodernity,” “big government has become merely the despotic means of domination and the totalitarian production of subjectivity.” In short, the essential conflict is not between nations or classes, but between the heterogeneous wills of human singularities and any system that would, however benevolently, reduce them to objects or instruments.

Hardt and Negri trace the origins of this conflict to the Renaissance, when people came to believe that the material world was not a reflection of divine will but self-contained reality, and that individuals had the power to make creative choices unconstrained by any prior or external law. Human beings were unique, their choices fundamentally indeterminate. Spinoza was exemplary of this sensibility. The old Spanish mystic is Empire’s hero because of his refusal to acknowledge any constraints on this freedom, even physical survival: “A free man thinks about nothing less than death,” they approvingly quote.

The logic here is tight: Spinoza’s assertion of human creative powers requires his indifference to death, since death—and more generally the desire for peace and security—is the weapon states use to “blackmail” the multitude back into subordination. In a moment of brilliant condescension, Stendhal once said that a peasant wants only two things: a warm winter coat and not to be killed. On these terms a man’s a man; one is interchangeable with another. In their sketch of the origins of the modern nation-state, Hardt and Negri can’t conceal their impatience with the masses who, unlike Spinoza, could not stop thinking about death and how to avoid it.

Indifference to death is setting the bar for political virtue pretty high. Combined with the sweeping dismissal of all the fundaments of the 19th and 20th century left movements, one might suspect Empire of being just another anti-political, end-of-history tract. This isn’t quite the case: Hardt and Negri do advocate a sort of political judo, in which the logic of Empire is turned against its masters. Empire is based on universal rights and the erosion of national boundaries, they argue, so let’s assert the universal right to cross boundaries, to migrate: “The general right to control its own movement is the multitude’s ultimate demand for global citizenship.” That is almost the only concrete demand put forward in the book.

Though the master is hardly cited, Empire is a strictly Foucauldian work. From the complexities of Foucault’s writing Hardt and Negri, like many on the left, have extracted an unrelenting suspicion of any formal organization or assertion of collective identity as only a more subtle form of domination. Instead, “lateral connections” and “networks of relays” must somehow replace democratic government and all other forms of delegated authority. Hardt and Negri are right to warn against the spurious unities of national or indigenous culture, but the Foucauldian lens constrains vision as well as sharpens it. Empire has no place for organizations and leaders that arise out of oppressed groups and exercise power on their behalf, including trade unions, socialist politicians as well as problematic but undoubtedly progressive organizations like the African National Congress or Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

n the course of interring the last two centuries of progressive politics, Hardt and Negri invoke the Abbé Sieyes’ objection to the French Revolution of Robespierre, which sought to subject all aspects of human life, even the most private, to the general will. For Hardt and Negri, this is a prescient warning against attempts to impose a false unity on the multitude. But this isn’t quite right: Like so many defenders of limited government since, Sieyes’ goal wasn’t to defend individual freedom in the abstract, but to deny the power of the collective to interfere with a particular set of privileges.

There is a real danger that by dismissing class as a basis for collective action, Hardt and Negri are simply opening the way for an older set of identities based on individualism and private privilege to go unchallenged. It’s worth remembering that Negri made his political bones in the noontide of the ’60s, when the great challenge was pushing up against the limits of social democracy and Keynesian economics. Today, he is too quick to dismiss the possibilities of national economic regulation.

More generally, Empire’s focus on what has changed ignores all the things that have not. One hundred and fifty years ago, Marx was already appalled at the way capital converts unique human beings into interchangeable instruments of production. But while this alienation may operate everywhere, that doesn’t mean it has no center or source. Marx emphasized the importance of looking behind the formal equality of the marketplace to relations within the workplace, that zone of authority and subjugation that one may enter “only on business.” Hardt and Negri by contrast make a conscious choice to limit themselves to surfaces: “The depths of the modern world and its subterranean passageways have in postmodernity all become superficial.”

But never mind Marx. Empire is troubling on a more basic level. If Empire has no center and no weak links, if any struggle has the capacity to “leap vertically, to the virtual center of Empire,” then how does one distinguish actions that matter from those that don’t? Hardt and Negri seem to be rejecting the very idea of political strategy. One might conclude: Forget about strikes and revolutions. The conversation in the coffeeshop, the day one calls in sick from work, the evening’s sarcastic defiance of the anchorman, tonight’s insurrectionary sex might just be the blow that brings Empire to its knees.

There is no question that the secret of Empire’s success is its denigration of traditional forms of collective politics (along with its contrarian pro-Americanism). Rather than the “discipline of liberation,” they valorize individual desertion, the Bartlebys who “would prefer not to.” It is possible, I suppose, that everything has changed, and that the great political projects of the 19th and 20th centuries are all dead. But Empire hardly makes a convincing case for this. As the B-2s roar out of Whiteman, Missouri on their global police actions, neither Empire nor Empire seems to offer much of a way forward.

J.W. Mason is a freelance writer in Amherst, Massachusetts.


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