The Magazine

The Imperial Left

Why American academics love Hardt and Negri's "Empire."

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By FRED SIEGEL and JIM CHAPIN
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by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Harvard University Press, 478 pp., $18.95 paper

SINCE LAST SPRING, the publishing sensation on the American academic left has been Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's "Empire." Its many critics--in magazines from the New Republic to the New Criterion--have consistently denounced the book as morally loathsome and intellectually shallow.

But, somehow, "Empire" managed to keep rolling on: Touted this summer by the New York Times as "The Next Big Idea," it recently reached its tenth printing, and it is still being read and praised on campuses across America.

That's a very curious thing, for every year brings dozens of new books written in dense academese that take for granted the evils of the present world system, and most of them vanish without a trace. What "Empire"'s critics have missed, in general, is the function that the book is performing for its readers--the frisson that it brings in its wake--which has allowed it to succeed where so many of its predecessors have failed.

We might put it this way. The great question driving Muslim rage is why Islam, which is to its adherents self-evidently superior, is so manifestly inferior to the infidels in economic and military power. So, too, the great question for a large swath of modern leftism, which sees its mix of Marxsant and postmodernist ideas as self-evidently superior to bourgeois America, is why it has similarly been cuckolded by history.

"Empire"--which, as it happens, actually takes up the cudgels for Islamic fundamentalists, along with rioters in Los Angeles, peasants in Chiapas, and everyone else who, whether by happenstance or on principle, seems to stand outside the mainstream of modern life--is a guide for the perplexed, a path, the authors hope, back into relevance for the marginalized academic left. And the beauty of it, from the point of view of its many admiring readers, is that the book offers them a way both to lead the good life as tenured radicals and to bring about the revolution. Like the Muslim militants who struck at the World Trade Center, the authors of "Empire" see America's openness and adherence to the rule of law as something that can be used against the United States.

THE AUTHORS of "Empire" are Michael Hardt, a run-of-the-mill Duke academic, and Antonio Negri, a theorist of anarchist violence in Italy who is in prison for his connection to the murder of the Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. Although Hardt is listed first, this is clearly Negri's book; much of it reads like notes on every book Negri has read in jail. Foucault, Fichte, Fanon, and the Frankfurt School--as well as St. Francis of Assisi, in a crucial cameo role--make their way into "Empire." Spinoza and Schmitt; Kant, Keynes, Kautsky, and Kelsen; Herder, Heidegger, Hilfinger, and Hobbes; Debord and Deleuze: The book is a montage of authors' names used as placeholders for ideas. About the only person who doesn't seem to have had a hand in "Empire" is an editor. In a book filled with such words as aporia, aleatory, alterity, rhizomatic, hybridity, disciplinarity, and materiality, one of the clearer sentences insists that postmodernists "tell us a regime of transversal linguistic relations of production has entered into the unified and abstract universe of value."

This parade of pretentiousness serves a function, of course: confirming for readers, with a wink and a nod, that they are among the knowing ones. But it isn't the style that forces "Empire"'s authors to assert such absurdities as, for example, the claim that Stalinism was not totalitarian. The Soviet Union, the authors tell us, was a "society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom"--while Nazism was just a phase of capitalism.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that a man like Negri, who has never had second thoughts about his role in the murderous Red Brigades, would take this line. Negri wants to present himself as a quasi-religious prophet who reveals how to make the world anew. But that still leaves the question of why so much of American academia would take him seriously when he tries to do it. Surely, in 2001, there are very few people left who won't abandon an author when his defense of Stalin comes along?

The answer lies in the seeming ability of "Empire" to both affirm and deny at the same time, to eat its cake and have it, too--together with its pie, its cookie, its crumpet, and its fruitcake. The book is an unstable mix of insight and incoherence, combining a blandly assumed communism with an anarchist anti-communism in a work stuffed with every standard anti-American clich and yet filled with admiration for American republicanism. It is postmodern in form (the authors insist the book need not be read in any particular order), while its message is curiously anti-postmodern.