Over and over again, Hardt and Negri’s chef d’ouvre Empire is described as a sort of “communist manifesto for the 21st century"—an attempt to identify the exploited (the multitude) the exploiter (empire) and the means of resistance in today’s postmodern world. And over and over again, critics deplore Empire’s ontology of “the multitude” and “empire” and its revolutionary, even communist, telos, especially as a book that claims to be embedded in the postmodern. Cynthia Weber, in her textbook, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, quite frankly ravages Hardt and Negri on these counts:
“In losing the resistive potential of the multitude, Hardt and Negri lose themselves. They cease to be making meaning and potential progress through contemporary history. By writing Empire—a terribly scattered, fractured contradictory set of propositions and ideas—into “being,” Hardt and Negri not only call the multitude into being. They call themselves into being. They, in other words, fulfill their desire to be relevant communist intellectuals”(145).
So what is “Empire” anyways, why are so many people so down on it, and why do we bother reading about it? The concept of Empire, most simply put, is a response to two theoretical deficiencies observed by Hardt and Negri. The first deficiency is found in current theories of economic globalization. Many have begun to notice that as capitalism is more and more globalized, state sovereignty is rapidly declining. However, to declare that sovereignty had come to an end would essentially mean that there are no power relations outside of the economy, a notion that Hardt and Nergi reject—as they say from the start, “the decline in sovereignty of nation-states, however, does not mean that sovereignty as such has declined. … This new global form of sovereignty is what we call Empire”(xi-xii). Empire is, first of all, the location of sovereignty in today’s world.
The second deficiency is found in current theories of the postmodern. Postmodernist theories typically aim to tear apart the foundations of oppression by deconstructing power relationships. However, according to Hardt and Negri, “the structures and logics of power in the contemporary world are entirely immune to the ‘libratory’ weapons of the postmodernist politics of difference”(142). The problem, ultimately, is that while postmodernism deals with constructed power relationships, it has little to say about real economic exploitation. While one can theorize a subjected identity group out of oppression, one cannot theorize an exploited laborer out of a factory. The second function of Empire, then, is to account for real exploitation in a postmodern world. Empire is not only the location of sovereignty; it is the new dominant class, which oppresses a new proletariat—the multitude.
How can Empire play both of these roles at once? The extraordinary significance of the passage to Empire lies in the fact that both of these roles become one and the same. Hardt and Negri show that this is the case by giving two histories of the world—a history of sovereignty, and a history of production. Their intent is to show that, ultimately, these parallel histories converge with the birth of Empire. To briefly recount their production story:
Capitalism grew up around industrial enterprises. Labor was exploited, but there was ultimately a division between economic relations and personal relations. However, with postmodernity, the economy becomes informatized. In this postmodern economy, labor became immaterial—instead of producing the goods that sustained the community, labor began to produce the community itself. Service labor, “affective labor,” “produces … social networks, forms of community, biopower. … At the pinnacle of contemporary production, information and communication are the very commodities produced; the network itself is the site of both production and circulation”(298). Since social networks are the foundation of politics and power, power becomes embedded in production itself—or, rather, it becomes biopower (a term Hardt and Negri borrow from Foucault). Thus, “the multitude can only be ruled along internal lines, in production, in exchanges, in culture—rather, the biopolitical context of its existence”(344). Empire, then, is the subject in capitalism that exploits the multitude, and controls them biopolitically.
Meanwhile, the sovereignty story goes something like this:
Modernity began with a crisis—men had discovered the “plane of immanence,” they had found that there was nothing that transcended themselves, and thus they were masters of their own lives. This revolution was countered by those who were sovereign powers--those who acted under the pretense of being the masters of other men's lives. Hence the crisis. The enlightenment served to legitimize these sovereign powers by establishing them as transcendent, using notions of “the nation,” and the “people" to do so. However, as mentioned above, late capitalism brought about the rise of biopower by embedding the mechanisms of power in the production and reproduction of life itself, and, therefore, effectively brought sovereignty onto the plane of immanence. Empire, then, is the subject in postmodernity that controls the multitude biopolitically by controlling production and reproduction, or, rather, exploiting them.
Thus, Hardt and Negri present us with Empire, in which exploitation and power are one and the same thing. However, one might still note that the ontological foundation of Empire is still very vague. Who is Empire? According to Hard and Negri, Empire has no ontology—it is truly postmodern in this sense. It is merely the exploiting agent in society—or, rather, those who benefit from the exploitation present in society. And, since neither Empire nor the multitude has an ontology, it seems somewhat absurd to speak of a telos in this situation.
Regardless, however, Hardt and Negri go on in the final part of the book to describe how Empire can be resisted and ultimately overthrown—in short, they outline their communist project. Since they have located the means of oppression and exploitation, they believe they can identify the means of resistance. In essence, then, they develop a telos for the multitude.
This is where the bulk of criticism of the book arises. How can you overthrow something that doesn’t have an ontology? The concept of a revolution, a telos, seems absurd. At this point, many discredit the book in its entirety, as does Weber in the above passage. Especially since 9/11, most people reject the idea of a unified constitution of the multitude, as Hardt and Negri present it. In fact, due to this objection, many discredit the book entirely.
So why read Empire today? Ultimately, we read these “Marxists” for the same reason we still read Marx today. One can trace two distinct narratives that run throughout Marx’s work—one utopian, a project for the future, and one scientific, a description of the world today. Except for a select group of radicals, most people have deemed Marx’s utopian project to be a failure—the communist revolution didn’t, and probably will never happen. However, the irrelevance of the first vein does not discredit the second. In fact, despite the unrealistic nature of the utopian narrative, most find the second narrative to be a strikingly valid and useful description of the workings of capitalist society. We can say the same about Empire—that even though their communist fantasy is just that—a fantasy—their account of postmodernity, as recounted in the bulk of this review, is quite powerful and relevant. Hardt and Negri do not lose themselves, as Weber might argue, even if they have lost their communist project.
In fact, Hardt and Negri provide us with important ways of resisting oppression in contemporary society, even if such resistance might never amount to a revolution. Since power and exploitation take the form of biopower, or, rather, since power lies in production and reproduction of bodies, power can be resisted through our very means of production and reproduction. Furthermore, “If communication has increasingly become the fabric of production, and if linguistic cooperation has increasingly become the structure of productive corporeality, then the control over linguistic sense and meaning and the networks of communication becomes an ever more central issue for political struggle. … All the elements of corruption and exploitation are imposed on us by the linguistic and communicative regimes of production: destroying in them words is as urgent as doing so in deeds” (404). How does one resist oppression today? By taking back the means of communication. By using media. Even if the utopian narrative in the book collapses, this advice is by no means undermined. Thus, using media is not just a mere tool for resistance; it is the essence of resistance itself.
Thus, while Empire might fail as a new communist manifesto, it seems like an appropriate manifesto for a global media class like ours, a class whose mission is to “speak truth to power.” Empire may not successfully support a Global Communist Project, but it certainly speaks to our Global Media Project.