Empire built on shifting sand

Issue: 109

Joseph Choonara

The last few years have not been kind to Antonio Negri. Empire,1 his most famous book, produced in collaboration with Michael Hardt, heralded the death of imperialism. The authors claimed that the old logic of warring nation-states had been replaced by a de-territorialised Empire, functioning according to a new global logic of rule. The ink had barely dried before the events of 11 September 2001 and the beginning of a new cycle of imperialist wars. By the time their second major collaboration, Multitude,2 was published in 2004 the authors were forced to find a place
for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq within their theory.

However, their attitude towards these wars has been contradictory. On some occasions they have seen them as an imperialist ‘coup against Empire’. This view led Negri to support a yes vote in the May 2005 referendum in France on the proposed EU constitution. Support for this neo-liberal document would, he argued, heelp create a ‘counterweight against US unilateralism’. At other times they have seen US military might as serving the interests of the emerging Empire, referring to the invasion of Iraq as ‘an attempt at transition, not at colonisation’.

Hardt and Negri welcome the emergence of Empire, seeing it as the terrain for the struggles of a radical new counterpower, the multitude, which both sustains and can potentially overcome the new order. They attack any nostalgia for previous movements and forms of struggle—seeing them as irrelevant in today’s ‘postmodern’ world. The multitude has been widely identified with the forces that took to the streets against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999 and at countless other anticapitalist mobilisations since. But Negri has recently identified other, more curious, allies. A 2004 interview saw him heap praise on Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Nestor Kirchner, the presidents of Brazil and Argentina, who have both provoked anger in their own countries by continuing to drive through the neo-liberal attacks of their predecessors.3

Despite his political contortions Negri remains an influential figure, attracting considerable interest from both the left and the right. Many of Negri’s earlier writings have now been republished. Time for Revolution brings together two essays by Negri, the first written in 1981 and the second at roughly the same time as Empire.4 The essays trace the development of Negri’s thought over the last 20 years. Like many of his writings, they are almost impenetrably dense and difficult works.

The Politics of Subversion, originally written in the late 1980s, is by contrast one of Negri’s most accessible works.5 It takes up many of the themes that reappear in Empire and Multitude, but in a far clearer form. A collection of Negri’s key pamphlets from the 1970s has been republished under the title Books for Burning.6

Alongside these early writings by Negri come several articles and collections attempting to grapple with his work. The Philosophy of Antonio Negri7 contains essays tracing the history of Negri’s thought from 1968 onwards and some responses to his contemporary work. The essays range enormously in quality. Those by Kathi Weeks, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Kenneth Surin, all of whom are broadly sympathetic to Negri, make some interesting comments and criticisms. Steve Wright’s essay on the debates within the ‘Autonomist Marxist’ current that Negri helped establish in Italy in the 1970s is well worth reading. Wright has also written a very useful book on the history of Italian Autonomist Marxism entitled Storming Heaven.8

Debating Empire, a more critical collection of responses to Empire, brings together several thoughtful contributions from left wing writers including Ellen Meiksins Wood, Giovanni Arrighi and Leo Panitch.9 It also reprints Alex Callinicos’s ‘Toni Negri in Perspective’, which first appeared in this journal.10 In a similar spirit of criticism is an essay in the journal Capital and Class by Paul Thompson, entitled ‘Foundation and Empire’.11 Slavoj Zizek, who was enthusiastic about the publication of Empire, has produced a short essay, available online, critical of the strategic weaknesses of Hardt and Negri’s theory.12 One of the most withering attacks on Empire comes from Argentina-based Marxist Atilio Boron. His book, Empire and Imperialism, is at times rather shrill in tone, but Boron does deal with many of the key problems in Empire.13

The wealth of new and republished work by and about Negri makes it possible to trace the development of his thought. In particular it helps explain why Negri has got it wrong on several key questions for the movement. His errors stem both from the trajectory of the Italian movement amid which his politics were shaped and from the strange and eclectic sources of inspiration he has selected in recent years. Lenin famously argued that Marx’s ideas were drawn from all that was best of the 19th century—a synthesis of ‘German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism’. But today, according to Negri’s collaborator Michael Hardt, ‘the orientations have changed and revolutionary thought is guided by French philosophy, North American economic science and Italian politics’.14 As Boron writes, ‘Hardt is right, as long as he is referring to the orientation that guided his own work and not to the sources that inspire revolutionary thought. In fact, both French philosophy and the economic theories that are taught in most business schools throughout the United States play a predominant role in Empire’.15

Italian politics

Negri first came to prominence as a leading theorist of operaismo (workerism), a current of Marxist thought developed in Italy and influential in the explosion of struggles that shook the country from 1969 through to the late 1970s. Operaismo focused on the conflict between capital and labour in the workplace, tracing the emergence and struggles of the ‘mass worker’ inside Italy’s major factories. This emphasis was a refreshing response to the determinist version of Marxism that dominated the world Communist movement at the time. But it came at the cost of downplaying the relationship between workers’ struggles and the objective economic and social context. In particular the strategies adopted by capital were seen simply as a response to these struggles, rather than the result of competition between individual, or groups of, capitalists. This feature of operaismo is preserved in Negri’s contemporary work, in which Empire is a similarly homogenous entity, called into being by workers’ struggles.

In 1969, the year of Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’, which saw unprecedented levels of industrial struggle, Negri helped to found the Potere Operaio (Workers Power) group. Like many far left groups in Italy, Potere Operaio sought to build a presence among factory workers. What distinguished Potere Operaio ‘was its conception of insurrection as a pressing, imminent necessity…if the “party of the insurrection” was not built, it argued, the only possible outcome would be “the general defeat of the movement”.’16 Potere Operaio dissolved in 1973 amid raging disagreements on the meaning of the ‘insurrectionary party’, its relationship to the factory workers and the relationship of these workers to social movements beyond the factory walls. Some of those involved in Potere Operaio would later resurface in armed and clandestine organisations such as the Red Brigades. Others were absorbed within the Italian Communist Party. Some, including Negri, were to form a series of local groups—each with its own history and body of theory—known collectively as Autonomia Operaia.

The high-water mark of influence for these groups was reached in
1977 with a new explosion of student struggles. But by then the tide of workers’ struggles had already ebbed away, replaced by increasingly violent confrontations between Autonomia groups and the Italian state. Ultimately the Italian movement was defeated because the revolutionary left was unable to displace the Italian Communist Party from its dominant position among
the working class. The Communist Party was able to act as a floodgate, holding back the struggle, and then striking a deal with the ruling Christian Democrats to stabilise Italian capitalism.

Negri drew rather different conclusions. Increasingly he looked to other social forces outside the working class. For him the whole concept of the working class had ‘gone into crisis’, and production now took place not in the factories, but across the ‘entire social terrain’. As the working class suffered rising unemployment and a series of crushing defeats, Autonomia became ‘a percolating radical synthesis of various marginalised sectors: students, unemployed and precarious workers, feminist movements and other new social subjects’.17 Negri theorised this shift in emphasis. He developed the idea of the ‘socialised worker’, a working class spread across the whole of society, mirroring the spread of capital out of the factory and into every niche of life. His more recent concept, the multitude, is rooted in the theory of the socialised worker.

The theoretical tools of operaismo helped to shape his response to the defeat. Negri carried operaismo’s subjectivist Marxism to its extreme with his development of the idea of ‘constituent power’. According to this theory, each new cycle of struggle from below forces the restructuring of production so that the ruling power can attempt to once more capture and harness the creative energies of the masses. Each social formation is seen as a response to a previous struggle. For example, the emergence of the mass worker was, for Negri, a response to the struggles of an elite of ‘skilled workers’, whose organisation reached its acme in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

Negri claims that the struggles of 1968 marked an even more fundamental break with the past. Rather than seeking to understand the causes of the defeat of the Italian movement, Negri sought to identify a completely new economic system created in response to the struggles of the mass worker. He took his inspiration from an unusual source.

American economics

Already with his concept of the socialised worker, Negri had rejected the central pillar of Marx’s economics—the relationship between value and labour. As the whole of society becomes a social factory, so the duration of labour becomes unquantifiable and it becomes impossible to reduce specific forms of labour into abstract socially necessary labour. As the 1980s and 1990s unfolded Negri underpinned his new politics with reference to two fashionable right wing theories—the idea of a ‘weightless economy’ developing out of a high tech ‘third industrial revolution’ and, more recently, extreme versions of globalisation theory depicting the death of the nationstate. Today Negri claims that ‘immaterial labour’ has taken the place of industrial labour as the hegemonic form of production that other forms of labour tend towards. Negri’s descriptions of contemporary production will seem unfamiliar to most workers: ‘A gigantic cultural revolution is under way. Free expression and the joy of bodies, the autonomy, hybridisation and the reconstruction of languages, the creation of new singular mobile modes of production—all this emerges, everywhere and continually’.18

[Global corporations are anxious to include] difference within their realm and thus aim to maximise creativity, free play and diversity in the corporate workplace. People of all different races, sexes and sexual orientations should potentially be included in the corporation; the daily routine of the workplace should be rejuvenated with unexpected changes and an atmosphere of fun. Break down the old boundaries and let 100 flowers bloom!19

Exploitation, in the Marxist sense of the pumping of unpaid surplus labour out of workers, has ended. Exploitation today means capturing the creative energies of a joyous, cooperating multitude—who may be inside or outside of the workplace. The domination of dead labour, such as machinery or computers, over living is finished because living (for Negri, intellectual) labour is now dominant. The tool of production is now the brain. Paul Thompson explains how Negri’s thinking parallels right wing accounts of the economic changes since the 1970s:

This appears to be remarkably similar to knowledge economy arguments, which we might briefly summarise in the following way. In the information age, capital and labour are said to have been displaced by the centrality of knowledge; brawn by brain; and the production of goods by services and manipulation of symbols. As a commodity, knowledge is too complex, intensive and esoteric to be managed through command and control. The
archetypal worker in the new economy makes his or her living from judgement, service and analysis… As none of this is calculable or easily measured, it is the inherent property of the producer… This shifts the power balance to the employee, an increasing proportion of whom fall into the category of mobile, self-reliant and demanding ‘free workers’.20

Thompson goes on to provide a detailed critique of the idea of
immaterial labour. Even at the most immaterial end of the labour market, intellectual property regimes allow the commodification of knowledge. And such workers are still subject to exploitation and control centred upon the workplace. Thompson also points to evidence that only 10 to 15 percent of jobs in the US and Britain centre on problem-solving and manipulation of symbols. Indeed, most growth areas involve the creation of large numbers of low skilled, poorly paid jobs. Kenneth Surin points out:

The US Department of Labour’s projections for the occupations that will provide the most jobs for the period between 1994 and 2005 indicate that the ten occupations with the greatest number of new jobs will be cashiers, janitors and cleaners, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, registered nurses,
general managers and top executives, system analysts, home health aides, guards, and nurses’ aides, orderlies and attendants. Only 24 percent of these can be said to constitute middle class and owner or management occupations.21

Far from the workplace ceasing to be the centre of capital accumulation for the ruling class, it plays an increasingly important role in a world of labour intensification and tightening managerial control. The workplace is still the point at which fixed capital necessary for the production of most goods and services is centralised. And it is still the site where surplus value is extracted from workers—the central obsession of capitalists and states— and thus the point at which those opposed to the rule of capital should concentrate their efforts.

Just like his vision of the weightless economy, Negri’s account of
globalisation is almost entirely unsupported by empirical evidence. He writes that: ‘large transnational corporations have effectively surpassed the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states…the state has been defeated and corporations now rule the earth!’22 Boron proposes an alternative relationship between nation-states and the corporations. Looking at the 200
mega-corporations that between them register combined sales greater than the gross national product of all but nine of the richest countries in the world, he notes:

The neo-liberal globalisation ideologists’ rhetoric is not enough to disguise the fact that 96 percent of those 200 global and transnational companies have their headquarters in only eight countries, are legally registered as incorporated companies of eight countries; and their boards of directors sit in eight countries of metropolitan capitalism. Less than 2 percent of their boards of directors’ members are non-nationals, while more than 85 percent of all their technological developments have originated within their ‘national frontiers’. Their reach is global, but their property and their owners have a clear national base.23

French philosophy

Negri’s politics are shaped by the defeat of the movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His borrowed economic theory was shaped by the triumphalism following the restructuring of US capitalism in the 1980s and the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. Having created a Marxism gutted of its central emphasis on the working class, he filled this empty shell with the poststructuralist
philosophy developed by a generation of disappointed post-1968 French intellectuals.

Boron argues that Hardt and Negri’s increasing reliance on poststructuralist philosophers flows from a shared backdrop of trying to come to terms with working class defeat and capitalist hubris. Faced with a system that appears, for the time being, unbeatable:

…a series of theoretical and practical consequences emerge that…are neatly reflected in the postmodern agenda. On the one hand, an almost obsessive interest in the examination of the social forms that grow in the margins or in the interstices of the system; on the other hand, the search for those social forces that at least for now could commit some sort of transgression against the system, or could promote some type of limited and ephemeral subversion against it.24

This concern with subversion and transgression is indeed characteristic of many of the autonomist movements with which Negri is associated. But for Negri, with the rise of post-industrial production and the multitude, the potential for postmodern subversion has spread across the whole social terrain, and across the globe. One might expect Hardt and Negri to explain what such a confrontation would look like. However, what we instead get is a retreat into philosophy and descriptions of the multitude that the authors themselves admit are merely ‘poetic’.

Hardt and Negri also borrow from the poststructuralists, especially Deleuze and Guattari, an eclectic form of expression known as ‘assemblage’. Timothy Brennan writes:

It expresses itself as a gathering of substantively incompatible positions. In Empire’s assemblage, the juxtaposition of figures whose political views are mutually hostile to one another…is presented as the supersession of earlier divisions in pursuit of a more supple and inclusive combination.25

So, in Empire, philosophers such as Michel Foucault or Baruch
Spinoza and revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg rub shoulders with Bill Gates, former US labour secretary Robert Reich and St Francis of Assissi. This form of expression evolved as a rejection of attempts at a ‘grand narrative’ such as Marxism that could hope to explain and help transform the world, or of an agency such as the working class that could carry through such a transformation. For Hardt and Negri this method mirrors the multitude that they describe—a series of heterogeneous, isolated
subjects, coming together to fleetingly act in common. Indeed they have gone so far as to say that the struggles of the multitude have become ‘incommunicable’ and lack a ‘common enemy’.

Their assertion would be contested by most of those who have
attended the great international gatherings and protests of the anti-capitalist movement since Seattle. Here opposition to neo-liberalism and war have become common themes. The world working class may have been traumatised by the impact of neo-liberalism and the defeat of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But, rather than celebrating the much-exaggerated
demise of the working class, the challenge today is to re-engage the growing ideological opposition to capitalism with the potential power that workers still hold. Negri is dismissive of such a project, but offers nothing substantial in its place.

His recent faux pas—over neo-liberalism, the EU constitution and the war in Iraq—stem from his failure to come to terms with either the defeats of the past or the nature of contemporary capitalism. Almost every assertion in his recent writings vanishes into thin air once subjected to even a cursory empirical examination. As for strategy, Multitude ends:

We can already recognise that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living—and that yawning abyss between them is becoming enormous. In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real political act of love.26

With imperialism rampant in the world, multinationals and states wreaking havoc at home and abroad, and global warming threatening our very survival as a species, waiting for an act of political love to save us sounds like bad advice.

1: M Hardt and A Negri, Empire (Harvard, 2001).
2: M Hardt and A Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2004).
3: L Duart-Plon, quoted in A Boron, Empire and Imperialism (Zed Books, 2005), p20.
4: A Negri, Time for Revolution (Continuum, 2003).
5: A Negri, The Politics of Subversion (Polity Press, 2005).
6: A Negri, Books for Burning (Verso, 2005).
7: T Murphy and A Mustafa (eds), The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Resistance in Practice (Pluto, 2005).
8: S Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto, 2002).
9: G Balakrishnan (ed), Debating Empire (Verso, 2003).
10: A Callinicos, ‘Toni Negri in Perspective’, in International Socialism 92 (Autumn 2001), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.
11: P Thompson, ‘Foundation and Empire: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’, in Capital & Class 86 (Summer 2005).
12: S Zizek, ‘Objet a as Inherent Limit to Capitalism’, www.lacan.com/zizmultitude.htm
13: A Boron, as above.
14: As above, p106.
15: As above.
16: S Wright, as above, p143.
17: N Dyer-Witheford, ‘Cyber-Negri: General Intellect and Immaterial Labour’, in T Murphy and A Mustafa (eds), as above, p137.
18: A Negri, ‘Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo’, in Time for Revolution, as above, p201.
19: M Hardt and A Negri, Empire, quoted in A Boron, as above, p48.
20: P Thompson, as above, p80.
21: K Surin, ‘Now Everything Must be Reinvented: Negri and Revolution’, in T Murphy and A Mustafa (eds), as above, p229.
22: M Hardt and A Negri, Empire, quoted in A Boron, as above, p52.
23: A Boron, as above, p46.
24: As above, p102.
25: T Brennan, ‘The Italian Ideology’, in G Balakrishnan (ed), as above, p111.
26: M Hardt and A Negri, Multitude, p358.