The Imperial Left
Why American academics love Hardt and Negri's "Empire."
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.
Indeed, the book's greatest significance may be its proof that authors and readers with impeccable postmodernist credentials are beginning at last to write off postmodernism as passe. "We suspect," Hardt and Negri write, "that postmodernist and postcolonial theories may end up in a dead end because they . . . [are] so intent on combating the remnants of a past form of domination that they fail to recognize the new form that is looming over them in the present."
This new situation, which the book presents as both a danger and an opportunity, is what the authors call "Empire." They argue that leftists are wrong to see this new form of global domination as merely an extension of American power. Referring to the growth of non-governmental organizations and international courts, as well as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, they see the new empire as being "formed not on the basis of force itself but on the capacity to present force as being the service of right and peace." The analogy that drives the argument is the resemblance they see between today's world order and the Roman empire, which spread the rule of a "universal law" through "just wars." "The contemporary idea of empire," they explain, "is born through the global expansion of the internal U.S. constitutional project."
THE EXPLANATION FOR HOW this new empire works is based on Michel Foucault's argument that modern liberal societies are all the more totalitarian for reducing the use of force. The capitalists rule through what Foucault calls "capillary power," by infiltrating the individual spirit so that people willingly conform to coercive social norms. Modern man, they insist, lives in a "state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity." Empire is Foucault's soft but smothering conformity applied globally.
It is a genuine insight on the part of Hardt and Negri--one of only two in the nearly five-hundred-page book--that postmodernism with its "emphasis on concepts such as difference and multiplicity,...its continual fascination with the new and with fashion," is not only helpless to confront this new situation but unintentionally aids and abets global capitalism. They mock postmodern slogans such as "Long live difference. Down with essentialist binaries." Capitalism, they correctly note, loves difference because it creates new markets. And as for the postmodern love of subjectivity, what could be better suited to advertisers than an appeal to personal desire? "The new enemy is not only resistant to the old weapons but actually thrives on them."
SO HOW, then, can the monster be slain? "Empire" has no single answer, but several contradictory ones. Negri sees the revolt of the Christian poor against Rome as one of the models for the new revolution. Marxists, he notes, have always hated the poor, precisely for being "free as birds." In a section illegibly printed entirely in italics, Negri (who had a Catholic education and has written almost meditatively on St. Francis of Assisi) explains that "only the poor has the ability to renew being. The divinity of multitude of the poor does not point to any transcendence. . . . On the contrary . . . the poor is god on earth, . . . the poor itself is power."
And how will the poor help bring about god's reign on earth? In part by refusing to work. Negri first made his name as the theorist of the violently anarchist autonomista movement, for which all forms of resistance to capitalism--from squatting, sabotage, and wildcat strikes to assassinations, kidnappings, and refusing to work altogether--were equally noble, equally important to the class struggle. Negri turned to anarcho-violence because he felt that the Italian Communist party was merely another version of statism. Sounding almost like free-market techies, Negri and Hardt insist that the growth of network communications means that command-and-control government is no longer possible. At one point they shout in capitals, "it's our turn now to cry that 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS OVER!' Why should that slogan be the exclusive property of conservatives?"
Here, in a nutshell, is the affirm-and-deny feature, the have-it-both-ways function, that has made "Empire" so attractive for certain readers. In a millenarian call to arms, Hardt and Negri tell their dejected academic readers that the rise of empire is, in fact, good news--because it carries with it the seeds of its own defeat. Capitalism is not a success, "it just hasn't failed yet." The postmodern, global empire of capitalism "creates a greater potential for revolution . . . because it presents, along with the machinery of command, an alternative: the set of all the exploited and subjugated, a multitude that is directly opposed to empire, with no mediation between them."
So, for example, one benefit of globalization is that it makes a worldwide anti-globalization movement possible. Asked about the violence during the World Trade Organization meetings in Genoa this past summer, Hardt responded, in an echo of Mussolini, that "all politics is violence."
Or, for an even better example, modern globalizing capitalism's attempt to penetrate the Islamic countries is precisely what allows Islamic radicalism to turn around and strike at the rest of the world in a welcome part of the coming revolution. In their second genuine insight, Hardt and Negri note that Islamism is not traditional Islam but a new ideology--not a premodern religion but a postmodern desire, like that of America's academic irrationalists, to escape modernity in all its forms. "Insofar as the Iranian revolution was a powerful rejection of the world market, we might think of it as the first postmodern revolution."
The closing paragraph of "Empire"--printed again entirely in italics--begins with a paean to St. Francis of Assisi as a man whose devotion to poverty "illustrates the future life of Communist militancy, . . . 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." Perhaps it is appropriate that the book closes as incoherently and as pretentiously as it began, with Negri, the unrepentant theorist of terror, explaining that the coming revolution will bring together "love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being Communist."
THE ORIGINAL APPEAL of "Empire" was that it used a grab bag of Marxist, fascist, democratic, and even Christian ideas both to justify the academic left and to connect it to an anti-globalist movement which seemed to be the major assault on the triumphant liberal capitalism of the last decade. Unfortunately, the book now exists in a world--after September 11--in which the greatest blows against that system have been struck by people who would cheerfully kill not only ordinary, bourgeois Americans, but the authors, anti-global demonstrators, and St. Francis of Assisi as well. What seemed, to many academic leftists this spring, a route out of the swamp of political futility has proved, this fall, to lead back into the same mire--and it has left them dirtier in the process.
Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and a professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Jim Chapin is a columnist for UPI.
November 12, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 9