Charles Tilly, Columbia University, reviews



Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. xvii, 478

(Review is forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Political Science)


Empire’s dust jacket features a satellite photo of spiraling white clouds above indistinct purple seas. Beyond the earth’s edge, it displays black nothingness. The designer must have read the book. Although Saskia Sassen’s blurb describes it as “An extraordinary book, with enormous intellectual depth and a keen sense of the history-making transformation that is beginning to take shape,” Hardt and Negri orbit so far from the concrete realities of contemporary change that their readers see little but clouds, hazy seas, and nothingness beyond. Behold their central claim: an invisibly virtual Empire (always capitalized and always singular) is now displacing and surpassing the capitalist state – even the United States of America – as the locus of world power. Territorial, racial, sexual, and cultural boundaries cease to matter. “With boundaries and differences suppressed or set aside,” Hardt and Negri declare, “the Empire is a kind of smooth space across which subjectivities glide without substantial resistance or conflict” (198). Moreover, the Empire’s “biopower” extends beyond tools, machines, and organizations to bodies, thoughts, and social life as a whole. Despite existing in no particular place, Empire exercises unitary agency. It advertises itself as history’s eternal end. That claim is false: in a new dialectic, Empire creates its antithesis in a connected multitude (never capitalized, but always singular) whose rising will eventually reappropriate and transform imperial means of control. The organizing argument sounds global echoes of the Communist Manifesto. Unlike Marx and Engels, however, Hardt and Negri consider their redeeming multitude to consist not of workers, not even of persons, but of “productive, creative subjectivities of globalization” (60). Much of the book’s first half glosses 19th and 20th century world history as a shift from European to American imperialism, with the US ended up as the new system’s peace police but not its master. Resistance to American imperialism, in that gloss, destroyed American hegemony by connecting everyone with a worldwide network of capital. In the process, international migration became the principal means of class struggle; exploited people opted out. (Enthusiasm for this argument leads Hardt and Negri to dismiss 19th century Atlantic migrations wrongly as “lilliputian” compared to their late 20th century counterparts; proportionately speaking, the 30 million Europeans and 9 million Africans who crossed the Atlantic exceeded today’s international flows.) Their analysis aligns Hardt and Negri against other leftists who call for resistance to globalization, especially those who advocate local action against global forces. It also leads them to disparage defenders of non-governmental organizations and new forms of international law – including the impeccably leftist Richard Falk – as dupes of institutions whose moral intervention actually advances the imperial work of globalization. As if that shucking off of potential sympathizers were insufficient, Hardt and Negri reject the stirring concreteness of the Communist Manifesto, making a virtue of that rejection. They cast their argument abstractly, in idiosyncratically defined terms, with few concrete illustrations of the social processes they have in mind. They insist, in fact, that the coming of Empire has annihilated all external criteria for judging political systems: “In Empire, no subjectivity is outside, and all places have been subsumed in a general ‘non-place.’ The transcendental fiction of politics can no longer stand up and has no argumentative utility because we all exist entirely within the realm of the social and the political” (353). As Hardt and Negri declare, such a position rules out conventional forms of measurement and evidence. A skeptical reader can nevertheless legitimately question the book’s presumptions and assertions. Given the world’s recent fragmentation, inequality, and internecine conflict, what warrant have we for concluding that it is, as Hardt and Negri claim, rapidly becoming a seamless web of control? What process of capitalist conquest and infiltration could possibly have woven that web? How did capital activate its three alleged means of control – bombs, money, ether – and how did those three means produce their effects on the whole world’s population? Is it true, for example, that expanded communication “imposes a continuous and complete circulation of signs” (347)? Might we not have thought, on the contrary, that the Internet (currently accessible to about 6 percent of the earth’s population, with dramatic inequalities of information available to different segments of that 6 percent) exacerbates discontinuities in the availability of information? Until we hear more about how Empire’s causes produce their effects, it would be wise to retain a measure of skepticism.