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Book Review

Left’s new manifesto demonstrates hollowness of a dying movement

Laila Juma

EMPIRE by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Pub: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, and London, UK, 2000. Pp: 478. Pbk: $18.95 / £12.95.

Leftist politics and intellectuals in the West were dealt a severe blow with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 and the apparent global victory of western capitalism, celebrated triumphantly by such writers as Francis Fukuyama in his notorious essay ‘The End of History.’ Only in recent years has the left made something of a comeback, with the re-emergence of popular activism in the form of the anti-globalization movement, which hit the public consciousness with the mass protests in Seattle in 1999. During the intervening period, beleaguered leftists were sustained largely by the sentiment expressed by Antonio Gramsci during an earlier time of apparent hopelessness for the left, the rise of European fascism: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In other words, however hopeless things may seem, however total the victory of the forces of capital and the right may appear, one should remain hopeful that the tide will turn.

For Hardt and Negri, this is a platitude that does little justice to Gramsci’s thought and encourages negativity. Their object in writing this wide-ranging book, which has been hailed as “a Communist Manifesto for our time,” is to establish the basis for an optimism of the intellect in order to provide a basis for even greater optimism of the will. While recognizing that the left may have been through a period of crisis, indeed that the whole history of the intellectual left may be little more than a series of crises and defeats, Hardt and Negri argue that every apparent defeat makes the left stronger. Every apparent victory for the forces of capital is in fact a concession to the power of the working masses that may give the impression of extending the power of the economic elites, but in fact brings their ultimate defeat nearer by establishing a bigger target for the left to shoot at.

It is easy to dismiss this too as just another platitude, perhaps with a derisive snort or sad shake of the head. However, at a time when the anti-globalization movement is morphing into an anti-war and anti-American movement because of the US’s vicious response to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, it is worth looking at a book which many leftists hail as setting the intellectual agenda for western dissidence in the twenty-first century.

It is commonplace, among both western leftists and non-western resistance movements (such as the Islamic movement), to speak of globalization as a new form of imperialism, and the American-dominated world order as a successor to the colonial empires of yesteryear. For Hardt and Negri, the key difference between the imperialism of the past and contemporary globalization is that while traditional imperialism was driven by the economic demands of capital, it was defined by political domination and military power, and in terms of sovereign states and the international community. Globalization, by contrast, represents the transcendence of the post-colonial nation-state system by the emergence of a network of imperial economic and cultural linkages that are driven and defined by economic dynamics that no longer depend on political power. It is this “decentred and deterritorialising apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” that Hardt and Negri call simply “Empire”.

The analysis of the political constitution of the new world order, and of the changing forms of sovereignty within it, are the major theme of the first part of the book. The argument that the sovereignty of the nation-state is being eroded by deregulation in the name of the free market is a familiar theme in globalization studies. For Hardt and Negri, this is not strictly accurate: they see not a decline of regulation, but the emergence of a new regulatory order “composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule.”

Like most neo-Marxist leftist theorists, Hardt and Negri are strongly historicist in their thinking. Having established their analysis of the contemporary global system, they then go to work establishing historical background to explain its emergence, in a sweeping analysis and interpretation of history since Roman times. This is history from below, to explain how the true force for political change and progress has always come from the proletariat, and how every extension of capitalist power and every evolution of the nature of polity needs to be understood as a response to pressures from below, from the workers, even if it is not precisely the change that the workers had in mind. And every change, however much it may appear to consolidate the power of capital, in fact creates a new and larger political space in which the workers can continue their pressure for liberation. Thus, for Hardt and Negri, the globalization of capitalist economic power, despite (and partly because of) the intensified exploitation it facilitates, finally make possible the globalization of anti-capitalism and brings closer the ultimate defeat of capitalism.

Such a summation of their argument perhaps makes it appear simplistic. In fact, Hardt and Negri reconsider and fine-tune the understanding of almost every traditional leftist concept, from class to globalization, in a discussion that draws on intellectual development of disciplines as diverse as economics, law and philosophy. For a general reader, this is a typical post-modern kaleidoscope of apparently esoteric thinkers and disciplines that may appear bewildering. It comes across as an indulgence aimed as much at impressing fellow intellectuals with the breadth of their reading and erudition as much as being essential to their argument. In the process, they raise as many questions as they address, perhaps ensuring that discussion of their theses will dominate leftist discussions for years to come.

This sense of intellectual showboating is only one of the book’s great weaknesses. A few others may be relevant here. The first is a reverent Americanism, not in the sense of the American patriotism of George W. Bush and the mainstream American politics, but in terms of understanding American history and social movements as particularly relevant, apparently only because of the role America now plays in the world. Leftist thought having originated in Europe and always having been dominated by European intellectuals, this Americanism looks like a superficial reaction to political realities rahter than anything else.

The second is perhaps more substantial: an over-emphasis on economic power and the underplaying of the importance of political and military hegemony. While it may well be true that globalization is predominantly an economic dynamic, the role of political institutions and the power of political states ought not be underestimated either. This book was published last year (2000) and includes discussion of the many international imbroglios of the 1990s, from the end of the Cold War to Kosova. The tone of the US response to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon in September this year, and of its demands for international support, and the subsequent projection of US military power against Afghanistan, show that such political forces remain central to the West’s modern Empire.

And finally, so predictably that it almost goes without saying, is the total west-centricism of the book’s analysis and understanding of the world. Islam is mentioned only in the context of fundamentalism, defined as being “resolutely opposed to modernity and modernization”. This is, in other words, anti-imperialism (or anti-Empire-ism) from within the imperial metropolis, with no thought of the situation of the victims of imperialism, and no sense that there may be alternative, non-Western ways of being modern.

For all the commonalities between understandings of the nature of the West’s role in the world, this is a blind-spot that western dissidents are going to have to overcome if there is to be any prospect of their understanding the perspectives of non-western peoples and anti-western political movements.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 18

Ramadan 01, 14222001-11-16

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