|Review: Empire and Revolution
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, 'Empire' (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard
University Press, 2000), pb.
(Charlie Post teaches sociology in New York City, is active in rank and
file organizing in the American Federation of Teachers and is a member of
Solidarity, a US socialist organization. The author thanks Vivek Chibber
and Kim Moody for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.)
'Empire' is a paradox. An overly long (478 pages with notes and index),
often abstruse intellectual exercise, 'Empire' would appear to be a work
destined to obscurity-to be read, at best, by small groups of left-wing
intellectuals ensconced in academia. However, the books has attracted
enormous attention, not only in the academy, but also in the mainstream
press and among anti-capitalist and global justice activists in both the US
and Europe. *1
'Empire's appeal has a number of sources. First, its authors are not your
average left-wing academics. While Hardt teaches in the Literature Program
at the prestigious Duke University in North Carolina, Toni Negri is an
inmate at Rebibbia Prison, Rome-imprisoned for the 'crime' of being the
'intellectual inspiration' for the Red Brigades in the late 1970s. Negri
has long been associated with the 'autonomist' current of the Italian
revolutionary left, which had significant influence among militant
industrial workers in the 1970s and continues to inspire segments of
anti-capitalist youth in Italy today.
The second source of the appeal of Empire-both in the academy and in the
anti-capitalist and global justice movements-is its engagement with
'post-modernism.' On the one hand, Hardt and Negri embrace the
post-modernists' substantive claim that capitalism has been fundamentally
transformed in the past half century. *2 In 'Empire', Hardt and Negri argue
what has become 'common sense' about global capitalism among both academic
post-modernists and many global justice and anti-capitalist activists.
'Empire' is a smooth (evenly developed) network without a center, in which
social production has become flexible in the use of workers and technology
to meet ever changing consumer demand, non-material (decline in
manufacturing, rise of information and services), and highly mobile
geographically. The nation-state and inter-capitalist competition and
rivalry are in decline in this new imperial world order.
On the other hand, Hardt and Negri reject the political localism and
pessimism of post-modernist identity politics. For the post-modernists, the
multiplication of contingent local identities and localized 'place based'
movements and politics 'in which the boundaries of place (conceived either
as identity or territory) are posted against the undifferentiated and
homogeneous space of global networks' (p. 44) are the main, if not sole,
form of resistance to global capitalism today. Hardt and Negri argue that
such a simple counter-position of local and global easily slides into 'a
kind of primordialism that fixes and romanticizes social relations and
identities.' (p. 44) Such notions ignore the reality that: . what appear as
local identities are not autonomous or self-determining but actually feed
into the support and development of the capitalist imperial machine. The
enemy, rather, is a specific regime of global relations that we call
Empire. (pp. 45-46)
Hardt and Negri move from this theoretical critique, to a quite substantive
and often insightful critique of various forms of 'subaltern nationalism'
that post-modernists promote. They argue that post-modernism's fetish of
the local and particular could quite easily elide into a political apologia
for 'Empire.' (pp. 105-115, 132-160)
Hardt and Negri's own argument, in brief, is that global capitalism has
been transformed in the past half century from an imperialist system
(unequal economic development, sharp conflict among the dominant
'imperialist' powers organized in nation-states, centrality of industrial
workers to social transformation) to a new form-'Empire.' Specifically,
Hardt and Negri's claim that the mobility of transnational corporate
investment has produced a 'smooth' (evenly developed) world economy based
on 'immaterial' production. In this new global economy dominated by the
transnational corporation and global institutions such as the World Bank,
IMF and the like, the nation-state and inter-capitalist competition have
declined in importance. Finally, the global working class, as defined by
its place in social production, has been displaced by the 'multitude' as
the major agency of social transformation.
While Hardt and Negri's critique of the politics of post-modernism is both
insightful and salutary, their embrace of its substantive analysis reduces
'Empire' to yet another example of what Kim Moody called 'globaloney.' *3
Put simply, the analysis Hardt and Negri present in 'Empire' of the
contemporary capitalist world economy is unrealistic - it does not
correspond to the realities of capitalist production and accumulation today.
At the center of Hardt and Negri's notion of 'empire' is that they call the
'postmodernization, or the informationalization of production.' In this
schema, the transition from 'modernity' and 'postmodernity' involves an
historic shift from an 'economic paradigm' where 'industry and the
manufacture of durable goods occupied the privileged position' to one where
'providing services and manipulating information are at the heart of
economic production.' *4 (p. 280) Freed from the spatial constraints
associated with industrial production, the production of services and
information allows for rapid and easy geographic mobility of capital and
the creation of a 'smooth' - relatively evenly developed - global economic
The reality of the capitalist world economy is quite different. It is true
that percentage of workers employed in industry - the production of
material goods and services - has declined continuously for over a century.
As Harry Braverman in his classic 'Labor and Monopoly Capital' *5 argued,
this is the inevitable result of capitalism's continuous mechanization of
production and the resultant reduction in the percentage of workers needed
to produce goods. However, the number of industrial workers, in most
industrialized societies, has remained stable or grown slightly. Even more
important, the proportion of total output industrial workers produce has
increased over the past fifty years. *6
The growth of service and 'information' production unrelated to industry.
Most investment and employment in the 'service sector' is not in the
provision of personal services (restaurants, hair and nail salons, etc.),
but in 'business services' - legal and financial operations that facilitate
industrial production. Similarly, most of the growth of the 'information
sector' over the past 20 years has taken the form of the application of
computer technology to industrial production (regulating inventories,
controlling complex machinery, etc.) While information flows easily around
the world, the hardware that is the backbone of the new telecommunications
network is among the world's most immobile investments. Capitalist
competition has led to vast over-capacity in fiber optic networks and
electronic switching equipment in the past few years, none of which can be
easily relocated or even abandoned by its owners.
Given the continued dominance of industrial investment, even the largest
transnational corporations are not 'foot-loose and fancy free' - moving
from place to place in search of the lowest labor costs. The global
capitalist economy is not a 'smooth' - evenly developed - space. The vast
majority of global production and consumption still takes place within the
boundaries of the advanced capitalist nation states. Consider the following
*** The 'third world' produces approximately 20% of global output (mostly
clothing, shoes, and common consumer goods - not complex consumer
appliances, industrial machinery and technology). 80% of global
manufacturing output is still produced in the US, Western Europe and Japan.
*** Foreign direct investment constitutes only 5% of total world investment
- 95% of total capitalist investment takes place in the boundaries of the
industrialized countries. Of the 5% of total global investment that is
foreign direct investment, 72% flows from one industrialized country to
another. Only 2% of total global investment flows from the 'north' to the
'south' of the world economy.
*** 75% of foreign direct investment, especially the investment in Africa,
Asia and Latin America takes the form of buying existing plant and
equipment - the form of mergers and acquisitions of existing privately
owned companies, or the purchase of recently privatized public enterprises
(telecommunications, oil, etc.) Only 25% of foreign direct investment takes
the form of building new plants overseas.
A more realistic way to understand contemporary capitalist globalization is
through the lens of the internationalization of 'lean production.' *8 In
the face of falling profits and sharpened international competition
beginning in the mid 1960s, capitalists have reorganized production to cut
costs by eliminating 'waste' - excess materials, activities and workers.
Lean Production has many familiar features: speed-up, deskilling,
multi-tasking, increased use of 'flexible' (part-time, temporary) workers,
greater managerial control in setting hours and tasks, and the contracting
out of work previously done by unionized employees.
The key is understanding the transformation of the capitalist world economy
since the early 1980s is the contracting out of work previously done by
unionized or relatively well-paid workers. Labor-intensive operations -
those that rely on low-wage labor to be profitable - have been the most
common work 'outsourced.' In the automobile industry this has meant
outsourcing parts production. In the electronics industry it has taken the
form of contracting out the manufacture of printed circuit boards, computer
chips and other components. In the clothing and shoe industries, more and
more of the cutting and stitching has been outsourced, leaving the 'final
manufacturers' to do finishing work and packaging. In financial services,
low-wage data processing has been outsourced, while higher paid employees
continue to advise and service corporate clients.
Most of the work outsourced has gone to non-unionized workers in areas of
labor-surplus and depressed wages in the industrialized countries (southern
US, southern and eastern Europe). However, much of the transnational
corporations' foreign direct investment in Africa, Asia and Latin America
has been in buying existing or building new plants for labor-intensive,
low-wage production. Most of what we refer to as 'globalization' in the
last twenty years is the growth of international production chains
organized by the transnational corporations. As the transnationals
reorganized work in the 'north' along the lines of 'lean production', they
moved low-wage, labor-intensive work to the 'south.' These parts and
components are then 'reexported' within the transnational corporation for
final assembly in the 'north.'
The result of the internationalization of lean production over the past two
decades has not been a 'smooth' or 'decentered global network' or 'empire'
that Hardt and Negri claim. Quite the opposite, the centers of accumulation
and social power remain in the centers of advanced capitalism in Western
Europe, the US and Japan. Global uneven and combined development - the
growing gap in incomes, production and the like - between this global
'north' and the global 'south' has only grown wider. Some regions of the
former 'third world' have become centers of labor-intensive assembly and
parts production (the 'Newly Industrialized Countries' of Mexico, Brazil,
South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan), becoming extensions of capitalist
accumulation centered in the 'north.' However, vast expanses of the globe
(sub-Saharan Africa) remain at best sites of raw material extraction or at
worst huge labor reserves marked by extreme poverty and capitalist created
famine and natural disasters.
Hardt and Negri's claims that the nation-state and inter-imperialist
rivalry have declined in importance with the rise of 'empire' and various
institutions of 'global governance' (World Bank, IMF, WTO, G7, EU, NATO,
etc.) lack theoretical and empirical plausibility as well. 'The declining
effectiveness' of the nation-state: Can be traced clearly through the
evolution of a whole series of global juridico-economic bodies, such as
GATT, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the IMF. The
globalization of production and circulation, supported by this
supranational juridical scaffolding, supersedes the effectiveness of
national juridical structures. (p. 337)
Clearly, this 'supranational juridical scaffolding' has been crucial in
changing the political environment for capitalist accumulation over the
past two decades. Clearly, 'neo-liberalism' - the dismantling of the rules
that restrict corporations at home and abroad-would be impossible without
these 'global juridico-economic bodies.'
However, the growing importance of these transnational organizations does
not mean that, in the words of Hardt and Negri 'state functions and
constitutional elements have effectively been displaced to other levels and
domains.' (p. 307) On the contrary, the ability of these global political
bodies to operate effectively requires in many ways, the strengthening of
the national-capitalist state. Kim Moody presents a compelling alternative
analysis. The transnational corporations (TNCs) have neither the desire nor
ability to create a world state. They have opted instead for a system of
multilateral agreements and institutions that they hope will provide
coherence and order the world market. Through their 'home' governments, the
TNCs have attempted to negotiate forms of regulation through the GATT, the
new WTO, and the various regional and multilateral trade agreements. They
have also transformed some of the old Bretton Woods institutions, notably
the World Bank and IMF. *9
To ensure the unhindered operations of the transnationals and protect
private business property, these global political institutions require
national capitalist states capable of denationalizing industries,
abolishing social welfare programs and labor regulations, generally
deregulating their capital, labor and commodities markets, and containing
challenges from below. Put simply, rather than representing a simple shift
of political powers 'upward' from the nation-state to the 'global
juridico-economic bodies', the development of the WTO, EU, and the like
actually enhance the role of the nation-state.
Hardt and Negri's go further along this path. They claim that 'Empire': 'is
a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively
incorporates the entire global realm within its expanding frontiers' (p.
xii) in which:
'what used to be conflict or competition among several imperialist powers
has in important respects been replaced by the idea of a single power that
overdetermines them all, structures them in a unitary way, and treats them
under the one common notion of right that is decidedly postcolonial and
postimperialist.' (p. 9)
There is clearly no denying that there has been a marked ideological shift
in the justification of imperialist military adventures since the collapse
of the bureaucratic 'Communist' regimes in the East. Defense of 'human
rights' and the 'war on terrorism' have replaced 'anti-communism' or
'national interest' in the defense of US and NATO wars from Serbia to
Afghanistan. However, just as the emergence of transnational organizations
has not spelled the decline of the nation-state; a new ideological
justification for imperialist aggression has not marked the end of
Clearly, the US capitalist class and its state assume a political and
military position that is unique among the advanced capitalist powers. No
other imperial power can and does projects its political and military power
in any way comparable to the US. However, renewed and strengthened US
political and military (and economic) hegemony in the capitalist world does
not spell the end of inter-capitalist, inter-imperialist rivalry - it
merely changes its form.
Examples of sharp conflicts amongst the advanced capitalist powers abound
in recent weeks. The fissures within the imperialist coalition that backed
the US-UK 'war on terrorism' in Afghanistan appeared almost as soon as the
Taliban were overthrown. Most of the EU, with the exception of the Blair
government (which faces dissent within the ranks of the ruling Labor
Party), sharply oppose unilateral US military action to bring about a
'regime change' in Iraq. There are also sharp divisions over how to handle
the crisis in the Middle East, with the bulk of the European ruling classes
sharply critical of the Bush administration's refusal to rein in the
Zionists in the interest of restoring a pro-imperialist 'stability' in
Conflicts between the major imperialist powers are not limited to political
and military issues in the 'war on terrorism.' There are ongoing and
important divisions over global economic policy. While there is consensus
among the ruling classes of the advanced capitalist world about
'neo-liberalism' and 'free trade', tensions remain. The furor over the US
imposition of tariffs on foreign steel is only the most visible example.
The WTO, EU, IMF, G7, NATO and almost all of the 'global juridico-economic
bodies' are, in the words of Alex Callinicos, 'shaped by the conflicts that
divide these powers, setting in particular the US against Japan and the EU
(itself a far from homogeneous entity).' *10
Continued inter-imperialist rivalry and conflict flows from the profoundly
un 'smooth' -uneven and combined - character of the world capitalist
economy. The internationalization of lean production has taken the form of
regional production chains. Transnational corporations headquartered in the
US, western Europe or Japan outsource parts and assembly work to local
'peripheries' - Mexico and parts of Latin America for the US, southern and
eastern Europe for the western Europeans, and east Asia for Japan. Most of
the finished products are sold in the 'core' of the world economy. Thus the
regional trading-production blocs in North America, Europe and east Asia
are competing for each others' markets for finished goods in the 'north'
and constantly attempting to gain access to each others' production chains
in the 'south.'
Finally, the relationship between capital and labor is fundamentally
redefined in Hardt and Negri's 'decentered' and 'smooth' imperial world
where 'power is distributed in networks, through mobile and articulated
mechanisms of control' (p. 384) and 'immaterial labor and cooperation
become the dominant productive force:'
Production becomes indistinguishable from reproduction; productive forces
merge with relations of production; constant capital tends to be
constituted and represented within variable capita, in the brains, bodies
and cooperation of productive subjects. Social subjects are at the same
time producers and products of this unitary machine. In this new historical
formation it is thus no longer possible to identify a sign, a subject, a
value, or a practice that is 'outside.' (p. 385)
In this world, all those who are subject to the vicissitudes of capitalist
production and reproduction-whether they labor collectively in workplaces
under the command of capital or are excluded from social production through
unemployment, forced migration and the like-are equally part of a new
revolutionary subject. According to Hardt and Negri 'the multitude has
internalized the lack of place and fixed time; it is mobile and flexible,
and it conceives the future only as a totality of possibilities that branch
out in every direction.' (p. 380) Almost any act of 'negativity' - the
refusal to work, migration from one part of the world to another,
confrontations with the police, strike action - are equally powerful forms
of resistance because 'the construction of Empire, and the globalization of
economic and cultural relationships, means that the virtual center of
Empire can be attacked from any point.' (p. 59)
The notion of the 'multitude' confronting the 'Empire' at all points and
through all 'acts of refusal' rests on the questionable claims that
production has been 'informationalized' and social production has become
'decentered' and 'smoothly' diffused across the globe. As we have seen the
reality is quite different - industrial production remains dominant within
capitalism, and the centers of industrial production remain geographically
concentrated in the advanced capitalist 'north' and select parts of the
'south.' Not surprisingly, the potential and actual power of industrial
working class activity has diminished in the past thirty years.
Clearly twenty years of political defeats and economic restructuring at the
hands of the capital undermine the confidence and ability of workers to
take action at the point of production and in the streets. However, in the
past decade we have begun to see a turn-around in the class struggle that
again demonstrates the power of organized workers in strategic sectors of
the economy. Beginning with the public sector strikes in France-spearheaded
by the transport, postal and telecommunications workers-we have seen a new
rise of industrial action across western Europe and to a lesser extent in
the US (UPS strike in 1997 being the most important example).
This new wave of struggle against the effects of lean production and
neo-liberalism has spilled over into political struggles-mass political
strikes against privatization and new alliances between sectors of the
European labor movement and anti-capitalist youth in the global justice
movement. This alliance of 'teamsters and turtles' is much more fragile in
the US, where the pro-war and pro-Democratic party union officialdom has
constantly distanced themselves from the global justice movement. However,
the power and impact of the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999
flowed from the unity, in the streets, of young global justice activists
and militant teamsters (mostly UPS workers), longshore and steelworkers.
Hardt and Negri's notion of the 'multitude' is not only an unrealistic
representation of the relationship between labor and capital today, but has
a long and problematic political history. Negri first argued that a new
'revolutionary subject' had displaced the 'collective worker' in the large
factories of northern Italy in the late 1970s, as growing unemployment and
employer victimization of worker militants crushed the wave of industrial
militancy that began in 1968-69. Negri and the 'autonomist' current in the
Italian revolutionary left argued that the 'social worker' - all those
oppressed by capitalism, whether employed or unemployed - had become the
new force for social revolution. In fact, Negri and his cothinkers
privileged the unemployed - those who 'refused work.' These ideas provided
solace to a political current whose support among employed workers in the
large factories had disappeared by the late 1970s, reducing them to a base
among students and unemployed youth. However, these notions also justified
acts of political desperation; most notably 'autonomist' youth mounting
ideological and physical attacks on organized and employed workers for
their unwillingness to 'refuse work.' *11
Today, none of the currents influenced by Negri and autonomism, like the
Tute Bianche in Italy, engage in physical attacks on organized workers.
While the Tute Bianche have engaged in solely non-violent forms of direct
action, they often take action against the police without regard to the
real relationship of forces in society. In practice, they often substitute
their own courageous, non-violent action for mass action by working people.
Negri and Hardt's theories do not simply justify such practices, but
actively discourage the hard strategic thinking about building alliances
between anti-capitalist youth and rank and file workers that is crucial to
the long-term success of the new struggle for global justice.
1. Alex Callinicos' recent discussion of Negri's work and influence on
'autonomist' currents in Italy ['Toni Negri in Perspective,' International
Socialist Journal (New Series) 92 (September 2001)] discusses the
mainstream press' reaction to 'Empire'. Callinicos' essay provides a very
useful review of Negri's theoretical work and political impact, and has
shaped my reading of 'Empire'. For a representative sample of the
enthusiasm for 'Empire' on the academic left, see 'Dossier on Empire' in
Rethinking Marxism, 13, 3-4 (Fall-Winter 2001).
2. For discussions of post-modernism as an intellectual and political
current, see Alex Callinicos, 'Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique'
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990); Bryan D. Palmer, 'Descent into
Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History'
(Philadelphia: Te mple University Press, 1990); Ellen Meiksins Wood and
John Bellamy Foster (eds.), 'In Defense of History' (New York: Monthly
Review Press, 1997).
3. Kim Moody, 'Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International
Economy' (London: Verso, 1997), 7. Moody's analysis of the contemporary
global economy in Parts I and II of Workers in a Lean World is the basis of
most of my theoretical and empirical critique of Hardt and Negri.
4. I cannot present a detailed criticism of Hardt and Negri's account of
the transition from a 'modern/industrial' to 'postmodern/informational'
economic paradigm during the past forty years. However, their claim that
the strength of the working class 'multitude' provided the impetus for the
capitalist restructuring of the 1970s and 1980s flies in the face of the
reality of the defeats of workers and the labor movement in all of the
industrialized capitalist countries between 1975 and 1995.
5. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), Chapter 10.
6. Kim Moody's 'The Industrial Working Class Today: Why It Still Matters -
Or Does It?' Against the Current 58 (September-October 1995), 25 is the
source of these statistics.
7. These statistics are drawn from Moody, 'Workers in a Lean World', Part
I; and from Moody, personal correspondence with the author, May 15, 2002.
8. For a more detailed account of 'lean production' see Moody, Workers in a
Lean World, Chapters 4-5; and Charlie Post and Jane Slaughter, 'Lean
Production: Why Work is Worse Than Ever, and What's the Alternative?'
(Detroit, MI: Solidarity Working Paper, 2000) (Also available on the web at
9. Moody, 'Workers in a Lean World', p. 137.
10. Callinicos, 'Negri in Perspective' p. 52.
11. For a discussion of the evolution of the Italian autonomists in the
1960s and 1970s see T. Abse, 'Judging the PCI', New Left Review (Old
Series) 153 (September-October 1985).