|LA RESPUESTA ANGLOSAJONA A IMPERIO DE TONI
Issue Date: 10.01.01
Post Date: 09.27.01
"As ... the twentieth century draws to a close," write Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, "capitalism is miraculously healthy, its accumulation more robust than ever." For these writers, though not for most consumers and citizens, capitalism's capacity to survive, and even to flourish, poses a grave problem. "How can we reconcile this fact," they ask, "with the careful analyses of numerous Marxist authors at the beginning of the century who pointed to the imperialist conflicts as symptoms of an impending ecological disaster running up against the limits of nature?" Everything that is flawed about this deeply flawed book is contained in the way the authors ask, and then try to answer, this question.
The most obvious of these flaws is the premise that there is anything to reconcile in the first place. Analysts committed to falsifiable ways of developing theories about the world, when faced with a gap between what was expected to happen and what actually happened, would likely reason along these lines: Marx predicted frequent crises in the capitalist mode of production that would eventually lead to socialism, but in reality capitalism succeeded and socialism failed, and so something must be wrong with Marxism. But the argumentation in this book cares as little for logic as it does for empirical reality.
For Hardt and Negri, Marxism is simply a given. This does not mean that it is sacrosanct: on the contrary, much of this book is devoted to moving beyond just about everything that Marx had to say about modern capitalism. Yet all these exertions are made in the name of Marxism, including the choice of language and metaphor, the reliance on ponderous theory, and the weakness for the issuance of manifestos. Whereas Marx separated these tasks, producing an all-time best-seller as well as long volumes of historical and economic analysis, Hardt and Negri throw it all together in one meandering, wordy, and incoherent book--a book that, as the authors themselves suggest, need not be read from start to finish but can be hopscotched through if the reader prefers. (I chose to read it the old-fashioned way.)
Even if one does believe that Marx is worth consulting about the trajectory of capitalism, the notion that Marxism was concerned with an impending ecological catastrophe is the second mortal flaw in the question that Hardt and Negri pose. Marx himself was a celebrant of industry over agriculture, a determined modernist quite happy to see "the idiocy of rural life" destroyed once and for all. And the twentieth-century writers who extended Marxist theory to the relationship between capitalist societies and their colonies--Lenin and Luxemburg are the two most prominent intellectuals in this regard, and the two most discussed by Hardt and Negri--were similarly oblivious to any limits that nature might impose on man's capacity to expand. Lenin, having shed so few tears over the killing of one of nature's more interesting creatures (I mean us), was hardly likely to weep at the demise of the snail darter. It is equally difficult to imagine Luxemburg--urban, cosmopolitan, Jewish--as a lover of the Polish landscape. Ecology, far from being a term identified with the left, was actually coined by Ernst Haeckel, a German writer with distinctly fascist sympathies. Thus one has to read Hardt and Negri's question many times over, so flat-out wrong are its assertions and its assumptions, in order to judge whether they can possibly be serious.
Is irrelevant as ecology was to Marxism, it is very relevant to today's political activists--or militants, as these writers prefer to call them. Unlike Marx, who developed a theory and then looked for a class that might embody its realization, Hardt and Negri begin with angry and disaffected people and then try to raise a theory that might explain, or explain away, their frustration. Some (but not all) of those concerned with the condition of the environment are indeed furious, and sometimes their fury takes radical, even violent, forms. And so Hardt and Negri make a dangerously opportunistic move: they simply reinterpret the tradition out of which they write to accommodate the new radicalism, as if Marxism can be moved this way or that way depending upon who happens to be protesting what on any particular day.
Hardt and Negri provide a brief catalogue of the protests that they find most thrilling. Some of the events on their list--Tiananmen Square, the intifada, Chiapas--are either fresh in memory or still taking place, while others--the Los Angeles race riots in 1992 and the strikes in France in 1995 and in South Korea in 1996--are already a little hazy. The authors quickly acknowledge that those protests were brief, inspired few imitations, and were not focused on a common enemy. Still, "we ought to be able to recognize that although all of these struggles focused on their own local and immediate circumstances, they all nonetheless posed problems of supranational relevance, problems that are proper to the new figure of imperial capitalist regulation."
The same recognition, presumably, would apply to such protest movements as the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, the Genoa protests against the G-8 meeting, and the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that were supposed to take place in Washington this week. (Hardt and Negri wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in support of the Genoa protests in July.) For whether the participants in any of these events realize it or not, Hardt and Negri instruct, they are all engaged in the same activity, which is "a refusal of the post-Fordist regime of social control."
Fordism! The term was coined by the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci to characterize a society in which the assembly line no longer organizes just the factory but spreads to society as a whole. It is a radical term of art for industrial settings. But Mexican peasants, Chinese students, and Palestinian nationalists neither live nor work in highly organized industrial societies, a fact that deserves to be regarded as a problem for anyone who would interpret the Mexican, Chinese, and Palestinian movements as evidence of a rebellion against capitalism. But Hardt and Negri hasten to reassure us that there is no problem at all, because capitalism itself is no longer Fordist, and this opens up new possibilities for opposition.
Under Fordist modes of production, they explain, protest spreads horizontally: workers in one country would go on strike, hopefully stimulating workers in other countries to do likewise, and the eventual result (assuming the theory works, which of course it does not) would be a general strike across all nation-states that would paralyze capitalism and render it powerless. In post-Fordist conditions, by contrast, protests "are forced to leap vertically and touch immediately on the global level." Marx developed the metaphor of the mole to portray the ways in which movements of workers would bore through tunnels hidden from sight, only to emerge from time to time to make themselves seen and heard. The appropriate metaphor for the conditions in which protest movements now find themselves, in Hardt and Negri's view, is the snake. Slithering around at the edges of the new global order, these movements "are immediately subversive in themselves and do not wait on any sort of external aid or extension to guarantee their effectiveness." They are capable instead of coiling themselves up to "strike directly at the highest articulations of the imperial order."
The authors of Empire see no reason to exclude explicit reactionaries, including religious fundamentalists, from the catalogue of post-Fordist movements that they admire. Fundamentalists, they write, are often portrayed as anti-modernist, but this is Western propaganda. "It is more accurate and more useful ... to understand the various fundamentalism [sic] not as the re-creation of a pre-modern world, but rather as a powerful refusal of the contemporary historical passage in course." Neglecting to mention the Taliban's treatment of women, Hardt and Negri go out of their way to reassure readers of the genuinely subversive nature of the Islamic version of fundamentalism. These movements are motivated not by nostalgic attempts to reconstruct the past, but by "original thought." They are anti-Western, which means that they are anti-capitalist. Properly understood, they are postmodern rather than premodern, since they engage in a refusal of Western hegemony, with the proviso that fundamentalism speaks to the losers in the globalization project and postmodernism to the winners. Hardt and Negri even leave the impression that, if they had to choose between the postmodernists in Western universities and the fundamentalists in Iran, they would prefer the latter: "The losers in the process of globalization might indeed be the ones who give us the strongest indication of the transformation in process."
We cannot know, of course, whether Hardt and Negri, in the light of the recent atrocities at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, will want to change their minds about the progressive potential of Islamic fundamentalism. But their book gives no grounds on which such attacks can be condemned. For if being against the West is the sine qua non of good and effective protest, well, no one could accuse the murderers in New York and Washington of not being against Western hegemony. And if it is true, as Hardt and Negri blithely claim, that efforts to find legitimate reasons for intervening in world affairs are only a smokescreen for the exercise of hegemonic power, then the way is cleared for each and every illegitimate act of global intervention, since in the postmodern world of this book no justifiable distinctions between good and evil acts can ever be made.
Never saying so explicitly, the authors of this book, in identifying their hopes with such disparate movements of protest whatever their targets or their political coloration, are throwing over the most central proposition of Marxism: class consciousness. Workers no longer need to be aware of themselves as workers in order to bring down capitalism. They need not develop a revolutionary strategy, for under contemporary conditions "it may no longer be useful to insist on the old distinction between strategy and tactics." They do not even need to be workers. All that is required is that they set themselves up against power, whatever and wherever power happens to be.
Never mind that movements that do so can stand for wildly different objectives--an open society here, a closed society there; or that they are also, as Hardt and Negri point out, often unable or unwilling to communicate with each other. Indeed, as Hardt and Negri do not point out, they might, if they had the chance, prefer to kill one another. But this lack of communication and mutual appreciation "is in fact a strength rather than a weakness." Traditional Marxism aimed to find the weakest link in the capitalist system and to exploit it. But there are no more weak links. Capital has become so pervasive that it exposes itself nowhere, but this means that it is really exposed everywhere. Protest movements simply cannot be peripheral: since there is no center, there is no periphery. Everything that dissents--even "piercings, tattoos, punk fashion and its various imitations"--foreshadows the stirrings that are necessary to challenge the new forms that capitalism is taking.
Most of Empire is an exercise in nominalism, in the attempt to name, rather than to describe, to analyze, or even to condemn, the new order that its authors see emerging. Although it is presumably devoted to outlining the contours of a new mode of production, the book contains no data, offers no effort to demonstrate who owns what or holds power over whom, and provides no indicators of any of the deplorable conditions that it discusses. As if once again to distinguish itself from Marx, Empire, like the left Hegelians whom Marx once attacked, moves entirely at the level of ideas. Unlike the left Hegelians, however, Hardt and Negri handle ideas incompetently.
This would-be revolutionary book starts, of all places, with the ideas of Hans Kelsen, before jumping over to John Rawls and Niklas Luhmann. Each new chapter seems to suggest that Hardt and Negri, having cleared their throats, are about to turn to the world around them--but then, out of nowhere, there arrives a discussion of Augustine, Machiavelli, or Polybius. It is impossible to know which of the two authors was primarily responsible for which portions of the book, but the reader comes away with the impression that one of them--Negri--has spent so much time in prison reading and taking notes that he is determined to cram into the book everything that he has uncovered, pertinent or not.
The point of this exercise in intellectual name-dropping is to argue that imperialism has been replaced by something called "Empire." Although global in its ambitions, imperialism was dependent on the nation-state, for each imperial power attempted to organize the globe on behalf of the national corporations that it represented. In that sense, imperialism was associated with Fordism. Organized horizontally, moreover, imperialism divided the world into blocs, each controlled by a central power that looked with suspicion on--and from time to time engaged in war with--rival imperial powers. That form of capitalist organization, however much it may have concentrated the mind of Lenin, is on its way out, and Hardt and Negri bid it good riddance. Just as Marx celebrated capitalism's victory over feudalism, they exhort radicals today to take heart in the fact that imperialism is being replaced by Empire.
Empire itself emerges with postmodernity. (In its initial formulation, "postmodern" was an adjective modifying a noun such as a condition, a novel, a building, or a city; but as Hardt and Negri use the term, it is transformed into an actual thing that presumably began at a particular point in time and exists in a particular place, though neither the time nor the place is ever specified by them.) Unlike imperialism, Empire has no center and is not controlled by anyone. As the authors characteristically put it: "Empire exhausts historical time, suspends history, and summons the past and future within its own ethical order." Empire is--this is where Luhmann comes in--autopoietic, that is, it runs by itself. "The imperial machine lives by producing a context of equilibria and/or reducing complexities, pretending to put forward a project of universal citizenship and toward this end intensifying the effectiveness of its intervention over every element of the communicative relationship, all the while dissolving identity and history in a completely postmodern fashion."
Under conditions of Empire, everything is in flux and up for grabs. It no longer follows, as it did under imperialism, that economic factors determine all other aspects of life. Capitalism, especially in its Fordist forms, aimed to impose order on otherwise anarchic processes, but it was content to transform the surplus labor of workers into capital, and so it managed to stop short of exercising full control over the individual's mind and body. Post-Fordism went further: by extending the factory to social life as a whole, it also extended power's reach into schools, prisons, and asylums. People living under Empire require even more control than those forms found in early versions of post-Fordism, for the essentially post-Fordist disciplinary institutions analyzed by Michel Foucault "did not succeed in consuming them completely in the rhythm of productive practices and productive socialization; it did not reach the point of permeating entirely the consciousness and bodies of individuals, the point of treating and organizing them in the totality of their activities." In the stage in which we find ourselves now--let us call it post-post-Fordism--society is " ... subsumed within a power that reaches down to the ganglia of the social structure and its processes of development [and] reacts like a single body. Power is thus expressed as a control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousness and bodies of the population--and at the same time across the entirety of social relations."
Hardt and Negri call this process of total control "biopower," which they define as "a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it." By transforming Marx's economic determinism into a form of biological determinism, Hardt and Negri manage to remove every last shred of humanism in Marxism. For all his insistence that his criticism of capitalism was motivated by considerations of science rather than by considerations of morality, Marx never fully abandoned the anthropocentric character of the romantic movements out of which he emerged. He was, for one thing, persuaded that human beings possessed an irreducible nature; inspired by Prometheus, Marx took it for granted that they came equipped with a drive to create. It was precisely this productive capacity--this determination on the part of human beings to create value--that drove capitalists to try to expropriate from workers their human essence, their "species being."
But Hardt and Negri will have none of this talk of human nature, or use value, or labor power. Capital will exploit wherever and whatever it can. With bio-power in command, our bodies are no longer irreducibly ours. Our bodies have instead turned against themselves; they are the very instruments by which we are controlled by forces external to us. We therefore have to "recognize our posthuman bodies and minds" and see ourselves "for the simians and cyborgs we are" before we can begin to unleash whatever creative powers we may have left over.
But all is not lost for us simians and cyborgs. Unlike the writers of the Frankfurt School, who also emphasized the authoritarian character of contemporary capitalism, writers such as Gilles Deleuze and FÈlix Guattari, who are the true intellectual heroes of Empire, recognize that efforts at total control create contradictions of their own. Here, in prose that insults language, is how Hardt and Negri summarize what they have understood: "The analysis of real subsumption, when this is understood as investing not only the economic or only the cultural dimension of society but rather the social bios itself, and when it is attentive to the modalities of disciplinarity and/or control, disrupts the linear and totalitarian figure of capitalist development." What this means is that under Empire there emerges a "paradox of power" in which all elements of social life are unified, but the very act of unification "reveals a new context, a new milieu of maximum plurality and uncontainable singularization--a milieu of the event." Even when Empire seems to rule everywhere and over everything, there are opportunities for resistance, if only those opportunities can be grasped and seen.
Although Empire is not controlled by anyone, it does require coordination, and therefore it also requires communication. Communication is to Hardt and Negri what production was to Marx: the central activity of society without which nothing else is possible. And, like production, communication requires workers, or immaterial labor, as the authors call those people who do not produce goods but instead deliver services. It thus follows that "the central role previously occupied by the labor power of mass factory workers in the production of surplus value is today increasingly filled by intellectual, immaterial, and communicative labor power." So professors have a purpose after all: they can "develop a new political theory of value that can pose the problem of this new capitalist accumulation of value at the center of the mechanism of exploitation (and thus, perhaps, at the center of potential revolt)." All those demonstrators out there who fail to communicate with each other require someone to communicate for them, and who better to do the communication than those who make the production of words central to their existence?
Empire is best understood as an attempt, using Marxist jargon, to bring back to life the political urge that Marx spent much of his energy opposing: anarchism, and particularly the more destructive form of anarchism associated with writers such as Bakunin. "You are just a bunch of anarchists, the new Plato on the block will yell at us," Hardt and Negri declare, before responding that they cannot be anarchists because they speak "from the standpoint of a materiality constituted in the networks of productive cooperation, in other words, from the perspective of a humanity that is constructed productively, that is constituted through the ëcommon name' of freedom." I have no Platonic aspirations, but it does strike me that if the authors were providing an accurate account of their own book, they would be quite correct that there is nothing anarchist about it. But their account of their enterprise is wrong on every count. Empire rejects materiality in favor of immaterial labor, production in favor of communication, humanity in favor of cyborgs, freedom in favor of hybridity.
The anarchist flavor of Empire is conveyed most strikingly by its romanticization of violence. Although by now everyone knows that there are terrorists in this world, there are no terrorists in Hardt and Negri's book. There are only people who are called terrorists, "a crude conception and terminological reduction that is rooted in a police mentality." Terms such as "ethnic terrorists" and "drug mafias" appear within quotation marks, as if no serious revolutionary could believe that there were such things. "Totalitarianism" is another pure construct, simply an invention of cold war ideology, that has been used to "denounce the destruction of the democratic sphere...." Certainly the term has little to do with actual life in the Soviet Union, which Hardt and Negri describe as "a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom."
Negri, when not in prison, has been a political philosopher, and he is the author of numerous books, manifestos, and theses on subjects ranging from Spinoza's metaphysics to the nature of insurgency under contemporary capitalism. In nearly all this work, as in Empire, he invariably associates violence with states in the exercise of their power, never with opposition groups and their tactics. For the latter, any action, no matter how insurrectionary, is justified. For the former, any action, no matter how peaceful, is terrorism in disguise.
rom this warped perspective, all states are equally bad and all movements of opposition are equally good. Only the working of such a myopia can help the reader to understand why the authors of Empire are incapable of mustering any rigorous historical or moral consciousness of Nazism and its policy of Jewish extermination. In their view Nazism is capitalism, and that is the end of the story. Nazi Germany, Hardt and Negri write, far from a unique excursion into human evil, "is the ideal type of the transformation of modern sovereignty into national sovereignty and of its articulation into capitalist form...."
Since Nazism is merely normal capitalism--this point of view was once associated with the Frankfurt School, and it survives almost nowhere outside the pages of this book--there is no reason to single out the Nazis or their sympathizers for crimes against humanity. Astonishingly, Hardt and Negri are worse than neutral in their discussion of the Nazi period: they actually heap praise on the ordinary Germans who supported the regime. The obedience of these citizens is called "exemplary" in this book. The authors also celebrate "their military and civil valor in the service of the nation," before moving on to identify the victims whom they valorously helped to send to Buchenwald as "communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, and others," the latter, presumably, being the Jews (whom Hardt and Negri reserve for Auschwitz).
I am not making this up. Lest anyone consider these apologetics for Nazism a misreading of my own--how can good leftists, after all, engage in a downplaying of the Holocaust?--Hardt and Negri twice acknowledge that they are completely fed up with the whole question of totalitarianism. It is certainly much less interesting to them than the depredations of Empire. The phenomenon of totalitarianism, they write, has already been described "with great fanfare" by "many (in fact too many) authors"; and then they announce, in the one sustained passage in their book devoted to Hitler and his regime, that, despite their efforts to write a book aiming to discuss everything, they plan to "leave this story to other scholars and to the disgrace of history."
It is one thing to put quotation marks around a word such as "terrorist" and to be so morally obtuse to the most violent regimes of the twentieth century. It is another thing entirely for Antonio Negri to do so. For the question of whether Negri was himself a violence-prone terrorist is still open. In April 1979, Negri, who was then a professor at the University of Padua, was arrested and charged with armed insurrection. He was not convicted on the most serious charges, which amounted to the accusation that, as the leader of the Red Brigades, he was responsible for the assassination of Christian Democratic politician Aldo Moro; but he was found guilty of lesser charges and sentenced to preventive detention. (Among other things, the judge in the case quoted from a letter written by Negri in which he said that "without weapons, the mass struggle doesn't exist.")
Determined not to go to jail, Negri won a seat in parliament, which gave him immunity; but the Italian Chamber of Deputies stripped him of it, and he fled to France in 1983. In 1997, he voluntarily returned to Italy and was incarcerated. He took this action, he said, in order to clarify the situation of other New Leftists who were in exile. He is still a prisoner, a feature of his biography that is prominently displayed by Harvard University Press on the back of Empire. So as not to detract from the dramatic flair of their author, the publishers neglect to mention that Negri is released during the day to live in his apartment in Rome with his girlfriend, spending only his nights in jail.
As is the case with so much of the violence associated with the New Left, it is difficult to know exactly what Negri did. We do know that Italy, like Germany, experienced considerable political violence in the 1960s and 1970s, and that many radical groups, distrustful of the cautious conservatism of the Community Party, created ultra-leftist sects such as Autonomia Operaia that either engaged directly in criminal acts or sought to justify them as a necessary stage in the destruction of capitalism. Negri, who was closely associated with these splinter groups as a member and a theorist, has had many opportunities since then to revisit his past and to reflect on whether the violence of the times was wrong. He has chosen not to do so. Instead he has argued that violence is built into all the institutions and all the practices of capitalism, as if to conclude that because society itself is so violent, one can hardly be surprised that its opponents tend in that direction as well. Empire is merely the latest of a series of books in which a completely unrepentant Negri defends himself. No wonder that efforts to win his full release from prison--efforts that will surely escalate now that Negri has received the imprimatur of America's most prestigious academic press--have failed.
With the memory of five thousand dead bodies destroyed beyond recognition by deadly terrorist attacks still so fresh, readers in America these days do not need to be reminded of the ugliness that violence brings in its wake. Yet Hardt and Negri evidently need such a reminder. Their book, as it comes to a close, contains an apologia for violence past and present that, in the light of recent events, ought to send a chill down every reader's spine. Those singled out for special praise in Empire include the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, an oft-romanticized anarcho-syndicalist group that Hardt and Negri manage to describe as "radical republican." IWW militants, they write, offer a prototype of resistance to Empire. "The Wobbly [sic] constructed associations among working people from below, through continuous agitation, and while organizing them gave rise to utopian thought and revolutionary knowledge." A similar movement today would take the form of what Hardt and Negri call a "post-modern posse." They are attracted to this term because posse is Latin for "having power," but it does not escape their notice that the term is also identified with the posse comitatus of Hollywood Westerns. (They neglect to mention that this is also the name of choice of some of America's most violently inclined right-wing sects.)
The Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm once wrote a book called Primitive Rebels, about seemingly medieval gangs of Robin Hood-like bandits, such as the Neapolitan Camorra or the Tuscan Lazzarettists, that persisted into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Italy and Spain. Sometimes anarchistic, sometimes fascistic, these millenarian movements appealed not to the urban workers of capitalism, but to the displaced Lumpenproletariat. When Hardt and Negri celebrate rap groups or window-smashing anarchists, it is these bandits, who have always been viewed with great suspicion by Marxists, that they see.
To such movements of resistance, Hardt and Negri offer praise but no advice. Never has a revolutionary manifesto been so devoid of actual content as the one contained in this book. The real militant against Empire, Hardt and Negri insist, is not one "who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends that his or her actions are deducted [sic] from an ideal plan." (The Jesuits are, somewhat bizarrely, offered as an example of such discipline, but any Marxist would read this as a rejection of a Leninist revolutionary vanguard.) No, to be a militant you must turn the bio-power directed against you inside out, by exploring "the productive cooperation of mass intellectuality and affective networks, the productivity of postmodern biopolitics." Hobsbawm wrote of the chiliastic bandits of the nineteenth century that, whatever their other differences, they shared "a fundamental vagueness about the actual way in which the new society will be brought about," and no better description of anarchism in its postmodern form has yet been written.
The anarchism advocated in Empire does have one rather idiosyncratic feature: it is informed by Christianity. Hardt and Negri find in Christendom a precursor for Empire--not that odd a comparison if we live in a world in which chronological time no longer means anything, but an odd comparison certainly if particular historical periods are built on the events that preceded them. Once Christendom is introduced as a topic, it becomes immediately clear that the great theorist of Empire is not Marx, it is Augustine. Empire is a postmodern twist on The City of God. "In Empire," Hardt and Negri write, echoing Augustine's denunciation of Rome, "corruption is everywhere," reflected in "the supreme government of Empire and its vassal administrations, the most refined and the most rotten administrative police forces, the lobbies of the ruling classes, the mafias of rising social groups, the churches and sects, the perpetuators and persecutors of scandal, the great financial conglomerates, and everyday economic transactions." Although Hardt and Negri would never use such language, they are clearly persuaded that life under Empire is suffused with sin.
And redemption will come from the multitude, who despite their oppression under empire--or Empire--remain pure in heart. In them, one can see the emergence of the new city that will put us at one with the world. Unlike Augustine's, of course, their city cannot be the divine one, since "the multitude today ... resides on the imperial surfaces where there is no God the Father and no transcendence." Instead, they will create "the earthly city of the multitude," which the authors esoterically define as "the absolute constitution of labor and cooperation." About the practical question of how this can be done, Hardt and Negri have nothing significant to say. "The only response that we can give to these questions is that the action of the multitude becomes political primarily when it begins to confront directly and with an adequate consciousness the central repressive operations of Empire." This, too, is a Christian conception of revolution. We cannot know how we will be saved; we must recognize that if only we have faith, a way will be found.
Empire ends not with a paean to Marx or Lenin, but with a prayer for Francis of Assisi: "To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society. The communist militant does the same, identifying in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth. Francis ... posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother son, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will and power of corruption." Pierce your ears, paint your face, run angry through the streets, and you too can be a saint. It is not clear whether you will ever actually stop companies from merging or bankers from providing loans, but the glimpse that you will be vouchsafed of the heavenly city that is available to us on Earth, so long as you are sufficiently militant, is reward enough. If you do all this, you will find yourself in "a revolution that no power will control--because bio-power and communism, cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist."
There is no idea in Empire that has not been expressed before. In a rare moment of lucidity, Michael Hardt correctly told Emily Eakin of The New York Times that "Toni and I don't think of this as a very original book. We're putting together a variety of things that others have said." Still, Empire has become something of a publishing sensation. The Times has pronounced that it has "buzz," the most enviable epithet of all. It has sold out in bookstores around the country; it is being translated into at least ten languages; and it has been featured in gushing media accounts, including Eakin's uninformed account in the Times. (For the Times' reporter on "Arts and Ideas," testimony from tired Marxists such as Stanley Aronowitz or Fredric Jameson is taken as proof that Empire may be the next big thing among other equally washed-out Marxists.)
Still, there is no denying the book's relevance. The fate of Empire and the fate of globalized protests against globalization have become intertwined, as if the one has become dependent on the other. Every revolution needs its obscure, well-thumbed, and probably unread paperback, and now the anarchists and the new caravan of protesters have one to call their own. This is a terrible shame. After two decades in which the left has been reduced to defending such reactionary policies as classification by race and the suppression of free speech, the question of global inequality has finally emerged, and with it emerged an opportunity for the left to regain its sanity.
One need not defend socialism, whatever that means these days, in order to recognize that there is something profoundly wrong about the staggeringly huge gaps in wealth that exist between the world's richest regions and its poorest regions. Any movement that directed itself against the arrogant and aloof policies of the world's richest countries, and that did so by appealing to commonly agreed-upon conceptions of justice, would be in a position to achieve some real good in the world. From the appalling costs of anti-AIDS medicines in Africa to the efforts by the International Monetary Fund to impose stringent requirements on countries that are barely able to feed their own people, there are more than enough good and burning issues that could not only enable the left to gain the moral high-ground, but could also win the hearts of moderate and even conservative people who have little at stake in defending the policies of increasingly rapacious global corporations.
But such a sensible and decent left will not emerge if Empire--a lazy person's guide to revolution--has its way. The authors of this book, having taken no steps to learn anything about what globalization actually is and what its continuation would actually mean, cannot inspire their readers to do likewise. Rather than developing a tutorial attitude toward protest, bringing to younger militants the knowledge of history and the wisdom of experience, they glorify know-nothingism and turn obsequious before fascists. Instead of reminding protesters that politics is a demanding business, they romanticize the self-indulgence of punks and freaks. Faced with the difficulties of constructing a theoretical account of how an ever-changing capitalism has changed once again, they paper over their contradictions with jargon and borrow promiscuously from every academic fashion. There is indeed corruption in the contemporary world--and none more noteworthy in this context than the intellectual corruption that can enable a book as shabby as this one to be taken seriously by anyone.
Empire is to social and political criticism what pornography is to literature. It flirts with revolution as if one society can be replaced by another as easily as one body can be substituted for another. It gives academic readers the thrill of engaging with the ideas of the New Left's most insurrectionary days, all the while pretending that the author of these ideas is an "independent researcher and writer," as Harvard's book jacket calls Negri, while secretly hoping--imagine the glamour in radical academic circles that this would give him!--that he really was guilty of the acts for which he was imprisoned. For angry militants who have never read Bakunin but who understand in their gut that every destructive urge is a creative one, Empire offers the support of professors who are supposed to know what they are talking about; and if one is too busy running through the streets to grasp the full implications of what Homi K. Bhabha says about binary divisions, or to reflect on Althusser's reading of The Prince, one can at least come away rinsed in the appropriate critique. Empire is a thoroughly non-serious book on a most serious topic, an outrageously irresponsible tour through questions of power and violence--questions that, as we cannot help but remember as we mourn our dead in Manhattan and Washington, demand the greatest responsibility on the part of both writers and readers.
The New Left got a lot of things wrong, but it got one thing right: institutions that wield tremendous authority over the lives of ordinary people cannot be trusted with unlimited power, for, in the absence of checks and constraints on their activities, they will do whatever they can to maximize their advantage. As the New Left turned violent and sought support from the fringes, it lost that significant insight, eventually decomposing into sectarian paranoia or academic obscurantism. The most remarkable accomplishment of Empire is to combine both of those degenerations into a frightfully unstable mixture. There is bad news in this, and worse news. The bad news is that anti-globalization protesters, should they find anything of value in this book, will lead their very promising movement into the same dead ends as the New Left. The worse news is that, to reverse Marx's famous dictum, this will happen the second time as tragedy rather than as farce.