Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

Not the Communist Manifesto


By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Harvard University Press, 2001 (pbk), £12-95

Reviewed by Per Olsson

THERE ARE few books of political theory that have received such widespread publicity as Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. It has been described as ‘neo-Marxist’ or even as the ‘new Communist Manifesto’. "An unlikely book by a left-wing academic and an Italian prisoner is taking America by storm", wrote Ed Vuilliamy in The Observer (15 July, 2001). "The book rehabilitates the C-word, ‘communism’."

This 500-page book, however, is neither a Communist Manifesto for the 21st century nor a piece of work which seriously analyses global capitalism and its contradictions. The authors promise much more than they deliver and, while sometimes claiming to follow the footsteps of Karl Marx, they end up losing touch with reality.

Their starting point is "that 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 is what we call Empire". (Introduction, pvii) Yet two pages later they conclude that "imperialism is over" and that no nation state, not even the US, will be "world leader in the way the European nations were". A somewhat remarkable comment given that the US is the only superpower left and its position vis-à-vis its two main capitalist rivals (the European Union states and Japan) has strengthened in the course of the last ten years. In the words of a recent commentator, the US "contains only 4.5% of the world’s population… it possesses 29-30% of world product, a percentage that has increased in recent years because of the paralysis of Russia’s economy and the languishing of Japan’s. Even more remarkable is the size of the American military pre-eminence. Last year 36% of the world’s military spending was done by the Pentagon; in fact the US defence budget was equal to the defence budgets of the next nine largest military spenders, a statistic that (so far as I can judge) has never existed in all of history". (Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2001) To deny the dominant role of US imperialism today is to turn a blind eye to reality.

The power and influence of US imperialism is in many ways greater than that of the European colonial powers at the end of the 19th century, when the dominance of British imperialism was undermined by the rapid development of German capitalism and the rise of US imperialism.

The US ruling class has seen globalisation as a means of expanding its position in the world market at the expense of other capitalist powers. This has increased the contradictions inherent in capitalism and, at the same time, given way to the re-emergence of an anti-capitalist mood especially directed against US multinationals and the super-exploitative nature of imperialism.

The world is not ruled by an imaginary ‘empire’, but by the dominant capitalist powers and the ruling classes of the ‘Triad’ of the US, the EU states and Japan. Imperialism is far from ‘dead’; the epoch of imperialism entered a new stage or phase with the process of globalisation.

On the basis of its pre-eminent military and economic power, the US can intervene decisively in certain situations, such as in the Gulf war in 1990-91 and currently in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, even the US is not strong enough to maintain international stability or to secure the sustained growth of the world capitalist economy. This is why there is not much order in the ‘new world order’ proclaimed by George Bush Snr in 1991.

Much of the book is a continuation of what has already been stated in the Introduction. What is striking is that the authors provide no real arguments, facts or figures to substantiate their claim that globalisation has given birth to an entirely new social, political and economical order – the Empire. Instead of an analyses of the past, present and future, the reader is given voluminous quotes from a countless number of thinkers and philosophers topped with abstractions and comments, such as the following, which is typical: " …power is everywhere, but is everywhere because everywhere is in play, the nexus between virtuality and possibility. A nexus that is the sole province of the multitude". (p361)

The passage to Empire and its processes of globalisation (the "concept of Empire") has no boundaries and "its rule has no limits". But the Empire creates a "counter-Empire", the forces of liberation or what the authors refer to as the "multitude". The ‘multitude’ is another name for the oppressed resisting the Empire. It is not the working class. The authors dismiss the working class and their industrial and political organisations. They are things of the past, and instead of parties the authors put forward the idea of "self-organizing" and mention the Zapatista movement as a model to follow.

"The proletariat is not what it used to be", write the authors (p63). It is notable that in listing many of the movements and struggles of the 1960s, the authors do not mention the ten-million strong general strike in France 1968: a movement so powerful that the French president, Charles de Gaulle, said to the US ambassador, ‘There has been a Communist revolution in France and there’s nothing we can do about it’. After that de Gaulle fled to a military base in Germany.

Proletarian internationalism and even the struggle for socialism are regarded as old-fashioned and linked to the era when the nation state was an organic part of capitalism. But today’s condition, write the authors, demands a new movement "that corresponds to the post-Fordist and informational regimes of production" (p409). Leave aside that the bosses’ rule and the hierarchical structure of capitalism are not exactly an ‘informational regime’, the book has very little more to say about the struggle in the workplaces. It does not even mention the fact that globalisation has reinforced the need for ‘proletarian internationalism’ in deeds and actions.

After downgrading the working class, the authors, in typical fashion, then invent a new social force called the "social worker", struggling for all people on the Earth: "absolute democracy in action" (p411). It never becomes more concrete than that, apart from many promises that the multitude will revolt and their revolution is going to be successful, because "militancy today [in contrast to the past? – PO] is positive, constructive and innovative activity… The militancy makes resistance into counterpower and a project of love" (p413).

The writing off of the working class and the silence about the need to build genuine, revolutionary socialist parties follows from the false premises and analyses made at the beginning of this book. Their hypotheses never become anything more than abstractions dressed up in obscure, quasi-intellectual language. Statement after statement is made without being substantiated. Lenin’s analysis of "imperialism and its crisis", for example, is said to lead "directly to the theory of Empire" (p234). But Lenin argued the opposite against the ‘super-globalisers’ of his time.

Earlier on, the Bolsheviks are accused of having "entered the terrain of nationalist mythology" (p112) on account of their sensitive and Marxist approach to the national question and the struggle of the oppressed nationalities against Tsarism in Russia – which Hardt and Negri see as a concession to nationalism. Once again, they give no arguments to support this remarkable but also vacuous statement.

The main thesis in the book is that modern capitalism has entered a new stage – the Empire. This Empire has established its supreme power, or regime, because the world has witnessed an "irresistible and irreversible globalization of economic and cultural exchanges" in the last decade (Introduction, page i). This development, in turn, was partly due to the collapse of Soviet Union which, according to the authors, broke down all barriers left to the expansion of the world market.

What Hardt and Negri are doing is drawing the ultimate conclusion of what could be described as a theory of ‘super-globalisation’. Globalisation, however, has in fact aggravated the fundamental contradictions inherent in capitalism, ie the collision between the forces of production and the relations of production (the social and political framework within which the system operates: international relations, the role of the nation state, the government, relations between the classes, etc). It is this basic collision that leads to crisis, wars and revolutions.

Capitalism by its very nature is unable to develop a single trend to its ultimate end. Monopoly capitalism does not abolish the anarchy of the market or competition. The present international capitalist order is just one moment in history, not its endpoint. Globalisation, as with every other phase in the development of capitalism, sows the seeds of its own downfall. The nation state and the private ownership of the means of production are acting more and more as absolute barriers on the development of society.

Capitalism is still rooted in the nation state, which is a social formation with historical elements, such as a common language, culture, territorial property, etc. Each national ruling class depends on various kinds of support and protection provided by its state apparatus. In the last analysis, the capitalist state is reduced to ‘armed bodies of men’ (police, the military, intelligence agencies and the secret service, and so on) and their material appendages, ie prisons etc. The state is not a ‘neutral’ body in a capitalist society; it is firmly under the control of the capitalist class. The state provides the capitalists with protection against competitors abroad and ‘the enemy within’, as Margaret Thatcher called Britain’s striking miners in the 1980s.

Whatever the capitalists say about the ‘self-regulating forces of the free market’, when they are up against the wall they will cry for help, protection and support from their own state apparatus. As one capitalist nation, or group of nations, expands at the expense of the position of others, there will always be a tendency towards national protectionism or the emergence of continental or regional blocs.

The very nature of every agreement between capitalist states tends to be temporary and uneasy, reflecting the present balance of forces. Faced with growing social and political turmoil at home, and tougher competition on the world market, the different national capitalist classes will do whatever is necessary to protect their own skins. Capitalism does not uphold any holy principle other than the drive for profit. It is one thing to be in favour of a single currency, free trade and international co-operation when ‘all are winners’. But when margins are shrinking and markets are lost, the capitalists squeal for the state to protect them against competition from abroad, and to implement measures that strengthen their own position at the expense of others. This mainly expresses itself in the form of the different blocs taking action against each other, but also of countries taking action against a specific rival. An emerging protectionism and measures to control and restrict the flow of capital begin to reverse globalisation trends, with some similarities to the reversal of the process of rapid integration at the beginning of the 20th century with the outbreak of the first world war and then the crisis of the 1930s.

The Empire is said to be ruled by a network – who is included in the network is not explained – and bases its power on money, the bomb (forces of destruction), and control of communication and information. By implication, world capitalism has entered its post-industrial era and that is why, according to the authors, the industrial working class "has lost its hegemonic position" (p256).

Socialists have always argued against those who define the working class as only the industrial workers. This is a stereotype, a rigid definition, which has little to do with Marxism. The production and distribution of commodities under modern capitalism has become more social and international than ever before, involving different layers of workers on a national as well as a global plane. The production and realisation of profits depends not only on workers employed in factories; and it is due to its role in production and distribution that the working class develops and acts as a collective power. It is this collective power and action that the authors keep silent about. But even worse, the position taken by the authors would tend to alienate workers from the anti-capitalist movement.

The conditions of workers in the public sector or in services are largely the same as the conditions faced by industrial workers. At the same time, a large section of the middle class no longer enjoys a privileged and secure position in society. A proletarianisation of the middle class is taking place in all capitalist countries. A crisis, as shown by Argentina and Turkey, could overnight lead to the pauperisation of the middle class. "Of the 14 million Argentines now living in poverty, half belonged to the country’s large middle class only years ago", commented The Observer (9 December 2001).

The social weight and potential power of the working class, the wage labourer, has never been greater. But the lack of a political alternative, combative organisations and, above all, a leadership able to face up to the task of leading the struggle for a socialist transformation, have created an unprecedented gap between the potential power of the working class and the present situation of an onslaught against workers’ rights.

The authors of the Empire totally ignore the political and ideological outcome of the collapse of Stalinism. Their definition of all oppressed strata as part of a ‘multitude’ is another way of reducing the working class to, at best, an auxiliary role in future struggles.

It is claimed that Empire will arm the anti-capitalist movement with an understanding of the present global capitalist regime, but it fails completely. This is a case of the Empire’s new clothes: a lot of pages with very little content.


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