The Empire Strikes Back

What do you do after writing the most popular leftist mindscrew of the decade? A sequel.

If Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contribute anything to the life of public discourse, it will be to persuade some leftists to stop using the words "ruling class" and "working class." Not that there's anything wrong with those phrases. They have the merit of annoying people who don't think either thing exists, and offer a useful distinction: It wasn't until industrial laborers joined the students in Tiananmen Square that the tanks rolled in.

But you can understand why farmers, moms, and suckers who stare into a computer screen for a living don't exactly see their glittering reflections in the jargon of old-school Marxism (and why "the proletariat" has been abandoned for "the people" at any street demonstration). What Hardt and Negri proposed, with their runaway academic bestseller of 2000, Empire, was to replace the old terms, "ruling class" and "working class," with "Empire" and "multitude": the first being a global ruling network with no center, the second being the six billion-odd people who put up with it. The book's chaos-theory Marxism offered the possibility of resistance from every direction, but without the need for class consciousness.

The response was a resounding Keanu Reeves "whoa" from fans of literary theory, scoffs from conservatives, and, after 9/11, a bad-faith search of the book to find anticipatory justification for al Qaeda. (Never mind that Negri, commenting on the mass murders, posited that "we are all New Yorkers.")

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt: It only looks like capitalism is winning
Nora Parcu
Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt: It only looks like capitalism is winning

Equanimity toward violence is a problem on the left, and it represents a hole in the center of Empire's sequel, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. The book outlines the "civil war" within the global system, taking the polite yet amused tone of Stephen Hawking breaking down the universe for us. (Postmodernist alert: The words wasted on renaming abstract concepts in this review are nothing compared to the gobbledy-gooking of the book. And by "nothing" I mean the tendency of a thing not to be there. Etc.) Hardt and Negri proceed to their resistance hall of fame, which is coolly amoral. For them, the "revolts of the African American U.S. ghettos of the 1960s were perhaps the prologue to the urbanization of political struggle and armed conflict in the 1970s."

True, but the riots were also a response to the suppression of the nonviolent insurgency in the South. And wasn't the civil rights movement a "prologue" to the popular church-based struggles of Central America in the 1970s? For the authors, it's as if nonviolence never happened.

My quarrel here, however, is one with voices that are worth listening to. Hardt and Negri deserve an audience among revolutionaries--and suckers who stare into a computer screen for a living--for their simple thesis that "violence can defend society, not create it." A revolution of the multitude must be voluntary, or not at all. Drug cartels, terrorist cells, and guerilla movements all reproduce themselves as dictatorships in the end. What the world needs now is what the authors call "network struggles," the kind of decentralized and democratic organizations that took down communism in Eastern Europe, and helped communists take down apartheid (before the IMF stepped in). For democratic struggle, the authors say, the means become the end.

Negri has been making such arguments for most of his life. As no reviewer failed to point out, he co-authored Empire while serving out a prison sentence in his Italian homeland, having been accused of leading the murderous (and highly police-infiltrated) Red Brigades in the '70s and then convicted on lesser charges. Suffice it to say that some educated guessers believe that Negri never terrorized a fly; others point to him as proof that the WTO protesters want to murder your children.

For me, Negri's appeal is the same as Marx's: Things are going his way! He and his American protégé welcome globalism as the late stage of everything they're trying to defeat, taking heart from the international protests against permanent war. The book references Star Trek, Queer Nation kiss-ins, the writings of Lenin and Max Weber, and the Paris Commune--it's groovy.

All the tools of production you need are in your mind, say the authors. The point is to change your mind.

 
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