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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."