Rabble Rousers

By Benedict Seymour, 10 September 2000

Big on inspiration but short on tactics, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire reconstructs Marxism for the Millenium. Have recent anti-capitalist events filled in the gaps in their theory or do the rabble of Seattle still have something to learn from communists like us? Benedict Seymour investigates.


Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s magnum opus, Empire, is an ambitious attempt to rescue and reinvent the communist project for the age of globalisation. At once less portable (550 pages) and somewhat more contemporary, it takes from Marx’s Communist Manifesto a compelling negative critique of capital, illuminating its inherent contradictions and vampiric, self-destructive tendencies, coupled with a celebration of its progressive dynamism and that of its ontologically constitutive driving force – the productive and resisting multitude. Alternately inspiring, on the money (as it were), and frustratingly prey to jargon-logged abstraction, the book advances its central idea with infectious confidence.

Negri and Hardt argue that the time, rather than being long since passed, has never been riper for communism than in the radically socialised, cooperatively creative, communicative and interconnected relations of virtualised production that dominate ‘informatised’ global capitalism. What factory discipline and the telegraph did for the organisation and effectiveness of Marx’s proletariat, ‘biopower’ and the internet will do for ours. In fact, they argue further, we have the advantage of having learned the terrible lessons of the 20th century: gone are the repressive illusions of the nation state and parliamentary politics, Stalinist and trade union discipline, the false historical determinism of ‘really existing socialism’ and all the other slanders on communism’s name. In the place of the lie of ‘the People’ we have the reality of the networked, irreducibly plural ‘multitude’, a rabble that resists all attempts at homogenisation.On the other hand, the proletariat did not die with the decline of industrial capitalism. Rather, the concept can now be seen in its true universality: the proletariat is anyone, whether employed or unemployed, blue or white collar, in service, communications, creative or sweatshop industries who is exploited. All workers share an objective interest in resisting capitalism and may unite against it in new and effective ways. As Marx argued in very different circumstances, the spectre of ‘virtual’ communism is already with us, and, say Negri and Hardt, its realisation is more than ever feasible, however far away. Capitalism could be its own grave digger after all.

The philosophical backbone of Empire is a defence of the great Renaissance humanist discovery of ‘the plane of immanence’ (humans make their own destiny) and of the ‘singularity’ of the autonomous subject (each entity has a specific essence and boundless potential) as well as a genealogy of all the forms of transcendence and mediation which our rulers have deployed in an attempt to separate the multitude from their own powers. This other modernity, as exemplified by the Enlightenment and the ‘disciplinary’ social orders that accompanied it, was a project of sovereignty to suppress the possibility of ‘absolute democracy’, bringing the new sense of human agency back under the rule of transcendent discipline through the mediations of the state and modern metaphysics.

Now, however, that the long era of ‘disciplinary society’ is over, capsized by the struggles of the ‘60s and its own inertia, it has been replaced by Foucauldian ‘biopower’, a mode of domination at once more profound (we are all subjects of capital right down to our innermost being) and less effective, since our individuality has become an absolute value in this fluid, volatile regime. We live in a ‘society of control’, a poly-opticon, a matrix of overlapping disciplines without spatial limits, in which the autonomy of capitalism’s own political sphere (that is, the formally neutral, universal dimension constituted by the state) has been effectively subsumed under the exigencies of the profit motive and ‘third way’ managerialism. The emergence of non-legitimated ‘police action’ in the fields both of geopolitics (the sovereignty of the nation state is now routinely over-ruled) and in our everyday lives marks the onset of a permanent state of emergency or ‘omni-crisis’ in which new and unaccountable institutions proliferate. Imperial ‘right’ has no basis; it is as unmediated by transcendent schema and metaphysics as it is dynamically dysfunctional. As Negri and Hardt put it: “Imperial rule functions by breaking down”.

What’s positive about all this is the opening for a new order of politics similarly broken free from the parochialism of the past, and as ungrounded in transcendent, top-down modes of organisation (revolutionary bureaucracy, etc.). The resistance of the multitude (whose labour is productive of the world’s wealth) can now be as global as capital, for everywhere that capitalism produces, it produces a proletariat. There is no centre to Empire; it is networked, fluid, and every link is equally strong – or weak. This decentralisation marks the end of modern ‘vanguardist’ revolutionary politics, a mode of strong leadership for which Negri and Hardt harbour no nostalgia. They see in the new global dis-order the potential for a new politics ultimately capable of articulating an ontological alternative to Empire.

This brings us to the question of anti-capitalist politics after Seattle. Empire, completed before Kosovo, refuses to speculate about the new forms that ‘counter-Empire’ might take. The authors do point out that anti-imperial unrest thus far has tended to be as violently ‘vertical’ – going straight to the highest orders of imperial command – as it has been localised and non-contagious. Marx, who wrote his manifesto almost 30 years before the Paris Commune, was reliant on political experiments in the real world to provide him with a concrete model for communist organisation. Negri and Hardt’s text insists on their own openness to events for clues about the form of the new counter-power. Was Seattle, then, the imperial equivalent of the Commune?

Speaking about the protests in an interview this May, Negri and Hardt seemed enthusiastic. Hardt praised ‘the new intelligence of the protesters’. Choosing ‘supranational organisms’ (the IMF and WTO) as the object of protest was ‘something fundamentally new’. Their identification by a large group of young people was ‘impressive and hopeful’ despite media criticisms of the protesters’ lack of knowledge concerning the inner workings of these institutions. Furthermore, the protests were by and large not anti-globalism; instead they asked for ‘an alternative globalisation, a democratic globalisation’ – even if, as Negri comments, “The problem is not to try to make these institutions democratic, but to construct democracy otherwise.”

The theorists also praised the protests’ apparent transcendence of sectionalism. However, the genetic mutation of an alliance of groups into a new ‘constituent political power’ is still only a possibility. The rabble of Seattle must resist being incorporated into the institutions they oppose (and also transform the groups they are already in) yet at the same time make themselves into a ‘powerful organisation’ (Hardt). Whether or not the ‘multitude’ can live up to their theorised multiplicity and become an organised political force without succumbing to the baneful downside of community and unity – maladies of hierarchy, homogenisation, the growth of bureaucracy – which Empire’s genealogy of modern sovereignty assigns to other modes of political order and organisation is a serious question insufficiently addressed in the book. Can there be the Spinozan ‘absolute democracy’ the authors speak of, or does it have its own constitutive limitations? For Hardt and Negri it’s a question of contingent events, the success or failure of struggle. We have pushed capitalism this far and we can push it further. Some of us, victims of the Enlightenment scam, perhaps, may be less sanguine. Either way, the virtue of both Negri and Hardt’s book and the recent protests is to put this kind of question back on the agenda again and, more pragmatically, to raise, if not adequately address, the issue of tactics for a generation who had grown accustomed to the idea (‘Siempre Coca-Cola’) of eternal capitalism.

Benedict Seymour <ben AT>

>> Illustration by Francis Upritchard