A Review Of Hardt And Negri’s Empire


Friday, Oct. 05, 2001

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000)

In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offer what many have already hailed as the next "Big Idea." Hardt is an associate professor of literature at Duke University; Negri is an Italian scholar, former parliamentarian, and political activist currently doing time in a Roman prison. Their project is nothing less than to articulate a master theory for understanding the origins and workings of the contemporary world order, and to imagine ways for those oppressed by that order to overcome it.

They undertake this project in epic fashion, ranging in their discussion from the Roman Empire to the United Nations, from Thomas Jefferson to Michel Foucault, from St. Francis of Assisi to, yes, Islamic fundamentalists.

Hardt and Negri’s thesis is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new world order consisting of global markets and international institutions in which "sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule." "This new global form of sovereignty," they explain, "is what we call Empire."

"Pushing Through Empire"

The authors aim to account for the rise of Empire, to describe its features, and to plot ways for those subject to Empire’s rule — "the multitude," as Hardt and Negri call them, or us — to "push through Empire to come out the other side."

Hardt and Negri observe nascent forms of this "pushing through" in the 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, the Palestinian intifada against Israel, and the labor strikes in France and South Korea in the mid-1990s. They would presumably also add to the list the street protests in Seattle and Genoa during the WTO and G-8 meetings. Although Empire was written before the events in Seattle and Genoa, in July the New York Times ran an op-ed by Hardt and Negri that supported the protestors in Genoa, and Empire is certainly consistent with that support. These, then, are among the early practitioners of Empire’s theory.

As may already be obvious, Empire is not an easy read. Hardt and Negri are avowed leftists (Empire concludes with a paean to "the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist") and they trade in the Marxist, neo-Marxist, and postmodernist ideas and jargon that are common currency in the American and European academy today. Empire thus confronts readers with a bold neo-Marxist agenda that is likely to alienate (no pun intended) those not familiar or sympathetic with such ideas.

Moreover, their expressions of that agenda at times stretch the English language almost to the breaking point. In describing the American idea of sovereignty, for example, Hardt and Negri tell us that "[i]n the process of the constitution of sovereignty on the plane of immanence, there also arises an experience of finitude that results from the conflictive and plural nature of the multitude itself." Come again?

A Potentially Revolutionary New Theory

Still, there are rewards for those willing at least to consider Empire’s neo-Marxist ideas and to indulge its occasional language-distortions (the latter of which are, to be fair, basically part of the job description for contemporary critical theorists). For the intrepid and patient reader, its 400-plus pages outline the architecture of what could end up being a truly revolutionary new political theory.

Empire is the story of the emergence of a decentralized global regime that incorporates and thrives on all earlier forms of opposition to earlier structures of political, economic, and legal power, and that "operates on all registers of the social order extending down to the depths of the social world." Empire is also a call to the "creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire . . . [to] autonomously construct[] a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges."

The devil, however, is in the details. If Empire succeeds, it will be because its broadly articulated thesis is built on a sound assessment of the various ideas, movements, and histories it discusses. This short review by necessity touches briefly on only two of those elements: Empire’s treatment of American constitutionalism, and its discussion of Islamic fundamentalism.

Hardt and Negri on American Constitutionalism

As noted, Empire aims to describe the emergence of the new "imperial sovereignty," which the authors describe as a "decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers." In order to situate the emergence of this new kind of global sovereignty, Hardt and Negri first trace developments in the forms of sovereignty up to the present day. And for them, the emergence of what they call American sovereignty is a key point in that development.

Hardt and Negri describe how the American "constitutional project" brought with it an idea of relatively decentralized and divided sovereignty, in contrast to the monarchic European sovereignties that went before. Embodying this concept of divided — or "network" — sovereignty is the Constitution’s provision for the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

The second genius of American constitutionalism, according to Hardt and Negri, is its "tendency toward an open, expansive project operating on an unbounded terrain." That is, American constitutionalism constantly seeks to expand by incorporating new territory within its reach (hence westward expansion and the Monroe Doctrine in the nineteenth century). In addition, when the territory runs out, American constitutionalism seeks to export its values across the globe (hence Wilsonian democracy, the United Nations, and even the Gulf War in the twentieth century).

These two features of American constitutionalism — the separation and distribution of sovereign power and the constant tendency to expand its territorial and ideological reach — are for Hardt and Negri the United States’ key contributions to the global sovereignty of Empire. As they put it, "[t]he idea of sovereignty as an expansive power in networks is poised on the hinge that links the principle of a democratic republic to the idea of Empire."

The problem, however, is that Hardt and Negri’s account of American constitutionalism is woefully incomplete. One cannot understand the allocation of sovereign power in the United States without appreciating that, in the words of Justice Kennedy, the Constitution "split the atom of sovereignty" between the federal government and the States.

Questions of federalism — of what powers the Constitution accords the federal government, and what it leaves for the States — are at the heart of American constitutionalism, and shifts in the balance between state and federal power have been key moments in American constitutional history. Think, for example, of Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. By neglecting to discuss this "vertical" component of sovereignty in the American system, Hardt and Negri fail to come to grips with a crucial motive force driving that system.

It may be that a discussion of federalism would actually support Hardt and Negri’s ultimate point about the differences between American sovereignty and the sovereignty of the European monarchies that preceded it. But their failure to include such a discussion undermines one’s confidence in this part of their argument, and raises suspicions about what else they may have omitted elsewhere.

Hardt and Negri on Islamic Fundamentalism

In discussing what they describe as the "passage" from the modern, nation-centered world order to the decentralized world order of Empire, Hardt and Negri identify various "symptoms" of that passage. One of those symptoms is the rise in the late twentieth century of religious fundamentalism, especially Islamic fundamentalism.

I first read this part of the book before September 11. At the time, I found it interesting but probably not worth remarking on in a short review. Since then, of course, things have changed, and one inevitably (and properly) reads Hardt and Negri’s brief discussion of Islamic fundamentalism with a different eye.

This part of the discussion is particularly important in light of the attacks of September 11. The point has been made already, but it bears repeating: The "Islam" apparently practiced by the terrorists responsible for the recent attacks is, at best, a serious distortion of the Islam practiced by millions of people around the world.

In Hardt and Negri’s terms, this fundamentalism is based on "original thought": ideas fabricated in response to present world conditions, and then dressed up as part of a religion to which they are in fact utterly foreign. This is a salutary point.

But Hardt and Negri don’t stop there. The inspiration for Islamic fundamentalism’s "original thought," they contend, is "its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony." Without regard to whether such "original thought" is true to Islam, Hardt and Negri appear to applaud it as the "paradigmatic case" of postmodern resistance.

In apparent admiration, they suggest that "[w]hat is novel in the contemporary resurgence of fundamentalism is really the refusal of the powers that are emerging in the new imperial order. From this perspective, then, insofar as the Iranian revolution was a powerful rejection of the world market, we might think of it as the first postmodernist revolution."

Although they don’t explicitly say so, Hardt and Negri here give the strong impression of supporting Islamic fundamentalism, at least to the extent it opposes what they see as an oppressive and exploitative Western world order. Indeed, one senses that Hardt and Negri may view Islamic fundamentalists as exemplars of how to resist the incursions of the existing global order.

If that position were plausible before September 11, it seems entirely untenable now. Indeed, in light of the brutal attacks of that day we may fairly question what, if anything, Hardt and Negri would now modify or clarify in Empire’s discussion of Islamic fundamentalism. We may, in fact, need to know the answer to that question before knowing what ultimately to make of Empire.

Trevor Morrison is a lawyer in private practice in Washington, DC. He previously spent two years in the U.S. Department of Justice, first as a Bristow Fellow in the Office of the Solicitor General, and then as an Attorney-Advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel.

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