A New Communist Manifesto?
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, 2000. Paperback, 478pp, £13.00
Reviewed by Mike Rooke
HAILED BY the New York Times as "nothing less than a re-writing of the Communist Manifesto for our time", and described by the New Statesman as a "zeitgeist book", Empire has had a considerable impact in the academic world. Although co-written by Michael Hardt, it has been received as very much the inspiration of Antonio Negri. John Kraniauskas in Radical Philosophy (September/October 2000) described Empire as marking the transition of Negri "from the margins of Anglo-American libertarian Marxist thought into the domain of transnational cultural theory and criticism".
The emphasis on Negri is not surprising – this book bears all the hallmarks of his thought. Negri is perhaps the best known representative of the school of Autonomist Marxism which originated in Italy in the late ’60s. The struggles of workers, students and women outside the control of the official labour movement organisations (trades unions and PCI), stimulated new conceptions of class struggle and communism. Besides Negri, it included such figures as Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa. Negri was himself accused by the Italian state of involvement with the Red Brigades in the ’70s, and spent 14 years in exile in France before voluntarily returning to Italy where he remains imprisoned today. Negri’s weightiest contribution to Marxist theory was a critical analysis of Marx’s Grundrisse (Marx Beyond Marx, published in 1984). Michael Hardt, an American academic with a background in literature, met Negri in Paris in the ’80s and a political collaboration began which led to their joint work, The Labour of Dionysus, published in 1994.
Autonomist Marxism emerged in direct reaction to the ossified orthodox Marxism of the Communist Parties. This orthodoxy rested on a view of capital as a force which evolved according to its own logic, with labour a derivative and reactive category. Drawing on Marx’s early writings on alienated labour, the Autonomists placed labour and class struggle back at the heart of what capital is, and how it develops. Tronti drew a comparison between the orthodoxy and the new critique in the following way: "we too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and that beginning is the class struggle of the working class."1
This reinstated labour as the active subject in production. Through the resistance of labour, capital is forced to continually reorganise the accumulation process, bringing about the recomposition of the class and thereby its forms of struggle. Much of the early work by the Autonomist Marxists consisted in charting these cycles of struggle and recomposition, and the forms of working class organisation specific to each. Autonomist Marxism also identified all forms of state socialism (from left variants of Social Democracy to the Communist Parties) as rooted in the regime of work (i.e. labour in the service of capital accumulation), and therefore antagonistic to autonomous working class action. It championed the "refusal" of work signalled in the militant struggles of the ’60s/’70s, and opposed the attempts of the official leaders of the working class to sabotage and contain them. Negri’s theoretical work has remained rooted in this tradition.2
For Hardt and Negri (hereafter H/N), Empire is a new world order in the process of formation, not reducible to any single power centre (Empire is a "non-place"), although certainly rooted in the global forces of capitalist production. If transnational corporations and the world market form the basic substratum of this order, bodies like the UN, IMF, WB and WTO (as well as the many thousands of NGOs) make up what they call the "supranational juridical constitution" of Empire (p.31).
This new world order is not just a new stage of traditional imperialism. The conflict and competition between imperialist powers has been replaced by "the idea of a single power that overdetermines them all" (p.9), which establishes a common notion of right and sovereignty, and imposes a "right of intervention" which is universally accepted. While it is argued that the ability of TNCs to "directly structure and articulate territories and populations" (p.32) marks a new phase of capitalist development, the really novel feature is "the biopolitical nature of the new paradigm of power" (p.23). Biopower regulates social life from the "inside", so the system produces not just commodities, but "subjectivities", a power made possible by the rise of the communication industries. This power therefore depends on being "embraced" and "activated" by individuals themselves.
The concept of biopower is developed explicitly from the work of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. In particular it relies on Foucault’s claim that we are in a transition from a "disciplinary society", where control relied on the backup of the prison and asylums, etc, to a "society of control" where the mechanisms of command become more "democratic" and "interiorized" (communication systems, information networks). But the interiorized nature of this power renders Empire vulnerable by generating "biopolitical" struggles that possess an anti-capitalist logic: they become "struggles over the form of life". In the form of the "multitude" (as the manifestation of "biopolitical self-organisation" (p.411), which the authors seem to use interchangeably with the terms "proletariat" and "posse" – "what a body and mind can do"), Empire has brought into existence a social force that can potentially replace it: new forms of living and humanity (being) are asserted by this new constituent power. The authors draw attention in particular to human migration as a new, powerful form of class struggle that challenges national boundaries by asserting global citizenship (p.213).
In addition we are told that Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than previous regimes. Because there is no privileged centre to Empire, any struggle anywhere strikes at its heart; paradoxically, the very absence of a constitutional reference point for its opponents renders it vulnerable. There is now no mediation between the multitude and the Empire itself. The nation state, which was once the mediator between Capital and class struggle, now effectively coincides with Capital, leaving Empire the real site of conflict. The authors, falling back on Marx, ground their vision of the possibility of communism precisely on this direct (and unmediated) antagonism between capital and labour. We have moved, they say: "From Imperialism to Empire and from the nation state to the political regulation of the global market" (p.237). Class struggle is "pushing the nation state towards its abolition" (p.237).
Two strands of analysis sit incongruously together here: liberation issuing from biopower, and one issuing from the antagonism of capital and labour. Nowhere in the book are the respective weights, or the precise articulation between the two, satisfactorily explored and theorised. The concept of Empire therefore, which operates as an umbrella concept to permit validity to both these perspectives, invites diverse interpretations. It can be argued that the extent of the global spread of markets means that any one country must increasingly experience the power and influence of capital as values and practices internal to itself, rather than perceiving these as emanating from an external (foreign) imperialist power. To oppose the values of global capital is increasingly to oppose these as internally generated values. Any struggle against it is a struggle against its own value system (because capitalist). The values and logic of Empire have become those of all the constituent parts. While this is one possible reading of the concept of Empire, it does not support the conclusion of a quick demise of the political power of the nation state. Under the rule of capital, politics invariably lags behind economics.
The elaborate arguments marshalled to prove the qualitative transformation of "old" imperialism into Empire are in a very real sense overstated and overwrought. What has been decisive for the global power of capital was the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. This transformed the context of global politics. From that moment on, the unchallenged political-military dominance of American imperialism was secured, and perceived as such by all its opponents, and those excluded from its patronage. The frustration bred by this hegemony (rammed home repeatedly in the West Bank, Iraq, the Balkans, and now Afghanistan) has led inexorably to the strike on New York in September 2001. The military-moral crusade instigated by the US and Britain to de-legitimise (criminalise) any resistance to the western (i.e. capitalist) way of life is however a powerful confirmation of the hubris of Empire described by the authors. But the claim made by the authors that Empire is a post-imperialist phenomenon is simply unconvincing.
Hardt and Negri acknowledge Deleuze and Guattari (radical post-structuralism) and Marx as the models for their work. In this they claim to be going beyond conventional historical materialism, which, they argue, falsely separated ideological phenomena from the realm of production. Deleuze and Guattari provide the means, as they see it, to reunite the two. Their "poststructuralist understanding of biopower" (p.28) specifies the "biological", the "somatic", the "corporeal", as the vital site for the reproduction of capitalist society. This perspective, the authors claim, constitutes a renewal of materialist thought insofar as it focuses on the question of the production of social being. What they retain from Marx is the category of labour, which, it is argued, remains the source of a subjectivity whose essence is communism. This attempt to fuse what are two distinct theoretical approaches points up one of the major failings of the book. A presentation of labour and class struggle that relies on Marx is grafted on to a radical post-structuralist conception of the biopolitical struggle of the "multitude".
The fusion does not work, not only because a convincing connection between the two remains insufficiently articulated, but because the two are ultimately incompatible. The analysis of bio-politics remains at best abstract, and at worst almost mystical. Many passages portraying the nature and dynamic of the multitude are eloquent panegyrics to the spirit of the oppressed of the world, but in the end the actual content of the multitude remains tantalisingly vague and out of reach. The fact is that as a category it is overly abstract, and any precise meaning remains elusive (which may be the whole point of it). Given the nebulous character of the notion of the multitude, Hardt and Negri repeatedly lapse into overblown intellectualism, with phrases like "the teleology of the multitude is theurgical" (p.396) being typical. This irritating style is, I suspect, one of the things that has endeared the book so much to a milieu of "radical cultural critics". The best insights that derive from the concept of the biopolitical could have been drawn from Marx’s understanding of alienated labour, which provided the foundation for the dialectic of labour that flowed through all his later works. The concept of the biopolitical in Empire provides no such dialectic.
But those parts of the book that return to Marx’s presentation of labour and class struggle are equally problematic. A persistent theme of Negri’s work has been that the proletariat and its struggle is the driver of capitalist development: capital must continuously revolutionise the labour process in response to the resistance of the working class. In doing so, the class composition of the proletariat changes and, in turn, gives rise to yet newer identities and forms of struggle. In an elaboration of this approach, capitalist crisis is a function of class struggle.
Echoing this, the authors seek to "identify a theoretical schema that puts the subjectivity of the social movements of the proletariat at centre stage in the process of globalization" (p.235), arguing that it is class struggle that has transformed traditional imperialism into Empire. One strength of this approach lies in the conclusion that can be drawn: globalization is not an expression of the autonomous logic of capital, but a response to the resistance of labour – an expression of weakness rather than strength.
In support of this approach the book draws on a particular view of capitalist development (production regimes and their accompanying forms of working class organisation): pre-Taylorism/Fordism (trade unionism/workers’ councils are the typical forms of working class organisation in this phase), followed by Taylorism/Fordism (the "mass worker" whose mode of self-valorization was the "refusal of work"), and the present period of Post-Fordism (the "social worker"/information economy, with a form of self-valorization through global citizenship and the inherent cooperation of "immaterial" labour). The problem with this, however, is that it gives too much away to currently fashionable sociological schemas, whose reference point is the organisational features of production rather than a value analysis of capital accumulation. The result is (and this a feature of the whole book) an unacknowledged mixing of radical sociology and cultural theory with Marxism that is ultimately incoherent. This becomes very apparent when H/N discuss the "sociology of immaterial labour", arguably one of the most important issues in the book. The discussion is an example of how Marx is borrowed and used by H/N in an eclectic fashion, Marxist categories being used to decorate and add weight to mainstream academic analyses of the information/knowledge society.
It is argued that the passage to the information economy (computerisation) has involved a fundamental change in the nature of labour and production. The key concept employed is that of immaterial labour. This is labour which produces no material goods. It is increasingly more social and collective than previous forms of labour and involves higher quotients of knowledge and communication. In addition there has been a growing "homogenisation" of the labour process, which has made the distinction between productive and unproductive labour more difficult to maintain, and the measurement of labour more problematic.
The notion of the homogenisation of the labour process (more specifically "abstract social activity") is used interchangeably with the quite different Marxist category of abstract labour. The distinction however is never acknowledged. For Marxist value analysis, abstract labour is the result of an exchange mechanism that requires that different concrete labours be reduced to a common denominator (labour in the abstract, measurable by labour hours). Abstract labour therefore is a function of a mode of production based on the exchange of commodities and the accumulation of capital. It is the very foundation of exchange value. What H/N mean by "abstract social activity" however is labour rendered increasingly the same by virtue of the use of information technology. The difference has profound consequences. Whether labour is more or less homogenised is irrelevant to its status as value-producing labour. Furthermore, the labour that results in both material and immaterial goods (services) is still productive of surplus value, and is employed only for that purpose. The labour expended, and the products that result, remain commodities. This is in sharp contrast to current sociological theories that like to imagine we now live in an information/knowledge society that is qualitatively different from the "old" capitalism. So on the topical question of whether the nature of labour and its product has qualitatively changed in the "post-modernist era", H/N suggest that it has. While the immaterial labour thesis clearly has implications for the Marxist labour theory of value, H/N avoid any serious treatment of the question. All they offer is a suggestion (but not an examination) that since labour has become more homogenised, and therefore difficult to "measure", the labour theory of value is no longer relevant.
The lengthy and often verbose descriptions of the multitude also serve to substitute for any focused analysis of capital. Those sections dealing with changes in the capitalist mode of production are only reformulations of already existing Marxist work (Luxemburg is briefly summarised) on imperialism and the global market. When the book deals more specifically with labour (as opposed to the multitude), we are treated to an account of labour in "postmodernity", rather than the latest stage of capitalism. Knowledge, information and communication, we are told, are the primary means of biopolitical production in the postmodern era of Empire, and the key to liberation from it. The essence of the telos of the multitude has to do with "the senses" of language and communication, "linguistic cooperation" having become an immensely productive force (p.405). H/N invoke Marx’s notion of labour as "the general intellect" (labour animated by the powers of knowledge, science, etc) as proof of labour’s liberatory potential. But, as with the passages on capital, they add essentially nothing new to Marx, and end up reproducing fairly orthodox descriptions of the information society.
The use of the notion of immaterial labour by H/N is in fact so imprecise and porous that its meaning becomes indistinguishable from that given in the knowledge/information society paradigm (Thomas Stewart’s Intellectual Capital is a good example of the genre). This paradigm is built on the fetishisation of knowledge and information (never clearly distinguished) as a discrete factor of production. It is seen as a source of productivity and value apart from the human labour whose expression it actually is. The popular notion that workers are increasingly becoming intellectual property owners (and that capitalism has been transcended through its widening of property rights) ignores the fact that knowledge/information is mobilised only insofar as it can be used in the circuits of value production, i.e. in the service of capital accumulation. The fetishism on which the concept of "intellectual capital" is based obscures the still remaining exploitative relations of production. Knowledge has always been inseparable from the labouring act, and the fact that greater knowledge/information is deployed in production (and "services" may involve information as the final product) in no way dissolves capitalist property relations or labour as the source of value. Fetishism is the expression of a mode of production in which the direct producers (all waged and salaried employees) do not control and consciously direct the allocation of social labour. That some workers (more akin to Robert Reich’s "symbolic analysts") control their own knowledge resources, in no way invalidates their subordination to the priorities of value production.
Readers unaware of Negri’s Marxist lineage could well be forgiven for taking much of the book for a radical version of this information society paradigm. Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Age of Access, hints at the demise of markets based on property and their displacement by networks based on access, while in The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age Pekka Himanen discerns the rise of an anti-competitive, anti-monetary ethos that is challenging the Protestant work ethic. The similarities with much of what is said in Empire are striking. H/N do of course evoke the goal of communism as the end towards which the multitude is (unconsciously) leaning. But this is precisely the problem. The evocation is implicit, often presented in very difficult language, thus permitting Empire to be read in politically divergent ways.
H/N argue that the difference between previous forms of labour and the new forms of immaterial labour is that in the former cooperation was imposed from the outside, whereas in the latter "cooperation is immanent to the labouring activity itself". It does not require capital in order to be "activated" and made "coherent". This is the nub of H/N’s analysis – they conclude that this "affords labour the possibility of valorizing itself" and provides "the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism". In a fashion characteristic of autonomism, the implication is that liberation is a spontaneous, dispersed and uncoordinated process. H/N are therefore predictably silent about the conscious and strategically organised break with capital that will be necessary if human beings are to gain control of the world they have created. The result is that Empire’s vision of the liberation of the multitude oscillates between a residual attachment to proletarian struggle on the one hand, and a romantic republicanism on the other.
Utilising a category from Marxist value theory, the central message is that the self-valorization of the multitude through global citizenship (and here H/N enlist some fairly minimalist demands, such as a guaranteed income for all, around which they believe "absolute democracy in action" could cohere) and the spontaneous communism of labour’s collective "social intelligence", constitute a direct challenge to Empire. At this point the greatest weakness of the book becomes apparent. While Negri’s anti-objectivist brand of Marxism has ensured a responsiveness to, and an awareness of, the innovations and creativity of popular struggle, he has at the same time overestimated the power of spontaneous militancy and rebellion to confront and overcome the power of capital. The concomitant of this has been an indifferent, and at times almost dismissive, attitude towards the organised working class that is considered to be irredeemably integrated into capitalism.
So while Empire is, on the one hand, a visionary celebration of the rebellion of marginalized groups, on the other it remains silent on the question of how the constituent power of the proletariat/multitude (equated with communism) might be brought about. Reviewing the history of proletarian struggles over the last 150 years, H/N conclude that these struggles possessed a common language of "proletarian internationalism". The struggles at the end of the 20th century by contrast, while expressing particular anti-capitalist dynamics, are characterised by "incommunicability" – they have no common language. In respect of this lack, H/N tell us that the aim of the book is to "advance one". In answer to their own question – how does the multitude become political? – they admit to having nothing to offer (p.399), and retreat behind a verbal smokescreen: "the processes of ontological constitution unfold through the collective movements of cooperation, across the new fabrics woven by the production of subjectivity. This site of ontological constitution is where the new proletariat appears as a constituent power."
The fundamental reason for this failure is the dissolving of a specifically Marxist conception of class and class struggle into the nebulous concept of "the multitude", a concept that is unable to support or stimulate a concrete, revolutionary perspective. Empire therefore, despite its lengthy forays into constitutional history and political theory, its reminiscences of the proletarian movement, and its references to communism, is largely silent on all the critical questions of political organisation, programme and strategy. These questions are not old-fashioned and irrelevant, because capital has not ceased to exist, or been transformed into something benign, and because political power in all countries of the world is committed to the defence of capitalist property relations. While H/N are clearly not unaware of this, the book still manages to give the impression that going beyond Empire will be the outcome of the organic, and therefore evolutionary growth of the multitude’s immanent communism.
An overly academic and ultimately pretentious intellectual style serves as a cover for the absence of strategic, programmatic thinking, in particular the question of the relationship between revolutionaries and organisations of popular struggle. That the insights in the book, and the breadth of scholarship it displays, are impressive, does not excuse this lack, for the simple reason that the authors regard themselves as communists (in the autonomist tradition, we presume) – witness the proud and defiant description of the "lightness" and "joy" of being a communist which serves as a conclusion to the book (p.413). In Negri’s early work there was much that contributed to and supported the renewal of Marxism as a dialectics of labour.3 This book marks a definite retreat from that period. Empire is a book that ends up facing in opposite directions. Hanging on to a residual belief in the (once?) revolutionary role of the proletariat, but having doubts in the ability of Marxist categories to theorise it, it takes refuge in a romanticism of the multitude – a populist politics of anti-globalisation. This contradiction has resulted in an interesting and, in places, inspiring book, but one that is ultimately incoherent and misleading.
Werner Bonefeld, "Human Practice and Perversion", Common Sense 15, April 1994.
Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, Harvester, 1979.
Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx, University of Illinois, 1999.
Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, The Labour of Dionysus (A Critique of the State Form), University of Minnesota, 1994.
Pekka Himanen, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Secker/Warburg, 2001.
Toni Negri, Marx Beyond Marx (Lessons on the Grundrisse), Pluto/Autonomedia, 1984.
Toni Negri, Revolution Retrieved, Red Notes, 1988.
Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access, Tarcher/Putnam, 2000.
Thomas A. Stewart, Intellectual Capital (The New Wealth of Organizations), Nicholas Brealey, 1998.
1. Quoted in Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p.64.
2. One of the best accounts of the autonomist tradition is to be found in Cleaver, 1979. See also his assessment of Negri’s Marxism in his introduction to Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, 1984. For a critique of the autonomist approach to class struggle see Bonefeld, 1994.
3. In particular the writings collected in Negri, 1988.