Book Review of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Empire – Michael Hardt

Book Review of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire was, everyone seemed to agree, a surprise bestseller. A book described as a communist manifesto for the 21st Century is also, perhaps, not a book many would expect to see flying off the shelves.

But sell in buckets it did and Negri, who’d been writing political/theoretical stuff like this for years (see his Time for Revolution for a ten-year-old pre-Empire essay coupled with one that fleshes out the notion of the multitude written almost immediately after Empire), suddenly became something of a celebrity.

But perhaps big sales were not that surprising after all. Massive “anti-capitalist” demonstrations had been builiding – this is pre-9/11 remember – and in Britain books such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo and George Monbiot’s Captive State, had been explaining the issues behind the anti-globalisation slogans and themselves selling well.

But a vacuum seemed to exist for an extensive, coherent philosophical take on where the world was going. Empire sought to fill that gap by asking where globalisation came from, what it means and whether or not it is a good or bad thing: it sought to define modern capitalism and the forces that are seeking to subvert it.

Negri, a Marxist imprisoned for his beliefs (worth reading is The Judge and the Historian about the (extra-) judicial crackdown on Italy’s left) and his involvement with the Italian hard-left, and Michael Hardt, an English literature professor who had previously acted as Negri’s translator (and the translator of an important, though philosophically more arcane, precursor to Empire, Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community) produced a key post-Marxist text (which built on many of the arguments you can find outlined in Nick Dyer-Witheford’s excellent Cyber-Marx, which itself reproduces many of the arguments from Negri’s previous books and from the autonomist tradition of left-wing marxism of which Negri is an important player).

Empire viewed its world through lenses bequeathed to it by the best of the French post-structuralists: Negri and Hardt’s attempt has been to try to apply the sometimes difficult lessons of theorists such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (especially their classic A Thousand Plateaus) and Jacques Derrida to describe a world that has undergone a paradigm switch (in a way not dissimilar to what Thomas Keenan describes, particularly in his chapter on Marx’s rhetoric, in the much undervalued Fables of Responsibility).

But this isn’t the post-Marxism of Laclau and Mouffe: Foucault may be important here, but more important is Mario Tronti, the journal Quaderni Rossi and a whole traditon of principally Italian marxism very usefully delineated in Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven – Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism.

Have they succeeded? Well, there are problems of course. Two criticisms seem hard to avoid: the writer’s view of capitalism is a view of western, computerised, office-based capitalism where communication (and communications technology) rather than production,services rather than products, are at the forefront (but this aspect of the world social system is not one that many people live in); and then comes the ‘multitude’ – it is Negri and Hardt’s key subject, but what/who is it?

Is it simply the working class? If so, then why not say so. If not, then what/who precisely is it? According to Negri and Hardt, this new Empire is the result of the transformation of modern capitalism into a set of power relationships we endlessly replicate that transcend the nation state (so traditional left-wing strategies like anti-imperialism are out as progressive politics).

Vitally, the authors argue that the multitude, through their many struggles, pushed the world to this point and it is the multitude who can push through to a much better world on the other side of globalisation: in an interesting inversion to most Left thought where we are now is seen to be as much victory as defeat. But it is a problematic category to say the least.

Reputedly, Negri and Hardt’s next book is focussed on a more thorough definition of the term – and in the meantime we have Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude.

This is an optimistic, wide-ranging, defiant challenge of a book and Negri and Hardt should be commended on their erudition as much as their vision. While questions undoubtedly remain – and they are debated in Verso’s Debating Empire and The Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (Routledge) – after reading the text, these should not stop the interested reader in coming to, and learning from, this profound piece of work.