MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 24

International Socialist Review, July–August 2002

Tom Lewis

Empire strikes out


From International Socialist Review, Issue 24, July–August 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire has attracted commentaries ranging from “a significant contribution to Marxism” to “Now, ain’t that something?” It enjoyed a run at Wall Street bookstores and created a similar buzz on campuses and left-wing Internet lists. With Negri still unjustly imprisoned in Italy for alleged complicity in terrorist acts during the 1970s, Hardt has accepted frequent invitations to appear on TV and radio shows, the academic lecture circuit, and at major events in the global justice movement.

Hardt and Negri stress that Empire is a work of philosophy. As such, the book aims to abstract from the swirl of daily life and singular events a general picture of the social processes that have spawned the contemporary world order: the global market, global circuits of production, and a new structure of political sovereignty. Unfortunately, Empire’s map of global space profoundly distorts the world as it is today.

There do exist moments of lucidity in Empire. As the authors claim, globalization does in fact lay the foundation for a planetary society based on economic justice and social equality–in the same sense that capitalism, despite its essential barbarism, has created the material basis for socialism. Furthermore, changes in the organization of production and in the composition of the working class over the course of the past century have established some new conditions, and opened some fresh opportunities, for struggles against the forces of exploitation and oppression. Much can be said, too, in favor of Hardt and Negri’s view that the rulers of our present societies have devised ever more sophisticated means of discipline and control over the mass of workers.

Empire’s overall argument, however, falls far short of meeting the evident need for theory in the global justice movement and other progressive struggles. The book misdirects energies away from the fight against imperialism and war. It denies the capacity for local struggles to generalize across regions and nations. It downsizes the importance of the working class in the fight for a better world. And it rejects the idea of building revolutionary parties, both on the national and international scale.

Taken together, these flaws render Empire useless as a guide to political resistance and militant action today.

What’s in a name?

The authors clearly see Empire as a contribution to Marxism. At the same time, they believe that the conceptual and methodological foundations of Marxism are inadequate to comprehend social reality as it has evolved over the past 150 years–especially since the Second World War. An aphorism by William Morris, the 19th century British socialist writer, serves as an epigraph to Empire and communicates Hardt and Negri’s own understanding of their relation to classical Marxism: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name” (page v).

In other words, classical Marxism and the revolutionary socialist movement have always upheld the goal of an international economy and society based on solidarity and satisfying human needs. Economic and political globalization has indeed occurred in recent decades, but it has developed under the banner of capitalism and its savage drive for profits. Transnational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, NATO, and the United Nations have triumphed as the principal economic and political institutions of (a perverted) “internationalism” today.

In such an unprecedented context, Hardt and Negri consider that the struggle for economic and social justice must also adopt a new form. This means, according to them, devising new concepts to fit a new reality, relocating the object of mass political struggle, and “decentering” the historical agents of socialist transformation. Stated simply, Hardt and Negri argue for replacing the notion of imperialism with “Empire,” contending for “global citizenship” instead of state power, and affirming the dispersion of the “multitude” over the centrality of the working class.

Imperial right

Empire conveys the following perspective on world events. The fact that military ventures by the great powers, if they are to win support from the masses, must now be portrayed as “humanitarian interventions” heralds an emerging reality of global, as opposed to national, sovereignty. National interest no longer suffices as a justification for war. The need to invoke an authority beyond the nation-state is symptomatic of the transition from an age of “imperialism,” as classically understood, to a new era of “Empire.”

In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command. The distinct national colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow. (xii–xiii)

On this view, “Empire” is first and foremost a juridical expression of the globalized economy. The new form of “supranational” law reflects the complex interdependence of transnational commerce and international capital flows. It simultaneously introduces, however, an ethico-political dynamic at the heart of its concept of rule. Political legitimation now can be achieved solely by means of an appeal to dispersed networks of power; it cannot be decreed by a single state or even a handful of imperialist nations.

A key effect of the new global sovereignty is that the “United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European states were” (xiii‐xiv). Hardt and Negri consign the phenomena of imperialist rivalry and warfare to the past, arguing instead that the present form of capitalist domination consists of “imperial right”:

The history of imperialist, interimperialist, and anti-imperialist wars is over. The end of that history has ushered in the reign of peace. Or really, we have entered the era of minor and internal conflicts. Every imperial war is a civil war, a police action–from Los Angeles and Granada [sic] to Mogadishu and Sarajevo. (189)

We think it is important to note that what used to be conflict or competition among several imperialist powers has in important respects been replaced by the idea of a single power that overdetermines them all, structures them in a unitary way, and treats them under one common notion of right that is decidedly postcolonial and postimperialist. This is really the point of departure for our study of Empire. (9)

Among the antecedents of the new “imperial right” stand Jeffersonian democracy and, indeed, the various elaborations of the U.S. Constitution. Without closing their eyes to some of the injustices of the American state, Hardt and Negri hold that “this imperial project, a global project of network power, defines the fourth phase or regime of U.S. constitutional history” (180). A project in which global power is diffused throughout local networks should be welcomed, they believe, because such a structure would need only to be pirated and placed into service for the masses. In this aspect, Hardt and Negri consider that capitalist globalization displays a democratizing tendency.

Bodies in space

But who would prove capable of activating the democratic potential embodied within capitalist globalization?

Hardt and Negri rely on a particular view of human agency in order to explain both the oppression and the possible emancipation of the world’s masses. Their view combines the ideas of three postmodernist thinkers–Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and FÈlix Guattari–with Negri’s own postmodern idea of the “social worker” in an attempt to understand both the restraining and the enabling conditions affecting human liberation today.

From Foucault, Hardt and Negri borrow the notion of “biopower.” In its negative form, biopower registers a historical shift in the mechanisms of social control. Whereas the monarch’s sword compelled the serfs to work his fields, and the conquistador’s terror forced indigenous peoples to embrace Catholicism, today the mass media and our participation in mass social institutions (schools, churches, malls, etc.) transform us into subjects of the capitalist order.

Physical violence by the repressive apparatuses of the capitalist state (the military, police forces) obviously remains an indispensable back-up. Yet dominant ideologies now secure the citizenry’s subordination to state power, and they do so mainly by means of internalizing various mechanisms of control. Such internalization can often seem, moreover, to result from the individual subject’s “free choice.” Appearing as “ever more democratic,” and “distributed among the brains and bodies of the citizens,” biopower is thus “a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it” (23–24).

By extension, if bodies and brains can be sites of an internalized oppression, they might also become vehicles for liberation. Foucault entertains this possibility, but he develops it only in relation to the emancipation of the individual.

Hardt and Negri therefore turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s collaborative work to obtain a concept similar to biopower but which applies to the collective social body. The key term here is “deterritorialization,” by which they mean the flow of capital and populations across boundaries and borders of all kinds, in particular, those of the nation-state.

For example, one of the great injustices of the contemporary world remains the substantially freer mobility of capital–Bhat is, capital’s more advanced degree of “deterritorialization”– compared with the severe restrictions enforced on the mobility of workers. Indeed, one of the main services rendered by the nation-state to global capitalism is its ability to supply and to regulate populations of workers. “Territoriality” thus functions as a major component of global capitalism. Empire depends as much on the denial of workers’ right to migrate freely (as well as the use of non-citizenship as a means to discipline low-paid migrants) as it does on the destruction of trade barriers, tariffs, and anything else that impedes the prying open of national economies to the world market.

In keeping with Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri conclude from their discussion of deterritorialization that the “spatial movements,” or border crossings, of migrating populations inherently subvert Empire:

The deterritorializing power of the multitude is the productive force that sustains Empire and at the same time the force that calls for and makes necessary its destruction. A new geography is established by the multitude as the productive flows of bodies define new rivers and ports. Through circulation the multitude reappropriates space and constitutes itself as an active subject. We can see that the new spaces are described by unusual topologies, by subterranean and uncontainable rhizomes–by geographical mythologies that mark the new paths of destiny. This is how the multitude gains the power to affirm its autonomy, traveling and expressing itself through an apparatus of widespread, transversal, territorial reappropriation. (61, 397, 398)

The multitude

What is being claimed here? Capital requires and permits a certain controlled mobility of individuals (Palestinians working in Kuwaiti oil fields and services, Latinos working in U.S. farmlands and services) in order to ensure production and therefore the generation of profits. Yet, the resulting migration of (documented and undocumented) populations leads to the establishment of “reappropriated” or “reterritorialized” spaces that effectively contradict the “deterritorializing” tendency of Empire. Such reterritorializations–the spaces reclaimed from Empire–are envisioned by Hardt and Negri as “rhizomatic” in nature. Here Deleuze’s and Guattari’s rather obscure term “rhizome” is used by Hardt and Negri to mean a “democratic model a nonhierarchical and noncentered network structure” (299).

In Hardt and Negri’s view, the historical agent of reterritorialization–as well as of a positive move toward deterritorialization (free migration)–is the “multitude.” The term “multitude” refers to the global population of socially oppressed people. Hardt and Negri make an explicit point of not limiting the “multitude” to workers engaged in industrial production. Instead, they rightly reject the notion that only blue-collar workers comprise the contemporary working class: “This is a new proletariat and not a new industrial working class. Labor–material or immaterial, intellectual or corporeal–produces and reproduces social life, and in the process is exploited by capital. This wide landscape of biopolitical production allows us finally to recognize the full generality of the concept of proletariat” (402).

Indeed, most individuals in so-called white-collar jobs do belong to today’s working class–irrespective of whether they are direct producers of commodities, and thus exploited directly for profits (food workers, computer software designers), or whether they are indirect producers whose labor contributes to the reproduction of the conditions of capitalist exploitation (bank workers, teachers, clerical workers). Even “unproductive” workers–“unproductive” in the sense of laborers who neither directly nor indirectly produce commodities that can be sold (janitors, health workers)–form part of the working class today. “Unproductive” workers, just like other laborers, must work for a living. And they possess little or no control over the conditions in which they work and the ends which their labor serves.

Nevertheless, Hardt and Negri go beyond updating the composition of the contemporary working class. In fact they amplify the arena of class struggle to include the entire social realm. Recycling from earlier texts Negri’s notion of the “social worker,” Hardt and Negri expand the notion of proletariat to include virtually everyone, and they extend the notion of class struggle to include all the dimensions of everyday life. In doing so, Hardt and Negri eliminate distinctions among the various forms and objects of struggle: “class struggle has the potential to erupt across all fields of life” (403). Each act of resistance or opposition–from factory occupations and mass demonstrations to on-line zines and organized boycotts of Wal-Mart or State Farm–becomes equally effective, and enjoys equal priority, as a weapon in the struggle against Empire.

On this basis, Hardt and Negri finally propose a set of demands that would both define the goals and express the unity of the multitude. The multitude should demand the right to “global citizenship” (unfettered mobility) and the right to a “social wage” (a healthy life and decision-making power over the conditions of labor). The multitude should exercise a concomitant right of “reappropriation,” which would entail the telos, or “end,” of reclaiming language, the media, technology, knowledge, and social relations for the cause of freedom rather than subjugation. The multitude can actually achieve such an end, Hardt and Negri maintain, if it adopts a specific organizational form: the “posse.”

The telos of the multitude must live and organize its political space against Empire and yet within the “maturity of the times” and the ontological conditions that Empire presents.

The name that we want to use to refer to the multitude in its political autonomy and its productive activity is the Latin term posse–power as a verb, as activity. Posse is what a body and mind can do. Posse refers to the power of the multitude and its telos, an embodied power of knowledge and being, always open to the possible. (407–408)

Imperialism by any other name

Not surprisingly, the Achilles heel of Empire is its assertion of the demise of “imperialism.” If imperialism still offers the best framework for understanding contemporary world events, then claims for the explanatory value of Empire, as well as for the political strategy derived from it, fail miserably.

Hardt and Negri anticipate the natural objection to their concept of Empire: “Other theorists are reluctant to recognize a major shift in global power relations because they see that the dominant capitalist nation-states have continued to exercise imperialist domination over the other nations and regions of the globe” (9). While acknowledging “real and important lines of continuity” in this regard, they nevertheless insist that imperialist domination has been replaced by a single structure–Empire–which subsumes and cancels out the dynamic of imperialist rivalry. As we have seen, this view leads them to proclaim that imperialist wars, and the national liberation struggles to which they give rise, have in fact disappeared.

But Hardt and Negri’s claim actually extends further. On their account, Empire has inaugurated an era of substantial peace. Drawing a parallel with ancient Rome, Hardt and Negri stress one of the virtues of Empire as they conceive of it:

In Empire there is peace, in Empire there is the guarantee of justice for all peoples. The concept of Empire is presented as a global concert under the direction of a single conductor, a unitary power that maintains the social peace and produces its ethical truths. And in order to achieve these ends, the single power is given the necessary force to conduct, when necessary, “just wars” at the borders against the barbarians and internally against the rebellious. (10)

Now, this picture may accurately describe the ideology that the U.S. spews across the globe in order to simultaneously mask and justify its own imperialist designs. The picture falls flat on its face, however, as a description of the reality of war on the planet today. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld comes closer to describing this reality when he traces the outlines of the present “war on terrorism.”

This war will not be waged by a grand alliance united for the single purpose of defeating an axis of hostile powers. Instead, it will involve floating coalitions of countries, which may change and evolve. Countries will have different roles and contribute in different ways. Some will provide diplomatic support, others financial, still others logistical or military. Some will help us publicly, while others, because of their circumstances, may help us privately and secretly. In this war, the mission will define the coalition–not the other way around. (New York Times, September 27, 2001: A25)

The obvious question, of course, is “who defines the mission?” When Hardt and Negri write about “a single conductor,” they mean Empire; they have in mind something like the U.N. coalition that so “justly” bombed Iraq back into pre-modernity, or the ad hoc coalition that so “ethically” devastated Afghanistan under a bogus doctrine of “failed nations.” When Rumsfeldt writes, however, it is crystal clear that it is the U.S. government which defines the mission, compiles the coalition, maims and kills those whom it declares to be enemies, and reaps the lion’s share of the lucrative contracts for rebuilding what it has destroyed.

The conceptual point here is that there indeed exists a “center” in global power relations today. The idea that Empire has no center is false. U.S. imperialism stands at the center of global power, both economically and militarily, in the present period. This does not mean that the U.S. is able to control every event in the world. But it does mean that, when its U.N. coalition partners think better of it, the U.S. (along with its European stooge, Britain) maintains economic sanctions on Iraq all by itself–sanctions that have murdered hundreds of thousands more Iraqis than the number who actually perished during the Gulf War.

Hardt and Negri naively believe that “the U.S. world police acts not in imperialist interest but in imperial interest. In this sense the Gulf War did indeed, as George Bush claimed, announce the birth of a new world order” (180). But if the U.S. consults with Saudi Arabia today before invading Iraq, or before undertaking a major initiative in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is not because it feels any moral allegiance to a new unity of the world’s nations based on imperial peace. It is merely reckoning with the reality of oil supplies and petrodollars. The U.S. would care nothing about Saudi Arabia’s consent on anything if it did not need the Saudi monarchy to keep the lid on Arab nationalism, or Saudi soil from which to stage military operations in the region.

Nor is it an ethical concern for peace and unity that is uppermost in the minds of U.S. officials when they use the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to force neoliberalism and corporate globalization down the throats of the world’s developing economies. Every social movement in Latin America knows from its own experience that the U.S. calls the shots for the IMF and the World Bank. The misery that U.S. imperialism has visited upon Argentina over the past 18 months is a shameful crime–not a noble exercise in global consensus. Even Spanish and French bankers, moreover, who are bearing the brunt of the international losses in capital and markets resulting from Argentina’s meltdown, are fully aware that they have been outplayed by the U.S. in a stinging round of interimperialist rivalry.

Finally, the authors’ view that imperialist wars are over has already been noted. The idea that the Palestinian struggle for national liberation should be characterized as a “civil war” or “police action,” however, is patently absurd. The idea that Plan Colombia is about fighting terrorism and drugs in the interests of world peace and health–as opposed to fighting an insurgency and jockeying for U.S. control over South America’s natural resources–this, too, would be absurd.

And equally absurd would be the idea that the U.S. was seeking to promote world peace and global democracy when it secretly helped to arrange, and then publicly welcomed, the military coup that almost unseated Venezuela’s populist president, Hugo Ch·vez. Could it have been oil and Venezuela’s criticisms of U.S. imperialism–rather than a concern for “supranational” law, world peace, and global concert–that motivated U.S. foreign policy? Every Latin American government, the majority of whom can hardly be described as anti-U.S., denounced the coup and the U.S. role in it.

Nations today

At the same time as Hardt and Negri claim that Empire has no center, they also state that Empire has a “virtual center,” by which they mean that Empire possesses a set of powers and capacities that simultaneously exist everywhere and nowhere (in no single or central place). This view underlies two key, but erroneous, positions that Hardt and Negri adopt concerning the shape of mass struggle today.

In one of Empire’s more astonishing moments, Hardt and Negri effectively erase the nation-state from the landscape of class struggle.

Imperial power can no longer resolve the conflict of social forces through mediatory schemata that displace the terms of the conflict. The social conflicts that constitute the political confront one another directly, without mediations of any sort. This is the essential novelty of the imperial situation. Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power because it presents us, alongside the machine of command, with an alternative: the set of all the exploited and the subjugated, a multitude that is directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them. (393)

One can agree that globalization creates a real potential for revolution. But the image that Hardt and Negri offer here is one in which the masses are already united and aligned–point for point–against a seamless network of capitalist globalization. This image distorts reality for at least two reasons. First, the nation-state clearly mediates between mass struggle and the structures of global capitalism. Second, an inherent unevenness in both spacial (geographical) and temporal (historical) development, also serves as a mediating factor, both within capitalist globalization and within the mass opposition to it.

The ongoing relevance of the nation-state as a mediator between transnational capital and mass opposition can be highlighted with ease. National governments play a central role in introducing and promoting neoliberal regimes within their borders. The nation-state, moreover, remains the main force for disciplining workers and repressing opposition to the new economic order. Occasionally, national governments even serve to express, and thereby (temporarily) to deflect, anxiety about and resistance to corporate globalization. Reformism, like imperialism, still lives–and its favorite host body is the nation-state. De la Rúa in Argentina, Toledo in Peru, possibly Lula in Brazil–all were, or will have been, elected to stand up to the neoliberal offensive. Yet each ends by seeking to manage or to negotiate the terms of global capitalist plunder of his country.

On another scale, Hardt and Negri’s denial of the continuing importance of the nation-state leaves no way to account for the persistence of economic rivalry among nations as an in-built feature of corporate globalization. Witness the current trade wars over steel, beef, and bananas, to name just a few. And while it may require an extra effort to imagine a scenario in which the current trade conflicts between the U.S. and the European Union might escalate into military hostilities (although this possibility could never be ruled out absolutely), it takes very little imaginative effort to conjure the specter of a future interimperialist war between the U.S. and China, or between the U.S. and Russia.

Finally, as already noted, the nation-state plays a crucial role in mediating the migratory flows of global workers. Hardt and Negri’s metaphor of “rhizomatic” networks of immigrants in fact remains a utopian fiction. Immigrant communities frequently experience racism in the form of reactionary nationalism in the countries to which they travel, while class antagonisms prevalent in the dominant society eventually replicate themselves within the migrant community. And, in a moment of structural contradiction, the “reterritorializations” wrested by migrating workers from the grasp of Empire become geographical anchors themselves. The bodies of at least fractions of the “multitude” no longer serve as agents of a liberating “deterritorialization.” They may even become partially or fully integrated into the dominant nationalism (for example, the overwhelming support of immigrant minorities for the “war on terrorism” abroad).

The conceptual price exacted by ignoring the persistence of the nation-state within the field of contemporary class struggle is to misdirect energies away from the necessary fight against imperialism and, ultimately, to suggest that the struggle of the world’s exploited and oppressed can somehow bypass the seizure of national state power on the way toward international socialism.

It is true, of course, that socialism cannot survive in one country–in other words, on a national scale alone. But seizing state power in as many nations as possible, and in as coordinated a manner as possible, remains the only way to defeat global capitalism, given the present configuration of class forces internationally. In the absence of victories on the national scale, each close enough in time to fall conjuncturally within a particular “window of opportunity,” there can be no way in practice to resolve the incommensurability of local struggles and a global enemy.

The horizon of struggle

Nevertheless, Hardt and Negri precisely assert the ability of local struggles to move directly from the local to the global in a movement that poses an effective challenge to Empire. This is the second error they commit regarding the shape of mass struggle today.

Hardt and Negri base their view on what they perceive as the disappearance of international cycles of struggle that, in the past, could successfully communicate and translate “the common desires of labor” (54). They point to three great periods in the history of revolutions when this type of “horizontal” generalization of struggle was possible: the European revolutions of 1848, the Bolshevik revolution and its ripples throughout Europe 1917–1923, and the wave of struggles that began with “the Chinese revolution [1949] and proceeded through the African and Latin American liberation struggles to the explosions of the 1960s around the world” (51).

The most significant struggles of the past ten to 15 years, however, have not produced such “horizontal” generalizations. Hardt and Negri cite Tiananmen Square, the first Palestinian intifada, the Rodney King rebellion, the uprising of the Zapatistas, the public sector strikes in France, and mass strikes in South Korea as examples of fights which “could in no respect be linked together as a globally expanding chain of revolt” and which failed to inspire “a cycle of struggles, because the desires and needs they expressed could not be translated into different contexts” (54). Instead,

(potential) revolutionaries in other parts of the world did not hear of the events in Beijing, Nablus, Los Angeles, Chiapas, Paris, or Seoul and immediately recognize them as their own struggles. Furthermore, these struggles not only fail to communicate to other contexts but also lack even a local communication, and thus often have a very brief duration where they are born, burning out in a flash. This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable.

This paradox of incommunicability makes it extremely difficult to grasp and express the new power posed by the struggles that have emerged. We ought to be able to recognize that what the struggles have lost in extension, duration, and communicability they have gained in intensity. 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. (54–55)

Now, it is absolutely true that such struggles have embodied a general protest against and a general demand upon global capitalism. The authors’ explanation of why they failed to produce generalized struggles is bogus, however, depending as it does on a quasi-metaphysical condition of “incommunicablity.” While I have no space to pursue the matter here, a satisfactory explanation of the lack of generalization would be based on an analysis of the uneven development of capitalist globalization, the specific role played in each case by particular nation-states and by U.S. imperialism, the official positions adopted by working class organizations (unions, labor parties) both domestically and abroad, and the class character and strategic mistakes of the leaderships of the different struggles.

But the issue immediately at hand concerns Hardt and Negri’s conclusions about the “incommunicablity” of struggles in today’s world. Their intuition is that “perhaps precisely because all these struggles are incommunicable and thus blocked from traveling horizontally in the form of a cycle, they are forced instead to leap vertically and touch immediately on the global level” (55). Thus their first conclusion is that struggles today, by leaping “immediately to the global level,” are able to attack “the imperial constitution in its generality” (56). From this conclusion they derive a second one: “All the struggles destroy the traditional distinction between economic and political struggles. The struggles are at once economic, political, and cultural–and hence they are biopolitical struggles, struggles over the forms of life” (56).

Of course, while the majority of the struggles mentioned by Hardt and Negri have involved both economic and political demands, there still occur myriad struggles in which the economic and political remain separate. Helping to generalize economic struggles into political struggles (from wage demands into a demand for open borders, for example), or political struggles into economic struggles (as in the case of abortion rights and affirmative action), remains a significant challenge for activists, especially revolutionaries. Here, as elsewhere in Empire, Hardt and Negri fail to keep their feet on the ground.

On the basis of their view that struggles today cannot “travel horizontally,” and that individual struggles therefore directly (“immediately,” without mediations) attack the “virtual center” of Empire, Hardt and Negri seek to turn what they themselves identify as the main weakness of contemporary struggles–the alleged inability to “communicate” or to “generalize internationally”–into their principal strength.

Perhaps the incommunicability of struggles, the lack of well-structured communicating tunnels, is in fact a strength rather than a weakness–a strength because all of the movements are immediately subversive in themselves and do not wait upon any sort of external aid or extension to guarantee their effectiveness. Perhaps the more capital extends its global networks of production and control, the more powerful any singular point of revolt can be. Simply by focusing their own powers, concentrating their energies in a tense and compact coil, these serpentine struggles strike directly at the highest articulations of the imperial order. Empire presents a superficial world, the virtual center of which can be accessed immediately from any point across the surface. If these points were to constitute something like a new a new cycle of struggles, it would be a cycle defined not by the communicative extension of the struggles but rather by their singular emergence, by the intensity that characterizes them one by one. In short, this new phase is defined by the fact that these new struggles do not link horizontally, but each one leaps vertically, directly to the virtual center of Empire. (58)

Again, there exists a certain insight in Hardt and Negri’s position on the “verticality” of struggle. The success of the 1995 autoworkers’ strike against General Motors’ Dayton facility, for example, grew out of the fact that the plant was the sole producer of particular GM parts in the Western hemisphere. Thus the strike’s impact was magnified, and it successfully shut down GM’s operations across all of North and South America. Similarly, a victory by Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa Intifada, or a revolt by Arab workers across the Middle East in response to a U.S. invasion of Iraq–these struggles are of such economic and political scale that they could in fact rattle the very foundation of contemporary imperialism.

Nevertheless, taken in isolation, even struggles of such intensity would prove insufficient to end global capitalism once and for all. Hardt and Negri’s concept of verticality implies a “one-off” event–fixed in geography and time–that they themselves, perhaps inadvertently, recognize as inadequate to the task of not just resisting but actually destroying Empire. Hardt and Negri attempt to overcome this conceptual inadequacy by reformulating the “horizontality,” or “communicative extension,” of struggles in terms of verticality, or the “intensity” of the “singular emergence” of struggles (see the last two sentences of the preceding quotation). The effort fails, however, precisely because the notion of horizontality makes a clandestine return when Hardt and Negri find it necessary to affirm what they perceive as a new kind of “cycle.”

A cycle in the context of Empire means the accumulation and repetition of struggles within a temporally limited and spatially differentiated framework. A new cycle is desirable for Hardt and Negri, because they understand that Empire will not fall to a one-off assault. If the conditions for a cycle are absent, even Hardt and Negri find it difficult to imagine anything more than jabbing at Empire. Delivering a knock-out blow, however, requires the very horizontality that Hardt and Negri consciously repudiate, but to which their discussion inevitably points. The knock-out punch would in fact depend on the totality of the individual struggles–not only on their intensity, but also on their extension across Empire’s so-called “surface.”

Beyond its theoretical weakness, Hardt and Negri’s rejection of the ability of struggles to spread horizontally is given lie to–ironically enough–by the experience of one of the most important of contemporary struggles: the global justice movement. Surely the global justice movement must be seen as having “traveled horizontally” from its first “intense” victory in Seattle, to Prague and Melbourne, and onto Genoa and Barcelona. That the politics of the NGOs and the liberal organizations who lead the U.S. movement caused it to stall in Washington, D.C. in the wake of September 11 in no way blocks recognition of the movement’s extension and generalizing momentum.

Indeed, a cycle, if you will, had begun to be established on this front and may well revive. The Barcelona mass demonstration, for example, occurred after September 11. And a march of 15,000 in February to protest the meeting of the World Economic Forum in New York City–a march timed to show solidarity with the meeting of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil–proved encouraging. A scheduled protest of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C this September presents an opportunity for a reawakening of the global justice movement in the U.S.

Nowhere is the ability of struggles to generalize more evident than in Latin America today. The revolt against neoliberal globalization that now envelops a major portion of South America had its beginnings in the rise of various social movements throughout the 1990s. The toppling of Ecuador’s President Jamal Mahuad in January 2000 as a result of his plans to “dollarize” the economy–an event quickly followed in April 2000 by the victory in Cochabamba, Bolivia against the sale of the water supply to a transnational corporation–subsequently showed that national governments, corporate globalization, and U.S. imperialism could be confronted and, at least for a period, successfully defeated.

Today, the synchronized world recession has laid the basis for a generalized fightback throughout Latin America against privatizations, repayment of the external debt, and national ruling classes who have enriched themselves by aiding and abetting the imperialist plunder of Latin America. The flagship event, of course, is the revolt and evolving revolutionary process in Argentina. But Uruguayans, too, faced with an economic collapse of their own, have recently adopted the Argentine cacerolazo as a tactic against both their own rulers and imperialist institutions such as the IMF.

In June, moreover, the second victory against corporate globalization took place in South America, when mass demonstrations stopped the privatization of electric power in Arequipa, Peru. And the economic crisis expected to hit Brazil late this year or early next year is already stoking the fires of protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Indeed, a wave of demonstrations against the FTAA is planned not only in Brazil but in every South American country this fall.

Clearly, then, struggles today do retain the power to extend across regions and even the entire globe. The question is not whether generalizations of struggle will occur. The real question is how to generalize more rapidly and more effectively as many of the struggles that will inevitably break out.

Revolutionary parties

The activities of the “multitude”–that is, the masses of the exploited and oppressed–are conceptualized as occurring for the most part spontaneously in Empire. From migrations and “reterritorializations” to secret subversions and acts of open revolt, the multitude expresses its “desires of labor” by means of largely unconscious processes. For Hardt and Negri, such spontaneity suffices. Surely random chance will allow that, at least once in history, the workers of the world will arise simultaneously, albeit at an unappointed hour, and destroy an enemy, albeit one on whose identity and on whose replacement no one has agreed!

Besides their own political preferences, Hardt and Negri are forced to accept spontaneity as the primary mode of mass action in Empire precisely because of their rejection of mediations. For Hardt and Negri, nothing mediates between an individual local movement and global Empire; a direct relation alone exists. Nor do mediations exist between one struggle and another either within a national or an international context; struggles are incommunicable at every level.

At one point in Empire, Hardt and Negri do momentarily entertain the question of what obstacles stand in the way of communication between and among struggles, that is to say, what they perceive as the main obstacles to the horizontal extension or spread of struggles (56–58). And they provide two plausible, if undeveloped, answers. First, “one such obstacle is the absence of a recognition of a common enemy against which the struggles are directed.Ö Clarifying the nature of the common enemy is thus an essential political task” (56–57). Second, “there is no common language of struggle that could ëtranslate’ the particular language of each into a cosmopolitan languageÖas the languages of imperialism and proletarian internationalism did for the struggles of the previous era” (57).

Hardt and Negri cut short their inquiry, however, stating abruptly that “our intuition tells us that this line of analysis finally fails to grasp the real potential presented by the new struggles” (57). As we already know, this new potential is the alleged ability of struggles today to pass vertically from the local to the global without mediations of any sort, especially nation-states. What becomes apparent at this juncture is that Hardt and Negri’s theory of the necessarily vertical nature of contemporary struggles justifies their own wholesale abandonment of any attempt to generalize struggles across nations and from one point in time to another. Having identified obstacles to horizontal generalization, Hardt and Negri then choose simply to ignore them. After all, if struggles are essentially incommunicable, and if struggles are capable of engaging Empire directly, why bother with trying to discover or to create some kind of degree of horizontal extension?

Although Empire itself obviously represents an intent to clarify a common enemy (Empire), and although the book’s argument obviously seeks to elaborate a common language (set of concepts) that can facilitate the comprehension of different struggles in varying contexts, Hardt and Negri paradoxically shy away from the horizontal implications and potentially unifying effects of such efforts: “Perhaps this needs to be a new type of communication that functions not on the basis of resemblances but on the basis of differences: a communication of singularities” (57). In other words, one should not really attempt to identify a common enemy or to establish agreement on a common analysis and program! The postmodern homage to “difference” and “singularity” here reveals that Hardt and Negri in fact back off from any such attempt because it would eventually lead them to contradict their own emphasis on the spontaneity of mass processes. Indeed, it would raise in as stark a manner as possible the question of revolutionary organization.

Within classical Marxism, for example, it is revolutionary parties that consciously undertake the education and agitation necessary to clarify the common enemy of workers across the spectrum of individual struggles. In doing so, such parties help to develop a common language and framework of discussion that enable the different struggles to “communicate.” The main role of revolutionary socialist parties is precisely to help to unite the working class around organized opposition to capitalism–connecting the dots, as they say.

Fulfilling this role, moreover, entails developing an understanding of Marxist concepts and methods of class analysis, as well as constructing a vision of socialism worth fighting for. In particular, the role of generalizing individual struggles–spreading them to involve others–is crucial. Such generalization depends on inspiring workers’ self-confidence and trust in each other based on the knowledge that, by defeating their common enemy, workers can simultaneously eliminate the material basis of the various forms of exploitation and oppression around which the individual struggles are organized.

In this sense, building a revolutionary party represents an attempt to resolve the contradictions of scale between local battles, a national ruling class, and a global foe. A revolutionary party first and foremost works to establish connections between and among local and regional struggles in order to help forge a critical mass capable of wresting state power from the hands of a national ruling class. Thus a revolutionary party forms a necessary mediation between individual struggles and the nation-state, since its work makes possible an equivalence of scale between combatants (organized workers’ power vs. the organized power of the bosses and their state).

The same task of building an oppositional force of sufficient scale confronts revolutionaries internationally. In order to take on and to defeat global capitalism, international groupings of revolutionary parties must set themselves the task of helping to organize and to unite the international working class (including rural workers and the unemployed). This means that revolutionary parties must be able to communicate their national experiences, to debate ideas and perspectives, and to work together in ways that create common experiences which build on their recognition of a common enemy and their development of a common framework of discussion.

Activism today

No doubt all of this sounds like something from a galaxy long, long ago and far, far away to Hardt and Negri. Not only the great struggles of the past, but also the mighty organizational forms of the past, have become little more than museum pieces in their eyes: “We are hampered by the nagging impression that these struggles are always already old, outdated, and anachronistic. The languages of anti-imperialism and proletarian internationalism [belong to] a previous era” (56, 57). Thus it comes as no surprise that in their closing section, titled “The Militant,” Hardt and Negri counterpose a grotesque caricature of an Old Bolshevik from the Third International–Lenin’s International–with an unbelievably precious portrait of St. Francis of Assisi, whom they proceed to elevate as the model militant for our day.

Poor old Lenin emblematically appears at the end of Empire as a dictator masterminding the actions of a “sad, ascetic agent of the Third International whose soul was deeply permeated by Soviet state reason, the same way the will of the pope was embedded in the hearts of the knights of the Society of Jesus. We are thinking of nothing like that and of no one who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends his or her actions are deduced from an ideal plan” (411–12). Leaving aside the immense ignorance Hardt and Negri display concerning the Third International during Lenin’s lifetime, this passage effectively denigrates all militants who have fought and fight today for the great ideals of socialism.

In contrast to their (distorted) view of Leninism, Hardt and Negri use the idealized figure of St. Francis “to illuminate the future life of communist militancy” (413).

Consider [St. Francis’] work. 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 in opposition to nascent capitalism refused every instrumental discipline, and in opposition to the mortification of the flesh (in poverty and in the constituted order) he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power and corruption. Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being. (413)

Now, no one should begrudge St. Francis his frolick in the hay fields with the dumb beasts (dumb as in mute; “incommunicable animals,” you might say). But the politics conveyed in this passage are as well-worn as the politics they pretend to indict. Lifestyle politics, setting the moral example, prefiguring utopia: these are the individualistic politics of middle-class radicals who are economically comfortable enough to abstain from collective struggle and who content themselves with moralizing and illuminating the path others should follow.

After Empire’s 504 pages–each one read out of duty and discipline, I might add, when I could have been outside strolling in a cornfield–Hardt and Negri have nothing to offer today’s activists other than the most dead-end form of politics. What’s the point of warning activists not be dour and sad-faced, when almost everyone I know in the social movements are such party animals that they make John Belushi look like a tee-totaler?

More seriously, what’s the point of urging activists to identify “in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth”? The suggestion may make sense if you understand political militancy to mean what St. Francis evidently did: dressing down and moving to the projects. But I prefer to think that a typo has occurred and that what Hardt and Negri meant to write is that activists should identify “in the common condition of the multitude its enormous strength.” The collective experiences and the class consciousness of workers is the source of their enormous power. Unfortunately, the “enormous wealth” still belongs to the bad guys–to the tiny minority of capitalist bosses and politicians who run society and the world.

The point, of course, is to take away from the capitalists the “enormous wealth” that we as workers produce and to share it equitably among ourselves worldwide. My bet is that Lenin will be a bigger help than St. Francis in accomplishing this goal. Indeed, “the languages of anti-imperialism and proletarian internationalism,” along with revolutionary socialist organization, are as relevant today as ever.

Last updated on 15 August 2022