Twenty years ago, Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri exerted a powerful influence on sections of the left. It presented the idea that capitalism had evolved into a new global order, dominated by supranational bodies such as the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund, with multinational corporations and the most powerful states jockeying for position below. The traditional working class was, they argued, being displaced by a “multitude” as the boundaries between work and life more generally eroded. Their claim was that this multitude was exhibiting new forms of networked protest that would render irrelevant earlier socialist forms of struggle and organisation.
At the time, Empire evoked some sharp criticism, including in a superb article by Alex Callinicos in this journal (www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/2001/xx/toninegri.htm). Now, in issue II/120 of New Left Review, Hardt and Negri look back at the two decades since Empire. The authors make many valid points that would be shared by authors in this journal. For instance, although they overstate the degree to which production is organised through genuinely global production networks, it is undoubtedly true, as they argue, that these forms of production are at odds with increasingly chaotic systems of international governance.
At the same time, they cling to the theoretical framework developed in Empire, underplaying the degree to which capitalist interests and the power of states can fuse to generate inter-imperialist conflict. Moreover, they tend to celebrate the “leaderless” revolts of recent years (although they dislike that label), rejecting the need for a strategic orientation on workers or the need for revolutionary organisations that can draw together and focus the various struggles against the capitalist state. For all their insight, their approach stands in marked contrast to the kind of detailed analysis of the working class and strategies for revolt offered in this issue by Gianni Del Panta for Algeria or Anne Alexander for Sudan.
The subsequent issue of New Left Review (II/121) opens with a long editorial by Susan Watkins, appraising the situation in Britain. This is framed rather differently from our own analysis and draws on the work of Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson associated with the NLR. Nevertheless, Watkins reaches similar conclusions to Charlie Kimber in his analysis of the election in this journal, identifying Labour’s position on Brexit as a major reasons for defeat.
In the latest issue of Science & Society to reach us (volume 84, number 1), Ludo Cuyvers attempts to answer the question: why did Karl Marx’s Capital remain unfinished? It is an enjoyable, scholarly read. Cuyvers rejects the idea that this was simply due to Marx’s poor health, political commitments or intractable theoretical problems—such as the analysis of declining profitability or the transformation of values into prices. Rather, it was a result of Marx’s long-standing perfectionism—he was near incapable of finishing any work, stretching back at least to the 1840s—and his ongoing, extraordinarily wide-ranging reading as he sought to incorporate new material into his research.
Finally, this journal has had a long-standing interest in the political economy of crisis. That interest is shared by the prolific Marxist blogger Michael Roberts. In February, he gave a lecture on “Marx’s Law of Profitability” at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. You can view the slides and follow the content of his talk online: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2020/02/27/marxs-law-of-profitability-at-soas