« Empire »

by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri

or the modern hiccups of the old revisionism

Dear comrades, dear readers, maybe you don’t know it yet, but we did you a big favour: we read “Empire”, the stodgy book firmed by Negri and Hardt, of which some antiglobalisation militants have already made their bible. Heavy, philosophical, and speculative, boring and irritating, very trendy and, above all, completely counterrevolutionary, that big book obviously tries to become one of the guide-book of the antiglobalisation struggles. In a few paragraphs, Negri & Hardt tell us that the modern epoch is over. Verdun, Nazism, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Sabra and Shatila… that modernity has come to an end, it is outdated. Globalisation put an end to the power of the nation-state that was responsible for the imperialist wars and we have to be happy about it. We have entered into the era of post-modernism.

With the end of the colonial regimes, and above all with the fall of the USSR and the barriers that the later opposed to the worldwide capitalist market, we assisted to a globalisation of the economical and cultural exchanges. Instead of the nation-state a new form of sovereignty, a new political subject appeared: the Empire. It doesn’t mean United States even if that country does occupy a very special place in the Empire and it doesn’t mean imperialism either. “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 nations were.”[1]

It is a power “deterritorialized” that expands to all social life. “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.”[2]

Contrarily to the traditional left that doesn’t feel very keen on this globalisation and that would like to put barriers to the circulation of capital, Negri and his colleague Hardt are not against the globalisation of the relationships, for them, the enemy is “a specific regime of global relations that we call Empire”, but “…the fact that against the old powers of Europe a new Empire has formed is only good news. Who wants to see any more of that pallid and parasitic European ruling class that led directly from the ancien régime to nationalism, from populism to fascism, and now pushes for a generalized neoliberalism? Who wants to see more of those ideologies and those bureaucratic apparatuses that have nourished and abetted the rotting European elites? And who can still stand those systems of labor organization and those corporations that have stripped away every vital spirit?”[3] Contrary to what traditional left says, the Empire is therefore a positive reality that “does away with the cruel regimes of modern power”[4] and that renders the organisation of counter-powers possible by making reality always more common everywhere, always more supranational. The Empire makes the alternative possible, better, it makes the alternative: Empire is nothing but “the fabric of an ontological human dimension that tends to become universal.”[5]

That human being expresses itself in the “resistances, struggles and desires” of a “new proletariat”, a new subject: “the multitude”. “The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges. The struggles to contest and subvert Empire, as well as those to construct a real alternative, will thus take place on the imperial terrain itself - indeed, such new struggles have already begun to emerge. Through these struggles and many more like them, the multitude will have to invent new democratic forms and a new constituent power that will one day take us through and beyond Empire.”[6]

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One of the characteristics of reformism is to start from revolutionary terminology and concepts to redefine them and empty them of their subversive substance. The philosophical-sociological soup Negri & Hardt try to sell to the antiglobalisation movements sympathisers makes no exception to the rule: They call themselves communists, they criticise the traditional left, claim the school of class struggles, they quote K. Marx all along their book, refer to Engels, Lenin, Debord or Foucault, describe capitalist society and talk about variable capital, value, real and formal subsumption, internationalism… but at the end, the fundamental points of the communist program, those that express the qualitative step between capitalism and communism have disappeared ; no organisation into force, no dictatorship of the proletariat, no abolition of value, no revolution. Every concept they use tend to make us believe in a simple programmatical extension, in a development due to the movements of history but as soon as one looks a little more carefully, it becomes obvious that the political swing to which every concept have been submitted completely distorts their original revolutionary content.

From the very beginning of the book, the authors speak clear. They start with relating some aspects of capitalism history and of class struggle and they try to demonstrate the present omnipotence of capital on all aspects of life, but that description of capitalist dictatorship immediately falls in a very proper reproduction of the ruling ideology. So, following all the ideologies that try to sell “new means of struggle” or “new exploitation conditions” to the proletariat, the Negry-Hardt couple desperately tries to portray the present symptoms of capitalist development (monopoly tendencies, fall of the protectionist barriers, strengthening of the free-exchange fraction, increased centralisation of the means of repression, etc.) as the new age of capitalism: globalised capitalism. Where we see the continuity of the capital encroachments, the intensification of the crisis, the progress of capitalist barbary, Negri and Hardt sing along with all those who want to serve once again the same old capitalist shit in a new tureen: for them as well as for Bernstein almost a century ago, there is a “new capitalism”, globalisation. Of course they claim they criticise this “new age” but the problem is that from the very start they open the doors for the justifications and the revision of the proletarian tasks. According to the authors, the new era that is opening -globalisation- calls the proletariat to new tasks. This way, after a series of “Marxist” reasoning and developments, they arrive at totally revising the question of the destruction of the state.

But let’s not go too fast. This terminological stowage to globalisation, to the present bourgeois ideology, only is an aperitif. It would never titillate the interest of the social democrat intelligentsia, which is at work around the antiglobalisation movement, if it was not accompanied by some modernity. We will not stop on their explanation of the change fromthe modern epoch to the post-modern epoch, (nevertheless let’s notice the “perle” defining the Empire as a positive reality that “does away with the cruel regimes of modern power” and let’s not forget the very new symptom of a so-called “renewed interest in and effectiveness of the concept of bellum justum” or“just war” that would be specific to the Empire, as if every imperialist war didn’t try to define itself that way), let’s go directly to their vision of the present struggles.

For the authors, the present struggles “under the Empire” determine “not the appearance of a new cycle of internationalist struggles, but rather the emergence of a new quality of social movements”[7]. It is logical: if there is a new capitalism, there must be a new quality of the social movements! Once again the same old story: with the pretext of new situation one tries to separate today from yesterday by defining “new” characteristics to the present struggles, by giving them a “new” quality, by assigning other tasks to the “new proletariat”, to the “multitude”. In this context, all what can help to analyse the forces and weaknesses of the struggles of the past becomes useless because alien to the nature, the quality of the present day struggles. Today, no more internationalist struggles (because they wouldn’t communicate horizontally, they would directly and vertically attack the summit – the Empire – and bla bla bla) but “radically different” movements[8], “biopolitical” (economic, political and cultural) movements (in the authors’ jargon) determined by a “new” composition of the proletariat and by the appearance of a “new” subject: the multitude and their desires.

“The composition of the proletariat has transformed and thus our understanding of it must too. In conceptual terms we understand proletariat as a broad category that includes all those whose labor is directly or indirectly exploited by and subjected to capitalist norms of production and reproduction. In a previous era the category of the proletariat centered on and was at times effectively subsumed under the industrial working class, whose paradigmatic figure was the male mass factory worker. That industrial working class was often accorded the leading role over other figures of labor (such as peasant labor and reproductive labor) in both economic analyses and political movements … We need to look more concretely at the form of the struggles in which this new proletariat expresses its desires and needs”[9]

Let’s notice that although the “new” subject - the multitude - hasn’t been introduced yet, we already are swimming into the social democrat conception of social classes. The proletariat isn’t described in its movement, as antagonist to the bourgeoisie, to capital; it is not defined by its project, its history, its party, and its struggles. The proletariat remains a simple static object to be analysed in its immobility and its immediate, the same way it is presented by the whole of social democracy, just as Stalinism sees it. According to Negri, the central role previously occupied by the labor power of mass factory workers is today increasingly filled by immaterial labor power and we must “study” its features. Of course, the sociology of this new “central” exploited determines new tasks and new targets.

As we can see, the authors do use (in a static and twisted way) the concept of proletariat but they do so only in the purpose of putting forward its very opposite: the multitude.

And so, one thing leading to another, starting from the exploited worker and the internationalist proletariat, jumping from the industrial labour force and to the immaterial one, they finally arrive at the multitude: “Does that same uncontainable desire for freedom that broke and buried the nation-state and that determined the transition toward Empire still live beneath the ashes of the present, the ashes of the fire that consumed the internationalist proletarian subject that was centered on the industrial working class? What has come to stand in the place of that subject? In what sense can we say that the ontological rooting of a new multitude has come to be a positive or alternative actor in the articulation of globalization?”[10] “Far from being defeated, the revolutions of the twentieth century have each pushed forward and transformed the terms of class conflict, posing the conditions of a new political subjectivity, an insurgent multitude against imperial power.” [11]

This is how, while fiercely claiming “the school of class struggle” and the existence of the proletariat, they take the slope of the “new capitalist conditions” to gently slide down to the “new tasks” and finally, after having passed through the “new political subjectivity”, they end with the dissolution of the proletariat into the multitude. Oops, sorry, the “new” multitude!

The way Negri-Hardt insist on attaching the word “new” to all the concepts, the frequency with which this adjective occurs at every page of the book, are inversely proportional to the “real novelty” of this umpteenth reformist plea for a world of “cooperation”. And the discoverers’ same old symptoms of the “new phases”, “new philosophies”, “new subjects” are back: recuperation of some historical references, description of this world of misery and repression, call to submit to the trendy reformist movements, prediction about a world on the verge to topple… and at the end, no concrete means, no perspectives, no concrete direction for action.

Chapters and chapters about the “world order”, the “decline of nation-state”, the “American sovereignty and the new empire”, the “capitalist sovereignty or the administration of global society” and, when at last, at the end of the book, perspectives are announced… nothing, emptiness!

But let’s marvel at the masterpiece: “It is a matter of recognizing and engaging the imperial initiatives and not allowing them continually to reestablish order; it is a matter of crossing and breaking down the limits and segmentations that are imposed on the new collective labor power; it is a matter of gathering together these experiences of resistance and wielding them in concert against the nerve centers of imperial command…”[12]

After 254 pages of philosophy, the authors finally talk about concrete action, social practice. We arrive to the crucial moment of the book, at the transition between critical theory and practical action, we arrive at the “What is to be done?” at the qualitative step… “This task for the multitude, however, although it is clear at a conceptual level, remains rather abstract. What specific and concrete practices will animate this political project? We cannot say at this point.”[13]

A real chef d’œuvre: 265 pages of “radical thinking” to admit that they have no idea of the “specific and concrete practices [that] will animate this political project”…A confession of powerlessness released with such a cheek that any politician who has to publicly comment the job perspectives of his party would turn green with envy!

Of course, it is not really true because a good reformist must put forward some concrete perspective, and if one manages to overpass the disappointment induced by this confession of powerlessness, he will get some tracks. Negri and Hardt got together to be stronger in their propositions and they kept the best part for the end: “What we can see nonetheless is a first element of a political program for the global multitude, a first political demand: global citizenship.”[14]

And there it goes! For those who still have doubts about the counterrevolutionary managementist intentions of the authors, here comes the light. Negri & Hardt demand an identity card for all, they call to demand to every state a juridical acknowledge of migrations, they encourage the multitude to request the control on the migratory movements (sic), etc. “The general right to control its own movement is the multitude's ultimate demand for global citizenship.”[15]

If you didn’t understand everything, don’t worry, neither did the authors! It is important to note up to what extend as soon as it leaves the world of the good philosophical intentions,  “lounge Marxism” has no reason to be jealous of the most vulgar reformism. Bill Clinton demanded “a universal health care card”, Toni Negri wants residency papers for everyone, which means “in the first place that all should have the full rights of citizenship in the country where they live and work.”[16]

Let’s give a quick look at work this “creative activity fundamental for the multitude” and let’s leave aside the right for a “social wage and a guaranteed income for all”[17]! Indeed, let’s hurry to the conclusions of the book to directly grasp where the marxologues and other philosophers try to lead us.

Of course, we could ask ourselves if, from the communist point of view, all this is worth reading, analysing and criticising. Some elements of Negri-Hardt’s program are sometimes so ridiculous that it is justified to ask this question. But with “Empire” Negri and Hardt particularly aim at the radical fringe of the antiglobalisation movement: the philosophy of the book is specifically shaped for certain radicality acting around the antiglobalisation movement. And at the very moment when the proletariat will try to get rid of the pacifist and/or anti-organisation ideologies that pollute this milieu, it is at the very moment when the qualitative step making the struggle against capitalism operational will be at stake, that the ideology of “Empire and the multitude” will play the role of rampart and will prevent the development and the generalisation of future breakings. The purpose of flattering the “antiglobalisation movement” is to submit it to its own weaknesses, to entrap it into a spectacular criticism of capitalism, a criticism fed by ideas as well organised and responsible as the demonstrations in which they express themselves. That is to say a “criticism” that never acts.

The “radical” ideologies that tomorrow will break or even paralyse the anticapitalist movement are being created today. So, when the proletariat will show its will to assault private property, people will say that it is not necessary because “Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities” and in this sense, “The concept of private property itself (…) becomes increasingly nonsensical…”; it is “the community that produces and that, while producing, is reproduced and redefined” even if “the juridical and political regimes of private property” that support private property have not been eliminated, and “Private property, despite its juridical powers, cannot help becoming an ever more abstract and transcendental concept and thus ever more detached from reality.” [18]

And this is it! Given that private property does not exist anymore (or almost not), our action can be of two kinds: become aware and make the multitude become aware that private property has disappeared, and then demand the resignation or the departure of the empty shells – the political and juridical regimes - that support it.

“(…) today we participate in a more radical and profound commonality than has ever been experienced in the history of capitalism (…) Our economic and social reality is defined by … co-produced services and relationships.”[19] Given that we live in cooperation, communication and community, the only thing we have to do is to discover that we are the real masters of the world. It is simple, let’s read: “Empire pretends to be the master of that world because it can destroy it. What a horrible illusion! In reality we are masters of the world because our desire and labor regenerate it continuously. (…) in biopolitical society the decision of the sovereign can never negate the desire of the multitude.”[20]

Down with the revolutionary violence! Down with the dictatorship of the proletariat! Down with the organisation of our class into force! We don’t need them anymore, we already are the masters of the world, and the power is unable to deny our desires. The millions of proletarians who are dying of hunger and fear around the world will surely be very happy to hear this! They just began to seriously doubt of the capitalists’ ability to hear their desires. Fortunately, Negri has arrived to wipe their doubts away.

But Negri goes even further: he tries to recuperate Marx’s watchword about the destruction of the State by amalgamating it with the claim for the self-government. Of course, we never thought that Negri could be a state enemy. He even clarified this point publicly in different occurrences. But the revision he does here is simply remarkable: he manages to make Marx say exactly the opposite of what he meant. That’s a real good revisionist job! It is almost as funny as the banknotes of the former “socialist” countries, which had Marx’s face on. Just have a look. Negri & Hardt are explaining that the “Big government is over”. First they insist on the fact that they don’t share the way the “American conservatives” used those terms to laugh at the “democrats”. Nevertheless they pledge that “Certainly, having been educated in class struggle, we know well that big government has also been an instrument for the redistribution of social wealth and that, under the pressure of working class struggle, it has served in the fight for equality and democracy.”[21] The good old social democrat theory claiming that the state would not be the organisation of the ruling class into force but a mere neutral tool that could be used by any class of the society. No comments! But Negri goes even further: this epoch is over. The big socialist and communist governments led to the camps…

Recalling us that 150 years ago Marx already denounced that all revolutions have only improve the state instead of destroying it, Negri explains us that the present mode of organisation of economy makes the assault to the state obsolete, useless, and that the only possibility is the “labor power as a whole capable of constituting itself in government”…which he calls destruction of the state. That’s it! “No, we are not anarchists but communists who have seen how much repression and destruction of humanity have been wrought by liberal and socialist big governments. We have seen how all this is being re-created in imperial government, just when the circuits of productive cooperation have made labor power as a whole capable of constituting itself in government.”[22] Negri-Hardt’s theories have cancelled any reference to revolutionary violence, to the proletariat organisation into force, to the assault to private property… and they now identify the government they yearn for (a government of global citizenship, of active democracy) to the destruction of the state!

It is a heavy trick. But the circle is now closed and we can sum up again the thought of the book: “Empire” seeks all along its chapters to present the world as unified, globalised, subsumed by an imperial order that exert its control everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In that world, all the levels of the pyramid that constitute it participate to its reproduction. The Empire extends its domination over all aspects of social life, but on the other side everywhere “life, desire, community” express themselves. Work is production of life NGOs for instance transform politics into a question that concerns generic life and they spread their action on the whole of the biopolitical space. “Here, at this broadest, most universal level, the activities of these NGOs coincide with the workings of Empire "beyond politics," on the terrain of biopower, meeting the needs of life itself.”[23]

Empire extends its kingdom beyond the nation-state, beyond politics, everywhere and upon everything but it cannot prevent the development of forces developing generic life, and its sovereigns are obliged to obey to the desires of the multitude. Empire and multitude are two simultaneous realities. Property has a mere juridical existence. Everything is put together. There isn’t much left to get to another world. We are close to the conclusion. How? In a pacific way, and of course, without trying to take the “command”, but by self-organising one selves as government.

Will the chapter about militancy be more explicit?

“We should say right away that this new militancy does not simply repeat the organizational formulas of the old revolutionary working class.”[24] Oh yes, we didn’t doubt that we were going towards a “new” militancy! “Militants resist imperial command in a creative way. In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community.”[25] Did you talk about “communisation”? Did you say “self management”?

“There is an ancient legend that might serve to illuminate the future life of communist militancy: that of Saint 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”[26]

Let’s mix with the antiglobalisation movement, with the lovely sisters of the NGOs, let’s work in joy with the priests of cooperation …

“Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis's situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control-because biopower and communism, cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.”[27]

Amen!

Eventually, a lot of abstractions, a lot of religion to in fact worship the present world. Just as Bernstein revealed what social-democracy was doing “silently”, saying “loudly” that violent revolution was an outdated idea, Negri describes the immediate reality of the so-called antiglobalisation movement (in fact, the social-democrat “antiglobalisation” practice and ideology acting within the proletarian movements that attack capitalism) and put words and perspectives on its more reformist content (NGOs, ideology of cooperation, pacifism, charity…). He flirts with its self-management tendencies, praises its worst weaknesses and sells the image of its own misery: lack of revolutionary subject, exaltation of the “refusal”, pacifism, ideology of conscientisation, self-management and self-government, Consequence: his book is an excellent theoretisation of the reformism present in today’s movements.

No revolutionary action, the monopoly of violence in the hands of the state, no attack to private property, value, no confrontation with the antagonist class, no organisation… just a bit of NGOs, some claiming for a worldwide citizenship and a real democracy, a little bit of ethic and confused philosophy, a bit of love for the multitude, a little bit of pity and a lot, a big lot, a great lot of idealism and self management.

So, we begun with denouncing the strengthening of the capitalist control on the human beings and we ended with the claiming for “an organization of productive and political power as a biopolitical unity managed by the multitude, organized by the multitude, directed by the multitude-absolute democracy in action.”[28]

In the very populist tradition of left capitalism and Stalinism (that the authors say they reject), they started from the proletariat and ended up in negating its historical role and praising its dissolution into a pacific and democrat multitude.



[1] “Empire”, p 3

[2]Ibid., p 2

[3]Ibid., p 239

[4]Ibid., p 31

[5]Ibid., p 244

[6]Ibid., p 4

[7]Ibid., p 39

[8]“We ought to be able to recognize that this is not the appearance of a new cycle of internationalist struggles, but rather the emergence of a new quality of social movements. We ought to be able to recognize, in other words, the fundamentally new characteristics these struggles all present, despite their radical diversity.” p 39

[9]Ibid., p 37, 38

[10]Ibid., p 37

[11]Ibid., p 250

[12]Ibid., p 254

[13]Ibid., p 254

[14]Ibid., p 230

[15]Ibid., p 254

[16]Ibid., p 254

[17] Ibid., p 256

[18]Ibid., p 194

[19]Ibid., p 194

[20]Ibid., p 246

[21]Ibid., p 223

[22]Ibid., p 224

[23]Ibid., p 201

[24]Ibid., p 262

[25]Ibid., p 263

[26]Ibid., p 263

[27]Ibid., p 263

[28]Ibid., p 262


CM14.3"Empire" or the modern hiccups of the old revisionism