Dec/Jan 2009

Empire Burlesque

The master theorist of the resurgent global left may have been outsmarted by the current economic meltdown. But his all-too-perfect system may never have to acknowledge such real-world inconsistencies.

Scott McLemee


Ten years ago, as the antiglobalization movement began imposing itself on both the windowpanes of Starbucks and the narcotic slumbers of the mass media, there emerged in the United States a certain fable about what was (at the time) the newest New Left. It verged on a belief in the Immaculate Conception.

The fable went, roughly, like this: Protesters in the streets of Seattle and elsewhere were challenging the effects of the worldwide expansion of the free market, and some even identified themselves as anticapitalist; yet the movement itself was for the most part uninfluenced by any doctrine handed down from earlier generations. The age was not just postcommunist but postideological. And so was its radicalism, however contradictory that might seem. The movement was opposed to a system it was not especially interested in analyzing. Spontaneity, authenticity, and passion mattered more than theory. Indeed, the movement had no theory.

Until, that is, it suddenly did, in the form of a book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called (starkly and simply) Empire, published by Harvard University Press in 2000. By the summer of 2001, the New York Times was assuring its readers that Empire was not just the definitive radical critique of globalization but the locus of “the Next Big Idea” that leftist intellectuals everywhere had been yearning for—so “hot” that it was “sending frissons of excitement through campuses from São Paulo to Tokyo.” One felt the need to get jiggy with it.

The spectacle of the Gray Lady in fashionista mode was hardly an improvement on the fallback position of most other critics of the reemergent global left, who continued to dismiss any leftish political formation as an idea-free zone for self-expression. Indeed, these perspectives were, if anything, two sides of the same coin. Each reflected a complete disengagement from the actual efforts at thinking and theorizing then under way. After all, in normal circumstances, journalists and pundits have no incentive to follow the debates in subterranean intellectual provinces—and the latter, for their part, tend not to send out press releases. So the claim that Hardt and Negri had synthesized the most profound of neo-Marxist analyses of the new-world order fast took hold in media circles, in no small part because several aspects of their theory—a free-floating vision of an unmobilized “Multitude” aligning, however inchoately, against a receding, Borg-like “Empire”—seemed, in its broad outlines, at least, to fit the received wisdom about where globalization was headed.

The system Hardt and Negri called Empire, in other words, seemed to have the solvent-grade ability to efface old-style political conflict that globalist cheerleaders like Thomas Friedman had been attributing to the spread of free trade. Empire, in this reading of things, would bring an end to war between nation-states and extend democracy across the globe. Old forms of political sovereignty were giving way to a decentralized but increasingly powerful structure of global financial institutions, transnational corporations, and nongovernmental organizations. And the economy of Empire was driven by the productivity of “immaterial labor” (ideas, creativity, symbolic manipulations, postindustrial services) rather than ruthless exploitation of the sweated variety.

This analysis did not so much resemble Lenin’s strategy of supporting colonial struggles—the traditional neo-Marxian touchstone for reckoning with the spread of empire—as it played off the hope voiced by German democratic socialist Karl Kautsky that a regime of “ultra-imperialism” would emerge from the first World War, knitting the industrialized countries of Europe and America into an irenic alliance that could bring progress to the less favored sectors of the planet. But such doctrinal Old Left positions did not, perhaps, furnish the most salient possible comparisons. There were moments when Hardt and Negri sounded not only like Friedman but like Alvin Toffler on a speculative binge. Still, the elements of an earlier Marxian template were present. As Empire spread across the world, so did the other major player in this grand narrative: the Multitude.

This category (delineated in Empire, then revisited by Hardt and Negri in a sequel, Multitude, in 2004) somewhat resembled an older one, the proletariat in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But its locus of activity was no longer the old-fashioned factory—for now all aspects of human existence were integrated into global capitalism, so that nearly everyone was engaged in some form of social production, however indirectly. A student, for example, was doing the labor of acquiring skills that could be used on entering the job market.

Hence, the scope of the Multitude was vast, and its composition heterogeneous. It embraced both the pierced and tattoed computer programmer in Boston and the refugee in Rwanda who wore the T-shirt that the programmer had donated to an international relief agency. Each struggled for some margin of control, in life and work alike. And so globalization was uniting them in the struggle for democracy within the emerging order of Empire—albeit in the long run.

In the very, very long run.

Four new works by Negri appeared in English in 2008—the year we all found ourselves well downstream from that era when debate over globalization and its discontents took the form of extrapolating long-term trends. The problem now is to find a way through the ruins. I have been studying the books in a state of heightened (indeed, strained) attention—with powers of concentration periodically stimulated and shattered by arteriosclerotic convulsions in the world’s financial markets—but also through tears in my eyes.

They are tears of perplexity and frustration. It is not that Negri’s most recent books pose difficulties, both conceptual and programmatic, that his earlier ones did not. The ambiguities have been there all along, as have the opacities. Still, they seemed poetic—not just in that terms like Empire and Multitude possessed a certain evocative, science-fictional luminosity, but also in something like the root sense of poesis. They did not simply name possibilities; they seemed to create a new thing in the world, if only by inciting the political imagination to new efforts. But the latest books do not have that quality. Negri’s analysis of the emerging system is itself a system—if not a world unto itself—and the movement of his thought is now largely centripetal.

Two of the titles, Reflections on Empire and The Porcelain Workshop, have an explicit pedagogical intent, consisting of “lecture” and “workshop” presentations (respectively) on the conceptual infrastructure of the Negrian system. The other two, In Praise of the Common and Goodbye Mr. Socialism, consist of transcripts of discussions between Negri and an acolyte. With In Praise, the editor and interlocutor is Cesare Casarino, a cultural theorist who teaches at the University of Minnesota— clearly an advanced initiate, making for a volume that is something like a colloquy on the Negrian synthesis. By contrast, Goodbye is a set of topical interviews, with Raf Valvola Scelsi (the editor of an Italian anthology on cyberpunk) posing questions covering political developments from the fall of the Berlin Wall through the World Economic Forum’s series of meetings in the Swiss town of Davos in the mid-2000s.

The ensemble does not break new ground, but rather drives the plow once again through old furrows, digging them deeper. And in time, it scrapes against what seems to be Negri’s bedrock: an almost mystical sensibility. This outlook takes the form of deference to the ethical authority of poverty and to the seldom-grasped political radicalism of love, and there are invocations of the transformational and redemptive role of “the flesh.”

Some of this is moving, when it is not baffling—and the question of the revolutionary left’s relationship with religious belief is certainly more complex than Marx’s oft-quoted but usually misunderstood reference to the “opium of the people” would suggest (one hears little, for instance, of that phrase’s preceding sentence, which describes religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and the “heart of a heartless world”). Negri mentions to Casarino that his initial experience of political activism, in the early 1950s, was as a member of Catholic Action: “We brought the question of class struggle to bear on theology in ways that already anticipated 1960s liberation theology.” But such epiphanies flicker only briefly, amid much longer periods of an almost neoscholastic mode of philosophizing. Revolutionary theory becomes revolutionary practice through the path of contemplation.

This seems an ironic complaint. Thirty years ago, Negri was a leader of the most confrontational wing of the Italian left (if not, as state prosecutors charged, the mastermind of the Red Brigades), and much of his work published since the late 1990s was done in prison, after he returned from exile in France to serve out the balance of a judicial sentence. Arguably, the man has earned the right to his armchair. Perhaps he should even be encouraged to stay in it from now on, lest anyone get shot.

And to be sure, the most recent iteration of his politics is built up around the themes of that earlier radicalism. Negri reconfigures the classic Marxist antagonism between labor and capital by developing a complex social metaphysics erected from distinctions borrowed from other philosophical registers. It takes the shape of an interlocking network of oppositions drawn from Spinoza (the “constituent power” of society versus the “constituted” state), Foucault (the “biopolitical” productivity of human populations versus governmental “biopower”), and Deleuze (the transition from “disciplinary” society, with its panoptic institutions, to the regime of open-ended and insatiable “control”). The result is a somewhat paradoxical fusion of Marxist class-struggle politics with a rather old-fashioned postmodernism (the sort rarely seen, in its pure form, after the late 1980s), which sought to establish an epochal division to separate itself from the social and cultural order of modernity. For Negri, that breach corresponds to a major transformation within capitalism itself, coming somewhere between the upheavals of 1968 and the oil crisis of 1973.

In this schema, laid out and elaborated to varying degrees in all four of the newest Negri translations, the characteristic form of modern capitalism is the factory, and its assembly line is the locus that embodies the pace of work and the division of labor. Class struggle focuses on the desperate need of the capitalist to extract the most labor possible from each moment spent by the worker on the premises, while paying as low a wage for it as can be managed. By contrast, Negri argues that the postmodern mode of capitalism is driven not only by the imperative to exploit its labor pool as efficiently as possible but also by the need to innovate constantly. The factory is no longer its prototypical site—for it ceaselessly reinvents the processes and conditions of production and obliges workers to retrain and relocate themselves, just to keep up.

Much of this is familiar from the literature of postindustrialism. And the postmodern vision of capitalist production tracks to a whole series of social and cultural transformations, including the weakening of labor unions and the fragmentation of working-class communities. It is not a story that people on the left usually tell with enthusiasm. But in Negri’s analysis, the transformations over the past four decades or so of capitalist development came about as efforts to contain and subordinate the capacities of a workforce that grew only bigger and more mobile and more creative all the time. In Goodbye Mr. Socialism, he says that the swarm of the Multitude—i.e., the “subaltern classes”—have “a fixed capital richer than that of the bosses, a spiritual patrimony more important than what the others boast, and an absolute weapon: the knowledge essential for the reproduction of the world.”

That’s all nice to hear—but we’d still like more money. Health insurance would be good, too. As much of Negri’s work at least tacitly acknowledges, the union movement—which has supplied the traditional means for workers to extract an increased wage from those who command the economy—has been kicked in the face repeatedly over the same period of rampantly globalized capitalism. So in the world beyond the reach of Negrian certitude, much of the difference has been made up through credit cards and multiple jobs. Well, not anymore it won’t be. But what will fill the gap? What, as old question goes, is to be done?

The great perplexity involved in reading Negri comes from the sense that surely his concepts must, sooner or later, enter sublunary orbit, and hover over the terrain of politics, and provide something resembling an actual plan of action. But this is not quite what happens. The problem is not that the framework is abstract. Rather, it is that the system is just too beautiful. When actualities run counter to the theory, they are absorbed, and the theory instantly corrects itself by making flaws into features.

The peaceful nature of Empire being the most important example. With sovereign power no longer held by nations—but rather by the decentralized, delocalized, yet panoptically efficient global institutions of Empire—the age of conquest and colonial subjugation came to an end. Mind you, this shift did not imply that the days of military force had passed—but that henceforth all wars would be, in essence, civil wars within the common space of the world order.

Clearly, someone at the Pentagon did not get the memo. But that is not, it seems, a problem with the schema: “Iraq was the American attempt to get its hands on Empire,” Negri tells Scelsi, “an attempt at a coup d’état by means of permanent war, now a constitutive element of imperial development.” In response, “the global order is configured more and more against American hegemony.” The resistance is manifesting itself through “powers diffused and consolidated around four or five continental poles.”

Which sounds rather like the argument that the world has returned to its condition circa early 1914—a set of great powers, a system in which a handful of supersovereignties divide up the geopolitical map. But the devil is in the details. For Negri, the model of the universal, homogenous Empire is still in force. “From the monetary point of view,” he contends in Reflections on Empire, “the United States is increasingly exposed and weakened on the financial markets: and this is also excellent news. In short, in all probability the United States will soon be forced to stop being imperialist and recognize itself as being within Empire.”

Any resemblance to mainline thinkers, such as Fareed Zakaria, who likewise foresee a multipolar— or “nonpolar”—world order of fast-diminishing US influence is quite beside the point. After all, the implications of Negri’s logic are far more wonderful than anything bourgeois punditry would permit itself. For by subordinating the American imperialists to Empire, global depression would actually reduce international tensions. A look back at the geopolitical fallout from the last great global depression in the 1930s does not exactly lend credence to this somewhat sunny view. But the point, in Negri’s view, is that the world has changed.

Of course, it is also possible that the outcome might be a little more dystopian: decades of resource wars, perhaps, with the scarce commodities in question being not just oil but food and drinking water. In that case, expect more attempted coups d’état against the command structure of Empire.

What makes all of this nearly unbearable for the garden-variety leftist reader—and Negri’s work cannot have much of an audience elsewhere on the continuum of political opinion—is that everything grows exponentially woollier the closer it gets to questions of agency. Who, in the system of Empire, has the means and the motive to change things? And why? And how? (Who in particular, that is, for a category so boundlessly capacious as the Multitude embodies the worst features of utopian, counterculturalist, and populist thought, all at once.)

We learn that it is necessary to preserve “the common” from exploitative incursions, with “the common” in Negri’s idiom meaning not, say, public lands, but rather the culture, information, and forms of life created outside capitalist production. This is, even, the definitive axis of struggle for the Multitude: the point around which a new communist politics for the twenty-first century becomes possible.

Here, readerly perplexity begins to compound itself. Negri is not totally wrong. Questions regarding the control of intellectual property are tremendously important. Preserving and expanding the possibility of noncommodified forms of human creativity is sometimes a matter of life and death—as the revolutionaries in Chiapas and during the Prague Spring found in the course of very divergent ideological battles. But so is defense of “the common” in the pre-Negrian sense: the world of shared material resources and human needs. We all have to breathe, for example. The ability to do so for free may not last forever. At the present rate, good air will be a commodity one day, like the gasoline now destroying it.

So is it really the case that—as Negri would have it—struggle over immaterial production is the definitive zone of engagement for the left? Assuming it is still a worthwhile thing to be able to exercise control over certain tangible aspects of the economy—wages, benefits, and working conditions, for example—just where and how is the Multitude to do so? Not through state power, evidently, given that actual sovereignty rests in the disembodied Empire. But where does that leave us? What instruments do we have? Other than free software, that is?

“I want a Left that knows how to swim in the sea that we have in front of us and in which each of us is immersed,” says Negri in Goodbye Mr. Socialism, “a Left that knows how to reinvent itself.” Yes—and wanting it is a first step. But the sea level is rising, and a few weeks spent reading Negri feel like an advanced course in drowning.

Scott McLemee contributes the Intellectual Affairs column to http://www.insidehighered.com.

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