Thadeus Russell
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Fall/Winter 2002

In Search of the Postmodern Wobbly
Reviewed by Jefferson Cowie

By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

It is not always clear what the cacophony of progressive voices mean or want when they speak of—or protest—globalization.  There are one-world government types in search of a social clause for the World Trade Organization, and there are communitarians trying to reinvent local sovereignty; there are reds looking for the workers of the world to unite, and greens in search of eco-sustainability; there are industrial workers advocating protectionism, and professors pushing various forms of abstract cosmopolitanism.  Representatives from all of these groups and more might be cheek to jowl in a transnational, multi-issue social movement in the streets of Seattle or Genoa or Porto Alegre, but there may be less political glue holding them together than many would like to think.  Drawn to the demonstrations by a desire to democratize the institutions of the globalization process, their messages and agendas tend toward the complex and contradictory.  As with many nascent social movements, it often seems clear what everyone is against, but some confusion remains as to just exactly what kind of future everyone is for.

Any new meta-analysis of the problem of globalization ought to help us through such centrifugal political forces and can be judged on how well it does so.  Three basic criteria might be used to evaluate such a project:  how well it explains current dilemmas (what’s wrong and what’s right about today); how well it untangles the rise of global modes of production, distribution, and socialization (history); and how well it poses new ideas for the future (where do we go from here?).  Given the incredible media buzz generated on all fronts by the ideas of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—the “Marx and Engels of the Internet age” claims a dust jacket blurb—one might expect these guys to have some answers.  On these three grounds, however, Empire is provocative and innovative on the first, serviceable if predictable on the second, but completely flunks the all-important issue of prescriptions for the future social change.  Despite this, Empire is undoubtedly one of the intellectual events of the season with its many translations, worldwide reviews, multiple printings, and numerous crossovers from academia to intellectual pop.  When the uneven analytical performance is combined with almost five hundred pages of prose requiring advanced degrees in criticism and social theory to penetrate, however, one has to wonder why this book has been anointed “the hot, smart book of the moment,” as Time magazine declared it to be. 

These authors do come with some pretty serious credentials—as well as some weighty baggage.  Antonio Negri is famous, perhaps infamous, as the former political science professor in Padua, Italy, under house arrest after being implicated in the 1978 murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.  Negri has been accused of helping to engineer the terrorist Red Brigades that took Moro’s life and has long been associated with violent ultraleftist movements that have devolved into a sort of

in-your-face-but-without-the-workers communism.  His partner for this project, Michael Hardt, is a literature professor at Duke—a place known for its radical tradition of literary and social criticism—where he codirects a program in Marxism and Society with Frederic Jameson.  Although Hardt had amassed an impressive scholarly record prior to Empire, it is this book that has delivered him to that rare status, an academic celebrity. 

Grappling with these authors’ conceptualization of today’s new global paradigm requires that we first understand what it is not.  Part of the problem stems from their use of the word “Empire,” which, in order to understand the title of the book, readers have to mentally disconnect from that old-fashioned idea, imperialism, a project of that equally antiquated idea, the nation-state.  As European powers sought to extend their economic and political authority into new territories around the modern world, they created a network of imperial conquests that extended state sovereignty to new lands and new peoples in order to exploit new resources and tap new pools of labor power.  To make a complex argument too brief, state and territorial growth were the twin pillars of imperial modernity.  Even though these old-fashioned imperialists also called their domain an “empire,” Hardt and Negri explain that stage of history is all over.  We’re on to a completely new phase of history, what they also call, confusingly enough, Empire.

The authors also label their panoramic vision “imperial postmodernity,” probably a more apt moniker.  Ours is a world in which there is no real power center to the system, they argue, only uncontrolled capital and information flows working through supranational systems that have eclipsed the nation-state.  The new world order is placeless: a “decentered and deterritorialized apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” (p. xii).  First and Third Worlds have been “scrambled;” there is no real center (not even the United States); there are no temporal or spatial limits to its domain; and its goal and economic raison d’etre is control of the production and reproduction of social life.  It is an all-consuming everything, a fluid system of what Foucault called “biopower”: relations that penetrate not just the realms of production, ideology, and consciousness, but the very corporeal self. 

            Hardt and Negri’s theoretical understanding of this form of flexible hegemony self-consciously stems from a crossroads of Marx (“All old-established national industries have been destroyed . . .  All that’s solid melts into air.”) and Foucault (“Life has now become . . . an object of power.”)  While such an intriguing meld of theoretical work on materialism and power relations might be understood with reference to arcane social theory, pop culture analogies might work best.  The authors’ Empire is sort of a cross between Star Trek’s “The Borg” and Hollywood’s The Matrix.  It is the Borg—a flying cube of invading and life-absorbing cyborgs—because it is moving, expanding, all-encompassing, and without center or territory.  Although it assimilates anyone and everything like the Borg, Empire is not based on naked subjugation but on rights guaranteed by U.S. constitutional logic, so it lacks the fascist shock-troop aesthetic displayed by the denizens of the evil intergalactic cube.  In terms of civics, Empire tends toward the popular movie The Matrix, in which everything necessary for physical and mental life is part of a single system.  While the inhabitants of the Matrix mentally live in a world of enlightenment they believe of their own making, their bodies are actually providing fuel for the empire and their productive and reproductive needs have all been drawn into the apparatus.  Resistance is not futile, however; the authors claim that new forms of revolutionary struggle not only become possible in this system but more probable than ever before.

Hardt and Negri’s basic description of postmodern globalization has considerable utility.  Transnational capital has indeed penetrated new space, and it does function in a remarkably flat and fluid—rather than rigid and hierarchical—way.  This new form of world power does seem remarkably totalizing in many disturbing aspects, and it does challenge traditional forms of sovereignty.  The nation-state certainly tends to serve the sprawling and multiple interests of something systemically greater than itself as national leaders seem to have become little more than trade representatives and investment fund managers. 

That said, the authors have grossly overstated their case.  The transition from the sovereign nation-state to Empire is not anywhere nearly as complete as they argue, however, and they underplay a host of intermediary points of redress: local and national governments, labor and environmental organizations, regional trade bodies, and all sorts of nongovernmental organizations.  As a point of civic identity in particular, the

nation-state has a whole lot of life left in it.  The United States also serves as more of a center to the system than they would like to believe, and the tensions between underdeveloped South and developed North remain frighteningly real despite some scraps of evidence of convergence.  As the authors explain, however, the genius of the system is that it is defined by expansion and inclusion—not nationalist domination.  “The concept of Empire is characterized fundamentally by a lack of boundaries:  Empire’s rule has no limits” (p. xiv).

            When it comes to explaining where this colossal system came from, Hardt and Negri are less original and fall back on a widely accepted set of historical factors.   Following a dense but enlightening discussion of modernity, colonialism, and imperialism, they situate the rise of Empire in an array of historical trends including decolonization, the decentralization of production, and the international spread of the “discipline” and logic of postwar capitalism.  Building upon those global transformations, they emphasize two fundamental changes since the 1960s that gave rise to the new Empire out of the ashes of the old regime:  the move from industry to geographically freer forms of information production, and the reduction in the efficacy of the nation for operation of the economy and as a site of protest, redress, and sovereignty.   

While Hardt and Negri’s version of the past and present, no matter how overstated, have merit to them, it is the future that gives rise to the enormous, even fatal, problems with this book.  In a rare moment of contrition, they even admit that the future political task “remains rather abstract” (p. 399).   Choosing to ignore their own moment of doubt, these authors fearlessly proceed to sketch out a threefold agenda for taking on Empire. 

First is the pursuit of “global citizenship” in which the basic constitutional principles are extended to all—no matter where they came from or where they go.  This would allow migrant workers to “reappropriate control over space and thus to design the new cartography”—essentially giving people the same freedom to move as capital (p. 400).   While the politics of immigration has been one of the most volatile and contentious issues in modern politics, they never even touch on the complexities of this most treacherous of political terrains.  Moreover, such an agenda needs to get priorities straight: any future utopia ought to be one in which people are not forced to leave home in order to scratch out a living.

Next in their agenda, Hardt and Negri suggest a “a social wage and a guaranteed income for all.”  This sounds a lot more like proposals from social democrats than revolutionaries, and, given everything else that they have argued in this book, it is unclear who or what state or sovereign is left to ensure such things.  Finally, they seek “the right to reappropriation,” which they define as “the multitude’s right to self-control and autonomous self-production”—a sort of ill-defined anarcho-syndicalism for the information economy (p. 407).  In pursuing this three-part agenda, we can admit that new forms of global sovereignty and transnational protest have begun to emerge, but these authors duck the fundamental conundrum of globalization:  that despite this, national politics will continue to be the place of redress for most of the world’s worker citizens.  They also choose never to address why the very flexibility, ingenuity, and resilience of the system they discuss will not prove a greater match for the militants on whom they pin their fanciful hopes. 

If their agenda is undercooked, they are even less clear on exactly who the agent provocateurs are going to be to achieve these lofty goals.  When it comes to the engine of social change, Marx had the industrial proletariat, Lenin had workers and the party vanguard, C. Wright Mills tossed the whole “labor metaphysic” for students and intellectuals.  Judging by some important silences, Hardt and Negri also believe that organized labor is not all that important to the future of historical change:  as a movement it seems too stiff, too institutional, too old economy to do the job Hardt and Negri want done.  Instead they choose to bank on a vague concept they like to call the “insurgent multitude” as the revolutionary force that will build a new future.  The authors shy away from explaining exactly who the multitude are and who they are not, but they do seem confident that the time for action is right.  They also never come clean on why this multitude might want what the author’s claim they ought to desire, fail to explain how this multitude might go about pursuing their three-point plan, and never even really explain what revolution means. 

The authors’ model for organization and change revolves loosely around the Industrial Workers of the World, the itinerant point-of-production militants of the first two decades of the twentieth century.  The Wobblies’ transient all-inclusive radicalism, they assert, offers the seeds of a “powerful non-place” conceptualization for a “postmodern republicanism” (p. 208).  Within that, they bank on two groups to do the attacking: immigrants (“a specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration” they argue) and “immaterial” (information) laborers who are organized into various forms of cooperative networks that “provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism” (p. 294).  In the end, while the demands of immigrants seem the most potentially destabilizing, they remain, at best, politically diffuse. 

Thus Hardt and Negri remain in search of people not invested in the system, capable of seeing through it, and skilled in using the system against itself.  The reader is left with the image of latter-day cyber militants roaming the postmodern landscape, laptops primed and networked, berets fashionably askew, searching for places where the Empire is vulnerable to penetration or hacking out the right string of code to bring down the system.

When you add up everything these authors are searching for in the political agents for the creation of counterempire, they seem to be looking for people like, well, Michael Hardt and Anonio Negri: smart, networked, scholarly, cosmopolitan, militant, and rootless.  There are no families to feed here, no International Money Fund, World Bank or World Trade Organization to protest, no communities to defend, no concerns about Third World development since the system of Empire is so even and complete throughout the globe.  Indeed, everything has folded back upon itself just a little too much in Hardt and Negri’s analysis—not only is the Empire self-referential, but so are the authors.  In fact, the last few sentences in this bulky text cast a condescending, perhaps adolescent, shadow back across the rest of the project.  They point to the life of St. Francis of Assisi as the model agitator for a “revolution no power will control” that will show the “irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.”  By this point, I was ready for the much smaller and more reasonable irrepressible joy: the right to organize.  In sum, while much of this might be fun speculation for academic theorists, life is considerably more real and complicated for the workers of the world. 

Given that this study is not going to guide us out of the global wilderness, there is still one fundamental issue left to explain: why is this book such a happening?  Hardt and Negri’s glimmers of insight into the functioning of the world system, as substantial as they are in places, are simply not enough to make this book the “Next Big Idea” as a New York Times article described it.  We are left to wonder if this book has become such a phenomenon because it unlocks the secrets of globalization or because it promises to breathe new life into the stale paradigms of the humanities.  Since Empire intellectually fuses economic structure with free-floating postmodern thought, it may help to replace plodding academic criticism with vision and could lead those in search of new scholarly terrain to a temporary promised land.  We can hope that Empire does help academics plot their way out of some of the lifeless cul-de-sacs in which many seem trapped, because when one juxtaposes Hardt and Negri’s grand theorizing with the real battles for global justice taking place out there, we may have to settle for some smaller ideas.