Harvard University Press, 478 pp
Review by Tom Gallagher
A specter haunts the globe—the specter of postmodernism?— Slavoj Zizek calls Empire “nothing less than a rewriting of The Communist Manifesto for our time,” and while the Slovenian political philosopher’s assessment is more effusive than most, there’s no denying the buzz that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have created on the radical academic intellectual scene with their take on the world’s “new imperial form of sovereignty.”
Certainly a new release of The Communist Manifesto would come in handy. When Marx and Engels wrote the original, the capitalist system was just starting to go worldwide. Although they concluded with a call for the “workers of all lands” to unite, they began by acknowledging that, so far, it was only Europe that was actually being haunted by the specter of communism. But the world has changed at least three times over since then.
Over the next seven decades, the workers—of Europe, at least— did much of what the Manifesto’s authors hoped. Millions of them thought they saw a new and better world in birth—until World War I set them to massacring one another. When the carnage ended 30 years later, after World War II, the survivors found a world dominated by two nations (and their blocs of to-varying-degrees willing allies), both of which seemed organized to convince the rest of the world that socialism was no longer a valid political option—the U.S. by its propaganda against it and the USSR by its supposed example of it.
Today we find a world that has borne out the analysis of the early socialists—but not their hopes. Capitalism spread worldwide, but it has not been supplanted, and in many places it is rarely referred to in anything but the most laudatory terms. Critical of capitalism are you? You want the Soviet Union back, do you?
Rather than relive the Cold War, its new global opponents have mostly opted to contest capitalism’s “globalization,” rather than capitalism itself, a stance that does not foster theoretical clarity. In this context, it is one of Empire‘s principal virtues to argue that the supranational aspects of the current American-dominated world order have a positive aspect.
“We are by no means opposed to the globalization of relationships as such,” in fact, the authors remind us, “the strongest forces of Leftist internationalism have effectively led this process. The enemy, rather, is a specific regime of global relations that we call Empire.”
The political opportunities created by the fact that “nearly all of humanity is to some degree absorbed within or subordinated to the networks of capitalist exploitation” have become obvious in recent years: the sweatshop labor conditions of third world workers may quickly become a matter of global interest—and of potential global action. Hardt and Negri assert that globalization “is really a condition of the liberation of the multitude.”
In general, Empire encompasses a more penetrating analysis of world politics than most, although it is not clear that adopting the concept of “empire” with all of its preconceived, historical meaning is the best idea. The book recognizes the ambiguities of a situation in which the U.S. has “hegemony over the global use of force,” but sometimes acts more in the interest of Washington’s own political goals and other times more on behalf of the stability of the overall system. The book takes the U.S. Constitution seriously, both in its impact upon American—and therefore international—politics, as well as in the values it proclaims, transcending the typical pro or anti- American debate in appreciating the virtues of the U.S. as well as its faults.
The authors even have some interesting takes on economics, such as their observation that while Marx’s concept of “abstract labor” was just an abstraction—a way of thinking of the comparability and exchangeability of forms of labor that were in reality very different, now “through the computerization of production,” labor in reality “tends toward the position of abstract labor”—very different products may originate in very similar computer keyboard strokes.
But unfortunately, getting to these points is like having to listen through all of Bob Dylan’s religious albums to find that one great song. What the reviews of Empire generally don’t mention is that the book is virtually unreadable. It abounds with things like “a properly poststructuralist understanding of biopower that renews materialist thought.” The authors note, “from the nation state to the political regulation of the global marketÂ…we sometimes quite poorly define what is happening as the entry into postmodernity.” They could say that again.
Again, postmodernism—the occupational hazard of academia. (Hardt teaches at Duke University and Negri is a former Italian academic currently imprisoned on charges dating back to activities with the Workers’ Autonomy group in the 1970s.) For most people modernism means more or less what a dictionary says it is: “the latest styles, tastes, attitudes, or practices.” Postmodernism then, has no practical (or political) meaning unless by “modernism” we mean “Modernism”—a specific set of characteristics attributed to the art or thought of a certain period once modern, but now past.
One story has it that Hardt once went to a lecture on Marx and deconstructionism and couldn’t understand a word. Now he has clearly gone over to the other side. The authors actually use italics on the rare occasions when they revert to the use of plain English, at one point indicating that “postmodernization” might be better referred to as “informa- tization.” Had they chosen to write the entire book in italics and spent more time on the information-based economy and less looking for “ontological referents,” they might have provoked a broader discussion.
The comparison that Zizek made to The Communist Manifesto is, of course, unfair—the authors did not ask for it. But still, I couldn’t help comparing the final words of the Manifesto with those of Empire: “This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being a communist.” I guess I’m happy for them. Z