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  • Empire, Borders, Place: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Concept of Empire
  • Ian Angus (bio)

It is now almost a commonplace to note that after the Seattle 1999 protests against the neo-liberal market-oriented version of globalization a new coalition against global market hegemony is struggling to emerge. While this emergence may seem to have been derailed by the more recent U.S. and British intervention in Iraq, it is more likely that it has entered into the global peace movement that sprang into existence simultaneously. New developments are bound to follow. This recent history has had the advantage of demonstrating the mutual relation between neo-liberal economics and the military and political imperatives of empire which has been popularly expressed in the slogan “No blood for oil!” Theorizing these components and their relationship will clearly become important to the thinking of the new global opposition.

It is perhaps because of its appearance in the middle of these significant transformations (2000) that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire has become a major point of reference for contemporary radical thought. Also, its attempt to synthesize a large number of developments previously called postmodernism, postcolonialism, autonomism, etc. and earlier radical theories such as Marxism, anarchism and syndicalism within a long historical narrative gives the book a scope that focuses many diverse and compelling issues. At times, the book appears to claim a status for contemporary struggles such as that occupied by Capital in the nineteenth century. Despite the merit of the book to have brought the concept of empire into international currency again, I will argue that its concept of empire is thoroughly misguided on both theoretical and political grounds.1

The key theoretical nexus of Empire is the close relation between lack of boundaries and the production of subjectivities (or, as they are more often called nowadays, identities). Whereas one previously moved from one institution to another, “the production of subjectivity in imperial society tends not to be limited to any specific places. One is always still in the family, always still in school, always still in prison, and so forth. . . . The indefiniteness of the place of the production corresponds to the indeterminacy of the form of the subjectivities produced.”2 The continuous overflowing of boundaries generates new subjectivities from which political opposition to empire can be expected. “Here is where the primary site of struggle seems to emerge, on the terrain of the production and regulation of subjectivities” (321).

This analysis is based on the use of two theoretical terms that function throughout the text. One, the distinction between inside and outside and, two, the notion of history as overcoming the regulation and stability required by empire. Hardt and Negri’s claim that contemporary empire “has no limits” (xiv) is butressed by a historical argument that links capitalist expansion to the necessity to look outside itself because “the capitalist market is one machine that has always run counter to any division between inside and outside” (190). Postmodern capitalist production thus eliminates its outside such that contemporary empire is distinct from classical imperialism precisely because “the dialectic of sovereignty between the civil order and the natural order has come to an end” and “the modern dialectic of inside and outside has been replaced by a play of degrees and intensities, of hybridity and artificiality” (187–8). History is thus understood as this process of elimination of the outside that comes to an apogee in contemporary empire and which prepares the ground for overcoming the limits imposed upon subjectivity by imperial sovereignty. Empire is a “non-place” because power is “both everywhere and nowhere” even though it is “criss-crossed by so many fault lines that it only appears as a continuous, uniform space” (190). These fault lines are constituted by the “deterritorializing power of the multitude” which both “sustains Empire and at the same time [is] the force that calls for and makes necessary its destruction” (61). Understood in this way, as a non-place that has annihilated its outside, it is no wonder that it does not matter to Hardt and Negri from where the critique of empire is articulated.

The inside-outside distinction and the...

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