Review of Hardt-Negri

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 24 09:36:06 MST 2001


Where The Sun Never Sets
by J.W. Mason
 
It’s a rare book of Marxist political theory that gets a mention in 
Newsweek, let alone a glowing page-and-a-half review. Though it sits 
uneasily next to the two special issues of Rethinking Marxism devoted 
to the book, the Newsweek squib was representative of the response to 
Empire, which has made remarkable inroads into the more theory-averse 
precincts of American intellectual life in the nearly two years since 
its publication. For better and for worse, it captures well a major 
strand in today’s political thinking.

Empire, a collaboration between jailed Italian Communist Antonio 
Negri and American literary theorist (and, one feels, junior partner) 
Michael Hardt, is an attempt, probably the most fully realized to 
date, at a Marxist read on globalization. Unlike many 
anti-globalizers, North and South, they vigorously reject any 
suggestion that a return to the world of autonomous nation-states is 
possible. They accept the new world order— with its global economy, 
global culture and global police actions—as a given, and, taking the 
longest of long views, seek out the new possibilities it opens up for 
human liberation.

(snip)

Though the master is hardly cited, Empire is a strictly Foucauldian 
work. From the complexities of Foucault’s writing Hardt and Negri, 
like many on the left, have extracted an unrelenting suspicion of any 
formal organization or assertion of collective identity as only a 
more subtle form of domination. Instead, “lateral connections” and 
“networks of relays” must somehow replace democratic government and 
all other forms of delegated authority. Hardt and Negri are right to 
warn against the spurious unities of national or indigenous culture, 
but the Foucauldian lens constrains vision as well as sharpens it. 
Empire has no place for organizations and leaders that arise out of 
oppressed groups and exercise power on their behalf, including trade 
unions, socialist politicians as well as problematic but undoubtedly 
progressive organizations like the African National Congress or Jesse 
Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

In the course of interring the last two centuries of progressive 
politics, Hardt and Negri invoke the Abbé Sieyes’ objection to the 
French Revolution of Robespierre, which sought to subject all aspects 
of human life, even the most private, to the general will. For Hardt 
and Negri, this is a prescient warning against attempts to impose a 
false unity on the multitude. But this isn’t quite right: Like so 
many defenders of limited government since, Sieyes’ goal wasn’t to 
defend individual freedom in the abstract, but to deny the power of 
the collective to interfere with a particular set of privileges. 

There is a real danger that by dismissing class as a basis for 
collective action, Hardt and Negri are simply opening the way for an 
older set of identities based on individualism and private privilege 
to go unchallenged. It’s worth remembering that Negri made his 
political bones in the noontide of the ’60s, when the great challenge 
was pushing up against the limits of social democracy and Keynesian 
economics. Today, he is too quick to dismiss the possibilities of 
national economic regulation.

More generally, Empire’s focus on what has changed ignores all the 
things that have not. One hundred and fifty years ago, Marx was 
already appalled at the way capital converts unique human beings into 
interchangeable instruments of production. But while this alienation 
may operate everywhere, that doesn’t mean it has no center or source. 
Marx emphasized the importance of looking behind the formal equality 
of the marketplace to relations within the workplace, that zone of 
authority and subjugation that one may enter “only on business.” 
Hardt and Negri by contrast make a conscious choice to limit 
themselves to surfaces: “The depths of the modern world and its 
subterranean passageways have in postmodernity all become 
superficial.”

But never mind Marx. Empire is troubling on a more basic level. If 
Empire has no center and no weak links, if any struggle has the 
capacity to “leap vertically, to the virtual center of Empire,” then 
how does one distinguish actions that matter from those that don’t? 
Hardt and Negri seem to be rejecting the very idea of political 
strategy. One might conclude: Forget about strikes and revolutions. 
The conversation in the coffeeshop, the day one calls in sick from 
work, the evening’s sarcastic defiance of the anchorman, tonight’s 
insurrectionary sex might just be the blow that brings Empire to its 
knees.

There is no question that the secret of Empire’s success is its 
denigration of traditional forms of collective politics (along with 
its contrarian pro-Americanism). Rather than the “discipline of 
liberation,” they valorize individual desertion, the Bartlebys who 
“would prefer not to.” It is possible, I suppose, that everything has 
changed, and that the great political projects of the 19th and 20th 
centuries are all dead. But Empire hardly makes a convincing case for 
this. As the B-2s roar out of Whiteman, Missouri on their global 
police actions, neither Empire nor Empire seems to offer much of a 
way forward. 

(J.W. Mason is a freelance writer in Amherst, Massachusetts.)

full: http://www.inthesetimes.com/issue/26/04/culture1.shtml



-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 12/24/2001

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