Foundation and Empire: a critique of Hardt and Negri.

Author:Thompson, Paul
 
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Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire has been translated into ten languages and described as 'the most successful work of political theory to come from the left for a generation' (Bull, 2001); in La Nouvel Observateur, its authors were described as the Marx and Engels of the internet age. The book has become hugely influential, not only as a work of theory, but also as a bible of the anti-globalisation movement. It is as likely to be discussed in the salons of the fashionable literati as in the pages of the Socialist Worker Party's journal.

'Empire' is the label given to the new global order and form of sovereignty over the global political economy that has succeeded imperialism and the nation state. Its apparatus of rule is decentred and de-territorialised, yet capable of incorporating all activities within its domain, managing hybrid identities and flexible hierarchies through its own fluid networks of command. The book's sweep and ambition is huge: the analysis moves across juridical structures and practices and at least seven centuries, and through political and religious philosophy, political strategy and economic theory. Arguably, a number of its excursions--into the history of colonialism, the development of US sovereignty, and the ideas of Spinoza and Machiavelli--are marginal to the main story, which is about governance and power, capital and class.

For all its meanderings, the central project of Empire follows a relatively conventional Marxist mode of discovery: define the enemy and locate the conditions of its reproduction, then identify its gravedigger/s and the material foundations of that power. But the book does not start with the theoretical resources of Marxism. Using the poststructuralist perspectives of Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Hardt and Negri set out the governance and power relations of Empire primarily through the concept of biopower. This is described as a form of power that focuses on the production and reproduction of life, and regulates social life from its interior.

However, unlike post-structuralists, Hardt and Negri are reluctant to remain at the level of discourse and, unlike postmodernists, unwilling to dispense with some notion of 'progress' and agency. Indeed, they are explicitly critical of a purely discursive approach that merely re-reads the past and is unable to grasp the real ontology of Empire, as well as being dismissive of the naive politics of postmodernism, celebrating difference in a manner that liberates the intellectual elite but leaves the dominant power untouched.

Instead, they propose a double methodology--to deconstruct hegemonic languages and structures, and thereby identify, the ontological basis of a constructive alternative power residing in the actual practices of alternative agents of change (p. 47). (1) Marxism, or at least their version of it, provides Empire with its theoretical sinews in this respect, though it is filtered through the discourse of informational or knowledge economies. The book moves uneasily between the identification of new agency and subjectivity in the hidden abode of production (communicative, cooperative and affective labour) and a wider agency--the multitude--that is the ultimate negation of Empire as global regime.

The aim of this paper is neither to follow every twist and turn on that path of discovery, nor to provide a detailed commentary on post-structuralism and Marxism. It is rather to examine how the central features of Empire and counter-Empire are constructed and woven into a narrative. Unfortunately, this tale is deeply flawed, notably by a neglect and misunderstanding of contemporary political economy. The paper argues that many of these flaws are rooted in the political-theoretical current with which Negri has historically been associated.

As Steve Wright's Storming Heaven (2002) reminds us, Negri was prominent in the school of Italian Marxism (2) known as 'workerism' or 'operaismo'. Using the concept of class composition, itself derived from a concrete examination of the changing conditions of labour in the workplace, operaismo identified the rise of the mass worker as the emergence of a pivotal historical figure.

An alternative picture of the new working class from the French view, with its emphasis on technicians and self-management, Italian Marxism drew attention to the struggles of the deskilled or semi-skilled who refused the conditions of work and developed a new, expansive workplace politics. In doing so, it helped to create the conditions for the development of labour process theory (LPT), which has been a crucial resource for critical debates on the workplace and political economy.

A key conduit in bringing these works to the attention of a UK and international audience was the Conference of Socialist Economists (1976). Since that period, LPT, and critical workplace studies more generally, have lost some of their connections to a larger picture of production politics and political economy (see Thompson, 2003). Nevertheless, such theory and research enable a critical reading of Empire, and particularly of its unhealthy and uncritical dependence on mainstream business and management writings on the knowledge economy and knowledge work.

Empire building

The book begins with an account of the new world order, and the terminology is no mere coincidence. Empire takes the juridical categories and constituent instruments of contemporary global governance, and then gives them a very radical twist. At one level, this is no more than the standard leftist template, with the authors referring to a capitalist project to bring together economic power and political power (p. 9): a juridical formation to match the globalisation of production. The idea of the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank as constitutional and political handmaidens to the power of global capital is hardly a new one. Yet we are told that this world order is a complete rupture and 'nothing to do with' the old (p. 35).

What, then, constitutes this newness? The answer, we are told, is that what used to be conflict between imperialist powers has been replaced by a single power or single logic of rule (p. 9)--a totalising social process (p. 10). The capitalist world market is now one machine, with no outside to form a boundary or barrier. A second aspect to its newness operates at the level of ideology and legitimation. Empire is also a global police state, or at least one in which the new order polices the world, with the us as high sheriff, legitimating its actions in the name of human rights and justice.

Contrary to the view that postmodern power needs no master narrative, the imperial machine produces and reproduces narratives to validate and celebrate itself (p. 34). Taken together with the qualitative expansion of the boundaries of the market, such changes mean that the machine is systemic and self-validating. All power is sucked into its framework, including that which is formally a counter-power, such as the large number of nongovernmental organisations: 'It constructs social fabrics that evacuate or render ineffective any contradiction; it creates situations in which [sic], before coercively neutralizing any difference, seem to absorb it in an insignificant play of self-generating and self-regulating equilibria' (p. 34). Elsewhere, Hardt and Negri talk of Empire as a 'smooth place across which subjectivities glide without substantial resistance or conflict' (p. 198).

Through all this wordplay, it strikes the reader that the novelty of the analysis is primarily linguistic. Once the juridical diversions are discounted, what this studied vagueness foreshadows is a foray into full-blown poststructuralist theories of power. 'Empire' as a new form of sovereignty over the global economy draws on a Foucauldian, post-structuralist language of decentred, deterritorialised biopolitical power. In order to explain how the imperial machine is set in motion, Hardt and Negri turn to Foucault, updating his analysis of the disciplinary society.

For all the talk of capitalist production of markets, political economy is redefined as a microphysics of power--'Marx re-written as Foucault', as Callinicos (2001: 40) notes (3). Language orders both commodities and subjectivities; but in a nod to the material world, the role of communication industries is foregrounded (p. 33).

Suddenly, production is presented as biopolitical--an 'uninterrupted circuit of life, production and politics' (p. 64). Companies, states and supra-national agencies, which previously at least had concrete half-lives, are dissolved into the ('paradoxical and contradictory') collective biopolitical body. This shadowy formulation recalls, at one level, the concept of 'social factory' that was developed by Italian autonomists in the 1970s to justify their shift of attention from the workplace where, despite some successes, the Communist party still dominated, to broader community struggles. In other words, the notion that the whole of society is a factory, and is brought under the 'laws' of capitalist development, provided a Marxist gloss on a contingent political tactic.

The exposition in Empire repeats the same message, but in a more Foucauldian form: post-Fordism not only extends the factory to social life, it extends power into every social institution, from the school to the asylum. Reference to power reaching everywhere recalls Foucault's term 'capillary' although, for Hardt and Negri, he did not go far enough. As Wolfe (2000 notes, we are somehow in a post-post-Fordist regime beyond a mere disciplinary society; one in which the individual is completely consumed within the new forms of productive socialisation.

In true post-structuralist manner, this new paradigm of power is seen primarily as a shaper of subjectivities, regulating life from its interior and interiorising social integration within the subject (p. 23). Hardt and Negri extend...

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