Alternative kind of guy whips it up in the US

March 4, 2005

Theorist Michael Hardt may be one of the Left's latest academic poster boys, but Rob Singh is unimpressed

In the world of Michael Hardt and his co-author Antonio Negri, the glass is neither half full nor half empty - it is invariably "neither and both". In the post-9/11 intellectual firmament, few works have caused more controversy than Hardt and Negri's Empire , which was at once the least readable and most quoted book on the subject.

The impact of Empire , whose thesis was about a new "network" of power, owed much to a timely combination of the Bush Administration's militarism, global protests against war in Iraq and the radical chic afforded by Negri's imprisonment on charges of inciting violence in his writing. The authors expected their book to be "well-hated" by the Left, but they became the Left's academic poster boys instead, being hailed as the new Derrida and Foucault.

Multitude - Empire's successor - confirms Hardt and Negri's status as the intellectuals' intellectuals. Not for these iconoclasts the drudgery of data analysis or archival research. Such tedium, they believe, represents what is wrong with most political scientists: "merely technicians working to resolve the quantitative problems of maintaining order, and the rest wander the corridors from their universities to the courts of power, attempting to get the ear of the sovereign and whisper advice". Apparently, what the world needs is less political science, economics ("a deeply reactionary discipline") and empirical analysis and more... well, more Hardt and Negri.

Multitude is about empire striking back and striking back at empire. The authors resist empire through challenging the entire edifice of established political philosophy. They seek to reclaim key political concepts that have been corrupted. Multitude's spectacularly self-referential tone is all the greater thanks to the success of Empire. Anticipated criticisms are rebutted, comparisons with Marx are regularly ventured, and the book's opacity remains sufficient to render it a staple of critical theory and unread by a good proportion of its purchasers.

Drawing an explicit analogy with Marx's analysis of fully formed capitalist societies at a time when capital formed only a small portion of the wealth of even Britain, which was then the most successful capitalist economy, Hardt regards empire "as the coming form of domination but not the already completed or constituted one".

The potential for effective global resistance lies with "the multitude", a construct not synonymous with "the people" but, rather, with "living flesh that rules itself" and "all those who work under the rule of capital". The book's analysis bears superficial resemblance to George W. Bush's - we live in the midst of a fourth world war, genuine democracy is the only route to salvation - but it is scathing about US power. Ironically, American efforts at global domination conflict with the interests of global capital.

Neoconservatism is imperialist, but it simultaneously demonstrates "proof by the negative route".

Hardt approvingly quotes the statement made in 2003 by left-wing commentator Tariq Ali that Bush went to war in Iraq "to prove Hardt and Negri wrong", but he notes: "By demonstrating the impossibility of this imperialist adventure today, it's in a way demonstrating the need for some much broader form of power, something much more like what we're calling empire." Bush's hubris reveals the profoundly limited nature of US power:

"Whereas the nation-state was necessary to guarantee the collective interests of national capital; in so far as something is emerging like global capital, a nation-state - even the most powerful nation-state - is not capable of playing that role."

But reactionary utopian thinking is not for Hardt. "What I'm worried about is a kind of reactive political thinking that says, 'Whatever they say, we're going to say the opposite. The Bush/ Blair armies are doing this, therefore we're for the Iraqi resistance'I Democracy in particular has been sullied, corrupted, from the (time of the) Cold War to (Ronald) Reagan and now calling what happened in Iraq evidence of democracy seems to me to have seriously downgraded the concept. Certainly the (Iraqi) elections do not justify the invasion, they are not a sign of actually existing democracy," he says.

As such, anti-Americanism represents less a reactive force against America and more a global response to humanity's lack of meaningful representation and America's "undemocratic" interventions. But it is a forlorn political strategy for the Left to homogenise America while exempting non-Americans from their responsibilities. "Jacques Chirac can love anti-Americanism, and (such feeling) can unify France, but I'd hate to think of Chirac as being our saviour against Bush," Hardt says.

Nationalist forms of resistance to empire are equally redundant. "A nationalist strategy that remains national is today a losing strategy."

Limited strategic alliances among what Hardt terms "aristocratic" powers, such as Brazil, India and China, should instead form "an area of strategic consideration".

Curiously, Hardt disclaims any need to forge alternative positive prescriptions. A philosophical work is not "the place for us to evaluate whether the time of revolutionary political decision is imminent", he says.

But simultaneously the work is a direct call to resist empire. "I'm not against critical analysis, but we're definitely the types who want to recognise the possibilities of an alternative project."

Despite being "perfectly atheistic", Hardt and Negri's work has drawn interest from theologians because the authors seek "a project of the poor based on love". For the Left to be resurrected, this requires "new practices, new forms of organisation and new concepts", a post-socialist and post-liberal programme that brings about "the radicalisation without reserve of both freedom and equality".

The writer Tom Wolfe charted the strange political astronomy of the archetypal American intellectual, for whom the dark night of fascism is always descending in America but somehow invariably conspires to land elsewhere. Hardt fits into Wolfe's "land of the rococo Marxists". If we are in the midst of global war, the view from the veranda at Duke University, where Hardt is associate professor of literature, looks decidedly less battle-scarred than large parts of the Middle East or Africa. And if democracy as it exists now remains an imperfect mechanism for organising self-government, would it be entirely unreasonable to identify its more preferable replacement or how it can best be recalibrated before endorsing the revolution?

Hardt's definition of democracy - the "rule of all by all" - provides a neat formulation, but the substantive elucidation of what a Hardt-Negri world might resemble is nowhere apparent. For those who like their political philosophy esoteric and frisson-inducing, Multitude is a worthy successor to Empire . But one can be forgiven for thinking that it may well come to be regarded in the same way, as Peter Cook put it, as those 1930s Berlin nightclubs that "did so much to prevent the rise of Hitler".

Is Multitude a profound reclamation of corrupted political concepts and a call to resistance or a catalogue of obfuscatory abstractions designed, in the authors' words, "to make political discussion so obscure that only other academics can puzzle its intricacies"? As Hardt and Negri might put it, it is neither and both.

Rob Singh is professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

Multitude: War and Democracy in the age of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is published by Hamish Hamilton, £20.00.

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