Empire Burlesque

The profoundly silly book that has set the academic left aflutter.

Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 478 pages, $36.95/$18.95 paper

Empire was the academic press success story of last year. First published in March 2000 (the paperback appeared in August 2001), it has already gone through 10 printings -- a blockbuster even by commercial press standards. It is set for translation into more than half a dozen languages, and discussion of its ideas has jumped from the book review to the style sections of The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.

The book's success is owed partly to the grandeur of its topic -- the nature and trajectory of globalization -- and partly to the glamorous hint of danger brought by one of its authors, Antonio Negri, a former political science professor in Padua who was implicated in the 1978 murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Negri allegedly was the brains behind the terrorist Red Brigades that abducted and killed Moro and was even identified as the source of a taunting phone call to Moro's wife. After a long and complex series of judicial maneuvers, he is under a form of house arrest that would have made Galileo weep with envy, not for murder but for "membership in an armed band." His co-author, Michael Hardt, is a literature professor at Duke University, a school once on the cutting edge of avant-garde cultural studies. Hardt brings to the relationship knowledge of what American intellectuals want to hear as well as a command of the violated English that passes for elegance in the academy.

"Empire" is the name Hardt and Negri give to the system that they believe regulates global flows of information, capital, and people, "the sovereign power that governs the world." More succinctly, they call Empire "the enemy." For communists like Hardt and Negri, who deck out the old party line in rhetoric borrowed from post-structuralist Paris, globalization might seem to sound a death knell, at least if it means the triumph of capitalism and liberalism over centralized state planning and political repression. Their message, however, is one of revolutionary hope. Because Empire depends on both people's emancipation from older forms of repression and on "a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule," this latest and last stage of capitalist oppression is the one that -- finally! -- will dig its own grave.

For all the popular and academic excitement it has engendered ("a bold move away from established doctrine," exclaimed The Nation), the book is a breathtakingly incoherent hash, composed of loopy 1960s utopianism, apologetics for the Soviet Union, paranoia, and sheer blood lust. Neither author appears to have really been prepared to handle a book of this attempted scope. For economic analysis Hardt and Negri have at their disposal only the crudest kind of Marxist boilerplate. Of the growing body of richly detailed work on the cultural effects of globalization, such as that produced by cultural theorist John Tomlinson or sociologist Roland Robertson, hardly a word is breathed.

But in the end, one suspects, Hardt and Negri are not interested in being taken seriously by those actually trying to grapple with the transformations being wrought before our eyes. This is not a book for historians, policy experts, or economists. As the sociologist Stanley Aronowitz admiringly told The New York Times, "The most important thing about Empire is that Michael [Hardt] is addressing the crisis in the humanities, which has reached the point where banality seems to pervade the sphere." This crisis is not, as Aronowitz suggests, general, but rather the crisis of humanities professors on the left, who are starting to bore even each other to death as they pick over this or that text or social practice for signs of racism, classism, or sexism.

Clearly the big fish in these waters have already been landed. As Aronowitz notes, the enthusiasm with which Empire has been met probably owes a great deal to disheartened academics looking for a paradigm that will restore to them the frisson they recall from their first reading of Michel Foucault. Whatever the etiology of this success for Harvard University Press, Hardt and Negri have evidently hit upon what people want to hear. From that one can deduce that as the academic left has grown more insular it has also grown more credulous.

If one had to pick the central fallacy that runs through and makes nonsense of much of what is asserted in this book, the epigraph by French historian Fernand Braudel that heads the first chapter would be a fit choice: "Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state." In Empire, absolutely no distinction is drawn between the operation of free markets and the attempts by governments and their clients to intervene in those markets. For Hardt and Negri, these opposed forces are both capitalism, pure and simple. In this respect, they share the confusion of the protesters who think that by picketing a supranational regulatory body like the World Trade Organization (WTO) they are standing up against free trade.

As a result, the authors get the relationship between capital and government backward. They claim that governments have never done anything but restrict the activities of particular corporations in the name of something they call the "collective capitalist," the abstract embodiment of capitalism's true interests. Thus, numbered among the services rendered by the state to capital are antitrust laws, higher taxes, higher tariffs, and regulatory agencies common in the United States since the Progressive era.

But this is to confuse capitalism itself with the schemes by which particular firms strike bargains with government to further their own interests, usually at the expense of their competitors or of those who might enter the market to become their competitors. Corporations have not been restricted for the good of capitalism; capitalism has been restricted for the good of favored corporations. The shady alliances joined by business and government strike at a cornerstone of capitalism, free markets. But don't tell that to Hardt and Negri, who believe capitalism just barely escaped death in the last century or so only by embracing Progressivist intervention at home and imperialism abroad.

Although it is likely that humanists on the left with no knowledge of economics would be perfectly willing to believe such fairy tales as these without further argument, Hardt and Negri spend a lot of time digging through the Marxist corpus to provide an ample supply of ideas as baseless as their own -- enough, in any case, to give uninformed readers a false sense of intellectual heft.

For example, to breathe new life into the old chestnut about capitalism's need to feed on nondeveloped economies, they approvingly quote Rosa Luxemburg's fanciful dictum that capitalism is "the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and a soil." Well aware that their target audience trusts the words of a martyr like Luxemburg implicitly, the authors never bother to justify such assertions with serious economic analysis, let alone statistics; there is not a single table or graph in the book.

In the midst of one of the bafflingly italicized sections that punctuate the argument, the authors ask, "What would capital be if it had not put its hands on big government and made it work for centuries in its exclusive interest?" What, indeed? Since September 11, such statements that posit a wholly imaginary seamlessness between capitalism and the state have seemed less comic and more ominous. They display the same logic as Osama bin Laden's assertion that the World Trade Center was a legitimate target of war, since those who worked there were furthering the flow of capital and thus were not civilians. To this mind-set (apparently shared by bin Laden, Hardt, and Negri) Cantor Fitzgerald is just a field office of the Pentagon.

But one need not delve into Hardt and Negri's economic pronouncements to find justification for violence. Their belief in violence is openly expressed, starting with the first sentence in the book, a now creepy-sounding line from an Ani DiFranco song: "Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right."

Hardt and Negri identify themselves with "those who are against," magisterially underscoring the comprehensiveness of their indictment by refusing, in this instance, even to identify just what they are against: If you have to ask, they seem to say, you must not really be as against as we are. In any case, they do give some idea of what those who are against must do. "Those who are against, while escaping from the local and particular constraints of their human condition, must also continually attempt to construct a new body and a new life. This is a necessarily violent, barbaric passage....The new barbarians destroy with an affirmative violence and trace new paths of life through their own material existence."

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