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."

Somewhat surprisingly, this passage introduces a brief celebration of offbeat sexuality as one important front in the battle against Empire, in spite of the fact that the liberal societies Hardt and Negri seek to overthrow have been friendlier to kinkiness (at least for the masses, instead of just the leaders) than have their collectivist counterparts, as that new figure on the international stage, the Eastern European porn star, can doubtless confirm. But Hardt and Negri's trivialization of their own argument, while it flatters their audience by telling them they can strike a blow for revolution in the privacy of their own homes, does not obscure the real implications.

Certainly there is not a word in the book suggesting that real violence is ever or anywhere inappropriate. A good many words suggest that it always and everywhere is appropriate. Hardt and Negri explicitly make common cause with "the current enemy of Empire," an enemy "most often called terrorist, a crude conceptual and terminological reduction that is rooted in a police mentality."

Their conception of Empire as a centerless, omnipresent web of relations could be used to vindicate terrorists who seem cruelly arbitrary in their choice of targets: "The construction of Empire, and the globalization of economic and cultural relationships, means [sic] that the virtual center of Empire can be attacked from any point." No matter what you attack, whether it's a skyscraper, a prime minister, or even sexual mores, you attack Empire.

Throughout Empire one finds pronouncements that, if taken seriously, amount to a call to arms against just about everything, since Hardt and Negri maintain that government and corporations are engaged in a sinister scheme against humanity. Not only do "the great industrial and financial powers" exploit the multitude; they also control human life itself, producing "needs, social relations, bodies, and minds," while "in imperial postmodernity big government has become merely the despotic means of domination and the totalitarian production of subjectivity."

"Power is now exercised through machines that directly organize the brains…and bodies…toward a state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity," they write. Worst of all, "we are always…monitored by safety cameras." This is Parallax View's perspective on the world dressed up as serious analysis.

Hardt and Negri's description of what must now be rebelled against relies on paranoia and sheer shrillness of tone, but to account for the tumultuous events that have accompanied globalization they resort to the oddest kind of distortion. In a list of "the most radical and powerful struggles of the final years of the twentieth century," they justly include the events in Tiananmen Square but lump them in with the Rodney King riots ("the May 1992 revolt in Los Angeles"), insisting that both "directly attack the global order of Empire and seek a real alternative"—another approving nod to anarchic violence.

Strikingly absent from the list is the little matter of revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, perhaps because the merited collapse of the latter is an embarrassment they are at pains to explain away. They declare at one point that, just as some are unjustly "called" terrorists, Soviet society was merely "called" totalitarian as a result of Cold War ideology "but in fact it was a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom." At last Gerald Ford's famous declaration that Poland is free has gotten support from the intelligentsia.

Even when discussing the democracy movement in China, Hardt and Negri are palpably uneasy about suggesting that an anti-communist revolt could in some sense be truly "radical." They thus engage in a tortuous argument to show that it really wasn't about what the protesters said it was.

"The struggles at Tiananmen Square spoke a language of democracy that seemed long out of fashion"—seemed so to whom?—and the trappings of the protest "all looked like a weak echo of Berkeley in the 1960s." The protesters only thought they were trying to liberalize China, a goal that, if it had been realized, would have made them into the dupes of Empire, since for Hardt and Negri liberal ideology is just the smokescreen for imperial domination. Rather, the students rallying around the replica they made of the Statue of Liberty were really attacking "the imperial constitution in its generality," not simply the repressive regime at home.

The depiction of the past several centuries offered in Empire is filled with similarly grotesque assertions for which the authors do not trouble themselves to provide much in the way of evidence. Hardt and Negri's fondness for certain aspects of life under Stalin has already been noted. But they do not have any similarly kind words for the United States, where, in the epoch of the great strikes, "U.S. class repression had no reason to be jealous of the various kaisers and czars of Europe."

Again and again, capitalism is indicted for the greatest horrors of our past, without the authors' making any distinction between capitalism and the practice whereby business abandons free market principles to conspire with government. Thus "the ideal type" of modern sovereignty "in capitalist form" turns out to be not the United States but Nazi Germany.

The Pacific branch of the Axis was also just another example of what happened when "capitalist growth took the form of militarism and imperialism." The cause of slavery? Once again, capitalism, "even though capitalism's ideology is indeed antithetical to slavery." For Hardt and Negri, if anyone in a particular nation practices double-entry bookkeeping, then every outrage committed within its borders may be ascribed to capitalism.

The authors may condescend to the allegedly '60s style of the Tiananmen protests, but given their citation of Jerry Rubin in one of their epigraphs ("The New Left sprang…from Elvis's gyrating hips"), that is a move they should be reluctant to make; it only underscores how longingly they themselves look back to the '60s for inspiration. Among the people they cast as the heroes in their historical melodrama, for example, is "the college student who experimented with LSD instead of looking for a job." Evidently the kid who actually took a job to pay for his kicks is just too square to merit inclusion in Hardt and Negri's hall of fame. The obligatory hymn to the Viet Cong gushes, "in an extraordinary feat of unparalleled strength and courage, the Vietnamese combated two imperialist powers in succession and emerged victorious." The fact that this victory required the combating of other Vietnamese goes unstated.

Most reminiscent of the '60s, however, is a kitschy utopianism that underwrites all manner of oracular dicta, odd complaints, and questionable advice to the lovelorn. We are told that "only the poor lives radically the actual and present being," and thus "only the poor has the ability to renew being….The poor is god on earth." This renewal of being will lead "toward homohomo, humanity squared, enriched by the collective intelligence and love of the community."

But before homohomohood can blossom there is much work to do, since Empire has perverted even our relation to the natural world. Hardt and Negri claim that while "we continue to have forests and crickets…they are not seen as original and independent of the artifice of the civil order." If crickets are to be encountered in all their otherness, there must emerge "a body that is completely incapable of submitting to command …a body that is incapable of adapting to family life, to factory discipline, the regulations of a traditional sex life, and so forth. (If you find your body refusing these 'normal' modes of life, don't despair—realize your gift!)" If there are any self-help books meant to empower deadbeat dads, they must sound something like this.

One might suppose that a book offering so many grand pronouncements touching on many academic disciplines would be well documented, but the scholarship in this book is simply a joke. In this regard, Empire calls to mind, by contrast, Martin Van Crevald's The Rise and Decline of the State (1999), a similarly ambitious book whose close arguing and wealth of historical detail put Hardt and Negri to shame. The idea of the latter pair seems to be that the more sweeping the assertion, the less evidence is called for, a rhetorical strategy mastered by the French but only imperfectly realized in the sodden English on offer here.

Hardt and Negri explain, for example, that the Enlightenment would not have happened if Europeans had not needed to distinguish themselves from colonial populations they sought to rule. ("The dark Other of European Enlightenment stands at its very foundation.") The footnote to which one is directed, however, cites only a single 1995 monograph dealing with the relationship between literacy and colonization in the Renaissance.

When they finally get around to explaining the fall of the Soviet Union, Hardt and Negri don't even acknowledge, let alone refute, the argument that socialism is bound to wreak economic havoc by making economic calculation impossible. Instead, they claim the real problem was the Soviets' failure to move to the more fluid managerial practices appropriate to postindustrialism, a thesis they say they share "with many scholars of the Soviet world." Turning again to the footnote, one finds only one concurring authority: Fredric Jameson, the famous Marxist literary critic and Hardt's senior colleague at Duke, who shows up elsewhere as an expert on the attitudes of international workers.

The slovenly index contains no entries for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the WTO, NATO, the European Union, or the G-7, and none of these key organizations of globalism comes in for sustained analysis in the text. (For that matter, there is nothing that could really pass for a detailed analysis of any event or institution in the whole book.) The longest entry in the index belongs, justly, to Karl Marx, whose thought, as supplemented by the work of cutting-edge economists V.I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, is presented as the still-indispensable guide to economics.

As an explanation of globalization, then, or as a blueprint for how such globalization might be overcome, whatever that might mean, Empire does not have much to offer. What it does offer is a repackaging of the past several decades of left-wing academic critique under the umbrella of a new paradigm—new enough, anyway, to allow for a revamping of old arguments by literature professors and other humanists who need to publish. The world as described by Hardt and Negri does not really exist. But it is the world that many humanists may be talking about until the next Big Idea comes along.