Sunday, March 19, 2017

Empire / Hardt and Negri - Summary

Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri tells a story with 2 main characters: the Empire and the Multitude.

1) Empire
Empire is the form of sovereignty that exists under conditions of globalization. Hardt and Negri are responding to the debate over whether global capitalism has caused sovereignty to decline by arguing that while the nation-state’s sovereignty is indeed declining this does on mean that sovereignty per se is declining.

Rather sovereignty has been re-scaled from the level of the nation state to the level of the global. Of course, state institutions continue to exist. But now, when governments intervene to keep the peace, their police forces (whether in Seattle in the US or in Genoa in Italy) act in the name of empire (the US in Iraq) in much the same way that the US judges act in the name of the American people.

The difference is that “America” is a national identity that is articulated to a given territory, while Empire, since it is global, is deterritorialized.  

Empire is an original contribution to debates over the fate of sovereignty in a globalized world.

2) The Multitude
The second main character in Hardt and Negri's Empire is the multitude. Hardt and Negri see the coming of Empire and the imperial world as good news. Both the imperial world and capitalism are oppressive forms of power that are like parasites upon our labor power. The conditions that define Empire will enable the possibility of the overthrow of these oppressive forms of power and the self-organization of democracy.

The constituent power that will constitute this new world of absolute democracy is the multitude. 

As capital reorganizes itself globally to take advantage of a global labor pool and as capital organizes this activity through global communication networks, it gradually crosses the barriers from one nation to another or between home and factory.

By developing increasingly mobile subjects to serve its needs, the imperial world paves the way for a democracy that will no longer be limited by exclusionary national boundaries but will become truly global.

As the protests organized against global capital and a global war on terror illustrate, the very communication networks that are outside national control and that facilitate the movement and fluidity of capital, can also facilitate the self-organization of democratic action at a new global level by a new political subject, the multitude.

Today, revolution on a global scale against capital and on behalf of labor has reentered the academic discourse with the publication of Hardt and Negri’s Empire


In this post-911 era, critiques of nation, nationalism and patriotism are controversial to say the least. Nationalism may be on the skids but patriotism certainly seems to be alive and well in middle America.
Hardt and Negri's critique of nationalism is apt and timely. They anticipated with almost uncanny accuracy the emergence of international coalitions and police forces like those that are operating as we speak.       
In addition to describing the sunset of nationalism, Antonio Negri's book explores the sunrise of globalism.  This phase of their account warrants some critical attention.
Briefly, the book offers an effective argument for globalism as a socio-political singularity; and in this respect, Hardt and Negri diverge from the views of, say, Anna Tsing who portrays globalization as an imagined collection of "hit or miss convergences" rather than a "single claimant as a world-making system" ("The Global Situation," Cultural Anthropology 15 (3): 334).
While their argument for globalism as a real and unified force is intriguing, their argument for the formative role played by popular resistance in postmodern sovereignty is vague
Hardt and Negri open their case in Empire by arguing that nation-state based systems of power are rapidly unraveling under the onslaught of world capitalism.  Globalization cannot be understood as a simple process of de-regulating world markets.

The term ‘Empire’ as they use it refers not to a system in which tribute flows from peripheries to great capital cities (the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire).  Their interpretation of “Empire” refers to a fluid, diffuse, anonymous global network … flows of people, information, and wealth which are too fast, vigorous, and disorderly to be monitored and controlled from a metropolitan, urban control center.

The old conformist idea of empire is that of the existence of a statist world of ruling class and proletariat, of a dominant core and a subject periphery.

This statist world is breaking down and is being replaced by a less dichotomous and more intricate and complicated pattern of inequality.

It is generally thought that if the contemporary world system can be described as an empire, it is because of the overwhelming concentration of financial, diplomatic and military power in American hands.

The overlords of Washington and New York themselves no longer shy away from the word “imperialism,” (or pre-emptive, or hegemonic …etc…) as a description of their planetary ambitions and agendas.


Hardt and Negri reject neoconservative views and any suggestion that America can be seen as an imperialist power in the traditional meaning of the word imperialist.  They argue that Empire (note the upper case form and the absence of any definite article) EXCLUDES any state-based imperialism.

Hardt and Negri argue that the new world order can be seen is almost the same way as we view the old statist, traditional state/city based idea of empire with its constitutionally defined concepts of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy (the Roman Empire is the classic example here).  Monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were mixed together to enable Rome to become the master of the Mediterranean world.
The new world order can be seen as analogous structure:
  • US nuclear supremacy represents the monarchical principle
  • The economic wealth of the G8 and transnational corporations represent the aristocratic principle
  • The internet and the information revolution represent the democratic principle

Reviewers, critics, and supporters of H&N have reduced these three principles down to:
  • Bomb
  • Money
  • Ether


So where do this put us. If we stay with the comparisons of Empire with empire, are we witnessing the rise and ascendancy or global capitalism or are we witnessing the beginning of the end … the decline of global capitalism.

Overall Hardt and Negri think we are witnessing the beginning of the end …

Hardt and Negri do not believe that Empire emerged from the defeat of systemic challenges to capital.

They see the emergence of Empire as a resounding testimony to the heroic mass struggles that shattered the old Eurocentric regime of national states and colonialism.
The conclusion that Hardt and Negri draw in Empire, and this is the main point of their book, is that contemporary globalization (which they term Empire), though it certainly introduces new forms of capitalist command and exploitation, is heartily to be welcomed because it is capital's latest concession to the force of insurgent subjectivity. Though as always (until now) this concession has been provided on capital's own terms, it contains the seeds of another globalization, the counter-Empire of global communism. There should be no nostalgia for the decline of the traditional working class. The political subjectivity that emerges within this phase of history is the most expansive and most fundamental political subject of all: the multitude is about to come into its own.
Hardt and Negri locate their thesis of Empire in an immense historical sweep that runs from the Roman Empire to the present day, across a vast geographical swathe from Europe to the U.S. to the former Soviet Union to all corners of the colonial and postcolonial world, and in a range of disciplines from philosophy to juridical theory to economics.
What makes their approach so productive, and what gives it its power, is that it constitutes a new theory of history, concerned to disentangle the plane of immanence from the plane of transcendence.
In Empire, claim Hardt and Negri, the most dramatic historical transformation is that capitalist command is now also immanent to (and has really subsumed) society; but its hold on production is also now absolutely arbitrary. Hence the ferocity of the interventions we have seen in Iraq and Kosovo--"the pure exercise of command, without any proportionate or adequate reference to the world of life" (391).
It is difficult to discuss in detail all the components of Empire's argument. Central themes, however, include:
·         Hardt and Negri's differentiation of Empire (immanent, mobile, and hybrid) from imperialism (composed of a network of transcendent nation-states, fixed boundaries, and clear demarcations);
·         their rewriting of the history of modernity, isolating both a revolutionary strain initiated by Renaissance humanism (and associated with Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx) and a conservative reaction (associated with Hobbes, Kant, and Hegel);
·         their praise of the expansiveness of the U.S. constitution compared to the rotting aristocracy of Eurocentrism;
·         their use of the Foucauldian concept of biopower;  They borrow this concept of biopolitics from Michel Foucault.  Biopolitics concerns not a way of life but biological life itself – our body as a species, biological processes, and the supervision of a “population.”  Forms of power that arose in the 17th century, according to Foucault, sought to take charge of life.  Forms of knowledge that facilitated this shift in the organization of power include the rise of public health, demography, and eugenics.  In this way the life and health of the population became a central political preoccupation.  Production is biopolitical for H&N but economic production is also biopolitical.  The multitude is a biopolitical form of life that exists purely on the plane of immanence (p 293).
·         their redescription of late capitalism in terms of immaterial labor;
·         their contrast between constituent and constituted power.
Likewise, it would be futile to cover the many questions and problems that the book raises. Inevitably, at every turn Hardt and Negri set themselves up for criticisms and objections.
There is much that would require further elaboration and specification:
·         Perhaps they treat some colleagues/scholars very off-handedly. Descartes and Rousseau, Bhabha and Said are each dismissed in a paragraph or two
·         Can the Second World War be so simply described as "a civil war [between state and multitude] cloaked in the guise of conflicts among sovereign states" (110)?
·         Does the U.S. really always "have to answer the call" for intervention in regional conflicts (181)--what about Israel or Sierra Leone?
·         Is their description of the "multitude of the poor" (157) not a return to the discredited Marxist idea of immiseration in its image of proletarian destitution?
·         Why do they wish to hold on the concept of value (rather than wealth) beyond measure?

But such objections would be missing the point--in part because the point is precisely that in their grand and confident manner, Hardt and Negri have set the stage for a series of potential explorations that could follow up on each and every one of these queries.
It is also worth commenting on the book's tone. Empire is littered with exclamation marks and with the various indicators of absolute self-belief ("in fact" or "actually" this, "really" the other), not to mention the most brutal of put-downs (Amnesty International and Oxfam, for instance, described as "mendicant orders of Empire" [36]).

Let us begin with a brief historical analysis of the two major characteristics of "modernity," namely immanence and distinction.


Immanence, they contend, names the trend that gained strength as the Middle Ages passed into modernity. It refers to the increasingly strong conviction that authority and its allies (truth, virtue, and beauty) are rooted in the world rather than in heaven. Regarding immanence, H&N have overemphasized the hermetic thinkers of the late middle ages and underemphasized the contribution of Augustinian thought to the shaping of modern social life.

Their handling of distinction, both intellectual (reason) and territorial (borders), is balanced and insightful. Moreover, their analysis makes it clear that the role played by distinction in the history of nationalism implicates an array of related concepts, notably culture, race, and gender, all of which help to distinguish external people and experiences from all that is internal and national.  


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