The latest communist manifesto

Empire
February 1, 2002

Empire is an interdisciplinary work with an insurrectionary mission. Its appeal to the dissident tendencies in mass consciousness ("the will to be against") and its fundamentalist belief in the militant potential of "the multitude" smacks of a new-age, high-concept communist manifesto. Multitude of the monde , unite! Already the authors have been embraced by the international tribunes of the next big idea as "the Marx and Engels of the internet age". It is easy to see why. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are totally cool. Not only do they talk the talk - the po-mo, cosmo, hetero jive of topia and topoi, alterity and temporality, passages and lineages, de-generation and re-production - unexpectedly, they walk the walk. Hardt is a professor in the literature programme at Duke University, a paradigm case of Richard Rorty's contention that we are all literary critics now. Better yet, Negri, once a political scientist in Paris and Padua, is currently an inmate of Rebibbia Prison, Rome. As street cred goes, for any self-respecting Marxist intellectual, this is truly canonical.

In amplitude and aspiration, Empire echoes Capital . The bulk of the book is devoted to an analysis of the present discontent, Empire (always capitalised, never particularised), and not to the project of resisting it. Resistance is possible, and necessary, but difficult; the possibility, the necessity and the difficulty have all been underestimated or misconceived. The programme offered here is based on three "political demands" - global citizenship, a social wage and the right to reappropriation (something very similar to Marx's "essential human powers" and "free self-activity") - but it is no more than a sketch, as the authors almost concede.

What is Empire? The authors are keen to call it a concept. According to Gilles Deleuze, concepts are meteorites not merchandise. Conveniently enough, for this one is not susceptible to precise definition. The closest we get is a characteristic riff with Orwellian overtones. "The concept of Empire posits a regime that effectively encompasses the spatial totality, or really that rules over the entire 'civilised' worldI Second, the concept of Empire presents itself not as a historical regime originating in conquest, but rather as an order that effectively suspends history and thereby fixes the existing state of affairs for eternity. From the perspective of Empire, this is the way things will always be and the way they were always meant to be... Third, Empire not only manages a territory and a population but also creates the very world it inhabits. It not only regulates human interactions but also seeks directly to rule over human nature. The object of its rule is social life in its entirety, and thus Empire presents the paradigmatic form of biopower. Finally, although the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace."

Empire, therefore, is a really existing (or emerging) condition. But it is also a construction, a set of propositions about the way the world works - and the way we think about that - subsuming more familiar, if polymorphous propositions such as globalisation or world order, and surpassing the sovereignty or hegemony of any single power, however super. Empire is capacious and protean, everywhere and nowhere - decentred and deterritorialised in the jive - even in the mind. Like Big Brother, it is at the same time ethereal and thuggish. The triple imperative of Empire is to incorporate, differentiate and manage: in a word, to endure. To that end it avails itself of various instruments of intervention, ranging from the moral (non-governmental organisations) through the judicial (international courts) to the military (peacekeepers), all of which are to be deplored, if not actively disobeyed.

Empire is cloudy and over-stuffed, but remarkably serviceable. It fits national missile defence. On an even grander scale, it fits the global mobilisation and conscription triggered by the events of September 11 2001. "Crisis is immanent to and indistinguishable from Empire," Hardt and Negri write presciently.

It is, without doubt, a very big idea. But it is not an original one. J. M. Coetzee writes in his prophetic novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980): "One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire:... how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one: I, wading in the ooze, am no less infected with it than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should beI to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolises eternal dominion."

It was not the globe but the towers that toppled, and the madness was virulent indeed.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Empire

Author - Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
ISBN - 0 674 25121 0 and 00671 2
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £25.50 and £12.95
Pages - 478

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